As in every age, there are signs and portents that reveal cosmic struggles on scales beyond comprehension: Masses of people influenced by evil and hateful ideologies and those toeing the straight and narrow path of right and just resistance, wondering if violent counteraction is indeed justified; the lunar orbit crossing in front of the sun, cutting a swath across the lower 48, like the scar between North and South that has existed as long as Europeans have violated this soil. The same imperialistic fight over how to exploit resources, both natural and human, has raged on since before the dawn of civilization, when Cain murdered Able over the acceptability of labor’s sacrifice. What are the fruits that will please the Lord and with what attitude must they be given? These are essential questions that people of faith must continually wrestle with.
Text: Daniel 4:28-37
Location: Timbercrest Community, North Manchester, IN
The book of Daniel is a fascinating piece of ancient literature. It contains snapshots in the form of stories and dreams spanning the rise and fall of three empires. (Babylon, Persia, and Greece)
The fourth chapter is especially intriguing, as king Nebuchadnezzar is given a voice in the story. Much of this chapter is written in first person, from the perspective of this Babylonian ruler.
It is an episode that stands out. Mostly because it is written from Nebuchadnezzar’s perspective. But it also functions as a footnote to the first three chapters.
You may recall the exploits of Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; The king’s golden idol and the fiery furnace. Like in many iconic Sunday school Bible stories, the powerful are humbled and the faithful are vindicated. Moses and Pharoah; David and Goliath; Elijah and Ahab; Esther, Mordechai, and Haman. Just to name a few from the Old Testament.
This is also a theme that New Testament writers draw on. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary sings about God bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly, shortly after learning that she is chosen to bear God’s son, Jesus. In some theological interpretations of Jesus, his messianic mission is precisely to humble the powerful and vindicate the faithful. And Paul writes passionately that the faithful will be saved through God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ.
Apocalyptic literature, like the book of Daniel, is often dripping with the theme of the powers of the world crumbling to reveal a reality where only the faithful stand. King Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation and subsequent utterance of God’s praises drives home this theme. It is God’s sovereignty, God’s just reign, that brings down the unjust powerful and lifts up the suffering faithful.
This is a theme that touches the deep longing of the human soul for justice, for things to be made right. And it captures the human imagination in many different expressions.
It is a story that is played out frequently in sporting events. Faithful fans root for their team, even when the odds are stacked against them. Sports writers are always on the lookout for the next big story.
The Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years is perhaps the greatest sports story of this past year. Generations of fans finally reached the promised land… vindication.
Of course, the Cleveland Indians and their fans have a different story. They came oh so close in a heart-stopping deciding game 7. Like 28 other teams, vindication is postponed until next year… maybe.
The humbling of the powerful and the vindication of the faithful is a driving theme in myth and story. There are endless examples, but the theme is fairly explicit in one modern story set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon, an epic space opera featuring a powerful empire bent on galactic supremacy and a rebel alliance held together by faith in the Force. It is a fairly easy parallel to draw between this rebel alliance and the Hebrew people in exile in Babylon (as depicted in the book of Daniel). Both follow a general narrative of resisting empire and relying on faith to do so.
Empires throughout time (and space) exercise power in numerous ways. Military force is the primary tool for exerting influence and control over territory and people. Nebuchadnezzar presided over the height of the Neo Babylonian Empire and engaged in many military campaigns. He is primarily known for conquering the kingdom of Judah, destroying Jerusalem, and forcing many into exile.
The Galactic Empire in Star Wars is another classic example of a primarily military empire. Legions of soldiers and a full arsenal of weapons of mass destruction enforce the Empire’s hold over the galaxy. But not even the Death Star, with the power to destroy worlds, is enough to deter rebellion and resistance. An empire must be able to use tactics beyond military might to maintain order in its particular sphere of influence.
Assimilation is a word that can describe one of these alternatives. It can describe the response of conquered people to adapt to the culture of the conqueror rather than risk violent conflict. Assimilation can also be used to describe the efforts of empire to adapt to the variety of cultures of those who are conquered. It is a more diplomatic way of seeking favor with the people rather than with the threat, “join us or die.”
Assimilation was a big part of Nebuchadnezzar’s agenda. He captured the best and the brightest to serve in administrative capacities. He wanted to establish a cultural and political center for his empire.
