27 September 2020, 12:16
© Stacey Steck
“Every child had a pretty good shot. To get at least as far as their old man got.” It a line from that old Billy Joel song, Allentown, a song that laments the loss of upward mobility, the idea that every generation should be able to improve on the standards of the one before it, that it is possible to transcend the class into which one was born, or at least not slide backward. Upward mobility is a core principle of the American Dream, that if we work hard enough, or work smart enough, we’ll get ahead. If we pull hard enough on those proverbial bootstraps, we’ll be able to lift ourselves up and be on our way to a brighter future, no matter how far down we began. To believe so is practically a requirement for citizenship.
We believe in upward mobility at Thyatira. Maybe it’s not part of our mission or vision statements, but deep down, we must believe in it. It’s one reason we’ve decided to make supporting our students and their schools our mission priority, since we know and believe that education is such a key factor is helping promote upward mobility, along with health, wealth, housing, and many other factors. Our community has a lot of people who need a little movement in their lives, as the term mobility suggests. The poverty rate in our county is among the highest in the state, and not just in the city of Salisbury. And our region, despite how prosperous it seems if you drive through parts of Mooresville and Charlotte, isn’t exactly known for its upward mobility. According to a recent study, “The city of Charlotte ranks dead last (50th out of 50) among America’s largest cities in Upward Mobility. This means that for a child born in poverty in Charlotte, it is harder to get out of poverty than any other large city in the United States.” There is a lot of work to be done around here and praise God that we are using what we’ve been given to do our part. We may not be the wealthiest or the most connected, but we have responded to God’s call. Can I get an amen?
But for all the efforts that go into promoting upward mobility, both individually and institutionally, there’s actually not a lot of movement, as the study I mentioned shows. A lot has been invested with not nearly enough to show for it. We are up against some serious challenges if we want to have an impact and help others end up better off than when they started. This is a pretty complex issue actually, one for which there are no easy answers. The easiest of those uneasy answers usually blames the victim, and suggests that the laziness, or bad habits, or criminal sensibilities of those in poverty is why they never move forward. While there is no doubt there are some who fail to advance because of those reasons, I am also reminded of the old saying that “If wealth were the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” Lots of people work their fingers to the bone and never go anywhere and it’s not because they are lazy or stupid. It’s also just as silly to suggest that the far fewer number of people who have made it didn’t have to work for it. By the sweat of their brow, or the sacrifice of their families, or because they had access to a program or a scholarship somewhere along the line, many have moved upward. No, there are no easy answers.
It is not my intention to give you some kind of lecture on socioeconomics. But I am as concerned as the next person about what poverty does to people, and what I can do about that. I may not be able to affect monetary policy or health disparities to provide upward mobility, but what I can do is to reflect on the story of the one whose promotion of downward mobility has affected people so profoundly. Yes, it is good to be productive. Yes, it is good to try to achieve. But is it good to work so hard for upward mobility when Jesus so regularly practiced the opposite? “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” So sayeth the words from the Apostle Paul’s beautiful letter to the Philippians, words which may be some of the oldest written about Jesus Christ. Many scholars believe that this little section of chapter two was actually the earliest Christian hymn, the words of which Paul borrowed as he makes his case for Christ. Ancient words with meaning still today.
What the age of these words suggests is that even the earliest recorders of our tradition recognized that the ticket to peace and joy and all things divine is not power or coercion or self-interest, the things which seem to drive the powers that be in every age, but rather that we find these things in humility and cooperation and compassion. Jesus had resources at his disposal. As he was being arrested, he alluded to the power within his grasp when he said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” He had all the power in the world to just snap his fingers and make it all better, but for some divinely mysterious reason he chose instead to abdicate that power. He had all the power in the world to save himself, to make sure he lived to fight another day, but he chose to be obedient to a divine command which makes no sense to our human way of thinking.
Paul shares with us this divine logic in the fifth chapter of Romans: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Did you get that? Christ became downwardly mobile for us, we who least deserved it. Who dies for their enemies? Most of us wouldn’t really give up our lives for our friends! We would be far more willing to take someone else’s life to save a friend than to offer up our own. Isn’t that why we keep guns for self-defense? To protect ourselves and our loved ones? That was Peter’s first instinct when he cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest when Jesus was being arrested. But Jesus tells him to sheath his sword and allows himself to be taken into custody, to be tortured, and to be killed. And he did that for ungodly persons, not righteous persons, or even just good persons, but for sinners, for those who couldn’t help his upwardly mobility even if he desired it.
