Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

How do you do with a problem like the Apostle Paul? Maybe we need more information. Maybe he was a work in progress. Maybe we are all works in progress.

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Philippians 3:4-14
October 5, 2014
Steve Hammond

Remember the song from the Sound of Music where the question was “What do you do with a problem like Maria?” Well, what do you do with a problem like the Apostle Paul? For some in the church he’s the problem and gets the blame for all that they see wrong in conservative Christianity. For others he’s the solution to the problem of liberal Christianity. The truth, most likely, is somewhere in between. I don’t think he deserves either the depth of the vilification that has become a cliché in some circles nor the height of unquestioned authority he receives in others. Today’s passage shows us that there is way more nuance than we often allow for him. We see both the peril and promise he engenders.

This passage doesn’t, initially, seem to be one you would want to highlight in multifaith dialogue. Paul is hard on Jews, and he can’t stop talking about Jesus.

First of all, we can’t get past the fact that we look at this passage through 2000 years of Christian history, some of it unfortunate and tragic when it comes to Christianity’s interaction with Judaism. But none of that was there when Paul was making this testimony he made from his prison cell. Paul, like all early Christians, understood himself as a Jew. And most Jews understood Christians as one of the many sects of Judaism. It wasn’t until gentiles, or folk who hadn’t grown up Jewish, began to become followers of Jesus that people even started asking about whether Christianity and Judaism were separate religions. And it took a long time to settle that question.

We begin to see that debate taking place about this question of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism in some of the later writings of the NT. But archaeologists have found evidence of Christian congregations basically viewing themselves as branches of Judaism up until about 150 C.E. And it wasn’t until the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E that the structures in Judaism began to push back against sects like Christianity. With the Temple destroyed, there was a felt need by many to rein in the varieties of Jewish expression. It was time to circle the wagons and have a clearer definition of what it meant to be Jewish.

So the argument for Paul initially, anyway, was not Christianity vs. Judaism, but a struggle for the future of Judaism. It seems to me to be very similar to what has happened in the history of the Christian church to this very day. Christians continue to discuss, debate, argue, name call, and condemn to hell or some other condemnation if you don’t particularly go along with the idea of hell, other Christians. And there were many times when those disagreements led to violence and death. If I just say names like Pat Robertson or Jerry Fallwell, what kind of feelings arise in you? But I don’t think an outside observer would call me anti-Christian because I believe that Pat Robertson has a wrong view of what Christianity is supposed to be. So I think it is a bit harsh to call Paul anti-Semitic because he had serious disagreements with other Jews about what Judaism is supposed to be.

Another way to look at it is to think about Martin Luther and the other Reformers. They were exactly that–reformers. They weren’t trying to bring down Christianity, just challenge it to be something else, something they saw as truer to what God had in mind. In much the same way, Paul understood himself as a reformer of Judaism, not it’s enemy. Christian Eberhart, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston put it this way, ”In the end, Judaism was surprisingly multifaceted (and still is today). The followers of Jesus belonged to the versatile phenomenon of Judaism in the first century C.E.; their attitudes, convictions, and practices should be interpreted in this context.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2147)

Now in his zeal, and the heat of the moment, Paul may have crossed some lines, which anti-Semites have found helpful helpful. And don’t forget it was folk from his own Jewish tradition who worked to have him imprisoned and eventually martyred. You can imagine how intense their arguments got. But I think the problem may sometimes have been more of how he argued than what his argument really was. And it’s not only the Apostle Paul that has fallen into that kind of thing.

What was obviously more important to Paul, though, than the future of Judaism was the new life he found in Christ Jesus. And he was not shy in his testimony. Last week Mary talked about street cred. Paul had street cred in Jewish life. He came from the right family, he studied with the right teachers. How did he say it, “You know my pedigree, a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.” Paul, or Saul, as he was known before Jesus changed everything, was on his way. He was one of the golden boys. The Jewish establishment was his to occupy.

One day, though, on a journey to deliver some Jesus followers over to the law, Jesus knocked him off his horse. Whether that was literally or figuratively, that argument rages, but whatever happened, Paul became a different person. What was once a fast track to a corner office in the Temple was suddenly of no importance to the future Apostle. “I count it all as rubbish,” is how some of the more genteel translators put it. Petersen is getting closer when he says the Apostle Paul thinks of what could have been as nothing more than dog dung. The commentators at girardianlectionary.net put it in an academic framework. “The Greek word skybala is found only here in the NT and very rarely in any other Hellenic literature; some scholars conjecture that it is a slang term for excrement.” (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper22a.htm)

However you say it, Paul had found something in Jesus that made everything else, all his credibility, all his assumed future, all the power that could have been his, worthless. He felt himself come alive in Christ.

That’s what we bring with us. Christianity has plenty to apologize for when it comes to multifaith dialogue. But we are not the only ones. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, paganism and atheism have all brought death, destruction, and oppression. But there is so much life in all of those traditions, as well.

Rabbi Brand on campus suggested to me once that one good way of engendering multifaith dialogue is to start talking about some of the ugly parts or our histories and traditions. And he didn’t mean Jews talking about some of the awful things Christians have done, or Christians talking about some of the difficult texts in the Koran, but each faith talking about itself, its own problematic histories and texts.

Now Paul may seem like too much of a Jesus fanboy to be of any help in multifaith dialogue. But I don’t know what we have to bring if we don’t bring Jesus. I don’t think we would legitimately expect Muslims to not talk about Muhammad or Allah if we were going to enter into dialogue with them. We wouldn’t ask Jews to stop talking about God or Moses or the commandments. We wouldn’t look askance because Buddhist were talking about the Buddha, or Hindus were mentioning their gods and goddesses. And I don’t think they are expecting us to not talk about Jesus.

It’s when we bring life into this world that we are being good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims, good Buddhists, good whoever. All that the Apostle Paul could see in Christ was life. And what he objected to most was when people tried to turn Judaism or Christianity toward death. Resurrection was not some theory or theological formulation for Paul. It’s what filled his heart with hope and imagination.

In his more candid moments, like here, Paul admits to his own deficiencies . He didn’t claim to have it all together. But he knew that he was reaching out for the Christ who had grabbed hold of him. He was off and running. And even if he got off the course now and then, he wasn’t turning back, because Jesus kept holding out life before him.

And he did get off the track, for example, when it comes to women in the church. Though not all of the awful things attributed to Paul were really from his own pen, we do get enough to realize that he had a woman problem. But as you keep reading Paul, you see him evolving or growing from “no woman is allowed to speak in the church,” to where he is commending the work of his women co-workers and greeting the churches that are meeting in their homes. He wrote to the Galatians that “in Christ there are neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, neither men nor women.” As he was running that race toward life in Christ, he changed along the way. And I am glad the scriptures let us see that. It’s too bad, though, that people have focused on some of his earlier understandings rather than his later ones.

This, was the guy who wrote 1 Corithians 13, the ‘love chapter.’ This is what we read from him in Romans 12. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In Romans 8 he wrote about all of creation longing for the revealing of the children of God and how nothing can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

He said many provocative things along the way but he also wrote about how it was his job to help Jesus followers provoke one another to love and good works. And then there was that thing he wrote in Ephesians. “Be kind and tender hearted to one another, forgiving each other as God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ.”

Paul neither deserves to be placed on as high of a pedestal as some think nor have his statues torn down. We are all works in progress. What Christians bring to the mix is that we are, like Paul, coming alive in Jesus. And so at communion, as Paul pointed out, and in so many other ways we are simply called to remember Jesus. And we are reminded to remember what Paul knew with all his heart, that Jesus has grabbed hold of us and we are reaching for the life that is in him.

Street Cred(entials)

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Matthew 21:23-32
September 28, 2014
Mary Hammond

I am always astounded by the creativity and wisdom of Jesus when he is faced with “thinking on his feet.” Jesus is a master of the adroit question and penetrating story. He knows how to get to the heart of a matter quickly, even when others don’t see that coming.

As Jesus’ ministry expands, the religious authorities seek to blindside him and trap him in his own words. They are threatened by his popularity and incensed by his disregard of religious tradition.

Time after time, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. He exposes their foibles, bringing to light their deepest motivations. He outwits them, again and again.

Today’s Gospel story is a perfect example of this phenomena. The context of the passage is telling—Matthew situates this story shortly after Jesus’ Procession into Jerusalem on a donkey during what turns out to be the last week of Jesus’ life. This ragtag parade isn’t really the great palm-waving celebration that the Church has transformed it into over the centuries. Rather, it is a portend of the immediate and impending Clash of Empires–the Reign of God vs. the Reign of Caesar, the Rule of the Holy One vs. the Rule of the Roman State.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ first stop after entering Jerusalem is the Temple. He takes note of the profiteering, greed, and other evident abuses of his religion. Like the prophets of old, Jesus takes bold action. He overthrows the tables, scatters the pigeons, and laments the sad state of affairs. He cries out, quoting from his own scriptures, “My house was designated a house of prayer, You have made it a hangout for thieves” (Matthew 21:13).

After that momentous and exhausting day, Jesus heads to Bethany for the night. Now, Bethany is the town where his close friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live. You may remember the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Or you may recall a story in Luke’s Gospel. Martha is in a huff about meal preparation and hospitality while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, in the position used by rabbinical students, learning from him.

I like to think Jesus hung out at their house after that intense confrontation in the Temple and dusty trip to Jerusalem. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for the conversation they might have had.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shows up at the Temple again the next day to teach. Imagine this scene for a moment. Jesus really has a following by now. The religious leaders have had enough of him. The Temple is their turf, not his. They are furious about his incursion into this space and all the ruckus he created the day before. They are wary about the crowds he is attracting. According to Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their book, “The Last Week,” they are also colluding with Rome to keep the peace among the populace. What could happen next?