Another science fiction franchise that provides opportunity for exploring empire is Star Trek. “To seek out new life and new civilizations” is part of the starship Enterprise’s primary mission. I am often amused when those “new” cultures and civilizations resemble human ones. Empires like the Klingons and Romulans are quite similar to the empires of earth’s history. But there is one Star Trek civilization that takes the concept of assimilation to the extreme.
The Borg instantly assimilate intelligent species and technology into a collective consciousness. They even use a catch phrase: “you will be assimilated, resistance is futile.” Of course, in the many episodes that feature the Borg, Starfleet crews manage to resist, much like Daniel and his companions in Babylon.
The book of Daniel gives many accounts of resistance to assimilation. Daniel and his companions refuse to eat the food that the king provides. They also refuse to worship in the way that the king wants. The message is fairly clear: Resistance to empire, especially in matters of faith, is ultimately not futile. Empires eventually fall. God reigns eternally.
It is an ironic twist in the story that Nebuchadnezzar’s assimilation program ultimately backfires in the case of Daniel and his companions. The king sings God’s praises and recognizes God’s sovereignty.
It is unclear if this is a story of genuine conversion, or a satirical commentary on a ruler paying lip service to the Most High. The possibility of conversion is a compelling story to tell.
This is the angle taken in Nabucco, the operatic dramatization by composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Temistocle Solera. Nabucco is a shortened Italian of Nebuchadnezzar.
The opera is loosely based on biblical accounts of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian exile. Liberties are taken with the text to give added dramatic flair to the theme of the powerful humbled and the faithful vindicated.
It is quite possible that Verdi and Solera had resisting empire on their minds as well, as political tensions between Italy and the Austrian Empire were high. Nabucco’s premier in 1842 was held in Milan, an Italian city under Austrian control.
Va Pensiero, also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from the opera’s third act, became an anthem of Italy’s unification movement, which formed the nation as we know it today.
Resisting empire is a powerful theme.
The words of this chorus resonate profoundly in politically charged and complicated times. The following is an English translation of the Italian text.
“Go, thought, on wings of gold; Go settle upon the slopes and the hills, Where, soft and mild, the sweet airs Of our native land smell fragrant!
Greet the banks of the Jordan And Zion’s toppled towers… Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost! Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!
Golden harp of the prophetic seers, Why dost thou hang mute upon the willow? Rekindle our bosom’s memories, And speak to us of times gone by!
Oh you akin to the fate of Jerusalem, Give forth a sound of crude lamentation, Oh may the Lord inspire in you a harmony of voices Which may instill virtue to suffering.”
Perhaps in part inspired by the words of this lament, Nabucco frees the Jewish exiles and promises to worship God and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. This is quite a bit different than the historical and the biblical Nebuchadnezzar.
Cyrus of Persia is the one who gets historical credit for allowing the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. He is known as one of the more tolerant rulers of the ancient world.
Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel does seem to have a change of heart. He does at the very least learn some tolerance, if not experience a complete conversion (only God really knows).
The story does help to give us some perspective in our own time, as many stories do. A modern democratic republic may be a bit different than ancient empires. But there is always a tension between the powerful and the faithful.
May we learn to hold to our faith in every circumstance, and may the stories of the faithful ever inspire us.
May those in power learn tolerance, rather than lean on forceful domination and assimilation.
And may we find the humility to use our own power in ways that build up those around us, rather than tear them down.
May God bless us and Christ go with us as we walk toward a new day of hope, where the powerful are humbled and the faithful are vindicated. Amen
As I have thought about my theological project over the past several weeks and months, I have found some clarity about the essence of the task. What I am reaching for is a credo, a statement of what it is that I believe about God and what I value in life. I want to express and articulate my perspective as an individual trying to understand self and world. Mortals have dedicated lifetimes to such expressions, and still there is more to say and more ways to say it.
The Nicene Creed is one such expression of belief that is valuable to many Christians all over the world, a statement of what is essential to the faith. Yet, there are still hairs to be split about precise understanding of the affirmation, not the least of which is if it should start with “I believe” or “we believe.” This depends quite a bit on cultural sensibilities. Western individualism has a hard time surrendering the ego of “I” to the community of “we.” An individual from a heavily communal culture has a hard time standing up and claiming self from a herd mentality.
