The View

Primary Scripture Luke 18:31-19:10

Jesus has just about made it to Jerusalem. It has been quite a journey since that day he set his face for the city, but they are now headed into Jericho, about 15 miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies. On foot, through mountainous terrain, however… The road gets longer as it winds its way to the city.

We don’t know how many days will pass between their time in Jericho and their arrival in Jerusalem. But our reading made clear that what awaits Jesus there is clearly weighing on his mind.

For a third time, Jesus shares a glimpse into his future: his death and resurrection.  And once again, those closest to him are in the dark. Unable to see what he means.

Taken together, these three predictions or teachings paint a fairly robust picture of what is to come. The first time, Jesus says that his suffering, rejection and death will come at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes in Jerusalem. Not as a result of what he is doing, but because of his identity.

The second teaching is much shorter, with Jesus saying that he will be betrayed into human hands.  And then in today’s reading, Jesus takes it further.  He will be handed over from the Jews into Gentile custody.  Those political powers will mock and insult him, physically abuse and ultimately kill him.

At every level, Jesus will be refused; he will be the messiah rejected by humanity so that what is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.
He will suffer and die.
He will rise.
All so that he might accomplish all that he was sent to do…
All that he might seek and save the lost.

And so, all of the interruptions and side trips and all of the interactions that seemed not to be in their itinerary to Jerusalem…  They were definitely part of his agenda.

It is no surprise then, as they enter Jericho, that the journey to Jerusalem is interrupted yet again… first by a blind man.

The blind man is a beggar by trade.  He sits on the roadside, listening for the sounds of people passing by. He asks, people give, hopefully enough that he can eat.  

It’s a pretty straightforward transaction. For him and for those who give.  

Almsgiving was a mitzvah – a good deed.  Offering the mercy of alms is a way to bless someone and perhaps receive a blessing from God in return.  

Everyone knew how the financial transaction worked.  There was honor in the giving, and there was shame in the sin that must have caused the blindness, along with shame in the need and in the asking.

The second interruption, was a bit different. As a publican by trade, a chief tax collector in fact, Zaccheus was also familiar with financial transactions. His work was not as much like an IRS agent as we might first assume.  The Romans generally did their own dirty work in that regard. They had plenty of mid-level overseers to keep track of what was collected and and military personnel to intimidate (or worse) as needed in the collecting.

No, Zaccheus was a more like a private contractor hired by the Roman government to handle international trade contracts and to collect the customs payments on goods that moved in and out of the empire. These jobs were fairly common in port cities and along the border, and Zaccheus apparently supervised others in this work. He had also been at it long enough to amass enough wealth to be known as a rich man.

If the blind man was at the bottom rung of the financial ladder, Zaccheus was accustomed to the view from the top. Not that his wealth meant Zaccheus was viewed any more positively than the beggar… at least not by most Jews. After all, he was a Jewish businessman profiting from the very empire that made all of their lives miserable. Let’s just say he would not have been invited to many dinner parties.

Tax collectors and sinners… they were regularly lumped together. Though for different reasons, this very rich man and this very poor man were both living on the margins of Jewish religious life.

And on this day in Jericho, neither of them can see Jesus
But they both persist.
And on this day in Jericho, Jesus sees both of them.
He sees the blind man, but not simply his poverty or his blindness
He sees Zaccheus, but not primarily his wealth

Jesus sees them and stops for them because Jesus sees what so many others have not.
Jesus sees men whose hearts see in him what so many others have missed.
Which is why the transaction between these men and the Messiah is nothing like what either of them have grown accustomed to.

For the blind man, Jesus offers mercy. But not the mercy of almsgiving that will allow him to eat for a day or two. Jesus offers mercy that asks the question, rather than assuming the answer.  What do you want?  

I want to see.
I want to know that I, too, can be forgiven.
That I am a child of God, beloved and worthy of dignity.
Jesus, Son of David, I want you to be who I believe you are.
I want you to be able to do what I believe you can do.
I want to see that… I want to see God’s glory revealed.

Jesus offers mercy that looks like forgiveness.  Forgiveness that looks like healing
The faith that the blind man offered up in those words… I want to see… that was faith enough.  

Salvation had come.
And it looked an awful lot like healing, wholeness and opportunity.
It looked an awful lot like Jesus.

And as Jesus moved on, the view from the no-longer-blind man’s spot was pretty amazing.

Zaccheus had worked awfully hard to catch a glimpse of Jesus. And he had tossed aside whatever dignity he had to climb up into the tree to get a better view.

When Jesus calls him down to talk, we actually hit some of the limits of translating ancient Greek into modern English. See, Luke uses a verb tense that can be rendered a couple of different ways, because it can mean both in Greek.

The NRSV has Zaccheus speaking in the future tense…
I will give half of my possessions to the poor;
I will pay back anyone I defrauded with four times the amount.

But it is also possible to translate Zaccheus’ words as
I have given away half of my wealth;
I have made things right by returning four times more than what was illegal gain.

A more complete understanding might be I have and will continue…

He may well be saying “I know what people say about me, why people despise me, but this is how I have done my job… this is how I will keep doing it. They really don’t know me. 

Scholars much smarter than me and my preaching friends have been arguing about this for quite some time.  But regardless of whether he is indicating a new change of heart or explaining to Jesus the truth of what has gone on, Zaccheus has shown a much better understanding of what it means to serve God, rather than serve his own wealth, than 99% of the people Jesus has encountered.    

As I reflected on what Luke was hoping to convey, it struck me that the translation we prefer might be shaped by the way we understand Jesus’ reply to Zaccheus.

