1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To our beloved coworker Philemon, 2 to our sister Apphia, to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God always when I mention you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the partnership of your faith may become effective as you comprehend all the good that we share in Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
8 For this reason, though I am more than bold enough in Christ to command you to do the right thing, 9 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. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me so that he might minister to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term, 16 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.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22 One thing more: prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my coworkers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
OK, so this letter probably for many of us gets filed under those miscellaneous letters at the back of the New Testament that you have to look up in your Bible’s Table of Contents because if you’re just flipping through the book to find it, chances are you’ll miss it altogether.
This is a personal letter from Paul to Philemon - where many of Paul’s letters are addressed to churches, this one in particular is written to an individual. Paul writes it while in prison - and scholars note that during this particular time he was imprisoned - because Paul gets thrown in prison a lot - this time, he’s not literally in a prison cell, bound in chains, begging guards for scraps of paper and pens to write his missives on - he’s probably under house arrest, meaning he can’t skip town - and he’s relying on friends sent to him by area churches to help keep him company, run his errands and do his food shopping during his house arrest.
Paul is writing to Philemon about Onesimus - we don’t really know why or how Onesimus came to be in Paul’s company -- perhaps Philemon had sent him to be with Paul, perhaps Onesimus was a runaway slave who had absconded with funds or other property of Philemon’s who made his way to Paul to have Paul plead on his behalf for freedom - the story really isn’t clear as to the circumstances that brought these two men together.
What we do know, however, is that there is a great love and affection and respect that Paul and Philemon share (I mean, the language in verses 4 - 7 is Paul laying it on a little thick, but the foundation is there). We know of the strong bond that developed between Paul and Onesimus, where Paul considers the relationship like that of parent and child in the faith, and we know that Onesiums had become useful to Paul (the word translated actually means “useful” or “beneficial.”)
Paul realizes that Onesimus is still in some way indebted to Philemon - perhaps estranged - and so in this letter, he appeals to him out of love to take Onesimus back and welcome him as a beloved brother in the Lord.
Now, as much as we might like for Paul to launch from here into a treatise on the evils of slavery, he doesn’t do that. There have been all kinds of arguments about why he doesn’t do this - he’s a product of his time, promoting the abolismhent of slavery would have been too radical for these early followers of the Way and the might of the Roman empire would have squashed them, any number of reasons.
Yet in this instance, Paul makes the appeal, based on an ethic of love over law, for Philemon to do the right thing and welcome Onesimus back in freedom, bound together by Christ.
Paul knows this is a difficult ask. In the Roman empire, to accept a runaway or delinquent slave back without payment or punishment or consequence was unheard of. To do so and accept him as a “beloved brother” -- Paul is asking Philemon to lay down a whole lot - his social standing, reputation, his buy in to the whole system of enslaving human beings -- and yet Paul still asks it for the sake of Christ. Paul knows and has seen the transforming love of God at work in Philemon’s life, and how Philemon has nurtured others in that same transforming love of God.
Paul doesn’t demand or compel. He doesn’t say, “this is what Jesus would want you to do.” Paul does, however, know that this ask has a cost - that Philemon has to give up a lot to welcome his slave back…not as a slave, but as an equal in Christ.
I love the line in verse 12 - “I am sending him, who is my very heart, back to you.”
And what I love about that line is not just the fondness that Paul has for Onesimus, clear as that may be. I feel the vulnerability of Paul expressing his care and concern for a person who may or may not be accepted into the full community by Philemon. Paul’s relationship with Onesimus was not based on his identity as a slave - Paul saw the whole person, and invites Philemon to do likewise.
What would it mean for us to encounter others in the same way - as whole people, siblings in Christ? What if we saw each person coming into worship, coming into Ladies Aid, coming into Bible Study - as someone beloved - God’s own heart - sent to us? And what might we have to lay down in order to make that happen?
This is the beauty - and the challenge - of life in community around Christ, of life in the church. Everything about us - our cultural norms, our wants and needs and expectations, our egos and agendas - are always weighed against the love of God made known in Jesus - and Jesus - while he may from time to time call out individuals, he’s always thinking about how our responsibility to one another gets played out in community…and it gets played out in ways that are completely upside down, right? The last shall be first. Power made perfect in weakness. The outcast is the insider. The measure of a community is always taken by how well the least among them are treated.
Which often times means - it’s a measure of how easily the powerful lay aside their wants, their goals, their expectations, their comforts…for the sake of the lowest and the least…and how well a community understands that church isn’t about getting your religious fill for an hour on a Sunday, but about living out a responsibility that we have in Christ to each other that lasts beyond the conclusion of a weekly service - because each of us - each of us - carries God’s own heart with us - and we receive each person as a gift from God sent to teach and mold and shape and transform us.
Philemon had to make a choice as to how to receive Onesimus. We don’t really know what happened. He could have rejected Paul’s appeal to receive him like a brother - or he could have let God’s spirit move in his heart to lay aside his privilege and social reputation and accept Onesimus as an equal. Tradition suggests the latter - especially as some streams of Christianity place this same Onesimus as eventually the bishop of Ephesus - but we don’t know this for certain.
But we always have that choice too - about how to receive others around us.
We get to decide to how to welcome each person we meet - those who society deems useless, those who get on our nerves, those who may not care for or be fed by the traditions that nurtured us, those who have sat in the same pew for 70 years, those want to dance in the aisle during hymns, those whose hands or bodies can’t stay still for an hour, those who speak other languages, who vote for other political candidates, who otherwise may disturb our perfect image of Christian community - all through whom God calls us to lay something within us down to see…and to serve…the beloved child of God before you. Because in Christ - we are bound together as family - and we stand up for and journey with each person so no one is alone.
Our next hymn is the servant song - it’s number 2222 in the black hymnals. As we stand and sing together this morning, I invite you to make it your prayer this day - that you might imagine someone - or someones - that God has placed on your heart - and may this be a prayer of laying aside your own needs for the sake of serving others who need to know that grace and love surround them in this community built around Christ. Let us stand and sing together.
Scripture Acts 20:7-12
Acts 20:7-12 (First Nations Version)
It was the first day of the week, when we gather to eat our sacred meal together. Small Man (Paul) was doing the talking because he planned to leave the next day. He was long-winded and kept talking until the middle of the night. There were many torches burning in the upper room of the house where we had all gathered.
As Small Man (Paul) spoke on and on, a young man named Greatly Blessed (Eutychus), who was sitting on the window ledge, began to sink into a deep sleep. When the sleep overcame him, he fell from the third-floor window and was found dead. Small Man (Paul) went down, bent over the young man, and put his arms around him. “Do not fear!” he said to all. “His life has returned to him.” Small Man (Paul) went back to the upper room, ate the ceremonial meal with them, and continued speaking until sunrise. He then went on his way, and with glad hearts they took the young man home alive!
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Let this story be a warning to any of you who are tempted to fall asleep during a preacher’s sermon!
I have to admit, I don’t remember reading this story before. I must have at some point in my life. However, it’s not a story you are going to explore in worship if your congregation follows the appointed scriptures for the 3 year lectionary cycle. In fact, the last 7 chapters of the Book of Acts aren’t anywhere to be found in the lectionary. We’ll save that mystery for another day though.
Here we have a short little story where a teenager, whose name Eutychus means “Fortunate” or “Greatly Blessed” falls asleep because Paul couldn’t manage to preach and teach a short message. Imagine the setting - it’s the middle of the night, many torches were blazing in that 3rd story room - presumably the air in the room is a bit hazy and smoky as a result. I can picture Eutychus sitting on the window ledge - no doubt it was a great place for some fresh air, a place to look out and daydream a bit (because that’s what I’d be doing), but it was so late and Paul just kept talking and talking, and there’s a point that no matter what you try to do to stay awake - your body just falls asleep. I can remember that happening to me in a couple college lectures - you know where your head starts drooping before you jerk yourself awake, your eyelids despite being one of the smallest parts of your body just feel like the heaviest part to keep open - and before you know it, you’re asleep.
In Eutychus’s case, however, sleeping on the ledge of a 3rd story window is a bit precarious. He falls out and crashes to the ground, dead.
And so here we have, in the words of Rev. Roger Wosely, “Eutychus – the first young victim of organized religion.” He continues to say, as if speaking to this young man directly,
“No your story wasn’t about the dangers of falling asleep during worship, and it wasn’t about the dangers of preaching sermons that are too long. Your story isn’t about cardiopulmonary or mouth to mouth resuscitation. Your story is about Paul rushing down to you, throwing himself upon you with no concern for dignity, and then lifting you up declaring “He’s alive! His life is in him!”
