God’s Violence?

Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, November 16, 2014, by The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman

Texts: Proper 28A:  Judges 4; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Have mercy upon us, O God, have mercy,*

for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich,*
and of the derision of the proud. (The Saint Helena Psalter)
I’m starting with these psalm verses today for a reason: it’s easier than starting with the story of Deborah and Barak, of Sisera and Jael. You may have been a bit shocked to be hearing that story at all in church; and, to tell the truth, the lectionary didn’t want us to hear all of it. It only assigned the first few verses—maybe because they contain one of the few references to women’s leadership in ancient Israel. But those verses don’t make much sense on their own, and I decided we’d better have the whole story. If you found it distressing, be thankful that we didn’t read the next chapter—the other version of the story, couched in epic poetry—which is even bloodier.

Now, why would I want us to hear this chapter at all? Because it raises an issue for us that we know is important and don’t like to deal with: the question of God and violence. It draws out powerful emotions on all sides.
I don’t suppose there’s ever been a war fought in American history where people—politicians, church people, pretty much the whole population—didn’t invoke the name of God to justify it. On the other hand, many of us shudder at the way this has been done in our own lifetimes, and some of us, I would guess, are convinced that all violence is wrong. Either way, we’re probably uncomfortable with the idea of God actually telling his prophetess Deborah to start a war. Are there really circumstances where God would do that?

Well, those Psalm verses give us a partial answer. Many of you will have heard more than once that one of the pervasive themes of scripture is God’s concern for the poor and oppressed— for the sort of people who can truly and honestly say, “We have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” It’s a theme that sweeps through the Bible from beginning to end.
The Israelite tribespeople whom we meet in this story would have fit that description. They were farmers and herders, scattered across the countryside wherever they found little pockets of usable land and springs of water. They didn’t have any central government to bring them together. They didn’t have much in the way of weapons. They were easy pickings for the king of Hazor, with his chariots and horses and standing army.
The only thing that gave these oppressed people the courage to stand up to their oppressors was the word of their great prophetess, declaring that this was God’s will and that God would sustain them. When Barak expressed his qualms—he knew the odds, after all—she gave him a sign, something so unlikely that it would prove that God was behind it all. When Israel won the battle, the triumph would be sealed not by big men capable of wielding heavy swords and pikes and clubs, but by a woman. A woman, Deborah, began the process and a woman, Jael, would bring it to its end. Barak was left with no room to claim the victory for himself.

From our distance, we may condemn the bloodshed. But if we had been there, we would have been thanking God—and not, I imagine, feeling any great pity for our defeated oppressors, living or dead. Perhaps we can even imagine ourselves into a few contemporary situations that seem quite similar. Can you imagine yourself as a Kurd or as an Arab Shi’ite faced by the army of the self-styled Islamic State? Violence—even extreme violence—would be a fact of your world. Probably you would thank God to see a bit of it working in your favor for a change.

Now, we live in an age when non-violent forms of resistance have achieved some great victories—from the independence of India to civil rights reforms in the United States to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But they don’t work equally well in every time and place. They work only where the oppressor is not quite prepared to kill everybody outright. I wouldn’t recommend trying them against the Islamic State.

Still, we have a problem, don’t we? The same Bible that tells us this story of God as fomenting war also tells us that God is above all the creator, friend, and lover of this whole world. Faithful people have tried, again and again over the ages, to reconcile the two. One way has been to think of God as a kind of jealous lover: loving and warm as long as we behave, otherwise harsh and vindictive. The author of this morning’s story offered us that explanation. The passage began this way:

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. . .

That motif recurs over and over again in the Book of Judges. But it doesn’t help us much with our problem. God first punishes Israel with oppression and then punishes their oppressors for oppressing them? It doesn’t seem quite right.

Another tack is to say that the issue isn’t really jealousy, but justice. God loves us, but punishes our sins and errors. First God punished Israel by using the arrogance of their neighbors. Then God punished the same neighbors for their arrogance and cruelty using the agency of Israel. Borrowing Alice’s dictum at the Caucus Race (and giving it a nasty twist): All have been wicked and all shall be punished. But the God of justice is also the God of love, with a longer term goal of calling us away from our wrongdoing and back into communion with our one true Lover. It’s just that, first, God has to get through the process of dealing out justice—or find a way around it—before getting on with the business of love.
It’s not much better, is it? Which of God’s attributes is going to come into action at any given moment? None of us is innocent of oppressing others, sometimes in ways we don’t even recognize. Perhaps all of us at least see ourselves, one way or another, as being oppressed by others, even if in small ways. During the current 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I’ve been reminded again and again of how nineteenth-century slaveholders railed against the oppression of the Union Army even as they continued to oppress their African-American slaves. Which will it be for us: justice or love? Which will it be for anybody?

We have to reject this sort of dualism. God does not have a split personality. God’s justice is not independent of God’s love; in fact, it’s an expression of God’s love. God’s love is given to all of us alike. God loves every human being in the world ardently and insistently. If God expresses a special love for the poor, that is a way of telling every one of us that, even at our weakest and most unprepossessing, we are still and always God’s beloved. Never does a human being fall below the threshold of God’s love. It’s almost as if God’s love undergoes a kind concentration as it reaches further down and finds us in our most difficult circumstances.

This doesn’t mean that God will intervene for us at every turn and make things nice for us. That’s not how love behaves. It doesn’t take over the life of the beloved. It doesn’t infantilize the beloved. It cleaves to us and suffers with us and rejoices with us.
And given this post-Edenic world in which we live—this world where we are privileged (or condemned or both) to experience good and evil and the making of choices—this is often going to be a messy job for God. There is no way for God to be with us in this world without getting dirty hands.

What does it mean for God to become involved in the death of oppressors for the sake of the oppressed? It means that even if we should find ourselves in straits more desperate then we ever imagined, God will not abandon us. Even at the cost of dirtying God’s hands. Oppressors, beware of this kind of love!

In a world that actually grasped that truth, there would be no more oppressors and oppressed. We would imitate God’s love for us in our love of one another. There would be no more violence and bloodshed. And what would remain of the story of Deborah and Barak, of Sisera and Jael, in that heavenly world? It would still be the reminder not of any passion on God’s part for war or death, but of God’s singular and enduring love for us, even in our weakest, poorest state.

The God Who Undermines our Certainties

Preached from the Pulpit of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on Sunday, October 19, 2014, by The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman:

We human beings are all, to one degree or another, in love with certainty. We like to be certain, or at least feel certain. And, to tell the truth, we can’t always tell the difference. This thirst for certainty takes a variety of forms. One is our hankering for perfect safety: we want to know exactly how things will go before we commit too much of ourselves to them. Another is the thirst for a precise kind of righteousness: we want to know exactly who’s right and when and how—and make sure that it’s our side, not the other side.

And this morning, in two quite different stories from scripture, God deftly undermines both kinds of certainty. Sorry about that. But let’s take closer look.

