Archive for October, 2015

Eight Fragments In Search of a Sermon

Saturday, October 31st, 2015

II Samuel 1:19-20, 23-27
Matthew 15:21-28 Glenn Loafmann
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost 18 October 2015

Be not afraid: Like all sermons: “Some assembly required.”

Fragment I: Backstory

David was in exile. King Saul had grown to hate him, and had tried to kill him. So David and 600 soldiers went to work as mercenaries guarding the borders for a Philistine king, Achish.1 Meanwhile, the five major Philistine cities gathered for war against King Saul. David and his troops showed up to join that army, but the other Philistine commanders knew a psychopath when they got a second look at one, and refused to have David on their side. He was sent back to guard duty. The Philistines then defeated and killed Saul, and when David got the news, he lamented:

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
nor publish it abroad in the streets of Ashkelon;
lest the Philistines make merry,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.2

David was not the most admirable character in the world, but he had the decency – and wisdom – to honor his fallen adversary.

Fragment II: Bootstraps.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”

Ever heard that? Think it’s possible? Economically possible? Socially? We use the image as an illustration of absurdity. We laugh at people who take it seriously; we scorn people who demand it of others.True, some people point to “bootstrap examples”: “so and so had nothing, overcame all obstacles and succeeded; pulled himself up by his bootstraps.” Examples are hard to discredit. There are remarkable people who transcend their circumstances without “visible outside help”, but still … it’s not an accomplishment we feel free to demand of anyone.

Mostly, we scorn the bootstraps theory, especially when used as a judgment against those who haven’t pulled themselves up.
We’ll return to this.

Fragment III: “All Have Sinned” (Romans 3:23)

A few weeks ago, Mary3 delivered a sermon from Luke, chapter 7, about the woman who crashed the dinner party given for Jesus by a prominent Pharisee. The party-crasher was described as “a sinner”, or, some translators assume, “a prostitute”. She arrived weeping for joy, washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, anointed them with expensive oil, kissed them in thanksgiving and praise.

It was a pretty R-rated moment, in my mind, though not much is said about that, usually. Maybe that’s just how my mind works – or my feet.

The Pharisees were aghast. “He should have known better than to allow such a person even to come near him.” (cf. Lk. 7:39) It’s a common impulse: push away things “unclean” or unpleasant; declare some people “kosher” and avoid all others. That impulse persists among those Christians who shun people for dancing or drinking, or wearing lipstick or leather goods.

We point to the Pharisees’ hypocrisy: “where did that poor woman get money to buy expensive perfume, unless it was from clients exactly like the well-to-do men sitting around that table bad-mouthing her? Who are they to condemn, if her behavior was supported entirely by their behavior?” Hypocrisy and sexism are easy targets – they’re everywhere. We defend the accused by diverting attention to the sins of the accusers, but that evades rather than answers the accusations.

And actually, the parable Jesus told at the time (Lk. 7:41-43) implies the woman had sinned grievously – ten times as much as the Pharisees – that’s why she was ten times more grateful than they. Jesus did not make excuses for her. He didn’t say, “Well, she was forced into it because society gave her no choice.” We can say that (and we always do – that’s the “dominant narrative” in Oberlin), but Jesus held her in higher regard – she was an adult, able to make her own excuses; she didn’t need Him for that.
Jesus did not excuse her, He forgave her; she really was a sinner, and He forgave real sin. Excuses are not grace, and Jesus could not make her life better by blaming the Pharisees.

Sin is real, and corporations and rich people and right-wing politicians don’t have a monopoly on it. Some sin is all-natural, organic, and shade-grown, and some sinners are poverty-stricken and marginalized. Poor people are less powerful than rich people, but they are not more virtuous.

Behind their priggishness and hypocrisy, the Pharisees were less offended by sin than by forgiveness: their bottom line was “Who is this who … forgives sins?” (Lk 7:49, nrsv) They blamed the woman for her condition, and blamed Jesus for not blaming her. But
Jesus was not about blame; Jesus was about forgiveness, about faith. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (v. 50)

Now we get to the hard part: following Jesus is about letting real sinners go in peace.

