Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

Lazarus and the Prelude to Holy Week

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

John 11
April 6, 2014
Steve Hammond

Mary and I have been spending some time in John’s gospel these past few weeks, as has everyone that uses the lectionary. One of the things we are realizing is that John tells long stories. And today’s is the longest yet. We’ve been trying to talk about these stories without reading the whole thing. But I couldn’t make that work this week. The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is just too interesting, and the raising of Lazarus isn’t, to me, the most interesting part.

So we are going to work our way through the story this morning. It is worth noting that this story takes place the week before Palm Sunday, the beginning of that tumultuous week that ended up with the death of Jesus and his own resurrection. And it’s only a couple of miles from Jerusalem.

[Read vs. 1-16] Let’s begin by looking at the last of this part of the story. Tensions are running high between Jesus and the religious establishment. The last thing the disciples want to do is go that close to Jerusalem. But Jesus says they have to go, in spite of the danger. In fact, it seems Jesus has decided now is the time to confront him enemies head on. The battle between light and darkness had to be fought eventually. But maybe that’s why Jesus waited a couple of days. He had a lot to think about. He knew the implications of heading to Bethany. And so did Thomas who said to the others, “Come along, we might as well die with him.”

I wish we could hear Thomas’s voice. Was he being flippant? “When did his death wish becomes ours? We all knew this fool was going to get us killed.” Or more along the lines of “Hey guys, we can’t turn back now. If Jesus is willing to take the risk of going to Jerusalem, we are too. We didn’t know it then, but this is what we signed on for.”

And once the disciples finally got it that Lazarus was dead you have to think they were wondering what the whole point was anyway. If Jesus had taken off when he first got word, maybe he could have done something. But now, wasn’t it a little late. Why take such a risk when there is nothing he can do for Lazarus now, anyway? But Jesus left for Bethany and they went with him.

We know that the disciples failed Jesus miserably at the end. But I get the sense from this story that they wanted to do better by Jesus. Their willingness to go with him to Bethany, where they could be so easily grabbed by the authorities, showed more than a little bit of courage. And Jesus had to understand and appreciate that.

[Read vs. 17-32] “When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” You can understand why Mary said such a thing, but it must have hit Jesus hard. He obviously loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We don’t know why he waited those two days, and he still wouldn’t have gotten there on time anyway. But, unlike Mary was unable to do in her grief, we can assume his motives weren’t bad. And hopefully, Mary was able to look back at that and realize it was her grief and pain talking.

When things get hard, when we have been hurt and disappointed by others, we can so easily question the motives of others, even those we love. And that can create even more pain and misunderstanding. And even though Mary was going through a lot, so was Jesus.

Before this encounter with Mary, though, Jesus has that conversation with Martha who had always been in the background while her sister Mary was out front. Martha, too, pointed out to Jesus that Lazarus wouldn’t have died if Jesus hadn’t waited. She too was a bit wrong on her math. That Martha and Mary greeted Jesus with the same accusation tells me that they had been talking about this and already decided that Jesus was at fault without really looking at the fact that even if he had left right away he wouldn’t have gotten there in time. Nor did they give Jesus a chance to tell his side of the story. They had already set the narrative and, frankly, Jesus couldn’t have challenged it if he wanted to.

Martha, though, quickly got past her accusation and basically tells Jesus, that even though he had failed them, there might well be something he could do about it. “But even now, even though you weren’t there when we needed you most, I know God will give you whatever you ask.”

We often think of Mary as the one who is more like the male disciples, but it is Martha who makes a confession that sounds very similar to what Peter had once said along the road. “I believe,” Martha said, “that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.”

[Read 33-45}] Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. He obviously shared in the grief that Mary, Martha, and all of Lazarus’s friends were feeling. But the story says he was also angry. Why? What do you think that Jesus was mad about? Maybe because he knew that his enemies were wanting to see Jesus in a tomb. Maybe the whole idea that death and heartache are so much a part of this world.

Maybe he was feeling hurt from his encounter with Martha and Mary and getting the same treatment from the crowd. “But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” Jesus was getting it from all sides, friend and foe alike. What he could have used was some comfort and understanding and grace as he faced heading into Jerusalem. You think he would have earned that from, at least, his friends.

Or maybe he was mad that such a thing as the death of a good brother and good friend had become such a public event. Something as private as personal as this was even being entruded on by his enemies. And it was turning out to be more about him than the loss and grief they were feeling.

He called Lazarus out of the tomb though Martha, who had told him earlier to do something, said he couldn’t do that. Kate Huey who writes for the United Church of Christ worship blog says this about Martha’s reaction to Jesus calling Lazarus from his tomb, in spite of that confession she had just made. “How do we move from just saying what we believe to giving our selves and our lives over to transformation and the new life that God brings? How often, in fact, do we say we believe but live as if we do not? Where does our religious imagination fail us, stop, refuse to move to places of new life and possibility? What does the world tell us about “real life” and how does that contrast with a gospel vision of being truly alive? What do we think we need to do in order to “achieve” or “accomplish” new life, as if it were our doing, and not God’s?” (http://www.ucc.org/worship/
samuel/april-6-2014.html).

Then, of course, the Lazarus story gets us asking pretty quickly questions about the things that bind us up, keep us from being alive. And then how can we be a community that takes the grave rags off of each other and this whole creation?

So it’s time to wrap up the story, with what has become as I have read the story over the years, the most intriguing part for me. [45-54] This thing of raising Lazarus from the dead becomes the action that pushes the enemies of Jesus over the edge. They are afraid that if word gets out there will be not stopping Jesus, and Rome would not like that.

You can not read the gospels without realizing there are, as Han Solo says in the first Star Wars movie, ‘Imperial entanglements.’ Well actually you can read the gospels without realizing that, people do it all the time. But you really can’t understand what Jesus was about without being aware that his mission, to make the Kingdom of God known, was a direct attack on the powers who were running the current earthly kingdom. And it was all about to come to a head in the next couple of weeks.

As we look at this story, has it ever occurred to you that we hear from Jesus, from Mary and Martha, from the friends of Jesus and his enemies, but not a word from Lazarus? And we only hear one thing more about Lazarus. The folk who want Jesus dead also want Lazarus dead. So they immediately start plotting to kill this guy who was just raised from the dead. People are weird.

Jesus knew the risk he was taking going to Bethany to be with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There were plenty of people who did not want Jesus leaving alive. So they did kill him. But he left alive anyway. But that’s another story.

On Seeing and Being Seen

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

The Gospel of John, Chapter 9
Mary Hammond
March 30, 2014

Our Epiphany themes of light and darkness, blindness and sight, continue
deep into the season of Lent. Today, in the Gospel of John, we meet a
blind beggar, socially marginalized by his life-long condition. The
unnamed man is a public fixture in the village, someone everyone knows
“about” but it turns out, few people really “know.”

Our story begins with Jesus’ disciples noticing this man, begging on the
side of the street. They casually ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned: this
man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

This question exposes their erroneous belief that the man’s blindness is
the result of someone’s sin. Who shall be blamed? Jesus rejects this
question as wrong-headed. He indicates that the disciples should instead
be looking for the work and glory of God.

The scene that follows is unique in the Gospels. There is no
instantaneous miracle. In fact, the man neither seeks healing nor is he
even searching for Jesus. He is just “there,” on the street, a subject
of conversation but not a participant in the conversation.