Let’s start with the search for precise righteousness. We all know about this. People want you to agree with them about what God really wants, and they tend to have pretty precise definitions of that. Maybe God wants you to say you’re born again and provide date and time. Maybe God wants you to reject all that sort of religion and just be welcoming. Maybe God wants you to subordinate women to men and oppose same-sex marriage. Or maybe God wants you to endorse gender equality and, above all, to stop calling God “he.” It’s not a conservative thing or a liberal thing, this passion for certainty. It’s a human thing, affecting all of us.
The real issue, before long, becomes not the position itself, but maintaining the position. In other words, what starts off as a religious principle turns into a political one. If you don’t agree with my politics, I’ll treat you as an enemy. I’ll try to checkmate you some way or other and I’ll be confident not only that I’m doing the right thing but that I’m actually doing God a favor. This kind of thirst for certainty lies at the root of religious wars: mostly, right now, in the context of Islam; but Christians have had our full share of them, too.
So it was a political as well as a theological problem that Jesus faced in this morning’s Gospel reading. One of the great, existential questions for religious people in Judea in Jesus’ time was how far could you legitimately submit to the rule of the pagan Roman Empire. How far must you keep clear of its defiling influence? For one example, could people pay their temple tax in Roman coins, which had the image of the divine emperor on them and often the images of other pagan gods as well? No, they could not. You had to exchange your Roman coins for other, less pagan-looking ones.
Some of the people who approached Jesus in this morning’s story were asking about the further subject of paying any taxes to Rome. Some of them may have been looking for some religious reflection on the topic. But some of them were just taking advantage of the political ramifications to get him into trouble. If Jesus objected to paying the tax, he would be classifying himself as an enemy of Rome. On the other hand, if he encouraged people to pay it, he would be the enemy of the religious purists who regarded the Roman regime as illegitimate and unclean. Either way, they expected to catch him in a trap and force him to violate the certainties of one side or the other.

Jesus, as you remember, responded instead with a joke: he looks at the coin and he asks, “Say, whose picture is this? Whose name is this?” When they say, “The emperor’s”—they’re being deliberately polite; so they can’t add, “you stupid Galilean hick,” but they’re thinking it—he replies as if he were not in fact very bright: “Well, if it belongs to the emperor, you should give it back to him. Oh, and give God what belongs to God.”
It doesn’t make any obvious sense, does it? Christians have spent millennia trying to define exactly what belongs to the emperor (or, in more modern terms, the civil state) and what belongs to God. But that’s precisely not the point. The point, rather, is to undercut the whole search for absolute certainty.
Everything belongs to God. The whole universe has God’s name written all over it. The creation story in Genesis 1 tells us that we, in particular, bear God’s image. That means that even the Roman emperor had something to do with God, however little he may have wished to acknowledge it. That means that the world at large and our neighbor in particular have a claim on us that is a part of God’s claim on us. You can’t shift your obligations to God off into a safe corner that makes it easy to ignore the complexity of life in God’s created world.
To people wanting to pin down exactly how far you could go in collaborating with the Romans, how far you had to go in resisting them—and there were lots of them—Jesus says, “Give it up. You won’t ever get it perfectly right.”
And what is Jesus’ alternative? Love God and love your neighbor. It’s vague. It’s frustratingly vague. It means we have to keep rethinking it and reworking it and learning how to do it better. We do what we can and remain open to new discoveries. When we try to pin everything down once and for all, we are actually in danger of turning our backs on God in the effort to keep our perfect theological system working. That’s why Jesus wants to undermine our certainty.

For when Jesus tells us to stay focused on God, he isn’t giving us a substitute certainty. As the wonderful story we heard from Exodus emphasizes, there is no certain and conclusive human way to grasp God. What God gives us is purpose and direction, not certainty.
Moses—to give him full credit—has already risked all sorts of uncertainty in the service of this God who met him in the burning bush. He has gone back to a place where he’s a wanted man for murdering an Egyptian guard. He has taken up the cause of an enslaved people. He has no army behind him and no talent for public oratory. He has just a few miraculous powers with which to impress Pharaoh. And what has he succeeded in doing? He’s led a big crowd of people through the Red Sea and into a desert wilderness where it would be a challenge to support life even for a much smaller group. And you can be sure that there are plenty of worries and complaints.
Worse yet, Moses has never really had much in the way of assurance. Back in his interview at the burning bush, God says to him, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” (Ex. 3:12) Moses will get the sign only after he’s done the job.
So we should have every sympathy with Moses when he complains, rather politely, that everything is still rather hanging fire. He and the people of Israel are still stumbling from one crisis to the next. There are no guarantees. It’s a tough job. Even God seems to see the value in providing some encouragement.
But when Moses asks for what he really wants—full certainty, direct, face-to-face knowledge of God’s ways, the kind of certainty that would banish all doubt and anxiety and fear—God says, “I’m sorry. There’s no way we can do that.” “You cannot see my face;” God says, “for no one shall see me and live.” The gulf between God’s complete fullness of being and our own contingent, partial, uncertain kind of reality is too wide to cross directly. There is no way to transfer God’s certainty into a human mind and heart; all it could do is break us apart.

But there is a bridge across the gulf. It’s not the bridge Moses wanted. It’s not the bridge of certainty. Yes, he will see something of God—but only after God has passed by, only in hindsight, like all the rest of us. Still, the point here is not what Moses will see or know. It’s not certainty. The main thing is the love that God proclaims:
I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
That’s the only bridge there is between God and us—the bridge of God’s self-revelation, which means God’s profession of love, God’s determination to be gracious and to show mercy. No real certainty, even here—no road map. But at least there is a sense of the overall direction of reality from God’s perspective.

I don’t mean by this that we know nothing. No, we’ve learned, by God’s grace, a great deal abut who we are and who God is. I only mean that we shouldn’t confuse this knowledge, which is really a form of love, with the kind of knowledge that is articulated in rules and prohibitions and self-confidence.

Jesus gave people trouble when they tried to do that. He undercut our clearcut distinctions. He even made a joke of them. Even to Moses, who had risked so much and accomplished so much, God couldn’t give the kind of certainty he asked for. What God can give us and does give us is the awareness of a love that made the universe at the beginning and continues to make all things new. To know God means to be in love with God. Being in love is an ongoing process and we can’t know it fully in advance. But it’s enough. It’s all that’s truly important.

Coming Back Home

Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, Berkeley, on September 14, 2014 by the The Rev. L. William Countryman – the first Sunday back in the church:

Texts: Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

So here we are back home after the fire two years ago and the long and lovingly detailed work of restoration—back in our spiritual home, soaked with more than 13 decades of prayer and singing, joy and distress; experiences of war and peace, poverty and prosperity; place of a human existence shared by a broad and ever-changing array of people, including us, gathered here this morning on yet another page of our history.
And the Holy Spirit has been so good to us in this whole process—in the people she has brought together to lead us, in the skills and devotion of our architect and contractor and their workers, in the raising of funds, in the whole congregation, working together through difficult times. And, just to add a little polish to it all, the Spirit has also given us this morning probably the most perfect set of readings we could ever have found for our worship today.
First off, the story of the Exodus. Our Exodus has been much shorter and less dangerous than that of the Israelites from Egypt: no sea crossings; just a few yards of sidewalks. But it feels like an epoch-making change. That’s why I asked Randy for Hymn 200 to begin our service this morning. It’s an Easter hymn (and every Sunday is a bit of Easter), and it combines the story of the Exodus with the Story of Easter in a way that forms a pattern for Christian life. God doesn’t abandon us in times of trouble. And God brings us closer, step by step—even through times of distress—to our true home.
Yes, like the Exodus itself, it has all seemed a little disorganized, even chaotic maybe. It will take us a while to learn how we best live in our new/old home. But I suspect everybody this morning is experiencing some lifting of the spirit just to be back in this space, offering worship here as this community has done for so very long. Even those of us who are new to the congregation since the fire are smiling and feeling the general rejoicing. Those of us who have been here longer may be feeling, as I am, that it’s a bit as if you were finally releasing a breath you held for much too long.

