Breakfast on the Beach

Breakfast on the Beach
A sermon for the People of God
at Bethesda United Church of Christ
April 28, 2019
Rev. Deborah Vaughn, BCC

John 21:1-14
1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


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A shrimp boat off the coast of South Carolina. (Much bigger than the Galilean boats!)

Thank you for the warm welcome. Thank you, Valerie and choir, for leading us in praise and worship. It is good to be back here on a day like this, full of joy and celebration!

When Pastor Dee mentioned that this was “Bright Sunday,” I pondered what post-Resurrection story brought me the most smiles. I tried to think — what Eastertide scripture portion brings in the most joy and love – after all, we are not remembering a funeral! We are resurrection people! This vignette from the end of the Gospel of John just makes me smile. A fishing story to end ALL fish stories.

Fishermen love to talk about the one that got away. Or the one that was THIS big. It might have been a minnow on the hook, but it was a WHALE by the time the tale is finished.

It reminds me of the story of a man who went off to do some fishing one weekend. He had absolutely no luck. Zero. None. Nada. About half way home, he sees a fish market, and he stops and says to the owner, “hey, throw me four of those medium sized rainbow trout.” The owner says, “throw them? Why?” The man says, “Well, at least that way, I can say I caught them.”
But wait… there’s more…  
The owner says, “Oh, is your name Jim? And is your wife’s name Cathy?” Puzzled, the man answers, “yes…” the owner responded, “Ok then, Cathy called. She wants you to bring home salmon instead.”
Ba-bum-bum…

Galilee
Photo Credit: “Sea of Galilee (Kinneret; Lake Tiberius)”, © 2018 Gary Todd, Flickr | PD-CC0 | via Wylio

We know that Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fisherman when they were called to be one of Jesus’ followers. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5, we can read about Jesus showing up on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and inviting the four to become “fishers of people.” You remember the story? They had been fishing all night, and Jesus told them to row out into deeper water, and drop their nets yet again.

Bless Simon Peter! He probably could have used a lot saltier language but he said, “Master, we have worked all night long, but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” Can you hear the eye roll? IF YOU SAY SO…

You remember what happens next? They catch so many fish that their nets begin to break, their boats began to sink, and they had to be rescued by other boats to help haul in the catch.

You would think with such as auspicious beginning that they would remember…Not just this event, but the other miracles that Jesus did. But, apparently not.

After the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem, in Matthew’s version anyway, Jesus told them to go ahead to Galilee, and he would meet them there. We do not have a time stamp, but it was probably a few weeks later when this morning’s Scripture took place.

How do we know this? It’s about 184 km or 114 miles from Jerusalem to Galilee. That is about 5 days of hard walking. Not a leisurely stroll. But because, in all likelihood, it wasn’t just “11 bros” going fishing, but their whole families and households, it was probably a two week hike, with a stop for the Sabbath. It was an intentional journey, not a casual whim.

They walked home. Walked. Probably still confused. Still debating what really happened. Just like us – you have 11 eye witnesses, and that means there are 15 versions of what happened – not to mention the debates about what it all means!
Did you see? Thomas stuck his HAND in Jesus’ side?
Mary said there was an angel!
Yeah, but the guards said there was an earthquake…

The disciples, the men and women who followed Jesus, were real people. They argued. They cried. They got tired. They got people-sick. They defended Jesus… and then denied Jesus. I think that they went home, perhaps to find answers, perhaps just to be rejuvenated by the smells and foods and sounds of home.

While we know that they traveled with Jesus all over, we don’t know how long it had been since they were home.  Have you ever journeyed back to your old school, your old neighborhood, maybe back to see family, and realize you are not the same? You don’t quite fit any more… but it’s all you know.

I think they were “disciples of amnesia.”
They had forgotten all that they had seen while traveling with Jesus. They had forgotten the improbable results. The unlikely people who would be followers of Christ.
They fell back into their old habits, their old haunts, their old occupations. They were tempted by the same old problems.

It’s like those of us who are enthusiastic gardeners and get all excited the first warm weekend of Spring. We go to the big box stores and see the baby tomato plants… and we forget that last frost is still coming. And those plants will surely die in the first cold night they are outside. Amnesia!

The disciples had amnesia.

In this morning’s passage, we hear words that are familiar from the passage I referenced earlier in Luke:

“You have no fish, have you?”

“NOooooo.” Now – I would bet – they had a few choice words more than just “NOooooo.”

But…

Nevertheless, when Jesus told them to cast the net on the other side of the boat, they did… and there were “so many fish!” And that was what jolted them out of their amnesia.

It took this huge, amazing, miraculous catch for them to do a double take and for “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (that is, JOHN), to realize that wasn’t just some kibbutzer standing on the shoreline – it was Jesus!

And Peter, bless him, was so excited that he jumped overboard and swam to the beach. John thought we needed to know that Peter fished in the buff and had to first put clothes on before he swam to shore. Ok then.

But… hear me… It took a miracle at daybreak, when they were tired, sore, and probably very frustrated, to FINALLY listen. And then to witness, with their own eyes, Jesus’ abundant gifts to them – “153 fish” – (I wonder – did someone COUNT them? John… apparently!)

onjal-machhiwad - navsari - gujarat - india
Photo Credit: “catch, onjal-machhiwad”, © 2011 nevil zaveri, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

When God invites us to breakfast on the beach… what waits for us is the abundant, overwhelming, satisfying, compassionate love of God.

