And the Future of the Church Is…?

January 25th, 2016

Matthew 11:28-29
Amos 5:16-17,21-24
Hebrews 12:1-3,12-13
January 24, 2016
Mary Hammond

The winds are blowing fiercely across this nation, and I am not speaking about the ecology of Climate Change in this regard. I am thinking about the climate in which followers of Jesus find themselves within our country. With her permission, let me quote some personal reflections of Ellen Broadwell, in response to questions I posed to the church googlegroup this week in preparation for worship today.

“There is so much going on with the ‘big C Church’ right now that I see the American Church going in the direction of the European Church (slowly disappearing). The evangelicals are so tangled up with the right wing of politics and have allowed themselves to be manipulated by cynical politicians, that our children, for the most part, no longer see [the church] as the hopeful answer to life’s important questions. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. American evangelicals tell us to hate the LGBTQ community, that an unborn child’s life is more important than the life of its mother, that the poor are responsible for their poverty and don’t deserve any relief, refugees are not welcome in this country of immigrants. For the most part, our children are looking at the Church and finding it hypocritical at best, and at worst, evil. I am so disgusted with the American Church right now. If politicians refuse to pander to right wing evangelicals, the Church can lose its facade, go underground, and regain its soul.”

Pastors these days often huddle together and converse about the future of the American church. Prospective clergy are warned in seminary not to expect positions after graduation that both pay off their student loans and provide adequate support to sustain themselves. They are told that the church of tomorrow will not look like that of today, and, as future leaders, they are on the cusp of this radical change. In fact, we are also on the cusp of this change.

In one recent conversation Steve and I had with ministerial colleagues, a young pastor commented, “I’m not into all this hand-wringing about the ‘future of the Church.’ What will the American church look like down the road? It will look like ‘the Church.’ The Church will not disappear, but it will just look a lot more like the church of the first three centuries than of the last several hundred years.”

I think this is what Ellen is getting at in her comments. Rapid transitions require much of us, and it is critical to reflect together on some of the characteristics we need as a congregation to face such challenges. The decades before us truly cry out for the Church to embrace a calling to be a Place of Refuge, Resistance, and Resilience. While not exhaustive, these “three ‘R’s’” provide valuable guidance for moving forward.

Let’s begin with “a Place of Refuge.” How many of you here today have found PCC to be such a place, either when you first arrived or through some personal crisis or transition? There is no need for a show of hands, but is there anyone here who would like to share briefly about that experience and what it meant to you? [Two people shared personal testimonies, one about first visiting the church, the other about a time of family crisis].

There are a lot of people that feel a need to flee from the Church, from its institutional largess, exclusive practices and policies, legalistic mores, distorted theologies, and even mean-spirited individuals. But what about fleeing to the church, discovering in its midst a community of love, hope, and trust–a People who laugh together and cry together, who seek to practice compassion and justice in the wider world? We never know who might be looking for refuge, or when. We do not know when we ourselves might need it, until something happens. To foster a Place of Refuge speaks to those beyond the congregation about who we try to be for one another, who Jesus is among us, and who we seek to become in the world.

Secondly, what does it mean to be a Place of Resistance? Such a community seeks to live as both a sign and witness to the Reign of God, a counter-sign among the Kingdoms and Empires of the Earth. Steve often reminds us that the primary purpose of prophecy is not so much to predict the future as to contradict the present. And there is a lot of present to contradict. Our mass media culture spews hatred and division everywhere. Further, it too often paints both Christianity and Evangelicalism with one broad, intolerant brush. This does disservice to many other Christians and self-described Evangelicals who distinguish themselves from fundamentalists.

Any Church serious about becoming a Place of Resistance must insist on being tethered to both the Way and ways of Jesus. To me, these are the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Hearts must focus on a vision of the entire Community of Creation living in harmony and shalom–with God, one another, ourselves, and the earth.