“I” or “we” could also depend on social strata. It requires some privilege to claim beliefs and values for oneself, or to speak for others in a kind of royal “we.” For lower classes, the understanding may be that these things are dictated. Creeds can be as much tools of the elite to keep inferiors in their place as they can be affirmations of religious freedom. Theology is often written from such a place of privilege in order to dictate the correct answers for others who may have things wrong. This is a theological model that I hope to avoid in my writing.
For my own purposes, “I” makes more sense than “we” in my writing, since I write from an individual perspective. Sure, there is communal impact on what I believe and I do come from a tradition with a strong community emphasis. I do tend to us “we” language in pastoral activities like preaching and in more devotional writing. This may be a choice I will have to think about a bit more as I write.
Location: Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren
Text: Mark 9:14-28
Today’s story Is one that I have held close over the past year of chaplain work.
It is a story that echoes in many different situations. It is a story that is easily relate-able to experience; a story of a man with a sick child, a son.
Now, this man’s son has been sick for many years. Something unexplained takes hold of his body gives him convulsions. Often this condition strikes near a fire or close to a lake as if to destroy him.
This man wants for his son what any parent of a sick child wants; a cure, healing; and will go to any lengths to get it; and will pursue any means at his disposal. At the news of a healer and teacher who has a gathering of disciples, he sets upon a journey with his son with hope for healing.
When he catches up to these disciples and the crowd that they have drawn, he finds the teacher is absent up on a mountain with three of his closest companions. The man approaches the disciples and tells them what is going on about his son’s problems, but they are unable to help. Some in the crowd begin to argue; the people are restless.
After some time the teacher arrives. The man approaches and brings his son. He says to this Jesus “if you are able to do anything have pity on us and help us.”
Jesus turns this man’s request around “If you are able!–All things can be done for the one who believes.”
This cuts straight to the man’s heart. He says, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Jesus speaks words that one would expect from any highly religious person in any time. “All things can be done for the one who believes.”
This is probably not the first time this man has heard such an utterance. It was probably spoken by those in the crowd that very day. It is an unkind rebuke by the self-righteous adherents of a prosperity theology that sees healing and blessing as rewards for the deserving; and, conversely, sickness and curse as punishment for the unrighteous.
Jesus, in this moment, seems a bit like a smarty pants.
“I believe, help my unbelief!” The man cries out of desperation and even anger at such a common reproach from a religious person; perhaps pleading for a miracle; praying for a sign to help him believe.
Jesus does respond. He heals the boy as a crowd comes running in their direction.
Later on the disciples are curious. They had wanted to help this man and his sick child. They tried, but they could not help. So they ask Jesus “Why couldn’t we heal the boy?”
Jesus replies “This can only be done through prayer.”
I imagine that the disciples are a bit flustered by this, and so are we as readers and hearers of the story. The passage ends abruptly with another religious platitude, “You just need to pray a little more, a little harder; you just have to believe.”
Sayings like these make me cringe. Well intentioned as they may be, the implicit superiority and tacit accusation of faithlessness are often more harmful than good. Especially so In the worst of human tragedy, the death of a child, when there is no solace in “everything happens for a reason.”
From the wisdom of human Psychology, platitudes often have more to do with our own felt needs than with those of a person directly grieving a loss. This is a common exhortation from preachers who know something about human services, “Don’t say these things because they do not help. Eliminate them from your vocabulary.”
This also makes me more than a little uncomfortable, as if it might be better to abandon someone in distress, then to risk saying the wrong thing.
Truth be told, there really is no “right” thing to say in the midst of an acute crisis; no magic words to bring a child back from the dead.
Often the expectation of the hospital chaplain in my experience is to somehow make these situations OK for all involved. In many ways It really is an impossible job And I completely understand the honest sentiment of others, “I could never do What you do.”
Sometimes I want to say “well I can’t really either,” but there is something about impossible tasks that draws me in.
A large part of Clinical Pastoral Education, the training process that I have been immersed in over the past year, is reflecting upon these impossible situations as learning experiences.
One of the most profound experiences for me came during an overnight shift. There was a motor vehicle accident; father and son in a pickup truck, father on the driver’s side, son in the passenger seat. They were pulled over to the side of the highway, rear ended by an SUV. A log in the bed of the pickup went through the back window, striking the son in the head.
