1 Samuel 16:1-13
March 19, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
In June of the summer before Armen and I “retired” to move to the Vineyard we spent three weeks living on several of the Lakota Sioux Reservations in South Dakota with a group exploring “Learning Nonviolence With the Lakota”. At the very beginning of the trip we visited the state prison in Sioux Falls to meet with some Lakota prisoners and to hear about their experience of trying to live nonviolent lives in the prison milieu. My anxiety was high as our van approached the prison grounds. I wondered what it would be like on the “inside.” Needless to say, we were only given access to the outermost areas of the prison campus. We entered a sunny courtyard and two young Lakota men, Mike Standing Soldier and Stan No Heart, arranged some picnic tables so that our group could sit more or less in a circle for conversation with them. This all happened a lot of years ago. Many of the details of their stories are lost to me now, but one story vividly remains in my memory.
Mike Standing Soldier told a story from his childhood when he asked his grandfather “Why are white people the way they are?” – referring to his experience of white prejudice and his exposure to racism and indignity at the hands of white citizens and local bureaucrats in his brief life span. His grandfather answered: “They have lost their drum, they have forgotten the dance, and they do not know where the bones of their ancestors are buried.”
Those words have stayed with me all these years as I have continued on my own spiritual path. They surfaced again as I was reading today’s scriptures – – especially the phrase
“they don’t know where the bones of their ancestors are buried.” Across this country, many of us of us do not know where the bones of our ancestors are buried. While there are a lot of Vineyarders who can trace their ancestry back for many generations, many of us of us can’t go back more than 2, maybe 3 generations at the most, when we try to tell our kids their family history. As a nation of people who have come from someplace else, many of us have lost any deep connection to “the bones of our ancestors.” We have, in some very essential ways, become spiritually uprooted and ungrounded. In the process, as a nation, we do not always have a strong and healthy sense of who we are. When we don’t know where the bones of our ancestors are buried we are in danger of becoming disconnected from our own history, our own sense belonging to a great stream of life. Without a firm grasp on our own stories, we are vulnerable to finding threat where none exists. The unfamiliar face becomes the other, the stranger, possibly even the enemy.
I’d like to suggest that this morning’s scripture lessons help, in a way, to root us securely in a lineage that goes back several thousand years. As a people of God, it is a lineage, an ancestral line, that we can all claim as our own. We began with Samuel’s search for a person whom God desired to anoint as king. In early Biblical history, kings were made and unmade in the service of the Divine purpose. King Saul was the first king of Israel. He lost God’s favor due to disobedience. This led to the search for another king. Through a bit of subterfuge, Samuel, God’s priest and prophet, makes his way to the tribe of Jesse. Samuel rejects several of Jesse’s sons as candidates for kingship. Finally, the youngest son, a shepherd, is brought before Samuel. David, the baby of Jesse’s family is anointed to become the great King David who would unite the tribes of Israel and lead them to the heights of glory.
Reading the genealogy at the beginning of the book of Matthew can be pretty dull stuff until we realize that this is our genealogy as well as the genealogy of Jesus. It is the place where we find our roots in our faith tradition and it has a lot to tell us about what a complex and diverse, and even quirky, family we are as the people of God.
In Native American tribes, there are always members of the tribe who are the memory keepers. They are the ones who remember the ancestors and can tell the stories that go back at least seven generations and often much farther back than that. Some of you can go pretty far back. With effort I can trace back one line of my lineage to the 1700s, but for the most part I can only go back 3 or 4 generations – and many of the stories are lost with only names and dates surviving. Whenever I would talk with my dad about family history he would jokingly say “You might not want to look too closely. There’s probably a lot of horse thieves in the family tree.”
But we do have a fascination with our ancestors. ANCESTRY.COM and mail order DNA testing and other similar resources are gaining in popularity as people seek to understand where they came from. The first 17 verses of Matthew are an ancient forerunner of our digital age efforts to reclaim our lineage.
Our faith ancestors are a fascinating bunch. Matthew’s story carries us backward from Jesus 42 generations! Now that is an ancestral line! One of the benefits I have derived from studying Torah with Jewish friends is that I have come to embrace the many rich and colorful characters in the first 5 books of the Bible as my own family of grandparents and great grandparents – – an oooh – – the stories!!
