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For a while [the judge] refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she will not wear me out by continually coming.” Luke 18:4-5

She was late. Well, later than she meant to be, at any rate. But just as she was setting out, all hell had broken loose. The baby didn’t like being left with the neighbor – honestly, the neighbor didn’t like either – and so had fussed and cried until she’d ended up nursing the child to calm her. At which point, of course, the baby spit up.  She rubbed at the spot, hoping it wouldn’t show; she needed all her confidence for this meeting, she needed not to be disheveled and smelling of spit up… or whatever it was that her five year old had had in his hands when hugged her good bye.

It was not the first time she would be going to a meeting like this; nor, she reflected, the last, most likely. She gripped her folder tightly, feeling the comforting thickness of all the paperwork inside. As she walked, she glanced over her shoulder, skyward, still afraid of the death that fell from the sky. Even after months here, this habit was too ingrained to break. She hurried past row after row of tents, past the children who played in the alleys, children who should have been in school. Children who should have been hers… but best not to think of that now.

Instead, she turned her thoughts to the judge; a large man, all button down shirt and power tie, a heavy ring  with a black stone on his right hand, thick gold band on left. He was the only person she knew who could walk through camp wearing such wealth, who would not be robbed for the cash to pay a smuggler, so secure was he in his power. Perhaps this was why he had never made eye contact with her; he’d just told her, time and again, that her paperwork was incomplete, that they were over their quota for this month. He’d just dismissed her, every time she’d gone to see him.

She wondered if he’d have looked at her husband… and in the same instant, wondered if she’d even be doing this if he hadn’t died. For it had been his death, along with their oldest daughter, which had finally made her flee; it had been her desperate resolve to keep younger ones safe, to start life over in a place without bombs, for their sake, that had brought her here.

She reached his office, one of the rare semi-permanent structures, and stood for a long moment, staring at the door. She wondered why she bothered, why she kept coming back to this man who only saw in her an enemy; who only saw in her tiny children the potential for violence. Her children…

She took a deep breath, filled with the scent of spit up and mess, adjusted her hijab, once more rehearsed her speech in her head: “My husband and daughter were killed in airstrikes. We left Aleppo 15 months ago. I am requesting refugee status and and a visa to enter the United States.”

And she knocked on the door. Perhaps this time. Perhaps this time would be different.

***

We read this parable, and in my experience, the general response is to feel bad for the widow, persistent in her quest for justice. But do we ever really think about who she is? Do we question what injustice she might be seeking to right? I suspect we see her, inevitably, as an older woman: a woman who is familiar to us, like us… so we don’t wonder if we would agree with her complaint. We don’t consider how we ourselves might respond to her stubbornness.

We have a tendency to read stories like this with a certain lens: to see ourselves as the justice seeker, to be, therefore, convinced as to the rightness of the claim, because we assume she is like us. But we don’t know that. Only that she is persistent.

And we don’t always appreciate persistence.

***

She buttoned her blouse carefully, checked her reflection in the mirror, patted a loose hair into place, reached for her jewelry box. She’d wear the pearls today, the earrings and necklace. They gave her a sense of dignity, of respectability that helped, on days like today.  She hummed as she got ready, the songs of her childhood, of her church; the songs she remembered her Grandma had sung. In the early days, she had tended to hum songs of encouragement, of justice… recently, she’d noticed that more and more, she needed the songs of comfort, as her heart grew more tender.

She paused, glancing at photo on her bedside table. Their son beginning to look so like him; same eyes, same smile. Her heart constricted, as it always did when thought of their son. He’d been twelve when his father died; he was fifteen now, fifteen going on thirty. And she worried. She’d had the talk with him. He knew what to do: don’t talk back. Do exactly what they tell you. Keep your hands visible.  It was small comfort: his father had known this, too.

Today was a reasonably short trip, just about a two-hour drive, plus a stop at the airport to pick up two others, widows themselves. Like her, they were dressed neatly and wearing sensible shoes. Together, they drove downtown, parked, took their posters out and met the others. All of them had their game faces on. They prayed together, aware of how much they’d need it.

Together, they took their places on the pavement outside the courthouse, each with a poster bearing the smiling face of a husband, son, daughter, brother; their names, their dates.  Across the top, the same word emblazoned on each poster: Justice.

They stood all day on that sidewalk, watching the people flow in and out of court. They stood, knowing intimately the proceedings going on inside. They stood, trying not to make eye contact with the passers-by. For, as usual, a few smiled, or gave encouraging signs, but many more catcalled, or yelled slurs, or suggested crudely that these people on the posters, these beloveds, had deserved their fate and earned their deaths.

She thought of her husband, who’d pulled his car over when he realized he was having a heart attack a dozen blocks from their house. He had knocked on the nearest door, hoping for help from a stranger; he was killed by the homeowner, who had assumed the knock was an attempt at burglary… at 4 in the afternoon. She thought of her friends, this group that traveled from city to city, court to court, pleading silently, persistently for justice. She thought of their family members, the names-become-hashtags; she thought of the family in the courthouse today, pleading for justice for their twelve-year-old who hadn’t had time to do what they told him to.

Shifting her weight on aching feet, she stood up straight, silently pleading her case, her husband’s case; persistent in the face of unrelenting judgement.

****

It’s interesting that we spend so much time pondering the widow, and so little pondering the judge; the one who doesn’t fear God, who has no respect for people – which, in many ways, amounts to the same thing. It’s interesting that, as we read this story, so often our identification is with the widow, rather than the judge; with the one who seeks justice, rather than the one who passes judgment.

This judge, who has no fear of God, no awe before the divine, no sense of his place within the mysteries of creation, no wonder at the complexities of this world, and his place within them… I wonder what went through his head during the widow’s first visits? I wonder why he denied her? what he refused to see in her? what he said to justify his lack of action; how he made her “other”, therefore unworthy or dangerous? How did he discredit her persistence – did he call her “inflammatory?” “inappropriate?” Did he decide that her protest was an “improper” way to call attention to injustice?

I wonder about the support, the complicity of those around him, those who encouraged his inaction, or soothed his discomfort. Those who helped him to justify his dismissal of this widow, and her needs.

I wonder that we do not see ourselves in that judge, for we are not always the widow. We are not always the justice seekers, but too often, the ones who grow weary of the persistence of those who demand that we do justice in this world.

At pub theology, the other night, we had a conversation about whether we’d recognize Jesus, were he to come back, here and now. But the more I thought about it, in the days that followed, the more convinced I became that we had asked the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether we “would” recognize Jesus. It’s a matter of whether or not we do.

Do we recognize Christ in the persistence of those fighting for access to treatment for addiction? Do we recognize Christ in the cries of those demanding that the minimum wage be a truly living wage?

Do we see Jesus turning tables, when we see the persistence of communities of color demanding that we acknowledge and end the violence of implicit bias in schools, in hiring, in the criminal justice system?

Do we see God in the widows of this world; widows of immigrants, widows of overdose, widows of violence, widows of indifference, begging us to acknowledge the injustice they have known?

Do we see the God who sees us, as we are reminded again and again in Luke’s Gospel? The God who doesn’t wait for us to ask, but sees us and knows us and calls us?

For that is the good news, here: that we who are persistent in our quest for acknowledgement will get our hearing. We will feel the movement of the arc of the moral universe as it bends, however slowly, toward justice.

