Sunday, February 25, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

February 25, 2007

Monuments to Deities
(thirteenth sermon in series, “God in Great Art”)


When my young family and I went to live for a semester in Rueschlikon, near Zurich, we met people, literally, from around the world who had come to study in our seminary. The whole European context for doing church and theological education were substantially different than what I had experienced or known about to that point in my life, which was twenty-two or so years ago. I could talk on and on about what I learned that semester, but for my purpose today I would like to focus on the matter of materialism among people of faith.
Baptists in Europe, even though Baptists were born there, have never become the huge collection of religious movements as has been the case in the United States. Everything in religious life is much more modest for European Baptists than for most Southern and American Baptists in the USA. The students came to us, generally, from modest backgrounds and expected to go out into ministry earning meager incomes. When I was there, before the fall of the Communist stronghold on most of eastern Europe, my most financially strapped students were from Communist countries—permitted to come to study in Switzerland because of the country’s longstanding political neutrality. One of those students who stays in my memory was Constantine Dupu, from Communist Romania; in order to obtain his theological education he had to leave his wife and children behind for four years; his government had permitted him a one-time out and one-time back-in option. I don’t have to tell you how much he valued his education—every morsel of it.
Another student who studied basic preaching with me was Rafaelle Volpe whose nickname was Lello. Lello had two shirts, two pairs of pants, and one sports coat. He knew he would leave the seminary and return to his native Sicily where he predicted that he would have to pastor two or three churches to make a basic living, and when I last heard from him two or three years ago that’s exactly what he was still doing.
He was very critical of America materialism, especially religious materialism. My now ex-wife is a very gifted artist who unfortunately grew up in a home where artistic achievements were not affirmed. She had spent her teen and young adult life to that point trying to find a career that satisfied her natural artistic expression and her family. She sought a family blessing that had never come in that regard.
One pivotal afternoon, she got her artistic blessing from, of all people, Lello Volpe. She made American-style iced tea and homemade cookies for the students on Friday afternoons, and our patio typically overflowed. In a conversation with Lello at one of the Friday afternoon “teas,” she told Lello about her career plight. She expected him to scoff at the frivolity of art, but that’s not what happened. He encouraged her to use her God-given talents to make beautiful things in a beautiful world, and that was an important word for her that no one else we knew could have spoken so powerfully to her.
I tell this story to say that there is, indeed, a balance between the practical and the ornamental in religious life. The monuments we build, for example, contribute to the beauty of the areas where we build them and, hopefully, to our own spiritual enjoyment and development. But there are endless examples in our culture and in other places, such as Britain, for example, where one generation has overbuilt and over-decorated and left to subsequent generations the ongoing burden of keeping up beautiful, even historic, edifices, and increasingly disproportional chunks of money in dwindling budgets must be utilized to keep these great structures in good repair and attractive enough not to run future members away.
Sometimes, somewhere down the line, faith communities have to give up. They can’t meet the financial demands any longer. They have to sell their facilities to other faith groups or, as is happening with increasing frequency in England, to museums. The occasional restaurant will take over a church, such as “The Abby” in Richmond, Virginia. In some cases, once breath-taking temples or cathedrals are simply, eventually abandoned. We have no idea why, but that is the case with the Mayan temple that you see on the screen today. This breathtakingly beautiful structure was abandoned long before the demise of the Mayan culture as a whole, and it still sits empty in a present-day Guatemalan jungle.
As far back as anyone seems to know in the history of humanity, humans have been building various monuments to their deities. Sometimes, these “monuments” have been simple shrines, and at other times and places they have been massive, enduring architectural masterpieces. On either end of the spectrum, however, the builders have intended for deities or a singular deity to be honored by the human-made structures. One of the challenges to persons of monotheistic faith has always been to make sure that the images themselves not be mistaken for God Godself.
The most important religious structure in ancient Hebrew life and in Judaism contemporary with Jesus was the great Temple in Jerusalem. Solomon’s father, King David, had wanted to be the one to build a great Temple to honor God by giving the Ark of the Covenant a majestic home, but God had told David, “No.” Now, I think the passage of explanation about why God would not permit the greatest of Israel’s kings to have the privilege of building a Temple for the praise of God is very telling. The passage from 1 Chronicles has to make us wonder if the ancient writers believed that the same person could call for the bloodshed of war AND be a true spiritual leader among the people.

David assembled at Jerusalem all the officials of Israel, the officials of the tribes, the officers of the divisions that served the king, the commanders of the thousands, the commanders of the hundreds, the stewards of all the property and cattle of the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty warriors, and all the warriors. Then King David rose to his feet and said: “Hear me…my people. I had planned to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building. But God said to me, “You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood” (1 Chron 27:1-3 NRSV).

The builder of the monument mattered in ancient Hebrew religious life. Not just anyone, and not even the most popular and powerful of all Israel’s kings, qualified from God’s point of view, at least as the ancient story teller told it. It’s something to ponder, isn’t it?


It was left to Solomon to build the great Jerusalem Temple, which was to exist for no other reason than to honor God. Upon the completion of the massive structure, Solomon prayed at its dedication:

…will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day towards this house, the place of which you said, “My name shall be there,” that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place (1 King 8:27-29 NRSV).

