Sunday, October 26, 2008


In 1855, Native American Nez Percé chief, Joseph the Elder, signed a treaty with the United States government that allowed his people to retain much of their traditional lands; however, eight short years later, there was another treaty enacted and enforced by the U.S. that the Natives say they never agreed to.  The second treaty, brought into play because of the Gold Rush and the determination of prospectors not to be hampered by Native Americans, dramatically reduced the land they could officially claim as theirs.
When Old Joseph died in 1871, his son, Joseph, was elected as chief of the Nez Percé tribe. The “new” Chief Joseph is best remembered by historians for his utter stubbornness to cooperate in any way with the U.S. government in matters that threatened to reduce any further the claim on the land that had been his people’s long before the settlers arrived on this continent.  
By 1877, there was a formal threat by the American Cavalry under the leadership of General Oliver Howard to attack the Nez Percé people unless they left their land and moved to a reservation.  Joseph was not in favor of fighting, but neither was he inclined to lose the land his ancestors had passed down to those in his generation.  While negotiations continued--and, of course, to call them “negotiations” is misleading as if there were any reasons to believe that the U. S. government had any intention of doing anything other than getting rid of them--twenty or so Nez Percé Natives, enraged about the loss of their hallowed lands already and the threat of losing more, attacked white settlements near them and killed several of the white settlers.  The army came after them at once.
Chief Joseph joined with the war leaders among his people even though he opposed war.  He and his fellow Natives fought, but they retreated; and white military leaders were amazed at their skill to hold their own as the military pushed them further and further away from the land that they, the Nez Percé, held sacred. There were only about 700 Natives with Chief Joseph, and only 200 of those were officially trained in war.  Yet, they protected themselves from some 2,000 white soldiers in four major battles and several skirmishes.  Of course, there were Native casualties, but not nearly as dramatic as the deaths of cavalrymen.  The unsympathetic General William Sherman could not help but be impressed and once said that the Natives “throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise.... [T]hey fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications.” Even so, the Natives were forced to take up residence on a reservation.
By the time Chief Joseph finally formally surrendered, he had words for all who would hear:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes,” or, “No.”  He who led the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are--perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

The reservations for the Nez Percé and for all Natives who were forced from their homes and ancestral lands were places of exile, and to a great degree that remains true yet today for Natives who are stuck on Indian reservations.  Places of exile are and always have been places of tragedy, places where anything positive is grayed over by the fact of being in exile, under someone’s control other than yours or your people’s.  
Chief Joseph’s 83-year-old granddaughter, Agnes Davis, is one of a handful of Nez Percé Natives today trying diligently to hold onto what was distinctively theirs, notably their language.  Last year, a newspaper article told her story:

Today, nearly 130 years after the last great battle of the Nez Percé War, descendants of Joseph’s band continue his struggle to preserve the old ways even as they live in perpetual exile on the Colville Indian Reservation, 200 miles from the land they call home.  In Nespelem, in a cluttered reservation office, a group of Nez Percé gather three days a week to preserve the language that they believe ties them to Mother Earth and that will one day grant them entry into the hereafter.  “When you die, [the Creator] is going to speak to you in Nez Percé,” said Agnes Davis... “and you have to have an Indian name.”

In March of 1959, there was in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, what has come to be known as the “Tibetan uprising” or the “Tibetan rebellion.” It was a revolt by the Tibetan people against Chinese control of their country, and it was a dramatic protest against Communism. Immediately leading up to this event, the Chinese government had invited the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the one we know today, to attend a theatrical performance at a Chinese military settlement not terribly far from Lhasa. There was to be no formal procession of the Dalai Lama’s movement from his residence to the performance; this would have very atypical. Also, the Chinese government insisted that his body guards be entirely unarmed for the event. If you think those kinds of requests should raise suspicions, you’re exactly correct.
The Tibetans were afraid that the Chinese were making plans to abduct their revered leader--or worse. Some 300,000 Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace to prevent anyone from coming in or going out.
The Chinese and Tibetan forces began to establish positions for battle. The Chinese dropped two bombs near the Dalai Lama’s residence, and it was clear to the Dalai Lama’s closest advisors that he had to get out of there.
Disguised as a Tibetan soldier, he passed through the crowds of protectors and was taken to a small village at the foothills of the Himalayas in the north of India, and that has been his home. He and his government have been in exile since, and China rules Tibet completely.
Shortly after his escape, open combat between the Tibetan forces and the Chinese began. It lasted only about two days; massive numbers of Tibetans were killed as the Chinese forces outnumbered the poorly armed Tibetan fighters. There was no question after that about who was in control.
In exile for nearly fifty years, the Dalai Lama has consistently pushed for greater autonomy for his people in relation to the Chinese government. All efforts have consistently been rebuffed by the Chinese.
Recently, and I saw this report just yesterday, the Dalai Lama has said officially that he has given up on further talks with the Chinese, that such talks have never led to anything productive for the people in exile and that they never will. Negotiations between the two groups remain scheduled for next week as far as Chinese authorities are concerned.
Said his holiness the Dalai Lama,
The issue of Tibet is not the issue of the Dalai Lama alone. It is the issue of 6 million Tibetans. I have asked the Tibetan government-in-exile, as a true democracy in exile, to decide in consultation with the Tibetan people the future course of action. Generally, the Tibetan people have supported the Dalai Lama’s push for greater autonomy for them--at least insofar as they can protect and preserve key aspects of their culture and their practice of Buddhism. Only one group, the Tibetan Youth Congress, advocates total independence for Tibet.
China claims that it has controlled and had the right to control Tibet for centuries. Tibetans in exile, however, say that theirs was an independent nation until the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950 and laid the groundwork for deposing the Dalai Lama, which happened, as we have said, in 1959. Fifty years of exile!

Many Protestant churches around the world will celebrate today as “Reformation Sunday.” Not a single Roman Catholic church, however, will celebrate. Roman Catholics remember Luther and Luther’s actions leading to the establishment of Protestantism in the world as an essentially illegal schism caused by one of its own lunatic priests.
Tragically flawed hero that he was, Luther still became the spokesperson for the poor, whom the church hierarchy had clearly determined to overlook except when the church needed them to further its purposes. The church leaders were happy that practically no laypersons could read at all, especially that they couldn’t read the old Latin texts in which almost all the church documents and the Bible in use in the church were written. Parishioners had to be dependent on their priests to get all their information about God, proper behavior, and the afterlife. The priests, of course, were obliged to pass along what the Pope told them to pass along; and almost all of them, as far as we know, did so.
Beginning about a hundred years before Professor Doctor Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church, the Church had begun to withhold the cup from the laity during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which we usually call “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper.” Only the priest partook of the holy wine. The laypersons came for communion, and the priests would serve each one of them a small piece of bread and then they, the priests, would take a sip of wine on behalf of each of the communicants. This explains why serving the Eucharist was the favorite task of most priests at the time and why they always felt so very good when communion was over!
The Roman Catholics at the time affirmed a theological position called “transubstantiation.” Transubstantiation is the belief that the bread and wine in communion actually become the body and the blood of Jesus. In one of Luther’s three major treatises entitled, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” he attacks both the notion of one-part communion--that is bread only for laypersons and wine galore for the priests--and the idea that the bread and wine actually became Jesus’ body and blood. Luther said that Jesus served bread and wine to all of his disciples and so should all Jesus’ disciples in every age be served; there was nothing special about the priests, in other words. Luther also, in “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” said that while the presence of Jesus was with the elements of the Lord’s Supper and, thus, with those who partook of the elements, the bread and wine certainly did not physically become flesh and blood to be eaten and sipped by cannibals and vampires (my words, not his exactly).
You can imagine that by the time a little known monk of no real influence gathered together courage sufficient to challenge the Vatican, he was seriously riled up. Challenging the Pope in those days could result in punishment and, under the right circumstances, death. Luther was willing to risk it, and part of how he framed the situation in which he saw the church of his day from the point of view of everyone except the highest ups in the hierarchy was to call the place of laypersons and the lower-ranking clergy “captivity.”
Here is an excerpt:

I will say nothing of those godless preachers of fables, who teach human traditions instead of this promise. And even if they teach these words of Christ, they do not teach them as a promise or testament, and, therefore, not to the awakening of faith. O the pity of it! Under this captivity, they take every precaution that no layman should hear these words of Christ, as if they were too sacred to be delivered to the common people. So mad are we priests that we arrogantly claim that the so-called words of consecration may be said by ourselves alone, as secret words, yet so that they do not profit even us, for we too fail to regard them as promises or as a testament, for the strengthening of faith. Instead of believing them, we reverence them with I know not what superstitious and godless fancies. This misery of ours, what is it but a device of Satan to remove every trace of the mass out of the Church? although he is meanwhile at work filling every nook and corner on earth with masses, that is, abuses and mockeries of God's testament, and burdening the world more and more heavily with grievous sins of idolatry, to its deeper condemnation. For what worse idolatry can there be than to abuse God's promises with perverse opinions and to neglect or extinguish faith in them?

