Working It Out

This sermon is the eighth and final in a series entitled “Our Common Humanity,” in which we examine the ways that the stories of the bible are affected by things like bigotry, prejudice, nationalism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and the like.

Psalm Reading: Psalm 22:25-31

Scripture Reading: Acts 8:26-40

Radical

Back in what Matthew’s gospel records as the early days of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus had to insist that he was not some weird cult leader starting a new religion. His message of the immanent accessibility of God and the Kingdom for all people felt so radical to much of his audience, that they presumed he was abandoning his faith and his heritage, and encouraging others to do the same.

Of course, there (in Matthew 5) Jesus had just insisted that even the poor, the grieving, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the victimized, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the persecuted are capable of living blessed and fulfilled lives. If that doesn’t still sound radical, you’re not taking Jesus seriously enough.

Because in our world today, we still dismiss and discount these people that Jesus lifts up:

We accuse the poor of being lazy or making foolish choices.

We accuse the meek of being weak.

We accuse victims of injustice of not following the rules.

We accuse the merciful of being foolish.

We accuse those fleeing violence of participating in it.

We accuse peacemakers of being unrealistic and having their heads in the clouds.

We accuse those abused by spouses or employers of not having a spine.

We dismiss and discredit and even undermine the wellbeing of these marginalized folks just as readily today as they did in Jesus’ day. And that means that if we are hearing Jesus clearly in these verses, they’re going to be just as confrontational to us today. Jesus is going to drive us to go a bit on the defensive, because it will feel like Jesus is throwing away everything we care about…… everything we honor in our faith. 

Like the Pharisees, we know there’s problems… But that’s no reason for Jesus to throw the baby out with the bath water, am I right?——or so we show our true allegiance: not to Jesus but to the world.

You see, Jesus’ audience could not easily recognize how their faith had become entwined with the systemic sin of their society—and neither can we.

That’s why they thought Jesus was a full-scale attack on everything holy—because that’s what it felt like. And that’s why Jesus had to insist in Matthew 5:17: 

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17 NRSV)

Pivot to Acts 8

Though it may not be immediately obvious, this is really what today’s scripture text is all about—it is about the early church learning what it means to put their faith in Jesus into practice within the context of “real life.”

The story we read today from Acts 8 is (I hope) a familiar one. It is one I’ve preached on before, discussed in Youth Group, brought up in Sunday School classes, and probably even written about in a church newsletter article. It is, to me, one of the most important and timely stories outside the gospels themselves.

 

The Acts 8 story is one that depicts the early church learning to work out all this Jesus-stuff…… learning to set aside their prejudices and judgments and assumptions and expectations, and just let the radical love of God have its way with the world. 

The Eunuch (like Moses’ wife a few weeks back) is from Cush—the present day region of Ethiopia. Given his role in that government, it is reasonable to assume he is a native of that area. And that means—and I realize I’m starting to sound like a recording, even to myself—that his skin color was different than that of Israelite Jews, his culture was different, his native language was different, his clothes were different, his food was different….. you get the picture? 

He is also different in a way that is particularly significant for this story: his biology and his gender are different. As a eunuch, he was considered by his world to be neither male nor female.

All these things stood in the way of his worshipping in Jerusalem. And yet all of them—as Philip discovers—have become irrelevent on this side of the Cross. 

Peter & Cornelius

This isn’t the only biblical story of the early church “working it out” in real time. A couple chapters later (Acts 10), Peter will have his own come-to-Jesus moment, as a series of visions, an encounter with an Italian centurion named Cornelius, and a healthy dose of the Holy Spirit leads Peter to proclaim that:

“God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34–35 NRSV)

Even this foreigner.
Even this soldier.
Even this non-binary Ethiopian.
Even the poor.
Even the meek.
Even the merciful.
Even the abused.
Even the victims of injustice…… Are you starting to see how this comes together?

A Rolling Stone…

As the story of the early church in Acts continues, we see that this “working it out” (that happens with individuals in these stories) ends up snowballing into the larger church of Jesus. 

Peter reports to everyone about Cornelius and his epiphany. 

As the apostle Paul begins ministering further afield to non-Jews, he and Peter struggle through conflict and then to resolution. 

The affirmation of the early church as they “work this all out” is that all these limitations…… all these disadvantages that the world heaps up on our shoulders to divide and conquer us—these have no basis whatsoever in the true reality of the Kingdom of God. On account of the grace we have through Jesus Christ, the love and life of God is open to each of us:

No matter how much time we spent in prison (Paul)

No matter our nationality (Cornelius)

No matter our biology (the Eunuch)

No matter our gender (Mary Magdalene)

No matter our occupation or reputation (Matthew)

It’s one thing for Jesus to say “I came not to abolish the Law” (Mt 5) but quite another for us to come to terms with what that really means in the context of discipleship and life. Jesus said these words because that’s exactly what it felt like to those hearing—Jesus was throwing away everything important.

 

But hear me church…… Listen well: When God works resurrection in us, it feels that way too. It feels like everything that was ever important to us is under threat—and we’re right in a way, it is. But what is under threat is not anything that has anything to do with true faith in God. What is under threat are all those other things that we came to value in Jesus’ name—despite the fact that Jesus wants nothing to do with them. What Jesus throws away is not the baby with the bath water, but all those sacred cows that we built and deceived ourselves into believing they were more important than the gospel and people to whom God intends show grace.

This is not easy.

[pause]

Need More Data

In life, we never have all the information we need. It’s a constant across human experience, whether we’re talking about becoming a couple, or raising children, or finding a job, or becoming at home in a local church, or (I don’t know) navigating a pandemic, or whatever other decisions or experiences you can imagine. We never have all the information we need. 

A good deal of what maturity looks like is the ability to operate effectively without all the information—to navigate uncertain and difficult circumstances despite knowing you do not understand all the pieces in play…… that you cannot be sure your path leads to success. 

Maturity indicates that what we don’t know doesn’t keep us from attempting to do the right thing or to live a full life.

In these stories from Acts, we encounter the early church at a place and time when they most decidedly did not have all the information they needed to live out their faith. They did not yet know how to live out the space after Jesus’ departure from this earthly realm and before his return and rule for eternity. These stories tell us how the early church worked it out for themselves, guided (of course) by the inspiration of the Spirit. 

These in-between and unknowing times are delicate spaces…… vulnerable spaces…… spaces where the future of the Jesus-movement was in many ways at risk. And through these experiences, the church of Jesus Christ made the difficult choice to continue down the path of radical inclusion initially marked out by Jesus. This could not and would not have happened were it not for the ways that folks like Philip, and Peter, and Paul, and others, came to discern and understand how to live in the present moment without all the information. 

Trust

Now you probably know where this is going, right?

How do they work it out? 

How do they live in the uncertainty of the present without all the information they need?

How do they navigate from here to there, and end up in a place of wholeness and hope?

And perhaps even more importantly: How do we?

They trusted God.
They trusted God.

They actually believed that this Holy Spirit is with us and among us and in us. 

They believed that this Holy Spirit will speak to us and lead us if we will give her a chance.

They believed that this Kingdom of God (that Jesus kept talking about) was actually present with them and brimming over with an unlimited energy available to sustain and empower them at any moment.

Their belief led them to relationship which led them to trust. And they trusted God so fully that they stopped caring what the world thought. They stopped caring about the social rules with which they had been indoctrinated.