But more than that: the good news is that our God will not let us go, when we refuse to see the widows of this world; when we continue to create “others” whom we need not respect and whose persistence we can ridicule and write off. Our God will persist in pushing us to do justice, with all the tenacity of the widow. God will not let us go, even when we have lost our respect for God and one another. God will but will continue to urge us, encourage us, demand from us justice for this world she so loves.

And that is, indeed, good news, for us and for the world.

The people came to Moses and said,”We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” – Numbers 21: 7-8

This is a strange story.  Out in the wilderness, the Israelites take yet another turn on their way to the Promised Land, and they grumble… as they have been nearly since the beginning, but now the length of the journey, the uncertainty about direction, the instability of living as itinerant people is really getting to them. Egypt, even with slavery isn’t looking so bad – at least they had roofs over their heads, structure to their days, and some certainty in their lives.

Hindsight isn’t always 20/20.

And in the tradition of children from time out of mind, the backseat whining begins. I’m tired. I don’t like what you packed for lunch. Miriam pushed me. I’m thirsty. How much farther? No, it is NOT my turn to walk next to Aaron! Manna again? I’m sick of manna! Do we hafta sing camp songs? Are we there yet?

And God, sick of the whining, sent venomous snakes to stop the complaining.

Or something like that.

This week, the president of Oklahoma University expelled two students and suspended the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, after a video was posted of fraternity members singing their chapter’s song – a song which included an N word that I won’t say here, and the gleeful promise that no African-Americans would ever be a part of the fraternity. The University and its president, David Boren, were lauded for their rapid response to the video… and indeed, it was good to see the incident treated with all of the importance that it deserved. Still, it gave many people pause when Mr. Boren, commenting on the university’s actions, said,

Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect.

There are venomous snakes among us, but we will get rid of them. We will not allow their poison to harm us all. Because we are not them, and they are not us.

It’s a lovely thought, that we can so easily get rid of the snakes among us. But it is not a helpful one, necessarily, as Drake University professor Jennifer Harvey noted:

We must refuse a logic of punishment whereby we stand and point at the immoral behavior of others, as if they are unique and different from us and the environments that produced them. We must refuse to distance ourselves — or the environments we have helped to shape — from their racist behavior.

If I am a Sooner and that Sooner over there has been exposed embracing, with great relish, white supremacist rhetoric and behavior, and my response is to say, “Well that Sooner isn’t real,” I exonerate myself and the community that produced that oh-so-real Sooner from responsibility. I foreclose already and ahead of time the myriad of levels of inquiry, response and intervention urgently needed into the environment(s); an environment that these young people’s behavior offers powerful evidence of as being itself deeply toxic and racist.

If those young men (and women) aren’t real Sooners, then what on Earth are they?

If they are not us, then what are they? And who are we?

It’s a lovely, convenient way to tell the story: that God sent poisonous snakes, as though they were a punishment against the complaining, faithless Israelites. God sent something separate. The venom did not arise from within the community; did not spring from the fears born of years in the wilderness, twisting and winding towards a distant promise, fighting local tribes and hoping that each day would bring fresh food. If we can talk of snakes, then we can hope that the venom did not come from those neighbors within the community whom we’re supposed to love, even though we’d really prefer to keep them at arm’s distance; didn’t come from those who look like us, who have traveled with us, who are beloved by the same God as we are.

If we can blame the snakes, then maybe the poison is not within us, as well… perhaps expelling the snakes will be enough to keep us safe, to ensure that the community is actually healthy, and faithful, and living into the covenant promises that include getting up to the promised land eventually.

We like to blame the snakes, and to blame God for their presence – God who created everything… even whiny, impatient Israelites. Even privileged frat boys singing a racist chant. Even us.

If we can blame the snakes, perhaps we won’t have to look quite so hard at ourselves. If we can be rid of the snakes, then maybe we don’t have to wonder where they came from, these venomous whispers of fear and frustration that arise and seep within us. We don’t have to recognize all that we have done, or left undone, to foster a culture in which such snakes can exist, in which such whispers can find fertile ground. We don’t have to recognize the myriad ways that our own words, our own silences, nurtured the snakes and kept them safe.

If we can blame the snakes, we don’t need to look for any other source of the poison.

But that poison is there.

The poison is in the hugely disproportionate number of African-American men who are arrested and charged with minor offenses. It is in the fact that those men are 21 times more likely to be shot during the arrest. It is in our defensive reaction to those numbers.

The poison is in the story of a Harvard professor arrested while trying to get into his own home. It is in the stories of women of color, whose bodies are consistently seen as both more sexualized and more criminalized.

The poison is in us all, as a recent study of the American Psychological Association demonstrated that after the age of nine, we tend to see African-American and Latino boys as being both older and more culpable than they actually are… which explains, although it does not excuse, the perception of boys as young as 12 being active threats, and shot in an excess of precaution. And the poison is in us when jokes made about the president not serving out his term – because, apparently, black men can’t hold consistent jobs for four years – are assumed to be funny, rather than offensive and prejudiced.

And the poison is in the shooting of police officers, whether because they are viewed as the carriers of venom, as snakes to be got rid of, or because of the need to inject violence into non-violent demonstrations.

The poison is there, and removal of the snakes – those whose words and actions are overtly hurtful or offensive – cannot remove the poison from us entirely. The poison is there and all our prayers that the snakes be taken back, that those among us who are not «real» – really faithful, really loving, really trusting in the God who removed us from slavery – are met only with another snake. All are prayers are met with the simple reassurance that the venom need not be fatal… even though the snakes are still there.

And so a snake of bronze was created, that those who looked upon it might live. Not an idol, this time – not a golden calf, worshiped in place of God, but an icon – an image that directs our minds, our prayers, towards God. A lens, of sorts, which refocused our scattered, poisoned thoughts, and brings us once again into relationship, sets us once again on the right path.

I had the fortune, this week, of reading the reflections of Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. He was present among the protesters on the day of the shooting, and had this to say:

My heart is breaking that violence is nothing new to us. That our Cathedral nave is filled with the faces of young people killed on St. Louis streets by guns. That there has been far too much blood shed and far too much pain.

My heart is breaking – and as painful as that is, I have come to believe that our hearts are supposed to break. Because we live in a world of pain and hurt. And in the face of it, our hearts will either break like God or harden like Pharaoh, and given that choice, I choose the Lord…

God’s invitation to Moses was to lean into the suffering of the people – intimately lean into it to the point of sharing it. In God there are no “your tears” and “my tears” but every tear is “our tear.”

That runs the risk of sounding a little too kum ba yah. But it is anything but. It is an invitation to some of the hardest and most rewarding work there is – meeting at the foot of the cross. Meeting at that place of pain and not running away from it but leaning into it.

Like God throughout scripture, loving the people enough to let our hearts break … again and again and again…

Today, the anger, pain and confusion we have been experiencing as a community has a new dimension and depth. We need to wrestle with that. We need to lean into that. If our hearts are breaking, we can be comforted that they do not break alone. That God’s heart breaks, too. And if we are tempted to lean away. To let our hearts get hard because feeling the pain just seems too much to bear … well, we need to hold even more tightly to one another and to Christ. And wrestle more profoundly. And pray more fervently.

We are tempted to lean away – to make the snakes bear the full responsibility for our pain. We are tempted to dismiss the venom that flows in us as the “status quo”, to reflexively dismiss the possibility of our own heartbreak… and our own healing. We are tempted to turn away from the image of the bronze snake that is set before us in the stories of racism – overt and implicit – that just feel too toxic, too uncomfortable, too painful.