I try to tell students who have to listen to me, or pretend to, and people like you who volunteer to listen to my views on this subject, or pretend to, that for all Luther gave us for championing the Reformation, his followers immediately took in many of the places Roman Catholics left off--with power plays and threats of death to those who dared rock the boat of the status quo.
Barely beginning to spread, Reformation ideals were taken up in the German-speaking part of Switzerland under the leadership of Uldrich Zwingli. When the Roman Catholic Church was officially unseated in Zurich, Zwingli came to power in a non-separation-of-church-and-state context, meaning he was extraordinarily powerful in both spheres. What did he do with his power? No doubt, he did accomplish some good, but he also became an instrument of evil. He led in having put to death as many Anabaptists as he could round up. They were put to death for not agreeing with the formalized theology of the Swiss state church.
Forebears of today’s Amish and Mennonites and not--despite what they came to be called--Baptists, the Anabaptists were strict pacifists, and they insisted on believers baptism by immersion. When the Protestant Reformers were deciding, which aspects of Catholicism to keep and which ones to toss, they kept infant baptism for some reason. Thus, it was law--infant baptism, I mean. The Anabaptists, nonetheless, practiced believer’s baptism by immersion and were brought up on charges because of it. Some of the Anabaptists were taken to water, and Zwingli’s toughs kept asking them how much they really wanted to be immersed, and they immersed them over and over and over again until they drowned them.
It’s such a horrible story, but we have to keep reminding ourselves how institutionalized religion with power has been just as soulless and bloodthirsty as any so-called “secular” institution or government. Religious groups within Christendom have had no qualms about sending their enemies into exile; of course, they did it in God’s name so that made it OK, didn’t it?
The religious right in this country really scares me. They will do the most un-Jesus-like things and still call what they do “the will of God,” and TONS of people believe them.
When it comes time for a political campaign, each citizen has the right and the responsibility to choose which candidate she or he will vote for. I embrace democracy with gratitude and hope so I certainly affirm the democratic process though one of those doesn’t prevail in every election we hold.
I am shocked that the religious right will preach absolute literalism as the only proper way to interpret the Bible; yet, they will applaud as God’s will a candidate who gets elected by lying or even a candidate who gets elected in an election that is certifiably dishonest. Their fair-haired boys and girls whom they endorse for election can believe anything they want and live and speak like the irreligious as long as they, the candidates, embrace an antiabortion stance. You can have absolutely no clue what the conservative churches mean when they talk about living for Jesus, but if you throw Jesus’ name around here and there and call Israel the chosen people of God, the religious right will baptize and sanctify whatever sleazy tactics it takes to get you, the person whom they have turned into their latest messiah, elected.
This kind of attitude, my dear friends, inevitably leads to exile and, not infrequently, to death for those who are not embraced by the religion in power. History has proven it time after time after time.

