Sunday, April 26, 2009

In a world where bigger is better in the minds of an amazing majority of people, today I want to speak in favor of the underfunded entities of the world, the mom and pop enterprises, and the small time contributor. Not only do I want to speak in favor of these, but also I want to stress their importance to the well-being of the whole. Bigger isn’t always better, after all, and we know this is true from many perspectives; sometimes a little is lovely!
Most of us from childhood or the childhoods of our children or grandchildren know the story of “The Little Engine That Could.” As you probably recall, various larger engines didn’t or couldn’t pull the train over some treacherous tracks, and the train only got pulled because of the little engine. Interestingly enough, the earliest version of the story appeared in 1906 in a publication for children involved in Sunday School titled, WELLSPRINGS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE . One of the earlier versions of the story reads like this:

A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill. “I can't; that is too much a pull for me,” said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. “I think I can,” puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on, the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, “I--think--I--can, I--think--I--can.” It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

One of the classic legends from Hebrew scripture is the story of David and Goliath. Even though it is not an historic account in my view, I still take strong objection to using it as a Bible story to teach young children in Sunday School--or anywhere else fore that matter. It is extraordinarily violent and gory. Still, for adults who can hopefully get past the gore and the praise of violence and nationalism, there’s a story of encouragement for the little gal or guy here--and I don’t mean on the field of battle.
The ancient Hebrews regarded the Philistines as arch enemies, and to make it worse there came a brewing battle when the Philistines brought in their trump card, Goliath. It seems that the earliest accounts of the story have Goliath standing at about six and a half feet in height, which probably made him much taller than the average ancient Hebrew or taller than the average ancient Philistine, for that matter; however, with the passing of time and the repetitive retelling of the tale, Goliath somehow grew three feet. By the time we meet him in the book of First Samuel in the Hebrew Bible, he has grown! Now he is nine and a half feet tall!

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him (1 Sam 17:4-7 NRSV).

The Hebrews can’t find anyone willing to go out and meet Goliath for some one on one combat. Noteworthy among the big, brave names who find excuses for not taking on Goliath on behalf of the Hebrews are David’s own brothers.
Not only was Goliath quite tall, but also he heckled well. Add his verbal insults to his height, and every last one of the Hebrew soldiers found an excuse for not engaging in battle with Goliath on behalf of their people. There is an interesting twist here. As far as the Philistines were concerned, whoever won this individual battle would be regarded as the winner of the war as a whole. Through Goliath, there was even a promise that if the Hebrews could send out a mighty warrior who could win the one to one against Goliath, the Philistines would declare themselves the losers in the war, and they would willingly become slaves to the Hebrews. Needless to say, Goliath and his Philistine commanders were absolutely certain Goliath would win thus making them the winners in battle and the proud “owners” of the Hebrew people.
The most unlikely candidate among the Hebrews for fighting such a potentially pivotal battle emerges in the story, and the people who first heard the story must have fallen over laughing at the impossible differences between their guy and Goliath from Gath. Of course, the story was being told by a pro-Hebrew storyteller for a Hebrew audience. Chances were, even in an impossible situation, the Hebrews weren’t likely to come out in a bad light. Still, the story, if told well, would have them wondering here and there.
It wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world for stories told about individuals to be, actually, stories about a nation. There is some question about David’s historicity, though most scholars that I read believe he was an actual person and not simply a great literary character. Odysseus, definitely a fictional character, is the hero of Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey.” As the protagonist, all the action in the collection of stories relates back to him in some way. One of the highly probable ways of understanding the story is to take Odysseus not simply as a fictional person but rather as a symbol for the Greek people as a whole. He was courageous. He loved his family and only cheated on his wife with a couple of superhuman female beings with whom, he thought at the time, he’d be with forever since he doubted he would ever make it back home; any wife and nation can allow for that kind of cheating, right? I mean, what wife can really compete with enchantresses? He was persistent. He was wise. In the end, he prevailed.
Take the same interpretive model and use it with the David and Goliath story. David represents the best in the ancient Hebrews, a small nation, but a nation willing to risk it all to keep its people free. The Hebrews were willing to take on giants of nations in their quest to keep themselves free, and while the story makes it seem that they may have prevailed over every foe, that is certainly not the case. Still, in the Hebrew eye, though they were very small, they would take on anyone who threatened them.
Goliath is all armored up. He has his trusty javelin, his primary weapon. His shield bearer goes out to the fight with him.
The shamed ranking soldiers at least help David get ready to go into battle once King Saul finally agrees to have such a little guy, and such a young guy, go out to meet Goliath on behalf of the Hebrews. David tries on the armor; it’s too big and heavy. It weighs him down so he decides he will go into the battle with no armor and no heavy weapons. He will take his trusty sling shot and a few stones.
Goliath is laughing, “Is this the best you can do? I’m insulted that you’d send such young weakling to take me on!”
David, though, is determined. He’s not a likely winner in the confrontation about to occur; yet, he does win, and he wins big time, I guess you could say.
He hits mighty Goliath right between the eyes with one of the stones from his trusty slingshot. Both to be certain Goliath was dead and to stress his victory over Goliath and the Philistines, David cuts off Golaith’s head and holds it up for all to see on both sides of the Valley where the brief confrontation took place. “I think I can. I think I can,” thought David ahead of the slingshot hit. With Goliath’s bloody head in one hand, David is saying, “I knew I could. I knew I could!” Sometimes, the little gal or guy, wins out over the big and more evidently powerful entity. Don’t rule out the underdog!

Now here’s a Bible story that’s great for children, even though the implications are much, much deeper than the fine on-the-surface story. The youngest hearers of CHARLOTTE’S WEB get a lot out of the story without realizing that the book isn’t really about animals or a barnyard at all.
The story is a brief episode out of the life of Jesus, and over the years the story has gotten a nickname, “The Widow’s Mite.” There is much more to the story than I ever realized as a kid.
Let’s ease into the story by looking at where the episode is placed in the Gospel of Mark, which is our oldest Gospel. Remember that the Gospel writers weren’t making any effort to present a historical chronology of Jesus’ life. There was a collection of stories circulating orally, maybe a written collection or two before the present Gospels came to be written, and the Gospel writers selected stories and ordered them in accordance with their specific literary and theological purposes.
That said, this little teaching snippet is immediately ahead of the story of “The Widow’s Mite,” which should be called, if we’re going to use this emphasis, “The Widow’s Mites,” and I’ll tell you why in a second.