Yet the icon remains before us. We need to look at it, focus on it, allow it to call us back into relationship. If we are too afraid to acknowledge that our society remains deeply racist, we will remain mired in poison, mired in the sin that fractures our relationships with one another and with God.

Face to face with snake bites we have all endured; suffering with the poison that runs through us all, we are called to stop trying to get rid of the snakes – to stop scapegoating the loudest and most offensive, to stop thinking that they are somehow inherently different from us, that we are not all products of the same culture, infused with the same venom, suffering from the same disease. We are called to recognize our own poison, our own complicity.

Because the prayers of the Israelites did not make the snakes – their own neighbors – vanish. Rather, God called us to look directly at the source of pain, the source of venom, the source of all that keeps us separate from one another, keeps us from being the community we are called to be.

Healing, it turns out, comes not from suggesting that the poison is in someone else, but from the willingness to look directly at the source of our own disease.

Healing comes from not hardening our hearts to those who suffer most, who carry the most venom within themselves, but in recognizing the ways in which we have kept safe the snakes, rather than those most often bitten.

Healing comes from looking that snake right in the face – looking, intently and intentionally, upon that which has harmed us all – and in that very act, accepting our need for healing. In that very act of looking upon that which poisons us, we can begin to excise the venom, and heal the entire body. In that act of gazing upon our own poison, we may find repentance – the ability to change our minds and our hearts, and come back into the community that God has always intended for us to be.

We should, certainly, keep the snakes among us from doing the horrible damage that they can, so easily do. But let us not fall into the trap of thinking that punishing the snakes will cure us all. Rather, let us open our hearts to the suffering around us, the venom within. Let us allow our hearts to break, as we gaze upon the snake and recognize the ways we have been poisoned.

Let us look, with open eyes and open, breaking hearts at the venomous racism that cannot be eradicated by a couple of expulsions, that cannot be eradicated by violence or defensiveness or blame. For only by opening ourselves – only by the intentional acts of looking, hearing, loving, may that snake be turned from a symbol of death to a way back to relationship, back to life, back to the covenantal promises of life as God’s people. Only by opening ourselves to the poison in our own heart – to the ways we have nurtured the snakes rather than their victims – may we find healing for our bodies, for Christ’s body.

May we be unafraid to look, though our hearts may break again. May we be unafraid to look, that even as our own hearts break, all who have suffered this poison might find healing.

 

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16: 24-25

This text from Matthew is, in my opinion, one of most abused scriptures out there.  It has so much baggage that several pastors I know, as we were looking at this week’s lectionary, wondered how on earth they might preach this one. How could they preach a text that had been so entirely conflated with the popular  phrase,  “it’s just your cross to bear”: the ultimate phrase of victim blaming and abuse ignoring, laid especially upon the powerless, and notably upon women.  It is a phrase we hear colloquially, repeated in sometimes well-meaning ways in the face of illness, abuse, suffering; it is a phrase, however, that can keep people from seeking recourse to end their sufferings.

“It’s your cross to bear” glorifies suffering for sake of suffering; it suggests that Christianity is incomplete without suffering, while ignoring the underlying reasons for pain.  So many, clergy included, hear that phrase, or the one from this morning’s lesson – “take up your cross” –  and understand it to mean “grin and bear it”, or simply,  “get over it.” They hear dismissal, and silencing.

But really, none of those understandings sound much like Jesus to me.  Jesus, who healed the ill and the infirm; Jesus, who stood up for the outcast, who questioned the status quo… that Jesus doesn’t seem like someone who would turn to us now, and tell us to just “get over it.”

So if that’s not what he meant, what’s all this “take up your cross” business, anyway?

We, who see crosses on a daily basis, have a very particular understanding when we see that symbol.  But it is important to remember, as we read this morning’s text, that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had a very different image in their heads when the cross was invoked. For we are, in this text, still in a time before Jesus’ crucifixion; before the cross came to mean redemption, and triumph, and Christ.  As Jesus spoke this words to his disciples, the cross was still a sign of the Roman occupation: a sign of humiliation, as the condemned was forced to carry the heavy, torturous instrument of his own death.  To invoke the cross, in that moment, was to invoke the boos, jeers, and catcalls of the crowds that would gather to watch the execution.  It was to call to mind the degrading, dehumanizing treatment that a criminal would receive before death – and the jeering superiority of the crowd adding to the humiliation.  Crucifixion was the treatment reserved for the lowest of the low, the worst criminals who would seem to deserve all of the added torture and misery heaped upon them before they died.

That would have been the imagery in the disciples’ heads, as Jesus spoke.  That was the imagery that  Jesus turned on its head, as he was so good at doing, to teach us all a lesson in discipleship.

Because Jesus was not talking about forced humiliation.  His phrasing is clear: deny yourselves and TAKE UP the cross.  Do not wait until it is handed to you, or laid upon you, but take it up yourself.  Choose it for yourself.  Choice is essential in this, and in all of Jesus’ lessons about discipleship and witness.  We must choose, freely and without coercion.

And what happens when we choose the cross?  when we choose to stop thinking of ourselves as “better than this”, stop resenting that we “don’t deserve such treatment”?  What happens when we stop feeling smug about ourselves because we’re so obviously better than that scum criminal who must deserve the humiliation of punishment?  What happens when we choose to be identified with those who endure regular humiliation or dehumanization? when we strip away the ego that constantly compares Us to Them; the human judgment of who deserves what suffering, what joy, what fate; the self interest that keeps us looking after our own first, even if others get hurt; the self-protection that allows some to become “others” in the first place?

What we are left with, when we have stripped away all human vanity is not humiliation, but humility: the self denial that allows understanding that we are simply dust, made in God’s image; that we are the same dust, all of us; made in the same image, and animated by same spirit. We are left with the understanding – in our hearts and souls as well as our heads – that *our* selves are no more worthy, no more beloved, than any other, and that when some of this dust suffers, we are all made weaker; we all suffer, all of us who are this dust of God’s creation, this image of God made manifest in the world.

The Jesus I know – the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who did, in fact, take up his cross – would never have told an abused wife “it’s your cross to bear”.  The Jesus I know wouldn’t tell thousands on hillside to go hungry after a long day of preaching “because you all really should have thought ahead.”  The Jesus I now wouldn’t refuse healing to an outsider, whether a Syro-Phonecian woman worried about her daughter, a Samaritan woman at a well, or the slave of a Roman centurion.

The Jesus I know wouldn’t dredge up someone’s past misdeeds, or indulge in victim blaming, to excuse a blatant act of racism or sexism.

The Jesus I know wouldn’t turn anyone away from that font, or this table, or any gathering of God’s people.

The Jesus I know wouldn’t love the sinner and hate the sin; in fact, he wouldn’t hate at all.  Because the Jesus I know – throughout the complex contradictions of the Gospels – consistently tried to teach us to love one another, and not just give lip service to love, and compassion, and relationship.  I suspect he would have quite liked Paul’s instructions, in Romans, for living in community, which call us to care for the whole community more than for any one individual; to the setting aside the ego, the “me”, for the sake of the “us”.  Paul, like Jesus, here calls us to denying our selves, even if it costs us something; whether that cost is our self-interest, or the satisfaction of revenge, or our human sense of fairness.

And it may well cost us.

It is a frightening proposition to set our selves aside; to let go of our self interest, of the self protection that gives us a sense of power and control in this world.  It makes us feel a fear akin to humiliation when those who were previously derided or despised, jeered or booed, are those whom we now need to love – really love – in order to be in right relationship with God. It makes us fearful, disoriented, when those who have borne the brunt of humiliation seem suddenly to be more important, to get more attention, than we who have been beloved and not shamed… and we hesitate to ask why we felt so important and deserving that we resent sharing this love that we have known.