Your story is about God’s ability to heal and restore whatever the Church might kill!”
Because let’s face it and be honest - the Church - big C church…and many little “c” churches - the Church hasn’t always lived up to the ideal that many of us hold out.
And maybe the person, or people, who are really asleep here - metaphorically sleeping, of course - is not Eutychus, but others in the room, who are so caught up in what’s going on right in front of them that they don’t see what’s happening on the edges? Or….don’t even really see what’s going on with the other people in the space because they are so fixated on something else?
Sarah Are, who created the word art accompanying this piece that’s available for coloring, asks this in her artist statement: “How many people are falling away from church, and when they do, are we kneeling in the street with them when things get hard? Are we carrying them back into the house to feed them and celebrate their life? Are we acknowledging how hard religion can be? Are we changing our traditions so that people with different mental and physical needs can connect to God?”
It doesn’t take much to realize that the Church has a bad rap these days - the victims of abuse, the failure of congregations to be inclusive, political manipulation - it’s no wonder that there are so many people deconstructing their faith out of evangelical circles. However, before we are too quick to point the finger and name this as an issue that theologically conservative churches face, you can find the same issues present with churches that profess to be welcoming and fail to be actually such, congregations that talk a good game about serving their neighbors but are disconnected from the issues facing the most vulnerable in their community, churches that say they want to change and thrive but are unable to do the hard work necessary to connect authentically with those they claim to serve.
So many people are falling…are running…are turning away from…what they might find in “organized religion” - many rightfully so…many also because those inside a sanctuary’s four walls don’t realize the depth of the disconnect.
It’s easy to pinpoint it on the youth - they like different music, they challenge authority, they get bored, there are activities on Sundays - there are any number of excuses.
The truth of the matter is harder to swallow - and challenges us to reflect on how willing we - as a church - are to actually wade into the messiness of people’s lives to form genuine relationships that are transformational -- not primarily for them…but transformational for us - and lead us to change and find new ways to be. Or do we hold on to heritage and the good old days that no one else but us remember?
Rev. Sarah Are goes on to ask,
“When members get divorced, do we ignore it, or do we kneel in the street and cry with them? When our young people come out, do we celebrate them, or do we leave them sitting on the window sill alone, hoping they’ll find God without us? When young adults say they can make a bigger impact in this world working for a non-profit rather than going to church, do we invite them to preach, or do we lull them to sleep, hoping they’ll remain quiet?”
What the story of Eutychus - Greatly Blessed - reminds me is that our job as the church isn’t to sit on the sidelines - thinking that we have to have everything just so before we act, thinking that we have to have it all together, thinking that because we say all the right things, that we are what we say - it’s to see where people are actually hurting, where the church can help bring folks back to life - can help bring meaning, purpose, safety, healing, peace - even for just a moment. There are people who are suffering under the weight of trauma, addiction, and betrayal, who are falling and don’t have any safety net. It is those folks who are falling, who are on the edges, who help us stay awake to the mission of Jesus Christ, who help us run out and either catch them…or help bring them back to life.
Later today at our council meeting some of the questions we’ll be discussing during our time together are: “Where does our community need love right now? What anxieties or worries or fears present in our community?” These are the places where we as a church have the opportunity to encounter those who are falling….maybe, even to be honest about the places where we, who sit within these walls, are falling under the weight of the loads that we carry.
I don’t have many answers here; what I do know is that I have a heart for Eutychus - for those who the church as it is isn’t reaching - not for lack of trying, but for lack of seeing. For lack of understanding. For lack of connection and relationship. For lack of valuing people over structures.
May this story of Eutychus’ valuable life remind us that people do fall, and when they do, we as a church are called to either catch them or fall with them. Amen.
Scripture Jonah 3:1 - 4:11
Jonah 3:1 - 4-11 (New Revised Standard Version)
3 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Humans and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.
4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6 The Lord God appointed a bush and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort, so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many animals?”
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Ah, Jonah. Another Sunday School favorite. It’s a wonderfully dramatic tale, full of twists and turns. God’s got a message for Nineveh that Jonah is entrusted with, but Jonah flees in the opposite direction to Tarshish. En route, the biggest storm you’ve ever seen comes upon the sea, and the crew scrambles frantically, tossing cargo overboard and praying to their gods for deliverance. Jonah, in the meantime, is down below deck taking a nap. The captain wakes him up and suggests that he start praying too but they all figure out that Jonah is actually the problem. Even then, the sailors try to bring the ship back to land to avoid acting on Jonah’s suggestion, which was to pick him up and toss him into the sea. The storm keeps getting worse, so the sailors take up Jonah’s request, throw him in, and the sea calms down. Up comes a big fish to swallow Jonah whole, where he spends three days in its belly, and to be honest, prays this prayer brimming with piety so false that the fish vomits him back upon the shore.
That is the backstory to where our scripture passage picks up this morning where God tries a second time to get Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s message.
One important thing to understand about this book is that, first of all, it’s satire. Jonah, son of Amittai, a prophet who did live and prophesy in the northern kingdom of Israel around 750 BCE, probably did not go to Nineveh - the capital of the Assyrian empire. There was most likely no fish sent to devour our prophet. This dramatic turnaround where the entire city repented, right down to putting sackcloth on the animals, most likely didn’t happen. Secondly, this book of the Hebrew Bible was most likely written in the sixth or fifth century BCE as the Israelites were wrestling with questions of identity and how to relate to their neighbors. The story appears to be set before the Assyrian empire actually destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel. So again, we have a fictional, satirical story looking back at an earlier period in Israel’s history to explore issues the Jewish people were facing in their own time. One major theme is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles - insiders and outsiders - particularly when those outsiders were once their oppressors - as well as the relationship between the God of Israel and those outsider nations.
One of the things I love about this story is how Jonah interacts with God throughout - how God gives him a task and he runs in the opposite direction, how petulant and angry Jonah gets at God - because those are things I can really relate to - I’m sure none of y’all have problems like that. The thing Jonah gets upset about isn’t the storm that nearly took out an entire cargo ship, it wasn’t being swallowed up and violently regurgitated three days later - I mean, those are things that I might get a bit upset about and at least complain to God about, even if I didn’t believe God was the one who caused those things to happen. No, what gets Jonah really mad was that God changed the plans upon seeing the repentant Ninevites. Jonah’s half-hearted message “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown” - a message that didn’t even include God in it - that he preached as he walked around for a day in a city that was exaggerated to be as large as a three day’s walk, inspired such a change of heart in the people (and animals) that God relented and decided not to destroy them.
And in response, Jonah’s like “I knew it! This is why I didn’t want this job in the first place! I knew you were a compassionate God, a forgiving God, a God that is slow-to-anger and abounding in steadfast love, and that given half a chance you’d call off the fireworks. I’d rather die!” And so Jonah builds himself a cozy place above the capital of Israel’s greatest enemy to see if God just might change plans again and decide to destroy the city in the way Jonah thinks it so richly deserves.
Sometimes I think it’s hard for us to picture why Jonah would be angry in this situation - after all, shouldn’t he be glad that his prophetic word changed hearts and minds? Shouldn’t he feel like it was a job well-done, that God acted in a way consistent with what he knew about God to be true? Shouldn’t there be some satisfaction that the Ninevites demonstrated repentance before God?
What I think sometimes we miss in the story is that Nineveh was the capital of Israel’s greatest enemy at the time, Assyria. The Assyrian empire ended up conquering the northern kingdom of Israel - and while we talk a lot about the later Babylonian exile, the Assyrian occupation took its own toll on the Hebrew people…took its own captives that were never permitted to return home in the same way the descendents of the Babylonian exiles were. Of course Jonah would want to see Nineveh destroyed to remove a threat to his people.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, don’t we sometimes operate the same way? Don’t we take secret (or perhaps not-so-secret) delight in the downfall of our enemies? Aren’t we pleased when those we name as “evildoers” get what we think they deserve? Isn’t there some satisfaction when calamity befalls them beyond the natural consequences of their actions and that we can feel resentful or aggravated when grace or mercy is shown? We don’t like to admit it, but it’s sometimes true.
Enfleshed, in the commentary on this passage, poses a series of ethical questions that we might wrestle with as we think about the dynamics at play in our story:
“If Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was destroyed would their empire fall and the violence, destruction, and war come to an end? Would Israel then be safe?
Are the lives of those repenting in Nineveh worth more to God than those who would suffer and be killed under the Assyrian empire?
If the repentance of Nineveh is genuine, is it even enough to turn the whole of Assyria around?”
