The Great Equalizer

The Great Equalizer (Part 2 in “The Great Ends of the Church: The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind”)
July 14, 2019
Acts 8:26-40, Isaiah 53:6-9,11b-12

Dearly Beloved,

“ ... and Philip baptized him.”
–Acts 8:38b

“If anyone knows of any impediment to this marriage, speak now or forever hold your peace.” Oh, excuse me — wrong service . . .

“If anyone knows of any impediment to this baptism, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Who would ask such a question? And yet, it is probably this very question that the Ethiopian eunuch was challenging when he said, “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptised?”

You see, the Ethiopian eunuch was either a Jewish proselyte, or a God-fearer. (God-Fearers or God-Worshipers were “neither Jews nor converts but an in-between category. They [were] pagan adherents to Judaism who attend[ed] the synagogue because they [were] attracted to Jewish monotheism and morality, family and community values.”) [1]

We know this because, by virtue of his a-sexuality, he was excluded from the Jewish worshiping community. Deuteronomy was rather strict about that and other things. I’ll eliminate the explicit description of sexual descrimination, but here are some of the other rather strict rules of membership we find in Deuteronomy 23:

(23:2) Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.
(3) No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, (4) because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt . . . (6) You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.

So it seems that this man, a powerful and influential black figure in Biblical times, wanted so much to pray to the Jewish God, that he made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem . . . only to sit outside the Temple – even outside the Court of the Women, where even a ritually unclean priest could enter.

And now he is reading Isaiah, about the Suffering Servant, and Philip comes along and is asked to interpret for him. Philip the Evangelist, is happy for this opportunity to do what preachers love to do . . . expound on scripture! And it’s unlikely that they spent the entire time on the few verses from Isaiah that we heard this morning. It’s quite likely that they continued a few chapters more, because we’re told, “and starting with
this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus”. And so they probably encountered these words in Isaiah 56 :

Do not let the foreigner [e.g., an Ethiopian] joined to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant–
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord GOD,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:3-8)

So this Ethiopian God-fearer, who has been bludgeoned by the words of Deuteronomy his entire life, now reads in the scroll of Isaiah . . . perhaps something he picked up in the Temple Bookstore just days before . . . that God’s ultimate intention is to include him in God’s very house.

And here is Philip, who is part of the milieu of 1st century Christian leaders. He and his colleagues were being prodded by the Spirit, as they with bewilderment began to accept uncircumcised Gentiles into their fellowship. We know of this Spirit-led reversal of mindset through some of the best-known writings of Paul. For instance:

In Romans 10:11-12, we read: The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.

And in I Cor 12:12-13, we find even a reference to baptism: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free . . .

And now perhaps the best known passage, Galatians chapter 3: As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

So, here, together, the Seeker and the Evangelist confront one of those pesky contradictions in scripture . . . it says one thing in one place, and another in another . . . and that’s just the Old Testament. The text they’re examining doesn’t include these powerful words from Paul! And so, just as you and I seek answers when scripture appears to contradict itself, Philip does his best to interpret . . . probably wishing he’d never listened to the angel, sending him on what must have seemed to him a pointless journey. (“Get up and go on this road through the middle of nowhere.”) [2]

And then God’s grace offered the answer. Just as the ram appeared – to allow Abraham to spare Isaac; just as manna appeared in the wilderness – to allow the Israelites not to perish; just as the lamb’s blood on the doorpost – spared the firstborn from the Angel of Death . . . . God brings the chariot with Philip and the eunuch next to a stream of water, as if to answer the question, “is this man to be forever excluded from the faithful ?” . . .

Here is water.

Now, you’ve got the gist of the story . . . the context, the crisis of culture and the turning point. But there are some folk whose words convey better than others the color and smell and atmosphere of a story. One of those is Fred Craddock, and I’d like to read for you portions of his retelling of this story, beginning with the day of Pentecost. [3]


… when [Peter] stood up in Jerusalem that first day, the day of Pentecost, and preached,
it looked sweet and good, big crowd.
Luke says that they were from every nation under heaven –
Partheans, Medes, Elamites, and dwellers of Mesopotamia.
From everywhere they came.
Peter was carried away in his oratory,
and when he was finished that sermon,
he said that this promise is not only to you,
but to your children’s children and to ALL that are afar off – Gentiles –
as many as God shall call. Great day!

And then he had a vision
to go to the house of a Gentile and preach and he said no.
It’s one thing to preach, it’s another thing to do.

