Summoned to God’S Dangerous Service

November 15th, 2015

Gathering Words for November 15, 2015

Heard any stories lately? Probably. We are hearing stories all the time. Yesterday’s news. The latest family gathering. The time out with friends this weekend. Stories at work. Stories at class. Stories in the gym. Maybe you are reading a book about some event in history, a biography or memoir. Maybe you have been reading stories to your children or grandchildren. Maybe you have been to a story tellers conference, or recently forwarded a story on Facebook. Maybe you just got together with some friends you haven’t seen for a while and spent the entire evening telling stories. Maybe you were sitting with family and friends and somebody said “Tell that story about the time…”

We hear or read stories everyday of our lives. So many stories that in fact the question we ask is more often “Have you heard a good story lately.” But who decides which stories are good ones? Whose stories aren’t we allowed to hear or repeat? What stories of yours keep going unheard? What story have we heard too much?

The Bible is a storybook. It is a collection of stories. One of Ken Medema’s albums is called Story Telling Man and is songs about the stories Jesus told. Of course, much of the gospels are made up of stories about this story telling man, who favorite technique was telling parables, or stories.

We are going to talk about Bible stories today. Not all of them. Some particular kinds of stories about some particular kind of people who have to fight to get their stories told and heard. But the stories are important, no matter who tells you they aren’t because they are important to God. And Jesus showed us over and over again that our stories are important and so are the stories of others.

Summoned to God’s Dangerous Service
Exodus 1 and 2, Ruth 4 (several others)
Steve Hammond
October 15, 2015

Ask people to mention the stories in the Bible that feature women. Eve. Sarah and Hagar. [Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh’s Daughter. Moses mother and sister (Miriam).] Ruth. Naomi. Esther. Tamar. Rahab. Michel. Abigail. Jephthah’s daughter. Hannah. The widow of Zerapath. Debra. The Shulamite Woman in Song of Solomon. Mary the Mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene. Mary the sister of Martha and Martha. Joanna. Susanna. The Woman at the Well. The Syro Phoenician Woman. The woman who touched Jesus’ garment. The woman caught in adultery. The widow in the Temple (Widow’s mite). Anna. Elizabeth. Lydia. Pricilla.

It feels like there aren’t as many stories about women in the Bible as there actually are. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be more. But why does it feel like there are even less than there are?

Men’s stories are emphasized, highlighted, remembered, and more detailed than women’s stories. Patriarchy, by definition, means men’s stories are more important than women’s stories. It also means you have to fight for women’s stories to be included. That’s why it actually, to me, is surprising there are as many stories about women in the Bible as there are. I think it also means we have to make sure we pay more attention to those stories about women in the Bible because it would have been easy enough to leave them out. So they are there because the writers thought it was really, really important they be there. But getting them included is just the first step. We need to make sure they don’t get swamped by the patriarchic tide. They are literally subtexts. They are underneath the larger text that we are used to reading with our lenses of patriarchy. We have to reach down and pull them to the surface.

Most of us here know the story of Moses. But how does it start? It actually starts with two women Shiphrah and Puah. They were Hebrew midwives living with that Israeli community that had grown in Egypt over the years since the time of Joseph. Pharaoh was so concerned by the large numbers of Hebrews that he ordered Shiphrah and Puah to kill all new born Hebrew boys. But they refused. The story says they feared God more than the Egyptian King. So they came up with this really interesting defense. “Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They are strong. And by time we get there they have already given birth so we can’t do anything about the male babies.”

So Pharaoh decreed that whenever anyone came across a Hebrew baby boy, that baby was to be thrown into the Nile. When Moses was born, the story goes, his mother hid him for three months. But he was getting bigger and louder so she made a basket and waterproofed it, and set the basket in the hallows where Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe. Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses and decided to raise him. Moses’ sister, Miriam perhaps, but it doesn’t say, was watching all of this and told Pharaoh’s daughter she could find a woman to be a wet nurse for the baby. That woman, of course, was Moses’ mother.

I was looking at the Interpreter’s Bible about the beginning of the book of Exodus and here is what the writer wrote about the Exodus story. “While the work of Exodus is clearly God’s work, the human Moses is indispensable as an agent in social transformation. As becomes characteristic in the Bible, God’s action in the world is undertaken by human agents who are summoned into Yahweh’s dangerous service.” Now who was more summoned into God’s dangerous service than these five women? To be fair, that same writer seems to get it when a few paragraphs later he writes this. “Moses is kept safe through the inscrutable protection of God, which in the narrative is credited only to the women.” In other words, the writer of Exodus is telling us that without the women there is no Moses. Without Moses there is no Israel. And from our perspective, without Moses there is no Jesus. The story of these women is more than a story of brave women. They are essential to whole story.

Last week, Anita Peebles preached from the book of Ruth. That is such an interesting story of how Ruth and Naomi supported each other, persevered, schemed, took amazing risks, and even seduced to survive. Here is some of the story. “Naomi her mother-in-law said to Ruth, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’” That part about uncovering Boaz’s feet. That’s a euphemism. Do I need to say any more?

Boaz was a good guy and this turns out to be a nice love story. After some scheming on Boaz’s part he and Ruth are able to be married. But here’s how the book of Ruth ends, here’s the punchline.”18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron,19 Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20 Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21 Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22 Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.” These two women, how did he say it, “summoned into God’s dangerous service” set into motion something that changed the whole course of Israel.

Let’s quickly think about the gospels. Mary, the mother of Jesus, comes off as one he most radical people in the gospels. Remember the Magnificat? God..has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” You don’t hear anything like that coming out of the mouths of the male disciples in the Gospels.

The longest theological discourse Jesus has in the Gospels is with the Samaritan woman at the well. There is that Syro Phoenician woman who challenges Jesus about his understanding of the nature of his ministry. That one woman touches Jesus and power is drawn from him. In that story where Martha confronts Jesus because he delayed his trip and didn’t show up until after Lazarus died, she also makes this confession “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,[g] the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It is her sister Mary who challenges the deeply held traditions of her day and sits to listen to Jesus rather than work in the kitchen. It’s the women disciples who are the first witnesses of the Resurrection on Easter morning.

Even though the stories of the women in the gospels are less developed than those of the men, it is obvious in the Gospels that the women get Jesus much more than the men do. Yet all the gospels are named after men.

We need all the stories, particularly the ones that we don’t usually get to hear, we need to hear the stories of those we aren’t supposed to hear from. What would it be like if Palestinians and Israelis could hear each other’s stories? What would it be like if we could stop and really listen to the stories that are being told by the Black Lives Matter folk? What would it be like if we stopped telling other peoples’ stories and let them tell their own? Why are we so afraid of stories that are different than the accepted narrative?

We all know people, I imagine, who are desperate for their stories to be heard, so they keep telling them over and over again. How do we hear and honor those stories? But how do we find ways to not get stuck on our stories? There is, obviously, a time to tell our stories, but also a time to listen to the stories of others.

Jesus had stories to tell. He knew that stories were important. And not everybody liked his stories. They were afraid of his stories and didn’t want them told. So afraid that they killed him. They thought they could put an end to the stories. But they couldn’t because too many of us listened to his stories and realized that God wants to hear our stories and wants us to hear each other’s stories.

Imagine what it was like for Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ sister and mother, Pharaoh’s daughter to tell their stories to the women around them. What was it like when Ruth told her story to her daughters and friends? What did the women who had spent all that time with Jesus, been there when he died and was raised again, say to each other and their families when they told their stories? What was it like in those rooms when the stories were being told? Those would have been amazing stories to hear even though the stories of women have been so quickly discounted, and often feared in most, if not all, societies. How much we have missed?

We’ve got stories to tell and stories to hear. It’s in the balancing of the telling and the hearing that we can find a way to follow the story telling who summons us into God’s dangerous service.


Before we close this morning I want us to think about the Apostle’s Creed for a couple of minutes. Now before I acknowledge my usual concerns about the Apostle’s or any creed, I do want to note and celebrate thatthere are plenty of people who find the creeds quite meaningful. And they have stories to tell about going into a church in a new or far place and hearing the same creed that they recite, the same creed that has been recited by Christians over the centuries all over the world.

But, I can’t help but mention today that there are no stories in the Apostle’s Creed. If you don’t know it, you can find it on page 359. It talks about God being the creator of heaven and earth, but nothing about that creation that we read about in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, the book of Job, in the Psalms or so many other places in the Bible. It says that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate and was killed. It says Jesus was resurrected. But there are no Nativity stories, no stories about what happened on Holy Week and Easter morning. And the creeds, like this one don’t even make a reference to the life Jesus lived, much less tell stories like his encounter with the Woman at the Well, or with Zacchaeus, or the time they tried to throw him over a cliff in his home town. The Holy Spirit gets a line, but no story of Pentecost or the Spirit’s guiding the followers of Jesus.

Now, of course, the stories in the Bible are alluded to in the Apostle’s Creed. But imagine if you heard this creed as someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Bible. How can we know what the creed is trying to tell us without hearing the stories?


Any of you here listen to the Vinyl Café? It’s a long running Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program that, I think, you can hear on one of the public broadcasting stations. I listen to their weekly podcast so I’m not quite sure when you can listen to it on the radio, but I think it’s Sunday afternoon. It’s built around stories. Kind of like the Canadian version of the Prairie Home Companion. Stuart McLean, it’s host, who is, at least, as good of a storyteller as Garrison Keillor, always closes the broadcast with his hope that we will have a “story worthy week.” And we will, because there are stories everywhere.


