My next sermons at Universalist National Memorial Church will be on October 6 and November 17.
I will post more information as I have it, and we’ll post the sermon manuscripts once preached.
My next sermons at Universalist National Memorial Church will be on October 6 and November 17.
I will post more information as I have it, and we’ll post the sermon manuscripts once preached.
I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on August 4, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke. The ad-libs are not included, and I named this sermon before I wrote it, so don’t make too much of the title.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, to Sean for reading today, and to you for welcoming me back.
We’re continuing our lessons in the Gospel of Luke. As I looked at our lesson today, I realized that the obvious sermon is about probate law and binding arbitration. (I’m joking of course: let’s save that for the holidays. Thanksgiving, perhaps.)
But this passage about a family squabble and an inheritance raises an important to look at scripture. Instead of looking at a passage like this as a guide for behavior, let’s think of it as a longer story that’s missing some pieces.
First, we consider who’s present. Jesus, of course, and the two feuding brothers. The crowd and presumably Jesus’ own students. Likewise in Jesus’ embedded parable, we hear about the rich man with the productive farm. Then we can ask ourselves who’s missing from the stories, perhaps implied but still important to understanding what’s going on. For example, the source of the family wealth, perhaps a mother or father, or another relative. In any case this person must be dead. You can just imagine the hard feelings born of family crisis. The same feelings played out in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and in families today. In the parable, we hear about the productive farm but presumably the rich man to not till the soil or harvest the crops himself. The missing people are the farm hands and his domestic workers, the ones who did the work to create the wealth. They’re missing. Even the rich man’s family is missing.
And then in this approach — who’s present in the story; who’s missing from the story — makes a demand of us. Who do you most identify with here? The feuding brothers and the rich farmer are what we would call bad examples; models of living which we use as object lessons of what not to do. If we see ourselves in them, we judge ourselves and (I hope) reform your lives for the better.
But we aren’t stuck with seeing ourselves in one role. What about the unnamed laborer? The unnamed benefactor? What do we make of our own possessions or work while we yet live? And do we, like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, rue the work that we do under the sun? Because this reading is not not simply about personal possessions, though possessions have their place. But rather, what values do we ascribe to possessions that they don’t deserve? If you “are what you eat” (as the saying goes), are you also what you wear? what you drive? where you live and what you own? Is our value as a producer or a consumer?
I mean this is not exactly a trick question. You are in church. Of course you value is not as a producer or a consumer. After all Jesus said:
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
It’s really more of a warning. Because how we approach our wealth (or lack of wealth) cuts right to the root of what it means to be a human being filled with dignity and joy. And if you can reflexively know that your value as a person is not based on being a producer or a consumer while you sit in a church, is it as easily to think that about yourself the other hours of the week?
Several years ago, I was working for a government transparency and accountability organization that specialized in technological and policy. Two of my responsibilities were finances and purchasing, so I know first-hand that we used Amazon Web Services for data storage, processing and other solutions. This is the same goliath Amazon that has taken over online shopping and may provide you streaming video. What’s less well-known is that their huge computing capacity is itself a suite of products. One of which is Amazon Mechanical Turk. This was a service where real human beings would take on small discreet tasks that weren’t well suited for computers. Think of it is artificial intelligence done by human beings. The name came from a automaton in the form of a Turkish man, a mechanism that could play chess. The idea is that you would be impressed by the intricacy of the device which was in fact a human being dressed up to be an automaton. My responsibilities also included human resources, and (as you know) my first calling is in the service of God: I found this service incredibly chilling. I was at work looking at the future of work: unseen people doing that which the tools that human beings created to relieve us of unnecessary burden could not do. People being made into robots.
Was this right? Was this what we were promised? Along with flying cars and trips to Mars, one of the great science fiction promises of the coming age was the end of toil. The future where are we, well anyway most of us, would be spared difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing or repetitive work. But since so much work is difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing and repetitive, the promise has to be that we would have less work overall.
If you read articles on productivity, automation, business processes or robotics, you know that it’s a matter of time until many of the jobs we do today will be automated. We might as well plan on what we are going to do with all that free time. (I don’t think writers of those articles have much experience with manual labor, or have too much faith in robotic barbers.) I know serious people who are looking at Universal Basic Income as a policy to mop up all that excess labor, as if people were rational when it comes to providing funds for people without work.
It’s one thing to say that work gives life meaning, or to say that “idol hands are the devil’s playthings.” But it’s altogether another to realize how little we may regard one another if large blocks of the population are first unneeded, then unwanted and finally expendable. The Black Plague killed so many people that the labor of those who survived became more valuable, and so those workers could demand more money and better treatment.
I’m sort of workaholic killjoy, but because without work, experience shows that it’s way too easy to devalue the people who don’t work. If you’ve ever been out of work and didn’t want to be, and then someone asks you the quintessential D.C. question, “what do you do?” you know what I mean. If you are wanted you are valuable, if you are not wanted, you aren’t.
Without economic pull, without political pull, I think we do have something to worry about.
I am one middle-aged man with bad knees and I cannot solve this for myself let alone anyone else. I do worry about our future, particularly those who do not already have accumulated wealth. Instead, we need a new way to measure human worth. A way that doesn’t reduce us to how best we can exploit one another. And if we can’t force that appreciation on society-at-large, then at least we can’t give up on it personally, and the groups of people who matter the most to you.
It’s all that more important that we find additional ways of measuring value. And I think this is at its heart a religious question.
In today’s first lesson, we heard “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (2:22) Ecclesiastes has a philosophical, world-weary tone that distinguishes it from the Technicolor way we normally talk about scripture. Perhaps because in was much later than much of the Old Testament.
The Teacher’s complaint in Ecclesiastes has a particular rhythm, and keeps coming back to that phrase “under the sun.” His “labor under the sun,” “wisdom under the sun” and so forth. In the middle of summer, I’m certainly aware of the sun. Seeking out shade where I can. Walking my dog Daisy with the sun to our backs so it doesn’t blind us morning and evening. There is too much light and too much heat, and we wilt under it.
Ecclesiastes was the book that the protagonist chose to memorize in Fahrenheit 451, that cautionary tale against book-burning, mass-culture and soothing consumption. Elsewhere in Ecclesiastes (12:1-8) the tension breaks as poetry:
Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.
The tone, in reading, is the tell. Shall it be read with knowing bitterness, or weariness, or surrender? Perhaps the kind of cheer that makes the best of bad situation, and in giving one’s best, does very well. Or, as I personally suspect, that disgusted tone that comes from having no choice. But that’s not be at my best, hopeful self. What does work mean? Depending on the tone, the occasion, the person you will get different answers.
But it should be what not defines us. Our lives are precious. They don’t have to be measured against an outside standard to be valid or important. They’re important because their ours. If we choose to share our lives with other people can we give a gift of ourselves to others. But our attention, our friendships our presents — these things are not rent we pay in order to justify our existence. Our lives are a gift from God. No king or president, no company or party, no “tide of history” or fashion of the day. Nothing has a mortgage against your personhood, your dignity or your soul. And because the giver has the nature of love, we can trust that we are endowed with that love from which springs all good things.
Among these are the spiritual gifts of kindness, humility, perseverance and fortitude. The kind of things that are terribly valuable and have lasting value if your sense of worth and freedom are strongly challenged.
And once we appreciate our freedom, once we have it and no one else can lay claim to it. Then we are able to fully appreciate what it means to live together. Because it is in having a full and healthy esteem for oneself that we are able to appreciate how much others value their own lives, their own paths their own hopes and their own futures. And our own worth is far more valuable than anything that the crowd can provide. Instagram celebrity is a new way to become conspicuous, but the desire to be seen and praised by others is hardly new.
The good news is that we have time to recognize these spiritual gifts. We have them already. Strengthen them; help them grow. The capacity of the gifts of the Spirit dwells within us. It’s a question of cultivating these gifts, talking about them, praising them, including them in the decisions you make. Again and again this returns us to the life of faith, which knows you and seeks you and “makes all things new.”
I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 28, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, for Shaun Loria kindly serving as the liturgist — and thank you for welcoming me back.
It’s usually bad form for preachers to talk about their families from the pulpit, but I’m going to talk about Daisy all the same.
She’s is a twelve-year old bichon frise, weighing about sixteen pounds with white curly hair and big, round black eyes.
Today, she charms everyone she meets when we walk in the neighborhood. I’ve heard her called a teddy bear, a little lamb and a muppet. But when my husband Jonathan and I got Daisy from the then-Washington Area Rescue League, she was sick and underweight (just over six pounds), with lopsided buzz-cut, and obviously very scared. Already a “senior dog” it would have easy to look past her, and to be fair, we weren’t sure what we were getting. We didn’t know much about her background, other that she came in with other dogs and was surrendered by a relative of her original owner, who had died. But we took her home. She shook all the way, and that night she slept under our bed. She’s doing much better now, almost six years later. Now, she sleeps up top and is a good as gold. I mean: sometimes she’s fussy, but who isn’t? When she wants to cuddle, she’s sweet as all get-out.
But when she wants something, she will let you know. I will be sitting on the sofa, working on a sermon say, and I’ll hear her tip-tap down the hallway. Then arriving, she’ll stop and look me dead in the eye and whirr. And then she’ll whirr again. And tap her paw on the wood floor, and then whirr again.
What does she want? Food? To go on a walk? Attention and a cuddle? A second chance at puppyhood? Who knows.
