Widows and Other Superheroes

Luke 18:1-8
© Stacey Steck

If you listen carefully to the Gospel of Luke, you can hear the echoes. Rolling through the pages of Luke’s account of the life of our Savior, are echoes of the words of the prophet Isaiah, echoes of the Law of Moses, and echoes of the history of the people of Israel. Those ancient voices were strong and their staying power great as they lived on throughout the centuries to be heard once again by their spiritual descendants. And along with the echoes of those ancient voices, you can hear too echoes of Luke’s own voice, and this morning’s story is a chance to hear several of these echoes converging, as Jesus tells his disciples a parable which he hopes will strengthen them for the days and years ahead, this “parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”

The first persistent voice we hear is that of the cause of the widow, one of the most powerful voices emanating from the Old Testament law. Again and again, God’s people are commanded to care for the widows, orphans, and foreigners in their midst, to care for the most vulnerable, the most easily forgotten, forsaken and forlorn. There was perhaps no greater reason for the exile of God’s people in Babylon than the neglect of widows, orphans, and foreigners, because all the misdeeds of the kings, and their trampling of the poor, hurt no one more than these whom God entrusted to the whole community and to whom God showed special provision and care. Get out your concordance one of these days and see just how often the care of this vulnerable triumvirate is charged to God’s people. It is not chivalry at the root of this commandment, but justice, not a “women and children first” show of macho bravado, but a deeply rooted knowledge of the human tendency toward a social Darwinism at odds with the divine purpose. Charles Darwin didn’t invent the idea of the survival of the fittest; he just described it. The widow, orphan, and stranger were thus the most likely to be abused, defrauded, and taken advantage of, a reality which Jesus highlights as he shares this parable.

The widow in the parable may not have a name, but she has a case, even if we don’t know exactly what it was. Most likely she was trying to reclaim some property her “opponent” was trying to bilk her out of. Her last recourse is this judge, seemingly a man unfamiliar with the echoes of the past now ringing daily in his ears. We may imagine our widow sitting outside his window offering her mantra from Psalm 146: “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin,” and he tuning her out, as we are told that he feared neither God nor man. But finally he grows tired of her white noise and takes up her case, rather like we might turn on the television to quiet our children’s lament of “Mommy or Daddy, I’m bored.” “I will grant her justice,” he says, “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The echo that roared.

Jesus makes sure that the disciples do not miss the point by making sure they see the comparison that he is making, the old “how much more will God do for you” exercise designed to help them to understand the nature of the reign of God. If even this callous judge will finally grant a widow justice, how much more quickly will our compassionate God respond when one of us seeks the justice that God has ordained. “Of how much more value are you than the birds,” Jesus has already reminded them, and “how much more will God clothe you” than the beautiful lilies in the field who outshined even King Solomon in all his glory. Be persistent in your prayer and your hope, Jesus is saying, and God will indeed respond, even if the local magistrate will not. You can count on it.

For those seeking reassurance that God is listening, this would be a fitting end to the passage, but there is a curious addition, an extra line that doesn’t seem to fit: “And yet,” Jesus adds, “And yet, when the Son of man comes, will there be faith on earth?” This third question Jesus asks, the third after, “will not God grant justice?” and “will he delay long in helping them?”, the third is not so easy to answer because the third question is not about God, but about us. God’s promises are sure; our commitments are not. “Will you be persistent in prayer until the day comes when I return?” Jesus asks. “Will I find the same faith on earth then that I found when I first arrived?” And it is here that we hear another echo, this time from Luke’s own story.

The question Jesus is asking is this: “Will you be as faithful in your prayer as another widow I knew? Will you be as persistent in waiting for me as was the prophetess Anna,” way back in chapter 2, a widow about whom it was said that she “never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” Anna, like the righteous and devout Simeon in the passage before her, persisted in her hope and her prayer and her faithfulness until the coming of Jesus the first time. You remember these two who waited for the Messiah and met him face to face when Mary and Joseph came to Jerusalem to present him in the temple eight days after he was born. These two faithful characters are, to Luke’s eyes, the kind of disciples that the twelve should aspire to be. “Will you, Simon Peter, be able to hope as fervently as Simeon?” “Will you, Mary Magdalene, wait for Jesus as long as Anna?” Will Jesus find the same faith on earth the second time that he found the first time? Times will be tough, Jesus is saying. “Will you have what it takes until I come again?”

Not surprisingly, this is not a question stalled in Jesus time, but one which should still be echoing through the chambers of our hearts today. How do we remain persistent in our prayer, in our righteousness, in our hope, in our love, faith, service, and patient endurance? Jesus was well aware of the possibility of letting other things take precedence over caring for widows and orphans, and by extension, all of creation. He only had to look at the failures of the faithful in his own day. And so he saw the need to challenge his followers that they might not fall into the same trap. By recalling the faithful Anna, he used the echoes of the persistence in his own life to issue that challenge. Perhaps we might do the same.