I would also add - “If the author of this book and their contemporaries understood the destruction of Israel and Judah as God’s judgment, how could God spare others - outsiders even - whose offenses, in their eyes, were far more serious?”
And then there’s the question God asks Jonah - “is it right for you to be angry?”
No easy answers to those questions.
Truth be told, the book of Jonah doesn’t let us off the hook very easily. After all, one might substitute the American empire for that of Assyria if we were thinking about a global context and the thousands of voices that have cried out in anger to God at the lack of justice, at the violence and harm our country has enacted and enabled within - and outside of - our borders, and at the systems that have irreparably harmed and exploited so many on our planet.
And shouldn’t God save us, too, when we cry out for deliverance? Because aren’t we, too, someone else's enemies? And isn’t that an uncomfortable truth that we don’t much like to admit?
This is the difficult thing about grace. It’s really great when we’re on the receiving end - when we experience God as merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. It’s much, much harder to see that play out with those we’d otherwise consider unworthy…consider our enemies.
In a world that is becoming increasingly more divided - politically and socio-economically, in a culture where fear-mongering, finger pointing, judgment, cancelling, lying, trolling, keyboard crusades have become the norm, it’s hard not to be swept along by the tide and be devoured by what we take in.
Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects this on Jonah with some brutal honesty: she writes, “That’s what’s hard about reading Jonah - I have to look at how maybe I too need my enemies to stay my enemies, since it’s hard to know who I am if I don't know who I’m against…Reading Jonah, I am confronted with how uncomfortable it is for God to show love and mercy to those I do not believe deserve it. Part of me really doesn't want to have empathy for those who have [messed] up, for those who have abused their position, for those who have done harm.
But empathy is not exoneration.
So we can fight for justice – we can call a thing what it is and name the harm done by the powerful while also holding the horrible truth that God is super hard to manage, since God loves you and (sorry about this, but…) God also loves your enemies.
God is kind of the worst like that.”
The story ends with Jonah still sitting up on the cliff, watching the city. God tends Jonah with a bush, offering shade, before also sending a worm to destroy it and a scorching wind brutal enough so that Jonah reiterates his request for death. God tries to expand Jonah’s horizons - tries to get him to see why grace and mercy for the Ninevites is a better option than death and destruction. We don’t know if it changed Jonah’s mind or changed Jonah’s heart. What we do know is that grace gets the final word. In the midst of all the questions - all the ethical dilemmas - all the emotions and anger - God meets it all with grace. At the end, we are left to wrestle with the goodness of God that shocks us to the very core with what it asks of us - that we, too, are called to embody that same grace to all, no matter how deserving - or undeserving - we think they are of that grace. It’s a goodness, that Debie Thomas writes, that asks us why we so often prefer vindication to rehabilitation. Why we crave punishment for the lost and broken, instead of healing and hope. Why we happily grab every second chance God gives us, even as we deny second chances to others. Why we nurse envy and bitterness in our hearts, refusing to see the complexity God sees in the faces of those who wish us harm.”
And the promise of the gospel is - God is who God is - merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. It’s for us - for our enemies too. It’s for all of us in our righteous and not-so-righteous indignation, in our petty Facebook fights, in our woundedness and addictions, in our bargaining with God and in our ultimatums, in our running the opposite direction and in our being so fed up we’d rather wash our hands of it all. In all our humanness, God meets us, and grace wins. God’s lavish and scandalous grace is the final word.
It’s a joy and a challenge and that’s what we’re left with at the end of the book of Jonah - both the beauty of a God who redeems and the responsibility of undertaking the work within ourselves where we, too, can be joyful and willing bearers and vessels of that grace in the midst of a bruised and broken world - even when that journey takes us to the heart of enemy territory. May our paths this week lead us to deeper wells of God’s grace for ourselves - for our enemies - and for this world that God loves so much. Amen.
*Hymn Your Love, O God (UMH 120)
You leave us free to seek you or reject you,
You give us room to answer “yes” or “no.”
Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
Wide as the wind, and our eternal home.
We seek in freedom space and scope for dreaming,
And look for ground where trees and plants can grow.
Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
Wide as the wind, and our eternal home.
Fear is the bricks and mortar of our prison,
Our pride of self, the priscon coat we wear.
Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
Wide as the wind, and our eternal home.
Take us as far as your compassion wanders
Among the children of the human race.
Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
Wide as the wind, and our eternal home.
Chebeague Community Church Sunday, August 28, 2022 John 9:1-34
Take Another Look
Open our eyes, O God, open our eyes to see and recognize your word
as it calls us into life, life abundant, life in your son, the living Word. Amen
“Father, Mother, I can see!” The first words I ever spoke in church, or at least from the front, up here, the chancel of a church. I was eleven or twelve years old and playing the role of this young man we just read about in our Sunday School Play as part of the morning service. And these five words were my lines, my only lines, “Father, Mother, I can see!” I have remembered those lines quite well, as you have just seen, some 76 years now, and counting. But what if it was ALL about seeing? What if Jesus came to teach us how to see, to reveal to us a whole new perspective, a new dimension of reality, a dimension he called “The Kingdom of God”? He said, after all, right here in this passage – verse 5 – “I am the light of the world” He literally restored sight to a multitude of blind beggars as he traveled the highways and byways. “In him WAS light…” we are told at the outset, the very beginning of John’s gospel, “… and that light was the life of all.” So maybe it was… maybe it still is all about seeing.
Seeing this world, for one thing. Last May, in an inspired moment, I pressed a few zinnia seeds deep into the soil all around the edges of my veggie garden up there at the East End. They got watered and fertilized along with the lettuce, peas and beans and finally they blossomed, surrounding, framing the entire raised beds with a band of radiant color. And then the feast began: butterflies and bumble bees – monarchs, fritillaries, spicebush swallowtails, solitary bees too, even the occasional humming bird – a bunch of buzzing, flapping, scrambling nectar seekers. Mhairi and I sit in the afternoon sun and watch them with fascinated delight; their sheer elegance, their industry, their floating, flitting grace. The pollinators going about their business of keeping the planet alive, keeping you and me well fed.
Or take our kitchen counter, plagued this summer by sporadic sieges of ants. And as I swat them aside, curse their stubborn persistence, I recall that we are busy up there scouring the universe, blasting off mission after mission, probe after probe, hunting for the tiniest trace, the merest glimpse of life, of life in any form. The miracle, the preciousness, the rareness, yes, the sacredness of life. It was William Blake who wrote:
To See a World in a Grain of Sand
and a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand
and Eternity in an Hour.
Father, Mother, I can see!... I can see this world in all its glory.
Perhaps the second thing Jesus came to teach us to see is to see each other, to look at the person next to us in the pew, on the ferry, waving to us from behind the wheel, on the evening news, and to recognize a sister or a brother. We are one flesh, after all. And that’s not just poetry, philosophy talking. Science has told us the same thing. Do you recall, some years ago now, the DNA folk, the geneticists announcing they had finally traced us all back to one common ancestor? Yes the Blacks and the Whites, the Jews and the Gentiles, even the Scots and the Irish. We are one flesh, all related, all with places reserved around that vast Thanksgiving table, Labor Day cook-out, family meal of God.
There is a tale told of the shepherds around Bethlehem many centuries ago, how they loved to sit debating in the long night watches out on the Judaean hills. One night, toward dawn, their guide, an older shepherd, posed them a probing question. "How can we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?" "Could it be..." one of the young ones blurted eagerly, "could it be… might we know the night is ended when we can look out to the flock and distinguish between the sheepdog and the sheep?" "That is a good answer," said the Teacher; "but not the answer I would give." After a long silence another raised his voice, "Perhaps we know daylight has begun when we can look at the trees around us and distinguish the olive leaf from the fig." Again the Teacher shook his head. "A fine answer, indeed, but not the one I seek." At last they begged their teacher to share the answer he had in mind. He looked at each of them intently for a moment and then he said: “When you look into the eyes of a fellow human being and see a sister or a brother you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a sister or a brother you will know that it is still night.”
Father, Mother I can see… I can see family, I can see where I belong.
And thirdly now let me suggest that Jesus came to teach us how to see God… to show us how to see God. The search, after all, goes back at least as far as we do, back to those massive hunks of rock, those monoliths set in circles on the hill tops, all the way back to those images in wood or stone or clay buried with care alongside our long forgotten ancestors. We have built soaring temples, written entire libraries of holy books, devised all kinds of elaborate ceremonies, rituals, prayers. And then Jesus comes along and simply declares, “Open your eyes folks, open your eyes and look around.” “God is love…” The scriptures themselves tell us, “Where love is… “ Saint John writes, “… wherever love is, there is God, right there is where you will find the deity you seek.” And there is what it’s really all about, the whole thing really, what we’re here for, built for, designed to do, created to be. It’s not all that difficult. It’s as obvious as a new-born infant reaching out its arms to be held.