Fragment IV: Forgiveness

“Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:34, kjv)

Jesus asked forgiveness for those who tortured and killed Him, and we aspire to follow His example. We also recognize justice and forgiveness are necessary throughout the webwork of relationships that sustain us: it is not only individuals who must be righteous and who must be forgiven: the people and the System who crucified Jesus are the same ones who oppressed all the poor. Which means Jesus asked forgiveness for the people who oppressed the poor. What does this mean for those who follow him?

Fragment V: More Bootstraps

The 25th anniversary edition of “Ken Burns ‘The Civil War’” was broadcast on PBS a few weeks ago. It was good to see it again, now that I know how it came out.

Ev’body ‘members Shelby Foote, the writah, who was on camera a lot. Knowledgeable, witty, chahmin’ mannuh of speech, an’ a look like the rascally cousin of the Devil himself. Ihr-ruhsistable.

This time I noticed Barbara Fields more than before, an African-American woman, professor of history at Columbia University. She brought some other perspectives to the fore – things not really unknown, but not emphasized. For one thing, slaves weren’t
much interested in “saving the Union.” “I’ve lived all my life in the Union,” one slave reported, “all of it as a slave.”4

Professor Fields was not inclined to make excuses, even for Abraham Lincoln. She noted the Emancipation Proclamation had negligible effect for slaves themselves: “They knew before Lincoln, as perhaps [he] himself knew without realizing it, that the Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to get them their freedom.”5 Speaking of the often-reported “conflicted feelings” of slaveholders such as Robert E. Lee, and, earlier, Thomas Jefferson, Professor Fields said she was “tired” (I think was her word), of the “excuse” that someone was a “product of his times”. (This is very much a paraphrase, but I think true to her tone and meaning.) 6 Slavery was a gross evil, and tolerating it was a sin that should not be excused in anyone.

There were abolitionists, after all. Even “in those times” some people did know better than to feel “morally conflicted” about slavery and inequality. Being a “child of the times” is not an excuse. That’s reasonable. Except: it is a “Bootstraps” argument: “They should have pulled themselves up by their moral bootstraps.”

Where are we now on that bootstraps issue?

Fragment V.a.: The Dogs

Jesus brushed off the Canaanite woman three times (Matthew 15:21-28) Canaanites were regarded as an inferior people in that time – the Palestinians of the day – and Jesus first ignored her cries; then He said, “I’m only here for my people” (Mt. 15:24); then He compared her and her children to dogs (15:26). Even Jesus was a child of His generation, a product of His times.

We learn morality from our surroundings. And then we adjust to account for the experiences we have. Jesus adjusted His moral values to accommodate His response to the Canaanite woman in face-to-face conversation. Nobody starts out perfect – even Jesus had to grow into being Jesus. Morality is a complex development, and we can’t just demand people in other cultures (and times) start out being as righteous as we are, any more than we can demand children start out as adults.

The Abolitionists also were “children of their times”. In reality “the Times” are complex, and complexity breeds diversity in moral sensibilities, as in everything else. And, by the way, “abolitionist” does not equal “saint.” For John Brown, being an
“abolitionist” was a license to kill, and he lusted for war. The Civil War was the fulfillment of his dream.

Professor Fields echoed Frederick Douglas, who sharply criticized Lincoln for Lincoln’s tardiness and moderation and cautious maneuvering in connecting the War with the cause of abolition. We recognize the reasons for that in this passage from Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.7 Very “political.” Borderline cynical. But until preparing this sermon I had never seen what Lincoln wrote in the next paragraph:

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty [as President]; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.8

Lincoln separated the duties and limits of his office from his personal preferences.9 Isn’t that what we have urged that poor County Clerk in Kentucky to do about issuing marriage licenses? – separate “official duty” from “personal wishes”-?

Fragment VI: Tell it not in Ashkelon

Under the terms of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Confederate soldiers were Prisoners of War, paroled to return home, and allowed to keep their firearms. General Grant further ordered his officers to allow any Confederate soldier who claimed a horse or a mule to keep it. In addition, the Federal Army provided the Army of Northern Virginia 25,000 rations. One account10 of events reports that hearing the sounds of Union soldiers celebrating the surrender by firing salutes, Grant instructed … his troops [to] cease active celebration, saying, “The war is over; the Rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.”