Most of us are familiar with the story of Grandfather Abraham and Grandmother Sarah. We’ve heard how Grandfather Abraham packed up the family to head out on a faith journey without knowing where he was going or where he would end up. We try not to think too much about how he passed Grandmother Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin – with her ending up in a foreign king’s harem until Abraham’s trick was discovered. We might not ever think about Grandmother Tamar who seduced her father-in-law, Judah, to gain some justice for herself and as a result gave birth to Perez who would be the great grandfather of Nachshon.
According to a traditional story, all the Israelite slaves who were escaping from Pharoah were huddling on the shore of the Reed Sea – looking at the cold, dark water and then at each other and saying “you go first – -No – YOU go first.” Nachson took the leap of faith and walked into the murky water – – up to his knees – – up to his chin – – up to his eyeballs – – when – – finally, the waters parted and Israel crossed the Reed Sea on dry land. Now – – there is a courageous great grand father to be proud of! Nachshon lives on to become the grandfather of Boaz whose mother is Rahab – a prostitute. Boaz marries Ruth – a non-Israelite – a stranger – a widowed outsider – and eventually he and Ruth become the great grandparents of David. 14 generations! And we have barely scratched the surface. The next 14 generations produce many kings – some wise – like Solomon, David’s son. Some great reformers like Hezekiah. Others not so great, like the inept Jechoniah who was the first of the kings to go into exile and who was later cursed by Jeremiah – that he might never have sons.
The next 14 generations after that produce names that are less familiar to us – more obscure – until the lineage gets to Matthan, the father of Jacob who is the father of Joseph who is the husband of Mary who is the mother of Jesus.
Matthew’s is the only gospel that takes the time to set down the genealogy of Jesus. So I have wondered why? Why does this writer want us to know where Jesus came from? And what can we learn for ourselves by paying attention to our spiritual family history? What is the point of including the ancestors at the beginning of the story of Jesus when it is so easy to just skip over them and ignore them? What do we gain from knowing Jesus’ family history?
There are a couple of things that I take from the stories that are embedded in Jesus’ genealogy. First, placing Jesus with his ancestors helps us to know that as a human being he came from somewhere – he had roots – he had a cultural identity. He had heard the stories of his ancestors from the time he was a child. He was rooted and grounded in his sense of who he was and where he came from. As a Jew, he was accountable to all the generations that preceded him. We don’t often think of him as being a person with a family history – with grandparents and great grandparents who had hopes and dreams and expectations.
Second, by telling us about Jesus’ ancestry, Matthew helps us to understand a little more about why people were so eager to accept Jesus as a Messiah when he finally appeared on the historical scene. Matthew creates the family history that tells the story of the longing for a leader for Israel – – and he gives it a very human face. The story grounds the reality of Jesus in the flesh and blood history of a real people.
Third, Matthew gives us the opportunity to graft ourselves into that family tree just by being connected with Jesus as the center of our faith tradition. The branches of Jesus’ family tree are full of illustrious figures like King David and Abraham – but they are also filled with people from the margins – – widows, wise people, prostitutes, adulterers, foreigners, and a few scoundrels. The genealogy teaches us that all are welcome and part of the great family tree. Matthew leaves no one out.
But lastly, my own personal take on the importance of the family history is that without too much searching, we can see the trace of God weaving throughout the stories and adventures and relationships of all the colorful characters – -God’s trace flowing through history in flesh and blood people. I think Matthew gives us a lot of permission to look at our own physical family tree and see the trace of God weaving its way through our personal histories as well. From Abraham to Jesus, generation after generation divine influence and grace is demonstrated in the story. We might entertain the notion that that Divine influence continues on in our own family patterns and ancestry – always working to bring about the intention of the Holy One – regardless of how unpromising our own family trees might appear to be. The genealogy of Jesus gives our own biological family history significant meaning. Our ancestry becomes a means of grace. Whatever the twists and turns our lineage has taken, it has brought us to this moment in time.
As we move deeper into Lent and into this year, 2017, we will be continually confronted by issues of identity – – by questions about who belongs and who doesn’t. Our fears about people clinging to the delicate branches of the human family tree will be cultivated and exploited. Whole families will be left wondering when and if they will ever feel safe and at home in the human family. It behooves us to learn about and embrace our spiritual ancestors – to discover from their rich diversity what they have to teach us about identity and inclusion.
