“mr. october,” October 4, 2015

Responsive Call to Worship
In comic books and on the silver screen,
while most heroes conform to whatever look is deemed desirable at the time,
they often wrap themselves in capes and costumes.
They also tend to be steeped in violence—
shaped by it, comfortable in its use and justifications.
In the world of sports, heroes wear a team uniform
but are distinguished by great and admirable physical skills
that set them apart and with which they seek to dominate others.
Heroes can, of course, be distinguished
by outstanding skills of another kind—
less competitive, less violent.
But heroes are so often defined
as those who do what we cannot—
as those who are what we are not.
Except one—
wrapped in love—
the uniform (as it were), for those with eyes to see,
of all who identify with God,
who says to us,
“What distinguishes me is not what you can’t do,
but what you can … could …
should you so choose.”

Witness from the Closed Canon, i.
Exodus 1:8-22
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous
and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them,
or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies
and fight against us and escape from the land.’
Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them
with forced labour. They built supply cities,
Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.
But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread,
so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites,
and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick
and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless
in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives,
one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,
‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women,
and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him;
but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God;
they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them,
but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives
and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’
The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women
are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous
and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’
So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied
and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God,
he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people,
‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile,
but you shall let every girl live.’

Pastoral Prayer
We come to the table—Your table, our God,
with blood on our hands.
That’s part of how we’re supposed to come to this table, right?
Aware—
aware of culpability.
Aware that our sin
remains a part of Your betrayal—
Your being crucified.
Aware of the blood of those bleeding to death—
the blood that stains our culture—
stains us.
Aware of systemic injustice—
of greed that doesn’t care about justice … or peace—
of fear that is manipulated into violence—
of commitment to our wants over Your ways.

We, as a whole, are, by in large, not interested in health.
We’re, by in large, not interested in a better society.
We’re apparently invested in maintaining—
in largely profiting—
in what does not cost us in ways we measure financially and politically.

And those of us called to be salt and yeast and light—
Your body in our world,
well, what more could we do?

So today, as we eat and drink,
may we be reminded that we do not just re-member You—
put You back together—Your story—Your priorities—Your truth,
we also still tear You apart.
May we remember that this table is set with bread,
Your body, still being broken—
with juice, Your blood, still being poured out.

May we come to this table weeping
and yet not lose hope.
May we partake,
and through tears, yet see love and grace
working wonder—
in a story—in stories—
in lives—
through commitment to an uncompromised calling
in Jesus’ name,
amen.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Baseball is nearing the end of its season.
Playoffs begin Tuesday.
Orioles unfortunately not a part of that this year.
The World Series will begin the 27th of this month.
We’re on the cusp of playoff heroics.
It was World Series heroics back in 1977,
that led to Reggie Jackson being named Mr. October.
Now he played on teams that gave him much opportunity
for play off heroics in October.
He was a part of eleven division championships,
six pennants and five world championships.
But his batting average for the World Series was a full 95 points
higher than his regular season batting average.
Mr. October is a famous baseball hero.

We also just saw and heard Ellis Paul’s Jackie Robinson music video
about another famous baseball hero.
Now first, why did I include that video as open canon?
The open canon’s supposed to be about some rephrasing of biblical truth, right?
So what Scriptural truth did I hear in that song worth passing along?
It was the line: “You changed the way we play the game” that got me.
Integral to biblical faith is the transformative power of grace
for a different, radically more inclusive reality,
and the indubitable power of one individual to make a profound difference.

But here’s a question:
and it’s not in any way to question or minimize what Jackie Robinson did—
not his skills—what he accomplished—
certainly not what he had to live with,
but, as one so athletically gifted, did his skills break down barriers
or play into some expectation
that you have to be extraordinary to be accepted?

Because that would stand in marked contrast to 1 Corinthians 12—
the imagery of us collectively comprising one body—
with the still radical notion
that it is precisely the weaker,
less respectable parts of the body
named indispensable—
respected and honored.

And I read that text as both a call to the church
to live into a healthier community—a healthier way of being together,
and also as descriptive of the diseased body of our society—
infected with greed and fear
and consuming itself in mindless grasping and avoiding.
Because the weaker, less respectable among us
are too much deemed dispensable—are disrespected—
exploited and ignored.

