The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

John 9

Preached at New Hope UCC, Deland,FL on January 19, 2014

 

I want to start by thanking you, and your pastor, for inviting me to speak today. I recently meet your Associate Conference Minister, Sara Lund. When she learned I would be in your Conference, she asked if I would willing to preach and speak about UCC Disabilities Ministries, the UCC Mental Health Network,and the UCC’s  commitment to be “Accessible to All” or A2A. I told her that I would.

I bring you greetings this morning from the UCC Disabilities Ministries Board. I also come to you as a person born with mild cerebral palsy, which mostly manifests as a mild speech impediment; as a person who has acquired disabilities; as a person who has been a caregiver for people with disability; as one who has been a support system for persons with mental health concerns. And I come to you as an ordained minister, a hospice chaplain, an activist, a scholar, and yes, there is yet more they I could say. I share these aspects of myself not to toot my own horn, not only to give you some introduction of who I am but also to show you that no one person can be described in any one way.

When it comes to our text for this morning the notion that people are very complex and have many attributes to share with the world is something we want to keep in mind. Our scripture this morning is a very complex text. It was traditionally a text used to teach about Baptism in the early church (1). But what kind of text is it? Is it a healing story? Is it a miracle? Is it about a sinner being being saved? Is it about blindness? I think those are all good questions. However, I do not think those are questions I will strive to answer today. Instead I would like to talk with you about who the people in this text are. The man born blind, the Pharisees, and Jesus. All of these persons are complex, just as we are.

Let us start with the man born blind. We know more about him than we do about most of the people whom Jesus encounters in the gospels. We know he was born blind.

We know that he was at least of an age to be considered an adult. We know both his parents were alive—they too appear in the text. We know that he begged for a living.

We know that he was known to the community even though he was excluded from the community because he lived with blindness, thus his need to beg. And we also know that through this encounter with Jesus this man had a spiritual conversion and came to understand who Jesus was.

But there are also some important things that we do not know. We do not know if he had ever heard of Jesus before this event. We do not know if he wanted to be sighted–This is one of the few instances in which Jesus heals a person without first asking permission, or being asked, to do so–and we do not really know what happened to this man after he became sighted.

For many people with disabilities, the things we do not know about this man are very important to think about. In the UCC we talk about churches becoming “Accessible to All” and while this means that we want our worship spaces to physically accessible, it also means that we want our church congregations—our people to be accessible, and welcoming to people with disabilities as well. In this sense A2A is as much about the understanding and hospitality with which we greet one another as it is about our buildings.

One of the mottos of the disability rights movement which you will hear in the UCC is “nothing about us without us”. This means people with disability want to be consulted about the things that affect them. So we wonder how did the man born blind feel about becoming sighted? He was not consulted before hand. We do not know how it changed his daily life,the text does not tell us that we only know how it changed his spiritual life for he proclaimed Jesus a prophet to the council of Pharisees. Which was a very bold thing for someone of his social standing to do. Some say his response to the Pharisees shows his wit and intelligence traits he had that were not related to his disability or that he developed as survival mechanisms living with blindness. (2) Perhaps one of the most important things this text tells us about the man born blind is that it was his encounter with the person of Jesus, and not his physical healing that led to his conversion and understanding of who Jesus was.

It is through the man born blind’s discussion with the Pharisees that his understanding of who Jesus is made clear. So who are these Pharisees? The Pharisees in the text are the religious authorities who are expected to uphold the laws and traditional customs. They question not only the man who had been born blind, but his parents.

It seems strange to us that after talking with the man himself the Pharisees call for his parents but it may be according to social custom. There are many places around the world where to this day people with visual impairments are not qualified to be legal witnesses because they are blind and it is assumed they cannot identify the perpetrators of crimes against them (3). This may play a role in why, globally, women and girls with visual impairments are statistically the most likely to become victims of sexual violence. (4)

Certainly this group of Pharisees is behaving as a legal board, for they call the man born blind back a second time. This is when the story turns sour—at least as I read it.

After the Pharisees question the man and his parents, this time they start with an imperative command “Give Glory to God!” It is a statement which puts a knot in my stomach not because the man is being asked to Glorify God, but because it sounds like a self-righteous command. It was the role of the Pharisees to see that all things glorified God, but the text bothers me because there is no dialogue here. In the text, it is a council of authority ordering around a person whom the community considered to have no legal standing, because he was blind, to do something.

