trouble the waters: “”when you’re not on the mountaintop”

social justice

Scripture
Galatians 3:19-29
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 20Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one.
21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Sermon
The epistle to the Galatians is not actually a letter to a church—
to a particular congregation,
but one to an unspecified number of churches in a specific geographic area
in what is today Turkey.
This was an area Paul had been through (Galatians 1:8, 9, 11)—
in which he had been with people in conversation—
people to whom he had introduced the story of Jesus within the story of God—
and some of these communities of faith
would, no doubt, been ones he helped establish.

But then, as was his custom, Paul had moved on,
and now, down the road, he was hearing news back from Galatia—
news that disturbed him.

Because other missionaries had come into Galatia after Paul—
Christian Jews—Jewish Christians—and had assumed a teaching authority
within these congregations.
We don’t know specifically very much of what they were teaching,
and what we know is inferred from Paul’s response to them,
which is always a bit tricky.
You have to be careful,
but we do know they taught observance of the law (Galatians 4:21)—
the whole Law (Galatians 5:3),
and so they advocated following the Jewish calendar (Galatians 4:10),
maybe keeping the dietary expectations (Galatians 2:11-14),
circumcision (Galatians 5:2).

Paul was disturbed by all this,
and so, as was his custom, he wrote a letter
and really let the Galatians have it:
“I am astonished,” he writes, “that you are deserting the one who called you
in the grace of Christ and are turning to another gospel” (Galatians 1:6).
That’s strong—another gospel!
Then he calls them foolish and bewitched (Galatians 3:1).

The question with which we have to wrestle is this:
why would he make such a big deal about this?
They were all Christians, right?
What’s wrong with keeping Jewish customs?
Jesus was a practicing Jew.
Christianity developed out of Judaism.
Ecumenism—interfaith respect and dialogue and all that, don’t you know?

It certainly wasn’t about hanging on to a Jewish heritage as Jews—
maintaining that sense of identity,
as these were Gentiles who were being told, as Christians,
they also had to adhere to Jewish customs, rules, expectations.

For Paul, what was critical
was the problem in a grace-based system
of having a rules-based structure.
It changes your focus
from faith to obedience—
from what God does in grace to human faithfulness to the law,
and you end up with not just a different emphasis,
but a completely different foundation.

As followers of God in the way of Jesus,
we do not rely on the law for what a personal relationship with Jesus offers,
and that’s not the juxtaposition of the letter of the law with the Spirit of the law,
but with the presence of the Spirit.

We rely not on what we do, but on who God is,
and we can allow no confusion about this.

Okay, you might well ask, but how does Paul get off on knocking rules?
He issued a few of his own, didn’t he?
In fact, while he may say here,
“there is no longer slave or free,”
what about when he wrote “slaves be obedient to your masters?”
That’s in Colossians (Colossians 3:22).

He may say “there is no male or female” here,
but what about when he wrote, “women, be subject to your husbands?”
That’s in Colossians too (Colossians 3:18)—
or “Women, be silent in church?”
That’s 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:34).

What if they’re not rules?

I have no trouble imagining Paul writing different letters to different churches
because different churches were dealing with different contexts—
different specifics.
I can well imagine different expectations for different communities of faith.

I have no problem envisioning Paul
thinking of one church—the particulars of one church
the particularities—the peculiarities of one church—
writing them a letter saying one thing,
and thinking of another church and their peculiarities—
writing them a letter saying something completely different.
That is not a problem to me.
That is respect.
That is truth.

But then, in Bible study and preaching,
we tend not to look to a specific letter to a specific church,
but to a sacred text,
and never think we might be looking at contexts
and assuming we know what he thought in general,
instead of what he thought in particular contexts—
in particular congregations.
So the question to my mind is not what Paul said
that we accept as authoritative,
but amidst what all Paul said, what sounds most like Jesus?
What fits best into the trajectory of truth and grace?

Of course, I also have no trouble whatsoever
imagining Paul getting caught up in his rhetoric!
Dealing with Jews and Gentiles,
“in Jesus there are no Jews, no Gentiles”—he’s practicing.
“That’s what I need to affirm.
That’s the key affirmation in this particular argument I’m making.
But it would be more powerful in a list—
a list of three.
There is no slave nor free; there is no male nor female.”

Those are not his points—
not part of his argument.
Did he understand them as true implication though?

Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama,
Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented the rhetoric of the white moderate
that was not lived into and up to.
“First, I must confess that over the last few years
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion
that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom
is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner,
but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice;
who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension
to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;
who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek,
but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action” ….

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill
is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
in Why We Can’t Wait (New York: A Mentor Book, 1963] 84-5).

It reminds me in some ways
of the continued talk about and pride in the United States of America
being a land of freedom and justice and equality
when it is manifestly not true—not for too many.

There is not one story of this country.
There are millions.
And most of them are not the story we like to tell of this country.

We have explored over the past few weeks,
the truths of mass incarceration,
the playground to prison pipeline,
the contexts that limit opportunity on the one hand
and privilege some on the other.
We’ve seen the way this systemic racism
shapes fears, an assumed superiority and inferiority.

Bryan Stevenson, in his powerful book Just Mercy,
on our country’s mass incarceration problem—
our problem of systemic injustice in our justice system,
asserts “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done”
(Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014] 290).
Conversely, of course, each of us is more
than the best thing we’ve ever done too. Right?
So are we rather what we’re accustomed to doing?
What we do most?
What we strive for? Commit to?
If our dreams are of a vision of an alternative to the status quo
is that enough,
or just another part of a great hypocrisy?
Because it depends on what it is for which we truly work, right?
The dream we struggle to make flesh
rather than the escapist fantasy that sounds good.

So what I would most like to imagine
is Paul, as someone thoroughly shaped by his time and context—
bound by the prejudices, the biases, the priorities of his time and place,
but with a transcendent vision—
inspired by the Spirit of God at work in and through him,
that allowed him … on occasion … momentarily,
to escape what shaped him—
that not only inspired him but changed him.

I also want to be clear,
claiming to be beyond the rules of the law,
it doesn’t mean you don’t do what the rules tell you to.
It means you don’t need the rules to do what the rules tell you to.

The first of the Johannine epistles is one of my favorites—
in part because of the priority of love
without a list of particular rules for what that means.
So from the second chapter:
But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness,
walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go,
because the darkness has brought on blindness (1 John 2:11).

From the third chapter:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning,
that we should love one another. …
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods
and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action. And by this we will know
that we are from the truth …. (1 John 3:11-19a)

From the fourth chapter:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God,
and God abides in them.
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;
for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen,
cannot love God whom they have not seen.
The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also
(1 John 4:16b-21).

The writer of 1 John, or any subsequent editor,
felt no need—no need—to specify what love meant
in different situations and contexts—
felt no need for an elaborate, extensive set of rules and statements.

The church has tended (and tends)
to make everyone else’s business
our business,
instead of seeing our business
as everyone else.
We want to focus on people’s business instead of people.
It’s a way of keeping distance—
choosing the rules
instead of conversations and relationships.

The people who in the name of God
have turned their backs on family and neighbors
because they’ve been taught—
because they’ve allowed themselves to believe,
that a rule is more important than a person
betray—betray the Jesus who would sit down to eat with anyone—
not to figure what was wrong with them,
but to remind them that God loved them—
to remind them how right they are.

In some ways, this text, for our days
might better be phrased:
In the unity of Jesus,
there are, in fact, Jews and Greeks, and they are very different.
There are, in truth, those enslaved and those free,
and they too are very different.
There are men and women,
and they too are very different.
There are, in fact more categories of being than we know to name.
There are distinctive galore,
and they lead to different ways of experiencing the world—
different perspectives—
different lives.

We know this.
We are different—
very different.
The contexts in which we grew up are all different.
Some of us have defining experiences others of us don’t.
Some of us grew up in households of color.
Some of us grew up in other cultures.
Some of us grew up with a language other than English.
While I dare say all of us grew up wrestling with our identity,
some of us had to wrestle with gender identity—
and sexual identity.
Some of us grew up marginalized in this culture.

Our differences can make us strong.
They can make us richer—deeper—more beautiful.
They do not have to divide us.
If we do not allow them to divide us—
if we do not express fear in division—
if we work—will work—at not assuming
that any of our particular experience is the norm—
if we live trusting that what binds us is bigger than what divides us.

Beverly Daniel Tatum,
author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together
in the Cafeteria?,
writes of the development of racial identity
and about how that can be a healthy process
and an unhealthy one.
She also points out that Black kids don’t have a choice
about whether or not to wrestle with
and come to terms with their racial identity in our culture,
while White kids can pretend it’s not an issue for them.

We have a verse today that speaks to a great equality.
We can argue about whether or not it’s ever been lived up to.
That’s a deflection.
The question is do we try and live up to it.
Do we acknowledge what’s in the way,
and that it’s often us in the way—
our benefits—our privilege?

I read an article this week about a teacher
who designed a class project
in which the class was divided into groups,
each with its own responsibility.
But the grade was based on every group succeeding.
It’s kind of modeled after mission control for a rocket launch.
Everyone has their responsibility,
but everyone has to succeed for the emission to succeed.

He consistently observed in groups dealing with a problem,
boys arguing about it,
and girls working on it—
solving it,
but not being noticed
and not being assertive either.
He pointed that out:
“Not one of you,” he said to the boys, “saw what Kristen did …
While all of you were arguing, she built a design better than all of yours.
Kristen, why did you take it apart?”
“They were arguing,” she said, “so I thought their designs were better.”
None of them were, but they were willing to fight.
And one of them was eventually chosen,
because the boy who designed it was confident, assertive,
and most of all kept fighting.
In the end, Kristen voted for his design, too.
That’s a tragic lesson I never meant to teach:
Who the beneficiaries are of our cultural biases.
In the US, he who argues loudest and longest reigns victorious,
regardless of the collateral damage.

Make no mistake, we face the challenge of our culture.

54 years ago this past Monday,
Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech
from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
And so this past Monday, I was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
for the 1000 Ministers March for Justice
(for which there were actually 3000 ministers registered—
and that’s not preacher counting, don’t you know!)
marching from the memorial to the Department of Justice
because we’re still dreaming—
because we still fall so far short of the dream—
because I wasn’t sure how to be in the midst of a worship series on racial justice
and not be a part of reaffirming that dream and that dreamer.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream for his children—
a dream that transcended his context and theirs.
Paul had a dream for how people might relate as Christians
that transcended his context and theirs.
And the question is not really
do we dream dreams that big—
dreams that transcend our circumstances?
The question is not do our young men and women prophecy—
our young and old see visions and dream dreams?
Not even do we encourage them to dream big?
But rather do we expect them to—
and not only to dream, but to risk following through
on the bigness of those dreams?

Do we facilitate possibility or justify what is?

As we conclude the worship series,
having really just touched on
the beginnings of this conversation,
we’re sounding a call
for those interested in/invested in this conversation—
to keep it going—
to keep reading—to keep talking—cultivating relationships—
keeping us informed—
exploring what our next steps can be?

Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Sociology at Georgetown,
author of All the Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,
baptist pastor,
recommends White folks setting up IRA’s—
individual reparation accounts,
or, if we’re serious about repentance being more than feeling bad,
individual repentance accounts.

I’ll be talking to the service ministry about that one!

What are our next steps?
Because surely as we finish a worship series,
we don’t want to one day (maybe in 54 years)
look back to see us standing still.

I have a dream—
nurtured by dreamers through our history
of a place where anyone can come—anyone—
sit down with us at the table
and be welcomed—
be celebrated—
be included.