Maybe that’s the way it was with them.
I know he must have been divided in his own heart.
Paul says he was, at the fellowship dinner in Antioch.
He started eating with Gentiles, but some others came in,
and he, with Barnabas and some other Jewish Christians, formed a separate table.
A painful thing for that church, and for Paul,
and I’m sure for Simon Peter himself.
Because you see it’s one thing to say “I know that we should include these people.”
It’s another thing to believe in your heart that we should include these people.
That’s the longest trip you ever make in your life:
is between the head “I know”
to your heart “I know.”
And in-between . . . there was no small dissension and much debate.

Who’s fault is it? Luke says the fault is God’s.
That God sent the Holy Spirit, to push and shove the church,
beyond ethnic borders, national borders, social borders, economic borders.
That repentance and forgiveness be preached to all nations,
and the Holy Spirit pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed.

But every once in a while,
Luke turns the camera around,
and instead of giving us this painful pushing scene,
of the Holy Spirit moving the church beyond its own prejudice,
once in a while, Luke turns the camera around,
and lets it focus on one of the outsiders whose future is at stake,
one of these people whose fate is being debated by the church,
“Should we let them in or should we not let them in?”

And the strangest of all the stories Luke tells is that of the Ethiopian Eunuch,
in his chariot from Jerusalem to Gaza, to whom Philip spoke.

He’s an Ethiopian.

And he’s a Eunuch.
A Eunuch was a man who by accident or by surgery, was rendered sexless.
Usually such persons found gainful employment,
and sometimes powerful and wealthy employment,
in palaces, especially in the service of queens.
For being sexless,
they were not derailed by their own private interests,
harmless around the harem,
never having to be late because they were driving the car pool that morning,
no wife, no children, no anything to distract, devoted single-minded loyalty.
They were very useful on such occasions.

Plutarch says it was very common.
I think it was Josephus who said that one nasty thing about Herod
was that he had three Eunuchs in his palace – even though the Jewish scripture was very clear.

“The Eunuch shall not be permitted in the assembly of the people of God.”

Any question?

“The Eunuch shall not be permitted in the assembly of the people of God.”

Then what in the world does it mean when it says he had been up to Jerusalem to worship?

What kind of man is this?
Who would walk around the outside, stand at the edge,
look over the fence, ask people what’s going on,
how was the service, how was the sermon,
what did the priest do, were there many people there,
peeking through knot holes, getting stuff second hand,
looking over fences, walking the edge of the crowd? WORSHIP?

I ask you seriously,
why will any human being continue to knock at a locked door,
and stand there with bloody knuckles and refuse to go home?
Why? The door is locked.
Shall I read it again?
You are not welcome.
It’s clear.

Why doesn’t he just make it easier on himself?
Is he one of these people who entertains the notion
that if you rise to a certain level of power,
a certain level of wealth,
then the rules don’t apply to you anymore?
He is a wealthy man, he has his own bible it says in the text, he must have been wealthy.
He’s in a chariot.
He’s in the service of the candace, the queen of Ethiopia, he’s the treasurer of the country!
Maybe the rule doesn’t apply to me anymore, you see.

I don’t know,
I certainly wish he would make it easier on himself,
he’s simply increasing the pain.
Lingering at the edge of the people of God,
with that verse staring at him day and night, why does he do it?
Even if somebody, even if a careless usher,
even if somebody who didn’t know what it was all about
admitted him, then he wouldn’t fit in.
The moment he got inside it would be obvious to everybody,
you don’t fit in.
You just don’t fit in,
I mean even if we let you in, you don’t fit in. [4]

Why does this Ethiopian Eunuch keep doing it?
Well you know what he’s doing?
You do it yourself. I do it myself.
He’s flipping the pages of the Bible to find his own name.

Everybody in the world wants that.
I want to find my name. I want to find a verse that says “FOR ME!”
And I’ll write in the margin: that’s who I am.
Just a little promise, just a phrase,
He’s looking for his name. We all do that.

And so he’s reading in Isaiah and he finds it!
At least he thinks he finds it. It’s almost too good to be true.
There it says it, Isaiah:
“No longer let the foreigner say, ‘Surely the Lord will separate me from his people.’
No longer let the Eunuch say: ‘I am but a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord, ‘The days are coming, when the Eunuch who hears my voice
and obeys my law and keeps my covenant, I will give him a place in my house
and I will give him a name.
And it shall be to him as generation and generation and generation of children,
better than sons and daughters it shall be to the Eunuch.”

And Philip said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
And he said, “No, I don’t have anybody to help me, but I found some good stuff here.
Now is the prophet talking about himself,
or is the prophet talking about somebody else?”

And Philip said, “Let me tell you who that is. That’s Jesus.”

“You mean, he was cut off without any children?
He didn’t have any other generation – grandchildren, people to keep his name?”
“No. He was cut off from the land of the living.”

