Grace Is Thicker Than Blood

Genesis 21:8-21
© Stacey Steck

It’s a good thing for Abraham that there was no such thing as child welfare agencies, or he’d be in jail. By ANY of today’s standards, Abraham fails regularly and fails spectacularly in the parental department. We heard this morning of the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, which makes him look bad enough, but just ahead is the far better known story when God asks Abraham to take Isaac up to the top of the mountain and sacrifice him on a pile of wood. We know how that one turned out; God calls off the test, satisfied with Abraham’s faithfulness, and Isaac goes on to be the father of Jacob and Esau. But today, Abraham must face an even greater power – the wrath of his wife – who wants to make sure her son, Isaac, is the sole inheritor of the family fortune, such as it was for this nomadic family. He doesn’t want to do as she wishes — the text says that the matter was very distressing to Abraham — but God thinks otherwise and counsels him to send away Ishmael and his mother, promising that although it is Isaac who will be the next in line to inherit the promise, Ishmael too will be the father of a great nation.

God’s reassurances aside, it still must have been torturous for Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael packing. One can only imagine the moment when the two finally turned to leave. Somehow even the comfort of God’s promise seems like small consolation in a situation like this. But I want you to know that what makes Abraham the father of the faith he has become, is that however reluctant he may have been to admit it, however much it must have grieved him to act on it, however barbaric it may seem to us today, Abraham recognized that while blood is indeed thicker than water, grace and faith are, and must be, thicker than blood.

Now, in a time when the banner of family values is lifted high this is indeed a hard teaching. We hear it lamented that in our society today both parents must work to support the family, and the kids are being raised by a nanny, grandparent, or daycare worker. We are treated to news stories which suggest that children who grow up without a father are at a disadvantage, for they lack appropriate male role models. We are grieved at the high rate of divorce in our country. We question the parenting skills of the mothers and fathers of the perpetrators of mass shootings. We value our families, we think they are important for the good of society, there is often no one else to whom we turn before we turn to our families. The billboard by the side of the road tell us that “the family that prays together, stays together” and I think that helps. Our families might fight and squabble and even go their separate ways sometimes but the family remains both our cradle and our grave. As hard as some of us might try to disprove it, indeed, blood is almost always thicker than water. Just ask Hagar and Ishmael, who were sent away with just a skin of water.

Like other families, the household of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ismael is complicated, but there is a promise at work at this time in Abraham’s life. He’s a little slow on the uptake but he’s beginning to see that God can be trusted. God has promised a son through Sarah and that has come to pass, and now comes another test of his faith, to trust that God will take care of something as valuable to him as his own flesh and blood. These stories in Genesis try hard to make clear that Abraham’s faith is rooted in God alone, that there is nothing Abraham wouldn’t do for God, even sacrifice his own sons, his flesh and blood, his meal ticket in old age, his pride and joy. God asks Abraham to do something we certainly hope God will never ask of us: to trust God and have faith in God, even to the point of losing that which is most dear to us. This, my friends, ironic as it may seem, is grace at work - God giving us the faith necessary to see what matters most even in the most difficult of moments.

Perhaps for no one is the ability to see what matters most put to the test like it is for parents. Many years ago, Sixty Minutes ran a segment so inspiring, I still remember it today. It was a story of the way one set of parents was able to practice God’s grace in the midst of tragedy. You might remember the brutal murder in Cape Town, South Africa of a young, white Californian named Amy Biehl who was exercising her values by living with and providing help to a village being strangled by poverty. Her death made the headlines because she was killed by the very people she went to help.

For many families, a tragedy like this one is an opportunity to circle the wagons, to cry out for vengeance, to retreat into the pain inflicted upon them. The divorce rate in families that lose children approaches 70%. But following Amy’s death, the Biehls have taken a different approach — they have taken on her work. Mr. and Mrs. Biehl spend much of their time in South Africa, supporting a school where a young sister of one of the convicted murderers attended. They started the first of what has become a chain of bakeries that produce “Amy's Bread --The Bread of Hope and Peace.” Besides jobs and income, the bakeries provide an HIV and AIDS prevention message on each bag. They have given untold quantities of compassion and money to the very township where their daughter worked and was murdered. And at the clemency hearing for the killers, they asked that the four young men responsible be set free, and they were.