God, we come this morning to join with each other in worshiping you. We’ve got good stories and we’ve got hard stories to tell, some so hard that we don’t know how to tell them. But we know that no matter what our stories are, we are a part of your larger story. Jesus has called us to not only tell the story, but to add to it, to make the story our own.

Forgive us when we imagine there are folk whose stories aren’t worth hearing, or whose stories don’t really count. Forgive us when we shrink from telling our stories, or drown others’ stories out with our own. We don’t know how the story ends, God, it just keeps unfolding and is told by your Spirit along the way. And that is why we are thankful. Help us to add a bit more to the story today and in the days ahead. In the name of the one who came telling us your story. Amen

God’s Quilt

November 10th, 2015

Ruth 1:1-18
Anita Peebles
Movember 8, 2015

My friend Emily has a beautiful quilt. Her mother made one for each granddaughter in the family following her grandmother’s death from scraps of fabric collected by her grandmother so that they might remember each other when they are far away. This is a way of keeping their family together–all the family members, those who were related through bloodline or marriage, contributed fabric to the quilt. As Emily has traveled from her hometown in the desert of California to college in Nebraska to work with me at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, TN to Seattle where she is working on alleviating hunger, she takes this quilt with her and remembers the presence and love of her family. Emily says that is especially important to her because her mother made it and it has pieces of fabric from her grandmother’s old sewing projects included. It’s warmth and memories often provides unexpected blessings when the going gets rough.

Likewise, Ruth is a book that provides unexpected blessings. Scrunched in between Judges and First Samuel, this small book, only 100 verses, slips in almost unnoticed. In reading it, we get the story of a small Israelite family living in Moab because there was a famine in Judah, undergoing many hardships until the only people left, the women, head to Judah. Naomi and her daughters in law are extremely vulnerable, as there were not many protections for widows, and women were susceptible to the will and exploitation of men. Her daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth, were freed from their duty to Naomi’s family when their husbands died. Because both women are foreigners, from the point of view of the Judean writer, they have no reason to return to Israel. Their heritage is with the Moabites, and since they are not cut from the same cloth of Israel, the chosen people of God, they might as well get themselves home. Sending her two daughters in law away is, in a way, the most hospitable thing Naomi could do, since she knows they have no legal obligation to her, and that she has nothing to give them but a way out. She hopes there is a better life available for them back with their fathers’ families Moab.

I love that the main characters in this book are women, which is rare, only comparable to the book of Esther, in that matter. This story of Ruth pledging to stay with Naomi has always been one of my favorite Biblical passages. There are so few times when the relationships between women, especially women of different generations, are celebrated. And to have this story be part of one of the two books in the Bible named for women is nothing short of incredible. How often do we hear, even today, stories of women protecting each other and loving each other, instead of cutting each other down and shaming each other? Not all that often, if we trust mainstream media sources and teen movies. In the Bible, stories of women are often read (and many are written this way by the patriarchal ancient authors) to pit women against each other: think of the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Mary and Martha.

But when given the chance, Ruth will not leave Naomi, and the Bible says, she “clings to” Naomi. The Hebrew word for this is “dabaq”, the same word used for the love that Adam felt for Eve. Remember that in Genesis 2, God made woman out of the flesh of Adam’s rib to be a “helpmeet” or “companion” for him because “it is not good for man to be alone.” Adam was lonely, the only one of his kind, and God provided for Adam in the form of Eve, a human being like him, and one that could reciprocate his love and match his place in the good Creation. This likeness of language is to be noted in our discussion of Ruth because the story of Ruth and Naomi has been read over time to validate homosexual relationships. This passage, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried” is often used in marriage ceremonies, as two people pledge to be family to each other. The book of Ruth also provides a model for intergenerational community and healing, as Naomi returns to her kin emptyhanded and “bitter,” as her name change to “Mara” tells us. She knows her redemption lies not in Moab, but in the land of her birth, among people she has not seen for a long time, but who are family to her. And through it all, Ruth proves her worth, despite her status as a foreign wife, and shows her love for Naomi as she follows her chosen family to the land of Judah. Truly, the story of Ruth and Naomi is dynamic and applicable to many life situations that have to do with unity and family in God’s eyes.

The story of Ruth is so amazing to me because, it should be recognized, she is one of the only women listed in the genealogy of Jesus in the book of Matthew. She shows up as David’s great-grandmother, and Jesus follows from the Davidic line (through his earthly father Joseph). Scholars posit that the author’s purpose in writing this book was to show that taking wives from nations other than Israel is acceptable, that Ruth was a good egg, and the era which disallows inter-tribal marriage is over. Thus, King David himself, one of the best-known leaders in Israel’s history, is a leader from the margins, arising with a back-story that is not purely upstanding, law-abiding Israelite. His great grandmother was a Moabite, part of a kinship group that had a complicated relationship with Israel, sometimes at war, sometimes allied, sometimes in peace—but always Other. And Ruth is not even the only woman in Matthew’s genealogy: Rahab and Tamar, other women praised for their unconventional acts of courage for God’s people. These women have been traditionally seen as outsiders, because of either the way they use their sexuality or their ethnicity. And yet: they courageously rise to the challenge of helping God’s people. Perhaps this suggests that we, too, should look for leadership from the margins, because difference and diversity are integral in the family of David and Jesus. Jesus, who in the stories of his life continues to show us the way to prepare the world for God’s kin-dom of peace rooted in justice, was made possible because of the faithfulness of God in including all people in the vision for salvation, in God’s family.

I love the imagery of my friend Emily’s quilt in relation to the Ruth and Naomi story, in part because I can imagine the two women sitting knitting or sewing together at night, mourning over their losses in Moab, or planning and supporting each other during the first nights back in Judah. I can just see them–sitting close together, embroidering their lives and stories and all they’ve seen into the quilt, including Naomi’s questioning God and Ruth’s conversion and the care shared between generations.
Indeed, when making a quilt, having company helps. This does not need to be a solitary act, but it can involve quilting circles of people who chat and exchange news about loved ones and trials in their lives. Women’s circles have, in fact, always been subversive places where women share the truth about their lives–a truly radical conversation. Women telling the truth about their experiences have changed many lives, as with the women who were instrumental in starting the environmental movement by sharing about the illnesses their children were facing around the Love Canal disasters. Think also of Emmett Till’s mother, who knew the truth of her son’s violent death and that it could send a powerful message to the people of this nation rent by conflict and the evil of racism. Last year in Nashville, during my fellowship in an intentional community of young women doing social justice work, I was part of multiple circles of women who gathered to talk about feminism and how the so-called “fourth wave” can be hospitable and inclusive to women of color and transgender women. Even here at Oberlin College, the circles of women who surrounded me to share stories about abuse, eating disorders, distorted self-image and mental health were instrumental in how I came to feel affirmed by the forces outside academia—they helped me recognize my calling to ministry. These truth-speakers in our lives are like living clouds of witnesses, encircling us and covering us with God’s quilt of love.

Look around you. We are all part of God’s family quilt, with one square for each of us, clipped from a favorite garment, a baby blanket, or a funeral shroud of a loved one. We are all included, no matter what fibers make up our being, what color we were dyed, what type of garment we were clipped from. Instead of being satisfied with a quilt made of one color from basic cotton, made in China, we should look for the vibrancy of all the colors and shapes and sizes and beings in Creation. We should rejoice in the beauty of the finished product of the quilt, but also remember that the process of becoming something beautiful can be long and difficult. In constructing a quilt, the material is ironed and pierced with needles and pulled tight and cut down to size. It is in the dedication and passion for the craft that the quilt becomes whole.

Remember that it is the same for becoming God’s quilt. We need to remember that it’s not easy to practice inclusive love. Even Naomi resisted bringing Ruth with her to Judah, because she knew that crossing the boundaries of ethnicity between Moabite and Israelite society would be difficult. And Ruth, too, knew it would not be easy, but she persisted because she viewed Naomi, a woman from a different homeland, was her chosen family.

In becoming God’s quilt, we too have holes poked through us and through everything we know, challenging ideologies and assumptions. Imagine the talk in Judah when Naomi and Ruth returned: where have they been, who is that foreign woman, what will they do without a man? But Ruth and Naomi show them different, show them the meaning of family.

In the process of becoming God’s quilt, we are pulled tight, stretched and challenged and sometimes cut down to size. The process of living into our destiny as part of God’s family is hard, because diversity is hard, because recognizing our privilege is hard, because recognizing our complicity in destructive and oppressive behaviors is hard–because love is hard–but in the end we make something bigger and more beautiful than we ever could have imagined, and more than we could ever have been by ourselves. God’s quilt, crafted by brave people who tell the stories of the generations and who practice love daily, is made from diversity and has incomparable beauty. God’s quilt becomes a reminder to notice people on the margins of society, the folks who hang around the edges; when we see them for who they are, outsiders and addicts and emotionally unstable and incarcerated folks–it is then that we can spread the beautiful quilt of God’s family over the shoulders of people experiencing pain and sorrow, and even spread before us as we prepare a table to partake of the Eucharist.

Eight Fragments In Search of a Sermon

October 31st, 2015

II Samuel 1:19-20, 23-27
Matthew 15:21-28 Glenn Loafmann
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost 18 October 2015

Be not afraid: Like all sermons: “Some assembly required.”

Fragment I: Backstory

David was in exile. King Saul had grown to hate him, and had tried to kill him. So David and 600 soldiers went to work as mercenaries guarding the borders for a Philistine king, Achish.1 Meanwhile, the five major Philistine cities gathered for war against King Saul. David and his troops showed up to join that army, but the other Philistine commanders knew a psychopath when they got a second look at one, and refused to have David on their side. He was sent back to guard duty. The Philistines then defeated and killed Saul, and when David got the news, he lamented:

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
nor publish it abroad in the streets of Ashkelon;
lest the Philistines make merry,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.2

David was not the most admirable character in the world, but he had the decency – and wisdom – to honor his fallen adversary.