A scripture scholar, Luther had a very keen image of what the Babylonian captivity had been like for the people of ancient Israel. Egyptian enslavement and the Babylonian exile were the two lowest of low points for the ancestors.
In 587 BCE, Babylon defeated the ancient Israelites and took many of them into captivity. Torn away from the land that had, in their minds, helped to define them and thrust into a place where enemy overseers determined what they could and couldn’t do, including what was acceptable in terms of the practice of religion, they were lost in every possible sense of that word. Furthermore, their great Temple would be destroyed, and that had truly sickened them and ripped them apart. The Israelites were attached to their Temple in ways that are hard for modern western folk to understand. The Temple was not only the center of their religious life, but also the visible center of who they were as a people ethnically and culturally and in every other way as well. Not only were they being torn away from it, the place where they thought the literal presence of God dwelled, but also once it had been destroyed by the Babylonians; they couldn’t even hope to come back to it.
The poet of Ecclesiastes chapter 3 says, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones together.” The best scholarship, which is a way of referring to what I could find that I liked the best, tells us that this odd expression to our ears referred to the destruction of Solomon’s great Temple; that was the scattering of stones. The gathering of stones together would be the rebuilding of the Temple, if that day ever came.
Again, the writer of Ecclesiastes wasn’t saying that the Babylonian deportation and destruction were good things and certainly not that God had willed them per se; rather, as I’ve tried to emphasize as we’ve been studying this material, he simply is trying to describe life as it is--not as it should be, not even how he wants it to be. In other words, then, part of life is seeing structures and institutions we adore crumble before our eyes. That is the scattering of stones.
Of course it was horrible for the ancient Israelites. To make matters worse, while the writer of Ecclesiastes may not have taken a theological position on the event, the prophets of Israel did. The consensus was that God had willed the destruction of their Temple and the exile into which most Israelites were forced as twin foci of a punishment for their great sins of idolatry and other expressions of disobedience, violating the stipulations of any covenant they had ever made with God. When your spiritual leaders whom you trust to put life’s tragedies into some kind of perspective if at all possible tell you God did it, that’s what you are left with.
Zedekiah was the ruler of the Jews at the time, and he stubbornly refused to give in to pressures from Babylon under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar. To teach him a lesson about obedience to a super power, King Nebuchadnezzar had Zedekiah and his sons brought before him. The Babylonian henchmen killed Zedekiah’s sons before his eyes, and then Nebuchadnezzar had Zedekiah’s eyes put out so that the last thing he’d ever remember seeing was his sons being put to death. Prince of a guy, wouldn’t you say?
Nebuchadnezzar moved most of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon; some reports say that he left behind only the poor of Jerusalem. The Babylonians then took Jerusalem. They broke down the walls around Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s magnificent Temple, and took everything they could pack inside the Temple to Babylon.
There’s more. The Babylonian official charged with ruling the poor Israelites remaining in Jerusalem was assassinated, as were other Babylonian representatives. In fear of retaliation, the remaining poor of Judah, including the prophet Jeremiah, ran from Jerusalem and settled in Egypt.
Fifty years later--think about that time frame--50 long years later, the Persian Empire overtook the Babylonians. The Persian King was Cyrus, and he was a decidedly benevolent dictator; he decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and that they could rebuild their Temple.
What happens in 50 years? Well, first thing is, almost nobody who had been an adult at the time of the Babylonian deportation would still have been living; those folks didn’t have our life expectations. Second, the way of life that the Jews had grown accustomed to, though it was not a suitable or a desirable life, was all they knew. They had heard their parents and their grandparents talk about how life had been for them in Jerusalem, but very few people would be returning who had experienced the pre-exilic way of life in the beautiful city that had been the center of life. As had been true of the Hebrews who were slaves under the Egyptians, slavery was horrid, but it was what they were used to; and they could survive in the system. Third, people who have been living under foreign domination for 50 years don’t have much money to
invest in rebuilding a Temple or on anything else for that matter.
Still, Cyrus was a hero, and the building of the First Temple began in about 537 BCE and was finished, after many delays, in about 516. This rebuilding is what the poet of Ecclesiastes calls gathering stones together--rebuilding after destruction and exile.
One of the lessons that some of the people in exile learned was that God was not bound by their beloved Temple. God came to them in exile, something they ahead of time thought impossible. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” they asked at first, but they found out they could sing the Lord’s song anywhere. God had not been encased in their beautiful Temple, and they were not robbed of God’s presence though their Temple had been viscously destroyed. Even so, the rebuilding was a good thing, was worth the effort; indeed, there’s a time to gather stones together after our exiles when are weak and poor and uncertain. We cannot let the times and places of exile forced upon us do us in, cannot let the exilic periods rob us of our sense of self-worth and our hope.
It might be worth remembering for us that progressive Christianity has been around a long time and, in certain places, even flourished. In the 1920’s in this country, theological liberalism was more popular than conservatism in many places. Many of us who have felt justifiably exiled by the religious right are not sure we will have what it takes to rebuild. The truth is, we have been freed to challenge what the religious right thinks and how they act; we can rebuild religion progressively as long as we’re willing to let go of our exile mentality. The place to start gathering those stones together is right here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Sometimes things get torn, and sometimes those torn things have to be sewn up--another slice of life as observed by the poet of Ecclesiastes chapter 3. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to tear and a time to sew.” Again, he isn’t recommending either tearing or sewing; he’s merely reporting what he has observed about the ebb and flow of life. Sometimes things get torn, and sometimes those torn things have to be sewn up. At times, things need to be repaired; thankfully, they often can be, but the repair can’t be done just any old way.
One of Jesus’ mini-parables went like this according to Luke’s Gospel: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old.” (Luke 5:36 NRSV). This easy-to-visualize parable from Jesus fits right in with his frequent juxtaposition of the old way of religion with the new way of religion--namely the one he recommended.
Some of you probably saw Peter Gomes interviewed on the “Colbert Report” about his latest book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. Gomes, whom I have long admired for many reasons and whose witty, weighty sermons I edited with delight for years and years before he became rich and famous, has just released a book that is likely to be his third best-seller. He was a riot being interviewed by Stephen Colbert and held his own very well to no one’s surprise. He made a clear distinction between the Southern Baptists and the American Baptists, of which he is one.
The book, which I just received yesterday and thus haven’t read, says Professor Gomes, was given its catchy title, first to sell books (!), and second because Jesus constantly upset the status quo. Indeed, Jesus did that, and Peter Gomes does plenty of that as well!
Like all of Jesus’ parables, the parable immediately draws hearers into some real-life, down-to-earth slice of life to which everyone or, at least, most everyone can relate. In this case, Jesus calls us into the world of a seamstress who needs to sew up a tear in some kind of fabric--likely a piece of clothing. And, what he says in the parable makes a great deal of sense on a secular level, if you will. It doesn’t make any sense at all to use a new piece of fabric as a patch for an old garment. Nor does it make any sense to tear up a new garment to provide a patch for an old one. So there are two images at work here, and both make sense, again, as secular pieces of wisdom.
If you have the good fortune to have a new garment, which most of Jesus’ hearers being poor folk, rarely did, you certainly don’t spoil the new item, probably something you treasure, by tearing a piece out of it to use to patch up a tear in an old garment. Neither would you from any source take new fabric to patch a tear in old fabric; obviously, when you wash it, it will shrink and crumple since the old fabric has already shrunk as much as it’s going to. You need to sew an old patch on old fabric if you want it to work out well.
Now, Jesus wasn’t interested in giving people advice about their wardrobes or about repairing torn clothing. His parables are always about life in God’s realm--how life is supposed to work for people devoted to the principles of God.
This is where the problem begins. Jesus’ parables, in my interpretation, always upset someone’s apple cart. As long as you really think Jesus is talking about patching and sewing there’s absolutely nothing to get upset about, but when you apply what he says to your religion or your morals you could begin to get uncomfortable.
There are two ways Jesus’ original hearers could have been upset with what they heard and at least one way that modern hearers of this little parable could be distressed or offended by it.
Jesus’ first hearers could have been put off by his seeming inference that he is the new fabric, the new and treasured garment, that would be pointlessly ruined if tampered with to make a patch for the old way. The old way, of course, was the Jewish religion of the past; the heritage that Jesus and his contemporaries had received in terms of how to understand God and how properly to relate to God.
As you’ve heard me say on a number of occasions, Jesus loved Judaism and was always a Jew, from birth to death. He never attempted to start a new religious movement, never heard the word “Christianity,” and never saw a church or went to a church service. Jesus was a Jew, a whole Jew, and nothing but Jew--ethnically and religiously. He wanted to reform Judaism, not negate it or do away with it. Yet, many of his fellow Jews had inherited not only the legalism of the way the religion had developed but also the irrepressible need to defend the ancient ways at all costs--even if they no longer made sense. That was the old way.
Jesus, the new way, came along and said, “God is dynamic; plus, we learn more and more about God the longer we try to understand God. It has become more than evident that keeping rules for the sake of keeping rules ends up meaning next to nothing. Religion that matters is relationally based. You can keep all the religious rules in the world and have no connection to God at all. If you’re going to keep any rules, do so because they’re an outgrowth of your personal connection to or relationship with God.” The very idea that Jesus would propose anything “new” as a corrective to the old was offensive, but that he dared to present himself as the new, that was utterly scandalous.
Jesus seems to be implying in this parable that the new is to be valued and shouldn’t be tampered with to repair the tears in the old. To Jesus, there were no real tears in ancient Judaism; what needed to be repaired were people’s attitudes about how to make use of their religion to be connected to God. This required a new way of thinking and behaving altogether; not a repair job.
The new patch won’t work on the old garment, and if you go ahead to sew one on anyway you’ll ruin both. The old and the new are incompatible in that regard. The old is the foundation of the new, and the new depends on the old as to starting point; but they just don’t mesh. Religion as rules can’t be blended with religion
as relationship. You have to have the relationship part settled before you can decide on rules. You don’t do what you do for God because God demands it or to get in good with God. You do what you do for God as a result of relationship with God; that absolutely has to be the starting point. Then, the spirit of the ancient laws may make sense, but the letter of laws is essentially pointless.
Brent Grant has been reminding me lately that the Center for Progressive Christianity has indicated that it is done with battles with fundamentalism and the effort to try to deconstruct that old way of “Christian fundamentalism,” if, indeed, those two words can actually be used together except to define an institutional perspective. What the Center for Progressive Christianity is up to instead is a modern, positive reconstruction that feels no indebtedness to the past, but only wants to focus on the finding a way of thinking about Jesus based on new tools and concepts--such as fully embracing modern science and tossing aside at the get-go the idea that Jesus is or ever has been the only “way to God.”
The wisdom of the Center for Progressive Christianity, then, is exactly the wisdom of Jesus’ pity parable. The new and the old are simply and utterly incompatible. The old way wants to make rules and regulations and required beliefs the essential ways to God. The new way, in stark contrast, says that we have to begin with a connection to God that is in some kind of way “relational.” Only out of that experience can behaviors and beliefs be established, and by the way they probably can’t ever become absolute. Religion that matters is always new.

“A stitch in time, saves nine,” the old saying goes. Things get torn in life. There’s definitely a time to sew up what has been torn, and there’s definitely a time when it’s too late to make the repair. A small tear in a garment can sometimes be easily and quickly taken care of if tended to soon enough, but it can become a tear too large to repair if ignored. I suspect that the writer of Ecclesiastes had fabric and garments in mind--maybe tents, but the truth applies in many other contexts as well.
What happens when a little bitty tear in a relationship isn’t rapidly repaired? Well, it might heal up on its own though that isn’t likely. Chances are the little tear becomes a larger tear and finally a rip, and the point does come when it is no longer repairable. I think a lot of relationship problems, had they been repaired very early on, could have been nicely sewn up and mended into a healthy long-term relationship. I heard a marriage counselor lecturing once, and she said in her presentation: “By the time most couples come to me, their marriages are already over. Many of the these marriages probably could have been saved if the couples had been willing to get some help and support as soon as a problem was sensed.” The same thing applies to friendships, and the same thing applies in parent-child relationships. The pain of being estranged from someone in the family whom you love deeply seems to me unbearable. You may not be the one who can do anything about the problem, but if you are you should act promptly. I’ve had a temporary taste of that nonsense, and I was one miserable human being. “Sew Up Torn Relationships,” is a good motto. A Scottish proverb reminds us that confessed faults are half-mended.
Some of you probably have seen the documentary, “For the Bible Tells Me So.” If not, it’s worth a watch, even if you think you’ve already made up your mind on the subject of morality and homosexuality.
The synopsis of the award-winning film that appears on its website raises these questions and makes the following statements:

Can the love between two people ever be an abomination? Is the chasm separating gays and lesbians and Christianity too wide to cross? Is the Bible an excuse to hate? Through the experiences of five very normal, very Christian, very American families -- including those of former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson -- we discover how insightful people of faith handle the realization of having a gay child. Informed by such respected voices as Bishop Desmond Tutu, Harvard’s Peter Gomes, Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Reverend Jimmy Creech, FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO offers healing, clarity and understanding to anyone caught in the crosshairs of scripture and sexual identity.

