God Isn’t Fair (Job 1:1 to 2:10)

God is Unfair

Job 1:1 to 2:10

More than 3,000 years ago, the writer of the Book of Job wrestled with a question which is still just as troublesome today as it was then. It is this:

If God is all-powerful, good, and just (and sometimes merciful), why do innocent people, sometimes very good people, suffer terribly from wars, natural disasters, sickness, and crime? Pick up a newspaper and read that the victim of a random and brutal murder was a kind and good person who was just finishing her training as a pediatrician and planned to devote her life to underprivileged children. In the obituaries in the same paper, read that a mafia crime boss, who allegedly ordered dozens of murders, has just died at 90, rich, unrepentant, and in the bosom of his family.

You get the idea. Luck, both good and bad, is not distributed evenly in the world, and not always, as one might hope, on the basis of merit. Job is treated unjustly by God, but the writer of the Book of Job is complaining for all of us about undeserved bad luck. God, it seems, is sometimes unfair.

In earliest times, pagans thought bad things happened because the gods made them happen. The gods, the priests said, demanded sacrifice, usually an animal, but in very dire times even human sacrifice. When the volcano smokes and rumbles ominously, it might be necessary to dress a young woman in flowers and toss her in the caldera as a gift to Pelee, the volcano goddess. For the Mayans, the way to make a severe drought go away was to throw a child into the sacrificial well for Chac, the rain god. Archeologists found the skeletons of two dozen individuals in the cenote at Chichen Itza, most of them children. And it always worked — the drought went away . . . unless it didn’t, in which case another sacrifice was unfortunately necessary. The primal gods must have seemed like all-powerful, dangerous adolescents. There really wasn’t much question that they were unstable. People expected that.

The ancient Greeks also had no trouble understanding why bad things happen. Their Gods were immortal beings with supernatural powers and human emotions. The gods fell in love (sometimes even with humans), they fought, they were sneaky and treacherous, they got angry, they even played practical jokes. They were very jealous — of each other and sometimes of humans. To be a superlatively strong or powerful or beautiful mortal was very, very dangerous, because it was almost certain to make some god or other jealous of you. In the long run, it was not even such a good thing to have a god or goddess favor you, because it was sure to make at least one other god angry. The Greek gods did bad things for the same kinds of reasons humans did. Like the earlier polytheist religions, the Greeks knew that the gods were capricious and treacherous and acted at cross-purposes to one another. The Greeks had a saying, “Count no man happy until he has reached the end of his life.” No matter how well things were going, something bad could come at any instant, maybe just because things had been going too well. It that regard, the first chapter of the Book of Job starts out like a Greek tragedy. Hmmm, Job is “the greatest of all the men of the east”? — watch out, Job!

Well, we are not polytheists. We do not believe in many childish gods, or in gods with human foibles. We believe in one creator God, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. God is wise and just and merciful . . . except that sometimes it seems that He isn’t. Expecting God to be fair is a problem we monotheists have that polytheists didn’t.

When John Milton wrote Paradise Lost (1667), he didn’t take on just individual miscarriages of justice, like Job’s, but the big picture, the whole enchilada. He said in Book I that he was writing to “justify the ways of God to men.” Why did God allow Adam and Eve to fall and lose the Garden of Eden, bringing sin and death into the world? When God gave them free will, He surely knew they would sin (God knows everything). It was a set-up from the start! Milton’s answer is that obedience to God without free will would be meaningless. Free will requires the possibility of bad choices as well as good ones. So God gave humans free will, knowing they would fail, at least in the short run.

Writing half a century later, Alexander Pope took a little different twist. He concluded that everything God does is good — we just don’t always understand how it’s good.

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;

All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good.

And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Essay on Man (1734)

This is a reasonable position to take. Some days, this is what I think.

However, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German contemporary with Pope, took the idea one step further. If God is perfect, His creations must also be perfect. So Leibniz concluded, “This is the best of all possible worlds.” The concept is called philosophical optimism, and it was savagely satirized by Voltaire in his comic novel “Candide,” in which the naïve hero, Candide, experiences all kinds of disasters (like the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, a real event which killed as many as 100,000 people). Candide watches from a ship at sea and scratches his head while his teacher, Pangloss, explains why “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Candide eventually concludes, “Optimism is a mania for maintaining that all is well when things are going badly.” I’m afraid I agree with naïve Candide. I find it hard to read the newspaper and think this is the best of all possible worlds, but Pope and Leibniz would say that I don’t understand God’s purposes, and of course they would be correct.

Let’s get back to the book of Job.

The sixth verse says, “There was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. . . .” Right away there’s something different about this story. I can’t think of another place in the Bible where there is a dialogue set in heaven between God and an angel. Olympian debates happen all the time in Homer, and Milton imagines conversations in both heaven and hell, but in the Bible I think Job may be unique. I’m not a scholar, but it has occurred to me that the story of Job, which comes from the second millennium BC, older than Homer, may have been adapted from an even older, pagan story.

God asks Satan where he’s been, and Satan says he’s been “going to and fro in the earth.” God asks if Satan has noticed Job. Satan says, “Sure, he’s a good man, but that’s because you’ve made him prosperous.” So God says, “Okay, Satan, take all his stuff away, but don’t hurt him.” So Satan does that. You heard all the disasters that happened. Marauders steal Job’s oxen, his camels, and his cattle, fire burns all his sheep, most of his servants are killed, and a great whirlwind destroys the tent where his seven sons and three daughers were feasting, killing them all. Job remains faithful to God. Satan comes back again and says, “Okay, Job took all that pretty well, but ‘touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.’” God says, “Okay, Satan, go ahead and wreck his body, but don’t kill him.” And Satan covers Job with boils.

Here’s the point. Job hasn’t done anything wrong! He’s not just a good man, he’s the model of a good man, one God boasts about to Satan. Job’s sons and daughters were sacrificed, not because God was displeased with Job, but because God was pleased with him. God says to Satan, “You moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” (Job 2:3) This is the quintessential bad-things-happen-to-a-good-person story.

Job’s wife’s advice is not very helpful. “Curse God and die,” she says, but he doesn’t. Job’s “comforters” tell him at enormous length (35 chapters) that God doesn’t make mistakes. Therefore Job must have done something to displease God. But over and over Job answers that he hasn’t done anything wrong, and we know, because we saw the conversation in heaven, that Job is correct. That’s the point of the story the writer is telling.

Toward the end of the story, Job goes to God to demand an explanation. A scholar once told me that under Jewish law, this was Job’s right, just as a servant is entitled to complain to his master, or a subject, to his king.

When we finally get to the punch line, God’s answer to Job, it is pretty disappointing to me, although it satisfies Job. It begins in Chapter 38, “Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth?” And for all of Chapters 38, 39, 40, and 41 — 129 verses! —, God thunders on and on to show Job how puny and insignificant he is, listing all the things that God can do and Job can’t. So as I read the story, the answer turns out to be, in effect, “I’m God. I can do anything I want.”