We can learn as much from their imperfections and scandals as we can from their illustrious and God-inspired accomplishments. As we continue the journey toward Jerusalem in the weeks ahead, may we be more alert to searching for the bones of our ancestors. May we be about the work of fleshing out our own stories so that we can see how they blend and harmonize with the stories of the rest of humankind.
At the end of our visit with Mike Standing Soldier and his friend, Stan No Heart, a very soft and gentle clasping of hands was passed around the circle with the whispered words “Mitakue Oyasin” – – “we are all relatives.” A prison courtyard seems like the last place to look to find hope, but there it is in the story of a young boy and his grandfather’s wisdom. Finding our drum and learning to dance is the stuff of another sermon. For now it is enough to think about re-collecting the bones of our ancestors so that we might find the way to live with all our relatives in the world in greater peace.
Chilmark Community Church
November 27, 2016
Rev. Armen Hanjian
Perhaps you noticed the sermon title, “Be Prepared,” as the motto of the Boy Scouts. Today is the first Sunday in Advent – that season when Christians start preparing to celebrate the coming of Christ. Advent means “the coming of the Savior.” As far as we know, Advent formally began in the 6th century when the cycle of the Christian year was being established. It implies both anticipation and preparation. I thought it was important for me and you to take seriously the phrase we sing: “Let every heart prepare him room.”
First thing to ask is, did Jesus have anything to say about being prepared? The answer is yes, specifically in his parable of the 10 maidens. He couches the parable of the coming of the kingdom, or better, the coming of the King, in terms of a wedding. The Interpreters Bible tells us that a wedding party was the greatest of all festivities in Palestine. Everything was put aside for the occasion, even the study of the sacred law. Naturally, the neighboring maidens, like all girls, would want to be present. The high point of the wedding was when the bridegroom took the bride from her father’s house to her new home, usually in a litter, and her attendants and guests would escort her there.
They had receptions in those days too. There were 10 maidens whose task it was to welcome the bridegroom when he arrived at the marriage feast. Usually it is the bride that’s late, but not in this case. He came at midnight. Jesus points out the 5 foolish maidens who did not prepare, who did not have foresight, who did not bring any extra oil for their lamps. He compared them to the 5 wise maidens who made preparation and brought extra oil that there might be light for the marriage feast. The fault was not in the fact that all the maidens fell asleep, but that the foolish just feel asleep, while the wise slept only after they made due preparations.
Some of you might feel that the wise maidens were not very Christ-like for refusing to share their extra oil. Parable usually have one major thrust and preparation was the thrust of this parable; however, how true it is that spiritual preparedness just cannot be shared. Christian courage cannot be given on demand to someone who all his days has led a life of a coward. Insight from years of prayer cannot be shared with someone who has been careless toward God all her life.
Jesus pointed to preparedness, too, when he told of the man who built his house upon a rock. Just as we can prepare for the storms and stresses of our physical life, there is value in preparation for our spiritual life – for those inevitable delays when we long for a manifestation of God. The Christian must learn to build up reserves of strength so that in all circumstances, favorable or unfavorable, one may cause his or her light to shine and thereby find a life of joy.
To prepare for the coming of the God-sent redeemer I ask myself the question, “How do I prepare in other areas of my life?”
For one thing, I am always making lists. I make lists of things I have to buy, things I have to do. I make lists for meetings. I make lists at my desk. My appointments I list on my calendars. Lists keep me from racking my brains to remember. Lists are constant reminders. Why not do some listing in your advent preparation -Persons you wish to visit, persons you could bless by calling on the phone, persons or situations for which to pray.
If you care about preparing, you will set time aside in your daily schedule, your weekly schedule. Most of us would like to have God revealed to us in more ways; are we willing to pay the cost of setting the time aside?
The same person who knows to learn mathematics knows he must study, seems to be ignorant that the life of the spirit demands preparation as well. Whether you are painting a house, rebuilding a basement or seeking connection with God, the successful outcome depends on time consuming, effort demanding preparation. I hope Santa Claus won’t be the only one who is “making a list and checking it twice.”
Another way I prepare in life is how I prepare for a sermon. As thoughts come to me that excite me, that I really connect with, I will write them down and place them in a file. When I am ready to prepare another sermon, I review the file, and if its apropos and I am still energized and connected with the words, I will read, pray, think and if all seems right, I will create a sermon to share. No one has the right to such a captive audience as you, unless he or she has tapped the best resources available. So you can see that for a long period of time, I keep in mind that for which I prepare.
