Boundary-breaking God

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Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009) R.I.P.

INTRODUCTION: The Japanese theologian to whom Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness is dedicated delivered these words a decade ago from the pulpit of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St Paul, Minnesota. Contrary to popular misconception, the biblical prophets did not fore-tell the future; they rather forth-told a word greater than their own. Kosuke Koyama‘s experience led him to hear something quite clearly – a word he could not have known would be more important in 2017 than the day he spoke it.

THE SERMON, June 6, 2006. Texts: Leviticus 19:33, Psalm 139: 7-10, and Luke 14: 1-6. [Bold type added by Views from the Edge.]

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Jesus Christ,

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. – Lev. 19:33.

This is a challenging suggestion for the immigration and naturalization policy of any nation. God does not discriminate between citizens and aliens. The God of the Bible is more concerned about the welfare of the aliens, the weak, than of citizens, the strong.

Remember your own experience in Egypt! “Love the alien as yourself!” Jesus is even more emphatic when he says, “Love your enemies!” We think of aliens and enemies as potential threats to our community. They must be kept outside of our boundaries.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” observes the New England poet, with sharp insight. Something there is in the gospel of Christ that dismantles walls. Jesus “has broken down the dividing walls,” we read in the Epistle to the Ephesians. (2:14)
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“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) – This Word, the truthful Word, “breaks down the dividing walls” by making honest dialogue possible. When communication breaks down peace breaks down. It takes a great deal of dialogue to come to mutual understanding between peoples of different language, religions, racial and cultural practice. Often the choice is between dialogue and mutual destruction, between diplomacy and war. The alternative to dialogue is taking the sword. Jesus says; “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt.26:52). Our “sword” today is incredibly destructive! Our fear, today, is of nuclear proliferation. We fear it because we started it! “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”! (Dt.30:19)
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The brief gospel text for this morning is a record of a profound dialogue. The story is honest and transparent. We can understand it very well. The dumfounded lawyers and Pharisees only reveal the sincere quality of the story. In conversation with Jesus, the man of total honesty, human hypocrisy is exposed and expelled.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” but they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this (Luke 14:1-6).

How boldly Jesus simplifies and zeroes-in on the central issue! “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” This is the question that distinguishes the gospel from religion. This story is only one of a number of “Sabbath controversies” told in the gospels. The gospel breaks boundaries. Religion often insists on boundaries. The gospel opens windows in hope. Religion may shut windows in fear. The gospel is “scandalously” inclusive. Religion often is piously exclusive. “You shall love the alien as yourself” expresses the spirit of the gospel. Religion tends to question whether everyone deserves to be loved.

The Sabbath is a holy institution commemorating the holy rest God has taken after creating “heaven and earth.” Sabbath is mentioned as one of the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it” (Ex.20: 8-11).

“On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered” (Lk. 6:6) “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (13:10,11).

“On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, … Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy” (the disease of the swelling from abnormal fluid retention ). A man of withered hand, a woman who is bent over, and a man with dropsy appear “on the Sabbath in front of him.”

Jesus cures them. Jesus “works” on the Sabbath! Some for whom it is important to “keep” the sabbath complain, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day”(Lk.13:14). Jesus, for whom the persons with need are more important than the rule, responds, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?”

Jesus comes to heal the broken human community. He is the embodiment of direct love-action and action-love. He cures sick people publicly on the Sabbath with unassailable authority and freedom. The people are amazed – ecstatic – and praise God. Representing the God of compassion, Jesus breaks the boundary attached to the sacred Sabbath tradition. In his “boundary breaking” he restores the authentic purpose of the sabbath – that is, to bring health to human community. The Sabbath is for healing. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” says Jesus (Mk.2:27). What a freedom he exhibits!

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The gospel of Jesus Christ is “scandalous,” says the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1: 18-25) for he is “the man who fits no formula” (Eduard Schweizer, (Jesus, chap. 2). Creeds, doctrine, theology, or tradition cannot domesticate Jesus. No one can confine Jesus within walls. Let me quote from a Swiss New Testament scholar:

“…teaching in itself does not convey the living God. It may even hinder his coming, though it (the teaching) may be totally correct. It is exactly the most correct and orthodox teaching that would suggest that we had got hold of God. Then he can no longer come in his surprising ways” (Eduard Schweizer, Luke: A Challenge to Present Theology p.58)

We feel uneasy when Jesus breaks the boundaries we make, because boundaries are a part of our accepted culture. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Yet, fences can never be the final word. Tragically in our real lives fences work more in the direction of mutual alienation than mutual embrace. “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” – says the poet. That is a good question!

When I was in my early teens, Japan followed her gods who were rather poorly educated in international relations. They were parochial. They spoke only Japanese. They did not criticize Japanese militarism. They endorsed the inflated idea that Japan is a righteous empire. Trusting these parochial gods, the people recited, to paraphrase: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, behold the glory of the divine emperor of Japan is there!” Japan broke international boundaries in pursuit of self-glorification and aggrandizement. Without any threat from her Asian neighbors, Japan attacked and invaded them. The Japanese gods approved and Japan ruined herself. Blessed are nations that have a God who criticize what they do! The God of Israel said to God’s own people: “You are a stiff-necked people!”

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The infant Jesus “was placed in a manger – “for there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Being thus edged out even from a human birth place, Jesus breaks a boundary. When he “eats with sinners and tax collectors” (Mk.2:16) he breaks a boundary. Crucified, nailed to the cross, – completely immobilized – he breaks a boundary. Dying between two criminals, becoming a member of this community of three crosses, he breaks a boundary. Being “numbered with the transgressors”, to quote from the Book of Isaiah (53:12), he breaks boundaries. This is an amazing story. The one who is totally vulnerable, disarmed, non-violent, and immobilized and humiliated has broken all the boundaries, which threaten the health of human community.

With our geopolitical realities, we may think that the way of Christ is romantic and not realistic. Then we must know that the alternative is the historical fact of 5000 years of human civilization replete with constant warfare. Should we continue this state of endless destruction for another 5000 years? Gandhi’s practice of non-violence has done more to increase the welfare of humanity upon the earth than many wars put together. Martin Luther King Jr. says: “Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival”! (Strength to Love, p.47) “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God‘s weakness is stronger than human strength” cries the apostle Paul (1 Cor.1:25).

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“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26). The birds of the air and the Father who feeds them are free from all boundaries. Climate change – global warming – has no boundaries. The light of the sun and the air that sustain all living beings know no boundaries. The Berlin Wall of 96 miles was there for 28 years up to 1989. The racial wall of the South African Apartheid existed for 46 years and ended in 1994. In their limited existence, these walls have done immeasurable damage to humanity on the both sides of the wall. The Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West did not speak to each other for 911 years from 1054 to 1965. The Great Wall of China and Check Point Charlie in Berlin are tourist spots today. “One cannot dehumanize others without dehumanizing oneself” says James Baldwin. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we pray. It is this prayer that breaks the boundaries in a way that is pleasing to God.