It may cost us, when we live and love as Paul counsels, when we seek the utter humility of choosing the cross; choosing to live by Christ’s love.  It may make us feel powerless. But that probably means we’re doing something right.  Because love doesn’t offer self-protection, it doesn’t work for our self interest: love makes us vulnerable.  Love opens us to the pain of others – the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization that many endure on a daily basis.  Love opens us to fearful understanding of our interconnectedness, and the overwhelming needs of this world.

Choosing love may cost us, because love doesn’t make any one of us powerful, but strengthens us all, so that, forsaking our  selves – our self-interest, our self-protection, our self-centeredness – we may take up our cross and our humility, exchanging our power for God’s.

May we so choose.  May we lay down our individual needs, for the love of all who share in our dust, who share in God’s image, until we can stop asking, “what about me”; until we can stop judging one another with our very human values, and begin loving with God’s love.

May we so choose.

Let us take up our cross, despite the jeers, the boos, the catcalls, the derision.

Let us take up our cross, not so we may be abused or condone abuse, but so that none ever shall be again.

Let us take up our cross and lay down our lives, so that love might triumph over fear, over death.

Let us take up our cross, in full view of this world, and follow the one who calls us to abundant life and immeasurable love.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak… Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” -Genesis 32: 24, 26b

As we work our way through Genesis, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another Jacob story.  Jacob, of course, being quite the character, gets a fair amount of play in Genesis, and certainly he’s someone with whom many of us can identify, at least at certain points in life.  But here, today, we do not find the Jacob we’ve come to know, the conniving trickster – not even the trickster tricked, as in last week’s story of his marriage to Leah when he was expecting Rachel.  Here, we find Jacob the wealthy, responsible man, with herds and flocks, two wives, two “maids”, and eleven children.  Here, finally, we find a Jacob who thinks beyond himself.

Which has, apparently, not gone unnoticed.  For finally, God has called Jacob to something that doesn’t seem in Jacob’s best interest.  Here, we do not see God blessing him as he runs away from an unpleasant and possibly dangerous situation.  Here, God is calling Jacob to account; calling him to confront his fears, perhaps even to undo some of the damage that he had done as a younger man.

Before the verses of Genesis that we read this morning, Jacob enters into a long conversation with God: one that might seem familiar to a lot of us.  Even as Jacob begins to follow God’s call back to the land he’d run from twenty years earlier, Jacob questions.  “Hey, God,” he says, “I know you promised to be there for me, and keep me safe and all that. But seriously, you’re going to send me back to… Esau?” I paraphrase, of course, but Jacob’s anxiety, even with God’s promises, shines clearly through his prayerful questions.

Because this time, the risk is not just to himself, but to his livelihood and his family as well.  And that is a much harder prospect to face.

This week’s Gospel lesson is from Matthew, and it’s the familiar story of Jesus feeding thousands with just a couple of  loaves and fishes.  I’ve heard – and preached – a fair few sermons on this text; a common take is to suggest that after one little boy was willing to share the food he’d brought, everyone else brought out their lunch as well, and shared, so everyone had enough. Which would itself be a miracle, I’m sure: just think how much better our world would be if we shared our resources more readily!  But that alone makes me wonder about the loaves and fishes, for I don’t think humanity has changed that much in the past two millennia.  Because it is one thing to risk your own lunch, but another thing entirely to risk the food you brought to feed your children, for example.  What would go through your minds, in that moment, as you contemplated putting your entire supply of food into the basket being passed – all of the sandwiches, apples, cheese sticks, juice boxes that you’d packed that morning?  What if you just got an apple back? a piece of cheese? What if it wasn’t enough… for you or your children?

Even if it was just a tremendous act of sharing that allowed everyone on that hillside to be fed that day, that isn’t really the miracle.  Even if everyone took the risk of putting their all into the basket, the real miracle here is the huge quantity of leftovers, totally disproportionate to number of people who were there.  The real miracle is that in God’s equation, when you give all, you receive even more in return.

And that should make us look at our sense of call, and at our living into God’s promises, far more clearly than we often do.

Wouldn’t we all wrestle?

Don’t we, each of us, at some point, wrestle with the apparent dichotomy between God’s call to us – abundant promises and all – and caring for our own?  Don’t we, each of us, weigh very carefully how much we are willing to risk?  Will we risk our jobs for the sake of fair working practices, as many in our town have recently done?  Will we risk our hearts – and possibly even our wallets – for the sake of children whose home countries know a violence beyond our wildest dystopic imaginings?

Faced with such risk; faced with the reality of our fears, we are much more  likely to circle the proverbial wagons, and become protective of that which is known and familiar and safe.  We are much more likely to push away the new, the different – even to push away the one who is calling us to that very situation that we fear.

And we wrestle; as individuals, as a church.  For we are called to proclaim our faith, to bear witness to the continuation of the covenant, to the promises of our still-speaking God.  We are called to care not only for those who enter this place, but for all who are oppressed and wounded; especially to those who have been oppressed and wounded in the name of God and the church.  We take positions on many issues, and our stances are not always popular ones… though some certainly do provoke stronger reactions than others.  And we ask ourselves, on a regular basis: What will we risk?

We wrestle.  We wrestle with our commitment to justice, versus our very real, very practical fears for integrity of this building and the safety of the people who enter it.  We wrestle with the anxiety that such incidents inspire, versus knowledge that to many, these incidents are common, and that real lives at stake each and every day.  We wrestle with hurt against hope, fears against call, human understandings and God-given promises.

We wrestle, and for longer than a night.

But for us, like for Jacob, there is no clear winner.  For on one side is the power to take out the opponent with one simple touch; on the other is the human stubbornness to hang on anyway.  I can well imagine the words of pain that Jacob uttered when he was struck, yet he hangs on and  asks for a blessing anyway.  He asks for a blessing, rather than for what his initial hope seems to have been; to be allowed to turn back and avoid the confrontation with Esau, avoid the accounting for his youthful selfishness.  He wrestles, he hangs on, and then he limps away, following God’s call, facing his fears, risking all.  Jacob goes on as one blessed by the struggle; reassured in the very act of wrestling of God’s presence, reassured in this moment of truth – in this moment of of deepest fear – that he had held God, for a moment, within his very arms.

Jacob’s fears have not gone, but neither have the promises of presence and blessing. And that is miracle enough.

We wrestle, we follow, we risk that which we love. And sometimes, we give up our lunches. And sometimes, we walk off our jobs. And sometimes, we open our hearts and our borders to strangers.  And sometimes, we get hurt.

But if we wrestle truly: if we grapple so closely with our God that we might see God’s face; if we wrestle, and we risk, and we hang on despite it all, shall we not be blessed?  Shall we not know, within our very embrace, the presence long-promised, covenant to all generations?  the miraculous abundance that flows from God?

We who wrestle; we who invite God in for a little face-to-face time; we who follow, despite the risk: shall we not be blessed?

Shall we not be a blessing, a miracle to those for whom we risk ourselves?

May it be so.