Finally, what are the fruits of Resilience? As we reflect on this 150th Anniversary of the church, I am so struck by the tenacity and perseverance of our forebears. In 1866, a small group of people formed a new congregation. They mustered up the financial means to construct a church meeting house. A half a century later, Oberlin College purchased the land, razed the building, and offered the congregation the location where the current building now stands. I often wonder what those meetings were like, as the congregation–people like you and me–made those momentous decisions to sell the property.

During the 1920’s, another period of massive cultural transition, the church faced a huge fundamentalist-modernist split. Those were the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Darwinism, heated theological debates about teaching creationism vs. evolution. Many folks left the church; a remnant stayed. Another fundamentalist-modernist split occurred in the 1940’s. During the 1960’s, the congregation boldly retained an activist pastor who was fired from a second local church he pastored at the same time. At issue was Rev. Michael Morse’s strident opposition to the Vietnam War.

Fifteen years of retired part-time clergy served the church from 1964-79. The community dwindled to “eleven people plus Jesus,” as Moderator Bob Thomas described it. The church contemplated closing its doors, but before that happened, Bob had a vision. He convinced the other members to make one last effort to remain together. The church secured two years of financial assistance from the Ohio Baptist Convention and hired Steve Hammond fresh out of seminary as a full-time pastor. If the congregation was not completely self-supporting after those two years, then it would in fact close. Nearly 37 years later, here we are today. Thanks be to God!

The fruits of resilience are all over this 150 year history, even amid times of conflict, uncertainty, and rapid social change. Let’s not sugar coat the story. Real people struggled, embraced risks, and took stands. They faced challenges by accepting the need to change. The congregation grew and contracted, grew again and contracted again, yet continued to stay the course.

To offer a haven of Refuge, Resistance, and Resilience is a calling, not just for PCC, but for the wider Church in our country and world. The United States has never been a Christian nation. Who can honestly describe this country at any time as a Christian nation, when it has been built out of the ravages of colonization and slavery, on the backs of flesh and blood human beings? Such myopia is frightening, deadly amnesia. Today’s Church must be filled with a community of Truth-tellers. As the Psalmist attests, we “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” from a place of exile.

Challenging, exciting, and perilous days are before us. And you know what? The Church is often at its best in times such as these. Amen.

Signs and Wonder(ing)s

January 17th, 2016

John 2
January 17, 2016
Steve Hammond

At the end of the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel we read this. 30-31 Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.”

Theologians and Biblical scholars have noted seven signs in particular that they claim John is referring to. As Professor Merrill Tenney wrote…The author [of John’s Gospel] states explicitly that the purpose of his writing is expressed through these signs and that he has selected seven from a much larger number known to him as the core of the discussion of Jesus’ words and works. They may be understood as the divine endorsement of His authority (2:18, 23), or as illustrations of the varied nature of His word (4:54; 20:30). Orhttps://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/ntesources/ntarticles/bsac-nt/tenney-topicsjohnpt2-bs.pdf.

The first of the seven signs to make the list, Jesus turning the water into wine is, to me, by far the oddest. (The walking on water thing comes in second for me, but that’s another sermon). And Jesus walking on water, unlike the story of the wedding at Cana, makes it into the other gospels. Turning the water into wine is not only the first sign of John’s seven, but the first thing Jesus in John’s Gospel does in his public ministry.

We talk about signs and wonders, but for me this is more signs and wonderings. I just don’t get it. Turning water into wine seems to me more like what they used to call a parlor trick. Parlor tricks, though, are meant to delight and amuse the other folk in the parlor. But most of the people at the wedding didn’t notice what was going on. Rather than attributing this as something miraculous Jesus had done, they complemented the groom for holding the best wine to last. The only people other than Jesus and his mother who knew what actually happened were the newly called disciples and the slaves who were working the banquet. Though I guess the groom must have known that wherever this wine came from, he didn’t have anything to do with it.