As the years have hurried by me, now approaching – not just the three score and ten allotted in Psalm 90 but four score and ten and maybe more – in these even more senior, frailer years I have been surprised, and delighted by the outpouring of assistance I receive almost daily. Struggling down the dock with heavy bags or boxes, pausing before a flight of steps or stairs, a slippery walkway, people, sometimes friends and neighbors but often complete strangers step forward to offer help. They reach out and say, “Let me assist you, carry your bag, hold that door, take your arm, fetch a cup of coffee.” Small gestures to be sure – nothing spectacular or world shaking – but glimpses, if we will only see them, snatches, momentary revelations of a deeper, far vaster, far more basic human instinct, acts of love.
We speak of love and think of splendid movie moments, the background music swelling, someone perhaps kneeling, pledging, even giving his or her life for someone else. But its these little, daily moments, really – in a world where atrocities, what Robert Burns called, “Man’s inhumanity to man.” Seem to overflow the daily news – a mother serving a meal, a father teaching a child to ride a bike, a sister or a brother holding hands in a scary place, that’s what makes the world go round. That’s what makes the world go round. Just like those busy, graceful – grace full – pollinators they keep us going, keep the whole thing going, keep us all alive. And there, yes right there, wherever love is at work, is at its ancient, ever-new labor of love, building bridges, taking hands, opening up new possibilities for cooperation, for sharing, for being together, working together, living together, right there you will see God at work. Right there we will find our God.
Father, Mother, I can see! A new vision, a fresh and living, hope filled look at this world, at one another, and even at our God. Maybe there is more to this, all of this, than meets the eye. Let us pray:
Be Thou our vision, Lord.
Grant to each one of us a new perspective on life,
on this world, on each other, and on you.
That we may live in the light,
the radiant light and grace of your presence. Amen
Scripture Luke 23:44-56
Luke 23:44-56 (New Revised Standard Version)
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun’s light failed, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” 48 And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching these things.
50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph who, though a member of the council, 51 had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
1. When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died;
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
3. See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown.
4. Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
I almost titled this sermon “Joseph of Arimathea: The Man, The Myth, The Legend” because all you need to do is Google his name and up pops dozens of results about this one individual, who is mentioned in all 4 gospels as the one who took responsibility for Jesus’ body following his crucifixion. They all vary slightly in describing who precisely he was, but putting the pieces together we know that he was probably a secret disciple of Jesus, he was a member of the religious council - a respected one - though he disagreed with their actions concerning Jesus. He is the one who - along with Nicodemus as recorded in the gospel of John - prepared and placed Jesus’ body in the tomb - most likely his own personal tomb. That’s pretty much all we know about him from scripture.
He crops up, however, in non-canonical texts and apocryphal writings, beginning in about the 2nd century, and is mentioned in the writings of some of the early church fathers and historians. Perhaps, though, what he is most well-known for on the legend spectrum of things is his association with the Holy Grail, which appeared in the Arthurian Cycle thanks a french poet who first surfaced the idea in a poem written about Joseph of Arimathea. Many of us probably think of that association - Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail - thanks to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - but there is a whole host of legends around him and his connection to Great Britain, where he may have been the first missionary, may have journeyed there to purchase tin and brought child Jesus along with him for the ride, all sorts of legends.
But - we’re going to leave all that legend stuff to the side and focus on what we do see present in this story.
The image that comes to mind for me is one that is well-depicted in the artwork created by Hannah Garrity - that of a man who is lovingly, tenderly, caring for the body of a friend. A man who carries Jesus when no one else would. A man who risks everything to show up for God’s kingdom.
Jesus had been executed as an enemy of the state - an enemy of the Roman Empire. Those on the council - who handed Jesus over to the secular authorities to be tried and punished - brought him to Pilate, the local representative of the Roman government - and accused Jesus of stirring up the people to be disobedient. The council finds itself in a difficult position - on the one hand, their survival as an ethnic and religious minority is predicated upon not doing anything that would upset their clearly more powerful overlords; on the other hand, they, too, aren’t exactly happy about living as an occupied people. Their decision to hand him over to Roman authorities - one that Joseph of Arimathea disagreed with - was most likely done out of self-preservation.
Crucifixion was also a method of execution reserved for slaves and for the worst criminals. It was a means used to terrorize others into subservience. In addition, those killed by the state in this way were often buried in mass graves or were in other ways denied burial rites from grieving family members, another way to oppress and ensure a compliant populace. Those who wished to tend to a loved one who had been crucified would have to beg the body from a government official so that proper rites could be administered - and it was no guarantee that such a request would be granted.
Yet in this story we have Joseph, a rich, respected, righteous and just man, a member of the council who asked Pilate for Jesus’s body - a move that would have highlighted Joseph of Arimathea’s relationship to this condemned criminal. He took it upon himself to give Jesus a dignified burial after a dehumanizing execution, an act that was courageous and personally risky - would this move jeopardize his place on the council? What about being ritually unclean the night before one of the most important holy days in the Jewish calendar? Or the risk of angering Pilate who had just crucified Jesus for treason? So much was at stake in this moment when the Romans were especially on the lookout for revolution (remember, that’s what the Passover story was all about, God’s liberation from oppression and slavery - and that’s what so many people were in Jerusalem to celebrate) and would be incredibly suspicious of anyone associated with Jesus. The instinct of many of the disciples was to hide away - watch from a distance - to not get involved - to grieve in private.
But Joseph steps into the silence. Joseph, a man who the text specifically notes was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, was ready to use his resources, his position, his privilege, his courage, to minister in this moment to Jesus. To give him a decent burial. To give him honor when the world wanted to take it away. To stand by Jesus and all that he stood for - even as all that Jesus stood for threatened the powers of this world. To love his rabbi publicly when everyone else chose a different path.
Hannah Garrity’s artist reflection is one filled with questions. She writes,
How heavy is the body of a dead man? Only with superhuman strength would this pose be possible. Yet, Joseph of Arimathea alone carries Jesus’ lifeless body. How did he do it? Why did he do it? Luke says, “He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51). Is this act good enough?
He was on the council. He disagreed with the majority. Why could he not stop the crucifixion from happening in the first place? Why did he fail to convince his fellow council members? Is this good deed enough to make up for such a monumental failure?
Or is Joseph of Arimathea at the right place at the right time? Is he able to dignify Jesus’ body after death? Does he play the vital role of the dissenter, picking up the pieces of the wrongs of the group? Does Joseph forward God’s plan for Jesus’ death and resurrection?
How weighty a task. What superhuman strength must we each have to forward God’s plan. Yet, God prepares us. We are ready.
I confess that I am moved by this outward display of care performed by Joseph of Arimathea. To minister to the dead is a profoundly sacred task. The act of preparing a body for burial – even under hasty circumstances – is one that requires care and attention so as not to damage the fragile skin tissue. It is an act of devotion that most of us in our society are far removed from – it is a task that others do on our behalf – so it may be challenging for us to fully appreciate the meaning ascribed to this act. Add to this the complex political environment, and we see Joseph as someone who was willing to risk everything – his social standing, his political standing, his wealth and resources, and potentially his very own life – to show love and devotion to Jesus as he waited expectantly for the fulfillment of God’s plan. In the midst of what looked like the death of a dream – when the kingdom that seemed to be within reach appeared to slip through the fingers of the disciples – Joseph continued to do what he could and was ready to use whatever he could to live in a way that honored the vision of God’s world made new.
Are we that ready and willing? That’s the question Joseph of Arimathea’s witness begs us to answer. When moments like this present themselves to us, are we able to leverage our resources, our relationships, our time and energy, our very selves, for something bigger that we can’t even fully see because we love Jesus and what Jesus offers us and the world that much? Far too often we let ourselves off the hook when it comes to questions like this – our faith oftentimes resides too much in our head and we can rationalize our way out of doing potentially risky things or things that would cost us social capital among our peers or things that would put us too much at odds with our society because deep down we really value those things – what people think of us, the power and influence we wield among our peers or in our community, and we don’t want to upset the status quo for the sake of this subversive upside-down vision of life in God’s kingdom where the last are first, where there is more than enough for all, where resurrection and life made new happen if we but have eyes to see it.