And what they found when they trusted God was liberation.

 

But let’s not sugar-coat this: 

They trust God and are attacked.
They trust God and are imprisoned.
They trust God and have to flee for their lives.
They trust God and are murdered by the state.

Their trust in God did not protect them from the damage the world is willing to inflict to preserve the status quo. 

Their trust in God simply enabled their perspective to grow in parallel with their compassion—they came to see life from the angle of eternity instead of the few decades this world would give us.

 

That they risked so much, however, should also help us see that their faith was not passive. They were not contented to sit back and let God do all the work. 

They understood an urgency to the Kingdom mission of Jesus that was worth getting arrested for.

They recognized that God’s radical plan of inclusion and reconciliation was so vital that they worked to abolish the segregation imposed by the systems of the world.

They came to know that the availability of the Kingdom life to all people—all people—was so central to the cause of Christ that they were willing to open up the deepest darkest places of racism and elitism and misogyny within themselves and invite God to rewrite their DNA in a new birth through Jesus. 

Augustine

Just 350 years or so after Jesus ascended into the heavens, Saint Augustine of Hippo was part of perhaps the greatest shaping of the Christian Church after the apostle Paul. Augustine lived and worked at a time just after the life of St. Athanasius, who was himself ridiculed and dismissed by his enemies as “that black dwarf”—(clearly society’s sins have always infiltrated the church).

Among the many words of challenge and inspiration that Augustine offers us is this tidbit, often paraphrased and rarely cited. He said: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

It was this commitment that led the later Benedictines to adopt the motto: Ora et Labora—pray and work.

 

Truly:

if we are following Jesus’ example……

if we are continuing the path of embodied faith worked out by the early church……

if we are building on those saints who journeyed before us……

then we too will trust God enough to pray and work out liberation for those enslaved and damaged by the sinful systems of power and privilege in our world.

 

Over the last eight weeks or so, we have been reading some of these bible stories through the lens of brutal honesty, trying to see in them more clearly the expansive work of God in the world.

Time and time again, we see God working against social sins such as racism, misogyny, bigotry, prejudice, and the like. And for all the stories we have examined, we have hardly scratched the surface.

Now is not the time to decide we have read all we need to read; now is the time to keep reading as we have been learning to read—with an honesty that is hard to muster up in faith because we often lack the humility to allow Jesus to teach us.

But we cannot adopt the values of the world and serve it while taking the name of Jesus on ourselves. To do so is blasphemy.

That doesn’t mean we can’t fail. Of course we can. And when we do, we will discover again and again the truth in Paul’s words to the church at Rome: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20 NRSV).

It’s simply that an experience of God’s expansive love and grace is such that we can only respond with gratitude. And true gratitude drives us to action—specifically acting in ways that align with the priorities of our God.

At the same time, an experience of God’s love and grace is so amazing and pure and wonderful that we cannot help but both to want it again and to have others experience it too.

That’s what evangelism is about. It’s not about knocking on doors. It’s about being vulnerable. 

A city on a hill cannot hide.

Salt is changed as its purpose is realized.

The good news of Jesus is most attractive to others:

when people are so in love with Jesus that it cannot be hidden…… 

when folks are so in tune with God’s priorities that they pursue the good of others even when it seems to disadvantage themselves……

when believers become followers, who then become a force for the Kingdom because they are learning that there is no limit to what God can do……

The good news of Jesus is most attractive to others when we use our God-given creativity and the insight of the Spirit to work out the challenges of the uncertain present while we keep our eyes steady on eternity of living with Jesus.

That’s our task. And if we will trust enough to work it out with God’s help, all things are indeed possible.

 

 

What’s One Person?

This sermon is the seventh in a series entitled “Our Common Humanity,” in which we examine the ways that the stories of the bible are affected by things like bigotry, prejudice, nationalism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and the like.

Psalm: Psalm 22:1-11, 19-21

Scripture: John 18:33-19:16

Intro

Over the last few weeks, we have been getting uncomfortably close to some familiar bible stories. Within them, we’ve found a mirror for humanity as we have always been. 

We have seen a persistent disregard for the wellbeing of others. 

We have seen the regular manipulation of power and authority for personal gain.

We have seen the blindness of xenophobia, the imparted shame of misogyny, the destructive power of racism, and the widespread reality of prejudice and bigotry.

We have seen how easy it is for people in power to marginalize and damage the vulnerable in their midst.

And we have seen—time and time again—how God is at work alongside not the powerful, but alongside those victims of these evil and systemic structures of sin in our world.

Like with most things in the bible, in faith, and in life, it all comes to a head with Jesus. 

Jesus Follows the Rules

In this lengthy scripture reading of today, we follow the last phase of Jesus’ trial before Pilate…… the last hours of his life before being nailed to a cross and hung in the sky.

What I want you to consider and be more aware of today is the injustice that Jesus experiences. By this point in the story, Jesus has already been subjected to a number of inquisitions and indignities, beginning with his capture by an aggressive mob back in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Yet Jesus submits to it all. 

He does all the things that society today tells black men to do when confronted by a police officer. 

He passively submits to arrest, though they have no cause to arrest him.

He does not lash out with words or violence, and he even reigns in his friend Peter who does lash out.

Jesus does not escalate the situation, he does not try to get away, and he remains quiet and even perhaps respectful in his speech. 

He submits to the judicial process, knowing that it is flawed and biased against him. 

And what is the result? The whole twisted system destroys him without a second thought. 

Jesus follows all the rules, and he still died. Know why? Because the rules were written to destroy. The systems were built on purpose to harm some for the good of others. 

Jesus was murdered because the system was built on a prejudice that devalued people like Jesus—people who weren’t Roman. People who weren’t wealthy. People who weren’t powerful.

 

Look at what we’ve read. Pilate serves as the judge of this trial. Three times Pilate announces that there is no legal reason for Jesus to be in custody, let alone to be murdered by the state. This is in addition to the unnamed times that John 19:12 suggests Pilate expressed an interest in releasing him.

Jesus was “just another Jew”—killed to keep the peace and preserve the power of the state (which, in a twist of irony that often accompanies such displays of power, only demonstrated its weakness by allowing itself to be manipulated in such ways). 

Despite not being guilty of anything, despite being arrested without cause, despite being declared innocent by the judge, Jesus was not deemed valuable enough to implement justice—his life was not as important as not rocking the boat. So for Pilate and the Judean aggressors of this story, it was easy for Jesus to be sacrificed to keep the peace and to reinforce the power structures of the status quo.

James Cone

A few years back, theologian James Cone wrote a book called The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As you would expect from the title, Cone draws a direct parallel between the cross of Jesus and the lynchings of black men and women that were so common between the Reconstruction Era and World War II. Perhaps it’s best to let James Cone speak for himself. He writes: 

“The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha—should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death. But it does not…

The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. 

In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions. 

He continues a little later on:

“The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree. 

‘Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock….Rather, he died like a [lynched black victim] or a common [black] criminal in torment, on the tree of shame.’ 

The crowd’s shout ‘Crucify him!’ (Mk 15:14) anticipated the white mob’s shout ‘Lynch him!’ 

Jesus’ agonizing final cry of abandonment from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mk 15:34), was similar to the lynched victim Sam Hose’s awful scream as he drew his last breath, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus.’ 

In each case it was a cruel, agonizing, and contemptible death.” 