In the end, Job gets seven more sons and three more daughters, more cattle and sheep and camels, and he lives to be 140 years old. So there is a happy ending. . . maybe, if you forget about the grief of losing ten children.

But go back to the beginning. Why does God let Satan torture Job? He’s proud of Job’s loyalty to Him, and a little stung by Satan’s suggestion that Job is good only because God takes care of him. Clever Satan. But it seems a little unlike an all-knowing God to be taken in by such an appeal to His pride. Was God sacrificing Job to impress Satan? Did the writer of the Book of Job think that maybe God is a little bit vain, a little bit like those Greek gods?

Job is a pretty pessimistic book, whether you’re an agnostic like me or a complete believer. The writer of the Book of Job was not a philosophical optimist. Furthermore, I think the writer would be turned off by Milton’s attempt to “justify the ways of God to men.” In Job, the point is that you don’t have to justify the ways of God. God is God. He can be unfair, by our lights, if He wants to. Whatever God decides, is what happens, whether it seems right to us or not. We don’t get to judge God.

OF LOVE’S DELIGHTS AND OTHER DIVINE MYSTERIES, BY Rev. Erika K. R. Hirsch

When I saw that the Song of Solomon was appointed as one of today’s lectionary texts, I jumped at the chance to preach on it. Not because I immediately knew what I was going to say, but because I have never really known quite what to do with this book. In my elementary school days, it was the source of not a few giggles. In junior high, it led me to wonder if I would ever find a beloved who would compare my neck to an ivory tower. In high school, I took a more lofty view and presumed that it must have represented God’s love for the church. And in seminary, I gave up altogether and vowed never to preach on it until I had it all figured out. But I have come to enjoy the challenge of preaching on difficult texts, and so I welcomed the opportunity to wrestle with this book. It’s not all figured out, and I am not going to take sides in the debate about what the text really represents. But I do think that this passage can help us rediscover something extremely important that has been missing from our Protestant religious culture.

The passage begins like some other grand appearances in the bible – with hearing before seeing. The woman cries out, “The voice of my beloved!” Then the man appears, larger than life – leaping over mountains and skipping on top of hills. He’s a figure of mythical proportions, the stuff of legends. As in any good fairy story, the beloved is compared to an animal – he is like a deer, first bounding and prancing, then standing still, wide-eyed and curious, gazing in through the window. He speaks: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. The cold season is over, the weather is magnificent. There are fragrant flowers and fruiting trees and joyful music everywhere. So arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” The lover calls to his beloved, inviting her to leave her place so that they can be together.

Now we don’t have all the details, but we can assume that the man and woman are in a new relationship, since they aren’t already together. And what do we know about new relationships? They’re exciting and passionate. Perhaps they’re a little scary. Or really scary. They require some getting used to. Maybe it takes some time to build up trust. I sometimes think that forging a new relationship is like dancing a dance when you don’t yet know all the steps. The closeness is new and interesting, and you can imagine it turning out beautifully, but you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen next.

I worry, though, that the beginnings of relationships have wrongly acquired a bad reputation. People with new loves are notorious for public displays of affection, for using sickeningly sweet nicknames, for neglecting their friends and family, and for ignoring worldly reality. This is partly why we say that love is blind. I don’t know how many times I heard in my first years of marriage, “Oh, you’re still on your honeymoon!”… as though I wasn’t really married yet. But I wonder if, instead of disparaging excitement and romance and beauty and delight, we can take them seriously as virtues and even necessities. I wonder if cultivating genuine passion in life can help us grow in our relationship with God.

Over the past few years, I have struggled with how to think about my love for God. When I was growing up, I tended to think of God as a Father figure, a strong, caring, male deity who would reward me for doing good things and punish me for doing bad things. There were plenty of hymns in the hymnal that reinforced this image for me: “Father, I Adore You,” “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” “This is My Father’s World.”

In later years, I came to treasure the image of a mothering God, a wise and judicious woman who knew me better than I knew myself, who saw everything that I could be and encouraged me to give my all to a world in need. As I grew more interested in modern hymn texts, I became aware of many beautiful hymns that illuminated maternal aspects of God. But even then, my ideas about God remained similar to my ideas about parents. And my love of God remained the love of a child.

But the human heart has a much greater capacity for love. We do not love only as a child loves a parent. We also love deeply our friends, our confidants, those to whom we can bare our souls and tell the most appalling secrets. We love our children, our siblings, our animals, those who depend on us for survival. We love our home – our town, our country, our school – places toward which we feel strong loyalties. And we love our partners – wives, husbands, our significant others, those people with whom we form the most intimate relationships. Those people who bring passion and excitement into our lives. And it’s this kind of love that is explored in the Song of Solomon.

Over the past several thousands of years, most biblical scholars and clergy (including John Wesley) have done everything possible to explain away the sensual nature of this text. Anything in the slightest bit romantic (which is just about everything in this book) has been translated into proper “church language.” And so the man becomes God, although the word “God” never even appears in the Song of Solomon. And the woman becomes the church. And the love between this man and this woman becomes the love between God and God’s people. Even so, what becomes of the passion? What does it mean for us and God? What do we do with it?

What we have done is ignore it. With our modern cynicism we have become ashamed to enjoy the romance of life – it’s too Victorian. With our science and technology, we have become immune to the wonder and mystery of life – the unknown is just something that has yet to be discovered. And with our Puritan inheritance we have become afraid of the delights that come with loving deeply our God – it’s too emotional, too disturbing, too Catholic.

So we say that when we’re in love, we see through rose-colored glasses. We live in this imaginary world of beauty and goodness. You’ve seen it in movies or read it in books, I’m sure. All of a sudden, everything is clear. All the songs on the radio make perfect sense – funny how we’ve never heard the words that way before. We begin to dream dreams we’ve never dreamt. The wind smells sweeter, food tastes better, colors are brighter, and life has a tang it never had before. It’s as though our senses are on overdrive, sending us into a temporary euphoria. Best to enjoy it while it lasts, because all good things must come to an end. Once the illusion fades, it’s back to the real world.

But what if it’s not an illusion? What if the clarity and the glimpses of beauty are actually a foretaste of the future? What if our hopes for the relationship are fulfilled or even exceeded? What if we dared to imagine the depth of God’s love for us? What if we could trust that God cares for us the way we need to be cared for? What if we could be sure that God wants to be with us for all eternity? What if…

The bridegroom calls to his beloved: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” God also calls us to arise and come away. God calls out, “Arise! Arise from slumber, arise from apathy and cynicism, arise from the shadows, arise from isolation and loneliness. And come away.” God calls us to leave some things behind. “Come away from where you have been. Come away and be in relationship with me, come be active participants in the world, come away from the familiar, the comfortable, the known – come away to grow and serve and experience anew the joys and challenges that come with being people of God.”