“Do you mean to say that, maybe this other verse up here – now I know that I’m just an Ethiopian,
and I don’t know how you feel about Ethiopians – but it says here:
“No longer let the foreigner say, ‘Surely the Lord will say get out.’
Now I know I’m a Eunuch, and I know what it says in Deuteronomy,
but it says in Isaiah,
“No longer let the Eunuch say I’m just a dry tree – listen –
I will bless you and you will be remembered
and it will be better than children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, forever.

Philip, do you suppose it’s possible – I know I’m just an Ethiopian –
I know I’m a Eunuch – but do you think it’s possible?
Could I be a member of the church?”

And Philip said “Yeah. I can think of a hundred people that are going to be upset,
but yeah.
I don’t know how this is going to go over back home, but – yes.
In fact, I feel a little awkward myself, because I’ve never been in this situation,
and I’m not handling it well, but yes.
In fact, I’m surprised to hear myself say this, but yes.
Because, the fact of the matter is, who am I to say no, when it is clear,
that God has already said yes.”

AND PHILIP BAPTIZED HIM.

That is the end of Craddock’s story, but it’s not the end of the story.

Arlo Duba writes, “I believe that the early church understood before long that by baptism one enters “a royal priesthood,” the priesthood of all believers. Priesthood had traditionally been reserved for red-blooded males, and only for a privileged few of them. But baptism was understood as an equalizer. The eunuch was baptized into the priesthood of all believers.

In Leviticus, chapter 21, speaking now of holiness in the priesthood, not simply acceptance into the assembly, we read, “For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. . . .shall come near to offer the LORD’s offerings . . .he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries. . .”

Duba continues, “And the Ethiopian eunuch did indeed exercise his priesthood. He lived out his baptism as each of us should. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a tradition that “the eunuch” of this account proclaimed the love and acceptance by Christ to the Candace court, and was significant in the founding of the Christian church in that country.” [5]

On the day of his baptism, the Ethiopian eunuch may have just experienced rejection as he worshiped in Jerusalem. [6] So part of the question he’s asking here is, “Am I acceptable? Am I included among those for whom Jesus is good news? Can I be part of this community?”

As we consider his question, who do we prevent from being baptized? Or from taking communion? Where do we draw the lines as to who is a viable candidate for membership? Or leadership? Depending on the congregation, do you have to be college educated, of a certain race or ethnic group, gay or straight, married or single, young or old, employed or a street person? To whom do we Proclaim the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind?

Where does the Holy Spirit draw the line? In this story, clearly not around race or sexuality.

What does that say to us – we who in baptism are to leave behind all divisions; we who are brothers and sisters, children of the one Living God?

© 2019 R. Lostetter

ENDNOTES

This sermon was first delivered on May 10, 2009, at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in New Jersey. (See also another sermon on the Ethiopian Eunuch from May 13, 2012.)

  1. John Dominic Crossan, Eclipsing Empire ~ Participant Reader, p. 16.
  2. Arlo D. Duba, “How my mind was changed,” Presbyterian Outlook, Sunday, 28 December 2008 20:34.John Dominic Crossan, Eclipsing Empire ~ Participant Reader, p. 16.
  3. “May I Also Be Included,” a sermon preached by Fred Craddock, November 14, 1985.

     4. Craddock, omitted ending of sermon:

I am borrowing the phrase "don't fit in" from my first student church.
It was up in east Tennessee,
      and it was about 20 miles from Oak Ridge.
Oak Ridge had gotten into place,
   the atomic energy thing was booming,
      and folk were coming and constucting that little town into a city.
Folk were coming from everywhere, hard hat types,
   in tents and trailers and little temporary carts, and all kinds of lean-to's,
            and they just covered those beautiful little hills with temporary quarters,
   wash hanging out on the fences,
      and little kids crying through the muddy places
         where all these things were parked,
            and my little church,
               aristocratic little church,
                  white frame building,
                     beautiful little church was nearby.

Aw, it was a nice church and wonderful people,
   and I called the board together and said,
      "we need to reach out to those folk that are here,
         they've just come in from everywhere, and they're fairly close,
               and here's our mission."

And the chairman of the board said,
       "No, I don't think so."
               And I said "why?"
And he said, "They won't fit in. After all, they're just here temporarily,
      living in those trailers and all."

"Well, they're here temporarily, but they need the Gospel.
 They need a church, now why don't . . . "
    "Naw, I don't think so."

It lasted kind of long.
We called the next meeting for the next Sunday night.
The upshot of it all was a resolution.
   The resolution was offered
      by one of the relatives of the chairman of the board,
         and the resolution basically was this:
         "Members will be admitted to this church
          from families that own property in the county."
It was unanimous, except for my vote, and I was reminded I couldn't vote.
      They won't fit in, they won't fit in.