And one last bit from Cone:

“Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. 

Rather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship,” it has become a form of “cheap grace,” an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. 

Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy” 

Again, these are the words of James Cone in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Takeaways

One of the things that strikes me the most about James Cone’s insights in this book is the realization that we absolutely have to acknowledge the scandal of Jesus’ death or else the cross loses its power to transform us and the world. Without the acknowledgment of Jesus’ capture by a mob, his imprisonment under false charges, his sentencing to death despite obvious innocence, and the savage brutality inflicted on him along the way—unless we learn to look full into the mirror of the violence of our own heart and world, then the cross is meaningless to us.

The cross becomes meaningless to us because we refuse to acknowledge the destructive power of the systems and structures we have built in society, and from which we need liberation. 

The cross becomes meaningless to us because what we value is not life and salvation, but the preservation of the status quo.

The cross becomes meaningless to us because the cross declares that each person has value and is fiercely loved by God, and yet one person—the right one person, anyway—remains disposable to us.

Lost Sheep

One person to the world is of no value whatsoever; one person to God is of infinite value. 

One person to God is worth launching a large-scale rescue operation. Jesus told us that story about God, remember? It’s found in Matthew 18 and Luke 15.

As Matthew tells the story, Jesus says (beginning in chapter 18, verse 12):

“What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:12–14 NRSV)

This is a picture of the love of God.

This is an anticipation of the Cross of Christ. 

 

God has demonstrated your worth—you are worth any price. God will do literally anything within God’s means to love you, to nurture you, and to protect you.

God will abandon heaven itself, take on the full limitations of a human life and body, submit to indignity and disgrace, and experience slander and baseless accusations. 

God will be captured by unidentified federal agents operating under cover of darkness, arrested on false charges, and sentenced to die though proven innocent.

God will be beaten and abused, and endure one of the most cruel and unusual means of torture and murder of all time. 

God didn’t have to do any of it. But by submitting Godself to the unjust and biased systems of the world…… by allowing them to destroy him, God opened up a way so they didn’t have the power to destroy anyone anymore. The destructive heart and power of prejudice and scapegoating and selfishness and violence is now exposed for all to see.

God would not have gone to such lengths to expose such darkness if you weren’t worth changing the world for. 

Outro

There’s an old rabbinical saying: “If you save one person, you’ve saved the world.” That certainly seems to be the way that God sees things.

And if we hold the death of Jesus to have any value at all, then we must not let the powers that killed him continue to wield their destructive force in our world. 

We must stand up to them—not as Peter attempted with violence—but with truth-telling, as did Jesus. This is what Jesus tells Pilate is the whole point—John 18:37b: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (NRSV). So we who disciple Jesus—we who follow in his Way and seek to become like him—we name the destructive purposes and powers of this world (for they cannot operate except when hidden), and we trust truth to win the day. 

Every time we do so, every gain no matter how small, it is as though we have rescued another victim like Jesus from the lynching trees of our world.

Every time we advocate for the value of vulnerable lives—insisting that their lives matter—we free another scapegoat from the pyre built to consume them.

Every time we bring to light the destructive systems of sin in the world—racism, prejudice, xenophobia, misogyny—every time we expose these structures of social and economic disadvantage, their power to destroy and consume is diminished, and life has the capacity to be more abundant and free.

What’s one person? As God lives out the answer to that question in Jesus: If you save one person, you save the world. 

Easy Targets

This sermon is the sixth in a series entitled “Our Common Humanity,” in which we examine the ways that the stories of the bible are affected by things like bigotry, prejudice, nationalism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and the like.

Psalm Reading: Psalm 67

Scripture Reading: Numbers 12:1–16

Intro

I’d be willing to bet that most of you have not heard a sermon preached out of this Numbers 12 text before. Or if you have, it’s been a rare occurrence.

It’s messy.

There’s the good guys becoming bad guys.

God shows up, grumpy and defensive of Moses.

Moses has to intervene on behalf of his enemies, who are also his family.

Miriam alone is punished for the wrong that the text says she and Aaron did together.

And then everybody just moves on.

Scapegoating

There’s an even weirder text in Leviticus 16 that has some import here in Numbers 12.

Leviticus chapter 16 is about the Day of Atonement, this holy day where special sacrifices and rituals were performed annually in order to again reconcile the people of Israel to God.

As part of that ritual (and here I’m looking around verse 7 of Leviticus 16), two goats are selected—one will be sacrificed as a sin offering, the other will be released into the wilderness. But don’t think this second goat gets off easy. A bit later (and now I’m around verse 21), we learn that the priest (who is the same Aaron as in the Numbers 12 story) is instructed to put his hands on the head of the live goat, symbolically transferring all the sins of the people onto the goat. Then a designated person removes the goat far enough out into the barren desert where it cannot survive, and abandons it there.

This second goat is called a scapegoat.

Now I think we know what a scapegoat is—it is the person or thing we blame that is not responsible for what happened. We scapegoat someone when we hold them accountable for things they had no hand in. And we do this scapegoating thing a lot.

Some years ago, a scholar named Rene Girard started writing about all this, and he began right here in Leviticus 16. As Girard explored this story (and other biblical stories of scapegoating, and other historical experiences of scapegoating in the world at large), he came to see that this scapegoating mechanism is a pattern in human life around the world, regardless of faith orientation. But Girard also came to see that Jesus—the most complete revelation of God’s love, priorities, and ways—lives and dies in a way that shows us how to break out of these scapegoating cycles and live more full and complete lives—to live as God created us to live.

Back to Moses’ Wife

Which brings us back to today’s scripture text—Numbers 12.

Notice here the disconnect between why they speak against Moses and what they speak against Moses:

The supposed WHY comes in Numbers 12:1: “While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman)” (Numbers 12:1 NRSV).

The supposed reason for this conflict is that Moses has a wife who is racially and culturally different. The ancient region of “Cush” roughly aligns with modern-day Ethiopia, and its inhabitants were very dark skinned. This is not a modern assumption; the biblical text (in several places) refers to Cushites as having very dark skin.

 

The WHAT that they speak against Moses comes in verse 2: “They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”” (Numbers 12:2 NRSV).

If it is not immediately clear, this is an issue of authority and recognition. Aaron and Miriam are upset because Moses keeps getting all the credit, even though they are doing some of the work too. This desire in them for more fame is why the bible emphasizes that “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3 NRSV). 

But you see—these two things (the supposed WHAT and WHY) have no connection to each other whatsoever. The color of Moses’ wife’s skin has nothing to do with his central leadership role, nor does it somehow limit Aaron and Miriam from getting the recognition they want. 

……Which means the story is going to get really messy here, if we think about it.

If the real reason for their attack on Moses’ leadership is his wife’s ethnic heritage, then this ends up being the story of two racist family members trying to undermine and destroy their relative because he is not racist as well. 

If (on the other hand) the real reason for their attack on Moses’ leadership is their own aspiration to be “top dog,” then they are scapegoating Moses’ wife on account of her difference. They are stirring up the bigotry in their midst in order to manipulate people’s fears and prejudices for their own personal gain. And of course, Moses’ wife is simply a useful and convenient tool to destroy the competition as they climb to the top.

Neither reading makes me happy. Nor is the clean-up of this mess even remotely neat. 

But as we read, Moses intercedes on behalf of his family members—who (let us not forget) have been in this moment his enemies. 