Our kids learning about the superheroes of the Bible during this year’s Vacation Bible School got me thinking about some of the superheroes of persistence I’ve met or heard about. I remembered meeting Superman once, or at least the one in Saint Cloud Minnesota whose real name is John Fillah. Fillah has been dressing up, more or less, as the comic book superhero Superman and standing on various street corners in St. Cloud since at least the turn of this century, and probably longer. He simply stands there with his hands on his hips, with his cape billowing behind him, in the classic Superman pose and watches the traffic go by, reminding pedestrians to stand up for the values he admires. You see, John Fillah is convinced that the people of St. Cloud need a daily reminder to stand up for “truth, justice, and the American way,” the motto of Superman. Preaching that gospel in all seasons has earned Mr. Fillah not only a certain notoriety around town, but a growing suspicion about the state of his mental health. He is frequently asked by the police to find a new corner when the complaints about his imposing presence reach a critical mass.

Not long ago, however, the police stopped moving him along, and even gave him an award. It seems that Superman, being more recognizable probably than the town’s own mayor, was in the right place at the right time when a suicidal man was preparing to hurl himself off a bridge into the Mississippi River. It seems that the man about to kill himself recognized Fillah’s face, and probably his own bouts of depression, and began to share with him the story of his pitiful life, revealing his intentions to kill himself, upon which revelation Superman leaped into action and physically restrained the man when he tried to climb over the railing of the bridge. And even though the man was fighting him off, Fillah held onto him until some passersby could help him pull him to safety. Superman is now receiving a commendation from the city, and although the award is for saving the man’s life, it might as well be for his street corner persistence, a persistence that helped him make a connection with someone who really needed a connection. The Police Chief said the letter of appreciation would be hand-delivered to this Superman, and noted, in a nod to Fillah’s persistence, “We can usually find him when we
need to.”

What kind of persistence do we practice? Are we the fair weather faithful who claim God when it is safe to do so or when we need something? Or are we there day in and day out banging the drum for Christ like John Adams does for the Cleveland Indians. For nearly every home game of the last forty-four years, John Adams has been in the centerfield bleachers pounding his bass drum when the Indians come up to bat. For nearly every home game of the last forty-four years, John has been there waiting for a World Series-winning team. Let me tell you, there have been some lean years for baseball fans in Cleveland in the last forty-four years, and John Adams is the ultimate challenge to every fair weather fan.

Perhaps you may find these stories of mentally ill persons and baseball fans less than inspiring for your own personal persistence in faith. After all, it is not for Christ that they persist. But if saving a life and reminding an entire city to keep the faith, even about baseball, are not enough, consider some other acts of persistence you may have heard about. Consider the persistence of the Amish in their way of life, a persistence which carried them gracefully, if painfully, through the experience of the murder of their schoolchildren a number of years ago, and taught the world a thing or two about grace. Consider the people who have persisted in pressing the case for the things in which they believe, like grieving mothers who pushed for things like the legislation that created what is now known as the Amber Alert system to activate communities to help find missing and abducted children. Consider the perseverance of people like the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s whose silent witness in the plazas across the country brought to light the dirty wars of the region. Consider the persistence of single parents who labor at two jobs so that their children might have a chance to go to college. Consider the persistence of caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s. We all know these kinds of persistent superheroes, don’t we?

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I guess that depends on how persistent we are willing to be, for like the echoes that ring through the Gospel of Luke that inspired the faithful in Christ’s time, it will be the echoes of our persistence that will inspire others to persist in faith, in prayer, in peacemaking, in compassion. In fact, that’s really what the “patient endurance” of our mission statement is all about. May God help us to have the persistence of widows and other superheroes. Amen.

Between a Rock and a Holy Place

Genesis 28:10-19a and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
© Stacey Steck

This morning’s story from Genesis is a weigh station on the highway of the Hebrew Patriarchs, a point of transition and taking stock, a minute of breath-catching in the midst of an intense chase. Jacob is on the run, you know, from his brother Esau from whom Jacob has tricked both the birthright and the all-important paternal blessing. He and his mother Rebekah, who always did favor the rascal Jacob, have lied to Isaac and schemed to get for Jacob what rightfully belonged to Esau. And fearing for the life of her darling son, she sends Jacob on his way to find a wife among the people of Abraham’s family, with her brother Laban. The whole story unfolds fast and furious, a story of deception and cunning, an ancient, if somewhat more benign, John Gresham thriller.

And after today’s story, after Jacob’s respite, the action picks up again only this time it will feature Jacob’s more romantic side. And his confrontation with Laban. And then on to a name change, a reunion with Esau, and a life rearing twelve sons and a daughter. But for a brief moment, as we come to our story today, Jacob lays down his head on the desert floor, adjusts his headcovering to keep the scorpions out of his ear and fidgets a little when he can’t get comfortable. But comfort is not far: hey, there’s a rock the size of a pillow upon which to rest his spinning head. His rest comes, but not before he longs for the tents of his family and the laughter around mealtimes, the early mornings when he might have spent a quiet moment with his mother who loved him so. But he has traded all of these family moments in for power and gain and it is time to make the payments on his newly acquired privileges. Blessed as he may have been, a stone pillow is, after all, still a stone pillow. And as his slid off into sleep, little did he know he was between a rock and a holy place.