Since I've been back at Candler,
   I wanted to take Nettie, my wife, up to see the scene of my early failures.
We had a hard time finding the church
   because of interstate 40 through there and all that now,
but I finally found the road, the county road, back nestled in the pines, 
   it's still there,
      shining white, just beautiful.

Just like it was except now, there are just cars and trucks parked everywhere,
         just everywhere, cars and trucks,
               and a big sign out front:
     BARBECUE - ALL YOU CAN EAT!  CHICKEN - RIBS - PORK

I said, "Well, we might as well go in for lunch."

We went inside, they still had those beautiful oil lamps hanging on the wall,
      still had that old pump organ.

The pews that had been cut from a single poplar tree,
   around the walls
     with people waiting to get seated at a table,
         a lot of those hollow aluminum legged tables with plastic on them,
               and the place is just full of all kinds of people - listen -
     there are Partheans, medes and Elamites, and dwellers of Mesopotamia there.
And I said to my Nettie,
   "It certainly is good this is not a church now - these folk would not be welcome."
                                          They won't fit in?

     5. Walaskay, p. 86, as quoted by Duba.

     6. ibid.

 

 

 

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USDA Countdown. Tick Tock.

Countdown 10 days. Tick Tock.

For those of you who have wondered what my Facebook “Countdown” is about, here’s a longer post to, hopefully, explain it and why it’s so important. First, you need to know that I started out as a science major and still often approach things from a scientific perspective. Second, you need to know that I feel that climate change is the most threatening thing we are facing in our generation and our childrens’ generations. And third, yes, it’s a political topic. But as I’ve discovered, some of what I’m ranting about began in the previous administration – the suppression of scientific reports on climate research to the general population. One can imagine that avoiding panic might well be a reason for that. However, when the research can guide us, that doesn’t make much sense to me.

Now, the countdown has to do with the article I posted yesterday. (“USDA to Move 100s of Jobs Out of D.C. Amid Pushback from Employees, Lawmakers and Climate Scientists”) Some misunderstood my concern to be humanitarian toward the employees. Well, yes. But the big concern is that, “Many of those who are being forced to either move or quit are economists and scientists responsible for cutting-edge climate research in this country.” This is an eviscerating of the USDA program. It’s not about the inconvenience to the scientists. It’s about burying their product and moving them without any plan to restart their work. That’s why it’s [hoped/assumed] they’ll all quit. There’s no facility prepared for them. There’s no plan for them to continue working on our greatest threat — both to our national security and our lives on this planet. US agriculture is strained by every climate and political change that has assailed it.

In conjunction with this move, there has been the aforementioned suppression of scientific reports from this exceptional gathering of scientists. There seems to be an effort to scrub the online sources of what seems to be really helpful agricultural research — things about soil effects, plant responses to higher temps, nutritional content when plants are grown in higher carbon concentrations — all kinds of truly useful information. This is something I just can’t understand. Why would our government NOT want farmers to know how best to manage the extreme weather effects on their livelihoods? Why would they dismantle an entire department at the very time its research is critical to an “industry” on which we all depend and which is under extreme pressure — both by floods and drought and by the results of tariffs and changes in diet behavior? (i.e., away from meat and dairy)

OK, my conservative friends, the best description of the actual material comes from Rachel Maddow. It’s also on her blog.

The pattern of how the publishing of these reports has diminished may be seen in a brief graph on Politico. This is where you can see that the pattern begins in the Obama years.

When have we seen the private sector take their cutting edge research and keep it from the public? Oh, yes, that would be the tobacco and oil companies . . . that knew about cancer and climate change as effects of their products. But to what end is the US burying their best research on how to mitigate climate change in the agricultural sector – and at the same time basically evicting its best scientists? Certainly not to the betterment of the American people.

– – – –

There’s a parallel in White House blocked intelligence agency’s written testimony calling climate change ‘possibly catastrophic’ where “White House officials barred a State Department intelligence agency from submitting written testimony this week to the House Intelligence Committee warning that human-caused climate change is ‘possibly catastrophic.’ The move came after State officials refused to excise the document’s references to federal scientific findings on climate change.”

So again, to what end is the US burying their best research on how to mitigate climate change?

Make the Gospel Great Again . . . ??

Make the Gospel Great Again

 

Along with many others, I was disturbed by this billboard, which has now been taken down. The quick implication that Trump is the Word made flesh (though denied on the website) has been decried as Christian heresy. But little has been said about “Make the Gospel Great Again.” Just like MAGA, it assumes that the Gospel (as America, in the case of MAGA) was great at one time, but isn’t right now. Further, MTGGA assumes that we have the power to make the Gospel great. That, too, is a Christian heresy. We may diminish or increase its spread or its proclamation, but the Gospel came from Jesus of Nazareth as proclaimed by the four scriptural evangelists. It doesn’t need our embellishment to be great.