But if I choose wrong, she’ll whirr and tap her paw and then I try again. She usually gets her way. It’s sometimes a nuisance to have a fuzzy, four-footed perma-toddler, but she doesn’t ask for anything that’s not appropriate for a pet dog. And even if she did, how would I know?
The unknowing is the hard part, particularly when she’s stressed, or pained or afraid. I still think of her on that first day. But she can’t tell us what’s wrong, and we can’t tell her how we will help, if we can.
So, it makes me wonder what she thinks of us. Are we our fathers, her pack or her puppies? Or are we simply the catering staff? Ae we something more like God, a God who answers prayer with Milk Bones and bully rubs?
I didn’t sign up to be a Dog God, and I certainly don’t have a god-like disposition. And besides we — you and I, human beings — have more in common with dogs than we do with God. There was a time when we were not alive, and are now alive, and sometime when we won’t be. We have bodies, which must be fed and cared for. We have emotions that sometimes enhance our understanding of the world, and sometimes distort it. We are social and depend on others of our own kind, and suffer when we’re deprived. All of that we share with dogs, and none of which we share with God.
And if it’s hard for me to understand the one dog that I live with, how much harder is it to understand the One God, whom none of us has seen. That’s why I want to speak to you about prayer.
Prayers are a tricky subject, and not always happy. Coming from the South, I know that phrase “I’ll pray for you” can be just as easily an insult as a real concern of one’s welfare. An insult in meaning that you need prayer because something is deeply wrong with you. There’s nothing kind about it. It also implies a kind of spiritual superiority from the speaker, and right to claim spiritual dominance, perhaps even abuse. Nobody should give that any room at all.
We also have that cultural, verbal fudge “keep me in your thoughts and prayers” to broaden what prayer means and to rescue it from sounding trite, or well-wishes from sounding sectarian. Or at least until recently when activists rightly pointed out that “thoughts and prayers” is another way of saying “let’s do nothing” about the scourge of gun violence, for instance. Thoughts and prayers cost no resources, no time, no anxiety, no stained friendships, no angry quarrels. In too many cases, it’s literally the least one can do, so I can’t say that it’s wrong to be tired and frustrated with “thoughts and prayers.” At least not in a civic arena where the full power of prayer is neither appreciated nor particularly welcome. The age of mandatory religion is, fortunately, behind us. That’s one reason that I’ll tell people that I’ll pray for them if they ask for prayer in the first place. And if they don’t ask, I’ll still pray for them, but that’s between God and me. I don’t want to come off as manipulative or saccharin. Prayers are tricky.
But that also means for those of us who do pray, who choose our faith, who sacrifice to strengthen it, and benefit from growing within it, prayer takes on a new value in a new meaning. We can’t take it for granted, and need to explore what should and shouldn’t be.
Today’s passage from the gospel of Luke is some of Jesus’ teaching on prayer.
You probably noticed in the middle of the lesson, Jesus teaching his students (the disciples) how to pray. So when I start, “let us pray, as Jesus taught his disciples, saying…” this is what I mean. We are not only worshippers, but also Jesus’ students.
The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most valuable and universal resources that Christians have. You will find it well-used and well-loved wherever you find Christians, whatever else might divide us. It’s one of the things first memorized in attending Christian worship, if only from sheer repetition. In seminary, we could joke “are you a debtor or a trespasser?” And one of the ways that Christians in the Unitarian Universalist Association have measured if something — say a church or an event — is Christian or not is whether or not the Lord’s Prayer is present. I even use it to time the silence after the pastoral prayer.
A aside: you might have also noticed that what Jesus taught the disciples isn’t quite the same as what we pray here. The form of the Lord’s Prayer is one of those things that distinguishes Protestants and Catholics: the Catholics stop with “deliver us from evil” as Jesus says in this passage, while Protestants continue with a doxology, “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” Why the difference? Simply, the doxology was a part of the worship in the Byzantine court, and in time it got slipped into the biblical text. So by the time the Protestant reformers translated Luke into their native languages, the doxology was part of the Greek they were translating. Later generations of translators had earlier, and more authentic texts, so the doxology wasn’t present to translate. But it was by then already a fixture in Protestant worship.
But the passage in Luke is arguably about how to pray, not a particular formula of prayer. In Jesus’ time, the Temple at Jerusalem was still standing. There, priests made sacrifices of animals, grain, oil and incense. Jesus does not speak of them, but sincere and simple prayer, as in fact other Jews had made since the Exile centuries before. The Temple was gone by the time Luke recorded these words, and the sacrifices ended; prayer is what the Jewish community in its place, including its not-yet-broken-off Christian minority. Simple heart-felt petitions, directed to God as Father rather than God as Overlord, for a balance between heaven and earth, and a hope for a universal good. Paul’s lesson to the Colossians underscores this: do not be distracted by that which is optional. The prophets, speaking for God, warned their hearers about useless sacrifices, when the people lacked mercy and gentleness. The psalmist comforts us “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51: 17, KJV) The age of prayer is the age of the sincere spirit.
Little wonder the Lord’s Prayer spread. But then there’s that other part of the lesson from Luke: the parable of the Bothered Neighbor. (That’s not what it’s usually called, but maybe it should be.)
Did Jesus mean that we should bother God in prayer? How else are we to interpret the passage about asking your sleeping neighbor for bread, who then relents. Or the parable of the Unjust Judge — that’s in the eighteenth chapter of Luke — who wouldn’t do what was right, but would do the right thing just to just to get this widow off my back. Or the Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, when he teaches about the coming of the Holy Spirit: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (14:14 NRSV) There’s a theme here: bother God persistently, and you will get what you want. Except that runs counter to both scripture and plain common sense.
Anyone who has lived long enough knows that one’s wishes and desires are not always fulfilled. Not often fulfilled. Sometimes not fulfilled at all. It’s not foolish to expect God to help, especially if nobody else will. After all we profess that God loves and cares for us, and why would God want to make us more miserable or feel more alone? So we rely on God’s human community. Sometimes God puts us in the right place and right time to be the right help for others, and we should take that call. I’m not saying it’s logical. I’m not even saying it’s anything more that confirmation bias. But to those who need a prayer answered, it is an answer to prayer.
And yet prayer is more than a prelude to good work. Our good acts won’t undo hurricanes or earthquakes. They come too late to undo ethnic cleansing or structural racism. They are powerless before “the last enemy”: death.
Our prayers are sometimes answered in the ways that we wouldn’t want them answered. Sometimes there’s an absence that leads to new prayers. Or the unstated “no” forces us to abandon what seemed to be the right path for us. And sometimes we get answers when we didn’t ask the question, like an inkling of that “peace which passes all understanding” without praying for anything at all, without asking or even knowing that we needed it. All of this is tied up in the mysterious way that prayer happens. These answers and non-answers and presumptive answers drive us, in so far as in us lies, to greater spiritual depth, and more prayer.
What we should avoid is treating God as some kind of vending machine which will dispense wishes, or clear answers, or happy thought on command, and then thinking “it’s broken” if you don’t get what you asked for. Maybe you learned this kind of prayer while growing up or from your neighbors, relatives and friends, but you’re unlikely to hear that at this church.
There’s more than a couple of problems with this approach. If you don’t get what you prayed for, you can blame God. Bad theology makes confirmed atheists. Or if you don’t get what you prayed for, then it’s easy to blame your lack of faith. You should have prayed harder or believed deeper. And what kind of help is that? Or what kind of God is that? It’s just another way of saying that you’re not worthy of God’s love, and that also needs to stop right now. A God who would work on those terms isn’t worth worshipping.
Treating prayer as a payment in a transaction with God is also a violation of what God has taught us through scripture and tradition. One of the Ten Commandments is that you shall not take the name of God in vain. When Jesus went out into the wilderness and was tempted by the accuser, Satan, that he might have all things it was Jesus who reminded him not to put the Lord God to the test. Which is another way of saying that God is not our wishing box in which we pour our desires and hope to have a predictable, desirable outcome. Life with God, instead, is our reward and portion.
Looking back at the passage from Luke, there was a detail I don’t want to miss: the pesky neighbor’s particular request. Jesus could have used any example for any need, but he spoke of needing bread to give to guests who had just arrived: ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’
That, as we say, is a clue. An arriving guest. Loaves of bread. There are echoes of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three angelic visitors. There are earlier echoes of Melchizedek, the king of Salem and the priest of the Most High God — it’s all a bit ambiguous, and ripe for a mystical interpretation — Melchizedek who greets Abram with bread; whose priesthood is seen in the letter to the Hebrews as a foretelling of Jesus’ eternal high-priesthood. And speaking of Jesus, bread and friends, one of the reasons the communion service is so powerful for so many people is in it he is made known to us in the breaking of bread. We do not commune with the bread and wine, but with the God who made it — and us.
I have to think this detail is about prayer, too. Prayer is how we meet deity, whether formal or informal, planned or spontaneous. For whatever else we can say of prayer, it is in God’s nature as we understand it to draw us toward God’s self, that we might have the divine life “on earth and it is in heaven.”
I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on June 9, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost, also called Whitsunday: so, a little bit of background. Feel free to take notes. If pressed, I’d say it’s the third most important holiday in the church year, after Easter and Christmas. (And yet somehow Hallmark forgets it.) It is symbolized by a dove descending, representing the Holy Spirit, and — as you know, I like to point out church fixtures to illustrate a sermon — this symbolism is found in the center of the chancel cross. (It’s hard to see, so you should come up and look for yourself after the service.) It is also in the second of the lower windows; the lower windows recount the history of the Christian church, and the Universalist church in particular.