Come away, and together we will accomplish wondrous things in the world. We will strengthen the faint-hearted. We will heal the sick. We will mend brokenness. We will fight injustice. We will feed those who are hungry. We will dream big dreams. We will create a new future. And we will spread the love of God far and wide and that is something we can be passionate about.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

copyright Erika K.R. Hirsch 2009

Words of Assurance

Holy One, in Christ you have shown us the way into your Beloved Community of mercy, love and peace, in which you are making all things new. We come to affirm our covenant and sacred promise to be in loving relationship with you. Thank you for giving us life. Open us, body mind and spirit to your truth. Fill us with your grace so we can fall in love with your world to offer–and experience–forgiveness, reconciliation and hope.

On a Mission by Kwame Osei Reed

ON A MISSION

REV. KWAME OSEI REED

THE STORY IS TOLD OF A LITTLE BOY WHO LOVED GOING TO CHURCH WITH HIS GRANDFATHER.

AFTER LEAVING SERVICE ONE SUNDAY, THE BOY LOOKED INTENTLY AT HIS GRANDFATHER AND SAID, “GRANDPA, ARE YOU AFRAID OF DYING?”

SURPRISED, BUT PATIENT, THE OLD MAN SAID, “WHY WOULD YOU ASK ME THAT?” HIS GRANDSON REPLIED, “IN SUNDAY SCHOOL WE READ THAT IF YOU TRUST GOD, YOU WILL NOT BE AFRAID OF DYING.”

THE OLD MAN SMILED AND SAID, ‘IT TOOK ME ALONG TIME. BUT I HAVE REACHED THE POINT WHERE I AM NO LONGER AFRAID OF DYING.”

IS IT BECAUSE YOU TRUST GOD?” THE LITTLE BOY ASKED. “YES, AND IT IS ALSO BECAUSE YOU ALWAYS WANT TO GO TO CHURCH WITH ME. NOW I HAVE A PURPOSE IN LIFE. BECAUSE I HAVE A REASON FOR LIVING, I AM NOT AFRAID OF DYING.

I AM ON A MISSION “

ONE CONSISTENT MESSAGE FLOWING THROUGH OUR FAITH IS THAT THERE IS A REASON FOR YOUR BEING HERE. YOUR LIFE-MY LIFE HAS PURPOSE.

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YOU MIGHT HAVE IT ALL FIGURED OUT-YOUR GOALS-WHERE YOU ARE GOING AND HOW YOU PLAN TO GET THERE.

OR YOU MIGHT BE IN ONE OF THOSE PERIODS WHERE YOU ARE WONDERING WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? WHY HAVE I BEEN HERE SO LONG.?

IN ONE OF THOSE “WHY” TIMES-“WHY ME?”

BUT WHETHER YOU ARE MASTER OF YOUR FATE-CAPTAIN OF YOUR SOUL—DOWN RIGHT CONFUSED OR SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN, THE STILL SMALL VOICE OF GOD IS QUIETLY, BUT FERVENTLY SAYING TO YOU, “ I HAVE A PURPOSE FOR YOUR LIFE.”

SCRIPTURE MAKES SOME CLAIMS. THE GREAT GOD OF THE UNIVERSE-THE CREATOR OF ALL THINGS, COMES TO YOU AND QUIETLY EXPRESSES LOVE FOR YOU. FOR YOU. GOD’S LOVE. THERE IS REASON FOR YOUR LIFE.

STILL, THE MESSAGE-THE WORD THAT BREATHES THROUGH OUR FAITH IS THAT OUR GOD WILL NOT FORCE GOD’S PLAN ON YOU. YOUR JUDGMENT COUNTS.

DO YOU IDENTIFY WITH MOTHER THERESA? AT LEAST WHEN SHE SAID,

I KNOW THAT GOD WILL NOT PLACE ON ME BURDENS MORE THAN I CAN BARE. BUT I JUST WISH HE DIDN’T TRUST ME SO MUCH!”

.

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I WAS HAPPY WHEN I FINISHED LAW SCHOOL. ACTUALLY, I WAS HAPPY THAT I FINISHED. THAT WAS WHAT I SO DESPERATELY WANTED TO DO.

BUT I HAD ALWAYS KNOWN THAT GOD HAD A CALL ON MY LIFE. PEOPLE AROUND ME OFTEN SAID THAT I WAS GOING TO A MINISTER BUT THIS FUTURE LAWYER SAID “I OBJECT,’” NO!!!

I WAS ABLE TO CHOOSE WHERE I WANTED TO GO. SOME STILL SAY IN A VERY DIFFERENT DIRECTION. BUT I COULD NOT GET AWAY FROM THAT CALL. OUR GOD DOES NOT GIVE UP ON US..

THERE IS A MESSAGE THAT DOES AND WILL LET YOU KNOW THAT PEACE AND JOY COME WHEN YOU ARE WILLING TO RECEIVE THE CALL ON YOUR LIFE.

HAPPINESS IS POSSIBLE IN WHATEVER YOU CHOOSE. BUT HAPPINESS IS TRANSIENT AND HAS TO DO WITH EXTERNAL THINGS AND CIRCUMSTANCES.

JOY IS VERY DIFFERENT. JOY COMES FROM WITHIN. ONCE YOU START TO RECEIVE IT, JOY NEVER LEAVES

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THAT IS MY SERMON FOR TODAY. THAT IS ALL I HAVE TO SAY….BUT I AM A PREACHER WITH A PODIUM AND A MICROPHONE. SO, LETS CONTINUE OUR CONVERSATION FOR A FEW MINUTES.

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IN HIS BOOK, “PILLAR OF FIRE,” TAYLOR BRANCH DRAWS A DISTURBING PICTURE OF MY HOMETOWN. THOSE WORD PICTURES REGARDING THE EARLY 1960’S WERE DISTRUBING TO ME IN PART BECAUSE THE TRUTH HURTS.

IT WAS NOT JUST THE FACT OF THE BITTER AND DOWN RIGHT EVIL SEGREGATIONISTS THAT WAS SO PAINFUL.

IN MANY WAYS BRANCH PRESENTED ACCURATE DESCRIPTIONS OF MY HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL, WHO SEEMED TO ALWAYS BOW TO THE EVILS OF RACISM-LARGELY ACCURATE DESCRIPTIONS OF OTHER LEADERS IN MY TERRIFIED PART OF THE VERY SEPARATE COMMUNITIES.

THE OCCASION FOR HIS INTRODUCING McCOMB, MISSISSIPPI IN THIS SECOND BOOK OF HIS TRILOGY, ‘AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS” WAS THE ARRIVAL OF BOB MOSES THERE.