 

John Doe, Judas, and a Secure Promise: Potter’s Field

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Sermon on Judas’s Great Legacy

Text: Gospel of Matthew 27:3-8

Then Judas the traitor, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, repented and took the thirty silver pieces to the chief priests and elders of the people. “I have sinned by betraying an innocent man!” he said. But they replied, “How does that concern us? That is your affair.” Throwing down the silver pieces toward the Most Holy Place, he withdrew and went away and hanged himself. Picking up the silver pieces, the chief priests said, “It is unlawful to put this into the treasury, for it is blood money.” Therefore, after coming to an agreement about it, they used the money to buy Potter’s Field as a burying place for foreigners, and to this day that field is known as “The Field of Blood.” – Matthew 27:3-8, Anchor Bible translation by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann

I have always felt that Judas got a bum rap.

The tradition has not treated him well, even according to its own standards. Yes, he bore responsibility for betraying his Lord with a kiss in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. And, yes, he committed suicide. But little or no attention has been paid to the small detail of Judas’ repentance or the depth of the sorrow that led to his suicide.

Matthew’s Judas is repentant. Listen:

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, Judas repented…and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver toward The Holy Place, Judas departed; and he went out and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:1-5)

Judas’ suicide, like most if not all suicides, issues from an irrecoverable despair.
He had changed his mind and had tried to turn back, but the dice had already been thrown, as they would be thrown again by the soldiers, rolling the dice over who would get to keep Jesus’ clothing. Not even throwing down the silver pieces at the feet of the religious authorities could change the course of events his betrayal had set in motion.

Some believe the deal Judas cut with the ruling religious authorities was a craps shoot. He had gambled that leading Jesus’s opponents to the secret place where Jesus gathered with his apostles would force Jesus to be the kind of violent revolutionary king he had wrongly supposed he would become. By arranging a face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and the Temple police, he imagined he could force Jesus’s hand toward a violent insurrection, and it appears he was not alone in that expectation. For, after Judas had led the temple police to him, Peter had drawn his dagger and cut off an ear of the high priest’s slave, only to hear Jesus rebuke the way of violence with an order to put away the sword. As a result, says Matthew, “all the disciples abandoned him and fled.” No one remained to stand with him as the witness to a different course than the way violence and terror. Jesus alone is innocent of the way of blood-taking.

By the time we see Judas throwing down the silver coins at the feet of the temple authorities his head was spinning. His expectation of a grand seizure of power – a kind of coup d’état that would overthrow the Roman colonizers and replace their temple collaborators – had crashed. What does one do when one’s great dream dies? What does one do when a grandiose scheme crumbles?

Either you revise the dream or you fall hopelessly into despair. We might wonder whether perhaps Judas’ biggest mistake was not the betrayal so much as it was not subsequently trusting a divine providence greater than his sin and more powerful than his ability to thwart it. Awash in guilt and sorrow, he threw down what Matthew calls “the blood money” toward the Most Holy Place – that is, the Holy of Holies, regarded as the most sacred of all places in the universe – and took his life.

The “blood money” never went back into the sacred treasury. It was dirty. So instead, the chief priests and the elders, not wanting to be sacrilegious, took the money that had secured Judas’s cooperation in the plot against Jesus – the “blood money” that purchased Jesus’s crucifixion – to buy “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.” What is called the “Field of Blood “is also called “the Potter’s Field.” Why?

Why the Potter’s Field?

Matthew does a strange thing. He quotes a text found in the Book of  Zechariah (Zech. 10:12-13) but attributes its source to Jeremiah. Although the Book of Zechariah speaks of the Field of Blood which is also called the Potter’s Field, the text there never explains why it is called a potter’s field.

What would a potter’s field be? A potter uses clay to make pottery. The site referred to in Matthew is known traditionally as Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potters’ clay. It’s where the potter, the sculpting artist, gets the clay.  It’s an artist’s field. Jeremiah compares God to a potter and of us as the potter’s clay. So perhaps it is called Potter’s Field as a witness to the truth that the John and Mary Doe’s who eventually will land in the pauper’s cemetery belong to the Potter every bit as much as those society regards as worthy of burial in a more distinguished cemetery, a sacred place, if you will.

There is a great irony here in Matthew’s telling of the story: Judas returns the soiled holy money taken from the temple treasury, throws it back at the inner sanctum where only Oz was allowed to enter, the Holy of Holies from which the chief priests pulled the levers intended to keep Judas and Dorothy and every other mystified traveler in line with fear – and that soiled not-so-sacred money buys the Field of Blood for the less than holy, also known as “the Potter’s Field”.

Potter’s Field in New York City

In the City of New York there is a cemetery called Potter’s Field. It’s the place where the indigent are buried. It’s the place where the homeless and the unidentified, the John Doe’s and the Jane Doe’s , are buried by the City of New York. One might call it Pauper’s Cemetery, an act of charity for those who, at the end, like the Son of Man, had nowhere to lay their heads.

Potter’s Field has been moved four times since it was founded early the 19th century.
Today Potter’s Field is managed by the City of New York Department of Corrections. The Department’s website describes its history.

The City of New York has undertaken the responsibility of laying to rest the bodies of those in the City who died indigent or un-befriended, since the early part of the 19th century, when they were interred at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In 1823, these remains were removed to Fifth Avenue and 40 – 42 Streets, Manhattan. When this site was selected for a reservoir, the remains were again removed to Fourth Avenue and 50th Street, this ground being later granted to the Women’s Hospital. In 1857, the remains of 100,000 paupers and strangers were transferred to Ward’s Island, 75 acres of which were allocated for this purpose.

Today Potter’s Field, the latest place for the internment of the un-befriended poor is on Hart’s Island where it has been since n 1869, next to a prison.

Thirty inmates from the N.Y.C. Reception and Classification Center for Men… are charged with burial and upkeep of the entire cemetery at present. They are carefully interviewed to ascertain that they can perform these services without becoming emotionally upset.

In 1948 the inmates of the prison next door to Potter’s Field on Hart Island, many of whom were without friends and families, appealed to the Warden and offered to build a monument to the un-befriended dead. In cooperation with the custodial staff, they erected a 30-foot high monument in the center of the burial site. On one side is engraved a simple cross, on the other is the word ‘Peace.'”

In my mind’s eye Judas is buried there – on the ground sanctified for the outcasts for whom Christ lived and died. He’s buried in some Potter’s Field where the Potter in mercy welcomes the broken pieces of the pottery He has made, gathers up the shards of broken schemes and grandiose schemes, and takes whatever is left to make something altogether beautiful.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’  So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me:  Can I not do with you . . . just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand . . . . [Jeremiah 18:1-6].

Christ’s words – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – are a plea to the Father, the Potter, for his beloved, betraying friend, Judas, and for every other Judas to come down the pike through all the centuries since. By God’s strange providence alone the 30 silver pieces of “blood money” that Judas threw back down toward the Most Holy Place became the unwitting source of the witness to God’s unconditional love and mercy, “Potter’s Field.”

Judas made two mistaken bets. The first ended in Jesus’s execution, the end of a grandiose dream. The second was concluding too early that despair and guilt have the final word – that there was no mercy strong enough to re-claim him.