So today seems a good time to contemplate heroes—
whether that’s our culture’s famous Mr. October, Reggie Jackson,
Jackie Robinson, others with incomparable skills—
overcoming prejudice, cultural expectations, irrational fears.
Or whether it’s the wealthy, the good looking, the lucky
our culture so admires—

or—well, what does Scripture have to offer?
Are its heroes, in fact, the weaker, less respectable ones
we should, but too often don’t, see as indispensable—
respected and honored?

I am hard pressed to come up with better scriptural heroes
than Shiphrah and Puah—
the two Hebrew women—midwives—
Pharaoh ordered to kill all the Hebrew baby boys.
You remember, as the story goes, he was afraid
of how numerous and powerful the Israelites were becoming.
“Come let us deal shrewdly with them,” he said.
That’s an our ends justify our means kind of language.
And I’m a strong proponent of our means are our ends.

In any case, the Israelites were enslaved and ruthlessly exploited.
But, the story reads, the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied.
So, still operating shrewdly and ruthlessly,
Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah,
to compromise their calling and to kill the Hebrew boy babies.
But fearing God more than Pharaoh,
they didn’t do as Pharaoh commanded.

When they were summoned before Pharaoh
(because, obviously, Hebrew baby boys continued to be born),
Shiphrah and Puah said that the Hebrew women were so strong
that the babies were all born before they got to them.
So here we have an example of lying in the service of a greater good.
That’s an our ends justify our means kind of strategy.
Not sure what to do with that
other than to note that it happened.
But I am that strong proponent of our means are our ends.
So what do we do—what do I do with the ends justifying the means here?

Don’t tell a lie unless it’s for the good?
And then who determines what good is worth lying for?
What goods are worth lying for?

It is at this point, Pharaoh openly decreed
that all Hebrew baby boys should be killed.
And there’s something about shrewdly ruthless decrees being exposed—
bring brought out into the open—that’s important.

I have always so admired these women—
non-violently and effectively
resisting the power of the day.
But in contemplation this week,
it struck me, they were liars.

What’s more, according to the story, God liked their lies—
rewarded them for having lied.
For having resisted Pharaoh, yes—
for fearing God more than Pharaoh, yes—
and for lying.

So what would have happened if they had not lied?
Just wondering.
What would have happened if they had been honest?

I’m assuming many of you will be familiar
with this quote from Prince Caspian:
“But what would have been the good?”
Aslan said nothing.
“You mean,” said Lucy rather faintly,
“that it would have turned out all right—somehow?
But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?”
“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan.
“No. Nobody is ever told that.”
“Oh dear,” said Lucy.
“But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan.
“If you go back to the others now, and wake them up;
and tell them you have seen me again;
and that you must all get up at once and follow me—
what will happen? There is only one way of finding out”
(C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
[New York: HarperCollins, 1951] 142-143).

What would have happened?
We’ll never know;
we’ll always wonder.
But we can make an educated guess.
The same decree would have gone out—
that all Hebrew baby boys were to be killed.
and the two midwives would have been executed—
hmmm—
instead of rewarded,
and what would have been the good of that?

Now, I think I’ve always tried to emphasize the idea
that we are to tell our story as Bible story,
or the biblical story’s not all that important.
That’s an integral affirmation to our lectionary sabbatical year.
I’m suggesting the the Bible tells us what truth is,
so we can not only know and recognize it—but also implement it—
so we can transform the stories of our culture
not so much into Bible stories as into open canon—biblical truth.
And, maybe, if enough of our stories manifest transformative biblical truth—
maybe, maybe, the Bible gets interesting again to more people.

That being the case, what’s the significance of Shiphrah and Puah?
Surely, as scriptural heroes, even if not as famous as some others,
maybe indeed because they’re not as famous as some others,
they serve as examples of the way to live in the way of God—
as examples that suggest sometimes the truth of God is a lie to Pharoah?!
Maybe. Maybe.

But then I have to ask, what’s the significance of Jesus?
If we’re stressing our own stories,
and the example of scriptural heroes as examples,
does that comprise some liberal dismissing of Jesus as savior?
Is Jesus relegated to being one more example—
even if said to be the best example?

First, I think it’s absolutely true—and to creation’s tremendous loss—
I think it’s absolutely true that in making of Jesus savior,
we have not made enough of Jesus as example.
Jesus as savior does the work so we don’t have to.
And that was never the point.