There are any number of heart-wrenching scenes in the film, but I suppose for me the most moving was about a Christian Right mother whose daughter came out to her. The mother, influenced by how she practiced her religion, found lesbianism abhorrent and, therefore, unacceptable. When the daughter tried to reason with her mother and make peace between them, the mother rebuffed her and wrote a long letter of condemnation. In time, the daughter committed suicide, which not a few gay people do when rejected by their families.
This mother now gives her full-time attention to critiquing the brand of Christianity that vilifies and demonizes lesbian and gay persons and preaching in its place the God of love. Of course, as she knows most poignantly, nothing she can do now will ever be able to undo her rejection of her daughter. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was absolutely on target when he said, “A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child.” I would add to that only this: “...a child of any age.”
The daughter tried to repair the tear in her relationship with her mother, and the mother, in the name of some god, refused to offer her daughter anything more than an arrogant, conditional “love,” which, of course, is no love at all. “A stitch in time saves nine,” and, “A stitch in time saves a relationship or a life.”
Someone whose name has been lost to us, I’m guessing she was a seamstress, is responsible for the maxim, “Sewing mends the soul.” This is, no doubt, true of the making of clothes and the mending of tears, and equally as true in the relational aspects of life. If we are not willing to mend our connections and relationships that get torn, we will lose them, every one.
Here’s a David Leavitt quote for the editors among us, and you know who you are. Leavitt is a highly regarded novelist and short story writer. He has one of his narrators describe a character like this:

It was an instinct to put the world in order that powered her mending split infinitives and snipping off dangling participles, smoothing away the knots and bumps until the prose before her took on a sheen, like perfect caramel.

Playwright Eugene O’Neill created the character, William A. Brown, and Mr. Brown first appeared in the 1926 play, “The Great God Brown.” Someone torpedoes Brown with several of life’s most profound questions,

Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid of love, I who love love?...Why was I born without a skin, O God, that I must wear armor in order to touch or to be touched? Or, rather, Old Graybeard, why the devil was I ever born at all?

William A. Brown’s moving and memorable response was this: “Humans are born broken. They live by mending. The grace of God is the glue.”
We will let Herman Mellville’s novel give us the last word on this subject for now: “Heaven have mercy on us all--Presbyterians and Pagans alike--for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

The earliest reference to sewing in the Bible as it has been collected (remember that it’s not in chronological order) is in the story of Eve and Adam. You may not remember this detail of the story that is probably, otherwise, familiar to you.
If you want to read up on this wonderfully-crafted myth that was an ancient Hebrew storyteller’s effort to explain the “why” of several of life’s mysteries, you can read the details in the third chapter of the book of Genesis.
Theologians who have tried to use this story for purposes never, ever intended by the original storyteller have named the content of Genesis 3, “The Fall of Humanity,” referring to how Eve and Adam “fell” from the state of perfection in which human beings were presented as having been originally created by God to the state of rebelliousness against God. In this tale and the two stories of creation the precede this powerful story, the storytellers were trying to explain to their prescientific audiences how the world and various aspects of human life came to be.
Science completely undoes those aspects of the stories that deal with the non-theological premises in the stories. For example, of course, the world wasn’t created in six days, six 24-hour periods, after which God did some touch up stuff early on the seventh day and then took the rest if the day off. Whatever theory of creation you hold to, we know that that one can’t be literally correct; however, the theological affirmation that God did the creating may yet be embraced regardless of which creation theory is yours. Same thing with the pain in childbirth component. For some reason, the storyteller in Genesis 3 posited the notion that women have pain in childbirth because God was mad at Eve, not for the scientific reasons that a six- to eight-pound entity must pass through a much smaller birth canal.
Genesis 3 also presents the idea that human beings die, against the pattern originally envisioned in Eden, because they rebelled against God and were cast out of Eden where death eventually overtakes all living things, humans included. As a story to ponder based on rich symbolism, this story gives us much to think about, but human beings don’t literally die because of what the first human beings, whoever they were and wherever they were--on Asia or Africa or North America, did or didn’t do.
St. Augustine, the great depressive theologian of the fifth century, solidified for Roman Catholic Christians, who kindly passed it along to the Protestants who formed out of them, the belief in the pure literalism of these marvelous biblical myths, which utterly distorts their intent. Human beings are, and will always remain, tainted by sin because of what Eve, first, and then Adam did in terms of refusing to obey the rule of Eden. Yet, even in Augustine’s own time, his view was not universally held, and thankfully is not universally held today.
Pelagius, probably also a Roman Catholic priest like Augustine, vehemently opposed the literalistic teachings of Augustine. The two men were contemporaries. Augustine’s home base was north Africa, and Pelagius was centered in the British Isles. Pelagius said that Eve and Adam were finite human beings, and regardless of what they did or didn’t do with regard to the rule of Eden, they would have died physically. The story in Genesis 3 obviously wasn’t to be taken literally he said.
By the way, someone has called Pelagius the patron saint of progressive Christians. We have to remember that the most remembered and even the best remembered in history weren’t necessarily the finest or the most reliable or the smartest, for that matter. Pelagius is of much greater value to thinking people in the modern world than is Augustine--as brilliant as he may have been.
Well, finally back to sewing and Genesis chapter 3. Once Eve and Adam and done specifically what God had told them not to do, things changed. God had given them only one rule to obey, and that was not to eat from the fruit of the tree in the center of the Garden of Eden. The fruit of every other tree was fair game--just not the fruit from that one tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Once the woman and the man had each taken a bite of the fruit, and there’s no indication that it was an apple, they changed. They immediately lost their innocence and saw things they’d never seen before.
One of my colleagues in grad school, Jean Myers, wrote a sermon that was published rather widely while we were still in grad school. The title of her sermon was “Naked and Unashamed.” That was the state of Eve and Adam BEFORE they ate the fruit they weren’t supposed to eat. Once they ate the forbidden fruit, they were immediately aware of and ashamed of their nakedness even though they were wife and husband and the only humans on earth if you follow the details of the story. The writers of the book of Genesis are frequently concerned with humans trying to put themselves in God’s place or even to take God’s place. This is one of those instances.
Well, it’s fascinating that the first thing they did when they realized they were naked was to sew fig leaves together to make coverings for certain parts of their bodies. As the King James translators told the story: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Gen 3:7 KJV). The New Revised Standard Version’s translation has “loincloths.” What they were suddenly embarrassed about was that their genitals were exposed, which probably wouldn’t have bothered them at all if they’d been created in Greece or at a UD Homecoming frat party!
When I was in college, the theatre department was putting on a classical play-- “Medea,” I think it was, and they hired a young classically trained actor to play the lead. She must have been a starving artist because she didn’t even get a guest room while she was on campus; she did get a private bedroom in one of the women’s dormitories, but she had to use the bathroom and shower room shared by the whole floor of residents. The story was told that one morning she decided to take a shower. She was not modest, said my friends, and was walking down the hall butt naked with washcloth and towel in hand. After her shower, she was walking back
to her room with her washcloth in hand and wet hair wrapped with her towel. Evidently, no one had explained to her that occasionally maintenance men came onto the floor to do repairs and yelled out, “Man on the hall” to make their presence known. Not knowing that and with the shower running anyway, she hadn’t heard them yell so after her shower she was walking back to her room, as I mentioned, with only her washcloth in hand when suddenly she rounded a corner and came face to face with a team of maintenance men. What to do? She immediately put the washcloth over her face! No loin cloth for that lady. Quick thinker that she was, a veil was the only way to go.
So the first mention of sewing in the Bible as presently ordered is this sad scene where sewing is used to help Eve and Adam try to deal with the consequences of their having decided not to live according to the rule of Eden. They sewed fig leaves together to make aprons or loincloths for themselves to cover their nakedness. What they really needed to cover, though, was not their nakedness; it was their shame and disappointment with themselves that needed to be covered, and no sewing could construct a garment that could do that.
Most of us here probably don’t conceive of a God who makes rules for humans to keep and then punishes them if and when they break the rules. In terms of personal morality, punishments for failures are built into the failure itself. If I lie to someone who matters or should matter to me, I have to live with the fact that I’ve allowed myself to be a person who breaches trust. If I make a monogamous commitment to my partner and then cheat on her or him, then I have to live with the fact that I am acting like a person who can’t keep covenants.
God is love. God is the force of love and goodness at work at the heart of human experience. In reality, God doesn’t have rules. We don’t need God’s forgiveness when we fail. We need the forgiveness of those whom we have wronged, and we need to forgive ourselves as well. Sadly, there are those who choose to violate their promises and their commitments--hurting others in the process and living well below their own self-expectations. And when God comes to visit in the cool of the evening, they try in vain to sew together something to protect them from their shame. What they construct is tragically laughable.
One of the reasons a church should exist, and I think we meet this standard, is to keep people reminded that owning our failures is a healthy thing to do, that seeking the forgiveness of those whom we have failed is generally in order, and that while forgiving ourselves may be tough we are well worth the effort. Let us live so that we never feel the need to sew together something to shield us from our own shame and to blame our shame on God.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


