Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
February 1, 2015
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords-- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. 10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
I can see it happening. A room divided, split by a center aisle. One man stands up and begins to speak. He is nicely dressed, conservative and classic. The room quiets as he raises a hand to begin his speech. With each remark, half of the room erupts in applause as the other half scowls. Approving nods on one side met in equal number with eye rolls on the other. As the man finishes speaking he sits down. Many arms crossed. Anger builds. No one moves.
The question is, what room am I describing? A community center? Congress? A church?
I was describing a congregational meeting I attended in my childhood church, but it pretty easily describes the scene at the most recent State of the Union Address, doesn’t it? And we’ve all seen video of contentious town hall meetings, I’m sure. It doesn’t take long to think of a time when each of us might have experienced something similar – a house divided, a battle of wills, both sides convinced they are “right.”
So who will win? Who is right? What does the law say? What does scripture say? Which side has the better argument?
These are the questions Paul is addressing in his letter to the church in Corinth that we read as our scripture passage this morning. The people have come to him with a dispute about food. Should the people be allowed to eat meat that has come from animals sacrificed to idols?
Much like our society today, Corinth was a bustling multicultural community with a wide range of religious practices and social classes. The Corinthian church had a strong faction of well-educated, well-to-do, relatively sophisticated members who believed that Christians should be free to eat meat offered to idols. Their reasoning made sense – Idols don’t exist, for there is no God but our God. Therefore, meat sacrificed to idols who don’t exist shouldn’t be a problem! It appears that the social life of the upper classes in Corinth revolved around frequent feasts, banquets, celebrations and public events held in banquet halls connected to the temples of the idols, and the well-to-do shopped in meat markets connected with the temples. Those who might choose to avoid meat connected with idol sacrifice would virtually exclude themselves from participation in the social life of Corinthian society. For them, it made no sense to abstain from participation just because the meat had been dedicated to a non-existent entity. For as Jesus said, “The Lord our God is one!” (Mark 12:29)
But the Corinthian church also included more ordinary working people. Blue-collar workers with a tighter budget, they were less likely to purchase meat for their families. Further, many of them were relatively recent converts to Christianity and eating or shopping for meat connected with temples of idols threatened their faith by drawing them back to the idolatrous cultures they had only recently left behind. Meat sacrificed to idols was a slippery slope for them, and as scripture says, it is better to cut off your hand than to sin… (cf: Matthew 5:30)
So who is right? Would Paul side with the well-educated, and their thoughtful argument, or the working-class with their commitment to following the law?
Paul begins by acknowledging the well-reasoned argument. “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge,” he quotes looking toward the right side of the room, as they nod their heads with smug smiles. Paul affirms the perspective of the well-educated, agreeing that it is factually right. Idols are fake, false. Food has nothing to do with salvation, idols have no real existence, and Christians are free from the Law anyway.
One side of the room cheers in agreement, while the other silently glares.
“But just because you are right (in fact), doesn’t mean you are right (in spirit)….”
Paul now has their rapt attention, as he turns the tables around unexpectedly.
“But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak.” (v. 9)
At the heart of Paul’s message is the understanding that Christian freedom is grounded in love, God’s love for us I Jesus Christ. As Martin Luther interpreted it, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” As Christians we are both subject to no one but Christ and at the same time responsible for one another through Christ. We are both separate and bound.
For that reason, Paul says, relationships are an element of equal importance to the facts of any particular disagreement. If something is factually true, but harms a relationship or a person, it requires deep prayer and critical thought. In other words, faith is rarely black-and-white. When conflict arises, it is important to give equal weight to prayer, scripture, critical thinking and the care of relationships and people.
What I appreciate about this text is that Paul practices what he preaches. While agreeing with the well-educated elite, he also comes down pretty hard on those who would use their knowledge and education to repress or control others. But let us not think that Paul is putting down knowledge and study. Instead, he is asking us to think critically beyond blindly following any law, to consider multiple perspectives, and not to run away from difficult conversations and disagreements. He says that even though he agrees that the kind of meat doesn’t matter, he would still become a vegetarian for the rest of his life rather than harm those who would be hurt by his eating idol meat.
Boom! The aisle has been crossed. A bridge built through Christ. Relationships over being right.
This past week I attended a meeting of District 3 clergy from our denomination. At one point the conversation turned to “Theology on Tap” groups that have been fairly successful in bringing young adults together for conversation and study about God. These groups, which meet in local bars or restaurants where beer is served, always include a question or topic for conversation that addresses some challenging element of faith.
I brought up a Disciples pastor in Portland who has become fairly well-known for his congregation’s Friday night “Beer and Hymns” gatherings in their fellowship hall in which they serve craft beer and belt out favorite hold hymns with an upbeat rhythm. It’s a new twist on an old tradition –one that has some raising eyebrows even while it brings in lots of young adults who hadn’t been seen around the church prior.
One of the other pastors in the group spoke up, “I like the idea,” he said, “but I’d be concerned about those for whom alcohol is a problem.” He raised a valid point. Holding a Bible study at a bar might exclude or be a problem for recovering alcoholics. “Beer and Hymns” might be a slippery slope for young adults just learning their limit or a place of real struggle for others. We agreed that beer in itself is not the problem, and that its appeal and connection to a younger generation was worth consideration. But we also agreed that it would be important to talk with recovering alcoholics about how they feel about such programs, to set boundaries, and take care to have plenty of alternatives available. In conversation about a topic with lots of grey-area, consensus was that people mattered most.
This all got me wondering – what are the “idol meat” debates of today? What other grey areas do Christians struggle with? Surely, there are plenty of times when we divide ourselves: attitudes about biblical authority (how literally do we read scripture, and how much weight does it have in the debate?), whether we support war or call for peace, gun control, termination of pregnancy, the church’s response to climate change, same-gender relationships and the growing support of gay marriage both in state law and congregational polity. There are many “idol meat” conversations happening in our churches today – conversations in which multiple perspective can be grounded in scripture, come to through prayer, and fervently argued. Multiple perspectives…from multiple people.
One biblical commentator writes, “Paul wants his Corinthians friends and all of us to know that being certain of what is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, is not sufficient, even if one’s position is correct. Love is greater than knowledge!...Paul’s point is that when we hurt others, we hurt Christ himself because we cause pain in his body, the church. To hurt those for whom Christ died is to commit sin. Above all else, we are called to show reconciling love in the church, and that has a direct bearing on what we do and how we do it.” (V. Bruce Rigdon, Feasting on the Word)
In the end, it’s not really about idol meat. This scripture passage that seems strange and antiquated on the surface has quite a bit of truth for us to hear. That as difficult questions arise in our faith community – whether and how we support different social issues, what we commit to publically as a whole and what we agree to disagree on within, whether we come to our convictions through prayer, extended study, individual interpretation, or personal experience, whether we’re fighting with a coworker…what matters most is not whether our prayer, study, interpretation and conviction is “right” (because, let’s face it – we might be “right” some of the time, but probably we won’t be all the time.) As Paul teaches us, it’s not about whether we’re “right” but whether our words, actions and commitments “build up” others and expand the circle of God’s love.
It’s not about the meat. It’s about the peas we share.
No, not the peas…
It’s about the peace of Christ, the love of God, and the breath of the Holy Spirit that connects us all…It’s about the ethic of love that should ground and guide us.
It’s about belonging to one another.
Please pass the peace.
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
January 11, 2015
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Owen and Olivia played a game with their Grammy this week called “sink or float?” In this experiment, the twins took turns finding objects around the house to drop in a bowl of water. “Sink or float?” they’d ask with a giggle. The rock sunk with a splash. The plastic doll floated. The ice cube floated. The snow…it melted. I laughed as they shared with me their joy in discovering the properties of water.
Sink or float? I laughed later as I read through our scripture texts for today and thought about baptism. Not necessarily my own baptism, but the first baptism I ever did as a pastor. Poor Jacob Gerlich had no idea that I was secretly praying that in the game of “Sink or Float : New Pastor’s Edition” you’d float! (The good news is, he did!)
And that’s perhaps a theological truth as well as a physical one: that in our baptisms, we will always float.
This morning we give thanks for that, remembering and celebrating our own baptisms, considering the possibility if we haven’t yet experienced the water and blessing ourselves. The church lectionary calls today “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday and churches around the world will be reading the same passage from Mark that we are this morning.
The story in which Jesus miraculously grows from a newborn baby to a young adult in just the time it takes us to pack up the Christmas decorations. It’s only been two weeks, you know, since we were anticipating and celebrating the birth of our savior, born as a crying and vulnerable baby into the arms of unsure and overwhelmed new parents. Two weeks. And yet, here we are with Mark, witnessing the not-so-newborn Jesus step into the waters of the Jordan river to be baptized by his mentor John.
This is where Mark begins, after all. With water. Not with angels or shepherds or stars and wise men. Not with innkeepers and stables and angry kings. Mark begins here, years later, with John’s call to repentance and new life of a different kind.
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John was a prophet who preached and baptized Jews and Gentiles in the wilderness of Judea. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls a few decades ago, some scholars have speculated that John was a member of the Qumran community. Similarities in their concern with the end of times, ritual purity involving water, and distrust of the aristocratic priests of Jerusalem certainly back this idea. This would explain some of John’s behavior, why he was so concerned with the spiritual life, why he led people away from the established temple and into the wilderness to baptize them, and why he believed so strongly that someone better – better than the current order of temple priests and better even than himself – would come to lead them.
7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Mark tells us that just as John finishes saying these words, he looks up to find Jesus of Nazareth standing on the river’s edge. And while the other gospels take time to question whether Jesus, the sinless son of God, needed to be baptized, Mark just takes us right into the action. Water splashing, light shining, God working.
10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Most pictures portraying this event are fairly sweet. Doves gliding through the air, Jesus looking up at the sky serenely, water dripping in appropriate patterns and amounts from Jesus’ face and hands. But Mark’s description isn’t as serene as that. “He saw the heavens torn apart.” Torn apart. Not just that the clouds parted and the sun shone. The sky was torn apart. There is only one other story in scripture where the Greek word for “torn” is used. Matthew and Mark both use the word to describe the curtain in the temple that is “torn” violently when Jesus takes his last breath on the cross.
It must have been an unsettling event, there at the Jordan river as the heavens were torn at the moment of Jesus’ baptism and the voice of God echoed, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
We repeat these words every year, as we remember this moment in Jesus’ life and in our lives. “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Some years we come forward, to dip our fingers in a bowl of water, remembering the feel of forgiveness. Some years we get to witness the baptism of another, sharing in the joy of a life promised to God. Next week we will do something similar, as we follow our own tradition of infant dedications – lifting up Delaney Jane Calapa and Clayton Delaney, asking God’s blessing upon them and promising to raise them to know God’s love and grace. In our tradition we baptize older youth and adults, dedicating infants. But whether baptized or dedicated as a baby, the promise and affirmation rings true: each one of us at all times is a beloved child of God.
That is what our baptisms are for us. A reminder of what already is – God’s grace poured out in abundance over our lives, forgiveness with each confession, a fresh start when sought, a promise that God will always be near. That no matter what, we are God’s and God loves us.
We need to hear that a lot, don’t we? That we are worth something to someone? That despite our mistakes and our failures, our faults and our insecurities, we’re still okay people? I know I need to hear it. I crave that affirmation.