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest of shrubs… The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened… Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Matthew 13: 31-32, 33b, 45-46

Do you remember the story of Jack and the Beanstalk?  Jack and his mother were poor, and when their cow no longer gave milk, Jack took it to market to be sold.  Of course, he never got all the way to market, but traded the cow – even without milk, an animal of obvious value – for a scant handful of beans… of very questionable value.  I do not wonder at his mother’s temper tantrum, when Jack arrived home; she threw out the beans, afraid and angry. Because this is a fairy tale, however, the results landed everyone far beyond anyone’s initial perception of that handful of beans.

But we don’t live in a fairy tale.  We likely think that the mother’s reaction makes a lot of sense… which makes me wonder how often we end up discarding that which seems worthless at first glance?

If you were an ancient Israelite farmer, there is no way you would allow mustard to grow in your field, and you certainly wouldn’t plant it.  Mustard is a weed, a totally unruly plant that would be pulled up and discarded as soon as it started to grow.  It was, to those ancient farmers, much like crabgrass is to us New England gardeners: an object of frustration and loathing.

Mustard was more than an irritating weed, however: its very nature as a leggy, bushy, unruly plant made it  not compliant with Jewish law, which craved and demanded order above all else.  To allow mustard to grow – let alone to encourage it! – was to allow an object of chaos in an regulated society, in a law that promoted order above all else.  Mustard was like leaven: a corrupting agent, uncontrollable, impure according to the law.  The inclusion of these in the purity of the food supply was akin to the introduction of something uncontainable, outside of our control: something worthless and undesirable.

And this is the Kingdom of God? in these ordinary, worthless, impure, less-than pieces of creation?

We are more likely to see the Kingdom in the pearl of great price; in Rachel the beautiful, rather than Leah the nearsighted.  Leah, the apparently-undesirable (since, in the first seven years Jacob worked under Laban, she remained unmarried); the one Jacob would have rejected, the one he never treated well… yet the one through whom God worked.  Leah was the one through whom the covenant promises were finally realized.  For despite her apparent undesirability, Leah was prolific, giving birth to six of Jacob’s twelve sons –  half of twelve tribes of Israel – as well as his only daughter.  In Leah, we find the sudden, weed-like, yeast-like flourishing of God’s people; the chaotic, uncontrollable profusion of blessing that had long been promised.

That is the Kingdom: the treasure we’d sell everything to possess – in the form of a weed.  The profuse, rampant, chaotic blessing and presence that we cannot live without… yet  all too often, in forms we don’t recognize and would just as soon discard.  For even the seemingly obvious sometimes isn’t; even the pearl had to be sought and weighed, before the merchant decided upon it.  Still: a pearl is a relative no-brainer.  But when Kingdom arrives in the form of weeds? of beans? of small, forgettable or unnoticeable acts?  When the Kingdom takes the form of people who are not valuable by our standards – who do not conform to social or cultural norms, who do not stay within the confines of what we consider right, or proper, or pure, but arrive clothed as the ones who cause problems, and upset the balance… what do we do then?

What do we do when the Kingdom appears as a Nelson Mandela, as a Martin Luther King Jr., as a Rosa Parks, as a Harvey Milk?  What do we do when what we primarily notice is that these people are the ones who defy neat, orderly rows of the garden, welcoming all to nest and be sheltered in our otherwise-perfect gardens?  What do we do when the Kingdom erupts in our midst, in the form of those who make the dough rise so that all might be fed; who embody the abundance of promise, the chaos of covenant, which promised to God’s people descendents like the grains of sand, like the dust of the earth?

The thing about sand is that it’s itchy. Uncomfortable. Chaotic.

The Kingdom of God does not conform to human standards of worth or value, but calls us to reject those norms and notions; to give everything up for something greater.  It calls us to reject our standards of comfort, of purity, of what is good or right or normal.  It calls us to live by God’s standards, to embody God’s promises, to invite chaos, to welcome discomfort.  The Kingdom invites risk, invites the anxiety that makes us question: why mustard? why yeast? why these elements you can’t control?  why a fungus that’s going to grow bigger and broader and more flavorful; why a weed that’s going to become more sheltering, more nourishing, more abundant?

Perhaps real question isn’t why would you seek such a weed, but rather, why wouldn’t you?

In a rare instance of pedagogy, I’m assigning you homework.

For our less-agrarian, less-yeast-averse society: what is the Kingdom of God? Where does it break into your life in wild, weedy profusion? what are the undervalued pearls, for which we would give everything?  What is our parable, for this modern age?

I came up with one, the other night: The outpouring of love (Kingdom of God, erupting here in New Hampshire) is indeed like a mustard seed, starting small – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” And growing in wild, abundant, social-media profusion until it shelters and comforts all of God’s children, promising welcome to those too often bullied and silenced.

For the Kingdom is here, today, in the love that takes away the power of malice.  It is here, in the the branching, spreading, sheltering love that holds us all in abundance and grace.  For a handful of worthless beans can sprout a beanstalk to the heavens; the forgotten, neglected daughter can fulfill God’s covenant, and one church, in one New Hampshire town, can bring hope to hundreds, to thousands.

That is the what the Kingdom is like. Thanks be to God.

Esau came in from the field, and he was famished.  Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff!” … Jacob said, “First, sell me your birthright.”  Genesis 25: 29b-30a, 31

I never could quite understand my brother.  Right from the beginning, it seems, we’ve been butting heads.  Mother said it started before we were even born – she used to tell the story when we were fighting as children, to us or within our earshot.  How we fought within her, how when we were born, Jacob was hanging onto my heel.  It’s the stuff of family legend, our birth story… the kind of legend that holds within it a nugget of truth.

I never wanted to be constantly fighting.  It bothered me, when we were children; Jacob always had to have whatever I had, or something better.  He was constantly competing with me.  Mother encouraged it, sometimes overtly: whether it was because she had a thing for the underdog, or because Jacob was always so handsome, I’ll never know.  I suppose it doesn’t much matter.  But it was a relief, finally, to realize that, for all his competitiveness, Jacob never really cared for being outdoors.  It made me love it more, when I could escape from the constant tussles, the badgering, the pestering.  I would spend hours outside with Father, learning to hunt, to tend our animals and our fields.  And we would talk.  He told me not to worry about Jacob, but to be myself, to not let myself become infected by my brother’s fears and ambitions.

More importantly, though: my father told me stories, while we worked.  He told me about his own story, his father’s story.  How my grandfather had been called by God and sent out from his home and his people, and how God had been with him throughout.  Father taught me how to be in relationship with God, how to live in faith, and obedience.  He taught me what it meant to be a child of the covenant, living in the certain knowledge of God’s power and presence.

Gradually, Jacob’s behavior stopped mattering as much to me.  The constant jealousies, the rivalry, the pettiness continued, but I let it all just roll off.  I knew who I was – Abraham’s grandson, Isaac’s son, God’s servant.  I was a good hunter, a good farmer.  It was enough.

Until that fateful day.  It’s still a family story, that one: the day I sold my birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.  It’s not quite the whole truth, of course – no one mentions, for instance, just what a good cook Jacob really is, and how good that stew smelled!  But more than that… that moment didn’t come out of nowhere.  The ambition, the competitiveness wasn’t new.  Something like this had been brewing for quite a long time, and I had seen it coming, and had plenty of time to think.  I wasn’t really expecting such a blatant play, and made a joke of it at first – could he really be expecting me to give everything up for one plate of stew?  But he was serious – my greedy, conniving brother.  And I pitied him.

So: a birthright for a bowl of stew.  Not a bad trade, really.  After all, what need had I of a birthright?  of an inheritance?  I, grandson of Abraham, who had left his life behind to follow God, becoming a stranger in a strange land.  What more status did I need than my lineage? What more power did I need than what God would grant me? I was content.