A stone pillow. Is it an ironic oxymoron or just poetic justice that one such as Jacob who has tricked and schemed his way through life must spend a night after which two capsules of Tylenol will be urgently needed but nowhere to be found? How utterly paradoxical and even whimsical of the tellers of this story to set the stage in this way for this miserable night Jacob will spend. Anyone who says that the Bible is a humorless document must have missed this passage, for Jacob leads the parade among the great paradoxical figures of the Bible. This man who cheated his brother and his father and his father-in-law is rewarded with the blessing reserved for Abraham and Isaac. He receives the promise of God’s presence - “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” says the Lord.” The promise given to Abraham of land and blessing and offspring as numerous as the stars is now entrusted to Jacob. But how can this be? What kind of God would permit the glorification of someone who doesn’t play by the rules? What kind of sick paradox is it when the bad guy not only gets away with his evil deeds but the profits as well? Hardly a Hollywood ending.

It’s pretty much unexplainable, this divine unfairness. It’s the kind of unfairness that victims and survivors of natural disaster’s often face. It’s the kind of unfairness that the deserving Olympic athletes and high school football teams who don’t win must carry. It’s the kind of unfairness that survivors of child sexual abuse must confront years later. It’s the kind of unfairness that AIDS patients who cannot afford the outrageously expensive treatments must endure as their bodies fail them one system at a time. And it is the kind of unfairness that I was forced to examine in ninth grade when some local idiot stole a stopsign at an intersection somewhere in Ohio and one of my closest friends died as a truck slammed into a van carrying her and nine other students on a science trip. My friend Wendy was about the most harmless individual you could hope to meet. She was a brilliant student, a loyal friend, a teenager who gave teenagers a good name. I received a call from a classmate I barely knew asking had I heard about Wendy and the others. I was dumbfounded and waited agonizingly for the eleven o’ clock news and there was her face on TV. You know that TV is all about action and about the only time they show someone in a still photograph on TV is when they are dead. And so, as her photograph flashed on the screen, the inevitable questioned formed in my ninth grade mind. Why her? Why wasn’t it the young punks who beat me up in fifth grade. Or the people on my paper route who didn’t pay me for weeks at a time. Or my gym teacher, Mr. Price, who liked to paddle people. These were the people I wanted dead, the ones who deserved it. Not the one person who deserved it the least. I’m not sure I had a good idea in ninth grade what the word paradox meant, but I knew unfairness when I saw it.

If we are honest with our selves, we know that the question of “Why me” is one we’ve all asked. And if you are like me, there is really no satisfactory answer. Not least that God wanted it to turn out that way. That is the proverbial salt on the wound. But the story we read about Jacob seems to suggest that God not only doesn’t have to answer the “why” question but may in fact be behind the unfairness. This is the bitter pill of the Bible, a difficult perspective to swallow.

But perhaps there is some sugar to help the medicine go down. For me, it’s the story of Gerald Sittser. Gerald Sittser lost his wife, his young daughter, and his mother in an automobile accident and confronted this achingly difficult question of “why.” Sittser’s story was no more or less spectacular than any other why story but it was his perspective on it that was profound yet in the end, simple, given our Christian tradition. Sittser turned the question of “why me” on its head and instead asked, “Why not me?” Yes, he suffered a great loss. Yes, his hopes and dreams were dashed. But after reflecting on his tragedy, this is what he says: “So why not me? Can I expect to live an entire lifetime free of disappointment and suffering? Free of loss and pain? The very expectation strikes me as not only unrealistic but also arrogant. God spare me from such a perfect life.”

I think Sittser’s perspective is one that comes as a shock to the system because we are used to thinking that life is fair, that we deserve to lead a happy, productive life. And I’m not sure I would use his insight consoling someone in the midst of a crisis because Sittser’s perspective comes with some distance, rather like finally seeing the forest after walking among the tall trees. But as we think about these tough questions in the moments we don’t have to face them directly, I think he is on the right track when he begins to look at his question in terms of grace. He goes on to say this: “The problem of expecting to live in a perfectly fair world is that there is no grace in that world, for grace is grace only when it is undeserved.” I’ll say it again: “The problem of expecting to live in a perfectly fair world is that there is no grace in that world, for grace is grace only when it is undeserved.”

Surely Jacob is undeserving of grace. Surely he of the sabotage and the trickery and the opportunism is one of “them,” the undeserving of grace. But our text tells us that despite all that Jacob did and all that he will do in upcoming chapters of Genesis, God chose him to continue what God had begun with Abraham. If anyone ever tells you that there is no grace in the Old Testament, point them in the direction of the Jacob saga! If Jacob got what he deserved, the story would have been over before it began. Be that as it may, God’s granting of grace to Jacob leaves us to ponder the dimensions of God’s grace, or, as it seems sometimes, the lack thereof. And so it is here then where we might take a closer look at that stone pillow. You see, more than just a witty oxymoron, the stone pillow becomes a marker of paradox. Here is a place where something remarkable took place, a place where treachery is rewarded but also a place where Jacob can say “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God.” And for that reason, when Jacob turns this pillow of paradox on its end and makes a pillar of it, it becomes for us an invitation to ambiguity, a monument to the mystifying grace of God. You see, the ancient Israelites could no more explain what made the likes of Jacob worthy in the eyes of God than we can and their storytellers incorporated the ambiguity into the tales of their heroes.