You’d think that wouldn’t be such a hard dream ….

trouble the waters: “a religion not spoken in someone’s heart language is despicable to God” or, “a religion spoken heart to heart reflects the heart of God”

social justice

Scripture
Acts 2:1-12a
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’

Sermon
If you’ve been listening,
you have probably heard something like the wind
that has swept through—is sweeping through
many of our cities—many of our communities—
filling, in truth, the entire country,
as a story has been divided among us,
like distinct flames of one fire—
a story we thought we knew, now heard in another language.

Over and over again now, if you’ve been listening,
in the news ever-unfolding, in documentaries,
in conversations at church and in the public square, in books,
in our own relationships with friends, colleagues, and family,
we’ve heard, over and over again, the story of our country,
but not in a tongue many of us recognize.
Not a story of opportunity, but oppression.
Not of freedom, but incarceration.
Not of fairness, but injustice.
Not of bravery, but fear.
Not of achieving on merit, but exploitation.
Not of respect, but prejudice.
Not of a life open to what you make of it,
but a life within the constraints of a fixed system—
rigged to benefit a few.
If you’ve been listening ….

We did not celebrate Pentecost this year.
I think we were in the midst of 1 Peter at the time.
But it occurred to me planning this worship series
on the work of racial and social justice,
that the Acts Pentecost text might just fit.

Not only because of all the different languages,
but also because of all the people
from all the nations under heaven, we read,
and that word we translate “nations”
comes from the same Greek root
from which we get our words “ethnic” and “ethnicity.”

Our text begins, literally, when the day of Pentecost was fulfilled—
not when it had come—when it was fulfilled
(John B. Polhill, Acts in The New American Commentary
[Nashville: Broadman, 1992] 96).
You probably know this, many of you—I’m reminding you,
Pentecost was a Jewish celebration before it was a Christian one.
It’s the Greek name, literally, “the fiftieth day,”
“for a day-long harvest festival more commonly known as the ‘Feast of Weeks’ …
fifty days after Passover. Pentecost was one of three pilgrimage feasts
when the entire household of Israel gathered in Jerusalem”
(Robert, W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles
in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 53).

Originally, the Feast of Weeks, was celebration of the spring harvest.
Faithful Jews, caring for their crops,
would tie a reed around the first fruit of each species to ripen.
at harvest time, those identified fruits would be picked
placed in baskets and processed to Jerusalem
handed to priests to be presented before the altar.

So celebrating Pentecost involved anticipation,
but also the work toward that which was anticipated.

In the faith story told, we move from Passover’s celebration
of the children of Israel being led out of the Egypt—out of bondage
to, 50 days later, Pentecost’s celebration
of God giving the children of Israel the Torah at Sinai—
in the movement from freedom to covenant—
from the escape of oppression to a mutuality of relationship and expectation.

No one’s real sure how long Pentecost’s connection to Sinai has been around—
whether it goes all the way back to the earliest harvest celebrations,
but it’s interesting, don’t you think?
In terms of agriculture, Pentecost was cyclically experienced,
and so remembered,
and in terms of faith story, cyclically remembered—and so, re-experienced.

If you’ve been listening to what sounds like the wind,
to what divides our story as a nation,
you’ve heard questions about the poisonous fruit harvested from our history—
about how much of our economy (even today)—
how much of even today’s wealth
goes back to the forced labor—
the inhumane exploitation of predominantly African people.
If you’ve been listening, you’ve heard questions
about the principle we claim of freedom—
fundamental questions like freedom for whom—and freedom from what?

On the day Pentecost was fulfilled, what was fulfilled?
Covenantal relationship? Mutuality of expectation?
Trust in the sufficiency of God’s provision and grateful response?
Awareness of and freedom from all forms of bondage and oppression?
It’s like looking at a fire which is always to see—
to be captivated by ever new flickering divided tongues of flame.

They were all together, we read, in one place.
And we’re not sure if we’re talking about the 12 apostles
or the 120 believers—both referenced in Acts, chapter one (Acts 1:15).
Nor do we know if we’re talking about that upper room
also mentioned in Acts, chapter one (Acts 1:13).
Almost as if the story is bigger than who or where.

And from heaven there came something like the sound of the wind.
And the sound of something like the wind, we read,
filled the house where they were sitting.
And they were themselves filled with the Spirit.

And there was something like fire—
like there was something like the sound of wind—
as if our language can but approximate,
but it approximates “various OT theophanies where God comes down
and there is fire on the mountain and Moses or someone
is given a word to speak for the Lord
(Exod. 19:18; 2 Sam. 22:16; Ezek. 13:13)” (Witherington, 132).
And they were, all of a sudden, speaking different languages.

May I read to you an account of Sinai?
The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo,
writing well before the time of Luke,
had this to say about the giving of the Law:
“Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven
there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice,
for the flame became the articulate speech
in the language familiar to the audience’ ” (Witherington, 131).
So important to remember always,
however you understand inspiration,
that Scripture comes out of a wider context.

And they (whoever all they were)
poured out of their house (wherever it was)
overflowing with the story of God.
And a puzzled crowd grew at the sound—
and notice—notice, it’s not the sound of the wind from heaven
that draws and puzzles the crowd.
It’s the sound of a story told by people.
So important—
the crowd gathered not in response to God,
but in response to people who responded to God.

Now the crowd consists, we’re told,
of the people from all the nations under heaven
who nonetheless lived in Jerusalem.
Our text is clear. these are not people from other lands
in town for the festival, but people those from all those lands,
who had moved to or retired to Jerusalem.
Sometimes you move away from where you’re from
to be where you want to go.

So we might note, amidst difference,
there is commonality, right?
The people of all nations are here united in their heritage—
their ethnic or their faith heritage—
(those are different, by the way—
born a Jew, Jew by choice)—either way,
they are all gathered together as Jews in Jerusalem
to celebrate Pentecost.
They are all at home in Jerusalem.

If you’ve been listening, you, like I,
have heard in the news—in justifications of hate—in pulpits—
the story of our faith heritage—our faith home,
but not in a tongue I recognize.
Distorted and used to justify abomination:
greed, prejudice, the idolatry of the self-made man,
separation, hate.
If you’ve been listening ….

Back then, among these in Jerusalem,
in the land of their faith story—
in the land of the language they learned as part of their heritage,
they heard the language of the streets they grew up on.
How is it that these ignorant Galileans, they wondered,
are speaking the languages of the nations?
That’s kind of a prejudiced thing to say.
You’d picked up on that, right?
If you’ve been listening.

They’re not puzzling about what they heard.
What they heard was familiar.
They couldn’t figure out how it was they were hearing it from these Galileans!

So now I’d also like to invite you to consider this story
from the perspective precisely of those Galileans—
presumably some of whom—maybe most of whom—
had spent years with Jesus.
I invite you to consider the implications of not just a story
being told in another language,
but your story being told in a language not yours.
What happens when your story is told in another language?—
one you don’t understand?
What happens when you have to trust someone else
with the telling of your story—
when their experience—their perspective is different?

If you’re listening, it’s hard.
It’s challenging—disturbing—uncomfortable.
Because what you’ll hear is the clear assertion:
you don’t get to tell the story in just your language.
And you have to pay attention to how you react when you read
theologian Ben Sanders III’s chapter, “How Did ‘We’ Get ‘Here’?”
in our Trouble the Water book,
in which he writes of our white supremacist country
and our white supremacist society
(Ben Sanders, III, How Did “We” Get “Here”?
in Michael-Ray Mathews, Marie Clare Onwubuariri, Cody J. Sanders, eds.,
Trouble the Water [Macon: Nurturing Faith, Inc., 2017] 11-18)—
which got my hackles up.
Maybe it gets yours up too.
Take a minute though to consider—
to sit with it—think about it.

We proudly name of the high ideals—the lofty principles
of our founding documents—the Declaration of Independence
and the Constitution: “We the people” … “We hold these truths
to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….”

Of course, there was never anything inclusive
about that use of the word “men,” was there?
It always meant men.
Women were not included.
And the Constitution itself (Article One Section Three to be specific)
counted slaves as three fifths of a person.
We, the white men, hold these truths to be self-evident—
that all white men are created equal.
That 3/5 percentage was not repealed until 1868.
Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924.
The Indian Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1968.

If we stick to what was meant (in our founding documents),
it doesn’t mean what we need it to,
but if it means what we want it to,
we haven’t lived up to it,
and there is a clear trajectory from the best of who we could be
to the worst of who we are.

I can put that another way:
we can react to the worst we fear,
or we can work for the best we can dream,
and there’s no getting around that there’s an element of choice to this—
do you choose fear, or do you choose hope?
Fear doesn’t require much of you; hope is work.

Now, do we reject the ideology of white supremacy?
Absolutely.
The hopes and agenda of white supremacists?
Yes.
The benefits of racism?
Well, not when you put it that way?
The benefits of a system that is set up with most of us as beneficiaries?
Maybe.
Do we reject the systems?
How?

We reject individual acts of prejudice.
What? Overt acts? Violence? Of course.
What about racist jokes? Racist assumptions?
Do we stand up against those? Speak out against those?
Because if you’re listening, they’re all around us.
I hope we do—reject all that.
But because we don’t say such things—make such jokes,
do we get to reject the idea that we’re racist?

I’ve been challenged not only by the idea that ours is a racist society
(because it is not set up to benefit all—and there’s no question about that),
but also by the idea that no minority group
can be identified as racist in our culture at large—
prejudiced, yes, but not racist—
because racism, I’m learning, is prejudice plus power.
So do we acknowledge our complicity not in individual acts,
but in the system that benefits us and betrays others?
We’ve been confessing it in unison for the past six weeks.
Do we mean it?

As along as we’re facing challenges,
I challenge us to absolutely reject generalities phrased as absolutes.
As Michael Eric Dyson puts it in his book
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,
a brutally beautiful book,
“criticizing police brutality is said to be hating law enforcement.
Sitting during the national anthem is said to be hating America.
This sophomoric approach will remain a roadblock
to genuine racial engagement
until it is replaced by a deeper, more humane,
more sophisticated understanding of the issue of race”
(Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
[New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017] 120).

Oh, if you’ve been listening, even if you’re not into football,
you’ve probably heard a lot of criticism of Colin Kapernaek.
I don’t follow football enough to be able to evaluate his skill as a player.
But the reaction to his kneeling during the singing of our anthem
is a disgrace to our own ideals.
Uncritical worship of—or even respect for—our flag or our national anthem
is nothing but hypocrisy in a culture that does not live up to—
does not commit to live up to—
the best of what they both represent—
or what we like to think they mean until we actually have to live up to it.
There are people who put their lives on the line for what we compromise.
Who is showing disrespect?
Not the one pointing this out.

Remember in our Acts text how they were all Jews in Jerusalem?
It’s easy enough, in theory,
to go back far enough to find a commonality—
the Jewish faith heritage, in the case of our text.
Or, maybe you’ve seen the meme online:
there’s only one race—the human race?
The problem is not finding a commonality,
it’s all the differences that divide us within that commonality.

And we are invested in a binding commonality—
because we think that’s the way to deal with difference.
And I don’t mean to totally discount that.
I remember as a youth visiting a French speaking worship in Paris,
and thinking, “I’m not going to understand a word.”
But then I remembered I knew the French word for God, Dieu,
and the French pronunciation of Jesus, Jesu,
and you’d be surprised how often Dieu and Jesu showed up!
I don’t mean to discount the power of commonality,
but that’s not what we get in our story.
I mean, maybe it seems like we do—
everyone hearing in their own language the stories of God’s deeds of power.
Many languages, but one story, right?

But give our sacred texts some credit.
Give them their depth.
Allow them their nuance.
Trust inspiration.

