A message from Bishop Devadhar
A message from Bishop Devadhar
John 21: 1-7
Chilmark Community Church
November 6, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
This morning we are in one of our most beloved and intriguing stories in the early biblical narratives about how the human community came into being – – the story of Noah. Noah appears in the narrative 10 generations after the story of Adam and Eve. Much has happened in those 10 generations. When we pick up the story here we find that the great experiment that had caused God to stand back and look at all of creation and call it good has now run amuck. Part of the problem begins with an odd note that “the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were fair and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.” (6:2) The verse is reminiscent of the ancient Greek mythologies wherein the gods mated with human beings and a class of great heroes, neither divine nor human, were born. Genesis says that the Nephilim were on the earth in those days…these were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (6:4).
Biblical scholar, Aviva Zornberg, suggests that the function of God creating human beings has been usurped. Human beings now replicate themselves – and in so doing they replicate the divine image. But the image gets distorted. In the Garden of Eden, the two humans had desired to gain knowledge of Good and evil – – but by the time of Noah, humans seem to be unaware of the evil they have generated – -unaware of the self imposed evil under which they suffer. Evil overshadows all of life.1 The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. (6:5)
Zornberg cites Martin Buber: “man no longer knows or can discriminate between those radical opposites, fortune and misfortune, order and disorder that are experienced by a person – as well as that which he causes.”2
God is deeply grieved. What had begun in great beauty has deteriorated and God is painfully sorry. And so, like the occasional artist, frustrated and dissatisfied with the outcome of her efforts, God decides to destroy what God has created. “…and the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
And then, in a dramatic shift in tone, the narrative says: “But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” (6:8) And, if we were reading this to our children as a bedtime story, we might pause here and ask the kids “Why do you suppose, out of all the wickedness that makes God’s heart sad – why do you suppose Noah finds favor with God?” The story teller does not keep us in suspense.
“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (6:9)
Now – this verse has caused a lot of discussion among biblical scholars. They want to know what it means that Noah was righteous and blameless “in his generation.” There is much speculation. Was Noah truly sinless and righteous?
Or was his generation just so bad that it made Noah look good in comparison?
This is a truly contemporary question in a time when we are so often faced with trying to find the best choices and none of them feel really good. In a world that is filled with irony and shadows and hidden secrets – – how do we perceive who is truly “righteous and blameless” in our generation? Is it the person who is simply a little less murky than society in general? In a very real way, the question of how “righteous and blameless is Noah in his generation” presents a pretty contemporary challenge.
So – Aviva Zornberg identifies this as the over-arching question in the narrative: “Why Noah?”
God says: “You alone have I found righteous in this generation.” Zornberg suggests the “rational is apparently simple and ethically reassuring – Noah is different from his generation. They are full of evil. He is righteous.”3
Again from Martin Buber: “[Noah] is the first human being [in the biblical narrative] to be described by any epithet – -and [he] is the only human being in the entire narrative to be described as “righteous” both in direct encounter with God AND in the authoritative voice that begins the story in verse 9: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.’ The emphasis on Noah’s difference serves a moral purpose – – his difference justifies his exemption from the universal disaster.” 4
BUT – – and this is a big BUT – – as we continue to let Zornberg suggest a direction for our thinking: there is another reading beneath the surface of the text: Noah is chosen by God not because he is different – – he is chosen because he has found favor with God. In verse 8, before there is any mention of Noah’s righteousness, the narrative states that “Noah found favor in the sight of God.”
Now – we fast forward to the post resurrection narrative of Jesus and his disciples on the lakeshore. We have already experienced the devastation of the crucifixion which was preceded by, among other things, Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. Three times in a fire-lit courtyard, Peter refused to own his friendship and relationship with Jesus. We don’t have any descriptions of Peter being righteous in his generation. We do know that he was a human being who made both rich and poor choices in his lifetime. The choice to deny Jesus was devastating for him. Like all his ancestors before him, in a moment of fear he lost his sensibility of good and evil and was not even aware in the moment of how he was contributing to the creating of his own suffering. Crucifixion happened.
And then there was sunrise on the lakeshore and a chilly, soggy encounter with the Risen One – – the thrice repeated question – – “Do you love me?” The thrice repeated answer: “Lord, you know that I love you.” The thrice repeated command: “Feed my lambs – – tend my sheep – – feed my sheep.”
Why Noah? Why Peter?
There is a midrash – a kind of parable- that give us something to ponder. To refresh your memory, the parable mentions Joseph (of the coat of many colors) and Potiphar, the Pharoah’s right hand man under whom Joseph gradually rose to power in Pharoah’s court. Joseph eventually marries Potiphar’s daughter. The midrash may move us toward the answer to “Why Noah? Why Peter?”:
This is like one(ehad) who was traveling along and saw another traveler (ehad) and sought his company. To what extent? Till he formed bonds of love with him. That is why it says here, “Noah found favor.” Compare this with “Joseph found favor in [Potiphar’s] eyes” (39:4). It is like one who was traveling along and saw another traveler and sought his company. To what extent? Till he gave him power….to what extent? till he gave him his daughter….To what extent? Till he could tell which animal is to be fed at the second hour of the day, and which at the third hour of the night.”
Zornberg explains: “The traveler’s choice of companion as narrated in the midrash is almost arbitrary. It is because The Traveler is One – – God – -Alone–Matchless – – that He seeks another – any one – so that He may love and empower and educate him. The anonymous hero, undeserving, finds himself married to the King’s daughter. In many midrashic parables, the King’s daughter is symbolizes as wisdom. The commoner marries the King’s daughter. But what is the intention of the end of the midrash? The acme of wisdom that Noah attains is a knowledge of the feeding schedules of the animal on the ark! …is this a satirical comment on Noah’s limitations, or a serious insight into the nature of the wisdom God has to teach Noah?5
God chooses Noah, not because he has achieved significant virtue or wisdom, not because Noah is righteous and blameless – – but because God seeks to convey to some one the knowledge of God’s Self.
Jesus chooses Peter, not because he is perfect , not because he is dependable, not because he is blameless and righteous. Jesus chooses Peter so that he can impart love and wisdom to him, so that he can empower and teach him – – Jesus chooses Peter so that he can convey to Peter some of his own self knowledge as the Son of God.
Why Noah? Why Peter? Both are flawed. Peter buckles at the knees at a most critical moment in the Passion narrative. It is hard to imagine any individual like Noah being totally blameless when the society of which he is a part is so utterly corrupt and evil.
Back to the Genesis narrative: God says: “…I am sorry I have made them.” But – – Noah found favor in the sight of God.”
This is a snapshot of what pure, radical, unmerited grace looks like. Grace – – it could be God’s middle name. The two stories affirm the central, life giving message of our sacred texts from start to finish: the Holy One, the Giver and Sustainer of Life, the Spacious One who gives us room to live and move and have our being – – enough room even to reject God – – to be sinful – – this God is a graceful God who desires to be in relationship with us – – at any cost. This God is a God who wants to love us – to empower us – – to teach us. This God is a God who trusts us so much that the Divine Life itself is entrusted to us – so we can participate fully in the life of God. This God entrusted the less than perfect Noah with the responsibility for saving and regenerating and repopulating the earth. This God, in the person of Jesus, entrusts the entire future of his ministry to the flawed disciple, Peter. That is GRACE writ large. And it will sustain us through anything. The stories both convey to us that God WANTS to accompany us – to love us – to impart wisdom to us – to educate us; and that God will continue to find the way to do that – – no matter how flawed we are – – no matter what. Beyond everything else today, especially today, as we live with the uncertainty and anxiety about what the coming election will mean, we can and we need to depend on this.
This is what we affirm when we come together at the communion table – that we are, indeed, loved. We are and we will be empowered to be God’s people in the world and we will be taught – -we will be given the wisdom we need as we depart from the table.
Blameless and righteous or not, we are assured of the gift of grace. Like Peter and Noah, may we rise to the occasion to receive it as fully as it is given.