Solomon would close this moving prayer by affirming the right of non-Jews to pray in the Temple precincts. The Temple was to have been built to honor visually and practically the God who created all people. All monotheistic groups should remember this generally overlooked portion of the Temple story; it is an overt condemnation of religious exclusivism.
Cultural geographers, Terry Jordan-Bychkov and Mona Domosh, had this to say about structures erected for religious gatherings and worship:
The most obvious religious contributions to the landscape are the buildings erected to house divinities or to shelter worshippers…To Roman Catholics…the church building is literally the house of God, and the altar is the focus of key rituals. Partly for these reasons, Catholic churches are typically large, elaborately decorated, and visually imposing. In medieval European towns, Christian cathedrals were the tallest buildings, representing the supremacy of religion over all aspects of life…Islamic mosques are usually the most imposing items in the landscape, whereas the visibility of Jewish synagogues varies greatly. Hinduism has produced large numbers of visually striking temples for its multiplicity of gods (The Human Mosaic, p.96).

The art image before us today is not a painting, as you can readily see. It is a work of architectural art. It is one of several Mayan temples to be found today in Tikal in Guatemala. This particular Temple was, with the others, abandoned when several other cities in this region suddenly lost inhabitants somewhere around the year 900, of our common era.
The temple that you view today was called “The Temple of the Great Jaguar” or “The Temple of the Grand Jaguar.” It is to be found, literally, in the heart of a jungle. All around it is lush vegetation, and Mayan worshipers—from six hundred years before Jesus was born until about 900 years after he was born—honored one or more of their 166 or so deities here. In this general area not only are there other temples, but also great palaces and vast public gathering areas. Remains of dwellings are nearby so we know that some of the Mayans, at least some of them, lived very close to their worship centers.
The Maya believed in cyclical repetitions of creation and then destruction. An era for them was thought to last about 5200 years as we count years. By the reckoning of the ancient Maya, the current cycle began about 3100 years before Jesus was born and will end four or five years from now.
Like many of the ancient civilizations concurrent with them, they believed in a flat earth with four corners. Each corner had a color that represented it. Red for the east, white for the north, black for the west, and yellow for the south. In the center of the four corners was lush green.
Some of the Maya believed, and there certainly was diversity of thought among these people, that the sky was multi-layered. It was held up off the heads of people on earth by four gods or four trees with a silk-cotton tree at the center.
The flat earth rested on the back of a huge crocodile that rested in a huge pool of lilies. The crocodile had a counterpart in the skies; it was a double-headed serpent.
Not terribly long ago, people lived in this area by their 260-day calendar—the “sacred round calendar.” Farmers among them planted and harvested maize and beans. Healers were using traditional plants as the basis of creating their medicinal tonics and rubs. Incense was being burned to please the gods who were also being honored by the construction of such imposing temples. Perhaps nothing human-made was nearly as eye-catching as this Temple of the Grand Jaguar and the other temples in the complex. When have humans NOT wanted to build monuments to their deities?
I know that I’ve told some of you about the lowest point in my seminary career. Everyone in the seminary had to complete at least one elective in the field of evangelism. Since we just had one evangelism professor, there was no doubt who you’d study with. Louis Drummond was a fundamentalist; at least, as far as I could tell. How he fared as a minority thinker among several intellectual/theological heavyweights on the faculty I could never figure out. It was clear that Dr. Drummond saw himself, at least in part, as a martyr for the conservative cause. Conservatives love to be martyrs, and so in that regard if not any other he was content for the time.
He offered five or so electives, and the word among the students was that regardless of whatever the course was called it was the same content. I put this off until my very last full semester as a master’s student. Having already been accepted into the doctoral program was of no help in motivating me to take seriously Professor Drummond and his conservative approach to all things theological.
The only course I could take from him that term—thus ensuring my official graduation on time—was entitled “Building the Evangelistic Church.” I bring the many skills I learned in that course to my practice of ministry here at Silverside week in and week out. The only things I’ve upgraded are the tracts I pass out at the Concord Mall and on Market Street. As long as the threat of hell remains paramount in the literature, it’s OK to modernize.
If you’re a visitor here today and don’t know that I’m being seriously sarcastic, let me pause now to assure that I am. The literal meaning of the word “evangelize” is to bring good news to someone. That I can buy into whole heartedly.
In any case, it was in that memorable course where I was required to read a book written by the Reverend Robert Schuller, pastor of the famed Crystal Cathedral. In that book, Schuller tells scoffingly about someone, a reporter perhaps, who pressed him about how he could justify spending so much money on an overly-ornate worship center while people all around the church were homeless and hungry. Taking Jesus out of context, which didn’t bother Dr. Drummond in the least, Schuller responded to his detractor by saying that “the poor you always have with you.” Meaning, even if he’d given to the poor all the money it took to build the Crystal Cathedral there would still be poor people. Thus, he reasoned that building the Crystal Cathedral was more important than feeding hungry people because they will just get hungry again. How can building an impressive architectural edifice lose out to people who don’t matter to us?


In Hebrew mythology, the amazing story is told of the first-ever human-built monument. This story has been collected as a part of the Genesis stories, and we find it in what, today, we call Genesis 11. We might guess that a great tower is being built perhaps to honor the God who created the heavens and the earth, but that is not the case at all.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth (Gen 11:1-9 NRSV).