The learning for us latter-day Judases? Perhaps it is that, although life is full of risk-taking and tragedy, its meaning and destiny are more than a craps-shoot. The destiny of every broken dream and every broken soul is not determined by our gambling or our failures. It’s determined by a secure promise that now and at the end we are in the hands of the Potter Who owns all the clay of Potter’s Field.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2017

Climate Change has no boundaries

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Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009)

“Climate change – global warming – has no boundaries. The light of the sun and the air that sustain all living beings know no boundaries. The Berlin Wall of 96 miles was there for 28 years up to 1989. The racial wall of the South African Apartheid existed for 46 years and ended in 1994. In their limited existence, these walls have done immeasurable damage to humanity on the both sides of the wall. The Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West did not speak to each other for 911 years from 1054 to 1965. The Great Wall of China and Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin are tourist spots today.

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James Baldwin (L)  MLK, Jr.

“’One cannot dehumanize others without dehumanizing oneself,’ says James Baldwin. ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,’ we pray. It is this prayer that breaks the boundaries in a way that is pleasing to God.”

Sermon from Baltimore

This sermon by Robert Hoch of First and Franklin Presbyterian Church in Baltimore applies the meaning of the Gospel of Matthew 4:1-11 (the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness) to current events in Baltimore and the United States.

Click Finding Water to read the sermon.

Then post a comment here on Views from the Edge.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 19, 2017.

 

Listening for the Whisper

Video

In this time of great restlessness many of us long for the “still small voice” heard by Elijah hiding in the cave of his own self-righteous pouting. This sermon was preached in a moment similar to this – the political campaign season of 2014 – and the search for stillness in a world gone mad. FYI, several of the members of this lovely church were in their 9os. They owned neither cell phone nor computer. They had no idea what a tweet was. But they knew experienced a stillness that sometimes comes with the wisdom of age. I post this here in honor of Carol and Maxine.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, now available through Amazon, Wipf and Stock, Barnes and Noble, and your local bookstore.

 

 

 

The Sound of Trumpets in the Morning

Video

Times such as this beg for an historical perspective. According to a Jewish legend, what Satan missed most after falling from heaven was the sound of the trumpets in the morning. This sermon was preached the Sunday before the 2012 U.S. election.

Sermon: The Year Everything Shook

The theme of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness represents a life-long search. Yesterday the sermon below reappeared from a lost  thumb-drive. Like Be Still!’s first chapter, “Of Tides and the Ocean,” the metaphor is the shoreline. Here’s the sermon preached at Olivet Congregational Church in Saint Paul, MN in 2004 on the text of Isaiah 6:1-8. “On the Shore of Time” was the original title.

It’s not uncommon for people to have a favorite spot for peace and mediation.  Mine is a rock in Rockport, Massachusetts.  For as long ago as I can remember I have perched on Old Table Rock on Old Garden Beach.  The rock was large to a child’s eyes. Big enough for my cousin Gina and I to saunter down the street to Old Table to spread out the feast of gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches my mother had made for the just the two of us.

In part, my fondness for Old Table Rock no doubt was the companionship of Gina, nine years old than I, and the abundant, tangible evidence of my mother’s love.  Old Table represents a kind of safe place hard to find in this world.

But that memory is only one of many memories of sitting on the rock.  When I sit on Old Table I am much more alert – and, at the same time, peaceful – than is normal for my anxious soul.  As a teenager Old Table offered a familiar place that knew me when my body was much less complicated than it had become.  It was a place that never seemed to change in spite of the waves that lapped or crashed against it, secure on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’s ever-changing tides and currents, protecting the creatures that nestled beside it in the tide pools but never keeping them from going back out to sea.

I would sit on Old Table and watch the world go by: the great sea creatures, the lobsters and the crabs, the star fish and the periwinkles, the seaweeds and the mosses, green and yellow and the waving red kelp, the seagulls hovering over a lobster boat returning to the harbor or a single gull perched on the rock next door, waiting in vain hopes that we would throw it the sacramental elements of peanut butter and bread the signified my mother’s love.  It was a magical place.  Actually, not magical at all.  It was a place to ponder reality as it was and as it could be.

If Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the Temple, I saw the Lord high and lifted up by the edge of the Atlantic.  It is as though the world had stopped.  And the vast ocean that reached farther over the horizon than my eyes could see or my ears could hear was a mere teacup in the hand of the Creator.  The whole earth was filled with God’s glory.

When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, it was the year that King Uzziah died.  It was a time of national crisis.  The people had lost their king.  After years of comfortable living, everything was in flux.  Everything was swirling.   But in that anxious moment for the people of Judah, Isaiah turned his eye to something else.  He turned his eye to the One whose throne is in the heavens, high and lifted up, the mere train of whose robe fills the temple.  Just the train, the outskirt of his robe, just the hem of his garment, completely fills the temples human hands have made.  This is no domesticated god.  This is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who spun the planets and put them in their places.  And Isaiah saw the heavenly creatures covering their faces from the glorious light of God’s holiness, hovering above the throne, singing in chorus a song of praise:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

“The whole earth is filled with his majesty.”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

All this was in the year that King Uzziah died.  It was the death of the old earthly king that cleared the way for Isaiah to see the heavenly King, the Lord of hosts.  Perhaps it could have been said of Isaiah and his people that their lips were unclean because they had forgotten the King of kings and had relied instead on Uzziah for their peace and security.  Perhaps their lips were unclean because of Uzziah’s arrogance.  Or because they had not had the courage to speak their own truth to the old king.  Or perhaps their lips were unclean because no human mouth is ever quite capable of expressing the praise properly due God’s Name.  Perhaps Isaiah was thinking along the lines of Soren Kierkegaard who recoiled at the banality of his conventional Christian countrymen for whom morality was the highest virtue, but who never felt a even a twinge of awe or reverence.  Perhaps Isaiah could say of the lips of his people in the year that King Uzziah died what Kierkegaard would later say of his Danish countrymen:

Their ethics are a short summary of police ordinances; for them the most important thing is to be a useful member of the state, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they have never felt homesickness for something unknown and far away, nor the depth which consists in being nothing at all, of walking out of Norreport with a penny in one’s pocket and a cane in one’s hand…” (The Journals, July 14, 1837)

In the year that King Uzziah died, the state itself was in jeopardy.  There was a growing sense of homesickness for something unknown and far away, a sense of the depth of the threat of being nothing at all, of having nothing but a penny and a cane in one’s hand.  Everything was at risk.

It had been Uzziah who had mended the defenses of Jerusalem.  It had been Uzziah who had reorganized and reequipped the Judean army.  It had been Uzziah who had won and maintained control over the caravan routes to the South.  It had been Uzziah who had extended Judah’s frontiers at the expense of neighboring Philistines and Edomites.

When Uzziah had become king at the age of 16, a tutor named Zechariah had “instructed him in the fear of God” (2 Chronicles 26:5) and Uzziah had found favor in the eyes of God.  But somewhere toward the end of his 53-year reign, the king’s pride led to his own undoing (26:16).

Here’s how the Chronicler of Second Chronicles tells the story of how the great King Uzziah became a leper.

“But when (Uzziah) was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.  For he was false to the Lord his God, and he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”  Burning incense in the temple was the sole responsibility and privilege of the priests, whose role Uzziah now usurped.  His political and military grandiosity now spilled over into spiritual entitlement and boundless authority.  Uzziah no longer needed the priests.  Uzziah no longer needed anybody but himself, and perhaps the God whose blessing he could commandeer by offering the incense.  There was still a part of Uzziah that was homesick for something unknown and far away. But his habits as commander and chief confused him into believing that everything was within his control.