It’s funny though, because I seek it out in strange ways. I’m a facebook junkie. I like to make the excuse that it gives me something I can zone out to for the 2 minutes I might have in between every “Mom, I need…” that I hear each day. But really, I know I’m addicted when I can’t stop checking facebook for that little red number that pops up at the top telling me how many people have “liked” my recent post. Facebook gives us the chance to “like” videos or pictures or posts and have things we write or post “liked” by our friends in return. Twitter, Tublr and Instagram invite us to collect thousands of “followers,” “fans,” or “friends,” most of whom we’ve barely met.
As preacher and blogger David Lose points out, one of the reasons social media is so popular and powerful is because they creatively offer affirmation in plentiful doses. Deep down, he says, we know that this kind of affirmation doesn’t mean all that much. Or at least shouldn’t. “Many of the folks we encounter via the web, after all, don’t really know us and we don’t know them, so how can their “likes” or “hearts” create any enduring sense of value or worth? And yet it’s hard not to wonder what was wrong with the picture we posted to Instagram if only twenty people liked it when another picture garnered two hundred nods?”
So even while this affirmation might be somewhat superficial, we crave it because we are social people. God has created us to live not alone, but with others, in families and in community. So we have created these social networks to help us feel connected and valued.
But as MIT professor Sherry Turkle has discovered, people today report feeling simultaneously more connected and lonelier than ever before.
Because while we may crave affirmation, what we need is acceptance.
Acceptance. Being welcomed and valued just as you are.
“All are worthy, All are welcome,” we say here at Good Shepherd. It means that we don’t expect you to change who you are before you belong here. That you can be the person God made you to be – with no strings attached – and we accept you.
Now, if I’m honest up here I’ll also admit that we don’t always get this 100% right as a community of faith, but it’s what we believe God is calling us to do and be, so it’s what we’re trying to do and be. A place where everyone is welcome, feels at home, and is challenged to grow and sew God’s love deeper and wider.
Acceptance. Belonging. Beloved.
This is what our baptism means. That we are accepted by God as we are, and offered a new chance to live into that acceptance. That we belong in a wide community of faith that proclaims hope and justice and love. And that as we constantly grow and change and live into who God has named and claimed us to be, we are beloved. Unconditionally. All the time.
“You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
This week as I prayed over these scripture passages I wrote down the words that spoke to me. The first word I wrote was “beloved.” The second word I wrote was “wilderness.” It isn’t lost on me that John went out to the wilderness to baptize people. The wilderness is where we spend most of our time: wandering, wondering, struggling. It’s also where we tend to be most receptive to God’s voice and presence. We’re often more receptive to God’s voice when things aren’t going as well as we’d like, when we feel like we’re alone in the wilderness. When we’re scared. Lost. Uncertain. Times when if tossed into a bowl of water, we’re pretty sure we’d sink, not float.
When I was learning to swim, I was convinced I was always about to drown. Now, one of the first steps to learning how to swim is learning how to float. I remember my dad holding my hand and then supporting me with his knee, the water of the pool deeper than I could touch with my feet. I remember the warning, and the feel of his knee moving out from under me. I remember the panic, the flailing, the gulps of air mixed with choking water. Then the knee was back, the hand supporting my back. I caught my breath and looked at him with wild eyes. “How could you!?!” my child-self demanded “You let go! I almost drowned!” My dad smiled back with patient eyes. “Melanie, I love you, but I have to let go for you to learn. Remember, you were made to float. When you feel like you’re sinking, don’t fight it and flail around so. You’ll only make it worse. When you feel like you’re sinking, lay back in the water. Be still. Breathe. Trust me. You’ll float.”
Joy to the World!
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
December 14, 2014
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
How is your list coming? You know the list of all the things you are supposed to do to have a good holiday season. Have you bought the gifts? Wrapped the gifts? Baked the cookies? Decorated your home? Put up a tree? Attended holiday parties? Drank hot chocolate? Watched a Christmas movie? Done something kind for someone in need? Drank some egg nog and some cider? Listened to Christmas music? Planned the meal?
You know we do the same things year after year, and of course every year is different but it seems we are trying to make it exactly the same. In minister circles we often joke about the added pressure of preaching on days like Christmas Eve and Easter because there are more people in pews than usual and yet those are the two days when people do not come to church seeking some new perspective but instead they come to church wanting to hear the story, the same story we tell every year. At Christmas we do not want to hear about the latest in theological thinking, we want to hear about the angel that came to Mary – we want to hear about Joseph’s decision to stay, we want to hear about the journey to Bethlehem and the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, we want to picture the animals and feel the awe of the shepherds as they heard the angels song, we want to follow the bright star along with the magi. That is all we want…the same old story, and the same old songs every year.
So, since most of you have probably heard the Christmas story a time or two, I have a little Christmas Quiz for us…
Mary was told by an angel that she was to give birth to Jesus. What was his name?
D Gabriel (Luke 1: 26)
When Mary became pregnant, Mary and Joseph were:
B Engaged (Matthew 1: 18)
C Just good friends
What did Joseph want to do when he discovered Mary was pregnant?
A Run away
B Quietly divorce her (Matthew 1: 19)
C Send her back to her parents
D Have the child given away
Which Caesar decreed that all the Roman Empire should take part in a census?
A Augustus (Luke 2: 1)
What animal did Mary ride to Bethlehem?
B Small horse
C Actually, she walked!
D The Bible does not say (It only says that Mary came with Joseph)
Which animals does the Bible say were housed in the stable?
A Cows, donkeys, sheep
B Cows, goats, sheep
C Cows, doves, sheep
D The Bible doesn’t say (There’s no mention of animals in the nativity story)
What sign did the angels give the shepherds, to help them look for Jesus?
A Look for a stable with a star shining above it
B Look for a barn covered in Christmas lights
C Look for a baby lying in a manger (Luke 2: 12)
D look for three wise men
What does the name Jesus mean?
A God is with us
B The Lord saves (Matthew 1: 21)
C The Lamb of God
D Chosen by God
Some surprises! We think we know the Christmas story but some of what we know has been imagined, and some details it is easy to overlook. One thing this tells me is that even though we hear this story every year, some of you have heard it only a few years whether you are young or new to the church, some of us have heard this every year of our life (which on average would mean 29 times right, because most of us here are still 29), but I guess if you consider we hear it all during advent the number would be more like 120…and for those in your 70’s, 80’s and 90’s …I am just going to say you have heard this story a time or two …hundred!
We know the Christmas story. We know the Christmas songs. We tell the story and we sing the story year in and year out. We set aside an entire night each year to tell the story in it’s entirety, to hear it all together, some years even acting it out so we can see it with our own eyes. (Let me diverge for a minute to invite you to very special Christmas Eve service here at Good Shepherd at 7pm on December 24th. We’ll have the usual songs, scriptures and candlelight, but this year we’ll also include a spontaneous nativity, inviting all of the children and young people present to spontaneously choose which part they’d like to play and come up front to help us make the story come alive again! It’ll be holy and joyful for all ages – invite your friends!)
Why do we do this again and again? Why sing the same songs with the same candlelight exit? Why not find something new to talk about, a different obscure scripture to read instead of the same ones over and over again?
Probably, we could extend that same question to much of what we do as church? Why do we sing familiar songs? Why do we hear a sermon most weeks? Why do we take an offering rather than just mailing in our donations? Why do we receive communion every Sunday?
I have heard from many of you that you come to church because it puts your week in focus and sets you on the right path. From others I have heard that communion gives you the spiritual nourishment to live the way God asks you to live. And yet some disagree and could name another reason you’ve joined us today.
And there are others who aren’t here, because they think they know what they will find: “it’s probably the same church my grandma went to…” was a reply I heard a few years ago from a friend when I asked her why she didn’t go to the local church just down her street. Without a doubt, the 21st century teaches us that repetition is boring. It seems society believes once something has been said once or done once we should move onto something new. Now, I agree that we should never get stuck in our faith or in our worship, doing the same thing just for the reason that it’s always been that way – and yet the rituals, the story of Jesus’ birth, Holy Communion – these are not one time wonders. We do not, we cannot fully experience scripture or song or stories of Christ or Communion in one single time. In fact we do not, we cannot fully experience these things in a lifetime. If we’re truly open and listening, God always has something new to show us each time we return to the story of Mary, each time we sing the carols, offer the prayers, receive the bread.
One of my favorite styles of worship is called Taize. It originates in a monastic community in the heart of France. It is quiet, contemplative, and excessively repetitive…saying the same prayer over and over again, repeating the same line of a song 5-10-20 times. The idea is that we do not need something fancy but the simple and profound truth that God is Good – God is Good – God is Good – God is Good. Did you experience something different the 4th time than the first? A life of faith believes in truths that are different from those of the world. The world tells us that to be entertained and happy we must jump from one thing to the next, but a life of faith tells us we have all we need, even if it’s simple, we’ll find what we need if we allow it to sink deeper.
That is what I hear in our carol for today.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king!
Receive. We don’t have to choose or elect or appoint our king, we just receive him.
Let every heart prepare him room…
This is a common theme in advent – prepare the way of the Lord. But part of receiving Christ is making room for him in our lives, in our schedules, in our priorities, in our budget and in who we choose to love instead of who we choose to judge.
And heaven and nature sing…
We make room for Christ and we celebrate with song
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and heaven and nature sing.
Heaven and nature singing together speaks of the unity of God with our world. Some call this a thin place…the places where it seems heaven and earth are only separated by a thin line…they seem so close to one another almost nothing seperates them.
Sometimes the Christmas season can seem more full of these thin places than other times of the year – is it the flickering candle or firelight? The effort that many go to to be more generous and kind to one another? The peaceful flutter of snowflakes and the joyful laughter of children making snow angels in freshly fallen powder?
Or is it that we pay closer attention at Christmastime? Watching more closely, making more room in our hearts and minds, preparing room for the birth of the holy in our world, the coming of the Christ child? It’s a thin place, for sure, when we are able to see and hear heaven and nature raising their voices together in song!
And heaven and heaven and nature sing.
The second verse tells us of this singing.
Joy to the world the Savior reigns…Let all their songs employ
Their songs, our songs. What if every song we sang, every song we listened to, every song we hummed spoke of our joy to the world in Christ…?
But it is not just our songs that this carol speaks of. This goes far beyond records and ipods, radio and spotify…
While fields and floods, rocks hills and plains…
And this is the best part…
Repeat the sounding joy
Did you hear what I said…repeat the sounding joy
No really, did you hear me…
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
This line is the message of this song. Repeat. The writer of Joy to the World is a very accomplished hymn writer named Isaac Watts. He penned over 750 hymns in his lifetime and even began rhyming as a child. The stories go that little Isaac Watts had to explain why his eyes were open during prayer time, to which he responded: A little mouse for want of stairs, ran up a rope to say its prayers.
While being punished for this remark he cried out:
O father, father, pity take And I will no more verses make.
He used rhyme and rhythm to make his point even more than the words he chose. And the same is true with this song. Repeat the sounding joy is exactly what he does, that is why so many people know this hymn by heart because we repeat…we repeat the sounding joy…
And heaven and nature’s sing
Repeat the sounding joy
And wonders of his love.