The Sixty Minutes reporter several times asked the Biehls how they could be so generous, where was their anger, their sense of injustice? The Biehls consistently responded that they were living Amy's legacy, doing what she had been doing, what she would want of them. There was no condescension, no anger evident either in their words or in the video clips of their actions. Clearly, this puzzled the reporter who asked the same question of Bishop Desmond Tutu: How can the Biehls work amongst these people? Like many I’m sure, I found Bishop Tutu’s response very interesting. He said it was a “mystery” how one might forgive such a grievous wrong and that we would do well to leave it as a mystery, not trying to pin down exactly how or why the Biehls were choosing these actions, but rather to be inspired by their actions. I’m inclined to agree and to suggest that the Biehls were able to see that while blood is thicker than water, grace is thicker than blood, even shed blood.

The phrase, “blood is thicker than water,” comes from 17th century England, but its origin is more obscure. Some suggest a straightforward medical meaning, because the viscosity of blood is different than water. Others suggest it had something to do with agriculture, maybe that it was OK to share water for irrigation up to and until my family’s livelihood would be threatened by your use of the river. Then I’d have to make a choice, and it would be my flesh and blood over your water. The first possibility is certainly true, but the second one is probably the one that matters since the history of most places in the world is inextricably bound up in this very issue - who has control of the water supply. It is true in the Southwest of the United States where the lower Colorado River basin is at the mercy of those with the dams upstream. It is true in Israel, where the Israelis control all the water flowing into the Palestinian territories and regulate it to maintain their political control. And Turkey controls the water flowing into Jordan and Iraq, threatening to cripple agricultural production downstream. Each of these places where water is at stake is in conflict, usually at the expense of those who can least afford it. In 1959, the Sudan and Egypt signed a water agreement treaty that worked so well for both parties that they began talks to create an massive irrigation project for the Sudan which would make that country virtually food self-sufficient. But that life-giving project was delayed for decades by Ethiopia which is trying to protect its own national sovereignty by controlling the waters of the Blue Nile River for its own electrical power generation. It’s a very complicated regional political situation but the upshot is that a project which would have helped thousands of people was on hold for years because the nations involved weren’t able to see that grace is thicker than blood, and were only able to see that their national blood is thicker than their neighbor’s water.

When we read a story like today’s and we see that God agrees with Sarah that Hagar and Ishmael must go, it might seem that God, like Sarah, is choosing the “my family right or wrong,” blood-is-thicker-than-water option. But what I want you to know is that while Sarah is looking out for the interests of her own son, God is busy with Abraham proving that there is something greater yet than family or nation or even church, something more enduring than these relationships and institutions we rightly cherish. That something greater is the faithfulness of God and the gift of grace that allows us to have the faith necessary to recognize God working in our midst. Let me say that again: even greater than the blessing of family is the faithfulness of God, and the grace that allows us to have the faith we need to recognize God working in our midst. Truly, grace and faith are thicker than any blood we can find. Amen.

From Preachin' to Messin'

Acts 16:16-34
© Stacey Steck

It’s a staple of many a cop show on television, and countless Hollywood movies, that whenever someone tries to help a woman escape prostitution, her pimp shows up and either beats her into submission or threatens the do-gooder. For those of you not familiar with the word “pimp,” it describes the person who controls and markets a prostitute, typically both her friend and enemy. They take a percentage of what she earns in exchange for things like clothing and protection. Pimps obviously have something to lose when a prostitute leaves the streets: a product lines is removed from the shelves, their profit margin is squeezed, they will have to go out and find another victim to fill the slot that would be left by the one escaped. As a rule, pimps don’t like to work. That’s why they are pimps. They get other people to work for them, and prey on the desperation of those willing to pay for the services of their “employees.” So when someone comes around messing with the merchandise, pimps strike back. They always do.