Yes, Jesus lived a life of downward mobility, and in doing so, he has shown us that in trying to save our own lives we will lose them, that in trying to get ahead, we will fall behind, that in trying to be the master of others we become slaves to a way of life that offers no life. But we are just scratching by, Jesus! You want us to give up more? The money runs out before the month does. There aren’t enough hours in the day to meet the needs of my loved ones. What kind of twisted is divine logic that keeps us suffering? What about that abundant life Jesus talked about? I want some of that! Give me some of that prosperity gospel, Pastor! Tell me that if I tithe enough to the church that God will bless me with good health and abundant wealth, and that if I’m faithful enough, nothing bad will happen to me, because I’ll be covered in the blood of Jesus. Tell me that! Well, if I were upward mobility minded, I would tell you that. I’d tell you that while I was buying my next Mercedes, because that’s the kind of car I’d buy if I were a popular televangelist who just told you what you wanted to hear rather than what God wants you to hear. Yes, I’m being presumptuous in saying that I know what God wants you to hear, but I can say that with a clean conscience, knowing that practicing a kind of faith that isn’t very popular, that doesn’t lead to upward mobility, that asks a lot of those who profess it, suggests a continuity with the words we have heard again this morning from Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Jesus did not use his relationship with God to better himself, but to better us, and we can hardly do otherwise.
I want to suggest a couple of ways we can practically live a life of the kind of downward mobility that the Bible commends to us. The first might sound like you’re listening to a televangelist’s broadcast, I admit, but I think you’ll be able to see where it’s different. Being downwardly mobile means giving more and living with less. It means living simply so that other may simply live. It doesn’t mean taking a vow of poverty, but it does mean recognizing the difference between what we want and what we need, and that living on the edge means that we are living faithfully rather than comfortably. There’s an old saying that the church should always live on the brink of bankruptcy, by always spending the difference between faithful and comfortable. When we forsake our comfort, others can survive. When we go without, others can get by. And I think that applies to our individual lives as well. And that’s hard when you know the roof needs to be replaced one day. That’s hard when you look ahead to paying for college. But one of the blessings of this kind of downward mobility is the spiritual benefit of becoming dependent on God rather than our own efforts. When we allow ourselves to become dependent on God, we are so much wealthier than when we have money in the bank.
If that seems challenging, I want to push you even a little further. Downward mobility is not only about money, or a standard of living. It’s about relationship. It’s about community. It’s about justice. And frankly, it’s about power and privilege. Our society’s inequality has been a long time in the making, and it’s not going to become more equal overnight, but it can change. The problem is that it won’t change if we pursue it by focusing on the upward economic mobility of those who can’t seem to get ahead rather than the downward political mobility of those who are already ahead. We’ve already tried that and it hasn’t worked.
But letting go of some of that power and privilege brings the same benefits as letting go of more of our money. It makes us more dependent on God and less on ourselves. That might mean becoming radically curious about the story of someone different than us instead of being suspicious about their motives. It might mean taking a deeper look at our own biases. It might mean recognizing that just because we have the right to do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should do it. We don’t have to adapt our language to reflect the way that others see themselves and how they prefer to be called. We don’t have to accept a different perspective on history or experience. We can just label it political correctness and dismiss whatever makes us uncomfortable. We have the power to do that. We have the right to say what we believe. But as long as we hold on to the rights of citizenship that let us feel comfortable and in control, we will miss the opportunity to practice the responsibilities of community that allow us to be of the same mind as Jesus Christ, and the same mind with each other. “If then,” Paul says, “If then, there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”
For those of us with power and privilege in society, and by that I do mean white people, these are challenging words indeed. I get it that hearing phrases like “white privilege” and “structural racism” is uncomfortable. I get it. I really do. But if we are simply dismissing the idea because we can, because we can afford to, because it’s somebody else’s problem, then we are not practicing the kind of humility which would make Paul’s joy compete. Yes, the issues are complicated and messy and imply downward mobility for some, but wasn’t that the life Jesus lived? But in becoming downwardly mobile, “God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Jesus did not use his privilege as the very son of God to exalt himself, but became exalted by giving it all away. May our downward mobility bring glory to God the Father and upward mobility to those who truly need it. Amen.
