Archive for October, 2009

A Fragment of Stubborn Faith

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

A Fragment of Stubborn Faith
Job 42:1-6, Mark 10:46-52
Mary Hammond
October 25, 2009

Our daughter Grace had a particularly feisty friend in middle school who at times nearly lived at our house. Like many other friends of our kids growing up, she became an adjunct part of the family.

Occasionally I would see this preteen’s mom in town, and she would fill me in on her view of life with an adolescent daughter. One day, in great exasperation with her child, she shouted out, “What part of the word ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

Without blinking an eye, the daughter stood her ground and replied, “The ‘n.’”

Somehow, this encounter reminds me of the two biblical characters whose stories we remember today–Job of the Hebrew scriptures, and Bartimaeus of the Gospel of Mark. As we proceed, you will see why. Both men knew their way around suffering–Job through catastrophic circumstances in his later years after a seeming life of faithfulness, hard work, and prosperity; Bartimaeus through blindness (whether congenital or progressive) that left him a beggar on the street–marginalized, pitied, and ignored. Ironically, catastrophe reduced Job and Bartimaeus to virtually similar realities, even if they arrived there in different ways and came from very different backgrounds, which we do not really know. Suffering has a way of leveling the playing field within the human community.

There is more that joins Job and Bartimaeus besides their common loss and its attendant impact on their lives. This is their ability to say “no” and to become louder and louder, more and more insistent as they are denied either answers from God or access to Jesus. It is Job’s religious friends who reject his provocative challenge to the Holy One! Similarly, it is Jesus’ own followers in the crowd who try to hush up Bartimaeus! How tragic for God, Christ, the church, and religion itself, when those who cozy up closest to the Divine quench the movement of God’s Spirit! Conversely, how wonderful for God, Christ, the church, and religion itself, when plucky disciples resist such madness!

What part of the word ‘no’ don’t Job and Bartimaeus understand? Is it the ‘n?’ Is it their desperation combined with their reckless faith? Is it the fact that, in their deepest of hearts, both are seekers who refuse to let naysayers get them off track? Is it the conviction that, while others see them as pitiable human beings, they themselves know better? In the eyes of God, do Job and Bartimaeus believe that they are more than what others imagine, judge, or see?

An intangible quality joins these two biblical characters. It is their yearning, their need, their hunger to see. Job is lost in his sufferings, alienated from the friends who fail to help, the wife who doesn’t get it, the God who won’t engaged him, and the former life that lays shattered at his feet. Bartimaeus is lost in his sufferings as well, living hand to mouth, begging on the streetcorner, alienated from those who once cared for him. Job calls out to Yahweh. Bartimaeus cries out to the One he addresses as “Jesus, Son of David.” Both hearts long for sight and transformation.

Here’s where the commonality stops and the individuality begins because transformation comes in such different ways to different people. There is no story in scripture that can become the template for how God works in a human’s life because God doesn’t seem to do the exact same thing twice. When our oldest daughter was in and out of the hospital with anorexia during her early teens, I could not bring myself to read the healing stories in the Gospels for at least a year. They tore my heart to pieces. They teased me with something I did not know.

Why can’t Jesus do this for my child? I would wonder. Why does this healing miracle look so easy, so instantaneous, and so complete–so, in fact, miraculous? What am I missing, Jesus?

And what about the aftermath of the story?, I would ask again and again. We never get that far in the Gospels. Their writers record the ‘happy endings,’ but we don’t then benefit from a postscript–the difficult process of transforming long-term life patterns; social relationships with family, friends, and neighbors– all the changes that true restoration embodies.

I was no Bartimaeus, leaping up, being healed, and following Jesus straightaway. Instead I was the Syrophoenecian mother in Luke’s Gospel, desperate for Jesus’ attention to my child’s plight, willing to take any crumbs he would throw me from his table.

I was also Job. Like him, I hung on to faith against faith. Even as situations grew darker and more desperate, I clung to prayer, and my prayers often became cries of lament. Thankfully, Job became a traveling companion. His long, anguished complaint provided a mirror in which I could affirm my own heartcries day after day, month after month, year after heart-rending year.