Fragment II: Bootstraps.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”

Ever heard that? Think it’s possible? Economically possible? Socially? We use the image as an illustration of absurdity. We laugh at people who take it seriously; we scorn people who demand it of others.True, some people point to “bootstrap examples”: “so and so had nothing, overcame all obstacles and succeeded; pulled himself up by his bootstraps.” Examples are hard to discredit. There are remarkable people who transcend their circumstances without “visible outside help”, but still … it’s not an accomplishment we feel free to demand of anyone.

Mostly, we scorn the bootstraps theory, especially when used as a judgment against those who haven’t pulled themselves up.
We’ll return to this.

Fragment III: “All Have Sinned” (Romans 3:23)

A few weeks ago, Mary3 delivered a sermon from Luke, chapter 7, about the woman who crashed the dinner party given for Jesus by a prominent Pharisee. The party-crasher was described as “a sinner”, or, some translators assume, “a prostitute”. She arrived weeping for joy, washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, anointed them with expensive oil, kissed them in thanksgiving and praise.

It was a pretty R-rated moment, in my mind, though not much is said about that, usually. Maybe that’s just how my mind works – or my feet.

The Pharisees were aghast. “He should have known better than to allow such a person even to come near him.” (cf. Lk. 7:39) It’s a common impulse: push away things “unclean” or unpleasant; declare some people “kosher” and avoid all others. That impulse persists among those Christians who shun people for dancing or drinking, or wearing lipstick or leather goods.

We point to the Pharisees’ hypocrisy: “where did that poor woman get money to buy expensive perfume, unless it was from clients exactly like the well-to-do men sitting around that table bad-mouthing her? Who are they to condemn, if her behavior was supported entirely by their behavior?” Hypocrisy and sexism are easy targets – they’re everywhere. We defend the accused by diverting attention to the sins of the accusers, but that evades rather than answers the accusations.

And actually, the parable Jesus told at the time (Lk. 7:41-43) implies the woman had sinned grievously – ten times as much as the Pharisees – that’s why she was ten times more grateful than they. Jesus did not make excuses for her. He didn’t say, “Well, she was forced into it because society gave her no choice.” We can say that (and we always do – that’s the “dominant narrative” in Oberlin), but Jesus held her in higher regard – she was an adult, able to make her own excuses; she didn’t need Him for that.
Jesus did not excuse her, He forgave her; she really was a sinner, and He forgave real sin. Excuses are not grace, and Jesus could not make her life better by blaming the Pharisees.

Sin is real, and corporations and rich people and right-wing politicians don’t have a monopoly on it. Some sin is all-natural, organic, and shade-grown, and some sinners are poverty-stricken and marginalized. Poor people are less powerful than rich people, but they are not more virtuous.

Behind their priggishness and hypocrisy, the Pharisees were less offended by sin than by forgiveness: their bottom line was “Who is this who … forgives sins?” (Lk 7:49, nrsv) They blamed the woman for her condition, and blamed Jesus for not blaming her. But
Jesus was not about blame; Jesus was about forgiveness, about faith. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (v. 50)

Now we get to the hard part: following Jesus is about letting real sinners go in peace.

Fragment IV: Forgiveness

“Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:34, kjv)

Jesus asked forgiveness for those who tortured and killed Him, and we aspire to follow His example. We also recognize justice and forgiveness are necessary throughout the webwork of relationships that sustain us: it is not only individuals who must be righteous and who must be forgiven: the people and the System who crucified Jesus are the same ones who oppressed all the poor. Which means Jesus asked forgiveness for the people who oppressed the poor. What does this mean for those who follow him?

Fragment V: More Bootstraps

The 25th anniversary edition of “Ken Burns ‘The Civil War’” was broadcast on PBS a few weeks ago. It was good to see it again, now that I know how it came out.

Ev’body ‘members Shelby Foote, the writah, who was on camera a lot. Knowledgeable, witty, chahmin’ mannuh of speech, an’ a look like the rascally cousin of the Devil himself. Ihr-ruhsistable.

This time I noticed Barbara Fields more than before, an African-American woman, professor of history at Columbia University. She brought some other perspectives to the fore – things not really unknown, but not emphasized. For one thing, slaves weren’t
much interested in “saving the Union.” “I’ve lived all my life in the Union,” one slave reported, “all of it as a slave.”4

Professor Fields was not inclined to make excuses, even for Abraham Lincoln. She noted the Emancipation Proclamation had negligible effect for slaves themselves: “They knew before Lincoln, as perhaps [he] himself knew without realizing it, that the Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to get them their freedom.”5 Speaking of the often-reported “conflicted feelings” of slaveholders such as Robert E. Lee, and, earlier, Thomas Jefferson, Professor Fields said she was “tired” (I think was her word), of the “excuse” that someone was a “product of his times”. (This is very much a paraphrase, but I think true to her tone and meaning.) 6 Slavery was a gross evil, and tolerating it was a sin that should not be excused in anyone.

There were abolitionists, after all. Even “in those times” some people did know better than to feel “morally conflicted” about slavery and inequality. Being a “child of the times” is not an excuse. That’s reasonable. Except: it is a “Bootstraps” argument: “They should have pulled themselves up by their moral bootstraps.”

Where are we now on that bootstraps issue?

Fragment V.a.: The Dogs

Jesus brushed off the Canaanite woman three times (Matthew 15:21-28) Canaanites were regarded as an inferior people in that time – the Palestinians of the day – and Jesus first ignored her cries; then He said, “I’m only here for my people” (Mt. 15:24); then He compared her and her children to dogs (15:26). Even Jesus was a child of His generation, a product of His times.

We learn morality from our surroundings. And then we adjust to account for the experiences we have. Jesus adjusted His moral values to accommodate His response to the Canaanite woman in face-to-face conversation. Nobody starts out perfect – even Jesus had to grow into being Jesus. Morality is a complex development, and we can’t just demand people in other cultures (and times) start out being as righteous as we are, any more than we can demand children start out as adults.

The Abolitionists also were “children of their times”. In reality “the Times” are complex, and complexity breeds diversity in moral sensibilities, as in everything else. And, by the way, “abolitionist” does not equal “saint.” For John Brown, being an
“abolitionist” was a license to kill, and he lusted for war. The Civil War was the fulfillment of his dream.

Professor Fields echoed Frederick Douglas, who sharply criticized Lincoln for Lincoln’s tardiness and moderation and cautious maneuvering in connecting the War with the cause of abolition. We recognize the reasons for that in this passage from Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.7 Very “political.” Borderline cynical. But until preparing this sermon I had never seen what Lincoln wrote in the next paragraph:

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty [as President]; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.8

Lincoln separated the duties and limits of his office from his personal preferences.9 Isn’t that what we have urged that poor County Clerk in Kentucky to do about issuing marriage licenses? – separate “official duty” from “personal wishes”-?

Fragment VI: Tell it not in Ashkelon

Under the terms of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Confederate soldiers were Prisoners of War, paroled to return home, and allowed to keep their firearms. General Grant further ordered his officers to allow any Confederate soldier who claimed a horse or a mule to keep it. In addition, the Federal Army provided the Army of Northern Virginia 25,000 rations. One account10 of events reports that hearing the sounds of Union soldiers celebrating the surrender by firing salutes, Grant instructed … his troops [to] cease active celebration, saying, “The war is over; the Rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.”

Three days later, General …Joshua L. Chamberlain, … officiating at the surrender ceremony, …. ordered his … officers to come to the position of “carry arms,” and on the approach of each body of [Confederate] troops …, a bugle sounded and his men saluted. The Confederates saluted back in response and laid down their arms and colors.11 (Their battle flags and regimental banners.)
Following the war, General Lee renewed his allegiance to the United States.

When William Tecumseh Sherman died in February 1891, Confederate General Joseph Johnston, who had surrendered to Sherman in 1865, served as an honorary pallbearer. Johnston removed his hat during the funeral procession as a sign of respect. It was a cold, rainy day, and the procession was two hours long. A friend urged Johnston to put on his hat to avoid catching cold. Johnston replied, “If I were in [Sherman’s] place and he … here in mine, he would not put on his hat.”

Fragment VII: The End of the Matter… (Ecclesiastes. 12:13)

“Love your enemies, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” (Mt. 5:44d, kjv)

Robert E. Lee wrote that although he fought against the Army of the North, “I have never cherished for [the people] bitter or uncharitable feelings, and I have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”

When Pope Francis was in Washington last month, just before one of those speeches or ceremonies, he put his arm around House Speaker John Boehner and asked Boehner to pray for him. How many of us would ask John Boehner to pray for us? How many of us would pray for John Boehner?

Fragment VIII: Pogo.

“We have met the enemy, and they is us.”

1 Achish was king in Ziklag, a town in the Negeb (southern Palestine)
2 From II Samuel 1:19ff (nrsv, adapted)
3 Rev. Mary Hammond, Co-Pastor of Peace Community Church, Oberlin OH
4 Quoted from memory, and subject to correction. I have not been able to find the scene in the PBS documentary to confirm the exact words.
5 An unusually sharp critique of Lincoln, coupled with a somewhat condescending put-down (“perhaps he
knew without realizing it”). One would not want to cross her in a faculty meeting!
6 The unattributed quotes herein are “as remembered” from the PBS documentary which for one reason
or another have not yet been located for confirmation.
7 Lincoln, Abraham. “Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862.” In Miller, Marion Mills. Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln. Current Literature.
8 Loc. Cit.
9 In justice to Douglas, it should be noted that he also praised Lincoln as the greatest leader “an infinite
intelligence” could have provided to guide the nation through the political and social realities of the times.
10 – downloaded 10/01/2015
11 Loc. Cit.