What did the disciples and slaves see? This is where it gets really fascinating. Remember where Jesus got the water? The water came from the big stone pots the people used for the ritual washings of their hands. These cleansing rituals were central to the way folk practiced their religion. You didn’t want to be touched by someone whose hands had not been thoroughly washed according to the religious rituals. If that happened, you would be rendered unclean. You would have to leave the party and could not reenter polite company until you went through all the regulations to make yourself clean again.

Jesus asked for the water that was used to wash off all the dirt and debris and, ultimately, the grime of any unrighteousness those hands had been involved in, and turned that water into wine. It would be like filling the bathtub with water and deciding to turn it into wine after you took a bath. I can’t imagine what the reactions of the slaves must have been. How could they have kept straight faces as they watched folk drink this bathwater wine? If those folk had realized they were drinking wine that had come from the water in those pots, they would have gone running from that place. The whole ideas of those jars of water was to ensure their ritual cleanness. But all that dirt and grime and disgusting stuff, instead of being washed off of them, they drank it. And they thought it was great, the finest wine there was. The talk in the kitchen must have been really interesting. And I imagine it gave Jesus a bit of a chuckle.

Such an odd story, this first sign that John says reveals Jesus to us. And speaking of wonderings, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Martin Luther King, Jr. Stay with me, though, because there is something else rather odd going on in this story, or more precisely right after this story that might help us make that connection.

In the other three gospels, that story of Jesus cleansing the Temple and driving out the money changers takes place right after what we now call Palm Sunday, at the end of his life and ministry. But in John’s story it comes right at the beginning of his ministry. After he does that there is, of course, a big conflict with the religious establishment where Jesus argues that God is doing something greater than what the Temple is all about, and it is focused on Jesus. Then we get this very near the end of the second chapter of John, not the last verse, but more on that later. “During the time he was in Jerusalem, those days of the Passover Feast, many people noticed the signs he was displaying and, seeing they pointed straight to God, entrusted their lives to him.”

So this thing of Jesus cleansing the Temple is called a sign in John’s Gospel, but it isn’t counted as one of The Signs that the theologians and Biblical scholars talk about. That was curious, so I thought I had better look a bit closer at things. Maybe it’s a different Greek word. No, it’s the same word. What do the commentators say? What I found in the New Interpreter’s Commentary was pretty much the consensus. “In 2:11, the miracle at Cana is called a sign, but the Evangelist also notes that Jesus manifested his glory in this sign. It is the manifestation of glory, not simply the sign itself, that leads to the disciples’ faith. In 2:23 there is no indication that the people see the glory to which Jesus’ signs point.”

Really? I think Martin Luther King, Jr. found plenty of glory in Jesus as Jesus confronted the religious and political powers that oppressed so many who were poor and outsiders. I have no trouble arguing that Martin Luther King, Jr. would even say that that kind of sign is much more important than turning water into wine and delivers a more important testimony to who Jesus is.

Martin Luther King, Jr. encountered lots of opposition from the church during his own life and ministry. And it just wasn’t white churches. There were plenty of Black churches, too, especially in the beginning, who thought he should be preaching more about Jesus turning water into wine than overturning the tables in the Temple. Just deal with the spiritual stuff the real signs of who Jesus is, not all the political stuff that’s just going to get everybody upset.

He couldn’t do that, though. Perhaps he was like the writer of John’s Gospel who saw lots of signs, so many they couldn’t all be written down. And when they allowed Rev. King to say that challenging racism and discrimination might be something we could learn from all those signs, they wanted him to stop there. That stuff about war and poverty was taking it too far. What did following Jesus have to do with any of that?

That’s the choice that’s always there for us. Let’s just notice the signs we are looking for or the ones that make us more comfortable. Some want all the miracles, water into wine stuff. Those are the real signs. Some just want the cleaning out the Temple and keep away from all that miracle stuff. But maybe that’s why John had both of these signs at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. Every year I lament the way people have tended to erase the religious roots of Rev. King’s activism. They can’t see what his belief and trust in Jesus had to do with any of that. But it was core to him.