There are two things I now see about seeing that I could not see nearly two decades ago. The first is that God is often in the business of ‘slow miracles,’ but we’ve spent too long feeding on the fast ones and often don’t even know how to look for the slow ones. The second is exemplified by the editor’s heading in The Message Bible for the prose epilogue to the Book of Job. This “happy-ever-after” conclusion following Job’s confession is labeled, in big letters, GOD RESTORES JOB.

When things go well for Job once again and he gets cattle, land, reputation, kids, the works back–that’s not when Job is restored! This epilogue reminds me of the tidy feel-good ending of a suspenseful, epic movie. The hero suffers faithfully and God blesses you better at the end than even at the beginning! If you think about it, such a conclusion reinforces all the prosperity theology Job fights against so vociferously throughout the book!

No, God restores Job as the Holy One speaks out of the whirlwind, when Job is no longer hanging on for dear life to a fragment of stubborn faith in a Silent God. God restores Job when the Holy One meets Job face to face in the midst of Job’s agony. God restores Job when the insight Job gains provides enough light–just enough!–to enable him to abandon his state of continual lament, let go of dust and ashes, and move toward restoration.

Similarly, Jesus restores Bartimaeus, not when he joyfully follows Jesus as a sighted man rather than as a blind beggar. Jesus restores Bartimaeus when the Son of David ignores the protestations of the crowd, stops in his tracks, and asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want from me?” Jesus restores Bartimaeus when a dense crowd does not prevent the beggar’s cries for mercy from reaching the ears of a loving God in the person of Jesus Christ.

What part of the word “no” don’t Job and Bartimaeus understand? How about you?

WWJS and HWHSI

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

WWJS and HWHSI
Matthew 5, John 10
October 18, 2009
Steve Hammond

Does anybody hear agree with me that this country has gotten too loud? It seems we believe that the louder you are, the more obnoxious you are, the ruder you are, the more we ought to pay attention to what you are saying.

Our radio stations are filled with loud and abusive hate speech. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and violence are extolled, at very high decibels, by the most listened to and watched media personalities. They yell and their supportive callers yell over the phone lines with them. Many of what are called news casts on CNN and MSNBC are just excuses to get several people in the same room, or on the divided screens from their various locations, screaming at each other.

We’ve seen what town hall meetings have become. Congress people are shouted down along with anyone who voices opposition to the birthers, death panelers, and tea baggers. Even the local newspaper, the Oberlin News Tribune, lamented in this past week’s editorial about the tone of some of the letters to the editor they are getting for the upcoming local elections. “Why,” they ask, “do writers of letters to the editor think we want to read the invective and character assassination from their pens?”

Part of my answer to that question is that’s what we have been taught. Invective and character assassination are seen as a normal and acceptable way to speak to and of one another. That’s how people do it on radio and TV and in the newspapers and in blogs. There was even a working Moms and stay at home Moms discussion on TV the other day that got into some shouting.

We are always going to have disagreements and it’s okay for people to disagree. But can we, at least, do it a little more quietly?

The voices are loud and harsh and everywhere. But in all that ugliness that has become acceptable, there is one voice we need to be listening to above all the rest, the voice of Jesus.

And you do have to listen hard. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers.” Does that sound like Ann Coulter to you? No. But it does sound like Jesus. I, personally, want to hear what Jesus said and what he is saying to us today. And I don’t care how loudly and viscously anyone is claiming to be upholding the word of God. It doesn’t mean a thing if I’m not hearing Jesus.

In John 10 Jesus says ‘my sheep hear my voice.’ How? Because we have learned to listen for it. Back when there were lots of shepherds and sheep around places such as first century Palestine, the shepherds would often bring their flocks together at night. That would give them all extra protection from wild creatures, sheep rustlers, help in finding the straying lamb, and the like. But when they split up in the morning, all the shepherds had to do was start calling to their sheep and the sheep would all separate out to their various shepherds. The sheep had learned to listen for the voice of their own shepherd. It was a voice they trusted. It didn’t matter how loud the voices were of the other shepherds, there was one voice they were listening for. Just like there is one voice we need to listen for.