The slave girl in our story from Acts was not a prostitute in the traditional way, but in a spiritual way, and her owners not pimps as we typically understand them, but pimps of the spirit, peddlers not of flesh, but of spirit. They were using her, renting her out, so to speak, to the same kind of desperate folk who visit prostitutes, only in this case, folk whose desperation was of a more spiritual nature, people whose need for the divine led them to seek wisdom or prognostication through means other than Christ, other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that we know so well. The text tells us that these pimps made a great deal of money by using the spirit of divination that had resided in her and that enabled her to do the kind of fortune telling that people thought they needed. The people who paid for her service would have been those who wanted to know what people have always wanted to know: will I find happiness, will I prosper, will I find the right mate, will I make it through this or that crisis? In the Roman empire in those days, everybody had an answer for these questions, but it seems that she was a popular choice, and those who owned her were not about to let anything stand in the way of their profits. And so when Paul casts out the spirit of divination, the pimps strike back and Paul and Silas find themselves first at the wrong end of whips and sticks, and then with their feet in stocks in the innermost cell of the local prison, meaning the darkest, dingiest, most cockroach and rat-infested place you can imagine. We might imagine that instead of praying and singing hymns, as we are told they did, they would have been justified in lamenting the fact that no good deed goes unpunished. But the witness of the gospel they preached in the light of day was not dimmed in the darkness of prison, and their singing in the dark was a witness to the others who had ended up with the same fate.

This morning, I’m going to leave Paul and Silas in prison and concentrate on why they ended up there in the first place, and why maybe we should too. The text says that this fortune-telling slave girl was following Paul around for days shouting a most interesting thing. She was saying to all who would hear, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way to salvation.” Now, examining these words, you would think that this would be a helpful asset to Paul’s ministry since he was, at first glance, preaching the very same thing. Paul often used the metaphor of servanthood or slavery to characterize his relationship with God. He would never describe himself in terms other than being the inferior member in the divine relationship. On top of that he was proclaiming a way to salvation, just as she said. Everywhere he went, Paul shared the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection and the power that had to bring people into relationship with God. So far, the slave girl, or at least the spirits who possessed her, seem to have it right. What, then, would possess Paul to discard the free advertising?

It turns out that we have probably been betrayed by reading these words in English and by reading them two thousand years later. You see, if we were gentiles -- non-jews, Romans, or barbarians living in that Roman city of Phillipi -- and we heard the words “Most High God,” we most likely wouldn’t have thought of the God we know and love today, or the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob that Paul and Silas knew so well, but in fact Zeus or some other deity who could be associated with words of such grandeur. You see, the words she was using in Greek were words typically used by other religions to describe their Gods in the loftiest of terms. And so rather than being an asset to Paul, rather than directing people to Paul’s actual message, she was encouraging them to misunderstand the Gospel, to point away from Christ. Paul knew that the language she was using was being misunderstood by those who passed by. Furthermore, although Paul himself might have embraced the terminology of slavery to Christ, it was probably not too popular to those around him and would have discouraged the average citizen from finding out what he was really all about. Who would want to sign up for slavery? And so Paul has enough of this foolishness, and goes from preachin’ to messin’ and casts out this spirit in the name of Jesus Christ.

I suspect that Paul wrestled with the decision to take this action. After all, it took several days for him to reach this boiling point. I suspect that Paul was well aware that no good deed goes unpunished and that there would be a price to pay for tinkering with someone else’s livelihood. It would not serve the interests of the Gospel for him to pick unnecessary fights, and so he likely resisted the urge as long as he could until he decided it was worth the consequences. You see, doing the right thing isn’t always doing the easy thing, or the safe thing, or the comfortable thing. Sometimes doing the right thing alienates you from you family, or lands you in jail, or puts you six feet under. Sometimes doing the right thing is physically painful as well as emotionally painful. Sometimes doing the right thing is the last thing you want to do, but you do it anyway, because God has burned into your heart the value of doing the right thing for the sake of Jesus Christ and God’s love for the world. And so Paul looses this woman of her spirit and lets the proverbial chips fall where they may. And you know what happened to him.