Jesus takes some mud from the ground, spits on it, makes a cake of it,
and puts it on the man’s eyes. In his day, spittle was seen as a ‘folk
remedy’ of sorts. Jesus then instructs the beggar to go wash in the Pool
of Siloam. This was a reservoir inside the city carved out of stone
during Hezekiah’s reign, to provide water for Jerusalem in the case of a
siege (see II Chronicles 32:208, Isa. 22:9-11, 2 Kings 20:20). The word
“Siloam” means “Sent.”

Jesus says nothing about healing to the beggar. The man follows Jesus’
instructions, discovering that he is then healed of his blindness.

The story doesn’t end here, however. The villagers become involved in
the aftermath of the healing. “Is this the man born blind, or is it
not?” they ask each other. Some say “yes;” others say “it can’t be.”
Sighted people, who have seen this man on the street again and again,
cannot agree as to who he is.

I’m not good at recognizing a face unless I have a significant
conversation with a person, and even then, it sometimes takes me a
couple more contacts. Generally, I need more than a “hello” or a passing
greeting to imprint a face in my memory. Does anyone else have this
challenge?

It is telling to notice how anonymous this blind beggar on the street
has been. Throwing coins toward him is not the same as “knowing” him.
So, the village is divided.

Neighbors come to the man and ask him how his eyes were opened. All he
can tell them is that “a man named Jesus” put mud and spittle on his
eyes and told him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. He did as
instructed. He was blind, and now he sees.

A group of townspeople march the man to the Pharisees and report the
healing, which just happens to be on the Sabbath. The Pharisees strictly
observe Jewish law, and healing anyone on the Sabbath day is highly
controversial.

The religious leaders are divided, too. Some reject Jesus as an
imposter. Others think the blind beggar could not possibly have been
healed if the healer was not sent from God.

The Pharisees demand answers from the man. “You are the expert. He
opened your eyes. What do you say about him?” they ask.

The man replies, “He is a prophet.”

More contention ensues. The Pharisees conclude that the man wasn’t born
blind after all, so they bring his parents in for questioning. John adds
the editorial comment that they are afraid of being cast out of the
synagogue, which is happening to Jesus-followers at the time of John’s
writing. The parents defer to their son, “He’s a grown man. Ask him,”
they reply.

For a second time, the Pharisees question the blind beggar who has
received his sight. Gradually, the man is claiming his voice. During
this interrogation, he begins to interrogate the Pharisees. “I’ve told
you over and over and you haven’t listened. Why do you want to hear it
again? Are you so eager to become his disciples?” the man asks. We sense
the testiness and irony in his voice. Unlike his parents, he is not
afraid to speak. What does he have to lose, that he hadn’t lost before?

As the exchange grows more heated, the man offers the Pharisees a
personal observation about the grace and mercy of God. This formerly
blind beggar, whom many in the village never noticed enough to even
recognize, stands up to the religious authorities.

He replies, “You claim to know nothing about him [meaning Jesus], but
the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the
beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in
reverence and does God’s will…If this man didn’t come from God, he
wouldn’t be able to do anything.”

The man has said enough. The Pharisees throw him out on the street. Then
comes my favorite verse in the whole story: “Jesus heard that they had
thrown him out, and went and found him.”

Jesus hasn’t appeared in the story since the incident with the mud and
spittle. Throughout this entire controversy, and its many twists and
turns, Jesus has been absent. The firestorm that ensued after the man’s
healing does not directly involve Jesus once, although he is ultimately
the locus of the conflict.

When Jesus finds the man, he asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of
Man?” There is at once something very intimate about this short
conversation.

“Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him,” the man replies.

Jesus responds, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

There are many layers to this last question. The first time the man
meets Jesus at the beginning of the story, he is blind and cannot
physically see Jesus, but he can hear Jesus’ voice. At these words, the
blind man–now seeing–recognizes that voice again. He also hears
something in it that he has not heard before. He trusts, and he worships.

John concludes this story with Jesus’ reflections on light and darkness,
blindness and seeing. Some Pharisees overhear these comments and ask
Jesus if he is speaking about them. Jesus continues, giving the teachers
of the Law the choice to remain in spiritual blindness or open their
eyes to God’s presence and glory in the healing of the blind beggar.

Healing stories can be beautiful, and they can also be difficult. Many
people in the United States and around the world experience struggles
similar to those of the blind beggar. They spend years working around
limitations, navigating difficult circumstances, religious ostracism,
and societal prejudices. Historically, the Church has too often played
the “sin” card–marginalizing people based on race, sexual orientation,
mental illness, and physical condition. We each have ways of relating
intimately to this narrative on many levels.

Why are there so many instantaneous, or near-instantaneous healing
stories in the Gospels? Then, why are so many of our own lived miracles
of the slow, tedious, hard-won sort? These are questions we often ask
ourselves and God.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know something
else that is hopeful and good. Jesus encounters us right where we are,
whether others are noticing us or passing us by. Jesus gives voice to
those whose existence is tenuous and whose future is uncertain. He
concludes, “I came into the cosmos to bring everything into the clear
light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have
never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing
will be exposed as blind.”

Who and what touches our heart as we encounter the disciples, Jesus, the
blind beggar who is healed, the village folk, the religious leaders, and
the man’s parents? May we ponder these questions as this story speaks to
us within our deepest selves. Amen.

The First Christian?

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

John 4
March 30, 2014
Steve Hammond

The authors of the book we are currently reading in study group argue that the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus a couple of days before he crucified was the first Christian. They make a good argument about her understanding that the way of following Jesus was through death and resurrection came before the more famous male disciples figured that out. I think, though, you could argue that another woman, someone we read about much earlier in the life of Jesus, could also be claimed at the first Christian. Like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, she remains unnamed through history, while the men we call the disciples get their names plastered not only throughout the pages of the New Testament, but they get churches, colleges, streets, boats and even cities named after them.

We read about this woman’s story in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, which records the longest conversation that Jesus had with anyone, including Nicodemus, whose story is right before this one. It’s interesting that we even have this story in the Bible because the woman and Jesus were the only ones there. I have no evidence to back this up, but I can imagine that the reason the story survived to get included in the gospel of John, was that she kept telling it. I imagine she told it to her daughters, who told it to their daughters. I imagine she kept telling the story to anyone new who showed up in her Samaritan village. Maybe as the buzz about Jesus grew, people got more and more interested in her story.

A lot of you who already know this story are aware that from its initial words, there is something strange going on. There had been the usual crazy stuff going on with the religious establishment. This time they were trying to provoke bad feelings between the people who were caught up in the stuff that John the Baptist had been doing and saying, and the folk who were becoming growingly interested in this new guy from Nazareth. So Jesus decided to head back to Galilee. But the story says he had to go to Samaria to get there.

That had to catch people’s attention when they heard the story begin with. “Why on earth would he go through Samaria? They’re nothing but a bunch of hoodlums and half breeds. He should have taken the few extra miles to go around it and avoid even the dust of Samaria getting on his feet. That’s what a good Jew would do.” Of course, if you were a Samaritan and heard the beginning of this story, you would have had a much different reaction. “Wow, He’s coming right through our territory, not ignoring us in disgust like most of the others teachers. But wait a minute, maybe we don’t want his kind here, anyway.”
Jesus did go right through Samaria and stopped at a well outside a little village called Sychar. This is not the first time this same well makes and appearance in Biblical literature. Okay scholars of the Bible, do you know the other story where this well is mentioned? There is a big hint in the dialogue between Jesus and this Samaritan woman. Tradition had it, that it was the well Jacob dug for his children and livestock more than a millennium before this encounter. And wells played a big part in Jacob’s life. It was at a well where he began his 14 year long quest to marry Rachel.