20 September 2020, 12:12
Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16
© Stacey Steck
Once upon a time, there was a youth pastor who came forward to give the children’s sermon that began like this: “Good morning children. I’m thinking of something that is small, brown, and has a bushy tail. Can anyone tell me what it is?” And all the children looked nervously at one another but none dared to speak. And so the good reverend posed the question again. Silence. Finally, one little girl raises her hand and says, in a tremulous voice, “Well, I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sounds very much like a squirrel to me.”
No, the answer is not always Jesus. Or God. Or the Holy Spirit. Often it is, but sometimes it’s not. “In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.’ ” The answer is not Jesus.
“When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’ ” with the implicit question being, “What is going on here?” The answer is not Jesus.
So many questions. The Bible is full of them. But there is always only one answer. Now you might think the answer is Jesus, and I guess you would be partly right. I’m not going to keep you in suspense. It’s grace. The answer is always grace. In Exodus, we learn that the dewy stuff on the ground was called manna, and that “it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” and that the Israelites ate that manna for forty years in the wilderness before arriving in the Promised Land. “What is it?” all the grumblers and complainers asked. Yes, it’s manna, the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. But really the answer is grace. In Matthew, we hear Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard, with another group grumbling and complaining and asking, “What is this? What’s the deal here? I worked all day and this guy worked part of the day, and we get paid the same?” Yes, the answer is either unfairness or generosity, depending on your perspective. But really, the answer is grace.
You see, the real issue in the parable is whether or not the followers of Jesus are entitled to the same measure of God’s grace as the Jews. Should the johnny-come-lately Gentiles share in God’s grace and love, or are they out of luck since they have not been there from the beginning like the Jews, slogging it out in the wilderness, eating manna for forty years, surviving through the Exile, and suffering through the Roman occupation. And even if God should grant the Gentiles some grace, should they really get the same amount as those there from the beginning? This was a major concern in the early Christian community and Matthew uses this parable of Jesus to make his case. His conclusion, not surprisingly, is that God’s generosity extends to all, even the Gentiles.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is actually the last part of a much longer story in Matthew that is filled with lots of questions, and begins with the well-known story of the rich young man asking Jesus what more, beyond keeping the commandments, what more must he do to receive eternal life. And Jesus tells him that he must sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. And we are told that the young man went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions. Once the man had left, Jesus offers to the disciples one of his best known one-liners: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Camel. Needle. Picture it. And when the mental gymnastics come up short, you may find yourself asking the question the disciples asked: “Who then can be saved?” The disciples are looking for a pretty specific answer. They want to know if they can be saved. But all Jesus gives them is the only answer we ever really get in the Bible. The answer is grace. “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Now, add that statement by Jesus to the one given by the landowner in our passage today: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” For mortals, the idea of grace being given to Gentiles, in equal measure to the Jews, is impossible. But for God, all things, including generosity and grace and love, are possible, even to those who have come a little later to the party. What I want you to know is that the rich young man who went away sorrowful, and the camel who could not pass through the eye of the needle, and the complaining workers in the vineyard are residents in the realm of impossibility, citizens of the kingdom of mortality. But God lives and reigns and works in the realm of possibility, infinite possibility, and God’s possibility has the last word over the impossibility of mortals. You see, God’s generosity has nothing to do with excluding people, and everything to do with including them. Because the answer is always grace.
Children have a keen sense of fairness, don’t they? Especially siblings. My kids believe that fairness is the same as equality. There are two children, they reason, and they each are entitled to exactly one half, and not a crumb of the cake less. Growing up, I had to operate under the system of one person cuts, the other person chooses, a scheme wise parents choose to get out of the landowner’s trap. Without equality, how can things be fair? Equal pay for equal work, right? It’s only fair that way, right? Somehow, we believe that fairness should be the law of the land. And maybe that’s right. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. Much of what is being said about the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg is that she helped women get closer to equal pay for equal work, and to create a fairer system of law and justice. Fairness is good, I guess. It has its place. But it’s not the answer. Grace is the answer.