This interaction of the man and the council of Pharisees reminds me of a youth in San Diego who maintains a blog and documents each time someone comes up to him in public lays hands on him, prays, and demands that he stand to walk. (Most people don’t realize this still happens, it does.) Not only when the Pharisees issue this command but when they go on to suggest that the man born blind was born in sin we should feel uncomfortable. For this is a clear example of bullying a person because of their disability and the text tells us it done by the religious structure itself.

To often we sit in church, we read parts of scripture that are uncomfortable and we think, thank goodness we don’t do that in our church. The problem is we do. Well meaning church going people too often find themselves bullying others especially people with disabilities. One Sunday, when I was still using a cane and preaching at my home church one of the trustees, who I’d know for years, came up to me and said “stop using that cane, you don’t need it”. He did not know the specifics of my medical needs. He was a bully.

Last summer I was on the delegate floor at the UCC Synod. One of the resolutions we were to vote on at Synod was becoming an anti-bullying church one of the other delegates who knew I was representing UCCDM at synod said to me “you don’t really have a disability, but its nice that you speak up for those who do.” I told him I did have a disability his reply was “no you don’t”. So we had to have short tense conversation. I told him he was a bully.

It did not feel good to me to have that conversation at church. But it reminded me that even in our churches we are not as aware of the hidden disabilities of our church members as we should be. When you know the small needs of another you are truly in community.

There is another person in this text—its Jesus. It seems to me that in this text we see one of the stranger things Jesus does, it is a Sabbath day when no work is to be done, Jesus walks up to blind man and puts mud on his face and tell him to go wash in the pool known in Hebrew as “sent” (5). We understand why the early church may have used this text to talk about baptism.

But then Jesus disappears for much of this text. It is not until after the man born blind has been questioned and driven out of the  community that Jesus reappears. And what Jesus does is sit with the man who had been born blind Jesus welcomes the man and sits in community with him to tell him about the Son of Man and Son of God.

Jesus soothes the stings of exclusion. Jesus’ words about the those who see becoming blind seems to be an admonition to not be so self assured, to not be so self-righteous that one becomes exclusionary.

It is Jesus in this text who shows us the way to be church, the way to be loving and community minded. It is Jesus who is not only welcoming but seeks out those excluded because they may have a history of disability, or any other reason. It is Jesus who reassures the man that he too has a place in the Kingdom of God, and that Jesus has come into the world to assure him of this.

It is Jesus my friends who calls us to radical hospitality and radical welcome. It is Jesus who sends us all in search of new vision. It is Jesus who comes to be with us when we feel we have been driven out for following proclaiming his work in our lives.

So my, friends, it is because of Jesus’s work in our own lives that UCCDM seeks to encourage all settings of the UCC to be “accessible to all”, to include people with disability and mental health issues, not only in our building but in our fellowship and leadership. It is because of Jesus that I ask you to join in this work to open the way to full inclusion in your local church for the local church is the heart of the church. This where inclusion welcome matters most.

So thank you for including me today, thank you for thinking about your building, and thank you for considering all aspects of accessibility (A2A) and joining in this journey to inclusion with us.

####

Endnotes:

(1) Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability. (Abington: Nashville, 1996.) 76.

(2) Ibid, 72.

(3) Ibid, 70.

(4) Women with disabilities presentation at the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network Pre-Event, General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea, October 29, 2013.

(5) Black, 68.

 

Third Sunday in Lent: Busy Woman Called By God, Again.

 “How is it that you ask….?” John 4:9

Life is hectic. Life can be down right hard. Life is also full of the holy. Life is full of the unexpected. And occasionally the ordinary tasks of life are holy and unexpected, for it is the midst of daily life that God finds us.

In the narrative that we hear from the Gospel of John this week we hear the Samaritan woman asking Jesus “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me to get you a drink” (John 4:9). Yes we know the next line of the gospel almost by heart it is an explanation that Jews and Samaritans don’t speak to one another. This is confirmed later in the text when the disciples return and are flabbergasted to find Jesus not only speaking to a woman but a Samaritan woman!

