Sunday’s sermon: Rahab: Woman of Daring Deception

Text used – Joshua 2:1-22

You can find a recording of this sermon on our Facebook page (search: “Presbyterian Church of Oronoco”) or on our church website: http://www.oronocochurch.org. 

  • History is a funny thing.
    • Something I think we’re realizing more and more as we truly examine not just the official historical accounts written by the victors but the historical perspectives and experiences of others as well
      • Those who were oppressed
      • Those who were enslaved
      • Those who were deemed unimportant or unworthy at the time
        • Women
        • People of color
        • People native to whatever land we’re talking/reading about
    • George Santayana, Spanish philosopher from 19th-20th: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
    • Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th French historian: History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.
    • When it comes to history in Scripture …
      • Often good at pointing out ways in which we interpret passages in the Hebrew Bible (the OT) point the way to Jesus → ways in which history informs what comes after
      • But how often do we read of events – either in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament – that are informed by past Scriptural events? Well, today’s story with Rahab and the Israelite spies is just such a story.
  • Rahab’s story is both important and impactful in a lot of ways – a story full of redemption both for Rahab herself and for the people of Israel – but to truly understand this, the first thing we have to do is look backward into Scriptural history.
    • After Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and God thwarted Pharaoh’s pursuing army at the Red Sea, Moses and the people began their journey to the land that God promised them
      • Promise that goes all the way back to Abraham – Gen 12: The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.” … So Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in Canaan, Abram traveled through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem, at the oak or Moreh. The Canaanites lived in the land at that time. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I give this land to your descendants,” so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him.[1]
      • So after crossing the Red Sea, Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness to the land of Canaan.
        • Distance: ~5000 miles
        • Certainly wasn’t the smoothest journey → involved a lot of doubt and fear on the part of the Israelites
          • Story of God providing quails and manna to eat[2]
          • Story of God providing water from a stone[3]
          • Story of the Israelites creating and worshiping the golden calf while Moses was with God on Mt. Sinai → Moses brings down the tablets with the 10 commandments[4]
    • But finally, Moses and the whole people of Israel made it across the wilderness to the banks of the Jordan River, and Moses, directed by God, sent 12 men across the river to “explore” (a.k.a. – scout out or spy on) the land of Canaan and it’s people – one man from each of the 12 tribes of Israel.[5]
      • Spies crossed the river and observed the people and land of Canaan à And they are terrified! The people were huge and powerful. The cities were well fortified. And the Israelites were on the tail end of a long, arduous journey. They were exhausted. They were uncertain. And they were not well armed.
      • All the spies returned to Moses → 10 of the 12 spies said, “No way. We can’t do this. These people will crush us. There is no hope here.” → In fact, they even go a step further than just voicing their doubts to Moses. They create a wave of fear and civil unrest among the people. – Scripture: They started a rumor about the land that they had explored, telling the Israelites, “The land that we crossed over to explore is a land that devours its residents. All the people we saw in it are huge men. We saw there the Nephilim … We saw ourselves as grasshoppers, and that’s how we appeared to them.”[6]
        • Only Joshua, from the tribe of Ephraim, and Caleb, from the tribe of Judah, were confident that the people of Israel could fight for and win this land that God had promise them.
    • This chorus of doubt and disbelief from the people of Israel = sort of the last straw for God → God became angry and punished the Israelites by declaring that they must wander in the desert for 40 yrs. – text (God to the Israelites through Moses and Aaron): “None of you who were enlisted and were registered from 20 years old and above, who complained against me, will enter the land in which I promised to settle you, with the exception of Caleb, Jephunneh’s son, and Joshua, Nun’s son. … For as many days as you explored the land, that is, forty days, just as many years you’ll bear your guilt, that is, forty years.”[7] → So the Israelites turn around and live in the desert for 40 yrs. until all of the elders – even Moses himself – have died.
      • After Moses’ death, Joshua became the Israelites’ new leader → prepared to take the people of Israel into their promised land
  • So that brings us to today’s story with Rahab.
    • Joshua has sent two spies this time (instead of 12) into the land of Canaan → spies find their way into the city of Jericho and into Rahab’s home → somehow the king of Jericho catches wind that the spies are in his city and sends word to Rahab himself – text: So the king of Jericho sent word to Rahab to send out the men because they’re spies
    • And here, we have Rahab’s first shining moment – text: But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. Then she said, “Of course the men came to me. But I didn’t know where they were from. The men left when it was time to close the gate at dark, but I don’t know where the men went. Hurry! Chase after them! You might catch up with them.” But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the flax stalks that she had laid out on the roof. The men from Jericho chased after them in the direction of the Jordan up to the fords. As soon as those chasing them went out, the gate was shut behind them.[8] → Okay, we need to take a moment to recognize the risk that Rahab takes here. Remember, Rahab herself is not an Israelite. She’s a Canaanite, and as a prostitute, she’s a Canaanite with little to no standing in her own culture at that. There are no strings she can pull if her own people discover that she has harbored these spies and misdirected the Jericho guards. And yet, she does it anyway. She hides the spies, then sneaks them out of the city after making them promise to save her and her family when the Israelite army conquers the city.