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus had numerous opponents among the Jewish religious leadership, but it’s a serious error to assume that all the leaders were anti-Jesus. Jesus’ most evident enemies within Judaism were the Pharisees, and the Pharisees were in cahoots with the scribes. A Pharisee was a member of a specific religio-political party; almost all Jewish men belonged to such a party. Scribes were the most highly respected interpreters of the law, and because the law was so important to the Jews the scribes were utterly revered. They were also given the sacred responsibility of copying scriptures onto the scrolls that others would study.
In a culture like ours that supposedly values separation of church/synagogue/mosque and state, there is no real parallel to scribes in Jesus’ day. A close comparison might be an imam in an Islamic culture where his word, his understanding of the Qu’ran, his interpretation of political events are taken to be very nearly the word of God Godself.
Jesus tells his listeners on this occasion to watch out for the scribes, and I don’t think these criticisms apply universally to the imams in Islamic cultures around the world. These jabs were for the Jewish scribes whom Jesus knew in his world. If the reprimand fits, whatever one’s religion, then wear it.
Jesus said that not all the scribes were doing what they were doing for the sake of preserving the law or for the spiritual well-being of their fellow Jews. Jesus insisted that some of them, all their years of hard study and work notwithstanding, were much more interested in the perks of the job--such as the fancy, long, tasseled robes they got to wear so they’d be recognized at once as a ranking scholar wherever they went, the instant respect and praise most people wanted to offer them once they realized what their profession was, the best seats at any synagogue event, and the places of honor at social gatherings.
What the scribes are really good at doing, if you want to know the truth, Jesus said, is devouring the houses of widows and saying long, fancy prayers at synagogue gatherings that put most of the people attending right to sleep. By continuing to insist on the strictest possible interpretation of the ancient law, the scribes were continuing to uphold a tradition that made widows the most vulnerable population in any Jewish society. Unable to inherit since only men could inherit, unable to work in most cases because mostly men were trained for the trades, unable to learn to read or write, and so on, many younger widows with sons who hadn’t reached adulthood lost their homes and were put out on the streets.
Now, right on the heels of that stinging indictment, Jesus tells a story wherein an unnamed widow is the heroine, and people like scribes are the ones to boo! Evidently, the scribes made really good money, and because they followed the law to a tee they tithed on their income. As a result they were pumping big bucks into the Temple treasury. When has a religious leader disliked the people who were giving the most to support her or his ministry? It’s rare indeed. Yet, Jesus is praising a widow who put two coins in the coffer. Two little bitty coins. And he’s castigating the givers of the larger financial gifts. Clearly, it was a good thing Jesus didn’t go into the fund raising business.
It’s hard to tell what kinds of coins Jesus is referring to here, but good candidates would be a type minted up until 12 CE, when Jesus would have been about 18 years old. It took two of these coins to equal the least valuable coin available by the time Jesus was referring to them. In our time, if the US Mint decided to get rid of pennies, the next coin up would be a nickle. Some of us would remember years from now that five pennies were equal to a nickel, but our pennies we’d long since spent or held onto as memories.
Jesus is telling this story somewhere near the beginning of his ministry, in the year 24 CE or so. If this were the coin he had in mind, the widow had to have kept the coins for years. Without banks, people were responsible for keeping up with their own money, and what seems to be happening here is that the widow must have saved those coins for years, from the time her husband had first earned them. She has spent through everything her husband left her, and all she has to give to an offering that she thinks shows her honor for God are these two coins--so old by the time she tossed them into the offering plate they weren’t in circulation any more.
Even so, Jesus said, “Hers is the greatest offering, much more valuable in God’s sight than what the right people gave who didn’t have to feel a thing in order to pass along their tenth; they weren’t going to miss it at all.” The message of this little story is not that people should give all they have to operate institutional religion, but rather that a very small offering--maybe not one other givers think would be worth bothering with--can make a big difference. You can make a difference with what you have. Jesus said that the offering of a woman in such poverty that she had given all she had, probably meant finding herself on the streets with no place to live soon after she had made this trip to the Temple. The scribes would soon devour her house.
It’s interesting to think about reasons the widow would have given her last two mites. Perhaps as long as she had been married, she and her husband had tithed according to Jewish law; she continued the practice as long as she could. There was no way she could have given a tenth of two mites; it took both of the dated coins to make a single one of the smallest coins being circulated in Jesus’ day. Maybe she tossed in her last two coins to try to curry some divine favor. Her theological framework would have taught her that her husband’s death was God’s will and that her poverty was God’s will; she must be getting punished for something she and/or her husband had had done. If she gave all she had to the religious institution she understood to be God’s preferred one, maybe she wondered if God would suddenly bail her out. There were certainly some stories in the Hebrew Bible that had God rescuing desperate widows just in the nick of time.
Financial contributions to religious institutions do not buy God’s favor. God’s love for you is unchanged by how much or how little you give to a church or a synagogue or a mosque. God would not ask you to give your last nickel to the church, but even the smallest of contributions when combined with the contributions of others can make a huge difference for a cause or for a world.

Religious institutions have a tremendous responsibility to mange and use and invest the money constituents give to support their ministries. In a modern era where we are being bombarded with news about how institutions we have trusted have wasted, otherwise abused, and sometimes stolen money entrusted to them we need to be reminded that the church is neither exempt from responsible money management, nor are religious organizations free of people who would use money given as an expression of their faith to pad their own pockets and sometimes in excessively grotesque ways.
Most people that I know who give money to a church do so in some way as an expression of their faith commitment and/or as an investment in the kinds of ministries in which the particular church is involved. It is not uncommon for people who belong to a church to make personal sacrifices in order to support the church they love. One of my church members in New Orleans who was a kind of stay-in-the-background person surprised me one day when she confided that she had had to take out a loan to pay her pledge for the year. She was a single woman and had had some of those unexpected and unwelcome events requiring a major outlay of cash. With all of that on her mind, she still loved her church and refused, she said, to have anything keep her from giving what she had promised. I assured her that the church would understand if she had to change the amount of her pledge, but she wouldn’t hear of it. I imagine that there are many more like her than we know, and some of them belong to churches where the members are guilted into generous giving with promises of earthly and heavenly rewards for the really big givers.
A preacher has no right to promise anybody anything in exchange for financial gifts; the biblical blessings promised to those who give of their means to faith-based initiatives are not material rewards. Yet, I can’t tell you the number of people I run into who clearly have in their minds that God rewards God’s people with money, maids, and motorcars is sizable! Part of the reason that the money contributed doesn’t go further to help with the ministries of a given church is that the religious hucksters who make people feel guilty for failing to give take it for themselves. Churches have also been known simply to mismanage money.
If a church sets realistic goals and realistic budgets, then anyone in that membership who gives can make a difference with her or his gift; the smaller gifts combined with the larger gifts become enough to make a difference. The fixit people often have a slogan on their trucks and business cards, “No job too small.” And churches should say, “No gift too small.” Every gift counts toward something good and worthwhile; or it should.
A friend of mind from Charlotte, North Carolina, called earlier this week to tell me about a high profile religious leader down his way who is being sued for income tax violations. It turns out that this clergyperson who also owns some funeral homes--talk about a conflict of interest!--has been indicted on fourteen different counts of tax violations including five counts of tax evasion and five counts of tax perjury.
In a five year period, this person earned about two million dollars and underreported his income to the tune of about $800,000. His expenditures exceeded his income according to his tax forms. He leased luxury vehicles with a price tag of $70,000 annually. He and his wife have two homes with annual mortgage payments of $75,000 and $100,000 respectively.
The pastor insists that he’s innocent. If he has violated no law, he has certainly violated the trust that many people place in their clergy, and I don’t think the IRS should be allowed to stack up years of charges against someone. If someone is botching tax returns then she or he should be called on it at once.
In the eyes of many church folk, their pastor can do no wrong so this guy is still a saint as far as that group is concerned. Others will never give to that church or any church again because of such high and mighty living.
One of my great mentors, John Killinger, emailed me the other evening, and in addition to getting me caught up on a few items and asking me write a brief piece for back matter in his next book, he told me about the fiasco going on at the Riverside Church in New York City where the new pastor’s installation was challenged in court by a group within the church calling themselves “Friends of Fosdick.” They had their vote on whether or not to call Brad Braxton as their next pastor, but their contention is that the pastor search committee told the congregation nothing about the financial deal it had worked out with Brad, who is a friend of mine and someone whom I love.
Brad did nothing illegal, but he has certainly been a part of bringing condemnation on himself by negotiating an annual package of something like $600,000. His package includes salary and housing and an extra housing amount so that he can buy a home away from the rental in the city. It includes tuition so that Brad’s daughter can attend an exclusive private school. He and his wife get a full-time maid out of the deal. Travel, study, retirement. You name it; it’s there. And he also got $300,000 to hire his second in command.
The judge who heard the case didn’t rule on it, but encouraged both sides to try to reach some peaceful agreement. That could be tricky. It seems that the descendants of John D. Rockefeller who literally built the church for Harry Emerson Fosdick are opposed to this package and have sided with the law-suit-filing group. I wish Brad the best. I’m jealous that he will make in a year what many clergy have to work ten years to make. And this huge amount doesn’t reflect what he can command as a guest speaker and preacher since he serves such a prestigious church--though a very troubled congregation. I’m not sure who would have turned down such a lucrative one I know; however, it has really hurt the church, and there is no way to recover from that kind of black eye. The related stories are all over the New York newspapers, and all over the internet too. The membership of Riverside Church has been in decline for some time; this isn’t going to help at all. There’s a congregational meeting next Sunday to try to sort it all out. My, oh my.
When widows throw their mites into the synagogue or mosque or church treasury, they don’t expect to be paying their for their religious leader’s full-time maid. If a clergyperson wants to hire a maid out of what she or he is paid in salary then that is no one’s business.
Jesus said that high paid religious leaders who have money to burn can give some big bucks to religious organizations and get lots of praise from clergypersons and fiance committees. But, he said, the more significant offerings are those given by those who feel every nickel they part with, including the nickels they give to their faith communities. And when widows and others, who don’t have much of this world’s goods, struggle to contribute to an organization’s ministries those offerings will make a difference if the policies of the faith group are in order.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