Well, as the king entered the sanctuary of the temple – the place where only the priests had authority to enter – to burn the incense, “Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense.  Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’

“Then” says the Chronicler, “Uzziah was angry.  Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense.  And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead!  And they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.  And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 26:16-21a).

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah, by way of contrast, stands humbly in the temple.  He smells the sweet incense offered by the priests.  He sees the Lord high and lifted up.  He is struck dumb by the infinite distance between all human claims to power and authority and the power and authority of the King of kings and Lord of hosts.  He feels the foundations shaking, senses that he is lost and cries out “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” – Isaiah 6:1-5.

Who of us has not shared something of Isaiah’s and Uzziah’s experience?  Who of us, like Uzziah, has not confused God’s favor for a blank check to do our bidding?  Yet who has not sensed the imponderable distance between God’s holiness and our unworthiness?  Who of us has not been jolted and jarred by the infinite distinction and discrepancy between the majestic holiness and rule of God sung by the seraphim and our banality as thankless children of privilege? Who of us has not felt the foundations of the threshold shake?  Who of us has not smelled the smoke and whispered, if not cried out loud, with Isaiah “Who is me!”

Ours is a time like that.  No king has died.  But there is a sense that things are out of our control.  There is also the sense that those who would lead us and those who campaign for them have used religion to further their own political ambitions.  Where are the eighty priests who will call them up short to stop them from burning the incense on a national altar. And, if truth be told, we are as angry as Uzziah was the day he broke out in leprosy.  Anger eats away at our souls.

Troubled by the impending death of a dear friend and mentor, and angry about an election that seems to slay truth more often than honoring it, Kay and I recently welcomed the opportunity to spend a few days with some old friends on the shores of Lake Superior.

The days on Lake Superior were reminiscent of the days in Rockport.  The granite rock formations, the clearness of the water like the clearness of the North Atlantic of my childhood.  Walking to the point of rocks that reminded me of my favorite place to meditate, my eyes fell upon a fragment of jawbone, washed white by the lake that had washed onto the shore.  I picked it up and cupped it in my hand as if its life had been my own.

Sitting on the rock, the animal fragment and I sat in the gentle stillness and rhythm of wave on rock.  I held in my hand the tiny physical reminder of a creature once wild, searching, finding, running, pulsing with life, now long since gone, and contemplated what it was and how it went.

Did you love this vast lake as I?  Enjoy its calm?  Scurry for cover in a storm?  Did you once sit upon this rock in stillness and wonder?

Did you stare, transfixed, into the endless motion of this inland sea and wonder how it came to be, and who you are to be a witness to it all, a tiny, momentary witness to it all?  Did you smell the sweetness of the temple’s incense?

Did you ever watch the rock and waves, lost in wonder at the beauty and the miracle of having eyes to see it just for today, just for now?  Did you ever hear the seraphim’s song that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory?

Slowly as I meditated, the distress and importance of this election slipped away as insignificant.  The liturgy of lies and half-truths, of innuendo and character assassination gave way to an older hymn of the Christian liturgy, Isaac Watts’ “Our God, our help in Ages Past”:

            Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home.

 

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Soon bears us all away;

We fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

 

Waves lapping,

Swelling, washing over Rock

Impervious, indifferent

To all change,

No dreams dying or forgotten.

 

Rock and water,

Yin and Yang,

Solid and fluid,

Changeless, ever changing,

Bear us all away.

 

One swirling, constant movement

Quarks on quarks in symphony,

Storm and calm, dark and light

Play each upon the other

All in motion without emotion.

 

On the shore of time

A jawbone relic of what once was

A creature of the movement

Lies in whitewashed stillness,

Inert, returning quark to quark.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Be Thou our guard while troubles last,

And our Eternal Home.

In the end, there is only the Holy One whose train fills the temple.  Therefore, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to your span of life?

“Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind.  For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

Then I thought I heard the Lord’s call to Isaiah in the temple, asking “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN,  January 18, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON THE SHORE OF TIME

Gordon C. Stewart

October 17, 2004

 

Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm 104:1-4, 24-35

Luke 12:22-34

 

It is not uncommon for people to have a favorite spot for peace and mediation.  Mine is a rock in Rockport, Massachusetts.  For as long ago as I can remember I have perched on Old Table Rock on Old Garden Beach.  The rock was large to a child’s eyes.  Big enough for my cousin Gina and I to saunter down the street to Old Table to spread out the feast of gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches my mother had made for the just the two of us.

 

In part, my fondness for Old Table Rock no doubt was the companionship of Gina and the abundant evidence of my mother’s love.  It represents a kind of safe place hard to find in this world.

 

But that memory is only one of many memories of sitting on the rock.  When I sit on Old Table I am much more alert – and, at the same time, peaceful – than is normal for my anxious soul.  As a teenager Old Table offered a familiar place that knew me when my body was much less complicated than it had become.  It was a place that never seemed to change in spite of the waves that lapped or crashed against it, secure on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’s ever-changing tides and currents, protecting the creatures that nestled beside it in the tide pools but never keeping them from going back out to sea.

 

I would sit on Old Table and watch the world go by: the great sea creatures, the lobsters and the crabs, the star fish and the periwinkles, the seaweeds and the mosses, green and yellow and the waving red kelp, the seagulls hovering over a lobster boat returning to the harbor or a single gull perched on the rock next door, waiting in vain hopes that we would throw it the sacramental elements of peanut butter and bread the signified my mother’s love.  It was a magical place.  Actually, not magical at all.  It was a place to ponder reality as it was and as it could be.

 

If Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the Temple, I saw the Lord high and lifted up by the edge of the Atlantic.  It is as though the world had stopped.  And the vast ocean that reached farther over the horizon than my eyes could see or my ears could hear was a mere teacup in the hand of the Creator.  The whole earth was filled with God’s glory.

 

When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, it was the year that King Uzziah died.  It was a time of national crisis.  The people had lost their king.  After years of comfortable living, everything was in flux.  Everything was swirling.   But in that anxious moment for the people of Judah, Isaiah turned his eye to something else.  He turned his eye to the One whose throne is in the heavens, high and lifted up, the mere train of whose robe fills the temple.  Just the train, the outskirt of his robe, just the hem of his garment, completely fills the temples human hands have made.  This is no domesticated god.  This is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who spun the planets and put them in their places.  And Isaiah saw the heavenly creatures covering their faces from the glorious light of God’s holiness, hovering above the throne, singing in chorus a song of praise:

 

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

The whole earth is filled with his majesty.”