We repeat these phrases again and again and again in this song just as we repeat much in worship each week, just as we repeat the traditions of Christmas each year. But we do this not just to fill space. Isaac Watts wrote this song to repeat these words, not because he couldn’t think of anything else to say but because we need to hear some things over and over and over again for them to really sink in. Actually studies show that when we are presented with new information we have to hear it three times to commit it to memory. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat, repeat the sounding joy!
Our scripture today is a song of praise, much like Joy to the world
Surely God is my salvation…for the Lord God is my strength and my might…
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation and you will say in that day:
Give thanks to this Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the nations…shout aloud and sing for joy!
The message for us in this scripture and in this song is the well of salvation Isaiah calls on us to draw from…with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Many of us have experienced droughts before – seasons in which the rain rarely falls. Riverbanks dry up, the mud and dirt cracks, everything gets dusty. There are dry seasons in our weather and also dry seasons in our spiritual lives. It’s possible to come to church every Sunday (or not) and still feel spiritually stagnant. It’s possible to pray every day (or not) and feel dry. Seasons of illness, or depression, or financial struggle, or relationship difficulty can all be times of spiritual drought. For some, the season of Advent is a painful time and even these holy weeks can feel dry, cracked, and dark.
But that doesn’t mean the carols hold no meaning, or that Isaiah wasn’t speaking to us. Maybe it’s that we need to hear it again, just like a Taize song, opening us up and taking us deeper. Deeper, to where the water of the well awaits. Deeper, to the place where Joy isn’t glitter and elves, shiny packages and perfect table décor. Ultimately, that stuff has more to do with Martha Stewart than Jesus of Nazareth! Deeper, to where the Joy of Christ bubbles up real and true, to sustain us through all the seasons of life.
This song and this scripture call us to dig deeper into a well full of joy that we are able to draw from…over and over and over. To draw from the sustaining well so that when we are struggling we can still…repeat the sounding joy!
Like filling our well with the sound we’ve heard in worship so often lately, of dozens of little feet hopping and skipping back into worship after Sunday School…praise God!
And when we see Jim Hensley in worship, after lifting so many pleading prayers for health just a few weeks ago….hallelujah!
And even in the midst of death and pain, the sound of the prayer chain being sent, many voice saying “how can I help?”, extending care to those who are grieving…amen!
And the opportunity to partner with the Emergency Assistance Center this week, opening our doors so that parents who wouldn’t be able to afford them, can come choose brand-new gifts to give their beautiful children on Christmas Day! Holy, holy, holy!
Dear ones, there is much that is hard in life. There are dry seasons and difficult times. But there is also joy around us and among us each and every day. The songs, the scriptures, the word of God and the sound of the holy…they ask us to repeat the sounding joy. Every time you see joy, taste it, overhear it...repeat it! Again and again and again until it fills that well of salvation that Isaiah speaks of. Come to worship. Allow yourself to be fully present. Soak up the Word and the Spirit and the Light. Fill that well, dig deeper into the moments of joy so that when you need it you can draw water…shout aloud and sing for joy!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
December 7, 2014
23 Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, that glorious song of old…
Midnight. It’s an hour that I’d rather not see, since I’m usually conked out on the couch by 9 pm, but one that I’ve seen fairly often lately. I’ve also seen 2 am and 4 am pretty regularly as well. And although I grumble a bit every time I hear the cry that pulls me out of my dream state and into the exhaustion of reality, I was caught breathless a couple weeks ago as I walked past my bedroom window with a newborn in my arms. The room around us was dark, but the light outside, even at 2 am was blinding.
I glanced outside to see the snow falling like a blanket from the sky, sparkling and shimmering in the light of the streetlamp. The clouds above reflected the lights of the city so brilliantly that it almost appeared to be daytime. But I knew it wasn’t daytime for the stillness of all but the falling snow. Not a living soul moved outside and I could almost hear the quiet rustle of every snowflake falling from the heavens.
Midnight can be a holy hour, can’t it? It certainly was on the night we recall with longing this time of year…
Many churches hold Christmas Eve services at midnight to stand just a bit closer to the holy moment we sing of, the dark night of the sky illuminated by the brightest star. We will worship at 7 pm on Christmas Eve at Good Shepherd, and this year we have a sweet new element planned to include participation of the youngest among us – but whatever time we might choose to worship on Christmas Eve, whatever the liturgy, one thing is certain. Every year, we will sing.
We talked a bit about music last week. The way music, singing in particular, aligns our whole bodies, our entire brain, our spirits all with the holy in a deeper way. Something about the harmony and melody, the rests and the lyrics comfort us or challenge us, the words that are on our lips slowly sink into our minds and hearts. Music is important in the life of faith all year long, but there is something special about Christmas music. It is holy. Literally. Holy means set apart; That is probably why we love Christmas Carols so much – because they are set apart from the rest of the year, like egg nog and peppermint mochas. (Perhaps even more so because we don’t start singing Carols in worship at Halloween when egg nog goes on sale or in August when stores start selling Christmas wreathes.) We sing these sacred songs only a short time each year. The carols of Christmas are holy and set apart for they tell a certain story…
It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold…
This carol is ironic in that it is a song about a song. Listening closely, the words are not actually about the birth of Christ but about the song that the angels sang on that night, the sound of the music that floated in the air.
Harps no longer hold a position as a mainstream instrument and yet most of us have heard the soft song of a harp. A friend of mine tells of the meaning of the harp for her at a time her young daughter was very ill.. She says, “When Elliana was at Children’s hospital a woman came around playing a harp. She stood outside the door and just played. I have no idea what she played but it moved me to tears. It was like a prayer really that someone else offers for you where the brokenness of your heart but also your deepest hope is expressed. The harp was that prayer for me that day…” so maybe it was just the right instrument for the Angels to play as they sang,
Peace on the earth, good will to all, from Heaven’s all Gracious King. The World in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
Peace. Peace is the candle that we lit this morning. Peace is something we hope for and strive for every day. It’s what parents of young children yearn for when their preschoolers are having a meltdown in the middle of the living room floor, and the prayer of an anxious heart fearful of the future. It is the call of God’s Spirit to center ourselves and to create space for the Holy. This time of year Peace is often portrayed by images of quiet snowfalls, Christmas trees aglow and a dinner table set with a chair for every family member. But that image of peace is incomplete. Too often we get caught up in nostalgia and forget that peace has been the cry throughout human history; a cry for more than quiet and contentment.
Peace has been the cry of men and women ravaged by war, injustice, and fear for generations. We look at the wars of our time in Afghanistan and the Congo, Israel and Palestine and Syria - the tensions in Egypt and with Iran. We read the news and we pray for justice and peace in communities like Ferguson and Cleveland and New York, but also peace and justice for black families and young people with dark skin or the wrong citizenship or the wrong social status. We consider the way of our world, with religion pushed to the margins of society, the increase in consumerism and the decrease in family time or faith time and we cry to God for peace. The peace of which the angels sing…
But a look at any point in history shows that in some ways times haven’t changed. Wars have been raging since the beginning of time, the war in the holy land is documented in scripture and while there are seasons of peace, we have yet to see a lasting peace. The angels were speaking a good news that was needed on that midnight clear just as it is needed today. Peace. But there is nothing in this song that suggests that the peace the angels sang of was some kind of magical friendly serum.
This Christmas Carol sings of peace amidst the conflict and chaos of life. It is not warm and fuzzy like some others. Other Carols sing of a sweet sleeping baby who is snuggled up with his mom, but this song, it places the song of the angels exactly where we need it, at midnight and evermore.
Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,
Cloven, by the way means split, the angels split open the skies – and opened their wings…their peaceful wings as if to give the world a hug…
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world.
This line is my favorite in this song because it makes me wonder when we have heard this heavenly music. When have we heard the music of angels in the midst of our own weariness? Where have you heard the heavenly music of peace? Was it in worship as you tasted the cup of Christ? Was it in the moment when you said goodbye to your loved one who was suffering? Was it when you were finally able to offer forgiveness? Was it in a prayer when you gave God your hurt or your worry or your anger? The song of peace doesn’t usually show up when things are going well, when you find a 20 in your pocket, have a great meal that just hits the spot and the sun is shining bright! There are other gifts on days like that, but the song of peace comes to us when life doesn’t make sense, when we are overcome with fear or anger or sadness or anxiety or despair…that is when the angels song is heard the loudest and the clearest…
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing, and ever o’er its Babel Sounds the blessed angels sing.
You remember Babel. We read of this story in Genesis 11 – the people gathered together, all speaking one language and decided to build a tower all the way to the heavens but God said, this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. So God confused them by giving the people different languages. The sounds of Babel were sounds of confusion, sounds of failed plans, sounds of chaos and sounds of conflict. These are sounds we know very well…but over, above, maybe even within and through our Babel sounds the angels sing:
And you beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow…
This is not a pretty picture. In verses prior we have heard the words weary, sad, lowly, Babel – and this verse is the heaviest.
The writer of these lyrics was a man named Edmund Sears. He was a Unitarian Pastor who lived in the 1800’s. These words were first published in December of 1849 and the reality of the world in which Mr. Sears lived tells us something about this crushing load, the toil and the painful and slow steps of which he speaks. 1849 is most remembered for the frantic Gold Rush in California but it was also the year Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery which tells us that the tensions between the north
and the south were already high and moving toward the civil war a decade later. The industrial revolution in New England brought its own level of chaos and social upheaval. There was a lot going on but certainly there were conflicts at the time of the writing of many of the carols we sing. What makes It Came Upon a Midnight Clear different, is his hope, his hope for peace. In the moment when there was a coming war, and tension and poverty and chaos… that was the moment to listen, to look:
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.
Within these words Sears points to Jesus’ words in our scripture this morning. In our text, this baby we are waiting for is all grown up. It is the final hour, the night of the last supper and the cross is looming before him and yet he is speaking of peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
When we discuss peace and when we pray for peace, we are usually seeking the lack of something horrible. We think we will have peace when there is no more sadness or no more war or peace will come when our world is without – as Sears’ said: toil and weariness. But is peace only the lack of something negative?
If so, it is easy to consider why we fail to hear the angels’ song - because we are not there – we still have war and toil and sadness and weariness. 150 years after this song was written, 2000 years after the angels first sang at midnight, we have yet to obtain the kind of peace that comes from an absence of chaos and pain. But in Christ’s words, in our scripture, we hear about a different kind of peace.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.
What if peace is more than a lack of something negative? What if peace is possible even-especially in the face of struggle? What if peace itself is a positive; The addition of something holy into the reality of chaos all around us? That is what it sounds like Jesus is saying to his disciples on the night he told them his body would be broken and his blood poured out. In the midst of brokenness he is offering them peace. Because peace exists even when you are beneath the crushing load…peace is not static but creative, restorative, enduring, it is both bold and gentle. And it is already here. The angels sang of it 2000 years ago and while conflicts still rage in our world and burdens remain heavy the peace of Christ has come. My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you…I do not give to you as the world gives…
What if we have been looking for the wrong kind of peace? What if the peace the world lures us with: images of perfect families, plenty of time, snuggly puppies and well-behaved toddlers, each of us perfectly healthy and happy and content with everything around us…what if the reason we never seem to achieve it is that it’s false advertising? Impossible. What if we could stop working so hard for the world’s peace and allowed ourselves to hear the song the angels sing…of the peace of Christ? A peace that is sung through the burdens and crushing loads, whispering steadily through the shouts of chaos all around us and as the song reminds us: a peace that the angels continute to sing about even now over the weary, above the sad and lowly plains over the Babel sounds and beside the weary road. The angels sing of peace…peace on earth.