As my sermon series on the empowering words of nears its close, today’s subject shows up, “You Can Speak Your Mind!” Preaching this sermon to this congregation is really funny! Talk about preaching to the choir!
Speaking your mind doesn’t mean unloading every ounce of gossip you’ve heard or concocted to the newest member or visitor to see if you can discourage that person from ever wanting to join or join in the programs of the church. Speaking your mind doesn’t mean finding the least tactful way you can come up with to make a point in conversation. Speaking your mind simply means being true to your convictions and not going along with what your family members or group members or another more vocal person assumes you believe or presses you to accept.
Public speaking textbooks these days spend a good amount of space trying to encourage the shy person--of which there are many in the world, just not in Silverside Church--to take small steps risking overcoming not all shyness, but crippling shyness. The books remind students how many opportunities they miss out on in a democracy if they fail to speak their minds. The reason this is important to potential public speakers is self-evident.
A few times in my life I have kept my opinion to myself. When I was growing up in Halls Crossroads, for example, there was no reason for me to have an opinion that differed from Dad’s once he’d made his mind up about anything. Officially, my siblings and I were allowed to expressed an opinion that differed with Dad’s, but practically he heard those not as opinions but as challenges, which led to serious reprimand if not corporal punishment. What Dad meant by offering us the privilege of differing with his opinion on behavioral matters was that after we were adults and living away from home, it would be alright to look back to our growing up years and let him know that we differed
with him way back when!
When I married into the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, now called the Board of International Ministries, my in-laws were teetotalers as my parents had been. Nothing was new about that, but my mother-in-law was more of a crusader about the evils of alcohol than my parents were. Mom and Dad were happy not to drink and to raise their children not to drink; they didn’t feel the need to pass that along to others unless asked point blank. My good ole missionary mother-in-law was more zealous, and when at a restaurant the server would ask if anyone wanted wine or a cocktail, she would, without fail, say, “Not at THIS Baptist table!” It’s not that I always ordered a drink; in fact, I almost never did. But I’d have been much happier if she’d been more willing to say simply, “No, thanks.” In order for my mother-in-law to speak her mind, I couldn’t--at least, that’s what my wife told me. Let’s see, I think my wife’s exact words were, “Sweetheart, keep your mouth shut no matter what my mother says!” Why we divorced, I’ll never know. Anyway...
We hope for a world where everybody feels the same freedom to have and express an opinion as do the members of Silverside Church. I’m not sure if that would increase or decrease wars around the world, but it’s the goal nonetheless.
This new Afghani-Shiite law is certainly turning some heads and some beds. Not all Afghani women are affected by it since Shiites make up less than twenty percent of the population of thirty-million in Afghanistan. Even so, if one woman is abused, that’s one woman too many.
The law, which was passed last month but which was not supposed to be formally announced, leaked from channels within the United Nations, it seems. Now the whole world knows that a Shiite woman is legally bound to allow her husband to have sex with her at least every fourth night.
“Obedience, readiness for intercourse, and not leaving the
house without the permission of the husband are the duties of the wife.” This is a summary of the law. And not to neglect the Shiite women, the law requires their husbands to have sex with them at least once every four months. So, if the husband is not the one requesting or demanding sex, and if he’s perfectly happy with practical celibacy, his wife can demand sex from him three times per year. (Some of you are counting up the best three nights of the year just in case the Religious Right gets that law passed here. Her birthday, New Year’s Eve, and one wild card!)
Absent consent from the sex partner, and since every four nights rolls around much more often than every fourth month, this is more a Shiite women’s concern than a Shiite men’s concern, the husband can force himself on his wife sexually. Since she has to obey him and can’t leave the house without his permission she’s stuck, really. What has many Americans up in arms is that this amounts to legalized rape, and the matter is complicated from an American military perspective because American military women have died fighting in Afghanistan where, now, rape among Shiites is legal--women dying to shore up a culture where Shiite women’s rights are diminished, where they barely exist at all.
Now, some astoundingly courageous Afghani women--Shiites and others, and I can’t stress courageous sufficiently enough--are protesting this law, whether or not their husbands say it’s OK for them to protest or to leave their houses. And make no mistake about it, not all men are pigs or dogs; not all Shiite men favor this law. Again, though, the women there are the most affected by it. The protestors didn’t gather shyly on the edges of society; no, they gathered in force directly in front of the mosque whose Imam is the leading proponent for the legislation!
So here are women carrying protest signs and marching in protest of the law. The news reports I’ve read said there were hundreds of these brave women. As they marched, many of their opponents--both male and female!--pelted them with rocks, stoned them, if you will, and screamed out such curses as, “Dogs,” and, “Death to slaves of Christians!” It was easy to see that more women protested in favor of the law than opposed the law. I know a little bit about women’s rights movements, and I know that women are often the worst enemies of the women who are trying to get equal rights. Many women in Christian ministry today have their major battles with women protecting the institutional all-male-clergy status quo. So also in Afghanistan today.
Some of the women marching in favor of the every-four-nights-or-rape-me law, said that if foreigners would just stay out of it, Afghani people could manage the issue on their own. One young female favoring the law said that foreigners are enemies, and the best way for the issue to get resolved is for these foreigners to get out of Afghanistan. There was news coverage of a bearded Shiite man yelling at a young woman wearing a scarf around her head, “You are a dog! You are not a Shiite woman!”
She was carrying a banner that proclaimed something to the effect, “We Don’t Want Taliban Law!” She spoke her mind to her accuser, and she said quietly, according to the reporter, “This is my land and my people.” Good for her!

As the Gospel of Matthew introduces the little episode, which becomes our reflective reading for today, the first hearers and readers knew at the outset that something tense was about to happen. Jesus goes into a district where two cities converge, and in Hebrew history they had been enemy cities to the ancient Hebrews. Tyre and Sidon. Candler School of Theology’s Gail O’Day who teaches preaching and New Testament pointed out that in the Hebrew holy writ, Tyre and Sidon are more than place names; instead, they are locations where dangerous and threatening enemies of the Hebrews lived and plotted and made threats.
God in the prophecy of Joel is heard calling Tyre and Sidon enemies of God who are going to get what’s coming to them for messing around with God’s people. God is about to retaliate. Thankfully, by now we know that God doesn’t act that way or harbor such emotions, but it wasn’t always known; and not all
people who claim to be connected to God know it today so the
Gospel of Matthew had hearers and readers who would have both cringed and bristled at the mention of Tyre and Sidon, cities called out in the book of Joel like this:

For then, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and I will enter into judgment with them there, on account of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations. They have divided my land, and cast lots for my people, and traded boys for prostitutes, and sold girls for wine, and drunk it down. What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads swiftly and speedily. For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, removing them far from their own border. But now I will rouse them to leave the places to which you have sold them, and I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads. I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a nation far away; for the Lord has spoken (Joel 3:1-8 NRSV).