We should be wary of trying to invoke fairness on our side. Fairness suggests we get what we deserve. Fairness suggests that quality of equality. But sometimes equality falls short, doesn’t it? I love that Facebook meme that circulates every so often that illuminates the difference between fairness and grace. It’s the one of three kids, a tall one, a short one, and one in-between, trying to watch a baseball game over a fence, and on one side of the meme, they are each standing on a crate to get a better view. The problem is, that even that way, that fair way where everybody gets the same benefit, only two of the kids can see the game, and one of those two can just barely see, while the third kid is still lower than the top of the fence. The other side of the meme takes those three crates and redistributes them so that they can all see at the same height with the tallest kid, who doesn’t need a crate to see, standing on the ground, the shortest kid standing on two crates and the middle kid standing on the one he had before. Each of them has what they need to enjoy the game, but the distribution of the crates is unequal.
Now, there may be a lot to quibble with in that image, but for me, it captures the difference between fairness and grace. Giving each kid a crate sounds pretty darn fair, doesn’t it? We may not deserve any better than anyone else, but God is willing to grant more in order to meet each of our needs. The workers who came earlier had to work longer, it’s true, and they cried foul about what didn’t seem to be fair. But as the owner of the vineyard states, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The key word here is choose. God chose to act graciously to us not on the basis of what we deserve, and not on the basis of fairness, but simply because God chooses to give as God chooses to give.
Now, I guess if you don’t like the way God plays the game, freely sharing grace to all who play, you can choose not to play, and this is what empires tend to do. But it’s God’s playing field, and God makes the rules, and we who say we are on God’s team should be abiding by these rules and treating others with fairness, as far as that makes sense, but advocating for grace when it is required but no longer makes sense. The parable only makes sense to those who are grateful for the extra crate. For those who are obsessed with fairness, the parable is an affront to common sense and maybe even decency. But to those who have experienced grace, or to those who have witnessed the unintended consequences of the doctrine of fairness, that parable is good news.
In Exodus, it doesn’t say whether the Israelites ever thanked God for the gift of grace they received as manna. They sure didn’t deserve it, did they? All they could do was grumble. In the parable, it doesn’t say what the reaction was to the landowner’s explanation or to the gift of the unequal pay. It’s just a parable after all. But maybe, just maybe, some of those who heard that parable began to act with more grace, and rely less on fairness as a way to see the world. Maybe some began to see that they could live trusting in God’s grace rather than in their efforts. Maybe some even passed through the eye of a needle. The Israelites had no choice but to accept God’s gracious gift. They couldn’t accumulate the manna. It went bad every night and they always had to collect more each morning. No one could get rich off of manna. No one can get rich by being generous, at least not if they are doing it the right way. But we can have all of our needs met, and we can all be richer than we could ever imagine, by remembering that the answer to every question is grace, even if it sounds very much like a squirrel, or looks very much like manna, or feels very much like unfairness. May God give us eyes to see, and hearts to share, the undeserved grace that we have experienced. Amen.
It is a gift.
It is provision.
It is an opportunity to trust.
It is an invitation.
It is a test.
It is unmerited.
It is abundant.
It is to be shared.
It is to be respected.
It is many things, but it is not to be taken for granted.
What is it?
It is grace.
Lord, help us to receive your grace with grace, and share your grace with grace, as your son Jesus Christ has shown us how to do. In his name we pray. Amen.
13 September 2020, 13:40
© Stacey Steck
My mother is not an evil woman. She just has a few flaws which she tried to hand on to us children. I am thinking specifically of her love for okra, a vegetable so vile it can only be considered to have been God’s only mistake in the Garden or the Devil’s first victory. My mother is a fine cook, but she has yet to prepare that little green thing in a way which does not trigger my reptilian gag reflex. Traumatized. That’s the only word I can use to describe the experience my sister and I had growing up with a mother who loved okra. Fried, pickled, sautéed, in gumbo, in stew, you name it, we hated it. It was so awful that we even sang songs about it, our favorite being “Nobody knows the sliminess I’ve seen.” What made it worse was a timeless child rearing technique my mother learned from my grandmother, namely, that a) you didn’t get dessert unless your plate was clean and b) that if you couldn’t keep your food down, you had to eat twice as much. Don’t you love those great Depression-era practices. Needless to say, I abstain from eating okra, and do my best not to despise or pass judgment on those who do, for they are clearly deranged, and you know who you are. And don’t think you can get me to eat it now, either, even with your own best recipe.