Father understood, but he was the only one.  Among the others, the “stupid Esau” jokes abounded, but it didn’t matter.  I knew I’d be fine. Jacob took Father’s blessing, as well… as though our father couldn’t tell his hands from mine, even with hairy gloves?  As though Jacob had any of the calluses, any of the scars that hunting and farming bring?  Father knew which son knelt before him, and I hoped that Jacob would realize that, and realize that Father had loved him for himself all along.  That tricks and conniving had never been required to earn Father’s love – or God’s.  But Jacob hadn’t learned, as I had, about being in relationship with God.  He hadn’t learned about living as a child of the covenant.  He had his birthright, he had his blessing, he had his status and power and glory, yet it was never enough.

The “stupid Esau” jokes persisted for a while, after Jacob left, but not for very long.  My family grew, and prospered, and the daily concerns of providing for them put old tales of birthrights and stew out of our heads.  We did well, and I tried to teach my own household about God, and covenant, and the abiding promises that they would inherit.

The jokes stopped as well as Jacob didn’t return, and we began to worry.  Birthright, blessing, status, inheritance… it all meant less when I was present and he was not, when I simply prayed every night that he was safe and happy, wherever he was.

All of this was a long, long time ago. Jacob did return, much as he had been when he left; fearful, concerned with status, worried about power.  He returned – scheming, groveling after a forgiveness that was entirely unnecessary.  Still: I sensed in him some measure of growth, of responsibility; he, too, had a growing, prosperous family in whom he took great delight.  And late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed, we sat by the fire and he told me of his encounter, his wrestling, his struggle.  I was pleased that God had not given up on my conniving little brother, and hoped that Jacob might come to know and encounter God in a more humble, loving, daily sort of way.  That his experience of being called, and loved, might take from him the hunger for human accolades, and let him be content at last.  I pray that for him, still.

The family stories are told now by my grandchildren, told as though they hadn’t happened to me, told as entertainment when the family gathers around the fire in the evening.  Yet it is now, finally, in my old age, that those stories make me anxious.  For in the rote telling, and the characterization of Jacob as tricky and me as slow, so much gets lost.  There is still rivalry between us, and now between our households; as these stories get told – of birth and of stew, of struggle and of birthright – I hear the justification of an animosity that should never have been.  I hear the forgetting of our connections: we, who are children of the same mother, heirs together of the covenant, yet doomed by our story to live in a rivalry that would seem preordained and inescapable.  If we are, indeed, to become nations, then what?  Shall we be forever set against one another, justified by our story while neglecting our common roots?  Shall the day come when we give up on the very possibility of living together as God’s people, as covenant people, as one family of our ancestor, Abraham?

The story is funnier, more captivating if the “stupid Esau” jokes abound, I’ve always understood that.  But now I worry that Jacob has become the hero.  Jacob, who quested after status, wealth, power; Jacob, who was willing to scheme, and plot, and steal – for what?  The story would tell you that it was all to assure God’s favor.  The story would tell the next generations Jacob’s truth: that there is not enough to go around – not enough blessing, not enough inheritance – and so we need to see to our own needs first.  But that is not God’s truth: God, who has provided abundantly for us as for our ancestors.  After all, is Jacob any better off now than he would have been?  Am I any worse?  It’s hard to see how.

I wish, now, that we could change the story.  I wish we could talk instead of how all of these petty machinations – all of the ambition and jealousy and scheming – actually distances us from God, until it takes an angel and an injured hip to bring us back into relationship.  I wish we could talk about how wealth and status are meaningless when we come face to face with the love of God.  I wish we could talk about how even the devious, conniving, bratty younger brothers can be welcomed home.  I wish we could talk about how even the selfish, petty cruelties that we inflict upon one another do not exclude us from the promise of God’s grace.

Can’t we change the story, to tell how God’s foolishness – in loving us beyond measure, and with incalculable abundance – trumps all of the human foolishness, all of the human division, all of the human understandings that would keep us apart?  Can’t we tell the story of how Jacob was foolish, and I was wise: where birthrights don’t matter and inheritance is useless and God is the only thing that matters?

For that is the story that will heal, if we are willing to tell it.  That is the story that will bring peace between our households, peace among the nations.  That is the story that will finally bring us back together, we who are children of the same mother, children of the same covenant, servants of the same God.

“The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” -Genesis 21:17b-18

You’ll hear it over and over again: common wisdom holds that the Old Testament God is vengeful, heartless, bloodthirsty; while the New Testament God is one of grace and peace and love.  As though they weren’t one and the same.  It was a way, once upon a time, of creating distance between the Jewish community and the Jesus-followers, later Christians – identity formation often relies on “othering”, after all.  Yet such broad generalizations, especially when they are as untrue as this one, only do us a disservice, we who use both as our sacred scripture.  Such “common wisdom”, taken as infallible truth, closes our eyes to all but the most superficial readings of a Bible passage; closes our ears to the ways in which even ancient stories might speak to our lived reality today.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as though our revised common lectionary – the basis of so many sermons preached weekly on these very texts – are set up with these very biases at the core.  As we read these snippets of text each week, we are tempted to take them out of context.  In many ways, the structure of our lectionary – and the biases of a culture that divides narrative into “fiction” or “non-fiction” – sets us up to do some pretty serious mis-reading.  It sets us up to read Genesis – and the Gospels, for that matter – as history rather than as a series of lessons about who God is, and how our relationship with God began, from a time when that relationship was just beginning.  Reading in neat little chunks of text makes it easy for us to miss discontinuities pointing us to the larger themes, the ones that continue to speak to us today: we miss that Ishmael was already 13 a couple chapters earlier, yet his mother here carries him on her shoulder and casts him under a bush to die.  We forget that Abram was promised descendants several times over, through multiple chapters. We lose the significance of Hagar: one of rare women to talk to God, and the only one to name God – and she was a foreigner, and Egyptian, to boot!

Significantly, we miss that this story isn’t really about Hagar or Ishmael.  It’s not even about Abraham.  This text is really about Sarah, and about God’s grace – yes, even in the Old Testament.

It doesn’t seem that way, from the few verses we read.  It seems to be about a heartless God. At best, it seems to be about Abraham, and the development of the covenant: Abraham, who many chapters back, was promised offspring; was brought into relationship with God, even before the covenant was so painfully sealed.  But in this story, it is Sarah’s role that ends up being the crucial one: Sarah, who hears the promises of children, but knows herself to be already old, so she deems God’s promises to be impossible.  It is Sarah who takes matters – and common sense – into her own hands, sending Hagar to be the mother of that promised offspring.  It is Sarah who takes action around God’s promises, which would seem to be a demonstration of her faith, but it is not.  For it is not faith in God’s power, or faith in God’s abundance.  Perhaps Sarah had heard the gospel according to Ben Franklin, that  “God helps those who help themselves”… but that was not God’s word then, any more than it is in our Bible, or even our theology, now.

Sarah, consistently throughout these chapters of Genesis, sees things in human terms.  She sees, not God’s knowledge or power, but her own age and the improbability of childbearing.  She sees, not God’s breadth or abundance, but the practical impossibility of there being enough inheritance to go around, to support both Ishmael and Isaac.  Sarah’s faith is in that which she can see, and touch, and understand with human perception and wisdom.  And she refuses to be open to any larger possibility.

This story is about Sarah, certainly.  But it is just as much about us.