God names a means of reconciliation and restoration that is followed. 

No one gets left behind; no one is abandoned to the wilderness forever. 

God in this story works against these racist and divisive manipulations…… against this scapegoating mechanism which both willfully and thoughtlessly chews up innocent people whom God loves.

To the New Testament, Batman!

Of course, such scapegoating and weaponizing of people who are different did not cease in the 13th century BC. In fact, we have seen it in virtually every story we have examined these past weeks. 

The Gospel of John, chapter 4, provides an interesting story to hold alongside this one from Numbers 12. 

 

Here, we find Jesus and his disciples traveling from the province of Judea to the region of Galilee. In order to go there, he has to travel through an area known as Samaria. Because we know Jesus, we should not be surprised that Jesus just happens to find himself in an encounter that would make anyone else significantly uncomfortable. 

The disciples (we learn later on in v.31) have left Jesus near a well while they went to town in search of something to bring back to eat. They should have known that Jesus requires supervision.

Jesus not only strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan—one of those thought-to-be-irredeemable distant cousins of the Jewish people—but he strikes up a conversation with an unaccompanied Samaritan woman of all things. As a good, Jewish man, Jesus knows better than to speak to any woman without the supervision of her attendant male relative—whether a husband, brother, father, or whatever. 

And even more unbelievable than this, Jesus asks her to get him a drink of water. According to the purity laws that practicing Jews at this time honored, this would effectively “dirty” Jesus in a way that made him unfit to worship God or even mix with society.

Jesus’ behavior runs so contrary to societal norms that the woman herself calls him to account. In v.9, she asks “”How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9 NRSV). Jesus bucks expectations so completely that she feels the needs to reassert societal norms. 

And here’s where Jesus really goes off script.

He questions her understanding of her religion.

He starts asking her about her sex life. 

And—for the first time to anyone anywhere—he names himself to be the Messiah.

The disciples return on the tail end of this encounter. Their own biases and bigotry are revealed in verse 27, which says what they wanted to do is (1) confront the woman and rebuke her for talking to Jesus (“What do you want?”), and (2) confront and rebuke Jesus for having a conversation at all (“Why are you speaking with her?).

And again, not to put too fine a point on it……

Jesus has struck up this conversation, but the disciples first assume it is the woman’s fault. Why? Because she is deficient—she is a woman, she is a Samaritan. Because of their prejudice, they assume her guilt simply because she is in the neighborhood. 

And perhaps as well: It is easier to scapegoat this nobody than to deal with Jesus doing the unexpected. 

I’m glad the gospel writer fills in their mental intentions. But I’m also taken by the fact that Jesus has gone so far wrong in their minds that they can say nothing. They are gobsmacked.

 Outro

When Rene Girard explored the biblical text for examples of this scapegoating mechanism, the story he found that illustrated it most completely is that of the crucifixion of Jesus. We’ll be exploring that story next week. 

But for now, consider what that means for how completely the disciples misunderstood their teacher in John 4. 

Jesus, a future victim of massive scapegoating, engages a person who has no doubt been a scapegoat over and over again. 

Jesus, who will assert no power to derail the injustice that will crush him, treats as equal someone who has no power to derail the injustice that she faces daily. 

Jesus, who has nearly every kind of privilege available in that time and place, sets it all aside to engage a person absent of any kind of privilege whatsoever.

Jesus, who hanging on the cross will say “I thirst,” offers an endless supply of life-giving water to someone the disciples think shouldn’t get a drop.

Jesus, who will die because of the politics of divisiveness, proclaims to her a vision of a time when all divisions will fall away…… when all worshippers of God will be united “in spirit and in truth”…… when there is no more Samaritan or Jew but unity with God.

And let it be recognized, that it is on account of this Samaritan woman’s testimony—and not the ministry of the disciples—that revival strikes that city and many more come to know of the true life possible in Jesus. That’s what happens when we stop blaming each other, when we reorder society so others are not vulnerable to our scapegoating, and when we let God transform our (usually) unacknowledged bigotry into love for even our enemies. Revival happens when we live like Jesus.

When to Disobey

This sermon is the fifth in a series entitled “Our Common Humanity,” in which we examine the ways that the stories of the bible are affected by things like bigotry, prejudice, nationalism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and the like.

Psalm Reading: Psalm 16

Scripture Reading: Daniel 2:48-3:18

Much to Do

I know this was a long reading today, and I thank you for bearing with me. In truth, it still feels like I cut things down a bit too much, given that we didn’t read “the rest of the story,” as the late, great Paul Harvey would say.

But this is enough to reveal some of the unhealthy power dynamics in play, and to set us up for considering when disobedience is the godly thing to do.

Run Up To Daniel 3

Remember those Assyrians we talked about last week? Well, they do eventually conquer and brutalize the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and they march right down to Jerusalem itself. The Assyrian king at the time, Sennacherib, will record that: “like a caged bird I shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem his royal city.” But when Hezekiah settles for tribute, perhaps amidst some unsettling divine intervention, Sennacherib withdraws.

Over the next hundred years, Assyria’s power will wax and begin to wane, and a new power will begin to rise in the south of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Babylon will become everything Assyria was and more. Nebuchadnezzar is the second king of Babylon, rising to power in 605; and it is he who will conquer and exile the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 587. Among those exiles were a group of young nobles from Jerusalem: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (the latter three better known for the names they are given by their conquerers: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego…… Daniel, we read in chapter 1 verse 7, is renamed Belteshazzar, but for some reason the book maintains his birth name and not the others). 

The first two chapters of the biblical book of Daniel are about how these four ended up in the Babylonian palace—they were effectively culled from the larger group of prisoners because they were young men from the nobility of Judah, they were good looking, and they were educated [Daniel 1:3-4]. Their purpose is to be re-educated into Babylonian ways: “to be taught the literature and language,” to be wooed with food and wine, and to be so brainwashed for three years so they can be “stationed in the king’s court” (as we read in 1:4-5). 

But they insist on retaining their own culture’s ways, and slowly prove their worth anyhow. Daniel’s big break comes when Nebuchadnezzar has a bad dream, and only God through Daniel can interpret it. Daniel is able to leverage his new-found favor with the king for the betterment of his three friends too, who are assigned provincial affairs.

Unrest

Abruptly in the story, we learn of ethnic and racial unrest in Babylon. Daniel 3:8 suddenly tells us: “At this time certain Chaldeans [that’s the biblical word for Babylonians] came forward and denounced the Jews” [NRSV].

Now unlike some of the other stories we’ve been examining, the biblical text does not fill in all the details. We aren’t told exactly why this rift has occurred. We only know that it is part of a plot to unseat Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from their positions—probably via murder by the state.

It is probably a good guess that the motives are power and control. King Nebuchadnezzar, driven by unchecked emotion and mired in bureaucracy, is thus manipulated by special interest groups. He passes a decree that sounds good for the nation, but is bad for its people (or at lest for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). They stand in defiance of their government—directly disobeying the law—directly protesting what they see as an unjust law. And then anger and hatred is stokked (cf. Dan 3:19) to the point that it becomes unreasonable. 

Prejudices in the Story

So what makes these three musketeers so vulnerable to the machinations of the political machinery?

Let us count the ways:

First, they are outsiders rather than natives. Do not underestimate the insider/outsider dynamic in such stories.