They wanted to build a great tower not to honor God at all, but to make a name for themselves; at least they were honest about it. God is not impressed by our monuments, but our elaborate “religious” structures. We build them to please ourselves and leave a monument after us--not to God, but to ourselves.
What they had in mind as of first importance was to build a stepped tower so high into the skies, the heavens, that they would be on the same level as God—from way up there being able to look down at the people on Planet Earth and see them the way the Creator saw them. The tower they wanted to build probably would have looked something like the Mayan temple you see on the screen today. This would give them power over the people whom they would watch from on high, and in their minds the privilege of position would pretty much make them equals with God.
This was not the first, nor would it be the last, time people in ancient times tried to make themselves equal with God. If you remember, this is one way that the serpent in Genesis chapter three convinced Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit in the center of Eden. The serpent persuaded her to believe that eating the forbidden fruit would make her as wise as the God who created her, and not many people past or present would pass up the opportunity to be of equal status with God.
Evidently, the completed tower would have represented to the people a name for themselves more than for God. They believed it would give them unity and focus and would keep them from being scattered as a people.
The fact that the tower reached into the heavens, the skies, was only pretense in terms of honoring God. They wanted the prestige and the perspective.
The God of Genesis didn’t care for this building project at all. God calls the heavenly servants into action. They are to join God in going down to the earth and making it impossible for the people to continue building their tower, and the way chosen to stop was confusion of language.
The writer tells her or his first readers that, up to that point in time, there had been only one language spoken among all the people who lived on the earth. Being able to understand each other so well meant that they could share their devious and selfish plans with anyone since everybody around wherever they went could understand what they said. God and God’s helpers somehow confused their speaking, and not only were multiple languages born on the face of the earth, but also massive and immediate misunderstanding began to occur at once.
Unable to communicate, the tower could not be completed. The place where the tower construction had begun was called “Babel” because the people, suddenly speaking multiple languages that few others understood, sounded like they were babbling. Further, their unity was broken because, unable to understand each other, they spread out all over the world in search of those who could understand them.
One of Paul’s most noted sermons was the one he preached to some Greek polytheists atop the rocky hill known as the Areopagus; the council of Greek leaders who met there was known by the same name. In this pivotal sermon, Paul used references to the monuments and idols—and sometimes they serve the exact same function—he had seen throughout Athens as a basis for pointing his hearers to the one God.
Someone or someones in Athenian life wanted to make sure all the proper gods and goddesses from their pantheon were appropriately honored with their impressive religious structures. Just in case there was another deity not yet known to them but potentially influential in their well-being, one idol or monument was erected “to an unknown god.” This is the same mentality many people use when they’re in a bind and will pray to any deity, even ones in whom they haven’t believed, just in case help can be received.

The heart of Paul’s sermon, as I read it, is this:
God does not live in shrines made by human hands and is not served by human hands as though god needed anything, since God Godself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things (Acts 17:24-25 paraphrase).

God cannot be contained in any shrine; nor will God necessarily become known to someone just because she or he frequents a shrine however frequently. And yet we keep building our monuments and making them central to our spirituality and faith expression.
We know why people in pre-scientific times built their monuments to their gods and goddesses as high as they could—because of the belief that God or the gods dwelled “up there somewhere,” in the “heavens.” Knowing that clearly not to be the case by now, why is it so important to keep building religious monuments that, in many contexts, dwarf all structures around them reaching toward the heavens?
I am not opposed to religious monuments, but I do think they need to be rethought. Lello Volpe reminded my wife and me how spiritually enlivening a piece of art can be; that includes architecture. But Robert Schuller’s rationale for structure over service still sickens me—although, in honesty, many of us have to say that to a lesser degree and less blatantly we have chosen consistently in favor of our monuments over our ministries when it comes to appropriation of resources.
With a modern understanding of God as within us, what should modern religious monuments look like? They don’t point to some place beyond our reach, some place so far away from us that we can’t even imagine it, really. The majesty of God is already wonderfully attested in the grandeur of nature itself.
Our modern religious monuments should point us inward. They should help us center. They should promote quiet and reflective communing with God. They should pull the grandeur of the divine into human reach.
I really like Paul’s sermonic reference to “groping” for God. There is no assured systematic method for feeling the presence of God after all even though, as Paul also pointed out: “God is not far from each of us.” Quoting contemporary “pagan” philosophers, Paul reminded his hearers that “in God we live and move and have our being” and that “we are God’s offspring.”
“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17:29 NRSV). If art can draw us Godward—that is, if it can help us open ourselves to God, OUTSTANDING! But it must never become a god to us, and sadly our great religious monuments often have.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Silverside Sermons

Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

February 18, 2007

Biblical Birds

(Twelfth sermon in series, "God in Great Art")


And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day (Gen 1:20-23 NRSV).

Well, I don't know what all the fuss is about. If you want to know where birds or any other parts of creation came from, and how they happened to appear, all you have to do is read the Bible, right? This is perfectly reliable scientific information, isn't it? I mean, why would anyone question the literal word of God?

I can think of a couple of responses to that last question. First, there is no such thing as the "literal word of God." God always speaks through our sister-brother humans and/or through the created order; thus, any message attributed to God of necessity REQUIRES interpretation. The fact that most messages can be interpreted in a number of ways means that we must approximate the word of God. And we must own the fact that this is exactly what we are doing and exactly what is required.

I have never lived through a tsunami or lost anyone close to me who has. I have never awakened to sounds and smells of hell-hot lava streaming towards my home and family from a suddenly active volcano. I have never had my life threatened by a hurricane named Katrina or returned to the aftermath of such natural terror to find my home gone or in ruins. My dear friend, Rabbi Ed Cohn, tells me that many people who left New Orleans in the aftermath return, try to make a life again, repair or rebuild their homes, eventually feel the despair all over again, take their insurance money and leave a second time-this time, for good.