The Pharisees and teachers of the Law demand to see Jesus’ credentials. ‘What are you doing here? Why gave you permission to teach here? Who did you study with?’ These are the questions of credentials! Clearly, in their estimation, Jesus is not welcome in their Temple!

Jesus could have answered them by saying, “Actually, I don’t have a degree or even a certificate. I haven’t been apprenticed to a famous rabbi. I was not invited to teach here by one of your scholars. In fact, I was home-schooled at the feet of my revolutionary mother.” He doesn’t say that. Instead, Jesus spars with the religious leaders on their own grounds. “You answer my question, and I’ll answer yours,” he replies.

So begins the duel. Jesus never addresses the question of his own authority or credentials. Instead, he brings up his cousin, John the baptizer, who was beheaded by King Herod. John still has quite a following among the common people.

So Jesus asks the religious leaders about the baptism of John—Is it from God or humans?

The religious leaders know they are trapped. Remember–Jesus is teaching in the Temple. There are other people around. Afraid of riling up the populace, the religious leaders whisper among themselves. One answer exposes their own blindness; the other threatens to disturb the peace. They concede this round to Jesus, and he refuses to answer their question.

Jesus continues with a story about a father who has two sons. In patriarchal first century culture, marriage and bearing many children is the norm rather than the exception. Further, sons are the most valued progeny. These male religious leaders could easily relate to this story.

The plot is simple. A father asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard for the day. One refuses, relents, and later goes. The other agrees, but never follows through. ‘Which one does the Father’s will?’ Jesus asks.

“The first son,” they answer.

Jesus then segues onto the topic of John’s ministry among the people again. “…John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him” (Matthew 21:32)

According to Jesus, credentials aren’t found on a piece of paper, in who a person has studied with, or how many years of loyalty they have given to an institution. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Street cred?” It is short for “street credentials,” authority that comes from incarnational practice—the kind of living that gets tangled up with the sufferings of the world, engaged with the most vulnerable and despised. It is living that exposes the abuses of religion, particularly of one’s own. It is living that challenges the status quo and takes on the power of the powerful, regardless of the cost.

Where is the Kingdom coming? It’s coming in the streets. Amen.

And A River Runs Through It

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Genesis 2:4-10, The Revelation 22:1-2
September 21, 2014
Steve Hammond

Today we are running into a convergence of important events. September 21 is International Day of Peace. It’s also the day of the Climate Action March in NYC. And today marks the beginning of Campaign Nonviolence Action Week. Peace, nonviolence, and the climate crisis. That’s a lot. That’s why I can understand the allure of a faith that deals simply with getting ourselves into heaven. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, that wasn’t the kind of faith Jesus had. He was very much concerned with the issues facing this earth and, indeed, the whole universe. Throughout his ministry he was focused on the healing and redemption of the entire creation, and the possibilities of his followers joining him in building a new world.

I or anybody could spend a lot of time this morning talking about why peace, nonviolence, and living sustainably are important. But I am going to take it as a given that you all agree with me that all of those things are important matters to followers of Jesus. And I also assume that you agree that working for peace and a healed climate are cut out of the same cloth of shalom. If you don’t agree with me we probably should get together for a bit of dialogue. And I am serious about that because there was a time in my life where I wouldn’t have agreed with these matters had something to do with following Jesus. I would love to tell you what has happened to me.

Today I simply want to mention some observations I have made as I’ve been thinking about these three events. Let’s begin with rivers and trees. Most of us, I think, realize that the Bible is not a single work, but a collection of the sacred writings that tell the story of our faith in a variety of ways. But I can’t help but notice that at the beginning pages of the Bible and the very last pages of the Bible we are reading about rivers and trees. I think that is something worth paying attention to. Again, if the point of our faith is simply to get us to heaven, there wouldn’t be any trees and rivers at the end of the story like they are. At the end of the story the earth hasn’t been destroyed after some cataclysmic battle between Jesus and the forces of Satan. There is a renewed earth with a new city. And there is a river running through it. And there planted by the river is a tree for the healing of the nations.

I think The Revelation is a very weird and strange story that is a reflection on the life of Jesus and his vision for our world. Jesus believed that the end of all things was not this orgy of death and destruction as so many, including the guest preachers we had on campus this week believe. Instead, for Jesus what this whole thing is ultimately about is everything and everyone coming fully alive. That’s why resurrection matters so much to me. Death does not get the final word. Life does. What’s that great question the Apostle Paul asks as he reflects on the resurrection of Jesus and all that means for everyone and everything? “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?..But thanks be to God who give us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What’s even weirder than The Revelation is that the church has taken this theology of life that was not simply at the heart of what Jesus was about, but everything he was about, and turned everything upside down to where the god of Jesus is a god of death. Even to this day, the rulers of this world know that they can rely on the church to endorse their wars and myriad forms of violence and death. And the church does that in the name of Jesus.

How did it come to this? We’ve talked before about how in the early church the signs and symbols of Christianity were rivers and trees. That’s what you find in the art work. It wasn’t until much, much later, around the times when the crusades were gearing up that the cross became the predominate symbol of Christianity. As the church became more and more an accomplice of empire rather than a challenge to empire, death became more and more important in Christian theology. That’s because you can’t run an empire without a considerable focus on death. And the church had decided that it was for its own best interest to go along with empire. So the rivers and trees and paradise disappeared from Christian artwork and understanding. And the world got sicker and sicker.

The end of the story, though, tells us that the rivers and trees have always been there. The vision of Jesus may have gotten obscured, but it’s always been there. And the other part of the story is that all trees and rivers are for the healing of the nations. Human beings are not meant to be unconnected from the creation. Back in that story in Genesis 2 we read that God took the earth, the humus and created the earth creature, the human. The testimony here that people and all of earth are connected is about as subtle as a search light. That thing we say about how from the earth we came and to the earth we will return is not a surrender to the meaninglessness of life, but a witness to our connection with everything. The internet of everything is not a new idea.

Imagine what would happen if we really began to understand that our healing was in the trees and the rivers, the earth and the sky, the animals and each other. A simple rule of life, and I think it should be elevated in all our minds as Christian doctrine, is that if we take care of the earth the earth will take care of us.

What if we spent our time, concern, and national budgets on taking care of the earth rather than fighting each other? What if we stopped that kind of violence and the violence we do against the creation? We would be healed. So, I guess that was my first thought. The next two are way shorter.

We are reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life in our current study group. The chapter we just finished outlined a history of how far back in the history of this world people were working on lifting up the importance of nonviolence. Many of the founders and early adherents of many major and minor religions focused on the importance of nonviolence in their religions. The teachings on nonviolence in the New Testament and early church were not simply this new notion that can just be passed off as a great idea but wholly impractical. Lots of people have been thinking about this for a long time.

Third thought. There is actually a fourth commemoration of note for us today. In addition to being the International Day of Peace it’s also the International Day of Prayer for Peace. That was set by the World Council of Churches back in 2004 to coincide with the International Day of Peace. People are thinking about lots of action today. I think the World Council of Churches is helping us to see that it’s more than action we need to be thinking about today. Or maybe to realize that prayer is one of the actions we need to include as we consider all of these things.

Jesus believed in partnerships. Partnerships between people, including those who are normally divided from each other for a variety of reasons. He also believed in partnerships between us and God. Jesus showed us we can’t do this without and God isn’t going to do it without us.

Prayer connects us. Not only to God but also who are what we are praying for. Prayer without action is empty. Action without prayer robs us of depth and new possibilities.

There is going to be a march at Noon on Tappan Square in solidarity with those who are in New York at the People’s Climate March. But before we go to Tappan Square, and I hope many of us are, l want us to pray for peace in our world and with our world first. These are days for prayerful action. In Romans 8 the Apostle Paul writes about all of creation awaiting for the revealing of the children of God. Now is our time. From battered countries, to battered lives, to a battered climate, creation is waiting for us to come into our own and stake our claim with Jesus. A river runs through it all. From the beginning to beyond the end the river shows us the way of life, it brings us healing. And like all of creation it is waiting, waiting, waiting.

[We used this prayer, attributed to St. Patrick at the close of the service]

Today in this fateful hour
I place all heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with it whiteness,
And Fire with all the strength it hath,
And Lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness
And the Earth with its starkness;
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace,
Between myself and the powers of Darkness.
St. Patrick

When Yesterday Looks Too Much Like Today

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Exodus 14-15
September 14, 2014
Mary Hammond

I read lots of pastoral blogs and commentaries on today’s text from the Book of Exodus. Nothing I read touched the deep churnings of my heart until I found Barry J. Robinson’s blog, Keeping the Faith in Babylon. Everything else felt trite in the face of both present day circumstances and the underbelly of violence and suffering inherent in the Exodus story itself.

Like Robinson, I cannot look at the world we live in now and the world the Egyptians and Israelites lived in then and ignore a host of parallels. We see the ageless themes of the oppressed chafing against their oppressors and the oppressors clinging to their power at all costs. It is Pharaoh vs. Moses; the Egyptians vs. the Israelites. The oppressed become a band of refugees, searching for a new and better home.

In the biblical narrator’s understanding, the penchant for indiscriminate violence is not just reserved for Pharaoh in his cruelty toward the Israelites. The storyteller attributes violence to God as well, setting in motion the death of the firstborn sons in Egypt while Pharaoh continues his oppression and resolve (Exodus 4:4-5). Later in the text, the Red Sea parts to let the fleeing Israelites pass through unharmed. Then the waters return to their place, drowning the pursuing army. The result is powerful and joyous for the Israelites. Not so for the Egyptians and their families back home. After so many centuries and such long and brutal oppression, the Israelites have escaped. The tables are turned, even if just for a season.