“To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to weep and a time to laugh.” Thank goodness, there are supposed to be times to laugh, but, sometimes, it’s hard to find a reason to laugh. Sometimes, there are plenty of reasons to weep and no evident reasons to laugh. Right now, nationally and internationally, is one of those times. Laughing almost feels inappropriate lately, like laughing when everyone else around us is bereaved and/or depressed. If we were to laugh, not that we’re particularly inclined, we have the sense that we’d be the only ones except maybe the AIG executives taking that half a mil retreat while the average tax payer was being called on to bail out failed companies like theirs or except maybe those who actually benefit financially from Americans at war.
I’d much rather laugh as often as I can, but it’s not healthy to refuse to weep when you need to; weeping, also, is a part of life. Jesus himself wept when his dear friend, Lazarus, died; that was a very common, understandable, and human response to the death of a loved one. There would have been something very wrong with that poignant scene had Jesus not wept when his friend--perhaps his best buddy--died.
Jesus had heard stories of loud weeping when was 2 years old, his having been swooshed away to Egypt so as not to have the same fate befall him as befell the other little Jewish boys 2 and under. The Gospel of Matthew tells us the story:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matt 2:16-18 NRSV).

This is an absolutely intriguing though unspeakably tragic passage; the concept of Rachel weeping was borrowed by Matthew from the ancient Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah.
Crazy old paranoid Herod. He evidently thought he was going to live and be king forever and/or that Rome was going to be silly enough to allow him to choose his own successor as puppet king of the Jews. What a laugh! But it wasn’t a laugh when he ordered his security forces to kill all the little boys 2 and under to be sure he’d gotten rid of Jesus. Only Rome was supposed to have pronounced the death penalty, but who was going to complain to Roman authorities the loss of a few little Jewish boys? And if they did, there was a very good chance the complainer would disappear without a trace.
So the little boys are murdered by Herod’s thugs, and the weeping of the mothers and the fathers is loud and heart-wrenching and colored with a sound that only extraordinary grief can produce. The wails were collective--like a a whole community of Rachels weeping the loss of their babies.
I learned a great deal about the weeping of Rachel in Ramah from an article by Professor Frederick Niedner of Valparaiso University. Rachel was the love of Jacob’s life; he worked seven long, hard years to earn her hand in marriage. That was the stipulation set by her father, Laban. Then, having done all he was supposed to do, Laban tricked him and brought his older, less attractive daughter, Leah, into him for the first night of the honeymoon. It was dark, and Jacob was drunk so he didn’t know not to...well, you know. Thus, he ended up having to marry Leah. Laban agreed to let him also marry Rachel if he’d agree to work another seven years, but this time he wouldn’t have to wait. He could have Rachel now, but she wouldn’t be fully his until Jacob completed seven additional years of service to Laban. I realize the price Jacob had to pay sounds stiff, but I have performed a number of weddings across the years, realizing that the groom-to-be was getting into a similar dynamic!
OK, so now Jacob has the wife who was forced upon him in a manner of speaking and the wife who was the love of his life. Both women were sad. Leah was sad because she knew Jacob didn’t really love her, even though he was pleased with her fertility. Rachel was sad because she was barren; she couldn’t conceive regardless of what remedies they tried.
Eventually, Rachel in her pain and frustration spews forth to both God and Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” I don’t want to suggest to you that such prayers are efficacious, but she finally conceived; and nine months later, “Joseph” was born; his name means “do it again” or “let there be another.”
Professor Niedner:

When birth pangs came a second time to Rachel, the family was in transit. As so often happened then, something went wrong, and Rachel died birthing the answer to her prayer. With her last breaths she named the baby Benoni, “son of my sorrow.” Jacob could not bear the sound of his beloved’s sorrow in this baby’s name, so he called the child Ben-jamin, “Son of my right hand.” This second name lifted a burden from father and son, but it also silenced the dying mother’s voice.

For a thousand years Rachel rested in deep silence out there in her makeshift tomb along the roadside near Bethlehem. Then came a day when Jeremiah was watching as Babylonian soldiers marched Rachel’s offspring, children of Israel, naked and trembling along that same road toward exile far away....For company in sorrow, he called mother Rachel from her tomb and gave voice again to her cries that refuse all consolation.

In reflecting back on this story, the rabbis in their midrash brought God more directly into the picture. They said that God found the ruin of Jerusalem too much to bear alone so, the story went, God called the more ancient Hebrew luminaries to God’s side to share the grief, but Moses and Abraham refused to heed God’s call in that sad circumstance. They, instead, blamed God for the horrors of deportation and exile. God had allowed it; God had caused it, said Moses and Abraham, and they wouldn’t console or comfort God. God would have to fend for Godself in dealing with the results of the crisis. “You stopped the knife from plunging into Isaac, and the Pharaoh’s armies from slaughtering the runaway slaves, but you couldn’t save Jerusalem? Weep on your own, God,” they said.
Left alone with the divine grief, God could only think of one other on whom to call, and that was Rachel. She came to grieve with God, and she wept bitterly. She could not be consoled for her personal losses or for the children going off under enemy force, some to death; others to enslavement.
Weep with Rachel and with God for children in our world today who are dying from starvation, from war, and from violent physical abuse. There is a time for every purpose under the skies including a time when only weeping will do.

In the United States, every night one in eight children under the age of 12 goes to bed hungry.

That child and another one in eight--making 20% of all US children--live in poverty; if current trends continue, in a few years in our country, every child born will have only a 50% chance of escaping poverty.

In a world context, nearly 16,000 children die every day from hunger-related causes; that’s about 1 child dying every five seconds.

The cost of one average-priced missile would feed a school full of hungry children their lunch every school day for five years.

According to the United Nations, $40 billion properly distributed would provide food, clean water, sanitation, health services, and education to everyone on the planet--children and adults.

How much was the bail out plan hastily signed into law so that the greedy, careless Wall Street execs who wasted money and imperiled the investments and pensions of trusting souls could have more money to waste?