When Jesus stopped at the well for a drink it was Noon. The heat of the day. And there was this woman there fetching water for herself and her boyfriend. Now why would anyone wait until the hottest part of the day to go get water from the village well? Any ideas. Because nobody liked her. She was an outcast. We learn that she had been married and divorced several times, and the guy she was currently with didn’t even bother to marry her. It was a small village, and with all the men in and out of her life, she would have been the source of considerable marital discord there. There weren’t many people more marginalized than a Samaritan woman who was rejected by most of the citizens of her own village.

Yet there Jesus was asking her for a drink of water. The number of taboos that Jesus broke in that simple request are staggering. She’s a woman. She’s a Samaritan. Doing more than glancing at her would have rendered Jesus ritually unclean. There are still places in that part of the world where an encounter like this would be scandalous. But Jesus wanted to accept water from her and even drink from her cup. And if that is not enough, they get into a rather profound theological debate. Remember that most Jewish teachers would not have thought any woman, much less a Samaritan woman, as incapable of forming a coherent thought.

Jesus started talking about water, since they were both thirsty. I think it was Steve Mayer who reminded us last week, during Anita’s presentation, that people who live in a desert region have a much different attitude about water than most of us, living in the Great Lakes Region do. It’s easy enough for us to take water for granted, to not think very much about it because it is always there. Just turn on the faucet. Not so in the middle of the dessert in Samaria, or in most of the surrounding territory. Water meant to them, and still for many in that region today, what oil means to us.

We don’t think much about water until something like a drought hits. Vast parts of California are in the midst of a three year drought. And even though reservoirs are nearly out of water, people in Southern California still want to use lots of water to preserve their lawns in what is basically a dessert. The congress of the United States has passed exemptions from the Clean Water Act for the fracking industry, which means they are allowed to use as much of it, and pollute as much of it as they wish with their waste products with no consequence. One of these new computer facilities that the NSA is building is going to require 1.7 millions of gallons of water a day to run the computers that are collecting every bit of data that they can from us. And this is in Utah, one of the driest states of the Union.

I can’t imagine what Jesus and that woman would have thought if somebody told them that one day people would pollute water at will and risk ruining an abundant water supply. Or what would they have said if someone told them that for a long time people regarded water as something everyone had a right to, but that right put in jeopardy because we have turned water into a commodity that large multi-national corporations sell to us in plastic bottles?

For the woman Jesus met at that Samaritan well, procuring enough water was what shaped a big part of her day, both physically and psychologically. So when Jesus started talking about this living water that will put an end to thirst, she says, perhaps with some sarcasm, “Please give it to me. I want a drink of that so I will never have to lug my buckets to the well and back, and risk running into some of the other women. I know what they say about me here.”

They started talking about her personal life, the part about all the husbands, and the current arrangements. And then they got into deep theology. She wanted to know where the best place to worship God is, their place or Jesus’ place. He said both and neither. 21-23 “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship God neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. 23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

The woman had never heard anything like this before. Here Jesus was busting down all the boundaries, not just at the well, but in all the cosmos. That’s, I think, where she began to understand what that living water business was about. This was about quenching a thirst that was not in the body, but in the soul, and not just in her, but everybody and everything.

At that point, the disciples traveling with Jesus come back. They had gone off to get some food. They were shocked, appalled, befuddled, disgusted, and confused to see Jesus chatting with that Samaritan woman. As soon as she got a look at them and their reaction, she made a quick exit, realizing that those guys were nothing like Jesus.

She went back to the village. Not sneaking back, hoping that nobody would see her and hassle her, but going right into the center of the village and telling everybody what had just happened. “He knew all about me. The husbands and the jerk I’m with now. He knew everything and still he said God was looking for people like me. That I counted for something in God’s eyes. He said this is way beyond the man/woman thing, the Samaritan/Jew thing, this temple/that temple. He said the God he loves, loves us. It’s life. Just like he said. It starts like a trickle and before too long it’s a gushing stream that’s carrying you to something new and alive. If she wasn’t the first Christian, she was surely the first evangelist, because lots of villagers, people who had despised her, knew there was something she was saying they had been thirsting to hear. So they went to see Jesus themselves, and they became believers like her.

Maybe the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair, and anointed him for his burial, understood more than that Samaritan woman that Jesus was calling us to walk this path of death and resurrection. But how much of that do any of us really understand. For that woman with the jar of alabaster her confession came with tears. For the woman at the well, it was the new way of living she found in Jesus. Tears and wells in the parched dessert. It’s all water of life. AMEN

Cataclysms of the Spirit

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

John 3:16-17
March 16, 2014
Mary Hammond

The first time I ever heard a woman preach, I was already in seminary. I grew up in a time, place, and family that was very conservative about women’s roles in the church. The theological bent of my college prayer group reinforced these views.

It wasn’t until my seminary years that I began to struggle with a sense of calling into ministry and the dilemma that I was a woman. I commuted to a nearby seminary within driving distance of Oberlin. It, too, was very conservative.

During two quarters of church history, not one female voice was mentioned. In two quarters of Christian Theology, not one female voice was mentioned. Some would argue for this silence, saying, “Well, there weren’t any important female voices,” that’s why!

In the 1980′s, which were pre-internet years, non-western theology from around the world was just beginning to be translated into English by Orbis Press. I devoured their books, but these authors were never part of my seminary curriculum. I designed one-third of my degree myself, creating Independent Studies to cut my teeth on Latin American liberation theology and listen to emerging Asian voices. South African pastors and church leaders, like Alan Boesak, whom I had the privilege of hearing last week, and Desmond Tutu, who spoke years ago at an Oberlin College Commencement, became beacons of light to me.

Around 1986, I borrowed the entire library of a new woman professor. It was in the area of emerging feminist theology. These writings helped me begin to develop ideas for my Master’s thesis, inter-weaving issues of history, theology, and pastoral practice in a paper I titled, “Developing a Woman’s Theology for Life.”

1982-1988 was truly my “feminist pilgrimage.” I wrote every paper I could on interpretive issues from a feminist and/or liberationist perspective. I scoured the Gospels for the stories of the women. I re-examined the Apostle Paul and his views on women in leadership. I spent a lot of time with the translations of the Pauline greeting passages, of all things–texts I had never heard preached or taught in my 33 years in the church. There were no classes in Feminist Theology at Oberlin College. I taught EXCO courses on feminist and womanist theology.

I wrote a Study Guide called “Jesus, Women, and Me,” which a female missionary friend, Ruth Mooney, translated into Spanish. She re-contextualized the study for women of all social classes in the context of war-torn El Salvador. She led women’s groups all over the country and occasionally elsewhere in Latin America. The crowning moment for the two of us came on the day Ruth attended an ecumenical Latin American church conference. A Catholic priest mentioned this Study Guide we had co-written, saying that it was authored by two Catholic nuns!