ROBERT MOSES-NEW YORK CITY NATIVE-LONG TIME MASSACHUSETTS RESIDENT-TRAINED IN MATHAMATICS AND PHILOSOPHY, ZEN BUDDISM-

THIS MYSTIC WAS AN ODD DUCK IN THAT CESSPOOL OF AMERICANS’ INHUMANITY TO AMERICANS-DEADLY RACIAL HATRED BEFORE DURING AND AFTER HIS TIME THERE.

BUT HE WAS ON A MISSION.

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HE HAD A CALL ON HIS LIFE. HE HAD BEEN SENT TO MISSISSIPPI BY SNCC (STUDENTS’ NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE) AS A FORERUNNER OF ITS PLAN TO START A VOTING RIGHTS PROGRAM FOR BLACK FOLK, IN A PLACE

WHERE AFRICAN AMERICANS NOT ONLY DID NOT VOTE, BUT WHERE THEIR LIVELIHOODS AND INDEED THEIR VERY LIVES WERE IN DANGER, WHEN THEY EVEN ENTERED THE DOORS OF THE REGISTRATRAR OF VOTERS’ OFFICE.

WHEN HE FINALLY LEFT McCOMB-SEEMINGLY DEFEATED AND PERSONALLY BROKEN, NO AFRICAN AMERICAN HAD BEEN REGISTERED TO VOTE.

ONE PROSPERIOUS BLACK FARMER WHO HAD JOINED WITH HIM HAD BEEN MURDERED IN BROAD OPEN DAYLIGHT WITH MANY WITNESSES-MANY, INCLUDING MOSES, HAD BEEN SEVERELY BEATEN IN PUBLIC.

ALL SIDES, WHITE SUPREMISTS AND CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS DENOUNCED HIS FUTILE VENTURE.

YET! THE DESIGN AND GROUND WORK THAT HE PRESENTED AND TAUGHT WOULD BECOME THE MODEL THAT THE FEDERAL GOVEERNMENT AND ORGANIZATIONS WOULD USE TO BRING VOTER RIGHTS TO MISSISSIPPI AND THROUGHOUT THE REGION WHERE CITIZENS HAD BEEN DENIED THE FRANCHISE-THE BASIC RIGHT TO VOTE.

HE WAS ON A MISSION AND THE STILL SMALL VOICE GUIDED HIM WHEN ALL EXTERNAL CIRCUMSTANCES

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SAID HE WAS A FAILURE. AT THE TIME LOUD VOICES SAID THAT HE HAD PRESIDED OVER A DISASTER.

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TAYLOR BRANCH DESCRIBED BOB MOSES’ GOING TO MY HOMETOWN.

I WITNESSED HIS ARRI VAL.

THAT FIRST WEEK, HE CAME TO A REVIVAL AT MY MOTHER’S METHODIST CHURCH. ALL OF THE BLACK MINISTERS IN TOWN WERE IN THAT PULPIT THAT NIGHT; INCLUDING THE PASTOR OF MY FATHER’S BAPTIST CHURCH.

WHEN ALL OF THEM REMAINED SILENT IN THE FACE OF BOB’S REQUEST FOR SUPPORT, I JUST COULDN’T TAKE IT. I VERBALLY PROTESTED; EMBARASSING EVERYONE EXCEPT MY FATHER.

I JUDGED THEM HARSHLY. AS A 13 YEAR OLD, I UNDERSGTOOD, SOMEWHAT. BUT I DEDIDED THAT THE TIME HAD COME FOR OUR ELDERS TO STOP BEING AFRAID.

MY FATHER PUT HIS ARM AROUND ME. THE NEXT DAY HE TOOK ME TO A MEETING WHERE SOME OF THOSE SAME SCARED BLACK LEADERS WERE GATHERED ALREADY HAVING PLANNED A MEETING WITH BOB MOSES AND SOME CHRISTIANS FROM UP NORTH.

IT WAS THEN THAT I BEGAN TO LEARN ABOUT THE LONG HISTORY OF LOCAL FOLK JOINING WITH JUSTICE

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MINDED PERSONS FROM NORTH AND SOUTH COMMITTED TO CHANGE – TO A NEW DAY.

OH, I WISH I HAD TIME TO TELL THE STORIES THAT I BEGAN TO LEARN.

THE STORIES OF PERSONS WHO HEAR THEIR MISSION CALL CAN BE TRACED TO VARIOUS PLACES-EVEN TO THE HORRORS ASSOCIATED WITH SALEM, MASSACHUSETTS. BUT WHICH LED SAMUEL SEWALL TO BE THE ONLY ONE OF THE THREE JUDGES TO ADMIT GUILT-STAND IN HIS HOME CHURCH AND APOLOGIZE FOR HIS ROLE IN TRIALS IN WHICH 19 PEOPLE WERE WRONGLY ACCUSED OF WITCHCRAFT AND PUT TO DEATH.

SEWALL THEN DECLARED THAT THE CHURCH MUST BE THAT CITY SET ON HILL WHOSE LIGHT CANNOT BE HIDDEN. HE CALLED ON HIS CHURCH TO TAKE A STAND AGAINST THE EVIL OF SLAVERY.

THE MISSIONS CAN BE TRACED, MUCH LATER TO THE METHODIST CAMP GROUNDS HERE ON THIS ISLAND AND THE CAMP GROUNDS IN NEW JERSEY.

CERTAINLY THE CALL ON PEOPLE’S LIVES TO BRING AN END TO THE EVIL OF RACISM CAN BE TRACED TO THE AMISTAD INCIDENTS-WHERE JOHN QUINCY ADAMS, INSPIRED BY OTHER FAITHFUL CHRISTIANS, HELPED OBTAIN THE FREEDOM OF THE CAPTIVES IN HIS SUCCESSFULLY REPRESENTING THEM BEFORE THE U.S. SUPREME COURT

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INPSIRED BY THIS SUCCESS AND WITH MONEY RAISED IN FREEING THOSE CAPTIVES, THESE FAITHFUL FOLK ORGANIZED THE ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT.

THEN AFTER THE U.S. CIVIL WAR, TEACHERS AND PREACHERS POURED OUT OF NEW ENGLAND GOING SOUTH- AND ON THE HILLS OF UNION SOLDIERS GOING TO EDUCATE THE RECENTLY FREEDPERSONS.

ESTABLISHING 500 KINDERGARDEN THROUGH 12TH GRADE SCHOOLS UNTIL PUBLIC SCHOOLS WERE ESTABLISHED THAT COULD RECEIVE BLACK CHILDREN AND ADULTS.

THE COLLEGES THAT THEY ESTABLISHED STILL EXIST.

THAT WAS A POWERFUL MOVEMENT THAT TRANSFORMED OUR SOCIETY.

BUT IT IS ALSO THE INDIVIDUAL STORIES THAT ARE SO FASCINATING. PERSONS WHOSE PERSONAL FAITH ENABLED THEM TO HEAR THE CALL TO GO AND NOT BACK DOWN.