We who so often judge by wealth; we who have lived so long in this materialist culture, believing in the American dream to the point where such a concept no longer seems weird: we who see even certain children as an inconvenience to be rid of; we are Sarah.  We, who store away material needs for “just in case”, who live in the fear that there can never be enough, and that God’s promises require our manipulation, our negotiation, our assistance: we are convicted by this story, every bit as much as Sarah herself.

In the study guide, Economy of Love by the founders of the group Relational Tithe, the author of the chapter on sufficiency notes:

“I’m reminded that I live most days oblivious to my own wealth, comparing my standard of living to the standards of my upwardly-mobile friends and not to those billions of people worldwide living hand to mouth… For American consumerism thrives on a simple message – that what we currently have is not enough. Not big enough, not nice enough, not fast or hip enough. Not enough is hte matra of capitalism. At the same time, when it comes to my own economic habits, I can’t simply blame the capitalist machine. Pop culture may entice me to buy things I don’t need, but the truth is I like taking the bait. I like buying books instead of borrowing them from the library. I like new music and cardigan sweaters. Not enough is my mantra, too.

“But I’ve been thinking about the fact that the more I’m driven by an impulse to accumulate, the less free I am to meet the needs of other people… the more I need – or think I need – the less I’m able to love my neighbor with my wealth. If each morning I need an Americano from my local coffee shop, I’m not necessarily greedy (or am I?); I’m just less free to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to live responsibly towards my fellow human beings.” (p. 48)

In how we live, in how we understand ourselves and our place in this Creation, are we free to be in relationship with God?  Have we so bound ourselves in fear and anxiety that we have entirely lost sight of everything but our own human needs, our own human senses and understandings?  We are faced with God’s promises of life and of love in abundance beyond all comprehension… and our responses would seem to harken back more to Sarah than to Abraham – or to Hagar.

The authors go on:

“At least two things must be said: First, when it comes to caring for the poor in our localities, the sheer magnitude of the task can tempt us to apathy. However, on this point the Scriptures are clear: neglect those among us who have material and physical needs, and our rituals are meaningless… Second, many church leaders take this issue quite seriously. And each congregation has its own financial challenges, its own burdens to carry. But if God’s provision is going to meet the poor where they live, we must honestly assess what our church budgets say about our true priorities. Is meeting the needs of the marginalized a central or peripheral concern? What material and aesthetic comforts are we addicted to, and what sacrifices must we make so that all people have their basic needs met. Is the gospel we preach good news for rich and poor alike?” (p. 88)

In this culture, in this nation, in this church: are we preaching God’s grace, or human guilt? Do we trust, as Sarah couldn’t, in abundance? That there is, in fact, enough – enough resources, enough space, enough love, enough God to go around… and then some?

Do we, like Sarah, tend to our own needs first? Do we keep what we have for ourselves and our loved ones, do we live in that constant and abiding fear?  Do we, as Sarah did, cast aside the inconvenient bodies so that our own might be better served?

Are we as absurd now as she was then?

God instructs Abraham to let Hagar and Ishmael go, as Sarah instructs, not because she is right in her actions, and certainly not because God is ruthless or cruel or uncaring – that’s us.  This is the reminder to us that God considers all people, all bodies, beloved and worthy of life.  This is the reminder that it is not God, but humanity who put not only grace and love and hope on the line, in all of our interactions and all of our understandings about this world, in our tendency to keep the very best things for ourselves.  But we put on the line God’s very presence here among us in this creation, when we refuse to embody it ourselves and to live into it in everything that we do and every interaction in which we participate.  It is not God but humanity who is willing to do harm to Christ’s very body, sacrificed, not on the cross, but on altar of scarcity which we ourselves have created, victim of our fears and our faithlessness.

Yet despite our blinding, heart-closing fear, this story is a demonstration of God’s grace, as God provides for Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, as God reassures Abraham of his son’s worthiness and well-being.  It is, throughout these chapters of Genesis, a demonstration of God’s abundance and God’s grace – yes, even here in Genesis, even in the Old Testament, it is the demonstration of the God who has not changed since creation dawned.  God, who gives with such generous to the stranger in a strange land, to the Egyptian slave woman, used and discarded by fearful humans. God, whose love encompasses beyond the covenant with Abraham and Isaac; whose abundance is so much more than we can comprehend, even we who still cannot count the stars!  God, whose inheritance is big enough (and then some!) for both boys to become great nations in their own right.

God, is not like Sarah, is not like us.  God does not measure on human scales of scarcity and need, but offers abundance to all: all, without measure; all, without restrictions; all who are willing to trust, and to be in relationship with God.  What we see here in Genesis is what we see throughout our scriptures, lectionary notwithstanding: a God of grace, then and now and always with whom there will always be enough, if we can simply get our acts together, and learn to set aside fear, and to live in trust: of the promises made with such incomprehensible abundance.

 

There was a day recently on social media when it seemed as though everyone I knew was in the worst possible mood. No matter what the subject – church, politics, children, life – there was nothing but complaining, whining, name-calling, meanness, and pessimism. Although I turned it all off for a good chunk of the day, that sort of negativity can really stay with you, and I found myself in a rotten mood. So I put an idea out there, to the internet:

For every mean thing you say about someone, find something kind to say as well.

For every institution or injustice about which you are whining and complaining, tell us what concrete action(s) you are taking to make the situation better.

The answer to the idea? Silence.

Negativity is viral. Say something snarky or cutting? You’ll get retweets on Twitter and likes or shares on Facebook. Say it in person, you’ll get laughs and affirmations. You’ll be rewarded for your “wit”. The conversation will build, it will stir passions, it will get exciting, it will be fun.

But if you say something nice about someone? If you talk about the good things that are happening in this world? Those are the conversations that seem harder to keep going. Those are the one-liners that fall flat. Those are the conversations that might start on a positive note, but that quickly turn around and fall back into the negative. Talk about the good work that certain groups or people are doing around homelessness often spins into a pessimistic conversation about the hopelessness of the situation. Talk about the need for better mental health services devolves into a discussion about violence.

It may be more “fun” to speak negatively, to complain about the problems of the world and be able to blame someone for them. Negativity and snark speak to something within us; there is a reason that the media – print, televised, or social – plays so often to angry soundbites. It’s easier, certainly, to call a politician names than to comment on her policy choices; to say “He is a jerk”, suggesting there is something inherently flawed about a person, than to say “his actions have hurt me”, separating the person’s entire being from certain actions we find distasteful. It’s easier to speak in generalities, but we damage ourselves in the process. We create an “other”, a “not-me” that we don’t have to like, let alone love. We can dehumanize a person, write off their worthiness to be heard or even acknowledged. But by doing this, we cut ourselves off from one another, and from the God who is most present among us in relationship.

What if we put as much energy into finding the good in each other, as we do into demonizing one another? What if we put as much energy into love as we do into anger?

It’s not easy, but discipleship isn’t supposed to be. It might be less fun, less popular, less entertaining. But it might be a worthwhile challenge for us. Because in forcing ourselves to look for the good in people, we are forcing ourselves to see even those who hold opposing viewpoints as children of God. We are forcing ourselves to maintain relationship with those whom we might rather write off entirely, to remember that although we disagree, there might still be points of agreement, or even respect.

What might happen, if we made the conscious decision to get off the negativity bandwagon, even just for a month? Who will take the challenge?

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…” Luke 24: 30-31a

We have been talking a lot, recently,about darkness.  Although the metaphor can give way to some problematic imagery, it is still a concept that resonates in many hearts.  We understand the idea of darkness in all the times we are as uncomfortable spiritually as we would be in physical darkness: when we are disoriented and confused.