For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet seen of old when with their ever circling years shall come the time foretold; when PEACE shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.
Today we light the candle of peace, lifting up a prayer that the peace of Christ would cover all the earth. It is a prayer that is being answered even in the midst of our struggles. A song that is being sung over the protests and tears, the loss and the fears. It is a song that reminds us in its lyrics that through the circling years shall come the time foretold in our scripture; when PEACE shall cover all the earth. And the last line calls each of us to share in that yearning and hope: that not only the angels would sing but the whole world would sing back to the angels their song: a chorus of angels and creation, men, women, white, black and brown, rich and poor, joyful and united, singing together the song of Christ’s peace.
That is our prayer. Let us sing it together….
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
September 14, 2014
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
Have you ever been in the midst of a fog so thick and deep that you could barely see a foot in front of you? I remember driving one morning before dawn, Tyler and the twins asleep in the car as we drove home from Nebraska last year. At 3 am in the morning that day, not another car could be seen driving down the dark interstate. All of a sudden, a cloud of fog descended on the road. The beams of the car’s headlights bounced off of the thick wall of moisture and I could barely see the white and yellow lines on the dark pavement pointing me forward. I slowed the car to a measly pace as my knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. Where was the road? What was in front of me? Could I be sure I was still in the right lane? Eventually another car pulled alongside me and I was relieved to follow the glow of his tail-lights until the fog lifted.
I remember thinking how powerful a cloud can be – amazed at how a billion minute water droplets could completely obscure one’s view beyond a few feet. A cloud holds water, the basis of life and promise of sustenance. A cloud can mean life-giving rain or a powerful and destructive storm. A cloud can bring relief in the form of shade from the glaring sun, or it can form a barrier in which none can find their way.
Such is the case in our scripture passage for this week – the story of Moses leading the Israelite people to freedom with their former captors, the Egyptian army, in hot pursuit. Picture this: a well-equipped army, with shiny armor and metal spears, food and water and power in abundance, runs full-force from the city toward the desert. Hundreds of young, well-muscled men on horseback and riding in chariots brightly adorned race toward the horizon...where a rag-tag group of former slaves limps along toward what they can only hope to be freedom. Men, women, and children, young and old, carrying all that they own on their backs as they go step by step into the future. Elders urging the young ones to pick up their feet, to pick up the pace, as word reaches the front that the distance between the two crowds narrows. The Hebrew people run and pray, pray and run, while the sound of their former captor’s trumpets grow louder. How will they possibly outrun their enemies, they wonder aloud, with worried tone.
Day turns into evening, which turns to night. Still the people run. Scripture tells us that just when the darkness seems too deep, just when Moses and his people start to falter, God moves into action. Word spreads throughout the crowd, of a pillar of cloud that had taken up residence to the rear of the group. A fog so thick that they couldn’t see or hear the Egyptian army behind them. A cloud of white that glowed so brightly that Exodus tells us it “lit up the night.” The Egyptians could not see two feet in front of them. They were forced to pause. The Hebrews were safe…for now. They cheered and ran on.
Until they were forced to stop dead in their tracks. In front of them lay a body of water, too deep to walk across. The Hebrew people wailed in despair. “How could God bring us this far, only to be caught now?”Caught between a rock and a hard place, they were. The Sea of Reeds, or the Red Sea, lay perilously in front of them and a malicious army closing in behind them. To try to swim across the sea was out of the question for many, not to mention the trouble of getting supplies through the water. But to stay put meant death, or return to slavery, or both.
But Exodus tells us that “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”
I wonder who led the Israelites through the waters. Who took that first step onto the dry land that shouldn’t have been dry, the pathway through the water that shouldn’t have been there, the waters that were divided by a force beyond that of nature. Was he scared, as he took that first step forward? Did he tremble and look back? Or did he take a deep breath and move forward with purpose and trust, his foot feeling steady on the dry ground pointing forward?
There are two words for “dry land” used in this passage. One is yabbashah. This Hebrew word is most often used in descriptions of the miracle of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16, 22, 29, 15:19, Psalm 66:6 and Nehemiah 9:11). descriptions of the miracle of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16, 22, 29, 15:19, Psalm 66:6 and Nehemiah 9:11). Yabbashah is the dusty ground that led the Hebrew people ahead to freedom, the stable ground upon which they walked. It also describes God’s work in creation, when God gathers all of the water of the earth into unified oceans and seas, leaving “dry ground” for animals and humans to inhabit; Dry ground that sustains and provides a home.
But there is another word for “dry land” that also appears in our scripture passage this morning. Charabah appears in Exodus 14:21 and is derived from the root word meaning “to dry up” or be in ruins. Biblical interpreters say that this version doesn’t merely distinguish between liquid and solid, water and its absence, a place to swim and a place to walk. Instead it’s often interpreted as pointing toward waste and desolation that follows warfare, judgment, and destruction.
Exodus 14:21 is part of the story that comes next: “The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers…Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.”
For the Hebrew people, “dry land” meant safety and security, but for the Egyptian people, “dry land” meant death and destruction.
The story of Exodus is the story of freedom and hope for the Israelite people, the Hebrew people. It’s a story of God’s power to create from nothing, to make a way out of no way. It’s the power by which God saves and transforms—one in which God reveals a path for God’s people to travel. And yet, “the crossing of this path remains treacherous. Though there is light in this new creation, there is also darkness.” The road to freedom wasn’t exactly rainbows and sunshine.
There’s a popular saying that you might have heard before: “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” It’s like those old wives tales, in that it’s a saying that has been passed down from generation to generation because people have found truth in it. It implies that there is always a path forward in life and faith, even if it’s not the obvious, or most desirable one.
I’ve thought about that phrase a lot this summer, as Tyler and I have done all we could do to sell our house up in South Euclid. Many of you know that we had hoped to sell our house up there so that we could move closer to the church here. The original reasons we bought a house 25 minutes away from the church no longer hold, and it just seemed like things were lining up in our lives to make moving this summer the best thing to do. So we exhausted ourselves cleaning, organizing, storing, and painting, while also parenting 2-year-old twins. We worked so hard, prayed so hard, and made lots of sacrifices to keep our house clean and ready for showing. We felt that God was calling us to move, to be more invested in this community by living here, to be closer to family (and childcare). We trusted that all of our hard work would pay off.
But 5 months later…we haven’t had a single bite on the house. I’ve prayed all the prayers: prayers letting God know our deepest desires, prayers asking for help with decisions, prayers of letting go and trusting God’s movement in it all (while still telling God what direction I’d prefer that movement to be…but mostly letting go.) So now here we are, 3 weeks from baby Delaney’s due date, not quite sure what to do. Do we keep our house on the market, trusting that sense we had earlier in the spring that this was the time to try to sell? Do we risk selling our house and having to pack up and move with a newborn? Do we take the house off the market, even though we were so sure this was what we needed to do? It’s a small problem, and our family will be fine no matter what, but in our prayers as of late we’ve felt the tension, the stuckness, between a rock and a hard place. We don’t necessarily see any open doors or open windows. So we wait and watch.
You’ve felt that way before, too, right? When the prayers just don’t seem to be leading to answers, when the pathway ahead isn’t quite as clear as it was for the Israelites when the Red Sea parted in front of them. You’ve known times when it seems like you’re up against a wall (of water, of brick, of emotional or physical or financial struggle) on one side and an army threatening to destroy you on another? You’ve known times when it seems like there is no way forward, when the fog that might stand between you and the army also seems to surround and confound you? Times when you pray, and cry, and fear for the future, or want to scream and charge recklessly toward the “enemy,” whatever it might be.
We’ve all been there. Or we’re there right now. Or we’ll be there at some point in the future: Stuck; Unsure; Fearful or anxious about a future that doesn’t seem to hold much hope in either direction. We understand the power of this story in scripture because we understand what’s at stake: hope. We understand the fear that threatens to overpower us like an army when we feel trapped.
So let’s go back to what happened that day on the Red Sea: when Moses raised his staff and the waters parted, when a path of dry ground appeared in front of the Israelite people, but a path of dry ground that was also completely overshadowed by immense walls of powerful water. A path of dry ground that could so very easily go from the kind of “dry ground” that is life giving in creation, to the kind of “dry ground” that results from the aftermath of destruction and war. Think about the courage it took for the first Israelite to step onto that dry ground, trusting that the path would lead not to death, but to freedom.
This is a story of a literal “stepping out in faith.”
And it’s a story that asks us to consider how and where and when we are willing to step out in faith. This story asks us to take stock of the fear that might keep us paralyzed, curled up in a ball, or constantly ready to fight. It asks us to walk through the cloud that obscures our vision into the far future, to look deeply into the powerful waters that appear as a wall of impossibility, to face the darkness and the light together, and trust God enough to step forward in faith.
Gerald Janzen writes beautifully about this kind of faith, which she calls “the willingness to pick up and carry one’s fear in one’s bosom…and go forward in the direction that trust calls for.” The people of Israel, Janzen writes, “are saved in a double sense. Not only are they delivered from the power of Egypt but they are also delivered from the power of their fear and their doubt.”
The moral of the story is that whether we’re facing a foe as formidable as an ancient empire or as immobilizing as our own fear, God is there to deliver us. Such is the truth of the Exodus, and the Israelite people, as well as the message Jesus proclaimed over and over again in his time on earth. It’s in the gospel of Luke chapter 4 that Jesus proclaims his mission to “bring liberty to the captives.”
The story of our faith is one of liberation – from oppression, from fear, from the powers of the world around us that try to entrap us: greed, anger, fear, self-doubt, among others. The story of our faith is that even when we are surrounded on every side by impossibility, God is busy making a way. A way through the Red Sea and a way down from the cross of crucifixion. A way that leads to freedom and redemption, hope and resurrection.
Poet Minnie Louise Haskins writes,“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
 Quote by Anathea Portier-Young. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2179
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
September 7, 2014
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
I had a hard time with our lectionary scriptures this week. 90% of the time I can read one of the four scripture passages marked for that particular Sunday and feel the Spirit drawing me toward one or the other. 99% of the time, by reading the passages slowly, over and over, pulling out a phrase or two that stands out to me and trying to match that phrase with something else going on – in the church, in the news, in a blog post – I can weave together a sermon that feels right for that particular week, even though the scripture passages have been chosen long before. But this week…this week…
I didn’t have trouble at first. I loved Paul’s words to the Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” It’s a bold statement, in a context of consumerism and rising debt and an individualistic culture of “winners” and “losers.” “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” There is something prophetic and bold in Paul’s words. That one, single, sentence preaches volumes.
And that sentence connected to Matthew’s gospel text – teachings of Jesus that focus on how we love one another. What we do when loving each other is difficult because of sin and hurt and division. These texts made sense to me and I knew there was a sermon here. But I had a hard time pulling it together.
Because I started with Matthew’s gospel text. Some scholars suggest that Jesus didn’t actually say what Matthew records, because this is one of only two times in the gospels where the word “church” (ekklesia) is used.