Moses breaks into song, exulting in the one he describes as a ‘warrior God’ (Exodus 15:3) Yet haven’t we seen people praise the ‘warrior God’ way too much throughout human history? Hasn’t that view of God resulted in devastating consequences for the history of this planet across religions? We are reading Karen Armstrong’s book, “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life,” in study group. She makes the assertion that we need to reject any interpretation of scripture that leads us to violence.

Looking back, the Exodus story seems clear-cut. There are 400 years of suffering and waiting. Finally, in one great tug-of-war and a final blast of victory launched by God through his servant Moses, the liberation begins! Yet too soon the story becomes murky again with 40 years of desert wandering.

I so often read the Exodus narrative from the perspective of the Israelite slaves released from bondage. This is the dominant story line, and a critical one that has inspired successive generations of the oppressed in their impulse for liberation.

Last week for the first time, I found my attention riveted on the Egyptian soldiers who drowned in the Red Sea. Maybe that is because so many soldiers on all sides of so many battles are dying today. Some are escaping disenfranchisement, unemployment, and poverty. Some are fighting for a cause they believe in; others are mere children, drugged and forced into military service. Some approach their enemies with hatred; others sooner or later are wracked with guilt and anguish over the violence they have participated in and witnessed. Countless soldiers will prematurely go to the grave, as they have for millennia. Countless families will mourn both their deaths and their living deaths.

Is the story of the Exodus really so clear?

We see this ancient tug-of-war playing itself out in devastating violence in revolution after revolution in our own time. In the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America…in our own nation’s drone warfare, boots on the ground, and proxy revolutions.

I am reminded of a verse in I John that I don’t think about very often, but I have been referencing a lot lately in my head. “Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (I John 2:18). So often we hear the word “antichrist” in reference to some person or nation. It is associated with the many ‘end-times scenarios’ popularized by books, films, and conservative Christian radio.

But what does “anti-christ” really mean? I understand it is an ideology or theology diametrically opposed to all Jesus lived and taught. “Anti-christ” is about mercilessness instead of mercy; violence instead of peacemaking; bitterness instead of forgiveness; cruelty instead of gentleness; hatred instead of love. It is about building Empire rather than beloved community, whether Empire is constructed through extremist ideology or dazzling Corporatocracy.

When God provided Israel land on which to settle after the Exodus, was that land meant to be shared or meant to be taken away from its previous owners? What if this story continued with a theology of reciprocity and communal sharing rather than one of conquest and extermination? I want to re-write this story from way back. Honestly, I do.

I have seen in my own lifetime how the Exodus story has inspired generations of oppressed people the world over to trust in a God that Sees their need, Hears their cry, and Comes to their aid. I saw that so intensely in the Nicaraguan people in the 1980’s, when local community leaders, with the help of a supportive government, increased literacy among the poor. They developed neighborhood health clinics. Base communities sprouted up, even as radical Catholic priests were reproved by the Vatican or defrocked. The Reagan administration clamped down and crushed that movement, calling it a Communist plot. Soon Nicaragua was back under our thumb.

There are huge forces at play in this world. Pharaohs continue to proliferate and refuse to let the people go. Faces change, names change, locations change. Moses rises again and again in the form of one ordinary human being after another, leading nation after nation toward liberation. Prophets gaze at their burning bushes, struggle with God, and finally confess, “Lord, send me.”

Sometimes people are liberated, and sometimes they must wait for another day, year, decade, or multiple generations. How shall we interpret and imagine God in the midst of such Meta-History? What can we hold onto, as we look back at the march of generations and the multiple Exoduses of time, past and present?

First of all, there is Hope. Without hope, we are lost. No matter what our story, or our neighbor’s story, there must be hope. The South Africans taught us that with apartheid, as have so many other oppressed groups. “If liberation does not come in my lifetime, maybe it will come in that of my children or my children’s children.” This was their mantra. That visceral hope did not die, nor did it ultimately disappoint.

Secondly, there is Love. Without love, how do we stand against Empire here in the United States? How do we counter our own violence as a nation? How do we walk with the hopeless, the war-torn, the displaced, the sorrowing? Mother Teresa, in the slums of Calcutta, taught us about love. Bob Thomas, the Moderator of the church when we moved here in 1979, taught us about love. We teach each other about love. Without love, we are lost. Love is expressed in many forms–doing justice, promoting the common good, practicing hospitality, providing comfort, and offering forgiveness, to name a few.

And finally, there is Faith–Faith in the One whose hand is unseen behind the grand machinations of Empire, anti-christ, and all the rest of the horrors of Time. Faith that this One still Sees, Hears, and Responds to humanity and indeed, to all of Creation. This Holy One of both Mystery and Promise responds through me, through you, through Doctors without Borders, through Christian Peacemaker Teams and Muslim Peacemaker Teams, through Interfaith PeaceBuilders in the Middle East. This One is seen, heard, and experienced every time the Way of Life reclaims even an inch of ground from the Way of Death.

So, today, I give you the ancient story of the Exodus, of the children of Israel under the leadership of Moses fleeing the brutal hand of the Egyptians. We weep with them over their centuries of enslavement. We rejoice with them in their promised liberation. We remember both the slaves who perished and the soldiers who perished. We mourn with the Israelite families that lost their children in the slaughter of their babies and the Egyptian parents who lost theirs as well.

We stand with the landless, refugee Israelites of ancient times in their search for a new home, and all the other refugees through the generations searching for hospitality and safety. Today, in 2014, we long for this home in the Middle East to be shared, where there is no conquest and dominance, no lust for power and resources. We long for it to be a home where there are no “winners” and “losers.” We long for it to be a home where there is Light and Life for all. And here in the United States, we long for the same.

As we join in offering God our tithes and gifts, we offer as well our dreams and visions of a world renewed. This is what we must pray for, work for, strive for, and seek to live into, right where we are. Amen.

Remembering the Future

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Matthew 20 and Luke 22
September 7, 2014
Steve Hammond

[Earlier in the service we read the Last Supper stories from Matthew 20 and Luke 22]

Ask people to compare and contrast the two stories. Mention that Mark’s gospel is almost the same wording as Matthew’s except for the Judas part.

One difference is that in Matthew’s gospel the talk about the betrayal and Jesus not eating this meal again until he eats it with them in the realm of God comes before the supper in Matthew’s story and after the supper in Luke’s story.

There is also a big difference in exactly how, for lack of a better word, the liturgy went that night. In Matthew’s story Jesus breaks the bread and passes the cup. In Luke’s story, Jesus passes the cup, then later in the supper, breaks the bread, and after the meal passes the cup again. In Matthew’s story you can almost see a somewhat formalized ritual. The plates are cleared out of the way a bit, things get real solemn and then Jesus breaks the bread and passes the cup, much like what happens in most Communion Services. But in Luke’s story, it seems like things go much more with the flow of the meal. Before all the food is brought out Jesus passes the wine. After they have been eating for a while he breaks the bread, and then after the meal is over he passes the cup again.

So in adapting communion to a church service, which has always struck me as weird anyway, since it was first done by Jesus and in the early church as a part of a meal, we usually share the Lord’s Supper toward the end of the service. We do get real solemn and break the bread and pass the cup. We sing a hymn and go home.

If we adapted it to Luke’s way though, we would start the service by passing the cup. And then sometime later on, probably before the sermon, pass the bread. And then at the end of the service pass the cup again.

It’s become so important in the life of the church, since its early days, to make sure we do this right. Schisms and battles have ensued throughout the history of the church over the right way to do communion. But there isn’t even agreement in the gospels about what really happened that night.

I think the more important thing is not figuring out the right way of doing communion, but focusing in on that remembering part, which I might point out is only in Luke’s story. Jesus in never recorded as having said ‘do this in memory of me’ in either Matthew or Mark’s gospels. But I still think it is important and will offer some back up on that in a bit.

Remembering means something like putting the pieces or the members back together (re-member, like re-build). When we remember Jesus we are putting the story back together, or retelling the story. We are restoring the memories. We are recalling who he was and what he was about.

Sometimes, though, communion has become just the opposite of remembering. Instead of putting the pieces of Jesus life together, we pull out his death and isolate it from the rest of the story. It’s as if nothing in the story of Jesus before Good Friday is of any importance. Instead of remembering we are, and dismembering Jesus (or an invented word might be demmebering). Instead of reconstructing the story of Jesus we are deconstructing it to simply a cross and some lashes, and not much of anything else.

I don’t believe that when Jesus is recorded in Luke’s story of asking us to remember him, the only thing he was thinking about was his death. We’ve talked about this plenty of times before and in plenty of different ways, but I am convinced that there is something, at least, as redemptive in the life Jesus lived as there was in the death he died. People want to be remembered for how they lived. Nobody wants to be remembered for the way they died, unless all you think you have to offer is martyrdom.

Let’s look at another communion story. This one is not from the gospels, but from the life of the early church. It didn’t take long for things to go bad. I am going to be reading from 1 Corinthians 11.

17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for[g] you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink[h] without discerning the body,[i] eat and drink judgment against themselves. 30 For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.[j] 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined[k] so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters,[l] when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34 If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

Paul seems to be more familiar with the Luke story about the Lord’s Supper. He uses the ‘remember me’ language. He doesn’t say anything about Jesus passing the wine at the beginning and the end of the supper. But his story does have Jesus passing the bread during the meal, and then later, at the end of the meal, passing the cup.

