Sunday’s sermon: Perfect God, Imperfect Agent

Text used – Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

  • I want to tell you a story this morning. [TELL STORY OF ANANSI AND THE MOSS-COVERED ROCK]
    • This is just one of the many tales the feature the troublesome trickster Anansi. → trickster tales told in cultures all around the world
      • West Africa and Caribbean = Anansi
      • China = the Monkey King
      • Eastern Europe = the Fox
      • Norse mythology = Loki (thank you, Marvel Comic Universe)
      • Southern United States = Br’er Rabbit
      • Any number of animal characters in Indigenous tales
        • Coyote
        • Rabbit
        • Raven
        • Bluejay
    • Trickster tales
      • On the whole, trickster characters are smart and use their knowledge to play tricks and try to bend the rules
      • Told to entertain
      • Told to teach lessons about how to behave and how to treat others
    • And our central Biblical character this morning – Jacob – fits perfectly into this trickster ethos.
      • Certainly smart
      • Certainly uses his knowledge to play a trick and bend the rules (to the point of breaking?)
      • Certainly all sorts of lessons wrapped up in his story
  • But before we get into his portion of the story from this morning’s text, let’s remind ourselves about the beginnings of Jacob’s story and how it fits in with the Grand Story of faith that we’ve heard so far.
    • Last week: talked about Abraham and his son, Isaac → After they returned from their strange and sacred experience on the mountain, Isaac grows up, and Abraham and Sarah eventually send a servant back to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac – a wife from their own people.
      • Servant finds Rebekah at the local well → negotiates with Rebekah and her family → Rebekah chooses to return with the servant to marry Isaac
    • Later, Rebekah gives birth to twins
      • Esau born first: ruddy-skinned and hairy
        • Esau literally means “red”
      • Jacob born second: literally hanging onto Esau’s heel
        • Some foreshadowing in Jacob’s name: Jacob means “supplanter” = someone who seizes or circumvents, a usurper → Yes, Jacob came out seizing Esau’s heel … but that’s not where his usurping ends.
    • Tricky family dynamic from the beginning → Now, I’m the first one who will tell you that having twins is never easy! I think there can be an added element of difficulty when it comes to same-gender twins – an added layer of competition that isn’t always present with different-gender twins. And when your twins are so vastly different from one another, things can get even more complicated … believe me! In our house, we’ve always tried to discourage unhealthy sibling competition between our twins. Sure, they compete with all sorts of things, but when it comes to pitting one against the other – “You should be more like your brother in this” or “Why can’t you do this the way your brother does?” … yeah, we’ve pretty fiercely avoided that kind of competition.
      • Putting the boys to bed at night, I couldn’t tell them that they were my favorite boy in the world because they’re both my favorite boys … so I always give them a hug and a kiss good night and say, “You’re my favorite Ian in the whole wide world. You’re my favorite Luke in the whole wide world.”
        • Certainly not a phenomenon exclusive to raising twins – anyone raising children who identify as the same gender run into the same thing → I have a number of friends raising three boys (as did my mother-in-law!), and none of them can say to their kids, “You’re my favorite boy in the whole world” either.
      • Isaac and Rebekah didn’t really have any such qualms, though – Scripture (prior to today’s passage): When the young men grew up, Esau became an outdoorsman who knew how to hunt, and Jacob became a quiet man who stayed at home. Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.[1]
        • Makes it clear that Esau and Jacob, though twins, are very different people
        • Makes it clear that each parent favored one twin
          • Isaac favored Esau because he liked eating the game that Esau hunted and brought home
          • Rebekah loved Jacob because he stayed nearby to help her with things
  • And it’s these parental preferences that truly set the stage for what it to come in today’s passage.
    • Isaac is now old
      • Eyesight is going
      • Knows that he is dying
      • Wants to bless his eldest son … his favorite son: Esau 
    • But Rebekah wants to ensure that her favorite son – Jacob – is not left out of the blessing, so as soon as she hears what Isaac says to Esau and sees Esau go out hunting, she acts.
      • In the in-between bits not in today’s reading. Rebekah goes and finds Jacob, tells him about what his father has said to his brother, and hatches the whole plan
        • Instructs Jacob to go get the young goats for the meal and the Esau-like pelt
        • Cooks the meat the way Isaac like it for Jacob
        • Tells Jacob to put on the goat pelt to fool Isaac
        • Even goes and gets Esau’s “favorite clothes” for Jacob to wear so that he will smell like his brother!