You see, I’ve read Romans, you know, where it says “Some believe in eating anything, while only the weak eat okra. Those who eat okra must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.” Isn’t that what your Bible says? Oh, it says, “the weak eat only vegetables.” Well, the controversy in Paul’s time was not over slimy little vegetables, but over meat sacrificed to idols. Some took to heart Jesus saying that what goes into one’s mouth is less important that what comes out and would therefore eat meat, even if it had been part of a non-Christian religious ceremony. Others clung to the idea that unless the animal was sacrificed to their own God, then it would defile them to eat its meat. Apparently the disagreement over these practices was keeping people from the kind of harmony to which Paul felt that in Christ they had been called. Each side was judging the other: the meat eaters judged the vegetarians for being superstitious, and the vegetarians judged the meat eaters for being idolatrous and not scrupulous enough. It would seem that Paul considers those who eat the meat to be more spiritually mature since he must consider them strong, over and against those whom he labels as weak for refusing. But even though he may think it silly to shun a good steak or lambchop, he is not willing to let such a thing divide those who proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ. It just doesn’t matter.
“Welcome those who are weak in faith,” Paul begins, but he means more than offering the vegetarians an invitation to a backyard barbecue. In fact, the word welcome doesn’t quite capture what Paul is trying to say. The word “welcome” is more accurately rendered as “actively taking someone into friendship” or “to take someone into a relation of mutual assistance,” the more ancient understanding of the concept of friendship Paul is working with. The content of such a relationship includes constructive criticism, mutual accountability, the willingness to risk the relationship by speaking the truth in love. A friend who does not do these things is no friend at all. The true friend will adapt to the other and offer correction in ways that are appropriate to the situation. Paul sees himself as an adaptable friend, adapting to Jews and Gentiles alike, adapting to those both strong and weak in the faith. Paul is trying to express how important it is that we be adaptable with one another and by adaptable, he means the ability to meet each other where we are, just as Christ did in his earthly ministry. Indeed, from the Gospel lesson, we can say that the man whose debts were forgiven was adapted to by his lord, but then failed to do the same for the man whom he meets on the street who is in the same position he himself was just an hour before.
The way Paul sees it, even though he had the power to do so, Jesus did not judge the Gentiles. Instead, by Christ’s faithfulness to God, he adapted to the need of the Gentiles, entering with them into the ancient friendship, the relation of mutual assistance, at least as far as we can assist God. Remember, Paul is using human categories to describe divine relationships. God could have simply declared the gentiles irredeemable sinners and judged them accordingly, but instead he accepted them, adapted to their weakness through the faithfulness of Christ, and met them at the point of their need. They become brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul is asking us to follow Christ’s example with one another, not to judge, but to adapt.
Adaptation, however, is not a blank check! It is a part of the true friendship, the kind which is pointed when necessary, gentle when required. This biblical idea of welcoming means be willing to be in relationship with someone and to do so on terms that are mutual. If you enter into a relationship so that you can gain benefits only for yourself, you are not demonstrating the kind of welcoming Jesus has commended to us. That is why Paul basically says, don’t welcome someone if you only plan to use that person to make yourself look better or to deride that person for their differences. Go ahead, befriend those whom you see as less faithful than you, Paul says, “but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions,” not so you can try to feel superior or try to correct them because you are sure you are right. Rather, the befriending is to come from a genuine love for the other. But that relationship is not to be one which allows the weak to become dependent or the strong to become oppressive. The strong have a responsibility for the weak, but the weak too have a responsibility for the strong. This is why Paul addresses both when he calls upon them not to despise or judge one another. Neither strong nor weak should be in a position of judging each other, for that is not what God did with them. It is when each of us is certain that we are not in need of the kind of “friendship” Paul calls for, when the mature in the faith wish to lord it over the immature, and when the immature refuse to accept the guidance of the mature, that we move from friendship to judgment.