What Paul doesn’t mention is the part of the story about the betrayal. He doesn’t tell us whether Jesus talked about that at the beginning or the end of the meal. There are several reasons that we could speculate on about why Paul didn’t write about that important part of the Last Supper, some literary, some theological. But one of those reasons could be that Paul wasn’t so much concerned about a betrayal that happened in the past during that first Lord’s Supper, but one that he saw actually taking place, in his own day, in the Corinthian church.

If Jesus did, indeed, ask us to remember him whenever we do this, the question obviously becomes what should we remember. Nobody can, of course, tell us what we are supposed to remember. Memories are our own, even flawed memories. When we remember Jesus we bring our own memories of what we have discovered about him in the scriptures and in our lives.

What Paul seems to be doing with the folk at the church in Corinth is not so much telling them what they are supposed to remember about Jesus, but showing them what they have forgotten. Paul was appalled by what communion had become in that church. Their dysfunctions, which were many, came to a head when they gathered for the Lord’s Supper. Their divisions were fully put on display when the poor folk, who couldn’t afford to bring any food with them, had to watch the rich folk stuff themselves on food and drink. And the poor folk were also the ones who were probably expected to make sure that the rich folk who were too drunk to get home on their own, got their safely.

Some people look at this story and rue the fact that people would come to the Lord’s Supper just to get drunk. Though Paul had a problem with that, his bigger problem was that the rich were dividing themselves from the poor.

When Paul warns the Corinthians about the dangers of partaking in the Lord’s Supper without discerning the Body of Christ, he isn’t saying that the danger is they don’t have a proper theological or creedal understanding of Jesus. He isn’t commenting on what they believe or don’t believe about Jesus. Though there are some of his writings that have caused great consternation in the church, Paul comes up with some pretty amazing things, including his understanding of the Body of Christ.

The body of Christ is a metaphor that Paul uses for the church, particularly local congregations. It’s in the church that the living, saving presence of Jesus is seen and felt and followed. To not discern the Body of Christ is to not discern what the church is about. And the church, definitely, is not about keeping our divisions in tact, liked they were doing at Corinth. In showing them what they had forgotten, Paul was helping them to realize that remembering Jesus surely has something to do about tearing down the walls that divide us rather than keeping them up or even making them higher and stronger. To discern the Body of Christ is to remember that Jesus called us to love each other, to welcome in the outsider, to take care of each other and the world. When we have forgotten those things that is when we are eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. People are ill and dying not because of God’s judgment for their lack of clear theological understanding about Jesus and his cross, but because they weren’t taking care of each other.
We’ve done all this talking about Matthew, Mark, and Luke and Paul. But we probably should take a quick look at what the Gospel of John has to say about the Lord’s Supper. Can somebody find that for me and read it real quickly? John, of course, does not write anything about the institution of the Lord’s Supper. What he does write about is the foot washing that took place. It’s John’s version of understanding that the Body of Christ isn’t just about the dead, cold body of Jesus, hanging on a cross, but about service and love and compassion.

When Paul remembered Jesus, he remembered the world Jesus told us we could make with Jesus and each other. And here’s the thing. Paul wasn’t there to hear Jesus say any of this. But the remembering of others who had been with Jesus, who were struggling to come to grips with that vision of a new world that Jesus had given them, gave Paul something to remember, along with his own very mystical encounters with Jesus. They were all remembering a future that Jesus believed in. And that’s how remembering Jesus is not only about personal memories, but corporate memories.

So what’s sacred is not the bread and the cup but the remembering. I think the folk in that church who were so worried I would join them in Communion have forgotten some important things about Jesus and the Body of Christ. But there was another time I was asked to preach at another church in town for a pulpit exchange. One of the first things that happened there was someone came to me and wanted to make sure that I knew that I was welcomed to share in the Eucharist with them. That’s remembering Jesus. The most important remembering we do, of course, is not when we share the Lord’s Supper, but the day to day remembering we do. How are we the Body of Christ with each other on Tuesday and Wednesday? Every day we get to put back together the pieces of Jesus and remember the future with him. That’s what we are celebrating this morning.

The Many Songs of Surrender

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15
August 31, 2014
Mary Hammond

Moses is a man on the run. Thanks to his mother’s clever, last resort plan, Moses escapes a massacre of Hebrew innocents at Pharaoh’s decree. Placed in a basket and rescued from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses is raised in Egypt in pharaoh’s court. Astonishingly—or miraculously–his Hebrew mother is offered the position of wet nurse, breastfeeding her own baby boy.

I wonder how long Moses’ mother has access to her child. Does she sing the songs of her people to him in the night? Does she whisper stories about his biological family and heritage—about his people, the Israelites, who are groaning under the oppression of the Egyptian state? Does she tell him about his biological father?

As Moses grows, he becomes a “man without a home,” bred Egyptian, born Israelite.

One day, as a young man, Moses witnesses the cruel treatment of an Israelite by an Egyptian slave master. His instincts flare; his anger hardens. Moses kills the man and then tries to cover up his deed. However, word gets out. Moses has crossed the line. Pharaoh wants him dead.

Moses flees to safety in Midian. There he marries and settles down, tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro. Moses is safe. Life goes on. Pharaoh dies, and another equally oppressive pharaoh takes his place.

And one day, everything changes.

Moses is out in the wilderness, tending the sheep. He is alone with the flock, on the land, in the quiet, surrounded by the pulse of nature and the ordinary rhythm of his everyday life. He is headed toward Horeb, the mountain of God.

All of a sudden, Moses sees a bush burning, yet not burning up. The next thing that happens is extremely important. Moses stops, and he looks. And God takes notice that Moses stops.

It isn’t until this point that Moses hears the voice of an angel, and then ultimately the voice of God. I’m struck by this brief commentary. Epiphany moments rarely come “on the run.” They command our attention when we stop and look. When we look again. When we ponder what we see.

When God tells Moses that the Holy One is the “God of your father, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” Moses hides his face. It is as if an ancient memory resurfaces deep within Moses’ rootless heart. The God of his father? Who is his father? Chances are real good that Moses has no relationship with his biological father and may not have ever even met him. But Moses does realize that his paternal line runs through the Israelites, that he belongs to this tribe that is enslaved in Egypt. They are his people.

God and Moses have quite the conversation, one that extends even beyond the text we read today. Moses pummels God with questions: “What shall I tell the Israelites your name is?” (Exodus 3:13). “Suppose they don’t believe me–then what?” (Exodus 4:1). Moses has objections–“Lord, you know I have never been an eloquent speaker and am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Finally, he begs, “Please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13).

When in Egypt, Moses was a fugitive from the law. In Midian, he is safe. Why in the world should he go back to Egypt and potentially risk his life, what alone confront the Pharaoh now in power about the enslavement of the Israelites?

God isn’t budging.

Moses’ experience at the burning bush looks a lot like the slow song of surrender. But, but, but, but…Everything about this summons seems utterly counter-intuitive.

Recently, I contemplatively read and journalled through two books by Jewish author, Elena Rosenbaum, a psychotherapist and mindfulness instructor whose work is heavily influenced by Buddhism. Rosenbaum speaks to those with chronic or terminal illness about “acceptance” or “letting go,” living fully in the midst of the reality that presents itself, whatever that may be.

As I journalled on her question, “What does acceptance mean to you?” I wrote this: “To me, surrender is acceptance; acceptance is surrender. But I don’t surrender to Nothing. I surrender to God, who holds my life in the divine hands. I surrender, knowing there is a deeper spiritual awakening in surrendering than without it. There is a pathway that Acceptance or Surrendering takes us on, and that pathway moves ever closer to the Light.”

During Sharing Time today, we talked about the images people in the congregation have when they hear the word “surrender.” One person described surrender as “giving up,” holding up that white flag, surrender as a form of defeat or sign of weakness. Another spoke of surrender as “giving in” to those injustices that we should not “give in” to. These are common images of the word “surrender. However, neither is the way of the Spirit, the way of the Voice arising from the Burning Bush.

In its deepest spiritual meaning, surrender is the act of saying “yes” to God, in spite of our natural human resistance, fear, doubt, and uncertainty. Surrender can be a type of “falling into the struggle” with both hands, both feet, and a willing–even if fragile–heart.

Sometimes we navigate big surrenders, and we find out later that they are just “warm-up acts” for bigger surrenders. Has that ever been your experience? It certainly has been mine.

Moses himself is barely warming up to the surrender that follows. The call he receives is just the start of something much bigger. He has pharaoh and the powers of the Egyptian State to contend with; he has a recalcitrant band of Israelites to shepherd on a long and arduous journey. And like the rest of us, Moses has his own doubts and weaknesses to contend with.

Moses struggles, he questions, he expresses doubt and disbelief. He distrusts his capacity to do what is put before him. God meets him each step of the way. Moses feels exposed and anxious due to his difficulty with public speaking. God offers Aaron as a mouthpiece. Moses doubts his leadership abilities; God offers a staff or walking stick with special powers. It, too, becomes a gift amid Moses’ weaknesses.

Our former Peace & Justice Intern, John Bergen, sent this short e-mail describing the period of astonishment and doubt that he faced recently as he boarded a plane for Iraqi Kurdistan with the Christian Peacemaker Teams. He said this: “Every time I move to a new and unfamiliar situation, I usually feel fine about the move until the morning before, when I wake up two hours before my alarm, terrified that I’ve forgotten to do everything, feeling like I’m an idiot for moving, etc. etc. Today was no different. But writing this e-mail, and knowing all the people I carry with me as I journey across the ocean, helps bring me back to myself and to the excitement and joy that lies underneath the fear. You give me joy.”

John’s burning bush led him to train with Christian Peacemaker Teams this summer and decline a job offer in Indiana for this fall. Now he is half a world away, bearing witness to the tragedy, suffering, an anxiety filling Iraqi Kurdistan. Most of us won’t make such a journey, yet we each need the time to step back and notice the scenery around us on our own journeys.