Ambiguity is not a pretty word in our society. Ambiguity seems to be the antithesis of everything we have so carefully worked toward, everything we go to school for. It is certainty we want and certainty can only come with control, with mastery of all the elements and all the variables. Ambiguity causes chaos. Ambiguity signals something lurking in a dark alley, waiting to surprise us and pounce on us when we aren’t looking. Ambiguity is reserved for the weak, for those who cannot control their own destiny and direction. But I think the Biblical witness makes clear that this notion of absolute certainty in all affairs is a modern one. For the Israelites, the only certainties were God and the promises made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The rest was left up in the air, for each generation to analyze the ambiguities and the paradoxes. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds there is certainty: ‘The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin, and all evildoers,” and “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father,” but in the meantime, the weeds must grow alongside the wheat, a growing season of ambiguity preceding the certainty of the harvest.

Embracing ambiguities is a frightening business because it goes against everything we have been taught in a modern world. But embracing ambiguities can be a liberating experience when we open ourselves to the possibility. It wasn’t so long ago that we thought that the race question was a rather unambiguous one. Blacks were blacks and whites were white and never the twain should meet. But the blurring of the race line has created an ambiguity that our society is wrestling with. There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female. The world is much less categorized than we would like to think, especially where Jesus Christ is concerned. Grace is the great leveler of certainty and the unqualified call for ambiguity. I for one would leave behind the need for certainty beyond knowing that God loves me.

I will leave Gerald Sittser the last word: “So, God spare us a life of fairness! To live in a world with grace is better by far than to live in a world of absolute fairness. A fair world might make life nice for us, but only as nice as we are. We might get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would really be satisfied. A world with grace will give us more than we deserve. It will give us life, even in our suffering.” Amen.

The Beginning and the End of Edom

Genesis 25:19-34 and Obadiah
© Stacey Steck

You can almost be forgiven for not having read the book of Obadiah lately or even knowing it is there, since it is the shortest book in the Old Testament, is only 21 verses long, and takes up only about a page and a half of your Bible, but since it is in the Table of Contents, you can only plead so much ignorance. Be that as it may, this morning we are looking at the words of Obadiah, and we’ll see if we can’t discern why it’s in the Bible at all, since it is not really even about the people of Israel, and only tangentially addresses them. But since it has survived to be in our Bibles today, there must be something worth keeping about it, and so let’s see what we can find.

The first thing we need to know about Obadiah is that it is a word of God’s judgment on the nation of Edom, not on just any nation, but on a nation favored by God because it was Esau’s nation. For all of Esau’s failures as Isaac’s son, God never despised Esau. He may have sold his birthright for a pot of red stew. He may have been at the wrong place at the wrong time while his brother Jacob tricked their father into blessing the younger son, instead of the rightful son. He may have vowed to kill his brother. But God did not forget him, nor did God despise him, and though Israel and Edom were often adversaries, they were also frequently allies, kindred nations who remembered their shared roots in Rebekah’s womb. Indeed, as the Israelites roamed the desert for forty years following their escape from Egypt, they encountered Esau’s descendants, the people now called Edom. And rather than fight the Edomites, Moses and his followers are called to remember that the Lord established Esau in his lands, and they are commanded to pass through in peace, and even to engage them in trade.

The nation of Edom lay south of the Dead Sea, in a region of some altitude. It was centered around Mount Seir, what we see labeled in Obadiah as Mount Esau. Esau is in fact a variation on the word “seir” which means hairy, as we heard Esau was, even at birth. As we also heard, Esau came out red, and craved that red stew, characteristics which led to the naming of his people Edom, the word for red. Esau took his people and settled in this largely barren land, and for centuries they were one of the region’s major players. The Edomites held a strategic advantage against their enemies, due to the heights of the territory, a geographical feature which gave rise to the first part of Obadiah’s prophecy against them: “Your proud heart has deceived you, you that live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is in the heights. You say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest us set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, says the Lord.” Obadiah reminds them that although they were on top of the world geographically, they didn’t live up to those lofty heights morally and ethically, and it would lead them to the depths of despair. Perhaps if they had remembered that old wisdom to “Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up,” they might have avoided their fate. But instead, from their mountaintops, they let down their neighbors, their very kin, when they needed them most.

You see, it was in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, that cataclysmic event in Israel’s history, that Edom sealed its fate in God’s eyes, as they not only watched the nation of Babylon sack the city Jerusalem and did nothing to prevent it, but took advantage of Israel’s weakness and joined in the plunder. The bonds of kinship that had prevented Edom’s defeat in the old days were long forgotten. Perhaps it was the legacy of Jacob’s deception that set the standard for the relationship between the nations for the future, but in the end it was the failure of Edom to come to Israel’s aid that led to their condemnation and eventual demise. Seven times in Obadiah, the refrain rings out, “You should not have…” each followed by one of the catalogue of sins against their kindred nation for which they are being condemned, each worse than the one before it—standing aside as strangers entered in, gloating over its misfortune, rejoicing in the ruin of the city, boasting on its day of distress, entering its gate on the day of its calamity, looting the goods of the people, handing over the survivors. “For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.” And they were. There is no historical mention or record anywhere of the nation of Edom from the fifth century BC onward. The rest of the book recounts how although Israel was laid low by the plunder in which Edom participated, it will not be cut off forever. Mount Esau will perish but Mount Zion will endure forever. Just like in the beginning, when Jacob ruled over Esau, “Those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.”