1 Aviva Zornberg The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis Doubleday, New York 1995. P.38
2 Zornberg p.38
3 Zornberg P. 40
4 Zornberg P.40
5 Zornberg P. 41
ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
CHILMARK COMUNITY CHURCH
OCTOBER 30, 2016
REV. ARMEN HANJIAN
Mon. is Halloween. All- Hallows Eve is Tues., Nov. 1 – All Saints Day. I would like to introduce you to a saint. St. Francis was born in 1182 and died at age 44, on Oct.3,1226. This month is the 790th anniversary of his death.
The 13th century was noted by the supremacy of the Church, gothic cathedrals, universities, monks and mystics. The Church of Rome was supreme. There was a strong feudal system, many superstitions and masses of people killed in wars and other masses who were sick and hungry.
What makes this saint so important to us is that in his writings we can see the real struggles of a man, yet a man wholly dedicated to God. We see a sinner saved by God’s grace. Continually sensing his human frailties, he would all the more depend on Divine power.
Born in Italy. His father was a wealthy clothing merchant. He called him not by his baptized name – John, but by Francis (this the first known us of the name). As a boy of means, he got himself into a good deal of pranks and extravagances, yet he always remained courteous and charitable.
Francis had little formal education. He wrote with simplicity with a talent of weaving scripture into his writings. He says nothing drastically new. The greatness of the man is that he took Christ at his word; for him the sermon on the mount was a clear and concise directive. He got caught with a handful of Jesus’ sayings, and they never let him go. (e.g. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” Matt.16:24).
But Francis did not grow up in a steady Christian nurture. He was not always the stainless saint of his celebrity. After his schooling he went into the clothing business with his father. Though he walked with the nobility, he continually stood up for the commoners, even to the extent of being imprisoned for fighting with the nobility – the government of his day. Upon his return to the business, he fell deathly ill. For the first time in his life he began to realize a dissatisfaction with his former life. He had lived a life of pleasure and it left a bitter taste in his mouth.
To forget these disturbing memories, Francis turned to other pleasures; he sought meaningfulness in the life of a soldier. He got a fever in an early battle and was left behind by the rest of his company – thus his military fame was purged away. Having nowhere else to turn, he looked to religion for hope and direction. After telling his friends of his wedding to “Lady Poverty”, he retired to a near-by cave for meditation; he asked for forgiveness and sought the light of truth.
Most biographers, as well as St. Francis himself, emphasize the importance of his visit one day to the St. Damian Chapel near Assisi. In his deep meditation on the crucifix, he could hear Christ say, “I have accepted thy sacrifice, thy desires, thy offering, thy work, thy life, thy self.”1 He considered this personal confrontation with Christ a call of God, he spent the remainder of his life in quest of Jesus’ will for his actions. With the same wholeness he had thrown himself into a life of pleasure, he now immersed himself into religious dedication. In this, his single-mindedness, lies his claim to sainthood.
What followed was not an existence of seclusion; the zeal of the living Christ demanded expression in his puny life. Arising from his knees, he looked around for the nearest need. He found a chapel in need of repair. Immediately, he sold all that he had, and began the work himself. The youth of nobility was thus forced to become a beggar for crumbs.
Truly, he had the mind of Christ. He loved the simplicity, gratitude and kindness to one another of the poor in contrast to the proud and selfish rich. In every person he saw someone for whom Christ died. His imitation of Christ was spontaneous. Love was the absolute standard for him – love of God, of people, of flower, of animal, of all creation. We usually think of Francis only from this viewpoint, but he also had a strong voice in condemning injustice.
He took an excursion to Rome where he downed a good deal of pride by begging; he won an even bigger battle upon his return in his learning to live with lepers, even learning to love them. Leprosy had run wild in the filth of Europe. Francis, like his Master, provided for their many physical and spiritual needs, healing them with trust and love. Not many would wash a leper’s feet, dress his wounds and eat with him. Later, becoming a part of the Order of St. Francis, the care of lepers not only help clean up Italy, but made a living witness to the love of Christ.
Because of his “uncommon” behavior, Francis’ father saw fit to separate family ties and brought him to court. Actually it was Francis who made the separation claiming first allegiance to his Heavenly Father. Francis stripped naked and gave back to his father all that he had gotten from him. The bishop at the trail was touched by his sincerity let Francis go on his own with only a rag to cover himself. Even this was taken by thieves, and he was left with nothing but his faith in God.
Friends had pity on him and gave him help. He immediately returned to the chapel to finish the work he had begun. Then he repaired two nearby chapels. The amazing thing about this saint is he was a Christian in his own community.
At 27, three years after his conversion, he heard a priest in mass read a gospel passage; the words came to him as if directly from Christ: “As you go proclaim the good news, saying, the kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; freely you have received, freely give. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two coats or sandals or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. (Matt. 10:7-10)
Wonder of wonders, he took the Lord’s words seriously. He preached with power, and those who heard were amazed at the simplicity and sincerity of his message – a message of a God of love and a Christ of forgiveness. He became poor neither to show off nor to make a down payment on eternal life, but to be better tied to Christ. His one aim was to see life from Christ’s point of view. This meant a complete self denial so Christ could live in him. In denying his own will to do God’s will, he found his true self and intended will. He saw shame and dislike of blame both as a praise of self, not God.
St. Francis had no intention of beginning an order, but this became almost inevitable when those who once scorned him, now coveted his Christlikeness. At first there were four men who traveled two by two. They worked for their daily rations and found shelter anywhere from a church porch to a leper’s camp. Soon there were twelve. Some thought they were mad (even among the clergy), yet their sanity and hope was seen even through their hungry faces.
The Bishop of Assisi once said to them their way of living was harsh and difficult. Francis responded, “If we possessed property, we should have need of weapons to defend it, for it is a source of quarrels and lawsuits, an obstacle to the love of God and neighbor.”1 He knew the whole feudal system, with its endless warfare and oppression, rested on the possessions of land and property. For this everything else was sacrificed. It took the shock of Franciscan poverty to shake the complacency of the times.
Francis took his group of twelve to Rome to receive papal approval. Pope Innocent, in his worldly splendor, and likely with a lump in his throat, authorized their activities. The saint continued to champion the cause of the down trodden, averting
small wars among the nobles. The men of the order worked at their previous trades and would receive no pay, thus there was no shame in their begging for food. The order was known by its fruits. Francis considered idleness an opponent to the soul.
A second Franciscan order had it’s birth when a women, Clara Sciffi, responded to his preaching. She became the head of the Poor Clares Order. A third order was the next natural step; married couples too wished to live a sacrificial life. Thus, the Tertiarians, could keep some property, remain in marriage and still live a life of charity. These orders became leaven in Italian society and resulted in the break down of its feudal system. Francis had an awareness of the divine imperative which yielded a monasticism of service to the world rather than flight from it.
He wanted to share his Christ even beyond Italy. He attempted to go to Syria, but was shipwrecked. He went to Barcelona , Spain and established a few groups there. In Egypt, he preached, was captured and imprisoned; fortunately, he was released by the Sultan. Though he had little success with the Saracens, the Christians were greatly encouraged by his courage.
1 Rev. J.H. Mc Ilvaine, p.74.
Prayer was his life line. A life of contemplation was a real temptation to him; yet, in his meditation he was always thrown back to love of neighbor in some physical way. He was struck by an illness which blinded him. He would say even in sickness we ought to rejoice in the Lord, to be merry and full of joy, not pious like the hypocrites.
With great difficulty he returned to his home village. These last days were full of joy for him. He had never been ordained into the priesthood, but in his final hours, Francis took bread,, blest and broke it to those about him in remembrance of Christ’s death and passion.
The Franciscans in the years following his death made their greatest contributions as preachers and creators of religious literature for commoners. Their language was easily understood for they had intimate knowledge of the life of the people. They put aside formal theological questions and preached the love and mercy of God who frees us from our sins. To put off evil habits and take up a new life in Christ was their message; the Gospel was their authority.
Did you ever wonder what your biography would be like?