I am sure that most of this has been pointed out from countless pulpits today. I, myself, however, I want to just slow the whole reading at John 4:9. I want to simply turn over and over the words “How is it that you ask me?”.

Many people, but particularly women, know what it is like to have a person come up and ask you for something. It sometimes seems that we do so much to care for so many persons. Life can lead us to think that we simply don’t have time for one more thought or one more task…and always someone will appear to ask. And then we have to reply.

As I read this text I wonder at the tone of voice the Samaritan woman used. The tone of voice of voice she used would have contributed much to the meaning of the conversation. Was she snappy? Was she annoyed? Was she exasperated? Was she using a question to tell him to buzz off? We don’t know her tone, we can only guess. It does seem she is a little amused–this man wants water from a deep well but brings no bucket.  I almost cannot help but hear her insinuating that  Jesus is simply being silly, at the very least she seems to indicates she believes he is ridiculous.

Jesus responds to the Samaritan woman “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is who saying to you…” (John 4:10). “If you knew…” ok, let’s stop the text right there. Jesus knows all the worries and pressures on this woman, as is confirmed later in the text. She is a busy woman, with many people in her life, she comes to draw water from the well which can not be simple because it is a deep well. Her life is about existing in both practical and social terms. She is a woman of ethnic identity who is looked down upon by others. She knows oppression. She knows manual labor. She has not sent a servant to fetch the water so she may very likely be poor as well. And here is Jesus interrupting her busy life, getting her attention, to tell her about the One who can provide living water.

Yes, the text is about living water and racial strife and getting to the Truth of the matter…we hear that each time it appears in the lectionary and all of that is important. But in the quiet of this text, if we stop to hear Jesus say, “if you knew….” Then we may also find God, and the Son of Man, coming to find us where we toil. Coming to interrupt our work…interrupting our gathering of basic needs to say there is more to living than toil, I, God can provide what you more deeply need. This is not to say that basic needs such as food and water and shelter are not important they are and God is concerned about these. But God is concerned with the spiritual aspects of our lives that are much deeper than our physical needs ever can be. And Jesus finds this woman at her toil to teach her this.

We know how the narrative ends. The woman is converted by her encounter with Jesus and goes out to proclaim his holiness to her village. She proclaims Jesus as a prophet, That is the ending of this narrative. We all have encounters where we feel God is with us, teaching us. When God comes to us to offer depth and meaning and we find ourselves busy with the daily tasks of life how do we respond?

Oh God who inspires all things. Grant me discernment so I may head your call and your meaning no matter what task I may be involved in, when you arrive. Grant that in my busy-ness I may hear you and seek what you have to offer in that moment. Grant me your peace and courage to respond to you, even if social taboos would have me shy away from doing so. Refresh me and send me out to my community anew.  Amen.

Over Thinking: First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2: 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Much has been written on the tree of Good and Evil. I believe I have even blogged on it before. But in this season the text appears afresh. As I look at the full lectionary for this week of Lent these are the lines that stand out to me.

Sometimes, I wonder if our post-modern world has taken all the beautiful gifts that God has given to us and analyzed them to death. That is not a slam against science or inquiry, I believe both are important. Science is helps us understand the things we can not see, things that may be to tiny for us to touch or to big for us to comprehend. Last Thanksgiving my husband and I took a trip to Monterey, California we drove through the Carrizo Plain, a geological wonderland where you can see the fault lines of the earth on the surface of the ground. On the plain is what is called “Soda Lake”, it is essentially a lake of baking soda and I found it fascinating. The place is a natural wonder. When we arrived at Monterey we went to the famous Monterey Aquarium and again I found myself in awe at the complexities of nature, and even more in awe of the One Who Created it all!

If the world we live in is so amazing, I have to wonder about all the people we live around. I know we live in a twenty-four hour news cycle that always seems to be negative. It is a cycle that fuels our fears of “the other”–the immigrant, the person of a different religion, the person who speaks another language or has different speech, the person who looks or moves through the world in a different way, and it seems like there has been an intentional effort to separate ourselves from those who experience reality differently then we do–the ones who live with mental health issues.

