Archive for November, 2012

Noticing and Truth Telling

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

Mark 12:38-44;13:1-2
November 11, 2012
Mary Hammond

In the Gospels, Jesus is a watcher. He notices things. Have you ever thought much about that? He watches how people interact. He notices the faces of weary women and the demeanor of anguished men. He sees how some seeds fail to grow on rocky ground while other thrive in fertile soil. He watches the birds of the air soar and the wildflowers of the field shout their hallelujahs. He notices abuses in the Temple and finds blessings in unlikely places.

All this watching and noticing has an impact on Jesus’ way of seeing. Where some see pesky complainers, Jesus sees sorrow and faith. Where some acclaim religious leaders, Jesus sees duplicity and abuse. Where some see bothersome distractions, Jesus sees loveliness and potential.

Jesus transforms his watching, noticing, and seeing into truth-telling through parable and story. These become Word remembered, retold, reshaped, and recorded. This watching, noticing, seeing, and truth-telling is a very powerful process.

One critical facet of studying scripture is discovering what we read into the text that isn’t really there. When we read words on the printed page, we naturally imagine vocal inflection. How could we not? We picture the speaker’s mood. We surmise his or her motivation. Yet, we really cannot know these things when they are not explicitly expressed.

The story of the Widow’s Mite feels to me like the center of the text we just read, yet its meaning is lost or misrepresented outside of its wider context. In Chapter 11 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus overturns the tables in the Temple, challenging the moneychangers, scattering the animals, and uttering an anguished cry of lament over the institutional abuses within the Temple system. He protests, “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations.’ But you have turned it into a hideout for thieves!” (Mark 11:17).
As Jesus later talks to a large crowd in the Temple, he condemns the practice of worshiping for show while preening for human accolades (Mark 12:38, 40b). He critiques practices conducted under the veneer of religion which “devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40a). There is continuity between Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and his criticism of Temple leadership.

In “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus,” Ched Myers suggests that these scathing critiques refer to a particular practice of the scribes known as Scribal Trusteeship. In ancient Hebrew society, widows could not inherit property after their husbands died. Destitute, they had two options, both of which could be a burden to others–to return to their family of origin or remain with their husband’s family. They could easily be reduced to begging in order to support themselves.

An additional option was for another man to assume Trusteeship of the deceased husband’s property. While managing these assets, the scribes skimmed off a hefty portion for themselves, leading to continued exploitation and abuse of widows (see Myers, pages 320-321). All this happened in spite of the fact that the Torah clearly expected the people of God to offer special care to widows, orphans, and other marginalized populations (Exodus 22:22-23, Deuteronomy 24:17-22, for example).

So, Jesus stands among a crowd in the Temple, this place where he created so much ruckus earlier in this Gospel. Jesus is people-watching–noticing the faces, demeanor, and giving patterns of those who drop their gifts in the Offering Box. He notices how the scribes come dressed in their long robes, displaying an external air of piety, leaving their offerings that–while large in sum—are small, relative to their actual means.

Then Jesus notices a poor widow, a woman who gives two of the smallest coins available. It would be like you or me giving away two pennies. It takes eight of these coins to purchase one sparrow. She has two coins; she could keep one for herself, but she does not. Quietly and unobtrusively, this unnamed widow leaves both coins–all she possesses–in the Offering Box, and goes her way.

The contrast between these two gifts and their givers is obvious; it requires no commentary. Yet it is deeply instructive to consider what Jesus does not say. While he notices that the widow gives away all she has and the religious leaders do not, he offers neither approval nor disdain for her action. He does not commend the woman for her great faith, as he does so many others throughout the Gospels. After publicly noting the widow’s sacrificial gift, Jesus does not tell those around her to “Go, and do likewise,” as he is also at times known to do. Jesus simply lets this widow’s action speak for itself.

Knowing Jesus as you and I do, does it make sense to you that Jesus would celebrate this woman’s sacrificial gift to a system which oppresses her, leaving her destitute? In his thoughtful and provocative article, “The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament?–A Matter of Context,” Addison G. Wright suggests that there is only one consistent way to understand Jesus’ response if we understand Jesus’ role as a religious reformer and consider this story in its wider context. He posits that Jesus’ response is actually one of lament, not affirmation–lament that this poor widow feels compelled to give her last bit of income to an institution which does not care for her as it should (see www.visionsofgiving.org/widowsmite.htm).

Is the widow’s motivation great love, guilt, or duty? We do not know. All we see is that she gives extravagantly all that she has, while the well-off religious leaders give sparsely out of their abundance.

This story reminds me of the accounts we hear about famous television evangelists, with their air-conditioned dog houses, private jets, multiple homes, and endless appeals to low-income viewers to send “one more sacrificial gift” and “be blessed 100 times over.” How many of these donors are like this widow in the Temple, releasing her last coin to a ministry which, essentially, does not prioritize her needs or those of others like her?