“What a Difference A Word Makes”
Chilmark Community Church
October 23, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
A young monk, fresh out of seminary was appointed to a monastery where for hundreds of years, the monks had worked faithfully at making beautiful copies of the ancient sacred texts and scriptures. As the aging Father Abbot was giving the young man an orientation to the work the monks were doing, the young monk noticed that the good brothers were painstakingly making new copies from earlier
copies from the previous generation of monks. He wondered about this for awhile and finally asked the Father Abbot about it. The Abbot patiently explained that the order has always done it this way – each new generation of monks faithfully copying the texts passed on by the previous generation. But the younger monk wasn’t quite comfortable with this system. “What if someone, somewhere along the line doesn’t copy accurately?” The Father Abbot answered patiently “My son, the copying of the Holy Texts is a sacred trust. For hundreds of years the brothers have been doing it just this way, with great care not to make mistakes.”
The new young brother went on about his task of getting acquainted with the monastery. But the Father Abbot was a little disturbed by the novice’s question.
So he went down into the great vault in the basement of the monastery to look at the original ancient manuscripts that were stored there.
The time for evening prayer came and went and there was no sign of the Abbot. Finally, after missing him for about 6 hours, the monks decided to find out what was keeping him so long. They made their way down to the vault and as they approached the heavy door, they could hear the Father Abbot moaning and crying in the most anguished way. When they opened the door they saw that he had been pulling out his hair and tearing his garments. They ran to him shouting “Father Abbot, Father Abbot – – what is wrong?” – – expecting that some great damage had been done to the ancient, original sacred texts. And Father Abbot turned to them and in a voice hoarse from crying and moaning said to them “The original texts says CELEBRATE! – – not CELIBATE!”
Sometimes it is a good idea to revisit the texts that shape our beliefs and actions and understanding – – to see what is actually written there. We are in a teaching situation with Jesus and the disciples this morning. We are reminded of this back in the 22nd verse of chapter 17. Luke tends to move between public and private teachings and this is one of the private ones. Amy Jill Levine, Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament, notes that by the 18th chapter of Luke we have already “met numerous unlikeable Pharisees and a number of quite darling tax collectors. When we read the Gospel, our sympathies are with the tax collector, not at all with the Pharisee. This is exactly the opposite stance from which a 1st century Jewish audience would have heard the parable.” 1
Levine points out that in actuality, the presence of a tax collector in the temple would have been quite unexpected. He would have been viewed as an enemy of his people. He was not, as some commentators insist, living in the margins of society. His problem is not that he was without power, wealth or status…sinned against, oppressed, and marginalized; his problem is that he is a sinner, probably rich, an agent of Rome, and as a tax collector, has likely shown no mercy to others.2
“Our tax collector is in the temple, praying. Jesus has given his listeners an image that unsettles.”3
Levine notes that Luke’s portrayal of the Pharisees is often ambivalent and ultimately negative, but that there are some positive descriptions too. Some Pharisees invite Jesus to dinner, others ask Jesus searching questions that are not necessarily hostile. In Luke 13:31, it was Pharisees who warned Jesus to leave town because Herod wanted to kill him. She continues that for the majority of those who listened to Jesus, the Pharisees would have been viewed with respect as people who “walked the talk as well as talked the talk.” They were generally righteous people who tried to live faithful lives according to Jewish law.
So we have a truly righteous man praying in his corner of the temple, thanking God for the richness of life that he enjoys – – and a scoundrel hiding in the shadows – – abjectedly confessing that he is a sinner.
There are two problematic lines in the parable. The words that are used to translate them from the ancient, original Greek affect our understanding of the story. The first one is “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying to God thus….” and the second one is “I tell you, this man (referring to the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other…..” These lines invite us to wrestle with the parable.
Was the Pharisee standing off by himself because he wanted privacy for his prayers? Was he an elitist who needed a lot of space? Was he simply wanting to commune with God? Was he seeking to shame the tax collector?
The KJV translates the first problem from the Greek this way: The Pharisee, in a self absorbed way, “stood and prayed thus with himself”. The NAB makes the same line idolatrous translating it as: “he took up his position and prayed to himself….” Levine suggests that “how we assess the Pharisee may well tell us more about ourselves (and the translator) than about him”. The words of the translation we use make a difference.
Levine argues that “the Pharisee’s prayer does set up distinctions. However, it should be seen not as about self importance, but about gratitude. It is God who has provided the supplicant with the opportunity to study rather than to have to work to earn money. It is God who allows the supplicant to see what is truly important or perhaps to have his ‘pearl of great price.’” 4
The second problematic line in the story has to do with how God deals with the two men. In every translation I looked at – 7 at least, verse 18 is translated the same way: “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other.” There is something in Luke that wants us to identify with the sinner redeemed by God rather than with a Pharisee who seems to live a most righteous life. Throughout the full range of translations, our texts affirm that only one man, the tax collector, was justified – – in right relationship with God – -and the other one wasn’t. Virtually none of the translations varies from this interpretation.
But, Levine, being the scholar that she is, descends into the vault beneath the basement of our inherited texts. Uncomfortable with the questions this verse raises she digs around a little further and discovers a paradox. The original Greek word para ekeinon that is almost universally translated as “rather than”
also means “along side that one.” It can can also mean “because of.” Can you hear the Father Abbot moaning and groaning?
How might our understanding of the nature of God and what it means to have God’s law written in our hearts be changed if we read Jesus’ words this way: “To you I say, descending to his house, this (the tax collector) is justified alongside that Pharisee……” or even more challenging: “this tax collector is justified because of that Pharisee…..”
Read this way, the parable might suggest that the life and prayer of the righteous Pharisee play a role in the salvation of the sinful tax collector – – without there necessarily being a personal connection between the two men at all.
Reading Levine, I was reminded of project I had to complete in a previous life when I was attending nursing school. The class was divided into groups of four students. Each group was to study a particular disease, its symptoms, treatments, medications and so on. We were then to do a comprehensive case study of a patient with the particular disease. It was a massive, time consuming assignment As often happens with group projects, three of us worked seriously on the project. The 4th member rarely showed up prepared when we met and made little contribution to the project. The group started to fracture with resentment about the unfair division of labor and the possibility that our grade would not be good because of the slacker in the group. As the deadline drew near we realized that we were simply going to have to take up the slack if we wanted the grade. We did – – we got the much coveted “A” – – all of us – – even the slacker. As the workers, we were able to celebrate and be thankful that our work had paid off.
Our fellow student received a gift of grace along side of us because of our commitment to doing a good job. It was tempting to get caught in the swamp of resentment about the unfairness – – but that is how it all worked out.
Jesus’ parables are always designed to make us think. Is it true that one person’s merit can be applied to another person? Can people who live straight forward faithful lives make up for the shortcomings of others? How does the transfer of merit happen? What about the apparent unfairness?
Levine suggests that we can “see” ideas in the parable that we already know about but would rather not acknowledge. “We see that Divine grace cannot be limited, for this would be to limit the Divine. This unlimited generosity is something we may find problematic. We are quite happy to know our salvation is assured, but less happy when the same salvation is extended to other people we do not like, especially when our dislike is bolstered by seemingly very good reasons such as “He is a sinner.” 5
For some reason, over the centuries of translation, our tradition has chosen to pit the Pharisee and the tax collector against each other as though there were not enough room in God’s embrace for both to loved and accepted. The more ancient way indicates that there is great possibility for both/and thinking rather than either/or. The good that we do affects those around us who are less capable and engaged. In the realm of grace, like the rising tide that lifts all boats, goodness and faithfulness play a role in the saving of the entire world – not just the good parts. Both men, different as they are, walk into God’s presence and are both extravagantly loved.
Amy Jill Levine completes her exploration of this parable this way: We have seen that the Pharisee has more good deeds, a greater store of protection, than he could need. First century Jews might then conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee …….Just as one person’s sin can create a stain on the entire community, so one person’s righteousness can save it. It is precisely by this transfer of good deeds that, in one way of understanding Jesus’ death, the cross works for salvation: Jesus’ faithfulness is what allows others to be justified.”6
The parable set me to thinking about the “righteous Pharisees” in my life – the ones who by the way they have lived their lives actually make my life more whole; people like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin who founded the Catholic Worker Movement; Thich Nhat Han who lives his Buddhist commitment to compassion and nonviolence; Rev. Carl Kline who works tirelessly to bring about nonviolent social change; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose devotion to Torah and the mystical closeness of God brought him to walk side by side with Martin Luther King; Dr. Catherine Keller who continues to educate another generation of clergy in their closer walk with the Holy. It may surprise you to know that each of you slip into the role too as you inspire my faith. So there are just a few of my righteous Pharisees – people who pay close attention to faithful living under the commands of God. By their goodness, my own life is elevated. At times, I am the righteous Pharisee for others as well – – doing for others what has been done for me. I trust in the more ancient translation of Jesus words. Living in the Grace of the Holy One, there is no either/or. It is a both/and proposition. In God’s sight we go down to our respective homes justified, made right in our relationship with God alongside one another – – even because of one another. This is a description of the work of discipleship that Jesus puts in front of us.