God created the world and the people in it and called all of it “good”. Isn’t that our story? As I come to these lines of scripture today, I find myself wondering if God wasn’t also telling us don’t over analyze it just go with it. Over and over again God tells people to “go”, “let go”. Jesus tells people “follow me”. We are never asked to analyze or judge. We are asked to accept, to go out and work with what we find. This scripture is a warning to us that if we over think things we may lose the ability to be and act appropriately in the world. It is a command to not stigmatize, for when we do we lose something of ourselves.

This Lent as I reflect on my ministry, and my journeys into the world, I want to examine if I have always been as open as God has called me to be. I want to work to undo the over-thinking. I want to work against the stigmas that separate us one from the other and to live into the prayer that Jesus offered in saying good-bye to his followers…”that they may all be one”.

Exiles for Justice and Peace–WCC / EDAN #1

I am just returning from the 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea! I was honored to serve as a North American representative to the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network (EDAN) Pre-Assembly Event and a Untied Church of Christ Delegate to the General Assembly. I hope to post a series of reflections on the events of the last two weeks as I process this unique experience.

I was asked to preach at the closing worship service for the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network’s Pre Assembly Event in Busan; below is the sermon I presented.

Dr. Arne Fritzon serves as liturgist at EDAN Pre-Assembly event

Dr. Arne Fritzon serves as liturgist at EDAN Pre-Assembly event

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7  1 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (1)

“Exiles for Peace and Justice” sermon by Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas for theEcumenical Disability Advocacy Network (EDAN) Pre-Assembly, WCC 10th General Assembly, Busan, South Korea on October 28, 2013

Brothers and Sisters in Christ it is an honor to speak with you today. As we worship together now, let us consider God’s word for the context of our own lives.

Our text for this evening comes to us from the Book of Jeremiah.While I admire Jeremiah faithfulness I have always felt that much was asked of him. The prophet Jeremiah’s unenviable task was to convince the people that going into exile was the only way for their community to reestablish right relationship with God. We understand that his message that people needed exile likely did not make sense to those around him, but Jeremiah also gave hope. Indeed our text comes from the portion of Jeremiah in which the prophet is seeking to give hope to the exiles, hope that peace and justice would still come to the world.

Like the people that Jeremiah sought to console—we too have traveled far from our homes too seek justice and peace. However we are different than those Jeremiah spoke to. Not only are we far from home but we are people with disabilities, and we are allies who have had that conversion moment in which through the depth of friendship and solidarity there is understanding that people with disabilities experience the world and society differently than persons without disabilities.

The experience of disability is as varied as the people in this room. Disability is a social location experienced by living in the world in an individually unique way, and yet that experience of being uniquely different from everyone else is an experience that is shared by all people with disability. This solitary nature of living with disability intrigues me, for we may be individuals but collectively PWD are the largest minority in the world.

The North American theologian, Thomas Reynolds has written that disability “entails involuntary impairment and real suffering, much of which is the consequence of social alienation and exile”(2). As a person born with mild cerebral palsy which manifests as a speech impediment and as one who has acquired chronic pain, the suggestion of disability as exile speaks to me. Most of us have had, at some time, an experience in which our day to day life is so different from our friends and colleagues without disability, that as people with disabilities we may easily relate to the experience of exile in our text today. Perhaps from our social location of disability it is clear to us that we are currently living in a world that is not just towards persons with disability. A world in which all God’s children are not living in peace.

In my American context we have a perplexity. The ADA made many public spaces accessible but churches were exempt. As a result in America faithful persons with disability still find themselves exiles of faith communities, either because local churches lack accessibility or social stigma and social inaccessibility leads to a lack of opportunities for PWD to fully participate either as lay members or employed as clergy with disability—it is a lack of justice and of peace.

So what are people with disabilities around the world to do when the Body of Christ is not accessible to them or excludes them? Brothers and sisters, I want to suggest today that we are to take encouragement from the words that Jeremiah spoke to the exiles. We are to build the foundations of a new inclusive church, within the current church—we are to plant our hopes, and teach these ideals to the children. We are to seek the welfare, of the community in which we find ourselves.

As persons with disability we seek the justice not only of physically accessible churches but inclusion in the ministry of the church and opportunities to serve the church. We seek the peace of full social inclusion in the church so no person is made to feel less than the fearlessly and wonderfully made child of God that they are.