The first window, with the menorah, recognizes the Jewish roots of the church. Which is perfectly sensible and today uncontroversial, but its installation follows the Leo Frank lynching, the publication of anti-Semitic screeds by Henry Ford and the resurgence of the Klan. And that’s just the terrors in the United States. So it’s good to know what side of history you want to stand on, and then put it in stained glass. Pentecost, today’s holiday, also rests on a Jewish existing holiday: Shavous, to use the Yiddish name, which is both an agricultural festival, and to commemorate the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. Hallmark missed that one, too.
Pentecost’s name comes from the Greek, meaning “fifty days” and Greek-speaking Jews in those days would have called Shavous Pentecost, also. Pentecost (as we know it) is described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Pastor Gatton read a part of that in the opening words. A multi-ethnic and multiracial group of Christians came together — Shavous was a pilgrimage festival — and God’s spirit descended upon them and gave them a common speech that they understood. But this wasn’t a linguistics symposium: people on the outside looked at this congregation and thought that they were drunk.
They were filled with the spirit. The godly kind, not the distilled kind. Conventionally this coming of the Spirit is identified with the birth of the church. A bit more exactly, it is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that his people would not be left helpless; that he would send an advocate for us: the promise that we heard in the lesson today in the Gospel of John.
And those gifts given to that congregation on the day of Pentecost is what gives the Christians called Pentecostals their name. For they are distinguished for signs of Spirit dwelling in among them, most distinctive of which is the ecstatic speech known as tongues. Similarly, charismatics who have some of the same ways of the Spirit but in other churches get their name from charism, the Greek word for “gifts.”
And this is the way you usually preach about Pentecost. I could stop here, if you like. And if Pastor Gatton or next year’s Pentecost preacher mentions some of these themes that’s perfectly fine; I’ve done the same myself.
But I wanted to look at the charisms — the gifts — the Universalists have, and what we add to the story, so I’m going to assume a Universalist approach (or at least my Universalist approach) from here on.
And I wanted to look at the Genesis text, the Tower of Babel story. This is the last of the stories in Genesis that seem like pure legend, along with the Garden of Eden and Noah and the Ark. Stories that you can’t pin to a particular place and time, and seem universal in scope.
You can imagine the questions people had. What caused there to be different human languages? Why don’t we understand one another? Why do we fight one another? Did we do something wrong?
If those are your worries, then the add in the image of a Babylonian ziggurat, and you have this story. Indeed, the image of the Tower of Babel that Laura Dely sent out with the newsletter this week is the standard image of human hubris in the face of divine majesty, which we pay the price to this day.
But it also reminds me of one my strange habits. I have a confession to make: I am an avowed Esperantist.
Esperanto is a constructed language meant to be a universal second language, a common language.
I first started studying it back in college, but picked it up again in 2010 when the national meeting was to take place in Bethesda, and this time it stuck. I study it every day.
It was invented by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, a Yiddish and Russian speaking Jew, born in 1859 in Bialystok, now in Poland, but then in the Russian Empire. He introduced the language to the public in 1887 under a pseudonym, Doktoro Esperanto — Doctor Hoper — and the pseudonym gave the language its name.
Nobody knows how many people speak it. Estimates suggest tens of millions have taken lessons like I did in college. There are a few thousand native speakers of the language, the controversial financier and philanthropist George Soros being the most famous. So the number of Esperantists is somewhere in-between.
Here’s what Esperanto sounds like:
Sur la tuta tero estis unu lingvo kaj unu parolmaniero.
. . .
Kaj la Eternulo malleviĝis, por vidi la urbon kaj la turon, kiujn konstruis la homidoj.
. . .
Ni malleviĝu do, kaj Ni konfuzu tie ilian lingvon, por ke unu ne komprenu la parolon de alia. (Londona Biblio)
That was some of the Genesis lesson in Esperanto. Maybe you heard a word or two that you could kind-of make out. If you speak English or German or one of the Romance languages, Esperanto has the sound of words seeking understanding. A craving for understanding that’s just out of reach, but approaches you. I’ll leave that as a metaphor for the work of the Spirit itself.
As for Esperanto, what Zamenhof had in mind was a practical, alternate way of relating to one another.
It’s like he wanted to undo the curse of Babel. Not literally, but spiritually and politically, even though to accomplish this he insisted on a policy of complete neutrality. And for good reason. He grew up in that Babel. (And if like biographies and you’re looking for an interesting figure to read about, he’s your guy.)
In a letter (1895) Zamenhof wrote:
The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.
His own home bridged two of those communities, after a fashion: his father was a Yiddish censor in Imperial service. He knew the power of language. There was already international interest in a language that could be used alongside one’s mother tongue; that is as an auxiliary language. But everything proposed to that point was too complex, or obtuse, or hard to pronounce. Zamenhof’s language was easier to learn and had a simple and regular grammar. Anyone could use it, but no one person could own it, including Zamenhof itself.
In the words of the Esperanto hymn — yes, there’s a hymn, and we’ll be singing it later in Esperanto. (No, we won’t be singing it later.)
In the words of the hymn,
On a neutral language foundation, understanding one another, the peoples will make in agreement one large family circle.
And perhaps, even a bit more to Zamenhof’s project. It’s a optional piece, a spiritual thread that some who are drawn to the language accept, and others reject. (Forcing the point wouldn’t be “neutral.”) That is has an “internal idea” — a hopeful spirit that will draw us together, friend by friend, across miles and cultures.
To tell you the truth, when I think of Pentecost, I think of Zamenhof.
And when I think of the church, I think of the internal idea.
But no good dead goes unpunished. And I don’t mean the fatal persecutions that Esperantists faced under Hitler and Stalin. (In fact, most of Zamenhof’s descendants died in the Holocaust.)
Rather, I mean the indignity of having a good idea turned on itself, again maybe a metaphor for the church: when Esperanto touches popular culture, it’s used to represent “the other.”
Long before television and film producers commissioned linguists to develop realistic “alien” languages like Klingon (for Star Trek), Na’vi (for Avatar) or Dothraki (for Game of Thrones) Esperanto stood in for European languages when it was politically inexpedient to use a natural, national language.
So, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a parody of Nazi Germany, signs in the ghetto of oppressed people were in Esperanto, not Yiddish.
In the 1939 Clark Gable/Norma Shearer anti-war comedy, Idiot’s Delight, Esperanto stands in for the language of a belligerent country that’s borders Switzerland, but is absolutely not Italy or Germany. Members of an Esperanto club were used as extras.
But the strangest stand-in use for Esperanto isn’t on film but from the U.S. Army.
After the Second World War, the United States feared a rise of right-wing power in Europe: the smoldering embers of Fascism plus Franco’s Spain bursting back into flame. And so created a simulated army opponent to fight in war games. As late as the 1980s, the Army simulated a country known as Aggressor — subtle that — and the people of Aggressor spoke Esperanto.
Judging by the surviving public information films, they spoke very bad Esperanto. So it comes out as one of those little ironies of life that thirty and forty years ago people were learning Esperanto — a language of peace and mutual understanding — from surplus army manuals describing it is the tool of war games.
But the longer you live, the more that kind of thing happens. As a Christian, I’ve had to live with rotten people using its spiritual, economic and political power to reinforce terrible things, and we’ve talked about them at length there. I didn’t see them at the Capital Pride Parade yesterday, but then I don’t give them my time.
I suppose the best thing you can say about the diminishing power of the church in American life is that it can’t be used like that as much any more. Those rotten people — in Esperanto, we’d call them fiuloj — will leave the husk of the church behind and find something else to exploit for their purposes.
So, instead of worrying about them, let’s flip the script. Let’s see what opportunity there is in a smaller, leaner, tighter church world to make some good for ourselves, our friends, our enemies and the world.
For one thing, at its best, the church is a place of temporary liberation and not just an extension of society. We don’t have to wait for the great hereafter to experience what God has in store for us. That’s the reason Esperantists host so many conferences, to create if only for a few days an Esperanto-speaking, perhaps even an Esperanto feeling place. Places called by convention, and in English translation, “Esperantoland.”
We need a place of the spirit that remembers the rest of the world, cares about the rest of the world, loves the rest of the world, but is not confined to it.
The spirit gives people, and people in the church a kind of freedom and an arms-length distance from the everyday.
A place, at least, temporarily escape the roles were assigned, the limitations we suffer, the dreams we have to defer. In church, at least, we should be able to live in our full lives and anticipate with joy and courage what that means for the rest of our lives.
That’s why prayer and the communion table are such powerful signs. In prayer — deep, sincere prayer — we present ourselves to the Source-of-all-that-is without pretending that we can or should hide anything. And there, we ask for link between the everyday, the workaday, the unimportant and forgettable — a link between that and that which is eternal, just, gracious and true. We ask for that spirit to come and help us remember forgotten dreams and shape new ones. We ask for that spirit to let speak in new words, and shout out new ideas.
And that’s what I hear in the gospel when Jesus says,
This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:24-26, NRSV)
This Spirit pleads with us to be free.