All I know of nature first hand is it beauty. The sunrises and the sunsets. The singing birds and the warmth of amazing sunlight thawing the ground after a winter's freeze. It's easy for me to say, "God is the Creator, and I see God and hear God in all aspects of the created order." That is my testimony. Others who feel that the potential rage of nature could happen at any moment, if they see God in nature, it is a very different God than I see. But both perspectives are based pm the one nature created by God. What is God saying in the created order? That is up for debate, isn't it?

The writer or writers of Genesis chapter one gives poetic, hymnic voice to ONE VIEW of how the cosmos and the inhabitants of Planet Earth came to be. It is a beautiful and an orderly account, but it is much more about God than about the created order. It is a theological reflection, a statement of faith. Without even trying to be scientifically accurate--since no one was thinking "scientifically" back when these words were first penned--after generations of oral transmission--the Genesis one author has a sense that all parts of the created order came into being by the well-coordinated plan of a single, caring, creative divine being whom she or he referred to as "God."

In a world filled with polytheistic cultures, each with its own view of how multiple deities were involved in a sometimes careless or accidental series of actions that brought the world into being. the Genesis one writer says, "No. Not so. The world was created by the only God there is, and the process wasn't random or happenstance or accidental." Beyond that, the writer of Genesis one has no interest in understanding how the world came into being and is certainly too smart to press the point of literalistic details.

The editors of Genesis, respecting the perspectives of the writers themselves, were interested in theological affirmation and not what we today want to call scientific detail. This is why the editors paired a second account of creation, giving a very different ordering of events, with the first. They weren't concerned with the kinds of scientific theories with which we wrestle in our scientific age.

Did all of those ancient Hebrews into whose lives this moving tidbit of mythology was born believe that God had really created this whole intricately complex world in six, twenty-four hour periods before taking a day off to rest? I seriously doubt it. Like those who wrote the piece, they were much more concerned to affirm that their God was responsible for bringing into existence or order the world that they knew with the potential they imagined. Some would have been delighted with the more modern theory of evolution and would not have rejected the notion as either unbiblical or ungodly. The biblical creation accounts do not deny evolution, and evolution can be fully embraced by those who want to say with the writers of both Genesis one and two that the one and only God there is, is behind the evolutionary process, the orderly way of bringing the cosmos and the inhabitants of Planet Earth into being.

Trying to be careful not to overgeneralize or to diminish in any way those who reject the theory of evolution, I would like to suggest that many of the same people in modern American culture who demand that creationism and/or intelligent design be taught IN PLACE of evolution are the same folks who object to the removal of public prayer from the daily routines of our public school children. The common problem should be obvious, but often is not.

It is not the place of science teachers to teach my children or yours the points of monotheistic faith. That is my job or the job of persons in the faith community in which I want my children to have their views of God shaped. We take with utter seriousness in the congregation our responsibility to teach our children lessons about the God who loves them unconditionally; we do not frighten them with the bloody biblical tales of terror or with threats of a godless place called hell. We do not take it upon ourselves to teach science here.

Similarly, it is not the responsibility of a school board or a school administrator to create prayers to be prayed in the hearing of our children at school. I did not want my children exposed to the prayers a school official might have prayed in their hearing. I certainly don't agree with the theology of just anyone, as you can well imagine. Teaching my children about prayer and praying with them was my job and the jobs of those wonderful, loving Sunday School teachers at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church and University Baptist Church in Baltimore--Ms. Brenda and Mr. Henry and Ms. Ann Madden and Ms. Ann Earnest in New Orleans; and Ms. Leila Juracek in Baltimore. These wonderful theologically progressive and liberal Baptists and New Orleans and Baltimore shared with me the sobering task of teaching my sons how to speak to and listen for God. That was not the job of their school principals or their classroom teachers.

Parents and other tax payers who are requiring science teachers to teach their children religion are doing a great disservice to the teachers who may or may not be persons of faith, but, in any case, didn't sign on to teach children from diverse religious backgrounds any points of faith. Let the science teachers tell the children about science making no comments about whether there is or isn't gods or a God, and then let the parents who are so persuaded tell their own children that there is a loving God behind all the intricacies of life and habitat that they learned about in science class.


The birds got us started today, and they will get us through to the end of today's sermon. The art image before us today is a sculpture by Constantine (Constatin) Brancusi.

Evidently, there are several very similar sculptures created by Brancusi between 1923 and 1940--sixteen or so--all called "Bird in Space" with one or more sometimes being called "Bird in Flight." One art analyst says that what we see in these similar compositions is a bird in essence stripped of the typical bird features such as wings and feet displaying the notion or the essence of flight. There may be the barest hint of an open beak at the very top of the piece as we now see it, which seems to suggest rapid upward movement. A brass version of "Bird in Space" or "Bird in Flight" has been described by an art historian has having been "smoothed and polished to the point where the materiality of the sculpture is dissolved in its reflective luminosity."

The Romanian-born sculptor, who died in the middle of last century, apparently owned his spiritual aspirations, and these bird sculptures were somehow connected to his reaching for the infinite. From ancient times, and into the present, many people associate "up" and the vastness of the skies with divinity. And since birds fly of their own volition through these skies, there has often been an association of birds with divine acts. In many ancient religions, the Hebrew religion included, eagles or vultures have been especially associated with the deity or deities--eagles more with happier divine traits.

The ninety-first psalm, for example, has an inspiring reference to God:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,

who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

will say to the Lord, "My refuge and my fortress;

my God, in whom I trust."