Salvation has come to this house today

It’s hard to separate our understanding of Jesus’ words from the understanding of salvation that we have inherited here in 21st century America. Waves of evangelicalism have swept North America since the Puritan fathers arrived and the Great Awakening was stirred. The resulting focus on individual salvation from eternal damnation can make our relationship with God seem like a single transaction: In exchange for a “sinner’s prayer” we receive a ticket to paradise.  

This is, in fact, a relatively new doctrine. And it certainly was never the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Like the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus teaches that repentance happens again and again as our hearts are reoriented to God’s will again and again.

Jesus’ work was all about bringing wholeness right then, right there.  Offering forgiveness and healing, reconnection into community.  Saving their lives in this flesh and blood realm, often by removing any barriers to their being part of a family again…. even as he rewarded their faith in the God they could not see. The God we cannot see.

Doing that work meant being present for people in such a way that he – personally – was their salvation. Before, during and after his death and resurrection.

Seeing Jesus
Being seen by Jesus
Experiencing the reality of God’s love and grace simply by being near him.
That is salvation.

His presence was sufficient to shore up the faith of all who who had ears to hear. All who had eyes to see (even while they are physically blind!)

His passing through town, encouraged the faith of those who wanted to see Jesus badly enough to keep shouting when other would shush them or to make a fool of themselves by climbing up for a better view.

People still long to see Jesus,
to hear a word of hope
to be in the presence of the divine

They long to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

They need to hear assurance of grace and mercy
People still want the healing and wholeness that comes when we are loved and accepted just as we are

OK – Not just people.
Not just they.
You, me, everyone I know
We all cry out for mercy.

What do you want? Jesus still asks   

We want to see.
We want to be seen,
We want to be known,
We want to be loved.

Salvation still looks a lot like community,
Salvation looks a lot like the Body of Christ

And where, if not among others who have been in the presence of Christ,
Where, if not around the table…
A table where a rich man like Zaccheus, wearing his purple cloaks would feel welcome
A table where a poor man, who had begged for years in ragswould also feel welcome

Where,  if not here are we no longer lost?

Let us pray….

Pastor’s Note for April

I haven’t told a whole lot of people what really got me started on all this walking I’ve been doing.  Like most folks, I have known for years (decades even) what it takes to be healthy: regular exercise, a balanced diet, plenty of sleep, and time away from stress and responsibilities.  And like many folks, I was pretty much living at the opposite end of the spectrum for most of those areas.  And so, it was just a matter of time before I got the kind of news I heard right about this time last year.  

I had gone to an urgent care clinic for a sinus infection and my blood pressure was way out of control. As in, they wanted me to go directly to a hospital. Right that minute. Immediately, I was thinking about all the things I was responsible for and all the people I would be leaving in a major squeeze if I was in the hospital overnight. Or even for the next few days.  I didn’t have time for that. Who has time for that? 

So instead, I signed the paper releasing them from responsibility if I died before actually going to the hospital. Definitely not the smartest move I’ve ever made. Definitely not something I recommend.

But as I left, I thought to myself, Ok. Get past this crazy month – and if you’re not dead, it will be time to get serious about living.

I did exactly that. I managed to survive what was a really stressful, hectic few weeks, and then I got serious about making the changes I needed to make in order to live to see my 50th birthday.

There was a little bit of dying involved. I had to kill the idea – my own misguided belief that had somehow lingered since adolescence – that I was invincible.  And I had to take aim, one by one, at some of the habits that were making me sick. And I had to put to rest the biggest myth I had carried around: that I was not worth the effort it would take to make those changes.

I share this with you now because I want to say that we are past the point of antibiotics and rest. Becoming a healthy and thriving church again – it’s going to take a lot of work. A lot of energy and activity.  It will take persistence and trust in God’s resurrection power. It will take all the community and love we can muster when the inevitable misunderstandings and disagreements pop up.

But hear me, friends, when I say that this congregation is so very worth it.  You are worth all the effort it is going to take, all the pain we will endure, all the sweat and tears that are bound to fall. You are worth it because the church is God’s plan for the world to know all the love, grace, hope, and peace that we have experienced through Jesus Christ.  You are worth all that God has and will invest in you, and I am honored to be walking alongside you.

Good news from bad news 

Actually, the news wasn’t bad… it was awful. And shocking.  My brother-in-law had taken ill and was on the edge of death within 2 days when I put my husband on a plane headed for Providence.  It was hard to take in the idea that he might not make it in time to say goodbye. 

And he didn’t.  The good news was that there would not be a long battle for life. The bad news was the truth that he was gone. And every one of us who knew him and loved him was left to wonder how we would navigate a world without his laugh, his encouragement, his counsel, his teasing… his presence. 

The good news was that my church folk knew I needed to go, even though I had just missed worship last week to lead a retreat.  And a RevGal who lived close by stepped up to offer to cover as soon as I asked for prayers.  The bad news was that I needed to be ready to be wife and sister-in-law and pastor-presiding-over-the-service all at once. 

The good news is that the service went well.  It was the first time my by-marriage family has seen me being a minister. And for many of them, the first time a minister did a service that wasn’t just “by the book”.   It was hard, but important, for me to be able to honor his life and our relationship by presiding.  And it was hard to do so in a way that was unabashedly Christian without preaching (per the family’s wishes). 

The bad news is that I still have grieving to do and big emotions to feel… and it will be way too easy for me to set them aside to get back to work when I get home tonight. 

Perhaps the best of the good news (and yes, I have buried the lede) is that we got to spend a good 36 or so hours with the kid.  Beautiful, hope-filled hours, filled with conversations about all manner of things.  The kind of ranging conversations I have missed something awful.  We shared a few moments of sorrow and laughter that I will treasure until the next time we can be together in person.   And I will replay those goodbye hugs as many times as it takes to embed them in my memory at the cellular level. 