Paul went where we all need to go, but where it is not easy to go: he went from preachin’ to messin’. Going from preachin’ to messin’ is what they say in the black church tradition when the preacher starts calling out particular people to keep the promises they’ve made, when the preacher starts telling an unpopular truth, or tackles social issues, when the preacher touches a nerve, when the preacher takes on real life, when the preacher goes beyond the language of the world yet to come and starts talking about the world that is here. It’s when you cross the line and step on toes and touch untouchable people. It when you do what Jesus did. Martin Luther King, Jr. the preacher went from preachin’ to messin’ when he led the Birmingham bus boycott. Dietrich Bonhoeffer the preacher went from preachin’to messin’ when he got himself involved in a plot to kill Hitler. But it is not only preachers who take that extra step. Going from preachin’ to messin’ is when a friend stops telling a woman to leave her abusive husband and takes a battered woman by the hand and leads her somewhere safe. Going from preachin’ to messin’ is when someone actually leaves the table where the popular kids sit and sits with the loner at the lunchroom table instead of hoping somebody else will. Going from preachin’ to messin’ is when you risk retaliation for the sake of the life God has given each one of us.

To the owners of the fortune telling slave girl, Paul and Silas were perfectly acceptable preachers. In fact they were good for business. It was like a food court for spiritually hungry people. Everyone knew where to come to find a variety of solutions to their hunger and some would choose Paul and some would choose this slave girl, and that was fine because there was enough to go around. But when Paul turns in his competition to the spiritual health department, when he shuts them down, he goes from preachin’ to messin’. When he frees this woman from that which left her a spiritual prostitute, when he frees her to be able to hear the gospel message whether she chose to accept it or not, when he makes it possible for others to hear what he really has to say, he is taking a risk with grave consequences. And the pimps strike back. They always do.

There is no shortage of spiritual pimps, people and institutions who use others to prey on the needs and desires of human beings, whether those needs and desires are for security, happiness, or meaning in life. The various new age religions and vague “spiritualities,” the ones with crystals and cards and stuff like that are the more easily identifiable forms of spiritual prostitution, but those prostitutes usually just market themselves without the need for a pimp. These are the low-hanging fruit of self-deception. If the truth be told, the more dangerous spiritual pimps are those with the power to harm those who would go from preachin’ to messin’. I’m talking about such things as patriotism and capitalism and the cult of beauty and youth. I’m talking about forms of our own Christian faith that promote conformity or prosperity or exclusivity. These are the kinds of ideas and industries that too often take our raw human wants and needs and use them against us and our God to profit the pimps who put them on the streets. It is all well and good to be a citizen proud of one’s country but as much as God shows no partiality among persons, God is also no respecter of nations. It is a fine thing to advocate for one’s preferred form of economics but another to blithely overlook the destructive consequences to God’s creation of that same system. It is a wonderful thing to care for one’s body, the temple that God has given us, but a tragedy when the pursuit of the perfect body prevents the search for one’s soul. Religion and faith are not incompatible with nation, or way of life, or outward appearance, and indeed the pimps love it when we are all in the same spiritual food court together. But it is when the language and vocabulary of the two realms get confused and are shouted out to point people away from God, like the spirit did using the language of “the Most High God,” it is then that we must, like Paul, go from preachin’ to messin’ and do what we can to cast out the spirits which are leading people away from the life God offers the world in Jesus Christ. It is when patriotism becomes nationalism and dissent becomes a sin, and when capital and profits become more important than compassion and character, and when youth and beauty define who is societally acceptable or expendable, that we need to do a little less preachin’ and a lot more messin’. And then the pimps will strike back. They always do.

The pimps may always strike back but the good news of the Gospel is that we have a God who doesn’t just preach, but does a little messin’ too, a God who raised from the dead a certain preacher and who sent along a little earthquake to open the doors of Paul and Silas’s jail and who accompanies us through all the messin’ we are called to do. The ending isn’t always a happy one, just ask Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but it is always a victorious one. May God help us to have the courage to be more than just preachers of the Word, and to rejoice in the consequences that come our way. Amen.