Do you remember the ‘what would Jesus do’ bracelets, bumper stickers, key chains, refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, mugs, lapel pins, earrings, necklaces, wrist bands, and other WWJD paraphernalia? Not that we need more of that kind of stuff cluttering our environment, but it might do us well in the aggressive talk that surrounds us to, at least, chant quietly to ourselves, WWJS, what would Jesus say?, and HWHSI, how would he say it?

From the record we have, it seems to me that Jesus would say things about compassion, love, forgiveness, humility, dependence on God, inclusion, tearing down walls, faith, making peace, working for justice for those who are being treated unjustly, feeding the hungry, turning from violence and prejudice and greed and oppression. And he would say them with gentleness, patience, helpfulness, and hopefulness. On occasion, of course, Jesus got loud, almost always with the relig­iously and politically powerful. But for the most part, he let his words make his point, not his volume. And what Jesus said was life giving, pointing people to God and God’s ways.

I really believe it is our call, our responsibility, our privilege, our hope to listen for the words of Jesus in the cacophony that passes these days for discussion and debate. Oftentimes we won’t hear from Jesus in that discussion and will have to listen for it elsewhere. And I don’t care how much I agree with the person who is talking, or screaming. What is important is that I hear something that reminds of what Jesus would say, and how he would say it, and how it would shape our lives.

I think that is easier to listen for Jesus than we imagine. We know what Jesus said. Some of us even have it in red letters. “Love your enemies.” That’s pretty straightforward. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” No need to shout that. “If you forgive others, God will forgive you.” No name calling there. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” “Be like one of these little ones.” “Love God with all your being, and love your neighbors just like you love yourself.” “For God so loved the world.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” I don’t think Jesus said any of that stuff with his veins popping and sarcasm dripping from his lips. But it’s better stuff than I’ve heard on the radio and TV lately, including Rachel Maddow (my personal favorite).

There are times, though, when we are not just listening for the words of Jesus but also speaking them. Jesus always meant for his words to come alive in us, changing us, changing others, and even changing this world.

We are his witnesses, the ones who recount his words and life. We are the body of Christ in this world, the living presence of the living Jesus, heirs of the Word become flesh. We are the keepers of the stories, those who speak the words of Jesus because they have chang­ed how we live.

Are we convinced enough of God’s love for us, convinced enough of the Spirit’s work in our lives, that we are able to pass the words of Jesus on, to speak them to life for others? To be his voice in the midst of all the other voices?

The Apostle Paul had his own trouble with communicating. He could be loud and obnoxious and very argumentative. But a lot of times the words of Jesus did manage to come through him. This is from Philippians 4. “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into God’s most excellent harmonies.

Could you imagine this country without all the shouting? Maybe we can help if we just listen for the right voice.

Remember, WWJS and HWHSI. That will help.

Slinking Toward The Throne Of Grace…?

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Slinking Towrd The Throne Of Grace…?
Job 23: 1-9,16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16
October 11, 2009
Mary Hammond

The last three weeks of my mom’s life are indelibly imprinted on my heart. Before I made this final trip to Chicago to see my mother, her primary care nurse warned me, “There will be good days, then good hours, then good moments.”

In the passage from this world to the next, my mom was ‘in transition,’ that hardest stage of the birthing process, for what seemed like a very long time. She was working through many things, as could be expected. One of the hardest of these was reckoning with this recurrence of cancer. At times she denied even having it. At other times she quietly confessed, “I must have done something very bad to deserve this.” I would gently but firmly refute that theology, which seemed such a travesty in the light of my mom’s grace-filled life.

Yet such thinking is as old as the Book of Job, and most likely older still. In this epic psychological drama framed by prose on both sides but poured out in poetry at its core, Job refutes just such theology. Old friends come to comfort and help him after a series of calamities leaves Job bereft of possessions, reputation, children, and even his own health. His friends cannot imagine any other cause for suffering than sin. Like the theology that lurked in the depths of my mom’s psyche from generations past, their theology views suffering as a sign of God’s disapproval. The question then becomes, “What did you do to deserve such a mess?”