Jesus didn’t chastise or scold. He didn’t say, “Now didn’t I tell you to go to Galilee? I don’t remember saying ANYTHING about fishing.” Jesus used this extraordinary circumstance to remind them of the extraordinary, over-the-top, welcoming love of God.

Friends… maybe you… like me… are not exactly receptive to the suggestions of our friends and families when we are tired and disgusted and frustrated. When we are exhausted. When our best-laid plans don’t pan out.

Maybe you… like me… are really only receptive to help when we realize we are standing there with empty hands and an empty net. Maybe you… like me… are jolted out of our amnesia to remember…

God’s faithfulness
God’s compassion
God’s people willing to show love and mercy
God’s abundant provision

As Karoline Lewis says, “The resurrected Christ will be seen in displays of abundance. The ascended Christ will be known when his disciples establish opportunities to experience abundant grace.”[1]

Not “just enough” but an ABUNDANCE! Not just a token expression of God’s love, but an ABUNDANCE!

Abundant joy.
Abundant grace.
Abundant hope.

Cast out your nets.
See what God is waiting to do through you – through Bethesda UCC – through your homes – through your places of work.
Your nets will overflow.
Thanks be to God!

[1]Lewis, Karoline. John. Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentary.© 2014, Minneapolis, MN. Fortress Press. p.255

That Family Resemblance – The “Kin-dom” of God

That Family Resemblance – The “Kin-dom” of God
Ephesians 1:3-14

A sermon offered to the people of God
at Bethesda United Church of Christ
July 15, 2018

It’s wonderful to be back here with you. The last time I subbed for Pastor Dee, many of you were on a bus headed to Baltimore for the General Synod meetings. I am delighted to be giving Dee some well-deserved rest, and I want to commend you on giving your pastor a lengthy time of renewal.

This morning, I want to wander with you in the first chapter of Ephesians. Now, as Biblical scholars love to do, there has been discussion and disagreement over the years as to whether or not Paul actually wrote Ephesians. Was it written by a scribe who took liberties with Paul’s dictation? Is it a restatement of Colossians? Is it from a student of Paul? Or is it from the latter period of Paul’s ministry, written for the struggles of the area surrounding Ephesus?

Honestly? I will let wiser heads than mine go argue about that. What is clear is that this book contains wisdom that the First Century Church needed. Its central message is of unity: one calling. One baptism. One household of faith. The earlier patriarchs decided that Ephesians was part of the written Canon and adopted it. Paul/or the author that only God knows wrote it. I think I’ll land there.

In just eleven verses, however, the writer unpacks some heavy-duty theology! He touches on predestination, creation, atonement and redemption: all those “churchy words” that would take a week to unpack and properly understand. The text declares our place in the Kin-dom of God as “God’s own people.” Oh… and just to make it “fun” for those of us who had to study Koine Greek, he does all that in one extremely long run-on sentence.

But I want to focus on these verses because it focuses on the “big picture” of the “kin-dom” of God. The “kin-dom.” Not the kingdom. You may have heard it before… But if you aren’t familiar with it… it is a word that describes the relational nature of God, the way that the Divine adopts, loves and relates to us. We are adopted Kin! This expression works for the central theme of unity, rather than a top-down, power-heavy structure in “kingdom.” Kin-dom has been in public discourse for many years, but appears earliest in the work of mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and also the writing of Sister Georgene Wilson, a Franciscan nun.

A wise woman I know, Dr. Reta Halteman Finger, suggests that “The Kin-dom of God is a radical political statement. It is Jesus’ alternative to the Roman Empire. It is asking God to set up God’s reign on earth instead of the martial, stratified, and repressive reign of Caesar.”[1] Instead of a top-down, authoritarian government that humans like to set up, there is a sense of communal responsibility and commitment to one another. That’s the kindom! And Paul, teaching this radical re-ordering of government, just might have upset Caesar’s priorities!

Kindom fits this morning’s Epistle reading. Can you hear its familial nature in the first verses of greeting? This concept of unity and community? Paul spends a lot of time defining and declaring the whys and wherefores of our relationship with God. As I reflected on the text, I asked myself, “What was SO IMPORTANT that he wanted to build this painstaking theological foundation?”

That’s where I was drawn as I pondered the text. It would be easier to outline and define each of the big theological words and then go home… and maybe watch a little soccer. But I don’t think that’s the central message. It is, for me, summarized in Ephesians 1: 13-14.

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:13-14

All those conditions and definitions of our relationship with God are for the purpose of cementing in our adoption. Our inclusion in the family of God. Our place in the plan of God from the beginning of time. Not because of anything we do or are. Not because of where we grew up, or who are grandparents are, or where we went to church. But because of grace. We are loved because of grace.

These words applied to the members of a church in the region of Ephesus in the first Century. And they are true for us today. It is because we are chosen, because we are forgiven, because we are redeemed, because we are loved that we are all adopted into the family of God. We are God’s own people. We are all known and loved and covered by God’s grace. Gentiles? Welcomed into the kindom. Jews? No more privileged than the Gentiles. All are part of the beloved!

The problem is, we struggle with what being “the family of God” looks like, acts like, talks like, worships like, eat like, loves like, smells like, and serves like. We have opinions. Definite opinions! “That’s what Church should be!”