      • Indeed what happens: Rahab and the spies part on somewhat tenuous terms – Rahab extracting a promise that the spies will make sure her family is spared, the spies extracting a promise that Rahab will not reveal their mission to the Canaanites or the Jericho guards → spies leave a red cord with Rahab and tell her to gather her whole family in her house with her and tie the cord to her window so that they may be spared → Rahab lowers them out her window and ties the red cord in place à spies run off and return to report back to Joshua
        • Fast forward a few chapters to that famous battle of Jericho in which the people of Israel marched around the walls of the city once a day for six days, then seven times on the seventh day, each time making noise and blowing trumpets → walls of the city collapse and allow the Israelite army to attack[9]
          • Sunday school song: “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho // Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down”
          • And at the end of that battle, the Israelite army does, indeed, spare Rahab and her family, and they join the people of Israel. – Josh 6: Joshua let Rahab the prostitute live, her family, and everyone related to her. So her family still lives among Israel today, because she hid the spies whom Joshua had sent to scout out Jericho.[10]
    • So through the work of two spies and a brave Canaanite woman, the mistakes of the previous 10 spies is redeemed.
      • Alice Ogden Bellis (in Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible): Rahab is a hero because she protects the Israelite spies. She is also heroic because she is a woman of faith who takes risks based on that faith. In addition, she is clever, like the midwives of Exodus. She outwits the king of Jericho, ignores his death-affirming command, and acts in a way that affirms life – for herself and the Israelite people.[11]
  • So let’s talk about Rahab’s faith because that might be the most remarkable part of this whole story.
    • Rahab’s declaration to the spies as they are hiding on her rooftop (after the Jericho guards have gone but before she helps the spies escape): [Rahab] said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land. Terror over you have overwhelmed us. The entire population of the land has melted down in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Reed Sea in front of you when you left Egypt. We have also heard what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites on the other side of the Jordan. You utterly wiped them out. We heard this and our hearts turned to water. Because of you, people can no longer work up their courage. This is because the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.[12] → Now, I supposed this could just sound like Rahab pandering to the spies in an attempt to ingratiate herself with them so they’ll spare her. But there’s one very important indicator that Rahab’s declaration is more about her own faith in God than it is a plea for clemency, and that is the way that she addresses God.
      • Remember that as we read the Hebrew Bible, anytime that the word “Lord” is typed out in all caps it’s a translation of the most holy, precious name for God: YHWH
        • Fancy name = the Tetragrammaton because the name consists of 4 Heb. letters: yod, heh, vav, heh
        • Name that God gives to Moses as the burning bush
        • Name so holy and revered that Jews today do not read it out loud nor write it out fully[13]
          • Substitute “Adonai” in reading
          • Substitute another letter or symbol in writing (e.g. – “G-d”)
      • And considering where Rahab’s story falls in the timeline of Israel’s history, this name is fairly new to them – only about 40-41 yrs. old, right? And since the Israelites have been living pretty isolated in the wilderness for the vast majority of those 40 yrs., it’s not like that name would have gotten around much, especially seeing as the Israelites were a fairly insular community. They weren’t supposed to marry or really associate much with other cultures. Yet here’s this Canaanite woman – this Canaanite prostitute, no less – using the most holy, revered name for the God of the Israelites.
        • Rahab uses this name not once … not twice … but four times, including her final, surprising declaration of faith in who God is: “This is because the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.” → You can’t get much more definitive than that. Rahab boldly and unequivocally proclaims her faith in the Lord God, the God of Abraham and Jacob and Isaac, the God that has led the Israelites out of slavery into Egypt and has promised them this land as their home. “The Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”
  • It is this faith that saves Rahab and her family, and it is this declaration of faith that provides such powerful, impactful testimony for us so many millennia later.
    • Late Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Jewish author and professor at a number of highly respectable American divinity schools and rabbinical colleges: Rahab the [prostitute] is the outsider’s outsider, the most marginal of the marginal. She is the quintessential downtrodden with whom Israel identifies. … The saving of Rahab is part of and an example of God’s nature and Israel’s mission.[14]
      • Remember, Rahab is one of the four women included in Jesus’ lineage in the gospel of Mt: Tamar (talked about a few weeks ago), Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba
        • All “outsider women”
        • All foreign women (not born into the people of Israel)
        • All women who find themselves in difficult, even desperate circumstances
        • All women who display their faith and bring about redemption in surprising ways
      • Rahab = mother of Boaz who eventually marries Ruth
    • In Rahab, we are reminded that God can and does work and speak through anyone and everyone, especially those whom we least expect. We are reminded that God’s redemption can come through those whom we least expect. We are reminded that, despite our own prejudices and preconceived notions, God’s salvation is never out of reach for anyone. Amen.