Three days later, General …Joshua L. Chamberlain, … officiating at the surrender ceremony, …. ordered his … officers to come to the position of “carry arms,” and on the approach of each body of [Confederate] troops …, a bugle sounded and his men saluted. The Confederates saluted back in response and laid down their arms and colors.11 (Their battle flags and regimental banners.)
Following the war, General Lee renewed his allegiance to the United States.

When William Tecumseh Sherman died in February 1891, Confederate General Joseph Johnston, who had surrendered to Sherman in 1865, served as an honorary pallbearer. Johnston removed his hat during the funeral procession as a sign of respect. It was a cold, rainy day, and the procession was two hours long. A friend urged Johnston to put on his hat to avoid catching cold. Johnston replied, “If I were in [Sherman’s] place and he … here in mine, he would not put on his hat.”

Fragment VII: The End of the Matter… (Ecclesiastes. 12:13)

“Love your enemies, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” (Mt. 5:44d, kjv)

Robert E. Lee wrote that although he fought against the Army of the North, “I have never cherished for [the people] bitter or uncharitable feelings, and I have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”

When Pope Francis was in Washington last month, just before one of those speeches or ceremonies, he put his arm around House Speaker John Boehner and asked Boehner to pray for him. How many of us would ask John Boehner to pray for us? How many of us would pray for John Boehner?

Fragment VIII: Pogo.

“We have met the enemy, and they is us.”

1 Achish was king in Ziklag, a town in the Negeb (southern Palestine)
2 From II Samuel 1:19ff (nrsv, adapted)
3 Rev. Mary Hammond, Co-Pastor of Peace Community Church, Oberlin OH
4 Quoted from memory, and subject to correction. I have not been able to find the scene in the PBS documentary to confirm the exact words.
5 An unusually sharp critique of Lincoln, coupled with a somewhat condescending put-down (“perhaps he
knew without realizing it”). One would not want to cross her in a faculty meeting!
6 The unattributed quotes herein are “as remembered” from the PBS documentary which for one reason
or another have not yet been located for confirmation.
7 Lincoln, Abraham. “Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862.” In Miller, Marion Mills. Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln. Current Literature.
8 Loc. Cit.
9 In justice to Douglas, it should be noted that he also praised Lincoln as the greatest leader “an infinite
intelligence” could have provided to guide the nation through the political and social realities of the times.
10 – downloaded 10/01/2015
11 Loc. Cit.

Into the Maelstrom

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

The Book of Job, Introduction
October 4, 2015
Mary Hammond

Those of you who have known me for years realize that I am a long-time fan of the Book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures. This Big Story, this MetaStory, has seen me through the toughest periods of my adult life. I never tire of reading Job, although I do admit sometimes crawling back to its pages, wishing I did not need its inspiration once again. Surprisingly enough, at each re-reading or change in my own circumstance, self-awareness, or theology, I discover treasures that I missed the last time around.

Where else, in the biblical scriptures, do we find an intimate spiritual and psychological portrait of the human soul in the cauldron of prolonged suffering? Nowhere else. I like to go deep, and if the Book fo Job is anything, it is deep.

The main character, whose name is Job, inspires me. He is relentless in his pursuit of God regardless of circumstance. He is brave enough to speak his truth, even when he feels bereft or misunderstood. His personal testimony in the mid-section of the book reads uncannily like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Job is prophetic; he is also contemplative.

The last time I preached, I went off-lectionary and delved into the initial encounter between Job and his friends at the end of Chapter 2. Today’s lectionary reading includes all of Chapter 2, but I’m expanding that text quite a bit. I want to touch on themes throughout the book that speak profoundly to our deepest questions about life, personhood, suffering, and God.