What bushes are burning up around you, and not being consumed? In what forms do they come to you? Are they subtle or arresting? Are you stopping and looking, and looking again?

Amen.

Nothing is Impossible: A Place for Miracles

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Al Carroll – July 27, 2014

Some number of months ago, what I thought was a catchy title for a sermon crept into my brain, and I foolishly said at a PCC community meeting that I could probably provide a sermon during this summer of uncertainty for the Hammonds. Unfortunately, despite what Peggy keeps saying about her poor memory, she remembered what I had foolishly said, and called me up a few weeks ago to say that it would a good thing if I would actually give the sermon for which I only had a title.

The thoughts that had been vaguely rambling around in my skull, resembled a physics lecture – but that really didn’t seem like a suitable form for a sleepy, summertime Sunday. However, this is probably no more than my 6th or 7th sermon that I have given in my lifetime, and preparing a sermon is good time to try to gather the various strands of my life. – and at age 78 this sermon might possibly be my last. So bear with me, a rather confused older person.

I have always liked the story about a preacher who had put together what he thought was a pretty good sermon, but there was a bit in the middle that didn’t quite hang together. However, it was late Saturday night, and his wife was saying, “It is time to come to bed, dear.” So he hastily scribbled in the margin of his notes, “Not sure about this, SHOUT!” But I’m not that kind of person. At Peace Camp, just over a week ago, Bishop Mark MacDonald, bishop of the indigenous people of Canada who are Anglicans/Episcopalians said for indigenous people it is particularly important to know who are ancestors are – particularly those on our maternal side. Well, my Mother was a graduate of Wellesley in physics, as well as one of my older sisters. I couldn’t go to Wellesley, but I was a physics major here at Oberlin College. All this is to say I have physics in my DNA, and I should be calm and collected, and not shouting to cover up my uncertainties — of which there are many this morning – particularly since this sermon is about uncertainties.

What has evolved for this morning is a ménage a trois, a mixture of science, religion, and my obsession that peace through nonviolence is what we really need. Since this is church, I thought I should begin with the religion part. A couple of weeks ago, Polly & I received an email from Rachel Naomi Remen, who has written books relating her Jewish heritage to her professional career as a physician who counsels people with serious diseases, in particular cancer. Via the Internet she read a story from her book My Grandfather’s Blessings to us, her linked in audience. As a child Dr. Remen said she was often tired and fidgety, during the long Passover Seders in which the story of how Moses had freed the Jewish slaves from bondage in Egypt was told, much of the story in barely understood Hebrew. Her Grandfather, an orthodox rabbi, realized that that this story was too much for a young child, and told her a shorter and simpler version in English:

He told Rachel, “Thousands of years ago the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. Like slaves everywhere, they suffered greatly and they had a dream of freedom. So as you remember, Moses pleaded with God to let his people go. God answered Moses, and backed up Moses by sending one plague after another when Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrew people go. After smiting the first-born of all the Egyptians, and passing-over all of the Jewish people, Pharaoh finally lets them go and they have their freedom. At this point the little girl Rachel asked her Grandfather, “Were they very happy?” We know the answer from the verses from Exodus [16: 1-3] we read this morning. Her Grandfather answered, ‘ No, Naomi, they were not. “They knew how to suffer. “They had done it for a long time and they were used to it. They did not know how to be free.”

Rachel Remen’s conclusion was the opposite of slavery is not freedom but the opposite of slavery is the unknown — uncertainty. A difficult idea to accept — BUT, President Eisenhower once said that the most secure man, was one with a life sentence. Every day was predictable, and he didn’t have worry about where he would sleep or what he would eat.

But at this point, you might say that we, a modern, well-educated congregation, have science to tell us what are the facts about the world. This brings in is the science part of this sermon that has been rattling around in my brain. Despite what we hear on TV and read in the news, in my understanding, there actually are no scientific FACTS, only scientific THEORIES. A couple of days ago I was reading responses to a blog by Professor Stephen Zunes (he was here at Oberlin this spring) on the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis. One responder after another stated what they thought the “FACTS” of the situation were. But in actually, all they had was opinions or at best evidence. This would be evidence in the best of circumstances, which in this long-standing heated emotional debate, this clearly isn’t. Evidence in the legal sense would be “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” When this legal standard is applied in the most serious criminal cases involving the death penalty, it has been found that in a substantial number (300 in the State of Illinois) that legal decisions were wrong and innocent people had been executed. The then governor decided that the only reasonable policy was to abolish the death penalty instead of making irreversible decisions that might be wrong.

To the anti-science crowd, this uncertainty says you evolutionists, climate-changers, and peaceniks are just guessing, you don’t aren’t absolutely sure about you are talking about. This is true, scientists are never absolutely sure of what they believe is true. Let me illustrate from a very rapid history of the THEORY of gravitation.

Unfortunately, this portion is liable to be a little lite on scripture, and probably too heavy on science, because Jesus gave us few parables on the nature of science– so these are mainly my opinions without much scriptural authority to back them up. It is not too surprising that Jesus didn’t dwell at length on science because modern science didn’t come into being until late in the 16th century. Prior to that time, respected philosophers, like Aristotle, thought and pondered the question of falling objects and then wrote down in elegant Greek that it was obvious that a heavier body would fall faster than lighter one. Since Aristotle said it, everyone believed it until Galileo had the simple, but brilliant idea to go up to the top of the leaning Tower of Pisa and drop two balls of unequal weight – and have his friends at the bottom of the tower observe that the two balls reached the ground at the same time as accurately as they could tell. So people gradually came to the conclusion, that thinking and pondering are great, but one’s great thoughts needed to be tested by experiment against the real world. Albert Einstein was a great thinker and ponderer, but he proposed experimental tests to check out his radical new ideas of relativity. So does this mean that modern day science establishes by experiment “facts” that are indisputable? No it doesn’t. The “Laws of Science” are fact only theories with high, often extremely high, probabilities of predicting outcomes of particular situations. All scientific “facts” are provisional, subject to further test. As an experimental physicist you can get to be famous, by showing that a seemingly well established theory is wrong in some way.

If all scientific “facts’ are actually uncertain to a certain degree, does that mean we can just ignore them if we wish? Of course not. Even if there are uncertainties as in the study of climate change the evidence is strong enough that we would ignore it out our peril. The “Laws of Physics” are guides that if not followed in building, for instance, a bridge, or travelling to the moon, will most likely result in disaster. But are these “laws” derived from the work Sir Isaac Newton, absolutely true? Another diversion – for a long time it has been on my scientific bucket list to try to understand Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. As an experimental nuclear physicist, I was very familiar with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity which deals with objects like sub atomic particles observed travelling at speeds near the velocity of light in a fixed direction. General Relativity deals with objects, like planets, that are subject to changes in velocity and direction as they travel in their orbits around the sun under the influence of gravity.

I was in the College’s science library looking for another book when I happened to notice a new book titled, Einstein: Relatively Simple. Aha, I thought to myself, it is summer, a perhaps even at the age 78. Mr Egdall, will be able to finally explain to me the complex reasoning and difficult mathematics that is necessary for gaining insight into Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – which by the way is actually more accurate than Newton’s Law of Gravity. One could design a bridge or plan a trip to the moon every so slightly more correctly using but Einstein’s General Relativity, but you would be crazy to do it because it is almost certain that you would make a mistake in using the complex mathematics of relativity.

However, there is a practical, every day use for General Relativity. Because the satellites that provide information to the GPS systems in our cars travel high above the earth at high velocities, small, but significant, corrections based on General Relativity are needed. The atomic clocks in the high-flying satellites run faster than the same clocks on the ground. Without these corrections from General Relativity our GPS position would be inaccurate by about 15 feet in 2 minutes and then accumulate to an error of 6 miles in a day. Last week, The GPS system in our car did not have the map information for Canada, and we found ourselves wandering around confused without this miraculous device on which we had grown dependent.

So far, General Theory of Relativity has passed every serious test proposed, but that does not insure that this will be true in the future. Perhaps research that Dan Stinebring is now undertaking, will uncover in some way that General Relativity to be less valid than originally thought.

Is physics really a better science than chemistry, biology or psychology? Sometimes we physicists think so, but the actual situation is that physicists choose to work on simple, well-defined problems like a single planet revolving around the sun or a single electron revolving around the nucleus of an atom. Because these systems are simply described they are subject to precise mathematical analysis using proposed theories.

Molecular biology, which is the most precise part of biology, deals with great big molecules with thousands of atoms for which only approximate mathematical solutions are known. The psychologists and other social scientists are dealing with humans who are made up of a 100 trillion cells and each of them contains thousands of great, big molecules under the control of our not very well understood brains. If we find that in the simplest of sciences, physics, there is no absolute certainty, how can we ever say that there are established scientific facts about “Laws of Human Behavior?” Modesty is required at all levels of science.

What is the upside of all of this uncertainty? The answer is that while a given course of action is very improbable, it can never be scientifically proved that it is actually impossible. Since the scientific theories of human behavior are known to contain a lot of uncertainty, if the occasion warrants it, it worth having a try at “violating” them. So “miracles” which are violations of the known laws of science are nearly always possible, even if unlikely.

While research in physics and astronomy related to the fate of the universe is definitely interesting, at least to some of us, there is general agreement among scientists, that we have a few billion years before anything other than man made disaster, causes something catastrophic to happen to our planet. So for these questions scientists can afford to be slow, careful and reasonably dispassionate. Human related catastrophes as we were reminded again and again at Peace Camp may be just on the next page of history.