Just as Jesus entered that treacherous territory, a Canaanite woman came toward him and started yelling for help. His reputation as a healer had preceded him. Now, when we hear this part of the story, we don’t think a thing in the world about the encounter because unless we dig for details we don’t know the socio-cultural details of what was going on, and I might add unless we are willing to seek those out the probably of misinterpreting or misunderstanding scripture comes in at about 99.9 percent!
Canaanites and Jews didn’t interact with each other willy nilly. There may been some rare structured communication, but that was about it. And women and men didn’t speak to each other in public at all unless they were married to each other or unless the man being spoken to was a judge or a priest in the Temple precincts.
So Jesus has entered a geographically dangerous place for his ancestors, at least, and still a place of tension; and he has also entered a place where standard protocol was instantly tossed right out of the tent flap.
To make it worse, here is a Gentile, a non-Jew, a resident of what had traditionally been enemy territory, a female, asking for help from Jesus. From all indications she is appearing in public without a husband, which, if so, put her still further out of the arena of concern and compassion even in her own culture--a divorced or widowed, an unmarried woman.
Her daughter was quite ill; mystery illnesses and illnesses that caused seizures and such in that pre-scientific time were all called demon possession. Jesus had limited time; he couldn’t even get around to all the Jews, his own people, who needed help. Why in the world would he make the time to heal the female daughter of a single female non-Jew? That was as low down on the ladder of social acceptability as one could go.
She cries out for mercy for her daughter--not for herself, but for her daughter. Of course, Jesus the compassionate healer stopped everything he was doing and gave full attention to the daughter. No wait. That’s how we want the story to go, but it’s not how the story goes at all. Not at all!
Jesus ignored her. He didn’t say a way. He didn’t look her way. He didn’t nod. It was as if Hilary Clinton had asked Dick Cheney to call 911 for Chelsea (not that I want to make Cheney a model for Jesus!).
Jesus ignored the woman, and don’t turn up your noses. That’s exactly what he was supposed to do. That’s how a good Jewish boy had been taught to react to those kinds of social encounters if they ever came up.
She wouldn’t shut up. Being ignored didn’t discourage her and didn’t dampen the decibels either. “Have mercy on me, Mister Jew, Sir. My daughter is being tormented by a demon. Have mercy on me, Mister Jew, Sir. My daughter is being tormented by a demon,” she kept yelling out at Jesus, and he never said a mumblin’ word, not a word, not a word, not a word.
Finally, the Disciples’ Public Relations subcommittee came to Jesus and said, “You have to say something to get her to shut up. This is really going to hurt your image here if you don’t.”
Jesus’ response is less than compassionate and not even in the neighborhood of gratifying. I don’t think Jesus was speaking directly to her when he finally spoke. I think he was sort of speaking broadly to the disciples and to any residents of Tyre and Sidon who might have been gathering around to watch the encounter play out.
The woman is begging for help for her daughter from a Jewish healer, and he says, “God sent me to take care of the lost sheep of Israel and them alone.” This Jesus with some racial superiority or Jewish nationalism showing through is not the Jesus we want others to know about. Why didn’t Irenaus or the Jesus Seminar get rid of this horrible story?
I really enjoy teaching Alice Walker’s “Color Purple” at the
university, and I’m equally as thrilled with the novel, the movie, and the musical. Taking Alice Walker’s background into account is a potentially useful tool in understanding her unforgettable characters and the powerful story of this work that got her the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction ever presented to an African American woman to win this award.
When Alice Walker tells the story of her childhood in south Georgia, she tells about the accident during which one of her brothers as they played Cowboys and Indians shot Alice in the eye with a b-b-gun and blinded that eye permanently. Alice and her brothers didn’t tell their parents the truth at first to avoid getting into trouble; the agreed upon story was that Alice had run into a barbed wire fence.
The parents tried home remedies based on what they’d been told, and even after they found out the truth they still tried home remedies for a bit. Eventually, it was clear that they needed medical help.
In addition to the limited money issue that was a reality for all tenant farmer families, I ask my students why else Alice’s parents would have hesitated to get her to a doctor during the 1950’s in south Georgia. It is rare that a student thinks of how few Black doctors were around and how few white doctors would treat Black patients--even when the patient was a little girl. Being a little girl wasn’t the issue. Being a little Black girl was.

Jesus’ comment intended to rebuff the Canaanite woman did not. She stopped yelling at him from a distance asking for help for her daughter, and she came and knelt before Jesus and said, “Sir, please help me.”
This time, Jesus said, “Of course, my child. I will help you.”
No wait! That’s what we want Jesus to have said so that we don’t have to be so embarrassed. If he redeems himself maybe we can more readily sweep that other ugly episode into a crack in the floor somewhere, but he doesn’t. He insults the woman yet again. He lets his Jewish nationalism show again. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The women in Afghanistan who don’t want to be legally raped by their husbands every fourth night--and, by the way, I don’t understand that particular hormonal cycle--were just yesterday being called by their detractors DOGS!
In Jesus’ milieu, dogs were scavengers. They finished off the bones the vultures left behind. They ate garbage. They licked the wounds of the people sick and dying on the streets who were too weak to fight them off. Dogs before domestication were quite dirty and unruly; they traveled in packs and defecated wherever they pleased. Those people wealthy enough to take care of dogs typically kept them around not so much as pets, but as clean up agents. At large meals and banquets, the custom was to throw unwanted food off the table and onto the floor. Dogs would eat anything thrown to the floor. Jesus had any or all of those images in mind when he said what he said as did the opponents of the protesting Afghani women.
The images Jesus uses have “children” representing the Jews and “dogs” representing the Gentiles. Friends, there’s no way to dress this up, no way to soften it, no way to make Jesus look good in this story. If you equate Jesus and God, you’re in big trouble. If you see that Jesus matured and developed in his spirituality the way the rest of us do, it’s still awkward, but even Jesus gets to have an off day. Thankfully, he redeemed himself in other circumstances later on.
Most of us having been subjected to those insults consistently would have simply melted into the crowd and tried to become as transparent as possible. Not this lady. She spoke her mind, and she becomes the patron saint of those who need to learn to do the same--people outside Silverside Church!
“Yes, Sir. That isn’t fair at all, but dogs get to eat crumbs that fall from the master’s table whether the crumbs are from the humblest meal or the fanciest feast.”
She had taken Jesus’ own imagery and turned the tables on
him, so to speak. Matthew doesn’t tell us how red Jesus’ face was when he realized that he’d learned one of the most important lessons of his life from someone whom he had called a dog. This persistent woman became a catalyst for Jesus learning that the community called the people of God was much larger than Judaism and that God’s love knew no boundaries, not even the racial ones; not even with past enemies are supposed to be enemies for life.
When he could speak, Jesus said, “Lady, you’ve got grit to go along with your faith. Those demons are gone from your daughter. She can get on with her life now.”
He never said, “I’m sorry,” or at least that wasn’t recorded. He didn’t thank her for the lesson she taught him; at least, no one wanted us to know about it if he did. But the woman’s daughter was healed that day of a physical or an emotional illness, and Jesus the healer was also healed that day. A dog of a woman healed him from both racism as well as religious chauvinism.
I really love the way Professor Peter Hawkins of Yale Divinity School and Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music sums up the story:

Matthew does not give us any indication of whether Jesus smiled at her word play and her cunning, or whether he accorded her the ancient Palestinian equivalent of, “You go, girl!” We don’t know what he felt at losing an argument. What’s clear is that he recognized truth when he heard it and saw a gentile ready to be part of a flock much bigger than the one he had been sent to. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” The Canaanite woman’s persistence not only made her daughter whole; it also showed Jesus the larger world he had come to listen to and heal.

If you happen to know of someone who needs encouragement in speaking her or his mind, tell them about these reluctantly uttered words of empowerment from Jesus. The hero of this story isn’t Jesus at all; it’s the Canaanite woman, and we owe somebody big time for getting this story about Jesus passed along and down to us.
How did this amazing woman speak her mind? What can your friends learn from her?
She spoke us when absolutely no one thought she should have. If we’re going to be people who speak our minds, the opinions of others cannot establish for us what we can’t or cannot do. Speaking one’s mind may well mean swimming upstream.
The Caananite woman spit out the truth even though many who heard her story, especially the Jews in Jesus’ crowd, looked down on her for what she said. As if being a non-Jew and a female weren’t enough, her daughter was believed to be demon-possessed; it was not one of those popular conditions that the rich and famous like to discuss at the finer parties and poolsides. It would be like someone in our day yelling out to a holier than thou healer, “My kid’s a coke addict. She’s so high I can’t even get her here to see you.” And the parents who hear her and think they are too good and wonderful to have a kid who gets hooked look down their noses at her. In order to speak her mind, she had to tell the truth about what was wrong with her daughter whom she loved whether demon possessed or not.
In order to speak her mind, the woman had to repeat her request; she had to bear insults slung at her by the very person on whom she was depending for help. Gay and lesbian people who are being denied medical treatment from physicians and psychological support from therapists know what that’s like.
This woman endured the insults to be able to speak her mind. Had being called a female dog made her turn and run, her daughter would not have been healed. She didn’t buy into the Jesus’ diminishment of her and her people; in her challenge to Jesus’ put-down, she let him know that if she were a dog, she surely wasn’t the run of the mill mongrel!
Finally, the woman had to take physical risks. She came closer to Jesus than she was supposed to have come--from an acceptable two arms’ length to kneeling right at Jesus’ feet, which might have signaled her willingness to offer sexual favors to the man who agreed to try to heal her daughter, she risked coming closer to the healer than Jesus’ security detail might have allowed.
She could easily have been beaten up; she didn’t know what Jesus’ people did to those who got too close to their guy.
Somehow this woman with well more than three strikes against her managed to speak her mind. She did so respectfully, though persistently, and a happy ending to a story with little prospect for producing one comes around.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