The story, we read, was told in different languages.
We’ve noted it enough—just in translations from Hebrew to English—
Greek to English, how often a translation is misleading—
how often a translation is flat out wrong.
And sometimes, admittedly, it’s bias.
It’s imposing a certain way of understanding the text on the text.
But sometimes it’s just because it’s a translation.

One of my favorite writers is the German author, Rainer Maria Rilke,
and there are some wonderful translations of his work into English,
but many of the English poems are essentially different poems.
The translators tried to retain some essential image or idea,
but it’s not the same—the rhythm and sound of the words can’t be the same,
and the meaning can’t always either.

It’s a familiar text, our Acts 2 passage—a familiar story—
often construed as the birth of the church—
when the church was defined and unified.
But what if, instead of celebrating something cohesive and defined,
we celebrated the risk of setting—
the trust in setting—something free?

If you’ve been listening to the story of our country,
you’ve heard the weeping—
children weeping for their parents—
parents weeping for their children—
grandparents, friends, neighbors.
If you haven’t, you’re not listening,
you’ve probably heard the disgust, which is disturbing—
the rage, which is scary.
But the point is not to deny it or explain it away,
rather to acknowledge the reasons for it—
and our complicity in those reasons—unintentional maybe, but still.
It doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not we’re good people,
it has to do with the systems in which we live.
In our various spheres of influence, we must stop
invalidating the stories of others
because they don’t tell the story we do.
And we must stop being so damned afraid
(Fear damns. I’m using that theologically!).

Like Scripture, our country gifted us
with a dream to which we have never caught up—
a dream we have never lived into in its fullness.
And those who, long ago, sought words to put to these dreams
conveyed so much more than they knew—
so much more even than they meant.
The dreams of our faith and our country
left us with room to grow—
room to grow into the work of that which we anticipate—
room to grow beyond everything for which we’ve settled—
beyond every compromise that cheapened the possibility of the dream—
that took of its depths and made something shallow—
that tasted its complex richness and chose cheap and easy.

In the winds of change
sweeping through life and culture—
in the fires of discontent and conflict—
in the confessions and in the arguments—
in repentance and defiance—
in the movement from all forms of bondage
to ever greater mutuality and freedom and covenant,
the Spirit of God speaks—
whispers—weeps—rages—shouts,
“You are each one of you my child.
In all your beautiful distinctions.
Do you not see,
created in my image,
blessed and loved,
and entrusted to each other,
to deny that is to deny me?

If you’re listening ….”

trouble the waters: “a religion that keeps people out is despicable to God” or “a religion of welcome and inclusion reflects the heart of God”

social justice

Scripture
Acts 8:26-40
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Sermon
Most of you know the story.
As Paul ravaged the church in Jerusalem,
the leadership scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Philip, one of the seven deacons “of good standing,
full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3),
ended up in Samaria.
And being in Samaria, he preached in Samaria (Acts 8:1-14),
and being Philip, preached effectively.
That’s the immediate background to our story.

But our story begins with an angel of the Lord saying to Philip,
‘Get up and go towards the south
to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’
(This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

But that’s not where our story begins either.
A lot of stories begin before we know they begin,
and, by the way, not knowing a story begins
before you’re familiar with it—(or in it)
is a sign of privilege.

So the story actually begins with an Ethiopian government official,
an African, on his way home from Jerusalem.
Many stories begin in Africa before we’re ever a part of them,
but we don’t tend to think of that.
He had been in Jerusalem—
had taken some personal time—
had come to worship, we read.
So our story today actually begins before anything we’re told,
with this Ethiopian man somehow having heard the stories of God—
been profoundly affected by the stories of God—
the presence of God—the grace of God—
the initiative of God in Africa—
enough to become one of the so-called God-fearers—
who then, on his own personal initiative,
made the long trip to Jerusalem to worship.

The Ethiopian was a eunuch—
a court official, we read, of the Candace (not a name, but a title),
mother of the king of Ethiopia.
This eunuch was in charge of her entire treasury.
He was a big deal in an ancient kingdom of great power.

Ethiopia then, by the way, was not Ethiopia now.
Ethiopia then, also known as the kingdom of Cush or Nubia,
was the power south of Egypt,
extending from the first cataract to the sixth cataract of the Nile
(Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1998] 295).
where the Blue Nile and the White Nile converge in present day Sudan.
Ethiopia was also considered, since the time of Homer,
by both the Greeks and the Romans, the ends of the earth
(F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts in The New International Commentary
on the New Testament
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1988] 179).

But he wasn’t in Jerusalem in his official capacity—
wasn’t there on business.
He left Africa by choice.
That needs to be said
because of how many stories that began in Africa ended in other countries
not by choice—or by someone else’s choice.

So it’s actually well into the story that the Ethiopian
was in the Judean wilderness on his way home.

He had come to Jerusalem to worship.
That’s the pluperfect tense, by the way.
How often do you get to say that?
Or the past perfect, which isn’t as fun to say!
Y’all know the pluperfect?
It defines a time in the past earlier than another time in the past.
So he had gone to worship in Jerusalem before he was on the road home.
But there is another way of hearing such phrasing.
He had gone to Jerusalem to worship.
You hear it? He had gone to Jerusalem to worship,
but was unable to—was not allowed to—
was barred from entering into the Temple.
So, he was returning home, disappointed, we can safely assume—
rejected, excluded, seated in his chariot,
for as a eunuch, he would have been “excluded by law
from full participation in the covenant community”
(Deuteronomy 23:1; Leviticus 21:17-21)
(Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary,
and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 142).

So he was returning home
on that road south of Jerusalem,
disappointed,
and reading the prophet Isaiah.

I don’t think that should in any way be heard as a measure of his faith—
that even after this heartbreaking experience with the people of God,
he was nonetheless reading Scripture for consolation—comfort—assurance.
And I certainly don’t think he was sitting in his chariot
looking at a Hebrew scroll wondering what it said—
needing someone to read the text to him—to translate the Hebrew—
to interpret the meaning.
I think he was actually rereading a scroll he had read many times before—
rereading a scroll with which he was oh so familiar,
trying to figure out how he had read it so wrong.

Because Isaiah, the larger story of Isaiah,
is one of inclusion.
Isaiah writes of God gathering the remnant
of God’s scattered people from a host of different nations
including Ethiopia (Isaiah 11:11).
Isaiah writes of a specific word of invitation God speaks
to the nation of Ethiopia (Isaiah 18),
and most importantly and most specifically,
Isaiah writes and this man had read,
over and over again:
“For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:4-7).

That’s what God says.

The language of superiority is not the language of God.
The language of exclusion and rejection is not the language of God.
The language of fear and violence is not the language of God.
There are not many sides to this.
Those who seek to follow God denounce such language
be it spoken by protestors, presidents or preachers.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
And it was God’s language of love and grace
that had birthed this Ethiopian eunuch’s deep and profound hope
to be included—to be a part.
Can you imagine what it’s like to want to be included—
to expect to be included,
and then to be excluded?
If you can’t, by the way, that’s privilege.

As we join this story midway through it,
the Spirit, somehow, whisked Philip from Samaria into the wilderness
south of Jerusalem.
The Spirit heard the sighs, you see, too deep for words—
felt the broken heart of someone rejected by the faith community—
acknowledged the profound importance of a so-called outsider,
and sent someone,
but didn’t whisk him right onto the chariot.

So we also have to visually picture Philip,
responding to the Spirit’s direction and running—
running to catch up to the chariot—
running alongside the chariot,
before being invited aboard—
before being included.
The Spirit prompts—initiates,
but it takes Philip’s effort too.

Again, the Ethiopian didn’t need Philip to read Isaiah to him.
He didn’t need Philip to interpret what he had read.
This should in no way be understood
as any kind of colonial/condescending/patriarchal
“I-have-and-will-give-you-the-answer-you-need.”

No. When Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”,
and he responded, “How can I unless someone guides me?”,
we need to hear undertones of anger and disappointment.
“Well I thought I did,
but obviously I need someone to explain to me
how this doesn’t mean what it says.
Because obviously I got a lot of this wrong.
I mean this is what it says, but apparently not what it means.”

What happens when the invitation of God—
the assurance of Scripture—the promise of faith—
is impeded by those who claim to follow God, respect Scripture
and number themselves among the faithful?
I have said before, I’ll say again:
while so many in the Church focus on reaching the so-called “lost,”
who do not know God,
we are so much more responsible
for those who have known and rejected God because of us.

Of course, it is complicated, isn’t it?
It cannot be as easy as some obviously clear
absolute division into right and wrong.
Because the question we have to wrestle with is this:
what happens when to obey Scripture is to disobey Scripture?
What happens when to honor Scripture is to dishonor Scripture?
Because if you listen to Isaiah,
you’re not listening to Deuteronomy and Leviticus
or vice versa,
and so then you are raising the question,
if the way we treat so-called outsiders is not because the Bible says so
(because the Bible says both),
then what is it?
What drives priorities and choices and actions?
Is it what you were raised with?
What you’re comfortable with?
What preserves your privilege?
Is it what’s easier?
Because the rules are definitely easier
than the grace that surprises
not just those used to being excluded,
who find themselves included,
but also surprises those used to justifying exclusion—
that wild unpredictable grace that includes—what, them?

And what happens when someone reading
about God’s promises and assurances,
overwhelmed by grace and love,
investing in hope and possibility,
runs into the people of God’s fear and defensiveness?

This is our history—part of it—
a significant part of it,
and always a part of now too.
It was once the church and slaves and slavery.
It was once—still is in many contexts, the church and women and patriarchy.
It is the church and non-gender conforming individuals,
and the church and non-traditional expressions of sexuality and relationship—
it is the sin of racism—
not just the lies, but the heresy of white supremacy—
and always, for those with ears to hear,
fear and defensiveness and anger and rejection.

And given that our Scripture’s stories
are all placed within a core defining story—
the story of a desperate struggle against emperor and empire—
resistance to oppression of mind, body, spirit, priorities—and minorities,

it is wrong.

And we must be more willing to say it.
Not that Scripture is wrong,
but that this text is—or that one—
because they stand against the trajectory of revelation—
stand counter to the ongoing revelation of grace—
stand in opposition to justice, righteousness and humility.

Now the Ethiopian was contemplating a particular passage
within the larger scroll of Isaiah,
one of the so-called suffering servant passages.
Let me read you a few sections:
“He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him of no account.”
That’s familiar to y’all, right?
“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted….
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,”
and this is the part quoted in our text:
“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.”

“About whom,” asks the eunuch, “about whom, may I ask you,
does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
Because he’s identifying with this text—
placing his own suffering into his reading—
his own sense of being despised and rejected by others—
held of no account—his own sense of bearing
what others perceive as infirmity and affliction—
his own sense of oppression—of justice perverted.
It’s an insight into Scripture many of us miss.
That’s privilege.

Philip opened his mouth and starting with this scripture,
he proclaimed the good news of Jesus—
which I would suggest is less that Jesus suffered for us,
as that God redeemed Jesus’ suffering.
Didn’t require suffering.
Didn’t justify suffering.
Redeemed it.
And anyway, as interesting as it is to wonder what all Philip said,
it’s as interesting—more interesting? to wonder what the Ethiopian heard.
And to hope that within the story of one excluded,
sent away from a place of worship,
left studying our sacred texts on some lonely road,
trying to figure out how he had so misread
words of radically inclusive grace and love—
to hope that within the story of theologically justified exclusion,
there would be rekindled the hope of presence and grace and love—
that Philip’s sense of the gospel—the good news,
the grace of Isaiah in Jesus, the grace of God in Jesus—
his responsiveness to the leadership of the Spirit,
would all lead him to a radical inclusiveness.
“This is the story of Jesus,” he says, “and it is your story too.
You are a part of this bigger story that began before us.
For at the time of his ascension, Jesus, left the disciples with these words:
‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
and I myself, Philip, was a witness in Samaria before being sent to you,
and through you—through your powerful faith and hope,
the gospel will go to that distant land
between the first and sixth cataract of the mighty Nile—
will go to (according to Homer and the Romans and the Greeks)
the very ends of the earth, and will go with joy.”