A young man tells of a time his church had an outdoor nativity pageant including shepherds, wise men and animals. At the close of the first scene, before starting again, an intermission was held during which the cast would leave the stable to be warmed and have refreshments. After that first showing, a mother sent a note to the boy with this request: “Please don’t allow them to leave Baby Jesus out in the cold alone like that.” It seems, that during the intermission, no one thought to take the doll from the manger. That mother, caught in the drama of the narration, rebelled at leaving Jesus out in the cold. At first, said the young man, it caused us to chuckle, but on after thought, are we not often guilty of becoming so involved with the mechanics of religion and life that we leave Christ out in the cold? The how of it I leave to your ingenuity, but do your best to keep Christ in your thoughts every day.
A third way all of us prepare in life is when we expect guests. You know what you do. Listen to what Christians in Iceland do as they prepare to welcome the King of Heaven. Charles W. Koller describes the peculiar customs in his book Tents Toward the Sunrise. “First of all, everything must be clean for Christmas. Every corner of the house and every bit of clothing must be immaculate. All necessary repairs must be made, however inconspicuous the need. All of this is symbolic and preliminary. The greater preparation is that of the heart. All differences must be reconciled. Then there are gifts, family reunions and fellowship with friends. And over all, there hovers the sweet consciousness of the coming of Christ into the world and into the hearts of men.”(and women)
When you prepare for company what do you do? You make lists. You keep the coming visitors in mind. You clean house. How important all these steps are. One year when Life magazine was preparing its Christmas issue, A photographer was sent to the School of San Roco in Italy to get pictures of the wonderful Tintoretto murals of the nativity. With every conceivable kind of light, the photographer attempted to capture the natural colors of the paintings, but he could not. Upon close examination, it was revealed that these murals of the nativity had been overlaid with 4 centuries of varnish, dust and the accumulation of dirt through which the radiant of colors of the paintings could not shine. Only when polaroid light was used could the authentic colors get through to the camera.
And has this not been the case with Christmas in our day? The real meaning has been overlaid with what Robert E. Luccock calls “….centuries of sentimental varnish and commercial dust until millions see Christmas only the sweet story of a baby shuffled off to a manger for whom we are moved to pity, or the occasion for an organized, commercialized, vulgarized carnival of gaudy splendor.”
An unknown poet in the 17th century has written some lines which, for me, perfectly capture the reaction of such humans as we. He describes in old English what our response would be if our nation’s President, in his case it was a king, should come to visit our home. Then he compares that with the-coming-toward-us of the God-sent Redeemer.
Yet if his majesty, our sovereign lord,
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite,
And say, “I’ll be your quest to-morrow night,”
How we should stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work! “Let no man idle stand!”
Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall,
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat,
And order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and candlestick made bright,
That without tapper they may give a light.
“Look to the presence: are the carpets spread,
The dazie o’er the head,
The cushions in the chairs,
And all the candles lighted on the stairs?
Perfume the chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his place.”
Thus if the King were coming would we do,
And ‘twere good reason too;
For ‘tis a duteous thing
to show all honour to an earthly king,
And after all our travail and our cost,
So he be pleased, to think no labour lost.
But at the coming of the King of Heaven
All’s set at six and seven:
We wallow in our sin,
Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain Him always like a stranger,
And, as at first, still lodge Him in a manger.
If we would entertain the God who befriends us, let us
“You Are Cordially Invited”
Rev. Armen Hanjian
Chilmark Community Church
November 1, 2015
This will be a good sermon because I am dealing with an area in which I am quite an expert – that of making excuses. It would have been a great sermon – – but I was pretty busy this week.
The Bible is a great book in many ways, particularly so in describing life. In Genesis, old Adam says, “Eve made me do it.” Eve says “The serpent made me do it.” And millions say “The devil made me do it.”
Recall the rich young ruler who was invited to follow Jesus. He could have been a part of the greatest adventure in history, but he made an excuse and went away sorrowful.
Once Jesus asked aloud:”…to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
Here, Jesus describes John the Baptist’s ministry and his own in vivid contrast. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘he has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard.’” John’s ministry was stern like a funeral; Jesus’ ministry was joyous, like a wedding. The people Jesus was addressing didn’t follow either one. They were playing the game of religion in their own way and like irritable children, refused to play any game but the one they knew best: “I’m doing my religious thing so don’t mix me up with what God expects of me!”