So I did a tiny search and found that MTGGA is a FB page, and it is super political, highlighting the work of Craig Huey, a slick politician and uber successful direct marketing businessman. The theology of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell underlie the page’s administrators, and they give high praise to Trump: “He surrounds himself with champions for Christian Rights –Mike Pence, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. Compared to the disaster of a president we had in Obama, how is this not the ‘word become flesh’ for Americans?”

I decided to post this, after reading Beth Tanner’s posting of these words from Karl Barth:

“The question became a burning one at the moment when the Evangelical Church in Germany was unambiguously and consistently confronted by a definite and new form of natural theology, namely, by the demand to recognize in the political events of the year 1933, and especially in the form of the God-sent Adolf Hitler, a source of specific new revelation of God, which, demanding obedience and trust, took its place beside the revelation attested in Holy Scripture, claiming that it should be acknowledged by Christian proclamation and theology as equally binding and obligatory.”

This is dangerous territory for Christians. We are called to discern, not to judge. And one way we may discern is by the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

May God give us wisdom.

Reconciled Through the Cross

“RECONCILED THROUGH THE CROSS” (1)
November 26, 2017
Scripture: Colossians 1:11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you [called us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Supremacy of Christ

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Today is Reign of Christ or, more traditionally, Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next week begins Advent, the Christian New Year’s Day.

Now, I’ve never given much emphasis to this Sunday’s title. For one thing, it almost always comes just before Thanksgiving, when Advent begins Thanksgiving weekend, unlike this year. So that Sunday becomes a sort of Harvest celebration. And furthermore, whether you look at it as the Reign of Christ or Christ the King, ignoring the history of the Sunday, isn’t Christ’s Kingdom what we celebrate all year?

But this year it seems different.  We have a deep divide in our country; a deeper-than-usual divide that many anticipated around our Thanksgiving tables; and a deep divide among friends.  But Paul writes, But this year it seems different.  We have a deep divide in our country; a deeper-than-usual divide that many anticipated around our Thanksgiving tables; and a deep divide among friends.  But Paul writes,

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

Our human reconciliations are based on the divine reconciliation effected through the cross.  Our reading today, which seeks to proclaim Christ is King, has in it the seeds for our social and personal reconciliation in this time of distrust, fear, and acrimony.

About a year ago we were reeling from a very contentious election, in which someone observed there were more than a donkey and an elephant in that election.  We in the faith community needed to follow the Lamb.  Our symbols of service and sacrifice needed to be foremost in our minds as we considered our vote, and they still need to be there now as we continue to be good citizens, good friends, and good family members.  Because, at the end of the day, whatever party you belong to, whoever you vote for, you need to remember that Christ the King and the Lamb of God is who you put first.  (2)

It may lessen our anxiety to be reminded that, no matter who or what party is in the White House, Christ is the King of all. And Paul encourages his brothers and sisters in Christ to hold fast to their traditions and be comforted and strengthened in heart by Christ who is the ultimate King, the ultimate president, the ultimate head of the church and head of our hearts.

There is a Gospel lesson, often paired with our reading, although usually associated with Good Friday, which gives us a hint at how to use Jesus’ model to begin reconciliation.  We read these words:

Then [the thief] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” [And Jesus] replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Most commentators have said that both political parties failed to hear the electorate.  And now many of us are continuing not to hear each other.  Others have summed up the solution with, “It does not matter if we do not understand one another’s feelings. What matters is that we at least hear them.”  (3)

Jesus didn’t ask the criminal what he had done, if he had repented, why he was asking.  He simply heard his request.  He listened.  And he responded.

And Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, divine revelation, the living Word of God, responded to one of the least of these — one of the most despised, outcast, vulnerable members of society.  He, himself, had joined that band, in solidarity with humankind, but with the most despised by the temple and government leadership — vulnerable and dying, but still giving words of forgiveness to his murderers and comfort to a stranger who asked.

So we are called, not only to extend patience and kindness to those we spend time with – members of our tribe – family, friends, co-workers – but also to the vulnerable who are cowering in fear at this time, because of the policies that have been initiated or are coming down the pike that may tip the scale of their fragility.  That would include those who depend upon the American Disabilities Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security; those same-sex couples who have recently married; women in poverty who seek reproductive health care; Latinos and blacks who fear the empowered white backlash and the rise of white nationalism; and, of course, the immigrants, documented or not, who pick our crops, groom our landscaping, and do our dirty work.  We are called to treat every person with love, agape love, because each person is imprinted with God’s image.