Now, I don’t mean to take anything away from this celebratory mood when I point out that we also know another side of the story of the Exodus. The people were united as long as they had an enemy breathing down their necks. Later on, as they slogged across the desert of Sinai, they had second thoughts. They remembered how much better the vegetables had been in Egypt. They quarreled with each other. They spent a generation wandering in the wilderness—not just the wilderness of Sinai, but the wilderness of a divided and angry community.
We’re not in that situation. Thanks be to God. But we do have our disagreements. For one thing, we don’t all have exactly the same vision for this restored space. Some of us, for example, think of this moment primarily as return and would like the church to be as much as possible the way it was before. Others think of it more in terms of change and want to see it look different. Who we will become over the next few years may depend partly on the decisions we reach, but it will depend much more on how we work together in reaching them.
That’s why I said earlier that the Spirit has given us the perfect set of readings for today: not only the story of the Exodus and in the Psalm for today, but two other readings about how to behave in church. No, they weren’t concerned with to kneel and stand or cross yourself or anything like that. They go deeper. They recognize that every community has its differences and that sometimes these differences can shake it or even destroy it.
And so we hear Paul telling the church at Rome that they mustn’t let differences of opinion over food or the religious calendar divide them. These were not trivial matters. They were painful differences. Food mattered since the church in that day ate together daily in its worship—a whole meal, not just the sacramental bread and wine. And the conflict about calendars meant they weren’t always fully worshipping together in compatible ways.
And Paul tells them that, whatever their disagreements, they should remember their larger and deeper relationship to one another. “We do not live to ourselves,” he says, “and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
We are the Lord’s. We together are the family of Christ. The Spirit has brought us together to belong to God together, not merely as individuals. That’s what Paul wants Christian people to remember when we have disagreements.

And our chapter from Matthew’s Gospel is also about life in the church, though that may not be obvious from the particular selection we read. It’s in that context that Jesus talks about the importance of forgiveness. Because without forgiveness there is no future for a community—no future for us in a community. You remember the scary conclusion of Jesus’ parable: the king turns the unforgiving slave over to be tortured. Then Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
It’s a graphic image of the danger. But the real threat doesn’t wait on some Final Judgment. That’s just the narrative metaphor Jesus uses here. The threat is here and now. Without forgiveness, communities die. The only way to build and maintain them is through the active, creative work of forgiveness.
Let me quickly add that this is not about keeping a stiff upper lip and pretending that you don’t care about things that have offended you. That’s not what Scripture means by forgiveness. It means rather that we work actively with one another. We let our own hopes and visions be known. We take other people’s hopes and visions seriously. We are truthful with one another. And we recognize, with Paul, that the life of any real community necessarily involves some solutions to genuine disagreements that neither side will find completely satisfying. And then we keep on loving and working together, anyway, to build the future.

All of this came alive for me very vividly this week in a way that I didn’t expect. Let me show you something: this is the Good Shepherd thurible, damaged in the fire, but not destroyed. Jon Vieira made some extensive repairs to it. Nancy Kerr got some replacement bells, since the older ones weren’t really salvageable. And it was hanging in the shop at home, still badly tarnished from the fire. I decided Jon had labored on it quite enough and decided to polish it. My notion was that, with the help of Brasso, it would a quick job. Ha! It took a great deal of steel wool and several hours of scrubbing.
As I began my work, I was thinking about this object and its history. Some of you won’t have seen it before. Maybe some don’t know what it’s for. It’s an incense burner. (If that immediately makes you anxious about allergies, you can probably relax. We use only pure frankincense, which isn’t troubling to the great majority of people.)
Now, people have been burning incense for millennia as a way of praying, a physical act to go along with the mental and spiritual work of prayer. And as I scrubbed away and slowly began to get the shine back here and there, I found myself thinking of the thousands of prayers this thurible has carried upwards at Good Shepherd over many, many years. And I began to remember people I have known who prayed them.
And I discovered that polishing a thurible is a kind of prayer, too. I have been praying this week for everyone I have known here. For Sheep of the Good Shepherd who have died, such as MR Ritley, Joe MacInerney, Linda Finch-Hicks, John Roberts, Kris Rankka, Bil Carrington. For Sheep who live far away now, such as Red Stevens and Willie Hulce. For those who have not felt able to stay with us through some of the challenges of decades past. For all of the Sheep of today, represented here by those of us gathered together this morning.
Those prayers weren’t something I had planned. They just happened. But they’ve had an effect on me. They’ve reminded me how important this community is to me. They have renewed my attention to the gifts that allow us to belong together to God in Christ and the problems that sometimes make it difficult. I’m almost sorry that the task of polishing is finished for now. Almost. But there will be other ways, I hope, of renewing my prayer for you all. And I hope that each of you may also find the Spirit tricking you into something similar, taking up this prayer for the rest of us as we enter upon the Holy Land of our restored and very beautiful home.

God is not a Helicopter Parent

Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Berkeley by Bill Countryman, August 10, 2014

Proper 14A: Genesis37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:<1-22>; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Of all the disciples, Peter is the most daring. He’s also the one who fails over and over again. In this morning’s gospel reading, he certainly holds true to type. But the thing I’ve always found particularly surprising in this story is that Peter’s failure doesn’t come at the beginning of it, but in the middle. He steps out of the boat: crazy, impulsive thing to do. He’s actually walking on the water. (Yes, that is an impossibility for human beings, large and heavy as we are. You can either accept it as a miracle here or you can take the whole story as a kind of parable. The point, I think, will be pretty much the same, either way.)

But notice how the story unfolds: The disciples are really scared when they see Jesus because they think they’re seeing a ghost or a phantom of some kind. Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” But Peter wants more: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Now, think about that for a moment. What’s the point of that? If Peter wasn’t sure that the phantom (or whatever this is) was telling him the truth the first time—in claiming to be Jesus—why would it tell him the truth now? But Peter, of course—Peter isn’t really the type to think things through first. He just gets out of the boat and finds himself . . . walking on the water!
And that’s when the real trouble starts. Having mastered his first few steps, he finds himself free to look around and he realizes, once again, that he’s in the middle of a big storm. This isn’t like walking on dry land—well, maybe dry land in the middle of a really big earthquake. But, no, the winds here are pushing and pulling at him and whipping up the waves. Everything is in motion. Where does he put his foot next? And you know what happens: he panics and starts to sink. Jesus grabs him and gets him back into the ship—the kind of thing he does more than once for Peter, in different ways, in the gospel narratives.