The place in the Bible that makes most clear our inclination to excuse ourselves from God’s service is today’s parable of the rejected invitation.
A great banquet is planned. Matthew’s gospel refers in this parable to a king throwing a sumptuous wedding reception for his son – – not sandwiches and punch as we had at our reception, but the whole works. Lo and behold, the people who were invited chose not to come to the joyous feast.
Jesus was always drawing parallels. If there was a fishing boat around, he would say “I will make you fishers of people.” If someone pointed to the harvests, he would say “The fields are white with harvest but the laborers are few.” In Luke’s parable our vision is raised from this banquet and human hospitality to God’s hospitality with the implied question “Will you be there at God’s home?”
This invitation went to the most likely, the so-called “friends of the family.” This likely refers to “religious people.” How nice. Mr. and Mrs. So and So request the honor of your company. Mr. and Mrs. Thus and thus regret that they will be unable to be present.
Sometimes we invite because we have to. Sometimes we don’t go because we don’t want to. But certainly no one would decline an invitation to God’s banquet in heaven. Yet the folly is in this story: “Please present my regrets to the Lord of Heaven and Earth. I can’t come.”
Why did the guests refuse the summons to the feast? Why do people refuse Jesus’ summons to the joyful life? It is not because people are outright wicked. Rather it is because they are absorbed – – -absorbed in their own things.
All three men in the parable who sent their regrets probably repeated their excuses so many times that they thought their reasons were valid. The banquet might be dull and my own affairs seem to promise more happiness. Things are finally going better for me so don’t distract me with other affairs.
Let’s look at the specific excuses they give. They symbolize the successful secular society. “I have bought a piece of land and I must go and look it over.” This can represent our possessions and investments. Certainly we need land to live on and homes to live in and so on, but is that reason enough to ignore the God who made us when God calls us to God’s priorities?
The second excuse avoids the invitation by saying: “I have bought five yoke of oxen and I am on my way to try them out.” This can represent our attempts at maintaining our self-esteem. “World, look at my car, my house, my creations, my crafts, the power I wield.” God know, we need to build up our reserves of self esteem, but these are dead ends that lead to idolatry rather than life when leaned upon.
The third avoids the invitation by announcing, “I have just gotten married and for that reason I cannot come.” At best, the spouse and family represent our human centered comfort and at worst our cult of exploitive sex. God knows that we need to give attention to family and that sexual realtionships can be among the most beautiful channels of love. But even good things, when over emphasized, can lead to an unbalanced life which can lead to death.
Perhaps these are not our excuses for being slow in responding or for not responding at all to God, but our excuses are not so very different. Do any of these sound familiar? “We unfortunately had parents who were too strict – -or too lax – -or too distant — or too affectionate. Our parents conditioned us. “ “We were born during a difficult period that emphasized materialism and drugs and fear of war.” “We were too rich – – or too poor” “What we are is simply a product of our environment and our heredity.” “God made us this way.” “What ever will be will be.” “I don’t pretend to be religious.”
Our excuses are endless. The one that bugs me the most is when someone puts a label on something and thinks he or she has thereby dealt with the matter: “maladjusted and introverted” instead of dishonest and self-centered; “a spasm of re-adolescence” instead of adultery and so on.
One need only listen to conversations on the boat or in line at the post office to know what has absorbed our minds and hearts. The concerns are with boats and houses and sports and vacations. Any one who talks about human destiny or the claims of Jesus is thought of as odd; it makes others shuffle with discomfort. When death or sickness comes, we are tongue-tied because we are used to more trivial topics like the weather or the traffic. When a crisis has passed we return to casual speech with great relief.
Our misguided emphasis on the things that absorb us is not harmless. That way of life can lead to tragedy. That way can lead to broken relationships.
The parable insists that God’s plan will not be thwarted. God graciously invites, but God does not force. If you will not come, God will invite others. When “nice” people beg off, then God goes to those who are considered to be the wreckage of society And if the church becomes too comfortable and self-righteous and deaf to God’s invitation, then God may well take up some secular movement and use it to fulfill God’s glad purpose.