[1] Gen 12:1, 5-7.

[2] Ex 16.

[3] Ex 17:1-7.

[4] Ex 20 (Ten Commandments); Ex 32 (golden calf).

[5] Num 13-14.

[6] Num 13:32-33.

[7] Num 14:29b-30, 34a.

[8] Josh 2:4-7.

[9] Josh 6.

[10] Josh 6:25.

[11] Alice Ogden Bellis. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 100.

[12] Josh 2:9-11 (emphasis added).

[13] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-name-of-god.

[14] Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 44.

Sunday’s sermon: Shiphrah and Puah: Women of Life-Giving Subversion

Text used – Exodus 1:15-21

  • 12.5 miles. Just 12.5 miles.
    • From here, that would take you to …
      • Zwingli UCC (“Pizza Church”) over in Berne
      • Marshalls or Eastwood Golf Course in Rochester
      • Just short of Millville in one direction and just short of Mantorville in the other
      • Trophy Store and More just outside of Zumbro Falls
      • Covered Bridge Restaurant or Land’s Lutheran Church in Zumbrota
    • 12.5 miles. That’s how far Paul Revere rode on his famous midnight right to warn the American colonists that the British troops were coming – “one of by land, two if by sea.” 12.5 miles. It may not seem like that long to us today, but back in the 1700s over rough ground on horseback in the dark and the rain, that’s a significant distance.
  • And yet … 40 miles. It’s a significantly longer distance, even today.
    • Distance my kids would complain about for riding in the car (can and do!)
    • From here, that would take you to …
      • NORTH: up to Hampton (just shy of the Twin Cities)
      • SOUTH: past Ostrander and just a few miles from the MN-IA border
      • EAST: across the Mississippi River a fair way into WI
      • WEST: all the way through Faribault
    • 40 miles is nothing to sneeze at even today. We can only imagine how difficult, how uncomfortable, how frightening a 40 mile ride would have been on the same night and under the same conditions as Paul Revere’s ride: over rough ground on horseback in the dark and the rain. We know and remember the name of Paul Revere – the man who rode 12.5 miles to deliver the warning. But do we know and remember the name of Sybil Ludington?[1]
      • Sybil Ludington carried the same message that Paul Revere carried: The British are coming! (though like Revere, she didn’t shout it through the streets as historical dramas portray but passed the message along with both haste and the utmost secrecy)
      • Sybil Ludington rode through the same dark uncertainty on the same night as Paul Revere – Apr. 26, 1777
      • But there were three major differences between Paul Revere and Sybil Ludington. First, while Revere rode 12.5 miles, Sybil Ludington rode 40 miles to deliver her message. Second, while Revere’s message resulted in the mustering of local militia groups, the result of Sybil Ludington delivering her message was the rousing of nearly the entire 400-man regiment of the Colonial army. And finally, while Revere was a 41-yr-old man and a well-established local merchant – a husband, a father, and a respected figure in many circles, Sybil Ludington was only a 16-yr-old girl – the oldest child of Colonial Colonel Henry Ludington’s 12 children.
        • Rode throughout the New York countryside waking up soldiers and alerting them to the immanent British invasion
        • Later personally thanked by General George Washington for her efforts and her bravery
      • Sybil Ludington – a young woman defying the unjust orders of a powerful ruler to save countless lives. Sounds a lot like our women of the Bible for today: Shiphrah and Puah.
  • Shiphrah and Puah make fairly short appearance in the Biblical text
    • Just this one instance – a few short verses at the beginning of the Exodus story → But truly, without these two women, there would be no Exodus story. So fleeting though our Scriptural interaction with them may be, they are truly crucial women in our Grand Story of Faith.