So this is a story about how good we human beings are at losing faith. We even do it just when things are going well, just when God is closest to us, just when you’d think we’d be feeling new strength and confidence. But there we are, all of a sudden, feeling as if the bottom has dropped out and we have no idea where we are or what we’re doing.

It’s also a story about how God deals with us in such moments. God doesn’t keep us out of trouble. But God doesn’t abandon us, either.
We know, of course, that experiences like this aren’t entirely bad for us—unpleasant, for sure, but an essential part of human life. We may wish, at times, that God would be a bit more protective—maybe keep us from geting ourselves into scary situations or, at least, yank us out before we’re about to drown. But the other side to that is that then we’d never have the freedom we need to make our own mistakes and have our own uncertainties. God has decided, it seems, not to be a helicopter parent, always hovering around us. And that’s actually something to be thankful for when you think about it.

Human life is, in large part, a process of trial and error. Sometimes we fail quite badly. Sometimes we may even do harm to ourselves or others by our failures. But how else does a person become human? What sort of world would this be if you had to get everything right the first time—not to mention every time thereafter? What would God be like if God expected that? What does it do to us when we demand that of ourselves? Mostly, I think, it just ties us in knots—knots of anxiety and indecision before the fact, knots of regret and self-recrimination afterward.

But God is not a helicopter parent. God, in fact, isn’t a micromanager of any sort. The ancestral (patriarchal) stories that we’ve been reading lately from Genesis show us the same thing time after time. God prompts Abram to move from Haran to the Promised Land. But Abram quickly finds that he’s more or less on his own once he gets there—and that God isn’t even very quick to fulfill the promises made to him. Isaac finds himself mistakenly giving the blessing to the wrong twin. Jacob. And Jacob, having got the blessing—at the price of alienating most of his family—actually meets God at Bethel on his way into exile, but still finds he has to manage his crafty uncle (and prospective father-in-law) pretty much on his own.

And, today, we come down to the case of Joseph. Joseph is his father’s pet. He gets all kinds of special treatment, not least that famous coat of many colors (in the old translations) or long sleeves (in the newer ones). What’s more, he’s a bit snotty about it all. He has dreams that predict his own superiority and he can’t resist telling everybody. (If you’re wondering how you missed that bit this morning, don’t worry. It’s not Alzheimer’s. It was left out to keep the length of the lesson down.)
At any rate, the young Joseph didn’t have much social sense. He even ratted on some of his brothers at one point. It’s hardly surprising that the brothers didn’t like him. Still, the idea of murdering him was completely beyond the pale. And, even in that day and age, selling your kid brother into slavery in a foreign country wasn’t really considered appropriate behavior. But Joseph did help bring it on himself.

God didn’t abandon him. But God wasn’t in a hurry to bail him out, either. It’s a long story, actually, almost a short novel, and completely absorbing—adventurous, full of danger and unexpected reversals. And it’s psychologically astute and fascinating. If you haven’t read it in a while, it’s worth going back to just for the pleasure of a good read.
But God doesn’t micromanage. Joseph has to learn from experience how to become a wise and honorable adult—a lesson that he’ll eventually have to apply in relation to his brothers when they come calling years later. It doesn’t mean that God abandoned him. It means that God was prepared to let our complex and difficult world do its work and let Joseph grow up in the authentically human way of trial and error.

Many of us, like Joseph, have probably experienced God nudging us from time to time. And I’ve heard more than one person around here over the years talk about God’s propensity for playing jokes—jokes that aren’t always very welcome at the time. In this story of Joseph, God, with consummate irony, even uses the brothers’ crime of selling him into slavery as the means, much later on, to save the whole family from starvation.
God may not be a micromanager. But God is still very much engaged.

God cared deeply about Joseph and Peter both—just as God cares deeply about each of us. And I trust that God never, in fact, abandons us even though we probably all have times that feel that way. But God definitely leaves us space to grow in the only way that human beings really can: trying things out, making our own mistakes, failing, grabbing hold of the nearest hand (which sometime turns out to be God’s hand), trying again. And if, at times, we might find a more intrusive God useful, I suspect that, on the whole, the one we have is actually better: a God who loves each one of us, warts and all, and is giving us space and time to become the even more beautiful person we have it in us (by God’s gift) to become. Maybe after we’ve come through at least a few scary passages.

The Rev. Bill Countryman

The Rev. Bill Countryman

Stone Soup…

Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Church on August 3, 2014, by The Reverend Ellen L. Ekstrom:

8th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A
Proper 13
Matthew 14:18-21

Do you remember the folk tale, Stone Soup?
A stranger enters a village on a cold winter’s night with a pot slung over his back; at that time of day, the place is deserted. He sets up a fire in the market square, finds a nice, smooth pebble in the snow and drops it into the pot, throws in handfuls of snow for water, stirs a couple of times, and . . . . nothing! Nothing but a bit of water and a pebble!

An old woman watches him from her window, as do most of the villagers, peering out from behind shutters and curtains, and while he stirs the water, he wishes aloud that he had a turnip to improve the flavor of the broth. The old woman she thinks she has a turnip past its expiration date somewhere in the vegetable bin, and there it is. She comes out, tosses it in the pot. He thanks her, adding that the perfect thing to compliment a stone and turnip would be a carrot, a few more vegetables. Miraculously, the old woman just happens to have a soft onion somewhere – the skin needed to be peeled back and the bad parts cut off, but it would do, wouldn’t it? And the carrots – well, her old pony won’t mind giving them up, there’d be more tomorrow. The onion is soon joined by a bit of meat from the butcher, a potato from the blacksmith, and some chicken bones for flavor – the ones you save to make stock with. Those came from the dressmaker. Neighbors come by when the good smell of broth simmering drifts through the village; they dig around in their kitchens and drop something they just happen to find in a cupboard or in a bag or barrel, until everyone gathers around to enjoy a wonderful, hearty, meal – all from a pebble and some water.

Somewhere in the story, did you hear Jesus whispering, “You give them something to eat?”

I used this folk tale because the characters and the plot reminded me of this morning’s Gospel. Perhaps the story itself was inspired by the miracle of the loaves and fishes; it’s an example of how God works by faith and action. The Gospel acts out some of the parables of hearing, seeking and growing we’ve shared over the last weeks – the loaves and fishes are like a mustard seed – a little goes a long way; they’re like leaven hidden in the loaf, the way the food increases in number; the Disciples fail to recognize the food hiding almost secretly in the midst of the crowd, maybe like that treasure in the field.

The stranger gets people to act by invitation and necessity. So did Jesus. He acts out of compassion and asks the Disciples to do the same. The crowds need not go away, Jesus says; the Disciples have food — they will share their supper with the crowds. When they opened up their lunch boxes and found five loaves of bread and two fish, instead of the great ‘Aha!’ moment it was the great, “Uh-oh.” They’d need more than that to feed over five thousand people. Maybe they scratched their heads and looked at each other – you know, that look when everyone in the conversation hopes someone else has the answer? One can only imagine what Peter was thinking – or saying.