Let’s begin with the prose Prologue to this story. Here, God is depicted uncomfortably to us moderns, easily swayed by one characterized as an Adversary, but also described as an angel of God. He is named ‘the Satan’ (although translated most often in our bibles, just ‘Satan’). The reason I use ‘the Satan” is because people today think of ‘Satan’ as a proper name, but this was not the meaning in ancient times. Instead, the word indicated a special function, such as instigator of evil, accuser, or prosecutor (see “The Interpreter’s Bible,” Volume 3, Abingdon Press, copyright 1954, p. 912). So, ‘the Satan’ roams the earth, checking out the human race and observing the faithfulness of individuals to the High God.

Job quickly comes to the Satan’s attention. So this angel challenges God to a test of sorts—“Let’s see how faithful Job really is. You, God, bless him with wealth, status, influence, family, land, etc. etc. Would he still be faithful if you took all that away?”

A set of cumulative catastrophes occurs in rapid succession, but they do not deter Job’s devotion. So the Satan–the accuser, the prosecutor–goes back to God again, and asks to take away Job’s health. “Just don’t kill him,” is God’s response. Again, Job’s response is surrender and trust.

In Jewish writer Harold S. Kushner’s book titled, “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person,” the author posits that this oft-disturbing prose Prologue to the Book of Job is ancient fable. He believes the same of the prose Epilogue. There, after the whole story plays out in all its intensity and furor, God makes up for Job’s cataclysmic losses by providing more lands, more children, more wealth, more status, than ever before. Job intercedes to God for his erring friends, and everyone lives “happily ever after.”

So unlike real life here on earth.

In between the prose Prologue and Epilogue of Job we find 39 chapters of intense, emotional, honest poetry. This poetry takes direct aim at theological formulas that are not true to human experience—whether found in the prose sections of the Book of Job or revealed in the misdirected advice, shaming, and dogmatism of Job’s friends.

Even as Job faces cumulative grief, loss, and physical pain, his most important attributes remain intact—his strong sense of self and his abiding hunger for God. I don’t know about you, but cumulative loss has a way of ungluing me, taking me out of the game bit by bit. During such times, Job reminds me what it looks like to stay intact under immense stress–hoping against hope, despairing and getting back on my feet again. Job also demonstrates what it looks like to remain engaged with God in those times when we need God the most and yet, God is Silent.

Through no fault of his own, Job finds himself in the fight of his life. We are fortunate to walk with him in the midst of all the raw see-sawing emotions he faces. In her book, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, author Brene Brown says this: “We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized. Our culture is rife with these tales…We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending” (see p. xxiv, “Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution” by Brene Brown, copyright 2015, Random House).

Job doesn’t move quickly through the dark. That may be why I think sometimes that his story should be rated PG-13. The violence unleashed on his life and felt in his heart provokes his deep struggle with profound loss and utter dislocation. He tries to regain his equilibrium even though everything around and within him has radically changed. Brown continues in her book, saying, “Rather than gold-plating grit and trying to make failure look fashionable, we’d be better off learning how to recognize the beauty in truth and tenacity” (see p. xxvii, “Rising Strong”).

Job reminds me, that at the end of the day, perseverance is more important than courage. How many of you have had times when you felt fragile, broken, and undone–ready to just escape the arena you found yourself battling in? Job felt that often. But he just kept plugging along.

One of my most frequent pieces of advice for people in crisis is this: “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other every day. That, in itself, is something to celebrate. That, in itself, is victory enough.”

In the 39 chapters of this poetic ‘tour de force’ between the Prologue and Epilogue, Job wrestles with the Big Questions of life. He finds himself living in that precipitous gap between his experience and what he has previously believed about himself, friendship, and God. It’s a darn uncomfortable place to be, but staying with the struggle eventually leads Job to the places he longs to go.

Such is the wonder of this poetry. Its themes are Universal. Your own story might be hidden—or not so hidden—in the pages of this book. Trust, hope, betrayal, despair, anger, shame, grief, regret, faith, wonder, disappointment, determination, awe—all these feelings arise and find expression within this narrative.

The Book of Job is considered part of the Wisdom Literature within the Hebrew scriptures. There is much more wisdom to be culled from this remarkable and mysterious text down the road. Stay tuned.