Judgment. It’s kind of a dirty word. Nobody likes to be judged. The church, perhaps taking seriously this admonition to avoid judging, sometimes seems weak in not calling a sin a sin. We are afraid of being judged for judging! But that is not what Paul is saying here. In fact, when he appeals to the Romans to welcome the weak, he is exhorting them to mutual accountability and to correction, but in a godly way, not in a way which destroys the integrity of the other, for as Jesus so aptly reminded a certain crowd, only the one without sin is in a position to cast the deadly stone. Only God is in a position to judge, and God will do so; we are to help one another to be faithful people, not letting non-essential differences lead us from friendship to judgment. Whether it is meat sacrificed to idols, to clap or not to clap in church, to wear Sunday best or shorts, there have been and there always will be non-essential differences in the way we come before the throne of God.
The tendency to judge rather than befriend works on many levels. Years ago, Flora and I went on a mission trip to Brazil and heard a song, the words of which still have an impact on me. These words come from a context of dire poverty and oppression: “Who said we are nothing? That we have nothing to offer? Receive our open hands, bringing tokens of our lives.” These words reflect a history of being judged by the church and society, of being categorically denied, on the basis of skin color and poverty, so much as the opportunity to offer to God something in gratitude for grace experienced. Does money have anything to do with faithfulness? Does skin color have anything to do with faithfulness? An adaptable church, a welcoming church is one which accepts as an offering the abiding faith of its people and the blood of its martyrs. A judging church is one which sets standards for membership and participation that subtly separate rich from poor, black from white. A welcoming church is one which recognizes that there but for the grace of God go we, and will, with humility, adapt itself so that no one is judged, and therefore excluded, according to non-essentials.
An experience I had on that same trip to Brazil brought home to me just hard it can be to overcome the gut level, unconscious biases we have that keep us from being truly welcoming, or even grateful guests when we are welcomed. I suspect there is more than one of you out there who grew up under the watchful eye of a caring adult who considered it sinful to allow any plate to return to the kitchen with even a scrap of food remaining on it. You may even have been the recipient of the admonition that “children in China are starving and you are wasting that food.” And you may yourself have found the courage to say something like, “Well, I guess they are if they have to eat slop like this,” or perhaps the somewhat less confrontational, “Well, then get me a box and we’ll ship it right off the Shanghai.” As it happens, at one of the wonderful community meals and celebrations at which we were honored guests on our trip to Brazil, we were served what at first glance appeared to be a delicious looking green porridge. Imagine the dismay, the horror even, to learn, after it was on my plate mind you, that it was in fact the scourge of my childhood, yes, the dreaded okra. A thousand things flashed through my mind, but foremost was that I really should, out of principle, eat it, as much as I loathed it. I tried not to judge those who had served me okra. I wanted to eat it. But in the end, I simply could not eat it and I ended up kind of shimmying up to the garbage can and furtively disposing of an entire plateful of food which, to be fair, no one at that gathering would have eaten, but which was utterly wasted in the context of extreme poverty.
The episode helped me see just how far apart we were, far more than just the 27 hour plane ride. You see, I could afford to throw away the food because I come from a place where you can always find more, where vast supermarkets and their collection of pre-prepared foods are open 24 hours a day, where I don’t have to worry about where my next meal will come from. Here I had thrown away both the meager resources of poor people and the loving labor of a group of women who had welcomed me in my weakness and prepared my food. I hoped no one saw me. I hoped they would not judge me. I hoped they would not despise me. I hoped they would not notice how different we really were. Being that far apart means that it takes a lot more work to maintain the relationship, a lot more adapting. There are so many things which could be reasons to not be in relationship -- race, economic class, guilt or culpability -- if we let them. But Paul calls us to look past anything which would divide us, even our own wealth or shame, our poverty or disgrace. To be faithful is to remain in relationship no matter what might be before us. May God help us to do that now and forever more. Amen.
06 September 2020, 13:26
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, and Romans 13:18-23
© Stacey Steck
The Bible is a pretty bloodthirsty book. Take Psalm 149, for example. “Let the high praises of God be in their throats, and two-handed swords in their hands, to exact vengeance on the nations and punishment of the peoples.” Sort of like, “God is great! Off with their heads!” It’s an understandable sentiment, I suppose. You’ve hurt me. I want to hurt you. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all felt it. Maybe some of us have even done it. And it never hurts to have religious justification for it, does it? I’m hurting you because my God allows it, even encourages it. There it is in Scripture, right there! I remember back in elementary school a conference my mother had with my fifth grade teacher after I’d been bullied on the playground once too often. My mother explained the situation and you know what the teacher said? He said, “Go ahead and hit them back and I’ll look the other way!” It wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but it was nice to know I could get away with it if I wanted to.