The spiritual gifts have to be nurtured, even though they are not ours to hand out. Paul described the “fruit” of the spirit, in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5), in contrast to the vices of attending only to one’s own desires. The spiritual fruit are
love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (KJV, vv. 22-23)
Each of these need support, and they need to be developed. Some other time (trust me) we’ll talk about what we need to cultivate them.
But until then, listen for that Spirit from God which “goes where it will” and makes all things new.
May God bless you now and forever. Amen.
I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on May 5, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Revelation of John and the Gospel of John.
I extemporize parts of the service, which are not present here apart from my opening aside, which I reconstructed from memory. The title, drawn from John, was meant to have a meaning, but didn’t in the final writing.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for having me back this rainy Eastertide morning and thank you for welcoming me back.
[I’m going to break from my notes a moment and point out a few things in this church. It preaches though silent. There’s an inscription on the back of the wall of the chancel. It’s hard to read but has a version of one of the lines in today’s responsive reading: “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him.” (1 John 4:16). Along the chancel rail, you have images of the four “living creatures” which are customarily associated with the four gospel-writers, and you’ll find these four on the chancel-wall cross and in the archway over the front door of the church. The furthest stained glass window on the pulpit side — the one with the gold ring and the sprig of leaves — is associated with the text from the Revelation of John, “the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations.” (22:2). That was the text I preached here the Sunday after 9/11, a word of hope.
So if you find yourself tuning out, let the building preach.]
Today’s lessons from the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John have in common — as you might guess — John. Or, it’s more accurate to say they share a theological outlook.
But the closer I got to them, the more I realized there was something about them that both excited and bothered me.
And I realized that this was not my specialty, and that it’s been twenty-five years since I took my New Testament course in seminary, and I have to continually got my head around this.
So let’s start with basics. (Everybody who knows this has to learn this at one time.)
The New Testament is a set of twenty-seven documents written roughly between the 50s and about the 120s, so in the two generations after Jesus’ life and ministry. The four gospels are the longest and best known of these documents; they’re not biographies or histories as we know them, but rather a kind of hero tale that would have been familiar in the time of the Roman Empire. They concern the life, ministry, death and post-death experience of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles, conventionally read in this Easter season, is essentially a sequel to the Gospel of Luke and continues the story in the experience of the earliest Church. The documents are in the form of letters, either true letters from one person to a particular community, or “general” or public letters. The Revelation of John is written is if it were a letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor, in today’s Turkey.
Early Christians wrote many documents, including many gospels; that is, works is the gospel genre, but later influential Christians considered four “canonical” or worthy of being a rule of faith. There’s long been a whiff of conspiracy around these other Gospels, and sometimes they’re described as being hidden or suppressed. but I think they’re hidden or suppressed in the same way those ugly dishes or scratchy blankets that a dear relative once gave you: you know they’re there and you just don’t want to have to deal with them.
In fact, apart from the Gospel of Thomas — which is really a collection of sayings of Jesus — most are pretty loopy. Others are very late, and do not represent an authentic tradition of the apostle, Jesus’ core appointed leaders. It’s hard to take a gospel seriously when you know who wrote it. Because he’s, like, over there.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas — not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas — is an extreme example. It’s the one where Jesus make clay birds come to life and then kills other children because they bothered him but it’s OK because he brings them back to life. You know: normal Jesus stuff.
The gospels and other texts we have were chosen early on because the have the voice of authenticity and authority to them. Besides those wild gospels, other practical but later works didn’t make the cut. If you look online for New Testament Apocrypha you can find all you could ever want.
But it’s not like the four gospels are mirror images of one another. They are four versions, often of the same events, with different focuses. Mark is the shortest and probably the oldest. It’s missing events we take for granted, like Jesus’ birth. Luke focuses on secret knowledge, while Matthew is the most tied to Jewish concepts. But despite these differences, there’s enough overlap between these three that they look on the same events, and are not wholly dissimilar. Indeed, Matthew and Luke seem to depend on Mark; for this reason the first three gospels are known as the Synopics, meaning they “look together.”
The Gospel of John is not like that. It’s about 90% unlike the others (though perversely our passage today seems to depend on Luke.) So, for example, instead of Christmas narrative it has a theological prologue: “In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
The Gospel of John tracks its own path, with the three letters of John and the Revelation of John are collectively known as Johannine literature, which is where we started. This is not to say they are all written by the same person, and hat’s not controversial: Christians since the second century have figured that out. But there are similarities of outlook that holds them together, and we’ll get to that later.
But like the apostle Paul with his emphasis on sin, the Gospel of John has a bad reputation in liberal churches.
I think there’s two reasons for this. First, the synoptic gospels are earlier. Being a closer witness to Jesus and his ministry matters. It’s that same attitude that the early church applied to post-apostolic writings, and I get that. John is later and different. It’s also less practical. With the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, for instance, you get a sense of what you should do. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Be a peacemaker. It’s practical and approachable in its own way. John is less about doing and more about being, and its meaning isn’t clear.
But there’s another reason we might be uncomfortable with John: we might sense that we’re reaching a limit of what’s acceptable. And a lot of that problem is what we bring to the reading of these text as our cultural inheritance.
Let’s also be plain about Christians for century have made targets of Jews, and have very often used texts from John to justify terrible violence. The community that produced these material were probably expelled from their synagogues, and might have been bitter and hurt for it. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity isn’t the same then as now. Both were periods of rapid transition. From its own perspective, the separation from a Jewish identity was not anti Jewish, much like a much less anti-Semitic in our modern use of the word.
But a lot of Christians who followed in the generations to our own have used the Gospel of John as a blunt weapon against Jews. And so we have to be very careful when we introduce these texts in our worship do so carefully. I’m unapologetic that I will remove or trim ratings in order to take out a phrase that means something very different to us today than it did when it was written.
The text is associated with Holy Week just passed or some of the hardest to deal with, and that’s why in place of the usual Good Friday text from John, I was glad to see Pastor Gatton use the text from Luke instead. It’s reading aloud is less likely to put casual readers on edge when emotions are prone to be high.
Another problem with Johannine literature is much older: it’s association with, and approval by, Gnostics. in these tolerant and pluralistic days is easy to overlook how dangerous Gnostic seemed. I think it’s because we’ve lost the sense of how powerful ideas can be, although that hasn’t really changed. Ideas are as powerful as ever, which means that some ideas are necessarily harmful.
Gnostics fall into that category. They have strong dualistic view of existence. Light and darkness are real, separate and irreconcilable. Spirit and matter are real, separate and irreconcilable. And the spirit is good in the matter is evil. The Gnostic views our physical bodies, our material world and the created order itself is something tragic. What Gnostics are described as having an equal regard for men and women, it’s because physical existence of self is equally bad I’m so how could you distinguish between them? It doesn’t read like approval to me, indeed when I think of Gnostics I think of the great sadness they must be towards the world. Any beauty or comfort or desire would have to be a delusion, or worse something misleading and diabolical.
Their hatred (or fear or rejection) of the material world. Not being able to love trees or mountains; birds or beasts; their hunger or their food; the sky and the stars; their bodies and their growth, even aging and dying. They hate the non-spiritual, and hate living itself, subordinating everything to the spiritual. And that moves me to tears.
I’ve come to love the Revelation of John, who is not fashionable in the liberal tradition. It’s wild, erratic, based on visions, is full of wild imagery and (most of all) is apocalyptic. Liberal Christian grows well in better-tended garden, one less wild and without the threat of sudden and inextricable change. But who doesn’t? Even the early church wasn’t sure the book — framed as letter — belonged in the canon of the New Testament.
It was probably a coded taketown of the Roman empire exactly at the time when it was most dangerous to do so. In the nineteenth century, it became
But it’s precisely that wild visionary view that gives the words of the Revelation their power. It was probably a coded taketown of the Roman empire exactly at the time when it was most dangerous to do so.
It’s this otherworldiness found in Revelation that helps us understand the Gospel of John. They belong to the same “school of writing” if not the same author, and are known collectively as Johannine literature.
Be careful in your dealings with people, yourself included. Be wise in your dealings with people, yourself included. Above all, be loving in your dealings with people, yourself included.
Seek that spirit that goes where it will, and be conscious of where it is taking you, for just because it seems to be of God, doesn’t mean that it is.
And lastly, look that the opportunities that God has given you with a questioning mind. What is the truth in this moment? What details am I missing? What other perspectives might there be? Does your understanding of our shared experience differ? Maybe my understanding or your understanding has a greater portion of the truth, and with wise discernment we can try to tell the difference.
I’d like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit this morning, and to you for welcoming me again.
I want to continue the theme of journey that he started last week and so keeping with the season of Lent. Let’s not lose momentum.
In today’s first lesson, the journey is both literal movement and spiritual development, even if the direct verbal communication with God and the animal sacrifice makes it seem very strange and very remote. Literal movement in the sense that Abram and his family were migrants. Figurative, in the sense that his relationship with God was tested and changed over time. That should feel familiar and very close to many, if not all of us.
In the second lesson, the apostle Paul writes to a young church about overcoming evil, and the effects of evil, though imitating him; this leads to a reward which he expresses in both cosmic and personal terms.
So we have two interesting lessons to consider this morning.
First, I’ll talk about how we should interpret scripture. Next, I’ll talk about the themes that these two lessons present us. Lastly, I’ll talk about what these themes have to do with us today and our lives in general.