        • In the midst of all this, Jacob voices hesitation, but Rebekah dismisses it. – text: Jacob said to his mother, Rebekah, “My brother Esau is a hairy man, but I have smooth skin. What if my father touches me and thinks I’m making fun of him? I will be cursed instead of blessed.” His mother said to him, “Your curse will be on me, my son. Just listen to me: go and get them for me.”[2] → So Jacob does as Rebekah tells him. The die is cast. The deception is accomplished. The blessing is usurped.
    • Before we go on, let’s talk about this blessing for a minute because this is far more than a simple, spiritual pat-on-the-head-and-off-you-go. → multiple elements and multiple deceptions wrapped up in this blessing
      • Blessing = means of conferring of birthright
        • Involves inheritance
        • Involves family name and family patriarchal power
        • Involves cultural and even legal ramifications following Isaac’s death
        • Lots of times that we see birthright and inheritance and blessing creating a messy situation throughout Scripture
          • First Testament: King David and his sons
          • New Testament: story of the prodigal son/reaction of the older son
      • Complicating the matter = all the pomp and circumstance around this blessing that Isaac is tricked into giving to Jacob → More specifically, there are two elements that are part of this blessing that really cement it as The Blessing (capital T, capital B) – the one that confers the birthright and everything else: a meal and a kiss.
        • (In the other in-between part of today’s Scripture), Isaac first eats the food that Jacob has brought him (the food that Rebekah prepared), then: His father Isaac said to [Jacob], “Come here and kiss me, my son.” So he came close and kissed him. When Isaac smelled the scent of his clothes, he blessed him[3] → And the deed is done. The usurpation is complete.
    • Other part of the story that we miss this morning = Esau’s reaction → As you can imagine, it’s not very good.
      • Just after Jacob and Rebekah have left Isaac’s side, Esau returns with his own hunted game → cooks the delicious food as Isaac requested and brings it to his father → Isaac is confused because he believes he already blessed Esau but quickly figures out what happened → Isaac tells Esau that he has already bestowed the blessing on his brother, Jacob → Esau is distraught and begs Isaac to bless him, too[4] – text makes it clear just how serious this usurpation is: Isaac replied to Esau, “I’ve already made him more powerful than you, and I’ve made all of his brothers his servants. I’ve made him strong with grain and wine. What can I do for you, my son?”[5]
      • And Esau becomes enraged and vows to kill Jacob after the period of mourning Isaac’s death is over. Rebekah learns of Esau’s plan and warns Jacob, so Jacob flees. He runs for his life.
  • Leads us into the third part of our Scripture reading – potentially the strangest part of Jacob’s story but also potentially the most important part: Jacob’s dream
    • Jacob has basically been fleeing all day long → comes to “a certain place” as night falls and decides it’s time to rest → pulls up a rock for a pillow and falls asleep → dreams of a ladder going from earth to heaven with angels – “God’s messengers” – climbing up and down the ladder → And then, in the midst of this dream, God appears!
      • God identifies Godself as the God of Jacob’s forefathers – the God of Abraham and Isaac
      • God promises to give Jacob and his descendants the land on which he is lying and to give Jacob a large and blessed family
      • God promises to be with Jacob → And it’s this last blessing from God that seems to be the most shocking … the most powerful … the most impactful. – text: “I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything I have promised you.”[6] → Up to this point, we know that Jacob hasn’t exactly been the picture of perfect behavior. He’s played his trickster role well. He has deceived. He has lied. He has stolen. He has created such a mess back home that he had to flee. I think it’s safe to say that Jacob isn’t perfect. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And yet God remains with him. God protects him. God blesses him. God continues to go with Jacob and guide him. Despite all his mistakes, despite all his wrongdoings, despite all the lines that Jacob has already crossed (and all the lines God knows Jacob will cross in the future), God remains with Jacob. God refuses to forsake him.
        • Because of the grace we receive in Jesus Christ – Jesus, the one who hung out with those on the margins … those who made all the mistakes … those who crossed all the lines … those who had been forsaken by everyone else – Because of the grace we receive in Jesus Christ, God remains with us just as God did with Jacob. Despite all our mistakes, despite all our wrongdoings, despite all the lines that we have already crossed (and all the lines God knows we will cross in the future), God remains with us. God refuses to forsake us. And that, friends, is good, good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Gen 25:27-28.

[2] Gen 27:11-13.

[3] Gen 27:26-27a.