What then must we do? Can we respond to the invitation? Can we change? We keep thinking we are pretty much set, now that we are the age that we are. But don’t be fooled. Each of us is still growing –or slipping. We move subtly, often quietly. The slopes are gentle and easy. We compare ourselves with others rather than with Jesus. It is like riding in a car at 55 miles per hour and being oblivious to the fact that we are pat of a larger system in which the earth rotates at the equator ¼ mile per second while revolving around the sun at some 20 miles per second. At the same time the sun with its planetary companions including the earth orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy at an estimated speed of 200 miles per second. The sooner we realize that this is God’s world and that it is God’s will that is primary, the better it will be for all of us.
Yes, heredity and environment do affect us all, but they are never the final word. There is our free choice. The boy from a broken family does well. The family that has every right to produce criminals creates leading citizens. If there is a secret, it seems to be that if a person sees someone she wants to be like, she can break away from the powers that mold her. This is why the church holds before the people the person of Jesus Christ.
There is a proverb that the furniture store favors: “Home comes first.” It is nearly true and thus tragically false. For a home trying to feed itself is like a man trying to feed on his own body. It is a cannibalism that succeeds at first but finally yields to the law of diminishing returns. How can we be loyal to family and do our duty to God? How can we be loyal to our nation and differ with it when it is going astray? There are conflicting loyalties wherever we turn.
The only answer I have found is to have one over arching loyalty to the hierarchy of our loyalties. Jesus alone is worthy of such a place. He who said, “He who loves father or mother, son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” knew that putting Christ and his kingdom first would be the way one could best love his family.
When we look to Christ, then we love as he loved. Our love does not depend on how others behave. Thus, we put a stop to our “there are hypocrites in the church” excuse.
Once Christ is made primary in our lives, then we must get busy prioritizing. There is no end to our responsibilities – – so many people to help by our visits, so many causes that would benefit from our time and talent and resources. What is one to do? We can write down and then pick out the priorities. Which will do the most good for the most people for the longest amount of time? We can keep testing our actions by the fruit they produce. Not that we always have to be successful; we need primarily to be concerned with being obedient to God. Through the years, God has proved the abundant fruit-bearing capabilities of those who have trusted in their God.
When we prioritize, this will put an end to our excuses that we do not have enough money or we do not have enough time.
We should look to Christ, we should prioritize, and finally, we should relate to Christ’s people. That will speak to our excuse that we are tired. Every person gets tired while depending on his or her own strength alone. But where Christ’s people are gathered, Christ is present with the resources of God.
It isn’t often verbalized, but many are paralyzed with the excuse of being afraid: fear of what people will say about us; they might hurt us or reject us. We don’t need more of that. Keeping close to Christ’s people can help overcome fear – Christ‘s love casts out fear.
To those who are not 100% sure about Jesus Christ and the Christian way, I say: relate to Christ’s people. The faith of others will encourage us to act on whatever faith we do have.
Look to Christ. Prioritize. Relate to Christ’s people.
THE WEDDING BANQUET
A certain man held a feast on his fine estate in town.
He laid a festive table, he wore a wedding gown.
He sent invitations to his neighbors far and wide,
But when the meal was ready, each of them replied:
I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now,
I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum;
Pray hold me excused, I cannot come.
The Master rose up in anger, called his servants by name,
Said go into the town, fetch the blind and the lame.
Fetch the peasant and the pauper for this I have willed.
My table must be crowded, my table must be filled.
When all the poor had assembled, there was still room to spare,
So the master demanded: Go search everywhere,
To the highways and byways and force them to come in;
My table must be filled before the banquet can begin.
Now God has written a lesson for the rest of humankind;
If we’re slow in responding God may leave us behind.
God’s preparing a banquet for that great and glorious day.
When the Lord and Master calls, be certain not to say:
I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now,
I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum;
Pray hold me excused, I cannot come.
“Helping, Fixing, Serving”
Chilmark Community Church
August 23, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Many years ago my Sunday School teaching partner and I were preparing for our 4th grade class. That year we were blessed with 8 boys between the ages of 8 and 10. The lesson that morning had to do with the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. So we decided to invite the kids to have the experience of having their feet washed and then of washing each others’ feet. As the lesson progressed, we got to the point of filling a large basin with water and my partner asked who would like to be first?