Second, they are prisoners of war. Literally. These exact people were captured by an invading army and carted hundreds of miles against their will. They were then subjected to a three-year reeducation program aimed at turning them against their previous culture and ways.

Third, they do have a different culture and ways. This involves language, food, religious practices, social customs, clothes, and so much more. And what we see in the earlier parts of Daniel is that these three consistently refuse to conform and compromise. They are refusing to be a part of the melting-pot Nebuchadnezzar is trying to build.

Third, they are a different ethnicity and race. The differences between a Babylonian and an ancient Israelite would have been obvious, regardless of dress and manner. That so many exiles were brought from the levantine campaign also meant that anyone who saw an ancient Israelite would have immediately known they were a captured slave, and treated them as such.

As we have seen in other stories, each one of these can weaken personal agency and make one vulnerable to those practicing injustice. But heaping so many together results in exponentially more vulnerability…… exponentially less agency……

And so “Rack, Shack, and Benny” are swept up in this evil—powerless to save themselves.

Deliverance?

Before we go on, however, note that these three do NOT need God to do what they want in order to believe in God. They say in 3:18-19: 

“If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17–18 NRSV)

I think it is remarkable that they acknowledge that God may not save them…… but that does not invalidate the reality or power of God. God is just as big…… just as great…… just as able. They seem to know that God just won’t be manipulated—even and especially by people of faith.

And so the friends-three do to God what God does to them—they give God the grace and space to do God’s own thing, trusting that God will see them through: whether through the hardship, or through death.

Daniel 6

The other famous story in the book of Daniel is effectively a repeat of this one, only with Daniel as the character in peril. 

Nebuchadnezzar’s reign has ended, and indeed the Babylonian empire has fallen to the Persians. Their king, Darius, now incorporates into his own government what is left of the Babylonian infrastructure, including Daniel. Daniel, predicatably, “distinguishes himself” [Daniel 6:3] by his good work. 

The other higher-ups in Darius’ government become jealous and start to conspire against him. Here, the biblical text fills in the blanks, tellings us that they “tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom” (Daniel 6:4 NRSV). As an outsider—and he’s even more distant from that inner group now than ever—the charge that he lacks sufficient patriotism or that he is committing treason would have that much more weight. 

Just as with Nebuchadnezzar, king Darius is manipulated into making an edict without understanding its ramifications. To his credit, Darius is distraught when he discovers they have trapped Daniel and Darius himself has signed the death warrant. But much like Pilate in the New Testament, Darius is unwilling to stand up to crowds and defy the system he represents. So Daniel goes into the lions’ den, from which he will escape just as unscathed as when his comrades emerged from that fiery furnace.

Defying Government?

These stories in Daniel have been getting tossed around the public sphere a good bit during the past months. As public officials have sought to respond to this pandemic and limit infections and deaths, and especially as some of these regulations impact the way churches are accustomed to functioning, there have been a surprising number of people (surprising to me, anyway) who have started talking about Daniel and the importance that churches disobey these guidelines.

Sadly, that choice has resulted in a number of outbreaks in churches, with many people getting sick and even dying. Attending a church service in person continues to be identified as one of the most risky things you can do right now.

It seems to me that we have no clear idea how to discern this. When do we disobey the state? When do we obey the state?

If we’re going to be honest about the bible—if we’re going to treat the bible with the integrity it deserves of us—we’ve got to acknowledge that there are plenty of places where the bible says “obey!” too.

Biblical Examples

Now, I don’t intend to fully cite every example, but I do want to name a few for context and for your further study.

As Peter gives advice to Christians driven out of their native land, he picks up the theme of obedience… 1Peter 2:13-14: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.” (1Peter 2:13–14 NRSV)

Paul offers similar advice to the church at Rome, saying in Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (NRSV).

He gives the same advice in his mentoring letter to Titus, urging him to remind Christians to “be subject to rulers and authorities” [3:1 NRSV].

 

In contrast with these teachings, the whole of the book of Revelation seems to be focused on the subject of civil disobedience, as the Christians to which John writes are facing increasing persecution on all fronts—even to the point that some have been murdered. John the Revelator speaks of bearing witness to Jesus with our lives and with our words in ways that were contrary to the law in the context to which he is writing. This seems to place these words more firmly aligned with Daniel and against other New Testament voices.

Also aligned with Daniel would be many of the stories of Acts. There are several examples I could pull here—after all, Paul is always getting arrested—but the most notable might be from chapter 5. There, the apostles are put into jail for preaching Jesus and healing people, the Holy Spirit breaks them out, and they are arrested again. Once again, they are told to stop this Jesus stuff, and Peter insists (with the other apostles) that “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29 NRSV).

Three Guidelines

It seems there is a lot of uncertainty right now about our positioning as Christians in relation to public health orders. So I wanted to bring these biblical stories to mind, and offer some thoughts as to how we discern and navigate the space between “we must obey God rather than human authorities” and “be subject to the governing authorities.”

As I look at these and other similar stories, I find that they divide rather neatly along three guidelines—three tests that we can use to determine which response is the faithful, Christian, godly response to the exercise of authority by a government.

 

First: When we look at all these stories and all these teachings and we try to find some broad strokes between them, one thing we see right away is that we should always defy our government when they demand that we stop preaching the good news or stop living like Jesus lived. This is cut and dry. That’s Daniel in Babylon. That’s Peter and John being arrested for preaching the gospel, and getting out only to do the same thing all over again. There is no need for nuance here. 

So if the government says: don’t preach or live the gospel——we’re going to keep doing it because that is clearly one of the times when we have to respond “we must obey God rather than human authorities.”

 

A second guideline or test: We should never insist on freedom or liberty for its own sake, especially when our expression of freedom impairs or risks another person’s wellbeing. Jesus demonstrates this over and over again. He is frequently breaking the rules…… breaking the law…… whether that is the religious law or, at times, perhaps even the civil law. But Jesus never seems willing to do that if it risks more than himself. We can see this in a number of other New Testament personalities as well, especially in the book of Acts. If it is a matter of individual liberty, then all things may be possible, but not all things are beneficial or edifying [1Corinthians 10:23]. So another assessment we need to make is determining whether we are insisting on freedom for its own sake.

 

Third: We are never to demand our freedom when doing so detracts from the gospel message of abundant life, perfect love, and the enduring reconciliation of all things to the God who brought all things into being. Once again, this is a simple thing, but not necessarily one we think about when we should. As we see in the New Testament letters, this is a big part of Paul’s reasoning for why a church should do or not do X Y or Z: does this make Jesus look good, or does it make Jesus look bad? Does it advance the cause of Christ, or does it build a further rift between people in need of reconciliation and the God who wants to bring that reconciliation about? 

The Common Good

Look——

I have concerns about governmental overreach too. But:

There was a backlash from people who thought their liberties were being taken away when the government said they had to wear seatbelts—but now we recognize this as a healthy thing to do.

There was a backlash from people who thought their liberties were being taken away when the government passed legislation making it illegal to drive while under the influence—but now we recognize this is both responsible and for the common good.

Even back in 1901, the Supreme Court had to decide a case that gave the state of Massachusetts the authority to aggressively manage a smallpox epidemic. 

And before that, back in 1865 Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss was beaten and thrown into a mental institute because he suggested that doctors needed to wash their hands before delivering babies. They didn’t know about germs then, but Dr. Semmelweiss theorized they were bringing particles from their morning autopsies to their afternoon deliveries. He ended up dying in a mental institute at just 47 years old.