I want to be as plain and straightforward as possible, because whenever we deal with a text as complicated and rich in meaning as the one from Genesis, difficulty is bound to follow. It is distant in time and culture; we have to go deep in order to find those human bonds — us to him — and those bonds that we share with God.
Now, about interpretation. Some basic principles. I think it goes without saying that we should know something about the passages that surround the ones we read, for context. We should know something about the writer (if we can) and something about the subjects of the passage. We should know something of the political context, geography and language. But it’s also important not to get so hung up on the facts around a reading that we miss the meaning, which isn’t always, or even often the literal reading.
We meet Abram, his wife Sarai and her handmaid Hagar in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Later, they would take on the more familiar names of Abraham and Sarah, but that’s for another sermon.
Abraham is also the common root to the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam because at least these three religions have analogous relationships with the same God, with a personal relationship with the figure of Abraham, and connected in analogous ways in prayer, congregational life and revealed scripture.
Genesis is the first of five books collectively known in Jewish worship as the Torah, and so is foundational both in Jewish religious life and Christian religious life. Culturally, even if you don’t know anything else about the Torah, you will have probably heard about the creation of the world (“In the beginning”), Noah and his ark and perhaps the tower of Babel. Around Easter and Passover, you can watch that Technicolor interpretation of the Exodus, The Ten Commandments, on your televisions. But that story comes much later than the one about Abraham and Sarah.
Seen as a work of literature, the Torah is a library of myths, histories, stories, genealogies and censuses that speak of God’s relationship with the world and particularly with a group of people which became the nation Israel. But as a work of faith, its depths cannot be exhausted in a lifetime. And that doesn’t even include the other works of history, wisdom, poetry, songs and prophecies that make up the rest of the Hebrew Bible, which we commonly call the Old Testament. Collectively, these works were gathered, written and edited over centuries, millennia ago. On the one hand, it’s not a simple handbook with answers that correspond to our daily lives on a one-to-one basis. On the other, it’s not a work of magic, no matter what others say. It is meant to be read and understood. Again, it’s about the relationship between God and human beings, written in a human language if at times in an obscure way. The Bible is for human beings, not angel, and understanding takes work.
But that’s more than getting a good translation or an academic commentary. What we need is an interpretive system.
Reading the Bible as a faithful person asking, “where is God in that moment?” “how did the people respond?” “Where might I find myself in a similar situation?” “How can I adapt my life in a similar way.” You may come up with new and different questions. Interpretive systems matter. Just as people see the world in different ways, people see the Bible and its role in different ways.
I’m guessing that some of you have heard the news about the United Methodist Church. A few weeks ago, in a special session of their General Conference, the global body of the United Methodist Church, passed a conservative reading and harsher implementation of their code of conduct, the Book of Discipline. This means that GLBT persons who have have been ordained, including at least one bishop, risk expulsion, while their ministers who perform weddings for same sex couples face a year’s suspension without pay. The winning, traditionalist side declared their loyalty to scripture, implying that the opposition was only following the whims of culture and politics. Of course, conveniently not applying their same standard to divorce.
So when the liberal wing says they’re being faithful to scripture, it’s not a slogan or an evasion, but rather they’re using an interesting model and through it have seen God’s action in the world move in the direction of more inclusion. We can better identify truth from the general thrust of scripture, and not from counting this number of passages which suggest one thing as opposed to that number of passages that suggest another. We’re looking for bigger arcs in the story. That’s why I believe that God will save all, even though there are verses that talk about wrath and punishment. These are rocks and eddies in a river of God’s lovingkindess and compassion.
So when I hear that God accounted God’s faith as righteousness, I hear that in the wider context that God’s blessing is not earned by deeds; that we are not defined by our usefulness; and that dedication is a source of strength, and its own reward. It encourages me to be more faithful.
One thing that stands out for me is that he seems more like a historical person than the people before him. Before the section of Genesis about Abram, we had a genealogy that reaches back nine generations to story of the tower of Babel. Before that we had Noah and his ark, and of course all the way back to Adam and Eve. These seem more like mythological understandings of how certain realities of the world came to be. Perhaps pre-existing stories — certainly with Noah — with a special spin to make them fit with these people’s understanding of how God related to them.
But Abram was different; he seems more like a real person with a past; he was from Ur of the Chaldees, probably a site now in southern Iraq, along the River Euphrates, settled about twenty-nine centuries ago.
He had his own ideas and ways and volition. Abram was faithful, but not God’s puppet. He made some big mistakes and you can wince at his action and reasons. Abram is faithful, but flawed and that makes him believable.
What about his life can we appreciate for ourselves?
To me, one thing about the Abram/Abraham story stands out as obvious, but is so plain that we’re bound to miss. Something so basic that we’re prone to take it for granted, but shouldn’t.
Abram is conscious of his future. The future is where we human beings plot out our lives, make plans for change, plans for redemption, plans for future generations. The eternal God needs no future. God is eternal: the past and present and future are the same; with all possibilities. So God comes to us as a god of history — within time, and working though history — for we mortal people cannot leap into eternity ourselves.
And through the promises God made to Abram, he had a future in three senses.
As Universalists, we naturally care about the human future. God promised Abram that through his descendants all the world would be blessed, and our forebears used that as evidence of the final harmony of all souls with God.
But our own personal and family stories are also important. The future is important, but nothing is more fragile and tentative. In it, all things are possible, which can either be a relief or a threat. A relief if the present isn’t so good: the future might be better. Or it could be worse, and so frightening and threatening. Think about the 2020 elections and whether they bring promise or dread.
The hope of the future is not the same as watching one day pass into the next. My grandmother said “don’t wish your life away” but some people today are doing just that. The future — the active, changing, living future — can be so much of a threat that the past can look better in comparison. And so much of a threat that it might be more appealing to live perpetually in the past.
Timothy Snyder, writing in The Road to Unfreedom and elsewhere has defined a double process where our ideas of the past, present and future can be manipulated to shut down democratic norms and create perpetual authoritarian states. Russian leadership being the force behind the manipulation in the United States and the United Kingdom, following the success they had at home. Snyder’s point is that Russia seems better comparatively if the US, the UK and other western powers and institutions, like the European Union and NATO, are weakened.
He writes at length about “the politics of eternity” — the situation following the end of the Cold War — where (to make the matter brief of the sake of this sermon) the United States remained the sole superpower and assumption that the hard crises of the past were over. This is sometimes also called “the end of history.” Which is news to me, and perhaps to you, having lived through it. But lacking obvious alternative futures, it’s easy enough for the powers that be to focus our attention on the past. There can be no change and thus no future; just old victories and old grudges and no progress.
Little wonder that the proponents of Brexit use Word War Two imagery, as if the UK were still at war with Germany, and that there’s still an Empire with which to do business. It’s a way to escape from the future and recall a rose-colored version of the nation overcoming an existential threat. The President does the same thing; when exactly was America great? Since he says “again” it has to be in the past. Snyder points out that the President’s “again” like more like the 1930s than anything else. And for the racist, terroristic murders in Christchurch, the message: turn back the clock to when people knew their place, silent, elsewhere or nowhere.
We cannot live like that and need not. We, too can have a future; must have a future.
St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, offers a way to be brave for our own futures. That is, to be set apart from those whose “god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” In other words, living for themselves, turned inwards, and unattuned to what life with God is like.
The faithful, on writes:
He [that is, Jesus Christ] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
This is a promise of life with God. We must choose who we live for: the one who cares for us, or the many who care only what they can get from us.
The “body of humiliation” Paul talks about is one that diminishes itself by only caring for its own needs. This is the opposite of humility, which is a gift we can give to others by being present but not dominating. It’s certainly not the same thing as loving the world and those who live in it. If we care about what we have so much that we can’t get over ourselves, can’t look past ourselves, then we will not have that same kind of integration that Jesus had.
And if we cannot care, we cannot hope and if we do not hope, there will be no future.
Because the approach I suggested towards scripture applies equally well when interpreting our own lives: not to focus on particular episodes of failure; not to let them veto the good that you do or attempt; and not to draw your focus away from examining your whole lives, and rejoicing in who you are. You are set on heavenly things, and those are first seen here among the living.
So love, care, think, use good judgment. Be not afraid. Extend kindness and understanding. Pray energetically. Live within the deep story that God has set among us; that story will lead you far.
May the eternal God bless our lives and bless our homes. And may God continue to bless the peoples of the earth, to every corner, and until the close of days. Amen.
Come hear me preach this Sunday at the 11 am service at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington D.C. Since the church website is down for repairs, I’m putting the details here.
I’ll be drawing from passages from Nehemiah and Luke will question whether ordained ministers — indeed, even churches themselves — are necessary or even desirable as society changes. And if not these, what will take their place?
My thanks to Connor Cosenza, who will be liturgist.
Universalist National Memorial Church is a liberal Christian Universalist church.
It is at 1810 16th Street, N.W., within walking distance of Dupont Circle Metro (Q Street exit) and U Street Metro (13th Street exit.) The S2 and S4 buses stop in front of the church. There is parking behind the Masonic House of the Temple, catty-corner from the church; drive down the alley for access.
I look forward to seeing you.
I’d like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me this morning, and you for welcoming me.
If it wasn’t already clear, we’re in the season of the church calendar known as Advent.
Some facts: it is marked over the four weeks before Christmas. Traditional Advent observances in the Western church (of which we are a part) include the lighting of the four candles on the Advent wreath, and in the Eastern church, a period of fasting and abstinence second only to Lent.