[4] Gen 27:30-36.

[5] Gen 27:37.

[6] Gen 28:15.

Sunday’s sermon: “What Do You Want, God?”

“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Marc Chagall (1966)

Text used – Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14

  • Is it just me, or is anyone else feeling some Scriptural whiplash this morning?
    • Last week → started Narr. Lect. Yr. 4 with the beautiful, inspiring account of creation from Gen 1
      • Reminded us of God’s goodness
      • Reminded us that God took the time to call each individual element/phase of creation good and the whole of creation supremely good
      • Reminded us that we are an essential and incomparable part of that creation – text: God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.[1]
    • But then this week, we go from that steadfast, heartwarming passage … to today’s passage – one of the most challenging, uncomfortable, even disturbing passages in the First Testament: a passage that is most commonly referred to as “the binding of Isaac.”
      • Definitely not what I would call beautiful
      • Definitely not what I would call heartwarming
      • As I said, this turn is giving me some Scriptural whiplash! But here’s the thing: We’re following the Narrative Lectionary, the goal of which is to walk us through the Grand Story of our faith from the very beginning (hence Genesis 1 last week) all the way through the establishment of the early church in Acts within the course of a year. And today’s story of Abraham and Isaac – troubling though it may be – is a part of that story.
        • Ignoring the more difficult parts of a story and focusing only on the parts that make us feel good = no way to learn our history → That’s how critical elements and the voices of the marginalized end up getting lost. That’s how they end up getting intentionally silenced – by deciding that their portion of the story is too hard for us to look at, too hard for us to hear. If we’re going to investigate who we are as people of faith, we have to investigate all the stories that make up that history, not just the fun and happy stories.
  • So let’s dig into this passage this morning.
    • Actually begins with just a brief reminder of who Isaac is and the circumstances around his birth – text: The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son – the one Sarah bore him – Isaac.[2] → Okay, so let’s be real for a second. Abraham and Sarah both were more than just “old.” When Isaac was born. They were really old … unfathomably old in terms of childbirth.
      • Medical terminology today: any pregnancy that occurs when the mother is over the age of 35 is deemed “geriatric pregnancy” → Yeah … take that flattering and heartwarming term in for a second, folx! And then remember that, according to Scripture, Sarah was not in her 30s when Isaac was born. She wasn’t in her 40s. She wasn’t in her 50s. She wasn’t even in her 60s. According to Scripture, Sarah was in her 90s when Isaac was born! And Abraham was over 100!
    • So clearly Abraham and Sarah have waited a long time for this child – for Isaac.
      • Isaac is finally born as God promised (back in Gen 18)
      • Sarah is overjoyed by the birth of this child
  • And then we get to the bulk of today’s story – the binding of Isaac … the part of the story in which God convinces Abraham to sacrifice his own child and Abraham goes along with it.
    • Get a couple of clues right at the beginning of the story that the events to follow are going to be really important ones
      • First clue is really obvious – text: After these events, God tested Abraham.[3]Any time that God tests someone in Scripture, whatever follows is never easy … but is always important.
      • Other clue that today’s story is important = also hidden in the Heb. → Abraham’s response to God’s initial call – “I’m here” = particular Heb. word: hinneh
        • Often either goes untranslated (as we’ll see a couple times later in today’s passage) or gets translated as some sort of exclamation: “Lo! Behold! See!” … Or, as one of my Hebrew professor in seminary used to love to say, “Shazaam!”
        • Particular word which has the purpose of drawing the reader’s/listener’s attention → This word was used as a bit of a foreshadowing tool – as a way to say, “What’s coming next is really important, so pay close attention.” That’s the word that Abraham uses to answer God at the very beginning of our story.
    • Lots of indicators throughout the story that clue us in to just how hard and life-changing this journey is going to be for those involved
      • When God tells Abraham to take Isaac and “go” to the land of Moriah: Heb. “go” can mean walking with your feet but it has an added layer of meaning – can also refer to one’s “walk of life” → So clearly, this journey that God is laying before Abraham’s feet is more than just a simple physical trek up the mountain.
      • When text says Abraham “got up early” to set out on this journey with Isaac: Heb. “got up” = “lean your shoulder into a heavy load” → makes it clear that this journey will be no simple, carefree journey for Abraham
      • When text says they “set out” for the “place” that God had described to Abraham: both “set out” and “place” come from the same word – connotations of moving from one state of being to another → makes it clear that whatever is to come will be indeed leave Abraham and Isaac forever changed
        • See this also in the way Abraham speaks with the two servants that they bring with them – text: Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”[4]
          • Heb. “come back” = really interesting word choice → This is the basic word for “return,” but it’s also the word that often gets translated as “repent.” It carries connotations of coming back, yes, but coming back different – connotations of not necessarily returning to exactly where you’ve started from. And I have to wonder about those two servants – those two boys – who heard Abraham utter these words.
            • Words used throughout the text to describe both these servants and Isaac indicate that they were roughly the same age – they were young men, probably somewhere in their adolescence → What did they think when they heard Abraham tell them to stay put? What did they think when they heard him say those words? What did they think as they watched Abraham and Isaac walk away? Could they read the concern in Abraham’s eyes? The hesitancy in his step? Did they pick up on the heaviness, the severity of the moment?