For as long as their have been laws, governments have had to balance personal liberties against the common good. That’s why you cannot steal, or murder, or abuse your spouse. It’s why you have to wear pants in public, why you need a valid drivers license to operate a vehicle, why you cannot yell “bomb” in an airport.

All of these things infringe on personal liberties. And rightly so—because the common good is a higher ethic and priority than your expression of personal liberty. That has been the decision of our nation, time and time again.

And the prioritization of the common good is an ethic that we Christians should share—after all, it’s right there in the bible.

It is for the common good that Jesus came into the world.

It is for the common good that he taught us how to live truly.

It is for the common good that he submitted to the cross.

It is for the common good that God raised Jesus from the dead.

It is for the common good that we are gifted by the Spirit [1Corinthians 12:7].

It is for the common good that we are charged with the ministry of reconciliation, serving as ambassadors for Christ [2Corinthians 5:18-20].

It is for the common good that Jesus will return and reign forever.

God’s entire project of creation—from beginning to beyond the end—it is all about the common good.

 

Are we?
Are we for the common good?
Or are we for our good, to hell with everybody else?

As always the case, I believe Jesus shows us the way. May we be faithful and truthful enough to follow.

Giving Up that Old Time Religion

This sermon is the fourth in a series entitled “Our Common Humanity,” in which we examine the ways that the stories of the bible are affected by things like bigotry, prejudice, nationalism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and the like.

Psalm Reading: Psalm 82

Scripture Reading: Luke 10:25-37

Jonah

Once upon a time, there was a man named Jonah.

We don’t really know anything about Jonah beyond what is in the biblical book that bears his name. But through that one source, I suspect we know all we need to know.

We understand that Jonah is a prophet. That means that he is moved by God to call people back to covenant—back to relationship with God. Like other prophets, Jonah receives a push from God to speak to a particular people; and like other prophets, Jonah does this by describing what will come if they do not repent and be reconciled to God’s justice and leading.

But Jonah is no ordinary prophet. While several other prophets find their calling hard to bear (here’s looking at you, Jeremiah), and while even Jesus will regularly reference how prophets are usually ignored at best and killed at worst, Jonah’s resistance to his prophetic calling has nothing to do with the hazards with the job.

You see, the reason Jonah tries to reject his calling is because he is too full of hate for the people God wants to save.

The prophetic book of Jonah begins with these words (Jonah 1:1-3):

“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.” (Jonah 1:1–3 NRSV)

God says: Go to Nineveh and do your prophet thing.

Jonah says…… well, nothing, because by the time God finished speaking, Jonah was already on the run.

Why Run Away?

I am sure the reason for his rapid departure was obvious to the original hearers, who much better understood the relationship between ancient Israel and the Assyrians. 

But all the same, the story here in the bible does not leave it to our imagination or misunderstanding. In chapter 4—after God directs Jonah back to Nineveh, after Jonah proclaims their impending doom unless they repent, and after the Ninevites do repent and turn to God—after all this we read of Jonah lashing out at God. Let me read Jonah 4:2:

“He [Jonah] prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2 NRSV)

 

Note that Jonah is accusing God of making a mistake here. Jonah believed that if the Ninevites repented, God would have to spare them (because that’s just how God is). If Jonah did not invite them to repent, then they would not have repented, and then God could have wiped them off the map—which they clearly deserved. 

An Aside…

Quick aside—Jonah is ranting at God and accusing God of screwing up, and what is the biblical word for what Jonah is doing?——”praying”: “he prayed to the LORD and said…”

Biblical prayer is not about flattering God with flowery words. It is not about saying the right thing. It is not about recounting every bad thing you’ve ever done. It’s not even about naming every situation where God needs to work.

Biblical prayer is about developing and maintaining a conversational relationship with God, even and especially when you are so mad at God and the world that you wish you and everyone else was dead. That’s where Jonah is at the beginning of chapter 4: he wishes the Ninevites were dead, he’s angry at God that they’re not, and he’s so upset he prays—(again, “prays”!)—[Jonah 4:3]

“O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3 NRSV)

What God wants is that we value our relationship with God enough to scream it out with God when we’re angry, rather than undermine our own wellbeing by giving power-tripping and God the silent treatment.

That’s the end of the aside.

Back to “Those Ninevites”

Back to the reason Jonah ran—he ran because he simply could not abide by the thought of those Ninevites being on the receiving end of God’s grace. As far as Jonah was concerned, they were utterly irredeemable, existing outside even the possibility of God’s redemptive love. Jonah hates them so much that he grows to resent the very nature of God—God’s steadfast love and mercy! They are damned (as far as Jonah is concerned) by the virtue of their birth and their nationality; and nothing—not even God—should change that.

A strong opinion, for sure. And one that I hope chafes every follower of Jesus.

 

Why is Jonah so bitter and resentful toward the Assyrians? Why is he so convinced that they must not receive God’s forgiveness and reconciliation?

Well, interesting you should ask……

You know when you’re watching a movie that’s set in a particular time period, and you suddenly recognize something that doesn’t belong…… that didn’t exist then? 

Maybe the movie is set in the late 1940’s but there are cars on the streets manufactured in the early 1950’s. 

Maybe one of the character uses a slang expression that didn’t come into use for decades after the time in which the movie is set.

In that dorky way that you expect of me, I find cameras are often wrong in movies, with producers simply picking a camera because it looks “old”—but which ends up not being old enough.

There’s all kinds of ways that such anachronisms work their way into movies.

Well, the whole book of Jonah is basically built on a similar kind of anachronism. 

It seems that the setting of Jonah is somewhere in the 8th century BC. This would be during a period of increasing strength and expansion for the Assyrian Empire, which will come to adopt Nineveh as a capital city in 705. 

But the book of Jonah was most certainly not written in the 8th century. The grammar, vocabulary, and overall language-used indicates it being written centuries later. And those centuries matter.

Because what is going to happen to Nineveh and Assyria is that they are going to continue to increase in power and control as Assyria becomes the largest empire in the world. 

Nearing the end of the 8th century BC, Assyria will invade the Northern Kingdom of Israel and force it to pay tribute. 

After some time, the Northern Kingdom will rebel, causing the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V to lay siege for three brutal years. 

Eventually, in 721, the Northern Kingdom crumbles and the brutality of the Assyrians becomes legendary. Towns are burned. Fields are salted so they will not produce. Those in leadership and those in useful trades are either slaughtered, or else they are chained together—iron hooks through the jaw—and marched hundreds of miles to be relocated. And Assyria did not settle their captives together—they split them up so they were forced to assimilate, effectively destroying the culture and the religion of their conquered foes in the process.

 

To a good, religious, faithful, patriotic member of Jewish society in the 600’s, and the 500’s, and on down the line, there is no more perfect villain than the Assyrians, and there is no more perfect target than the capital city that was newly built with the labor of the Northern Kingdom’s fall.

At risk of belaboring the point, the reader of this story would be inclined to identify with Jonah’s hatred and his impatience with God for two interrelated reasons:

The first and obvious reason is on account of the incredible trauma inflicted by the Assyrians on the people of God.

The second and less obvious reason is that Jonah was right, in a way. The Ninevites did repent and turn to God, but it obviously did not last. Within decades of the setting of the story, Assyria was laying siege to the Northern Kingdom, and then mutilating and murdering its people. You see, they can’t help but think that if God had only destroyed them when Jonah wanted, then the Assyrians would not have come through and destroyed Israel, and everything would be still be fine.