Even in a progressive, Christian community.
Even with people who want to be in a church!
Even with a congregation who has deep roots in love, fellowship and service.
Even in an area where we have county, state and federal officials with a progressive bend.

I don’t have to tell you that in our country, the divisiveness and incivility is at epic proportions. Not just on the internet. The highway road rage. The office shootings. The gun violence in schools. The rise in domestic violence. The “bully pulpit” of some politicians who seem bent on dividing any coalitions that threaten his or her own power, and suggest if you don’t do things their way, you’re not really a “Christian.” From County politics to Congress, there’s a whole lot of hating going on!

In all of these situations, grown up people forget what was drummed into their heads in elementary school. You remember some of those truths from the book by Robert Fulghum, All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten.[2] You know… basic human decency? “Take turns. Say please and thank you. Clean up your own mess. Say that you’re sorry when you hurt someone.” And so on…

We forget we are all the same — flawed, forgiven humans. From the outside, we are so radically different. We are fractured by our individual needs and interests. We experience life from such radically different perspectives that it’s hard to have peace in a household, let along in a church. Yet Ephesians brings back to mind our mutual inheritance and redemption. As they say in the South, “we are kinfolk!”

How can we see and celebrate this family resemblance? This kin-dom?
First, by seeing that we are all brought in to this fold by God.

Not a one of us came up with the idea on our own. We were invited, enticed, engrained, enfolded into the fabric of the community by the Holy Spirit. That’s God’s job! We came into the family under difficult circumstances, or privileged ones. We were nurtured by Godself. We were known, loved and wanted before we knew we were known, loved, and wanted. We are a holy, blended family. Our identity is not because we know how we came into our spiritual heritage, but that we were, indeed adopted in. Just like there are many kinds of family (biological, blended, adopted, foster) there are many ways to come to a knowledge of God’s personal love for each one of us. And there is no “one correct way” to come into the family — just like there are many ways to create a human family! Our identity in God is exactly the same.

This should bring forward in us a sense of deep humility. In every way, we are each forgiven much, and blessed with much more. But far too often, it comes out as entitlement. It’s as if our little selfish inner selves are saying, ‘God always DID like me best!’ or churches say, “God likes the way WE worship best!”

I have to tell you that churches and even whole denominations have split over this entitlement. Congregations “bleed out” and die because there are power struggles and cliques! Common goals and dreams are set aside for personal wishes. But God invites us to lay our sense of “earned favor” and accept that it is unmerited, unearned, and unending. The grace of God.

What’s another way to demonstrate that family resemblance? Because it’s not just understanding that we are brought in on equal theological footing. It is to acknowledge that this kin-dom is not built on the expense or punishment or exclusion of others. 

To offer a more modern perspective, I’d like to return to the views of the late Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. She proposes a view of the church and society that is based on Mujerista Liberation theology. She believes that life, in its fullest expression, results in the freeing of families and communities that are not oppressed by others. The Latina culture’s high value of family and community is a result of honoring and promoting the mutual hopes and dreams of everyone. This is the foundation for all societal and spiritual experience. This is how people thrive! She declares that this is multi-generational and in it there is room for all![3]

How many of us have had living situations where the mutual concerns and benefits of every member of the community were part of the decision-making process? Maybe it was your first apartment or rental house with friends from college. Maybe you lived in an intentional community, or were part of a dorm or rooming house where you shared in the rent, the rules and the chores.

Theoretically, this is the same way that the Church could be. I say, “could be” because we all know that there is a difference between being an “organization” and an “organism.” The Body of Christ is an “organism.” But the practical governing and life of the Church is most definitely an “organization.” We have committees and commissions, pastors and church councils. And sometimes we take our eyes off of our common ground, and we forget our family resemblance in our “organism” as the Body of Christ!

Humor me this morning… because I believe that one metaphor we can visualize is to think of ourselves… is a quilt!

unnamed-3
Quilt block from one of my grandmothers

We are stitched together. All of us unique parts are brought together with the whole design in mind. Each quilt, each local Body of believers, are unique and beautiful, and each part of the pattern repeats in a way that brings harmony, beauty, and warmth. The quilt is pieced in patterns of shapes and colors, (like this one, made with squares and diamonds, or like this quilt, made up entirely of hexagons.)

Creating quilts in my grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ day created community. Women gathered around frames a “quilting bees.” Their shared efforts provided a piece of practical household furnishing. Quilts take what’s left of scarce resources and make something new.

IMG_4455
My grandmother’s quilt. 

There is an unproven legend that quilts pointed the way on the Underground Railroad. Maybe it’s true! As Anna Lopez, an education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum in Michigan said to Time magazine, “What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?”[4] Maybe those quilts were used to guide people to freedom.

Quilts memorialize events or people. How many of you saw the NAMES Project, the quilt which remembers AIDS victims? Families and friends created a 3×6’ panel and they were stitched together into huge blocks. In 1995, the quilt covered the entire National Mall. Now it would blanket it many times over.

Perhaps when you think of a quilt as an image of the Body of Christ, you think of this lovely one made by my grandmother. And you think to yourself, “Yes! The Church! Decency, order, variety and diversity! Blended together by God and stitched together in unity and love!” God is that comforting presence, that warmth that welcomes us.

As the poem in our bulletin this morning suggests:
I think God is a quilter
Who takes His needle and thread
To piece our world from nothingness
And give it form instead.

Well… yes.
And no!