Let’s give a back story to this scripture before we move on. This event follows the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s birthday feast – a bit different than the feast described here in Chapter 14. Jesus has spent the day preaching – perhaps one of the longest sermons ever offered, and, he’s been healing all those people. When he learns of John the Baptist’s death, he goes off by himself – and the crowds follow; they just won’t go home. Matthew’s text doesn’t state that the crowd was hungry and wanted something to eat, but it does say that the disciples wanted the people to go away and find their supper elsewhere. Here we have one of those moments when being disciples of Christ, of being members of the Body, seems utterly impossible or hopeless, and we look to the pragmatic, the logical, what’s in front of our noses for answers.

So Jesus tells the disciples not only what they do not want to hear, but what they cannot fathom:
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

Rather than argue the point further, the disciples give Jesus the loaves and fishes. Jesus looked to heaven and took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, who in turn gave the bread and the fish to the crowds.

There was plenty to eat, everyone was fed, and there were leftovers.

This miraculous feeding is repeated in all of the gospels and that fact is evidence of the importance of this story to the early Christians as it should be to Christians now: it is the foretaste of the Last Supper and gives us elements of the Eucharist in the orderly arrangement of people, the prayer of blessing, the act of breaking bread and the distribution of the bread to all assembled. It is a call to community.

The Table has become more than just an outward and visible sign of Christ’s compassion. Fed at Christ’s Table, we the faithful work and serve in a world where sharing our resources, our ministries is one way to express our willingness to believe, to take chances against the norm and live and proclaim the Gospel.

What we should note here is not only the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, but the call to action and mission.

Jesus sent The Twelve out with authority to teach, preach, heal, to serve, and we see it at work as they distribute the bread and the fish. They are models for us as they follow the instructions Jesus gives – no matter how impossible it may seem. Perhaps the miracle is that when we trust in the love of God through Christ, completely give ourselves over to that love, we can make things that seem impossible very real in our lives and the lives of those we touch.

A stranger comes to town and invites the people to share a soup they make together – from very little comes an abundance of food and love. The disciples’ five loaves and two fish seem to be lacking in quantity, yet over five thousand people had their fill. No one was turned away. There is enough of God’s love to go around.

And now, my friends, I invite you to join me at the Table and you will have something to eat.
It is only a little bit of bread and wine, but it is so much more.

Our Goodness or God’s?

 

Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, July 13, 2014, by The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman:

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus was, in a way, just pointing out the obvious about his ministry. Some people “got” what he was talking about and some people didn’t. And why didn’t they? In some cases, they didn’t really understand it—couldn’t quite see what it had to do with their own lives. In other cases, they got quite excited when they first heard it, but the excitement was just a thing of the moment. In yet others, their attention was tugged away by the necessities of daily life—or maybe, beyond the necessities themselves, the struggle for prestige, wealth, security, certainty. Only in certain cases—maybe not all that many—did Jesus’ good news really take hold of people and give them new hope, the kind of hope that blossoms into a whole new kind of life. And those people, as Matthew has it, became like plants that “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

Yes, most of the people in those big crowds that came out to hear the hot new rabbi from Galilee went away shaking their heads and lost interest as the initial public excitement faded. And then there were the others, the ones who kept listening and mulling things over and letting the teaching work on them and change them.

So what is this all about? Is this a matter of separating good people from bad? sheep from goats? Is Jesus condemning the people who didn’t get it? It doesn’t really look that way when we read it carefully. In some cases, Jesus says, “the evil one” was at fault, snatching the seed away before it could take root. In others, he blames the shallowness of people’s environment: it dried out too fast, didn’t give them a chance. In still others, it’s the weeds of worldly cares and temptations that choke the seedlings. To tell the truth, he doesn’t even give much credit to the people who do get it. Their seeds just happened to land in the good soil.
What’s going on here? Aren’t parables (or, for that matter, sermons) supposed to be moral pep talks? We expect them to tell us that we need to try harder. The bonus from that (and it has to have some bonus or we’d have given up on the process long ago) is that if we do manage a bit better, we can then feel good about ourselves for how well we’ve done. You can almost imagine the first disciples, on hearing this parable, turning to one another with a humble smile to acknowledge how good they all were. They must surely be the productive grain Jesus was speaking of.

But, then again, maybe not. The earliest Christians, in fact, had a strong sense that their faith in God owed very little to their own efforts. Think of St.Paul’s conversion. He certainly didn’t deserve any credit for that, did he? No, he got knocked off his feet (or, if you prefer the more dramatic version of the mannerist painters, his horse). (I do worry about that, though. If he was on a horse, how many other injuries did he sustain besides blindness?) In any case, he was as uncooperative as he could be. His conversion was something God did to him, not something he did for God.
That’s why he could write in Romans, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (8:2) We’re not just trying harder, he says; we’ve actually been turned into something new. Thanks to the gift of God’s Spirit, we’re living a different life with a different kind of energy.
Those early Christians discovered that they had somehow become new. And it hadn’t been primarily of their own doing. It was rather a gift from God. God somehow got through to them and showed them something astonishing about the love of God, something they had never suspected; and that gave them a new kind of life, one built on trust and hope and love and actually making a difference in who they were and how they behaved.
They didn’t all get knocked down on the road like Paul. Probably most of them were not quite as stubborn or hard to get through to as Paul. But they did get caught by surprise and given a new start. And it was God who did it, not they themselves. So they really couldn’t think of their faith as evidence for their own moral superiority.
So here’s Jesus undermining his disciples’ self-importance (that, of course, means our self-importance, too) right from the start, just as he was undermining that of the religious establishment of his day. “You think you’re pretty hot stuff? No, you just happened not to be living in a stony field or a weed patch. Lucky you!”

This teaching wasn’t new with Jesus. The same story was told in another way in our reading from Genesis today. Two children are born. The older, Esau, grows up as a bit of a free spirit, a bit disorganized, a bit irresponsible, but not a bad sort at all. The younger, Jacob, is hard working and efficient, but also rather mean-spirited, as we saw in the story about the stew. Yet, it’s Jacob who becomes the focus, the main character of their story in Genesis. He has no right to it. He is the younger son. (I doubt anyone took that story of buying his brother’s birthright seriously. There were no witnesses, after all.) And he’s not morally superior to his brother; if anything, the reverse. At the end of their joint story, it’s Esau who takes the risk of making peace (Gen. 33:4). Yet, God takes him and makes something of him.
God doesn’t pour the Spirit out selectively on the good. We don’t have to try to convince God or ourselves that we deserve it. No, God pours it all out willy-nilly, letting it splash on anyone within reach, and delighted when anyone catches on and opens up to it. Maybe some who turn a deaf ear to it at one time will be caught by it at another and changed in ways they could never have imagined. They’ll find themselves living new, more courageous, more generous lives than they had thought possible.