    • Continue to find indicators of both Abraham’s dread and his devotion as we read further into the hardest part of this story
      • Gravity of the situation as well as Abraham’s part in it underlined again – text says Abraham “took the fire and the knife in his hand[5] → “in his hand” phrase that implies taking responsibility for something
      • Major emphasis on the conversation between Abraham and Isaac – text: Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?” Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.” Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?” Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.”[6]
        • Two instances of hinneh – of that “pay attention” word
          • FIRST = Abraham’s initial response to Isaac: “I’m here, my son.” (same as response to God at the beginning of the text) → indicates that Abraham is well and truly present with his son in that moment – a heartwarming (if fleeting) moment in the midst of probably the hardest part of this text (this conversation in which Abraham knows what’s happening … and we know what’s happening … but Isaac remains clueless and innocent)
          • SECOND = untranslated – comes at the beginning of Isaac’s fateful question: “Where is the lamb?” → draws our attention both to the expectation and the glaring absence of the traditional offering
        • Shining moment of Abraham’s devotion in the midst of this horrible scene – Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question about the lamb: “God will see to it.” → = “God will provide” → Of course, we cannot know what Abraham was thinking or feeling in that moment, but when he chose that word, I have to wonder if he was saying it just to allay Isaac’s curiosity or if he truly believed that, in the end, God would provide the lamb.
      • They arrive → Abraham builds the necessary altar and arranges the wood (Did he just throw the wood in a pile to get the horrible deed over with, or did he spend time meticulously arranging the wood in hopes that he could delay what he knew was coming?) → Abraham ties up Isaac and lays him on top of the wood on the altar – text: Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.[7]
        • Again, Heb. makes it clear just how conflicted Abraham must have been – just how much Abraham didn’t want to do what he was doing: Heb. “stretched out his hand” = “send out/away” or “forsake” → We can just see that moment stretching out before Abraham – that tragic, painful, horrific moment that he has been dreading for days. A moment that he does not want. A moment that he cannot fathom. A moment that he truly and viscerally fears. A moment that he would so much rather remove himself from – forsake himself from.
  • And then, at the last minute, God intervenes.
    • God’s messengers call out to Abraham to stay his hand → once again Abraham responds with the 3rd occurrence of “I’m here” (hinneh … “Pay attention, God, I’m in this moment exactly where you called me to be.”) → messengers direct Abraham not to stretch out his hand and harm his son
    • Through these messengers, God testifies to Abraham about the strength and steadfastness of Abraham’s own faith – text: “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.”[8]
      • Heavy reverberations of this in the New Testament → Is anyone else hearing John 3:16 echo in their minds?: God so loved the world that he gave is only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.[9]
    • Final instance of hinneh in this story – text: Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush.[10] → hinneh = untranslated just after the word “saw” → draws our attention to the way in which God truly does provide for the offering just as Abraham said God would in his conversation with Isaac
      • Offer the ram as an entirely burned offering
      • Abraham names the place “the Lord sees”
      • (Presumably) Abraham and Isaac head back down the mountain, reunite with the servants, and go back home
  • So what’s the deal with this story anyway?!
    • Many scholars focus on the idea/tradition of the entirely burned offering
      • Offering that was usually a lamb or a cow
      • Offering that was usually consumed by the priests and whoever brought the offering
      • Scholars suggest that this story is a lesson from God in appropriate sacrifice → Many of the pagan religions in the surrounding nations participated in human sacrifice at the time, and, more specifically, in child sacrifice. But this story makes it clear that a child sacrifice is not the sacrifice that God wants.
        • Hear this in the familiar words of the prophet Micah: Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, [love kindness], and walk humbly with your God.[11]
    • But on a more modern-day level, it’s a difficult text to wrestle with, not because Abraham finds himself in a morally difficult situation but because it’s a morally difficult situation created by God.
      • Plenty of times that we find ourselves in morally difficult situations – situations in which we are torn between various options
        • Times when we know what to do … but it’s hard
        • Times when it seems like none of the options are the “good” option, the “right” option
      • Spoiler alert, folx: I don’t have all the answers for you this morning. This is certainly a text that I wrestle with as well.
        • Hold it in tandem with what we pray every Sunday morning: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” → The ecumenical version of The Lord’s Prayer says, “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.” But the idea is the same. We want to avoid trials … temptations … tests … not be led into them like Abraham was. Not be led into them like Abraham was … by God.
    • As I said, I’m long on questions and short on answers this morning as I wrestle with this text alongside you. – leave you with the reflection from this week’s Spill the Beans resource (“Reflection” from Spill the Beans, iss. 24, p. 18, © 2017):