Another enigmatic parable from a controversial rabbi! Jesus said, “Those who have hears to hear, let them hear.”
“If Not Now – – When?”
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 14
Isaiah 60: 1- 3
Chilmark Community Church
October 16, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
It is a powerful and liberating tradition in this country that we observe the separation of church and state. We do not preach from the pulpit in favor or against any particular candidate for election. The pulpit is not to be used to sway opinion one way or another. That being said, though, as people of faith, we do have the responsibility for allowing our sacred texts to inform and guide us as we seek to bring into balance what we hear and see. And if we read the Bible with attention to its historical context, we soon discover that it is one of the most political books ever compiled. It holds at its center the witness to an Unseen God who demands justice for the oppressed, mercy and compassion for the poor, kindness and hospitality to the stranger, and equal treatment under the law for all people and consummate respect for one another as persons created in the image of God. These principles are stated repeatedly in the first 5 books of the bible which form the blueprint for all that follows. The prophets, the Psalmist, and the Jesus of the gospels all keep repeating the same great themes. We belong to an ancient and much larger tradition than our current electoral process. So it is worth taking a closer look at how the ancient texts speak to our contemporary situation.
In our political forums today there are a couple of major and fundamental ways in which political promises differ. There is the politics of change and there is the politics of incremental, step by step, progress over time. While these ways of approaching the social and political changes that are needed are often seen as oppositional, both have their merits and their place in our political process. In the best of all possible worlds, these two ways of looking at how to bring about a transformed society would be complimentary and would work hand in hand – each informing the other.
In the verses we read from Deuteronomy, we find a description of how a desirable female captive, taken in war, is to be treated if the winning general decides to make her his wife. She is to be allowed a month’s time to mourn the family she has lost in the battle. She is to cut her hair and trim her nails as a sign, perhaps of that mourning. She is to remove her captive’s garments in favor of clean clothes. When these requirements have been met, then the general may take her as a wife. If the general decides at some point that he no longer wants her as a wife, he must set her free – he may not sell her and he may not enslave her.
To our minds, all of this is difficult to accept. The woman has no rights and no say in the matter. She is a captive of war, a piece of property. She ends up the wife of a stranger. She has no assurance that her life will be whole and happy.
A closer look, though, reveals that this is one of those places in scripture where incremental reforms have taken place. In other places in the scripture, in accordance with the laws concerning the victims of war, the woman could have been slaughtered outright with the rest of the captives or she could have been abused and enslaved by her captor. Over the course of passing generations, the laws and customs of earlier years were modified and gradually moved toward being more humane – – even though there was still little freedom for women to exercise the power of choice over their lives.
A little further on, we read about inheritance rights. There are two wives in a family sharing the same husband, one wife, beloved, and the other not so well loved. The not-so-well-loved wife gives birth to the first born son of the shared husband. A little later, the beloved wife also gives birth to a son who is her firstborn – but not the firstborn to the husband. The law in Deuteronomy states that due consideration must be given to the firstborn son of the unloved wife because he is the older son. The father cannot play favorites or ignore the birth order. There is no mention here of the pros and cons and injustices of polygamy as this was the accepted norm. If you will recall from the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Sarah gave her slave, Hagar, to Abraham so that Hagar could conceive a child with Abraham since Sarah seemed to be barren in her old age.
Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, making Ishmael Abraham’s first born and eldest son. But Sarah was the beloved wife and eventually she did become pregnant and gave birth to Isaac. In this story, the family inheritance and blessing went to Isaac – the son of the beloved wife – – leaving Ishmael, the first born son of Abraham and the unloved wife, Hagar, without the benefit of a blessing and inheritance from Abraham.
The law that we just read from Deuteronomy is part of the incremental changes that happened where family inheritance laws were at issue. They moved gradually toward a more just system.
The incremental changes that we see in the laws of inheritance in Deuteronomy move toward greater justice even though the bigger picture still seems fraught with problems to our modern eyes. Incremental change takes time and patience. It happens, sometimes over generations and we can’t always see a satisfying progress.
On the other hand, there is the kind of change that looks for dramatic transformation that is quickly measurable – – that satisfies the human yearning for something better – – something visible that assures a positive step ahead. Our political rhetoric is often filled with promises for rapid change that will satisfy the hopes of so many people for a better future.
There are voices in our ancestral lineage who give utterance to the politics of change. The great prophets were often the voice of transformative vision. They were able to stand outside their respective cultures and societies and notice what was wrong. They could see clearly where change needed to happen in order for the Divine vision of holiness for all of God’s people to become a reality. They gave voice to the Divine longing for God’s people to pay attention to issues of justice and compassion. Unlike our contemporary politics of change, however, the prophets stridently called for changed behavior on the part of the people. They called for repentance – – for the people to return to greater faithfulness to the Ultimate Concerns of God for God’s people. The biblical politics of change was not magical – – and social change did not come simply because someone decreed that it would. It required a change of heart of the people – first and foremost.
The overall witness of the Bible attests to the fact that both perspectives are required in order for humankind to continue to move toward a more just and humane and compassionate society.
Listen to a few verses of the transformative vision of the prophet Isaiah preached to a people yearning with hope for what life might be like after their exile ended:
Raise your eyes and look about:
They have all gathered and come to you.
Your sons shall be brought from afar,
Your daughters like babes on shoulders.
And behold, you shall glow;
Your heart will throb and thrill –
For the wealth of the sea shall pass on to you,
Dust clouds of camels shall cover you,
Dromedaries of Midian and Ephah.
They shall all come from Sheba;
They shall bear gold and frankincense,
and shall herald the glories of the Lord.
Bowing before you shall come
the children of those who tormented you;
prostrate at the soles of your feet
shall be those who reviled you;
I the mighty one of Jacob am your redeemer.
Instead of copper I will bring gold,
instead of iron, I will bring silver;
Instead of wood, copper;
instead of stone, iron,
and I will appoint Well-being as your government
Prosperity as your officials.
The cry “Violence” shall no more be heard in your land,
nor “wrack and ruin!” within your borders.
And you shall name your walls “Victory”
and your gates “Renown.”
This is a transformative vision for change. If Isaiah had been running for public office around 500 BCE, he would have won hands down. He preached God’s promise that Israel would be restored to greatness, that her wealth would be returned to her, that her scattered children would return home, that violence would no longer reign in the land – – that well-being and prosperity would reign. He brought the people great hope and vision.
2500 years later, we live in a world still waiting for that great transformative vision to come in all its fullness. We still wait, often in anguish, at the slowness of its coming.
While thousands of people continue to suffer and die, the UN has interminable discussions about how to re-settle refugees from Aleppo. Nations around the world struggle with developing policies that will lead to the resettlement of immigrants in a safe and just way. The lumbering slowness of response is maddening.
Our country continues to wrestle with the legacy of slavery and the resulting civil rights issues and racial inequality that continue to plague us.
Unimaginable wealth and unspeakable poverty exist side by side and we are slow to find ways to bring economic justice into reality.
Our young and sometimes not so young people suffer and die from opiate addiction in increasing numbers.
Our tradition has always embraced the paradoxical vision of the ” just about to happen” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God. One of Jesus’ most enigmatic sayings is in the gospel of Luke when he was asked by a Pharisee when the kingdom of God was coming? Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say “Look here it is!” or “There it is! For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20 – 21)
John the Baptist preached “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The literal translation is the kingdom “has come near.” He and Jesus both proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom.
Just consider for a moment what the response would have been like if Jesus and John had preached, “The kingdom of God is 2,000 years away.” This would not have been news, nor would it have been perceived as all that good. The message would have been almost irrelevant, and public response would have been disappointment.