Well, we’ve now reviewed pretty much the entire book of Obadiah, and you may still be wondering why it’s here, in our Bibles, in our consciousness. As you have probably picked up, there isn’t much grace in Obadiah, at least not for those to whom the dire pronouncements are directed. Unlike the prophecies of doom brought to the Israelites, which always included a ray of hope for at least a remnant, no such good news shines through for the nation of Edom. The end is coming; you are out of luck; end of story. Perhaps the Israelites read this book as grace, since it announces their survival and the demise of an enemy, but let us hope they too were disturbed by the finality of the pronouncement against a kindred nation. Otherwise, it would be something like our nation rejoicing if every Canadian were to fall prey to a deadly virus, and for that country to be an emptied wasteland; for all their difficulties over the years, the two nations are bound up in a common history and there can be no joy at the suffering of a sibling. We do have to remember that this word from God is part of the Hebrew Bible, and not the Edomite Bible, if there ever was such a thing. Although our God is a jealous God, it would seem hypocritical of God to call Edom to account at the expense of Israel, only to allow Israel to do the same thing. And so, I think we are probably safe if understand the prophecy against Edom as a word of wisdom for Israel’s future, for that time when they would once again be in the position that Edom was in when they made their fatal mistake. Remember that in the grand Biblical scheme of things, Israel is not called to be the center of a great Empire, but a light unto the nations, not a military power, but the people who help the whole world recognize God as their creator and sovereign Lord.

And so if there is grace in Obadiah, it comes in the form of a warning, perhaps meant for the Israelites to overhear, and if not for them, than for us. You see, Edom’s sins are easy enough for another nation to repeat, easy enough for a church to repeat, easy enough for an individual to repeat. You see, the sins of Edom were hubris and cowardice, and the failure to stand up for another victim of injustice. The sin of Edom was kicking another while they were down, rather than offering that hand up. The sin of Edom was the betrayal of a common heritage, if not a common humanity. All of these are great, great temptations in every age, and especially when we find ourselves on the heights, with the opportunity to look down on others from our perches of health, wealth, and security.

I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in response to those who, like the Edomites, could look down on their “enemies,” and criticize them even while proclaiming their kinship. King’s letter was written in response to a letter published in the Birmingham newspaper by eight white clergymen in Alabama who decried the street-level non-violent actions of the civil rights movement as causing too much disorder and violence in their community. It was, of course, directed at King and other Christians, their kin, and they could only do it by virtue of their lofty positions in their community’s more prestigious pulpits. It is noteworthy that in response, God gave Martin Luther King, Jr. not a modern day version of the message of Obadiah, but rather the following words, which work more like a commentary on Obadiah. In justifying the protests, King wrote: “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” We may not have read Obadiah lately, but it seems that neither did the esteemed clergymen of the Birmingham of the 1960s.

Sometimes the good news is news we’d rather not hear, a corrective tweak which hurts for a time, a pointed word which helps us see something in a new way. Even though it hurts, it is still good news, because it helps us to change our ways, or avoid a sin, or do something God is calling us to do. For the Edomites, it was more than a corrective tweak, to be sure, but Obadiah’s prophecy lingers on that we might not suffer the same fate, but be instructed by God’s vision for the welfare, the shalom, of our kin. We know now that our network of “kin” is far wider and deeper than Canada or the United Kingdom. The light of Jesus Christ has illuminated the common humanity of all the nations, and the common bond of the earth that sustains all those nation, and so too, we must pray, our sins against one another. Let it not be said seven times of us one day, “You should not have…” followed by a litany of our sins. Instead, let us be able to say, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did when he concluded his letter, “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. [But] If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me,” for it is God to whom we, like the Edomites, must eventually answer. Amen.

The Butler Did It!

Genesis 24:34-67
© Stacey Steck

There is an old joke, or maybe it’s really a parable, which you may have heard in a variety of forms, but I’d like to tell it again this morning because it speaks to our Genesis passage in a contemporary way. It seems that the flood waters were rising in a certain low lying area and the townspeople were getting nervous. They packed up their treasured belongings in case they had to evacuate and sure enough the evacuation order was given. The streets and bridges heading out of town were jammed with station wagons and minivans and there was a great sense of urgency and desperation in the town. Well, everywhere but at Mr. Smith’s house. You see, Mr. Smith trusted in the Lord and was sure that God would see him safely through this crisis. So Mr. Smith stayed in his home and when the waters began to rise, he said to himself, “The Lord won’t fail me,” and off he went up to the second floor of his house to wait out the flood. When one of his neighbors floated by in a canoe and offered him a lift out of town, he replied, “I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” And as he sat on his roof when a Coast Guard rescue team came by, he told them the same thing, “I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” Finally, the Navy sent a helicopter to Mr. Smith’s house and lowered down a rope ladder. “Climb up the ladder, Mr. Smith. We’ll get you out of here.” “No, I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” And he remained on his roof as the waters swirled around his feet. A little while later, the waters rose still further and Mr. Smith was carried off his perch yelling, “I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” But alas, poor Mr. Smith drowned.