WE TEND TO HAVE A SENSE OF THE HARDSHIPS THAT AFRICAN AMERICANS FACED UNDER AMERICAN APARTHIED.

BUT IT IS NOT WELL KNOWN THAT BOTH BLACK AND WHITE TEACHERS WERE BEATEN AND KILLED BECAUSE OF THEIR COMMITMENT TO THE UPLIFT OF THE FORMERLY ENSLAVED.

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THEY HAD A FAITH THAT SAID DO NOT FEAR WHAT EVIL PEOPLE DO TO THE BODY-THE SOUL WILL TRANSCEND.

THEY HAD A FAITH THAT SAID, THIS PART OF LIFE LEADS TO LIFE THAT DOES NOT END- WHEN WE TAKE OFF THESE CLOTHES, THESE RAGS THAT WE CALL BODIES, WE WILL STEP FROM LIFE TO GLORIOUS LIFE.

WAS THAT PIE IN THE SKY BYE AND BYE?

IS IT? IS IT OUTDATED OTHERWORLDLINESS TO BELIEVE THAT WHILE WE NATURALLY WORRY ABOUT OUR ILLNESSES-OUR DYING-WHILE WE ARE CRYING BECAUSE OF THE DEATH OF LOVED ONES-

THOSE SAME LOVED ONES ARE LAUGHING? NOT LAUGHING AT US, BUT LAUGHING BECAUSE THEY HAVE DISCOVERED THE WORD OF GOD HAS BEEN TRUE ALL ALONG.

WE WITNESS TO LIFE. LIFE THAT DOES NOT END. WE TRANSCEND.TO GREATER LIFE.

THOSE PERSONS BELIEVED THAT THIS MESSAGE WAS NOT PIE IN THE SKY. BUT IT WAS FREEDOM.

THAT WHEN YOU DO NOT HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN, THEN! YOU ARE FREE TO DO WHAT YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.

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SHOWING GOD’S LOVE. SETTING THE RIGHT EXAMPLE IN YOUR DAILY LIVING.

UNLIKE GOD’S WORD. CHURCHES OF THE LEFT AND RIGHT DRAW FALSE DICOTHOMIES BETWEEN PERSONAL FAITH AND THE CALL TO LARGER CAUSES.

THE STILL SMALL VOICE THAT IS TRYING TO SPEAK TO YOU LEADS YOU TO JOIN WITH THE STRUGGLES FOR JUSTICE- FOR PROTECTING OUR ENVIRONMENT.

CONFUCIUS SAID IT WELL, “I MUST PROTECT THIS WORLD.

BEFORE THAT, I MUST BE A POSITIVE PRESENCE IN MY COMMUNITY

BEFORE THAT, I MUST SET S GOOD EXAMPLE IN MY FAMILY.

BEFORE THAT, I MUST SEEK TO HAVE A GOOD HEART.

STILL, EACH OF US NEEDS TO CHECK WHAT WE ARE HEARING WITH OUR COMMUNITY OUR COMMUNITIES AND MAKE SURE WE KNOW WHAT THE MISSION REALLY IS.

SOME OF THE YOUTH IN MY FORMER CHURCH TOLD THIS STORY TO ME. NOW LET ME BE CLEAR. THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT ME-SO NO ONE IS OFFENDED.

THEY WERE TELLING ME HOW IN THEIR MINDS, I JUST DON’T GET IT SOMETIMES. OUR YOUTH ARE ALWAYS SMARTER THAE WE ARE-THEY THINK.

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THEY TOLD ME THIS STORY WHEN THAT MOVIE ALADAN CAME OUT-A SILLY STORY ABOUT 3 BLOOD FROM THE HOOD-3 FRIENDS FROM THE NEIGHORHOOD—[STORY]———–

YOU NEED TO CHECK YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE MISSION WITH YOUR COMMUNITY.

WE NEED TO LISTEN TO ONE ANOTHER. EVEN THOUGH I WANTED TO, I DID NOT CHANGE THE SUBJECT WHEN FRIENDS IN THEIR CYNSISM SEEMED TO ALL AGREE THAT THE ONLY THING THAT WILL COME OUT OF THE SO-CALLED BEER SUMMIT IS THAT A PROFESSOR AND A POLICE SARGEANT WILL WRITE A BOOK, GO ON TOUR AND BOTH MAKE A LOT OF MONEY.

IF WE KEEP LISTENING AND TALKING WE ALL MIGHT SEE THAT UNDERLYING ISSUES OF STILL FESTERING RACISM WILL BE ADDRESSED,, EVEN IF THE PH.D AND THE COP DO ALRIGHT FOR THEMSELVES.

WITNESSING IN OUR EVERY DAY LIVES MATTERS.

I WILL CLOSE WITH THIS. THERE WAS A LITTLE BOY IN CHURCH. PEOPLE SAID THAT HE WAS BAD———————————————————————–=————————————————-

AMEN

Guest Preachers Photographs

Woody and Susan Bowman, 11/15/09
Woody and Susan Bowman, 11/15/09

Click on images to enlarge.

Slipping the Bonds Of Earth and Heaven

Chilmark Community Church

August 9, 2009

“Slipping the Bonds of Earth and Heaven”

John 6:35, 41-51

Susan E. Thomas

It seems to me that in light of this morning’s lectionary reading from John that the first great task of a Messiah is to bring to an end the search for a Messiah. So what if I told you about a man whose mother knew from the beginning that he was no ordinary person. Prior to his birth, a heavenly figure appeared to her, announcing that her son would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. This prophecy was confirmed by the miraculous character of his birth. In his youth, the boy was already recognized as a spiritual teacher; his discussions with recognized experts showed his superior knowledge of all things religious. As an adult, he left home to engage in an itinerant ministry. He went from village to town with his message of good news. Proclaiming that people should forgo their concerns for the material things of this life, such as how they should dress and what they should eat. They should instead be concerned about their eternal souls.

He gathered disciples around him who were amazed by his teachings and flawless character. They became convinced that he was no ordinary person but was the Son of God. He could reportedly predict the future, heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. However, not everyone proved friendly to his message. At the end of his life, his enemies trumped up charges against him, and he was put on trial before the Roman authorities for crimes against the state.

Following his death, his devoted followers claimed that he ascended bodily into heaven; others said that he had appeared to them, alive, and that they had talked with him and touched him. They were convinced that he was not bound by death. A number of his followers spread the good news about this man, recounting what they had seen him say and do. Eventually, some of those accounts came to written down in books circulating throughout the first-century Greco-Roman empire.

But, I doubt you’ve ever heard the name of this miracle-working “Son of God.” For, the man I’m talking about is the great neo-Pythagorean teacher and pagan holy man, Apollonius of Tyana.

Now Appollonius lived at about the time of Jesus. Even though they never met, the reports of their lives are obviously very similar. What is even more remarkable is that these were by far not the only two persons in the ancient world who were proclaimed to be Messiahs.