We would like definite scientific answers now! One example is medical research. There are number of serious diseases killing people daily, like cancer. It is painful to watch researchers carefully conduct one clinical trial after another before releasing a pharmaceutical for general use, particularly when early results showed such promise. The alternative, however, is the possible introduction of drugs, which at best are only useless and expensive, but at worst have terrible unanticipated side effects. Hearing Mary Hammond’s struggles with treatments for her cancer is a reminder of the great complexity in medical research. I think reasonable religious people and scientists are in near agreement here. Studying the evidence in a slow, careful way is the most probable way to achieve the best result.

This brings me to my personal obsession – achieving world peace by “stopping the next war before it starts.” In the complicated and emotionally charged questions of war and peace, there are no scientifically proven FACTS. History books are filled with stories of battles and famous warriors. Powerful political leaders and moneyed interests generally support the war side of history. The histories of peacemakers are considerably fewer and slimmer, but the peacemakers do have the founders of the world religions on their side. If you go to the Multifaith Center in the College’s Lewis House, you will find at least 20 versions of the Golden Rule. As Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures when confronted by the religious scholar, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These Golden Rules are not FACTS, but FAITH in moral rules which people have felt in their hearts, and have witnessed in their lives.

At Peace Camp, I was checking my email, when up popped an announcement from Google that today, July 18th, was Nelson Mandela International Day. Good for Google! For Nelson Mandela is a remarkable example of miracle-like leadership. What could a man confined in prison for 27 years possibly do to free his African brothers and sisters from the horrors of apartheid? Any reasonable political scientist would say that he didn’t have a chance. But with his remarkable sense of justice and compassion for all races, and with help of the visionary religious leaders of South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev Alan Boesak, they achieved what nearly everyone considered impossible – freedom and reconciliation. As Mandela and his co-workers found, achieving peace takes time and patience. Trying to settle disputes after the killing starts is not the best way.

Right now the world is focused on the conflict between Israel and Palestine and between Russia and the United States. These are critical problems, which require as much diplomatic effort as possible. From my physicist prospective, we should not neglect another, simpler international problem, which nearly has a solution in hand.

As many of you know, my obsession has generally been focused on avoiding war with Iran by first reaching an agreement on nuclear and economic issues, and then re-establishing diplomatic relations. It would be a good, positive of news in a region mired in violence. I managed to convince the members of Community Peace Builders that this should be one of two priority projects for the next few years. I view it as a miracle-like occurrence that a war with Iran has not already happened. War has been looming on the horizon ever since the hostage crisis in 1979. Peace-minded people like the Quakers’ Friends Committee on National Legislation, and military leaders who realistically assessed the consequences of war, have held off the forces of aggression.

President Obama came into office with a promise to talk with the leaders of Iran. Of course, the President of Iran at that time was Mr. Ahmadinejad, a difficult person to say the least. Last August the Iranian people decided that they had enough of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his chosen successor, and elected a much more reasonable person, President Rouhani. So we now have two heads of state who desire peaceful relations. But others consumed by their own bloody conflicts, particularly Mr Netanyahu of Israel and his supporters in the United States insist that the Laws of International Relations state that the only way to deal with Iran is with maximum economic pressure and overwhelming military force. Of course this Law has been subject to experimental test. The United States applied overwhelming military force in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – and there was a notable lack of success.

We have seen miracles of reconciliation through the use of nonviolence; so I think we can go with our Christian gut reaction – our Jesus-given moral and ethical sense, and say let us seize this opportunity for peace. The consequences may be uncertain, but we cannot afford to do otherwise.

So in conclusion, don’t be excessively overawed by scientific “FACTS.” Even, if in the best of cases, like the so-called “laws” of physics, there still is an element of uncertainty. For the scientific “FACTS” related to our experiments with human behavior there is considerable uncertainty. While it is important that we listen to the evidence from multiple sources concerning which path of action to take, it is always required of us, as people of faith to keep in mind the wisdom that Jesus and the prophets of other faiths have said. For if we act out of love for our neighbor, no matter who he or she may be, we will be right on the border of God’s kingdom.

Can’t We All Get Along?

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

Genesis 25:19-24
July 13, 2014
Steve Hammond

There are lots of just plain weird stories in the Book of Genesis. Remember a couple of weeks ago when we talked about Abraham’s aborted attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac? Now today the story is about two of Abraham’s grandchildren. The narrative that starts the Esau and Jacob saga sounds like the kind of story that gets told around campfires and on barstools when folk are congratulating themselves about how much better they are than some other people.

The Israelites didn’t get along with the Edomites, or the Reds, whom they claimed were all descended from Esau. So folk loved hearing the story about how Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. As the blogger Rick Morely says it, “The punch-line is that the great-great-grand-daddy of the Edomites was a hairy, brutish, blue-collar dunce who sold his most valuable possession for a bowl full of bean stew. Or, ‘red stuff.’”

At first glance it’s easy to read this story as just another testimony of how dysfunctional families can be. Not only was there that Abraham/Isaac attempted sacrifice thing, but Abraham also sent his other son Ishmael off into the wilderness to die. Then, of course, there’s the story of those other brothers Cain and Able. Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to the Egyptians. But I don’t think family dysfunction is supposed to be the main takeaway here. I think a lot of the stories in Genesis and much of the Hebrew Scriptures are trying to get at the questions like, “Why are we the way we are? Why is there so much violence, so much suspicion, so much fear and jealousy not only between nations and clans but even in our own families? Why can’t we all get along?

I think it’s pretty hard to find a hero in this story of Esau and Jacob, or the many stories like it. I don’t know that I would want to lay claim to either Jacob or Esau as my progenitor. And as hard as many Jewish and Christian commentators who have, over the centuries, tried to ignore or present the shortcomings of Biblical characters like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob as virtues, they are, I think, doing the storytellers a disservice. I think we are meant to hear the stories of these flawed heroes. If for nothing else, we are all flawed heroes who God, nevertheless, imagines we can change the way we live with each other.

Just look at what’s going on in Israel and Palestine right now. Or Syria. Or South Sudan. Or Iraq. Or Guatemala City. Or the Capitol Building in Washington DC. On Native American reservations and settlements in the U.S. and Canada. In border areas. Maybe in our neighbor’s home. Or maybe our own homes. The violence, the oppression, the abuse, the lack of respect and compassion, this us against them mentality goes all the way back to Jacob and Esau and farther. And we all know we don’t have to live this way, but we do. It’s not some other world that we read about in stories that needs redeemed, but the one we live in. The one Jesus came to. That’s why we have the stories the way they were written.
So what do we do? How do we stop living this way? How could the story of Jacob and Esau be rewritten? How could some of our stories be rewritten?

Esau, it appears, couldn’t see beyond the next few minutes. I would get into a lot of interesting conversations when I was working with kids at the Juvenile Detention Home. I remember asking one of the girls what she wanted to do with her life. Her response was she hoped she got out of the DH before the party on Friday night. That’s an Esau response.

Jacob, on the other hand, knew exactly what he wanted and knew how to get it. He was planning on stealing his brother’s birthright, it appears, from the womb. He even schemed with his mother Rebekah from his young days about how to accomplish that task. He was willing to do whatever it took.

Imagine a different story for these twins. Mary and I are anxiously awaiting the birth of our twin granddaughters which could take place any day now. I hope they have a better relationship than Esau and Jacob did. But if they come out of the womb with Mae grabbing hold of Rose’s ankle, I guess we will have to keep an eye on things.

What if Jacob and Esau had decided they were going to fight the dysfunction in their family rather than surrender to it. What if they had decided to work together for something good, than be rivals from the womb?

I think most relationships–siblings, families, workplaces, schools, churches, to neighborhoods, nations, the created order–would be so much better if we didn’t buy into this idea that everything is a zero sum notion that somebody else’s gain means my loss. And the things people end up fighting are often not all significant. There’s that old saying about the reason University departments fight so much between themselves is because the stakes or so small.

I realize that this story of Jacob and Esau goes way back when things were really different than they are now. But, it does seem a bit unfair that because Esau was born, according to the story, seconds before Jacob, that Esau got all the inheritance when Isaac died, and Jacob got nothing. But that idea isn’t all that old. This country was populated by second and third and fourth sons, who like Mary’s Finnish ancestors, came from places where the first born son got everything and the younger sons nothing.

What if Esau could have realized that maybe he and Jacob could work together to create something better? Sure, Esau would have had to give up some of his inherited money, but there was much else he could have gained by working with his brother for something good, rather than working against each other for something unjust. And there still are so many family disputes over money.

When people are working together, trying to draw good things out of each other, whether we are talking about families, neighborhoods, churches, or nations, wonderfully good and surprising things happen. In the climate crisis work that is being done there is a lot of talk about negative feedback loops, or things snowballing. For example, when the tundra begins to melt because of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the melting tundra releases more carbon dioxide which only speeds up the melting of the tundra. But there is also positive feedback that comes when people are drawing good things out of each other. It all snowballs in a good way. We see each other differently. We can forgive more easily. We can understand more about each other.

Most people know I love and treasure Oberlin. You may have seen that thing on our mantle that Mary got me a long time ago that says “I wasn’t born in Oberlin but I got here as fast as I could.” Yet, there are some things I find pretty irritating about this community, the chief one being is how quickly we mistrust each other’s motives. I think Oberlin has more mind readers per capita than any community in America. So often I hear people telling me what some other person is really thinking, or what they are really trying to do, or what they really meant. Usually it seems to me that person or group seems to be actually trying to suggest or accomplish something that can be of help to the whole community. But the mind readers assure me they are just looking out for themselves.