I grew up in a time and place where males were generally expected not to cry. From the time I was a little tyke, I was told by anyone who happened to be around when I’d cry about something, “Big boys don’t cry.” Of course, I wasn’t a big boy, but I was supposed to begin thinking of myself as a big boy--a little man, really--even when I a preschooler. So, when I got stung by a bee, which was not infrequent since everyone went without shoes all during the summers, or when I got hit in the mouth by a baseball I learned that I wasn’t supposed to cry.
The only time it was OK to cry was when I got a spanking; then, if I didn’t cry, Dad assumed the belt wasn’t making contact with my backside with sufficient impact in which case he put more muscle into my punishment. The moral of that story was: Cry like you’re dying at first hit. Otherwise, big boys don’t cry. Imagine how confused I was when I first began to hear the Jersey boys clarifying that maxim with their song, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”!
You know, as I think about it, there was another instance in which it was OK, even good, for males of any age to cry; that was when you felt convicted of your sins and presented yourself for a salvation decision during at altar call at the end of a sermon. The truth was, if there weren’t at least a few tears that could be confirmed by those who sat closest to the altar there were lingering suspicions about the sincerity of your claim that you had renounced your sins and accepted Jesus so that God could and would save you.
What I’ve just described sounds like something you might have seen on television or in a film somewhere along the way, but not something with which you have the slightest personal experience; and my guess is that most of you want to keep it that way. Children in our tradition were expected to come into “big church” as soon as they could sit quietly through a service. My recollection is that the cutoff usually corresponded with successful potty training. (Just think about what happens in your brain when those two life achievements are intertwined!)
Among other things, this meant that children were exposed to the same hellfire and damnation preaching to which adults were exposed, and, without a doubt, not a few of them were frightened into saying that they were sinners needing to throw themselves on the grace of God so that they could be saved from an eternity in a burning hell. It wasn’t unusual in the least to see first and second graders coming forward during an emotional altar call to say they were sinners in need of the grace of God, and since those 6 and 7 year olds were surely guilty of heinous sins they were expected to cry with regret, girls or boys.
I was 7 years old when I made that decision, and my sins to that point in my life were truly dark: not always being nice to my sister, talking back to my mom, taking six pieces of bubble gum instead of five for a nickel at the dime store, pretending to be sick on a Sunday night once a year so that I could watch the “Wizard of Oz” on television instead of going to Sunday night church. I know. I know. I’m sufficiently ashamed of my dark side, and I may never be able to look you in the eye again; but you can see why I had to confess those sins because those were exactly the kinds of things that would land you in hell for eternity, and there should be tears at the time of confession.
I hope you know or can tell that I’m being facetious--not about how it really was, but about my present opposition of that way of thinking. Just so you know, I think it’s horrendous to plant such horrible thoughts in anyone, especially impressionable children, some of whom will never be able to extract themselves from such a low view of themselves and from the fear of hell and of God, by the way. If you want to have a spine-chilling 90 minutes in front of a DVD, rent--don’t buy--a film called “Jesus Camp.”
So crying when you were spanked or when you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior were the only times boys and men were supposed to cry. Otherwise, stoicism was the name of the game.
I bought into this worldview, and my main model was my Dad whom I justifiably revered. I heard Dad cry once and saw him cry once. Both events were connected to his mother’s death, and I was 18 or 19 years old by that time.
I heard him crying in his bedroom when the call came that Granny Farmer had died after her long and painful battle with cancer; that was my first lesson in how, regardless of how prepared folks think they may be for death news, they’re never as prepared as they thought they were. I saw my strong and stoic father weeping when everyone except the two of us had left the funeral home the night before the funeral. The family had received friends, and Dad lingered. I assumed he had some business to discuss with the funeral director, but that wasn’t it.
When the parlor was empty, he told me to go on out to the car and wait for him, that he’d be along in a minute. Mom drove separately and had already left to take my sister and brother home. I started walking in that direction, but thought of something I wanted to ask Dad really quickly. When I stepped back into the room where I’d left him, I saw him fall onto the lower half of the casket and cry from his depths. That was almost as sad for me as Granny’s death. I never let him know what I saw that evening, but I will never forget.
I continued on in my young adulthood with the sense that men kept their emotions in check almost all the time, and I realized one day that my emotions were locked away deep down inside of me somewhere. They hadn’t disappeared, but they were buried so far down that they were clearly not connected any longer to the immediacy of a situation; they were delayed. Something moving or stirring or sad would happen to me, and I’d understand it; but the proper emotional response to it would sometimes take months to catch up with what had happened. I don’t think this is a good thing, but I really wasn’t aware that it had happened until late at night on my older son’s, Jarrett’s, first birthday.
When I put him to bed that evening, suddenly a flood of emotions that had been building up since I first held him, a minute or two after the doctor delivered him, hit me: the joy, the amazement, the utter fear of having total responsibility for the life of someone completely dependent on me. And the tears flooded. I didn’t even want my wife nearby so I locked myself in our tiny bathroom which was the only room in our aging little rental house with a door that closed all the way. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want anyone to see me. I didn’t want any consolation. I just wanted to weep, and I did; and that became a turning point for me. I knew I needed to work to get my emotions more readily connected to the events and circumstances to which they were related. I’m still not inclined to weep much; sometimes I do, but not often. If I’m in public I fight it; if I’m alone at home or in the car I don’t resist the urge at all.
A pastor has many sad situations to deal with and to respond to. I figure it’s not helpful to the people who share their bad news with me to have me break down and cry whenever I’m sad so I try to force myself to wait, not long-term, but a little while until I can find the right place. I did my hospital ministry studies with Chaplain Bill Justice at the Baptist Hospital in Knoxville, and several of us asked Chaplain Justice one time how he kept his emotions to himself when dealing with exceptionally sad cases. He told us that he had never wept in front of a patient, but, he said, “nothing” could keep him from the privacy of his office when he’d seen the saddest of sad circumstances. He said he’d go into the office from time to time and cry his eyes out about some situation of particular sadness. Made sense to me.

One of the psalmists wrote: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psa 30:5b NRSV). She or he obviously meant the figurative morning, but we get the idea. It’s something like the point Beth Nielson Chapman makes in her song, “Avalanche,” when she sings, “...the heart can only take so much regret.” Weeping for most of us in most circumstances eventually gives way to a smile here and there and finally a laugh or two; in a little while longer, you may find yourself in the middle of a good ole belly laugh!
A belly laugh is so good for us--well, as long as it’s in the right place and at the right time. Maybe we’ve all had enough experience trying to keep from laughing when laughter wasn’t appropriate to understand the feelings of poor Mary Richards when she attended the funeral service of her colleague, Chuckles the Clown. TV Guide ranked that episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show the number one sit-com episode of all time. I happened to be watching the night the show initially aired.
It seems that poor Chuckles was at a parade and was dressed up like a big peanut. Unfortunately, an elephant who was also in the parade didn’t know that Chuckles was just dressed up; he thought he’d found a giant peanut, and Chuckles was killed while the elephant was trying to eat the peanut-find of his life. Chuckles’s colleagues at the television station were saddened, of course, by the death of their friend, but they were also unavoidably amused by the irony of the situation. Some of them were dealing with their grief initially by laughing at how ludicrous his demise had been.
Lou Grant (Ed Asner), the station manager, said, “You know, it’s a good thing the elephant didn’t hurt anyone else,” to which Murray Slaughter (Gavin Macleod) shot back, “Yeah, and you know how hard it is to stop after only one peanut.” The two men laugh uncontrollably, and Mary is incensed. She is irate that they would be laughing for any reason only a few hours after the death of their colleague. She scolds them and tries to straighten them out about their callousness. They try to help her understand that they’re just letting off some steam, as it were, and that no disrespect to Chuckles the Clown had been intended.
In time, we’re taken to Chuckles’s memorial service, and the clergyman is naming off Chuckles’s many good traits--all cut short, of course, by the rogue elephant who had thought Chuckles was a real giant peanut. At this point, Mary, right in the middle of the funeral, starts to laugh. Everyone else has dealt with her or his response to the crazy details of the clown’s death before the service, but not Mary. Therefore, no one else in the crowd finds what the minister is describing as funny at all--only Mary, laughing while trying her best not to laugh, which made it all worse.
This show aired in October of 1975, the fall term of my senior year at Carson-Newman College. I shouldn’t have been watching television, but I was. I literally rolled off my bed onto the floor I was laughing so hard. The guy who had the room next door to me in the rooming house came over to see that I was OK. It was hilarious.
There are two segments of the same story in the book of Genesis where there is laughter that should have been held back but wasn’t. The two people involved simply couldn’t keep from laughing, and the broader story in which this laughter occurs is one of my favorite biblical stories.
Sarah and Abraham are senior citizens. He has a son with Sarah’s maid, Hagar, that Sarah begrudgingly arranged, but he and Sarah had never been able to have a child together. Sarah went to her gerontologist to complain about a persistent nausea, and the gerontologist tested her for every imaginable disease and disorder she could think of; but doing a pregnancy test never occurred to the doctor. Only after Sarah mentioned that Abraham had tried out the free sample Viagra pill did the doc catch on and confirm the pregnancy.
Actually, the less clinical version of story has God speaking to Abraham (Abram) when Abraham is 99 years old and bestowing all sorts of blessings upon the old man, and as the conversation progresses God says that God will bless Abraham’s wife, Sarah (Sarai) too. “`I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed...” (Gen 17:16-17 NRSV). This old guy is essentially laughing in God’s face.
Later, three messengers from God show up at Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent, and they confirm the coming pregnancy. Sarah is inside the tent, and she overhears the conversation about how she will soon be getting pregnant at the age of 90. She covers her mouth and laughs wildly, but she doesn’t let Abraham and the messengers hear her. God gets a little put off this time, but gets over it soon enough. The scene is a riot.
God delivered though, or was it Sarah? Anyway, a baby boy was born to Abraham and Sarah. It wasn’t hard to pick out a name. They named him “Laughter,” Isaac.
We now know what we didn’t know about laughter in 1975, that the kind of laugh I described to you in response to the Mary Tyler Moore Show is extraordinarily healthy for us--provided we don’t break any bones or suffer a concussion when we roll off the furniture. Now we know more, though not all the reasons why, laughter is good for one’s health.
A few years ago, I preached a sermon series called “Biblical Belly Laughs,” which I’m sure each of you who heard it remembers with precision and profound appreciation. (LAUGH!) Anyway...somewhere in that series I talked a good bit about the physical benefits of laughter as we looked at several of the stories in the Bible that I find really humorous. Enough belly laughing rivals in effectiveness certain cardiovascular exercises.
Three years ago, just down the road from us in Baltimore, Dr. Michael Miller, who is Director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, released a report confirming from a cardiologist’s point of view how healthy laughter is. The initial report said this:

Using laughter-provoking movies to gauge the effect of emotions on cardiovascular health, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore have shown for the first time that laughter is linked to healthy function of blood vessels. Laughter appears to cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to dilate or expand in order to increase blood flow. When the same group of study volunteers was shown a movie that produced mental stress, their blood vessel lining developed a potentially unhealthy response called vasoconstriction, reducing blood flow. That finding confirms previous studies, which suggested there was a link between mental stress and the narrowing of blood vessels.

The study had both clinical elements as well as results from questionaries each of the participants was asked to complete.

In the study, researchers compared the humor responses of 300 people. Half of the participants had either suffered a heart attack or undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. The other 150 did not have heart disease. One questionnaire had a series of multiple-choice answers to find out how much or how little people laughed in certain situations, and the second one used true or false answers to measure anger and hostility.

Miller said that the most significant study finding was that “people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations.” They generally laughed less, even in positive situations, and they displayed more anger and hostility. “The ability to laugh--either naturally or as learned behavior--may have important implications in societies such as the U.S. where heart disease remains the number one killer,” says Miller. “We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list.”

I wrote some hymn words for a song about laughter back when I preached the “Biblical Belly Laughs” series. Maybe you remember when we sang it:

It’s a gift to be happy; it’s a gift to feel glee.
It’s a gift to see what’s as funny as can be.
And when humor finds you unmistakably,
In God’s name, laugh! Set your spirit free!

Laugh! Laugh! On both sides of the tomb!
God doesn’t dwell in a fog called “gloom.”
In the struggle and the pain our lives can bring,
There are ways to soar upon laughter’s wing.


Sunday, October 05, 2008


There are times in life for both tearing down and for building up. This is yet another contention by the observant writer/poet of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3 verses 1-8.
This is true of structures, relational patterns, organizational practices, and ideologies. In one way of thinking, the constant process of tearing down and building up is a description of how life works and of the proof of life itself. Our bodies continually renew themselves. Old skin cells die, and new ones replace the old ones. This is a part of what allows life to go on.
One of the structural options I teach beginning speech and preaching students is what I call “Belief--Disprove It.” This is a way of structuring a speech or a sermon based on taking some widely held belief and proving it wrong. The example I tend to use in speech class is a good one to use today to help you understand what I’m talking about; Halloween-time is the perfect time to bring this up, in fact.
There’s a widely held view among people in many cultures that ghosts exist, but the truth is: there’s no such thing as a ghost. I could make a simple three-point speech explaining why I’m disproving, or in the language of Ecclesiastes “tearing down,” that worn-out idea that lives on in superstitious minds. If I’m wrong, I guess I’ll get haunted the next time I’m here at church by myself late at night. It’s a risk I’ll have to take because:

1, Ghosts are nothing more than the results of people’s projections and fears.

2. Ghosts are blamed for unexplained events and circumstances when people don’t know who else to blame.

3. No one has ever definitively proven that she or he has seen a ghost.

As one of those folks who believe that there is another realm of existence beyond this one to which those who choose it go, I am not saying that death in this world is the end of those whom we love. I simply can’t find any evidence for turning the spirits of our departed loved ones into ghosts--well, except for the fact that pens or pencils disappear from my desk when I haven’t gotten up or moved, and there’s the predictable disappearance of socks I know absolutely I put in the dryer. There are pictures that are taken with supposedly special lighting that if explained to us by those who took the photographs prove that a ghost was in this room or that.
I have to tell you that I think it’s harmful to let children think there are ghosts. I think that is warping to their understanding of life and death. In any case, the sermon isn’t about ghosts; it’s about tearing down and building up, and I think the notion of ghosts needs to be torn down once and for all.
You can reverse my organizational concept for speeches and sermons, and do that build up thing in just the same way. Take a widely held belief, and prove that it’s true. Here’s another timely example: You’ve heard people say all your life, “Everyone should vote.” Well, that’s absolutely true. Why do I say such a thing?

1. Voting is your most direct way to express yourself while protecting your rights as a citizen.

2. Voting is a proactive way to support someone who wants to make changes that you agree are essential.

3. Not to vote is your cancellation of your right to critique what goes on in your nation.

In a democracy, I think voting is not only a privilege, but also a responsibility.
Jesus was absolutely clear on his relationship to the religion of his forebears and their beloved religious law. In Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says blatantly: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17 NRSV).
Even so, there were many misunderstandings of that ancient law that he did feel compelled to tear down, and the same Sermon on the Mount is filled with Jesus’ own challenges to interpretations of the ancient law that got him into trouble with some of his fellow Jews who were the keepers and the interpreters of those ancient laws. Here’s an example:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and, “Whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the gehenna of fire (Matt 5:21-22 NRSV).

So what’s the deal here? Well, the legalists who really detested Jesus because he wasn’t one of them had lived and were living by the letter of the ancient law. It’s pretty easy not to murder, and it’s pretty basic to understand that in most human cultures since the beginning of time murdering someone in your own group or clan was unacceptable and, thus, punishable by law.
Jesus’ legalistic contemporaries were patting themselves on the back for keeping that part of the ancient law to a tee, and here Jesus comes along and says, “The point is not to keep the law to letter; it’s really the spirit of the law that counts. So, you may not murder anyone, and good for you if you don’t; but there are ways to kill the souls of your fellow human beings, which you do routinely. Do you really think you can treat people like dirt, diminish them without repercussion? Of course not, so get rid of the idea that as long as you don’t kill someone physically, you can treat her or him any way you please; that’s what the spirit of the law is about.”
That was fun! Let’s do another one!

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your God in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your God is perfect (Matt 5:43-48 NRSV)

“Perfect” in this context means mature, not without error so don’t get hung up there. Be mature as God is; don’t be childish. “Ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya. You hit me, and I hit you.”
Quite naturally, the ancient law had affirmed loving neighbors and hating enemies, and even with a rather wide definition of what neighbor included, an enemy was an enemy was an enemy; and you had to hate her or him.
Jesus said to those who hadn’t already walked away from his preaching that day: “Love your neighbor, yes; and love your enemy too. Pray for the Romans when they persecute you. This is how true children of God behave. Since God doesn’t love some and hate others, you don’t get to do that either, and if you act lovingly only to people who are nice to you, you haven’t done anything more than IRS auditors or Wall Street executives do.”