A Matter of Life & Death

Last week, we looked at two encounters Jesus had with the Scribes and Pharisees, both of which involved choosing to break the Sabbath rules.  He then spent some time in the mountains praying before naming the 12 closest of his followers as those who would be apostles… the leaders among the learners.

The next portion of Luke’s gospel is what is often called the “Sermon on the Plain”.  It is the companion to the portion of Matthew’s gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount.   He joins the people down on the plain, healing and teaching.  But we are picking up today’s passage after this sermon.  Listen for the Word of God for you today from Luke 7:1-17.

Early in the week, as I planned this week’s worship, I was pretty excited about the chance to dig into this passage.  These two interactions are fascinating, especially in juxtaposition to one another.

One involved a man of power and influence, not only among the Jews but also in the Roman army.   The other, a widow who was left with no standing, no support, much less influence, after the loss of her son.

One conversation started with the assumption of healing.  The other with the resignation with which we are too well-acquainted as we have had our own dealings with death.

Unfortunately, life had other plans for me.  Some crazy bug attacked our household, picking us off one by one. I felt like death warmed over from about Tuesday afternoon onward, and so I spent more time with my eyes closed than open this week.  I had no energy for the kind of brainwork it takes to write a sermon, and I was not entirely sure whether I would have the energy or voice to deliver one.

So today, you’re a little more of a glimpse at what I’m wrestling with than usual.

As we think about what Luke wants us to understand about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, these two stories point to two very important characteristics.

The Centurion has heard of Jesus and sends the Jewish elders to ask for him to come heal one of his slaves. We don’t know why the Roman didn’t come himself… perhaps he didn’t think Jesus would come for him?  Perhaps he was busy.   There really is no telling…

But I find it intriguing that the elders  seem to take it upon themselves to let Jesus know how generous this Centurion was…. Luke doesn’t indicate that he included his love for the Jewish people in his message to Jesus. In fact, as Jesus approaches, as second message arrives, saying not to come.  “I am not worthy to be your host”.

Here is a man who could have demanded Jesus come, could have demanded that he see the slave. For that matter, he could have just replaced the slave, should the servant have died. But instead, he describes Jesus’ authority and power to heal and he trusts in that authority and power, even from afar.

He had Faith -just as it would be described in the letter to the Hebrews…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  

He articulated that faith in very practical, very human terms – because as a man who worked within a chain of command, he understood power and authority in very practical, tangible ways. And that understanding allowed him to believe that all he needed was a word from Jesus.  Just a word would heal the slave that he valued so highly.

But don’t you just wonder how much of the Jewish way of trusting in the authority of Yahweh  – Jehovah God – had rubbed off on this man?  How many of the stories he might have overheard as they were building the synagogue that he’d helped pay for?   

Jesus heard faith in the man’s message -no matter its origins.  He healed the slave and he bore witness to the Centurion’s faith.

Once again, we are reminded that as the son of God, Jesus has all the authority in heaven and on earth to do the work of healing, of reconciling, of setting captives free, of bringing jubilee to the land.

And we are reminded that his mission field was not confined to the Jews.

Now it seems like we just turn the corner in Capernaum and run into the funeral procession, but Jesus and his followers have moved on to Nain. And it’s almost as if we have two parades happening, and their routes happen to intersect.  

If they were a parade, Jesus and his large crowd of followers would be carrying signs and riding floats that represent life, joy, hope. They are hyped up after a series of miraculous healings and brilliant teachings .  

It must have been sobering for them to realize that the procession they meet near the city gate is comprised of a widow, her dead son and a crowd of mourners.

This time, no one approaches Jesus, no one makes any requests.
This time, Jesus sees what is happening, and he is moved to respond.

He is moved by compassion… Compassion that was sparked as life met death, as hope collided with suffering.

True compassion is not an intellectual exercise. The kind of compassion Jesus experienced is as fully human as it is fully divine. Compassion is one of those “feel it in your gut” emotions.  

In fact, the greek root for the word translated as compassion in this passage is splagchna – literally intestines.

When Jesus sees what is happening, he experiences that same  deep, gut-wrenching compassion that moves people today to act when they see suffering.  It’s that twist in your belly when you hear that music and see the sad faces of the dogs in the commercials for the humane society

He saw the woman and knew what was happening.
There was no husband, no son, no male kin there to console and mourn with her.   

He saw the woman and knew this meant she was now among the most vulnerable, given the patriarchal structure of the Jewish people.

He saw the woman and knew that he had the power and the authority to change what he knew in his gut was not good.

He told her not to weep.  And he told the young man to rise. And thus Luke reveals to his readers (like the people of Judea) that Jesus has the power not only to heal, but to raise the dead to life.  

Jesus is powerful.
This much is abundantly clear.
And logical, if he is who he claims to be, right?
The son of God should be all powerful if God is all powerful.

But this combination of stories also presents us with a deity who wields that power in such a way that  his actions affirm and give life.

Think about that – and compare it to the ways we experience people who have power – perhaps in the form of leadership, wealth, influence, control.

How often do we see the truth in the aphorism about power corrupting people… and the more power they gain, the more corrupt they become?  

But rather than amassing power for himself, Jesus starts at the bottom. And he stays among those on the lowest rungs. That is the kind of leader he is.

Luke started his telling of Jesus’ story with people preparing us for a messiah who would turn things upside down.  Who would bring down the mighty and lift up those who had been made low.  