It’s bad enough to have that attitude toward acquaintances and strangers, assuming that their motives are bad and that they are trying to take advantage of you or don’t really care about you. But it’s even worse when that happens with people we are closest to. I am amazed sometimes how quickly people can attribute bad motives to people who they love and respect.

I heard a story about the time a person got a very angry response to an email he sent out. The person he heard from was a person who was a good friend, someone he had worked on projects with, been in church with. But she was livid and she told others about how angry and disappointed she was with him. Finally, it occurred to this guy to ask the woman to sit down with him and go over the original email, because she was accusing him of things and assuming things of him that were so contrary to everything about him. And when they read the email together, she realized that she had simply misread it. He didn’t say anything in that email she accused him of.

It was nice to get the matter resolved, but he was left with these lingering thoughts of why she so quickly jumped to all those wrong assumptions. They were friends. She knew what she thought the email said wasn’t anything like him, and in fact contradicted much of what she knew about him. So why wasn’t her first thought I must have read this wrong? Or even if she hadn’t read it wrong, why didn’t she think, boy he’s really having a bad day, or had a rough spell of things?

Instead of ripping into him because she thought he said something so contradictory to his beliefs and nature, she could have thought he could use some support right now, because this is not the way he is. But too much of the time we don’t do that. And we shouldn’t really get caught by surprise by stories like Esau and Jacob. We know these stories.
Now there are, of course, some people whose motives you ought to question. They aren’t looking to bring out the best in you or find ways to work together. It’s all zero sum for them. They want what they want and are going to do anything to get it. There were plenty of folk that Jesus didn’t trust. He did say, after all, we need to be as wise as serpents, because there are a lot of snakes out there. But he also said that even when we are dealing with the serpents, we need to be as gentle as doves.

Somehow the Jacob/Esau, Cain/Able cycles need to be, if not broken, at least dented a bit. I think Jesus was showing us the only way we are going to stop living this way is to stop living this way. Sure there are folk who are never going to be your best buddies or regain your trust. But we can still try to regard them as more than brutish dunces. Who knows why they have been off their game for so long? Maybe there are ways to, at least, bring out a bit of the better in them if we can’t find anything you would call the best. But some of these folk are going to continue to be a part of our lives and we can’t let them determine how we are going to live.

Towards the end of Acts 10 we read one of the great sermons of the early church when Peter is in the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. “…Jesus went through the country helping people and healing everyone who was beaten down by the Devil. He was able to do all this because God was with him. ‘And we saw it, saw it all, everything he did in Israel and in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him from a cross.’”

Nobody lived a better life than Jesus. But even his motives were questioned. See how crazy it can get. But he was determined to live a better way, the way of God’s realm. And he trusted he was on the right path, the path of life. Nobody knew better than Jesus about the dysfunctions that run so deeply in ourselves, our families, our workplaces, schools, and churches, in our politics, and our nations. But he also knew we don’t have to keep reliving the story of Jacob and Esau, or Joseph and his brothers, or the children of Israel and the Edomites. He bet his whole life trusting that if we opened ourselves to the ways of God that we actually could help each other live different lives.

Esau and Jacob didn’t choose to live that other way. That’s why this is a cautionary tale. We can end up where they did, or follow Jesus along a different path and write a better story.

The Yoke and the Rest

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Matthew 11:27-30
July 6, 2014
Mary Hammond

Jesus speaks to his those in his hearing, “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” There is no big requirement here, no ‘to do’ list, just an invitation to “come.” Over the centuries this passage has spoken to countless people bearing both loads we cannot imagine and loads we know all too well. To that audience so long ago, to you and to me, to each one of us, Jesus says, “Come.”

He offers something we all yearn for—“rest.” But we will talk about that later, as this promise of “rest” frames the passage. Jesus continues, “Take my yoke upon you…”

I don’t have any direct experience with yokes. None. But Jesus was a carpenter by trade. One of the items he likely constructed was a yoke. How many of you have actually seen yokes before, and not in a museum? You first must picture two enormous oxen. A yoke is a long, single piece of wood, attached on the necks of a pair of oxen. It is connected to leather straps used to direct the animals, whether from a cart or just walking behind them. The oxen can move in concert, which facilitates their work of plowing, treading corn, and pulling heavy loads. An ill-fitting yoke slows the animals down, placing an unnecessary burden on them. A well-fitting yoke, however, allows the oxen and farmer to accomplish more than either could accomplish alone.

What an interesting analogy Jesus uses here! It comes straight from the experience of a carpenter who knows what it takes to fashion an effective yoke. The yoke is not meant to restrict, but to empower and facilitate partnership. Jesus’ evocative image of the farmer’s yoke fashioned by the carpenter connects the animal realm–the oxen; the human realm–the farmer; and the earth itself–the ground in which both labor. In tandem, the Community of Creation joins with Jesus in a co-conspiracy of grace and growth. Together we plow, plant, sow, reap, and bear the heavy load. Together we fulfill the callings and roles that are ours in the Realm of God.

When Jesus asks us to take his yoke upon us, he does not ask us to do something he has not done. The verses directly preceding the “Come to me” passage sound like they could be straight out of the Gospel of John. They are intimate reflections of Jesus on knowing the One he calls Father and that One knowing him. Hear them again, acknowledging the way Jesus speaks about himself and God, this deep Father/Son relationship, even union: “All things have been handed over to my by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” To move beyond strictly patriarchal images, we can see these reflections as bearing witness to a deep Parent/Child relationship between God and Jesus.

For years, this passage and others like it were associated in my mind with either the exclusivity of fundamentalism, the breadth of patriarchal language used to express truths in scripture, or the divine election articulated in Calvinism wherein certain people only are chosen “to be saved,” a theology as a Baptist I bristled against. But reading this part of the text in the context of the “Come to me” passage evokes poetic imagery of Jesus profoundly yoked with God, calling his hearers—and us–into an equally intimate relationship with the Divine.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…” Jesus continues. It is noteworthy that he speaks of “learning” rather than “following.” Jesus so often says, “Follow me,” but this time he invites his audience simply to “learn from him.” What does it mean to just “learn from Jesus?”

As I pondered this, it occurred to me that I spend a lot of time learning from Job. It is not that I feel “like Job.” Instead, I admire how he navigated his journey in times of suffering and personal loss. I find inspiration from Job. There are qualities he has that I want to nurture and possess. There are ways I wilt under sustained pressure that he does not. So I read and study Job, I reflect on Job, I learn from Job. And this strengthens me. He has become a journey-friend.

This, too, is what Jesus invites his followers to experience. Look at how I live. See how I work. Watch me navigate conflict. Study my character. Learn from me. Just learn.

What an open and inclusive opportunity this is! Jesus welcomes both the burdened and those who place heavy burdens on them. He welcomes the curious and the critical, the eager and the skeptical, the friend and those who seek his demise.

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus asserts. What a welcome contrast to the yoke of oppression, poverty, and everyday challenges Jesus’ first century audience faces. Yet, when Jesus describes his yoke as easy, he doesn’t say that life is easy. Life isn’t easy for Jesus, and it isn’t easy for the disciples who follow him. He does not offer his followers an easy life; he offers them an easy yoke. Walking together, the journey is lighter than bearing it alone.

“For I am gentle and humble in heart” proclaims a radically different leadership style than that of the rulers of the Roman Empire and their collaborators within cooperating institutions. These words directly challenge these systems of domination. Who can imagine, in the public square, that gentleness and humility have the power to change the world?

Now we get to “Rest.” It is promised twice in this passage, both at the beginning and ending. What does this “rest” look like if it does not correlate with relief from life’s tragedies and traumas? It is a “rest” of profound relationship and union, much as Jesus describes his own union with the one he calls “Father.” It is a “rest” that is built on intimacy and partnership with the Holy One and all creation, yoked together in common purpose and commitment.

This “rest” cannot be simply a “feeling,” because feelings come and go all the time and are so often contingent on circumstances. A “rest” that is based on a “knowing” is a different kind of rest, a rest that can be accessed in the midst of the quiet or the storm.

John Bergen placed a quote from contemplative Thomas Merton on Facebook. Merton writes in “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” (p. 142). “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…This little point of nothingness and absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us…It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

It is this unveiled person that finds a place of rest in relationship deep within the heart of the Holy One, walking together in community with all creation amid whatever comes our way.

As we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper today, we recall the love, courage, and perseverance with which Jesus faced his own journey. He stayed the course as he remained yoked with God, finding his own rest amid conflict, struggle, joy, and blessing. As we come before this Table, let us hear the invitation of Jesus one more time. I will speak it very slowly and contemplatively, so we can truly let these words sink deep into our souls. May the Spirit speak to us and within us through this hearing:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Amen.

I Desire Mercy Not Sacrifice

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Genesis 22:1-14
June 30, 2014
Steve Hammond

There is a Yiddish folk tale that says that when God went to the angels to get one of them to go tell Abraham that he was supposed to sacrifice Isaac, they all refused. They said if God wanted such a horrible thing done then God would have to be the one to tell Abraham. The angels wanted nothing to do with it.

This is a hard story. A couple of the commentators warned that this story should not be read in the service until after the children are dismissed. It’s one of those texts of terror. And for a long time believers have been trying to figure out what to make of this story. Here is a slide of some of the ways people have characterized this story. A. Abusive God,. B. Misguided Abraham, C. Religious violence at its worst, D. A story of faith and obedience.

Here is how one commentator started his comments about this passage. “There are a lot of directions one can run with a Scripture passage like this, but there is one prominent biblical truth that surfaces here, and is reinforced in the Genesis readings for the Sundays on either side of this date, as well as in a multitude of other passages: God will provide. Here is a one-point sermon. We can use these and other readings to provide varied illustrations of this axiom: God will provide.”