In the Western church, Advent is observed as a period of expectation, marking the events leading up to the birth of Christ, including the presence of the prophets and John the Baptist. It is a serious, theologically-intensive time, well-loved by serious, theologically-minded people.
Moving away from the facts, I am struck by Advent’s power and holiness, but will confess that I’m hard pressed to observe it. Perhaps it’s something about the way we celebrate Christmas. Christmas is a total experience, and can get into every part of our lives if we’d let it. Christmas cookies are a thing; Advent cookies aren’t.
I can imagine the scandal of a medieval monk humming a Christmas office hymn on, say, the 23d. The prior would not approve; “oh, Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year.” Today, even Thanksgiving is no match, and it’s only a matter of time when the tinsel goes up after Labor Day.
Loving Christmas early may not be very serious or theologically-intensive, but so be it. If you’re going to celebrate Christmas at all, deliberately setting aside a prior period for fasting, contemplation and abstaining seems like a lot of trouble, and perhaps ostentatious besides.
Like that song from the musical Mame, “we could use little Christmas now.” Life’s too short to not be happy for much of it as possible. Advent, then, is going to have to stand for something else.
Universalists made the link between “holiness and true happiness,” as the phrase goes in the Winchester Profession of 1803. Universalists were (and are) sensitive to the accusation that, if you rule out hell, you offer a license for all kind of debauchery. No way, me reply. “Holiness and true happiness are inseparable connected.” And if you’re enjoying something awful, it won’t make you really happy.
In past generations, Universalists taught that wicked people were punished by their sins, but today the reverse seems more true. Holiness – that nearness and congruity to God, manifest in good living — can be accented by happiness. Happiness can bring out gratefulness, say, and that can put us in mind of all the good things God as done for us, and in us.
This is what I hear in the Paul’s words to the church at Philippi, him “constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” A real and deep joy that comes from a life congruent with God, in support and care of one another, even in difficult times. From that comes a peaceful conscience and a sense of satisfaction – or perhaps consolation – that you participated on the right side of history, standing with the prophets, waiting for the birth of Christ.
Advent can take this mixture of holiness and happiness, and adopt it as its own.
But I don’t know if John the Baptist would agree with that.
John the Baptist is a difficult character.
In both western art and eastern iconography, John the Baptist appears scruffy, thin, with a long beard and unkempt or matted hair. He wears skins. It might sound cruel, but he looks more animal than human, but I think that was the point. Images, say those touched by Dutch humanism, may fatten him up a bit, and make him seem more introspective than feral. But either way, he’s a figure on the margins, a radical, and as Herod would later learn, a danger.
From his point of view: while the emperor was in Rome, and his appointee controlled our land, and while their vassals divided the land, and the high priests assumed religious authority at the Temple, — while all of these things happened the word of God come into John who was in the wilderness. Luke the evangelist might be making, as we say, a point.
What made John that way? Today, we have a different set of words to describe a person on the margins.
Was he depressed? Was his family of origin troubled? How did imperial domination change his view of the world? What and who radicalized him? There’s a Facebook meme circulating with wildman John with the caption “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!” John’s way was to preach repentance fearlessly, to baptize for the remission of sins. He was confrontational, and doubtless, to use another modern word, difficult.
It’s easy to imagine that John hated the world and the forces within it. And through him, we can identify what upsets us. Some people are afraid of the world around them. Others resent and hate it. Others still see it as a subject for plunder. Fewer seem to care for it and care for those who live on earth: too few, when so many are needed. We’ve seen people – not a few are Christians – hating the world, rejecting it and its comforts. And other, more kindly, hating its cruelty, and hoping for something else.
But we do not follow John, even though he was the forerunner. We follow Jesus, who taught us to love one another, and that love makes the difference for letting God enter our life with joy.
So, let’s make a plan. If we ought not hate the world, ought we to love it? Love is a good thing. Loving the world seems to be an agreeable thing to want, to stand for, to defend.
But let’s also be careful: is it even possible for a human being to love the world? There’s at least two problems.
First, if we love the world, does that include its violence, its cruelty, its capriciousness? Do we love the storm, the flood, the wildfire? Do we love the restless mobs, the flowing garbage dumps, the war zones? From a God’s-eye-view, these may have their own rhythm, their own sense, or even their own beauty. But I don’t have a God’s-eye view. I can’t love misery and suffering, except to celebrate it being over. I don’t even really like to see people I despise suffer. So I can’t (and won’t) presume to say that this person’s illness, or that person’s destitution is somehow lovely in God’s sight, because I know no such thing.
And, second, not knowing is the other problem with loving the world. We know relatively little about the cosmos, the depths of the seas, the working’s of each other’s minds, perhaps even the movings of our own souls. Can we say we really love what we don’t know? We can say it, but what would that mean.
We love in the space where personalities meet. I love my husband and he loves me. My mother loved me when she saw me. My dog loves me and shows me with her eyes, or a gentle nuzzle. And God loves us, for love is God’s nature and seeks us. I can imagine the possibility of love with people I don’t know. I can approach the universe with awe that resonates with love. I can and do love people (and dogs) that were once new to me. But I am incapable of loving everything, if the word love is to have any meaning. Universal love belongs to the universal God.
If we do spread the idea of love too thin, what does it become? We might apply love to things that cannot love back. We may see reflected in the gold and sparkle, but possessions can love us. We may enjoy them, and miss them when they’re gone, but we do not love them.
But warnings about wealth is pretty typical of preaching; I bet you saw that one coming.
What’s more dangerous is when we love our imagination. Our imagination creates worlds and stories; imagination invents lives and brings them to us through the voice, the written word and film. Imagination can be a comfort to the lonely or deprived, and an instrument to lift the creative soul. But it can as easily box and package other people into predictable, limited roles. My imagination about you can become your inhibition. One person’s creative force is another person’s destruction. The real world is more amazing than a single person’s imagination. And one person’s imagination of what the world could be is much, much less than what the world really is. So by imagining that we love the world, we betray it. It’s better that the world, and all who live in it, remain mysterious then incorrectly understood. For to take over other peoples’ story is to deprive them of their own story, and drive them into hopelessness.
How can we transform our feelings into hope?
German Catholic theologian, Josef Pieper wrote,
There are two kinds of hopelessness. One is despair; the other, praesumptio. Praesumptio is usually translated as presumption, although translation as anticipation is not only more literal but also catches the since quite precisely. Praesumptio is a perverse anticipation of the fulfillment of hope. Despair is also an anticipation — a perverse anticipation of the non-fulfillment of hope: “to despair is to descend into hell” (Isidore of Seville) (Josef Pieper in von Balthasar, Dare we Hope…, 27-28.)
If one kind of hopelessness is “a perverse anticipation of the fulfillment of hope” then what might we hope for? Our hope for personal happiness and well-being, our hope for the renewal and improvement of society, and our hope for global, even cosmic reconciliation and peace. These are not separate hopes. Inner peace recalls outer peace. Hope connects. Thinking of one reminds us of the others. But thinking of them all might leave us rueful that any hope might happen; that’s this “perverse anticipation.” Big hopes anticipate big disappointments.
As Universalist Christians, we have to be careful, as we are keen to speak of hope in the grandest of terms; the Larger Hope. A Complete Gospel. The union of all souls with God. But this isn’t about us or human ability. Insisting and concentrating on hope’s grandness is an affirmation of God’s nature, “whose nature is Love” as stated in the Winchester Profession. We can depend on God because God is just: divine law (revealed or assumed) does not contradict or overcome divine nature. And we see traces of this divine love across scripture and in our lives. It precedes the creation of the universe and gives us life. We trust God out of a sense of the greatness of divine love, down to the last soul, down to that last day.
But in daily life, when we speak of hope, it isn’t about the cosmic, but about coping with ordinary things, multiplied a thousand times. Will this interview lead to that job, which will provide that money which will resolve this debt? That’s one scenario; there are countless others. Where’s the sense of the infinite when we shuttle from need to need, or crisis to crisis? In these terms, hope is little more than getting by, and that itself is not assured. God is no less grand, or less loving, just less relevant.
Might I suggest we take a middle path?
Really, it would be John, as seen through Isaiah: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
That is, neither hating the world, surviving through bitterness or resentment or despair for what may come— nor loving as we would want it, and not as God would have it be.
This middle path is the continuing walk of faith. It is known by patience, gentleness, maturity and generosity. It calls but does not yell. It sparks wonder, but comes to us in the everyday. It cultivates courage, but does not dominate others.
And it is a work of a lifetime. Friends, a faith worth having is a faith worth working on.
Advent leads us through human history and points to that moment, the coming birth of Jesus Christ, where God by taking on our nature endows the everyday with divinity. Its growing holy light is among us, tying heaven and earth. Its joyful power directs us through the middle path between hating the world, and loving it improperly. It directs us in a path towards mature, caring and thoughtful congruence with God, with the hope of the ages: that God loves us, and prepares greater wonders.
Or as Saint Paul wrote: “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.”
God bless you all, and happy Advent.
I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 11, 2018 with the lectionary texts from Ruth and Hebrews.
About six and a half years ago, on February 4, 2012, Florence Green died at the age of 110 years, 350 days. She was the last surviving veteran of the First World War, surviving 95 years after she enlisted.
Florence Green was an officer’s mess steward, serving in the Women’s Royal Air Force at two installations in England. The last of some 67 million in uniform, from whatever nation, and in her way standing for all of them.