However, John and Jesus preached a kingdom that was near in time to their audiences. The message said something about what people should do now; it had immediate relevance and urgency. It aroused interest. The message challenged the status quo and implied that changes were needed in civil government, in religious understanding, and in personal behavior – and they were needed now – -even though, in real time, a long, arduous process would be needed to bring about the social change that the Kingdom of God implies.
The fact that our scriptures seem to be able to hold together the great vision of a transformed society and the need for small incremental steps toward fulfilling the vision may help us to live with the ambiguity of the loud and strident arguments circling around us today.
The Bible helps us to understand that while the urgent vision – the promise of change and a sense of immediacy are necessary for us in order to sustain our hope and energy for the future – – we also have to be prepared for the long haul of working toward that envisioned future in sometimes agonizingly slow and laborious increments.
It is in the day by day working toward the vision that we, as people of God, are able to harmonize the paradox when Jesus says “The kingdom of God is coming and is now among you.” It is in the day by day work that we do together that the kingdom becomes real now.
So – as we move forward – as we listen and try to make sense of what we hear, perhaps we can let the scriptures guide us – – and even reassure us. Perhaps, we may find a bit of rest in knowing that for centuries the divine promise of a holy future is within our grasp – – if we are willing to patiently do our part to make it real now by how we create harmony and compassion and justice and well-being right where we are – -and to know that what we do NOW affects the future in ways that are not apparent to us as we labor on. May we be blessed with the urgency of the vision and with the patience we need for the long haul. AMEN
“A Certain Royal Dignity”
Chilmark Community Church
September 25, 2016
Esther 4:11-14; 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
We’re looking at a rather fun story from the Hebrew scriptures this morning. The Book of Esther reads like a short novel. It has all the elements of drama, intrigue, struggles with ethics and morality – – and of course, ultimately, a happy ending. Out of context, the verses we have read demand closer examination. I had an Old Testament professor in seminary who used to say that when we are using a text from the Hebrew scriptures for Christian preaching, we must continually ask “Where is the good news in this text?” So – with the story of Esther, a delightful treasure hunt begins. A lot of the Book of Esther is concerned with a royal court machine, power politics, the threat of ethnic cleansing, the oppression of women and the politics of revenge. Not a lot of good news there – – and, like so many parts of the Bible, the issues sound all too contemporary.
We work our way into the plot of the story as the Persian king, Ahasuerus, is planning a big bash to show off his magnificent palace to some of the other nobility in the region. As the party wears on, and the wine flows, and the men get more and more drunk, the king gets the idea that he not only wants to show off the building and grounds, he also wants to show off his beautiful queen, Vashti, as well. So he sends off a messenger to the harem to summon her so he can exhibit her to his guests. Vashti is as feisty as she is beautiful and she says “No way am I going to be paraded in front of all those drunken men!” Literally taking her life in her own hands, she refuses the kings command. It might be attributed to his lack of sobriety that the king, instead of sentencing her to death immediately, goes into a huddle with his advisors who tell him “King – you have to get a grip on your wife. If you don’t make her obey you, all the women in the kingdom will follow her example and there will be chaos. None of them will obey their husbands.”
The only solution is to get rid of Vashti. But killing off a popular queen is really tacky – so, instead, the king banishes her from court to spend the rest of her life secluded in a harem of women. Of course, this poses a problem for King Ahasuerus. Now he has no beautiful queen. How to find one to replace Vashti? Enter the advisors again. “How about a beauty contest – – Persian style!” So the search begins for the most beautiful women in the kingdom. Over a period of a year, the loveliest maidens of the land are prepared to come before the king, one at a time. Each one would spend the night with the king. If he liked her, she would become the next queen. If not – – back to the harem.
At about this time, Esther enters the drama – orphaned at an early age, raised by her uncle, Mordecai, very beautiful – – – and very Jewish – – something that was not widely known. Esther was of the second generation of Israel to live in Persian exile. Because of her great beauty she ended up in the king’s harem rather than suffering a fate of slavery or worse. Her Uncle Mordecai kept watch over her and saw to her well being. But the fact that she was a Jew had been kept a secret. Esther wins the beauty contest and becomes the queen – – which, as we have seen, is only fun if you do everything the kings says.
One day, quite by chance, Uncle Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther who passes the word along to Ahasuerus. The would be assassins are hung on the gallows. (A bit of political capital in the bank for Mordecai).
As the drama unfolds, it seems that Mordecai attracts the unwanted attention of Haman, the king’s right hand man. Haman has a bit of an ego problem and expects that people will bow down to him when he walks by. Mordecai, being a faithful Jew, bows to no one but God. This doesn’t set well with Haman so, of course, he plots to have Mordecai eliminated – – but Mordecai is not the only target of his wrath. Haman goes to the king and tells him that “certain people” (namely the Jews) do not keep all the king’s laws and therefore the king should not tolerate them. So the king issues the order that on a certain day, all the people in question (the Jews) are to be exterminated – young and old – men, women and children – – and the right to plunder the property of the Jews is given to those who will carry out the king’s command.
Mordecai gets the word of the order for his people to be annihilated. By a trusted third party, he passes the information along to Queen Esther. In his best authoritative uncle’s voice, he prevails upon Esther to speak to the king in her people’s behalf.
Now – -sticky wicket here – – it seems that there is a rule that no one gets to appear before the king unless the king calls a person to appear before the throne. AND, no one gets to actually speak to the king unless the king extends his golden scepter toward the person. Since there was no one lobbying for 1st amendment rights, i this was a very efficient way to silence any critical voices in the royal court. So – -of course, Esther is reluctant to follow her uncle’s bidding. She sends a message back to him saying she hasn’t been summoned before the king for a full 30 days. If she attempts to appear and speak to the king on her own, she is a candidate for the death sentence.
But old Mordecai will not be put off and he sends another message to Esther in these words: Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief will arise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish. And then he adds: Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.
And so, Esther does indeed make an appearance before the king. She petitions the king on behalf of her people – – appealing to his sense of economics (more likely his royal greed!) She greets him with humility : If I have won your favor, O King, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given to me – that is my petition – – and the lives of my people – -that is my request. We have been sold to be annihilated. If we had been sold to be slaves, I would have held my peace. But no one can compensate for the economic damage that the death of my people would do to the king.
Long story short, Esther points her finger at Haman, the king’s right hand man, who has plotted the extermination of the Jews and the king orders that Haman be strung up on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai. Subsequently, the Jews rise up and take revenge. The 10 sons of Haman are hanged and thousands of the enemies of the Jews are slaughtered in the outlying provinces. To this day, the Feast of Purim is celebrated in February or March as an observance of the deliverance of the Jews from annihilation.
Well – – where is the good news? How are we to appropriate this story for our thinking as followers of Jesus more than 2500 years later? These are the kinds of questions that can make sermon writing a nightmare!
But – – another thing I learned from the same professor is that often, scripture interprets scripture. Enter the gospel reading for this morning. Jesus is talking with his friends about the conditions and the cost of discipleship. He asks “who goes about building a tower without first figuring out how much it will cost to complete it?” Or “who decides to go into battle without first figuring out if there are enough soldiers to win the battle against the enemy? If it seems that winning is out of the question with the resources at hand, the wise general sends a delegation to seek terms of peace.” And then , in a seemingly unrelated statement, Jesus says “therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” It is a strange juxtaposition of words, jumping from estimating building costs to developing military strategy to giving up all that one possesses in the service of becoming a disciple.
The clue resides in the last verse of this section: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its flavor, how can its saltiness be restored? It is neither fit for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!” Mark’s gospel renders the teaching this way: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (Mark 9:49) Have salt in yourselves and be at peace.
The substance that Jesus knew as salt was not the same as the kind of salt we use today. Our modern salt -made up of sodium and chloride -is a very stable substance. If you dissolve some in water, it still retains its saltiness. If the water evaporates, the salt that remains still tastes salty. The salt that Jesus talked about was much less stable. If it was exposed to sunlight or too much moisture, or stored in a damp place, it was apt to lose its taste and become useless. There was no way it could be made salty again.