I share these stories to make a bigger point today. This period of my life was a grand awakening of the Spirit, even though I had been a Christian for many years. After all this time, I had to both recover my voice as a woman in scripture and wrestle with the patriarchal grounding of the text. Men penned the writings of scripture, as far as we know, although women may have been sources for a few writings, here and there. The main story line is about Men and a God primarily referred to in masculine terms. These are just the facts.

I don’t share these things to beat up on men in any way, but to acknowledge the process of developing new paradigms for understanding the scriptures. Fresh ways of seeing have the capacity to transform our way of being in the world. Such Epiphanies, both small and large, are essential to the faith journey. I wouldn’t be standing here today, were this awakening not a part of my faith formation in the 1980′s. I think this would be true of a lot of women pastors my age and older.

The Spirit blows where She will. Even using a feminine pronoun for the Spirit is an awakening. The word ruach, Spirit, is feminine in Hebrew, neutered in Greek, and rendered masculine in Latin. The Spirit speaks from age to age. She whispers new songs for Her people to sing. She births new dreams, unleashing new visions. We are forever called to seek deeper truth and ask bold, new questions that open us up in fresh ways. Anita Peebles and John Bergen are doing this with their Capstone Projects in Religion. We heard from Anita last week, and we will hear from John today after church.

Recently, the Tuesday night Study Group explored Randy Woodley’s book, Shalom and the Community of Creation. Woodley is a native American who used his doctoral dissertation research to compare the Harmony Way in native American tradition with the biblical concept of shalom. His critique of western Christianity is rightfully scathing. The truths he uncovers are liberating for the western Church held captive to not just colonialism and its legacy of violence, but also to anthropocentrism, a human-centered way of looking at both the world and our role in it.

Woodley speaks of the “Community of Creation.” He identifies the need for western Christians to see the “neighbor” not only in other individuals and people groups, but also among the creation itself. Woodley goes beyond the concept of “stewardship” so popular in western churches, but usually applied mostly to money and somewhat to the planet. He offers an invitation to partnership with all creation. Thinking about the earth in terms of “stewardship” still engenders a relationship whereby human beings are in charge and they take care of the planet. Yet, if we ate anything before we came to church, or breathed the morning air…if we drank a sip of water or stepped outside and felt the snowflakes…we were reminded that the planet also takes care of us. Thus, this is a circle of care, not a dominant position for human beings.

Part of today’s text is John 3:16. I memorized this verse as a child. It can be seen everywhere—at baseball games on cardboard, on bracelets, in cards, and who-knows-where-else. As a child, reciting John 3:16 in the King James Version of the bible, I was taught that God loved people, that I could tuck my name in the story are even realize that God loved me! If I believed in Jesus, who died for me, I would go to heaven someday. It was all very anthropocentric or human-centered. It was very belief-centered and future-reward oriented. Did any of you understand this verse that way as a child?

There is so much we could look at here, but we can only touch on a couple things today. After studying this text for this sermon, I learned that the Greek word we translate “world” in this passage is “kosmos.” Of all the authors I read, only two underscored this fact. Let’s hear the beginning of this verse that way.

“God so loved the cosmos…” Somehow, this reading immediately removes the human-centeredness of our English translations and interpretations. God’s love is located everywhere, in everything that God creates–galaxies, stars, planets, mountains, oceans, plants, animals, and people. We could go on and on. God’s love embraces much more than the human race or even this particular planet.

Further, “who is believing in [Jesus Christ]” is not an assent to some doctrinal statement about Jesus, but it is an active verb tense that is continual and ongoing. Our English translation makes it sound like a one-time profession of faith (“who believes in him”).

We move on to the traditional English translation, “shall have everlasting life” or “shall have eternal life” part of the text. Again, the biblical emphasis in the Greek is not about a commodity gained (heaven), but about a continual experience of life in the present that extends on to the future. A better way to understand this section is to use the phrase, “may be having life everlasting.” Listen to these two verses one more time, in a way that captures some of these verb tenses and the use of the word “cosmos” for the Greek, “kosmos.”

“For God so loved the cosmos that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who is believing in him should not be perishing, but may be having life everlasting. Indeed, God did not send
the Son into the cosmos to be judging the cosmos, but that the cosmos may be being saved through him.”

In the 1980′s, I had to come to grips with both the patriarchal grounding of the biblical text and the patriarchal bias of various translations. I also had to examine and re-orient the learned patriarchal patterns of my own thinking. The first time I heard a woman pastor, I was not proud of some of my reactions. They were judgmental learned responses from early years of my life. We have so much to face and see in ourselves about our prejudices and reactions, whether they relate to racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, or a host of other “isms.”

Here in 2014 and beyond, the Church with a capital “C,” particularly the western Church of which we are a part, needs to come to grips with the human-centered way we have read the biblical text, translated it, and interpreted it. We have to come to grips with the human-centered way we have approached all of creation and the abuses of creation this has engendered.

A noted Civil Rights leader recently spoke in Oberlin. After his talk, a student asked a question about where environmental concerns fit into his perspective. The speaker quoted the biblical passage, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He indicated that, if the choice was between a child or a tree, it was obvious that care for the child would come first because the child is the “neighbor.”

The more I thought about this, I was struck by the “either/or” framework of such a perspective. What if millions upon millions of trees died as a result of climate change? With their demise, what if the food chain we took for granted collapsed, and the children of the world were starving? Who is more important–the child or the tree?

I ask this question, not to suggest the utilitarianism of the tree to the child, but to remind us of the interconnectedness of all creation. It is not “the child” or “the tree.” It is both.

Jesus asks, “Who is your neighbor?” Traditionally, the church has understood her neighbors only as fellow human beings. Yet if we widen our understanding of “neighbor” to include the whole Community of Creation, we embrace in partnership the whole cosmos which God loves and Jesus came to redeem and restore.

Who every heard of “polar vortexes” before this winter? Now, we hear about them nearly every other week. As our world faces the devastation of climate change, no nation or people group can address this reality alone. We need the wisdom of other religious traditions. We need our human neighbors and our non-human neighbors. We need the insights of indigenous people, farmers, thinkers, and dreamers. We need the wisdom of the soil and the revelation of the mountains. We need the cry of the deserts and the songs of the insects. We need the Community of Creation.

“God so loved the cosmos..”

Amen.

What Did God Say?

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Genesis 3, Matthew 4:1-11
March 9, 2014
Steve Hammond

Two temptation stories. Eve failed the test. Jesus passed. But the one who, I think, was really being tested in both stories was God. The very similar challenge put to Eve and Jesus was along the lines of “Is God someone you can really trust, and don’t you need to find out?”

Here’s the set up in the Eve story.2 “The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” “Don’t you see,” the serpent is saying to Eve, “God is not who God claims to be. If you don’t believe me, just eat the fruit and you will see that God has been holding out on you. You’re not going to die. Instead you are going to be like God, and that’s the last thing God wants. The tree is right there. Grab the apple. It’s your golden ticket. This Eden business is just a ruse. There’s a lot more waiting for you if you would just trust yourself not God.”

When Jesus was being tested, you remember it was right after his baptism. “16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

What’s the first thing out of the Devil’s mouth when Jesus is tested? “If you are the Son of God…” In other words, “You think you can really trust this whole thing Jesus? Don’t you want to make sure you weren’t just hearing voices? How about turning this stone into bread? That might be convincing. If you really want to know for sure you are the Son of God, why don’t you throw yourself off the Temple? A person in that category would get a bit of help from the angels wouldn’t he?