I had been waiting for the news for years. One by one, the survivors died off. They thinned out to the last survivor of particular battles, or from particular countries. Henry Allingham was the last soldier to see combat and the last original member of the Royal Air Force, dying age 113 in 2009 and in advanced old age made public appearances as a public face for those who fought and died. Army corporal Frank Buckles was the last American veteran. He died in 2011, at 110, and was buried with honors at Arlington.
The last sailor was Claude Choules, who died in 2011, signed on at age 14 was also a veteran of World War Two but “shunned celebrations of the Armistice, because he was against the glorification of war.” (Wikipedia article)
Florence Green’s service was almost forgotten, only to be “discovered” when she turned 110 and drew the special attention of gerontologists. She downplayed her service, saying on her 110th birthday, “It seems like such a long time ago now.” (Cited in New York Times)
And of course it was. They’re now they’re all gone, and what remains?
This has been a very dry year in Europe. The dry weather has exposed evidence of human habitation, shadows of ancient road and foundations of lost medieval buildings. The lost evidence of battlefields appeared more clearly than usual. Like an old scar, dried by winter: itchy, tender.
We might expect people in different countries to scratch that same itch, but different countries have different views. Last Tuesday, the Guardian newspaper ran a commentary by Natalie Nou-gay-rède about how the First World War is now viewed differently in different parts of Europe, and that the longing sadness seen in Great Britain, France and to a lesser degree the United States is not shared.
Nougayrède adds: “By contrast, in German collective memory, the first world war features much less prominently – perhaps because of military defeat and the dire fate of the Weimar Republic, but also because it is largely overshadowed by the second.”
Additionally, “[f]or millions of Europeans the war did not end in 1918.” as violence rippled through eastern Europe well into the 1920s. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was also a beginning. In Poland, for example, this is the centenary of the restored independent Polish state. Indeed, examine the embassies around town and you see that this marked, however temporarily.
Filmmaker’s Robert Newman “History of Oil” sees the First World War undulating from that day to this, not through the Somme and through the trenches, but through the oil fields of Baku, through to the invasion of Iraq.
Even as we bow of heads in reverent silence, there are other people telling other stories about the same events.
My husband Jonathan and I had our honeymoon 15 years ago this week in London and Manchester. November 11th was also on a Sunday that year, and we attended services at the Unitarian Christian Church in Brixton.
The thing I most remember, other than the early appearance of mince pies which I love very much, was the minute’s silence in the middle of the service, right at 11 o’clock. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, since that seems to be more of a civil observance, but being the stranger there I didn’t think too deeply about it, but clearly it has stuck with me. There were still World War One veterans alive back then, and we saw two or three of them being driven in open-topped cars for the commemorative parade – perhaps Henry Allingham among them – which passed the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Since the British lost more in that war than the Americans did, it makes sense the commemorations are sharper and deeper.
But even in the UK, there’s a bright line between what the First World War means, demonstrated is something as everyday as what you’d wear on your lapel. Will you wear a red poppy, or a white one?
The red paper poppy is an essential part of the newscaster’s wardrobe in Britain this time of year, as a remembrance to the dead. Back in 2003, I bought one from a member of the British Legion, and while it’s not quite the same custom here, you see them from time to time. But it is so customary there, that it can easily be seen as an unquestioned, unreflective endorsement of warfare, and so peace activists offer an alternative, bloodless white poppy, with predictable derision by those – a Conservative member of Parliament, say – who see a position to score some political points by abusing a minority opinion.
And so the more I look at that war –the trenches, the mud, the tens of million dead by war, genocide and disease – the more it look less like one thing to remember at one one moment in time. It looks more like the complexity of human life pulled low with millions of ways for us – its survivors – to remember it.
This has a particular meaning in churches like ours. The glowing optimism and faith in progress that fueled and emboldened movements like liberal Christianity went cold. Universalist started to decline in the 1920s. Now, we have removed to a corner of the world’s religious experience and imagination. Our religion is not not a cheery or confident as the pre-World War One religious liberals were. Or as naive.
This building we’re in evidence of a transitional attitude in brick and stained glass. Have you ever wondered what exactly is being memorialized in the Universalist National Memorial Church?
The answer depends on who you asked. At one time, when the plans were being drawn up, it would have been John Murray, who gets the credit for being the first Universalist minister in the New World, and in essence the father of the denomination. But the Scrolls — those written panels in the vestibule — tell a different story about Universalist generally being memorialized here. Of gifts large and small to memorialize Universalist worthies and loved-ones.
The minister of this church in those day was John van Schaick. The parlor is named for him and his wife, Julia Romaine. (The two marble busts are her parents.) He went on a leave of absence from the church, and they went to serve in relief work in Belgium with the Red Cross at great personal risk. (The story recounted in his book, The Little Corner Never Conquered. And UNMC member Donna Simonton knows more about the van Schaick mission than I do.)
Also, the Peace Tower is dedicated to Owen D. Young — a late and bittersweet addition to the story of this church, about the peace deal that was too little, too late. Had it worked, the march towards the Second World War might have been slowed or stopped, as the pressure on German war reparations would have been eased.
If we cannot go as far as the religious liberals in the pre-World War One era, then we can recover the common root of optimism, awe, investigation and devotion. And add in a dose of humility and forbearance.
Last time I preached, I talked about the Revised Common Lectionary and how important for me it is both (practically an ecumenically) to hold to a common set of texts.
Which is all fine and well until you preach on Veterans Day, and more than this, the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that brought it into being. And it’s all fine and well until all of the options for the day are problematic. The lesson from Ruth assumes a woman’s dependence on a man for security, and the letter to Hebrews can easily be used to assert that Christians replaced Jews as the subject of God’s care and purpose, the sinful doctrine of supercessionism. And these were the easier texts!
What can we learn from today’s lessons? First, Ruth. Let’s not forget that Ruth is featured by name in Jesus’ genealogy, and that’s important because she was an outsider and that’s nothing to be hidden or ashamed of. She was a foreigner, and God blessed her. This isn’t an appeal to tribalism, nationalism or racism, and that’s something to be glad about.
The lesson from Hebrews is a bit more complex. It’s author is trying to convince the reader that Jesus Christ himself is the new and better High Priest, who takes the sins of the people upon himself once for all. This is important because God has intervened for our sake; the age of sacrifice is over, and the age of an unity between heaven and earth has begun. Its vision is cosmic, a vision of the eternal that reminds us that successes and failures don’t depend on any particular thing we do. We are not God.
Together, these themes make a powerful combination. A cautious approach, not putting too much stock in one version of a story. An appreciation of variety and diversity. A cautionary tale against hubris, naivety, bias and cruelty. The unexpected nearness of the past times and foreign lands. The dull throb of loss that softens power into honor. These are the virtues that make humane life possible, that are the blessing of surviving literal and figurative wars — and which bring me to my last point.
There has been another subject that had been grinding at us for months, and would have been at the heart of today’s sermon had we not had Veterans Day: the midterm elections. Because if the people in this church are anything like my friends, you were either sick with worry or sick to death. Our country is divided, anxious and politically immobilized. There no trust to let down one’s guard, and it’s easier to antagonize and be antagonized than just about anything else. And, yes, personally I feel that the virtues I value have been discarded by my political opponents in a cheap bid to claim permanent power. It make me sick, but not so sick as to despair.
I rely on my faith to give a context to virtue, and hold me accountable to them. I rely on my faith to know that there is something greater than me, and that God guides, care and judges us personally and collectively. I rely on my faith to snap me out of lazy, sloppy or callous thinking. I rely on my faith to knock me down a peg when I need it and to comfort me when I need it. In short, I rely on my faith to be a decent-ish, responsible human being.
But for the American church, there’s always the risk of being co-opted by American culture. That to be a good Christian is to be a good American, and vice verse. But what part of that equation is in control? Little wonder that people can and do and perhaps should try to build their faith apart from churches.
This is very big problem. Our identity as a church does not come from our national identity, or should not. Treating it as aligned with American values makes the church just one more organization and not a conduit to God’s love and will. Just one more thing to be co-opted. The point is to remember that the church is always political.
There was a good commentary published on September 29 in the New York Times, recently about the question is there a political party for Christians? Rev. Timothy Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church –hardly what you’d call liberal – observed that
“Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply ‘preach the Gospel,'”
“Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo.” (“Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo.” (“How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t”)
What we – as a church – should never be partisan.
Our faith challenges to see the world in a way that normal political processes don’t understand or won’t abide.
We must engaged in a world that is often unfair and cruel, where well-organized and powerful forces conspire to minimize and hurt weaker and isolated people, ideas and causes. But our approach relies on imagination, patience, mercy, kindness, vulnerability, persistence, curiosity, and compassion. Like grace, it can have unexpected outcomes. Like love, this different way of approaching the world can break your heart and lift you up at the same time.
Political theories and parties cannot comprehend our own messy, complex ideas, challenged as they are by divine mercy. It’s what let’s us look at the battlefield of the First World War and all wars and pray earnestly for the fighters and the dead, and say “but no, not again.”
It is the strength that makes peace more that the cessation of fighting, and so is our greatest pledge and tribute this Veterans Day.
I preached this sermon — in fact, I jettisoned a part in the middle for time — at Universalist National Memorial Church, on September 30, 2018 with the lectionary texts from Numbers and James.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit his morning, and to you, for welcoming me to the pulpit today.