What was God thinking?
What was Abraham thinking?
What was Isaac thinking?
What was Sarah thinking?

So many hearts breaking at once.
A story of unfathomable pain.
A test greater than any test.
Unimaginable tension.
Life and death held in suspension
Moments apart.

God steps in.
Abraham passes the test.
Isaac lives.
A mother’s heart heals.

What was God doing that day?
A question without an answer, perhaps?
God was in the midst of it all.
In all things God is there.
In our tests and trials
God is there.
Trust in God.

 

[1] Gen 1:27.

[2] Gen 21:1-3.

[3] Gen 22:1a.

[4] Gen 22:5.

[5] Gen 22:6 (emphasis added).

[6] Gen 22:7-8a.

[7] Gen 22:10.

[8] Gen 22:12.

[9] Jn 3:16.

[10] Gen 22:13a.

[11] Mic 6:7b-8 (text slightly altered for familiarity’s sake).

Sunday’s sermon: It Was Supremely Good

Text used – Genesis 1:1-2:4

  • One of the things that Ian and Luke and I have gotten into during this time of COVID has been puzzles.
    • All sorts of puzzles
      • Big and small
      • Easy and hard
      • Regular shaped and oddly shaped
        • One shaped like a pizza
        • One shaped like a rocket
        • Next up: the one shaped like a dinosaur
      • Puppies and doughnuts, dragons and cabin scenes, kitties and Star Wars
      • Even a couple glow in the dark puzzles!
    • One of the best things about puzzles = watching the picture take shape → You start with that box of little pieces – hundreds, sometimes even thousands of little, tiny, individual pieces. Some of them are so easy to place. It’s so easy to see what part of the picture they belong to. But others are so much trickier. It’s not until more of the picture is complete that you can really see where that piece fits in. But no matter what kind of piece you’re currently holding in your hand, the whole puzzle isn’t complete without it.
      • Pizza puzzle actually got sent back → missing not ONE but TWO pieces when we had finished it → And that experience of finishing the whole puzzle but missing pieces was so … ugh.
  • Today, we begin our journey through another year of the Narrative Lectionary – a set of Scripture readings designed to help us take in the whole scope of God’s Grand Story of Faith in a 9-month period. And we begin, of course, at the beginning with God and creation. Creation … God’s crazy-amazing, beautiful, intricate puzzle of a world. → today’s reading makes it clear both how beautiful that puzzle truly is and how important it is that all the pieces come together – no missing pieces
      • Pieces of the puzzle = different days, different things created
        • Day 1: God created light and separated light from darkness, separated day from night
        • Day 2: God separated the waters above the earth from the waters upon the earth, creating sky
        • Day 3: God gathered the waters on the earth into lakes and rivers and seas and brought up the dry land → created plant life
        • Day 4: God created the sun, moon, and stars to light the day and mark the passage of time and seasons
        • Day 5: God created birds and seal life
        • Day 6: God created everything that walks on land → reptiles and mammals, bugs and marsupials, even humans
        • Day 7: God rested!
        • And after each of the descriptions of those days of creation, Scripture says what? “God saw how good it was.” Each piece of the puzzle that God created was good.
          • Heb. = suitable, pleasing, desirable, friendly, in order, lovely → All those warm and fuzzy words that reassure us of the integrity and excellence of something or someone.
            • Important point: it was only after creating each of those things that God declared them “good” → Did God know beforehand that each element of creation would be amazing? Who knows. Clearly, we cannot know what was in the mind of God. But only after seeing each new phase of creation and how it fit together with what came before it did God deem them all “good.”
        • Also important to note that each and every single one of those creations was deemed good by God → God deemed all land and all water good. Equally good. God deemed all plants equally good. God deemed all creatures great and small equally good.
          • Sure, that can be something that we question from time to time → rhyme that Mom used to say: “God, in his wisdom, created the fly, and then forgot to tell us why.”
            • Always felt like it applied more to mosquitos than flies … but that doesn’t rhyme nearly as nicely (“God, in his wisdom, created the mosquito, and then forgot to tell us why.” Nah.)
          • Most important: God deemed all people good. Equally – Scripture: Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.[1]