“Besides, you realize that if you do it the way God wants you to that they are going to kill you? Being the people’s messiah is one thing, but we know that it’s power that matters in this world. If Rome’s the problem, I can help you with that. And the empire we will set up is going to make Rome look like something from the minor leagues. And you know it will all be for the benefit of humanity. Just what you want.

“So okay, let’s say you really are the Son of God. Jump on that, don’t waste it! Now’s the time to test it out. They are ready for you. Just give them what they want. Let God trust you for a change.”

“What did God say? You think you can really trust God?” I think most of us imagine Eve and her companion Adam as these naïve, almost childlike, characters roaming Eden. But perhaps not as naïve as we think. The serpent surely underestimated Eve when he starts out by saying, “Hey, why isn’t God letting you eat from any tree in the Garden?” “No,” she says, “it’s just the one?” But the serpent did get her thinking about it. And I don’t get the sense from the story that this was all just in one afternoon. Maybe Eve thought about it for a while. It seems like she hadn’t really paid that much attention to the tree before the serpent started asking her about it. Her decision to eat from the tree and ask Adam to join her may have been more calculated than we often imagine it was.

Nevertheless, they both ate from the tree. And they didn’t die on the spot. Earthquakes didn’t rumble through paradise. Luscious flowers didn’t wither before their eyes. Dark clouds didn’t roll across the sky. Animals weren’t running in panic. God didn’t even seem to notice anything until they encountered God sometime later on and God started asking questions. The first one being “What’s up with the fig leaves?”

Paradise looked pretty much the same, but everything was different for Eve and Adam. I don’t know what they were expecting when they gained the knowledge of good and evil, but the first things they learned about were shame and fear and vulnerability. It had never occurred to them that they were naked before this. But when they eat from the tree, they immediately want to cover up. They are feeling exposed, a totally new feeling for them. And the storywriter signaled this earlier by saying that after Eve was created, that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” They didn’t know if they could any longer reveal themselves to each other, if they could continue to be that vulnerable with each other. Instead of joy in each other’s presence, now it was shame and fear.

I think that’s what is behind this story in the first place. It could well be that the storywriter was trying to come to grips with a question that seems to have haunted humanity for all time. Why are we so afraid of each other? Why are we so afraid of ourselves? Why are we so afraid of God? And why do our fears dictate what so much of our lives are about?

It’s those fears, that vulnerability that Jesus was so aware of in that time of testing in the desert. Those fears and vulnerability and shame not only impact the way people live in their homes, their families, and even their churches, but also impact the way nations, cultures, empires, and societies live. And we not only feel the fear and vulnerability, but they are easy targets for others to exploit, from personal to international levels. And so we are easily divided from each other. There are plenty of people in this world whose understanding of life, and even their livelihoods are dependent on those divisions.

So when Jesus comes along, he is seen as more of a threat than a solution. If he can get us to trust God the way he trusts God, things are going to change in this world. So the question has to be can we really trust God the way Jesus does? It’s not Eve, but maybe Jesus who was being the naïve one here. At least Eve was grabbing something for herself. That makes sense to the serpent. But Jesus wasn’t thinking about himself. He was thinking about what he could grab for others.

The classic interpretation about the Eve story is that it’s all about sex. But the real temptation in the story is that we will choose to live by our fears and vulnerability, trusting the darkness within rather than the light of God’s ways. Something did die in the garden that day, and the devil’s greatest fear was that Jesus would bring life to that death. He had to try to get Jesus to go another way than where he was headed. “If you really are the Son of God.”

I don’t know how significant this is, but one of the things I noticed in these stories that I’ve never paid attention to before is the contrasting geographies of those temptations. Eve is in the Garden of Eden, she is literally living in Paradise, but it’s not quite enough. And Jesus is in the middle of the desert. There aren’t the four rivers like in Eden to drink from. There aren’t all kinds of trees and plants offering their bounty. There is not protection from the heat and the cold. But he has enough. All the things the devil offered him turn out to be less than he already had. He passed the test, for the time being, we are told. The temptation was always there for Jesus to go that other way.

And, of course, that temptation remains for us. It can come in the Garden or the desert. Do we trust what Jesus trusted about God? Do we trust what God said? Can we build congregations, communities of love, forgiveness, and mercy? Or is that being naïve? The temptation won’t go away. But Jesus doesn’t go away either. He knows that this can be hard, and that there is plenty of temptation to live by our fear, shame, and vulnerability.

It’s interesting of all the things Jesus could have mentioned in that prayer he included, “lead us not into temptation.” Maybe that’s because there is already plenty of temptation out there, and we don’t need anymore.

Eve flunked. Jesus passed. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we pass. But the stakes are pretty high with both results. When we nourish our fear, our vulnerability, our shame there’s just too much death. But when we take a bit bite into our trust, our hope, our love, and gratitude something comes alive in us.

What did God say? Was it right?

Thoughts from Shalom and the Community of Creation

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Here is a summary from our book study on Shalom and the Community of Creation, by R.S. Woodley. They were prepared and presented by Joyce Parker for a worship service on March 2, 2014.

Shalom and the Community of Creation– R.S.Woodley (JMP summarizing, 2/2014)
“No matter how out of balance things can become, there always awaits a return to beauty.”
This instinct for harmony/shalom is in our core being.
Recapture the shalom vision! Educate and work for a holistic Way of living—a way that nurtures CONNECTION, HOPE, AND HARMONY with ALL creation (in a way God intended his Creation to be). Catch the vision of creation care. Fall in love with the land once again!
See Col. 3: 12-15 –good for instruction on Shalom.
Shalom words to comprehend: Communal not individualistic; everyone is eligible for entrance; share the wealth of creation; terms–friends, close, completeness, peace and repayment, wholeness, health. We are interwoven/dependent; every society needs a safety net.
(See Psalms 145: 9-19 for an OT view of Shalom.)
A time and place where God is in charge is SHALOM. The COMMUNITY OF CREATION needs to help awaken within our Christian faith an environmental consciousness. It is vitally needed. We have ecological dysfunctions and looming disasters to deal with. Humans need to find the perspective that fits humanity into ALL of creation, not seeing ourselves “above “ the rest of creation and the earths resources. Honor God’s creation in all its diversity. We are woven together –all are valuable and precious parts. It is not just for US! Life is intrinsically valuable. In our recent world view, we have lost much contact with the earth and her creatures, rocks and plants, air and water.
We need renewal and cleansing ceremonies to get over our corruptions.
We need to rescue our planet.
We need to act daily in the harmony way—living the Shalom and as a COMMUNITY of Creation.
We need to be hospitable and generous, responsible in our use of all resources.
We need to gain understanding and have respectful communication.
We need to practice LISTENING which gives dignity within the community of creation. Listening is the first part of the stories we need to share.
We need to practice experiencing life and not just gaining head knowledge (as in a book). Live in connection, in the community of creation, and be aware of our lives and our actions within it!