I mentioned that there was still another verse to look at in the second chapter of John’s gospel. Remember how we read about the people seeing the signs and entrusting themselves to Jesus. Here is what comes next. “But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside and out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.” Again, this is all so odd. You would think that Jesus was glad to have all these followers. It seems like this story should have a more upbeat ending. There are all these signs that are pointing out that Jesus has come to us from God. People are seeing those signs and trusting their lives to him. Jesus, though, is real skeptical.

If you look at the history of the church maybe that skepticism is well placed. But maybe it is as simple as Jesus is also looking for signs. We can say all we want about how much we love Jesus, but is it all water into wine stuff? But I think there were some pretty good signs from Martin Luther King, Jr. that there are folk who do get what Jesus is about.

Today’s story was from the Lectionary. It isn’t, obviously, a story that you quickly relate to Rev. King. But, hopefully, I’ve at least gotten us thinking about the story and Dr. King. Another Lectionary passage for this week is from 1 Corinthians 12. We aren’t going to read that today, but it’s all about the different gifts we bring to what the Apostle Paul calls the Body of Christ. What he means by that is how the church makes Jesus known in this world, how we become the feet, the hands, the heart, the presence of Jesus in our world. That letter from a Birmingham jail to the church leaders in Birmingham was Rev. King’s plea for the church to be the body of Christ. He was looking for signs that were pretty hard to find. And it seems to me that since we are the Body of Christ, that there need to be signs from us. Signs that point to the power of God at work in us. Signs that are more than parlor tricks, but signs that reveal the glory of Jesus Christ. More signs than anybody could ever write about.

Reflections on the 100th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the building where Peace Community Church meets

January 10th, 2016

The cornerstone for our building was laid on January 1, 1916. We celebrated that event this week at PCC. Kristen Bredenbeck Mayer shared some thoughts during worship and other folk sent some of their reflections about the place of this building in the life of our church. This year is also the 150th anniversary of when the congregation was founded. Throughout the year we will be remembering and celebrating both of these anniversaries.

Anniversary Memories by Kristen Bredenbeck Mayer

When I think of my memories of this building I do not immediately think of the building—at least not the physical building. I certainly could. I could marvel at all the care and love people show this place—a testament to the sacredness of place. I remember people cleaning, organizing, painting, putting in new countertops, sealing the coal room roof…..and most recently cleaning out the balcony!

What I remember most, though, is not the building but what happens here. When Steve first asked the question: “What are our memories of the building?” three experiences came to mind.The first remembrance was my first visit here for Sunday Worship. Caleb was 3 years old. I can remember sitting right over there and just soaking up the music, the words, the place…. The word that comes to mind is authentic. I experienced an authentic worship where people could be themselves. You’ve heard it said how people wear masks as they go about their lives—even in churches. But what I felt on that first Sunday was that there were no masks here. I could be myself

The second memory is when we opened our church to the community right after the 9/11 attacks. I remember just looking around and seeing people from all parts of the community come together to morn, to find solace, to search for hope.. .. .. This reminds me that PCC is a gathering place for the community, where everyone is welcome—a place where people know we care about peace and justice.

The third experience happens occasionally. It happened the other week. I was sitting in church, girding myself for the week ahead—enjoying this little time apart from what is going on in my life
and I hear a siren. Our church is a sidewalk church—we sit right upon the sidewalk –we don’t have a large green lawn separating our building from the street. We can hear the police cars, the sirens, the ambulances—the sounds of life happening. When I hear an ambulance, my prayers turn to the noises outside. Every time this happens it strikes me that this is how is should be—the church is not removed from the world, from the sirens and ambulances, but amongst the world, as a witness to a better way and as a community of people who happen to gather in this sacred space seeking to make an impact by our worship, by our lives, by our actions in the world outside these walls.