 

“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

 

All this was in the year that King Uzziah died.  It was the death of the old earthly king that cleared the way for Isaiah to see the heavenly King, the Lord of hosts.  Perhaps it could have been said of Isaiah and his people that their lips were unclean because they had forgotten the King of kings and had relied instead on Uzziah for their peace and security.  Perhaps their lips were unclean because of Uzziah’s arrogance.  Or because they had not had the courage to speak their own truth to the old king.  Or perhaps their lips were unclean because no human mouth is ever quite capable of expressing the praise properly due God’s Name.  Perhaps Isaiah was thinking along the lines of Soren Kierkegaard who recoiled at the banality of his conventional Christian countrymen for whom morality was the highest virtue, but who never felt a even a twinge of awe or reverence.  Perhaps Isaiah could say of the lips of his people in the year that King Uzziah died what Kierkegaard would later say of his Danish countrymen:

 

Their ethics are a short summary of police ordinances; for them the most important thing is to be a useful member of the state, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they have never felt homesickness for something unknown and far away, nor the depth which consists in being nothing at all, of walking out of Norreport with a penny in one’s pocket and a cane in one’s hand…” (The Journals, July 14, 1837)

 

In the year that King Uzziah died, the state itself was in jeopardy.  There was a growing sense of homesickness for something unknown and far away, a sense of the depth of the threat of being nothing at all, of having nothing but a penny and a cane in one’s hand.  Everything was at risk.

 

It had been Uzziah who had mended the defenses of Jerusalem.  It had been Uzziah who had reorganized and reequipped the Judean army.  It had been Uzziah who had won and maintained control over the caravan routes to the South.  It had been Uzziah who had extended Judah’s frontiers at the expense of neighboring Philistines and Edomites.

 

When Uzziah had become king at the age of 16, a tutor named Zechariah had “instructed him in the fear of God” (2 Chronicles 26:5) and Uzziah had found favor in the eyes of God.  But somewhere toward the end of his 53-year reign, the king’s pride led to his own undoing (26:16).

Here’s how the Chronicler of Second Chronicles tells the story of how the great King Uzziah became a leper.

 

“But when (Uzziah) was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.  For he was false to the Lord his God, and he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”  Burning incense in the temple was the sole responsibility and privilege of the priests, whose role Uzziah now usurped.   His political and military grandiosity now spilled over into spiritual entitlement and boundless authority.  Uzziah no longer needed the priests.  Uzziah no longer needed anybody but himself, and perhaps the God whose blessing he could commandeer by offering the incense.  There was still a part of Uzziah that was homesick for something unknown and far away. But his habits as commander and chief confused him into believing that everything was within his control.

 

Well, as the king entered the sanctuary of the temple – the place where only the priests had authority to enter – to burn the incense, “Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense.  Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’

“Then” says the Chronicler, “Uzziah was angry.  Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense.  And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead!  And they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.  And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 26:16-21a).

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah, by way of contrast, stands humbly in the temple.  He smells the sweet incense offered by the priests.  He sees the Lord high and lifted up.  He is struck dumb by the infinite distance between all human claims to power and authority and the power and authority of the King of kings and Lord of hosts.  He feels the foundations shaking, senses that he is lost and cries out “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

 

Who of us has not shared something of Isaiah’s and Uzziah’s experience?  Who of us, like Uzziah, has not confused God’s favor for a blank check to do our bidding?  Yet who has not sensed the imponderable distance between God’s holiness and our unworthiness?  Who of us has not been jolted and jarred by the infinite distinction and discrepancy between the majestic holiness and rule of God sung by the seraphim and our banality as thankless children of privilege? Who of us has not felt the foundations of the threshold shake?  Who of us has not smelled the smoke and whispered, if not cried out loud, with Isaiah “Who is me!”

 

Ours is a time like that.  No king has died.  But there is a sense that things are out of our control.  There is also the sense that those who would lead us and those who campaign for them have used religion to further their own political ambitions.  Where are the eighty priests who will call them up short to stop them from burning the incense on a national altar. And, if truth be told, we are as angry as Uzziah was the day he broke out in leprosy.  Anger eats away at our souls.

 

 

Troubled by the impending death of a dear friend and mentor, and angry about an election that seems to slay truth more often than honoring it, Kay and I recently welcomed the opportunity to spend a few days with some old friends on the shores of Lake Superior.

 

The days on Lake Superior were reminiscent of the days in Rockport.  The granite rock formations, the clearness of the water like the clearness of the North Atlantic of my childhood.  Walking to the point of rocks that reminded me of my favorite place to meditate, my eyes fell upon a fragment of jawbone, washed white by the lake that had washed onto the shore.  I picked it up and cupped it in my hand as if its life had been my own.

 

Sitting on the rock, the animal fragment and I sat in the gentle stillness and rhythm of wave on rock.  I held in my hand the tiny physical reminder of a creature once wild, searching, finding, running, pulsing with life, now long since gone, and contemplated what it was and how it went.

 

Did you love this vast lake as I?  Enjoy its calm?  Scurry for cover in a storm?  Did you once sit upon this rock in stillness and wonder?

 

Did you stare, transfixed, into the endless motion of this inland sea and wonder how it came to be, and who you are to be a witness to it all, a tiny, momentary witness to it all?  Did you smell the sweetness of the temple’s incense?

 

Did you ever watch the rock and waves, lost in wonder at the beauty and the miracle of having eyes to see it just for today, just for now?  Did you ever hear the seraphim’s song that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory?

 

Slowly as I meditated, the distress and importance of this election slipped away as insignificant.  The liturgy of lies and half-truths, of innuendo and character assassination gave way to an older hymn of the Christian liturgy, Isaac Watts’ “Our God, our help in Ages Past.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home.

 

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Soon bears us all away;

We fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

 

 

Waves lapping,

Swelling, washing over Rock

Impervious, indifferent

To all change,

No dreams dying or forgotten.

 

Rock and water,

Yin and Yang,

Solid and fluid,

Changeless, ever changing,

Bear us all away.

 

One swirling, constant movement

Quarks on quarks in symphony,

Storm and calm, dark and light

Play each upon the other

All in motion without emotion.

 

On the shore of time

A jawbone relic of what once was

A creature of the movement

Lies in whitewashed stillness,

Inert, returning quark to quark.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Be Thou our guard while troubles last,

And our Eternal Home.

 

In the end, there is only the Holy One whose train fills the temple.  Therefore, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to your span of life?

 

“Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind.  For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Standing Applause Sermon

fourth_presbyterianWorshipers at Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago rose to their feet with sustained applause in response to the line in this sermon we have bolded in red. Scroll down for the line.

THE PERSISTENT GOD

Shannon J. Kirshner, Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 121
Luke 18:1–8

Maybe prayer isn’t the way in which we manipulate God but is simply the posture in which we finally become worn down by God’s persistence—God’s persistence in loving us. God’s persistence in forgiving and being known. And God’s persistence in being faithful and always, always, always bringing life out of death.
Nadia Bolz-Weber

In some ways, this should have been the easiest sermon I have written in a while. Luke tells us right off the bat what this parable is supposed to be about. While introducing Jesus’ telling of it, Luke states outright in verse 1 it is a parable about the need for persistent prayer and the call to not lose heart. Thus that interpretation should direct the way we hear the parable, right? Maybe.

Let’s meet the characters in the parable. First, we have a judge. As a friend of mine said, “We know about judges in Israel. We know their role was to maintain a reasonable harmony in the community and to adjudicate disputes fairly and impartially. [Furthermore], it is particularly worth remembering that Jewish law, the Torah, described a particular responsibility for such judges when it came to protecting the rights of the poor—of widows and orphans and refugees” (Bob Dunham, http://www.day1.org, 21 October 2007). So that is our judge. Our first character.