Son was flown in by helicopter, father arrived shortly after via ambulance. Son in critical condition, father a little beat up, but would not need to be admitted To the hospital.
This was one of those unfortunate grey areas between life and death for the son. EMTs and paramedics followed their training (ABC- Airway, Breathing, Circulation; transport to the hospital).
Trauma specialist evaluated. Basic tests and scans were done; no evidence of brain activity. His opinion, brain death. His responsibility, to break the news to the father.
There really is no good way to do this; giving news that reality itself is shattered. And there really is no way to pick up the pieces.
A bottle of raw emotion; anger and sadness; was uncorked as this father was told, “There is nothing more we can do.” An eruption of volcanic proportions, weeping and wailing. This man spoke with a thick Irish/Gaelic accent. I recognized that he might have a slightly different cultural relationship with his emotions than I, of stoic German descent.
And he expressed his faith that God performs miracles. And he prayed to God that his son would live. Beneath this I heard the echo of the plea of the father in Mark chapter 9. “I believe, help my unbelief.” I also heard echoes of the old religious platitude “All things can be done for the one who believes.”
It took some courage to affirm his difficult emotions and his plea for a miracle, “I want what you want I want your son to live.” All the while thinking to myself “I believe, help my unbelief.”
Part of what draws me to healing stories in the Gospels is that they often take the form of parables of the human condition. They often reveal deep existential struggles. Incidentally, I find myself drawn toward chaplain ministry for similar reasons. Human illness often reveals deeper struggles of existence. And perhaps the deepest struggle is between belief and unbelief in the face of mortality, the possibility of not being.
I have learned over the past year how to be more present with those in impossible situations; to listen to emotions and concerns; and try to help. I have also tried to find serenity in situations beyond the help I can try to offer. And the grace to keep trying, even if I make some mistakes. I am still learning.
And I do find some encouragement in our story today. Jesus, being who he is, cares for others through a kind of presence that transcends words. On the surface Jesus does not appear to model very effective pastoral care. The content of his speech is nothing but platitudes; and even explicit condescension, “You faithless generation!” But somehow he manages to minister to everyone in the situation. And a persistent man’s son is healed, to the amazement of all.
“I believe, help my unbelief” Is a simple affirmation and prayer, one that I find essential in my own faith journey. There is much that I do not understand and will not understand. And very little that I can know with much certainty; at least not on my own. I need some help.
I often come back to this simple prayer “I believe, help my unbelief” and I think it is at the core of the Brethren approach of communal discernment. I am deeply thankful for the support of Beacon Heights during this past year of learning and ministry. You have been invaluable to me in this part of my journey.
This is a place of seeking God’s help and steadfast love together; of affirming the basic value of each and every person as children of the Creator. This is important as life often paints a different picture.
In times of illness, crisis, and grief; times when God’s blessings seem far away, and when healing does not come in a time or way that seems right; somehow we meet Jesus in these times and in these places. Jesus, who challenges us toward a deeper faith, but also loves us as we are, and hears our deepest needs.
I come from a tradition that is skeptical of creeds. “No creed but the New Testament” is a popular saying among my people (Church of the Brethren). This is further nuanced in more theologically educated circles by adding something like “as read and understood in community.” Some take a “plain sense” approach, that the text itself speaks certain truths that are not open to multiple interpretations. Others are more open to look for deeper meanings and further enlightenment by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some are more comfortable with dissent within the community and others would like to see more discipline. Tensions similar to these are ubiquitous across many different communities within American denominationalism.
At best, creeds are ecumenical, seeking to unite communities in common belief. At worst, they are exclusionary, used as litmus tests to define who is in and who is out. As liturgical affirmations, they can be repeated from rote memory without putting much thought into their deeper meanings. Along similar lines, they can emphasize stating belief over living belief, words over action. Another reason for creedal skepticism is that creeds tend to accommodate “worldly philosophy,” in a sense demystifying faith into rational formulas. Some even see them as denying the continued revelation of God. There is also the more complicated stream of thought coming from the Radical Reformation of getting back to the roots of the Christian faith, before the influence of Constantine and the eventual marriage of church and state. For all of these theological and sociological reasons, and a few others that don’t immediately come to mind, the sectarian forbears of my tradition strongly disliked creeds (the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession being the closest thing to a creedal formula).