Well they came to some water.
And the Ethiopian asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
What’s to prevent me from claiming this story?—
this hope?—this truth?
What’s to prevent me from choosing to live into this story?
What’s to prevent me from believing?
What’s to prevent me from identifying myself along with you
as one following in this way of God?
What’s to prevent me?”
So far, it’s only been the people of God, right?
But Philip, again, responsive to the direction of the Spirit,
enthusiastic in his celebration of the gospel’s radical grace,
says, “Nothing. Nothing’s to prevent you. Absolutely nothing.”

They came up from the waters,
and Philip was whisked away by the Spirit of God.
The eunuch saw him no more,
but went on his way rejoicing—
went on his way with joy.

It’s beautiful.
Later in that Isaiah passage the Ethiopian was considering,
we read (he hadn’t gotten to it yet,
but it was waiting for him—he did get to it):
“Out of his anguish he shall see light” (Isaiah 53:11).

And now, finally, think about this!
It’s all part of a bigger story!
Remember how Scripture stories are placed within a core defining story?
The Ethiopian had experienced rejection and exclusion.
He was leaving oppression,
and was in the wilderness with a guide,
and, in the wilderness, God provided water!
I love Scripture!
The children left Pharaoh in Egypt
and were led through the wilderness,
were provided water
on their way within the presence of God to the promised land.
Now this man is leaving Pharaoh in the promised land
and going back to Africa—
because you don’t get to leave Pharaoh and become Pharaoh!
And even in God’s city—even as God’s people, you can be Pharaoh.
And the promised land is always less about the place
than the promise and the presence—and the spirit.

Ours is not the story of some zero-sum game
in which someone winning and others losing are the only options—
a story in which we defeat Pharaoh
only to then take his place.
Ours is a bigger, richer, deeper more profound
transformative and ongoing story of possibility
in which Pharaoh is ever being overcome—in others and in us—
in which it’s up to us
to persistently name the promise and trust the presence—

to see in our story the bigger story
of God always with those being led away from oppression—
always being led away from discrimination—
always being led away from the tactics of violence—
always being led away from rejection and exclusion and heartache—
always being led away from fear—

to see in our stories the bigger story and to know
we must always contextually place ourselves in this story—
to know that who we are in the story is not fixed,
and that how we treat others
is less a matter of our privilege than of our judgment .

Eugene Peterson, a writer I appreciate and admire,
author of the popular version of the Bible, The Message,
in an interview last month was asked, as a retired Presbyterian pastor,
about whether he would now celebrate a same-sex wedding, if asked.
and he said, yes, he would.
And then he said no, he wouldn’t.
A few days later.
Maybe, as he said, he needed more time
to think through the question and his answer.
Maybe LifeWay’s threat not to sell his books had an effect.
I don’t know.

My friend and senior co-pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in DC,
Maria Swearingen, commented,
“Welcoming and affirming queer people shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth
or dragging your feet. It should feel like joyful conversion.
Like, ‘I was blind and now I see.’ Like drinking from living waters.
It should evoke language like, ‘My theology was vapid and frail,
my God so small and close-minded that it made me demean,
belittle, neglect, and outright hate people for no … good reason.
And now I have discovered how wrong that was.
And the only thing I can imagine doing
is saying yes to their precious, wondrous lives.’ ”

In the aftermath of the last few days,
how do we possibly not identify specifically Black lives and Jewish lives—
specifically the lives of those rejected,
and say yes to their precious, wondrous lives?
And identify specifically the small broken lives of those who hate
and utterly reject that hate,
but also remind them too,
of what’s precious and wondrous about them too.

And so, in the midst of trying to figure out where all my privilege lies,
and who I exclude and who is excluded in my culture,
so much of which I take for granted,
in the midst of trying to hear the pain of those rejected,
the song of God’s love and grace,
and so trying in my life and ministry
to hear what truly celebrates Scripture and God
and what demeans and diminishes God—
sometimes even in the name of celebration—
trying to ascertain not just who we have excluded in the past
for which we must repent,
but also who we are excluding—
what “issues” we are prioritizing over “people”
made in the image of God—
in the midst of all this,
I am full of joy and hope at the prospect of my theology and my God
ever expanding—
ever embracing more—
ever celebrating more—
in the goodness not of having arrived—having vanquished,
but in the goodness of presence and promise on the way—
in the goodness of a story not reduced to winners and losers,
but ever expanding into ongoing transformation.

Yes.

trouble the waters: “a religion separated from the work of social justice is despicable to God” or, “a religion working for social justice reflects the heart of God”

trouble the waters: “a religion separated from the work of social justice is despicable to God” or, “a religion working for social justice reflects the heart of God”

Scripture
Amos 5:21-24
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Sermon
Today we start our seven week worship series on racial justice,
and preparing for it has been absolutely and utterly overwhelming!
Hard to even know where to start.
There are so many stories—so many statistics—so much history.
But actually, we do know where to start.
We start with Scripture.
That’s what we do.

And our text this morning comes from the book of Amos—
the prophetic word of a prophet from the southern kingdom,
born not far from Jerusalem,
who nonetheless prophesied predominantly to the northern kingdom.
So the voice of an outsider.
His ministry dates to the the days of Jeroboam II, king of Israel
and Uzziah, king of Judah,

which means Amos prophesied in what would have been prosperous days
in the life of both Israel and Judah.
Early military expansion by both kings
resulted in years of political stability
and economic prosperity (at least for the ruling class)
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea-Jonah
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 259).

Assyria’s dominance in the region was imminent,
and so too the destruction and defeat of both kingdoms,
but nothing was suspected at the time.
Amos predicted the downfall of Israel,
not based on a recognizable outside threat,
but on his observations and interpretations
of the kingdom’s priorities and practices.
He spoke into a status quo
that would have not been questioned by those in charge—
into a status quo that was good to and for those in charge,
and it is against such a reality that we need to hear these words again:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

Our text unfolds in “three parallel sets of negative statements”.
The first “uses three expressive verbs (hate, despise, take no delight)
followed by two objects (festivals, solemn assemblies).
The second … focuses upon three types of sacrifice
(burnt offerings, grain offerings, offerings of well-being) that YHWH rejects.
In the third set of parallel lines … YHWH commands
that songs cease and refuses to hear the instrumental music”
(Nogalski, 321).

It’s interesting to consider.
God hates/despises precise those festivals and rituals
specifically spelled out in the Torah—
not only God ordained but God specified—
here’s exactly how you do it!
And when God rejects their songs—
think about it—
the entire book of Psalms is a collection of their songs.

God rejects what God ordained—
what God inspired.
God rejects worship.
God rejects Scripture.

And the rejections build in power and disgust.
But our text does not culminate in negatives,
but in a positive—
not in rejection but in affirmation:
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

So in somewhat like manner,
throughout this worship series, each sermon will have two titles:
one from a negative perspective—an observation on what is—
and on too many of our choices and actions,
and one from a positive perspective
that names our hope and the heart and truth of God—
the positive given integrity in not rejecting the negative.

Now we need to be clear.
It’s not that God hates worship.
It’s that God hates the hypocrisy of worshippers
who see no connection between who God is
and how they live as followers of God—
who do not see or acknowledge the relevance
of their politics and their business lives.
It’s not even so much that God despises
worship that has not resulted in justice and righteousness,
but those who worship
with no sense of the important of justice and righteousness.
It’s not that worship’s not valued—not important,
it’s that it’s undermined—distorted—perverted.

Our text forces us to revalue our Scripture,
and where once we sang
with the children of Israel of old in petition:
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”
(Psalm 137:1-4),

Amos demands that we sing with the children of Israel
in confession:
“In the walls of Jerusalem,
there we sat down and there we wept,
remembering Zion.
In the Temple there,
we hung up our harps.
For there our people
asked us for songs,
and our believers asked for faith, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How can we sing the Lord’s song
in our unjust land?”

How can we sing of our faith—our faithfulness—
our God,
when our social and economic structures
make of that faith and that God a mockery?

Which brings us to the context in which our faith is practiced
and our worship is celebrated,
and here’s where I was completely and utterly overwhelmed.
Do we go back and look at our history of genocide—of slavery—
on how much of the wealth and prosperity of our country and people,
now as then,
was generated by taking from others—
by the labor of slaves and the bodies of slaves?—
how city planning, and the development of mass transportation
intentionally excluded black neighborhoods?—
or how red-lining condemned neighborhoods with black families?
Do I look to the years of the civil rights movement?
There is so much to catalogue in our story that is despicable in its racism.

But I want to refer specifically to more recent tragedies and commentary,
believing these details to be indicative of deepest truth.
Y’all know the name Michael Brown?
Of course you do.
August 9, 2014 he was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO.
After the killing of Michael Brown,
the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division’s investigation
of the Ferguson Police Department and Municipal Court revealed
that their “mission was revenue generation—
extracting money from the black residents of the town,
using methods that were often legally questionable,
sometimes outright unlawful, and certainly morally reprehensible….
Blacks make up 67 percent of the populate of Ferguson
yet constituted 85 percent of vehicle stops,
90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests,
88 percent of cases with the use of force,
92 percent of cases in which arrest warrants were issued,
and 96 percent of the people held at the Ferguson jail for more than two days…. Dubious municipal ordinances were used as excuses
to generate citations, said the report—
again, almost entirely against black residents
for “Manner of Walking” (95 percent), “Failure to Comply” (94 percent),
and “Peace Disturbance” (92 percent).
One hundred percent of police-dog bite victims were black”
(Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin [Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2016] 17).

Freddy Gray?
After the death of Freddy Gray, April 19, 2015,
in our own city and the subsequent riots,
Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed “When Baltimore Burned,”
in the New York Times, April 29, 2015 highlighting
“a failure on our part in the American news media.
We focus television cameras on the drama of a burning CVS store
but ignore the systemic catastrophe of broken schools,
joblessness, fatherless kids, heroin, oppressive policing —
and, maybe the worst kind of poverty of all, hopelessness.

If wealthy white parents found their children damaged by lead poisoning,
consigned to dismal schools, denied any opportunity to get ahead,
more likely to end up in prison than college,
harassed and occasionally killed by the police —
why, then we’d hear roars of grievance. And they’d be right to roar:
Parents of any color should protest, peacefully but loudly, about such injustices.
We’ve had months of police incidents touching on a delicate subtext of race,
but it’s not clear that we’re learning lessons.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. in a speech given in the last year of his life said,
“a riot is the language of the unheard.
And what is it America has failed to hear?…
It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.
And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society
are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo
than about justice and humanity.”

This week, in an article in Baptist News Global, Bill Leonard,
former dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest,
church history professor and one of the keenest observers
and interpreters of history unfolding that I know,
pointed out James “Cone’s poignant critique
of individuals like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr
and other “white theologians” who “have written thousands of books
about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy
between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people.”
He is particularly critical of Niebuhr, his erstwhile theological mentor,
who could address the cross “with profound theological imagination,”
and yet “say nothing of how the violence of white supremacy
invalidated the faith of white churches.”

By the way, some two thousand more black men and women
were lynched (that we know about),
than there were people killed
when the World Trade Center towers came down on 9-11.