I wasn’t into vengeance at the time, but I guess I could have been. My teacher, Mr. Jaffe, if he was a reader of the Old Testament, must have preferred Psalms like number 149 over the other parts which contain different kinds of wisdom about taking matters into your own hands. Maybe you remember the famous phrase, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” That’s a little different sentiment than the Psalmist. “Vengeance is mine” is a phrase attributed to Moses in Deuteronomy 32, in what is called “The Song of Moses.” This song of Moses is a curious bit of the Bible. Just before the end of Moses’ life, God tells him to offer a prediction of what will happen to the Israelites, years down the road, saying, “Write this song, and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths in order that this song may be a witness for me against the Israelites.” And what is in this Song of Moses? Nothing less than a recitation of all the ill that will befall them because they will forget God once the are safely settled in the promised land. They will forget who God is. They will forget the commandments. The will forget “The Rock, whose work is perfect, whose ways are just.” They will lose their identity and God will allow their enemies to make them suffer, to teach them a lesson. But, says the Lord, “Vengeance is mine.” God promises to vanquish their enemies, but they are not to rise up and fight because their destruction is of their own making. All of this came to pass, of course, in the generations after Kings David and Solomon, resulting in the destruction of Samaria and the great exile to Babylon.
Now, you may remember that the book of Deuteronomy was conveniently “found” in the time of Josiah, sometime in the eighth century BC before the Babylonian exile. Josiah was a reformer king, one of the very few exceptions in those long lists of evil kings who did not walk in the ways of the Lord. Josiah had an epiphany and ordered the Temple to be renovated and miraculously popped these words from Moses, a great second giving of the law, which is what the word Deuteronomy means. Deuteronomy also records the Ten Commandments, as well as all the other injunctions that Moses gives the people “so that it will go well with you” in the promised land. Now, some of the more cynical of Biblical scholars believe Deuteronomy was written then by Josiah’s people, to support the political agenda that was trying to prevent the destruction that had been preached by the prophets. Kind of like, “Look, we found these words. Let us take heed.” But of course, it was too late and the damage had been done and despite Josiah’s best efforts, the kingdoms fell and God’s people were scattered, and Moses’ prophecy, whether old or new, was fulfilled.
So we have these words in the mouth of Moses, proclaiming that his descendants would be losers who wander away from God (and are exiled) and in the midst of them there is that curious phrase, “Vengeance is mine.” And it may be that Moses, or whoever wrote Deuteronomy, recalled what God had done in our story from Exodus, in which God is indeed the one who takes vengeance on the Egyptians, in the form of the Angel of Death. Put the blood of the lambs on your doorposts and lintels, God says, and “I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” God saves the Israelites while exacting vengeance on Pharaoh.
There are a couple of interesting features of the Passover story that are worth noting. The first is that the Egyptians were outnumbered by the Israelites. That’s why they began those awful initiatives to prevent the Israelites from growing in number, the directives to the midwives and the drowning of the babies, and all that. Now, the Hebrews may have been at a disadvantage in terms of weapons, but they were the larger force and they could have tried to take matters into their own hands, as subjugated peoples have, at times, tried to do. But instead, they let the promise run its course, the promise that God would do something, and the rest is history.
And let us also not forget that the Israelites were not just innocent by-standers in their liberation. God enlisted Moses to bring God’s claim to Pharaoh. God enlisted the Hebrews to show their faith by sacrificing their livestock and putting blood on the doorposts. God enlisted their faith. God enlisted their hope. But God did not enlist their righteous anger. That part was God’s own. The lead up to the Passover is classic non-violence in action. Confront the oppressor with his evil ways and do not take up arms, and God’s purposes will out in the end.