You Can Change the World!
April 12, 2009

In the 1992 revision of Michael Hart’s book, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, here are the top 20 folks on the list:

1. Muhammad, founder of Islam and first on the list because he not only founded one of the world’s pivotal religions, but also he was a military and political leader.
2. Sir Isaac Newton, physicist.
3. Jesus of Nazareth, Jewish reformer and impetus for the founding of the Christian movement--Christianity currently being the religion with the most adherents in the world.
4. Buddha, founder of Buddhism.
5. Confucius, founder of Confucianism.
6. Paul, architect of the Christian religion.
7. Ts’ai Lun, inventor of paper.
8. Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the moveable type printing press and publisher of Bibles.
9. Christopher Columbus, explorer.
10. Albert Einstein, physicist.
11. Louis Pasteur, scientist.
12. Galileo Galilei, astronomer.
13. Aristotle, philosopher.
14. Euclid, mathematician.
15. Moses, Jewish prophet and liberator.
16. Charles Darwin, biologist.
17. Shih Huang Ti, Chinese emperor.
18. Augustus Caesar, Roman emperor.
19. Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer.
20 Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry.

Time magazine is currently counting its readers’ votes for the most influential people in today’s world. To give you some idea who might be on the list this year, I’ll tell you who the top 20 people were on the 2008 list.

1. Shigeru Miyamoto. When I saw this list, it was also my first time ever to see this name. He’s the Nintendo Corporation’s top video game designer.
2. Stephen Colbert, the “current events” comedian.
3. Rain, the Korean singer, dancer, and model.
4. Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political dissident who is a professor at MIT.
5. Tyler Perry, the actor, screenwriter, and playwright.
6. Heidi Klum, the model.
7. Tyra Banks, the model.
8. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist.
9. Al Gore, the senior statesperson and spokesperson for Earth care.
10. Mike Huckabee, the politician and former presidential candidate.
11. George Clooney, the actor.
12. Will Smith, the actor.
13. Tiger Woods, the golfer.
14. Bono, the Irish musician.
15. Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York.
16. David Beckham, the British soccer whiz.
17. Shinya Yamanaka, the Japanese physician and stem cell researcher.
18. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.
19. Nelson Mandela, the great opponent of apartheid and former president of South Africa.
20. Google Guys, the founders of and all things google.

Fascinating stuff, and I don’t report it to you today so that you’ll have an edge next time you’re a contestant on Jeopardy, but rather because I want you to see that you too can change the world. Your name may or may not appear on any of these lists, but you can change the world. What’s more, I believe that each of us should live as people who can and are determined to change the world--and by that I mean alter it in a positive way.
Most of us don’t know the name of the founder and early supporters of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, MADD, but they have and are surely changing the world. Theodora J. Kalikow believes that women’s movements and civil rights movements have changed the world more than any others.
There are two fundamental traits that world-changers have to have by my observation: 1) an unwillingness to let the status quo be the determinative word on what will be or what can be; and 2) a willingness to put energy into challenging the status quo if and when it needs to be challenged. We’re not looking for or thinking of people here who simply are dissatisfied about everything and want to stir things up just for the heck of it.
Most institutions--whether we’re talking about families, churches, or governments--are rather set in their ways. There is something stabilizing about getting to a certain place in development and saying, “That’s it. This is where we need to be. Now, no more change!” And from that point on, the tendency is to resist change. Thus, those who think an institution to which they are related can be improved typically have to rock the boat--a little bit or a lot.
There are all sorts of ways to rock institutional boats toward the end of potential change for the good. “The pen is mightier than the sword...and much easier to hold!” Typically, someone has to get the word out; someone has to articulate the vision for change, and, also typically, the person who describes that vision for change has to be a credible spokesperson. Aristotle in his Rhetoric wrote extensively about the absolute necessity of the credibility of the public speaker. Thus, someone who has never been able to kick the habit of smoking cigarettes is not going to be a good spokesperson for kicking the nicotine habit. And, not many of President Obama’s cabinet officials would make good spokespersons for being responsible American taxpayers; instead, what many of them have demonstrated for us is that it’s important to pay your unpaid taxes if you are going to go through a Senate confirmation hearing, where no members have ever been involved in any financial mismanagement. Karl Rove seems to be on a mission to demand truth from everyone associated with the White House--now that the Oval Office is off-limits to him and since demanding that standard, which is a good one I think, wouldn’t
cause him to have to change from how he operated during his eight years on the job.
So, if you dare to change the world, you need credibility so that you can make your case to those you need to join you in your cause; you need a willingness not to be crippled by a status quo straight jacket, and you need enough fire in your belly to take steps to try to bring about the changes that you feel will improve the institution you love enough to want to change.
I think it’s very important, vitally important, to remember always that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew who loved Judaism, a Jew who planned to stay a Jew his whole life, and that’s exactly what he did. Jesus did not set out to found a new religion. Jesus was a reformer. He wanted to correct some cracks in the foundation of the religion that he loved, the religion that he practiced from the time he was old enough to understand it until the day that he died as a convicted criminal on a Roman cross.
The Romans were accustomed to crucifixion as an end all to end all event. When an enemy of Rome was executed by crucifixion, that was that. Part of the intent in how crucifixion was carried out was to be an ultimate deterrent to others who might dare to do what had gotten the condemned person to the cross. Indeed, Jesus’ closest followers, except for a handful of women and maybe one man, were clearly afraid that association with Jesus would get them their crosses too; this is precisely why Peter who claimed to be Jesus’ greatest supporter denied being a part of Jesus’ ministry or, for that matter, even knowing Jesus at all. Rome was completely ill-equipped for the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus didn’t by any means kill off the Jesus Movement. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here today!

Regardless of whether you believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection as historic fact or as a powerful life-metaphor, it’s very important to take note of the role of women in his ministry and in all the surviving stories about the discovery of his empty tomb. Applying the tiniest bit of forensic insight to the details we have, we have to say right out of the gate that the empty tomb alone was no proof of resurrection. In fact, the most logical explanation for an empty tomb was that Jesus’ body had been stolen--most likely, but not unquestionably, by the Romans who had 24 hours to do whatever they pleased with Jesus’ body before sabbath-celebrating Jews would even know. It is also fascinating that no one of Jesus’ followers thought immediately of resurrection when confronted with the reality of an empty tomb; they thought “grave robbers.” Had the angels and heavenly messengers not been worked into the stories to explain to empty-tomb-witnesses what had happened, not a one of them would have known--even though they’d been more exposed than any others to the teachings of Jesus.
I’m very grateful, and not just on Easter Sunday, for those who kept on telling the stories of Jesus after the Romans executed him. He didn’t write a thing as far as we know, and neither did his contemporaries during his lifetime. It is doubtful that any of Jesus’ closest followers wrote down anything about him, but the stories they told were remembered and collected and eventually published. Again, I’m glad for those who kept on telling the story of Jesus after his death; they had a part in changing the world.
The notion that Jesus had this tremendous impact on countless followers is just plain wrong. Even those who had been healed by Jesus didn’t get their stories told far and wide. Part of what Tiberius Caesar intended to do when he had someone crucified through one of his lower-downs such as Pontius Pilate was to discredit the one who was crucified. Crucifixion wasn’t just a cruel way of executing an enemy of the state; it was a powerful testimony to the worthlessness of the individual as far as Rome and anyone who believed what Rome believed were concerned.
Furthermore, there were a number of people among the relative few who had been affected by Jesus’ life and teachings who were with him all the way AS LONG AS HE LIVED. He was of no use them, however, dead. And many of those who thought with Paul about the possibilities for turning memories of Jesus and a handful of surviving stories about him into a new religion were justifiably concerned about the negative marketing and public relations realities of a religion built around a dead guy who couldn’t fend off his enemies.
Independent of all of those concerns, there were the people who kept telling the stories of Jesus based on their experiences with Jesus and/or on stories that others had shared with them. Had Paul not come along, there likely wouldn’t be a Christian religion over against the Jewish religion, but even so those stories might still have been told and might still have found their way to us so again I say how grateful I am that there were people who risked telling Jesus stories even after Rome had done all it normally had to do to shut up an enemy and get rid of her or his devotees.
Of those who kept the stories going were some women who passed along what they heard and observed regardless of word in their society that women were entirely unreliable when it came to passing along information of import. The so-called shorter ending to the Gospel of Mark illustrates perfectly what I’m trying to stress here.
Most scholars of the Gospel of Mark agree that the original piece ended with the eighth verse of chapter sixteen and this story:

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” [If their mission would have been a waste of time without someone to roll the stone away from the tomb’s entrance, it makes no sense that they failed to take along enough person-power to move that stone had they arrived and found it sealed.] When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. [Why were they alarmed? Because the body was missing? Because there was a strange man in a white robe hanging around Jesus’ tomb?] But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter [Why does Peter get special recognition since his act of denying a connection to Jesus was the most blatant of all?] that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Whatever resurrection was, the women were the first witnesses to it, and having been told point blank by the white-robed guy at the tomb--Mark gives no indication whatsoever that the man was an angelic heavenly being doing duty on Earth for a while--they run away from the tomb and, initially anyway, do the opposite of what he told them to do. They said nothing to anyone.
Ever since I began studying the Bible seriously, this story has amazed me. Even if they didn’t believe the man, they needed to tell someone that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb, but they didn’t tell anyone anything; and the reason they didn’t is clearly spelled out for us. They were afraid. They were afraid because they didn’t know for sure what was going on. They were afraid because they were women in a culture that believed women were incompetent to grasp and to tell the truth. They were afraid because they’d never experienced anything like this in their lives nor did they know of anyone who had.
Eventually, they had to talk, though, or this much of the story could never have been told so eventually they do tell, and as a result they become world-changers--three women by Mark’s account: Mary Magdalene, of course; Salome; and another Mary, who was the mother of some James. It’s possible that there were only two women: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome.
Those branches of Christendom that tell women they can’t preach clearly ignore the fact that no Gospel account has men seeing the empty tomb first and first trying to describe what an empty tomb might have meant and its implications. My dear friends, without women who were very much aware that their stories about Jesus would be questioned if not discounted altogether just because they happened to be women, chances are we wouldn’t know a thing in the world about Jesus today.
Though most historians have been men who didn’t find it either interesting or necessary to talk too much about women in their accounts, women have nonetheless changed history. One more list--this one, the women who have done the most to change the world:

1. Eleanor Roosevelt, American ambassador to the world and champion of the downtrodden everywhere.
2. Marie Curie, two-time Nobel Prize winner and pioneer in the study of radioactivity.
3. Margaret Sanger, Registered Nurse and birth control advocate.
4. Margaret Mead, anthropologist.
5. Jane Addams, social worker, social reformer, pacifist, and first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
6. Mary Wollstonecraft, called by some the world’s first true feminist, author, educator, political dissident, and mother of Mary Shelley.
7. Susan B. Anthony, educator, orator, women’s rights advocate.
8. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, orator, abolitionist, women’s rights advocate.
9. Harriet Tubman, runaway slave, abolitionist, spy for the Union cause during the American Civil War.
10. Mary, the mother of Jesus.
11. Georgia O'Keeffe, artist.
12. Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor for all 12 of the years FDR was in office and the first woman to hold any cabinet position for any US president.
13. Jane Austen, novelist.
14. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, labor and community organizer.
15. Simone de Beauvoir, author and existentialist philosopher.
16. Queen Elizabeth I.
17. Rosa Parks, seamstress and civil rights activist.
18. Helen Keller, author and political activist, pacifist, the first deafblind person ever to earn a bachelor’s degree.
19. Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher.
20. Sojourner Truth, slave, preacher, abolitionist.

Some of the Gospels record stories of Jesus appearing to certain groups between his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to heaven. The same people who doubt a bodily resurrection also tend to doubt a literal ascension; yet, we can learn from stories assigned to this part of Jesus’ reported experience. Appearances at this phase of Jesus’ life are called by scholars “post resurrection appearances,” and there are quite a few of them. One is the episode out of which our reflective reading for today is taken, a passage out of which we get what has come to be called the “Great Commission.”
The passage was undoubtedly used originally for the same reason I preach this sermon today--to encourage faithful and gifted people to believe that they can make a difference in the world and then to live like it. The story has the eleven remaining disciples--remember that Judas had killed himself by this point--going to a mountain somewhere in Galilee and seeing the risen Jesus. Some of them worshiped him; some of them doubted. The risen Jesus confirms that God has given him the authority to do what he is doing. Then he spoke the words that Christians have long referred to as the Great Commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of God and of God’s Son and of God’s Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt 28:19-20 NRSV adapted for inclusive language).

This clearly was added by the early Christian communities, as something they’d have liked for Jesus to have said, but in order for the earthly Jesus to have said such a thing he’d have embraced trinitarianism, which he knew nothing about. Jesus never asked anyone to be his follower except when staffing his men’s group and his women’s group of closest followers, and that was a functional calling. Everybody was supposed to be following God--including Jesus. We have no information whatsoever of Jesus baptizing anyone or asking his disciples to do so; Jesus asked his cousin, John, to baptize him as a part of the inauguration of his ministry. Jesus would have to have changed his admonitions from following the teachings of God to following his teachings, and he would have had no sense that he was going to be separated from them when he left the earth, which was an absolute concern of his in the Gospel of John.
Even so, Jesus was an encouraging and empowering kind of guy, and giving his followers a pep talk was absolutely in character for him.
Jesus was one of the least likely figures to have changed the world. Like many of the world’s great poets and visual artists, the most significant impact of Jesus’ life occurred after his death. There are several reasons I say that, given all the details, Jesus shouldn’t have changed the world.
For starters, he was born in an out of the way place--the modern-day equivalent of a shed out behind a Motel 6. The murmurings about his “legitimacy” never stopped swirling around. Was Joseph really his father? More than a few people doubted it--even Mary herself according to some bits of evidence doubted it, and a so-called “illegitimate” child in that culture carried a measure of taint for life.
He grew up in an oppressed political situation where many of his opportunities for self expression, not all of them, were severely limited. He could “legally” only say and do what the Roman Empire allowed him to say and do. It’s much less likely that someone in a politically-oppressed situation can make a permanent mark than someone in a state of free expression. There are exceptions.
South African playwright, Athol Fugard, grew to detest apartheid, but the government wouldn’t allow him to put his views into writing, even if he wrote them into one of his characters’ dialogues. But the South African government couldn’t control what was in the minds of its citizens.
Fugard conceived of a play in his head, and he gave it in oral bits and pieces to his two actors who performed the play outside South Africa and thereby brought international attention to bear on the plight of the horribly abused Black South Africans. Many of us here today saw a rendition of that play a few summers ago; its title was “The Island.”
The book of Revelation, the last book in how the books of the New Testament have been collected and published, was also a play, and its message is told in code--in symbolic language understandable to John’s, the writer’s, earliest audiences understood, but less understandable if at all to Rome. The book of Revelation dares through it symbols to both the Roman Empire and its crazy emperor, Domitian, at the end of the first century temporary and subject to loss of power, charges that absolutely couldn’t be made in any kind of direct way.
We have learned in relatively recent years that histories for the most part have been written by the winners--not the oppressed, not the losers in battle, and certainly not those who have been deprived of the tools of literacy. People who weren’t given opportunities for literacy had a very difficult time sharing their stories. This is one of several good reasons for an oppressive regime to limit learning and information for the oppressed.
Jesus was literate as far as we can tell, but many of his followers weren’t. We assume he didn’t write anything, but that assumption could be wrong. The thing is, even if Jesus had written something about himself and jotted down some of this teachings, chances are Rome would have destroyed anything Jesus was said to have written. Rome only wanted its version of the Jesus story told, and that ended up being just about nothing.
Most people who have made an impact in the ancient or the modern worlds have traveled. It’s a fascinating pattern that almost all the early women preachers in what we now call the United States traveled widely for the opportunities to preach. They often traveled on foot week after week just for the privilege of preaching a sermon. Except for a run to Egypt when Jesus was about 2 years old and for the sake of Jesus’ protection, Jesus only traveled a handful of miles from his place of birth.
Again, most people who change the world have some elected or appointed position, or they’re a part of a well-known organization. None of those apply to Jesus. He was never elected to any office. He was never appointed to any office, and he held no official position within the religion that he embraced.
So, there’s no good reason Jesus should have been given the opportunity to have changed the world, but he did change the world; his teachings are still changing the world. There’s no good reason that the teachings of Jesus should keep on changing the world today, but they do. They’ve changed many of us and made us people who are bent on changing the world by living out the reality of God’s love for all people.
Now it’s our turn. Now it’s your turn.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