Except it wouldn’t. Maybe the timetable would have shifted, maybe the nationality of their conquerers would have changed, but the biblical texts make it clear that the ancient Israelites brought this on their own head by failing to trust God and keep covenant. The Assyrians—or whoever—are always just going to be incidental.

Nationalism

Jonah does not want the Ninevites saved because his religion has become so entwined with his national identity that the two are inseparable. To be an enemy of the state is to be an enemy of God. As such, the only people capable of God’s redemption and abundant life are good patriots.

The story of Jonah proves that way of thinking to be wrong and at odds with the God who values each life, regardless of how it is lived. The Jonah story is a condemnation—a repudiation—of any religious identity that is nationalistic—that is, that become so entwined with ones nationality that it categorically rejects any/all without that national identity. Nationalistic religion can come in any flavor, but for we who follow Jesus it invariably reduces life-giving faith in the One True God to blind patriotism.

 

It is devastating for the mission of Jesus Christ when his Church begins to mistake patriotism for faith. Just like with Jonah, we lose sight of the infinite value God has for lives that are different than our own. 

Do we care about them? Do we care about the people our government declares to be our enemies? It does, you know—name people to be our enemies. 

Sometimes it names people who are citizens—and perhaps even patriots themselves—yet they are folks who have become a political inconvenience. Do their lives matter?

Sometimes it names people who are fleeing unspeakable violence. Do their lives matter?

Sometimes it names entire nationalities, blaming them rightly or (more often) wrongly for some perceived ill or sleight. Do their lives matter?

Quite often, a government will take the easy route that evil leaders have taken throughout human history—blaming the most vulnerable, the most marginalized—you know: the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the sick, the struggling, the different. As we’ve been discussing, God cares deeply for these vulnerable people, and things will always go bad for a nation that abuses them. Do their lives matter to us?

The Good Samaritan

You might never have made the connection before, but Jesus tells a story that is similar to the Jonah story. You know the parable: it’s the Good Samaritan—we read it together earlier.

It is a story that is sort of told inside-out though.

Among the characters of the parable, there are good guys and bad guys. And the difference between the two is nationality with a hint of ethnicity. 

As most of you are no doubt aware, the Jews of Jesus’ day and the Samaritans saw themselves as enemies, despite having a familial connection some five centuries prior. The Jews completely rejected the Samaritans—they were excluded not just from religious doings, but from social engagement entirely. Samaritans were shunned; they were called “dogs” and treated even worse. The Samaritan is supposed to be the bad guy, because Samaritans are enemies. They are enemies because they are not Jews. They are not patriots. They are enemy combatants (to employ an anachronism of my own). Because their political alliances have been historically suspect, they are imagined to be excluded from God’s redemptive work through the Jewish people. The Jews, like Jonah, decided to write the Samaritans out of God’s covenant to bless the whole world.

But in Jesus‘ story, the one you expect to be the bad guy ends up being the good guy. The ones you expect to be the good guys prove to be the bad guys. It’s all inside-out and upside-down and downright disorienting until you realize that God doesn’t give a fig about national identity, and God stands in opposition to the marriage of religion with politics. 

God is about the redemption of all. God is interested in drawing every single human into a conversational relationship in which they can grow and learn and discover the full potential of their created being. God is interested in bringing abundant life to those that your patriotism leads you to hate.

Giving It Up

We followers of Jesus in this country need to submit to some transforming work by God. For some of us, that means we’ve got to learn to give up that old time religion we were taught. 

We’ve got to give up that old time religion that says the pledge of allegiance in Sunday School, because we learn through Jesus that our allegiance must be to God alone and that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

We’ve got to give up that old time religion that says we’re supposed to legislate morality, codifying into law a standard that most of us do not live up to.

We’ve got to give up that old time religion that condemns the other party’s candidates as unchristian and that cannot imagine a follower of Jesus would vote differently than you.

We’ve got to give up that old time religion that mistakes the selection of judicial appointees for being pro-life.

We’ve got to give up that old time religion that builds monuments to our religion in courthouses and schools, but never in our own hearts.

We’ve got to give up that old time religion that seeks to name enemies and condemn instead of inspire welcome and compassion for those in danger.

We’ve got to give up that old time religion that has confused blind patriotism with the life-giving faith in the One True God.

Jonah’s Outro

At the end of the book of Jonah, Jonah is himself still furious at God and the world. In fact, his anger escalates even higher when the plant giving him shade withers in the wind and dies. 

This, though, is a teaching moment for God. And the lesson is one we still need to hear. In Jonah 4:10, we read:

“Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”” (Jonah 4:10–11 NRSV)

If Jonah could care so deeply about a vine, and desire so strongly that it should not die, could not God care all the more about people—or even animals? 

Even that Samaritan.

Even that political opponent.

Even that enemy of the state.

Even that refugee.

Even that poor person.

Even that convict.

Even that protester.

Even that cop.

Even you. 

Even me.

The Value of Life

This sermon is the third in a series entitled “Our Common Humanity,” in which we examine the ways that the stories of the bible are affected by things like bigotry, prejudice, nationalism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and the like.

Psalm Reading: Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Scripture Reading: Genesis 21:8-21

Intro

Today’s story of Hagar and Ishmael is another dark chapter in the history of the people of God. In truth, the stories of Abraham and Sarah are filled with dark chapters. This “first family of faith” seems to struggle (no less than we today) with following God’s leading, yet God continues to redeem their choices and build towards God’s purpose of the reconciliation of all things to Godself. 

The animosity that Sarah has for Hagar has been long-standing by the time we get to Genesis 21. The biblical story suggests that Sarah’s hatred grows out of the events of Genesis 16. And while that is not our story today, it is in many ways parallel to and intrinsically entwined with Genesis 21.

But for those less familiar with these stories, and for those of us who could use reminding, let us recap.

Story Recap

Abraham and Sarah used to be called Abram and Sarai.

God invites Abram and his family into a special and intimate relationship—God promises to bless Abram so that his family can embody God’s blessing to the world. In Genesis 12, verse 2-3, God says:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2–3 NRSV)

This is the promise, but Abram and Sarai struggle to live into this identity. In their time, having lots of children was believed to be a sign of God’s blessing—but they themselves had no children. They had tried for decades, but nothing worked. How were they supposed to embody God’s blessing when they lacked such a tangible indicator of it? When they could see no real future without an heir?

So God works to address Abram’s concerns. We read in Genesis chapter 15, verse 5:

“[The LORD] brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5 NRSV)

Abram is thus convinced that an heir will come, but it seems Sarai was less certain. When chapter 16 of Genesis begins, Sarai lays out a plan for Abram—a plan to help them succeed where God had failed—a plan to produce the heir required for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

That plan involves Hagar.

Hagar

Who is Hagar? Genesis 16:1 tells us:

“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar” (Genesis 16:1 NRSV).

Beyond her name, this verse tells us four key things about Hagar:

First—before we even know her name—we are told that Hagar is Sarai’s property. She is owned as one owns a sheep or a horse or a coffeepot.

Second—still before we know her name—we find out that Hagar is an Egyptian. This means (as we discussed some last week) that Hagar is ethnically and culturally different than Abram and Sarai.