Jesus didn’t really talk about “church” because Christian groups didn’t start formally identifying themselves as such until after Christ’s death and resurrection. So many scholars suggest that Matthew framed Jesus’ words here with his own Christian community in mind. (Apparently, church conflict is as old as the church itself! I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse…)Taken as a stand-alone passage, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words appear to be a guide-book about how to deal with church folks in particular, members of the community who sin against another. I’ve known churches to use this passage as a step by step guide, so I started thinking about what it would look like in practice.
Say a church member steals money from the offering plate as it is passed through the pews. The plate comes by, and this person reaches in as if to place an envelope…and just pulls a few loose bills out as she goes. “No big deal, just a few dollars,” she thinks. But the deacon sees it happen. He doesn’t know what to do, but he remembers this scripture.
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
Step one. So he pulls her aside after church. “Did you take money from the offering plate during worship?” he asks. “No,” the woman replies. “Well, I saw you take some money from the offering plate today,” the deacon pushes again. “No, I didn’t.” The woman snaps and then walks away.
But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Step two. The deacon talks to the pastor and an Elder. They ask to meet with the woman after church the next week. All three enter the room nervously, the woman already on the defense. They sit down. “Ms. Jones, Mr. Deacon here says he saw you take money from the offering plate on Sunday…” “No, I didn’t!” the woman says angrily, “I can’t believe all of you are accusing me of stealing! This is my church! I’m offended!” Walls come up, anger flares, nothing changes.
Okay, so far, I can see this happening in a church, and so far, it’s not too bad but not exactly effective either. But then we get to step three:
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church
Would we really call a congregational meeting, or spread word around the community, if we thought someone had stolen money, or sinned in another way – say they spread gossip, or sabotaged someone else’s ministry? Would we really call the entire church together to “tell” about the sin publically? What would that accomplish, aside from completely embarrassing or angering the accused? I’m just not so sure…
And then the last step: and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Basically, if the sinner refuses to repent, to acknowledge and apologize for the sin, even after being caught and confronted by one, three, and the entire community…they are to be treated as outsiders.
Really, Jesus? Excommunicate the sinner? That doesn’t sound much like you…nor does it sound all that effective in practice. No matter what “sin” one against another I could think of, I couldn’t imagine bringing it to a congregational meeting and/or excommunicating someone because of it.
I read and re-read the passage. Then I read and re-read the passage from Romans. “Owe no one anything except to love them.” There was something I was missing.
So I did what I usually do when I don’t understand a piece of scripture. I read what came before and what comes after. Context. It matters a great deal. Aha! Here’s what I found:
In the first 14 verses of Matthew 18, Jesus tells a familiar parable. A shepherd and his 100 sheep. One sheep wanders off and is lost. The shepherd leaves the 99 others unguarded to go and find the one. The shepherd’s primary goal is to bring the one back into the flock. God is like a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to themselves, Jesus says, in order to find the one that has gone astray So the first 14 verses of this chapter are about inclusion. In the 14 verses that follow our passage (vs. 21-35), Peter asks a question about forgiveness, “how many times must I forgive someone?” Seventy times seven, Jesus says- or about as many times as it takes to love your neighbor back into right relationship with you. And then Jesus follows up his instructions with a stark parable about what may happen to those who cannot extend God’s forgiveness to others. So the last 14 verses of the chapter are about forgiveness. Our scripture passage this morning is book-ended by inclusion and forgiveness!
Inclusion and forgiveness. What happens if we re-read our passage in the light of inclusion and forgiveness? What if inclusion and forgiveness are the unspoken goal of Jesus’ instructions to the church community? What if this passage in the middle of chapter 18 isn’t a guidebook for how to inform another of the ways they’ve wronged us? What if it’s not a step-by step guide to earn an apology.
Following Jesus’ intent, the primary goal of this passage isn’t to change someone’s behavior, or demonstrate how he is wrong, or even to invite her to repentance. In fact, it’s not really about righting the wrong done…
it’s about restoring the relationship. The goal is to speak truthfully about the breach or hurt you are experiencing, taking responsibility for your feelings and actions and then inviting the other person to do the same. It’s about opening up a conversation that you might find a way forward together. Speaking not just to but also with each other, holding each other accountable through vulnerability rather than by force.
To speak the truth in love, with love, for the sake of love.
That’s what we owe one another. Not a declaration of who did right and who did wrong, grudges and debt, not winners and losers, but vulnerability, conversation, and love.
So what does this look like, following our scripture passage this morning? Here’s what I imagine: Say someone sins against you. Maybe they steal something from you, or the church, maybe they spread gossip, maybe they hurt you in another way. What do you do?
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
If you have been hurt or injured by someone, pull them aside privately. Do not rip them to shreds in front of others, make passive aggressive comments in the parking lot, or shove your hurt down deep inside only to let it bubble and boil over at a later time. Speak to your brother or sister. Bring it up. Tell them you’ve been hurt or injured or wronged. But, but, here’s the twist: bring it up not because you think you’re right, not to earn an apology…but to “regain that one.” The point of bringing the sin to light is not to “win” an apology, or to be right, but to restore a relationship with the person who has hurt you. Restoring the relationship – that sounds a lot like inclusion, doesn’t it? Renewing the ties that are broken – that takes forgiveness, doesn’t it?
It also takes a willingness to be vulnerable, to put yourself in another person’s shoes. So say someone has wronged you, and your task is to love them enough to restore a relationship even though you are angry or hurt or sad. How can you do that? Start by trying to see them as God sees them. Pray and ask God for new eyes. Try to see the one who has sinned against you as the beloved child of God that they are. Keep trying until you do see them that way – until you can see their struggle, their pain, their grief as much as you can feel and see your own. Then, and only then, is it time to speak to them in private, not for the purpose of accusing, but for the purpose of understanding why they might have done what they did. What caused them to sin, to stray? Out of love, your task is to find out how to help them back into right relationship with you, with God, and with the community.
It’s the same with steps 2-4. If a one-on-one conversation doesn’t restore relationship, others are brought in. Not to accuse, not as back-up so that it’s 4-1. Others are brought in to witness, to love, to mediate and restore broken relationships. And if the problem is still bigger and brought to the entire church community? Again, it’s not to accuse…not to name names and force an apology and punishment. It has to be to help, to love, guide with care and concern. It has to be like the shepherd who left the 99 in order to bring back the one. Even when Matthew speaks of letting “such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector,” he is meaning that we ought to do for them what Jesus did for Gentiles and tax-collectors: seek them out, eat with them, invite them in. It’s not excommunication, but once again, inclusion. Right relationship.
As a fellow pastor says, (David Lose) “the key is to put being in relationship above being right, and to take incredibly seriously how much God wants us all to be in good relationship with each other and with God.”
I heard a story this week on a podcast called Radio Lab, about a man named Hector, whose daughter was brutally murdered. Hector admitted that prior to the man’s trial, Ivan was his name, Hector wanted nothing more than for Ivan to receive the death penalty. But at the trial, Hector is compelled to read a statement in which he says, “I wish for all of us who have been so wounded by this crime, I wish that we would find God’s peace…and I wish that also for you, Ivan Simpson.” And as he finished his statement, Hector sees tears streaming from Ivan’s eyes and he describes the look on his face as “a soul in hell.”
Ivan is sentenced to years in prison, and the trial is over but Hector can’t get the look of torment in Ivan’s eyes out of his own mind and heart. Hector writes Ivan a letter in prison, wondering what Ivan’s life had been like – what had led him to do such a thing as murder. Profoundly, the letter begins with these words: “I forgive you...”
Ivan writes back, describing a childhood none of us could even bear to imagine. Hector follows with another letter, and Ivan with another. Over time, the two men begin to understand each other, and surprisingly, astoundingly, even become friends of a sort. It’s an amazing story to listen to. (If you’d like to listen to it, look up the podcast title “Dear Hector” at www.radiolab.org)
It all started with vulnerability. A letter. Repentance and forgiveness. Relationship Restored. God’s desire. Kingdom on Earth.
This morning I’d like you to think about a time you have been hurt or sinned against. Whether long in the past or just yesterday, something small or earth-shattering, bring to mind a relationship that has been harmed in some way – maybe a sibling fight that was never resolved, a co-worker who did something to hurt you, or maybe a time when you did something you regret that hurt another person. Bring to mind a broken relationship. Take a few minutes if you need to, to pray and think of them through God’s eyes – as a beloved child of God with gifts and hopes as well as struggles, pain, and mistakes. Pray as Hector did – for God’s peace.” Pray to love them as you love yourself.
And then take a piece of paper and pencil that is provided in the pews. Begin a letter to that person. Whether or not you ever finish or send the letter isn’t the point. But begin it.
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
August 24th, 2014
8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
2Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
“Did you know you should’ve been a Wingate instead of a Harrell?” My grandfather asked me with a twinkle of mischief in his eye. “A what?” I asked. “A Wingate. You should’ve been Melanie Wingate.” My heart started racing as my mind immediately ran to theories of adoption. Was I not really related to my family? What did my grandfather mean? I stared at Grandad with wide eyes. “Well,” he said, “I’ve been doing some research on our family history. Your great, great grandfather’s name used to be Wingate. But then he got into some trouble. Got caught up the KKK. Beat up an African American man. He went to prison for awhile. When he got out of prison, he realized what he had done. He was so remorseful that he changed his name to his mother’s maiden name. Eventually, he fell in love and got married. Had a baby boy (my father, your great grandfather) and gave him the new last name too. Harrell. That’s it. You should’ve been a Wingate, but because of a few bad choices and a few good ones, you’re now a Harrell!”
I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that I might have had a different name. That I might have had a different story. What if my grandfather hadn’t realized his mistakes? What if he hadn’t realized the sin of racism, the evil of what he had done? What if he hadn’t repented of his mistake, hadn’t changed his name, hadn’t met the woman who became my great, great grandmother? If I was a Wingate, I might have been taught differently, shaped differently, been a different person…if I even existed at all…
You could almost see the ripples of time, extending out like ripples after a leaf falling into a still pond. A decision made, a series of decisions to follow, with endless movement from then to now. Circles of disturbance or beauty, depending on your perspective, extending forever outward.
It’s sometimes hard to follow the ripples of our scripture when we read them only in bits and pieces on a Sunday morning – the way each event in Biblical history led to another. The story of baby Moses in the basket is a beloved tale that surely many of you have heard before. But do you know the connection to Joseph, who we were following the last two weeks? Do you know the ripples of Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, the animosity that got him sold into slavery in Egypt, his rise to power under the Pharaoh such that he could guarantee his family’s survival in the midst of famine, with the trade-off that they all become slaves in Egypt, the ripples of time that passed after that to get us to where we are today…
The story goes that because of Joseph’s success and power, the Israelite people, Joseph’s people, thrived. Sure, they were forced to do hard labor under the Egyptians, but they had enough food and shelter, enough of what they needed. Babies were born and their babies were born. Enough generations passed that no one yet lived who remembered the famine that brought the Israelite people to Egypt. No one had actually known Joseph, or his brothers. A new pharaoh reigned now, one who could care less about Joseph or the way he had helped the Egyptians, too. The new pharaoh didn’t know the history, only saw the present.
When he looked out on the land, the new Pharaoh saw a thriving population of Israelite people. Enough to get the work done, but also enough to revolt if the thought ever occurred to them. The new Pharaoh felt threatened. So he ordered the Israelites to work harder, to suffer more. And when that didn’t slow them down, Pharaoh became desperate. He sent for the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Scripture says in verse 16 that he told them, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”
When the Pharaoh realized that the boys were still being allowed to live, he sent his decree out all over Egypt, that no boys would be allowed to live. Without boys to grow into men, he knew, an entire generation would be lost. The Israelite community would be stunned.