Seeding the Light

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Matthew 4:12-17, Isaiah 9:1-2
January 26, 2014
Mary Hammond

Advent has always been my favorite season of the Church Year. But this year, for many reasons, Epiphany is captivating my heart. I find myself drawn toward deep meditation of Light and Darkness. That is probably because I’m coming out of an extended Night Journey since our daughter Sarah’s breakdown in 2010. I’m again entering the Light in a new place, in a new way.

I had another sermon in process, going a completely different direction, but I scrapped it. I could preach that sermon anytime, but I could not preach this one until now.

Before I get into the heart of my reflections, I have to make a qualifying statement. There is a difference between the Darkness of the Soul Journey, which comes to all of us sooner or later, and the darkness that people with mental illness can suffer. Many biological conditions create a darkness that, while treatable to some extent, can at times lack sufficient relief. This is a harsh reality of a different kind of darkness than the one I am speaking about today.

In these moments, we are reflecting on a darkness that, after long waiting–in this life–gives way to the dawn.

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”

Some people see that great light while others do not. Matthew speaks of the Light; John the Baptizer bears witness to the Light; Jesus comes, announcing the Light and, in his Being, bearing Light. Some see and respond. Others observe from a distance. Some are indifferent or otherwise occupied. There are those who are threatened by the Light. Yet Matthew quotes the Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, declaring,

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”

It occurred to me recently that we are often taught, whether actively or passively, to view Darkness as “bad” and Light as “good.” But we could see Darkness and Light in a starkly different way. We could understand Darkness as gestating, seeding, and preparing. We could envision Light as birthing, flowering, and revealing. What a difference it makes if we view Darkness and Light this way!

People who sit in darkness, unless they are paralyzed by depression, are generally not passively just “sitting” there. Instead, they are yearning, hoping, waiting, and believing. They are longing for the Light. They are dreaming of the Light. Miracle of miracles, they are often reflecting the Light in the Darkness, even when they do not know it. Others see it, although the Light Bearers rarely recognize its width and breadth.

Something else happens in the Darkness as it seeds the Light. That is growth. We don’t see that inner transformation anymore than we see a seed underground starting to open up in the cool, moist earth. The darkness is seeding the Light.

When the seed turns to flower and bursts from the ground, or when the Light shines at long last, we finally see. Our hearts are leaning toward Life, toward Light. We are longing for its presence. Yet the Night Journey can become the womb where Light slowly gestates and is painstakingly born.

As the people of Jesus’ day “sat in darkness,” they were living under the thumb of Roman oppression, poverty, and a host of other ills. And yet, as they watched and waited, as they lived and dreamed, the Darkness heaved its way into the Light, and the two connected in some cosmic way I cannot explain.

Sometimes we are called to be prophets, sages, and witnesses, proclaiming “No more!” to the world about its own twisted, tortured modes of Darkness. Sometimes we are called to simply walk the journey in front of us and bring as much Light as we can to the Darkness that surrounds us.

When our daughter, Sarah, came home to live with us after her breakdown in 2010, her darkness was deep and utterly impenetrable. It hung like a heavy cloak over her entire being and filled the house with her pain. She hardly left the house for months except to exercise and go to church. What could I do? How could I help her? The brutal lesson for me was that I could not lift her darkness. I could let her Darkness overtake me. It would be so easy to do that. But I chose a better path. Every morning, when I got up, the first thing I said to myself was this, “Today, Mary Hammond, you will be Light in this house. Today you will shine Light on Sarah’s darkness.”

Sometimes that is the only shining we can do, but even that Darkness seeds the dawn, if only in us. We cannot know its impact and gift to others, and I would suspect that it is usually greater than we can imagine.

There are also those remarkable, transforming moments when Darkness gives way to the Dawn, and new life presents itself before our eyes. Like Job after God speaks and offers him new vision after new vision, we are humbled. We are astounded. We are changed.

Darkness can gestate the dawn in our own lives if we are open to that difficult and challenging journey. It forces us to face things we might rather leave undisturbed. We have to be honest with ourselves about ourselves, and about our stories. We can’t hide in our many defenses, or we will never do the soul work required of us.

Through various hard times in my life, I have learned that the Darkness eventually yields its own inscrutable wisdom. Darkness is rough. Darkness can be debilitating. Darkness is not fun. Yet, if we characterize Darkness as bad, and Light as good, the whole goal of Darkness is then to get into the Light as fast as we can. I get that. It is absolutely natural to feel that way. But there are no shortcuts through the Darkness–at least not through the Night Journey of the Soul.

The lessons and gifts of the Darkness in my life more often reveal themselves as the Light begins shining again. For years, I looked back at 1989-92, the first time we fought so hard to keep Sarah alive, as some kind of initiation into a more rugged and durable spirituality. Gone were all the simplistic answers. Gone was the belief that heartfelt prayer could change anything. Stripped down to the radical core of unconditional love, my life changed dramatically both on the inside and outside. But it took getting out of the Darkness a little way for me to begin to see.

We are given the opportunity in this life to let the Darkness seed the Light. Don’t be afraid of what is inside. The rugged Soul Work that we do can become both our own healing and our gift to the world for its continued redemption. Really. We keep doing the work of Jesus and bearing the Light of Jesus, everyday.

That Light shines a thousand times brighter after we sit in the Womb of Darkness for a long time. If we are yearning, hoping, and waiting–if we are open to the lessons of the Night Journey–when the Light begins to shine, we will be the first to run toward its Warmth and Welcome. Amen.

The Lamb of God?

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

John 1:29-42
January 19, 2014
Steve Hammond

Kill him! Kill him! Crucify him! No. A cross is too good for him. Let him hang there naked until the crows are done with him. He’s a blasphemer. He’s a traitor. He’s scum. He’ll rot in hell.

Those are the kinds of things people were shouting ab when Jesus was killed. Do you think God joined them, that God was there with mob? Do you think God watched in delight as they arrested and tortured Jesus, as they drove the nails though his hands, and then wrenched his body off the cross and carried to his tomb?

Didn’t John the Baptist say that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? And hasn’t there been a long belief by many in the church that what John was saying is that God sent Jesus to us to be the sacrifice for our sins? Haven’t we said that God had Jesus killed so we could be saved?

If that’s what John meant by Jesus being the Lamb of God then God, indeed, was a part of that mob that day. The plan was working. With every lash that Jesus received, with every stab of pain from Jesus felt from that crown of thrones, God had to be delighted.

I suppose people argue that God took no delight in the torture and murder of Jesus, but it was just something that had to be done. That’s actually what most murderers and torturers say. They had no other choice. The only way God could save us was by torturing and murdering Jesus. And if it had to happen that way, then it ultimately had to be pleasing to God, because it served the greater good.

It could be, of course, that John had something else in mind when he told his followers that Jesus was the Lamb of God. After all they were all good Jewish boys and they would have known, at least, that lambs were never used as a sin offering. The goats got that privilege. Every year the high priests would find a goat and symbolically load all the sins of the people onto that goat and send the goat off into the wilderness. That’s where the term scapegoat comes from. The goat took the blame. If John was thinking about Jesus being a sin offering, you would think he would have said, “Hey guys, look over there. The goat of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Then there are things like what we read in Psalm 40. “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,…Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” Or from the beginning of Isaiah, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” I’m pretty sure that John the Baptist was familiar with all of that, too. Why would God suddenly become so interested in burnt offerings and sin offerings when Jesus shows up?