First, I think if God is a quilter, then God should be represented as a “She.” I think I have met one male quilter in my life… No offense to the anonymous writer on the internet. Just sayin… it should say she takes HER needle and thread…

I actually think the kin-dom of God is a little more wild and rambling and creative, and a little less controlled and boxed-in. I think the work of the Spirit is freeing, not confining. I think the actions of the Church are passionate and varied and beautiful. I think there are times for the kin-dom of God to be beautiful and decent and well-ordered enough to make any introvert happy.

And then… the Bapticostal side of me says… No… the Holy Spirit is a crazy quilt!

 

crazyqlt
Created by my great-grandmother.

Here’s the real picture of each of us being grafted in, adopted, changed and molded into a whole. Here there are threadbare places and misshapen pieces. There is imperfection! There is chaos. Wildness. There is random order. It is unified, but unique. They are all stitched together in this crazy quilt called a “church.” Apart by ourselves, there is no sense. Put together, it is a beautiful thing. It is a legacy, a promise, a dream of what is to come. It’s a dream of God might do, if we could get along. Like the “hope chests” of old, there is the possibility of what is “not yet.”

The Body of Christ, the kin-dom of God that is represented by this crazy quilt, is a church that knows there is hard work ahead. Its a church that says, I will do everything I can in this process of loving and caring for one another and our world will take everything we have. It will only be as successful as our least-attached piece, as our least committed member.

In the writing of Ephesians, Paul (or pseudo-Paul), was attempting to bring unity to a deeply divided people. A people who had other gods and religions practicing right on their doorstep. A culture which denied women the rights of full citizenship, and allowed slavery. (And even told slaves how they should act!) Ephesus, though a modern seaport in its day, was not so good at showing love and compassion to one another. The writer’s words were full of encouragement, of unity, of love, and of understanding.

And in these words, may we see and know for ourselves that we are each a piece of God’s divine plan in the world. We are each chosen, beloved, adopted and blessed. We are each stitched into the kin-dom of God. May our lives be a response to God who loves us, and may we together bring the praise of God’s glory.

Thanks be to God!

Gracious God,

We who are comfortable, forget those who feel discomfort. We who are healed, forget those who are wounded.  We who need you, forget that your Holy Spirit would change us and mold us and meld us and loves us in ways that we cannot even fathom. May the words that have been spoken be like arrows to our hearts, for you are a Great God who can do all things… in Christ, we pray. Amen.

 


[1]From Kingdom to Kin-dom and Beyond. Christian Feminism Today, https://eewc.com/kingdom-kindom-beyond/Accessed 6/29/2018.

[2]Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, Villard Books: New York, 1990, page 6-7.

[3]Chapter 9, “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal,” by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (p 171-190). Valentín, Benjamín. In our own voices: Latino/a renditions of theology.Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, © 2010. Accessed: June 29, 2018. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.31279.0001.001.

[4]Stacie Stukin (2007-04-03). “Unravelling the Myth of Quilts and the Underground Railroad”TIME. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1606271,00.html  Retrieved June 27, 2018.

SHEroes: Deborah and the Woman at the Well

A sermon offered to the people of God at Greenbelt Community Church, Greenbelt, Maryland

Thank you for your warm welcome. I’m delighted to serve you today for my friend Pastor Glennyce. We are part of a women’s clergy group and have enjoyed some wonderful times of laughter, prayer and inspiration. You are blessed with a great pastor!

My sermon this morning is based on the popular and epic blockbuster of the summer. It’s everyone’s SHEro, Wonder Woman! There are biblical themes in her story, themes that link our culture’s treatment of women and superheroes with God’s purpose in the world.

I should also mention: If you have not yet been to see this movie, I will have a few spoilers for you. (Fair warning!)

For some background: Wonder Woman is the story of Princess Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. She lives with her tribe on the island of Themyscira. Though she did not know it until she was an adult, she was the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta, making her a demigod. Or demigoddess.

The myth is a powerful one. A young woman comes into her own, discovers she is born into a time of conflict where her unique gifts and powers are needed to make things right again. She is unspoiled by greed. She is not overly impressed with her personal powers. She doesn’t even realize she is beautiful.

The movie, set in World War 1, includes a handsome fighter pilot (of course) who crashes on the shores of Themyscira. Diana rescues him and then chooses to go back into his world to fight against the “bad guys”. She wears a tiara which can be thrown as a blade-edged boomerang, and wields a Lasso of Truth. Her bracelets become indestructible shields, blocking bullets and creating thunderbolts. She wears her sword down the back of her evening gown. What did you expect for Wonder Woman’s fashion accessories? She IS an Amazon. Did you expect tutus?

Wonder Woman, like the biblical women we will read about today, is larger-than-life. She faces injustice and evil and does not back away. In fact, like Deborah, our first SHEro, she realizes she has power and that she can use it to help others. (I kinda like that name… Deborah!)

Deborah  The Lord Will Deliver Us   Judges 4:1-10

Deborah was elevated to the position of judge in Israel. Our text in the NRSV calls her a “prophetess”. She is one of the twelve charismatic leaders, or judges, in Israel listed in the book of Judges. God put Deborah into leadership to provide spiritual and tactical leadership. The time she was born into was a period of struggle and suffering for the Jews. The Israelites had come out of Egypt, been led into the Promised Land, and faced a series of challenges from foreign powers trying to take the Land of Canaan from them. Historians suggest that the book of Judges was committed to writing during the Babylonian Exile (550 BCE).[1] The book’s message of hope and promise of deliverance must have resonated deeply with a captive nation!