The teaching we see in his initial sermon in Luke 4 and the sermon on the plain reinforce that idea.  And we begin to see Jesus acting in ways that reverse fortunes in this portion of Chapter 7.

When Jesus sees the widow and his gut twists, he liberates her from a dire situation by bringing her son back to life.

And when Jesus hears the faith of the Centurion, he heals a slave. Not nearly as satisfying, really.

I want the story to end with a captive set free from slavery.  

Yes – it’s great that this man is healed. And I’m hopeful that a man who seems humble and values this slave highly treats the man well. But even after the miracle, Jesus’ work seems unfinished.  

Perhaps at some point the Centurion finishes the work, releasing the slave.  After all, he had faith.  

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that he kept up with Jesus, heard more of his teaching and offered release to a man he valued as a person, no longer as property.

Yes- that’s a very optimistic possibility, but I believe that compassion moves us fully human people, too… not just messiahs. Maybe that is the point.  

As people who believe in Jesus, as people who trust in God’s power to enter into our world and transform it, and as people who understand that the fullness of God’s Kingdom is yet to come, we must accept that there will always be work for us to engage, to complete.  

The challenge is to see it amidst the distractions of this world.
And then to overcome the cynicism that freezes our guts and blunts our compassion

But here’s the thing.  We don’t have a choice.
That work is part of who we are.

God doesn’t claim us or save us so that we can sit back and wait until it’s time to punch our ticket and hop onto the train that’s bound for glory.

Not any more than God watches and waits for us to slip up and sin so that our tickets are void and our names get moved from the nice to the naughty list.

Dear ones, please hear and believe this truth:

You are loved because God is love.
And not a thing in this world can change that.
You and I are never going to be powerful enough to change that.

You are loved beyond reason by the God who created and claims you.
Not because you made a choice.
Not because you do more good things than bad.
Not because you said the prayer of confession this morning.
You are forgiven because God extends grace.

You are saved because the work of Christ was done in his living, dying and rising.
That is what we will proclaim at table this morning.
That is what we proclaim when we live in the power of the Holy Spirit remembering that, from the moment we say “Yes, thank you” to God’s love – we are blessed to be a blessing to others.

And how can you know this to be true… when you have left this place , this sanctuary?

You’ll feel it in your guts.
You’ll feel it in your guts every time you see someone bowed under the weight of grief…

You’ll experience it in your splagchna, as you hear of injustice carried out and especially when injustice is done in the name of the very One who embodied justice.

That roar of righteous anger and compassion is all the evidence you need that Christ has saved you –  and thus is saving the world –  from a life lived for self, chasing earthly treasures.

That, my dear ones, is my prayer for you and for me today…
That our eyes would be open and our guts be gripped by the depth of need we see in this world. And that the Light of the World would shine brightly in our response.

 

Wrap You All Around

Back in the day, when the kid was only about belly button high on us, that sweet little sing-song voice would describe arms long enough to “wap you all around”  in a hug.  I don’t remember the rest of the rhyme or saying, just the joy with which tiny arms were flung wide in expectation that parent-sized arms would do likewise (which they did).  Followed by wrapping each other all around, and giggling.

I mean seriously, how can you possibly resist an invitation to a hug offered with such sincerity and a disappearing R?

I’ve known a few world-class huggers in my day. And I’ve been wrapped up in some seriously healing embraces over the years.  There’s something about a well-timed hug that makes the world all better.  Or at least as better as it can get in that particular moment.

10 Random Things I have learned in the last couple of weeks

1. When your jeans are loose and you don’t have a belt, slippery undies are a bad choice.

2. Swimming is excellent exercise. You do not, however, get bonus calories for swimming in colder water… silly FitBit

3.  Baby pigs are adorable and actually enjoy being held and scratched behind the ears. Or at least the ones at our feed store do.

4. Even decades later, I can recite the Girl Scout Promise and Law. Well, most of it. At least as much as I can the Apostle’s Creed, so there’s that.

5. I am not excellent at processing giant emotional waves. Unless they are someone else’s, in which case I am all yours.  There’s some work to be done there, obvs.

6.  My gut is right more than I am willing to believe. Probably because it catches the stuff I don’t want to know, or hope is untrue.

7. Number 6 above sucks.

8. Combine numbers 5-7 in a week, and ugh.

9. I have a deep well of faith and hope, in spite of the truth my gut knows about people and life and even me.

10. I am loved.  Yeah- I kinda knew that already, but sometimes I get to learn stuff like this in deeper ways. And that counts, too.

How are you doing after Election2016?

Me?    I am pissed.
And I am afraid

Here’s the thing. I am a God-loving, God-fearing person.
Which is to say, I have faith that God is with us in all circumstances.

But I am afraid.
For my friends who are religious minorities
For my dear ones who are LGB or T or queer.
For my neighbors who are ethnic minorities

And I am so very angry that my people…
churched and educated people…
straight people…
especially white people…
have put these dear family friends and neighbors in harm’s way.

Because we are – collectively – a hot, selfish mess.

Suffering from some sort of moral-ethical dysphoria
that makes it impossible to see our faults and biases, our racism
even with the mirror of voting demographics so close we see our breath on the glass

So wrapped up in maintaining our status and comfort
that we refuse to take on the vulnerability of standing in the gap
even as we point out the failings of those OTHER people

I am a WE person, always ready to join in, always ready to include
But I don’t want to be part of this WE

I want to point at THOSE white people and say THEY are the ones.
But I can’t.

I am part of that hot, selfish mess.