In the face of a brutal reality - after all, Joseph of Arimathea knew the full might of what Rome could do - he still chose to show up and to expect God to show up too. And that’s what we as a church, we as God’s people, need to be ready to do. To show up, use whatever we have, and expect God to be there too. In a world that feels like it is unraveling by the minute - God’s people show up and they are ready to be the hands and arms and feet that carry each other through. And that’s where we see the kingdom unfolding. When we show up and use our selves - even in ways that are personally risky and irrational - God shows up too. And that’s where church is. Church is not just about four walls and a worship service. Church is about showing up in our community for folks whose lives have been devastated by substance abuse. Showing up in our community for folks who are struggling to make ends meet, struggling with overpacked schedules, struggling with the weight of uncertain futures. Showing up in our community for those wrestling with their mental health and well-being. Showing up in our community as we think about the impacts of climate devastation in our world and dealing with climate refugees. Showing up for those who wonder if their right to marry or seek adequate health care will be the next thing to topple. Showing up and being a part of the healing work that God is about in our world. Showing up and carrying others - and yes, even being willing to be carried ourselves, if that is the place we find ourselves in - because being able to admit to others that we need to be carried is a way of showing up to ourselves.
We know the world is hurting. We know people in our community are hurting. We know friends and neighbors are hurting. How are we showing up? How are we using our time and energy, resources, privilege, and courage, to stand up for healing in a world full of pain? How are we expecting God to show up with us?
May we find ways this week to live our faith courageously like Joseph of Arimathea - to live in the hope of God’s kingdom in the face of difficult times, to carry each other in the shelter of healing, and to show up in this world, guided by the Spirit, as God’s people who love Jesus. Amen.
This week, instead of preaching from Esther 1, we used used a process of Visio Divina (Latin for "divine seeing"). We invited people to imagine the scene unfold as we heard Esther 1:1-20 read for us. Each person received one piece of artwork to reflect on before joining together in discussion groups to share thoughts and questions.
Below are the images we looked at together:
Queen Vashti Deposed - Ernest Normand
Vashti - Sara Beth Baca
Vashti Refuses the King's Summons - Edwin Long
Queen Vashti - G. Cuffia
I Dance Alone by Hannah Garrity
Scripture Daniel 3
I first learned this story in my children’s Bible that I had as a kid. It was a pretty small book of selected stories, not very thick, and each one-page story had a corresponding image and I vividly remember on the left hand side, the illustrated picture is of these flames done in the style of Eric Carle, with three, skinny brown men with white cloths around their waists, with black hair looking up with pleading expressions on their faces and arms held up in a “help me” gesture. I don’t really remember any other image or story from that book but for that one - and as a child, my take away was about God’s protection in saving these three men from the fiery furnace.
Fast forward maybe 10 years or so and I heard another interpretation of this story - one shared by Larry the cucumber and Bob the tomato in Veggie Tales - and if you haven’t seen the story of Rack, Shack, and Benny working in Mr. Nezzer’s chocolate factory making chocolate bunnies - I highly recommend the watch, it’s on YouTube, it’s aged pretty well - and the take away from that story for me as a 13 year old was about not giving in to peer pressure; don’t do something you know is wrong just because it’s cool or because other people that you like and admire are doing it. Probably a pretty good take away for a teenager, honestly.
It’s amazing how as we grow, stories may stay the same, but we glean different meanings out of them.
The book of Daniel is a fascinating book. The story is set in the 6th century - around the time of Israel's exile. To catch you up on your biblical history, the Babylonians had conquered the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was, and had taken many of the people (primarily important people actually - the nobles and religious authorities) into exile. Taken them away from their homeland. Eventually, these people got to return home and rebuild the Temple because Persia came in and conquered Babylon. Centuries later, Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great. So it's in this period of being ruled by Greeks, in the second century BCE, that the book of Daniel is written. It's written in the second century looking back at an earlier time in Jewish history. The book is part narrative (about Daniel and his friends) and part apocalyptical - which means it contains visions and rich imagery that paint a picture of the end of the current age and advent of God’s kingdom.
I share all this to help better understand what’s going on with the characters in this drama. This book was written to explore the question: “what does it mean to be Jewish - and live in ways that are faithful to God - in the midst of empire - in the middle of a society that doesn’t know or understand our God?” This is a tension they have lived for several centuries at this point - starting with the exile in the 6th century and continuing through the Persians and the Greeks - and even in Jesus’ time, under Roman occupation - that tension was still very real. Now, there probably wasn’t an actual person Daniel - or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego - what happens to them is supposed to represent what Jewish people were thinking and feeling in light of being a minority culture and religion.
That’s where this particular story comes in - Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego -- and these were their Babylonian names. We learn in the first chapter of Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar had changed their Hebrew names - names that had references to the Hebrew God to Babylonian names, containing references to the Babylonian gods. Right from the get go, the tension about identity and faithfulness in the face of empire is there.
All of this tension comes to a head in verse 13 where Nebuchadnezzar summons our three friends and says, “is it true that you don't serve my gods and you don't worship my statue?” He is furious with Shadrach Meshach and Abednego, and he gives them an ultimatum. “If you do not worship this statue, you will be thrown into this blazing fiery furnace and then who will deliver you then? What God will save you?”
And I love their response. They say oh Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If I were God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand o king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, oh King, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.
Of course, Nebuchadnezzar is even more enraged at this. He orders the furnace to be heated up more than it ever had before and orders Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to be bound and throws them in. His own guards were killed in this process because the fire was so hot. But then we know the rest of the story. There's a fourth figure in the flames as if an angel were there The appearance of a god it says. And Nebuchadnezzar has a change of heart. In front of all his officials he praises God and promotes the three friends to higher offices and all is made well.
But in that pivotal moment, when the king threatens death and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to worship and say, “if God saves us, great; but if not, we’d rather die than worship your gods or this statue” - I wonder what they were feeling. Fear? Anger? Grief? Calm? Did their voices shake? Was it a planned moment of defiance?
What strikes me is their clarity of purpose. For them, worshiping other Gods was not an area of compromise for them. I’m sure, living as Jewish citizens of Babylon, there were areas of tension they had to wrestle with in order to be faithful to God and to carry out their duties in the empire. They had to figure out which lines they would not cross. It’s clear in this passage that violating two of the 10 commandments - no other gods and no graven images - would not be an area of compromise for them. When their responsibility to the empire demanded that of them, they would rather face death. Their sense of integrity and conviction - more than their hope that God would save them - is what for me stands out as I read this passage again at this point in my life…and in this moment in our history.
Christians, too, live with this tension of how to be faithful to God - and how to be good citizens, especially in our country. Of course, our faith impacts what we believe to be just and unjust, our faith in God informs what we think about policies, but there are many times when faithfulness to God and to God’s realm puts us at odds with living in a secular society. It makes me think about Jesus’ words - we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s - but what does that mean as people of faith who believe and trust that all of what we have belongs to God -- and who are called to follow the teachings of Jesus, even when those teachings could have political consequences?
To be sure, this doesn’t just happen in our country - this kind of tension can even happen in churches - as we’ve experienced rather directly in stepping away from the United Methodist Church and what our commitment to God’s embrace of all people means for us - that’s a line that we wouldn’t cross to stay a part of that denomination- and to be sure, it felt a bit like I was standing in the fiery furnace alongside Sara and Linda as we presented the case for disaffiliation on behalf of you all.
But that line for each of us - the line where faithfulness to God comes before anything else - anything our country asks of us, anything our church may ask of us, anything our job may ask of us - is one that each of us has to discover for ourselves.
The study guide to this series asks a question for reflection: What symbols, figures, or objects are we tempted to worship or idolize today? Certainly worship of certain ideologies or allegiances to symbols may be an area that brings up tension within us - much like it did for Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. Other areas of tension may crop up as our country engages in or supports armed conflict around the globe - and I know many of you remember times when the draft was still happening. There’s any number of issues that may highlight that tension - where what God hopes for may not be in alignment with what is asked of us as part of being a good citizen.
What the story of our three friends highlights for me, though, is that we have to figure out those places for ourselves - and trust that faithful living looks like for us may not be as important for someone else.
The other piece, however, is to be willing to face that furnace when the chips are down. To resist injustice in such a way that understands that faith sometimes will not save us from the fiery furnace but that our faith will sometimes lead us right into the blaze - and we don’t know if God will be with us to deliver us in that moment or if we will be consumed. It doesn’t matter. Our conviction in the laws of a higher moral authority mean that there are things we cannot compromise on and if God cannot save us from the consequences we face, well, then better to suffer for justice than to compromise with injustice….and that even if God doesn’t deliver us, God’s presence meets us in the midst of it all.