But wait a minute! Does this mean that God is unfair? Shouldn’t those of us who are trying to be good get at least a few favors? Well, whatever good God is up to in this world, we already know that it doesn’t add up neatly or perfectly, not in ways we can calculate and appreciate.
We often want a God that makes everything come out neatly in the end. It may be an intrinsic human desire. And it got a big boost in the Enlightenment Era, when Newton’s theory of gravity was the end-all of physics and one theologian (an Anglican priest named William Paley) even compared God to a watchmaker—a God with a place for everything and everything in its place, all to produce a thoroughly consistent world.
But our world is not ruled solely by gravity and predictability. We live in a world shaped intellectually by quantum theory and evolution. It may not be very comfortable, but it does at least leave us free to admit that sometimes the world is a mess. If God is at work in this world at all—and God is—then God is working, as people of earlier times also knew, in a world where chance plays a large role. God doesn’t rescue us from chance and make life safe for us. What God does is to live our lives along with us and fling seed in all directions in the hope that some it it will find fertile soil. And it does.
If our lives have some fertile patches in them, it’s no particular credit to us. We know from our own life histories that sometimes the seeds tossed at us have landed in the weeds or the rocks or along the path where the devil or anybody could have picked them off like a flock of hungry birds.
The world is not perfect. And we’re not perfect. But God is deeply involved with us and our world. And if God doesn’t get through to us on the first try, God will try again. And when the seed lands in the right spot at the right time of your life, it will grow and flourish. It will do that by God’s grace. And when it does, you find yourself becoming, maybe just ever so slightly at first, a new person, a person with riches to share, with gifts to give.
“Other seeds . . . brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

God of the Weeds

Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, July 20, 2014, by the Rev. Este Gardner Cantor:

Jesus is once again, patiently, creatively, doggedly trying to give the disciples an idea of the Kingdom of Heaven.
After the parable of the Weeds, Jesus gives the disciples an explanation, two parables later. I am a little suspicious of this, given that Jesus very rarely explained anything, and, like a Zen master tended to leave his puzzling words to work the minds and hearts of the listener. Modern scholars have been just as puzzled, and there have been many interpretations of what the parable of the weeds might actually mean. But one struck me as particularly likely, given what we know about Jesus.
This interpretation said that Jesus was indeed using the weed-clogged field as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven, but this was a Kingdom of Heaven in which there were neither enemies, children of the evil one, a devil or weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus was making a declaration against the efforts to purify a community of human “weeds” –an all to common tendency in those days. He is decrying the practice of making brutal distinctions between tribes, and exterminating or banishing those who did not fit in. Jesus suggests that these differences, if indeed they are significant, will be addressed by God on judgment day, and are beyond the scope of humankind to meddle in. Even the weeds, he says, must be left to grow, even to flourish along side the grain.
The news this past week has been devastating. The brutal “weeding out” of the other has reached such tragic proportions that the pain is sent like shockwaves all over the world. Four Palestinian children, a nine year old, two ten year olds and an eleven year old were killed last week as they played on the beach, by rockets from an Israeli plane. They were all from the same family, a family so devastated that the pictures of their faces are unbearable to behold. As their parents would say of these lost children, “To God they belong and to God they will return”
This was only the last incident in the killing of many Palestinian civilians, collateral damage in the surge of violence following the killing of three Israeli teenagers.
Two of the slain Israeli boys were sixteen, the other nineteen. The first clues the police found in searching for their bodies were their teffillin- leather-bound holy texts discovered in a burned out car. The teffillin are part of the life of every observant Jewish boy and are bound on their arms during prayer in obedience to the instructions in Leviticus: “You shall teach the commandments to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your arm.” As the parents of the young men would say, “May their names be for a blessing”.
In our own country another example of weeding out of the impure has come home to us.
Seventy thousand children have been sent by their parents out of the most terrifying conditions to throw themselves on the barely existent mercy of our great nation. I heard a newscast describing the life of a child in Honduras, whose school has come under the control of a drug cartel. The drug lords send recruiters into the schools and if the teachers try to get in the way of the abduction of children, a gun is held to their heads. If they still don’t comply, they are shot. Then the abducted children are forced to go back into the school to recruit more innocents. Many people, including children, have been killed by these drug lords. But we don’t want the children here. We think they should be sent back.
The town of Murrieta, Arizona exploded in protest when buses of young immigrants, some as young as six years old, drove into town to process the overflowing numbers of children. A crowd held up signs that said, “Non-Yankees Go Home” and “Return to Sender.” The buses were forced to turn around and seek another location for the processing. Patrice Lynes, a Murietta resident was quoted as saying, “I’m so happy,” she said. “I feel Murrieta inspired America. I think it’s awesome… We’re standing up as patriotic Americans to enforce our laws at the borders.” I saw a picture of a detention center which I first thought was a picture of a morgue.
There were dozens of small bodies wrapped in what appeared to be tinfoil, laid out like sardines. I then realized they were sleeping children wrapped in emergency blankets. Walls of chain-link fencing surrounded the sleeping children. As their parents would say, Que sueñes con los angelitos “May they dream of angels.”
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are given us some welcome perspective- some desperately needed hope for the pain we are all feeling now, in this time of violence and brutality. Now, as Paul tells us, all creation is groaning with the labor pains, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

We await the birth of the time when we will know without hesitation that we are all children of the same God, all children of the same sower, all heirs as Paul tells us, free from the slavery of violence, of hatred.
I hope and pray that the sufferings of the present time will be worth the glory that will be revealed to us.
I have no doubt that Jesus would not rip out the tender shoots from where they are, knowing it would damage not only the introduced plants, but the wheat as well. I have no doubt that Jesus sees no difference between Israeli teenagers, Palestinian children, Latino refugees, and first world children.
I know that for all our pristine vestments, cathedrals and sacred vessels, God is not a God of purity. And in spite of the artistic interpretations of Jacob’s ladder, it must be remembered that the angels traveled up AND down that ladder, perhaps traveling down to lend a hand to those small sleeping angels. God is not a God of “up.” God is always down. Down to the level of the poor, the refugee, the wounded, the hungry, the weeds. God knows that you can’t build a bridge from up in the air. You have to start down low. At the level of a child.
The children killed on the beach were all from the same family, and we must somehow remember that we are all from the same family, all children of a God who knows our inmost parts, who has searched us out and knows us, and loves us even in all our brutal betrayal.
There is nowhere we can flee where God is not, as Godless as the world may seem. If we say, “Surely the darkness will cover us, and the light around us becomes night” God will be with us. Search us out, God, know us, and bring us into your new creation.
Amen.

 

Sacrificing Issacs

Preached from the Pulpit on Sunday, June 29, 2014 by the Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Our Gospel passage follows the sending out of the twelve apostles, with many instructions and warnings. Cast out unclean spirits, says Jesus, cure every disease, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, He doesn’t ask much. But Jesus also warns, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans. Go, rather, only to the lost tribe of Israel.”

I am sending you, he says, like sheep into the midst of wolves. It seems the disciples are being sent out into a very bad neighborhood indeed.

Then comes the good news: Jesus talks a lot about welcoming. He says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” He goes on to say, that whoever offers even a cup of cold water to the disciple, (one of these little ones, he calls them) will never lose their reward.” God will be with them.

Our Old Testament passage is one of the most disturbing and puzzling of them all. Here, a little one is offered not water, but fire. Abraham is instructed by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. As the story progresses, the son seems to be happily accompanying his father, carrying the wood obediently on his back, only asking finally where the lamb is that they are to sacrifice. We cannot know if Abraham betrayed any emotion when he simply says, “God will provide the lamb.”