A couple of weeks ago I got a partial root canal. It turns out that I’ve been grinding my teeth and eventually a cracked one of them. I may end up still losing the tooth. I might lose other teeth besides, because I keep gritting and grinding my teeth. Lately, I’ve been grinding my teeth every day. Perhaps you understand.
The last two times I preached in this pulpit, the president had done something awful and I thought it was my responsibility to address that in theological terms. The hearings of the Senate last week, including the harrowing testimony we heard, also counts as something awful. But I want to continue with my prepared remarks, and hope that what I have to say might spare me some teeth, and spare you some pain, by giving you strength and resources that the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary can neither give nor take away.
I looked at the texts assigned for today in the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical readings calendar that breaks up the bulk of the Bible into a three-year cycle. It’s online; you can search for it. You might be interested in the scope of readings, what thoughts and feelings they evoke and how the readings relate to one another. (It’s also a point of pride. The committee that produced the Revised Common Lectionary included Unitarian Universalist Christians, and we don’t often have a place at the ecumenical table.)
So, we have for today a lesson from Esther, about her daringly exposing Haman as the plotting enemy of the Jews, with a psalm to match, used today in the opening words. There’s a gospel reading from Mark, with teachings from Jesus, including the well-known phrase “Whoever is not against us is for us.” But to be frank, Esther’s passage ended in violent death for the baddy and Jesus teaches one of those passages that makes Universalists itch, and I did that last time. And I saw something the other two had in common: teaching about the practice of faith itself.
So, I’d like to visit some of the practical and pastoral guidance the Bible has passed down the generations, and pull out some parts that apply to us today. And while I already have the curtain pulled back, and looking at how the sausage is made, let’s be clear about about what we might find in scripture.
Despite how some big-platform preachers might act, there’s not a one-to-one correlation between what the Bible records and what people do, much less what people ought to do. The Bible, in this sense, does not speak. It is not a guide book, instruction manual or cookbook. When I was a youth in Georgia, there was a popular bumper sticker that read “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it” which is entirely the wrong approach, because that all too easily becomes “I believe it. I will show that the Bible backs me. Don’t you dare cross me.” We have to be continuously on guard against self-validating appeals to divine power: self-validation that empowers bullies and fanatics, and builds walls between us and where God might lead us. The world is loud and scripture whispers.
There’s another risk. Take the current political moment. I find it intensely frustrating and often frightening. It would be all too easy to withdraw from awkward conversations, rigorous engagement and public participation and enjoy a private life. That’s what the Amish did; they are descended from one of the most radical Christian traditions of the Reformation and were so brutally persecuted that they withdrew from society.
And one last thing. And if we’re honest, we know these works have been compiled and edited within a particular historical and cultural contexts. This human hand does not distract from its divine origin, but reminds us that while they were lived in the Iron Age, we do not. We have to interpret these words for our time. We have to figure out what these words meant in their time, and hear that anew. This is what distinguishes the liberal approach.
Now, let’s review the reading book of Numbers (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29).
Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible, and in the Torah, the heart of scripture, so shared by Jews and Christians. The Hebrew name translates to “in the Wilderness” and the English name refers to the censuses recorded in it. On the whole, it can be drowsy reading; this is practically an action scene, so it does take special care to uncover its meaning.
If you have not read Numbers — there was no homework — have not read it, or heard much about it, the “storyline” follows much what we find in the second half of that monumental film, “The Ten Commandments.” The Hebrew people had been released from captivity in Egypt through God’s action. Numbers covers the time from God’s self-revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai to the entrance of the people Israel into the land of Canaan.
But what’s this “mixed multitude” really forty years in the wilderness? At least one English Baptist scholar (Harold Henry Rowley; see note in Plaut’s Torah, p. 1011.) thinks that the Exile in the wilderness was only 2 years long: the 2 years that are mentioned in Numbers as the first and last year. The other 38 years were slotted in between.
Why would someone do that?
The Exodus narrative here and in the book of Exodus show how the people stopped being slaves, went out of Egypt and became a people in their own right, seeking a new homeland. But that it was a challenge and a process, and that they failed to hear and mind God along the way.
It’s easier to believe this idea of a nation developed over the course of generations, and not a single trip through the scorching and hostile desert, however long. What the point of the story is to say that one generation died that another generation and people would live.
And the number 40 is important to suggest a long duration. Where else do we see this number? The 40 days of the flood. Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. A number which suggests a long time, and not to be understood literally. But the meaning is clear enough, once you understand the intent. It’s not a matter of deception or exaggeration, but coding the story with extra meaning. Which is fair, if you know what the code is.
One way to understand scripture is to understand where you are in the story. In this view, you have to think of yourself as being a part of the story rather than it happening to someone else. This way, we grow in empathy and see if there are parallels in how those people found God in their lives to see if we can find God in our own. A borrowed life lesson that provides a common language.
And also a link that provides context for other parts of the Bible. For example, Jesus would have known this passage, of course, and alludes to the manna in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth hath eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which cometh down out of heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. (vv. 47-50, Revised Version)
This changes our understanding of John: that Jesus was the renewal of promise, provision for the liberated, and reward for the wandering. It makes comments about pride or cannibalism seem silly and doctrinaire.
So, a few passages before today’s reading, we headed out into the wilderness with the people Israel, from the mountain of the Eternal, following the cloud that rose from the Ark of the Covenant. They went out in ranks, like an army. The people moved, and encamped, and grumbled. A mixed crowd; a little bit of everyone. A “motley crew” long before that became the name of a metal band.
What makes this telling of the story different from the one in Exodus (or Cecil B. DeMille) is how it was edited and what it focuses on.
Also, since we ascribe great worth to the Bible, it’s worth knowing how it came to be. The usual, pious understanding is that the first five books of the Bible — the Torah — were written by Moses personally. But there have also been serious and faithful questions for hundreds of years. But a simple reading of scripture should throw that into doubt. For one thing, how could Moses be the author if it records his death?
The work of “lower criticism” looks at the books, their structure and vocabulary, and try to understand the sources that we were developed to make these works as we know them. Written works don’t last forever. We don’t have a “first edition” or manuscript of any part of the Bible, and until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s and 1950, the oldest portions of the standard Masoretic version of the Torah we have is about eleven centuries old. The oldest biblical text we have today — say, 26 centuries old — is a in a rolled up silver amulet, so fragile that it had to be read with modern imaging technology: a part of the priestly blessing, from Numbers.
According to lower theory, there are four main sources for the Torah. Two — known as the E and the J sources, based on how God in named in the text. A D source, for Deuteronomy, which seems to be its own thing, and a P, or “priestly” source.
(We see a similar kind of development in play in the the four Gospels.) So where critics of scripture see contradictions and foolishness we see development, versions and alternatives.
Numbers relies on the priestly source, suggesting the book is about 25 or 26 centuries old, and based on the older E and J sources. That is, the underlying question in Numbers is “what is the role of priests in the community?” That doesn’t mean so much for us today, but it means there’s an editorial viewpoint that means the text cannot be read at face value, leading us to the historical or “higher” criticism.
This is where we pick up our lesson. Our passage skips over the manna. This strange, monotonous food; I imagine it would be like eating nothing but chia seeds. And, what do we have now? What is this? But, oh, remember the food in Egypt! he people are on their last nerve, “the Lord was very angry, and Moses was distressed.” (11:10, Plaut trans.) Then the Eternal God bid Moses bring seventy of the “elders and officers” of the people to the presence of the Eternal God, with Moses so that he would not bear the responsibility of leadership alone. (10:17) Those gathered with Moses spoke in an ecstatic voice when the spirit of the Eternal God came upon them, but not those leaders alone. Two others, named Eldad and Medad, did too: Moses would not restrain them. And then the feast of quail come down — maybe 50, 100 bushels full. The people were hit with a plague, and the motley crew, having buried their dead at the place named “graves of craving” set out again.
And perhaps the hunger for meat meant a return the familiar life of Egyptian captivity. One of relative ease and luxury; something more than literal meat, and something manna couldn’t feed.
Dear friends, we have the ability to be a great blessing to ourselves and to others. We have within ourselves the seed of greatness; “the kingdom of God is within you.” This is not an escapist fantasy. It however does take imagination. An imagination that resists the deadening pall of convention and the limitations of second guessing: an imagination and a direction that bubbles up possibilities inside us, and that God has set before us. Possibilities that create a hunger for something different, and before you know it, this faith has us wanting something better and seeking to make it real. I believe that there is a Divine path that we can take — one that we have no monopoly over — and welcomes companions. A way described in our passage from James:
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.
Now, none of us alone can make the world right, but each of us can do our part to make it better.
As we proceed, we must ask ourselves: in what way do we mean better? A thin 51% control over the other 49%? Luxuries that we enjoy that others could not possibly also have? Sympathy that stops at the D.C. line or some other border? Lip service to full participation in the economic, moral, political and spiritual matters but acquiescence to the various systems that make this participation impossible? Not any of these, of course.
So taking the love of God, a humble and prayerful heart and a great deal of hard work; we must pray God to raise up scouts and guides for the journey, wherever they may come from; to apply ourselves to prayer and praise; confession and healing; guidance and counsel; and no less than all of these to use our minds and good sense to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thes. 5:21)
This is what we may enjoy and offer future generations. May God bless us now and forever.