The text that follows this story provides additional clues to Jesus’ intent. This is a vintage response of Jesus’ disciples, who remain utterly clueless about what just happened in the Temple. They are caught up in admiration for the beautiful stonework of the Temple complex. Jesus’ response is terse and strong: “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).

In other words, “This structure is not what will last. It’s not even what’s important, or laudable.” Jesus’ heart is identifying with the plight of the poor widow, exposing the disease within the institution that exploits her, highlighting the impermanence of structures and systems that perpetuate injustice in the name of God. Jesus is not engaged in the external show, the nice bricks, the dressed up leaders, or anything like that. He just wants the Temple to be a House of Prayer that cares for the poor widow the way God cares for her. He wants the religious leaders to esteem this woman the way God esteems her. And I believe Jesus wants this poor widow to esteem herself enough to care for her needs and know that God does not expect her to do otherwise.

Why does this widow continue to support a Temple System that oppresses her? This is a good question. In reading “Believe Out Loud,” an online scripture commentary by lgbtq Christians on this text, some of the writers liken their own journeys in the Church to that of this widow. “Why do we stay?” they ask, amid so much rejection and abuse. Yet, their hearts feel a pull, a hope, and a yearning for the Church to become what it is meant to be–a home that is open and welcoming, loving and inclusive.

I love being married to a preacher! We have had such interesting conversations, thinking about this text in radically fresh ways this week. One important insight Steve offered is this: “Perhaps this plucky widow has more hope for the Temple as an Institution than any of those scribes and Pharisees put together.” Perhaps she can see beyond both the glitz and the abuse. Perhaps she catches a glimpse of what God can see. Perhaps she can offer us that vision and hope, as well.

May we, like Jesus, become watchers. May we notice, whether here or in a thousand other places, that which is most pressing on the heart of God. May we, like Jesus, be truth-tellers, responding with extravagant honesty, justice, and love. Amen.

Is it a question if you already know the answer?

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
Steve Hammond

Many years ago, when our kids were pretty young, our entire family was invited to go to dinner with the family of a student from the congregation who was graduating that year. We knew that this student was from a very conservative Christian family, and that there was some tension between his family and him because he was starting to depart from some of the beliefs and understandings they held about Christianity.

While we were chatting during dinner, one of his parents mentioned that they belonged to a Baptist church in their town. So one of our kids, I think it was Sarah, said, “Are you a good Baptist or a bad Baptist?” It was an uncomfortable moment.

I think this scribe, the religious scholar we just read about, was trying to figure out if Jesus was a good Jew or a bad Jew. One of us, or one of them.

I think it’s a mistake to think that there was one kind of Judaism in Jesus’ day as it is to think there is one kind of Christianity today. There are all kinds of ways people understand what it means to be a Christian, and it turns out it was the same way with Judaism in Jesus’ day. It wasn’t that Jesus had a problem with Judaism, but with the ways some adherents of Judaism understood what it meant to be a Jew. Sound familiar to anybody?

This scribe wasn’t the first to ask this question about the greatest commandment. It seems like this was a question that people used to get an idea of where a rabbi or a teacher stood theologically. The answer indicated whether they were “one of us or one of them.” A good Jew or a bad Jew depending, of course, on what kind of answer you were looking for. One person’s bad Baptist is another’s good Baptist, and visa versa. That’s a lesson I have sure learned along the way.

When Rabbis and teachers and folk like this scribe were asked what the most important commandment was, the answers basically fell into one of two categories. One was an answer like Jesus gave that focused on love. The other would have been something like there is no single most important commandment. We must obey them all. The side Jesus took was about love, the side others took was about obedience.

I think the scribe was on the love side. This of course is how he responds, “A wonderful answer, Teacher! So lucid and accurate—that God is one and there is no other. And loving him with all passion and intelligence and energy, and loving others as well as you love yourself. Why, that’s better than all offerings and sacrifices put together!”

I don’t think the scribe was saying that Jesus came up with some new insight he had never thought about before. The prophets of old said much the same thing. I think he was telling people that Jesus got the answer right. It seems to be the answer the scribe was hoping for. He could go back and tell his like minded scribes and friends that this Jesus guy is one of us and he is well worth paying attention to.

A lot of Christians, including a lot of us in this room, bring certain questions with us when we encounter other Christians. What do they think about homosexuality or women preachers? Do they think that only baptized Christians can take communion, or real Christians are republicans? Is it about love or obedience to doctrine that matters for them? If they agree with us then our response is something like ‘A wonderful answer. So lucid and accurate!” If they don’t agree with us, then we have a much different response.