Today, we continue in Eastertide darkness, dwelling still on the very day of resurrection and the great difficulty that the disciples had in leaving that place of uncertainty.  Today, we see two of Jesus’ followers road to Emmaus, discussing what had happened, and the strangeness that that very morning had held, when the women had come running back from Jesus’ tomb with incredible, fantastic stories of angelic visions and an empty tomb.  There were plenty of rational explanations, but these two men found their whole world shaken, found it impossible that anyone could be moving normally through their day when the very foundations of the world seemed unstable.  Their question to the stranger who met them is one we’ve often felt, in times of great emotion – how does everyone not know what has happened?

It calls into question yet again how many of the disciples had ever really gotten the death and crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus had warned them about?  How many had really believed what Jesus had told them; had understood that, for once, Jesus hadn’t been speaking in parables?  Not many, judging from the reactions: the disciples we hear about were fearful, uncertain: feeling their way forward in suddenly unfamiliar world.

In the darkness, even the familiar seems strange enough.  Have you ever tried to walk through your house with the lights off?  I tried it the other night, and immediately tripped over the toys that I knew were on the floor.  We move with less confidence, even in familiar surroundings.  Should something intrude on us, in that moment, wouldn’t we all be afraid?  Would we, any of us, recognize even a loved one immediately? especially if we weren’t expecting them? Wouldn’t we be too afraid to believe?

In the darkenss, would we recognize the Risen Christ, walking with us, speaking with us, opening our eyes to new ideas and new possibilities?

Throughout scriptures, from the first book of our Bible to the last, one theme infuses it all: Covenant. Throughout our scriptures, we are reminded of the promises that God has made to all generations, to remain with us and to guide us through this life.  It is that covenant, embodied by Christ, that we celebrate at the communion table: the reminder and the promise that there is presence; that we were – that we are – worth loving and dying for; that we are forgiven, that there is grace, always.  We gather at the table in celebration of covenant in the place where we, like disciples, know risen Christ in breaking bread.

But covenant endures even when we’re not expecting, and not looking for it.

Covenant endures even when the darkness seems oppressive, and we’re disoriented and afraid; even when crucifixion seems more present than resurrection in our lives; even when we’re on the road, more focused on other things; even when conversations with strangers lead us to new, strange, and disorienting ideas.

The question of covenant has been very much on my mind this week, because of the lawsuit that our denomination has filed.  The United Church of Christ, along with a few local Unitarian and Reform Jewish congregations, has filed suit in federal court against the State of North Carolina, in an attempt to overturn its ban on same-sex marriage.  Now, there are several states with similar bans, and the UCC has not sued any of them.  North Carolina’s law differs from the others in that it makes it illegal – punishable by a fine and a jail term – for clergy to perform any marriage-like ceremony that is not legally recognized by the state.  This includes commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, or for opposite-sex couples who, for whatever reason, choose to have their relationship recognized by the church, but not the state.  So the UCC’s lawsuit argues against the marriage ban, not only on the grounds of equal protection, but also on the right that we all have to free expression of religion.

Now, certainly, there are churches in the United Church of Christ that don’t agree – as there have been, in many stances we’ve taken as a denomination.  For every controversial stance that we take, there are churches who wish we wouldn’t, or hadn’t.  Yet of those churches, very few end up leaving our denomination: we remain together because we are in covenant, and our covenant is a reminder and embodiment of God’s covenant with us: unconditional and abiding, loving beyond the barriers that humans erect.  Even in disagreement, we remain bound together, bearing one another’s burdens, seeking God together, listening, learning, and walking together because sometimes, Christ is walking with us.  Sometimes, we might recognize Christ in our midst, not only in the expected, but in the unexpected as well; not only in light but in darkness; not only in faith but in doubt

As we gather at the table, we renew our covenant with one another and with God.  We renew our promise to love God by loving one another.  We renew our faith with God who promises to remain with us no matter what: despite our failures of love, God remains faithful; even though we hung God on the cross, God remains faithful.  And love prevails, over all we might do to prevent and oppose it.  God’s love is there waiting, even in unexpected places and forms, guiding us through the darkness back to the resurrection light.

I find myself reflecting a lot on stewardship, recently.

Partly, because part of my job is to help ensure the financial health of this congregation. But also, of course, this is because of our preparation to participate in the UCC’s Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 days of earth-care and eco-justice between Easter and Pentecost.  When we consider the marvelous complexity of this world around us, it must necessarily be heartbreaking to see it be so thoughtlessly damaged.  Whether you believe that God literally created this world, or you believe that it evolved to become the world we know, it matters little: I know few people who have not experienced the divine in the power of nature.  Caring for the earth keeps us in relationship with that divine presence all around us.

Recently I heard Rev. Mike Piazza, a UCC pastor in Virginia, suggest that the pollution of environment is an indication of the abdication of the church to teach covenant and stewardship.  In other words, the church is not keeping us from acting selfishly.  We are not being reminded of our sacred responsibility to be in covenant – that relationship of mutuality, of shared values and of holy promise.  We are not being reminded of our commitment to stewardship, in the literal sense of that word – the commitment to care for something which is not ours, yet which has been entrusted into our keeping.  We treat the earth as we treat so much of our lives: as though we were in sole control, as though we owned it, as though we had the privilege of treating our possession in whatever way felt pleasurable or convenient at the time.

We behave as though we were nothing but consumers – of material goods, of the earth, of God.

We behave as though God’s gifts to us demand nothing in return, as though God’s love and grace justifies our own self-interest and corruption.

We behave as though the covenant were made only with us, the privileged, the materially-blessed, and we do not heed the injunction to be, in turn, a blessing to others.

For the most part, the church has, indeed, declined to raise its voice against this trend.  In this age of church-hoppers and the “spiritual but not religious”, we try to make churches easy, comfortable places to celebrate God’s presence.  We try to be a loving community, while ignoring the fact that sometimes love is uncomfortable, and demanding, and hard.

I dare to think that, as sweet as this sounds, we want our church to be better than this.  We want to be convicted.  We want to hear that God loves us – yes!  us!  flawed, difficult, stubborn, near-sighted us! – enough to keep a covenant with us.  Enough to give the most precious gifts into our clumsy care.  Enough to trust that, even when we fall down, we will keep trying to be good stewards, good babysitters of God’s gifts.  I dare to think that we want a church that will not only reassure us, after we fail for the hundredth time, but that will give us the courage to get up and try again; to never stop giving everything we have to this relationship with the divine.

I dare to think that, as much as we are trained by our culture to be consumers, we would rather be the ones consumed  – swallowed whole by God’s extravagant love.

I dare to think that we want this church to be a church of the Gospel, a church of God’s covenant, a church that looks upon pollution, and corruption, and exploitation and says, “Enough!”  A church that practices what it preaches, even to the point of being ridiculed for its countercultural stand.  A church that represents the one who ate with lepers, blessed prostitutes, gave the Word to the illiterate, died for the sake of love.

We might be one church – one small community in one small state – but we have the power to live into the covenant.  We have the power to say, “Enough!” And in these 50 days of Eastertide, we have the power to raise our voices, with other churches in other communities in other states; to be one Church living one Gospel as stewards of one Creation.  We have the power to be responsible for our end of the relationship of mutuality and shared values to which God has called us: to choose relationship, to choose stewardship, to choose love.

We have the power to be the church we want to be.  Praise be to God!