There is a sense that these arguments exist with or without creeds. There are ways to seek unity and exclude without holding to a specific creedal affirmation (the ban [excommunication]). Brethren often have adopted patterns reinforced by “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Different camps both affirm and deny the place of “worldly philosophy,” the role of mysticism, openness to continued revelation, and particular understandings of the authority of scripture. The battle lines are often drawn in ways that defy analysis. Some may just enjoy their own brand of sectarianism.
I carry quite a bit of ecclesiological angst into my theological writing. This is partly because Brethren tend to do theology in a deliberative way, aiming toward a kind of fluid communal consensus with accommodations for individual conscience, while somehow valuing discipline. One way to describe this is that we value relationship and community more than agreement on specific theological points (one definition of creed), even when relating and communing are more than a little bit painful.
This has been quite a long preface to the main concept of this post and what I have been aiming for in my own theological reflection, a good starting place that gets deep into the essence of what theology is. It seems to me that theology starts with Credo, some statement of belief, which is why an individual committing to write his own theology is more than a bit un-Brethren (or even an individual committing to represent the tradition in theological writing). The best that I might say is that I am an individual seeking to write theology, who happens to have a Brethren background.
In the context of the Nicene Creed, Credo (Latin translation of the Greek Πιστεύομεν [pisteuomen], we believe) has some pretty deep meaning that we seem to miss in English translation (especially with the common liturgical I believe). Interesting to note a similar Greek word πίστις (pistis), faith. Also interesting to note the root as part of epistemology (the study of knowledge). The concepts of faith, belief, and knowledge all have a pretty close relationship with one another and may not be as distinct as we often think. Other ideas like trust, submission, surrender, Gelassenheit (a good Anabaptist term for spiritual yieldedness), all seem to fall under the blanket of Credo as an essentially communal affirmation.
Beacon Heights COB, June 14th, 2015
Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5
“Beware the yeast of the Pharisees.” This is a saying internalized from a very early age for those raised in church. “I don’t wanna be a Pharisee…’cause they’re not fair you see.” The Pharisees are held as examples of how not to live one’s faith.
Anytime those Pharisees show up they are opposed to Jesus and his disciples. They become easy targets for slurs of hypocrisy, legalism, self-righteousness, and even bigotry. The Pharisees are straw men to be knocked down in theological arrogance. They represent what is disliked in those “other” people over there who do not share the same understanding of truth and God’s will for creation.
Half of my sermons this summer include Pharisees in some shape or form, so naming these associations early seems important. I do not think that I can counteract all of the baggage that comes with the label “Pharisee,” but we do need to be aware of them.
We might see “Pharisees” all around us in our world today and we don’t even have to look very hard at all. We just need to turn on the TV or log in to our favorite social media site.
As a member of the “Millennial” generation, social media is a big part of my life. This does have some benefits, but I know that if I am not careful I can become emotionally and even spiritually invested in what happens in the world of facebook.
Social media can be a chaotic marketplace full of noise and conflicting information and people in general are not afraid to share their opinions in places on the internet. Facebook can be a tinder-box that can explode with even the smallest of controversial issues. Unloving things are posted from all sides. The mud slinging takes no prisoners. The Pharisees come out in full force, leaving no good feelings on the social media sphere. Somewhere Jesus is facepalming for sheer embarrassment and people post this picture too.
I try my best not to throw my hat into the ring in these facebook explosions. More often than not, it is not worth the emotional and spiritual investment.
But it is hard not to feel it, when brothers and sisters in Christ share hurtful things out of theological arrogance and ignorance of another’s humanity. This is the yeast of the Pharisees and it is an ugly thing indeed.
While cyberspace is relatively new, public forums for the exchange of ideas, goods, and services are older than civilization. In Greco-Roman antiquity, the time period of the early church, marketplaces were full of many different ideas. Early Christians came into contact with followers of different faiths and other groups within Judaism. The Pharisees were one such group who represented competition for space in the public square.
These groups all had their own social media, ways of spreading ideas to other people both inside and outside the group. We have some of these recorded in the Christian scriptures known as the New Testament.