Holy Loose Cannons

Numbers 11:24-30
© Stacey Steck

If you go to Roselawn Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas and you wander around long enough you’ll come to a very interesting headstone. What is interesting is that it is the only headstone turned perpendicular to all the rest of the thousands of headstones in Roselawn. It so happened that when mechanized lawn mowing came to Roselawn Cemetery, the owners contacted all of the known owners of the plots and requested that all the headstones be turned the same direction to more easily facilitate the new grass cutting machines. It seemed like a reasonable request. But there was one little old lady who refused to have her husband’s headstone changed from its original location and it was the proverbial case of the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object. You know who won. Now, what you should also know is that the headstone presently under discussion belongs to none other than Henry Howard Grace, my grandfather, and it remains to this day contrary and perpendicular to the rest. The tendency to go against the grain runs deep in my family.

And so now you may have a little more insight as to why I like stories like the one I read from Numbers in which Moses embodies a contrarian spirit with which my grandmother might identify. Moses is willing to go against the grain, so that God’s spirit might fall upon all of the people. In the midst of the story of Eldad and Medad, those two elders among the seventy who missed the roll call at the tent of meeting and found themselves prophesying in the most public, and seemingly unlikely, of places, we find God’s chosen leader Moses, who decides that the risk of a loose cannon or two on deck is worth it. A loose cannon, of course, is usually perceived as a dangerous thing; sailing ship captains lived in dread fear of what a several thousand pound cannon loose on deck could do to the seaworthiness of their ship. But Moses sees through the danger to its potential; he knew that more dangerous than a prophet loose in the camp, was a prophet stuck in the tent of meeting.

The story about the seventy elders in Numbers takes place in the midst of a hue and cry from a rabble rousing portion of the Israelites clamoring for food. They have been liberated from captivity in Egypt but they still manage to complain about their misfortune. O, they wail, we had it so much better in Egypt where we ate cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic. Now all we have to eat is this manna. We want meat and we want it now! And poor Moses bears the brunt of their complaining and he cries out to the Lord for some help dealing with these ungrateful people. “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me,” says Moses and God promises some assistance in the form of seventy of Israel’s best men. Bring them to the tent of meeting, God says, and you shall have your burdens shared.

Now it so happens that our two protagonists, Eldad and Medad, have failed to appear at the appointed hour. Everyone else is lined up in the tent of meeting, outside the camp, but our two heroes are malingering back in the camp. We don’t know if they were late, or if they were just reluctant, but when God appears in a cloud as promised, sixty-eight elders in the tent, and those two foot-draggers in the camp, receive a portion of the spirit that was on Moses and they all begin to prophesy, dancing about in an ecstatic frenzy, perhaps speaking in tongues, but most importantly, glorifying the Lord who has visited them. They are overwhelmed with the nearness of God and charged up to be those who will help Moses lead the people. But two of them are not where they are supposed to be, a fact not lost on the young man who feels it is his duty to tattle on poor Eldad and Medad who probably don’t even know what has hit them. And Joshua runs to Moses and implores him to do something quickly, because there are these two nutcases out in the camp acting like they have received the Holy Spirit. Indeed they had received the spirit and Moses is quick to put Joshua in his place. Those two holy loose cannons, Eldad and Medad, caused all kinds of trouble in the camp that day but their adventures show us some interesting things which may help us appreciate all the more this Pentecost.

The first lesson we might take from the apparent scandal caused by Eldad and Medad prophesying outside the confines of the tent of meeting is that God’s works extend further than our religious buildings after all, and once touched by God, there is no denying the experience. Eldad and Medad began prophesying right there on the street. Imagine that! People announcing the glory of God outside the proverbial stained glass windows. What a scandal! In many of the countries from which we come, a real or de facto separation of church and state has given us the impression that religion is supposed to be a private affair, reserved for sanctuaries and cathedrals, not the public sphere, in the street and shop. But let us not confuse private with personal. Indeed, what is suggested by the prophesying of Eldad and Medad is that our glorification of God cannot and must not be confined within the four walls of the church. Eldad’s and Medad’s efforts in the camp remind us that our faith belongs in every arena of our lives and not just in church on Sunday. Our faith is empowered by the same Holy Spirit that charged up Eldad and Medad. This is the spirit that moves us to help women escape prostitution, and children finish school. This is the spirit that moves us to struggle against racism and poverty. This is the spirit that moves us to make Christ known to people who are suffering, or in the words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, to “the least, the last, and the lost.” This is the spirit that moves us to do our best each and every day, even when we don’t feel like it.