What is important for us this morning is to look at the message given to us by John the Evangelist about Jesus as the Christian Messiah and what it says about our Christian faith and who were are as Christians standing on this far side of history. Now, one of the first things I do when I preach about John’s Gospel is to stand back and take a few moments to explain John’s community. Who were these first readers and hearers of John’s Gospel about Jesus. It’s important to do this because in the first half or so of his Gospel, we find Jesus talking to, arguing with, and encountering “the Jews.” These statements about “the Jews” in John’s Gospel have led to many mis-readings and these mis-readings have lead to the persecution of Jews by Christians for centuries upon centuries.

So what I tell you as good church-going Christians is to understand who “the Jews” are for John and his church community and how this led John to present his stories and understandings of who Jesus was for this unique community. Now John, who was the latest of the four gospel writers, was gathering his stories and writing them down and telling them to a community of followers of Jesus who were Jews around the year 100 CE. These were Jews who were followers of Jesus but basically still living their lives as Jews. Living in community with their family and friends and neighbors who were Jews and attending synagogue, observing the Jewish holy days, and following Jewish customs and theology, except that they believed in Jesus as the Messiah. Well, somewhere along the way serious debates began about whether these Johanine Jews were abandoning Jewish monotheism by making a second God out of Jesus.

Ultimately the leaders of the synagogues expelled the Johanine Jews from the synagogues—the word in Greek is that they were “apo-synagagoed.” This break from Johanine Jews and the Jews of the synagogue meant there was also a break up of family, relatives, friends, business associates, neighbors and communities. An entire way of life fell apart for the Johanine Jews because they were also Jews who wanted to follow Jesus. Alienated and persecuted by their family and faith community, this newly forming group of a Christian community and church turned against “the Jews” who apo-synagagoed them and turned very hostile toward them. So, I want you to remember these apo-synagagoed followers of Jesus and their fledgling new church community and their leader John the Evangelist and how their being kicked-out of the Jewish community informed their statements about who Jesus was for them and their account of Jesus as Messiah story.

As we look at this morning’s passage, we find ourselves already in middle of the controversy between John’s faith community, the apo-synagagoed ones, and “the Jews” of this particular synagogue. In these brief, few verses we find in many ways some of the very core beliefs of the Christian faith—in fact, I think that if you wanted to talk with someone about what Christians believe—you could point to these few verses to explain the basic theology of Christians.

It may, however, be for some preachers and theologians to believe these verses in chapter 6-and the ones before and after to- read into them a Eucharistic theology—using them to explain what it means when the church takes Holy Communion together. But really, the bottom line, here, friends, is we need to read these verses through the lens of faith-talk—how a community of antiquity came to have faith and how we today come to share that same faith.

For, here we can talk about how God reveals God’s self to us, particularly in Jesus- as the One who has definitively slipped the bonds of earth and heaven, about what it means to have “faith” in this God and be a follower of Jesus and you could even talk about what it means bring all this together as part of the ongoing witness of Jesus as the body of Christ-the church. And, I would add this caution—that we need to do all of this all the while being mindful and respectful of our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors who are of the Jewish faith and to honor who they are and never use the Bible to make anti-Semitic statements or commit acts of violence in the name of Jesus as the Christian Messiah.

If we understand John’s Jesus in chapter 6, and in his entire Gospel, as a Jesus who is speaking to not only “the Jews” of a certain community but also is attempting to shore up these apo-synagagoed followers of Jesus and their fledgling community, then this passage makes a lot of sense.

Think about it… I ask you how would you as an apo-synagagoed follower of Jesus talk about Jesus to those who have apo-synagagoed you? What stories would your Jesus tell? What signs would he do? What metaphors would he use?— to connect with both the Jewish community and to shore up this new community of believers in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, God-with-us as both human and divine? What would Jesus have to say to convince you he is the Messiah? How would the apo-synagoged Jesus describe himself to you and show you that he is indeed the Son of God, the same God as the God of Abraham and Moses and David?

Well, like I said, I would think your Jesus would say and do everything we’ve heard in this morning’s passage. And I would also imagine, as a Jew, I would respond to what I’ve heard the way the Jews responded this morning’s passage.

First of all, John strategically locates Jesus in this passage not outside of the synagogue but on the inside. If you read ahead a bit to verse 59 John says Jesus says all these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. It’s a bold move to place Jesus physically on the inside, one that would speak volumes to those who were aposyngagoed, those on the outside now.

But, probably the most important thing John’s Jesus does to connect with these two communities is he goes right to the heart of the Jewish faith and to it’s formative narrative—the Exodus story. The story of how God heard the cries of the Jews in slavery and led them out of captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land of milk and honey, of freedom and prosperity. The story of the wilderness generation wandering but aware of God’s presence with them as God went out before them as a pillar of light and led the way. God who self-communicates with Moses, their leader for this journey. And, a God who nourished them with bread (manna) and water during their wilderness journey.

The next important thing John’s Jesus does is connect with the prophetic tradition of the Israelites. Again, the writings of the prophets were a central part of who the Jews were, a sort of record of their long history of why they enjoyed good times and prospered and why they suffered through and survived so many hard times in exile.

John’s Jesus speaks about who he is to these Jews in the Capernanum synagogue and his apo-syngagoed followers by using the central stories that are at the heart of the Jewish faith. But sooner or later it’s also time to take a radical leap of faith and begin to talk in a new way about a new faith, a new language for a new community—to make complete the break between the Jewish community and apo-syngagoed followers of Jesus. Sooner or later, it’s time to let your loved ones know that you are moving on with your life. So, you take your communication to the next level. Your Messiah says he is just that—he is God in the flesh—both human and divine—right here and right now—the Son of God with you. You, in short, become the Reveler and come out as “the living bread that came down from heaven.”

Indeed John’s Jesus is the Great Revealer, so unlike the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, making in John’s Gospel the more than 20 “I am” or in the Greek ego emi statements—constantly describing who he is. In this brief passage alone you can count the 4 ego emi statements John uses to describe Jesus as the incarnate one of God using the “I am the bread of….” metaphors. Jesus is over and over again, trying to reveal himself as the one who has indeed slipped the bonds between heaven and earth.

Now, let’s step back for a second and imagine how you might feel as a Jew having listened to this news of Jesus as the Messiah. How would you feel about having Jesus say that your traditions, your central stories about your faith have been used for a new context, to tell a new story about a new Revealer?

Well, I think we might respond to Jesus just the way John has written it here. Any one of us would be angry, puzzled, frustrated, confused, in disbelief and more. We would probably say things like “we know you—your family lives just down the way from us, just off Main Street, second house on the left, right? You’re Mary and Joseph’s son, not God’s. You went to synagogue with our boys and played with them in the streets at night. I remember the time when you were little and got lost—your parents had us all out looking for you. How can you claim to be God’s son, you are only human after all. We know you all too well, so how could someone who grew up right under our noses turn out to be the Messiah? How can you offer us eternal life, you are so, so commonplace, so flesh and blood like us? How can you be from heaven? C’mon, be on your way now, we won’t listen to any more of this kind of talk now, you hear?