Almost a though a secret signal had been given, 8 pairs of feet were withdrawn, pulled back under the chair rungs – – no willing volunteers. So my friend Ila and I were left with no alternative but to wash each other’s feet and demonstrate what the lesson was about.
We took a few minutes to do this and as we looked around the room, those little guys were paying attention! So we offered the invitation again. This time one or two feet were very tentatively extended beyond the rungs of the chairs. Then one pair of sneakers came off followed by a pair of socks – – and then another and another. One by one, the kids extended their feet to see what it would feel like to have their feet washed. Gradually, they experimented with washing each other’s feet with a lot of giggling and “oooooh phew!” By the end of the class we all had clean feet and we had all learned something about what it feels like to have someone kneel in front of us and serve us in a profoundly simple and symbolic act.
We have two very brief images of service in today’s text. Jesus has returned to Bethany for a visit at the home of his dear friends, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. They have prepared a dinner party for him. The words of the story are sparse: “Martha served”………Mary took a pound of expensive perfumed ointment, cleansed Jesus’ feet and wiped them, not with a towel, but with her hair.
The images of the meal and the foot washing are repeated again in the later story of Jesus sharing his final meal with his friends – and washing their feet. In the later story it is Jesus who serves and washes.
Today’s story reaches the senses: the smell of lamb and grains roasting on the fire; the scent of perfume filling the house; the intimacy of Mary’s physical touch; the feel of soft hair. It’s a sensual story. It is also a story of contrasts. Death and life are present. Lazarus is newly restored, alive, from his tomb where Jesus was warned of the terrible stench he would encounter there. Jesus is on his way to his own tomb – fragrantly perfumed. Mary and Martha are extravagant in their meal preparations and the bathing of Jesus feet. Judas kind of sulks in the corner worrying about the expense.
There is a two-word sentence in the story that catches the eye: “Martha served.” Serving is what the sisters knew how to do.
A number of years ago, Naomi Remen authored an article in the Noetic Sciences Review titled “In The Service of Life”. She wrote: “In recent years, the question ‘how can I help?’ has become meaningful for many people. But perhaps there is a deeper question we might consider. Perhaps the real question is not ‘How can I help’ but rather ‘How can I serve?’ There is a difference between helping and fixing and serving.
Richard Rohr, in his book “What the Mystics Know” writes: After decades of counseling, pastoring, and clumsy attempts at helping other people, I am coming to a not so obvious but compelling conclusion: Much of our helping is like hoping for first class accommodations on the Titanic. It feels good at the moment, but it is going nowhere. The big tear in the hull is not addressed, and we are surprised when people drown, complain, or resort to life boats. Most of the people I have tried to fix still need fixing. The situation changed, but the core was never touched.
Serving is different than helping. Remen suggests that people tend to feel a sense of inequality when they are helped. The helper may feel good, but the one who is helped may feel diminished in some way. We heard this message clearly a number of years ago when we spent some time on the Lakota Reservations in South Dakota. The tribes told stories about how they had been “helped” by the US government in the form of surplus food. They had been “helped” by missionaries who wanted to convert them to Christianity. They had been “helped” by well meaning groups who sent them boxes of used clothing. But through all this helping, their health, their spiritual traditions and their strength and dignity as a tribal people were all seriously diminished. The integrity and wholeness of tribal life was eroded by the help that was extended to them. To paraphrase Rohr, all that helping and fixing never reached the core. Life on the reservations changed, but the deepest core of life was never touched in a way that would have lead to wholeness in the relationship between the Lakota people the white population.
Service, on the other hand, is a relationship between equals. Helping incurs a subtle kind of indebtedness. Serving has a mutuality about it. There is no indebtedness. In a serving relationship, I am served just as much as the person I am serving. When I help, I have a feeling satisfaction that I have done something good. When I serve, I feel gratitude. These are two very different things.
Serving is also different from fixing. Fixing arises out of seeing the world or other persons as broken. Naomi Remen writes: “When I fix another person, I see them as broken and their brokenness requires me to act. When I fix, I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them. Fixing is a form of judgment about the brokenness of the other person.
When I think of images of serving, one that comes to mind is hospice work. When a hospice worker receives an assignment, it is an assignment to serve. In the work of attending to the needs of the dying and to the needs of the family, a hospice worker cannot fix anything –nor can he or she really help. In hospice work there is no fixing or helping – – only service – – the service of wise and compassionate presence – – a service that addresses and acknowledges the strength and integrity of the family and the one who is dying. Hospice seeks to serve the wholeness in the life of the client and the family as death draws near.