Maybe not with my vote (okay, definitely not with my vote)
But every day, I am part of the system and benefit from it

Every day, in small ways, I take advantage of my whiteness
and my cis-het-marriedness
my education
my Christianity
my cis-normative gender
my middle-class access to abundance

I am part of the hot, selfish mess by association
and especially when I don’t speak out or act out against it.
I see and feel the truth of that more and more each day
and have been working hard at doing better and doing more

I’m pissed that not enough of us are doing that work
I’m pissed that not enough of us are willing to do that work
I’m pissed because the stakes are too high for all of us
And I’m afraid that it will take way too long for enough of us to wake up

Oh, Mercy

The story of Jonah would rank pretty high if we created a Top 10 most familiar of Bible stories.  We can probably outline it together in a handful of bullet points, in fact:

  1. Jonah is called to take God’s word to the people of Ninevah
  2. Jonah defies God, and heads the opposite direction by sea.
  3. A storm threatens to swamp the boat and Jonah is thrown overboard.
  4. Jonah is then swallowed by a whale, where he stays for 3 days.
  5. Jonah is spit out on shore and goes to Ninevah
  6. In Ninevah, the people repent and are saved, and Jonah is not impressed.

That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell.

The lesson we tend to take away from this fish story?  If you don’t go where God tells you to go, you might very well end up smelling of fish guts.

That’s not a bad lesson, to be honest, but I want to take a little closer look, starting with chapter 1:1-17

Honestly, I think we relate to Jonah much in the same way we can relate to the prodigal son.  

Even if we never followed through on it, most of us have spent time plotting an escape… an opportunity to run away from God or family or other rule-makers and start fresh someplace else.  

I can remember clearly the afternoon I spent gathering up a few days worth of clothes, counting my meager collection of birthday money and coins, writing down the phone numbers I might need (this was way before cell phones)… all so that I could run away to my grandmother’s house.  

I didn’t leave… because there was no peanut butter in the pantry, and  couldn’t imagine what else might sustain an eight-year-old runaway on the road to Oklahoma.

I can also distinctly remember telling God at 17 that I might be willing to be a pastor someday, but it seemed like an awfully boring way to spend one’s life.  (If I only knew then…)

I don’t know that I literally went the opposite direction like Jonah, but I certainly chose another path. And I definitely found myself in some awfully stinky circumstances as a result.

Thing is, that flippant “no thank you” to God was about me – my wants, my misconceptions about ministry, my lack of maturity.  It had nothing to do with the people God was calling me to serve.

For Jonah, the people – THOSE PEOPLE – were a huge problem.

You see, Ninevah was proud of killing Judeans.  Among the antiquities you can see at the British Museum in London are carved reliefs that depict scenes from the Assyrian sieges. One of these elaborate carvings is called The Siege of Lachish, and it shows images of Judeans being impaled and stacks of heads that were counted by the Assyrian scribes.It seems that the Assyrian soldiers may well have been paid according to the number of Hebrews that they were  credited for decapitating. This particular relief was discovered in Sennacherib’s palace near modern day Mosul, Iraq.  

Which is to say – in Ninevah.
Yes – that Ninevah.  

So God wants the king and the people of Ninevah to repent.
And God wants Jonah to be the one to tell them.

And it’s no wonder he headed out to Joppa. Joppa was a port city, located in Tel Aviv. It was and still is in many ways a gateway to the west. It was a natural way to get as far away from Ninevah as possible. He was headed in the opposite direction.

Funny to recall in this moment that repentance is all about turning around and walking directly away from your sin. Literally – turning and going in the opposite direction toward God.

Anyway…  at this point, Jonah is all about getting as far as possible as quickly as possible – from where God wanted him to be.  And on the boat, he found himself among the only people in history more superstitious than baseball fans…  even more superstitious than Cubs fans.

To be fair, sailing was fraught with peril.  Still is, really. Even with our modern equipment and technology, making one’s living on the sea is dangerous. While these ancient mariners would have been familiar with waves, currents and the severe weather that is common in the region, they didn’t have our scientific knowledge to understand the why’s. They attributed what looked like fickle weather and angry seas to capricious and irritable dieties.   

When Jonah spoke up claiming his identity as a Hebrew, it made absolute sense to attribute the storm to the Lord’s disfavor – even without knowing anything about Jonah’s God.

Our God.

What they did know was that God required some sort of action, some kind of attention from them and/or Jonah in order to calm the seas.  Even when Jonah suggested throwing him overboard, the men tried rowing and praying to this strange God. All to no avail.

And so into the water with Jonah, Into the water and into the belly of the great fish. For three days. And then, as oddly or miraculously as when the fish appeared, the fish drew near enough to dry land to spit Jonah out and swim away.

The whale or fish or whatever the creature was – it has sure gotten a ton of press over the millenia. Their story has been told and retold across the generations.  Jonah and the whale… they are inseparable.

But the book of Jonah is not primarily about his time in a fish/whale.  Here’s how we know this is true:
The book of Jonah mentions “fish” exactly twice.
Meanwhile “God” is used 14 times;
“LORD” is used 21 times.

Which ought to lead us to ask less what the book teaches us about nature or human nature… and MORE about what the book of Jonah teaches us about God

The first thing we learn through Jonah’s story is that God calls us to surprising – maybe even ridiculous things. In our human terms – it is no surprise Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah.  It is much more surprising that God would send Jonah into a place that is so hostile to God and God’s chosen people.

God has something in mind that is beyond Jonah’s understanding. Beyond our understanding. Listen to what happens when Jonah finally answers that surprising, ridiculous call, starting back up in chapter 3, verses 1-10.

Once again we see that God is faithful to journey with us, even in our rebellion, our stiff-neckedness. God speaks again to Jonah, in spite of his rebellion… and Jonah goes.