Also this past week in Baptist News Global, our friend Russ Dean juxtaposed:
“Opioid abuse is a tragedy; crack cocaine use is a crime.
Opioid users are members of society who need to be valued and restored;
crack cocaine addicts are criminals who need to be locked away.
Opioid addiction needs to be treated with compassion and medical intervention;
crack cocaine addiction deserves increased “law and order.”
With the opioid epidemic we seek the peace of the addicted;
with the crack epidemic, an all-out war on drug users.
Opioid use is treated with careful diagnosis;
crack abuse with mandatory sentencing.
Opioid recovery is to be celebrated; recovery from crack cocaine …
well, who cares if anyone recovers from crack?”
Could it be, he wonders, as simple and tragic
as that opioids plague middle class and rich white families,
while most crack cocaine abusers are poor and black?

In 2005, in Missouri, James V. Taylor was arrested after a traffic stop
for possession of an amount of crack cocaine
that investigators deemed unweighable
and was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

In 2010, in Las Vegas, Paris Hilton was arrested after a traffic stop
for possession of .8 grams of cocaine
and was given a fine and sentenced to community service hours
(https://newsone.com/1621445/top-5-most-ridiculous-court-sentences-of-all-time/).

And this is not an anomaly.
This is what passes for justice in our country.

In 2003, in Georgia, Gennarlow Wilson, a 17 year old high school football player
engaged in consensual sexual acts with a 15 year old
and was sentenced in 2005, to 10 years in prison
(https://newsone.com/1621445/top-5-most-ridiculous-court-sentences-of-all-time/).

In 2015, in California, Brook Turner, a college freshman
raped a young woman
and was sentenced to six months,
and his parents thought that was too much.
He will never be his happy-go-lucky self his father lamented.

Author Jennifer Weiner, writing in The New York Times, this past Friday
points out in an article entitled “The Men Who Never Have to Grow Up
how men have avoided responsibility by not claiming their maturity.
In 1969, that was 37 year old Teddy Kennedy,
whose “handlers”/family figured “if America saw
this married man in his late 30’s as a boy—
handsome and high spirited, mischievous, not a criminal—
he’d be able to squirm out of his misdeeds with minimal punishment.
And today, it may well be 39 year old Donald Trump, Jr.—
“that honest kid,” don’t you know.

Women and nonwhite men don’t have it quite as easy.

If boys will be boys, then girls must be grown-ups,
whose job it is to protect men from their worst impulses.
Witness every administrative body, from middle school to Congress,
that has decided that it’s easier and more culturally acceptable
to police police girls’ and womens’ clothing than it is boys’ behavior.

Should one of these fine young fellows slip —
inflamed, perhaps, by one bare shoulder too many —
there’s probably a woman to blame,
and it’s his punishment, not his crime, that becomes the tragedy.

People of color, of course, never receive the leeway
that “good kids” like the 39-year-old Trump son seem to get.
When police officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice,
for the sin of playing in the park with a toy gun,
their excuse was that they thought he was an adult suspect.

Oh, and there’s this:
in 1984 people sentence to life in prison numbered 34,000
by 2013, it was nearly 160,000.
“Upward trends in life sentences originated in the ‘tough on crime’
political environment of the 1980s, which saw growing skepticism
about possibilities for rehabilitating serious criminals”
(http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/harmful-rise-life-imprisonment-united-states)—
which is a theological heresy, by the way—
a total rejection of the grace of Scripture and God.

At a recent Baltimore County Council hearing
on a request from the federal government that local law enforcement
be trained and designated to perform immigration officer functions,
the rhetoric was all about the violent criminals in our community
(of whom ICE is notified when they’re arrested anyway),
as if there haven’t been family members deported after traffic stops.
I said, “You speak to this program at some imagined best, free of abuse,
as if people won’t be forced to live with it at its worst.”

And the fact of the matter is, … well, here are some crimes
for which people are serving life sentences in our country:

— acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop;
— having a stash of over the counter decongestant pills
that could be used to make methamphetamine;
— attempting to cash a stolen check;
— possessing stolen wrenches;
— shoplifting three belts from a department store;
— making drunken threat to a police officer
while handcuffed int he back of a patrol car;
— taking an abusive stepfather’s gun from their shared home
(http://billmoyers.com/2013/11/14/23-petty-crimes-that-have-landed-people-in-prison-for-life/).

As you will no doubt have surmised,
the racial disparity among those serving life is striking.
“[T]he black population of lifers reaches a remarkable 77% in Maryland”
(http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/harmful-rise-life-imprisonment-united-states).

And finally, I heard something this week I haven’t heard before.
And maybe it has been said, and I just haven’t heard it,
but in the aftermath of the police killing
of Justine Damond Saturday a week ago,
the police chief in Minneapolis has already resigned
and publicly stated, “Justine did not have to die.
This should never have happened.”
No blue wall in Minneapolis this past week.
But of course, Justine was a beautiful, blond, white meditation instructor,
and the officer who shot her, Mohammed Noor, of Somalian descent.

The disgust must build, my friends—the rejections.
Because these are not isolated incidents,
but evidence of who we are,
and it’s only after confession that there can be repentance,
and only after repentance that there is a new positive to embrace.

There are stamps in our bulletin.
They’re a part of our history—part of our story, yes.
They’re also about how you get a message across.

There’s also a fist in our bulletin—
a raised fist.
It’s an offensive image to some—
as is Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the thing:
to consider the racial history of our country
is to find not a single advance that was not hard fought:
abolishing slavery,
segregating schools,
the civil rights bill.
Nothing was done out of any moral imperative of the majority.
Think about that.
It undermines so much of how we like to think of ourselves.
But we have too much engaged in the fatal flaw
of thinking we are who we’d like to think we are
instead of what we do.
Unfortunately it seems, historically speaking,
social justice is rarely offered.
It has to be demanded.
For while social justice is ultimately good for all,
it’s not as immediately profitable for some.
It does not justify the power to which some cling.

These are the realities against which
the words of Amos resound in our worship.
So this is some of what I think needs to be heard in our worship—
needs to hear from the church—
from us as followers of God in the way of Jesus:
that Black Lives Matter is not an arrogantly confrontative, exclusive claim
but the desperate, sad and lonely recognition that too much
in our culture, they don’t.
Our world needs to hear that we absolutely and completely
utterly reject any narrative of white supremacy as heresy—
racism as sin—
that we acknowledge how both lead to injustice
and to God’s utter disdain and contempt.

For if we do not confront and challenge such narratives,
we will be destroyed.
Oh, not by any external threat,
but in moral decay proudly clinging to rotting ideals.

Our love of country only has integrity
if we recognize and despise those parts of it that are evil.

Psychology teaches us you can’t really love yourself
until you embrace your shadow side.

Our youth and children Passport camp theme
was do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God—
a theme that rolls through this worship series.
And here’s a question for you:
if justice rolls down like waters,
what gets swept away?
If kindness and humility were prioritized—
if we lived in hope, not fear,
what would life in this country then be like?
More like God’s dream?

I am hopeful;
I am excited.
We can still be the church.
But only if we realize
that, according to God,
that doesn’t have to do with worship.
It doesn’t have to do with dogma.
It has to do with justice
and kindness
and humility.

I have a dream.

transfiguring Sabbath

Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6

I tell you again:
I am regularly struck
by how important these stories of Scripture are—
how vitally relevant,
how needed they are—
in our living and in our world.

I invite you this morning to picture our text as it unfolds.
Initially, we have Jesus walking through a grain-field.
Probably not parting the stalks and walking right through the crop,
but on a footpath.
There weren’t roads.
Romans built what roads there were—
and only between places significant to them.
Elsewhere there were well worn footpaths,
and where a footpath went through a farmer’s field,
he would plough right up to the edge of the path,
leaving the way for people to get through.
You remember the parable
of the sower sowing seed in his field,
and some seed fell on the—path?

So, we’re picturing Jesus
making his way through a grain-field
on a probably fairly narrow footpath
(a farmer’s not going to be overly generous with his land!),
ripe grain probably standing three to four feet high on either side of him—
disciples trailing along behind,
plucking heads of grain presumably to eat—
which was explicitly permitted in the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:25).
You couldn’t gather enough to carry with you.
You couldn’t harvest,
but you could graze your way through a grain-field.

But
we need to pause here in our imaging
to make a quick point about our translation.
Once again it obscures something important going on here.
The Greek vocabulary, the word placement, the sentence structure
(you know these fascinating things!)
are such that our text actually reads:
the disciples were plucking grains and making a way for him.
Not foraging on an existing path,
but forging a new path.

And it’s the same language
Mark used to begin his gospel
quoting Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’”
(Mark 1:3; Isaiah 40:3).

This is the royal imagery of a king,
who in the Jewish tradition
can make a road wherever he wants—
over whomever’s land—
through whomever’s fields and crops.

Now that’s probably not what happened,
you understand.
It’s Mark wanting to make a theological point.

So we have a story about something that happened,
and then we have theological affirmations
Mark saw the opportunity to load onto the story to make his point—
in effect saying more than what happened—
something not about what Jesus did—what the disciples did,
but about what Mark believed about who Jesus was.
Which is fine; it’s fine.
It’s just something to keep in mind.
Scripture isn’t always about what happened.

So we’re back to our image
of Jesus walking
with the disciples behind him
in single file—
maybe two by two—narrow path—
plucking grain.

Then we also have to picture the Pharisees following along behind,
right?
Behind the disciples because they saw what the disciples were doing.

So Jesus in front.
Twelve disciples.
Undisclosed number of Pharisees.
It was a parade through the corn field or the barley or the wheat.

And though I tend to imagine Jesus walking
the height and breadth of the land,
there’s no need to imagine that this Sabbath walk
involved more than the 1000 steps allowed on a Sabbath.
Especially since there were those Pharisees at the tail end.
They wouldn’t, after all, disobey the Sabbath laws.

Now I’m thinking the Pharisees
were probably none too happy to be in a grain-field—
thinking, “This isn’t what I signed up for.”
But they had been assigned the task of keeping an eye on Jesus
to try and catch him in something said or done
that could be used against him.

And they did—
the disciples picking the grain.
Not that there was anything wrong with the picking of grain per se.
It was rather the picking of grain on the Sabbath.

Now in my mind, this gets rather humorous.
Not just the parade through the grain field,
but the Pharisees,
at least twelve people removed from Jesus,
yelling up at him—
past the disciples
about whom they were speaking—
who were between them and Jesus,
“Hey, Jesus! Your disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath!”

And the disciples looking behind them,
at the Pharisees leveling their criticism about them past them,
“What are ya’ll fussing about?”

And Jesus striding on, way ahead,
asking about David.
And notice how he asked about David.
“Have you never read about David?”
Isn’t that like asking if a Latin teacher hadn’t ever read about Plutarch?
Of course they had read about David.
“You remember when David did this?
He and his men were hungry,
and he took the Bread of the Presence—
sacramental bread—holy bread—
bread he wasn’t even supposed to touch,
and he distributed it amongst his hungry men,
and they ate?”

In terms of Mark’s writing,
notice the link made between Jesus as royalty
(his followers making the road before him)
and David as royalty—
both with the power and authority of royalty.
You can see it, right? The theological point.

Not the point.
I mean, it’s a point Mark wants to make,
but the real point is that David ignored religious rules—
religious protocol,
to address the need of his men.
And Jesus claims that right.
Now here’s where it gets a little tricky—
He claims that right not for the need of his disciples.
They weren’t starving.
There were pretty clear understandings
that in life and death situations, Sabbath law could be suspended.
This wasn’t life and death.
This was pleasure.
This was fun.
This was a walk through the field.