This photograph was taken by Henry Groskinsky. (c) LIFE magazine online.

Rudyard Kipling, poetic advice from father to son:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;'ll be a Man, my son!

Have you ever had to function when the heat is on? Most of us have even though if asked out of context about being able to do something significant or worthwhile we might insist that we couldn’t do anything much under tremendous pressure. And we wouldn’t just be being modest. We sincerely doubt our ability to manage under pressure. Yet, I think the human spirit often soars in the midst of challenge and adversity. While none of us who are healthy wishes for crisis, much less for tragedy, human beings show what they’re really made of when the circumstances are the most dire, and not infrequently we have something to admire, something to applaud, something to inspire us.
Just a few days ago, slightly ahead of the forty-first anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, LIFE magazine released some photos that had been taken a few hours after the removal of a wounded Dr. King from the balcony of the Lorainne Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, and the next day as well. LIFE magazine photographer, Henry Groskinsky, was on assignment in Alabama. He heard that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis and got to Memphis as quickly as he could. Groskinsky is now 75 years old and making very little comment about his historic photographs that were kept from public view until now.
The photos are now posted online. Some show the cleaning of the balcony and are graphic and disturbing in that sense. Some show King’s closest associates gathered in his room after the surgeons pronounced him dead at the hospital. In some respects, the one that I felt the most emotional about viewing was Dr. King’s open briefcase as he had left it in his room when he stepped out onto the balcony, the belongings of a gifted prophet prepared to keep on living. A can of shaving cream was there and a hairbrush. I could see a newspaper folded up packed atop his pajamas. And in an upper compartment, I could see the top of his soul-stirring book, STRENGTH TO LOVE.
The photographs reminded me of a great humanitarian who either knew how or had learned how to function when the heat was on. He knew his life was in danger. He knew there were many people, most of them churchgoing self-proclaimed Christians, who would rather see Black people dead than equal to them in the eyes of society and law. And since he had emerged as the gifted spokesperson for the downtrodden, especially but not exclusively the racially downtrodden, he knew that someone might one day take aim at him.
I don’t think he wanted to die, but I think Dr. King realized that what he was standing for, even though founded completely on nonviolence, might very well bring the violence to harm him. The threats against him were countless, and there were threats against his family too.
I remember hearing the widowed Mrs. King talking in an interview once about the night when she heard what sounded like a ruckus of some sort at the back door of their Montgomery home. Dr. King was away. She was there with a friend and the children. As I recall the story, she and the friend went to the back door to see what was going on, but when they looked out they saw nothing. About that time, there was an explosion in the front of the house that blew up much of the front porch and the front part of the King home. Had she and her friend been in the front room and if the children hadn’t already been put to bed in the back of the house, one or all of them could have been injured or killed by that explosion.
Worried more about his loved ones than himself, King still managed to carry on his leadership of the nonviolent protest movement that finally saw equality for African Americans enacted as law. He functioned when the heat was on, and as a result racism sustained a serious blow--not a fatal one, though; indeed, it still exists.
In the last speech of his career, Dr. King said to his hearers,

...I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And God's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Alluding back to a great leader, Moses, King said it point blank, “I may not get there with you.” That, of course, had been on his mind for years.
Dr. King was very much biblically-informed and biblically-centered. He had Moses on his mind when he prepared and delivered the pivotal speech that would be his last. Moses had been called by God and sent by God to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt and out of Egyptian bondage. He was some kind of great leader. Though he didn’t always handle the challenges of leadership well, in terms of dealing diplomatically with the grumbling and complaining Hebrews whose safety and freedom he was giving his life for, in the big picture he was a model leader.
Even so, the ancient storytellers say that having brought his people on a forty-year trek to the outskirts of the Promised Land, God decided that Moses had failed to be a cool-headed gent infrequently enough that he, Moses, wouldn’t be permitted to enter the Promised Land. I think that is one of several tacky things the god of the ancient Hebrew scriptures does--that and asking Abraham to offer his son up as a human sacrifice and causing the prophetess Miriam to be stricken with leprosy for being too bossy with her kid brother, but I digress.
Moses, despite near constant criticism from the people he had brought to freedom, kept a clear head over all, kept his eyes focused on God overall, and brought the people FINALLY to the edges of their destination. Moses knew what it was to function under pressure.
Even in the face of death, even in a Moses kind of moment if you will, Dr. King was still functioning, still giving his people encouragement, still giving all people who would listen then and now a vision of how life should be, must be. I don’t know how the heat could have been any hotter at that moment, and he was still going strong.

Jesus’ activities during the last weeks and days of his life showed more than ever how he functioned while the heat was on, and there was so much more going on than meets the uncritical eye. One of the first things we have to address when we get to Holy Week, which begins today on the Christian calendar, is that this was not a play or a pageant being performed on the world stage for the purpose of so-called redemption.
God did not want Jesus to die, and God did not will Jesus’ death. There did not have to be a great, blood or bloody sacrifice to more or less appease God into loving and accepting human beings. The suffering and death of Jesus did nothing to change God except to fill God with grief. God did not love humanity any more after Jesus bled and died. God’s view of and connection to humanity was the same before and after the death of Jesus.
I feel the need to stress that in very strong language before saying much about Passion/Palm Sunday because if those are your assumptions, there is no way you can understand the reality of what was going on as Jesus prepared to enter Jerusalem for what turned out to be his last time. That reminds me that I must also stress that Jesus didn’t have advance notice of what was going to happen to him; no one had sent a copy of a script and asked him to read it in order to be prepared for what was coming. He anticipated well; he was intuitive. He understood the patterns and the tendencies both of individuals and groups, but he didn’t know that that ride into Jerusalem would be his last visit to that city loved by all Jews.
What Jesus did know was that Rome and its caesar, its emperor, were powerful beyond measure and paranoid to about the same degree that they were mighty. Here they were, THE world power of the day, afraid of what one podunk Jewish preacher and healer might do to challenge their stronghold over the Jews. He preached about one God and the empire over which that God ruled, and somehow that threatened Rome. We understand Rome’s desire not to have any of the many peoples over whom it ruled getting involved in uprisings and protest movements, but overreacting is overreacting. Jesus preached peace and carried no weapons. Evidently, though, Rome under Tiberius if it were going to bother disciplining one of its subjects took the opportunity of making an example of that person. This is why crucifixion, perhaps one of the cruelest methods ever devised for execution, was a very public event with those being put to death not elevated way up high on the cross, but where the public could come and taunt them and spit at them. At the same time, the public was seeing what happened to those who dared to mess with Rome.
Jesus had a good idea that Emperor Tiberius’ representative to the Jews, a charming chap by the name of Pontius Pilate, would eventually catch up with him and punish him--again, he didn’t know if it meant jail time or execution. I am guessing because of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus was hoping against hope that his offenses in Roman eyes wouldn’t justify crucifixion.
Jesus is trying to work around the system as much as he can for as long as he can; thus, for a while he’s out of the sight of the Roman CIA and planning with great care some clandestine activities. This is where our reflective reading for today comes in.
Jesus, under great pressure, had made some very detailed plans about how he would enter Jerusalem and how and where he would have the Passover meal with his closest followers. We read rapidly through the story as if its a rather nondescript account of details. Many traditionalists believe that Passion/Palm Sunday in Jesus’ life was only important because it got him to Jerusalem and poised for the horribly cruel death that God had willed for him. That’s such a distorted view of God.
What’s going on here is that, against the odds, Jesus is still in control of his life and of his destiny. This part of the story, the pre-arrest portion of the story, shows the reality of a rather secret network of Jesus’ followers who had a role in helping him accomplish what he wanted to accomplish on that trip to Jerusalem.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.”