We have to remember here that this discussion of theology doesn’t mean that people never create the messes they are in. There is a biblical principle about “reaping what we sow.” Sometimes our messes are, indeed, of our own making, but not always. And many people attribute many tragedies to personal sin which should not be.

Job roundly rejects the theology of his friends, taking his protest straight to God. He imagines himself locked in a legal battle with God in the great court case, God vs. Job, with God as Judge and Job as plaintiff. Would God dismiss his complaint out of hand? Never! Would God rule him out of order? Not likely! Would God hear him out? Surely, the Holy One must! We sense the visceral, gritty relationship Job maintains with the God throughout his struggle.

A few weeks ago I encouraged the members of this congregation to find an old bible and make it your “lover’s quarrel” bible wherein you scribble your questions, ideas, protests, and experiences with the text and its use. If we want to know what a lover’s quarrel with God looks like, we don’t have to go any farther than the Book of Job. Throughout Job’s long complaint, he continues to challenge God yet affirm his belief in God’s sovereignty and omnipresence.

Yet, Job’s suffering challenges these core beliefs. God has thrown a major curve ball in his life, painfully and radically veering him off his anticipated course. What does that mean? How is Job to understand God’s sovereignty in light of this profound suffering and loss? How is Job to comprehend God’s presence when God is nowhere to be seen or felt?

Throughout his defense, Job affirms what some might call “faith against faith.” It is faith that cannot see anything ahead but darkness, yet still clings to the light. It is faith that cannot sense anything but God’s absence, yet still affirms the Silent Hand of the Holy One. It is the faith of Jesus on the cross, when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, praying to the very One whose abandonment he so keenly felt.

Sometimes our life situations lead us on similar journeys. We’ve believed one thing one way about God for many years, and then something happens. Bam! There goes our theology, severely tested at the least, sometimes blown right out the window. We must admit that there are times when our theology can use a quick funeral, but in other instances our understanding of God requires deeper work–greater nuance, a wider vision, major reconstructive surgery, or a heavy dose of mystery. And we cannot forget that there are circumstances in life where we are called to exercise “faith against faith,” to put one foot in front of the other every morning and walk through the dark night of the soul, clinging to that faint expectation that daybreak will eventually come.

In times of crisis we may discover that we have a better sense of what we don’t believe than of what we do believe. Suffering by nature contracts us inward, and it is hard to glimpse a picture bigger than our own situation. Can we see our story through a wider lens?

Nobel Peace Prize winner, human rights activist and lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, spoke at Finney Chapel on Wednesday night. In the introduction to her speech, Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov shared that she regularly faces threats on her life in Iran and has already spent three months in prison, one of which was in solitary confinement. During the Question & Answer period, a student asked her how she deals with constant threats to her personal safety.

Her response struck me deeply. She nearly dismissed her own situation, instead comparing her own current freedom of movement to the situations of many other Iranian human rights activists and journalists in prison at this moment. What she saw was not the danger to her own life, but her solidarity with countless others in more dire circumstances. She brought to the issue of suffering a wide-angle lens, when we so easily see only the freeze-frame of our own situation. She spoke as well about her faith as a Muslim woman, and how that sustains her.

When God finally speaks to Job, God offers Job a mysterious yet ultimately transforming panoramic vision, one that helps him reckon with his life and at last move on. It is an unexpected glimpse into a world and universe that Job can barely fathom and can surely never control. God does not directly answer Job’s questions. Paradoxically, God’s response is just what Job needs.

The story doesn’t end here, for Shirin Ebadi, Job, or ourselves. It is continually unfolding. As we move to our New Testament reading in Hebrews 4, we are reminded that God sees everything and knows all about us. The Word of God pierces the heart, uncovering what is layered with mask and pretense. It is we who need vision and understanding to navigate what comes our way.

God is neither distant nor absent, in spite of all our feelings to the contrary. The Hebrews to whom the letter is written have a deep, nuanced understanding of the role of the High Priest. The letter’s author proclaims that Jesus is the Great High Priest, offering us continual access to God. Not only that–but Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses because he, too, has been tested and tried by fire.