Honestly, God could have left Jonah to his own devices on several occasions:
God might have allowed Jonah to keep wandering westward, alone and without purpose.
God might have let Jonah drown, accepting him as a sacrifice from the captain and crew.
God might have left him high and drying out in silence on the beach, refusing to entrust this life-saving message to an unfaithful prophet and choosing someone else.

But our merciful God extended compassion to Jonah, just as God extended compassion to the people of Ninevah.  

Just like Jonah knew would happen. God actually extended grace and mercy to THOSE PEOPLE.

That is really the calculus that did Jonah in from the beginning.
How could God ask him to go there?
To talk to THOSE people?

He knew God’s nature because Jonah knew God’s history, God’s habit of keeping promises

If they repented, Jonah reasoned, God would surely forgive them save them, love them, adopt them, fold them into the family. And how is that supposed to be ok when THOSE PEOPLE have been so very evil?

But God is merciful.  

God extended mercy to the sailors who cried out to him and then did as God commanded – even though it seemed wrong to toss this man into the sea.
God extended mercy to Jonah. 

And then, God extended mercy to the Ninevites.  Not just the King, not just the people, but the animals, too
All called to repent.
All in sackcloth and ashes
All forgiven
All granted life

When vengeance would have been understandable, When reaffirming God’s version of Law and order justice would have been much more appealing to Jonah and his friends back home…

God extended mercy.  

And Jonah responded in a way that rings very true to me…
The start of chapter 4 is often titled, Jonah’s Anger.  

What isn’t captured there at the end is what must be a long… holy…  exasperated sigh.
I know it makes me sigh. Surely God did, too.  Oh, Jonah…

This is not the ending we want in a story.  Especially since we tend to place ourselves in the story by way of Jonah. We want justice – maybe vengeance – for the Judeans that the Ninevites had killed

We want Jonah to be proved right.
To be a hero.
To be the strong voice of a strong God who is mightier than any other God

But here’s the thing… God’s desire to see reconciliation is greater than our need for retaliation, our tendency toward oppression, subjugation, dehumanization.

God’s promises are true for the Hebrew people, and for the gentiles… the widow and her son that took in Jeremiah, the Ninevites, the Samaritans, the tax collectors, the unwanted, unclean and unclaimed who came to see that same compassion in the person of Jesus.

And God’s promises are true for us.

God’s mercy and lovingkindness extends to us. Even when we would withhold compassion and hope from others, intentionally or as collateral damage.

You know, if we see God’s compassion to Nineveh as surprising, we should probably view his offering a second chance to Jonah as equally surprising. And God’s second, third, fourth, fiftieth chances for us even more so.

None of us… not one of us, now or ever, has deserved God’s mercy.

It’s an interesting time to think about the abundance and wideness of God’s grace and mercy,

This week started with All Saints Day, a time to remember all the saints who have come before, that great cloud of witnesses. And the truth is that if we were to see an accounting of all those saints, there would be almost certainly be more than one or two who would surprise us.  There are probably a lot of THOSE people in that cloud, and not just the Ninevites.

We come together today to welcome our new members and gather at table with friends and strangers, a beautiful reminder of our deep connections by faith, not just with God but with other people.

And on Tuesday, our nation will finally vote to complete what is the most divisive election I can remember…  And I am a political junkie who usually enjoys debates and platform building and the work of making these important decisions together.

But this year, I’ve mostly turned the TV off. It has not been fun.  Nor has it been particularly edifying.

And yet, I am not overly worried about Tuesday.  I suspect that we will be fine as people go to polling places,

I’m not worried about Tuesday night as votes are counted, though I’m a little leery about how the talking heads will spin it.

I am much more worried about Wednesday
and Thursday
And Friday
And the days, weeks months and years to come.

I’ll confess, it scares me to think about how people will react. Because of the language and rhetoric unleashed this year?
It’s been ugly.
It’s been mean-spirited.
It has done anything but Unite the States.

More than ever, we have been talking in disparaging terms about THOSE PEOPLE who support that candidate.

And they talk about THOSE PEOPLE who support the other candidate in ways that are equally hateful and hurtful

And Lord help THOSE PEOPLE who are in that third camp or THOSE PEOPLE who have decided they’d rather sit this one out. Because THOSE PEOPLE are even more likely to be told what a waste of time and space they are.    

These are scary times, church.
If we are ever to reclaim the United in “USA” in any real sense, there is a lot of work to be done.  And people aren’t going to be very interested in setting aside all their fear and anger to do the hard work of reconciling with co-workers, neighbors and even family members.

But even still…  These are exciting times, church.
Because we are in the Family business.
The business of reconciliation.
The business of calling people to confession and repentance

We are in the business of making bigger and bigger “us-es” and fewer and smaller  “thems”   

We are in the business of tearing down the walls that divide us, by offering to the world all the love and grace and mercy that the Holy Spirit drives deep into our hearts the moment we say YES to following God.

We are in the business of going where God has called us, no matter how surprising and ridiculous it seems, to say to THOSE people that we love them.  

And that is true in this room, in this congregation. For you and for me.
No matter how you mark your ballot or what party you support, I have to love you.
No, let me amend that.
No matter how you mark your ballot, I GET to love you.
And you get to love me back.

Because this isn’t the work of pastors.
Well, again, I’ll back up.
This isn’t work that is ONLY for pastors.

Every follower of God, every follower of Jesus is invited into and expected to be a part of this holy and difficult work of loving ALL. And when we do the work, our God, who is faithful and just, who keeps promises and loves wildly, will show up, in us, through us, and among us.