All things considered, this is a strategy that we should hope to emulate. It’s what Gandhi did, and what Martin Luther King, Jr. did. These were men who had the “high praises of God in their throats,” but who did not pick up the two-handed sword to seek vengeance. They were more in the tradition of the Apostle Paul who wrote what we read from Romans. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” The thirteenth chapter of the book of Romans is a challenging one because it advocates that Christians be good citizens of the empire, obeying the rules, paying taxes, recognizing the God has placed in authority those who have authority. That’s challenging of course, when the government is not really looking out for the best interests of it citizens, or when it is leading the nation down the path to destruction like the evil kings of Israel before the exile. What do you do then? Just suffer? It wasn’t a democracy back then, that’s for sure. The only vote was to join some kind of uprising and take up arms, but that rarely worked out. So what’s an aggrieved citizen to do?
It has been suggested that the reason Paul advocates following the rules is that he is trying to make sure that the new movement he is fostering does not get sidetracked the same way that Jesus’ movement led to his death. In case the letter got intercepted, he wanted to make sure the Romans know he was not fomenting revolution or upheaval of some kind. And this may be true. It could be a fake out, and that he doesn’t really mean that we should honor corrupt rulers and politicians, and give “revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, and honor to whom honor is due,” as he writes just before our passage today, but that he has to say it publicly so he doesn’t get in trouble. But it also may just be that Paul believes what was written of old, that “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. You see, in the glorious twelfth chapter of Romans, the one that begins with, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship,” in that twelfth chapter, Paul reminds us of the book of Proverbs where it says, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing so you will be heaping burning coals on their heads.” Don’t take up arms, he advises. Do what they don’t expect. Be like Jesus. Turn the other cheek. Walk the extra mile. Lay down your life for your friends.
The tradition of non-violence in the face of oppression is a cherished one in the history of white Christianity. I myself believe it is the only way to achieve social change. Our denomination embraces non-violence, as does virtually every other Christian body in our nation and our world. You’d really have to look into the fringes of Christianity to find those in favor of using force to resolve conflict, and those you would find would be those who already have power on their side. At the same time, the ideology of non-violence benefits the privileged, benefits the wealthy, benefits the powerful. It buys them time. It buys them safety. Slave owners believed in non-violence – for social change – even as they practiced violence on a regular basis. Politicians believe in non-violence – for social change, even as they approve policies that use violence to achieve political goals. Non-violence is good for incremental, but very slow, social change.
Yes, social change comes about pretty darn slowly, and significant suffering lasts far too long. Is it any wonder why violence creeps into efforts to ask Pharaoh to “Let my people go?” It is hard to let God be God and let God take vengeance at God’s own pace, even when we are called to be part of the process. It is hard to continue to suffer and feel not only constrained by a lack of power, but also religious injunctions that seem to benefit your oppressor. The power of Psalm 149, to have two-handed sword in your hand, is a great temptation, and maybe even justifiable when justice is slow in coming. But is it the way of Christ?
I share all of this with you in the midst of anger about another seemingly unjustifiable police shooting in Wisconsin, and increasingly violent clashes between supporters of different perspectives in Portland. I share this in the context of debate about the Black Lives Matter movement and the conversation about reparations for slavery. I share this as we prepare to vote. I share this as we have to answer questions that come from our kids. I share this because our views on the subject must come from the Bible and not our favorite news outlet.
There are two sides to every story, two perspectives to every controversy. It is not always easy to know what to do, or what to believe sometimes. Even the Bible offers contradictory testimony within its pages. As satisfying as being bloodthirsty might be, there can be no argument that the weight of the Bible comes down clearly on the side of non-violence, on loving one another, on letting God take care of business even if it means change comes slowly. But the Bible also comes down equally clearly on the side of the oppressed, and against empire. The story of Moses, and the Song of Moses should be powerful reminders of the consequences of being on the wrong side of God’s view of history. Whether we like it or not, we really are more like Pharaoh than the Israelites, more like the evil kings of Samaria and Judah than the people they oppressed, and more like the Romans than the Apostle Paul. And we know what happened to all those empires.
It may be too late to save our empire, like it was for Josiah. But like that great king who was remembered for his reforms, it is not too late to give it a try. There are probably not any old scrolls to be found that contain any new words of Jesus to encourage our turning again toward God. But we don’t really need them, do we? We have enough words, enough good words, enough words like those of the Apostle Paul who warns us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorable as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Will those words be enough? Amen.