The early origins of Jesus are not denied, but it takes faith to see what lies beyond them to his heavenly origins. John’s Jesus says this is exactly the place of faith. Jesus’ message here is that faith happens when we are drawn in by God. God is the one who draws us in—who reveals God’s self to us. This drawing in is the work and word of a living God who not only has been present with us throughout history, as we find in the long history of the Jews with God, but is present and at work with us in John’s community of believers and right on down to the community of the faithful here this morning. God is the one who wants to be known and knowable to us, and wants to enter into relationship with us. God is with us and for us in this world and beyond—and those who follow Jesus believe God has self-communicated in Jesus as the living bread come down from heaven so that us very earthly human beings may know God.

It’s certainly not an easy message to digest but that’s precisely the point—it is the message of faith. Faith in God revealing God’s self for us in the person of Jesus. In this passage, Jesus is the one revealed to those who are ready to listen to his message and are continually open to learning about their faith, taking that life long journey of faith all the way to life eternal.

Now I’m not going to take a poll here and ask you to raise your hand and ask if John 6 has put an end to the search for a Messiah for you or if you are still searching for a Messiah or if you are somewhere in between because I don’t want anyone here to think they’re going to be apo-synagagoed. I believe it’s much more important for us to talk about who are going forward, as those who have received the traditions about Jesus from John’s faith community but also those who have received the traditions about Jesus from Mark or Matthew or Luke’s faith community. And also, from the early church communities planted by the apostle Paul and all those church planters who came after Paul and followed his brand of Christianity. In short, I think it’s important for us to look at the whole witness of the Bible and in particular the whole tradition of what we know of as the Christian Scriptures and the Christian witness as the church community.

I remember when I was living in Atlanta there was a high school state championship track meet taking place one year in which a lot was being written in the sports section of the paper about the mile run that year because one of the high schools had a promising miler who had missed the state record by less than one second the previous week. As the story unfolded, the runners came to the state championship meet and as the mile runners lined up at the starting line, everyone was focused on this one runner. He was a tall, good-looking, and well-built young man. He looked like an athlete. And yet the crowd noticed at the other end of the line another runner who in every way was a sharp contrast to the gifted athlete. He was small in stature, his shoulders were narrow and his chest caved in, even his legs didn’t seem straight. The crowd wondered what he was doing in this race.

As the race began, the favored athlete pushed off at a fast pace. With every lap the distance between this miler and the others increased. The other fellow fell steadily behind. The leader sprinted the last 100 yards and broke the tape to a deafening cheer from the crowd. He had established a new state record! Only a few other runners bothered to cross the finish line after him, most of them dropped out, seeing that they couldn’t win.

The field crew began to bring out the hurdles for the next race. One judge, however, yelled out to them to get the hurdles off the track. Saying, “look, this race isn’t over yet!” Around the turn came the hollow-chested, spindly-legged runner, panting and struggling to keep going. The crowd fell silent and watched as he literally fell across the finish line. His face ground into the track. The judge went over to help him to his feet and asked him, “Son, why didn’t you just stop back there like the other runners?” Between gasps for air, the runner answered, “My school had a good miler, but he got sick and couldn’t come. My coach asked me to come and run this event.” “Well, son,” the judge continued, “why didn’t you just drop out? You were almost a lap behind the others?” The runner answered, “Sir, they didn’t send me here to win. They didn’t send me here to quit, either. They sent me here to run this mile, and I ran it.”

Friends, God did not call us as Christians to be “winners” of a particular faith and to lord our Lord over others like some victory to be gained. And yet, God did not call us as Christians to quit when we have questions about our faith about how God reveals God’s self to us and how and what it is we have faith and what we believe about Jesus. But, God does communicate to us as followers and as the church community in particular to go and run this race—to the best of our ability, asking our questions – searching—all along the way while not giving up. In fact the definition of “theology” is faith seeking understanding. The minister James Luther Adams used to tell his congregation that “an unexamined faith is not worth living.”

So we are here today with all of our faith and our questions, with our fears and with our hopes, with devotion and dread to accept by faith that God promises to be present with us. God is, after all, big enough to accept us with our faith and with our questions and draws us in and shores us up for the race that lies ahead. God has promised to be present in our midst, even in the midst of our search for a Messiah—loving us, encouraging us, guiding us, and giving us hope all of our life long.

Friends, never shrink from this good news—only be on a lifelong quest to learn what it means to be drawn in by God and to be taught by God and to hear the good news of God. This is the alternative story that Jesus tells as the one who has slipped the bonds between earth and heaven, the story of abundance, of enough bread for all. Know that you are each called to tell this story and to offer your self and your gifts to do the work of Jesus in ministry.

If you’re wondering where to start—maybe our reading from the letter to the church in Ephesus is as good a place as any to start. Start by realizing that we are all neighbors, members of one another and that therefore we all need to honor and respect one another. We could start by not letting evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is good for the building up of the community—for the grace that is needed for today. Maybe we could continue to learn to put away our bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and the like. Instead we could continue to try to be kind to one another, tender-hearted, and forgiving of one another. In short, we could be imitators of God and could continue to learn to live in the same love that Jesus showed us. In those moments we too will know what it is like to slip the bonds between earth and heaven and touch the face of God. Amen.

June 28 Sermon by Susan E. Thomas

Genesis 17:15-17; 18:13-15
Mark 3:19b-21, 31-35

“He has gone out of his mind!” The Gospel writer known to us as Mark records in his Gospel that Jesus’ own family, probably his mother, says this about him. Now I ask you, is this any way to talk about the Son of God, the Messiah? Can you imagine how scandalous it would be today for any one of us to go on record saying such a thing about Jesus? But there it is, plain as day, smack dab in the middle of the Greatest Story Ever Told. Does it seem odd to you—as it does to me—that such a story about Jesus was kept in the Bible? And what about the funny, intimate moments shared between God and Abraham and Sarah, where the news of a baby at their age causes them to fall on their knees because they are laughing so hard. How on earth or in Heaven do such stories like these get to stay in the Bible? One would think that the early church priests, who debated long and hard about what books got to be a part of what is now our Bible, that surely they would have exorcised such stories from what is otherwise a very serious book for us Christians.

The writer and playwright Lillian Hellman wrote this preface to her own autobiography called Pentimento. I’d like to read it to you as a way of getting us to think about Jesus’ own story as well as the stories we have in our Bible handed down to us from the faithful writers of ancient times, and how these connect to our own story. Hellman wrote,

“Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes become transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is what is called pentimento because the painter has “repented,” changed their mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged now and I wanted to see that was there for me once, what is there for me now.”