Long and Winding Road

Narrative Lectionary Texts (embedded below): Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

This fall, we are trekking through the Old Testament again, this time watching for the recurring theme of promise.  There was a promising start in the garden, the promise of paradise and purpose as the first humans tended the garden.

But this was followed by the broken understanding, the people choosing to believe that God would somehow hold back from them, not offering them the best, choosing to go against God’s wishes. And then facing the consequences.

Even in their exile, in their struggle to produce their own food in the reality of the same world we inhabit, Adam and Eve experienced God’s grace.  God’s presence was a bit more distant, but the promise of care and provision remained.

They were still known and watched over, they were still beloved.  Just as we are beloved in our still-not-as-it-should-be,  still-not-as-it-will-be world.

Abraham’s relationship with God also reminds us that God is a keeper of promises.  To be sure, we can never predict exactly how those promises will play out Or when.  But as we consider the millions – maybe billions – of people who have walked this earth and who trace could their spiritual lineage to Abraham through his sons Ishmael and Isaac, God’s promise of heirs as countless as the stars in that ancient, unpolluted night sky is a promise kept.  

In spite of Abraham’s faltering obedience, he ultimately displayed great faith, and was rewarded. And, as the apostle Paul writes, that faith was his righteousness.

Fast-forward now, from Abraham to Isaac, the child of promise. The long-awaited son of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac had an older half-brother, Ishmael, fathered by Abraham when Sarah – not unlike Adam and Eve – chose to act on her doubt that God would come through, could come through.

She chose to believe that God might somehow hold back, that she would never bear children. And so she offered up her bond-servant, Hagar. What could have been a lovely gift of surrogacy  from one woman to another was marred by jealousy. And when God caused Sarah to conceive and give birth to Isaac, things went from bad to worse.

Abraham agreed to release Hagar and Ishmael from their bond, but only after God extended the promise to Ishmael, that as a descendant of Abraham, Ishmael would also be the father of a nation. We also see a prophecy that Ishmael would often be in conflict and others would be in conflict with him. His people would live in the east.  

We don’t hear much more about Ishmael once they go to the wilderness, because the narrative focus shifts to Isaac and then Jacob. But we do see evidence of his descendants and their interactions with the Israelites.

Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, the second son of Isaac… (though not by much, as he and Esau were twins). Jacob becomes the heir instead of Esau when he  gains his father’s blessing through deception.

He flees to his uncle where he prospers and earns his two wives, Rachel and Leah. Eventually, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, and between his wives and their handmaidens  he has twelve sons, the ancestors and namesakes of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel.  Just as a side note, they also had a daughter, Dinah..

Of those 12 sons, Joseph was the youngest.
And we’ll pick up our reading there…

37:3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”

8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

Now – you would think that Israel – Jacob – would have learned something from the conflict and drama of his youth. But as we see in many of our own households, people tend to carry the good and the bad of their family’s ways of being into the households we create through marriage.

That dysfunction that made you mental as a teenager will most likely play out in some way as you relate to your spouse or co-workers, room mates or children.  Or all of the above!  

Sometimes you fall into the same patterns without even noticing or at least not until it’s too late. Sometimes you fall of the ledge on the opposite side – overcompensating in hopes of avoiding the same trap.

My mom’s brother was just charming enough that he got away with more than she did.  Mom found that really annoying. But she also began to suspect that because her parents seemed not to see or respond to his antics (and always cracked down on her)… they must have loved him more.

So it came as no surprise when my sisters and I were gathered here in Florida for Christmas a few years back, we all got identical t-shirts.  We all opened them at the same time, along with my brother opening his while on the phone from Texas.  

All four of the shirts said “Mom loves me best”

She thought it was clever. But I’m not sure it had the desired effect. More than one conversation with more than one sibling has raised concerns that not all the shirts were given with the identical levels of sincerity,.. or irony… Either way, that strange rivalry that exists between siblings had been awakened from hibernation.

That same dynamic had been simmering among Joseph and his brothers for several years. The robe didn’t help.  Neither did the dream. After all, the symbolism clearly  suggests that they will become subservient to him.  Really,  it is no surprise that they “hate him even more.”

It is hard not to sympathize with the brothers in this instance — Joseph has been stoking the fires… poking the bear. Honestly, He was a jerk.
So they decided to do something about it.

17b So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

Ok – not even jerks deserve to to be thrown into a pit to die.
And those jerks you’re thinking of right now? No – not even those jerks…

And if even if he did think Joseph deserved that kind of death, Reuben probably had no desire to be the one responsible for causing his father that much pain. I mean, what kind of wrath might Israel unleash at that point?   

Plus, there is the possibility of looking like a hero if Reuben is Joseph’s rescuer.
Then Judah pipes up… clever boy, this one…

26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.

28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

And thus a Schmidt family tradition awaited… lying dormant for thousands of years, until the twins were born.  

I’m not sure who made the threat first- mom, dad, my brother or me.  But at some point in the juggling of all the diapers, bottles and crying jags that accompanied the first several months of life with twins, someone asked if we might be able to sell them to a passing band of Ishmaelites.

I’m pretty sure that all four of us kids, and perhaps my dad, only escaped our own times in exile because there were no Ishmaelites roaming Central Texas in the 70s or 80s.

But I digress. Let’s go on

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood.

32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.”

33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

Reuben was the first to mourn.  

Perhaps he mourned his brother. Perhaps he mourned his opportunity to be the hero. Perhaps it was the recognition that his relationship with Jacob was in the balance as well.   

Listen to his words when he realizes Joseph is gone: When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?   In the Hebrew, his repetition of the “I” is even more emphatic than it appears in the English translation.