Then we have the widow. Now immediately when Jesus introduces us to the widow, the drama intensifies, because, as we just heard, a faithful judge would know of his duty to pay particular attention to people like that widow. Yet herein lies the dilemma: when Jesus introduced us to the judge, he also gave us insight into his character. The judge, according to the parable, was not faithful. He had no reverence for God (what the Bible calls fear of the Lord) or for anyone else.

Frankly, the judge did not seem all that interested in being an actual judge to begin with. He did not seem to really care about even the conceptual idea of justice. He certainly had no concept of compassion. We make those assumptions because of his actions. The judge was not moved one bit by the widow’s pleading of her case. “Grant me justice,” she said every single time she went before him. Yet no was always his answer. No. No. No. No. No.

Amazingly enough, though, that widow was never deterred by his denial. I guess she felt that as a widow she literally had nothing to lose by going to the court every single day and demanding to be heard. Whatever it was, something gave that widow a stubborn determination. She also must have sensed that she was getting to him. So she continued to go to his courtroom again and again and again and again. While Jesus does not tell us how many times she walked up to that judge and demanded he act with compassion and grant her justice, we do know her persistence, her dogged determination, her sheer unwillingness to give up or to give into his “no” or “not yet” grated on the judge’s nerves.
We know this because Jesus lets us overhear the judge’s internal thoughts. “Look, I could care less about God, and I sure don’t care about anyone else, but this widow is standing on my very last nerve, so fine. I will give her what she wants so that she will finally leave me alone.” And all is well that ends well, because the widow gets the justice she demanded, even if compassion was nowhere to be found and it took much longer than it should have.

For a parable, a type of story typically meant to provoke and disturb, it is strangely rather cut-and-dried. Just imagine, Jesus seems to conclude, if this horrible unfaithful judge will finally grant justice for the widow, think of how much more a good and gracious God will compassionately respond to the cries of the vulnerable, the outcast, and the oppressed.
All you have to do, the parable seems to say, is bug God day and night. Keep at it. Don’t stop. Your prayers will eventually be heeded, sooner or later. But regardless of God’s timing, summon the stubborn persistence of the widow. And don’t lose heart while you are doing it. Cut-and-dried. The end? I hope not.

Let’s be honest. You know and I know that many of the vulnerable, the outcast, and the oppressed have been praying ceaselessly for the coming of God’s justice and compassion to transform the hearts, the institutions, and the structures of our world, and yet here we are. The wolf does not live with the lamb. Nation continues to lift up sword against nation. Justice does not roll down like waters. Righteousness is not yet like an ever-flowing stream.

No, for generations God’s people, people like us, have been lifting our voices to God in fervent prayer, pleading with God to end the violence, to end the wars, to bring about equity for all people, healing for creation. But day after day we learn of another shooting or another bombing or another eviction or another hungry child or another woman assaulted or another man without meaningful employment. Thus if the sole point of this parable is only to encourage our persistence with God, then frankly I don’t know how much use I have for it.

I’ve sat by too many bedsides and heard too many stories from people who have diligently gone to God in persistent, stubborn prayer and yet their prayers for justice and for compassion were not answered in the ways they had hoped. So regardless of how Luke introduces the parable, I cannot get comfortable with the conclusion that the only thing Jesus wanted us to hear is the message that all those people must not have been persistent enough or things would have turned out differently. That kind of vending-machine God is not the God to whom I have given my heart. That is certainly not the God I see in Jesus.
So since parables are always meant to be disruptive and provoking, is there another way this parable might work on us, in us? If we do not assume we are in the place of the widow and that the judge is the example of what God is not, then what else might we hear? Actually, what happens if we switch roles? What happens if we sit in the seat of the unjust judge and God takes on the persistent cries of the widow? Now you might not like that seat assignment, and you might argue you have nothing in common with that unfaithful, unjust, disrespectful judge, but let’s stay there for now and listen.

What’s the first thing we hear? We hear that widow’s cry, God’s cry, for justice, for compassion. “I am coming to you on behalf of the vulnerable, the outcast, the oppressed,” God says to the church through her voice. “And trust me,” she says, “I am not going to leave you alone until you listen to me, until you act in response to what you hear, until you, as disciples and as an institutional structure, repent of all the myriad of ways you continue to ignore all these cries or dismiss them. I am demanding justice on their behalf. I am demanding that you respond with compassion,” God calls out to the church through the voice of the widow. “Yes, I am going to keep coming to you, church,” God stubbornly says, “again and again and again, no matter how many times your collective words, your collective actions or inactions tell me ‘no’ or ‘not yet.’ Like the widow, you cannot get rid of me. I will persistently wear you down with my grace,” God claims.

As we sit in the seat of that judge, this parable reveals that no matter how many times we, like that judge, try to move on with our own lives, take care of our own people, or simply keep our own heads above water, our persistent, stubbornly determined God will keep coming to us. And our persistent, stubbornly determined God will keep challenging us to let the priorities of God’s compassion and justice reorder the priorities of our lives (Alan Culpepper, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, p. 339), of our life. Hear that again: God desires for the priorities of God’s compassion and justice to reorder the priorities of our lives, of our life. That reordering was the widow’s challenge for the judge in the parable. That reordering is God’s challenge for the church today, for you and for me.

So we have a decision to make: how long will we ignore God’s persistent prodding of us to respond to the cries we hear for justice and compassion—justice and compassion not just for the people we understand or look like or love but particularly justice and compassion for those who are the vulnerable, the outcast, and the oppressed in our day? Because like that widow, God is not going to stop demanding that we hear those cries and that we respond to what we hear. God loves us just as we are, but God loves us too much to let us stay just as we are. So God will keep pressing us. Like that widow and the judge, God will not give up on us.

In light of that, I must ask you a question. Today, in your life, as you sit on that judge’s seat, what do you think God is persistently calling you to do, to be, to say as a disciple? What call for justice and compassion in our world and in this time is God asking for you to hear and to heed, asking for you to help in enacting? What will God not leave you alone about, no matter how many times you try to brush God off?

As you ponder that, I will tell you mine. Though it has always been a part of my call as a female clergyperson, I believe God is once again bothering me, persuading me, demanding that I, as your pastor, speak up and out in this holy space against the myriad of unjust ways women and girls are actively being demeaned in both daily acts and in our national conversation. As a person who, no matter what the world tries to tell me, is created in God’s image just as much as any man, as a mother of a daughter who, no matter what the world tries to tell her, is created in God’s image just as much as any boy, and after this past week in our world that we have all collectively endured, I can no longer stay silent.

I cannot go along to get along or let my fear of upsetting some of you keep me from testifying—testifying against the daily dismissals and denials of the myriad of ways in which women and those who identify as female regularly encounter aggression against our bodies and against our souls. It starts young, and it does not stop. I believe God is persistently asking me, persuading me, to not just let this one go unchecked anymore. Too much is at stake for me to remain silent, for the church to remain silent.

Did you know that after that tape of the bus conversation with the candidate and the reporter aired, phone calls to the country’s biggest sexual assault hotline jumped 33 percent over just one weekend, last weekend (NPR’s Morning Edition, 14 October 2016)? The executive director of that hotline said they have had to bring in additional staff and ask their other staff to stay for longer hours. Too many people are calling in distress over memories unearthed or with experiences of verbal and physical sexual assault finally being articulated.