If that weren’t enough, we are reminded that those loose cannons Eldad and Medad are affirmed by Moses who expresses his wish that all the people of Israel might prophesy, that all might testify to the nearness of God. Moses is not worried that loose cannons will mess up his sweet deal with God. Moses is not concerned that his authority will be trampled upon. He is only interested in leading the people as God directs him. Moses reminds us that God’s giving of the spirit is not limited to a few select invitees, the cream of the Israelite crop, so to speak. One of my seminary professors called this the "democratization of prophesy,” the kind to be found in the last days such as the prophet Joel announced when he said, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Moses may well have been an influence behind the Protestant Reformers’ idea of the priesthood of all believers, the idea that each of us has a unique relationship with the creator that is not mediated by a priest who happens to wear a cassock. You see, in this passage in Numbers, Moses expresses a hope for the “prophethood” of all believers, the idea that each of us is touched by God’s Holy Spirit and is called to glorify God in whatever we do. It doesn’t matter where we live or work or play, just so long as we prophesy wherever we may be. Sometimes we will be in the tent, in sync with all the rest, and sometimes in the camp, being loose cannons, but we’d better be prophesying wherever we are. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” says Moses, “and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

All of this is to say that even though it is easy to be afraid of the unknown, we need to take it on faith that God knows what God is doing. Should we think that it is some accident that Eldad and Medad “got the spirit” even though they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or should we think that they received it for a purpose, to show God’s people something about God’s spirit? Jesus rightly noted that a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown, a reminder that not only are loose cannons a fact of life, but that they are not always appreciated. There will always be people and congregations who prophesy a little differently than others who are also called by God. And there will always be Joshuas who will wish to deny the validity of the prophesy of others. It is a challenge before the church to let God, rather than Joshua, determine upon whom God will rest the spirit and where that spirit will lead people to prophesy. It is a challenge before the church to make room in the church for its loose cannons, even if it makes for some uncomfortable moments.

One of my favorite movies is one called Mass Appeal and it is the story of two Catholic priests, one who is older and rather complacent but a survivor, and one who is young and idealistic and might be considered a loose cannon. Jack Lemmon, who is my favorite actor, plays Father Farley, the older priest who has been given the task of teaching the younger priest, Mark Dolson, some tact. The movie comes to a climax around the church hierarchy’s decision to get rid of Mark because of his controversial views and his challenges to the authority of the hierarchy. To the hierarchy, this younger priest is prophesying in the camp, not in the tent, and he must be silenced before he can do any damage. To the older priest, his younger colleague is exhibiting prophesy the likes of which Moses would approve. And before Mark’s crucial meeting with his superior, Father Farley cautions him to lie about his past so that he can remain a priest. In this scene, Father Farley says something to Mark that could not be more Pentecostal in light of our subject today. He says, “I see now why you need to be a priest — because you’re a lunatic. Oh, Mark, you’re one of those priceless lunatics who comes along every so often and keeps the church alive!”

Father Farley is so right. It is the loose cannons of the Church who keep it alive and keep it a blessing to the world in Christ’s name. From Saint Paul preaching to the Gentiles to Saint Benedict selling all his possessions and living in poverty preaching the Gospel, to Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg to Harry Emerson Fosdick asking “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in the 1920s to Martin Luther King Jr. chastising the moderate White church in the US for not opposing segregation — it has been loose cannons who have renewed the church and reminded it of the message proclaimed by Christ. Eldad and Medad are but the first in a long line of loose cannons empowered by the Holy Spirit. We heard this morning about other loose cannons empowered by the Holy Spirit on the first Christian Pentecost, and see how they changed the world! On this Pentecost, let us not only embrace and encourage our loose cannons and pray they are never silenced, but let us also be loose cannons ourselves, giving witness to the gift of the Holy Spirit, and testifying everywhere to the glory of God. Amen.