This is the world into which a little baby boy named Moses was born. A world of inequality and slavery, of immediate danger for any little boy, of grief and sadness for mothers and fathers, of lost hope for an entire group of people.
But you’ll remember that we’ve been seeing in our scripture an important message: that even in the midst of hopelessness, of darkness and pits of despair, there are glimpses of light. Even in the most desperate of situations, there is always a pin-prick of hope. That is what Moses’ mother saw the day she gave birth to her beautiful son. She saw his face and knew there was hope. Scripture tells us that she hid her son for three months, risking her life to give him his, before she knew she couldn’t hide him any longer. So she placed him in a basket, cradled by reeds and rocked by the rhythm of the river, and although she was too sad to watch her baby float away down the river, she asked her daughter, Moses’ sister Miriam, to stand guard by the river and watch. To pray. To hope.
The rest of the story is history: Moses survived, pulled out of the river by Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Thanks to Miriam’s presence at the right time, Moses’ own mother was able to nurse and care for Moses through his childhood, until Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him as her own. Like Joseph, Moses grew into power there in the palace. Positioned to protect the God’s people and, ultimately, save them from oppression.
Ripples. From Joseph to his brothers, their descendents to the Hebrew people in our scripture. From one Pharaoh to the next, an evil decision here and a series of courageous decisions to follow. The ripples of each decision echoing out through time, setting up God’s story of liberation and hope.
But what if the midwives hadn’t been so courageous? What if they had been too fearful to risk their own lives for the sake of slave women’s babies? Thank God for their courage. Thank God for their willingness to stand against the tide of the powerful in order to do what they knew was right. Thank God for Shiphrah and Puah.
And what if Moses’ mother hadn’t the strength to hide him for three months? What if she had given up, given in? Thank God for her boldness, her smart thinking. Thank God for her courage, also, for everything that it would have taken her to build the basket, the tears that must have fell as she placed him so lovingly inside, the soft kisses of goodbye, and the trust in God that she mustered as she watched the basket float in the river…ripples moving outward in constant motion…
Historians know the power of a single moment in time; how a single decision made, whether conscious or unconscious, can change the world. Teachers know the same thing. I have a friend who taught for many years in Baltimore Maryland for Teach for America. Teach for America is a program that equips and sends young, passionate, teachers into inner-city schools to ensure that all children, even those living in poverty, receive an excellent education. It’s an effort to break the cycle of poverty through education, to invest and believe in children of all socio-economic backgrounds.
My college room-mate joined Teach for America right after graduation. She moved across the country to a city in which she knew no one, to teach in one of the most difficult environments. Her 2nd grade students were wild, angry, disobedient, and disrespectful. But, as she learned, they were also hungry most of the time, scared of their neighborhood gangs at home, and left to their own devices while mom and dad worked 3-4 jobs to pay the bills. The kids were rebellious because they were used to being on their own. They were wild because they were hungry and tired.
The first year that my friend taught in Baltimore, she cried a lot. She was exhausted and frustrated and I could tell that she rarely smiled. She told stories of situations in her classroom that I couldn’t have made up if I tried. My heart broke for my friend, and for the kids who she wanted to help so badly, but just couldn’t figure out how. She did her best to love, respect, and teach every child.
Since then, my friend has moved to another school, but her former students still reach out to her. They have gone on to middle school, learned to play the trumpet, joined the basketball team. They have gotten A’s and C’s and some have been more successful than others. But they have also written her little notes to say thank you, to invite her encouragement, to keep up a relationship that has mattered to them over the years.
Ripples. A choice to respect others in the face of disrespect. A choice to stand tall in the face of discouragement. A choice to love despite the circumstances. Who can say that my friend Emily hasn’t changed the world?
And as a matter of fact, who can say YOU haven’t changed the world?
Each day, every single one of us makes choices. Sometimes it’s the big decisions: will we stand up to the bully at school, argue with our boss on behalf of the custodial staff? Will we sacrifice some of our own paycheck, whether through increased taxes or by charitable giving or both, to make sure resources are more fairly distributed in the world? Or maybe it’s a smaller decision: could we give up our favorite cup of coffee in favor of a fairly-traded one? Or would you be willing to give an extra share of groceries to the Emergency Assistance Center, or buy the homeless man on the corner a hot hamburger, or you know, maybe just brighten the day of an exhausted family at the table across the restaurant by offering to pick up their meal tab? Or buy the person’s coffee behind you in the drive-through?
There are decisions that we know connect us with other people—whether we tip the barista who makes our afternoon latte or smile or scowl at the cashier at the hardware store as he tells us how many hundreds of dollars lighter our bank account will soon be. As a parent, I know that each time I yell at my children – whether they absolutely, completely deserve it, or not – I am affecting them for better, or worse, or both.
We all make ripples in the river of time every day. From the way we respond to one another, to where we give and spend our money, to what we’re willing to take a stand on and stand up to.
I am grateful for the midwives who stood up to Pharaoh in our story, and amazed by Moses’ mother for her courage and faith to follow her heart. I am humbled by the wisdom of Moses’ sister, Miriam, to risk her safety by speaking up to the Pharaoh’s daughter. As I watch the news, I am also grateful for the nurses and doctors who continue to treat and care for Ebola victims, even risking their own lives. I am humbled by pastors in Ferguson, Missouri who are standing between protestors and police, offering prayers and vocal encouragement for peace. I am rooting for all of the young people who are returning to school and who will have the courage to stand up to bullying, to be kind to and befriend the one they see standing on the edge of the playground.
And I am rooting for each of you, as you put your own faith into action this week. I am rooting for the choices you make that will ripple out beyond you, that will, with God’s help, make this world a better place.
“For what does the Lord require of you? But to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…” (Micah 6:8)
Make ripples this week: of justice, kindness, humility, and love.
45Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.” 12And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you.13You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Last week was the pits. I could be talking about our journey with Joseph – hearing about his near brush with death at the hands of his very own brothers, how they threw him into a pit instead of following through on their idea to kill him, only pulling him out to sell him to the first group of traders passing through. Joseph was a dreamer, but his dreams were but a fantasy at the point of our scripture passage last week. And so we thought together about the ways that our lives end up in the pits every so often as well, how even the most devout and faithful among us can feel trapped, overwhelmed, or lost.
But there were other things about last week that I could refer to as well. Let’s start with the death of one of America’s most beloved actors: Robin Williams. He was a man who brought light and joy to oh-so-many and his death seems to have had a deeper impact than most. Robin Williams often played the role of a man who transformed lives through joy and laughter. So it’s shocking for us to discover that even though he brought joy light to so many, he experienced his own share of darkness through deep depression. Some of us know that experience all too well. For some this hits too close to home. The pits.
And then there’s the news coming out of Ferguson Missouri, yet another death of an unarmed black teenager and the anger and unrest of the community there, Questions about racism and injustice…or we could mention the escalating violence in Gaza and the spread of Ebola in Africa and…
It’s enough to cause us to stop and ask, why? Why do things happen the way they do? Why do bad things happen to good people, why does depression hit so relentlessly? why does racism still exist and why is there so much violence in our world? why?
Joseph must have been asking that question as he walked away from his brothers the day they sold him, beaten and shamed, into slavery. Now, it’s true that Joseph wasn’t exactly a most beloved hero at this point: a tattle-tale and a braggart, the spoiled youngest son in a large family. But as we follow Joseph’s story, we learn more about him in Genesis 39: that he is handsome and successful, rising to the position of overseer over his fellow slaves. Joseph’s piety shines through when he refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances and is subsequently imprisoned on false charges of sexual assault.
In chapters 40 and 41 we learn that Joseph is skilled in dream interpretation, and when given an opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, he wisely advises the Pharaoh to store up 20% of the harvest for the next seven years to prepare for 7 years of famine. Joseph quickly becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command: “Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:45)
Imagine Joseph’s surprise when, in chapter 42, Joseph’s brothers show up on his doorstep in Egypt. Facing starvation in Canaan, his brothers arrive in Egypt to buy some of the grain stored up there. As the second most powerful man in Egypt, in control of the largest known food supply during that time of famine, Joseph recognizes his brothers instantly, but they do not recognize him. Instead of the moment of forgiveness we might expect at first sight, Joseph is still angry. He manipulates his brothers at first: pretending not to know them, accusing them of spying, throwing them into jail for 3 days and holding their brother Simeon hostage in Egypt as the other brothers return to their father in Canaan.
It would be difficult to overstate Joseph’s position of power in this story; anyone who wants to eat must come to Joseph. He hoards the grain, and he decides who may purchase it and at what price, at a time when all the world is riddled with famine. Once powerless at the bottom of a pit, outnumbered by brothers who hated him, Joseph now gets to decide who will live and who will die.
There’s a part of us that understands his desire for revenge, isn’t there? The tables have turned, his dreams have become reality, and Joseph finally has the upper hand. He could easily send his brothers away without food, to toil the land and still starve. He could easily have all of them thrown into jail with just the flick of a hand, to spend their days in a pit of their own. And for a few chapters, Joseph does mess with them. So he’s not the spotless hero of the story that we might assume.
But in chapter 45 something shifts in Joseph. Perhaps he has yet another dream, or maybe the realization just hits him suddenly. Whatever the cause, Joseph decides to reveal his identity to his brothers this time, in a tearful reunion woven with forgiveness and care.
“Come closer to me.’” he says in verse 4, “And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God;”
“So that’s what all of that was about,” Joseph must be thinking. God had sent him to Egypt so that, years later, he would be able to help fulfill God’s plans for the chosen people whose survival would be threatened by famine. Somehow Joseph realizes that the hardship and struggle, the pain and grief of losing his family, have led him to a place where he is able to bless others. He tells his brothers not to worry or feel guilty, for he can see God’s hand at work in his life. Pastor Walter Brueggemann calls this Joseph’s transformation, a hard-won understanding that God has been at work well beyond him. Brueggemann imagines that Joseph says,
“I became aware that my life was more than the sum of my little fears, my little hates, and my little loves. My life is larger than I imagined.” In a big, really big moment, Joseph cries out and weeps loudly. He embraces his brothers in a moment of forgiveness that would have stopped time.
And that is where Joseph turns from spoiled tattle-tale manipulator into a maturing young man.
We call them God-sightings here at Good Shepherd: places and times where you can see and feel God at work in your life, no matter what else may be happening around you. We teach our kids (and by doing so, we teach ourselves) that God is always with us, always loving us, always offering grace, working for good and healing and hope. We teach and we remember that even though there are pits and pit-stops, there is always hope. Even when there is a lot of darkness, there is always at least a pin-prick of light.
There is a scripture passage that is often remembered in times of struggle: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) It’s a passage I love that brings us great hope when we are uncertain – the knowledge that God is always with us, working for good in our lives. It reminds me of Joseph’s realization that all of his pain and struggle was leading him to a place of prosperity. That God had a plan all along, and all of the bad was necessary to lead him to the good.
It’s like some say, “everything happens for a reason…”
But, really? REALLY? Is that the truth, or is it just something we tell ourselves to make sense of nonsense?