Furthermore, the Friday before the second presidential debate took place, writer Kelly Oxford wrote on Twitter about her first experience of sexual assault and asked other women to share their stories in response. Within one evening, she had received one million responses. One million responses. I know from personal experience that we are not making this up. It is not about locker-room banter or letting boys be boys. It is about a demeaning and a dismissing of our full God-created, God-given humanity and a passive acceptance of our female bodies as public property. Why else would we have so many purple ribbons outside during this Awareness of Domestic Violence month?

As men and women of faith, siblings in Christ, we all must take this unjust and unfaithful cultural attitude seriously and do what we can to dismantle the idol of maleness as reigning supreme. As Christians, we must speak up when something demeaning is said; carefully consider the ways we speak of God in order to make sure our words are as inclusive and as expansive as our Creator; stop ignoring or denying the stories of pain that so many women carry over past experiences; and do whatever we can inside the church and outside of it to make sure that all of our children, regardless of gender identity, know they are deeply valued and loved.

Because I believe God, like that widow, is going to keep coming to us as church, as followers of Jesus Christ, again and again and again and again in order to keep asking us why we are not speaking up or acting out in ways that embody God’s compassion and value God’s call for justice and equity. God is not going to just leave us alone about it. It is not who we are, and the toxicity of that idolatry is damaging our country, and it is damaging our souls. My daughter gave me permission to tell you that what she has been hearing scares her. So this is my conviction as to where I feel called to act and to lead in response to our persistent God. What about you?

As you move into this week, take that question with you. Open your heart to hear what God is bothering you about these days. How is God persistently challenging you to allow God’s compassion to reorder the priorities of your life, so you might resist the temptation to be only an unjust judge and instead you might act in response to God’s call articulated though the widow’s voice for compassion and justice? Because God will not stop continually coming and doggedly calling and persistently persuading until those cries, God’s cries, are answered. Thank God. Amen.

NOTE from Views from the Edge: Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago is one of America’s historic pulpit churches. Shannon succeeded John Buchanan and Elam Davies. Elam Davies and John Fry (see yesterday’s “Chicken Sh*t Sermons and Polite Company”) co-taught preaching for the Class of ’64 at McCormick Theological Seminary. Shannon boldly continues the Presbyterian-Reformed Tradition’s emphasis on preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Chicken Sh*t Sermons and Polite Company

America’s four-year presidential election cycle poses a unique challenge for churches, synagogues, and mosques, and for their priests/ministers, rabbis, and imams.

Retired after years behind the pulpit, I now take my rightful place in the pew. I come to pray, sing the hymns, listen to the Scripture readings, and hope for a word from the pulpit that speaks a powerful Word into the wordy world that has hurt my ears all week.

Like author Annie Dillard, I wear a crash-helmet to worship. I expect something to happen. I expect to be “in an accident” with the Word of God, a word that rattles my bones, awakens me from lethargic acquiescence, and—as it did to Isaiah in the temple in the year that old king Uzziah died,—fills the house with the smoke of divine majesty, shakes the foundations, and elicits Isaiah’s response. “Here am I. Send me. (I have a crash-helmet.) Send me!”

I don’t go to worship to escape. Nor do I go for a partisan rally. I go on Sunday morning for worship—to make what the psalmist called “a joyful noise to the LORD”, my only rock and salvation, and to celebrate the gospel’s transforming assurance and challenge which my own troubled heart and mindI cannot produce for myself. I need the worshiping community. I need public worship that cuts through the partisan babel that saturates America’s anxious public life. Divine worship is a public event.

But religious institutions and their leaders live on the razor’s edge between public engagement and spiritual irrelevance.The tax code’s 501c(3) status recognizes the importance of religious traditions and institutions to the health of the body politic. It also prevents them from endorsing candidates for public office, which poses an interesting dilemma for leaders adherents.

The last two weeks, worship has been down in the church I attend. I’ve wondered why.

Research shows that worship attendance soars on Sundays following national tragedies like 9/11. People need a word to console and strengthen them. In the midst of a national election campaign the likes of which we’ve never seen, one might logically suppose attendance would rise, not fall. Unless . . . .

“Unless what?” I ask myself. Unless a church’s leaders are ignoring the faithful who come into the pews wearing crash-helmets? Or unless, perhaps, the people expect from the pulpit the rancorous echoes of partisan righteousness? Or, perhaps, the worship experience itself is failing to awaken the ears of worshipers to hear the chorus Isaiah heard in the Temple in the year that the political order was at stake: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord! God of power and might. The whole Earth is filled with your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”

I’m old. I still expect something momentous — something I don’t yet expect — to happen during worship.

The Rev. Dr. John Fry, who taught our preaching class at McCormick Theological Seminary, introduced us to crash-helmets long before Annie Dillard put the metaphor in writing. Senior Minister of Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church, John would later be summoned before The U.S. Senate Government Operations Committee’s Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, chaired by John L. McClellan (“The McClellan Committee”) because of allegations related to civil disturbances in south Chicago.

John had reached beyond the church walls to develop a relationship of trust with the gang that ruled the streets. It was John’s work that resulted in the Blackstone Rangers surrendering their guns, which were then locked in the church safe awaiting the pending truce among the Rangers, their rival gang, the Disciples, the Chicago Police Department, and the U.S. Treasury Department. When the Chicago Police Department broke terms of the agreement by shooting a disarmed gang member, the street quickly returned to its old established order. The McClellan Committee laid the responsibility, in part, on the doorstep of the Rev. Dr. John Fry and the board of First Presbyterian Church-Chicago.

The first session of our seminary preaching class is etched in our memories. John pulled the chairs into a circle to critique the student sermon we had just heard in the chapel. We commended the preacher re: matters of form, not substance: a fine introduction, good development, and solid conclusion. Then John asked,”You want to know what I think? That was a chicken sh*t sermon. The gospel cuts with a knife! Anyone who does that again in this class will get an ‘F’” We were all like chickens with our heads cut off, but we never forgot the difference between real preaching and :chicken sh*t.

John’s words have rung in our ears for 52 years. Now I sit the listening side of the pulpit, relieved of that onerous responsibility but still waiting for a word that cuts through the crap. Sometimes it comes; sometimes it doesn’t.

When it doesn’t come from the pulpit, it still comes through the Scriptures. Or it comes from a line tucked away in the Eucharistic Prayer (the prayer that precedes the Sacrament of Holy Communion), as it did yesterday:

“At the meal tables of the wealthy where he (Christ) pled the cause of the poor, he was always the guest. Unsettling polite company, befriending isolated people, welcoming the stranger, he was always the guest.”

That little line, along with the communion itself , spoke a clear word to a distressed heart and mind.. The polite company was disturbed by Christ the guest, and the service ended with a Dismissal that seemed to place Isaiah’s age-old response to God’s glory— “Here am I.Send me!” on the worshipers’ lips anew during a presidential campaign that is anything but holy:

“Take us out into the world to live as changed people because we have shared the Living Bread and cannot remain the same. Ask much of us. expect much from us, enable much by us, encourage many through us. May we dedicate our lives to your glory.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 17, 2016.