“Anti-intellectualism remains strongly entrenched
in many parts of the church, but it is grounded in fear, not in faith….
The divine Savior image is now so exclusively
the message of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity
that the Sermon on the Mount seems almost superfluous”
(Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church:
How to Stop Worshipping Christ
and Start Following Jesus
[New York: HarperCollins, 2009] 19).
We don’t need to save the world. Jesus saves.
Put it on your bumper,
and protect yourself from the world.

We consider Jesus the one who did what God wanted,
and we’re the ones who benefit from what he did,
rather than that Jesus did in order that we might too,
that all creation might benefit.

“[T]he joy of Christian faith is not to be found
in the rote recitation of dogmas about Jesus,
but in modeling his mercy and love,
which alone have the power to transform us and our world”
(Philip Gulley, If the Church Were Christian:
Rediscovering the Values of Jesus
[New York: HarperCollins, 2010] 28).

And he didn’t lie.

And he was executed.
And what was the good of that?
Surely Jesus, more than any other,
could have made the argument for the greater good.
how much I have done, he could have said.
and how much more I can do—
especially if you’re skeptical of that whole atonement thing
that he had to die to balance God’s accounting books.

So interesting then that he got into some conversation with Pilate
and said: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world,
to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
(John 18:37b-38)
What is truth?
There’s no answer given to Pilate’s question,
but I would answer him on Jesus’ behalf:
“I am. True to me and true to God.”

More than establishing the truth we’re to look for though, as example,
we need to believe in Jesus’ story as lived—
need to believe in true stories—
that we might live.
We need to believe in this story incarnate—made flesh
that we might believe that it could take on our flesh
and be made incarnate again.
Oh, not in its fullness,
but even bits and pieces—
crumbs remembered—make a difference.
And always, more than Jesus was a model for us—was an example,
Jesus is grace—
God’s absolute assurance of love and commitment
to the life lived in the way of God—
today, as yesterday and tomorrow.

Here and now
in such particular contexts—
your particular contexts,
we—you are confronted with our world—
ever shrewdly—
ever ruthlessly—
geared toward profit—
willingly manipulating fear—
promising more than can ever be achieved—
lying.

And we are called to confront those aspects of our culture—
to tell a better story—a truer story.

And to lie if we need to?
No!

If Jesus remains the best example to follow—
our source of hope and inspiration,
then Shiphrah and Puah remain admirable for their commitment
to their uncompromised calling,
But maybe there’s something to integrity
that transcends success and popularity and prosperity—
and longevity.
Maybe there is something to a way of being
that when it comes down to be or not to be
is more important than being.

So just a few things (youth and children, please pay attention):
don’t lie
even if it gets you out of consequences—
even if it seems to be the easy way out—
even if it seems to get you what you want—
even if it gets you what you want now,
you won’t want what it gets you in the end.

Don’t cheat—
even if it seems to bring you pleasure and gain in the short term—
even if it brings you pleasure and gain in the short term,
what it gains you in the long run is loss.

Don’t steal—
even the little stuff.
It does matter.
It says something about what’s important to you,
and it makes you less important.

Don’t belittle—dishonor—disrespect
other people—and I would add other parts of God’s creation.
There’s this boomerang truth thing,
and the way you view others is the way you act toward them,
and it affects how others view you and act toward you—
and maybe has something to do with how God sees you.
And the way we treat creation does not lead to a treat.

Don’t condone violence.
Don’t use violent language or imagery or actions.
It takes you places you won’t want to be.
Be careful with the dreaming you control,
it always shapes the dreaming you don’t,
and our dreaming shapes our world.

Now the positive version of all that is:
be loving, be respectful, be honest,
be graceful, be forgiving—
appreciate beauty and wonder and grace and joy,
and work for peace and justice.

Let’s live lives that unfold as stories so intriguingly true
to God
that we’re famous
for never forgetting what we can do
as those who let this mind—
the mind of Jesus—
be our mind—
the head of a body knit together—
in respect
and health
and possibility.

Witness from the Closed Canon, ii.
Philippians 2:5-16
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me,
not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you,
enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without murmuring and arguing,
so that you may be blameless and innocent,
children of God without blemish
in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation,
in which you shine like stars in the world.
It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast
on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain.

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