The words of Jeremiah call all of us to speak out about who we are, to be willing to be exiles for peace and for justice when we are called to do so. This is not easy work, particularly when the work of inclusion is ever widening the circle of God’s community. Indeed this work asks much of us, calling us to do new things to bring God’s justice and peace to the world.

For the past few years the disabilities ministries and mental health ministries in my denomination have been working together. It has not always been easy for the two exiled groups to act as one, but it is effective. We continue to teach the church, and we continue to learn from each other. One of the things I have learned from our partnership, is that as far from justice as the disability community is there are still others who need the disability community to welcome them into the church , into the pews, and into ministry together. We are a sprout of justice.

As we go forward into this week, discussing all manners of the ministry and work of the Church universal, I ask this group—the advocates and associates of the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network, to be attentive to how we may be called to use our perspective—to call the assembled body of Christ to new ministries of inclusion, even if in doing so the way to the future is, yet, unknown.

May God Be with Us and Meet Us as we work for justice and peace!

(1) “Jeremiah 29” (NRSV), Devotion.net, [on-line] accessed August 28, 2013 available at http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Jeremiah+29
(2) Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, (BrazosPress: Grands Rapids, MI, 2008) 21.

God Loves. God Provides. God’s Kingdom

A Sermon based on Hosea 11:1-1 Luke 12: 13-31; Preached at La Jolla Congregational Church, UCC

The hymn we just sang (God of Grace and God of Glory), aside from being one of my favorites, was written by Harry Emerson Fosdick one of the major theologians of the modernist movement during the twentieth century. For Fosdick, the Bible was a repository of our basic human experiences. (1) Religion for Fosdick was, as one historian wrote “a psychological experience….an experience that makes a difference, for the kind of religion that matters is the kind that saves, that is to say, the kind that integrates, strengthens, and enriches the personal lives of those who engage it.” (2) The role of human experience was important to the theological and biblical understanding of Fosdick and other of the modernist theologians of the twentieth century.

“God of Change…” I wonder what Fosdick would think of the scriptures before us this morning. I wonder how he might take the social, political, and economic realities of our own time and interpret these scriptures today. He of course is long since gone, so I am afraid you will have to allow me this morning to step in for him and look at these scripture with you to see what ‘meaning may yet break forth’ from them for us today. (3) As I have thought about these texts this week I have come to the basic ideas outlined in my sermon title: God Loves. God Provides. God’s Kingdom.

Now there are those persons who might tell me that I am stretching it to find the message that God Loves in the Book of Hosea. I am not, but it is true that this prophetic book is one that recounts the tresspasses that led to the exile of the Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel, and it was not pretty. Much like, Fosdick, Hosea was a prophet trying to make sense of his world. For Hosea, the world he came into was one in which God had made promises to love and care for, to prosper the people, of Israel. But the rules changed. Hosea found himself in a time in which numerous Kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel were assassinated; a time in which political and military alliances were being made with Assyria–an oppressor of the Kingdom Israel at the expense of traditional allies. It really did not make a lot of sense… Hosea and his people found themselves in a world of change, a world in which exile would arrive. Theologically speaking, the people of the Northern Kingdom had turned their attention away from their covenant with God and the aspects of their lives that defined their society, and focused their attentions on chasing the political powers and material wealth that kingdoms outside Israel might provide. The Northern Kingdom had shifted their focus from the values of covenant to placing ultimate meaning on material gains and wealth and the prophetic record is clear they paid for their focus on materialism and wealth with exile. Which way are choosing in our own day?

The Book of Hosea is a book of prophecy so it is not all doom and gloom…there is hope. Hosea’s doom and gloom, however, are a warning about the downfalls that await a society that strays from right relationship with God. For right relationship with God that is at the very heart of prophetic messages. For Hosea, the hope for restored right relationship lies in the history of God’s love, care, and historical provisions for the people of God’s covenant. It is this hope in God’s love for God’s people that rings through our passage for this morning.

Our passage from Hosea this morning portrays God’s love for the people by recounting the God’s acts of providing for the people of Israel. Hosea recounts the Exodus quoting God as saying “When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11: 1-11).  Then the prophetic narrative goes on to portray God telling the story of God’s presence in the life of the Northern Kingdom “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk…I led them with cords of human kindness with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” (Hosea 11: 3-4) This is not a God far off but a God who is intimately involved in the life of the people. It may even be that the reference to Ephraim is a reassurance to the people of the North Kingdom, as their first King Jeroboam was from the house of Ephraim. (4) The metaphors used to portray God’s acts of love toward the people are ones we would expect to find in reference to a loving parent.