And at the risk of even sounding a bit pickier than this, there’s that thing about Jesus taking away the sin of the world. John didn’t say anything to his followers about Jesus taking away their sins, or Jesus dying because of our sins. He said Jesus takes away the sin of the world. I suspect that’s important to note, and I may talk more about that in a couple of minutes. But, at the very least, I think it is safe to say that we have built this traditional notion of the atonement as Jesus being beaten, tortured, and murdered and offered as a human sacrifice to God, because of our naughtiness, on a pretty shaky foundation.

I think it could be argued that it is a bit cheeky of me, and there are many other of course, to challenge the assumptions of centuries worth of theologians who have said that Jesus precisely was a sacrificial offering to God so we could be saved from our sins. But I think it’s, at least, fair to just ask some questions about all of that. I don’t think we are trying to take something away from the death of Jesus and all that it means, but to add something that has been sorely missing.

One of the things, I think, that has been missing is that we have gotten so concerned about the death of Jesus that we have not paid enough attention to his life. But John tells his own followers, “Look, I know this guy. I’ve been telling you that the God-Revealer is coming. That’s him.”

Remember last week how Mary talked about the story from Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus was baptized by John and this voice from heaven said, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased.”

Well John is telling his own followers that he was there. He saw that dove descending on Jesus, the Spirit resting on him. And he knew that Jesus was the One God promised was coming.

So some of John’s followers decided to go talk to Jesus and they asked him where his was staying. There’s kind of a funny translation thing going on because they wanted to do more than just get a tour of his apartment. They wanted to know what Jesus was about. Why is it that John, whose movement they had become a part of, was so taken by Jesus? Jesus simply said, “why don’t you just come along and find out?” So all it took was a day with Jesus and they realized that it wasn’t John they wanted to throw in with but Jesus. And that was okay with John. Brett Younger who teaches at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, writes this about these followers of John who find themselves with Jesus. “They have no idea what they are getting themselves into. They don’t know that they will end up leaving behind their nets, boats, homes, friends, work, and retirements. They will end up changing their ideas about almost everything.”(http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/article/entry/4600/come-and-see)

Along the way, in the months and years they were with Jesus, Andrew and Peter, and the other men and women found out, I think, what John was talking about when he said Jesus was the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sin of the world.

We get concerned about our own sins, or more frequently the sins of others. Are people drinking too much, or too young? Are they having sex before they are allowed to? We have to be careful about all of that but, frankly, Jesus had much bigger fish to fry.

The sin of this world, I think in part any way, is this system that destroys people. It brings death instead of life. It divides cultures and nations and races and religions and genders. It crushes the powerless on behalf of the powerful. It thrives on violence and indifference to the pain and need of others. It is nurtured by war and greed. It determines who are the insiders and the worthy and who are the outsiders and unworthy.

Those men and women who followed Jesus watch him take on the sin of the world and saw the logical conclusion. They killed him. God didn’t demand his sacrifice. This system did. Don’t’ fall into that trap of believing you killed Jesus. You didn’t. The system behind the sin of this world wants you to put the blame on yourself, and not think about what was really happening. Sure we contribute to this system that demanded the death of Jesus, but it’s a lot more than us. And Jesus knew that. And so does the system.

John points his own followers to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And Jesus says to them, “Come and see.” Brett Younger writes, “Come and see” is the invitation to explore, discover, and travel without knowing exactly where we are going, but to know that if we catch a glimpse of God, we will also catch a glimpse of who we can be. Come and see. Come and look for places where we’ve never been. Come and see what it means to hope, believe, and follow.”

Those women and men who went and saw, also watched as the system, the sin of this world, took it’s best shot at Jesus and failed. You see it’s not the death of Jesus that redeems us but the life of Jesus. Jesus was so alive, so caught up in the life of God, that not even death could kill him. It’s that life, what Jesus revealed about God that saves us. And we follow Jesus, not toward death, but toward life.

Epiphanies for the Hard Journey

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

January 12, 2014
Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9
Mary Hammond

There are numerous ways to explore a biblical passage. We can “read” the Gospel text responsively, as we just did. Or we can dig deeper and speak slower, with more pauses and silence. We can also attempt to “move into” the text and “be present” within it. Let’s reflect on this Gospel story of Jesus’ baptism in another way during the next few moments.

Jesus and John were cousins. Think about your own cousins for a moment. Some may be very close, others distant. Some of you may not have known your cousins or you may not even have had any. Raised by his grandma who had 17 other kids, Steve has a boatload of cousins. I had just three. One died young, and the others I see only rarely.

In ancient times, however, families were larger than today and more connected than they often are in our society. The mothers of Jesus and John were close, as we witness in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel. They were even pregnant at the same time. That experience bonds two women in the same family in a special way. Further, both children were marked by God before birth for unique callings. Both families had received signs from God about their sons before their boys were born. Mary and Joseph, and Elizabeth and Zachariah, had a lot in common, despite their differences in age and circumstance. Both families faced a lot of adjustments and life changes because of their sons.

The Gospels do not share a lot about Jesus’ childhood, but it is not unreasonable to imagine that Jesus and John saw each other often throughout their young years. As the boys grew to adulthood, they were each conscious of their special callings–John’s to prepare the way for Jesus, Jesus’ to show and be the way of God.

As we come to our text, John is now an adult. He is preaching in the desert. People are traveling various distances to hear him. He warns of impending judgment, of the cataclysmic arrival of God’s Reign. He baptizes those who heed his call to repent of their sins and make a life-change.

Along comes Jesus, who asks his cousin to baptize him, too. John is incredulous. “What?” he exclaims. “You should be baptizing me, I should not be baptizing you!” he protests.

Yet Jesus insists, and John complies. Down in the water Jesus goes. Up he rises, just like the countless others John has baptized. Almost.

This time, something different happens. The heavens open up and the Spirit, like a dove, descends upon Jesus. A voice calls out, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” as the older translations report.

Matthew doesn’t tell us whether other people there saw the Spirit or heard the voice. He simply reports these events. Jesus is drenched not only in the waters of the River Jordan, but also in the Spirit of the Living God. There is no commissioning to specific tasks at this moment. Instead, there is just this outpouring of the Spirit and this affirmation of Jesus’ relationship to the Holy God.

Epiphany literally means “showing.” It is a time of revelation, of light penetrating the darkness. It is a time for un-peeling the layers of reality and uncovering the truth that shines beneath the surface. For me, the baptism of Jesus demonstrates how completely he identifies with each and every one of us. John’s protest is basically, “If anyone does not need to get baptized, Jesus, it is you.”

And yet Jesus chooses to be baptized. He releases himself to the waters and rises up to meet the freshness and holy surprise of God’s presence in Spirit and voice.

The first year after our daughter Sarah died, I had many moments where the veil between this world and the next was briefly lifted. One of those experiences occurred while walking by the Conservatory on W. College Street in September, 2012. I was preparing for cancer surgery and thinking about my last bout of cancer in 1994. “I did this before; I can do this again,” I naively calculated.

I anticipated a repeat experience of 1994 and the years of recovery thereafter. A voice spoke to my heart out of the blue, “I’m fighting with you, Momma.”

I was by myself at the time, and I was surprised, of course. I wasn’t expecting this. It had to be Sarah–who else could it be? But she usually called me “mom,” not “momma.” Rachel sometimes called me “momma,” but not Sarah.