Is there really a reason that Michael Brown in Missiouri and Trayvon Martin in Florida and so many others were killed out of racism and fear? Is there a reason mental illness plagues some so severely that they cannot bear to live another day? Really, the hatred of Joseph’s brothers was a necessary part of God’s plan? God couldn’t have found another way, a more peaceful way, a more loving way to get all of us where we need to be?
If you can’t tell, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the platitude that “everything happens for a reason,” but I do believe that despite all of the *explitives* that happen in our lives, despite the sin of racism and inequality and unfair judgment on those who are ill physically and mentally, despite it all, God is ultimately weaving a story of hope, shining a light into the darkest places of our lives.
That is the God I know -- not the puppeteer pulling strings up in the sky, but absolutely the one holding our hand as we cry, wrapping us closely when we feel lost, when we can barely make sense of what is happening around us.
It is important that we remember, even as we read Joseph’s declaration of God’s guidance, that God is not the one causing us pain. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: "No one explained it to him, but he could see God's fingerprints all over the place." God isn't a puppeteer, making things happen. God, Taylor says, is more like an artist, "like one of those genius sculptors who can make art out of anything." For this kind of artist, "Nothing is too bent to be used – not even tragedies, not even bad decisions, not even plain human meanness." Joseph, she says, is "a living work of art.”
As I thought and prayed about this week’s sermon, my thoughts and prayers were often side-by-side with those for all that is happening in the world around us.
(Paint a dark purple arch) I thought about Joseph’s time in the darkness of the pit, and then thought about the darkness that Robin Williams, and all who know the suffocating shadow of despair, experience. I thought about how isolated Joseph must have felt, and then how isolated those in the grip of depression feel – even when they’re surrounded by people who love them deeply. I thought about how important it is that there are people willing to reach down into the pit and help: counselors and pastors, friends and family. And I thought about how important it is that we stop the stigma of depression and start encouraging one another to take care of our mental health in whatever way is right for us.
(Paint a blue arch) And as I thought and prayed about Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, I couldn’t help but think and pray deeply about the violence and strained relationships in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by police. News reports of police in riot gear and armored vehicles, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into peaceful protests filled the airwaves. Questions abound – did racism fuel the injustice in a changing community where a majority of citizens are black, but the police force is primarily white? Clearly relationships are strained there, as in so many of our communities across the nation. Brother against brother, sister against sister. Instead of protecting and trusting one another, we are oh-so-quick to judge and fear that which is different. What can we do to mend such brokenness?
(Paint a green arch) And then as I thought and prayed about the abundance of resources that Joseph controlled – the largest supply of food in the region at a time of famine – I thought about how those in privilege often control the largest share of resources in the world. My prayers shifted also to the Ebola crisis in Africa and how news reports that the greatest contributor to the spread of the virus is inadequate healthcare resources. They don’t have enough trained doctors, not enough hospitals, and most disturbing of all, they don’t have enough GLOVES! The virus is spreading rapidly because the doctors and nurses caring for the sick do not have such a simple item as latex gloves to act as the crucial barrier between themselves and the virus. Can you imagine – we have an abundance of gloves here in the united states – how is that even an issue?
The darkness and isolation of pits and depression. The grief and fear of broken relationships then and now. A global inequality of resources – food, water, medical equipment—that could save lives if only more fairly distributed. What, in God’s name, do we do with all of it?
(Paint a yellow arch) We pray. We pray, and we listen, and we learn, and we pray again. And then we put our creative, compassionate, faithful hearts and hands to work in mending that which is broken, healing that which is hurting. If you know someone who is depressed, or you are in the grip of depression yourself, seek help. Find a friend, or a pastor, or a doctor you trust and be the courageous person you are – ask for help. And as you hear stories of inequality and racism, broken relationships and violence, listen well to the stories told by those who are different from you. Learn from them. Try to understand. Do your best to build new relationships of trust, starting with those around you today and extending outward. Give what you can, share what you can, love as best you can.
The common denominator in all of this, the story of Joseph and his brothers and all the news reports that concern us so greatly, the thread of truth that weaves in and through and ties it all together: it’s that relationships matter. (Paint an orange Arch) We are not isolated individuals floating around in the world. What you experience affects me, and what is happening around the world needs to matter to us.
Because it matters to God. And God is already there, working with the brokenness, all that is bent and worn, to sculpt it into something beautiful. To redeem and to renew. The good news in our scripture this morning is that if Joseph is a living work of art, sculpted and blessed by God despite his faults and failures, there’s hope for the rest of us too.
(Paint a Red arch) Hope that we, too, might be able to look at the mess of our own lives and still see glimpses of God’s grace.
Hope that even in the midst of our pain and broken relationships, we might also be able to offer the kind of forgiveness that reconciles and renews. Assurance that even the most complicated and confounded of us can be led by God into the future that God most desires.
I’d like to close with another quote by Pastor Brueggeman: "When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God." However, "[l]ife with God," Brueggemann writes, "is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God's purposes led us well beyond ourselves to give and to forgive, to create life we would not have imagined"
In the midst of the darkness, there is always light. In the midst of pain, there is always hope. And rainbows are God’s artistic promise that all can, and will, be redeemed in the end.
“Who do we think we are, anyway? – Table”
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
November 24th, 2013
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
I watched the bread and cup pass from hands to hands. Some of the hands were wrinkly with sun spots. Some of the hands had skin the color of dark chocolate. Some of the hands shook and nearly dropped the plate of bread, and some gripped so firmly I could see white knuckles. Youthful hands held the bread while unsure hands broke off a piece and dipped the delicious chunk into the red grape juice. A pair of bright eyes sparkled as the little girl spoke the words, “this is Christ’s body, broken for you.” Then, a pair of dry lips opened to whisper back the words, “Amen,” before receiving a mouthful of moist bread. A sigh of relief and then a smile exchanged showed the understanding now connecting the young and the old. Then, the wrinkly hands turned to hold the bread for yet another one of God’s beloved: “This is Christ’s body, broken for you…”
I have seen the Lord’s supper shared hundreds of times, in so many different ways. Passed through pews in golden trays; in a woven basket and plastic cup on a mission trip; handed pre-packaged from an Elder to the homebound; touched to the lips of a dying man; offered to an eager child for the first time or an elderly woman for the gazilionth time. The type of bread or the age of the juice may differ, the means of serving may be familiar or not, but the power of the words, “this is Christ’s body, broken for you…”
the power in that memory and declaration is never diminished.
The Lord’s supper, our weekly ritual of coming the table for communion, is one of the oldest traditions among Christians. As Disciples of Christ, we trace our weekly ritual all the way to Christ himself, when he gathered one last time with his disciples to share the Jewish tradition of a Passover meal with them.
The Gospel of Luke describes in chapter 22 how Jesus took his place at the table for the Passover meal and the apostles joined him. As they settled in for the ritual that they would have known so very well, Jesus broke from tradition to say words that would have caught them all off guard. ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” he said, “I tell you, I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.” Then Jesus raised the cup and gave thanks, passing it around for everyone to share. Then he took a loaf of bread and gave thanks again, breaking it in two and passing it around, saying that this was his body; and he took the cup and passed it around again, calling it the new covenant in his blood poured out for them.
These words, so familiar to us, would have seemed upsetting (if not crazy) to the first disciples. These words weren’t part of the expected tradition, the regular liturgy remembering the liberation and exodus of the Israelites. Instead, these words pointed to suffering, broken bodies and blood spilled. What was Jesus talking about, they must have wondered?
Today, with the blessing of our holy scriptures and hindsight, we know precisely what Jesus was referring to – his forthcoming unjust arrest, death on the cross, the pain of cruelty at the hands of people who didn’t understand his mission, but then, ultimately, the joy and freedom proclaimed in his resurrection. Jesus life, death and resurrection became a witness to God’s power of love triumphant over the forces of death!
And so, the memory of that quiet night in the upper room, when Jesus shared the broken bread and cup of salvation with his disciples became symbolic of the power of Jesus’ entire life poured out for all of creation. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. So they did.
Early Christian communities of all shapes and sizes began to form after Jesus’ death and resurrection, many under the leadership of Paul. The church in Corinth, the recipients of the letter to the Corinthians included in scripture, was one of these early Christian communities. They had been worshipping together and trying to follow Jesus’ way for some time, but as of late they had been slipping. They had been partaking in the Lord ’s Supper regularly, as Paul taught them, but the way they were doing so was becoming a bit problematic. Some were coming first and eating the bread and drinking the wine (some were drinking a bit more than their share it would seem, for Paul points out that they are drunk before the others even arrive), while others were coming in later and having communion on their own. The meal was not being shared as one unified community, but as individuals. Paul is concerned that they have lost the meaning behind what they are doing and so he writes this part of the letter to remind them.
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,” Paul says. The ritual and meaning in the Lord’s Supper comes from Christ himself, not Paul. Paul then goes on to relay the story of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples – how he took one loaf of bread and shared it with everyone at the table and the cup in the same way, all at once. Paul tells the story again for the Corinthians and us to hear once more – in order to remember, as Jesus requested, and to tell it again and again.
Again and again we pass one loaf of broken bread and one cup poured out in order to remember and to “proclaim” Christ’s death and resurrection. The word “proclaim” here can mean “preach,” to tell and declare, Paul means it in a much wider sense. Paul considers the act of sharing bread and cup at the Lord’s table to be an action that through our very practice of it “proclaims.” Paul is saying that when people live fully in the new life of Christ, when we live and act in the way that Christ teaches us, we live our faith in a way that is visible and real to other people. When we come to the table all together, we remember Christ through our actions – by making his love real in the world.
Just like the Corinthians needed to remember, so we “remember” every week, the whole story of redemption in Christ and the life we are called to live together. We come to remember and proclaim the unity of Christ’s church. Here at Good Shepherd, we come to the Lord’s Table every week, to remember who we are and whose we are, to rehearse God’s story and our part in it.
“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” This is the identity statement of our denomination, a glimpse of who we are as part of the movement for unity among God’s people. Over the past four weeks, we have been looking deeply at this identity so that we can remember and understand who we are and how we have come to this point in our wider faith journey. A few weeks ago we talked about what it means to be a “movement,” to be moving forward in our faith and toward a goal: God’s Kingdom and peace on Earth. We have remembered our commitment and passion for unity (not conformity) among God’s people, and our efforts to bring wholeness and healing to broken places in our world. Last week we considered what it means to be a people of welcome – that we welcome all people to God’s table because it is God who first welcomes us. Today, all of these pieces of our identity meet us at the Table. We are a people moving toward unity, welcoming others to join us as we meet to live out Christ’s vision and promise at the Lord’s Table.
Sharing communion as often as we gather is a practice passed down to us from the founders of our denomination. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, among others, were united in their passion for Christian unity and their commitment to the Lord’s Table as a place where this unity and God’s grace is poured out. For them, the Lord’s Supper was the glue that held God’s people together despite our tendencies to divide and separate ourselves from one another. Campbell, in particular, felt passionately that we should break one whole loaf every time we have communion, for in the breaking and sharing of one loaf we are saying to each other, “You my brother [or sister], once an alien, are now a citizen of heaven; once a strange are now brought home to the family of God.” Campbell affirmed what Paul claimed to be true: that the one table and one loaf symbolize the oneness of the church and God’s people as the community of Christ.