I learned when I was old enough to have the freedom to think about such things that I learn most readily in an environment of affirmation. In other words, in an atmosphere of negativity and threat, I don’t learn much--only what I have to learn to get by or survive. That being the case, I became a generally nice teacher. I try to be affirming every time and in every way that I can, and I stay in that mode unless a student puts me in a place where I have to be less than affirming, let’s say.
When I was teaching at the seminary in Rueschlikon, Switzerland, three Italian students asked me if I’d be willing to meet with them to discuss a problem. I agreed to meet with them, having no idea that I was the problem when I made the appointment. Two of the students, young men, were in my basic preaching course; the third student, a female, was not in my class but made it her business to get involved in any juicy cause that came along.
So I met with them, and they were very respectful--at least the two men were. The spokesperson got the discussion underway by saying, “Professor Farmer, you are too nice for Italians. We cannot learn from someone who is always so nice to us. If you expect us to learn, you must be stern.”
I laughed. I thought they were kidding, but they weren’t. Another of them tried to explain things to me. “You see, Professor, when we are in school growing up, and we make a mistake, the teacher says, `You idiot.’ And then we finally catch on. But here you compliment our essays, our comments in class, and our sermons; sad to say, we are simply not learning from you.”
Can you imagine?!? I thought for a minute and came back with my best response at the moment. I said, “Well, my dear Italians, if you choose not to learn from someone who is nice to you and who respects you and who encourages you, that will have to be your choice. I appreciate your sharing your views with me, and I want to learn from you; but I will keep teaching you what I know about preaching with all the kindness and encouragement I can muster.”
They all became good preachers despite my niceness; maybe they would have anyway. Who knows?
I want to learn from and I like being around those people who build you up all the time; not those who tear you down, or try to anyway. I want to be that kind of person too. I don’t like conflict, and I don’t like the negativity that leads to unhealthy, destructive conflict and the need to confront it. That is such an energy waste.
The Apostle Paul could be very pastoral and encouraging, but he was moody and grumpy quite often; you never knew what you were going to get when he came for a visit or sent you a letter. In his early ministry, his non-pastoral side was balanced by his great friend and missionary associate, Barnabus. He had been born “Joseph,” but after his decision to be a follower of Jesus, he was given a new name--just as Paul was a post-conversion name change for Saul. Barnabus was the name given to the man formerly known as Joseph, and the writer of the book of Acts who tells us most of what we know about Barnabus tells us that to the early Jesus Movement the name “Barnabus” meant “son of consolation or encouragement” (υἱός παρακλήσεως, uios parakleseos). Wouldn’t it be great to be known as the person anyone could go to, to be encouraged instead of the person who makes everyone feel bad about the world and about himself or herself?
A software engineer, of all types, has come up with a list of seven ways to encourage others, and we could all benefit from putting these into practice.

1. Show genuine interest in others. If you ask, “How are you?”, really mean it, and expect an honest answer. Don’t be the kind of person whose only real goal in a conversation is to get to the part where you get to talk, and probably about yourself only. There are some cleverly self-centered people out there who can turn any conversation back to them regardless of the topic. I’m amazed at how self-absorbed many people can be. We can’t show genuine interest in others when all we really care about are our own ideas, opinions, experiences, and gripes.

2. Acknowledge what’s important to others to whom you relate. So this goes beyond having a genuine interest in others in a general kind of way. You actually speak what you know to be important to them: How ‘bout them Phillys? Tell me how your grandchildren are doing? What are you studying in class these days?

3. When someone does a good job, tell her; tell him.

4. Saying, “Thank you,” isn’t really out of vogue, and neither should be, “You’re welcome,” instead of, “Yup,” or, “No problem.”

5. Reciprocity. This one’s about to go by the way side isn’t it? If someone calls you, you’re supposed to return the call. And if that someone else is a friend calling in a friendly way, you should then take it upon yourself to initiate a call in the near future. That is really aging me, isn’t it? My younger son, Carson, only answers calls if he recognizes the caller’s number on the caller ID. If he misses calls, he reviews the call log and only returns those calls if he recognizes the number. If you call his cell phone, his message says, “Don’t bother leaving a message. I’ll never check it.” I have some friends; well, I USED TO; who didn’t have an answering machine even though they were rarely at home. Their reasoning was that if other people left them a message, then it became their responsibility to return the call, and they didn’t want to live with that kind of pressure. Geez!

6. We build others up when we confide in them and/or when we sincerely ask for their advice. This is not to be gullible and act as if everyone can be trusted with our confidences; nor is it to suggest that we are required to take all the advice we are given even though there are those who believe that if they give advice, the person to whom the advice is given is obligated to take it.

7. Finally, a huge way to demonstrate how important another person is to us is to offer to lend a hand or to be supportive of her or him whenever we can.

Again, I say, I think the goal of being an encourager, a Barnabus, a daughter or a son of encouragement and comfort, is one of the finest of all goals for every member of a family or a community or even a church. “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas [which means “son of encouragement”] (Acts 4:36 NRSV).

There may be programs or patterns of being or doing church that eventually have to be torn down. The old ways don’t work any more, and if we keep trying to build up the old ways that don’t work we will have no energy left for tearing down what is already crumbling and for building up what we have to build up in order to survive and thrive. We cannot live if we think the best days are in the past; nor can we survive if we think that the only ways to be the church are those that have been demonstrated in days gone by. To be healthy and to grow, there are some things we have to be willing to let go of. There must be in a church a dynamic of embracing change as change is needed. Notice I said AS, not WHEN change is needed. Change is going to be necessary. Mark that down.
By the way, people who are chronically negative really get on my nerves--especially in churches. They tear us down, and many of them know it and thrive on their ability to disrupt and hurt. They never have a kind or constructive word to say about anyone or anything. The only time we ever hear from them is when they want to complain, tearing someone or something down.
These people I’ve never understood; they bring their own anger and frustration and dysfunction to their churches and take pleasure in trying to tear down the church because misery loves company. They are the gossips and the malcontents. They are the people you can always go to when you want to have something bad spread around or get something destructive stirred up. They are the people who are there to gain personal power and call attention to themselves. They are the people who are not involved in church to minister, but there only because a volunteer organization filled with predominantly kind folk has a hard time telling them that they won’t tolerate their destructive ways--though the churches should.
When most people come to church, they are seeking and they need and want encouragement. The world has a way of beating us up and bringing us down just by the crazy events that unfold--the collapse of Wall Street conveniently timed to a month or so before a presidential election no less, being just one recent example.
What we want to do here is not to play like everything is OK when it’s not; nor do we want to avoid owning responsibilities for making the world a better place, even when we’d rather not have to be bothered with trying to make the world a better place. But overall, the sentiment expressed and felt here should be related to building one another up.
Earlier, I said that Paul could be pastoral at times, even if you couldn’t count on his pastoral side to show up consistently. We read responsively together a passage from Ephesians in which Paul was wonderfully pastoral. He was describing his view of how God gives gifts to all the people who make up any congregation, and as a result of these gifts they are able to carry out the ministry of congregants to each other as well as to make a difference in the world outside the walls of church.
I decided to rewrite that part of Paul’s Ephesian correspondence for Silverside Church. This is what I came up with:

There is one congregation and one divine reality that nudges us toward unity as we each fulfill, inside and outside the church building, our individual callings based on the gifts that have been entrusted to us.

One God, one ultimate truth, and one purpose for all religious rituals.

One God, one humanity, one God-created cosmos in which every entity is infused with a spark of divinity.

But each of one of us has been given different gifts by God.

The gifts God gave Silverside were that some would be scientists and some would be engineers, and then God gave more scientists and more engineers; and God almost stopped there, but God finally decided to give us people with gifts other than science and engineering.

The other gifts that God gave were that some would be accountants and some horticulturalists; some artists and some musicians; some stay at home parents and some radio personalities; some with executive skills and some effective salespersons; some environmentalists and some gardeners; some with business sense and some who turn food into both a ministry and a basis for fellowship; some with a passion and a pain for social justice and some who know that our own roof will cave in if we don’t keep it repaired; some with the ability to love and support the elderly and some who love and nurture the children who are our future; some gifted in technology that the Apostle Paul could never have dreamed of and some who have put their lives on the line for freedom; some who are gifted in ministering one to one with the strugglers in our community and some who as counselors ease the pain and confusion of those who feel that they are losing their way; some who give their lives to the implementation of just laws in the land and some who teach in institutions preparing young people to face the challenges of life and profession in our increasingly complex world; some with gifts of caring for the sick and some fine writers; some with marketing skills and some with an eye for the beautiful.

All these gifts were given by God to equip each member of the congregation for engaging in some part of the ministries to which followers of Jesus are called and for building up the community--building up the community-- until all of us come to the unity of the faith and to maturity.

God gave no one the gift of tearing down the health and potential well-being of the congregation. If that is your gift, you didn’t get it from God. Says the tiny little book of Jude, “It is...worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions”--that is tearing down not for any good purpose, but tearing down just to tear down.
I believe with my whole heart that the most important part, the MOST important part, of being a community that can grow is the “build you up” sense that visitors get when they visit--from the first moment they arrive. When those of us who are already involved are doing what we’re supposed to be doing with the gifts we’ve been given then we are busily using our gifts to build up the faith family, and newcomers know they’ve come to a place where they, too, will be affirmed as they dare to find out what gifts they have that can contribute to the ministries of the church on the outside while building up others on the inside.