Like Job, we can bring all our vulnerability, questioning, weakness, and protest to our ‘lover’s quarrel’ with God. There is no need to slink toward the throne of grace. We can boldly ask for the help and mercy we need. God is there for the asking. Amen.

Naked and Unashamed?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Naked and Unashamed?
Genesis 2:18-25 Mark 10:2-12
October 4, 2009
Steve Hammond

The story from Genesis 2 that we read earlier this morning is correctly, I think, identified by the Biblical Scholar Phyllis Trible as one of the really delightful stories in the Bible. You could get a lot of sermons out of this story.

We’ve got Adam, the person Trible refers to as the Earth Creature, which comes from that wonderful play on words in the Hebrew where God takes a handful of the earth, the humus, and creates a human. Adam is a creature, literally, of the earth, the ground, the dirt.

But Adam is lonely. First of all, it’s kind of neat that God cares that Adam, the earth creature, is lonely and wants to do something about it.

Then you get this amazing story about God thinking well, “I will make some other creatures and see if that helps the earth creature not feel so all alone.” So God creates all these animals and brings them to Adam. Adam names them, maybe romps through the meadows with the elephants, and tigers, and cows. But it doesn’t work. Adam is still lonely.

So God decides to try something else. God is kind of free styling here. God puts the earth creature into a deep sleep and seemingly extracts the woman from Adam, reaches in and pulls her out, along with a rib. This gets into Trible’s whole thing about how when Adam was created, the earth creature was both male and female. But when God separated the two, we no longer had simply the earth creature, but man and woman. And all the sudden Adam wasn’t feeling so alone. “This is it! Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh.” Adam is no longer alone.

It’s interesting in the lectionary they leave out the last verse of this story, “The two of them, the man and woman, were naked, but they felt no shame.” That’s the best part of the story. Not simply for the visuals it suggests, but the much deeper point that is being made here. Which, of course, all of the creation story is about the much deeper points.

Naked and unashamed. The man and the woman were able to stand there, not just physically vulnerable in their nakedness but vulnerable in their very beings, and trust themselves to each other. We use that phrase, “I felt so naked and vulnerable,” even though whatever the situation was, everybody was wearing their clothes.

And the writer of the Genesis story says this is what marriage is about, being vulnerable with your partner, trusting who and what you are, in all of your beauty and all of your flaws to that other person, to each other. You are naked and unashamed with each other because you believe you will be treasured and accepted, and be beautiful to each other no matter what you look like naked, no matter who and what you are. And we, of course, live in a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on the possibilities of being naked, and then suggests that you will be disappointing when you are if you don’t do something about it. Which raises all kinds of other vulnerabilities.

But this story is different. This is a beautiful and wonderful story that raises all those images of Paradise and the possibilities of God’s Realm at work in our lives. It’s a story about being so secure in God’s love and hopes for us, that we can trust ourselves to each other.

This story if referenced in another passage from today’s lectionary, Mark 2:2-12. How many of us here are divorced, married to someone who is divorced, have parents or children or siblings or good friends who are divorced? This is not a delightful story. And where is the good news here? Jesus dismisses anybody who has been remarried as an adulterer. We know how compassionate Jesus was in so many situations. But what happened here?

I don’t have to tell some of you here how this passage has functioned in the life of the church. Though things have softened up in many churches, but not all by any means, it wasn’t all that long ago that this passage was used against people in ways similar to how the Bible is used by some today to reject and condemn gay and lesbian people.

This is not an easy passage to deal with and many preachers will do what I was first tempted to do, just skip it. It touches too many raw nerves to even bring up. Why bother? Why take the chance of getting people mad at you because you are even discussing it? But it’s there, and people who have been divorced and remarried know it’s there. So we might just, at least, see if there isn’t something worth wrestling out of this passage. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

First of all, it’s probably noteworthy that this whole thing came up because the Pharisees were trying to lure Jesus into a trap. Again. I guess they were figuring Jesus would come out against divorce, and they could nail him because the law permitted divorce. And it was all about the law. And even though the end of the story Jesus talks about both men and women who get divorces, this story is initially about the rights of men “to fill out a certificate of dismissal and divorce her.” This is about men finding justification to take advantage of women. So Jesus is seemingly challenging a tenet of patriarchy here that assumes that men can pretty much do whatever they want with women including getting rid of wives on a whim.