I fell in love with John Calvin when I read a quote from him, somewhere long ago, that said there is nothing that can happen to a person to remove the image of God – and therefore the need to treat every person with Christ-like care.

That doesn’t mean you can’t argue, stating the truth in love with your Uncle Harry or Aunt Susan. But it does mean that we must care for even a bleeding, dirty criminal hanging from a tree in the same way we would treat your beloved grandmother.  We must listen, listen, listen – to the frustration, disenfranchisement, and pain of our fellow citizens – through the compassion stirred by the suffering of the cross.  Not only listen to those with whom we agree, but also those with whom we disagree.  We must reach out to those we think of as “other” and redefine the radically excluded.  For some that may mean the Muslim, gay, or immigrant.  To others that may mean the gun advocate or climate-denier.

And mostly – we must listen to that little small voice, through scripture, through reflection, through group discernment.  All of us.  We all need the practice, remembering  that “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

Further, Jesus’ offer of forgiveness from the cross may be the model for those of us who, from a position of white privilege have some confessions to make and some repenting to do. There is a backlash from the soon-not-to-be-a-majority whites who feel their power being taken away, that was fueled by the rhetoric of President Trump’s campaign, but also seemingly ignored by the wealthy establishment Democrats and Republicans. A Latino Baptist leader calls us to a more humble, justice-oriented listening and repentance: “I will not hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ with white oppressors,” he states. “Instead I ask all who seek justice, especially whites willing to repent of the sin of white privilege, to join me in solidarity as I choose to sing a different song.” (4)

This is where the Christian cross needs to be transformative. The cross that represents Jesus’ sacrificial love, and solidarity with suffering humanity must erase the image of the KKK’s burning cross. We need it to stand for the invitational, confessional image of Jesus, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” as we seek justice and the Reign of Christ here in this life. We are the ones to proclaim, to serve, to act in Christ-like ways of patient listening and also persistent truth-telling when any are oppressed — both those who feel disenfranchised and the marginalized and vulnerable populations.

Sathiyo

Recently I heard on the radio the plight of a similar symbol which might illustrate how a sacred and positive symbol that has been used by Hindus and Buddhists for some 5000 years has been misappropriated and how its original meaning is now being re-asserted. The Hindu sathiyo is a symbol of good fortune and is used as a way of extending good wishes to visitors during the feast of Diwali. In 2016, Diwali occurred on October 30, so placing sathiyo stickers on doorways of Hindu American households created some generational disagreements. You see, the sathiyo is a swastika, a form of which was hijacked by Hitler as a symbol of German Nationalism and Aryann supremacy. Therefore, it would be subject to misinterpretation by Halloween visitors to homes bearing Diwali decorations the same weekend as Halloween in 2016. Grandparents who see this symbol only as a sign of peace from their childhood years ended up explaining their desire to help transform the negative view of the swastika to the younger generations in their households, but not everyone was in agreement!  (5)

But reasoning isn’t often as effective as art, poetry, and story, in changing hardened hearts and minds. That’s why, I think, so many poems and prayers showed up on social media during the weeks preceding Diwali. I’d like to share some with you. Consider these little windows of transformation.

This one entitled grumbling by the same person who wrote our Thanksgiving prayer today; he prefaces it with this quote from Luke 15, verse 2:

And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and say,  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

grumbling

just

as we are

about to dig into

the great feast,

you squeeze an extra

chair next to us, seating

the unshaven,

smelly,

tattered rough sleeper

we stepped over

after handing our car keys

to the valet.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Here’s a prayer from The Book of Common Prayer: “O Lord our God, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth.”  (This relates back to Hebrew scripture, “And in you, will all the families of the earth be blessed.”)

And here are two comments written right after the election last year, from two very different sources:

Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderator, PCUSA:
“We pray for kindness among neighbors who disagree. We ask that our Muslim and immigrant neighbors be treated with respect.”
“I believe that God uses everything and God will use this election for good.”
“In the meantime, let’s all be gentle with each other. Some grieve and some celebrate. But all of us have a responsibility to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show on CBS:
“Kiss a Democrat. Hug a Republican. Give a Libertarian a reach-around. I don’t care. The election is over. You survived. Good night. And may God Bless America.”

And a more serious version of that:

The late Rev. John Caster, PCUSA:
“May God bless America. Not because we deserve it, but because God is gracious beyond our imagination.”

And Christ is, after all, King over all.