I think this passage is a little bit more complex than that simple one point about how God’s providing a ram to be sacrificed rather than Isaac is really about God providing all our needs.

What do you think about this story?

The writers of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament also thought about this story and here is what he or she came up with in that long section in chapter 11 about Abraham’s faith..”By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ Abraham considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back.”

Now there is someone thinking about how there is more to this story than God will provide. You do have to confront the whole notion that God would ask Abraham to kill his son, and then how Abraham was going to deal with that. And for the writer of Hebrews that means Abraham was thinking about resurrection long before anyone else was. God had promised Abraham that his line would continue through Isaac, but God wanted him to kill Isaac. The writer of Hebrews figures that for Abraham, the only way this thing could work was if God raised Isaac from the dead.

While reading and thinking about that I touched the wrong link and ended up coming across this really interesting article about resurrection from a progressive Christian perspective.

It was written by Rev. Bruce Epperly, a Pastor in Massachusetts, and a Process theologian. He says that progressive and mainline spiritual leaders need to reclaim words like ‘miracle’ in new and creative ways. He writes that “We need to be theologically and spiritually bold, expecting great things from God and great things from ourselves.”

He goes on to write that “The most significant historical and biblical meaning of resurrection involves Jesus’ transcending the power of death and living on as agent and subject on earth and in heaven. Process theologians have often been far too humble in reflections on the afterlife; they have made agnosticism and sometimes even unbelief in survival after death an article of faith! Given the plethora of best-selling texts of near death experiences, offering glimpses of heaven, we need to be both humble and hopeful in our preaching and speculation on the afterlife. We are rightfully worried about the temptation of being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. But, process theology’s affirmation of the interdependence of life and creaturely creativity enables us to imagine a relational, evolving, and creative afterlife, in which new energies of love and artistry, forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and transformation will be available to us beyond the grave. In claiming the complex interdependence of life and imagining continuity of personal identity in the afterlife, we can articulate an ethics of immortality, affirming that our life choices today, personally and politically, shape peoples’ experiences now and beyond the grave. Though we must recognize that we see in a mirror dimly, we can be both heavenly minded and earthly good.”

He ends his essay with some thoughts about the Disciple Thomas, who we call a doubter and he calls a hero. He says that Thomas was rightfully agnostic because he missed the resurrection excitement the others experienced. The key is, though, that Thomas remained “faithfully open to what may come. “John 20 concludes with a portrait of the heroic Thomas, who misses the excitement of Jesus’ resurrection, but stays with the disciples, faithfully opening to what may come. The faithfulness of Thomas he writes “is found in his willingness to participate in the resurrection community, despite his missing the community’s mystical encounter with the Risen Christ….But, Thomas did not sacrifice his questioning mind for the sake of going along with the crowd. His agnosticism is an openness to experience, not a closed mind. He willingly opens to resurrection when he encounters the Living Christ.”

His essay finishes with this. “[The Gospel of] John concludes with an invitation to imagine the many textures of Jesus’ life. The fullness of Christ cannot be contained by any text, including our Bible. We cannot think small about Jesus; there is more to Jesus than we imagine or contain in the written word. Resurrection expands our minds and inspires unexpected compassion. John’s gospel invites us to be part of the resurrection story and become living witnesses to new life in our worlds. We are writing the resurrection story in our time by our faithful opening to divine resuscitation and willingness to go forth with good news of life-transforming love.” (http://processandfaith.org/ resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-04-27/second-sunday-easter)

So I don’t know exactly what Abraham was thinking about resurrection that day. But one of the things that it is probably important to keep in mind when is the fact that child sacrifice wasn’t an unusual thing in Abraham’s day. All the gods were demanding it. In fact, the weirdness of this story, in its setting, would not have been that Abraham sacrificed Isaac, but that he didn’t. That’s what wouldn’t have made sense to people then. Here is what Brian McLaren writes, “It was commonplace in the ancient world for a man to lead his son up a mountain to be sacrificed to his deity. It was extraordinary for a man to come down the mountain with his son still alive.”

And in coming back down the mountain with Isaac still alive, some argue that is the real faith that Abraham is showing. More from Brian McLaren. “Put yourself in [Abraham's and Sarah's] sandals. Imagine that you and everyone you know believes that God is a severe and demanding deity who can bestow forgiveness and other blessings only after human blood has been shed. Imagine how that belief in human sacrifice will affect the way you live, the way you worship, and the way you treat others. Now imagine how hard it would be to be the first person in your society to question such a belief. Imagine how much courage it would take, especially because your blood might be the next to be sacrificed!”(Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, chapter 7).

I am going to put another slide up here that talks about this. “What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done.”(Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled).

For many people in the history of the church, this story of Abraham and Isaac has pointed to the death of Jesus. You have Jesus carrying his cross, and Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt sacrifice he was going to become. But there is a difference in the two stories. What is it? Jesus gets killed and Isaac doesn’t.

Yet this story has become key in folks understanding of the substitutionary atonement, that Jesus had to become a human sacrifice in order to appease God’s wrath toward all humanity. It’s actually even worse in that Abraham was willing to kill Isaac himself, but God contracted out the killing of Jesus to the Roman Army. We need to think long and hard about that. Do we really believe that God demands human sacrifice? By the end of the story Abraham didn’t. And all of Israel gave it up. And there were plenty of prophets that proclaimed that God wasn’t even looking for animal sacrifices. What God wants, they cried, is mercy, not sacrifice. But we have made Jesus the exception.

One of the things that has always perplexed me is that some of the Christians who claim to take their faith more seriously than most others, don’t really talk that much about Jesus. In fact, they don’t seem to like a lot of what he said about living nonviolently or welcoming the stranger and refugee. It as if the only thing that mattered about Jesus was that God had him killed as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s like there is nothing redemptive in how he lived, just that he died, and that he died as a human sacrifice.

You know we would like to assign child sacrifice to more primitive days. But children are being sacrificed day in and day out for our sacred causes. I remember former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright being challenged on the fact that the U.S. led embargo of Iraq back in the 1990’s led to the deaths of more than 50,000 children from disease and malnutrition. She said the cause they died for was worth it. How often have we talked about the young men and women killed in battle for the sacred cause of freedom? What about the children who parish in all our conflicts, who are abducted by terrorists, forced into becoming child soldiers, or sexual or economic slaves? Why are we sacrificing our children’s future for the gain we get in poisoning the environment and destroying the climate? Children are being sacrificed for somebody’s sacred cause at this very moment, so we shouldn’t be too tough on Abraham.

That’s why we need to change our ideas about God. And that is what happened with Abraham. I don’t know exactly what he was thinking when he walked up that mountain with Isaac. But when he came down with him it was because he was starting to see God in a whole new way.

When Phyllis Trible writes about texts of terror, she says we have to deal with them like Jacob did with the angel that night. We wrestle with these texts until they bless us. And at the end, stories like this might leave us limping. But this story helps us to take the chance to see God in new ways. It helps us to understand that there is much more to being faithful than we have often been told. If stories like this can help us understand that things like mercy are more important to God than our ritual sacrifices, if we can walk back down the mountain with Isaac thriving, then we are going to make some angels very happy.
For many people in the history of the church, this story of Abraham and Isaac has pointed to the death of Jesus. You have Jesus carrying his cross, and Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt sacrifice he was going to become. But there is a difference in the two stories. What is it? Jesus gets killed and Isaac doesn’t.

Yet this story has become key in folks understanding of the substitutionary atonement, that Jesus had to become a human sacrifice in order to appease God’s wrath toward all humanity. It’s actually even worse in that Abraham was willing to kill Isaac himself, but God contracted out the killing of Jesus to the Roman Army. We need to think long and hard about that. Do we really believe that God demands human sacrifice? By the end of the story Abraham didn’t. And all of Israel gave it up. And there were plenty of prophets that proclaimed that God wasn’t even looking for animal sacrifices. What God wants, they cried, is mercy, not sacrifice. But we have made Jesus the exception.

One of the things that has always perplexed me is that some of the Christians who claim to take their faith more seriously than most others, don’t really talk that much about Jesus. In fact, they don’t seem to like a lot of what he said about living nonviolently or welcoming the stranger and refugee. It as if the only thing that mattered about Jesus was that God had him killed as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s like there is nothing redemptive in how he lived, just that he died, and that he died as a human sacrifice.

You know we would like to assign child sacrifice to more primitive days. But children are being sacrificed day in and day out for our sacred causes. I remember former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright being challenged on the fact that the U.S. led embargo of Iraq back in the 1990’s led to the deaths of more than 50,000 children from disease and malnutrition. She said the cause they died for was worth it. How often have we talked about the young men and women killed in battle for the sacred cause of freedom? What about the children who parish in all our conflicts, who are abducted by terrorists, forced into becoming child soldiers, or sexual or economic slaves? Why are we sacrificing our children’s future for the gain we get in poisoning the environment and destroying the climate? Children are being sacrificed for somebody’s sacred cause at this very moment, so we shouldn’t be too tough on Abraham.

That’s why we need to change our ideas about God. And that is what happened with Abraham. I don’t know exactly what he was thinking when he walked up that mountain with Isaac. But when he came down with him it was because he was starting to see God in a whole new way.

When Phyllis Trible writes about texts of terror, she says we have to deal with them like Jacob did with the angel that night. We wrestle with these texts until they bless us. And at the end, stories like this might leave us limping. But this story helps us to take the chance to see God in new ways. It helps us to understand that there is much more to being faithful than we have often been told. If stories like this can help us understand that things like mercy are more important to God than our ritual sacrifices, if we can walk back down the mountain with Isaac thriving, then we are going to make some angels very happy.