All Saints Day 2009 (Our God is a God of Life)
Pentecost 22 (Year B) - November 1, 2009
Our Old Testament reading is from the Book of Ruth. Is *the* passage from the Book of Ruth. Bringing heathens to the one true God through the power of queerness. On this Sunday when Cambridge Welcoming Ministries celebrates and honors contemporary saints who have worked for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons at all levels of the United Methodist Church.
And then we get to the Epistle to the Hebrews, which makes explicit that blood atonement theology that so many of us find so problematic and even hurtful.
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), she entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with her own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered herself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!The more time I spend at Cambridge Welcoming, the more uncomfortable I become with the body and blood language in Communion. My mother was one of the people who pushed back on me about this. She said:
For this reason she is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
I still think that the fact that Jesus was literally broken for us is core to the Christian faith. [...] And I thought that your birth required that I be cut open. It strikes me that the greatest treasures require sacrifice of some kind. Some are harsher than others.My brother George and I were both born through caesarian section (yay modern medicine -- my mom would have died twice over otherwise). The poem she refers to is about the experience of receiving Communion in the hospital after having given birth to him. In it she says:
It reminded me of the poem I wrote when George was born. Somehow it is important to me to remember that Jesus suffered for us. His pain was real because he was really human. And if we don't acknowledge his brokenness, somehow we are disrespecting his sacrifice.
In my hand I hold the bread;What strikes me in this is the LIFE imagery. It's not about glorifying the pain and suffering that were a part of the journey to this moment; instead it's celebrating the life that has come out of this.
Cradling, blessing, my baby's head.
Rememb'ring when I was torn
That this new life might be born.
As I drink His holy wine,
My baby partakes of mine.
He takes his life from my breast,
His tender self in quiet rest.
Reenacted holy communion
With every birth, at each nursing breast.
Mother and child in holy union.
Hear again the Gospel:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, the scribe asked Jesus, "Which commandment is the first of all?"I admit, the first time I read this lectionary passage this week, I only kind of skimmed it -- having heard this basic story so many times before. But when I went back to edit the gendered language, I noticed something I hadn't caught the first time: "this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." This -- to love God with all that one has and to love one's neighbor as oneself.
Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
Then the scribe said to Jesus, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'God is one, and besides God there is no other;' and 'to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,' — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."
When Jesus saw that the scribe answered wisely, Jesus said to the scribe, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question.
This reminds me of Jesus saying elsewhere in the Gospels (Matthew 9:9-13), "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." He's quoting the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:4-6, NIV):
"What can I do with you, Ephraim?What is most striking to me in reading that Hosea passage is, "Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears." That's a harsh critique -- that our devotion evaporates under the slightest heat. The verse that follows says, "Like the first human (or like humanity) they have broken the covenant — they were unfaithful to me there." We don't offer burnt offerings these days, but there are many other ways in which we make as if to give to God without offering our hearts. How many times have we failed to live into the covenant with God?
What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
I killed you with the words of my mouth;
my judgments flashed like lightning upon you.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings."
We call ourselves Christians -- at least most of us gathered here do -- and yet we are so very much "of the world." We go on "diets," not because we want to honor the body we have which is created in God's image by feeding it food full of justice and nutrients and love, but because we believe the voices of the world that there is some magic number at which we are acceptable. We mutter curses at those traveling the road with us rather than joining our hearts with theirs and praying for peace, patience, and safety. We shake our heads at those we pass on the street who are begging for spare change rather than inviting them to sit with us in a coffee shop, to buy them something to warm their hands and fill their bellies. Over and over we turn away from that Emmaus encounter, when the risen Christ was revealed to the mourning disciples in the breaking of bread -- the breaking of bread with an apparent STRANGER they encountered on the road. Tiffany exhorts us to "look around," to see that "Christ is present" in the gathered congregation. Far more challenging is a practice Anne Lamott writes about in one of her books -- to see each person she encounters when she is out walking her dog as if that person were Christ. Because that person is Christ. We can all recite Matthew 25 -- "whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me"... feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned. And we are ALL "the least of these." Everyone is hungry for something, sick from something, imprisoned by something. And we are called to be God's hands and feet and voices and shoulders in the world -- to be the BODY of Christ in the world, ministering to this embodied world.