The four biblical Gospels in particular are constructed very much like social media sites. Pieces from other documents and from oral tradition are put together in different ways to form biographical narratives of Jesus’ life. This is especially true in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). John does the same thing, but includes some longer narrative sections. There will be more about John in another sermon.
Today we heard one story that appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus and his disciples wander through a grainfield, it happens to be the sabbath. The disciples are hungry and eat some of the grain.
Pharisees confront them for breaking the Sabbath and Jesus responds. He reminds them of a story from the life of David and makes a declaration that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.
This same basic story is told in three very subtly different ways. Our multi-voiced reading shows where the three are the same and where they are a little different. You probably noticed that there was not much unison material. Even though all three tell the same basic story, they don’t quite harmonize. In music theory, we might call it variations on a theme. Yet, the theme is lost to us. All we have are the variations. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t quite get them to fit together without changing them or being sort of creative.
Cutting these stories apart and splicing them together sort of leaves me feeling like a mad scientist like Dr. Frankenstein or something. Yet, it does help us to see some of the similarities and some of the differences of the biblical witnesses.
Their variations contain echoes of the original theme. It is not entirely lost to us, but it is colored in different ways by different people under different circumstances. And it is a recurring theme in the Gospel narratives. The Pharisees confront and Jesus responds. They are his chief adversaries and they seem to be around every corner.
In this particular iteration, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Pharisees appear to fancy themselves as the Sabbath police. In their eyes at least, Jesus and his disciples are breaking the Sabbath.
The disciples are hungry and eat as they pass through grainfields, as the poor in their culture are allowed to do. Following Jesus for them literally means solidarity with the vulnerable and powerless. The Pharisees, on the other hand, do not act in solidarity, but set themselves up in a position above the poor. They show theological arrogance and ignorance of the disciple’s humanity. It is as if they would rather see these poor people starve than see their personal sense of holiness violated.
Perhaps, though, it is unfair to treat the Pharisees as if they are heartless legalists in this case. They may just be curious and want to know what Jesus thinks about proper Sabbath observance.
We usually think of the Pharisees as observing Jesus and his followers from a distance, like spies or assassins, stealthily looking for opportunities to attack Jesus and his followers; bad people lurking in the shadows with a clearly malicious agenda. And there are passages in the Gospels that lend credence to such an image. Yet, we also find Pharisees who show sympathy for Jesus and his followers; among them Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul, the Apostle.
In looking at this story of the disciples in the grainfield in isolation from other texts, it is unclear how the Pharisees came upon Jesus and his disciples. It is possible that the Pharisees who raise the question about the Sabbath are among Jesus’ disciples. They are hardly aggressive or malicious though they might be a little accusatory in Matthew’s version and in Luke they appear to implicate Jesus in the breaking of the Sabbath. At least we can say that their intent is ambiguous.
The question of proper Sabbath observance is a topic of discussion for any group in and around the sphere of Judaism. There must be some disagreement among these Pharisees who approach Jesus. They just might be seeking his wisdom.
By using the story of David and his companions entering the house of God and eating the bread of the Presence, Jesus reminds these Pharisees of what they already know or at least should already know. Justice is more important than Sabbath observance.
The priests in the house of God had every right to deny David and his companions, but instead they harbored these refugees that were running from king Saul. Of course, at that point, David’s gang were basically armed rebels and really stepped all over the priest’s rights. They may have simply not been able to refuse. To add to this, these priests are later killed by Saul and his men for harboring those refugees. David did claim responsibility for the consequences, but the priests were the ones who ultimately paid the price.
We might wonder why Jesus would cite this somewhat troubling story to make his point about the Sabbath, but I think that by using it Jesus basically says, “Look, it is not your responsibility for how others observe Sabbath, ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,’ and like David claims responsibility for all involved.”
There is an even deeper theme underneath all the variations of all who witness to Jesus and that theme is Jesus himself, who lays down his own life for the sake of all people in every place. Jesus just might post on Facebook, “It is not your responsibility for what others believe and how others behave. Do your best to love God and love your neighbor and leave the rest to me. It is my responsibility.” And on his Twitter account, he might just follow this post with a hashtag #thesonofmanislordofthesabbath. And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and even John, just might share this post and add some of their own flair.