(Feminist scholars would note that it is significant that the metaphors for God in this passage of Hosea refer to the love either a father or mother would give a child. It is significant because the rest of the Book of Hosea is often very harsh towards women. Thus to portray God’s love and protection in gender neutral way here of all places is such a rarity of the prophet it must be paid attention to as carrying another layer of meaning. (5) We shall, however, leave the feminist treatment of Hosea for another day.)

Our passage from Hosea concludes with God providing for the people to return from exile to their own homes, once right relationship with God is reestablished.

Perhaps Harry Emerson Fosdick would ask us, at this juncture, how we maintain our right relationship with God? How do we balance our need to live in society, exist on the material level, and maintain relationship with God in light of our hope for the coming of God’s Kingdom? How indeed do we find the wisdom & courage “for the facing of this hour”?  (6)

As Christians, we look to the gospel for guidance and wisdom in how to maintain right relationship with God. The gospel lesson the lectionary presents us with today, verses 1-11, are those that deal with the distribution of wealth and the accumulation of goods. However, if we read further in the text we learn that it is not enough to just note that Jesus refused to address the just distribution of wealth, when he refused to address the man’s concerns about inherited possessions. It is not enough to note that Jesus warns those who hoard material goods that God will make a mockery of material hoarding, when God comes like a thief in the night to call us from this life (Luke 12: 20). Whereas Hosea was concerned with the national or corporate pitfalls of striving for power and wealth; the Gospel speak to us of our individual drives for power and wealth.

The parable alone is not enough,to understand the Jesus meaning. It is Jesus’ commentary to his disciples after the parable if the rich fool, in verses 12-31, that teach the spiritual values if the Kingdom of God that Jesus trying to impart to those he had chosen to spread his message. In the verses following the parable, Jesus’ teaching to the disciples makes it clear that he does not address the man’s concern about the division of inherited goods not because Jesus is disinterested in the division of material goods, but because it is the wrong concern to focus on. Jesus affirms at the end of this speech that God knows we need the materials necessities of life (Luke 12: 30). Jesus’s point is that all those material things are not only not the point and goal of living but can actually get in the way of our right relationship with God.

Jesus’s teaching to the disciples in verses 12-31 speak directly to the the value of human worth and value of human life. Here Jesus reminds the disciples that the birds do not work; they behave as expected of birds. The parallel for us seems to be that we are to be concerned less with doing work, but in being human. Similarly Jesus teaches the disciples that we are valuable to God just because we are who we are, not because of the things we do. Jesus teaches that the value of the lilies is in the inherent beauty of their nature, which far surpasses what can be accomplished by human hands. Jesus attempts to teach the disciples that we are human beings, and not human doings.

This is not an easy teaching. I often wonder if the disciples grew to understand this teaching. I often wonder if we understand it today.

As a hospice chaplain I often interact with persons facing depression, not so much because they facing the end of their lives, but because they no longer are able to do the things they once did or fulfil their roles as they once did. You see in our contemporary individualistic society we tend to place ultimate value on doing and providing for one’s self, and that is how we judge human worth. So when people can no longer do for themselves they face a crisis of meaning, which I tend to think of a crisis of being. At the root it is a crisis caused by being human and vulnerable. In these situations I often find myself coming to this scripture about the lilies. You see we have worth because we are living, because we are in relationship with God; not because of what we may do or accumulate. It is hard thing, in our society, to comprehend that our worth rests in something we have no control over at all, its all ”God of Grace”.

I was at our recent Synod in Long Beach. And while I am one of the first people to get excited about the theological implications of a God who is still speaking, I heard this so ad nauseum that I started thinking….about the the still speaking God…About myself as a person who started life with profound speech impediment…There are so many ways to communicate, why would God need always to speak? I started thinking about the persons with whom I minister: those who are dying, those who struggle with worth; then I thought of those who never spoke and those whom can no longer speak. How does a still speaking God speak to them? I recalled, in that convention hall so full of speeches, how profound it is to sit in silence, to try to be rather than do, and I knew that simply being is way of living I have yet to understand much less to master. And I then thought..what about the God who can not speak?