For [God] will deliver you from the snare of the fowler

and from the deadly pestilence;

God will cover you with God's pinions,

and under [God's] wings you will find refuge;

[God's] faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

You will not fear the terror of the night,

or the arrow that flies by day,

or the pestilence that stalks in darkness

or the destruction that wastes at noonday (Psa 91:1-6 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).

When I married into the Fowler family back in 1980, I married into Southern Baptist missions royalty. My father-in-law, Dr. Franklin Fowler, had been raised as an MK (missionary kid) in Argentina. He came back to the States and got his medical credentials at Vanderbilt and returned to the mission field in Paraguay; that's where my wife was born. He founded a hospital there, which is still thriving today. My mother-in-law, was dean of a nursing school and earned a master's degree in Christian education on the side for fun. This was a very highly educated family unit, which is why I never understood one thing--well, there were many things I never understood, but don't ask. Thanks!

So here it is. They called this ninety-first psalm their "family psalm." The reason was the word "fowler" appears in it. I finally caught on to that, but had to ask my wife to clarify. Don't ask. Then I began to notice as this passage was read at the breakfast table most every morning as I recall that the "fowler" in the psalm wasn't a good guy, wasn't on God's side. The fowler is setting traps for God's people in the psalm; it is from the fowler that God has to rescue God's people. I braved raising the why question one morning, and, geez, did I get the cold shoulder from everyone in the family--including my wife. But no one ever answered me. We just kept reading Psalm 91. OK, let's get back to God here and away from my domestic history.

God Godself is the soaring eagle here in Psalm 91. And in swooping down to rescue God's children from the "snare of the fowler," that is the trap set by the birder, God the eagle soars back into the skies, far away from our enemies, with us safely held by the eagle's pinions and under the shadow of powerful, protective wings. It's a beautiful, stirring metaphor.

One of the most popular Christian choruses to have been written in the last several years was based on this very passage. Roman Catholic priest, Father Michael Joncas, struck a chord--no pun intended--with Roman Catholic and other Christian worshipers with his simple song that even I love.

And God will raise you up on eagle's wings,

Bear you on the breath of dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of God's hand.

I believe that the reality of God's presence within us is the greatest potential source of strength available to us. Of course, we're not always delivered from what threatens us, but the reality of God's presence with us in our darkest times is powerfully reassuring.

The divine eagle theme also shows up in the story of the exodus as well as in the sermons of the book of Deuteronomy.

At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites" (Exod 19:1-6 NRSV).

This passage would fit in nicely with our present Wednesday evening study and discussion as we try to understand the original dynamics of the Hebrew occupying part of Palestine. In this case, the divine eagle shows up in a covenantal pronouncement. God, in this passage, is comparing the divine deliverance of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage to being born up on eagles' wings and taken to a place of wholeness and hope.

If we can resist literalizing all of this, we can find an added twist to our inspiration in it. In the psalm, the divine eagle was rescuing victims from the fowler's snare and getting them to a place of refuge; there's a kind of protective feel to it. In this snippet from Exodus, God the eagle is bringing persons enslaved to freedom. The divine eagle soars with slaves and liberates them.

In the book of Deuteronomy, the ancient preacher had these words for her or his congregations:

When the Most High apportioned the nations,

when [God] divided humankind,

[God] fixed the boundaries of the peoples

according to the number of the gods;

the Lord's own portion was [God's] people,

Jacob [God's] allotted share.

He sustained him [that is Jacob, as a symbol

for all of God's people] in a desert land,

in a howling wilderness waste;

[God] shielded him, cared for him,

guarded him as the apple of [the divine] eye.

As an eagle stirs up its nest,

and hovers over its young;

as it spreads its wings, takes them up,

and bears them aloft on its pinions

(Deut 32:8-11 NRSV, adapted for inclusive


In this divine eagle passage, God the eagle keeps us in the nest and nurtures us until we are ready to fly, and then like a wise, protective, caring mother eagle God takes us high into the skies. holding us in the maternal pinions. Maybe there are several trips up like that until it's time to let us go, time to let us fly, time to make us fly.

This divine eagle respects our maturing and our independence. This divine eagle will not let us stay forever in a protective nest. That is not where anybody who finds her or his way to the fullness of life can remain. The day comes when we have to fly--yes, in the range of vision of the loving mother eagle who will catch us if we fall, but fly we must.


Someone, NOT I, has counted approximately 300 references to birds in the Hebrew and Christian scripture compilation many of us call "the Bible." The ancient Hebrew people were, obviously, very familiar with the ways of birds and with several specific species in particular. This, naturally, carried into the New Testament era; references to birds, in all kinds of circumstances, show up all over the place.

In the book of First Kings, the birds, by God's design, serve the needs of the faithful prophet, Elijah, and take care of his physical needs as non-prophetic types struggle more severely with the effects of draught in the land. I'm sure there's a lesson in the passage about proper treatment of clergypersons.

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word." The word of the Lord came to him, saying, "Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there." So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi [or brook]. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land (1 Kings 17:1-7 NRSV).

Without the ravens, who knows what would have become of the man who would become the greatest of all prophets in ancient Hebrew history.

The prophet Ezekiel, one of the most oddball of all the prophets, saw a time coming to his people-and he was projecting into what he took to be a very short-term future, not way out to our time in history or beyond-a time when all would be well for people who were suffering as he prophesied. The time he thought was coming in their foreseeable future would find people unified and living in harmony with each other. The birds are part of his prophetic vision:

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it (Ezek 17:22-24 NRSV).