Then, Instead of confessing all to his father, Reuben goes along with the lie the brothers tell their father, that Joseph has been killed by wild animals

Ultimately, Joseph is sold to Potiphar in Egypt. Through a series of twists and turns, he finds himself in a seat of great power and influence. His prophecies make it possible for Egypt to survive a famine that was so severe people from neighboring countries came seeking aid.

Eventually, that included Joseph’s brothers. They made a couple of trips to Egypt, the first time not knowing they had been in the presence of their long-lost brother.

Joseph sets them up, a bit, so that he might see Benjamin, and so that his family might be saved from starvation. Eventually, even Jacob comes to Egypt and meets the Pharaoh.  He blesses Joseph’s children before finally dying.

Let’s take a look at the last portion of the reading…

50:15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

It’s hard to know who we are meant to identify with in this story.  Certainly, we want to be like Joseph, lucky and skillful enough, faithful and gifted enough to overcome adversity.  And we are eager to look past his faults and failings, just as we prefer to look past our own.

We like being the hero of the story, whose choices are helped along by fate (and a promise-keeping God).
We like the idea of being in the right place at the right time to see God’s purposes worked out in our own long and winding roads.

The truth is, we are also a bit like the other brothers. Jealous, plotting… and dangerous when we feel cheated. And Rueben, not a bad guy, but not really all that good, either. Definitely interested in looking good.  We are certainly a bit like Jacob, wrestling with God, unable to love as unfailingly and fairly as God. 

But as we think about the promises of God, we need to look beyond the people with whom we relate… What is God up to in the midst of all this human messiness, this messy human-ness?

Certainly, God does not will that Jacob’s sons would hate one another, especially to the degree that is leads to violence…  (what kind of a God does that?)

We’ve talked before about the tension caused by the fact that God has given us agency, intellect, and free will, even as we believe that God can and does intervene and direct us.

In other words, the spirit of God is at work in a world that is shaped by human actions.
God is present in this story through the actions of others, of Joseph, of pharaoh, of all those who move Joseph’s story along toward its positive conclusion.

And so, generations before God steps into time and takes on flesh, there is thus a strongly incarnational element in the way God is at work in this long and complicated narrative of creation, separation and eventually – reconciliation – between God and humankind.

When we were commissioned to the work of making disciples and teaching all that Christ commanded, we were commissioned into that same work, becoming the Body, God’s incarnational plan for for reconciling the peoples of the world to one another and to God.

So what does that mean, precisely? Or as Paul might ask.. how then shall we live?

For one thing, we don’t get to throw people into pits. Physically or metaphorically.   Yes, there are a bunch of people I would love to walk right up to a pit, distract and then gently push while they aren’t looking.   I know there are plenty of people who would be happy to do likewise with me.

I suspect that if we were to dig enough pits for everyone to dispose of the people they would just as soon not attempt to get along with… well, the world would be awfully hard to navigate.

But that isn’t who we are called to be. That isn’t what we are called to do. We are made in the image of the God who Reconciles, the God who Loves, the God who Rescues and Redeems. We are made in the image of the One the psalmist thanks for raising him out of the pit. The One to whom I have given thanks for not leaving me where I have have been pushed, or where I have fallen.

Thus, we are to listen for the cries of those who have been rejected or set aside, those who have been put down and held down, those with whom we would rather not associate because they are not to our liking for one of eleventy-hundred reasons…. and when we hear their cries, we are to walk over to the pit from which they call out, put out a hand, and raise them up.

And we are to be about the work of filling in the holes that we have dug, teaching others to fill in theirs.  We are to be about the business of speaking up and showing up, wherever those cries are heard, learning about the bigger picture and seeking real change, real healing, real wholeness.

Because the long and winding road that Joseph walked may have started with a pit, but it ended with a family reunited and made whole. Isn’t that worth getting a little dirty for?

That second decade, part two

In which we consider the middle section of that stretch of life between 11 and 20.  The High School years.

That would be roughly 1980-84.   Not a great time for music, at least according to my darling hubby who is a decade ahead of me…  It was the end of disco and the start of MTV and new wave music. My tastes ran from Billy Idol to Talking Heads, the Police to Georgia Satellites.  And of course, Amy Grant.  I mean, I was a church youth group kid.

I look back at some of the poetry I kept from those days, some of the pictures I still have around. Still struggling to find my voice.  Still struggling to find my style. Still more interested in time spent doing and being than in crafting an image.

I still have my letter jacket from volleyball, and I treasure my Girl Scout 1st Class and Gold Awards. If you don’t know, both of them are the equivalent of the Eagle Scout for boys.  I was active as they transitioned to the new award structure and had the option of which to go for.  I opted to do the work for both.

Kind of like doing all the activities.  Why do just sports when you can also do choir? And Student Government.  And Spanish Club. And dual enroll at the university. And take on leadership in church youth at the local, area and regional level.   And still feel pretty much average and mediocre, not worth anyone making a fuss over.

I guess that sums me up. Why not do all the things?   And put heart and soul into all of it.  Not because I am driven to personal perfection or success.  But because there are other people putting their time and effort into it, too.  Teachers, coaches, mentors, troop, team, group or club members…. now it’s congregations and committees, bosses and teammates, spouse and kid.  We are in it together, and my part is just as important as (though not more important than) everyone else’s.

If I could whisper into my ear then from here and now…

Press on, Goober.  Just press on.  They won’t tell you now, but all those folks you think don’t see you because you don’t look like them?  They do.  And they respect you in ways they won’t be able to express until we’re all old.  Oh, and that drugs/party scene… the reason you don’t know it exists is because they don’t invite you. Which, as you’ll learn all too soon, is probably a good thing.