Deborah
Artist unknown. Source Women in the Scriptures

Deborah ruled as a judge – not just to resolve legal disputes. She served in that role as a prophetess, a warrior and, as you might read later in Judges 5, she was also a poet and singer! She was given power to lead by God and used it wisely.

With our Wonder Woman theme in mind, Deborah fulfilled roles as a leader, ready to battle against evil with her unique insight and power, and as a defender of her people. Deborah knew her tribe. Her motivation was for their safety and the return of peace.

When Wonder Woman goes into battle, she assesses and charges the line of enemy fighters, blocking bullets with her indestructible bracelets. She charges into “No Man’s Land.” To quote the Tolkein SHEro Éowyn, She is. No. Man. The battle belongs to Wonder Woman. Or… in the case of Deborah, it belongs to the woman who follows the Lord!

Deborah is a role breaker and risk taker. There was no other general like her recorded in Jewish history. There are many conservative Bible commentators who try to explain away her calling and her power. It’s clear she was not a typical woman of ancient Israel. In fact, given the inequity in the representation of women in Holy Scripture, where their power and status were minimized, she must have been extraordinary.[2] SO extraordinary that she was not excised from the texts. That’s something to ponder

But the ancient mindset affects even how we translate her name: is she really “Deborah, wife of Lappidoth” when the literal translation of her name could be “Deborah, the fiery one”? Lappidoth is a derivative of the Hebrew word for fire or torch or lightning (לַפִּיד lappiyd). In the adjective form it would be “fiery”.[3] She may indeed have been married. And the guy she married could have been a fiery one, too! But in our text, she was called to more than marriage and family. And she probably had a bit of FIRE in her belly.

Now, what about Barack, leader of the army? He appears to be thoughtful, reserved, and more conservative. He seems highly analytical, maybe to a fault… I grant you that. In fact, some commentaries go so far as to characterize him as reluctant and wimpy for not “manning up.” But what exactly do we read about his character? Is that true?

Did Deborah usurp Barack’s role in leading the Israelites against Sisera, the general of

BibleArt-Deborah
Illustration from Dore’s ‘The Holy Bible’, 1866.

King Jabin’s army? No. She gave him direction. Deborah took the lead, but as any wise military leader knows, she prepared her general and soldiers to have a successful battle. And then as the skirmish develops, allow circumstances to dictate what happens next.

Then why did Barack want her there? Because she presented the power and guidance of God. It was not enough for Barak to hear and go. He asked for guidance and her presence. That sounds like a cautious, thoughtful, careful leader to me. A respectful one.

Later in chapter 4, you’ll read that the mighty iron chariots of the Canaanites, so feared by the Israelites, got (literally) stuck in the mud! Barack led a rout of the Canaanite army, and God did indeed deliver General Sisera into the hands of a woman.

In the interests, of time, I’ll let you read up on how General Sisera dies. (Quite honestly, that’s a ghastly and bloody bit that makes for great cinema, but not great sermons. That’s your homework. The story of Sisera and Jael.)

But what about Deborah as a woman and a leader. Isn’t that, well, unbiblical? Well I guess it depends on how you look at it. Was God in charge of the battle with Sisera? Yes. Did Deborah take over a “man’s job”? No. Barack was not the judge of Israel. That was Deborah’s role. It was not hereditary and it wasn’t elected. She was put into that role by God. And she knew it. And, coincidentally… so did Barack!

God is both compassionate and a righteous judge, humble and forceful, intuitive and logical. Deborah reflects the God who called her. A balanced leader. One that eyes the situation and seeks God’s direction as she acts with thoughtful and wise plans. Deborah exhibited concern for the welfare of her people.

It’s very much like Wonder Woman’s response when she sees the suffering around her in the war zone. People who are wounded. Without food. Hungry children. Destroyed homes. The situation is no longer abstract. She is not just practicing archery and hand-to-hand combat. She is moved to action. Her compassion pushes her to respond.

My friend, Dr. Christy Sim writes:

Today, as we confront suffering in our own world, brought about by years of conquest, lust for power, and patriarchal disregard for the marginalized, we could become overwhelmed by the vastness of the abstract forces working against us. …When we feel with those suffering, we access a deep passion to act. We, like Diana, can rush onto the battlefields of our times and work to create change. Feminine power is often found in compassion.[4]

When we are moved with compassion, we extend ourselves for those in need around us. Your church, like mine, is strategic and committed in your involvement with those who need our help. You invest your time and money in projects like the Special Olympics, or Christmas in April. That’s what God’s people do! We visit the sick. We befriend the stranger. We defend those being bullied. We care for the immigrants in our midst. We do not stand by and wring our hands and say, “oh, that’s just terrible.”

NO, Church. We DO something.

If compassion is our motivation, then like Deborah, we can make a palm tree our office and change the course of a nation. It really doesn’t take riches or CEO status or prestige to make a difference! But it does take action. And, like Deborah, when we see God’s plans unfold in front of us, we can proclaim this is God’s work. And the Lord receives the honor and the glory.