We could spend the rest of my time looking at the response Jesus gave. I don’t think there is much new ground we could cover here, tough. I don’t think that Jesus’ response of loving God and loving our neighbor is a new insight to any of us. Most of us would agree, I think, with the scribe, “A wonderful answer, Teacher!”

It’s not that easy, though. I actually did have someone tell me once that loving God and loving your neighbor are both important, but it’s probably still more important to love God. And then I have heard plenty of other people say that loving our neighbor is what is important, and as long as we are doing that, we are doing what God wants, whether we believe in God or not. But they came as a package for Jesus and I don’t think he could imagine separating one from the other.

I’ve got to admit that in the accounts of this story in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, the scribe doesn’t come off in this light. It’s Luke who has Jesus responding to the scribe by telling the story of the Good Samaritan.

Mark’s gospel tells this story in a different way, and got me to thinking about something this passage has never raised for me before. I mentioned it on the church’s facebook page (plus my own and ECO’s). Here’s what I got thinking about. Jesus responds to this scribe in an very positive way. “Hey, this guy is right there on the edge of the Realm of God, he’s getting it. He understand’s what I am about.”

The question I put out on facebook was something like this? If this scribe, in this one encounter, was able to understand what Jesus was about, I have to wonder if Jesus didn’t ask himself, “why am I putting up with all this nonsense with the Twelve disciples? We’ve spent all this time together, they have seen and heard so much, yet they are so clueless. Maybe I should send them home with a certificate of attendance and hit the road with the likes of this guy and that soldier whose servant I healed.”

I got some good responses, but before I share those, I wonder if you have any thoughts? [Not you Ellen, because I’m going to read some of what you said.]

This is what French Ball, the former pastor of the First United Methodist Church here in town wrote. I’m not saying Jesus *planned* it this way, but one advantage to you and me of what he *did* do (that is, stick with the 12 incredulous guys) is that we can see that even people who “don’t get it” can be of service in bringing God’s realm on earth. Thanks, Jesus, for including me in your service. . . .”

Jane Millikan responded that we read in the Bible of all kinds of ways people God was relying on screwed up. But God doesn’t go around unchoosing people.

I whole heartedly agree with answers like that. I mean if Jesus can stick with the 12, then I can count on him, too. But I don’t think that should necessarily disqualify those who do get it.

Joe Sheeran said something that really struck me. He started out with the same kind of response when he wrote, “ I guess the idea of working through very flawed men and transforming them is more interesting to God and perhaps such men, transformed would be more effective testaments than the story of someone who “got it” right out of the gates.”

And then he wrote this. “Plus they did all abandon their families and Jesus does list the willingness to do that as a criterion for following him.”

I like that. The disciples, unlike the Scribe, had some skin in the game. They may not have understood what Jesus was saying, or even liked it when they did figure it out. There was lots they didn’t even believe. But when they came upon Jesus it wasn’t the questions of their heads he was answering, but the one’s of their hearts. Even though they weren’t sure where he was going they were still willing to follow even if he got the answers to their questions wrong. There may well be something to that even more impressive and helpful than being right from the start.

Here is how Ellen Broadwell responded to that facebook posting. “If Jesus had ditched some or all of his disciples, couldn’t he ditch us, too? The disciples were no more flawed than we are. They were, as we are, miracles in the making, in the middle of understanding Jesus’ narrative.”

The Book of Acts tells us that there were 120 followers of Jesus in that upper room on the day of Pentecost. Maybe this scribe was one of them. Who knows? But maybe the difference between a good Baptist and a bad Baptist is not whose answers are right or wrong, but who realizes they are in the middle of the narrative and there are going to be answers they never even thought of, much less questions they never thought they would ask.

Job Finally Sees

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Job 42:1-6
October 28, 2012
Mary Hammond

In my twenties, I had a major problem with the stock interpretations of Job’s response after being questioned by God. Some writers posited that Job was essentially arrogant throughout the narrative. When God questioned him, the Holy One put Job in his place, as evidenced by Job’s response, “I repent in dust and ashes…” Job was sorry that he ever questioned God’s justice and remorseful that he ever protested his innocence. In other words, Job should have stuck with his original confession, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21b). Others posited that Job was not necessarily full of secret pride, but was somehow just wrong. God couldn’t be wrong, they asserted, because God was God, so that only left Job to bear that responsibility. This approach was way too simplistic to hold the nuances of this remarkable story.

In his recent book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr speaks of the way that myth and story pull us into “deep time,” embracing past, present, and future; chronos and kairos–chronological time and spiritual time; and trans-cultural meaning. When we approach the story of Job with only our rational, analytical minds, where is there room for depth, mystery, and paradox? Where is the understanding of poetry, deep story, meta-narrative, and epic character development? Indeed, this is a drama for the ages, a tale about every suffering individual who has ever struggled hard with God amid the big questions of life when everything was at stake.