Like the twelve disciples, we here at Good Shepherd, have been sent out. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit blasted us out into the wilderness for a forced discernment, just after our baptism of fire. And like Abraham, a great sacrifice has been asked of us. We had been very comfortable in a gorgeous interior space for a very long time. But that dear space was sacrificed. We were forced into a long exile- an exile during which we worshiped in the same place as the great weekly Friday lunch gathering of our brothers and sisters of the outside world, of every tribe.

These guests are not from the tribe of Israel, although many could be identified as lost sheep. We had to begin to notice that our church community was fed in the building on Sunday at 11:00 and the neighborhood was fed at 12:00 on Fridays. But as I have noted, our Episcopal force field lowered to unprecedented levels, and some of the Friday guests and their friends even began to join us on Sundays.

We were sent out. Out of our comfort zone- out to a new place where we saw who we really were. And even more than simply worshipping in our parish hall, we were sent out to be the church outside, not just welcoming from the inside.
Even just by worshipping here in the parish hall, we were suddenly sent out into the neighborhood, and the neighborhood welcomed us.

I went on another Night Walk Against Gun Violence week before last. This one was based out of McGee Ave Baptist Church. We literally went out into the neighborhood, as this community of Good Shepherd, with so many others did last October, and we, too were hardily welcomed. As we gathered in a circle of prayer at the spot where yet another person had been shot, a woman came running out of her house in her bare feet, towing her two young sons along, just to tell us how grateful she was that we cared about the neighborhood. One young man even followed us back into the church. At the debriefing afterwards, there were three African American speakers- three Abrahams who are not willing to sacrifice any more Isaacs. The first one, Pastor Michael Smith, told a story about a conversation he had with a person he kindly referred to as a “street pharmacist.” He asked the man, “How is it that you get the trust of these young people? Why do they come to you for solutions?”

The dope dealer (my less compassionate term) said to him, “When the kids go to school in the morning at 8:00AM I am there. When they get out of school and come home at 3:00 I am there. When they sneak out of their houses at 11:00PM to meet up or get snacks I am there.” Then he looked at Pastor Smith and said, “Where are you?”-

He had a point. We have an epidemic of sacrificed Isaacs in our neighborhood and in our city. No one has listened hard enough to hear God saying, no- stop the sacrifice- do no harm to these children. Sacrifice something else!

We here at Good Shepherd have indeed had our own sacrifice. A great loss of something very dear to us. One of the first things we were sent out to do was to take care of each other, and this we have done marvelously well. To me, this closeness we have achieved, this caring for one another shows us that we will not meet with more sacrifice if we continue to open our circle. Because we are sent out all together. So it could be that the only thing that was really sacrificed was our loneliness, our distance from our brothers and out sisters who were so close at hand.

When we come back to our Jerusalem after our long exile, we will see that though the exterior of our beloved church is just the same, the inside will be different. To me it would not make sense to be sent out and then return to exactly the same place. -Our Gospel passage speaks of welcome, and I believe that we are called to make room for more of our brothers and sisters, and to make our church more accessible to everyone.

When the flooring was first being repaired, we discovered that the original floor was almost 100% level, with just a small raised altar at the very front where the priest celebrated with his (and I do mean his) back to the congregation.

We are restoring the level floor, but adding a movable raised platform that can be placed anywhere in the space. It will be the most flexible interior possible. It will be much more navigable for all abilities, and it will put the emphasis on welcoming community.

The other great change is the chairs. We will have one hundred new and beautiful chairs which will seat more people, be much more accessible and comfortable, and allow more welcoming worship styles. We even have a few raised chairs to welcome those with ailing knees and hips. We will be able to express the welcoming circle we share at the Eucharist by forming worship in the round if we want. We will never be the same people as we were before we were sent out, and our space will never be the same either.

We have been sent out. With whatever gifts we have or do not have, we have been sent out to heal the sick, to heal each other, to bring life to those who seem dead, and to take care of the little ones. But most of all, we are sent to bring the church to the lost sheep of every tribe and nation, including our own. Amen

True Equality

Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on July 3, 2014 by The Rev. Ellen L. Ekstrom:

Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
When we do not understand our actions, and when we do not do the good we want, but just the opposite – ending up doing something less than good, or, as Paul puts it bluntly, evil, we are fortunate to have someone beside us when we are weary and carry heavy burdens. Christ is there. He is gentle and humble in heart. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Let’s hear again what Jesus said.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”

These are comforting words. But what is this yoke?

We know it is a tool – that wooden collar that goes over the neck and shoulders of two beasts of burden, such as oxen, used to attach a plow or wagon so that the tool or vehicle can be pulled along.

This is what the followers of Jesus would have known.
They would have seen the oxen pulling the plow in the fields. Slaves and laborers wore the yoke, too. Jesus is offering to share that yoke.

To the early church, the burden would have been daily life, to be sure, and the dangers and challenges of being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.  The author of the Gospel of Matthew this morning explains to his audience that it is a burden that Jesus will help them carry.  In the context of this morning’s Gospel scripture, the invitation Jesus extends comes from his teaching. He has explained the importance of John the Baptist’s ministry, for example. John was the herald, the opening act, if you will, for Jesus of Nazareth. John baptized and proclaimed that there was one mightier than he and some people didn’t listen. They failed to recognize God living in their world and change their lives. In fact, it’s a no-win situation: to some, John was a prophet who didn’t deliver; Jesus was a drunkard and a glutton because he dined with the wrong people. Jesus ridicules his critics by comparing them to children who refuse to play nice. He also stresses the need to have childlike trust which we all have before we grow up and enter the adult world and its responsibilities, its skepticism and lack of trust, and yes, lack of faith. What we have heard is that we need to recognize the importance of belief, we need to trust in Jesus and his promise. In other words, we need to strap on that yoke.

And why not?

We take upon ourselves other burdens – each of us, I’m sure, has a long list – so why not sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what he has been teaching for two millennia? It is, I believe, the perfect solution for what’s wrong in the world today.

Ah, how wonderful it would be if those who wield the power and make the decisions that govern our lives would listen, or even better, strap on that yoke! Yes, I’m talking about you, leaders who believe that corporations are people and allow and condone an avowal of religious belief to discriminate and oppress. Do you understand your actions? Is this the good you want?

For those of you who were buried in World Cup action or actually worked during the U.S. v. Belgium match, the Supreme Court ruled that employers may withhold certain types of medical coverage on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The coverage is for contraception.

I wasn’t surprised by the decision and who handed it down, nor was I surprised by the dissent, or the public’s outcry. It is good and right that Christians who listen to Jesus’ true message of unconditional love and equality are speaking up, saying not so fast. They are saying, “We’re Christian, but we don’t use the faith given to us by Christ to discriminate, to practice bigotry or sexism. Not all Christians are sexually-repressed, judgmental, nor are they hypocritical. But the secular public, at least a percentage, see us like that. Most of all, we don’t beat people over the head with the Bible and force our employees to espouse our faith, or try to get the Supreme Court to do it for us. We strive every day to live what Christ taught and share that message.”