So Jesus teaches that being a disciple of his definitely will cost us something. There may be a lot of things we need to let go of in the way of pride or uncertainty, of fear and anxiety about how to rise to the occasion of discipleship.
Jesus teaches that discipleship is not a hit or miss kind of thing. It requires thinking and not a little inward preparation for the task.
Discipleship – that is – being a disciplined follower of the teachings, requires that we be wise in the ways of the world. It sometimes requires that we stand back and look at how we are going to complete a task before we get going on it. Do we have the energy? Do we have the resources? Are we willing to make some sacrifices? Going out into the world unprepared is not a requirement of discipleship. We are to use our minds as well as our hearts and our spirits. But Jesus also reminds us that we have indeed been “salted” – we have been given gifts that can be used in God’s service – and if we choose not to use those gifts -we may, indeed, lose our saltiness and become rather lackluster in our daily lives.
I think we can build a bridge in both directions between the words of Jesus and the words of Mordecai to Esther – – and then maybe we can see how these words can have meaning for us today. Jesus spoke for his time. Mordecai spoke for his time. They both speak for our time.
Esther was in a position to act in a saving way for her people. She was scared. To follow through on Mordecai’s request might have meant her death. She was essentially powerless in a culture and a location where power was everything and it belonged to only a few who were strong enough or wealthy enough or deceitful enough to grasp it for themselves. Esther was a foreign born captive – an alien – an object of beauty to be used and displayed at the king’s pleasure. She had no political or financial or moral agency – – at least as far as she thought. But, as push came to shove – as it often does in life – she became the only hope for her people. Uncle Mordecai’s words resound in her ears: “If you keep silent – the Jews may find help elsewhere, but you will die.” Jesus might have said “ If you don’t act, you will lose your saltiness.” Mordecai in his wise question asks “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity – – maybe you came to be queen of this arbitrary and powerful man – for just such a time as this?”
Being a powerless queen in the court of a king who has absolute power over everything – – being a follower of Jesus in a world that seems just a godless as the world of the Persian court – – being a follower of Jesus in 2016 – the situations are different only in degree. I can almost hear Jesus reaching back over the centuries to Esther – “Esther – – everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good – but if you lose it, you will die -you will wither inside – you will lose everything that makes you beautiful and strong and courageous. Have salt in yourself. Be the active ingredient that works in behalf of the preservation of your people.
And perhaps we can hear the words of Mordecai reaching forward to the disciples over the centuries too – – “if you guys keep silent in times that call for clear thinking and truth speaking, the people around you may survive and go on, but you will perish. Think about it. Perhaps you are right here in this moment to
serve a particular purpose in the preservation of the world.
The trick is, of course, to hear the challenge of the story for us in our time. Heaven knows there is a fair amount of risk these days. Every bit of the political intrigue and anxiety and oppression that permeated the court of King Ahasuerus permeates the political scene today. People are imprisoned without just cause because they are aliens in a strange land. Their properties are plundered, their families left unprotected and un-provided for. Nations grasp for power and wield it irresponsibly without regard for what it means for the next generation. The health and education and wellbeing of the people is secondary to the need for ever more political and military and financial power. Sometimes our inner questions arise: “Where will it all end?” “Where is our hope?” “What can we depend on?”
It’s curious. The Book of Esther never once mentions the name of God. There is absolutely no reference to a greater power. None of the laws and rituals of Judaism are mentioned. The Book of Esther is not a religious book. It is thoroughly political from start to finish. And yet, the words of Mordecai evoke a subtle awareness that there is a power at work in the wings, so to speak. A power that calls human beings to something higher, something greater than the terrible, dangerous pettiness of the politics of Esther’s time.
We are in the countdown of one of the most difficult and demoralizing election campaigns of our lifetime. In the weeks ahead, we can only expect it to intensify. There will be innumerable opportunities for us to listen, to ponder and then to discern the truth. It is incumbent upon us as followers of The Way to sift and sort and interpret all the sound and fury in the light of the teachings of Jesus – – and then to speak the truth as the opportunities present themselves.
In Uncle Mordecai’s words, there is a call to life in the midst of horrendous danger. He calls forth in Esther the willingness to use what ever
whatever power she does have in behalf of her people. Jesus calls us to do the same thing. He pleads with us: Just be the salt you are called to be. Be your highest and best self, fully informed by the life and teaching of Jesus. Let the power of the Spirit that enlivens you empower you to see the truth and then speak the truth that needs to be spoken when you feel it pulsing its way forth.
Trust that you are called by that greater and often unnamed power that works always and in all things to being a disorderly and chaotic world around right.
Jesus uses salt figuratively to challenge his followers to be true disciples – -people who by their own lives raise the moral tone of the society in which they live. He asks us to believe that how we conduct our lives makes a difference, no matter how large or small our spheres of influence. Perhaps, as we go out from this time in the sanctuary, we might hear Jesus and Mordecai whispering in our ears: “Have salt in yourselves – – – who knows, perhaps you have come to a certain royal dignity for just such a time as this?”
What a fabulous concert! Pictured in front of the church, left to right, Armen Hanjian (musical saw), Lia Kahler (mezzo- soprano), Phil Dietterich (organ) and Richard Gordon (piano). Photo by Lynn Cristoffers
The concert and silent auction before it raised almost $10,000 for the Food Pantry and the All Island Clergy winter homeless shelter program.
“When Worlds Collide”
1 Kings 21:1-21
Luke 7:36 – 8:3
Chilmark Community Church
September 11, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Naboth is a Vineyarder! He owns a lovely vineyard that has been handed down from generation to generation in his family. His world is one in which he is responsible for caring for his land. But even more important, he is responsible for passing it along, intact, to the next generation in his family. In Naboth’s world, stewardship of the land entrusted to him is a sacred act of covenant with God.
King Ahab’s world is full of political intrigue and suspicion, of political alliances that shift with the wind. He lives in a world of inter-tribal politics and he ends up marrying Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who worships a foreign god. Ahab is a pretty relaxed guy when it comes to pleasing his wife – – and like King Solomon before him, Ahab built altars and temples to the gods of his wife’s religion. In Ahab’s world, decisions are made based on political expediency to keep his world afloat.
As Ahab’s queen, Jezebel pretty much got her own way. Her world was colorful with the religion she brought to Ahab’s court. She was not the shy, retiring type and before long she installed hundreds of ba’al priestesses and prophets in the royal household – a the expense of the public treasury. No separation of church and state in Ahab’s court! Where Ahab was fairly tolerant, Jezebel was a fanatical evangelist for her Phoenician religion. As was inevitable, her world collided with the religious world of the prophets of Israel’s God. Jezebel’s heart’s desire was to destroy all those prophets. In her world, the ends justified the means. Jezebel tore down the altars of Israel’s God, killed off God’s prophets and drove any remaining faithful people underground.
The great prophet Elijah arrived on the scene and his world collided with the world of Jezebel – big time! Elijah’s world is filled with “zeal for the Lord!” The entire focus of his world is his job of speaking the word of God to Ahab – trying to get Israel back on track as God’s people.
In the story we just heard, worlds collide. The world of faithful covenant keeping, the world of haphazard attention to God’s claim on Israel’s loyalty, the world of religious fanaticism and greed, the world of the prophet who delivers God’s word.
It’s colorful reading! There aren’t too many good guys in the story. Greed and religious fanaticism rule the day. Naboth, an honest man who refuses to cooperate with the king’s desires ends up being sacrificed to the machinery of Ahab’s and Jezebel’s religious zeal.
The worlds of power and greed and fanaticism collide with the worlds of faithfulness and integrity and honor – – and then as now, it appears as though power and greed and fanaticism win the day. Naboth, an innocent man, dies and this part of the story ends with terrible threats of disaster and revenge. We might well ask what possible good is intended by the inclusion of this bloody and violent story in our scriptures?
But, other worlds collide in the scriptures too. Simon, the Pharisee’s world is one of loyal stewardship of the word of God. It is a thoughtful world where the primary goal of life is to pay attention to Torah – – to live as closely as possible a life that is faithful to the covenant between God and Israel. Simon’s life work was to keep asking questions of the sacred texts, to draw attention to the discrepancies between the Torah’s demands and the way the people of God lived their lives.