© 2017 R.Lostetter

 

ENDNOTES

  1.  Based on my original sermon of this title, given Nov. 20, 2016, at Mendon Presbyterian Church.
  2.  Rev. Rebecca Crate, “The Cup of Unity,” sermon for Springfield Presbyterian Church, Nov. 6, 2016, http://media.wix.com/ugd/af8484_6492b9054cd343efbcf62fa567c9e7ac.pdf .
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/opinion/glenn-beck-dont-move-to-canada-talk-to-the-other-side.html?partner=msft_msn&_r=1.
  4. https://baptistnews.com/article/the-great-white-backlash/#.WDFz5oWcHIX.
  5. http://www.opb.org/news/article/npr-diwali-dilemma-my-complicated-relationship-with-the-swastika/.

A New Letter from Paul

Philemon 1:1-21 (NRSV)
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.  Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.  Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
 Luke 14:25-33 (NRSV)
“The Cost of Discipleship”
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?  If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
“A NEW LETTER FROM PAUL”
Robin E. Lostetter
Western Presbyterian Church
September 4, 2016 (Labor Day Weekend)
Scripture: Philemon 1:1-21, Luke 14: 25-33
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus,
To the Saints at Western Presbyterian Church, and to those Children of God in your community:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brothers and sisters.
For this reason, although I am bold enough in Christ to command you, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for all the children of God, for whom I feel responsibility during my imprisonment.
Perhaps this is the reason I have been separated from you for a while, so that I might see your enslavement from a distance.  I want to have you back forever, no longer as  slaves but as beloved brothers and sisters.
So if you consider yourselves partners with Christ, welcome the Spirit’s guidance as you would welcome mine.  Any debts have been charged off your accounts; Christ has taken them all.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I confirm that he has paid it.
So do not live as slaves.  On this, your observance of Labor Day, look at your work.  Some of you work in balance with family and play, often seeing work as your calling.  And some are enslaved by circumstances to work in drudgery, patching together more than one job. But some of you are enslaved by ambition and you work for that which does not feed the soul.  Others are enslaved by an inner need to succeed to meet emotional or outside needs.
Have you not heard the words of Isaiah?  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? … Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”  (55:2a,3a)
Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not detach themselves from the things of this world, even from family cannot be my disciple.”  Before you can become my disciple, you must be able to count the cost: will you be able to share out of your poverty, not just out of your excess?  Will you be able to follow me, even when friends and family go their own way?  Will you be able to leave a high-paying job when it is sucking the life out of you or going against my teachings?  Will you be able to hear my words in the voting booth?  Are you able to leave the cell phone aside for Sabbath time?  Will you take a day, a Sabbath of days, a Sabbatical, to refresh your life with me, with those covenanted to you?  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  Will you seek justice for yourself and other workers if there are unfair work practices?  Will you pay your workers a fair wage and care for the widow, the orphan, and resident alien in your towns?* Will you leave the edges of your fields and your vineyard for gleaning? Will you remember me, above your church building and your sacred idols?  “Whoever comes to me and does not detach themselves, from the things of this world, and even value me over life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
So, my friends, let me, your brother Paul, have this benefit from you in the Lord!  Refresh my heart in Christ.  Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.  I pray for you to enjoy the freedom that is yours, only when you resist slavery to all else but the love of Christ our Lord.
One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
———-
*Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi; various verses
© 2016   R.Lostetter

FEAR AND SECURITY

Listening to the GOP debates tonight . . .

I’m so tired of the repeated propagation of fear . . . fear of bad government, fear of social program bankruptcy, fear of ISIS, fear, fear, fear.  This was most obvious in the 5:00 pm debate among the 7 candidates who didn’t “make the cut” for the main event, and I wondered if that had something to do with it.  Were their campaigns based more on this model than those of the ten who would appear later?

At 7 pm, I do believe I heard more solution-oriented comments — in fact, I was actually hoping that some of the various ideas would find their way into the policies of whomever is elected to succeed Barack Obama.  Oh, heck — why wait? If they’re good ideas, why not take them under consideration now?  There were cogent approaches to taxation, immigration, even international relations that could possibly be refined and incorporated . . . even by Democrats!

And all this fear talk reminded me of a time when I was about 22, with an infant daughter, and having a conversation with my dad while on vacation.  He was a Republican, and generally fiscally conservative, and I had been raised in a comfortably protected bubble.  Now I was struggling financially.  My M.A. in music was economically useless, and I made $15 a week as a choir soloist.  My husband, still in grad school, had started his own business, so his income was unpredictable.  I got into a fairly emotional (post-partum?) discussion with my dad over security.  And security is the flip side of fear.

“What do I need to do — how much do I need to make — to be secure?” I begged. “But there is no such thing as security,” he tried to tell me, which just increased my anxieties.  My dad, the epitome of security, says there is no such thing?