But the basic message would still be the same and the underlying theme would still ring through. Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, Anointed for all nations, takes responsibility for his people in every way,
Sabbath is a time to re-orient ourselves and our responsibilities. Our world demands a lot from us, many responsibilities (working, paying bills, cleaning house, taking care of family) these should not be abdicated. Yet, God gives us Sabbath so that we might enjoy what we have been given and take some time to realize what responsibilities belong to God and not to us.
We all need to be reminded sometimes that God is God and we are not God. True, we have responsibilities that we must attend to, but we cannot do it all all at once, let alone the responsibilities that are not ours to begin with.
Sabbath is not just another responsibility. As Mark’s Jesus puts it, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” It should be done with joy and it should bring joy and other spiritual fruits; if not right away, in God’s time.
Sabbath should bring about awareness of what has already begun, “something greater than the temple” that is already here that Matthew witnesses to; the kin-dom of God inaugurated in the ministry (the life, death, and resurrection) of Jesus. This is a reality that Jesus shares even with his opponents, even with the staunchest Pharisee whose adherence to the law and the strictures of tradition causes a loss of wonder and awe for the glory of God’s good creation.
May this same Jesus challenge us today to discern our own responsibility in loving God and loving neighbor to the best of our ability and leave the rest up to God. May we be inspired in wonder and awe by the glory of God’s good creation and may we have faith and trust that Jesus works in places where we cannot and unites all hearts toward the purpose of God; the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all Creation. AMEN
1 Chronicles 9:17-19; Psalm 46
Beacon Heights COB, May 31, 2015
In a classic episode of the Simpsons, Homer Simpson pledges $10,000 to PBS to end a pledge drive so that he can continue to watch a British comedy. This gets him into trouble because he obviously doesn’t have the money. He is chased through the streets of Springfield by a mob of PBS personalities.
He seeks refuge at the church building, bursting through the doors shouting, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” Reverend Lovejoy remarks to himself, “I knew I shouldn’t have taught him that word.”
Homer’s bumbling stupidity and blatant irreverence provide a satirical picture of white middle class privilege. He seeks refuge in his church for clearly selfish, first world problems.
Refuge is something taken for granted in white middle class privileged existence, but many people all around the world lack this basic human need. We were reminded during the Sunday school hour today of the situation in Nigeria in which Brethren in Nigeria have been forced out of their homes and safe spaces and have become refugees.
People displaced from their homes are forced to make perilous journeys across borders, both natural and artificial, in search of refuge, in search of shelter. The threats to safety and life that displace people are diverse, from terrorist organizations, drug cartels, dictatorships, famine and disease, and even natural disasters. And these are just the ones we typically think of as “refugees.”
As these people cross borders they are met with new hardships as they join the homeless and impoverished, people seeking refuge in their own land.
Even as we proclaim God as our refuge, there is a real need for shelter, a real need for safe space, that is not met for many in our neighborhoods, our country, and in our world. Even those of us privileged with adequate shelter and access to basic services can encounter threats to our safety, our livelihoods, and even our lives.
Sabbath can be a time of seeking refuge from these threats, both for ourselves and for our world, and to call upon God as the source of all refuge.
Ideally a church or other place of worship can provide space for such sabbath time to happen, a safe place that keeps peace in, that keeps threats and violence out, that provides shelter from storms; a place to truly be still and know God in an intimate way.
This is to be desired in individual and family dwellings as well. Yet, there is always a felt need for community sabbath space.
Beacon Heights is a church body with a church building and an expressed commitment to welcome and minister to all people. An open and affirming sabbath space is sought in this place, with an eye toward the welcoming and inclusive love of God. But such a vision is not without limitation and not without difficulty.
Homer Simpson might struggle to feel entirely welcome here. An average blue collar Joe, who is mostly concerned about what is for dinner and what is on TV, might not get social justice work. A person oblivious to his own privilege and social responsibility might not fit in here and might feel shamed if these things are pointed out. Homer would probably not return after visiting this church. Of course, Homer Simpson is a caricature used for satirical purposes and not a real person.
Real people are more complicated than race, socio-economic status, vocation, political affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, ability, disability, or any other distinction. These things should not matter in true sabbath time and sabbath space and they do not matter in God’s ultimate will for all things. Yet, we cannot seem to get away from them on this side of eternity.