So if there are things that are tugging at your heart right now - places of injustice in our world, places where you feel at odds with our culture, places where you are struggling with that tension between faithfulness to God and being a good citizen - you are not alone. If you are being called toward civil disobedience in the tradition of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the tradition of MLK Jr., in the tradition of so many others who broke civic laws for the sake of a higher pursuit of justice - you are not alone. If you find yourself in the fire because you have found the place for you where faithfulness to God is above anything else that may be asked of you - you are not alone. May you find the strength and courage to stand in those places - in the face of the power and might of everything standing against you - the officials and precepts and treasurers, and satraps and the drums and the musical ensembles - and the Nebechednezzurs. God is with you - no matter what. May you stand in the fire - may it purify and refine you - and may it be a witness for justice. Amen.
Scripture Luke 2:21-24; 36-40
Luke 2:21-24; 36-40 (Contemporary English Version)
21 When eight days had passed, Jesus’ parents circumcised him and gave him the name Jesus. This was the name given to him by the angel before he was conceived. 22 When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (23 It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24 They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37 She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee. 40 The child grew up and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Most every congregation has one. Think of churches that you have been connected to in the past - perhaps this one, perhaps a church that you were a part of growing up. Think of that one person who was - maybe still is - a beloved saint - you know - the one who embodied holiness, the one who exuded peace and love and humility and patience, the one who you could tell had Jesus as a dearest, intimate friend. They have been shaped by time, by life, but most importantly by God and you can sense the Holy Spirit in their bones. These are the folks who, in the theological tradition of John Wesley, would have just about achieved Christian perfection - that is to say, all thoughts and actions are motivated by pure love of God.
These are the elders who take children under their wings, wash the dishes at coffee hour Sunday after Sunday, write notes of encouragement, who listen to you with their whole being as a form of prayer, who are faithful week after week with the small things that most people don’t even notice, who make you feel at home in their presence, who are the first to bake a casserole if you are having a hard time (or if they can’t do that, will order delivery). They have the time to stop whatever they're doing for a moment of your company. They seem to see the world more clearly and can get to the heart of things after a moment of silent reflection. They will sit with you. Pray with you. Look you in the eyes…and see you…and love you.
And you know they do it because they love God. It shows in every little thing they do, like a halo shimmer, rippling through their life.
You have that person in your mind….
…take your marker…and write their name down on the circle you have…hold on to that name and when you leave today, place it in the basket on your way out.
…these are people who have shaped your faith - whether directly or indirectly. The fact that you remember them and how they carried themselves in the world shows that they, through their words or their actions, left an imprint on your soul - that God worked through them to touch you, even to this day.
That, I imagine, is much how Anna, the woman in our story, must have been like. She is often a footnote in the story; typically when we read this part of scripture, we include her counterpart Simeon (though really we don’t know anything about the connection between these two people, presumably they didn’t know each other at all). We focus a lot on Simeon because he speaks and those of us from more liturgical traditions might know the Canticle of Simeon (Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior…) The text says that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and had revealed to him that he wouldn’t die until he had seen Jesus and the Spirit led him to the Temple. Mary and Joseph walk in, Simeon recognizes who Jesus is right away, even as a little baby, and speaks praise and blessing over Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
Meanwhile, we have Anna. Widowed for most of her life. 84 years old. She knows the challenges life brings - her husband died after a few short years of marriage, so she’s someone who knows grief as an intimate partner. She’s lived through the Roman empire capturing the city of Jerusalem from the Seleucid empire - she would have been a young girl of 15 or so. She’s found life and meaning through her time at the Temple, where she spends night and day in prayer, who knows how long that has been a part of her life. The text names her a prophetess, the only women expressly described as such in the New Testament. She doesn’t need the Holy Spirit to tell her who Jesus was. She sees him and knows him and praises God and starts to tell everyone she could about him. Where Simeon reserves his words for God and the holy family, Anna spreads the news far and wide. She is a witness - far more so than Simeon, actually - and shares this Good News of redemption…well before Jesus had done anything that we normally think of as miraculous, well before Jesus could speak, well before he died and rose again. Anna knows…Anna can see it…and she celebrates the dawning of a world made new.
Lisle Gwynn Garity writes, in her artist reflection, Perhaps being at the end of her life helped her to see the world with eyes sharpened for the holy. Perhaps living most of her years as a widow kept her hiding in the shadows, to keep from taking up too much space, when Simeon approached first to announce praise and prophesies on behalf of the newborn child. Perhaps being a prophet made her both patient and persistent, trusting that the right moment to share her wisdom would, indeed, come.
The moment came, for there was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel. Luke could have easily left Anna out of the story. But she leans in—from the margins, from the shadows, from the edges of the scene to approach her newborn king.
Perhaps Luke knew that those on the outside seemed to have the nearest access to Jesus. Those on the margins saw what others could not yet see. They knew without really knowing, because it was the kind of knowledge that shifts the chemistry of your heart.
She concludes with this: When drawing this image, I referenced photographs of Mother Teresa because I imagine her, like Anna a few centuries before, having eyes for the divine and devoting her entire life to pointing it out for others.
The image of Anna, the images of our beloved, perfected-in-love elders, are, to me, beautiful ones, because they demonstrate so clearly what a life lived in the light of God’s love looks like in the flesh. It shows that the path, while narrow, is well-worn with the footsteps of the faithful, who had eyes big enough to drink in the divine and let the holiness spill out unabashedly around them. We not only need the people who are so in tune with Jesus that they can’t help but spot him in a crowd….but we can also become them. That’s what I think about as I consider what discipleship means, it’s not about memorizing Bible verses for the sake of knowledge, or practicing piety as a checklist to satisfy an obligation (though it may feel like it at times), but about steeping your whole being in the presence of God, yearning to meet God in the Bible, to meet God in prayer, to meet God in the woods or at the beach, to meet God in the face of a child, to meet God in the stillness, to meet God in the face of the immigrant or unhoused, to meet God in the distractions and in the ordinariness of the everyday. And as we notice the places of life and love, of God’s transforming power, of resurrection and redemption, of peace and healing and wholeness, of a new way of being human together - we begin pointing those places out to others. We, too, will become witnesses of this world made new that is right in front of us. We, too, will pass along that Good News to the next generation -- and the way that news gets carried may look nothing like what we’re doing here right now. After all, worship in the early church - not what it looks like today. The first gatherings of Christians here on this island, in class meetings, look nothing like what we’re doing here today. The container changes. The saints, look different. The Good News stretches beyond time and space - and as we are faithful to that message, we will see God move in ways we never thought possible.
Anna knew that the redemption of Jerusalem was at hand upon seeing the infant Jesus. She may not have known what that looked like - after all, people were gunning for a revolution and overthrow of the Roman empire and a restoration of the Kingdom of Israel to its full height and glory…not death on a cross and resurrection. But those who clung to the message of hope that Jesus shared, those who strove to see the kingdom in their midst as Jesus saw it, those who went through the valley of suffering and stuck together and believed - believed - even as they questioned and wondered - were blessed to experience what God was doing.
I believe that is true for every faith community - the ability to be faithful to the message will bring fruits beyond our imagining - not what we may want, but what God wants to do with us. I believe there’s incredible wisdom in those old saints who have seen some stuff in their lives - who know how God has been faithful to them - who have spent their lives in God’s presence - and who know how God will be faithful to us in the future -- even though we have no idea what that looks like.
To be sure, we’ve been in this incredibly uncertain time - as a congregation, as an island community, as a democracy. Many churches are facing dwindling numbers as priorities have changed for people during the pandemic. People aren’t coming back in the way so many churches have hoped. And our island is facing some existential questions related to housing and childcare that underpin so much of our ability to function together. (I’ll leave some of the bigger political questions off the table for now.) But what saints like Anna - Anna who had the eyes to see how God was moving and the lips to share that with others - have to teach us is that even in these times, God is present. God is moving. God may not be doing what we expect or are accustomed to - but if we pay attention, we’ll see what that new thing might be - and we can share that new thing with others. It might look like a church organizing around meals together and helping people access food - which continues to be hard for so many people, especially here. It might look like a church spending more time out on the trails and finding God in relationship with our non-human kin and figuring out what climate resilience looks like for us and our community.
As long as we are faithful to what we’re sensing from God - God will lead us into places of life and fruitfulness, even if they are places we never could have imagined.