Silence from the back of the parade.

And here’s where it gets even trickier.
Because they could have actually responded,
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we have read about David,
and we’ve read that particular story to which we think you refer.
But we only think you refer to it
because you’ve actually got it all wrong (1 Samuel 21:1-6).
Abiathar wasn’t the high priest.
There was no high priest in that story.
Ahimelech was just the regular priest.
David was alone in that story, his men weren’t there.
There was no mention of hunger in that story.
David did not enter the house of God,
and the story says nothing about the bread being eaten
(John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrigan, The Gospel of Mark
in Sacrina Pagina [Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002] 111).

Jesus got the Scripture wrong?

Why didn’t the Pharisees call him on it?
Such was the authority of Jesus?
So focused on Jesus were they,
that they were utterly befuddled?

Jesus got the Scripture wrong?

Now he wasn’t making things up.
No, it’s all implied in that story in 1 Samuel.
Why else would David take bread but to eat it.
And he mentions his men even if they’re not there.
But it’s not the letter of the story that’s important to Jesus—
it’s not important who the priest was.
It’s what’s not said but assumed that’s important—
that even the priest acknowledged the importance of David’s need
over the sanctity of the bread.
Scripture isn’t always about what happened.

And I’m guessing there was a pause.
I’m guess Jesus was waiting.
“Are they going to let me by with this?
Okay. They’re not going to challenge me
on this scripture retelling.”
And he went on walking and talking,
“The Sabbath was made for humankind,
not vice versa.”
My guess is if they had challenged him on the Scripture
(as he just about blatantly invited them to do),
he would have gotten to his point of affirming that the Sabbath is for humankind
by way of affirming the same about Scripture.
Scripture is for humankind,
not vice versa.
“And so the son of man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Religion is made for people, not vice versa.
We still get that confused.

That bit about the son of man being lord of the Sabbath?
Again, not the point.
A point—
a christological affirmation of power and authority probably added by Mark.
But it’s added on to what Jesus was talking about—
celebrating creation can be a good part of celebrating Sabbath.

Here’s the thing—
the mind bender for the day:
the Pharisees were actually reacting to what Mark said happened
that didn’t happen,
that was nonetheless true.
I’ll say that again.
The Pharisees were actually reacting to what Mark said happened
that didn’t happen,
that was nonetheless true.
They were reacting to a path being made for a king.
They were reacting to that kind of authority given to Jesus.

And Jesus confirms their concern
by claiming authority to prioritize people over religion.
“You’re right to be worried about me
if you’re more worried about the letter of the word
than the word made flesh.
You’re right!”

Here’s the other thing:
that’s not just a Jesus thing! That’s not just a Jesus truth.
We need more people prioritizing people over religion—
and explicitly because that’s what their religion teaches them to do.
Imagine the power in our world
of people saying, “My religion teaches me
that my religion isn’t as important as you are.”

Which brings us to our second story.
The scene switches to the synagogue.
It’s still the Sabbath
(or maybe it’s another Sabbath).
Mark strung these stories together, remember—
maybe not chronologically, but thematically.

Our second story begins Jesus again entering the synagogue.
Again?
So maybe he had been in the synagogue,
left for a quick walk through the grain-fields,
and was now back?
Maybe.
Or is this could be indication of the regularity of Jesus entering synagogues?
Maybe.
Or maybe what we’re to hear is again,
another question about Sabbath from the Pharisees—
again another confrontation about Sabbath expectations.

Because a man was there with a withered hand.
And the Pharisees watched him to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath
so they might accuse him.
They’re focused on Jesus
in order to accuse him.
That’s what our text says—
which is in keeping with them following Jesus through the fields—
in keeping with the regular confrontations throughout these chapters—
which is to say that technically the Pharisees were doing their job—
which is to say technically they were not honoring the Sabbath!
They were intentionally focused on Jesus, not on God.
Now take just a second to think about the theological irony there!

Obviously aware of the Pharisees (and their questions/concerns/plans),
he asked them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?”
Silence.
And he looked at them with anger
grieving their hardness of heart.
He was angry at them;
that’s important.
But his anger came from grief;
that’s important too.
Much more recently Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,
“The ancient rabbis knew that excessive piety
may endanger the fulfillment of the essence of the law”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath:
Its Meaning for Modern Man
[New York: The Noonday Press,1951] 17).
Jesus, of course, being one of those ancient rabbis!

For these Pharisees in this story
were more interested in the law as a trap
than they were in honoring the law—
whatever they might have said in the way of justification.
And so they were more interested in the law as a trap for Jesus
than they were in the need of this man
whom they never saw
as anything except means to an end—
using the challenging reality of his existence
as their weapon.
They never saw the man.
They just saw how they could use him.

Jesus though, saw the man—
facing life with his own set of challenging circumstances.
And his understanding of the law did not forbid him to help;
it expected him to.

He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand,”
and as the man did, his hand was restored.
Technically Jesus didn’t do anything the Pharisees could object to.
He just talked.
There weren’t any rules about not talking on the Sabbath.

But the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired
with the Herodians against him
how to destroy him.
Now that sounds like a really appropriate Sabbath focus to me doesn’t it to you?
More evidence of their priorities.
Herodians were those invested in the secular power of Herod.
Normally Pharisees and Herodians would have kept worlds apart—
focused on what each felt most important.

So we note there were unusual alliances.
We have these unusual alliances
within the ranks of those who followed Jesus
(consider the zealot and the tax collector),
and we have these unusual alliances
in opposition to Jesus
(Pharisees and Herodians).

Which leads to this significant question:
what’s important enough to bind us together
despite our significant differences?
What binds us as a church together despite significant differences?
What binds churches together despite significant differences?
What binds the people of God together despite significant differences?
I wish we could answer that.

What do you think Jesus saw when he looked at the Pharisees?
Because he saw them, didn’t he?
He saw the man, right, and his withered hand?
I think when he looked at the Pharisees
he saw men who had allowed grace to wither—
who in prioritizing the letter of the law
had let the spirit wither.

Now, our stories in no way comprise a rejection of Judaism—
nor even of Pharisees per se,
but the mentality of absolutism—
of dualism—of certainty,
and the prioritization of being right—
of religion as control—
as system—
as ideas—
not relationships.

We’re not talking about devaluing Sabbath.
And the ancient rabbi would agree with the more modern one.
“What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us”
writes Heschel (Heschel, 89).
“What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.”
“Yes. Precisely,” I think Jesus would have said.

Sabbath and religion and scripture are all to be seen
transfigured into light and love.

So important these days.
There are too many people prioritizing religion
over what religion is supposed to help us be and accomplish.
Too many people judging on the basis of religion
instead of loving as an expression of their religion.
Using religion as means to some end as a weapon.
Not seeing the hurting people in front of them
in desperate need of gospel—good news—
in desperate need of words of grace and truth.

I’m not saying religion isn’t important.

It’s like children need structure
to be comfortable—
to feel safe and secure
as they grow.
And then they also need to resist it
in order to grow.
And, growing, they will question the structure,
the rules, the expectations—
all for the good.

Because we want them to take what is right
and reject what is not.
We want them to assess and discern for themselves.

We want them to move from external motivation
to internal.

But it’s a process.
It’s sequential
and consequential,

and comprises one of the most challenging tensions of parenting.

As Dawn Baker has many a time said,
“When your child is running through the busy parking lot,
and you yell, ‘Stop!’,
you really don’t want an argument.
It’s not the time or place to affirm the child’s autonomy—
the child’s independent spirit.
You want and you need to be obeyed,
so then when they’re older, as they grow,
they assess the rules, they assess the context,
and they can choose for themselves
not to run through the busy parking lot
when you’re not there to watch them.

Our stories are in no way to reject our need for Sabbath.
We need it far more than we celebrate it.
“What would be a world without Sabbath?
It would be a world that knew only itself
or God distorted as a thing
or the abyss separating Him from the world;
a world without the vision of a window in eternity
that opens into time” (Heschel, 16).

We so need Sabbath.
You so need Sabbath—
contemplative time—
reflective time.
We so need what is not valued in our world and our culture—
of go go go do do do.
We need to be removed;
we need isolation;
we need solitude;
we need sabbath;
we need rest.

It’s not about being tired—
though it’s that too.
It’s about competing priorities;
it’s about peace and wholeness and holiness;
it’s about recognizing limitations
and then transcending them
in affirming them.

It’s about obedience
to the spirit
that begins with the letter but cannot end there.

Sabbath—
it’s about rest.
Well, you circle round again.
It’s about depth.
Circle round again.
It’s about setting apart and being set apart.
Circle round again.
It’s about transcendence.
Circle round again.
It’s about us and the way we live our lives given transcendence.
Circle round again.
It’s about peace within that challenge.
Circle round again.
It’s about how we see people—
see the people in front of us and care for them.
Circle round again.
It’s about God.

Thanks be to God.

to mount up with wings like eagles

Isaiah 40:21-31

So working on the bulletin this week,
I googled “mount up on wings like eagles, images”—
looking for something to put on the bulletin cover.
And guess what popped up?
Well, the text, of course, typically in calligraphy.
And then, without exception,
beautiful pictures of majestic, powerful, soaring
bald eagles—
magnificent birds.
I’ve admired them in the Colorado mountains
and from the shores of the Choptank at Lillian’s farmhouse.
We saw one in a field east of here on our way back from a soccer tournament.
I can’t remember if we were on Glen Arm Road or Long Green Pike.

Here’s the thing.
Bald eagles have never existed in Palestine.
Golden eagles, yes.
Bald eagles, no.
Our national bird though. Our national animal.
And I know most of you don’t associate this verse with our country—
with any kind of triumphal chosenness,
but I tell you true,
there are many in this country who do.

And sure enough, there’s an all organic cotton classic t-shirt
from American Apparel for $23.95—
along with posters, coffee mugs, embroidery,
iPad cases, iPhone cases, mousepads,
refrigerator magnets, keychains, postcards, shipping labels,
jigsaw puzzles, canvas bags, neckties, sweatshirts, stickers—
and that’s on just the first two of 63 pages!
All with bald eagles and Isaiah 40:31.
You can get a similar t-shirt for $17.99 from Christian Apparel.
I started wondering what Christian Apparel might be.
Pre-washed?
If you order a shirt, you get a coat too?
Which got me to wondering if American Apparel is, in fact, made in the USA.
Which eventually reminded me to get back to the sermon.

So within all the familiarity,
and all the familiar claimed and commercialized—nationalized—
what do we even still hear in the words of Isaiah?

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?”
Get the order? Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Because yes, I’ve heard, but that doesn’t always mean I know.

I’ve told you the story before,
that furlough we were in Tennessee,
missionaries in residence at First Baptist.
I was in seventh grade, and I so wanted to believe.
My sister had already been baptized—
my younger sister. That was part of it.
And in church one Sunday, every head bowed, every eye closed,
one of the ministers said, “If you want to accept Jesus as Savior—
if you want to, raise your hand.” And I did.
“If you believe Jesus saves, leave your hand up.”
And I left my hand up.
I wanted to believe,
and I did believe that Jesus saved.
“Then John Ballenger, come on down,
you are the next believer on The Price of Salvation Is Right!”
Not really.
And I really don’t mean to mock that church or those people.
It was a good place to be. Good people.
But there was a profound disconnect
not acknowledged there for me
between what I did believe,
what I wanted to believe,
and what I could not believe.

So, yes, I’ve heard God is creator.
Yes, I’ve heard God is all powerful.
Yes, I’ve heard the stories.
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Yes. I was born into a preacher’s home.
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
See there’s that disconnect again!
Yes, it’s been told to me. Yes, I’ve heard.
But no, I don’t understand. I don’t know.

