Archive for March, 2014

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..”


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!