      • SIDE NOTE: I have to say this is why I’m enjoying this sermon series so much (and hopefully you are, too). I know I’ve touched on Shiphrah and Puah in sermons before, but they’ve always had to be a footnote in the wider story of Moses’ birth. Today, they get the spotlight. So let’s get to know these two fierce and subversive women better.
  • First, their profession – text: The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah.[2] → Believe it or not, there’s some interesting debate about this introductory sentence. You see, the original Hebrew is a little vague on whether Shiphrah and Puah were two Hebrew women who acted as midwives or whether they were two Egyptian women designated as midwives to the Hebrews.
    • Literal translation = “the midwives the Hebrews” → could be “the Hebrew midwives” (indicating that Shiphrah and Puah were Heb. themselves) or “the midwives to the Hebrews” (indicating they were Egyptian women performing their midwife duties for the Heb. slaves)
      • Some argue they must have been Egyptians because of the tone of the interactions they have with Pharaoh
      • Some argue they must have been Hebrews because the names “Shiphrah” and “Puah” are Hebrew names
    • Either way, we can gather both from the text and from cultural historical knowledge of the birthing practices of the time that Shiphrah and Puah were not just a couple of random midwives that Pharaoh called to himself to deliver this message. They were more than likely the women in charge of a cadre of midwives who helped deliver the Hebrews’ babies.
      • Wilda Gafney, author, Episcopal priest, and Assoc. Prof. of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX (in Womanist Midrash): Given their presentation, we can read Shiphrah and Puah as the “mothers” or “heads” of the Israelite midwifery guild. It seems incredible that just two women are responsible for (attending) all the births of the Hebrew people, a people who are described in Exodus 1:7 as “filling the land.”[3]
    • And as the ones in charge, it falls to Shiphrah and Puah to receive Pharaoh’s heinous, genocidal mandate – text: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.”[4] → Ick. Right? But here’s the thing about this horrible proclamation: I feel like it tips Pharaoh’s hand a little bit. It reveals a fraction of a weakness that Shiphrah and Puah can take advantage of … and they do.
      • Pharaoh’s mandate is designed to rid the Heb. people of all their male heirs but leaves the female offspring out of the picture à the idea: Heb. males who reproduce will clearly father more Heb. children, but if other cultures were to reproduce with Heb. females, those offspring would inherit their cultural heritage from their father, not their Heb. mother → Clearly, Pharaoh doesn’t find the cultural or societal contributions of women to be important. To him, the Hebrew women are of such little significance that he’s willing to allow all the girl babies live because he cannot fathom that those girl babies will grow up to be a problem for him. Nope. Hebrew women could never be a problem for him. … Or could they?
  • Next verse: text gives us some insight into Shiphrah’s and Puah’s character – text: Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.[5] → Now, no matter whether Shiphrah and Puah were Egyptian midwives or Hebrew midwives, this statement is critical because it gives us both their motivation and their salvation.
    • Heb. “respected” = particular Heb. word that shows up a lot in psalms → to fear, to shudder at, to be in awe of, to revere, to hold in honor
      • In a way, this is the word on which the faith of the Hebrew people hinges throughout the Old Testament.
        • Word used time and again by God for the appropriate response of the people to God’s presence
        • Word echoed back to God by the Heb. people in their worship and their prayers
          • Ps 139: I am fearfully and wonderfully made = this same word[6]
          • Ps 130: Forgiveness is with you – that’s why you are honored[7]