We’re going to close this morning by singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” God has seen us through this year as we’ve lived *almost* a full year as a community church, a huge accomplishment in and of itself. But what I hope for you as you sing this hymn today, is to imagine this church as you sing it. “Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto us.” And be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit as you sing. Note what comes up -- and perhaps share it as we move into our time of Joys and Concerns afterward. I invite us to stand and sing Great is Thy Faithfulness, number 140 in your red hymnal, as a way of symbolizing a commitment to God’s leading in this time together.
Scripture Numbers 27:1-11
Numbers 27:1-11 (Common English Bible)
27 The daughters of Zelophehad, Hepher’s son, Gilead’s grandson, Machir’s great-grandson, and Manasseh’s great-great-grandson, belonging to the clan of Manasseh son of Joseph, came forward. His daughters’ names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2 They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chiefs, and the entire community at the entrance of the meeting tent and said, 3 “Our father died in the desert. He wasn’t part of the community who gathered against the Lord with Korah’s community. He died for his own sin, but he had no sons. 4 Why should our father’s name be taken away from his clan because he didn’t have a son? Give us property among our father’s brothers.”
5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6 The Lord said to Moses: 7 Zelophehad’s daughters are right in what they are saying. By all means, give them property as an inheritance among their father’s brothers. Hand over their father’s inheritance to them. 8 Speak to the Israelites and say: If a man dies and doesn’t have a son, you must hand his inheritance over to his daughters. 9 If he doesn’t have a daughter, you will give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he doesn’t have any brothers, you should give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 If his father had no brothers, you should give his inheritance to his nearest relative from his clan. He will take possession of it. This will be a regulation and a case law for the Israelites, as the Lord commanded Moses.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
they stood by lauren wright pittman
graphic image | inspired by numbers 27:1-11
I imagine the daughters had to fill the entire tent in order to be heard. I imagine Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah took the shape of the tent of meeting, a place where they were met by powerful men, a place of sacrifice and worship—not a place where a woman’s voice was often heard. The text says the women came forward; they stood, they spoke, they questioned, and they even demanded. Any one of those actions alone is difficult for the unseen and unheard. All they wanted was to receive the inheritance of their father and to keep his name from fading. I’m sure the pain of their father’s death was potent, but they needed to be recognized, valued, and seen as human beings in order to survive.
The catalyst for this moment isn’t only the women’s strength; it also took a man in power to listen, to open his heart, to wrestle, and to offer his grasp over this patriarchal law to God. When Moses offered up his control and dared to consider a new way, God heard the voices of these women. “They are right,” God said. The old law was no longer suitable, so God made way for change. Though the laws were probably carved into stone, God shows us in this text that the law is living, breathing, adaptable, and changing.
This text invites us to come forward, to stand, to speak, to question, and to demand change when we experience injustice. When the powers in place don’t budge, that is not the end of the story. When you personally aren’t experiencing injustice, that does not mean you should bask in your comfort. For those whose voices are less valued, for those who go unseen, for those who have fought a long and continuing fight, we must breathe life into those old, tired, worn-out laws. In this image, the winds of change, the breath of God, surrounds the tent of meeting and the voice of God descends on these women, hearing their cry. New life sprouts from the ground as the law is heard afresh. —Lauren Wright Pittman
Reflection Questions (from Faces of our Faith Study Guide)
• How do the daughters make their case before Moses? What rationale do they present? How might this new law affect their tribe as a whole?
• In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argues the differences between just and unjust laws. How do you discern the difference between laws that are just and unjust? How does God define what is just? What current laws might need to be re-examined?
• How do we lift our voices and share our truth with one another in our community? How do we balance power and listen to the voices of all, especially those at the edge of “the tent?”
A few years ago, I became aware of a man named Frank Caprio. Frank Caprio is a judge in Providence, RI. He was born there to a father who was an immigrant from Italy and an Italian American mother whose family had also emigrated from Italy. He has spent most of his life living in the city. While a high school teacher in Providence, he attended night school in Boston for a law degree. Since 1985 he’s been a Providence Municipal Court Judge….and that has led him to some internet fame, when in 2017, videos of him went viral. Turns out he had been hosting a TV show called Caught in Providence that ran on the cable access for years - it featured him presiding over low-level court cases involving citations - mostly parking tickets and traffic violations. But the way he presides is unique. Here’s one episode, airing from Martin Luther King Jr. day from 2018:
Now, for many of us, a parking ticket or other traffic violation may not be a big deal - frustrating for sure, annoying but hardly a hardship, financially or otherwise. Many people who appear before Judge Caprio would be hard pressed to come up with the $25 to pay their tickets, who need that money to buy milk or keep a roof over their heads. What I see in what Judge Caprio offers is compassion and understanding - seeing the stories of people in their contexts, and knowing that justice - even in these minor cases - is not holding them to the letter of the law and exacting fines from them, but offering them mercy, a second chance, an opportunity to move forward. It may not be actually changing the law - like what happens in our story for this morning - but it represents a broader understanding of justice that points to some of the dynamics from our passage this morning.
What we have from scripture today is the daughters of Zelophehed - Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah - women who are named in scripture, which generally means - pay attention. That this story is mentioned at all is a remarkable thing, given that at that time in history, and indeed, throughout much of history, property was inherited by the men - upon a man’s passing, the inheritance was divided among his sons, or in the absence of sons, divided among his brothers, or if he had no sons and no brothers, divided among his father’s brothers. The fact that this story was preserved and written down meant that the interaction these women had with Moses and the priests conveyed something important about God - namely, that God said, “yes - the law you have now isn’t right. Change it for them - and for any women whose father dies leaving no sons.”
Certainly Moses could have said - well, you ladies are tough out of luck. The law is the law - no inheretance for you. You’ll have to beg off of your uncles for a place in their households. He instead brings it before God - knowing, as intimately as Moses knew God, that he was giving up his own power and say in the matter. God writes a new law - one that is more just, one that more fully took into consideration the needs of those who would have been disempowered by the old law.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all." Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust…An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself.”
This discussion and understanding is really important right now as we consider what justice looks like - as we consider (and watch) how laws are applied unequally based on whether or not one has power and access to good lawyers and how over time the rules in our country have prevented minority groups from accumulating wealth and economic power as a whole. And while we can disagree politically on how that all plays out in our society, what I cannot deny is how God continues throughout scripture to consider and prioritize the needs of the poor, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. Those on the fringes, those without power because of circumstance - family death, illness. Those who cannot fully advocate for themselves in the normal places of power. We see it in the Hebrew Bible with the laws - we see it in the actions of Jesus.
How we hold these truths together as a community says a lot about whose voices we prioritize. People notice what we stand for as a church - and what we don’t. It is in those places, standing with those who have been dismissed and dehumanized, where the church finds its greatest strength and relevance, its deepest convictions and moral witness. Standing with the powerful and wealthy, with the status quo - we’ve seen how that has played out for the church as a whole. God tends not to look favorably when the church aligns itself with systems of power and dominance - whether that be the Roman Empire or America. God consistently works to bring the voices and stories of those on the edges of society to the fore, even - and especially - when it makes the dominant group uncomfortable. Because as we talked about last week - each person is God’s beloved child. Each person is valued - and when our culture or society tries to tell us otherwise, it’s our obligation as people who follow Jesus to push back and listen to the voices and experiences of those whose very personhood is threatened and who are systematically being disenfranchised.
The story of these women who were courageous enough to confront their legal and religious authorities reminds us of the many people who have stood up and shared their injustices and pleaded for a new way. It reminds us of places where we can be allies and stand in solidarity, lifting up their stories, working to make change as we understand how everything - everything - must be seen in its context and wholeness. It reminds us that being God’s people together is about the willingness to put everything else to the side for the sake of love - love of God, love of others - and not a charitable love that assumes we know what’s best - but a love steeped in justice that enables us to hear the call of God in the stories of the other.
This morning we’ll close in song - it’s a new one for all of us (I just learned it this week too) - it’s about being the people of God - the daring it takes to imagine what that means in this world, the courage it takes to live that out together, and the trust it takes to commit to that love above all else - and the ways it will change us, and the ways that it invites the church to change as well. Let us stand and sing together.
*Hymn - Imagine the People of God (will need lyric sheet)
Imagine, Imagine the people of God
Imagine the people of God
Believing, receiving, becoming God’s love
Imagine the people of God
Imagine, Imagine the people of God
Imagine the people of God
Caring, sharing God’s love in the world
Imagine the people of God
Seeking the way of Jesus Christ
Trusting the courage to change
Being God’s love with neighbors and friends
Imagine the people of God
Growing, Becoming Community
Imagine the people of God
Trusting in God’s abundant grace
Speaking the truth in love.