It was the first time that I, as a protected white kid from an upper middle class family had ever faced what both my parents had grown up with, and which the 99% have always known.

And yet, politicians, aided by the media, continue to hawk fear, while the populace demands security.  Still, there is and never will be such a thing as security in this life.  One of the video questions asked tonight by a citizen was (approximately), “When will I no longer feel afraid in my own country?”  Well, sweetheart, if you never felt afraid before, you really shouldn’t feel afraid now.  The number of deaths from terrorists are miniscule compared to highway deaths, heart attacks, etc.  It’s one thing to be vigilant and quite another to be afraid to walk outside.

Now, if you’re African-American (which she was not), it’s a different situation. You have probably always felt afraid . . . afraid of being profiled, afraid of being accused, afraid of being turned down for a job, afraid of losing a child to a drive-by shooting.  So when will you no longer feel afraid in this country?  Perhaps there’s hope that that day might come, when you or your children might feel more secure, if not totally unafraid.  The time has come in the United States for re-training of all police and state troopers, all military-esque forces, so that we might hope for such a day.  The time has come so that hiring and land purchases and school acceptance might become more transparent, so that we might hope for such a day.

These are the things that have gone through my mind, watching the debates tonight.  I expected a comedy routine, and at 5 p.m., I have to admit, I got what I expected for the most part.  But I am gratified that there was more substance at 7 p.m.  I am gratified that I am not as fearful of the conservative GOP candidates as I expected to be.  I have one qualifier:  I will never vote for any candidate who intends to impose his or her religious views (i.e. views on marriage or women’s medical care or abortion – those hot-button “moral” issues that cloud the conservative Christians’ views from the issues of the living, starving, poverty-stricken humans, the tortured human and non-human animals, and the groaning earth) on the citizenry of this country.  It is not simply an issue of church and state, it is an issue of not forcing one’s religious views on others who might hold to different sacred beliefs and practices — or none.

It’s late, and I might not be making sense any more.  But it was high time I added to this blog.  Next I will post some sermons.  For now, as Jon Stewart suggested, I’ll leave the ongoing conversation.

Musings from the Warren

Theology and Social Justice

Welcome to the Warren.  I’ve chosen this image because “The Robin’s Nest” was already taken, but also because my 12 years of having house rabbits (bunnehs, as they’re known in bunny circles) have just ended.  I’ve learned from the bunnies, just as I and others often learn from animals.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
    the birds of the air, and they will tell you;”  Job 12:7

I have been in benign advocacy for many years.  I gave many years to efforts on behalf of those who live with a disability.  My primary vehicle for this advocacy was Presbyterians for Disability Concerns.*  In addition, I’ve been outspoken on issues of sexism, racism, and homophobia.**   Currently, I’m participating in the Amos 5:4 Ministry Team of Pittsburgh Presbytery, a group which seeks to educate and transform racism within the presbytery.***

But my passion is the Earth and its inhabitants.  Most posts in this blog will have to do with the environment — climate change, species extinction, fossil fuels, etc. I’m involved with Presbyterians for Earth Care’s advocacy committee, and I will promote PEC’s work.****  My perspective will be theological and biblically based.

My particular concern is that the most overlooked aspect of environmental degradation is the effect of industrialized animal farming – CAFOs or factory farming.  Of course, the most obvious issue that comes to mind is the brutality that these farmed animals endure, because they’re viewed as commodities, not living beings.  But once our compassion leads us to investigate factory farms, we find that

  • they contribute significantly to water, air, and soil pollution, and
  • their operation intersects with issues of immigration, politics, the economics of small family farmers, and so forth.

So, I invite you to join me in digging underneath the surface of animal welfare concerns and simplistic solutions to our environmental crisis.

Stay tuned.

Robin

* https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-disability-concerns/

**  Homophobia is, in my opinion, a misnomer.  It is usually applied to those who are prejudiced, judgemental and/or hateful toward the LGBTQ community. A phobia, in contrast, is defined in Wikipedia as “In clinical psychology, a phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as a persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding, typically disproportional to the actual danger posed, often being recognized as irrational. In the event the phobia cannot be avoided entirely, the sufferer will endure the situation or object with marked distress and significant interference in social or occupational activities. (Bourne, Edmund J. (2011). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook 5th ed. New Harbinger Publications. pp. 50–51)

***  The mission of Amos 5:24  is to 1) lead the Presbytery into a greater understanding of the effects of racism; 2) to facilitate repentance for our corporate complicity in systemic injustice; and 3) set in motion training, dialogue, and active engagement in church and community events.  See our Facebook page: Amos 5:24 Ministry Team.  (But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. – Amos 5:24, NRSV)

**** http://www.presbyearthcare.org/