Into the Maelstrom

October 8th, 2015

The Book of Job, Introduction
October 4, 2015
Mary Hammond

Those of you who have known me for years realize that I am a long-time fan of the Book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures. This Big Story, this MetaStory, has seen me through the toughest periods of my adult life. I never tire of reading Job, although I do admit sometimes crawling back to its pages, wishing I did not need its inspiration once again. Surprisingly enough, at each re-reading or change in my own circumstance, self-awareness, or theology, I discover treasures that I missed the last time around.

Where else, in the biblical scriptures, do we find an intimate spiritual and psychological portrait of the human soul in the cauldron of prolonged suffering? Nowhere else. I like to go deep, and if the Book fo Job is anything, it is deep.

The main character, whose name is Job, inspires me. He is relentless in his pursuit of God regardless of circumstance. He is brave enough to speak his truth, even when he feels bereft or misunderstood. His personal testimony in the mid-section of the book reads uncannily like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Job is prophetic; he is also contemplative.

The last time I preached, I went off-lectionary and delved into the initial encounter between Job and his friends at the end of Chapter 2. Today’s lectionary reading includes all of Chapter 2, but I’m expanding that text quite a bit. I want to touch on themes throughout the book that speak profoundly to our deepest questions about life, personhood, suffering, and God.

Let’s begin with the prose Prologue to this story. Here, God is depicted uncomfortably to us moderns, easily swayed by one characterized as an Adversary, but also described as an angel of God. He is named ‘the Satan’ (although translated most often in our bibles, just ‘Satan’). The reason I use ‘the Satan” is because people today think of ‘Satan’ as a proper name, but this was not the meaning in ancient times. Instead, the word indicated a special function, such as instigator of evil, accuser, or prosecutor (see “The Interpreter’s Bible,” Volume 3, Abingdon Press, copyright 1954, p. 912). So, ‘the Satan’ roams the earth, checking out the human race and observing the faithfulness of individuals to the High God.

Job quickly comes to the Satan’s attention. So this angel challenges God to a test of sorts—“Let’s see how faithful Job really is. You, God, bless him with wealth, status, influence, family, land, etc. etc. Would he still be faithful if you took all that away?”

A set of cumulative catastrophes occurs in rapid succession, but they do not deter Job’s devotion. So the Satan–the accuser, the prosecutor–goes back to God again, and asks to take away Job’s health. “Just don’t kill him,” is God’s response. Again, Job’s response is surrender and trust.

In Jewish writer Harold S. Kushner’s book titled, “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person,” the author posits that this oft-disturbing prose Prologue to the Book of Job is ancient fable. He believes the same of the prose Epilogue. There, after the whole story plays out in all its intensity and furor, God makes up for Job’s cataclysmic losses by providing more lands, more children, more wealth, more status, than ever before. Job intercedes to God for his erring friends, and everyone lives “happily ever after.”

So unlike real life here on earth.

In between the prose Prologue and Epilogue of Job we find 39 chapters of intense, emotional, honest poetry. This poetry takes direct aim at theological formulas that are not true to human experience—whether found in the prose sections of the Book of Job or revealed in the misdirected advice, shaming, and dogmatism of Job’s friends.

Even as Job faces cumulative grief, loss, and physical pain, his most important attributes remain intact—his strong sense of self and his abiding hunger for God. I don’t know about you, but cumulative loss has a way of ungluing me, taking me out of the game bit by bit. During such times, Job reminds me what it looks like to stay intact under immense stress–hoping against hope, despairing and getting back on my feet again. Job also demonstrates what it looks like to remain engaged with God in those times when we need God the most and yet, God is Silent.

Through no fault of his own, Job finds himself in the fight of his life. We are fortunate to walk with him in the midst of all the raw see-sawing emotions he faces. In her book, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, author Brene Brown says this: “We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized. Our culture is rife with these tales…We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending” (see p. xxiv, “Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution” by Brene Brown, copyright 2015, Random House).

Job doesn’t move quickly through the dark. That may be why I think sometimes that his story should be rated PG-13. The violence unleashed on his life and felt in his heart provokes his deep struggle with profound loss and utter dislocation. He tries to regain his equilibrium even though everything around and within him has radically changed. Brown continues in her book, saying, “Rather than gold-plating grit and trying to make failure look fashionable, we’d be better off learning how to recognize the beauty in truth and tenacity” (see p. xxvii, “Rising Strong”).

Job reminds me, that at the end of the day, perseverance is more important than courage. How many of you have had times when you felt fragile, broken, and undone–ready to just escape the arena you found yourself battling in? Job felt that often. But he just kept plugging along.

One of my most frequent pieces of advice for people in crisis is this: “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other every day. That, in itself, is something to celebrate. That, in itself, is victory enough.”

In the 39 chapters of this poetic ‘tour de force’ between the Prologue and Epilogue, Job wrestles with the Big Questions of life. He finds himself living in that precipitous gap between his experience and what he has previously believed about himself, friendship, and God. It’s a darn uncomfortable place to be, but staying with the struggle eventually leads Job to the places he longs to go.

Such is the wonder of this poetry. Its themes are Universal. Your own story might be hidden—or not so hidden—in the pages of this book. Trust, hope, betrayal, despair, anger, shame, grief, regret, faith, wonder, disappointment, determination, awe—all these feelings arise and find expression within this narrative.

The Book of Job is considered part of the Wisdom Literature within the Hebrew scriptures. There is much more wisdom to be culled from this remarkable and mysterious text down the road. Stay tuned.


Belief and/or Trust: Or Does God Really Not Give Us More Than We Can Handle? Further Wanderings in the Weird World of Mark 9 (and just a little bit of Mark 10)

September 29th, 2015

Mark 9:38-50
September 27, 2015
Steve Hammond

If you were here last week, you remember, I hope, that we talked about that story in Mark 9 where the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus talked to them about the last being first and took this little girl and set her down in their midst and said whoever welcomes her welcomes Jesus and the one who sent him. Remember we got up and made lines that we turned into a circle and talked about what it feels like to be welcomed and unwelcomed. Well, we are going to keep looking at the 9th chapter of Mark this morning which is a weird, fascinating, gruesome chapter that seems kind of stream of consciousness, but I don’t think really is. If you don’t have your Bible or smartphone or tablet with you, there are probably Bibles nearby in the pews you can look at Mark 9 with me, if you want to.

Toward the end of the chapter there is this story that begins like this, “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” This, as they would say in some places, is rich. Just before the story about how the disciples argued about who among them was the greatest there is another argument. Here is how that story begins. “When the whole crowd saw Jesus, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with my disciples?’ Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’”

So the disciples have this public and spectacular failure at ridding this child of his demon. Then right after that they come across this person who isn’t a part of the group who is able to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, and they tell him or her to stop. Can you imagine them coming up to Jesus right after he has had to clean up their mess and tell him that they tried to stop this person from doing what they couldn’t do? That is rich. And it’s kind of funny and kind of sad.

And one of the reasons it is sad is because it comes right after the story where Jesus talked about welcoming the child. There is this person who is doing the work of Jesus, no less. Instead of welcoming him, instead of breaking out of the lines that Jesus had just challenged when he put that little child in their midst, the disciples reject that person. Whoever wrote the book of Mark was not hesitant to knock the disciples off the pedestals that they were being placed on in the early church.

The disciples got a much different response from Jesus that they were expecting. He did not perceive the threat to the brand that they did, and said it’s okay. “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Do you hear what a welcoming statement that is? He may not be one of us, but he gets it. There he goes, Jesus turning lines into circles again.

The very next story in this chapter gets us back to the children. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,[ where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

I told you this chapter was gruesome, weird, and fascinating. It’s better being tossed into the sea with a weight around our neck, cutting off our arms and legs, or plucking out our eyeballs than putting a stumbling block in front of the little ones. What is that stumbling block?

Jesus calls them the little ones who believe in him. Remember how I keep saying that just about every time you see the word believe or belief in the New Testament you should substitute the word trust? The word is legitimately translated as belief, but the way we use the word belief has changed, and the word trust gets more to what that word really meant.

There is a difference between belief and trust. Have you ever helped a child jump or even take the steps down into a swimming pool when they didn’t want to do that? What they believe is they are going to drown. But when they jump from the side into your arms, or walk down the steps to you, they trust that they aren’t. And the trust is not that there is magic that prevents them from drowning, but that you won’t let that happen.

One of the things that really sets me off is those politicians and others who say they believe that every child needs a father and a mother. From the age of three, I was raised by my widowed grandmother. Here is the brief, sad summary of what I have been able to piece together of why that happened to me. Evidently, my mother did the best she could to spend all of my father’s paycheck on alcohol before he lost it all gambling. You may believe all you want that every child needs a mother and a father, but my mother and father could not be trusted to raise my brothers and me. They weren’t bad people, just not able to raise my brothers and me. But my grandmother and my larger family I could trust. Fortunately, those stumbling blocks that were put in front of me didn’t trip me up forever.