One day several years ago, I happened upon a work that has become one of my all-time favorite books. Written by Latin American theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, it is titled On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. The author makes a strong case for a slightly different translation of Job’s final response. His argument brings coherence and sense to Job’s anguished complaint, God’s mysterious reply, and Job’s ultimate confession.

Gutierrez’ does not accept the standard translation of Job’s confession, “I repent in dust and ashes.” Instead, he translates this statement, “I…repent of dust and ashes.” The difference between “in” and “of” is enormous. The latter preserves the integrity of Job, which God re-affirms at the end of the story. But it also makes sense in the context of what Job has experienced throughout his Dark Night of the Soul. The vision God offers Job crashes through the barriers erected by his suffering. It lifts Job beyond his anthropocentrism, or human-centeredness into a new place.

This experience of transformed vision neither negates Job’s intimate relationship with God during previous years, nor nullifies his impassioned argument with God throughout his Dark Night of the Soul. It deeply affirms the authenticity of both of these periods of Job’s life. The very Seeing which Job experiences ultimately frees him in ways he once could barely imagine.

Did Job “know God” before this point? Of course he did, or he never would have fought so vociferously for understanding and hungered so deeply for Divine Presence! But does his later knowing so outstrip his former knowing, that the earlier knowing hardly seems like knowing at all? I think so.

When Job confesses, “I once knew you only by hearsay, now my eyes have seen you,” he does not mean there was nothing to his relationship with God before. Remember–it’s poetry! Job is speaking within the context of scale, intensity, and depth. His encounter with God in the whirlwind comes as face-to-face, ear-to-ear, heart-to-heart contact.

“I repent of dust and ashes” is the confession of a person who has taken a long, hard grief journey, replete with suffering, spiritual emptiness, misunderstanding, and isolation. It is the confession of one who has walked a long way, hanging on to relationship with a Silent God while desperately needing the felt presence of that same God.

I think of the beautiful line in Kate Campbell’s rich lament, “The Dark Night of the Soul”: “There is peace somewhere, I’m told. There’s a fire out in the cold. There are wonders to behold, in the Dark Night of the Soul.”

Job’s long, hard journey leads to new awakenings, new beginnings, new vision, new sight–-even a new Way of Seeing. When Job confesses “I repent of dust and ashes” he is essentially holding his journey tenderly and reverently but also moving on.

“Dust and ashes” are symbols of mourning, an ancient response to unbearable grief. To sit in “dust and ashes” is to live in a state of profound lament. This is Job’s posture at the beginning of his journey of loss. After his journey through the Dark Night of the Soul and direct encounter with God, Job repents of dust and ashes. At long last, his mourning leads out of darkness into a new dawn of the soul.

“I repent of dust and ashes” means that Job has arrived at a different place, and it is not a place he could rush, hurry, or create for himself. It is a place that he comes to in relationship with God through so many different Experiencings and Knowings– God as Enemy and Friend; God as Silent and Speaking; God as Mystery and Known. Job no longer needs answers to all his theological questions. His deepest, most elemental need is and always has been to See.

After having lost our daughter, Sarah, to suicide, I can honestly say that mourning never ends, but it does change season after season. Shortly after Sarah died, a classmate of our daughters stopped by while he was in town. As a young child, he faced his mother’s suicide. As a young adult, he faced the murder of his only sibling.

I was so touched that he came by. He didn’t have to, but he did. As we talked, his insights bore their way deep into my soul, because he was sharing from such a deep place of lived, painful journey. What I remember from his words is this: “Over time, the hard memories will wash over you, and you will remember most the beautiful times you shared together. It doesn’t mean the pain will be gone, but the gifts and the joys of life you shared will be stronger than the pain.” He admitted that this could be a long way off, but from his vantage point, that day came for him and would come for us, too.

Job’s confession is the crowning conclusion of the Book of Job. I cannot believe that the prose epilogue is anything much more than a fairy tale-like addition. It is devoid of the intensity and nuance of the poetic narrative and the disturbing mystery of the prose introduction. Children cannot just be “replaced” by other children, magically negating Job’s previous losses! Further, when all Job’s physical, tangible blessings are restored many times over, the prose epilogue seems to offer credence to the theology of blessings and curses, rewards and punishments of Job’s errant friends. Yet, Job so passionately refutes their theology in chapter after chapter of his complaint.

To me, the genuine “ending” to Job’s meta-narrative is his arrival at this new way of Seeing that makes it possible for him to move forward, in spite of all his previous suffering.

The Book of Job is an amazing psychological portrait of a person of faith wrestling with incalculable loss, walking through the painstaking grief process, enduring the Dark Night of the Soul, finally gaining new insight that makes it possible to leave dust and ashes behind and regain a life. What a gift Job’s journey is for all of us who long to Heal, Know, See, Live, and Become.

Amen.