An anonymous woman, about whom we know virtually nothing, lives in an invisible world. Tradition would have us believe that she is a “woman of the streets” – a prostitute – an adulteress – – but the story says none of that. Her world is largely hidden from us – – as the world of women often was at the time of Jesus. At Simon’s dinner party her invisible world collided with the world of the Pharisee.
But the woman’s world also collided with the world of Jesus: a world dominated by compassion; a world fueled by lovingkindness and forgiveness; a world illuminated by Jesus’ heightened consciousness of the Holy One.
What happens when worlds collide?
Disaster, perhaps. Surely this was so in the collision of the worlds of Ahab and Jezebel and Naboth and Elijah. Greed, abuse of power and privilege, the brutal death of an innocent man, further threats of violence and revenge……..it sounds all too familiar and all too contemporary. This story is, perhaps, a metaphor, for the kinds of worlds that collided 15 years ago today when the World Trade Center towers fell.
But sometimes when worlds collide something different happens. Sometimes creation gives birth to something new out of anger and violent conflict. Sometimes energy is generated when conflicting values surface in the presence of understanding and compassion. Operative prejudices are challenged. There is a new spin on things. Simon the Pharisee had to re-examine his assumptions about a woman he didn’t really know. Party guests had to create space for the intruder. The status quo got shaken up. Even the woman had to expand her own self-understanding in response to the gracious attitude extended to her by Jesus. Sometimes, when worlds collide, something new is created.
More than a few years ago now, Armen and I went back to NJ to celebrate with my younger sister as she graduated from Essex County College in the city of Newark, NJ. We were deeply impressed by the scenario of that graduation. There were some 4000 people in attendance. We estimated that about 300 of that number were white. In a graduating class of 800, there were perhaps 85 white students. The class and the families celebrating with them were predominantly African American and Latin American students.
In the 60s and 70s the city of Newark was the scene of prolonged and violent racial conflict and protest. A once vibrant city became the locale of civil strife reflected in every major city across the country to some extent. I recall driving south on the Garden State Parkway to visit Armen’s mother and seeing the exits to Newark cordoned off by National Guardsmen in order to contain the violence and conflict. The world of white privilege and the world of the oppression and poverty of urban African Americans had collided. For a time the results were chaotic and ugly. But then, gradually, the landscape and geography of the city of Newark changed. High end department stores that had serviced predominantly white, middle class suburbanites closed and were replaced by companies that were more in touch with the needs of the community. Populations shifted dramatically as white folks left the city and were replaced by people of Hispanic background. A Black mayor was elected. The police force shifted from being predominantly white to predominantly Black.
Essex County College was founded to serve the community by providing accessible, affordable college education for the city of Newark and the immediately surrounding communities.
All of that history was in the collective memory of the people who celebrated the Class of 2004. Worlds had collided in the 60s and 70s – and this particular graduation day some 30 odd years later was a joyful day all around. Have all the inequities been addressed? No. Has poverty been erased? No. Has the sin of racism been expunged? No. But what emerged out of the terrible collision of worlds in those years was a determination on the part of many of the folks who lived through it to build something better out of the agony and the suffering of Newark – – and Essex County College was born.
The possibility of something creative being birthed out of colliding worlds is an idea that intrigues me. Maybe this is why the bloody stories are there in our scriptures. But sometimes we have to read an awfully long way before we come to the truth that the power of God is working even in the worst of it. So often, the rise and fall of the truth seems to rest on the loyalty and faithfulness of one frail person.
In today’s story, that person is Elijah – a strange man who appears and disappears and re-appears in the narratives of the 1st and 2nd Books of Kings. His discouragement and sense of failure surface time and time again – -and yet his faithfulness as the worlds of his time are colliding is a faithfulness that in the larger picture contributes to the survival of the tribes who eventually become the Jewish people. Where would we be today if Elijah had simply disappeared back into the wilderness?
Worlds are colliding all the time. Certainly war represents the collision of multiple worlds. Religion and politics are worlds that collide ever more frequently. We are witnessing now the collision of the world that is shaped by our collective need for safety with the world of our personal and civil rights and the right to privacy. The world of political expediency and the world of moral outrage collide in the headlines on a daily basis.
One thing is for sure: when there is a collision, every thing is jostled and things have to loosen up. Collisions sometimes create space where there was none before. And in that space, the Holy One gets a chance to move – -to create something that did not exist before.
Sometimes, a lot of confusion and anxiety and discomfort is the only thing we know for a long time. As with the Elijah stories, we have to read and experience an awful lot before we get to the good news that eventually arises out of the story. And even then, other collisions are taking place that continue the shaping process. It is extremely uncomfortable to live with colliding worlds.
The collision of the worlds of Simon the Pharisee and the uninvited guest and Jesus creates a new possibility. Simon didn’t like it one bit that a strange woman from off the street crashed his party. But because Simon was a reasonable person, he did pause and listen to Jesus when Jesus said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon listened to Jesus’ parable of forgiveness. Simon witnessed the interaction between Jesus and the woman. The three way interaction becomes a metaphor for what is needed when worlds collide. At the beginning, Simon wasn’t paying attention to Jesus. it was as simple as that. As respectful, and respectable, and intelligent and faithful as he was, he wasn’t paying attention to Jesus. The woman, however, whatever her world was like outside of Simon’s house, never took her attention away from Jesus from the time she crashed the party.
So – therein lies the secret when worlds collide – -whatever those worlds may be: the presence of Jesus calls for our undivided attention – – a single-mindedness – a centeredness in which we become likeminded with him. We have heard so frequently from Paul’s words encouraging us to “have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Paul writes about residing in a kind of “Christ consciousness” so that we can say it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
We can’t escape the collision of the many worlds in which we live. Even in a relatively small community like the Vineyard, the world of unimaginable wealth collides with the world of inadequate housing. The world of abundance of food and possessions collides with the world of hunger and lack. The world of those who belong collides with the world of the outsider. The world of private and personal comfort collides with the world of public need. The world of invisible suffering collides with the world of the status quo.
It is easy to forget that we are called to live vibrantly at the point of impact where worlds collide. It is easy to forget where our worlds collide with the world of Jesus. It is easy to forget that we are called to pay attention. The dinner party is so comfortable. But worlds will continue to collide and life is in constant flux. The one thing we can depend on is that Jesus stands in our midst and says “People….I have something to say to you.” In the midst of the noise and confusion and uncertainty as we live at the point of impact – – at the heart of colliding worlds – – Jesus simply calls us to listen. May we receive the grace to slow down and be quiet enough to hear the wisdom and the challenge that the Christ will speak to us as worlds collide.
“How Crazy Was He?”
1 Samuel 16: 14-23
August 28, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Not long after Armen and I moved here from NJ, a young friend and colleague in ministry came to visit the island for the first time. He and his wife were members of the New Jersey Korean congregation with whom my Anglo congregation shared their building and facilities. KunSam was describing his experience of taking his youth group to Henderson Settlement in Kentucky for a work camp at the United Methodist mission site there. Being Korean, he was both delighted and mystified by the colorful language and euphemisms in the rural Kentucky mountain speech patterns. He laughed uproariously as he described how the high school kids at the settlement were talking very solemnly about a neighbor who had almost “bought the farm” when he made a sharp turn on his tractor and the machine tipped over, pinning him beneath.
KunSam, on hearing the phrase “he almost bought the farm” wondered why people were so serious. Wouldn’t buying a farm be a reason to celebrate? He laughed even harder as he told us about the amusement of the Kentucky kids at his expense. He didn’t know that to say “He almost bought the farm” was a way of saying the man almost died. Then he began asking us about other euphemisms in the English language that he had heard and not quite understood. “What does it mean when you say ‘the lights are on but nobody is home?’” And that question evoked a string of colloquialisms – – about being “one brick short of a load” – – or “being half a bubble off plumb” – – or “not being wrapped too tight” – – “or “having a screw loose somewhere.” KunSam was delighted with the colorful ways Americans have of describing peculiar or unstable mental and emotional behavior.