From Julie Hanson Reiswig (OC ‘82)
When I imagine the “First Baptist Church” building, I think foremost of community.

Jeff rushed me to church one spring evening in 1981 to get to Family Meal in the church basement. I couldn’t understand why he was so keen on getting there in a hurry, until we arrived to find a surprise (for me) wedding shower! Church members and students had conspired to throw us a party before we married that summer. One of our gifts was a green and white flowered metal recipe box that I still cherish – remember when we used to write recipes on index cards?? As I flip through the cards now, I can see the faces of some of our church mothers: Wilma McDole, Mary Caroniti, Enid Buckland, Juanita Brown… The first card, titled “Lesson for a Bride” greets me every time I open the box. It’s a typewritten poem from Mae Chesbro:

There was a young bride
Who wanted to please
She used lots of wine
And very rare cheese;
She served rattlesnake meat
And octopus stew;
She was always searching
For something quite new.
Her spouse ate and drank
Right down to the dregs,
Then ran off with a gal
Who cooked ham and eggs!

The recipes that fill the box are like little love notes from a congregation that held us in our new relationship, and I like to think of it as a symbol of the glue that has held us together for 34 years! That and the love and care from Steve and Mary, our ADULT role models who were ten years older. Steve’s recipe contribution was for “Pretty Nutritious Oatmeal Cookies”, a handwritten card with a final instruction of “Then take some to your pastor.”

Good community-building advice!
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From Julie Reuning-Scherer (OC ‘92)
So much of my experience of FBC/Peace Church had nothing to do with the building. Of course it was the EXCO Class, small group discussions, worship, prayers from the congregation, times at the Hammond house, retreats. So I will save my stories for the 150th Congregational Anniversary!
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Debbie Hughes, ABCRGR pastor:
In 1866, Lucy Read Anthony bought the house at 17 Madison [in Rochester, NY] that would be the homebase for Susan B. Anthony and Mary S. Anthony, two of her daughters, for the rest of their lives. Of course, there were significant connections between the reformers of Oberlin, OH, and Rochester, NY. Congratulations on this 150th and Centennial Anniversary years!
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Caite Weymann McKinney (OC ‘82)
That organ is gorgeous! Wasn’t there in my time, though…that was a dim and dingy choir lot.
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Rachel Ramirez-Hammond (pastors’ daughter)
Sooo many memories in that basement!!!!

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Jane Millikan (OC ‘82)
I remember doing nursery for Women’s Study Group and trying to keep Grace from falling asleep so she would nap at home. I remember the Sunday School kids giving Mary Meadows a surprise birthday party in the basement. It was my job to get her there while keeping it secret.

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Carrie Broadwell Tkach (OC ‘06)
I have a wonderful picture of my bridesmaids and me getting dressed for the wedding in the church basement, surrounded by the Ark and other kid paraphernalia. The two owls on the wall looked utterly shocked by what was happening in their domain.

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Anna Ernst (OC ‘10) a bit late!! Kept meaning to do this and forgetting!
PCC was a safe haven for me during college. Whenever I got too overwhelmed with homework or college romance or whatever, PCC was where I could come and just be myself and yet STILL feel encouraged in that call to bring about the good and just kingdom of God on earth. If it weren’t for Steve Hammond, I might not have applied to Lutheran Volunteer Corps and wouldn’t have begun going down the path toward ordained ministry that I am on right now. Mary Hammond’s cookie bakes and comforting walks and words of prayer nourished me as well, particularly during tough times such as when my grandfather died in the spring of 2009.

One specific happy memory I have at PCC is sleeping in Noah’s ark in the nursery during a lock-in. Linden Cady ’09 and Ethan Draeger ’09 were there too. It was folks like Al Carroll ’58 and Judy Riggle and many more who inspired me with their constant presence at weekly peace vigils and persistence in matters such as developing the Peace and Conflict Studies academic program at Oberlin.