For me, seeing and then seeing again means the Bible as our book has a great deal more laughter and openness behind it than all the double columns and strange footnotes and black leather bindings would have us believe there is. Who among us would deny that there was a smile on the ancient narrator’s face when he wrote about Abraham and Sarah’s baby news and their reaction to it? And I doubt that Jesus himself could keep an entirely straight face when he heard his family shouting, “Get that boy back in this house, for he is he out of his mind?” What strikes me most as I reacquaint myself with these somewhat embarrassing stories in our Bible is both their power to make me feel somehow more alive and faith-filled for knowing that they exist there in the Bible. And by the way, I’m told by most New Testament scholars that such stories are most likely to be true because they got left in the biblical witness. That is, because they were rather embarrassing stories for the ancient, fledgling Christian church, the fact that they were left in the Bible means they must have been really happened otherwise why leave such a story in the Gospel account? Well, my hope is that you too have or will explore the Bible for such stories and see across all the years which ones still have the power to bring tears to your eyes, or put a smile on your face, or even send shivers up and down your spine.

Instead of a historical or theological reading of the Scriptures, what if we looked at the stories themselves and the characters in the stories? Why would one early Christian follower known as Mark tell such stories about Mary, the mother of Jesus, this way? And ask yourself and the church community—what does these stories reveal about the faith and life of the early church? After all they are the ones who kept such stories in what became our Bible. Maybe you will come to understand Mary and Jesus’ family in a new light—for they embody Mark’s conviction that Jesus has brought in the new age of God’s kingdom on earth and that meant, in part, new ways of being a family.

If you look again then maybe you too will notice that there’s no place in the Gospels where Jesus speaks some special, loving word to his family nor does some especially loving thing for his own mother. Perhaps you will get the idea that he felt he couldn’t belong to anybody unless he truly belonged to everybody. They were all his mother and his brothers and his sisters, and there’ no place in the Bible where Jesus offers his family of origin anything more than he offered everybody else. Jesus embraces as “kin” those who are interested in his message of God’s kingdom here on earth and are willing to have their lives changed by this Good News.

Especially in this time when everyone has their opinion on what “family values” should mean—it’s important to see again this particular story about Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Many commentators try to soften the rough edges of this particular story. Perhaps they don’t want us to feel as if we must cover our ears so we don’t hear Jesus’ family, particularly, his mother think that Jesus is possessed by a demon or that Jesus is delusional. Some commentators prevail on someone else to say, “He is out of his mind,” like his friends, or the people, or the crowd but not his family who says this. There can be no denying in this story about the life of Jesus that his mother here has misunderstands Jesus’ ministry and attempts to stop him. As for Jesus he let his family know that his “family” is that wide circle of followers who have come to be with him and support him. In this new circle of family, in this new household of faith, any one who wants to follow Jesus is “kin” to him.

Well, besides living in a time where we are searching for the true meaning of “family,” we are also living in a time in which a good many church folks are searching for certainty about who and what Jesus was and is for us today. In other words—we are still looking for ways to talk about Jesus and to connect his story with our story. Was Jesus just a great teacher and liberator or a wise prophet? Or, was he indeed the long-promised Messiah to the Israelites? Or the long=awaited King of Righteousness? Is Jesus Lord and Savior of our lives and the only way to salvation for all people in all places and in all times? I admit these are huge questions that we have asked about our common faith. And, we all know they don’t get solved in one Sunday sermon—at least not by me. But they are questions for our Christian faith and they stay with us throughout our journey of faith—they are like that canvas of paint weathered over many years, wanting to show us its many layers.

All throughout the history of the church, followers of Jesus have tried to fill in the gaps of Jesus’ life. One such gospel that didn’t make it into our Bible is called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It was probably written about 150 years after the death of Jesus. This gospel tries to fill in the gaps of Jesus’ childhood—that part of his life that our four gospels says the least about. The account begins with the five year old Jesus and relates a number of incidents from his childhood—Thomas’s gospel shares a number of healing stories and also a number of stories where the boy Jesus is well, rather precocious. I wanted to share a couple of these stories with you…

Let’s fast-forward to the 1800s where I ran across what were very popular biographies of Jesus that tried to do the same thing. These were called the “Lives of Jesus” and I learned that hundreds upon hundreds of them were published during the 19th century. Now, typically, a Life of Jesus story would have one over-arching theme about some aspect of Jesus’ character, such as, Jesus was a social reformer or Jesus was a religious mystic. Then the author would include all the material they could find in the Gospels that would support their claim and exclude any material that didn’t. And finally, the author would write into the biography their own reflection about Jesus, attempting to fill in the gaps in the biblical record with the author’s own beliefs about Jesus’ motivations, goals, and sense of purpose about his life.

For example, David Strauss in 1835 published his biography of Jesus called “The Life of Jesus Critically Examined.” This work was over 1,400 pages in length. Now, basically Strauss concluded that most of the stories in the Gospels were myths like some of the ones found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Needless to say, Strauss’ work was very controversial in its day (and most likely in ours as well!)—in fact, after the book was published, he lost his job at the University of Zurich.

What lessons can be learned from these “Lives of Jesus” stories other than writing one can be dangerous to your career? I think we, like these authors, are wondering why the church has kept such stories like the ones about Abraham and Sarah and Jesus’ family and the like. What is it that our faith, our Bible is telling us? That God can and does support and lead us in a lifelong discernment about our faith and the stories we tell about our faith. What if these stories about the Life of Jesus revealed the truth of the whole Bible—that there is nothing you can do to make God stop loving you? That God loves each of us and finds us worthy of God’s grace. Wouldn’t that be a story worth writing and telling? Well, we already know our Bible is full of such stories and as faithful followers it is part of our journey to search them out, memorize them, and tell them to ourselves and to others—unafraid and unabashedly.

For the good news is just this—in Jesus, God revealed God’s self to us so that we as the body of Christ, the church, are made in Jesus’ likeness. This means, as individual Christians and as a church family we must search out the Scriptures for those stories of repentance, forgiveness, love, acceptance, and transformation. The apostle Paul urged the early Christians to do the same thing when he said to put on the mind of Christ. And we are to do the same—to be faithful disciples in our own lives and to offer the same love we have been graced to receive.

An Englishmen named Christopher Logue wrote this poem that  I think describes the leap of faith we are meant to take when Jesus’ life story touches our life story—
Come to the edge
We might fall
Come to the edge
It’s too high
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came—
and he pushed—
and they flew…..

As we heard in this morning’s reading from Genesis, “God said, ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord’” to accomplish? Whether these words bring a smile to your face or tears to your eyes, I encourage you to ponder that question throughout your lifetime and find out how your story connects with and keeps on connecting with the Life of Jesus’ story. And write and tell those stories about God’s miraculous accomplishment in you and God’s faithful love for you. To God be the glory! Amen.