            • Heb. is abundantly, clearly broad in its terminology: “humanity” = the most general, inclusive word ancient Hebrews could have used for “people”
                • Genderless
                • Non-specific in every way
                  • Not particularly God’s chosen people
                  • Not particularly “the other” (Gentiles, “the nations” in much of the First Testament)
                • This is literally just people. All people. Every people. People of all kinds – all nations, races, and ethnicity. People of all shapes. People of all ability levels and education levels and income levels. People of all classes and groups and even religions. People of all genders and orientations. People of all dreams and hopes and aspirations. People of all mistakes and misunderstandings and doubts. People of all righteousness and brokenness, all humor and hopelessness, and delight and despair. ALL PEOPLE. No caveats. Just God … and people … and goodness.
    • Each and every single one of those elements that God created – each piece of the grand puzzle of life in the universe – was deemed good in its own right. Each and every piece, beautiful. Each and every piece, worthy. Each and every piece, blessed.
      • Hear that blessedness ringing in the way that James Weldon Johnson[2]
        • Early African American writer, poet, lawyer, civil rights activist
          • Lived around the turn of the 20th
        • Spent time as leader of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)
        • U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua under Pres. Theodore Roosevelt
        • First Black professor to be hired by New York University in 1934
        • Wrote the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”
        • One of his most well-known poems: “The Creation”[3] – a loving and evocative retelling of creation that lets the goodness that God felt shine through [READ “The Creation”]
  • Again, we see that God declares all those pieces of the puzzle of creation good. But that’s not where God’s creation story ends. – text: God saw everything [God] had made: it was supremely good.[4] → “God saw everything God had made, and it was supremely good.” Supremely good.
    • Heb. = same word for “good” used throughout the rest of the chapter (suitable, pleasing, desirable, friendly, in order, lovely) plus the word for “abundant, to the highest degree”
    • You see, only when God saw all of creation together – everything, every plant, every creature, every person – all in the same picture did God call everything supremely good. Only when God was able to see the entire puzzle – complete and whole and beautiful – did God call everything supremely good. And I think that’s what we tend to forget when it comes to this passage.
      • Especially important message in this time when climate change is such a real and present threat
        • Deforestation + rampant and unchecked burning of fossil fuels = dramatic and dangerous rise of average global temperatures[5]
          • Causing the melting of the polar ice caps → causing rising sea levels
          • Causing more extreme weather conditions
            • Hurricanes
            • Tornados
            • Wildfires
            • Derecho winds that swept through IA last year (2020) and did so much damage
            • Droughts just like the one so much of the U.S. is suffering right now
        • Number of species that have gone extinct in the last 100 yrs.: nearly 500 species[6]
        • Huge swaths of forest and whole habitats that have been destroyed
        • Coral reefs that have been extensively damaged or even destroyed by human activity
        • Not to mention the physical, spiritual, and emotional damage we continue to do to each other – one human being to another. Friends, we seem to have fallen a long way from recognizing the supreme goodness of God’s creation. We have forgotten how to look at the overall picture. But our text this morning is our reminder – our reminder that every single element of God’s creation is needed to make it supremely good.
          • The parts that we love
            • The people
            • The places
            • The plants
            • The creatures
          • The parts that we find it hard to love
            • The people
            • The places
            • The plants
            • The creatures (even the mosquitos!)
    • God saw everything that God had created, and it was supremely good. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Gen 1:26-27.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Weldon_Johnson.

[3] https://poets.org/poem/creation.

[4] Gen 1:31a.