Fourth of July Sermon @ St. Timothy’s Chapel

St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel, Southern Cross, Montana, July 3, 2004.

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight. It was full of violence,” wrote the Genesis writer. “The LORD was grieved that he had made man and His heart was full of pain.” (Genesis 6, the story of Noah and the flood)

The question this morning is: “Do we share God’s grief and heartbreak over the violence of our time?”

Elie Wiesel, the great novelist survivor of the Holocaust, who died yesterday, was familiar with God’s anguish. In his book Four Hasidic Masters, he wrote a tribute to a famous Hassidic Jewish rabbi known affectionately as Rebbe Barukh:

The beauty of Rebbe Barukh is that he
could speak of faith not as opposed to
anguish but as part of it. “Faith and the
abyss are next to one another,” he told
his disciple. “I would even say: one
within the other. True faith lies beyond
questions; true faith comes after it has
been challenged.
[Elie Wiesel]

Today across the world there is more than enough anguish to go around to challenge faith. But only faith that has faced the questions, only a faith that understands that it is not apart from the anguish is truly faith.

This Fourth of July weekend is one of those times to reflect on who we are as Christians and Americans in a world that teeters next to the abyss of violence and nothingness.

One month ago today, June 3rd, Kay and I arrived in Paris. When we arrived at the apartment we’d rented through Vacation Rental by Owners, we were struck immediately by the bookcases lining the long hallway, the living room, dining room and bedroom walls. Some of the books stood out as particularly beautiful — whole sections of beautiful red leather-bound volumes with gold Arabic calligraphy on the bindings.

Among the books was tucked away an award recognition from the University of the Philippines in recognition of Abdelwahab Meddeb, Professsor, University of Paris, for his wise counsel and assistance in creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and peaceful discourse among the different religions of the people of the Philippines.

Little did we know when we had rented the apartment that we would be staying in the apartment of the Tunisian-born Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Paris and former Visiting Professor at Yale — a Sufi poet and novelist who had published 20 books in French, two of which had been translated into English: The Malady of Islam and Islam and the Challenge of Civilization.

We learned from his daughter that Professor Meddeb had died in March, 2014, two months after being diagnosed with stage four cancer, but his wisdom was everywhere in that lovely apartment. After 9/11 he had devoted his writing and lecturing to a Koranic critique of Islamist extremism and the violence rooted in a flawed reading of the Koran.

In a book published by his friends and colleagues following his death, a professor from the University of Albany wrote that Meddeb’s “moral stance was best expressed by the words of Ibn ‘Arabi:

“I believe in the religion of love; whatever direction its caravan may take — for love is my religion and faith.”

Back in the States, my friend Steve Shoemaker put me in touch with Jane Kuntz, Meddeb’s English translator for Islam and the Challenge of Civilization. Steve had interviewed her on “Keepin’ the Faith,” his weekly radio interview program on the University of Illinois Public Radio station. It’s a very small world!

His translator wrote to say how glad she was that we had been introduced to Abdelwahab, albeit too late, but that in one way it was perhaps a blessing that he had died before the ISIL attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris night club. “They would have broken his heart,” she said.”

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight. It was full of violence,” wrote the Genesis writer. “The LORD was grieved that he had made man and His heart was full of pain.”

________

Shift now to our first Saturday morning in Paris. We step outside the Meddebs’ apartment building to wait for an Uber.

Two French soldiers with machine guns across their chests are guarding the building next door. We wonder why they’re there — next to the professor’s apartment building.

I ask one of the soldiers. “Terrorism?” “Qui,” he says. “Jews.”

They’re guarding the synagogue.

A man walks by, ignoring us and talking loudly into the air. “Crazy man,” says the soldier. He points to the taser he will use on the crazy man if he becomes a nuisance or threat. It occurs to me that the whole world is no less crazy than the crazy man.

The French soldier’s English is much better than my French. He asks where I’m from. I tell him I’m from the United States. He asks where. I tell him Minnesota. He knows where Minnesota is in the U.S. “I like the U.S.A.,” he says, “Patriotic!”

I wonder what he has in mind. I wonder how a 20-something-year-old French soldier guarding a Jewish synagogue against a Islamist extremist terrorist attack in Paris next to the Islamic French professor’s home defines patriotism.

My mind flashes back home to my grandchildren in the U.S., wondering what kind of people they will become.

I wonder whether Jack, Mimi, and Ruby are they learning the faith that participates in the grief and pain of God over the world’s violence? Is their young faith the kind that is not opposed to anguish, but part of it? Does it sit next to the abyss? Will they grow into a faith that is mature because it has been challenged?

That likelihood is challenged by a fundamentalist alternative to that kind of faith near where they live in Kentucky.

A new theme park called Ark Encounter opens its gates to the public this Thursday, July 7.

Ark Encounter was developed by Answers in Genesis, the same faith-based for-profit corporation that developed The Creation Museum showing humans and dinosaurs living together on a planet that’s 6,000 years old, a kind of Disneyland for the biblically and scientifically illiterate. Answers in Genesis willfully disregards the Cro Magnon caves in France Kay and I visited — magnificent paintings by our human ancestors that date back 17,000 years — 11,000 years before Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum claim the planet was created.

If Jack, Mimi, and Ruby go the literalist routs of The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, they might find himself like the little boy who asked whether Noah did a lot of fishing on the ark.

“No,” he said, “because they only had two worms!”

While my grandchildren’s friends are being bussed to see the young giraffes in Noah’s ark — “We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile-sized animals that weren’t fully grown yet,” said the head of the Ark Encounter project, “so there would be plenty of room.” I hope Jack, Mimi, and Ruby stay off the busses and learn to read the Bible literately, not literally.

More than one person’s faith has been destroyed by encounters that pit faith against reason.

Of equal concern on this Fourth of July weekend is the relation of church and state. The State of Kentucky has granted $18 million dollars in tax breaks to a religious theme park, a case still in the federal courts. Meanwhile, the State of Kentucky has already spent millions of tax-payers money expanding the entrance and exit ramps from the interstate to and from Ark Encounter.

The value of a secular republic here in the United States and in France where religious freedom is guarded by Constitutional guarantees against the establishment of any one religion over is in danger. The French soldiers were protecting a vulnerable religious minority as a way of exercising the French constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom.

The issue is not only in Paris, Kentucky, Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. It’s everywhere people read their sacred literature literally, calling for their own versions of jihad in God’s name instead of reading them the way they are meant to be read: literately. The text may be sacred literature but it is literature. It does not substitute for thoughtful inquiry that challenges it.
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight. It was full of violence,” wrote the Genesis writer. “The LORD was grieved that he had made man and His heart was full of pain.”

The question this morning is whether we share God’s grief and heartbreak over the violence of our time. Will we shrink faith to the size of certainty apart from God’s anguish, swallowing the camel of violence while straining a gnat, or will we join Jesus and the Professor from Paris in affirming the generosity and kindness which is true religion?

“I believe in the religion of love; whatever direction its caravan may take — for love is my religion and faith.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Guest Minister-in-Residence, St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel, Southern Cross, MT, July 3, 2016