Sometimes, it is not just in serving God with our actions. We serve God with our words as we communicate God’s work in our lives. Just like our second SHEro this morning from the Gospel of John…

The Samaritan Woman at the Well  Come and See   John 4:7-30

sychar

This SHEro was not a powerful warrior, general and prophetess. She was an outcast. The scripture I’m about to read drops us into the middle of her story. The conversation between Jesus and the woman is found in the John 4:7-30.

The Samaritan Woman at the well… She has to be one of the most misunderstood women (in my opinion) in the Bible. A woman who had to come to Joseph’s well in the heat of the day to draw water, not in the morning or evening as most of the households would do.

The well in ancient times was a gathering place. The turn-of-the century Starbucks. If there was no river or other water source, any water you needed had to be pulled up, poured into larger pitchers and carried to where you needed it. Water for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing. Water for your animals (unless the pasture had a spring). It was the source of life, literally Living Water.

That this woman had to get water for her household in the heat of the day meant that either she was a poor planner and household manager (not a good sign), or she was some kind of social pariah.

We learn from her encounter with Jesus that she has had five husbands, and that she is not married to the one she lives with now. This isn’t because of some lustful living. In all likelihood, she was divorced five times because she could not bear sons (a reason for divorce in ancient times). Or it is possible that her husband had died (and if she had not died in childbirth he might die first). It’s likely that she was not married because the brother or closest relative of her last marriage didn’t want another wife. So her notoriety is most likely not from shady living, but sheer dumb luck with the genetic lottery!

samaritan-womanBut the beauty in her story, to me, is that she discovers who Jesus really is. From his invitation, she accepts the Living Water, and she is changed. She returns to the village and says, “you GOTTA see this guy” – and because of her testimony, we read later in John 4 that many people in the city believed in Jesus – because of her testimony.

When the Samaritan woman experiences true change, when she understands who she is in the eyes of Jesus, there is an amazing metamorphosis that takes place. She can’t stay who she was. She becomes who, I think, God intended her to be… the messenger that brings salvation to a whole city.

If you have seen the Wonder Woman movie, perhaps you remember that Princess Diana goes through a metamorphosis as well. She was a princess, one who was not supposed to go to the practice fields where the Amazons were practicing hand-to-hand combat. She was supposed to be paying attention to her lessons. She goes to the training ground anyway. She practices in secret with the other warriors. She learns how to fight off multiple opponents. And when she crosses her bracelets… She becomes Diana, the demigod, not just Diana, the daughter of Hippolyta.

When Diana is deciding to leave Themyscira she says, “It is our sacred duty to defend the world.  And it is what I am going to do.” Her mother, who does not want to leave, says, “If you choose to leave, you may never return.”  Diana responds, “Who will I be if I stay?”

How can we, who have been transformed by the love and power of Christ, stay as we are? How do we say “no” to the God who has created us, changed us, empowered us, and now challenges us? The problem is not you or me. The problem is we. We are not telling our stories of hope and transformation!

Our challenge now is to take the stories of the Scriptures and allow them to transform us. So much that who we are, wherever we go, we have a story that changes the narrative. Let’s face it. The world is ready for some Good News!

The world’s stage has despot after despot, bigot after bigot, racist after racist, tyrant after tyrant trying to crush down and destroy any person who does not fit his or her definition of “our kind of people”. Can we sit back and say we are tired of the battle? Can we? If we do, we can no longer blame the person on the stage, spouting lies and prejudice and hate. We can only blame ourselves for our inaction. We are letting the noise of politics and conflict drown out the message of hope. God’s hope.

We instead must go to our villages – and tell the people around us, “Come and see the Christ, the Savior of the world.”

“Come and see” the God who routed Sisera’s army.

“Come and see” the women and men God has raised up to lead.

“Come and see” the God who knows everything we have ever done and yet passionately loves us.

“Come and see” the God who welcomes us to his Table and feeds us with compassion and grace.

“Come and see!”

img_1264 AMEN. Thanks be to God.

[1] Serge Frolov, “How Old Is the Song of Deborah?”, n.p. [cited 23 Jul 2017]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/people/related-articles/how-old-is-the-song-of-deborah

[2] William P. Brown, “Chapter 17: Gender I – Feminist” in A Handbook to Old Testament Exegesis, pp 250-252. Westminster John Knox Press; 2017, Louisville, KY

[3] Sara Koenig, “Commentary on Judges 4:1-7” n.p. [cited 23 Jul 2017]. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2216

[4] Dr. Christy Sim “Wonder Woman: A Divine Feminine Myth for Our Time” n.p. [cited 23 July 2017]  https://eewc.com/wonder-woman-divine-feminine-myth-for-our-time/

Who’s Calling? A sermon on Genesis 22:1-14

Offered to the people of God at Bethesda United Church of Christ

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
 (Psalm 19:14 ESV)

Thank you, my new friends, for the warm welcome to your church and your pulpit. I have enjoyed my friendship with Pastor Dee and other women ministers in the area, as part of the group called RevGalBlogPals. We found each other through the magic of the internet. The six of us in our small ministerial group meet about once a month. We laugh, talk, cry and pray about ministry and about our lives. I’m honored to preach here today for your pastor and my friend.

I did not mention in my bio that I was a member at one point in a United Church of Christ congregation. During my high school and college years, my family attended First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio, the church of Washington Gladden, Boynton Merrill, and Chalmers Coe. Being in a UCC congregation is very much like coming home! I say this to reassure you… I may be a crazy Baptist preacher, but I honor my UCC roots!