Now, Mr. Smith was a God-fearing man and so the next thing he knew he was standing before St. Peter at the gates of heaven. Mr. Smith was understandably upset because he had trusted in the Lord so when Peter asked him if there was anything he wanted to add before he passed through into the great beyond, Mr. Smith let loose. “I trusted in the Lord and the Lord failed me. What kind of God would do such a thing.” And St. Peter calmly replied, “Well, Mr. Smith. I don’t know how many more opportunities we could have given you. I mean, we sent you a canoe, a Coast Guard rescue vessel, and a Navy helicopter. What more could we have done?”

I like to call that story “the parable of the trusting fool.” Mr. Smith can hardly be condemned for his faith and trust in God, but he surely can be considered foolish for his mindless myopia. Did he really believe that God would provide only for him and not for the rest of the town? Did he really think that his faith in God was superior to everyone else’s? Or did he just overlook the fact that God works in our lives in a multitude of ways, one of which is giving us a role to play in our own lives?

Perhaps Mr. Smith never read the twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis, as we have this morning. If he had, he might have climbed right into that canoe when it floated by his second story window. For this story about a dying man’s last wish, an arranged marriage, and a faithful butler tells us a lot about God’s design for human agency, about how faith and action intersect, and about how God trusts us while we are trusting God.

The portion of chapter 24 we heard this morning is about half the chapter, and it retells most of the first half. However, what is left out is significant for understanding the part of the story we have as our text. It seems that old Abraham has not fulfilled his patriarchal duty of finding a wife for his son, the miracle child, Isaac. As his last wish, he summons his servant, his trusted, loyal servant, to undertake this exceedingly important mission. There are three distinct parts of the mission. First, Isaac’s bride-to-be absolutely, positively, must not come from the Canaanites with whom Abraham is living. Second, the bride must come from Abraham’s own family — not just any family will do. And finally, the part that is not among our verses today, under no circumstances is Isaac to return to the land of Ur, to Abraham’s family, to get a wife should the servant fail in his mission to return with one. Isaac has to stay put in Canaan. Abraham even tells his servant that it would be better that Isaac did not have a wife at all than that he should go back to the place which Abraham has left to follow the call of God.

We must go back even further in Genesis to grasp the full import of what transpires in this passage. Abraham has been the recipient of a threefold promise: He will possess the land to be known as Israel, he will have offspring as numerous as the stars or the grains of sand on the seashore, and he will have the blessing of the Lord. But this promise is predicated on Abraham leaving the land of his family and becoming a sojourner, a pilgrim. Were Isaac to go back to the land from which his father had come, he would be doing the reverse of all that God had commanded, and risk nullifying the agreement between God and Abraham. Isaac simply cannot turn around and go back to the beginning.

But back to the story at hand. Abraham and Sarah have endured the anxiety of Sarah’s infertility and been rewarded with the birth of Isaac. Sarah has died, Abraham is near death, and Isaac has no wife. Abraham is desperate to make sure his line is continued through his son Isaac, rather than his son Ishmael, but he is unable to make the journey which is necessary to bring this off. So he calls in the trusty servant who goes off to find Rebekah and saves the day.

But why does Abraham need to send the servant on this mission? Why doesn’t he just trust God to provide a wife for Isaac? After all, it was God, not Abraham, who promised land, progeny, and blessing. In fact, isn’t Abraham’s commissioning of the servant essentially not trusting in God and taking matters into his own hands? Abraham has been repeatedly chastised by God for doing just that — taking matters into his own hands. The whole episode about Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman and her son Ishmael, is Abraham’s vain attempt at forcing the issue with God. And don’t forget Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister so that he wouldn’t get killed. Abraham has a long history of not trusting God. But we know from chapter 22 that Abraham has been cured of this little problem when he takes Isaac up the mountain and is willing to sacrifice him. From that point on, Abraham knows what it means to trust God. Abraham has learned to trust God and so it seems has God learned to trust Abraham for it is Abraham’s plan, unassisted, that results in a wife for Isaac.

This is why this story is so significant. It tells us the difference between trusting God and trying to control God. The promise has been given and Abraham recognizes that it cannot be taken away. He has come to realize that Isaac, who never should have been born in the first place, is ready to continue the story. But it is up to him to ensure that Isaac maintains the human part of the covenant. The English language Bible calls our hero a servant, but it is clear from the context that he is more than your average, run-of-the-mill lackey. What’s more, the Hebrew word used here indicates a servant of high standing, loyal and trustworthy, a confidant of the master. A comparable term from our recent past might be, of course, the butler, who maintains the household and is intensely faithful, often serving the entirety of his life with the same employer. I have to say that I have never really met a butler, but I’ve seen a lot of movies and for the sake of the story, let’s say that Hollywood portrays a pretty accurate picture of the butler — the faithful butler who is the pillar of the house and the person the master can turn to for good, sound advice.