The “speaking” of God and human beings is our covenant or relationship. Given that we live with a “God of Change and God of Glory”, how do we interpret the prophetic text from Hosea and Jesus’ parable about the rich fool and Jesus’ lillies in light of our own experiences? Like Hosea and his people, like the farmer with full barns, we too are called by our covenant with God to be God’s people so fully concerned with the importance of human personality that our focus remains right relationship with God. (7) What do we do with that call? What would Harry Emerson Fosdick, have me say?

It occurs to me that what I might say is this: What if God is still loving, and God is still providing, but we are so concerned with wall street and the dow, with NASDAQ and the unemployment rate, with behaving as the superpower and keeping “other” people where they “belong”…What if we are missing our call to live into God’s Kingdom? What if God can no longer speak, because in our experiences we have become so consumed with the idols and of modern life that we are no longer listening?

Endnotes
(1) Macquire, John. Twentieth Century Religious Thought. (Trinity Press: Harrisburg, 2001) 189.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Play on a quote famous in the UCC, from a sermon Robinson wrote to a congregation upon reaching the new world.

(4) From “Ephraim” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephraim, accessed August 3, 2013.

(5) Yee, Gale. “Hosea” in the Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: John Knox, 1992) 200.

(6) Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God of Grace and God of Glory”, as printed in Hymnal of the United Church of Christ. (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1974).

(7) See commentary by Moore, Rickie in Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005)  1273-1274.

What the Lectionary Doesn’t Say This Advent

Advent in Scotland. I think that Scotland is a country made for Advent: the outside temperatures—and I mean the outside low temperatures—the lack of sunshine or simply blue skies, the rain, the mist: everything is on hold, waiting for better times. Reflecting a bit on my Advent in Scotland, I set out to reading the readings that the Catholic Church has for today: a reading from the Book of Isaiah (Is 45:6c-8, 18, 21c-25), followed by Psalm 85:9a, 10, 11-12, 13-14 and the Gospel reading from Luke 7:18b-23. And I could not help it, but I started to laugh.

Why? Well, I noticed immediately the pick-and-choose mentality of the lectionary. Not only are the lectures picked so that they fit with each other, comment on each other or elaborate on each other (and I have to admit the choices are sometimes good), but they also cut up the text into pieces of verses and then present a new whole. In other words, the lectionary does what I always try to avoid: namely hopping from one verse to another, skipping others, and just dealing with the nice verses. After all, we want a smooth reading in the lectionary. But that is not how texts work. Imagine reading Harry Potter’s Deadly Hallows without having read the earlier volumes. One plunges in the story not knowing about horcruxes or not knowing that Dumbledore has died. The story just would not make sense.

So, curious as I am, I checked which verses were deleted. Which dark powers were at work and why? In Isaiah 45, the lectionary has skipped the verses about Cyrus, the Persian king who is portrayed as the rescuer, saviour of the Jews… of course, we don’t want to hear that in our Christian churches. We usually do not consider outsiders to be our saviours, right? Next, the questioning of God the creator who chose Cyrus is deleted. We do not question God, nor God’s choice, right? So why would we incorporate in our readings a Biblical text in which that is said. Last but not least, the reference to other nations that pray to a god that cannot save, that verse as well is deleted from the lectionary. And note that a god that cannot save does not deserve a capital G. In other words, with advent, when listening to the beautiful text of Isaiah, we cannot be reminded of good foreigners, of foreign saviours, of gods that cannot save, and certainly not of dissenting voices questioning the so-called one and only God, with capital G.

Similarly in the Psalm: the beautiful verses in which it is described how God restored the fortunes of Jacob/Israel and how God forgives Israel are not taken up, the somewhat strange verses in which the people again ask to be forgiven—these verses seem strange as they people seem to ask for something that they already received—they too are not read in the liturgies.

There is less cutting in the gospel text. Actually, there has been no cutting at all in this section. John’s question is not shortened and Jesus’ answer is fully produced. So, why is that that we cut, pick and choose, that we skip verses in our texts? Do we avoid looking at things we don’t like? Are we afraid of strangers and foreigners? Can we not deal with the idea that there is maybe a god that can’t save? Similarly, does the omission of the verses in the Psalm which show God’s (or the author’s) irritation with the idea of questioning God point to our not-willingness to see that there could be questioning of God and/or that God does not like it. And why did the lectionary drop the verses that contain the repeated request to be saved? Can we not understand that we liked to hear the same thing twice, or do people get frustrated with repetition?