I think this is the stumbling block that Jesus was talking about. The little ones, the vulnerable ones are trusting us. They are willing to jump into that pool not because of what they believe, or what they have been told they are supposed to believe, but because of trust. Jesus is saying we need to go to extreme measures, “pluck your eyeballs out if you have to,” to make sure we don’t violate or sabotage their trust. We are called to be trusted, to make the church and the world more trustworthy. There are plenty of stumbling blocks along the way to challenge their trust, we don’t want to add to them. And this is not just about children, though they are the most vulnerable ones and, often, the most trusting ones. It’s about all the vulnerable ones in our lives and this world. And when we, when the church, welcomes the vulnerable ones we are honoring or rebuilding their trust. They feel the welcome of Jesus.

This is how chapter 9 ends. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” “Be at peace with one another.” That takes us right back to that story about the dispute about who is the greatest. This chapter, maybe, holds together a bit more than it appears. Maybe Jesus is saying one of the ways we can stop from putting stumbling blocks in front of the little ones is to live more peacefully, more graciously, with a more welcoming attitude with everyone. If we turn those lines into circles, where there is no first or last, nobody at the front or the back, and welcome everyone into the circle, the little ones will surely have more reasons to live in trust. What would it be like for the little ones, the vulnerable ones if the ‘adults’ decided the children are more important than our wars and ideologies, and our lines and borders? What if we made children and the vulnerable ones more important than our politics decided to welcome each other because it would make the world a more trusting place, a better place for the little ones?

That’s the end of Mark 9, but not the end of the story. Jesus has been talking to the disciples and showing them about welcoming the outsider and the vulnerable, turning our lines into circles, living in peace with everybody. Could somebody read Mark 10:13-16 for us? Do you understand why Jesus was so indignant, so frustrated and upset with the disciples? They had just gone over this. But, again, as we talked about last week it is so hard to turn those lines of exclusion and competition into circles of welcome and community.

I want to close with something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week. At last Sunday’s ECO discussion, we talked about that age old question of if God is all loving and all powerful, why do so many people in this world experience so much crap in their lives. There’s obviously a lot to that question and the discussion was a good one. But one of the things we talked about was that thing you will often hear people say, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Now I understand why people say that and it does seem to be a way of saying that I am going to trust God no matter what.

But think about it. Why do we imagine these hard things are gifts from God? “I am going to give you the opportunity to be unemployed. Your job is going to be outsourced, and the day after your benefits end, I’m also going to give you a heart attack. That’s not a gift that’s too much for you, is it?” “And you. I am happy to give you the gift of a very ill child. That’s not too much is it?” “And you. I know I have a gift for a bunch of you. A war. And I will let you be a refugee. You also get a boat, well kind of a boat.” “And you. You’re 12 now. How about I give you this? You get to work in the sex industry. I can get a guy into town tonight who can set you up. That’s not too much for you is it?” And, frankly, there is no two year old with an mentally ill and alcoholic mother and a gambling addicted father for whom that’s not too much. I would not trust a God who gives us things like that, whether it’s too much or not.

Here’s another way to think about all of that. The Apostle Paul wrote some things that are just down right sketchy. But there are times where he really comes across for us and shows us a more excellent way. He had such an amazing trust in God. And instead of believing that God wouldn’t give him more than he could handle, he showed his trust in God when he wrote this at the end of Romans 8. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through The One who first loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.

That’s the kind of God I can trust. The God who gives us love and welcomes us, who gives us healing, and forgiveness, new life, and each other, and empowers us, and tears down walls that divide us, and turns lines into circles, and calls us to follow Jesus and seek God’s Realm, and, yes, trusts us. That’s the God Jesus was talking about in Mark 9; not the God Jesus believed in, but the God Jesus trusted all the way to an empty grave. Those little ones, the vulnerable ones. They don’t care what we believe about God. It’s what we trust about God that matters. How willing are we to jump into the pool?

Lines and Circles

September 20th, 2015

Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2015
Steve Hammond

[Have people line themselves up, facing the pulpit, alphabetically by first name]

Lots of life is about lines and finding our places in the line. We could have lined up using any of a number of criteria other than our names. But we would still have had to work at it and needed the assistance of others to find our place in the line, which is not an uncommon experience. There are all kinds of people and norms and expectations that will tell us exactly where our place in the line is.

What do you see as you stand here in the line? Everybody turn to the left. Now what do you see. Perhaps more than the head in front of you. You don’t have to work as hard to see something other than the head in front of you, but you are still in a line. And lines are isolating, they disconnect us from each other, except we have the shared experience of being in the line. Even though we are in the same line, sharing this same experience, most of you can’t see my very well, and I can’t see most of you.

This story from today’s gospel about who gets to be the most powerful of Jesus’ buddies is a story about lines. Most of us probably aren’t all that concerned about who gets to be next to the pulpit in our line, but in most of the lines we find ourselves in the goal for just about everybody is to get to the front of the line, or as close to it as we can get. Or if you find yourself not getting any closer, the goal becomes to try your hardest to make sure more folk don’t get in front of you. This was the linear thinking that was driving the disciples as they argued about who was the greatest among them, or who got to be at the front of the line. [Tell people they can sit down, but not to get too comfortable]

Jesus wanted to help them think in a new way. So he picked up a little girl who was standing nearby and said something that sounds so heartwarming to us. Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes me. But when the people who were there heard Jesus say this, their blood began to run cold. It was awful. How could Jesus imagine such a ridiculous thing, much less say it out loud?

Here is how the lines worked in Jesus’ day. At the front of the line were the men of high status; wealthy men, the religious establishment, the social and political elite. All of them were fighting to be first in line. Behind them the men of lesser status would jockey for their positions in the line, the closer you could get to the front the better. You would never get to the front of the line, but maybe you could find ways to push others out of the way. Then came the women. Then the slaves. And after the slaves who brought up the end of the line? The children. But they weren’t even right behind the slaves. The farm animals actually were farther up the line than children. You could get more work out of a goat than a four year old child. And besides, goats usually lived longer. According to Micah Keil, who teaches theology at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, children weren’t even considered to be people until they could start working and make themselves more valuable than the animals. This was the established line up in Jesus’ world, and then he picks up this little child and all their chins drop.

[Tell folk to get back in line, but reverse order. Ask everyone to join hands. We need to get the first person in line holding hands with the last person in line. How are we going to do that? Form a circle.]

Now that we are in a circle, what do you see? Each other. We are no longer isolated. You see Jesus wants us to break out of our linear way of thinking and change to a circular model. That whole thing about the last being first doesn’t really mean anything if we cling to a linear way of thinking. The line is still there. People’s positions just change, though that’s better than it was, but it’s still a line. Who is first and last in this circle? See what Jesus was doing? Too much of the history and the life of the church indicates we believe that Jesus came to tweak the line, to make it better, maybe a little fairer. But, like the disciples, we still haven’t understood that Jesus wants us to get rid of the line and make the circle our paradigm. [Tell people they can sit down].

Jesus said whoever welcomes a little child, the little girl at the end of the line, welcomes him. What does it mean, what does it feel like to be welcomed?

This world is experiencing a refugee crisis. People from the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, in particular, are fleeing their homes, looking for refuge. They are at the end of the line, and there are plenty of people who are trying to keep them there because they are afraid they will get ahead of them. Is the church able to help this world think about circles of welcome? I mentioned in study group the other night that I had heard an Eastern European Bishop say the refugees couldn’t be let into Europe because they would destroy the Christian heritage of Europe. What kind of Christian heritage is it that turns the little child away, the person at the end of the line? The person Jesus put in our midst? And it’s not just Christian leaders in Europe who are opposed to welcoming the little child. The politicians most vocal about their Christian faith in this country are adamant about building walls, keeping people out, and sending away any of the little children who have happened to make their way into our midst. We can’t stop thinking in linear ways, protecting that line at all costs.

At the beginning of today’s story Jesus says this amazing thing about being turned over to the authorities, being killed and rising again. But the disciples don’t ask him about it. Instead, their attention turned, rather quickly it seems, to who gets to be first, Jesus’ Chief of Staff, in whatever it is he was setting up. What a more fruitful discussion they would have had along the road if they just asked Jesus what on earth he was talking about. Here he is talking about betrayal, death, and resurrection and all they were trying to do was figure out where their place in the line was. The line that Jesus was turning into a circle.

How much do we miss because we are so concerned about the lines in our lives and our place in them? So concerned about getting closer to the front or, at least, keeping others from getting ahead of us? But when Jesus gets us thinking about circles rather than lines, than our thinking on lots of things can change. Instead of being preoccupied about the lines, maybe we can start asking about resurrection and trying to figure out stuff like how we turn our lines into circles.

A Special Kind of Presence

September 13th, 2015

Job 2:11-13
September 13, 2015
Mary Hammond

September always feels like a “new beginning” to me. Leaves start falling, and the air starts changing. Children and youth are beginning school, meeting new teachers and making new friends. College students are arriving in Oberlin from all over the country and world, many encountering each other for the first time. This small town that attempts to hibernate in the summer is once again abuzz with activity and energy.

Even as we face these autumn transitions, thousands upon thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe—a veritable flood of humanity, the likes of which has not been seen since the end of World War II. They come, traumatized and hungry, bearing nothing but the clothes on their backs, and often children on their shoulders. These desperate human beings are pleading for help, hope, and somewhere that can become a new home. Meanwhile, government officials throughout the Eurozone are debating their national responses.

It is an important time to ponder the meaning of friendship, both here and around the world. There are surely many ways to explore this topic in scripture, but I am drawn to a few short verses in the Book of Job today.