Each time we gather at the communion table, something incredibly holy happens. As the trays pass from wrinkled hands to youthful ones, between various shades of skin or unique personalities and passions, or as we come out of our seats to stand with one another in line to share in our piece of the broken bread and our taste of the cup poured out, we are remembering something important. Each time we do this, we are living something crucial. We are being God’s people and proclaiming good news.
At the Lord’s Table, we are proclaiming that the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection still has power in our lives today; that Christ’s sacrifice and promise made so long ago continues to be real and true for all and forever.
We are proclaiming that through the one body broken and one cup shared, Go pours out an abundance of sustenance and grace for every single person who might show up to share communion with us. We remember the story of the loaves and fishes, how when Christ is present, there is always enough.
We are proclaiming that no human-made barrier can keep us from God’s presence and Table. We remember that at God’s Table, the barriers that we build around ourselves and between ourselves come tumbling down. Here, there is no Hebrew or Greek, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight, faithful or sinner or doubtful. Here, we are simply human; each and every one a beloved child of God covered in abundant grace.
Here, at God’s Table, we remember.
We remember the story and our part in it.
We remember the grace and the love that God offers us despite ourselves.
We remember God’s joy in welcoming the least and the lost – God’s persistent love for us.
And here, we commit ourselves to living the way Jesus lived, loving the way he loved serving the way he served.
“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”
When we do this, we have truly remembered.
Who do we think we are, anyway? – Welcome
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
November 17th, 2013
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
I remember staring at a menu without a clue what I might be about to order. Coming to the end of a summer study-abroad in France, my language and comprehension had grown, but I was tired. I had been living with a French couple who were instructed to always, no matter what, only speak to me in French. My French lessons back in the U.S. had covered a certain dialect of the language and technically I was considered “intermediate,” but the equivalent classes in France were far over my head. The past four weeks had been wonderful and beautiful, but I couldn’t count how many times I’d been lost, confused, unsure, and even embarrassed by my inadequate understanding of the language and culture.
A friend and I had just returned from a train ride to a nearby town where we had been completely lost and unable to find someone to speak enough English to help us find the right train home. It was long past dinnertime and we were starving. I found myself longing for a McDonalds or a Subway – a familiar place where I could order anything from the menu and know it’d be okay. But here I was, in the last café still open in town, staring at a menu with words that my exhausted brain could not comprehend. The waiter must have known I was a traveler before I even opened my mouth. “You look tired,” he said in the first English I’d heard in weeks. “Can I help you choose something to eat?” I just about fell out of my chair in gratitude. It wouldn’t have even mattered if the waiter brought me liver and onions at that point – I was just so grateful for his hospitality and welcome.
Although travel can still be exhausting, especially when you find yourself running a half-marathon across the Chicago airport, toting a pair of toddlers through security lines, or sitting dead-locked in traffic on the interstate, in many ways we have it pretty good. Cell phones, rest stops, Holiday Inn and even the beloved Golden Arches are all fairly recent amenities that we take for granted. But it hasn’t always been this way. Some of you here might even remember a time when you had to use a (gasp!) paper map in order to find your way from place to place.
Most likely, the travelers in our scripture passage this morning didn’t have a paper map with rest areas and inn’s highlighted in yellow. As author Diana Butler Bass points out, “Through most of history…travel has been hard. Being a traveler meant putting oneself at risk, exposing oneself to the perils of unknown lands. The early Christians knew this, and developed their language of pilgrimage and journey against this dangerous landscape. Those same early Christians—eventually followed by medieval monastic communities—also developed their practices of hospitality as a way of caring for God’s wayfarers.” If a stranger came knocking at your door today, asking for food and a place to sleep, I imagine you’d look at him strangely and point to the nearest hotel. But back then, if someone came knocking at your door, it was expected and a social requirement really, that you’d provide him with something to eat and a place to rest.
So when Abraham looked up from his resting place just outside his home and saw three strangers standing nearby, it wouldn’t have been unexpected for him to get up quickly to greet them. Now, the author of Genesis has the benefit of hindsight and knows that one of these three men is the Lord – and so we, as the readers hear that bit of info right away – but Abraham doesn’t recognize God and only sees three travelers in need of a place to rest and some food to eat. Abraham goes to them and bows down in respect, offering water to wash their feet and some bread. Abraham refers to himself as the travelers’ servant, because he is a faithful Jewish man and this kind of hospitality is very important to Jewish and Christian faith.
Scripture tells us that Abraham goes into his tent to find his wife, Sarah, where he asks her to make some bread. Meanwhile, Abraham asks his servant to prepare a calf so that they might also have some meat for their meal. This act, of preparing and serving meat, is where we begin to see the gracious extent of Abraham’s hospitality. For, while it would have been expected that he offer bread and water to the strangers, the gift of meat would have been above and beyond.
We witness Abraham giving of himself – by running, honoring, inviting, refreshing, preparing and serving the best that he has, remaining nearby and attentive to these strangers taking up his time and eating his food. If this were to happen today, it’d be like a homeless man asking a CEO on his way to a busy day at the office whether he’d be willing to spare a dollar for a hamburger – and the CEO not just handing the man a dollar and running off to his responsibilities, but walking with the man into a restaurant, sitting down at the corner booth, ordering two hamburgers to share while they talk about life and the Browns latest football game, and then asking the man whether he’d like to order another meal “to go.” An unexpected gift of both time and welcome.
Hospitality, the gift of welcome, is perhaps one of the most prominent themes of all our scripture—second only to love. They go hand in hand, really, as we hear Jesus say in Matthew 22:39 that the greatest of God’s commandments is to love God and the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself, then just a few chapters later, in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus warns that the way we love others – how we welcome them—is one of the ways by which we are judged. He says, “the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come…inherit the kingdom prepared for you…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?...and the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
It’s as if Jesus is hidden in all of the people we might be least likely to think of as God’s chosen one – the man with no shoes desperately needing a haircut and a job; the child with ADHD who can’t stop fidgeting, talking loudly and running around the restaurant when you’re trying to have a nice dinner; the veteran just returning from Afghanistan, needing a place to live and time to get used to a “normal” way of life again; the immigrant family next door always asking for help; It’s as if Jesus is inviting us to take a risk and love all the strangest people in the boldest of ways…
Because, hey, you never know when it might just be Jesus’ scraggly beard you’re grossed out by, or God’s tired brown eyes asking you for yet another favor, maybe an angel’s quiet sigh in the corner sitting completely ignored and forgotten.
The wisdom of Hebrews 13 says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” It would seem that Abraham is not the only one who has served angels or even God, without even knowing it. Chances are pretty good we’ve all done the same…I just hope it was the time I said ‘thank you’ to the man bagging my groceries and not the time my sour attitude snapped at nurse about how long I’d been waiting to see the doctor.
Over and over again through scripture and my grandma, God has reminded me that hospitality is not an option. Welcoming both friends and strangers into my life is not a choice, but a charge. Welcome is what we do because it is who we are – people already welcomed by God, who follow a savior who calls us to welcome the stranger. Through hospitality, we imitate God’s welcome.
As part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), within the greater whole of Christianity, we take welcome and hospitality even more personally – for welcoming people into God’s presence at the communion table is part of our very identity. “We are disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” (Do you have this identity statement memorized yet? I’ve certainly said it more in the past 3 weeks than ever in my lifetime!) Today is the third in a worship series on this identity statement. We have already considered how being a “movement” means we’re moving forward, that we’re moving toward “wholeness,” for unity and peace among all of God’s creation, and today we’re looking more deeply at the word… “welcome.” Welcome is the only word, other than Christ’s name, that appears twice in our identity statement. That’s how important it is to who we are. Welcome is also the only word that moves us away from an understanding of who we are to what we do.
If you only have 3 seconds in an elevator to explain to someone what makes our church different from the other Protestant church down the street – tell them that we are a church who welcomes everyone to the communion table every week. If you haven’t heard me say the entire identity statement so much you know it by heart, at least remember this – (and repeat after me…) we welcome everyone to the communion table every week. Now, turn to your neighbor and say it!
Welcome is part of who we are because it’s what we do – week after week after week. When Stone and Campbell started this movement on the American frontier over 200 years ago, one of the reasons they left their prior churches to start this new thing is because they believed there should never be any human-made obstacles placed between God’s people and the communion table. They didn’t think it should matter whether you had sinned, how much money you gave, how long it had been since you last came to worship, how strong your faith or however many doubts…God’s grace is sufficient and covers us all. Through Jesus Christ, God has opened this table to each and every one of us – despite ourselves—and so it is our responsibility and our joy to share this kind of radical grace and welcome with others. It is not our job to judge anyone’s worthiness, including our own, for that is God’s job. And truth be told, I feel relieved knowing it’s not my job to judge others, and even better knowing God is the one waiting at the table to judge us all worthy.
In this day and age we are all travelers on a journey. We may have more than enough electronic gadgets to guide us on a road trip from here to Texas, but there’s no downloadable app to get us a straight shot to God. Although the malls blaring Christmas music are already trying to tell us otherwise, you can’t buy love and grace for $2.99.
In fact, although God’s grace is free, it’s also costly; and following Jesus’ way of extending welcome to strangers is risky. I think that’s why so few people can actually do it. I’m not talking about the risk of picking up a hitch-hiker –that’s not risk, that’s stupidity in today’s landscape. I’m talking about the risk of not just giving someone a cup of coffee when they show up in your day unexpectedly, but sitting down and having a real conversation. I’m talking about the vulnerability of welcoming the unknown into your life. Welcome for Christians is more than just setting out a plate of cookies—it’s taking the chance that meeting and opening yourself up to a stranger might actually change something in you for the better. Welcome is inviting God to open your eyes to the depths of God’s love for each and every one of us, despite our differences. That’s why it’s so hard and we struggle with it so much. Many times we don’t want our eyes opened or we think they’re just fine the way they are. We’d rather avoid the challenging, messy parts of the faith journey. I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t prefer a non-stop flight to their destination over a 5-day car ride with a screaming toddler in a car that keeps breaking down every 500 miles.
But as so many of you have already discovered, there is joy in the journey. A non-stop flight may seem quick and painless, but the 5th car-breakdown might just lead you to an amazing view you might have missed, or appreciation for the waiter who brings you that extra-hot cup of coffee. You might just learn something freeing about yourself, or at the least, you’ll have a really great story to tell later on.
What we didn’t read in the story about Abraham from this morning is that he did all of this welcoming without even knowing he was in the presence of God. Welcome was just so much a part of who he was, that he opened himself and his home to these strangers without even knowing that he was about to be blessed. But the rest of the story, the part we didn’t read, is that right after the three strangers finished eating their meal out under the tree, they gave him the best news of his life: at 99 years old, he would soon be a father for the first time! (Now, if that isn’t complicated and messy good news, I don’t know what is.)
Welcoming the stranger into our mist isn’t the easiest thing to do – it if was, scripture wouldn’t have to be so repetitive and Jesus wouldn’t have to show us how to do it in so many ways. But it’s an important part of our faith journey. Because in welcoming the stranger, by risking something valuable to you in order to provide space for me (the stranger) in your life…
…we both might start to understand just how deep God’s grace flows.
Pastor Melanie is a preacher, mother, singer, and too-much-coffee-drinker. She is passionate about creative worship and finding God in the midst of our every-day.