It is safe to say then that “the butler did it.” Not, of course, in the cinematic sense where the crime is finally pinned on the smarmy servant, but in the sense that even without the angel that was promised him, he successfully completes his task. In fact, everything in this story points to the fact that the humans, not God, are responsible for continuing Abraham’s line. The outcome is uncertain until the servant tells Isaac what has transpired in his absence. But there is no divine dictation, according to the narrator, no magic or meddling, just the everyday affairs of a dying pilgrim, his faithful servant, a beautiful woman, her opportunistic brother and a mourning son who is the inheritor of a promise. Unlike so many other narratives, God is not active in this drama, even when the butler prays to him, which he does more than once. No, the crux of this story seems to be that human actions work in partnership with God’s actions when they are in synch with God’s plans. The agency of humans, seeking the aims of God, is to be retold through the ages, glorified, and celebrated.

God’s great promises to Abraham are the broad backdrop to the history of Israel. But it’s not the backdrop to a puppet show, after all. We are not God’s puppets. We are God’s children. We’ve got a role to play in the story. Indeed, God has given us the minds and hearts to mold our histories. God has given us the technology and the power to shape our surroundings. God has given us the capacity to love and to do justice and to demonstrate mercy. The human actions undertaken using these gifts of God are to be made responsibly, to the glory of God, not for our own aggrandizement. And as the ever-faithful but ultimately drowned Mr. Smith reminds us, to take no action would be irresponsible, and perhaps even foolish. So go ahead, be the butler. Rely on the promises of God, but don’t expect God to do everything for you. God’s got plenty for you to do. Amen.

Signs of Life to the Holy City

Revelation 22:12-21
© Stacey Steck

In the new heaven and the new earth, in the New Jerusalem, there will be strange and wonderful sights to see. Scripture speaks of a river of life bright as crystal, trees with leaves that heal the nations and that produce fruit each month. There will be walls made of every gem and jewel, gates of pearls, and streets paved with gold, transparent as glass. Even though it has been described for us in the book of Revelation, can we really imagine what that place will look like? What it will feel like to be there amongst things you just don’t see every day? Painters and poets through the generations have tried to capture it, but it still remains a mystery beyond our imagination. It is also a mystery as to just who will be there. Will our names be read from the book of Life? Or will we find ourselves in the lake of fire? Such are some of the questions contemplated in Revelation. There are other questions beyond the reach of Scripture, however. For example, the vision John receives of the New Jerusalem doesn’t mention pets or animals specifically, but surely there will be some, right? It is a city, but surely God wouldn’t leave out the animals, not even animals that have gone extinct, which is good news for those of us who hope one day to catch a glimpse of the elusive jackalope.

Ah yes, the legendary jackalope, one part jackrabbit and one part antelope, although some people will tell you they also have the tail of a pheasant. They are found in the western United States, although rarely spotted. They are a shy animal, afraid of human hunters, and all but extinct. What, you’ve never seen a jackalope? Well, here’s a picture of one,

a foretaste, shall we say, of the jackalopes in the New Jerusalem. Some of you may actually have mounted and photographed yourselves on this very same jackalope. It is found at a place some might call a foretaste of the New Jerusalem, a place called Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota. Now of course, South Dakota is like heaven, with the Black Hills, and Mount Rushmore, the prairies and the Badlands, and not to mention the world’s largest annual motorcycle rally in the town of Sturgis, but why is Wall Drug Store like the New Jerusalem? Well, let me tell you the story of Wall Drug and see if it doesn’t become clear.

It was 1931, and Ted Hustead had received his father’s inheritance of $3000, and he and his wife Dorothy decided it was time to open their own drugstore after cutting his teeth for several years working under other pharmacists. And so they began a period of discernment to see to where God was leading them. Chief among their criteria was that there would be a church to which they could walk, as they had lived previously so far away from a church that they could rarely attend. And so God led them to Wall, South Dakota, a place Dorothy’s father described as “god forsaken.” It was a town of only 280 people and they gave themselves five years to make a go of the business. Each year came and went as they scrapped by during the Great Depression in a place so far out of the way that only the Federal Government could find a use for it. You see, not too far away, work was being completed on the monument to the presidents at Mount Rushmore, and that was attracting lots of tourists. But Wall was off the main road, and traffic missed it completely.

Well, the fifth year came, and a weary Dorothy went to take a nap one afternoon, but could find no rest from the noise of all the cars on the nearby highway. But as she lay awake, she had a dream, perhaps you could call it a vision, and she got up and went to her husband and the following conversation took place:

“Too hot to sleep?” Ted asked.

“No, it wasn't the heat that kept me awake,” Dorothy said. “It was all the cars going by on Route 16A. The jalopies just about shook the house to pieces.”

"That's too bad,” Ted said.

“No, because you know what, Ted? I think I finally saw how we can get all those travelers to come to our store.” “And how’s that?” he asked.