We are, to quote from Ann B. Day's liturgy in Shaping Sanctuary (p. 97, based on I Corinthians 12:14-31), "The hand clapping, toe tapping, heart pumping, mouth tasting, arms embracing, justice seeking, hymn singing, love making, bread breaking, risk taking, Body of Christ."
To return to the passage from Ruth... Ruth gives up EVERYTHING. "Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried."
That is some radical fidelity.
I'm less interested in wrestling with Paul and making peace with atonement theology than I am in challenging us to live in to this Call -- this Call to walk with God, to make God's ways our ways, to love God and our neighbor and ourselves all with our whole being. Yes, I believe that just as we are called to love God with heart, mind, strength, and soul, so too are we called to love our neighbors -- for we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and how can we love ourselves except with all of our selves -- our heart, our mind, our strength, and our soul.
So why should we want to walk with this God? This God who calls us to give up the walks, the lodgings, the people, and the gods of our former lives? This God who births us into the world but exhorts us to not be "of" this world?
In the daily lectionary readings leading up to this Sunday, Tuesday's readings are Ezekiel 18:1-32 and Acts 9:32-35. From Ezekiel:
Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Sovereign Lord God. Turn, then, and live. (Ezekiel 18:31-32, NRSV)And from Acts:
As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. "Aeneas," Peter said, "Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat." Immediately Aeneas got up. All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw Aeneas and turned to the Lord. (Acts 9:32-35, NIV)Our God is a God of life.
God calls us to cast off that which keeps us from relationship with God and to repent, to turn back to God. God lifts us out of our paralysis, calls us out of our beds, invites us to be a living sacrament pointing to the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all that is.
Every week at Wednesday night service I say, "This is the Bread of Life, that you might have life abundant." I might also say, recalling my best friend's threefold reflections on the Bread of Life lectionary arc: "This is the Bread of Life, that you might have life, and have it abundantly, and have life everlasting."
Our God is a God of life.
"I desire mercy, not sacrifice."
The letter to the Hebrews speaks of the high priest Christ who entered into the Holy Place with her own blood. But Ruth needed no blood to join with Naomi, she merely pledged her life to hers. We have had enough of death when this story opens. Naomi's husband Elimelech "died" we are told, and her two sons -- Mahlon and Kilion, the husbands of Orpah and Ruth -- "were killed." Famine drove Naomi and her family from Judah to Moab, and famine (in some sense no less literal a famine, as she has no male kindred to provide for her in Moab) drives her back to Judah. "So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning." [Ruth 1:22, NIV, from Thursday's daily lectionary] The famine in Judah is over, and Naomi is returning to her people, just as the harvest is beginning.
Our God is a God of life. Of abundance and renewal, of welcome and family.
Hear again the Psalm:
Praise the Lord our God! Praise the Lord, O my soul!I struggled with the lectionary texts this week, and also with how to preach a sermon on All Saints Day, particularly in light of the sudden losses suffered by some of my friends.
I will praise you as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. God, you set the prisoners free;
you open the eyes of the blind. You lift up those who are bowed down; you love the righteous.
You watch over the strangers; you uphold the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked you bring to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Alleluia!
I finished reading Emil Fackenheim's What Is Judaism? this Saturday. In a section titled "The World to Come and the Holocaust," Fackenheim writes, "Only if we share in the anguish of the victims dare we affirm their resurrection. Only then dare we affirm the resurrection of anyone. For if the world to come does not exist for them, it does not exist at all." (p. 274)
And yet we are a resurrection people. A people who affirm that Weeping may come in the night, but joy will come with the dawn.
In our brokenness, our barrenness, and even in our bitterness, we are over and over again welcomed back to Bethlehem, just as the harvest is beginning. We are called to work the fields and welcome the stranger, called to embrace long-lost family members and those they bring with them.
On this All Saints Day, I invite us all to help share in the long birthing process toward new life and renewal.
Hey look, I'm starting to title my sermons.
I still struggle with language for naming God. I have mixed feelings about "Lord" language -- it is meant to say, "God is Lord, and Caesar is not," but is the image of God sitting on Caesar's throne really our ideal image? I'm tempted to start using "El Shaddai" and "Adonai" because they feel natural to me from having grown up with Amy Grant (unlike, for example, "HaShem") but the literal meaning isn't immediately obvious to most people (myself included), so I feel less like I'm perpetuating hierarchical images of God (even though Adonai does mean Lord, and I think El Shaddai means The Almighty).