In our gospel story this morning, a crowd has gathered. Once again, there was such a crush of people trying to get close to the place where Jesus was staying that there was neither space nor time for him and Peter and James and John to get a bite to eat. This seems to be a popular way for the gospel writers to get the point across that Jesus was often overwhelmed and besieged with the needs of the people who sought him out.
I wonder if the folks around Jesus had their own language challenges – -trying to describe Jesus’ behavior. The rumors were flying. “He’s gone mad!” “He is beside himself!” “He has gone out of his mind!”
Some folks had come down from Jerusalem to where Jesus was staying. They had even stronger language for what they observed in Jesus: “He has Beelzebul!” “By the ruler of demons he casts out demons!” In the minds of Jesus adversaries, he was not only crazy – – he was possessed by demons – – and furthermore, he used his demonic powers to exorcise demons from other people.
Well – – – how crazy was he?? What had led to the rumors and accusations that are being hurled at Jesus in this story? We can never accurately understand a particular verse or story if it is taken out of its context. So we have to go backwards in Mark’s story – just a bit.
Near the beginning of Mark’s first chapter, Jesus emerges out of Nazereth, a small town, perhaps 50 – 60 miles north of Jerusalem. One of his first acts is to align himself with his cousin, John the Baptizer – – a strange, powerful and charismatic preacher. Jesus receives John’s baptism and then disappears into the barren Judean wilderness for more than a month – – 40 days as the story goes. In the wild places, he confronts the satan – the adversary – he is ministered to by wild beasts and attended by angels.
Back in civilization, he heads for Galilee, his home territory, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near. Almost immediately, he calls 12 people to follow him. He is charismatic enough himself that they leave their livelihoods and their families to go – – apparently without question.
Before we even get to the end of Chapter 1 in Mark, Jesus is already teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, healing his friend’s sick mother-in-law. He touches a person with leprosy and heals him. He heals another person with a paralyzing condition – – he forgives sins – – He eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. He defends his companions when they pick grain on the Sabbath. He angers some of his fellow religious Jews. All this by the end of Chapter 2. By the end of Chapter 3 Jesus is engaged in discussions about the meaning of the Sabbath and is exercising his authority over demons.
And then, all of a sudden he is in small house so crowded with people who want to hear him and touch him and be touched by him that he doesn’t have time even for a coffee break. HIs family is afraid that the rumors of madness are true and they come to try to take him home with them. “Maybe he really is crazy. Let’s get him out of here before he hurts someone – -or before someone hurts him – – or before he hurts himself.”
The story gives us characters that are divided into two main groups – those who are inside the house and those who are outside. We might ask ourselves where we would be – – insiders or outsiders?
Would we be among Jesus’ relatives, his mother and brothers and sisters? The people who had watched him grow up – had witnessed him leave his carpentry shop and disappear for hours and days at a time? Would we be among those who worried about him when he didn’t come home from his trip to the south where the baptizer was doing his thing? – – Maybe. If I were his mother, I would be worried, wondering what had happened to my normal, responsible eldest son. Maybe I’d want to take him home, feed him some chicken soup, and get him back on track.
Maybe we would be among Jesus’ adversaries with whom he argued about the nature of the Sabbath – or about who has the power to forgive sins – or who think he might be possessed by demons – – one brick short of a load!
We might well be standing outside the house. I think, at times, we might entertain notions about Jesus, about what he expects of us – – the demands he makes of us. After all – where does he get the nerve?? Telling me to love my neighbor – I don’t even like my neighbor! Return good to someone who has done evil to you? The man’s gone round the bend! Forgive 70 times 7?? That doesn’t make sense. It’s not even practical. The man’s got a screw missing somewhere!
The curious thing about being in the crowd outside the house is that we are always right! What Jesus asks of us doesn’t make sense. What he proposes for life is simply not rational.
But, we might also place ourselves inside the house in the crush of the people who have crowded in to be near him. On the inside doesn’t much matter to us whether what Jesus asks makes sense. He pays attention to us. He listens to our pain. He heals our brokenness with his touch. He doesn’t cringe or turn away because we are scarred, or wounded, or sick, or old, or arthritic, or cantankerous. To us, Jesus is not crazy. He is love. He offers a spacious hospitality to each one of us. When we sit in his presence we feel his interest, his warmth, his laughter. We feel our own warmth returning. We feel more whole. Our scars begin to soften. Our spirits start to hum, maybe even sing. If Jesus is out of his mind – – perhaps that is where we want to be. Maybe this is how we feel, sitting in the crush inside the house.
There is one more group in the story that doesn’t get much press in this scenario – – but we might be in this small inner circle that watches Jesus intently – the group that Jesus called to be his companions, to be with him on his way. We might be sitting there in awe. He has invited us to go with him – – he has told us we will do even greater works than he is doing. He has invited us to leave the old ways behind – no more tedious mending of nets; no more watching the sky and the water for just the right weather for fishing. But on the other hand, we don’t always know what to expect. We’re not always sure what to do when we see someone suffering. We aren’t all that good at healing people the way he does. Sometime we aren’t really sure of the whole enterprise. But, there is that charismatic attraction – – and we draw closer and let his love permeate us. We become his disciples.
On any given day, we might be a part of all three groups. That is the nature of being human. One moment we are feeling very righteous and clear about our lives and our choices and decision making – and the next we are sitting at the feet of Jesus needing healing of the demons that haunt us. We go so easily from knowing peace and harmony and joy in our lives to feeling stressed, suspicious and alienated and so on. The days when we feel up to the challenge of keeping close company with Jesus are sometimes few and far between. How can we be the ones to exorcise demons and evil spirits when we are so broken ourselves. How can we be the ones who help bring in the Kingdom of God when we have trouble even glimpsing the vision in a world that is so tormented and angry and frightened and tired?
Indeed, the crowd – – the outsiders and insiders – – and the inner circle – -is us. And no matter where we stand at any given moment, we are called to make a judgment about the craziness of Jesus. But his invitation to us is always clear.
Those who would become as family to Jesus are those who attempt to discern and follow the will of God. The mothers and brothers and sisters of Jesus will carry a family tendency toward a Christ-like craziness. They will behave in ways that defy conventional wisdom about the way things should be done. They will be loving when resentment might seem more reasonable. They will welcome the stranger into their midst when fear and suspicion might be more natural. They will offer tears of healing when a stiff upper lip might be more socially acceptable.
You see – – it is the madness of Jesus that encourages the world to give up its weapons. It is a crazy Jesus who invites us to consider peace instead of war. It is a Jesus “gone round the bend” who invites us to counter aggression with lovingkindness. It is a Jesus “not wrapped to tight” who teaches us to return good for evil. It is a Jesus “one brick short of a load” who prays on the cross “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they are doing.”
Yesterday, we attended a memorial lunch for a friend who died suddenly last spring while he was traveling in Southeast Asia. We were all shocked beyond belief when we heard the news of his death. He was a much loved human being. His death left a huge hole in the fabric of the community he left behind. In an articulate testimony to Andrew’s goodness, one man told the story of Andrew’s comments after one of the more atrocious terrorist attacks in Europe that had occurred barely two weeks before his intended departure for Southeast Asia. We were all concerned for him, traveling alone in an often dangerous part of the world. But – Andrew was crazy. He often housed strangers who had no place to sleep at night. He brought people home and fed them when they looked hungry. He helped young people find jobs. He trusted human beings. Andrew told us that he had faith that wherever he went he would meet kind and compassionate people. He would have shelter and that strangers would care for him and insure his safety. He loved people and even the most unlikely strangers loved him back. He died in Bangkok surrounded by strangers who cared for him as one of their own. We could see in Andrew the kind of fearless joy and love and generosity and hospitality that Jesus showed to all the circles of people around him. Crazy.
Jesus invites us, every one, into the inner circle of discipleship where we become his kin because we decide to embrace and live out his craziness in a world that doesn’t understand. The God of our ancestors has never been a rational god. Why would the Son of God be any different? The non-rational journey of discipleship is one of learning to love without reservation, to exercise compassion, to offer reconciliation and the possibility of healing wherever we find ourselves. We don’t come perfectly equipped for the job – but Jesus calls us anyway. How crazy was he? – – – – – How crazy are we????