As you read from my bio, my primary ministry is that of a chaplain. When I worked at a trauma center, it was not uncommon to get that middle-of-the-night phone call. In a groggy, sleep-deprived state, I jumped out of bed, put on my shoes and headed for whatever emergency I was called to… But before I responded in person I needed to know Who’s Calling – and get straight in my mind what I was walking into.

Today’s text in Genesis 22 is one of those texts with a wake-up call in it. For if we do not remember the nature and intention of Abraham’s God, we can easily go careening off into the wrong direction. We can also do this text a grand disservice and take it as a simple conversation. Perhaps we might join philosopher Immanuel Kant in the depths of his cynicism. But this text can point us back to the Imago Dei, if we are paying attention.

After all, it is a hard story to hear, isn’t it? As if Genesis chapter 21 wasn’t bad enough – the story of Sarah and Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael… of jealousy and banishment… and of God’s protection and provision. If we read this story with ears of disbelief, we might respond much like the Abraham immortalized in another of Bob Dylan’s songs, “Highway 61.” You may be old enough to remember it:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”[1]

I invite you to ponder Genesis 22 with me as we try to find the threads of grace and justice and hope and peace that we believe ARE the hallmarks of the Divine’s work in the world. In a broken, twisted, confusing world like ours, there are many around us who do NOT see that God is there.

My imperfect take on this text is simply this: as you read these words, never ever let the Covenant God of the Patriarchs out of your sight. Read these words through the filter of a relational God, not an impartial, angry God. We will indeed struggle if we forget this story in its context. The context is one of a covenant relationship. And it is a covenant relationship that will go through a severe test of faith (for Abraham).

Who’s Calling?

A Covenant God. A just God. A God who asked Abraham to leave everything he knew to go off into a new land, with a wife who has yet to bear children, to begin a great nation.

Who’s Calling?

nat-cathedral-akedah-medium
The sacrifice of Isaac
A Covenant God. A God who keeps promises. A God who tells Abraham to walk for 3 days and then kill his son as a sacrifice. Our minds boggle. WAIT… Hold on now… Binding up a human being for sacrifice? Where is this relational God now?

The binding of Isaac, or the Akedah, is found in the Sacred texts for Jews, Muslims and Christians. The text weaves in faith and despair. Hope and disbelief. Kierkegaard in his work Fear and Trembling takes chapters and chapters to untangle the philosophical questions in this story. Never fear – I will not read the entire book to you! (But, should you wish to wrestle with this personally… there is your assignment!)

The relationship and love of a father for his son is emphasized in the construction of the very words of our text. In true ancient storytelling fashion, the repetitive words make it clear that this son, this Isaac is precious and beloved.

From our text in v. 3: Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…
Yes. His only legitimate son and heir. That one.

and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…
…and Abraham is given this horrible task…

The classic Jewish midrash by Rashi suggests God made this as a request to see if Abraham would really obey and follow him, only to then reward him.

The Holy One, blessed be He, makes the righteous wonder (or wait), and only afterwards discloses to them [His intentions], and all this is in order to increase their reward.[2]

Was this just a “test”? Was this a challenge to expand Abraham’s faith or just the beginning of the tale of God’s faithfulness?

When God promised Abram his descendants would outnumber the stars in Genesis 12, did Abram know how it would happen? He had no children, no land other than the space he pitched his tent! He did not yet know how God would do all these things but believed. We read in Genesis 15 and later in Romans that God “credited it to him as righteousness”. Against all the odds of the improbable, Abraham believed.

The Apostle Paul reminded us of this in Romans 4:18-22

18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

And isn’t that what we are called to in a time of improbable politics and conflict? We are called to believe that though it seems unlikely, God is at work… in and through and in spite of us!

On some level, Abraham had faith that God would do something even though he thought he was to sacrifice Isaac. In his own words in Genesis 22: 5, Abraham says…

Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; WE will worship and then WE will come back to you.

…WE will worship and then WE will come back to you.

Was it a prophetic statement or a quiet and desperate prayer by Abraham?  “WE will come back?”

I would suggest to you that Abraham may have been uncertain HOW God would bring offspring… with no son… or how Isaac would return with him, alive, but he believed that El Shaddai, the All-Sufficient One would do it! Based on all Abraham knew of God’s work in the past, he had faith.

Rev. Jacqueline Lewis says: “Faith in God means remembering deliverance in the past and expecting deliverance in times to come.”[3]

Remembering deliverance… expecting deliverance… I suggest to you that THIS is the narrow way through to understanding and living with this text.

Two other characters in this story deserve a moment of our reflection.

SARAH

First, Sarah.

Other than knowing the backstory, that she is Isaac’s mother, she is absent from this narrative. It’s not surprising. Women in the time of the patriarchs did not offer sacrifices nor lead worship, so they would not have made this kind of journey. They supervised households, had babies, made clothing, cooked meals, tended flocks and crops, and fetched water.

Sarah’s real worth in her culture’s eyes was measured by how many sons she birthed. She believed her barrenness was from God. In Genesis 12, she said that God had “prevented” her from having children, and in order to see that promised sea of descendants appear, she suggested Abraham have children by her slave, Hagar. She saw no other option.

How do we view Sarah? Do we see her as a schemer? Someone trying to keep her position as Abraham’s first wife?