Christ says we should love our enemies. I do. I pray for those who seek to do me harm as a Christian and as a woman, as an individual, and I look for Christ in them, see glimmerings of understanding, and love. But it’s a lot easier to love them than like them.

This Independence Day Weekend, I’m hoping a new pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness borne of the outcry rising from the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell versus Hobby Lobby takes hold. Perhaps this momentum starting to spread and grow will finally result in giving equal rights to women and let us have the final say over what we do with our bodies, allow our choices to be those which will benefit our health, our lives and economies and those of our communities. Then it will be an independence day finally, finally, after two hundred and thirty years that represents all Americans. You see, this is the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus proclaims, the place where there are no barriers, no discrimination, where all are invited to the Table and to sit at Christ’s hand, left or right, sit before God and with God, and it begins by shouldering the yoke that is offered to us. We shall not be alone as we learn and labor together, nor shall we go quietly into the night because we will understand our actions and know that they are for the good of all.

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God’s Hands Get Dirty – The Rev. Dr. L. Wm. Countryman, June 22, 2014


Genesis 21:8-21 

What is a nice, decent, respectable God like ours doing in a nasty story like this one we just read—the one about Hagar? It’s a “dysfunctional family drama” writ large in the complicated mode of ancient polygamy. Sarah was Abraham’s first wife. They got married, of course, by some complicated family political maneuvering that we’re not privy to. But we know they were close relatives and we can guess that the marriage had something to do with inheritance issues.
And, then, Sarah had no children. In a marriage based on inheritance issues, you can see that this was a big problem. She had a slave woman named Hagar and decided to make Hagar her surrogate. So she gets Abraham to “marry” Hagar. (This would have made Hagar an kind of cross between slave and wife, just about half a step above a concubine, really.) The idea was that Sarah would take Hagar’s child as her own.
So far so good. But when Hagar got pregnant, she began to think rather well of herself. Sarah couldn’t stand it and got her driven out into the desert. (That was the first time Hagar was kicked out, several chapters back in Genesis 16.) By the time of our story today, Sarah has born a son, against all odds. And she’s decided that she isn’t going to tolerate any competition. Once again, Hagar is driven out, this time with child in tow.
Nobody comes out of this story well. Hagar is ambitious and greedy; she wants to take Sarah’s place. Sarah is vindictive. Abraham is cowardly and useless.

So what is God doing in this story at all? You don’t need a divinity to produce this kind of soap opera. Human beings can do it on our own with no trouble at all. If God is going to be a part of it, how abut a more constructive role? How about demanding better behavior all around? How about solving some problems? How about a little justice?
Well, God does solve a few problems—promising to give Abraham descendants through both sons, showing Hagar the well in the desert and saving her life. But none of this really touches what’s wrong with the story as a whole.
You may be wondering why I’m making such a point of this. I’m not just emphasizing the scandal aspect for its own sake. (Though I did get your attention, didn’t I? Scandal tends to do that.) But, actually, there’s a theological and spiritual point involved here, one that’s worth delving into.
The people here are all behaving in utterly human ways. And they’re playing out roles more or less thrust upon them by the culture of their time and place. Sarah desperately needs to produce an heir. She’ll use unorthodox means if necessary. But she will defend her turf. The alternative is too ugly to contemplate.
Hagar has no turf to defend; she’s a slave. She’s called a “wife,” but she doesn’t have any real status or security, as the story shows. She has to press every advantage she’s got. And any gains she may make will be at Sarah’s expense.
Abraham needs an heir; and he’s gone from no heirs to two in just a few years. But now it’s all unraveling on him. Ishmael is the safe bet, since he’s already survived infancy. But Sarah is his “real” wife to whom he is bound not only by their marriage but by broader family interests.
Now, there are moments when we human beings rise above such difficult challenges. They’re a treasure. But it’s a goal we frequently fail to attain. Like Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham, we’re not intrinsically mean, venal, cruel or uncaring people. But, if we’re honest, we know we’re compromised.
We sometimes like to think of God’s job as setting things right. In this story, though, God is almost as compromised as the other characters. The term “co-dependent” might even drift through one’s mind. “Do what Sarah says,” God tells Abram, “and I’ll make it up to your other family.” The principal beneficiary of all this is Isaac, who at this point has done nothing at all except get born.

Now, I don’t mean to underrate our longing for justice. It’s a central human value. And I’m convinced God cares about it deeply. But I think the very difficulties of our story, the ways in which everybody gets compromised, are pointing us toward what is probably the most profound and the most difficult teaching of the Christian faith. Important as justice is to God, something else is even more important. And that something is God’s love for this world and for the human beings that God has planted in it: human beings who have the ability to relate freely to one another and to God, who have the freedom to do this well or badly, the freedom to grow in love or to deny and reject it.
If God were constantly intervening to impose immediate justice and fairness, all that would get short-circuited. Our freedom means, alas, the freedom to harm as well as to love. Love can’t be imposed. It can only be elicited. Sometimes, God has a long wait.
So how is God to accomplish this project of loving us and summoning us to love? There is only one way: God has to get down in the dirt with us. God has to be with us where we are. A God who only sits on the throne and passes judgment on our failings cannot raise us to a higher level of love. As George Ade put it a century ago with reference to a high-minded scheme for improving the poor masses: “When uplifting, get underneath!”

And God is willing to do that. In fact, God has been doing it since the beginning of the human story. God gets involved in the messy family melodrama, the tragic catastrophe, the comedy of errors— even the horror stories that seem to be our favorite modern entertainment and the daily fodder of the news media. Why? Because God would rather be where we are than seated aloft on the throne of judgment. God was not Sarah and Hagar and Abraham’s impatient supervisor. God was their lover. God is our lover, too. God is willing to take the risk of being compromised in order to be part of our lives, our day, our culture, our troubled and uncertain historic moment.
I speak of this as not only the most profound of Christian teachings but also the most difficult one. It is. We have a terrible time accepting it. We want a God who would intervene more quickly, restrain the wrong-doers, rescue the innocent, one who expects more of our enemies, at least, if not of us, one who will enforce justice. But if we had such a God, that would be the end of the story, wouldn’t it? The end of all stories. And probably we’d all be serving time, sometimes for things we didn’t even understand or things we didn’t know we were complicit in, sometimes, like Hagar and Sarah and Abraham, for just trying to keep our heads above water in a difficult world.
Instead, we have a God who seeks us out in love and tries to sustain us through the craziness of human existence. This God doesn’t promise us peace or justice in this life. Jesus, today, even said that he hadn’t come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt. 10:34). No big changes there! But above all, Jesus came to share the life that we live, without any special claims to consideration, even at the risk of death itself.

So I hope you will remember this story and how poorly everybody comes off in it: Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, even God! We could imagine a story where God waves the magic wand and every one lives happily ever after. But this story is actually better. It should give us some hope. God was willing to get dirty hands in the process of cultivating the friendship of those remote, improbable nomads who we count as our ancestors in faith. And God is fully prepared to risk the same in order to seek our love and friendship now, compromised as we all find ourselves to be.

The Rev. L. Wm. Countryman

The Rev. L. Wm. Countryman