This book quickly immerses us in MetaStory, a Big Story. Its main character, a man named Job, is beset by a series of cumulative catastrophes. The first chapter captures the intensity of these calamities with the repetitive phrase, “While he was yet speaking…,” as one messenger after another brings news of the next disaster. There is absolutely no breathing room for Job. The deep truth of this story is that such overwhelming suffering occurs every day throughout our world.

Job faces the loss of family, property, wealth, and health in a brief period of time. His former prominence and social status are rapidly reduced to nothing. Think again of all the times people must start over in some way when tragedy strikes. We can all relate to this story on some level, because we all have known loss.

Three of Job’s friends–Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad–hear about his sorrows and travel to the land of Uz to support him. The painful sores on Job’s body render him nearly unrecognizable. His friends are shocked by his appearance. In a pure and unforced manner, they respond with grief, lament, and solidarity. The tearing of their garments and dumping of dirt on their heads are outward symbols of their inward acts of mourning. They sit on the ground with Job, one with him in his suffering and loss.

It is uncomfortable sometimes to sit with another’s pain, because it quickly surfaces our own. It forces us to face our personal fragility and mortality, our personal trauma and loss. The answers we relied on in the past may not hold up in the face of this new reality. Faith crises may erupt. We are driven to ask harder questions and seek deeper wisdom. We are forced to acknowledge the inexplicable and confront the possibility of Mystery. In such times, we have to face our own discomfort and name it. Otherwise, we risk disengaging to protect our illusions of safety.

Job’s friends follow their best instincts at first. There are moments in life when words are woefully inadequate. For seven days and nights, these three sit beside Job in silence. If silence is about anything in such circumstances, it is about listening below the surface, beyond the words, deep into the heart of reality. It is about the profound power and comfort of Presence. Our human temptation is to fill such spaces with attempts to fix the sufferer, fix the situation, or explain the suffering.

Unfortunately, as the story progresses, Job’s friends break their silence in all the worst ways, sure they can fix Job’s situation by fixing Job. His circumstances do not fit their theology, so instead of rethinking their own views of God, they blame Job. The friendship sours, becoming argumentative and even abusive. But that is a topic for another time.

In this brief paragraph from the Book of Job, however, simple acts of friendship become a model of radical accompaniment. The suffering of our neighbor calls us to ask not only “What shall we do?” but also “Who shall we be?” We are given the opportunity to open up to one another in shared pain and shared hope. Even if hope is dashed, as in Job’s case, we are invited to share in that, too.

I received a wonderful e-mail from a former student who gave me permission to share these reflections about PCC. They speak so much about cultivating friendship amid joys and sorrows. They testify to the power and importance of an individual and communal ministry of presence. I quote:

“Sharing Time is one of my favorite parts of PCC worship. Although really, all of it is my favorite part. I remember a lot of times sitting, listening, or sharing, and just feeling my heart cry out. Cries for peace, healing, justice, freedom from my then undiagnosed depression. Collective pain and sorrow are so real, and after two years of counseling and acknowledging just how deeply I feel others’ pain, I feel much better able to bear it. Most importantly, I feel better able to address that side of me proactively.

“I will be holding Peace Church in my heart, especially those who are having Hard Times. It seems so important to me to have a church community that is able to share equally in sorrows and joys, especially in this culture of chasing happiness, where we can simply buy it or choose it and sadness is seen as a failure…There’s so much keeping people from sharing their authentic, messy, raw emotions with one another, or fully engaging with someone who is vulnerable. Which is exactly why being at PCC is always such a blessing.

“I spent my entire college life running away from and suppressing my depression, but without knowing it, it appeared during worship and was somehow lessened by the authenticity I found there. I think that was what I was getting to earlier. Peace Community is a community to Just Be, and Just Be with Jesus.”

Every day offers us new opportunities to give and receive friendship, to engage in compassion and solidarity, in listening and responding. May we celebrate the beauty, power, and potential of such relationship–extending it next door, across the pew, and throughout the planet. Our world is crying out for such radical love and genuine generosity of heart. Amen.

Brave Women, Brave Spaces

September 6th, 2015

Mark 7:24-30
September 6, 3015
Steve Hammond

If you were here last week or read her sermon online, you know that Mary talked about that woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and her hair. Mary asked us what our initial thoughts were about that story and the first thing that came to my mind was how incredibly brave that woman who had been unnamed was. What courage must it have taken for her to not only walk in that place where she was unwelcomed, but then to approach Jesus and do something so provocative. Simon the Pharisee could have thrown her out or turned her over to the authorities to be punished for violating several sections of the purity code. But, even worse, Jesus could have rejected and denounced her. And that is exactly what Simon was waiting for. He thought he had Jesus in a bind. If Jesus didn’t denounce her and demand her punishment then Simon had Jesus for being some kind of wishy-washy religious liberal. If he did denounce her then Jesus would lose all the credibility he had been gaining with the people.

Jesus did not walk innocently into traps, however. He did something very brave himself. He shifted the focus from the woman to Simon. And it was Simon he denounced, not the woman. And both Simon and Jesus knew that Simon had enough power to make Jesus pay for dressing down Simon in front of his guests. But like the woman, Jesus was willing to take the risk.

In today’s story we have another brave woman. This unnamed Syrophoenician woman, this Gentile had the ovaries to approach a Jewish Rabbi in the hopes he could save her daughter. And, as with the woman at Simon’s house, it turned out well for her. But this story leaves us feeling a whole lot different than with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet.

Some of us were talking at a meeting the other day about the importance of normalizing discomfort in the church, including this church. There is a lot about Jesus, a lot about figuring out what it means to be church together, what it means to be church in this society that should leave us feeling pretty discomforted. Think about the disciples. Their whole time with Jesus was discomfort normalized. Can you imagine what their stomachs felt like each day when they woke up? What’s he going to do or say today that gets him and/or us in trouble? What’s he going to do or say that leaves us totally baffled and him frustrated because we have no idea what he is doing or saying? Why is it his goal to leave no tenet of or our religious tradition unchallenged? Doesn’t he know that this can get us all killed?

So anyway this passage leaves us feeling some discomfort. Jesus seems kind of clueless, at best, or rude, at worst in his initial encounter with this woman. I mean he called her and her daughter Gentile dogs. So what do you do with this story? The woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her hair, at the end of that story we are all going Yay, Jesus! At the end of this one we are saying, “What was that?”

We are, though, normalizing discomfort so we are going to keep looking at this story. But, first, we need to look at the story right before this one in Mark’s gospel. It turns out that Jesus was having another dispute with the religious authorities. This time it’s not just with one Pharisee and the folk he had invited to his house. It’s with a whole group of the religious elite in a public setting. They were complaining that Jesus and his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. It’s not like they are somebody’s mother worried about dirty hands. By not washing their hands in the ritual ceremonies before they ate Jesus and the crew were challenging the validity of the purity codes. And the enemies of Jesus were not going to give him a pass on this.

I guess an analogy for what Jesus was doing there would kind of be what it was like when people first came along and suggested something like the creation stories in Genesis were not accurate to how the world was really created, and since they are poetry, were never meant to be taken literally, anyway. That still causes controversy today, but nothing nearly like when people started hearing such a thing back in the 1800’s. The religious leaders would have seen Jesus’ willingness to violate the purity codes as a deep threat to the core of their personal and societal religious underpinnings, just like folk did when Darwin and others started talking about evolution.

So the very next story, in effect, doubles down on that threat the establishment was feeling. Here came a Gentile woman asking Jesus to help her daughter. That was even a more courageous act than the woman who crashed Simon’s dinner party. But it’s not some Pharisee or other religious leader that Jesus challenged, but the woman herself. Why should he even care? He had more important things to do than deal with some little Gentile dog. His mission was different. The woman, though, stood her ground, not slinking off like some Pharisee who found himself in over his head with Jesus, but gave it right back to him. Mother love does make people crazy. “Go ahead and call me and my daughters dogs. I don’t really care. But I know that even you would allow the dogs to have, at least, the scraps from the table. And that’s all I’m asking for, just some scraps.”

It’s Jesus who seems taken aback by this whole encounter. Notice that in most healing stories, Jesus says something like your faith has made you well. What does he say to this Gentile woman? “Because of what you just said, you are going to go home and find your daughter delivered of her demons.” Can you imagine what it must have felt like for that woman? She had the courage to take Jesus on, and her daughter is well.

I think, though, this is another story where it is not just a woman who shows some bravery, but Jesus does too. I do have to say that one of the reasons this story becomes so tricky is that people get uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus needed some advice from this woman, or anyone. I used this story for a group on campus once and talked about what Jesus learned from this woman. Several students there took great offense at my suggestion that Jesus actually learned something new here. I’ve never been asked to speak for that group again.

But, there are a couple of brave responses I see from Jesus here. One is the bravery to let this woman’s arguments persuade him to do something he didn’t seem to think he needed to do. But he changed his mind, right there in public. And we’re talking about a Gentile woman, no less. Jesus didn’t care about losing face right there in public. She won the argument and he was more than willing to admit in front of all those people that she was right. Not many religious or political leaders are brave enough to do such a thing. The other thing this women’s bravery did was inspire Jesus to understand his ministry in a new and dangerous way. His openness and compassion to Gentiles would set him on a crash course with the religious authorities. But Jesus never looked back after the encounter with this Gentile woman, who put so much on the line for her daughter.