I think that precisely the omitted verses should be part of the advent readings. Of course, the rest of the readings are nice and sweet and beautiful: God creator of everything, God, the safe-place to be, God proclaiming peace and salvation, God giving benefits, what more can we ask for. But then again, the other elements belong in here as well: we have to learn to deal with the unexpected, with the questioning, with the idea that a god cannot save—whether it is God or god—, with an irritated God, with a people that repeats its questions. All these elements have an essential part in our process of waiting, for in our waiting time, in our waiting rooms, in our not yet being there, we have to reflect on all the things that obstruct or seem to obstruct our going ahead.

***

by Kristin De Troyer

Death and Advent

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
that one should live on for ever
and never see the grave.

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
… Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.

—Psalm 49: 5-11, 12

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
…I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

—Isaiah 61:1-3, 10-11

I must admit I am composing this devotional afresh just before it is to be posted. I had to. The mixed metaphors of this holy season have caught up with me. Advent, a season of waiting, formerly a season of penance, is full upon us today as we enter the midpoint of this season. I have been struck in reading the devotionals written for WWSIC (particularly those that follow the daily lectionary) at how the advent season is so admixed with the passages of Jesus’ death and ultimate resurrection bringing new life into the world, even life after death.

Life and death. Are these not the crux of the Advent season? In the time of year when we witness the “death” of the sun and foliage; in this time of year when Earth herself seems to go into hibernation, it is hard to not be reminded of the realities of death. I think of this both figuratively and literally.

As Psalm 49 from today’s lectionary reminds us, none of us shall live forever. Rich or poor, we are but creations of God, and no matter how wise or wealthy we may work to become, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.” And yet, many of us find ourselves in a culture that wants us only to seek knowledge and wealth. Moreover, we find ourselves in a cultural season that celebrates overconsumption and greed. If we find ourselves not pondering physical death this season, we may be pondering spiritual or financial demise. And, just where in a season of joy, hope, love, and peace are we to sit with such woes? In Advent we await the birth of Christ and all that means. But this does not mean that all is “well with my soul” in the waiting. In the waiting we find the realness of life: the aches, pains, fears, and contractions that come before birth, particularly when it is unknown how the labor may go.

The season of Advent is dark. The love, hope, joy, and peace we yearn for may not yet have come. Still we wait. It is a wonder to me how and why we do this. Professionally and personally, I am keenly aware this season of how myriad emotions of the human experience—particularly loss—changes the waiting. And I’m aware how experiences of injustice and oppression make the waiting seem like it will simply go on and on, and that change to finally bring relief may never arrive.

And there it is in the lectionary this week: the presence of death in the season of Advent. It is a reminder that we do not live forever. But it also a reminder of God’s promised work in the world. In the passage of Isaiah for this week we are told that God intentionally sends one to help the “oppressed,” “broken-hearted,” “captives,” “prisoners,” and “all who mourn.” It is a promise that even when the world seems most troubled, God is still working out a way out of no way. It is a hopeful text, telling us that God is seeking to liberate those who have been exiled for years—even generations—in a foreign land; that God is coming even for those in a culture that leads them to believe that materialism and greed is all that exists. And God is not only coming for those who mourn—for loved ones or beloved values—but God is going to provide all who mourn “a garland instead of ashes.”

What stands out to me most from this week’s Isaiah text is the promise that God has already “clothed me with the garments of salvation / covered me with the robe of righteousness.” It is a comforting promise, even as I mourn a colleague, and as I am reminded of all those whom I/we have lost this year. It is comforting to me as I think of a friend fighting for life in the ICU even as I write. It is promising to me, this promise that God is not only coming but has already provided garments and robes for me, and all people, at our meeting, the way a mother prepares for her newborn. As the darkness of the season deepens it is comforting to know God is sending someone to meet me on the way, someone who will bring good news and will make me—and all of us—welcome even in the darkness. In the end, it is a mixed metaphor of both death and birth, of waning and waxing.