Now come some words attributed to Jesus, and, mercy, are they ever good and practical words for a healthy emotional self:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your [God in heaven] feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? (Matt 6:24-27 NRSV).

So, as far as we know, birds don't fret; at least birds don't SEEM to fret although as there are more and more people going into animal psychology, we might find out, in our modern scientific era, that birds actually are highly fretful. This could explain their ultra high metabolism and why they eat so much. Perhaps one of the reasons they just can't be still is because they are worrying themselves silly. Even so, the probability is that they find complete comfort in being birds, do hour by hour what comes naturally for them, and are as happy and carefree as can be as they soar though the skies just as Brancusi's "Bird in Space" does. In any case, whether or not they ever know it, they are highly valued by the God who created each and every one of them.

There's another teaching from Jesus where he refers to God's love and care for the birds. This one is the basis for one of my favorite pieces of gospel music, "God's Eye Is on the Sparrow." And it's impossible for me to think about that song without thinking about its most famous interpreter, the late Ethel Waters. In her later years, the famed singer and actress traveled with Billy Graham singing at many of his crusades. I loved hearing her sing and watching her. No matter her age or infirmity, she sang from her soul, and her eyes twinkled, literally twinkled, when she sang, and my favorite song of hers was, "God's Eye Is on the Sparrow," the words of which were written by Civilla Martin in 1905.

I don't know what Ms. Waters's official vocal range was by the time she could no longer sing in public, contralto or baritone, but she could take the low notes in the chorus with ease.

I sing because I'm happy!

I sing because I'm free.

For God's eye in on the sparrow,

And I know God watches me.

Every now and again, if you recall, she would change that last word to "we" and reach out her arms as if to embrace us all.

For God's eye is on the sparrow,

And I know God watches [low, low note, extra vibrato] WE.

Of course I had to hurry and turn off the television after she sang because Billy Graham would step to the pulpit and begin his sermon. He was in his end of time/end of the world mode, and in those days his sermons scared me to death. To his credit, Mr. Graham finally decided like many other theological conservatives that a preoccupation with the end of time only leads to a neglect of our lives and our world in the present. We can't be responsible as people of God if we neglect ourselves or our habitat.

Anyway, Ethel Waters's song grew out of words attributed to Jesus:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your [God]. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows (Mat 10:28-31 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).

We are valued by God, and when Ethel Waters sang it, I believed it with all my heart.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my [Child], the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:13-17 NRSV).

A dove became a symbol for the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God isn't any kind of entity separate from God Godself. It is simply a way of referring to the unseen presence of the only God there is. At one of the most moving moments of his life, full of risk and full of promise, Jesus presents himself to his cousin, John, to be baptized, and as he was coming up out of the water there seemed to a dove resting on him as he heard within himself God's blessing on him and God's claim of him as God's unique child. That dove also seeks us out when we open ourselves completely to find out who God is, who we are, and what we can best use our lives to accomplish.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

February 4, 2007

The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time
(eleventh sermon in series, “God in Great Art”)


It would be nice if we lived in a world where rewards were assured for those who did the right thing. That would make convincing others always to do the right thing much easier, wouldn’t it? And, frankly, it would help us convince ourselves to do the same, wouldn’t it? I mean, if we knew that every single time we did what was the right thing to do we would get some kind of reward, it would be much easier to do the right thing. We might even look forward to doing the right thing all the time because we would know some reward was waiting for us just around the bend. Too bad that’s not the way it is in this crazy world of ours.
One of the problems with teaching our children and others that people should always do the right thing--meaning the ethically proper deed--is that the right thing in this world doesn’t always get any reward at all or any recognition or even a pat on the back, for that matter. If we’re going to do the right thing, we must be willing to do for the pure purpose of acting ethically, and we have to face the rest of the truth, which is: doing the right thing may not bring any reward and, in fact, may actually bring harm to the person trying to do the right thing.
Some folks want to say, “Well, you may not get a reward right away, but in the great by and by every good deed will be rewarded,” or, “We may not see or realize the good that comes to us, but it always does, nonetheless.”
This karma business is a nice thought, and there may be something to it; I don’t want to diminish the concept or anyone who believes it. At the same time, I have to insist that doing good doesn’t always bring something good back to the person who did the good deed. The sad, and sometimes frightening, reality is that doing the right thing may cost us dearly. If that were not the case, none of us would ever have heard of anyone dying for a good cause, and those stories are not particularly rare.
You can be the right person doing the right thing, but if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, through no fault of your own, bad things rather than good things can happen to you. People of God are unquestionably lured by the Spirit of God to do the right thing regardless of the consequences.
Parts of both Hebrew and Christian scriptures were written in times and places where doing the right thing put persons of faith in precarious circumstances, and it is not at all unusual for us to find persons in ancient Hebrew and in early Christian history who had to expect punishment of some sort from evil persons and/or evil institutions of various sorts that resisted and rejected many expressions of morality. The modern world isn’t any different in that regard.
I was never a Boy Scout, but I am told that Boy Scouts are supposed to do a good deed daily. I think that’s a wonderful motto, a great way to live every day of our lives whether or not we happen to be Scouts. I’m certainly not playing down good deeds today, but what I do want to say is that when we do those good deeds we have to do them expecting absolutely nothing in return. And when we try to apply that concept to a larger arena, we have to expect not only to miss out on rewards for ourselves, but also to attract open opposition.
I think the story from the Hebrew scriptures that is before us today dramatically makes the point that I’m trying to get across. You have already heard an introduction to the story read. Let me pick up from there and fill in the details.
The main character in the story is Joseph. This is the same Joseph who had had both a privileged life as well as a painful and challenging life. By the time this particular chapter in his life opens, he is still a young man who had, nonetheless, seen some really good times as well as some seriously hard times. We parents, if we are nurturers, would love to be able to protect our kids from any rough waters, but this is next to impossible. The better gift we can offer them is a skill set to cope with life when it’s not going well. Pampered and privileged though he may have been, I think we have to say that his father, Israel, had actually done that for Joseph; we see his survival skills in action throughout the multiple stories about him recorded in the Hebrew Bible.
If you know much about Joseph, you probably know that he was one of his father’s two younger sons--eleventh-born out of twelve--and one of his father’s two favorite sons too; an “honor” he also shared with the youngest brother in the clan of father Israel. His father doted on Joseph to the point that his older brothers--and, as far as we know, there were no sisters--came to detest their spoiled little brother, Joseph. The baby, Benjamin, from all indications wore the mantle of parental favoritism a good deal more gracefully than did Joseph. All the brothers, except Benjamin, came to hate Joseph, but as far as we know everyone loved Benjamin, the baby of the family.
This sermon is not about Benjamin, though. It’s about Joseph who gloated in his father’s special attention. You may recall that the straw that broke the camel’s back in the minds of his jealous brothers was this special coat father Israel had had made for eleventh son, Joseph. A number of translators, including those appointed by dear old King James I, translated the Hebrew words describing the coat as a “coat of many colors.” Actually, nothing about its color was distinctive. What the Hebrew storyteller wanted us to know was that it was a coat with long sleeves; nothing about color is mentioned at all. Too bad Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber didn’t consult with me before writing the songs for his musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.” A simple phone call or a little more research on his part would have changed the name of the play, for sure, to “Joseph and the Amazing Coat with Long Sleeves,” which is infinitely less interesting when we hear it!