I can’t imagine anyone braver than Jesus. But these, and other stories, make it clear that Jesus knew that it is others who help us to be brave. Mary and I have been talking a lot this summer about the difference between safe spaces and brave spaces, something Rachael Weasley got us thinking about. We hear a lot about safe spaces, those places where people can go and feel like their needs and concerns will be honored and protected. Safe spaces are needed. But, you can’t guarantee that even designated safe spaces will be free from something being said are something happening that violates a person’s since of safety. And, as people are learning, safe spaces can become places where people are so careful about maintaining the safety of the space, that the conversations and interactions become hesitant and inauthentic. The safety erodes because people begin to fear they are going to say or do something that unknowingly violates someone else’s since of safety, or are misunderstood, even when the intentions are good.

Brave spaces offer a community where people can step up and try to build a more supportive community, even if there are some stumbles along the way. The women in both of these stories helped create brave spaces that Jesus stepped into. The bravery the women and Jesus showed are good models for the church. It’s worth noting that these stories were recalled in the life of the early church when there was much debate about the place of Gentiles and women in the life of the church. Maybe the writer’s intention was to help us understand about brave spaces than try to figure out why Jesus was so mean to that woman at first.

There are many metaphors for what it means to be church; the body of Christ, family, a spiritual temple, a community of faith. Another good metaphor seems to be the church as a brave space where together we are learning how and helping others to be brave in taking new steps toward faith, seeking God’s Realm, having our opinions and lives changed, being that light on the hill Jesus said we are. And notice in those stories that the women not only inspired Jesus to some brave actions, but they were drawn to Jesus because of the bravery they had already seen in him. That’s that idea of a virtuous circle where we are all drawn to and inspired by the bravery we see in each other, which only helps us to be braver. Of course, creating brave spaces, by definition, is normalizing discomfort. If it weren’t uncomfortable and scary, it wouldn’t be brave.

At the root of both of these stories, of course, is that question of how we learn to live with others who are different than we are. There were amazingly rigid boundaries between Jews and Gentiles, and men and women in Jesus’ culture. And there are plenty of rigid boundaries today. Part of creating brave spaces is the willingness to cross those boundaries and not be confused, or afraid, or so willing to let others manipulate our differences. Instead, as Lynn Powell said in that same meeting where we talked about normalizing discomfort, when we are creating brave spaces where we can cross those boundaries we get the opportunity to be curious about each other.

The fact is, that even though Jesus was so different than people were used to in his own culture, he had not had any meaningful or long term interactions with Gentiles and his interactions with women were roundly condemned for violating those rigid understandings about separation of the sexes. But this Syrophonecian women obviously ignited his imagination, sparked his curiosity. He didn’t just walk away from her as another Gentile dog, no matter what he initially said. She said something to him that he had either never really thought about before, or confirmed something that was starting to make sense but had not been called out of him. The safest thing for Jesus to do would have been to denounce that woman at the dinner party and walk away from that woman who wanted him to rescue her daughter. But, with those women, he chose instead to be brave enough to tear down some walls.

If you want to look at metaphors, Donald Trump is calling for a wall to be constructed along the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico. And not to be eclipsed, Scott Walker, another Presidential candidate is calling for a wall between the U.S. and Canada. Those Pharisees and religious leaders feared the walls coming down. They wanted more and higher walls, just like Donald Trump and Scott Walker. You see, walls are what make people comfortable. But they don’t make us safe. Walled spaces should never be confused with safe spaces. Not only are those walls keeping things out that we really need on the inside, but they are keeping on the inside things we really don’t need there, or on the positive side gifts that could be shared with others. Walled spaces are the opposite of brave spaces. They are the places where we cower, so very afraid of what is on the other side of the wall.

It’s no accident, I believe, that the stories of these women and the impact they had on the life of Jesus and his own understanding of his ministry are included in the gospel stories. Then there was the Roman Centurion whose slave Jesus healed. These were the despised, the people kept outside by the walls that had been erected by Jesus’ own people. Jesus didn’t tear down those walls all by himself. They did it together and got great courage from each other.

These aren’t the only brave women Jesus encountered. Do you remember who some of the others were? Mary his mother. The Samaritan Woman. The bleeding woman. The woman who touched his garment. Mary who sat at his feet. Martha who confronted him when her brother Lazarus died. The women who stayed by the cross when the men fled, and came to the garden to tend to his body when that could have gotten them in so much trouble.

Never underestimate the bravery it takes for some people to walk into this building, or share something about their lives during our sharing and other times. We offer those treasures of our vulnerability, and needs, and joys, not because we are looking for our problems to be solved, but we are looking for places that will help us be brave. In one of Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas songs there is a line about this baby being born to release us from our sin and fear. Being released from our fears. Creating and occupying brave spaces together is our calling

The stories of these two brave women, especially the second, invite us to some discomfort. That’s so we can build brave spaces with each other. And if we build them right, the brave spaces will be the safe spaces.

Meeting Jesus among tears and dusty feet

August 30th, 2015

Luke 7: 36-50
August 30, 2015
Mary Hammond

Decades ago, a man told me that one of the reasons he did not come to church anymore was because he cried every time he came. My response to this confession was, “If you can’t cry at church, where can you cry?” Yet, for his own reasons, this man didn’t feel safe crying at church. Maybe he spent a lifetime keeping his tears bottled up inside. Maybe he felt ashamed, weak, or too vulnerable, crying in the public setting of a church pew.

Recently, Robin Wallace (who joyfully said I could use her name and reflections), told me that she cried every Sunday the first six months she came to church. Here is what she shared with me in an e-mail:
“When I came there that first Sunday, I believe a couple of different things happened…First of all, I felt totally safe. I mean, really, when I think of it, I just began crying at the first note on the piano and stopped during the benediction…every week. And I thought to myself, “I can’t stop crying…” (then realized), “Oh, dear God…I am safe here.” That was an enormous truth and I wept more. I mean, it was like the Holy Spirit turned a faucet on my heart…and the flood of tears came quietly out. I remember occasionally someone might reach up and just softly touch me in a knowing way…someone handed me a tissue once…those moments were huge for me…I felt loved and cared for and safe to cry. No one needed me to do anything or be strong for them…I could just be. And at some point I slowly realized that it would even be OK if I needed someone.”

Tears arise from many emotions. This is one observation author and social worker, Pete Walker, makes about crying in his book, “The Tao of Fully Feeling”: “Crying carries the energy of pain out of the body through the physical motions, sounds, and tears of weeping. Crying emotes our pain out in the true sense of the Latin derivative ’emovere’ which means ‘to move out'” (p. 79, Azure Coyote Publishing, 1995).

The Gospel story before us today is intense, as we could tell by the reading itself. It is intimate. It is emotional. It surfaces conflict in the room where it takes place. It is transforming for one person, and yet not for another. It is a deep story, and we can barely touch those depths today in these brief reflections.

We start out at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, who invites Jesus to dinner. The Pharisees are devout religious leaders who generally oppose much of what Jesus says and does. Some, however, are curious and want to know more about Jesus. Simon initially seems to be one of the latter. Yet the story unmasks his heart.

Aside from Simon and his guests, there is another character in the narrative, an interloper. This is a woman, whom The Message Bible refers to as “the town harlot.” Older translations use the phrase, “a sinner.” The inference is the same.

This woman is unnamed by Luke, the Gospel’s author. She is known only by her dubious reputation. Yet she wasn’t born with the name “sinner” or “town harlot.” She was born with the name Leila or Mary, Susan or Barbara, or some other name.

This woman has a story. It might be a tragic tale of childhood neglect and abuse. It might be a testimony of poverty and deprivation. We do not know.

What has this woman done with her vulnerability over the years, to garner the reputation of “sinner” or “town harlot”? Has she stuffed that vulnerability into a deep inner closet in order to survive abuse in private and scorn in public? How many times has she silenced her tears?

Let’s dignify this woman by giving her a name. For our purposes today, let’s call her ‘Leila.’

So, Jesus is attending a dinner party at the home of Simon the Pharisee, who is named in the text, by the way. And in comes Leila. To the host, she is just a “sinner,”or “the town harlot.” But to Jesus, she has a name and a story. She is a person.

Leila is pretty cheeky to crash this dinner gathering. There is more that we could say about that, but we don’t have time. What does she have to lose, anyhow? She enters, ignores everyone else, and zeroes in on Jesus. Not just that, but she is so overcome with emotion when she sees him that she kneels beside Jesus and starts sobbing, so strongly in fact that she waters his feet with her tears. That’s some serious crying.

Leila takes down her hair, a very provocative act in that culture for a woman in public. She then uses her long tresses to wipe her tears off Jesus’ feet and kisses them. Her final act is anointing his feet with perfume.

All of this happens in front of the dinner guests. Can you imagine? Simon, the Pharisee, thinks to himself, “If [Jesus] was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is.”

Hm. “What kind of woman THIS IS.”

Do you know the difference between shame and guilt? Shame is rooted in who we are–feeling defective and flawed, feeling like “If you really knew me, you would not love me.” Guilt, in contrast, is about what we do—the acts that we commit or omit which we have the power and agency to change.

Simon’s thoughts about Leila are shaming. They are about who he thinks she is. To Simon, she is “sinner” or “town harlot.” In this way, Simon un-names her.

Last week, Cindi Byron-Dixon shared the tragic story of a young man her family knows who has made devastating decisions which led to shooting and killing a man in the midst of a robbery. The newspapers have un-named him. Social media has un-named him. He is now “murderer,” and “criminal”…not the strong, principled boy they have known for years, who got caught up with the wrong crowd and spiraled down a tragic path.

Jesus reaches inside Simon’s thoughts, and tells him a story about two men and a creditor to whom they owe a lot of money. One man owes 500 silver pieces, the other 50. Neither can pay up, so the creditor cancels both debts. ‘Which debtor is more appreciative?’ Jesus asks.