It was customary for pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to celebrate one of their Jewish high holy days to do what the rest of do when we have an event to plan in a city where we don’t live. We have to find places to sleep, places to eat, and halls in which to hold the events that take us to those cities. In addition, it was customary for people to celebrate Passover with some group to which they were attached; a family unit was the most likely group, but in this case Jesus wanted to have Passover with his closest followers. Things were so uncertain that he may have wondered how many more times they would all get to be together. In this case, Jesus sent Peter and John to take care of the arrangements for the group.

They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?” “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you....”

This wasn’t Jesus’ ESP, folks! Jesus didn’t want Pontius Pilate’s spies interfering with what he had planned so people have been assigned secret roles. Peter and John were to watch for a man carrying a water jar. They obviously didn’t know him, and he didn’t know them so how would they be able to connect? Well, we have to the read the text culturally too. Men didn’t carry water jars, as a rule. That was woman’s work, if you will. They see a man carrying a water jar; the three make eye contact, but they do not speak.

“...follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’

Peter and John are to follow the man with the water jar. He will lead them into a house. When the owner greets them, there is a prearranged code question: “The teacher asks you, where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples.” The owner knew Jesus too. Maybe he was one of those secret devotees of Jesus like Nicodemus was. If Rome had gotten wind of the plan, they wouldn’t know the code question; only Peter and John and the owner of the house knew it.

“...He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

Every detail worked out to a tee, just the way Jesus had planned it ahead of time through a secret network of friends, followers, and associates. Now, if it had been God’s plan for Jesus to die, this is ridiculously elaborate. Let’s just get him killed as soon as he preaches and teaches the essentials and be done with it!
Again, I say, Jesus was in control. As long as he could without violating his principles he wasn’t about to give himself to Rome. He was making dramatic strides for his cause, namely the cause of God’s empire, while the heat was on!

One of the facts we learned very quickly in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 disasters was how heroism and heroineism flow through human veins. There are people who will put their lives on the line in a heartbeat even for a stranger. They will without reservation step into uncertain and unsafe situations to try to ease pain or to try to save a life even though the effort puts their lives on the line.
Some stories were told at once; others are just now surfacing. In the mix, I learned about three women who jumped to the rescue.
There was a police lieutenant who dug people out of the rubble and led one hundred people out of an unstable building. She did this despite a chunk of cement that was embedded in her skull, a shard of broken glass stuck in her back, and a broken ankle. I don’t know her name.
There was an emergency medical technician who was one of the first to race into the South Tower. One after another, she dragged out office workers who had been incapacitated and one woman who was virtually paralyzed by MS. I don’t know her name either.
There was an off-duty firefighter who raced from Brooklyn over to Manhattan, somewhere along the way borrowing gear and a police van so that she could dig for survivors. I think I found her name, Lt. Brenda Berkman. This is what one newspaper article said about Lt. Berkman:

For the next two months, she lived and breathed disaster. She worked numbing shifts at ground zero, then retreated, exhausted, to her Ladder Company 12 firehouse in the Chelsea area of Manhattan to grab a meal or a few hours’ rest, counsel other firefighters, plan funerals and try to clear her lungs of the noxious smoke. Every firefighter she knew had developed “the cough.” Of the 343 firefighters who died at ground zero, Berkman knew 250. Some days there were 10 memorial services. It grieved her that she couldn’t get to every one. She lost five people from her Chelsea firehouse and six others from her old station in Brooklyn.

We still vividly remember the skill and heroism of pilot Chelsey Sullenberger who landed US Air flight 1549 in the Hudson River to prevent a crash and then took steps to ensure that every passenger escaped. Thanks to him, there wasn’t a single fatality in a situation that very well could have ended the lives of every passenger and crew member. Yet, thanks to Sullenberger, more than 150 lives were spared. When he thought every one was out but him--with water gushing into the plane--he still walked through the plane twice to make certain no one was overlooked. He was the last to leave what very easily could have been a mega-mechanized coffin.
Let’s talk about some virtually invisible heroines and heroes too. At the top or near the top would have to be caregivers. Some of you have taken care of sick and/or dying spouses or other family members dispensing love and encouragement to the end of the disease or to the end of earthly life. When the heat was on in the worst way, you were there for your dear one.
I want to say a word, too, about caregivers who aren’t family members, but who are paid to do what a family member can’t do or at least can’t do by herself or himself. The compassion that so many of these people show couldn’t be bought even if their salaries were tripled. In institutional settings, there are all kinds of support people also involved less directly in the caregiving process, but their contributions are vital.
I still remember vividly rushing down to Wilmington Hospital when Charlie Wiswall had taken a turn for the worse; unknown to us at the time, he would never recover. I arrived in the critical care unit; Jack and I think all the sons were there too. There was a cleaning services employee who knew the drill well. When that many family members and the preacher are all called to the bedside in a critical care unit the news is often bleak. The woman was mopping the floor in the area where we waited in and around Charlie’s room. She was seeing what she probably saw not daily but often. She could easily have concentrated on her work and not allowed anything emotional to happen for her, but she didn’t. She put her mop in the bucket and propped it up in a corner, and she came over to Jack and said something to her. I heard it but don’t remember exactly. It was something simple and kind and brief, something like, “I’m still hoping your husband gets to be OK.” That goes back six or seven years, and I still remember it.
I was privileged to serve as the pastor to a host of church members in New Orleans, as I am here, and one of those was an amazing man who became a dear friend. His name was Ed Broussard. Ed is deceased now. In fact, he died before I left New Orleans from AIDS related complications. He was only 50 years old when he died.
Ed was our tenor soloist. He was a deacon and a regular member of either the Administration Commission or the Education Commission, depending on rotations and what the nominating committee asked of him in a given year. Away from the church, he was a middle school principal. Ed introduced me to the Lower Ninth Ward long before the Hurricane Katrina disasters made that poverty-stricken place famous. Ed’s school was one of the roughest in all of New Orleans. He dealt with violence issues, drug issues, and lots of students who had parents for all practical purposes unconcerned with rearing their kids.
He constantly felt the pressure of trying to keep his students believing in themselves. He would never give up on a one of them. Almost every Wednesday evening at our Bible study, we’d begin with a prayer time, and Ed would almost invariably have a student or a family related to his school for whom he wanted the rest of us to pray. He was forever in court trying to plead for second chances for his students. Though he felt he was never out of an uphill battle, he functioned when the heat was on. Because of Ed Broussard many of those students began to believe in themselves. Not all were success stories, but some of them were--more than anyone might have imagined and certainly more than if Ed Broussard had not passed through their lives.
There are those quiet heroines and heroes who focus on their own struggles and challenges. They feel as if they expend all their energies just trying to catch the curve balls life keeps tossing their way. They don’t feel like heroes or heroines, but they are because as they function with the heat on them, they not only live their lives well, but also they inspire the rest of us who, for the moment at least, have no curve balls coming our way. They inspire us for the moment, and they teach us how to live when it’s our turn for tough times. Thank you.