Other happy more recent memories include coming back to Oberlin post-graduation for Heather Kirkconnell’s (OC ‘11) senior organ recital in the sanctuary, and giving a message in the same sanctuary at her joyful wedding to Jacob Farnsworth in the summer of 2014.

My family and I are forever grateful for the safe haven and inspirational, encouraging community that PCC was and is. PCC scattered I may now be, but PCC is always in my heart.
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Glenn Loafmann:
Some memorable moments in no particular order.

1.) I have a picture I can’t find of a worship service downstairs, where Roger is helping Jonathan follow along in the hymnal.

2.) Personal memorable moment: I think June 24 2012 may be the best sermon I ever preached. It satisfied me the most, anyway. Thanks for letting me do that, and thanks especially to Mary Meadows for the first meeting/planning session, which got me started on a new track for approaching the preparation of the sermon (and she had a different lectionary, which gave me the text I used – the baptism of John story).

3.) Yvonne

4.) Memorable moment inside the church outside the church: the “disfellowship” meeting in Norwalk, when/where I first perceived/understood how very powerful consensus decision-making is.

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This is from LeDayne Polaski on behalf of the staff and board of BPFNA-Bautista por la Paz
To The Congregation of Peace Community Church:

Dear Friends,

On behalf of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and your sister peace–loving, justice-seeking congregations throughout the continent, I send you greetings as you celebrate 100 years of being rooted in one place.

I celebrate with you not just because you’ve been able to stay in one spot (though I could argue that in our rootless society, that is impressive in itself) – but because you have remained rooted in and responsive to that place even as it has grown and changed over time. That is well worth celebrating!

In my mind’s eye, I can see many people coming in those doors. I see them finding a faith they thought they had lost, finding a welcome they had never known, finding a cause worth fighting for, finding support and love through hard times, finding a place to celebrate their joys, finding a group that will be with them through their failures and their successes – finding community again and again and again. I think too of members of the community who would never describe themselves as people of faith coming in those doors and being surprised to find an unexpected group of Christians – Christians who are thinking, loving, welcoming, questioning. I think of people coming to find a little help to make it through and being touched by the loving way in which their needs were met. When I think of all those hundreds of people coming through those doors for 100 years and of all they found inside and all they took with them when they walked back out, I am in awe. I hope you are too!

May your celebration of this milestone be rich and full, brimming with a strong sense of God’s continued presence, strength, and grace. May your journey forward be blessed with a lasting sense of God’s calling through joy and challenge, hope and pain. May God be real for you all in days of triumph, days of struggle, and all the ordinary days in between. Through it all, may you serve as bearers of peace – to one another and to our aching world.

Know that we share your celebration and joy – as we will share your path forward as together we seek to follow the Prince of Peace.

Peace and Grace,

Love Comes

December 30th, 2015

Luke 1:37-55
December 20, 2015
Mary Hammond

In 2014, our two youngest daughters, Rachel and Grace, found out that they were pregnant on the same day. They scrambled to get the news to each other before telling anyone save their husbands. Alas, Grace had left her cell phone at home when she went to work. With the two-hour time change, the news had to wait another day. How hard that must have been for them!

The joyful news finally got out. I can imagine the fast-paced conversation, the squealing laughter, the camaraderie. Serendipitously, their first sonograms were also scheduled for the same day. Lo and behold, Grace and Dave were expecting twins, and Rachel her third child. Mama Rachel quickly became the ‘seasoned elder’ to her younger sis in the modern mothering department.

While this story does not parallel Luke’s account of the pregnancies of Elizabeth and her younger cousin, Mary, the shared feelings of joy, anticipation, family ties, and uncertainty reflect a certain timelessness. Two women, caught up in the biggest drama of their lives–together on a journey neither could ever imagine.