This is an easy one for Simon. “The one who owed more,” he replies. Jesus commends this answer. But then he takes the story full circle and relates it back to Leila. Uninvited and unwelcome, she embraces the role of slave or house servant by washing Jesus’ feet. She offers Jesus a lavish welcome and her rapt attention. Her profound vulnerability is bathed in unending gratitude. What has Simon offered Jesus?

While looking at the woman, Jesus then tells Simon, “She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”

Notice that Jesus is looking at the woman–looking in her face, gazing deep into her eyes, I imagine. Jesus is not staring her up and down and judging her like Simon. He is not stereotyping her; he is not sexualizing her. He is not un-naming her.

I have been reading a lot about trauma lately, and it can be extremely difficult for people who have been traumatized to make steady eye contact with others. Jesus, I believe, makes eye contact with Leila. I wonder if she has the ability to look him in the eyes, as well. She has had a lot of men look at her, but most likely, never like this. Surely, the gaze of Jesus is in itself momentous and healing.

Jesus speaks to Leila, “I forgive your sins.”

I imagine that there is so much more Jesus could have said and may have said, either then or later on. Let me throw out some ideas. “I forgive what you have done. You need no absolution for who you are. There is guilt, but there is no shame. You are a person, my beloved. You are beautiful. You did not choose your childhood, Leila, but your future is now in your hands. You are deserving of being treated like I am treating you, not the way other men have treated you.”

What an incredible moment! One might expect the whole padre of guests to stand there, stunned and transformed. But, no! They begin whispering behind Jesus’ back, “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins?”

Another incredible twist of the story occurs. The Pharisees and other guests do not see the woman Jesus sees. They do not acknowledge the meaning of her sobs, the power of her anointing, the bravery of her vulnerability. Leila’s agonizing cry for healing and relief is eclipsed by their theological arguments with Jesus.

Thankfully, Jesus ignores them, keeping his focus on Leila. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” he speaks.

I love this conclusion to the story. It breathes of agency. Leila has brought something to the table besides her broken and torn story. She has brought agency. She has brought faith. She has brought her deepest, most vulnerable self into the public arena of this dinner party as an uninvited guest. She has gathered up years, maybe a lifetime, of silent tears and cried her heart out in public for everyone to see. She has taken the risk that she might be welcomed or judged or both, and it was worth the risk.

When my health started tumbling further down in late 2013 during the final months of cancer treatment, I felt overwhelmed and without any control. I couldn’t plan anything. I didn’t know when I would be struck with hours of fevers and chills. I had already faced so much trauma, with cancer striking on the back of our oldest daughter’s breakdown and suicide. But one morning, I said to myself, “Every day, Mary, take agency for one thing. Just one thing. In that way, you can slowly reclaim your life.”

This made a difference. Each small act of taking agency gave me hope. And for Leila, agency made a difference, too.

Just when we feel overtaken by a major transition that is overwhelming, a death that is unexpected, a tragedy that is unmanageable, a health challenge that is relentless, we, too, can come to Jesus with our little bit of agency. We, too, can seek relief or at least a shoulder to cry on. We, too, can know his blessing, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” Amen.

Peach Kuchen, Jesus, and the Spirituality/Mysteries of Meetings

August 30th, 2015

John 6:53-68
August 23, 2015
Steve Hammond

I kept seeing peaches around different stores, Farmer’s Markets, road side stands, etc. And I knew that Kristen had promised dessert for last Tuesday night’s gathering to discuss the book A Path Appears. So my hopes were high that we might be eating Kristen’s peach kuchen, though I would not be disappointed whatever it was. But, I was right. The kuchen was wonderful. But that wasn’t the only feast that Kristen provided that night. The kuchen was the prelude and, for me, anyway also the postlude for another feast Kristen had prepared that evening.

Kristen encouraged us to read this book or watch the videos and came well prepared to lead us in a good and fruitful discussion of the topics the authors raised about the nature of charities and good works, some of the things that people are doing to make dramatic impacts in peoples’ lives, ways to help make charities more effective, and even some of the neuroscience behind giving.

Like most of our studies, discussions, and gatherings, folk had different responses to the reading and different expectations for our time together. This is Peace Community Church, after all. But our bodies and spirits were fed by that time together thanks to Kristen’s work. And it has all become a metaphor for me for the part of the story we read from John’s gospel this morning which is all about metaphor. Hopefully, our time together won’t be crushed by the piling of metaphors. So stay with me, and let’s try to keep this thing held up together.

This story from John’s gospel starts at the beginning of the sixth chapter where there is one of those feeding miracles performed by Jesus. The crowds like being fed by Jesus so they start thinking “Wouldn’t it be a great thing if we just make him our new king.” Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with that, so he leaves to be by himself. The disciples take a boat back to the other side of the lake and Jesus ends up meeting them on the boat, in the midst of a storm, about three or four miles from shore. So they didn’t lose anyone in the storm and they actually ended up picking up another passenger, Jesus, along the way. This is quite a story, but it is only the beginning.

The crowds either walk back around the lake, rather than on it like Jesus did, or take boats across when it gets light and the storms are over. But when they get to the other side, who do they see? Jesus. They can’t quite figure out how he got there because they knew he didn’t leave in the boat. But that doesn’t matter as much as the renewed possibility they now perceive of having found him again and getting their meal tickets punched. And the conversation is much more testy this time than the day before.

The people are starting to make demands. They start talking about how Moses provided manna in the wilderness and nobody was ever hungry. This is the opportunity, they argue, for Jesus to show who he really is. If he is so special, he can provide even better food than Moses.

“Exactly,” Jesus replies. “The food I provide is more than food for the body. I am here to bring something that nourishes souls and spirits. If we settle for manna or something like a daily special, then we have all missed the point. This thing, the Realm of God, goes so much deeper. What you need more than manna is to take in me. Eat of me. Drink me in.”

Now this is metaphor and they don’t get it. It sounds like cannibalism. It just sounds so weird. All they are wanting is some fish and loaves of bread every day. And they want it as easy as the children of Israel had the manna from Moses. Just got outside your tent and scoop it up.

Just and aside here. Some folk use this passage to argue that when you take Communion or the Eucharist that you are partaking of the real body and real blood of Jesus. But, this is metaphor. Jesus isn’t talking about anything like that. He is trying to get people to understand that there is something much more going on in this world than where the next meal comes from. It is another way of saying ‘follow me and together we will get to where we need to go.’

This was hard for all those thousands of people who were now considering themselves disciples of Jesus. They didn’t understand this whole business of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And even if they did, all they were really looking for was a free lunch. Every day. All this other stuff Jesus was talking about, like loving your enemies, welcoming the stranger, forgiving each other, sharing what you have, no, they just wanted lunch.

So they start walking away, by the tens, the dozens, the hundreds. Jesus just pulled off the worst evangelism meeting ever. And after a little bit, instead of the thousands, it was just that handful of men and women who had been with him from the beginning. So Jesus asked them if they were going to leave to.

In a response that almost wants to make you cry, surely one of the most poignant moments in the Bible Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to trust and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

There is a lot in this response. But the thing that strikes me is that Peter is not just speaking for himself. He is speaking for what’s left of the group. It’s not just that Peter and James and Mary and Martha and the others have each discovered the life that is in Jesus. They have discovered that together. And that is the essence of what it means to be church, to be discovering with each other the life that is in Jesus.

It’s not that Peter was saying they had burned their bridges and they had no place else to go. The bridges were still there and they could go back across any time they wanted. But what they were learning together was that if you are looking for life, you just keep walking with Jesus even if you have no idea where on earth he is going.

This is what Dan Clarenden writes in his journeywithjesus blog. In recognizing that they have come to the point where there is nowhere else to go, the community becomes smaller but tighter. They have looked at their options and no other option makes sense. Here for the first time, John speaks of the Twelve. The crowd has winnowed down to a few, and have become a community in communion with Jesus. Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm writes:
It is not any particular creed, mission statement, style of worship, or service program that unites them as the body of Christ. It is their professed willingness to follow Jesus Christ that renders them a community of faith. What a blessed word to remember as we agonize over mission statements, budget priorities, worship attendance, or other preoccupations of churchly life. It is our commitment to follow Christ alongside others that makes us the people of God. [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), (WJK, 2009), p. 385.]

Every time we are at worship, or study group, or Communion Lunch, or Peace Potluck, or working with Families First or whatever it is we are doing, we are leaving those places we used to be behind, and finding together the life that is in Jesus. At our retreat last week, I proudly confessed I was a big fan of meetings. I just couldn’t contain myself after I heard person after person talk about how terrible meetings were. But Judy joined me when she said ‘meetings are magic.’ Things happen you never expect. Another way of saying it is that time and time again, I have seen the Spirit at work in our meetings. There is mystery and magic afoot when the people of Jesus are together and the Spirit is in their midst. That doesn’t mean that things are always smooth, that we don’t get off topic, or get boring. But time and again I have seen us end up at the most unexpected and helpful of places. And sometimes that is just getting us started somewhere, but it is the way of life, the way we need to be going.

People do not live by peach kuchen alone. As good as Kristen’s peace kuchen was, that meeting she prepared for us was better. The peach kuchen was the sign of something much deeper we were going to reach for that evening. And like those disciples, we sometimes take lots of twists and turns, have no idea of what’s going on or why things are happening the way they are rather than the way we expected, but we have come to trust and know that together we are finding life in Jesus.

Jesus, the Peach Kuchen of Life? Makes as much sense as the Bread of Life. It’s metaphor. And it’s all about the life, not the kuchen or the bread.