“Well, now what is it that those travelers really want after driving across that hot prairie? They’re thirsty. They want water. Ice cold water! Now we’ve got plenty of ice and water. Why don’t we put up signs on the highway telling people to come here for free ice water?” And so they did, and before Ted could even get home from planting his roadside signs, there were already people lined up for their water at their drug store. And the legend grew, and Wall Drug became known as the place to go for a free ice-cold cup of water.

These days, at Wall Drug, more than a thousand people an hour eat their lunch there. More than 2 million people a year visit. It employs more than 260 people during the offseason, and even more during the summer. It has an eighty foot Tyrannosaurus Rex by the highway to lead people in. And inside its doors, it is a world unlike any other place you can imagine, a kitschy ode to the wild west, with cowboy orchestras that play every fifteen minutes, 100% buffalo meat burgers, an old fashioned apothecary, a place to pan for gold, and yes, even a jackalope you can mount and ride. It is easily one of the world’s great tourist traps, and everybody loves it. And it still serves free ice water to this day, more than 20,000 glasses every day. What began as a one-room drug store in a godforsaken place, in a part of the country sometimes described as “the geographic center of nowhere,” has become a can’t-miss destination for generations of weary travelers and their families. And it all started with an invitation to come and enjoy a glass of ice water.

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears, say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

Yes, Wall Drug is a foretaste of the New Jerusalem, because it belongs to that category of experiences that are wholly other in our lives, that can’t really be compared to our day to day routine, that speak to us, that beckon us, that invite us to experience life in a new way. And if that weren’t enough, it is a foretaste of the New Jerusalem because of its invitation to the thirsty to simply come and drink.

God has blessed the church with an abundant share of foretastes of the kingdom of heaven, of that New Jerusalem, and we celebrate one of those this morning, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The feast we will share heralds the great heavenly banquet we will enjoy in the kingdom of heaven when we experience fully the grace we but glimpse in the here and now. And surely at that heavenly feast there will be not only wine in abundance, but that water of life as well, that gift to all who wish it, to all who will take the exit off the highway of their lives to find it in the most unlikely of places, in a New Testament version of Wall, South Dakota, and accept it from a poor carpenter from the backwater of Galilee, and from a church made up of illiterate peasants and fisherman, and even from a group of folks in Mill Bridge, North Carolina who will hold out a cup of water to a thirsty world.

The book of Revelation contains some very grim images, images of god forsakenness, of violence and treachery, and evil and death. Such was the reality for the Christians living in the grip of the Roman Empire in those early days of the church. And they probably had bad water too. And they were probably ready to give up. But God offered them this vision of something not only better than the empire, but completely new, a vision which put the empire in its proper place, and gave to the faithful a hope which has sustained us to this very day, a hope grounded in God’s goodness, and God’s faithfulness, and God’s desire for all to experience the abundant life Jesus preached and lived. That is why the invitation is for all who are thirsty, for all who wish to take the water of life as a gift, because God loves us all, even if we don’t yet love God.

Our Presbyterian tradition proclaims the sacraments to be “a sign and a seal” of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. That means that when we participate in them we experience God’s grace in the breaking of the bread or the pouring out of the water. These actions point to God’s grace, and remind us that it is for us. They point to a reality even more concrete than the elements themselves, for truly grace is even more real than bread, wine, or water. Yes, the bread, the wine, and the water are signs to us of God’s promise of abundant life. But beyond even the bread and wine of this morning’s sacrament, there are other signs around us of God’s grace, and God’s invitation, and those signs are each one of you. In a sense, each one of us is a living, breathing, walking, talking sacrament. Each of us is called to be a sign of God’s grace to all who are thirsty, to all who travel a dusty road.

In the week to come, I want to invite you to reflect on signs, specifically the way in which you are being a sign to the Holy City. And to offer you a little inspiration, I want to return to the story of Wall Drug. You see, I left out an important part of the story. Remember those signs for free ice water that attracted so many people? Well, they were patterned after a cultural phenomenon of the time, the Burma Shave Sign, a marketing technique designed in the 1920 to sell a certain brand of shaving cream you didn’t need a brush to apply. A series of signs would be planted by the side of the road, each sign with just a few words that could be read easily by those in the passing cars, culminating in the name and logo of Burma Shave. So, for example, one of the most popular series of signs read something like this: Every shaver / Now can snore / Six more minutes / Than before / By using / Burma-Shave. Or: Shaving brushes / You'll soon see ‘em / On the shelf / In some / Museum / Burma-Shave. Later on, the company began to use them for public safety purposes, such as the following: “Don’t Pass Cars/On Curve Or Hill/If The Cops Don’t Get You/Morticians Will/Burma-Shave.” And so, in not so quite a catchy way, Dorothy Hustead came up with the campaign that launched it all: “Get a soda / Get a root beer / turn next corner / Just as near / To Highway 16 & 14 / Free Ice Water / Wall Drug.” And the rest is history.

It doesn’t take much really. What sign will you plant, what sign will you be, of the grace we celebrate here this morning? What words and deeds will you use to help people thirsty in mind, body, and spirit find their foretaste and then their fill of the waters of life? Hopefully, it will be better than what I came up with: Better Than / A Jackalope / Jesus Is / Our Sign of Hope. Yes, even the lamest sign is better than having no sign at all. Amen.