As often was the case, I stewed about this for a couple days. Was I making this up? Did I want it to be Sarah? Then, why the “momma,” not the “mom”? Finally, I believed. It had to be Sarah. Rachel could call me on the phone and say this. She didn’t have to speak to my heart while I was walking on West College Street.

In the next months, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the word “with”–“I’m fighting with you, momma.” Not “for you,” not on behalf of you, but alongside you, from the other side of the veil. It was an incredible gift.

I had my first biopsy September 18, 2012. Fool that I was, nothing was similar to 1994. Everything turned out much more complicated, difficult, and debilitating. Curve balls abounded.

“I am fighting with you, momma,” became a balm for my soul. It constantly reminded me that both love and life never end. I am surrounded by the Communion of Saints, the community of the church, the fellowship of the Spirit, the presence of the Holy One, and so much more. I am far from alone.

Some pastors use the story of Jesus’ baptism to remind their parishioners of the importance of being baptized, the need to make a public testimony of a desired life-change through entering these waters. We do not talk enough about baptism here at PCC, I think. Yet the power of this story for me today is in its direct connection to Epiphany. Jesus’ surrender to this moment led to the manifestation of the Holy One through the descent of the Spirit and the voice from heaven. I doubt that Jesus predicted that anymore than I predicted hearing from Sarah that day near the Conservatory.

I needed my family in the rough road before me–Sarah, too. And Jesus needed affirmation for the next leg of his journey. Immediately the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to endure 40 days of temptation and testing. Surely that experience at his baptism was a strength and comfort to him during that time.

Cherish the times when the veil between this world and the next opens up, and you see what you previously have not seen. Epiphany moments come rarely, yet they are precious, even life-changing. Like Jesus and like me, you will need these experiences in the days ahead.

May each of us enter this Gospel story deeply. May it speak to our hearts in the ways that only our Creator knows we need. Amen.

Who’s Missing from the Christmas Pageant?

Monday, January 6th, 2014

Matthew 2
January 5, 2014
Steve Hammond

We’ve talked about the book The Best Christmas Pageant Ever for the past couple of years. I just read that little book again over Christmas, and continue to recommend it to all of you. It’s the story of the Herdman kids, who were not your typical church family. Here us how the book starts.

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down tool shed.” Then in the last paragraph of the first chapter we read this. “We figured they were going straight to hell by way of the state penitentiary…until they got themselves mixed up with church, and my mother, and the Christmas pageant.”

What happened was one of the Herdman kids heard that there were snacks at Sunday School, and they were quick to respond to the exaggerated claims as to how often and how amazing the snacks were. And on the Sunday they showed up to check out the snacks, there was talk about how rehearsals for the Christmas pageant would start the following week. Imogene, the oldest of the Herdman daughters, had never heard of a pageant before. But when she was told it’s kind of like a play, she became very interested. The Herdman kids always sneaked into movies, so she thought this sounded kind of like a movie.

So all the Herdman kids showed up for the first Christmas pageant rehearsal the next Sunday. And there they heard something they never had heard before; the Christmas story. They were captivated by the story. They were also determined they were going to be in the pageant no matter what kind of physical or psychological threats they would have to make to insure no one challenged them for the parts they wanted.

Leroy wanted to know who was going to play Herod. When he was told that Herod wasn’t included in Christmas pageants, all the Herdmans were disappointed. Not because they wanted to play Herod. They wanted to beat him up. And it also encouraged them to go to the library and get library cards. People thought it was because they wanted to get their hands on the dirty books. But they wanted to find out more about Jesus and the Christmas story, particularly what happened to Herod. They were sorely disappointed to learn that there wasn’t much to find out. Nothing about him being beaten up or punished in anyway. They figured he maybe just died of the flu when he got old.

I think the Herdmans were right about their assumption that Herod would be a part of the pageant. He was a big part of the story. And you don’t really understand the story without him. It would be nice if the story were just about wisemen and shepherds, angels, a baby, a sweet young woman and her devoted and understanding husband. But it that’s all there were to the story, then you really wouldn’t need it in the first place.

“The light came into the world,” we read in John’s gospel, “and the darkness could not overcome it.” But it’s not that the darkness isn’t trying. People have been victims of the Herods of this world since long before Jesus was born, up until this very day. It feels like sometimes the forces of darkness are doing quite well. Just read the newspaper. Do you know how many kids are dying in places like Syria? How many children have been killed in U.S. drone strikes? Do you think their parents weep any less than they did in Ramah that day when the soldiers came?

I just saw the second part of The Hobbit this week, and there is a scene where Gandalf is doing battle with the Necromancer. The Necromancer literally tries to snuff out the light from Gandalf’s staff with a cloud of darkness and cries out that the light can never defeat the darkness. That’s what they think, Herod and all those Necromancer’s like him. And they do not take challenge to their power lightly, even if it’s got something to do with a baby in a backwater village.

The travelers were confused, I think, when they got to Jerusalem and nobody seemed to know what they were talking about. How could the birth of this new Jewish king go unnoticed amongst the people of Jerusalem, when these Zoroastrians had figured it out? They didn’t pick up on Herod’s fear, fear for his power. Maybe they were a bit naive. But no matter what happened in Jerusalem, they kept following the light.

I guess that’s the only way we can deal with the darkness. Follow the light. And it’s tricky because there are plenty of people like Herod who are trying to convince us they are following the light, too, but actually all there is to them is darkness. Hopefully, we will be able to figure things out, like the travelers did, before we come close to messing up everything.

Fortunately the story didn’t end at some house in Bethlehem, with Jesus nearly two years old, and his parents watching the travelers head back home. Jesus spent his life showing us the light. And like with the travelers, we end up in some unexpected places, with people having no idea why we are there. But it’s all because we have seen the star, and the light draws us to new and unexpected places.

Do you know who else is not in the story? The soldiers who were sent out to kill the babies. Can you imagine what it was like to receive those orders? To mount up on their horses, knowing that their next stop would be in Bethlehem where they were expected to slaughter those children? They heard the screams of the parents as they ripped their children out of their arms. They watched those babies die at the end of their swords. How do you go home to your own children after that? I’m sure they were told it was for the sake of the nation. And some of them probably tried to believe it. They had to find some way to escape from that dark place. And we still order soldiers to kill children for the sake of the nation. And we still try to convince ourselves we had no other choice.

Here’s the thing about light, though. It shows us that we have other choices. The word epiphany means revealing. The light reveals new paths and new possibilities. We can choose the way of Jesus. We can, as the singer Bruce Cockburn assures us, “kick at the darkness til it bleeds daylight.”

The pageant ends with Imogene Herdman, in the role of Mary, in tears. She is overwhelmed by the story. It’s light, it’s darkness, and ultimately, her place in it. It turns out that there are way more people in the story than we realize, including ourselves. And we all have to go back home a different way, because once you have been to Bethlehem, things are never the same. And we spend the rest of our lives, no longer following stars, but following Jesus, walking toward the light.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” That sounds like walking toward the light to me.

“You should seek first the Realm of God and God’s righteousness, then all these things shall be added to you.” Sounds like walking toward the light to me.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Sounds like walking toward the light to me.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your God who is in heaven.” Sounds like walking toward the light to me.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Sounds like walking toward the light to me.

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Sounds like walking toward the light to me.

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me.’” Sounds like walking toward the light to me.