To get rid of Joseph, his older brothers concocted a plan to sell him as a slave and tell their father that wild animals had killed him leaving nothing behind but that “lovely coat” of his. Actually, most of the brothers wanted to just go ahead and kill their brother and be completely done with him forever, but one of them, Reuben to be exact, talked the others out of blatant violence.
So here was Joseph, the privileged kid and young adult, suddenly living the life of a slave. He had done nothing wrong. Gloating may be irritating to behold or withstand, but it doesn’t warrant a response of violence or hatred.
None of that mattered. He was a slave now, and he struggled with that dehumanization while his poor old father went along with life weighed down by that heavy grief that would never let him be. Sadness over the lost of his beloved son had become his constant companion.
The writer of the book of Genesis is very pro-Joseph. As she or he tells Joseph’s story, Joseph becomes one of those characters who turns every situation through which he struggles into gold, as it were. Yes, the writer concedes, Joseph did go through very difficult times, but he always seemed to come out on top despite the despair that he may have experienced at the beginning of one of his tough times.
As the writer tells the story, God is always somewhere in the picture making the bad things that people do to Joseph turn around and become good things for Joseph. For example, who would have thought that a Hebrew slave in a foreign land called Egypt could have or would have ended up as the CFO of the Pharaoh’s entire empire? But that’s exactly what happened. The biblical writer has a little quip to summarize what came about in Joseph’s life, and the writer places it in Joseph’s mouth as he responds to his brothers who are afraid that their now-powerful brother could do them in: “What you meant for evil, God intended for good” (Gen 50:20).
In Joseph’s story, God does always seem to get him out of the many binds in which he finds himself. This does not mean, however, that people in real life consistently have that experience. We may, in fact, find ourselves delivered from some horrible circumstance or sentence, and we see God as having been the source of our deliverance; but good things don’t always come to persons of faith even when they do what is right.
Let me get us to a chapter in Joseph’s life that creates a memorable picture in our minds and that reminds us of the truth I’m trying to stress this morning. I think you’ll see exactly what I have been trying to emphasize.
Once upon a time, as Joseph was moving up the ladder of success and responsibility in the land of Egypt, he found himself in a very awkward situation involving the flirtatious wife of his then-boss. While I didn’t want to embarrass the young men by having them read the seduction scene in public, I do think this story is a very good one for young people to know.
At the time of the event of note, Joseph was not yet in service to the Pharaoh himself, but he was in service to one of the Pharaoh’s most trusted advisors, Potiphar. Potiphar was the head of something like our Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Joseph, still officially a slave, was a servant in Potiphar’s home although menial duties for Joseph were long gone. He was a high-ranking staff member in a very important home.
Interesting twist. Potiphar was gone a lot. He was a very busy man, and had to be away from home routinely. Mrs. Potiphar was a very lonely lady. She rarely saw her husband except late at night and first thing in the morning, but she saw Joseph practically all the time. And Joseph was widely known for his good looks. Mrs. Potiphar was probably a more “mature” woman, and Joseph was a young and handsome man. The word was that Mrs. Potiphar had a thing for younger men, and before you knew it, she had her eye on handsome young Joseph.
“The Graduate” was written and produced from exactly this point of view. Mrs. Potiphar is the Mrs. Robinson in the story so here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her (Gen 39:6b-10 NRSV).

Mrs. Potiphar planned the seduction. There was nothing spontaneous about it.