Last week, Steve spoke of the Christmas story as “God’s practical joke,” a comment made by Canadian Mennonite pastor, Ralph Milton. Milton imagines God cackling away in delight as the stunning reversals of this remarkable drama unfold–a pregnant teenager singing a subversive song, a stable birth, rough-hewn shepherds, rejoicing angels, a threatened ruler. What could be more shocking than the arrival of a wailing infant-king, born in a smelly manger, when no better place could be found?

The Princes of the World still cannot embrace the true import of this narrative. It may be sung by choirs, piped into malls, recited at Christmas plays, ad infinitum. But the Deep Story, the Real Story, is and always has been quite revolutionary.

Hands down, Advent is my favorite season of the Church Year. Anyone else feel the same way? Incarnation shouts Presence with a Capital “P.” Incarnation announces an Embodied God.

This week, Steve and I received several Christmas letters. In one, the writer makes this comment, “I hope you take time out during this busy season to remember that Christmas is about Christ coming to redeem us by his death and resurrection.”

I stopped short when I read that. This comment passes right over the Incarnation, blasting on to Holy Week. What about Jesus’ life, his powerful ministry, the ways he challenges the religious and political status quo? What about the fact that his very arrival as ‘Son of God’ challenges Caesar, the ruler of the Roman Empire, who his subjects call by that same title?”

Incarnation is about the Face of a Present God-made-flesh. Thirsty and hungry. Energized and tired. Disturbed and satisfied. Joyful and tearful. Bold and careful. Trusting and agonizing.

‘Matter’ simply matters to God. What happens here, today, in this place, matters. The agony and ecstasy of being human matters. Your joy matters; your tears matter. Your gratitude matters; your heartaches matter. The ant matters; the hippopotamus matters. The coral reefs matter; the polar bears matter. The glories and convulsions of our planet matter. The cosmos matters. It all matters.

Incarnation also reminds me that Presence, God-with-Us, is what we need, much more than Explanation. I recently read an amazing blog, debunking the popular Christian belief (or myth; however you see it), “Everything happens for a reason.” Have you heard that recently? I did just this past week.

The longer I live, the more I react to this statement. Do we thus attribute rape, starvation, genocide, and a thousand other sufferings to “God’s reasons”?

Such theology too often breeds passivity to injustice and blindness to privilege. In his wonderful reflection on this topic, Tim Lawrence quotes his mentor, Megan Devine, saying, “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried” (see brightside.me/article/not-everything-happens-for-a-reason-the-magic-words-to-say-when-everythings-going-wrong).

Amen to that!

As humans, we crave answers. Explanations comfort our rational minds, yet Presence strengthens our deepest heart. What does Job, the ancient suffering saint, desire from God, through all his cumulative catastrophes? His deepest longing is for Presence. He yearns, even aches, to simply Hear God’s Voice.

In Job’s story, Presence finally comes amid a Whirlwind. In the prophet Elijah’s story, Presence arrives in the form of a Still, Small Voice. Presence has many Faces and Forms, visiting us through prayer, nature, friendship, solitude, even anonymous gestures of caring.

Finally, Incarnation is about Turning the World Order Upside Down. This is indeed of Ultimate Concern to God. TV pundits endlessly dissect the latest polls. Some presidential candidates vie for the honor of who can flatten a village and defeat the enemy better than the next guy.

But Incarnation proclaims both a different Word and a different World. On Facebook, I recently saw a photo of a church sign. It read: “The Christmas Story: A Middle Eastern Family Seeks Refuge.” This embodies the heart of our ancient narrative, my friends. An upside-down, inside-out Gospel. This is the Jesus Story we celebrate, remember, and live into, all year long.

I invite you to have an Incarnational Christmas. Amen.

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.

AFTERTHOUGHT

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?

BENEDICTION

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.

GATHERING PRAYER

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 http://www.historynet.com/appomattox-court-house-battle – 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.

Amen.

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.