The images of Jesus and his friends in the gospel are images of service. Mary breaks a flask of perfumed ointment to sooth and cleanse Jesus’ feet. She can fix nothing. Her act of service doesn’t help anything. Jesus already knows his end is imminent. Nothing can fix or help the outcome. There is a mystery in Mary’s service that recognizes the integrity and wholeness of Jesus, of work, of his purpose.
Judas, on the other hand, is a helper and a fixer – – sell the ointment – -help the poor. He has a somewhat self righteous tone about him and the little editorial comment suggests that his motives aren’t really all that pure.
Later on in John’s gospel Jesus is again in the company of friends. This time he is the one with the basin and towel. He extends to his friends the hospitality of serving them by preparing to wash their feet. He comes first to Peter – and Peter resists. He is incredulous at the idea of Jesus washing his feet and he refuses. Jesus responds to him: “unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” And Peter submits to being served by Jesus. Jesus doesn’t fix anything about Peter. We know this because of the way the story unfolds after Jesus is arrested. But Jesus sees something of the inherent worth – indeed the holiness – in Peter. Unless Peter allowed himself to be served by Jesus, Peter would not be able to live out a life of service.
Jesus aligned himself with the wholeness that he saw in each life he touched. He saw that wholeness in each human being waiting to be restored and he acted in service to that wholeness.
When we see this about Jesus, we can understand a little bit more about his willing attitude when Mary anointed his feet and Martha served him a meal. In the face of the unfixable that lay ahead of them all, it was incredibly important that Mary and Martha be able to serve by their devotion and their friendship and their presence in Jesus’ life. When this story is juxtaposed with the later story of Jesus washing his friends’ feet, we see that life in Christ is not so much a life of fixing and helping – – or of being fixed or helped. Rather life in Christ is a life of serving and being served.
Through his life and death and resurrection, Jesus serves us by recognizing the wholeness and the holiness that resides in each one of us. He does not relate to us as needy, or broken or weak. Rather he serves us by honoring our strength and calling forth the best from us. If his purpose were to help us or fix us, he would only make us weaker. But Jesus calls us from weakness to strength. His loving service to us empowers us – – makes us strong.
Martha served. Mary served. Jesus serves. After Jesus had washed his friends’ feet he said to them “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord –and you are right for that is what I am. So – if I your Lord have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
So – the subtle call seems clear. We are called to lives of serving and lives of being served. We all know something about what this means because we live in a community that does this as part of its way of being in the world. The story just helps us do the fine tuning so that we can be more effective. May we enter the coming week with our eyes and ears and hearts wide open to whatever our servant ministry calls us to do and be in the name of God. AMEN.
Please come welcome Kathleen Dorr on Sunday, 28th. The Rev. Kathleen Dorr, M.Div. has served the church and God’s people as an Episcopal priest for 20 years, most recently, in the Diocese of Connecticut. She was ordained in the Diocese of Long Island and has served across the nation. Kathleen enjoys her rest and relaxation on Island spending as much time as possible in Oak Bluffs enjoying friends, the water and the Island. Rev. Dorr has served at the Cathedral of St. Matthew, Dallas , TX., in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, as Interim Rector at Christ Church, Associate priest for Christ Church, New Haven, CT., Chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Yale, Interim Missioner at Eagle Butte Reservation working with the Sioux Nation on the reservation, following these ministries Kathleen trained to be a hospital chaplain at the University hospital in Greenville, N.C. and became a Hospice chaplain working in this area over the past few years. Kathleen is the mother of two sons Robert, a Major in the U.S. Army and soon the U.S. Attache to Lebanon, and Aaron who lives and works in the San Francisco area. Both sons are married and have blessed Kathleen with three young grandchildren. She is widowed and was married to the Rev. Lt. Col. Guy Dorr who, after an Army career, was also ordained in the church serving on Long Island and later in life with the Navajo Nation.
Her hobbies include scuba diving around the world, kayaking, hiking and traveling as often as possible.
Her off-island contact information is:
Arlene Bodge, 303 Brooksby Drive, Unit 218, Peabody, MA 01960. Her phone after May 1 will be 978-587-2699.