Or do we see her through the lens of a woman who knows she is only chattel? Someone who not only could be replaced, but has no other recourse? Someone who only has an outside chance that things might go her way… but just in case… she pegs in her own position in the sand.

When we force people to the margins in society, whether by virtue of race or economic status, why are we then taken aback by their desperate measures? Rather than long-range planning, Sarah found a short-range solution. It’s a strategy that many of us have fallen prey to, if we are honest… Fear that I won’t get what’s “mine” or I will lose what little security I have.

Women of today are all Daughters of Sarah… If we from our place of privilege can find compassion for Sarah’s plight, can we then transfer that compassion to “the Hagars” in our lives? The people who have been intentionally shoved into exile? The ones who do not have favored status? The ones who are aliens…?

So, Church, how might we respond today to the marginalized and ignored…?

THE RAM

The other character I’d ask you to consider is the ram, who is, as the poet Yehuda Amichai said, “the true hero of the Akedah”  [Ah-KAY-dah]. Listen to the first part of his poem:

The True Hero of the Akedah
Yehuda Amichai  translated by Chavatzelet Herzliya[4]

The true hero of the Akedah was the ram
Who did not know about the pact among the others.
It was as if he volunteered to die in place of Isaac.
I want to sing, for him, a memorial song,
About the curly wool and the mortal eyes
About the horns that stood silent on its living head.
After the slaughter, they were made into shofars
To sound the blast of their wars
And to sound the blast of their celebrations….

The ram caught in the branches may have been reaching to eat the last tender shoots of a limb. Picture the deer in your neighborhood, straining to get the new, freshest buds off the top of your azaleas. Or the cow reaching through the fence to find the greenest grass.

Perhaps the ram was struggling for survival in a part of the world where green things and water are scarce. One could imagine the ram losing its footing and its horns becoming enmeshed in the branches. It could not get away… and it was there. Stuck. Waiting. A Divine appointment. To be sacrificed would be a merciful end rather than a long, slow death by thirst and starvation.

Could this happen naturally? Yes!  It did, as suggested by art found in “The Great Death Pit” from an archeological dig in the 1920s led by Leonard Woolley. (See pictures here at the Penn Museum website.) Some of the sculptures had a stylized animal, either a goat or a ram, caught in the branches of a small tree or bush. They were dated to be around 2100 BCE, the approximate time it is suggested Abraham lived.

The ram is also significant because it reminds us that the ancient peoples did not always use animals as sacrifices. The scarcity of resources, or fear of survival, led them to sacrifice children to the gods, like Amar-utu the Akkadian god of the desert sun.

Abraham was called out of this practice to worship the One True God. In this transition of a people group from old beliefs to new, he saw the ram as a reminder from God: I will provide for you.

Rev. Kathryn M Schifferdecker from Luther Seminary[5] says “the sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac becomes the foundational act for all the Temple sacrifices that follow”

With our modern-day eyes, we can make the connection between God providing the ram, with God making a way for us, for our faith to declare us as righteous. We know Christ, the Mediator between the human and the Divine.

From your earlier years, you may remember these words from the Heidelberg Cathechism:

And who is this mediator—true God and at the same time truly human and truly righteous?
Our Lord Jesus Christ,
who was given us
to set us completely free
and to make us right with God.

How do you come to know this?
The holy gospel tells me.
God himself began to reveal the gospel already in Paradise;
later, he proclaimed it
by the holy patriarchs and prophets,
and portrayed it
by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law;
finally, he fulfilled it
through his own dear Son.

Abraham moves in this uneasy space of the old (human sacrifice) and the new (the ram). The ram brings a pause in the downward arc of the knife:

Mosai041-medium
The angel of the Lord stops Abraham
Abraham, Abraham!
Whom do you serve? (You gotta serve somebody!)

Abraham, Abraham!
Look up and see what God is doing! What God has already DONE.

We are all bound and unbound from challenges, illness, even death by the Creator God who made us. Even those we love the most. We bring heart-felt requests to God, believing, as Anne Lamott says, “someone hears us when we speak in silence.”

We must ask ourselves when we feel stuck:
“Who’s Calling?”
Whom do we serve?
Do we SEE God?
Do we HEAR God?
Do we respond with understanding?

Can we sit with the tension of this text?
Can we feel the agony of an impossible decision?
Can we spare compassion for our neighbor who does not have enough money for rent AND food AND utilities AND medicine AND clothing?

Can we see this story from our places of brokenness?
Can we remember we only see one side to a story?
Do we forget there is a place for God to speak into our lives and change us?
Are we listening and responding to God’s Call?

Are we finally waking up from a deep sleep, grabbing the phone in our sleep-fuzzed states?
Are we even move-able? Or are we, as Anne Lamott says, like “mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins”?

Church, Church! Christ speaks!
Do we answer, Who’s Calling?

Or do we say, as Abraham did, Here I am!

Can you answer? Here I am!

HERE I AM!

Thanks be to God!

[1] Highway 61, lyrics by Bob Dylan. https://bobdylan.com/songs/highway-61-revisited/

[2] http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8217/jewish/Chapter-22.htm#showrashi=true

[3] Jacqueline J Lewis, “Summer Series 1: God’s Creative Connection” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series. ©2016, Westminster John Knox Press. p 57.

[4] http://ktiva.blogspot.com/2006/11/poetry-of-akedah.html

[5] Kathryn Schifferdecker, Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14, Working Preacher blog, © 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2138