[5] https://www.edf.org/climate/why-fighting-climate-change-so-urgent?utm_source=google&utm_campaign=edf_none_upd_dmt&utm_medium=cpc&utm_id=1561743801&gclid=CjwKCAjwyvaJBhBpEiwA8d38vNB8OyrA84IwCJJt8RkPSLlC9MyCWreCbg9-xsOCb4V8lCDze0gM3BoCA7IQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds.

[6] https://www.rd.com/list/animals-extinct-last-100-years/.

Sunday’s sermon: Phoebe and the Women of Rome: Women of Hidden Holiness

Text used – Romans 16:1-16

  • When I was in high school, I was pretty heavily involved in theater. But here’s the thing: I hated being on stage.
    • Basically got involved in theater because all of my friends were trying out and getting cast in various parts → only audition I ever did was a disaster to say the least
      • Serious scene that I was supposed to be doing with one of my best friends → he did great … I giggled my way through it (mostly due to nerves)
      • But like I said, all my friends were doing the plays, and I didn’t want to be left out.
    • Pit orchestra for a few musicals → played the violin part on my saxophone … which was wicked hard but also really fun because the violin always gets the best parts!
    • Eventually found my place: stage crew
      • Crewed for one or two plays
      • Quickly ended up as the stage manager → I was in charge! HAHAHA! I was behind the scenes, but I was still an integral part of the production. Plus, I got to chat with a friend of mine up in the light booth over the headsets, and the organizational nature of being a stage manager totally appealed to my type A personality. I loved everything about being on the stage crew and being the stage manager.
        • Got to be involved in the production but I also got to actually watch the play
        • Got to be involved in all the fun play-related things like set painting, pre-performance warm ups, and skipping class for dress rehersals
        • Got to work on a companionable level with the director (one of the high school teachers that I really enjoyed who happens to be a Moravian minister now)
        • Most important part (to me): got to be a part of the production without being on stage → No costumes. No heavy stage makeup. No lines to memorize. No blocking to hit. Absolutely zero acting required. The work that I did was behind-the-scenes work. It wasn’t seen by anyone outside the cast … but it was still crucial work in terms of the success of the production.
  • Throughout the summer, we’ve been exploring the stories of so many women of the Bible. Up to now, they’ve all been women with actual stories – with some sort of narrative, some sort of active and enacted presence within the Grand Story of Faith. A few of those women haven’t even had names (not names that history recorded, anyway), but their stories still took up space within the rest of Scripture. Some of them even took up significant space – whole chapters of text. But today’s women are different. We get no story about them. For a few of them, we don’t even get names, just their relationship to other named characters. But we are told that they are working for the gospel. Their work is behind-the-scenes work … but it is crucial work all the same.
    • Paul makes it abundantly clear that their work is crucial
  • So before we dig into the holy but hidden work of these last women in our summer series, let’s talk about Romans a bit as a book. → purpose of Romans = important to the role of these women
    • Romans = crucial book to the Christian faith – introduction to Romans from the Common English Bible study version: Paul’s letter to the early Christian believers in Rome is surely the most significant letter in the history of Christianity. It’s also quite possibly the most influential letter in all of human history. The impact of the book of Romans on Christian belief, behavior, spirituality, and worship has been profound. It’s also been important for relations among Christians, as well as relations between Christians and Jews. Romans has ignited movements with far-reaching implications for the Christian church, for culture, and even for politics.[1]
    • Romans = definitely written by Paul → Remember that there are a few of the books/letters in the New Testament that, while they’ve been attributed to Paul in the past, scholars are not pretty certain weren’t written by Paul.
      • E.g. – book of Hebrews
      • But Romans was definitely written by Paul.
    • Romans = only book/letter of Paul’s that we have in the New Testament that was written to a group of people Paul hadn’t visited → All of Paul’s other letters were written to congregations that he himself had established – to people that he had met and spent time with, people who had gotten to know Paul and his passion for the gospel up close and personal. But not Romans. – introduction to Romans from the Common English Bible study version: Paul was writing to a community he had neither founded nor visited, though he knew a number of people there. Paul wrote the letter, in part, to introduce himself and his gospel to the house churches in Rome before paying them a visit.[2]
      • Could give us some purpose behind this long list of names that we read this morning → Paul is writing to this group of Christians that he doesn’t know. Surely by this point, his reputation has preceded him among the Christians in these home churches, but as a way to solidify his reputation with them, he includes this long list of other Christians that he knows within their midst. He name-drops, if you will, in order to bolster his credibility among the Roman Christians when he finally does meet them in person.