One day when Joseph went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.” Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside” (Gen 39:11-18 NRSV).

Wow. When the big moment came, Mrs. Potiphar, completely unaccustomed to being told, “No,” by anyone except her inattentive husband, was humiliated when Joseph said, “Ma’am you’re a married woman, and you’re the wife of my esteemed employer. I couldn’t get involved with you on this kind of level even if I wanted to. I would disappoint both your husband and my God. I appreciate the affirmation, but I simply want to continue to serve you and your family as I have been doing.”
Poor Joseph was on the na├»ve side; he still didn’t know that doing the right thing could have gotten him into so much trouble, but the humiliated Mrs. Potiphar didn’t see things the way Joseph saw them. She wanted revenge so she lied to her husband, and told him that Joseph had tried to rape her. It was a blatant lie, but that lie shaped Joseph’s destiny.
Joseph wasn’t guilty in the least, but he’d been at the wrong place, at the wrong time. We can’t always help it, but it’s dangerous nonetheless.


Properzia de Rossi was a sculptor who, in the sixteenth century, became famous for carving as well. She would carve complex compositions, such as Jesus’ crucifixion scene, into tiny spaces such as cherry, apricot, and peach pits; her miniatures were popular on altars of convents and monasteries. In a sculptors’ competition, held at a Bologna church, she won over all of her male fellow artists in the marble-work category.
Bologna was her hometown. She was born there in 1490. So far as is known today, she was the only noted female sculptor and miniaturist during the Renaissance. Typical of most of those whom we still remember from that era, she wasn’t only an artist. The towering Renaissance artists had considerable skills and knowledge outside the arts. In de Rossi’s case, she was very knowledgeable about science, and she had gifts as both a poet and a musician. She died when she was only 40 years old. Some believe she died of a broken heart. It seems that she was profoundly in love with a Roman knight and/or nobleman who consistently treated her with indifference.
There’s a poem by Felicia Hemans, published in 1838, that gives words to de Rossi’s thoughts and feelings near the end of her life. The first stanza of the poem reads:

--Tell me no more, no more
Of my soul’s lofty gifts!
Are they not vain
To quench its haunting thirst for happiness?
Have I not lov’d, and striven, and fail’d to bind
One true heart unto me, whereon my own
Might find a resting-place, a home for all
Its burden of affections? I depart,
Unknown, tho’ Fame goes with me; I must leave
The earth unknown. Yet it may be that death
Shall give my name a power to win such tears
As would have made life precious.

The image before us today is de Rossi’s marble relief depicting the scene of Mrs. Potiphar making a play for handsome young Joseph. It is interesting to have a female perspective on the scene. At least one art historian has suggested that de Rossi chose this biblical story to illustrate how the man whom she loved rebuffed her. Whether or not that is true, the rippling garments and tapestries reveal the rapidity with which Joseph made his exit, and that shows that young Joseph was indeed a smart man.
He did the right thing. Indisputably. Undeniably. Joseph did the right thing. But, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and Mrs. Potiphar made her play for him. Even though Joseph did the right thing by running out as quickly as he could get out, he ended up getting punished just the same.
Potiphar doesn’t ask any questions when his wife tells him her story; he simply has Joseph thrown into prison. There was no trial or a hearing of any sort. The head of the FBI wanted this man, this foreigner, in jail, and therefore Joseph was in jail.

When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, “This is the way your servant treated me,” he became enraged. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper (Gen 39:19-23 NRSV).

This is an interesting postscript to the story from the Genesis writer’s point of view. Even though he was in a mess as a result of no wrong on his part, there is the suggestion here that God is gradually getting Joseph out of the mess in which he found himself.
That’s nice when that kind of thing can happen, and there is no doubt that sometimes it does. Someone does you wrong, and in time you experience some kind of deliverance from the negative results that came to you through no fault of your own. Occasionally we hear of prisoners being released after some new evidence turns up or a reexamination of the old evidence is cast in a new light, and we applaud a wrong made right. I surely don’t intend to downplay the reality that such things do happen.
I still have to come back today and say, however, that it’s not the norm. The structures of the societies in which we live today and groups of people themselves simply do not always appreciate or affirm the good deed done, the moral high road taken. And I get back to saying two things:

1) It’s important for us to do what is morally right in all circumstances. Let’s not miss that fact.
2) We have to be willing to do the right thing regardless of the consequences, and sometimes the consequences don’t go in our favor. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is.

There are plenty of people who marched with Dr. King to say that racial prejudice in all its forms was pure evil, and they were imprisoned simply for taking a stand for what was right. Not all of these people were African Americans who suffered the most to be sure, but they were often subjected to the same abuses as the Black citizens themselves: denied services in public places, family members threatened, houses torched, visited by the Ku Klux Klan.
We are here today because some very brave men and women said to a British king and kingdom, “Give us liberty or give us death.” They suffered, many died, to make this country a place where, ostensibly, freedom would reign for all people. We’re still working out the details two hundred plus years later, but most of us embrace the principle and celebrate the strengths and the potential of a democracy, with “freedom and justice for all” including the Indigenous Americans whose lands we stole and whose freedoms we eradicated.
In Christian tradition, we build our faith understandings upon the teachings of a young Jewish man who lost his life for doing the right thing. He simply would not stop proclaiming the love of God for all people and a spiritual kingdom built on that love that, in his view, superseded any temporal government or world power.
How many of us are willing to live as Jesus and others have lived--by a principle that has us doing the right thing regardless of cost or consequence?