This congregation does have a culture that is distinct in its own way. It is certainly a safe space for progressive white collar folks, highly educated professionals who also care about social justice. This is not such a bad thing. We are all naturally social creatures and want to be around those who share things in common. This is just part of the reality of seeking sabbath space together.
All that we can do, is do the best that we can with the best that we have and trust in God’s forgiveness and mercy; that even when we come up short, we still manage to live God’s will.
There is much good that comes from this gathering that seeks to make a place of refuge for all people and a body that works for peace and justice in this world. This is the lens through which we read and understand the ancient song that we know as Psalm 46. It speaks to us and informs us as people who value peacemaking.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present[a] help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city;[b] it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.[c]Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.[d]Selah
As I reflect on the words of this psalm that speaks of God as refuge, I think of the courage that it takes to leave places of refuge and work for peace in places of hostility. I am reminded of people like Ted Studebaker, who was killed in Vietnam while working with the people there, while using a shovel instead of a gun.
God’s refuge may not necessarily be in places where we are safe and comfortable and seeking God’s refuge might come at great personal cost. Homer Simpson finds this out as his refuge from his obligation to PBS is found in a mission trip thousands of miles away from home.
We are people that value the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of discipleship. Yet, the work of building community where we are relatively safe and comfortable is also important. Good sabbath spaces provide solid grounding and loving support for those who seek to do God’s work in this often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous world.
Building and maintaining these spaces is also an important role filled by committed disciples. In ancient Israel, it was the Levites who filled this important role. Among the Levites were the Korahites, sons of Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi. Psalm 46 is part of a collection of psalms attributed to the sons of Korah.
Korah appears in Numbers 16, where he leads an uprising against Moses and Aaron, an uprising in which he and his followers and their households are swallowed up by the earth. Later, in Numbers 26:11, is a short note that the sons of Korah did not die as a result of the uprising. These sons of Korah are given special mention in the genealogies of 1 Chronicles. They are named as guardians of the thresholds of the tent.
These are some quite obscure details from parts of the Bible that we do not read much, if at all, but they do give us some context for the psalm we are focusing on in worship today. I imagine the gatekeepers of the temple singing this song, familiar to them from childhood, as worshipers enter for prayer or for a special service, seeking sabbath time and refuge. These words serve to remind them that they are entering into sacred space, into the presence of God, the one who brings an end to war, the one who establishes peace, who wills sabbath rest for all of creation.
This speaks to the basic human need to name sabbath space and to mark out holy ground. In our culture, church buildings almost automatically have an air of being sacred. This particular building has a unique feature that speaks to what kind of sacred space this is. The rainbow bench reflects that this is a place of welcome for the LGBTQ community. This welcoming commitment does draw lines that will attract, but will also turn some people away. And this is part of seeking a sabbath space that is safe for LGBTQ folks.
It is all part of doing the best that we can with the best that we have in being true to our calling as people of God. Part of this calling involves building, maintaining, and protecting sabbath space.
Of course, the building cannot replace God and cannot contain God’s presence, but it can be a place of safety, a place to seek God’s welcoming and inclusive Love.
In Psalms for Praying: an Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill reenvisions the language of the Psalms in a more inclusive way. This is her version of Psalm 46:
The Beloved is our refuge and our strength,
a Loving Presence in times of trouble.
Therefore we need not fear though
the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the
heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble
with its tumult
There is a river whose streams
make glad the Holy City,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
The Beloved is in the midst of it,
it shall not be moved;
Our loving Creator is an
The nations may be at war,
countries left in ruins,
yet is the Voice of the Almighty
heard, slowly breaking through
hearts of stone.
The Beloved is ever with us
the infinite Heart of Love.
Come, behold the works of the Beloved,
how love does reign ever in
For the Beloved yearns for wars to cease,
shining light into fearful hearts; loving
even those who oppress the weak,
refining hearts of steel!
“Be still and know that I am Love,
Awaken! Befriend justice and mercy
Do you not know you bear my Love?
Who among you will respond?”
O Blessed One, You know all hearts,
You are ever with us;
may Love ever guide our lives!
This is how we experience God as we worship in this space, the God who is Love present to us in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, who welcomes all God’s children.
We are all stewards and guardians of this sabbath space and all places that are sacred to us. We do the best that we can with the best that we have in service to God and neighbor. We may not always get it right and some may be convinced that we are wrong, but let us not be discouraged for God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.