It’s almost like our poet’s assumed the logic of politicians:
if I say it enough, surely it’s true.
If I repeat it enough—if people hear it enough,
surely everyone will understand.
It doesn’t work that way!
Well, it doesn’t work that way for me.
It apparently does for more than I would have thought!
So I tell you, just to be clear,
worship here at Woodbrook is not about
beliefs and doctrines repeated over and over and over again—
affirmations made over and over again—
it’s not about a story told over and over again
in the hope and the belief that repetition
will lead to understanding and knowledge of God.
Worship here is rather about a story told and retold
and reframed and reimagined and reimaged
because we hope and we believe that reiterations of that story
might allow us to recognize that story in our living
and then claim it for ourselves.

Now it did occur to me,
thinking about hearing and knowing,
and then thinking about creation and creator—
because that’s how the text goes on—
it did occur to me that God spoke and all was created.
For God to be heard was and is for creation to exist.
So in some respect, to hear God is to know all that is, right?
Which is actually less interesting to me
than wondering about the possibility of the inverse.
To know all that is, is to hear God.
Is that true?
Hmmm.

Can we hear the prophet asking us, “In what you’ve known—
in what you know, have you not heard God?”
Now that’s interesting!

Notice, by the way, the three occurrences of “have you not”.
A negative question expressing a certain wonder—
I can’t believe you haven’t heard God!
Not arrogantly or self-righteously dismissive, I don’t believe,
but honestly incredulous and ultimately hopeful.

Then we have three positive affirmations:
God sits above the circle of the earth,
stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
spreads them like a tent to live in.
God brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

The first two affirmations concern the power and the authority
of God as creator—
God as maker of the heavens—maker of the stars—
significant in Babylon, that city of star-gazers and worshippers.
The third affirmation though,
is about God as unmaker of princes and rulers—
and that in the capital city of successful, powerful empire—
which makes our text explicitly political as well as pastoral—
provocative—challenging.
Have you not heard?
Do you not know?

There follow three occurrences of the word “scarcely,”
each emphasizing the fleeting nature
of those princes and the rulers of the earth—
their kingdoms and empires—their power.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
God blows upon them, and they wither,
and the wind blows them away like dust.

Notice the passivity of earthly power compared to God’s activity—
their responsiveness to God’s initiative.
Who’s in charge? Who’s in control?
Who’s not?

And again, imagine these words offered in the heart of the empire—
words of resistance—words of rebellion.
May the force be with you!
And you hear (how can you not hear?) the implicit exhortation:
consider your allegiance.
To whom do you make it? To what?
Is it worth it? Is it worthy of it?

So in the city of empire,
the power of empire is dismissed
in comparison to Creator God.
What is military power?
What is this economic prosperity you think is such a big deal?
What is victory? What is conquest?

To whom will you compare me,
who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see.

Nice—nice writing, by the way.
Are we going to look up on high to see God’s equal?
We look up to the stars, worshipped in Babylon,
only to hear the prophet go on,
who created these?
These are all subordinate to the one who made them—
the one who brings out their host and numbers them,
who calls them all by name.
Because that one is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

Now there’s a claim!
Within the vastness of the night sky—
so much more impressive back then before all our light pollution—
reclaimed in some of the Hubble pictures
I’m sure you’ve seen.
Not one of those stars goes unnamed.
Not one goes missing

So why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“I feel like I’m hidden from God.
I don’t feel like God cares about me”?

Why do they say that?
Why do we say that?
Because that’s the way we feel.
Don’t you know they felt unknown—
unnamed—missing—
hidden—disregarded—
overwhelmed—controlled—
manipulated by the very power
the prophet so casually dismisses,
and unable to see God confronting that power on their behalf.

Again, none of this should be read, in any way, dismissively,
but pastorally—
caringly—
reassuringly—
hopefully.

In what you know—
even your aloneness, your exile, your fear,
have you not known God?
In what you hear
in the world around you—
in the depths of your being—
in your own questions and doubts and frustrations,
have you not heard God?
For God is there.

The Lord is the everlasting God,
Creator of the ends of the earth.
God does not faint or grow weary;
God’s understanding? Unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.

All those stories you’ve heard of old?
Those stories of God as creator? God as redeemer? God as sustainer?
They’re still happening—
still unfolding.
Creator God is still creating,
and creating within the chaos of your own living—
creating possibility—creating hope—
the power and strength to endure—
to persist.

We are reiterations of the ancient stories
that we tell to help us recognize just what story’s still going on—
all around us and within us.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and never fall weary,
walk and never grow faint.

Now whom does the prophet address here?

Many of you will know (or recognize when I start reading)
the sonnet, “High Flight,” written by the pilot, John Magee,
who was actually raised in the anglican church

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth,
and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of —
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along,
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

I think that’s precisely what is meant here in our text.
But it is also precisely not to whom these words are addressed.
These are not words written to a trained pilot
who knows these feelings from his own experience—
who has climbed and soared and hovered and seen—
who anticipates what he has known.

These are words addressed
precisely to people who don’t know such experiences—
who imagine them—
who dream them—
written precisely to earth-bound people
who have no basis from which to understand what they’re hearing.
They’re written for a captive people—a people in exile—
a broken-hearted people—aching—
so far from feeling young—
so far from feeling energetic—
so weary—
fainting in in their living—
fainting in their believing—
fainting their hoping—
fainting in their trusting.

“The concluding verses state a drastic … either/or,”
writes Walter Brueggemann.
“Either folk will be faint, weary, and exhausted
indeed even youths ….
Or those who hope and wait and expect Yahweh
will have strength to fly, to run, to walk
with no weariness or fainting.
Yahweh is the single variable
either weakness or Yahweh”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998] 27).

Do we believe that?

How is this not just words?
How is this real? How is this true?

So, first, there’s nothing “just” about words.
Right? They’re “just” words.
Words created all that is.
Words continue to create.
Words are how we take shape
and shape our place in the world.
We believe in words made flesh—
then and now—
words that shape relationship
and possibility.
We believe in words of truth—
words that name what is,
and we believe in words that build up—
that raise up—
that soar,
and create, in their being shared
and in their being heard, the possibility of dreaming—
of hoping.
That’s first. There’s no “just” to words—”just” words.

And second, I know we’re not in exile—
a captive people in a foreign land,
but you talk to just about anyone.
We are weary.
We are wary of promises of rest and energy.
We fall to bed exhausted.
We wake up not rested.
We’re over scheduled.
We’re over booked.

Many of us have watched our children
after church on a Sunday morning, running—
after supper on a Wednesday night, running—
running through the facilities,
and after saying, “Stop running!”
added, “What I wouldn’t give for just a little bit of that energy!”
And sometimes more materialistically—capitalistically,
“Boy, if we could bottle and market that!”

So what do words offering the promise of soaring exhilaration—
of joy and refreshment mean
for us us today as to them so long ago?
How are they true? How are they real?

Well, for us, I guess—I hope,
they can serve as reminder of “those moments.”
Because there are “those moments.”
There are church moments of community and conversation.
Whether those are in here—in this room—
in the dark everyone holding candles in a big circle singing “Silent Night”—
everyone here in a line down the center aisle
to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads—
sitting here watching someone be baptized—
remembering the saints.
Or in Fellowship Hall: eating together, praying together, sharing life.
In a Sunday School room,
in a hospital room, a funeral home,
in Kentucky, on the Eastern Shore.
There are those moments.

There are those moments when the Bible illuminates.
And you see, sometimes just for a moment,
so much more than you had before.
Or you catch a glimpse of how much more there is to see.
Like those moments you catch a glimpse of someone
in an unguarded moment, often a vulnerable moment,
and you realize whether you really like them or not
how much you love them.
There are such moments.
I hope you’re now thinking of some you’ve known.

So I certainly don’t mean to dismiss—deny—
downplay—ignore—
the straightforward imagery of our text—
the promise of transcendent moments.
But when I remember the context—
the exiles—
the captives,
I would also say this:
sometimes it takes that kind of word power—
that kind of image energy,
not to feel exhilarated—
not to feel like gliding above the clouds,
but just to make it through the day—
just to keep your head above water.

You mean this is just exaggeration?
No.
I mean it’s the assurance required for the moment—
the assurance and reassurance needed in the moment for the moment—
the reminder of transcendence
which we sometimes need not to transcend,
but to survive—
not to soar, but to limp.

I know of a ninth grade girl
who woke up one day with compromised vision.
Doctors could not figure out what was going on.
They could not figure out what had caused this.
They could not figure out what to do about it.
The best they could offer her was this:
“Maybe one day you’ll wake up
and everything will have gone back to normal.”
So she has to live with this terribly challenging condition
as if it will never change,
hoping every day she wakes up that it will have.
Now you can’t do that
without having both a stark acknowledgment of what is
and a transcendent vision of hope.

Who knows what Jesus was thinking in Gethsemane—
sweating blood—grieving—praying for an alternative way.
We know he knew Isaiah.
What if it was these verses—
not in triumphant glory—
“I’m going to soar right out of here—right out of this.”
But in the committed, “Nevertheless, thy will.”
Nothing soaring about that “nevertheless,”
but who has ever flown higher?

Maybe today you soar.
I hope so.
And maybe you even want a t-shirt!
It won’t get the fullness of your experience,
but I’ve got a Bar Harbor t-shirt that doesn’t either!
I would encourage you to try and find one with a golden eagle on it!
Perhaps more often though, it’s not about reading scripture
and thinking, “Oh, yes. I know this. I experience this.”
As much as reading and wishing—
reading and dreaming—
reading and hoping—
reading and thinking, maybe one day,
and getting through this day
with a modicum more grace—
not having given up on love.
And that’s really nothing that could go on a t-shirt.
It’s nothing of which to make a product,
but words—images—assurances
with which to maintain a faith.

let there be grace

Jonah 3:1-10

It’s such a familiar story
with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah son of Amittai,
saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city,
and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’
(Jonah 1:1-2).
It’s actually, though not translated that way, a threefold imperative:
rise (get up), go, and then call out (proclaim).

Now did Jonah do that?
Do what God commanded?
No.
What did Jonah do?
Well, he did get up.
He obeyed the first command,
but then he ran away—
sailed away.
And why?
He didn’t want to go to Niniveh.
Why not?
Because they were the great enemy.
Yes.
They were the great enemy,
but it wasn’t fear for his life—
for his safety that motivated him to run away.
They were the great enemy,
but neither was it the fear that, were he to go,
his facebook page would crash
from the number of vile comments
questioning his patriotism, his faith, his sanity, his God.
No, they were the great enemy,
and he was afraid God loved them too.

Now we won’t find that out until later,
but later, Jonah will explicitly say,
“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?
That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning;
for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2b).
So he ran away.
Ran away from love extended to others—
ran away from love extended to them
ran away from a story too big for him to accept.

Now could he escape God?
No. Of course not.
And there’s the whole thrown-overboard,
swallowed-by-the-great-fish part of the story—
the three days and three nights in the belly of the fish—
the psalm prayed from the belly of the fish—
the being spewed forth onto dry land from the belly of the fish.

And so it is, with today’s text, already well into the story,
we begin again—
with essentially a repetition of Jonah 1:1—
except Jonah’s father’s name isn’t repeated,
and the phrase “a second time” is added.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time,
saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city,
and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’”
Again that three-fold imperative:
arise (get up), go, and call—proclaim.
Literally, God says, “call to her the calling I am wording to you”
(Phyllis Trible, The Book of Jonah: Introduction, Commentary,
and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 510).