Third—and still before her name is disclosed—Hagar is said to be a slave. Perhaps this is to have been supposed by the indication that Sarai owns her, but the biblical text goes the extra mile and makes it explicit.

And fourth—and still before her name is told to us—we learn that Hagar is a girl. The word here suggests only that she is old enough to be married—which in the ancient world meant at least 12 or so. 

It is only after these four other descriptions that finally we learn Hagar’s name.

That’s important.

All four of these identities force upon Hagar significant systemic baggage. Each of them presents a target for prejudice and bigotry because each of them renders her more vulnerable and more powerless. 

Taken together, they have an exponential effect—so much so, that Hagar herself has no voice in this Genesis 16 dialogue about producing an heir for Abram. She is so stripped of power and agency that she can do nothing about their un-godly plan for her and Abram to have a baby—a baby that won’t even be considered her own baby once it’s born. Even that will be taken away from her—violence heaped upon violence by people of faith who have lost faith in God’s ability to fulfill promises.

In the Genesis 16 story, we learn that once Sarai’s plan comes to fruition and Hagar becomes pregnant by Abram, Sarai’s jealousy and hate of Hagar grows more intensely. Abram refuses to stand up for what is right, and “Sarai deals [so] harshly with her [that… Hagar] runs away” (Genesis 16:6b NRSV).

It is only through an encounter with God, and God’s promise to care for Hagar and her son Ishmael, that she returns to Abram’s house.

To Genesis 21 (Scripture Text)

Skipping then to Genesis 21 (our scripture text), Sarai—now called Sarah—conceives miraculously and bears a son of her own, who is named Isaac. But this does nothing to relieve the hatred that Sarah has festered toward Hagar for years. Now that she has a “real heir,” she doesn’t feel that they need Ishmael any more. 

And in fact, what Sarah presents to Abraham is an economic quandary—systemic injustice often poses as economic concerns. Sarah does not want Ishmael benefitting at all from Abraham’s estate once he’s gone. Maybe this is an excuse; maybe it is the real reason. But the result is that Hagar finds herself once again in the wilderness, this time with her young son, and this time because of the will of another.

She has been thrown away, effectively. Cast out and left to die by exposure or starvation or whatever wild animal may do them in.

But let’s be clear about this: Hagar could not—would not—have been thrown out into the wilderness and left to die if you take prejudice out of the story. 

Had she not been a foreigner… 

Had she not been part of a different ethnic group… 

Had she not been a woman… 

Had she not been a slave… 

If you remove from the story the ways that Hagar is disadvantaged by the world at large, she would not have been in a situation where she could be cast out into the wilderness with her son Ishmael and left to die.

It is difference that enables us to dehumanize others most effectively.

Where is God?

Just as we did last week, I want you to consider where God is in this story.

God does NOT affirm the systems and structures that disadvantaged Hagar and enabled her to be “othered” by Abraham and Sarah in such a way that her death became inconsequential to them. 

Rather, God redeems Hagar and her son…… and their circumstances. God chooses to open up life and the possibilities of renewal and abundance out of this dry and desert place…… This bleak forecast of starvation, thirst, and exposure is changed into something that sounds a lot like thriving. As we read in Genesis 21 verses 20-21:

“God was with the boy [that is, Ishmael], and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 21:20–21 NRSV)

That God brings abundant life to a woman and a family that has suffered such tremendous systemic oppression is yet another testimony that God is at work and interested in undoing these systems and structures that disadvantage. 

Nowhere does God participate in or affirm this course—the most one can say is that God resignedly acknowledges to Abraham that Hagar is no longer safe in his household and God promises to protect her once she leaves.

Getting Worked Up Now…

But God does not affirm the prejudice and bigotry that lead to their seeing Hagar as an object rather than a human. Instead, here is the story of somebody that everyone thinks is nobody because of the ways society is built to systematically disadvantage her. It is a story of these people of faith—these GIANTS of faith!—who are prejudiced against her to the degree that they effectively move to murder her without much thought at all. 

And still God acts AGAINST Abraham and AGAINST Sarah and AGAINST what might look like the best interests of God’s plan to bring redemption to the whole world through Abraham’s family. God works against it all in order to break down these structures and resurrect life where the world only offered death.

Through it, Hagar and Ishmael are affirmed as important and valuable to God—not because they are Hagar and Ishmael or because of anything that their descendants will become, but because they are human beings made in God’s image. No human deserves such disadvantage and dishonor, so God redeems them and—in doing so—works to tear down the systemic practices that led to their harm.

God creates possibility where there was only impossibility because of the hardened heart of humanity.

Ruth

In a similar vein, take Ruth. Like Hagar, Ruth is a woman. Like Hagar, Ruth is a foreigner, an outsider, someone whose ways and culture and native religion are completely different than the people of God, ancient Israel. 

We see over and over in the scriptures where God is urging ancient Israel to care for the widows and the aliens and the sojourners—and God does this because these are the people (then and now) who are most vulnerable. God says their lives matter, and their lives matter significantly to God. It is not enough for them to be left to pull themselves up by their bootstraps amidst the storms and swells of the world—a world that couldn’t care less for them. 

In fact, the people of God couldn’t seem to care less for them. That’s why God has to constantly call them back to this significant responsibility. 

 

Ruth—foreigner though she may be, woman though she may be, outsider though she may be—Ruth becomes an important link in the lineage of Jesus. 

As Matthew presents Jesus’ ancestry, only five women are referenced at all: Tamar (probably a Canaanite), Rahab (definitely a Canaanite), Ruth (a Moabite), “the wife of Uriah” (better known as Bathsheba, whose family came from the frontier between Judah and Egypt), and Mary (the mother of Jesus). That their names are included in this list affirms their stories, and it foreshadows how this Jesus is going to be tearing down the walls of the kinds of systemic injustice that these women faced—and triumphed over, with God’s help.

Before we know anything else about this Jesus, their stories whisper to us that people matter to God: even and especially the people on the margins of society, the people vulnerable to injustice, the people too-easily stepped on and over as we jockey for a better position for ourselves.

They and we matter to God.
They and we matter to Jesus.
They and we have value—deep, abiding value—not because of what we will be or what we could be, but because of simply being. We exist, therefore we exist as people deeply loved by God.

Jesus

One of my favorite verses in the bible is John 15:13. The words of Jesus: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13 NRSV)

Of course, Jesus lived this out by quite literally laying down his life as he took up the cross for us.

But I am convinced that Jesus lived this principle out in literally everything he does. 

Jesus laid down his life when he took on human flesh and became a mere human—yet more. Why? love.

Jesus laid down his life when he taught his followers to wield the power of the kingdom for God’s good. Why? love.

Jesus laid down his life when he risked speaking truth to power. Why? love.

Everything Jesus does for another person costs him—it costs him time, energies, resources. Each engagement with one takes him away from another. Jesus constantly works to balance self-care, public teaching, healing, and private tutoring. And balance is hard, because just like today: every choice to do one thing involves giving something else up. 

When we look at everything Jesus gave up—all the ways he laid down his life for us—we are left with such an expansive picture of love that it overwhelms us.

It is not enough to say: Jesus loves me. We must sit with that love, and meditate on that love, and be shaped by that love every day of our lives. That will be the only way we can even make a beginning into understanding just how valuable we are to him…… just how much Jesus loves us. 

Just how much Jesus loves…”them.”