I like shifting Psalms into second person, since it seems natural to address them to God (so it gets rid of a lot of the issues around language for God while still feeling natural and like it retains much of the original meaning), though in this Psalm at least it's an imperfect solution since some of the lines are distinctly addressed not to God.
I also have mixed feelings around gendered language generally -- I keep remembering Marla's story of the woman who upon hearing the Good Samaritan story with no gendered pronouns cried, hearing herself in the story for the first time. But on the other hand, gendered language can ALSO be a really powerful way for us to hear ourselves in a story -- women are disproportionately NOT represented in Biblical stories, but it feels unfair to erase all gendered language EXCEPT the feminine. Should I just be aiming for balance? Is it okay to use gendered pronouns for Peter and Aeneas because I neutered the scribe (and Jesus in that story) and made Jesus female in the Epistle and mostly neutered everyone in the Psalm (saying "God of Israel" instead of "God of Jacob" I felt added a new, albeit different, set of problematics, so I left it as is -- it's easy to say "of Abraham and Sarah" instead of "of Abraham," but Jacob had two wives, so that makes it much clunkier)? Being faced with these decisions over and over (every time I'm quoting Scripture that uses gendered pronouns) is definitely making me be more thoughtful about the messages we send with the language we use.
Laura Ruth's "use examples" concrit was clearly v. much in my mind.
"Radical fidelity" totally comes from having been reading Fackenheim, who talks a lot about fidelity as a major theme in Judaism.
The penultimate paragraph is intended to evoke (among other things) the bit from Ruth 1 (verse 20) which I didn't end up quoting where Naomi says, "Don't call me Naomi (which means "pleasant"), call me Mara (which means "bitter")."
The paragraph before that references the song "Joy Comes with The Dawn," which we at CWM often sing as our Prayers of the People song:
Verse 1:On Friday night, I told both Ari and Scott that I feel like I let the text do most of the work for me when I write sermons (much like when I blog) -- that instead of reading the texts and having an idea and then talking a lot about that idea with just occasional reference back to the texts (like a number of sermons I've heard recently), I point to the texts and have minimal commentary on them. (I'm also more inclined to wrestle with the texts than to go off on my own tangent.) Also like my blogging, I want to include everything I've read or seen or thought of recently which connects to that which I'm discussing.
Weeping may come, weeping may come,
in the night when dark shadows cloud our sight.
Joy comes with the dawn,
joy comes with the morning sun,
joy spring from the tomb
and scatters the night with her song,
joy comes with the dawn.
If anyone has a citation for that Anne Lamott story (I skimmed my copy of Traveling Mercies and didn't see it), you get a cookie.
Oh, and the idea of us as embodied sacraments pointing to the Triune God comes both from recent stuff about sacraments (e.g., Tiffany's sermon some weeks ago on the feeding of the thousands and how that informs an understanding of Communion) and also from a bit in Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity where he talks about how Jesus is always pointing away from himself, pointing to God
And as my wife and I spent hours in this extraordinary and extravagant basilica dedicated to Francis, visiting it again and again, I thought about Francis and his passion for the poor. He would not have wanted such wealth spent on honoring him. He would have said, "It's not about me."
And yet, even though Francis would have opposed its construction, I don't think the basilica is a mistake, something that never should have been. It reminds us of Francis, draws us to Assisi, perhaps even draws us to Francis's vision. And because Francis pointed beyond himself to God and Jesus, we may be drawn into an even larger vision.
To apply the story to the church's adoration of Jesus in our Christology, creeds, worship, art, music, architecture, and so forth: I think Jesus would have said, "It's not about me." During his lifetime, he deflected attention from himself. In an illuminating passage in our earliest gospel, when a man addressed him as "Good Teacher," Jesus responded with, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." [Mark 10:18 -- which was actually in the Sunday lectionary a few weeks ago: Pentecost 19, when it was the one lectionary passage I wasn't able to work into my NCOD sermon]
Yet I do not think the church's extravagant devotion to Jesus is a mistake, for the purpose of the church, of Christology, of the creed is to point us to Jesus. And then Jesus says, "It's not about me." He points beyond himself---to God's character and passion. This is the meaning of our christological language and our creedal affirmations about Jesus: in this person we see the revelation of God, the heart of God. He is both metaphor and sacrament of God.
(p. 97-98, from Chapter 5 "Jesus: The Heart of God")