It’s also true that chapter one, verse two
stresses preaching against the city—stresses the wickedness of Niniveh,
while the second command, chapter three, verse two
stresses preaching to the city and stresses Yahweh’s message—
not the wickedness of the city
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve
Hosea-Jonah
in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 438).
Now whether that’s a change in God,
or a change in what Jonah hears listening to God,
we can all consider.
Just let that simmer.

So this second time, Jonah was told to get up,
and Jonah got up. (He did that the last time, too.)
And Jonah was told to go to Niniveh,
and Jonah went to Niniveh. (That’s new; he didn’t do that last time.)
And Jonah did all this according to the word of God.
The repetition of the phrase “the word of the Lord” in verses one and three
creates an inclusio—a set of parentheses—
within which God’s word is first relayed and then obeyed—
at least the first two of the three commands are.
What about that third one—to call out—to proclaim?
Well, we have to wonder about that one.
Something else to consider—to let simmer.

Niniveh, we are told, was an exceedingly large city.
That’s how our translation reads: “an exceedingly large city.”
You want to know how the Hebrew actually reads?
“A city great to God!”

I trust you’re noticing over time
how often our translations shortchange or even totally fail us.
Makes you question taking translations literally, don’t you think?
Makes you question taking them at face value.

So Niniveh, the city representing the great enemy of Israel,
was a city great to God—a city important to God—
consider that!
And so big it took three days to walk through it.
Now that’s just ridiculous!
Nineveh was certainly not an insignificant city,
but it wasn’t the capital of Assyria at the presumed time of Jonah.
Nor was it as big as it was going to get—
with eventually an archeologically verified circumference
of seven and three quarter miles—
which is big,
but with an average day’s walk comprising
somewhere between 20 and 25 miles,
three days would mean somewhere between 60 and 75 miles.
Y’all ready for this?:
circumference equals diameter multiplied by pi. Remember that?
So a diameter of between 60 and 75
would mean a circumference of between 189 and 236 miles.
Baltimore’s beltway is 51 1/2 miles.
Washington’s is 64 miles—as is Atlanta’s perimeter.
This isn’t truth. And it isn’t just exaggeration. This is ridiculous.

Now how much ridiculousness does it take
before you begin to acknowledge it?
So looking back do we now say:
swallowed by a giant fish and alive in the belly of that giant fish
three days and three nights? Ridiculous!
That’s Pinocchio! That’s a fairy tale.
Just consider it, okay? Consider it ridiculous. Let that simmer.

Jonah walked one day into the city.
Now it’s not about distance, right?
So it’s rather about a not even half-hearted venture into the city.
Whereupon he did, in fact, call out
(the third part of the commissioning—the third imperative)—
he did call out in in apparent obedience to God’s command,
but outside that inclusio formed by the word of God—
the inclusio that included obedience to the first two commands.
This proclamation was outside that obedience,
and consisted of only five words—
y’all would probably love a five word sermon!
Five words that it’s very hard to believe, in light of this story,
would be the calling God worded for him.

Within those five words, there’s nothing like “this is the word of God”—
no “thus says God”—
no kind of prophetic formula whatsoever.
Nothing about repentance.
Nothing about the possibility of redemption.
And there’s nothing in those five words about God either—at all.
Just: “within or after 40 days, destruction.”

But the Ninivites, we read, believed God!—
the God unmentioned by Jonah!
Something we wouldn’t know in even the best translation
is that the verb “believed” (the Ninivites “believed”)
has the same root as the name of Jonah’s father,
whose name means “belief” (Jonah 1:1).

Now one scholar I read made the point
that the Ninivites didn’t believe Yahweh.
She points out it reads they believed Elohim
which she suggests is “a generic term for god
rather than the particular Israelite name”
(Trible, 513).
My theory is sometimes scholars think they have something
and then they go with it even if it doesn’t make much sense!
Preachers do that too!
Elohim is the most common Hebrew term for God/god
(Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, general ed., The New Interpreter’s
Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 2
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2007] 248)

But that did lead me into further word study,
And I know that y’all are all rejoicing inside.
You’re just not showing it!
But you’re rejoicing inside
because we’re going to do a word study!
Basically in the first chapter,
there are 12 references to Yahweh and five to Elohim,
but two of those occurrences of Elohim do not refer specifically to God
(Jonah 1:6 the captain asking Jonah about his god
not knowing who that God was).
One other occurrence of Elohim is used in conjunction with Yahweh—
as in Yahweh Elohim—the Lord God.
So in the first chapter, Elohim is only used once for God by itself—
compared to Yahweh’s twelve references.
In the second chapter, Yahweh is used six times,
Elohim twice, but only in conjunction with Yahweh—
so not once used by itself to refer to God.
Then in our chapter, Yahweh is used twice at the beginning
(the word of the Lord forming that inclusio).
After that, it’s all Elohim in the mouths of the Ninivites.
Let it simmer.
The fourth chapter, if you’re interested,
reverts back to the predominant use of Yahweh.

We’ll let that simmer too,
but I think it is legitimate to suggest that the Ninivites
were not in relationship with the Lord—were not converted.
They did not know the Lord as Jonah did—
as even the sailors did (since Jonah did mention Yahweh to them,
and they did refer to God as Yahweh)—
not the Ninivites.

And yet the people of Niniveh responded immediately—
no sense whatsoever that they had 40 days.
They act like the destruction’s imminent—
tomorrow or later today!
They proclaimed a fast,
and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the king heard about all this
(somehow the last to hear?!),
he removed his robe,
he covered himself in sackcloth, and he sat in ashes.
Then he had a proclamation made in Niniveh
that there would be no tasting—
that meant no eating
that meant no drinking
(you weren’t allowed to taste)—
anyone—no one in Niniveh—
human or animal—of the herds or the flocks.
He proclaimed that all humans and animals would wear sackcloth
and would all cry mightily to God
turning from their evil ways and the violence in their hands.

So see I have to wonder if there’s some suggestion
that to do evil and to hold violence in your hand
means your destruction is at hand?
More for the simmering!

But basically, the king issued a redundant proclamation—
ordering the people to do just what the people were already doing.
He just added the animals, the herds and flocks—
which—I mean, I’m thinking—ridiculous—again, right? Are you?

And yes, I’ve heard and read that this was all to indicate
the absolute seriousness—indeed the desperation
with which Niniveh received Jonah’s news.
The absolute seriousness? Seriously?
After the whole alive in the belly of a fish three days and three nights?
After the city big enough it would take three days to walk through—
a city bigger than Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta put together?!
After babies in sackcloth diapers?
(I’ll just bet they were crying mightily out to God!)
And cows and oxen and goats and sheep
coated with ashes, wrapped in sackcloth? Seriously?

It’s all exaggerated.
It’s extreme—it’s ridiculous—
it’s cartoonish—buffoonish—absurd—hilarious.

“Who knows,” says the king, “God may relent.
God may change God’s mind—
turn from fierce anger, so we do not perish.”

When the biblically literate person heard or read this—
that bit about how God might relent and change God’s mind—
turn from fierce anger, so that we do not perish,
well, there’s all kinds of significant resonance with Joel—
a prophetic word addressed
to the people of Judah, the people of God.
And in Joel, Yahweh asks for fasting—for a returning to God—
who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger,
abounding in steadfast love. Sound familiar?
And who knows if God will turn and relent. Familiar?
Put on sackcloth—sanctify a fast.
Even this—
how the animals groan—even the wild animals cry to you
(Joel 2:12-14; 1:13-14, 18, 20).
Isn’t that fascinating?
And in Joel, after we’re told the people of God,
were invited to repent,
we’re not told if they do—
just like Jonah!
We’re going to let that simmer too.

That’s an important “who knows,” by the way.
Who knows, God may relent.
“Who knows” keeps this from being manipulative.
This is not cause and effect.
This is hope and grace.

When God saw this,
God did change God’s mind about the calamity …
hmm. Elsewhere that word is translated evil.
God changed God’s mind about the evil—
the doom—the judgment that God was going to bring.
And God did not.

Now you remember Jonah’s five word proclamation
foretelling destruction?
The word translated “destruction” or “overthrown”—
well, it can mean that. It can.
It can also mean “turn”—
and it can be associated with deliverance!
From Deuteronomy: Yet … the Lord your God
turned the curse into a blessing for you,
because the Lord your God loved you
(Deuteronomy 23:5).
From Jeremiah: I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow
(Jeremiah 31:13).
The word Jonah proclaimed as threat—
as destruction—
“overturns itself; it holds countermeanings”
(Trible, 512).
Isn’t that marvelously rich?

So do you hear it?
Not evangelistic affirmation that the enemy was converted.
No, no, no. What I hear is that these Ninivites
were more children of the faith of Jonah’s fathers than Jonah was—
even if they did call God by another name.
Preach that church!
Preach that!
God cares more about a contrite heart than about what people call God.
God cares more about evil rejected and violence renounced
than the words of religion.

A lot simmering, isn’t there?
So considering all we’ve got to consider—
what all we have simmering—

the ridiculous doesn’t mean the meaningless, does it?
Because here’s the thing: we don’t question the ridiculous.
We don’t question what we know doesn’t make sense.
And this story’s not about the parts we accept but don’t believe.
It’s not about the man in the fish, the immense city, the five word sermon.
It’s about the parts we don’t want to accept but can’t not believe:
that a prophet, that a child of God, that the son of belief doesn’t believe.
It’s like the players in Hamlet:
“the play’s the thing to uncover the conscience of the king.”
The make believe (ha!) reveals who does and who doesn’t believe.

Because believing is not about claiming God,
believing is about being claimed by God.
And because it’s a terrible thing to fall into the hands of love—
to realize there is no one excluded.
There is no them; there is no one to blame;
there is no one to mock; there is no one to reject;
there is no one to whom to feel superior.

This is not the story of a city that changes,
but about one person who may or may not change.
It’s not about the enemy,
but about whether the children of God can love the enemy.
It’s not about them, it’s about us.
It’s not about “the extent of God’s grace,” as is often claimed
(Nogalski, 413)—
that’s a given!
It’s rather about the faithfulness (or the lack thereof)
of those who claim God’s grace as theirs—
that foolishness of the world’s that is God’s wisdom—
the foolishness of loving the enemy.
Given the extent of God’s grace—
given the extent of God’s love,
when God loves them—when God loves all of them,
will we celebrate, or will we sulk?
Will we share or will we hoard?
Do we proclaim God’s love to others
or claim God’s love all for ourselves?

Niniveh, you see, is just across the river from Mosul,
a city now controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
It remains a city great to God—
its people beloved of God.
And while we pray most earnestly
for their rejection of evil—for their rejection of violence,
the question Jonah raises is what we do—
when beyond ridiculous absolutes—
beyond stark divisions into us and them,
God reminds us they are my wayward but beloved too.
The question we hear God asking is this:
do we reject evil?
Do we put down the violence in our hands and in our hearts?

And maybe we hear God saying this:
it’s destroying not only you—
but me—
who I revealed myself to be in the world—
what I taught—
who and what I entrusted to you.

Don’t cheapen my dream by what you deem reasonable!
The dream instilled in my people
has always been a non-violent alternative
to any smallness of vision
that invests in what is only part of the whole—
has always been a surprising wholeness—
a challenging integration—
seen by eyes that see it is only in all of creation’s interdependence
that evil is defeated—that violence is defeated—
that calamity is averted.
Now that is a story ever deepening—
ever expanding—
ever challenging us to grow—
to discover what we do not yet know.
“Dream with me.
Dream my dream with me,” says Yahweh Elohim,
“and change the world.”