Nourished in the Spirit’s power
We are your people, O God
Imagine, Imagine the people of God
Imagine the people of God
Believing, receiving, becoming God’s love
We are your people, O God
Scripture Exodus 1:8-22
Exodus 1:8-22 (NRSV)
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians subjected the Israelites to hard servitude 14 and made their lives bitter with hard servitude in mortar and bricks and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - For One Great Peace (FWS 2185)
This thread I weave,
this step I dance,
this stone I carve,
this ball I bounce,
this nail I drive,
this pearl I string,
this flag I wave,
this note I sing.
This pot I shape,
this fire I light,
this fence I leap,
this bone I knit,
this seed I nurse,
this rift I mend,
this child I raise,
this earth I tend.
This check I write,
this march I join,
this faith I state,
this truth I sign,
this is small part,
in one small place,
of one heart's beat
for one great Peace.
[put artwork up]
In preparing for this week’s sermon, I came across this story - I saw it shared by the Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church. I offer it today as we begin our exploration of the text:
Jacqueline Murekatete grew up on a farm in Rwanda. She was the second oldest of seven children. She and her family were members of the Tutsi tribe. In April 1994, Jacqueline, who was 9 years old at the time, was visiting with her grandmother as Hutu men armed with guns, machetes, and clubs descended on the village. Jacqueline and her grandmother moved from place to place, always in hiding. They eventually found a Hutu family who were hiding Tutsis. A week later they were discovered but by some miracle the men who found them gave a warning and left saying that they would be back. Eventually, her grandmother would take her to an orphanage run by Italian priests who decided to stay to protect the children at the risk of their own lives. While she was there, she was reunited with cousins who told her how her village and family was destroyed. Most of her family had been killed, including her grandmother. Eventually, in October of 1995, her uncle living in New York City was able to adopt her and fly her in as an asylum seeker.
What a beautiful and heartbreaking story of deliverance and survival as she escaped the horrors of genocide….of courage and bravery on the part of the Hutu family who resisted and chose to shelter fleeing Tutsis. Throughout history, we see examples of people who chose to protect and liberate at the risk of great personal danger - whether that be the Underground Railroad guiding formerly enslaved folks to freedom or Germans and others who housed Jews and other targeted people, or in this case, the Rwandan genocide.
In our story this morning, a new pharaoh rose to power in Egypt - one who didn’t have the same kind of relationship with Joseph - and by extension, Joseph’s family. Joseph, though he was sold into enslavement by his brothers, eventually found a position of power and security in Pharaoh’s household, and when there was a famine in the land - a famine so severe it impacted the land of Canaan and Joseph's family - all of his brothers and his father and servants and their families and children and livestock came to live in Egypt, where Joseph, out of his power and wealth, helped secure their livelihoods.
Once a new power was on the throne, however, all bets were off. The prosperity and proliferation of the Hebrew people became seen as a threat to Egyptian power. Fear and feelings of superiority led the pharaoh to enslave them, forcing them to build supply cities and dealing with them harshly in their labor. He pit the Egyptian people against the Hebrew people by setting task masters over them.
When this only served to make the Hebrews more numerous, he called in Shiphrah and Puah, and gave the command for genocide - kill the baby boys and let the baby girls live.
There’s a fascinating bit to this story - it’s unclear if Shiphrah and Puah are Egyptians or Hebrew women. The text can be translated either as Hebrew midwives or as Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews. Some scholarship argues that these two women were Egyptian - because it would have been natural for Hebrew women to disregard and disobey Pharaoh’s orders. Shiphrah and Puah - most likely “head midwives”, are addressed directly by the pharaoh with this command. But because of these two women and their fear of God, they did not do as they were told.
I have to wonder if part of this is also because these two women saw the humanity of the Hebrew people. The pharaoh, through his enslavement campaign, through fear and manipulation, had tried to dehumanize this whole group of people in the eyes of the Egyptians - trying to make them see that Hebrews are no better than laborers, beasts of burden, animals of the field. After all, that’s the lie that Shiphrah and Puah construct to cover their disobedience and throw back in Pharaoh’s face - that the Hebrew women are so strong in the field that they give birth before any one is there to help them, just like animals do.
In reality, Shiphrah and Puah come face to face with the humanity of the Hebrew people each time they assist at a birth. If you’ve ever been in the room with a pregnant person giving birth, you’d be hard pressed not to see the humanity in the midst of the labor struggle. Shiphrah and Puah would be in the thick of things, giving words of encouragement, breathing alongside the mother, giving physical support. They would be in the homes of the Hebrew families, watching the love and tenderness of welcoming new life into the world, watching the grief and pain with miscarriages or ended pregnancies.
Pharaoh’s attempt to dehumanize the Hebrew people failed with Shiphrah and Puah because of the ways they were willing to encounter the other and because of their sense of who God is - and this gave them the courage to stand up to Pharaoh and to live in a way that resisted his attempts to oppress the Hebrew people into submission and subservience.
One of the things I find fascinating about these two women - and indeed, the many unnamed women in this story who continued to choose birth and life even in the face of oppression - is that their resistance to systems of power isn’t necessarily direct confrontation. That comes later in Exodus, with Moses leading the people out. Their resistance is a quiet defiance, a cunning working within the system, a simple living an alternative witness to the accepted cultural narrative of power and dominance of the superiority of the Egyptian people.
“They Said No” by Lisle Gwynn Garity writes this about her artwork:
These midwives, these lowest-of-the-low-status-women who likely had no husbands, who were simply glorified servants, who, themselves, may have been deemed infertile and therefore useless to a family system, risk everything to say no.
Through this simple but mighty act, they change the course of history so that, many, many years later, another baby boy born into a dark world of genocide might also survive and flourish and grow up to redeem the world.
In this painting, these hands represent the women’s resistance. They are the hands that said no to a power-hungry ruler but yes to a God of justice—to a God who transforms a story of massacre into one of liberation. The impact of their actions, like the waters of the Nile, ripples out far beyond them.
I think about this as well from our opening story this morning - the family of Hutus who chose to harbor Jacqueline so that she might get to safety, who chose to say no and see the humanity of many Tutsi people so they might be saved. This family remains unnamed in what we heard, but because of their action, Jacqueline survived - and is a human rights activist and founder of the Genocide Surviors Foundation. Her work revolves around preventing genocide worldwide while also assisting other survivors in the areas of education, economic empowerment, health, and legal aid. One quiet act of resistance resulted in hope for others impacted by genocide - and puts forth a vision for a world where these kinds of atrocities driven by hate and bigotry do not exist.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider what’s happening in our world - in our country - today as an attempt by systems of power and dominance to continue to demonize “the other” - anyone who is different, anyone who doesn’t fit into the image of “normal” in some way shape or form. We see it in the laws that get passed, the rights that get taken away, the acts of violence that keep cropping up everywhere we look. We see this in subtle - and in not so subtle - ways, and in particular, we see the rise of extremism and while many people when directly confronted would not say that there is a group of people they hate, how this gets played out in our society right now is framing Black folks and other people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals and their families, disabled people, and children as less deserving of humanity than others.
Our faith calls all people God’s beloved children. People we don’t agree with, people who rub us the wrong way, people who look and act differently than us, people who the world tries to tell us we’re better than, people we may want to call unworthy. That’s the beauty of our faith that is threatening to people who want to hoard power and domination - because to dominate means that you are putting yourself or your group over that of another. There isn’t room for that in God’s kingdom. There isn’t room for that in the church. There isn’t room for that among people who seek to follow Jesus. That’s the vision of justice that Shiphrah and Puah in their act of resistance were birthing - saying no to co-operating worldly power and claiming better-than status…and saying yes to God…and in doing so, changing the course of history.
Shiphrah and Puah remind us to live lives of resistance to systems of power and domination and to live as people who answer to God. That may look like having curious conversations with people who have harmful ideologies. That may look like intentionally building a Spirit-filled community of radical love and care - like Mary Jane shared in her sermon a couple of weeks ago - going out of our way to welcome children or refugees, to do menial tasks for those who are feeling overwhelmed, to see beyond the surface needs of others around us and tend to the things that nourish one another. We are midwives of justice - our hands are Christ’s hands - as we partner with God to be examples of what God’s love on earth looks like in action.
May we choose to live as witnesses, to say yes to God’s path, to be ripples of justice echoing out into the world, to stand against the dehumanizing powers of this world - because we serve a God who gave up power and status and every privilege to live among us in the flesh, who resisted systems of power and domination in the way he taught and healed and ate with others, who loved us even unto death to demonstrate the depth of love, and who rose again in defiance of death itself. May we seek to always live the path of Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.