        • Particularly because this list of names is found at the very end of Paul’s letter → spent the bulk of the letter evangelizing and expounding on theological and ecclesial matters – matters of faith and matters of what it means to be the church – and he includes the long list of names at the end as his way of underlining everything he’s previously said with the reputations of those he has name-dropped, letting their names and people’s relationships with them give weight to his message
  • So let’s take a closer look at this list of names.
    • Rom 16:1-16 includes 29 different individuals (not including the couple of times Paul says “and the brothers and sisters”)
      • 10 of those 29 are women! → This is something that we can easily lose track of because only a couple of those names are still names that are used today. We recognize Phoebe, Mary, and Julia as female names. The rest of them are a little harder to suss out. – other women: Prisca, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Nereus’ sister
        • Both interesting and important to note that Paul names these women in all manner of ways → Some are named only in reference to their relationship to someone else – Rufus’ mother and Nereus’ sister. Some are named in tandem with another (the implication, which is backed up by historical documentation, being that these women are part of a couple) – Prisca, Julia, and Junia. Some of the women are named on their own – Phoebe, Persis, and Mary. Paul even names two women who were slaves – Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Through his connections and his relationships, Paul makes it clear that the good news of the gospel can come from anyone anywhere. All facets of life. All classes. All ways of being a woman in Roman society. Anyone can preach the gospel. Anyone can hear the gospel. Anyone can live the gospel. Anyone can be changed by the gospel.
    • Other element crucial to understanding the role of women in the early church = the way Paul describes their roles/work → Paul uses an abundance of different terms and descriptors for the work that these women were doing for the Church.
      • Calls Phoebe a “servant” and a “sponsor”[3]
        • Gr. “servant” = work for deacon/deaconess → implies that Phoebe held an official role of some sort within the church (which is probably also why Paul mentions Phoebe first)
        • Gr. “sponsor” = protector, patron, benefactor, helper → Like Mary Magdalene and Lydia, whom we’ve talked about in previous weeks, this word indicates that Phoebe is a woman of means and social influence.[4] Once again, we find the work of successful and independent women laying the foundation of the early church.
      • Speaks of a few woman as those who have clearly worked and even suffered alongside Paul → Prisca and Junia
        • Prisca = “coworker”[5] → Gr. = sunergos, root of the word “synergy”
        • Junia = “relative” and “prisoner with me”[6] → is a bit unclear when it comes to “relatives” – could mean literal kinspeople or could simply mean fellow Jews
          • But Paul gives Junia an interesting distinction. He says that she, along with Andronicus, “were in Christ before me,”[7] indicating that Junia has been a follower of Jesus from the very beginning. Not only that, but Paul also calls these two “prominent among the apostles,” which could indicate that they were witnesses of the resurrection, a distinction which would make Junia one of the few female apostles.[8]
      • Also makes it clear that a number of these woman are doing difficult work for the gospel → describes Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis all with the same word
        • Mary and Persis = “worked hard”
        • Tryphaena and Tryphosa = “workers”
        • Gr. = particular work for work that carries connotations of striving, struggling, toiling, even becoming weary
        • So while the Church patriarchy over the past centuries has been peddling the story that the Church was built by men alone, it is abundantly clear by Paul’s own words and designations that there were a number of women – women from all backgrounds and all walks of life – who were doing the hard and dangerous work of spreading the gospel as well.
  • I feel like this passage is the perfect end to our summer of walking alongside the women of the Bible because it highlight so many women as those who were actively working for and living out the good news of the gospel in ways that significantly impacted the life of the early church. For centuries – millennia, even – their stories have been downplayed. Their stories have been ignored. Their stories have been warped and manipulated and misused. But when we look at the text itself – when we dive into some of the grittier, more obscure, more challenging corners of Scripture – we find the stories of these women as shining examples of God working in and through them. So with gratitude, with faith, with hope, and with a new understanding, we conclude with Paul’s own words from today’s passage” to the women of Scripture – the known and the unknown, the named and the unnamed, the weighed down and the lifted up: “All the churches of Christ salute you, remember you, cherish you, and honor you.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Michael J. Gorman. “Romans: Introduction” in The CEB Study Bible, ed. Joel B. Green. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), 275 NT.

[2] Gorman, 275-276 NT.

[3] Rom 16:1, 2.

[4] N.T. Wright. “The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 10. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 762.

[5] Rom 16:3.

[6] Rom 16:7.

[7] Rom 16:7.

[8] Wright, 762.