To me, though, the more important point to think about in all of this is that marriage in first century Israel resembled nothing like marriage today. When Jesus is talking about divorce, he’s not talking about a love story gone bad. Love had nothing to do with marriage then. Marriages were all arranged between families, and often the people getting married to each other never even laid eyes on each other until the marriage had already been contracted. Sometimes they never laid eyes on each other until the wedding itself. I’m not sure how you can be naked and unashamed in that system.

If you had a daughter in your home, the hope was to get her married off as soon after puberty as you could. It would be, at least, one less mouth to feed, and at best, there might be a bit of a dowry.

Life spans were short. So what a man was looking for was a young wife who would quickly produce as many sons as possible. And if she didn’t produce sons, he would find someone who would.

The most intimate relationships were not between husbands and wives. This was a sex segregated society, as several societies still are. Husband and wives did not spend that much time with each other. The more meaningful relationships were their friends and family members of the same gender. If a citizen of first century Israel was transported to our time and place, they would have no clue as to what we understand marriage to be. It would make no sense to them.

So what about marriage as we understand it? Are there any expectations about marriage in the Bible that translate to our day?

Jesus talks about adultery in this passage. But in the Jewish mind of his day, adultery was about a whole lot more than sexual infidelity. It was about unfaithfulness in that larger sense of not being faithful to the trust that has been placed in you. In the Old Testament, the prophets railed against the unfaithfulness of Israel, the adultery they practiced by their unfaithfulness to God.

And that gets us back to the man and the woman in the garden. Part of the delight of this story is that they were willing to trust that each other was going to be faithful, and not just sexually faithful. As if there were other people around to tempt them sexually, anyway.

They were naked and unashamed. Willing to trust the very core of themselves to each other, believing that they would find each other faithful, that they could trust each other.

So many marriages fail because of unfaithfulness, and not just sexual unfaithfulness, though that happens plenty enough. It is devastating to a marriage when people thought or, at least hoped, they could be naked and unashamed, and it turned out they couldn’t be. Their partner wasn’t faithful to the trust that had been placed in them. Or they couldn’t be faithful to their partner. So like Adam and Eve they cover up, and are unwilling to reveal who they are, fully clothed and yet so ashamed.

Maybe Jesus was so frustrated with all the unfaithfulness he saw around him, particularly as it was practiced by the Pharisees, that he just went off on this divorce thing because it symbolized so much else. I don’t know. But, again, Jesus usually practiced compassion and I can’t imagine he simply abandons grace at the family court door.

I’ve seen how awful or just plain disappointing marriages can be. There are plenty of marriages where people never got to that aha moment, ‘this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.’ And I’ve seen how marriage has made people more lonely rather than less.

Nevertheless, my own personal experience with marriage has been delightful. It’s nice to be able to be naked and unashamed, knowing that Mary takes this vulnerable being I am and treats me gently, lovingly, and well. And I am so glad to do the same for her. And even though I know that has not been everyone’s experience, Genesis and Jesus tell us that faithfulness, in that large sense of the word, faithfulness to each other like God’s faithfulness to us, will allow us to peel off some of the layers so we can be more vulnerable not only with our romantic partners, but with each other.

And in being faithful to each other we learn how to be faithful to God. And by being faithful to God we learn how to be faithful to each other. We learn how to make covenant, as in the covenant of marriage.

Marriage, at its best, is a great parable about what love and faithfulness can mean in our lives, so that’s why we should never treat it lightly. It does have the possibility for good, but sometimes never gets there.

It’s not good for us to be alone. We need companions, all kinds of companions. Spouses, friends and family, church folk and all of those who are willing to be there with us. The good news is that we don’t have to keep covering up ourselves. We can discover like Adam and Eve at its very core what it is like to be naked and unashamed, and find the space to learn what it means to be created in the image of God.