        • Word used time and again when God sends messengers to reassure the people: “Do not be afraid” (one of the most common phrases in Scripture) = this word
    • So with this statement that Shiphrah and Puah feared God … respected God … honored God … were in awe of God, they are acknowledged as part of God’s covenant with the people – that ever-present, ever-powerful promise of God’s presence and protection for the people of Israel.
  • Now, my friends … now we come to the subversive part. 😊
    • End of the last verse states that Shiphrah and Puah defied Pharaoh’s barbarous mandate and instead let the Heb. boys live → But a bunch of Hebrew baby boys in the slave compound after Pharaoh had specifically ordered them all to be killed wasn’t exactly something that could be hidden. So in his indignation and fury, Pharaoh calls Shiphrah and Puah before him once again. – text (Pharaoh to the midwives): “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”[8]
      • Can only imagine how frightening and intimidating this audience must have been for these two Hebrew midwives → Remember, Pharaoh is the most powerful man in the world to these two women. He has the power to throw them in prison. He has the power to have them flogged. He has the power to have them executed! And clearly, he is not happy with them.
    • But this is where Shiphrah’s and Puah’s true subversive radiance and life-giving strength shines through. – text: The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.”[9] → Okay, we have to stop and talk about this verse because there’s so much here!
      • First and most obvious = the utter chutzpah of these two women! → Pharaoh is furious and questioning them on the spot as to why they’ve deliberately disobeyed his disgustingly explicit order, and instead of losing it or falling apart or begging for mercy … they trick him! They deliver this bold-faced lie about how all these Hebrew women are waiting so long to call for their midwifery services that the babies are born before they even get there.
        • Plays on what we talked about earlier with Pharaoh’s weakness of underestimating the Heb. women → Pharaoh doesn’t think Hebrew women are capable of causing him problems … so here are these two bold and courageous Hebrew women causing him problems! (I just love this part!)
      • Shiphrah and Puah play their part even more thoroughly than we understand through just the Eng. translation
        • Our text (Common English Bible) – excuse given by the midwives: “[The Hebrew women] are much stronger
        • NRSV: “[The Hebrew women] are vigorous
        • KJV: “[The Hebrew women] are lively
        • And this sounds like a compliment, right? Yeah … no. That word in Hebrew isn’t nearly as flattering as all that.
          • Late Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Jewish author and professor at a number of highly respectable American divinity schools and rabbinical colleges: [Shiphrah and Puah] trick Pharaoh, belittling the Israelite women as “animals” who give birth so quickly that they need no midwives. The word ḥayyôt, “animals,” is too often softened in translation to “lively.” But the midwives would certainly not compliment the Hebrews over the Egyptian women! Instead, building on the fact that Pharaoh sees Israel as “other,” they make an ethnic slur belittling these “others.” In this way, they demonstrate to Pharaoh that they are not in favor of Hebrews. Not seeing the power of these women to defy him, Pharaoh is all too willing to hear something negative about Hebrews and falls for their trick.[10]
    • Pharaoh falls for their trick … and God rewards them (and, indeed, all Israel!) for it – text (culmination of Shiphrah and Puah’s foray into the Biblical text): So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.[11]
  • Without the literally life-giving subversiveness of Shiphrah and Puah, there would be no Moses. There would be no exodos for the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. There would be no trek through the wilderness to the promised land of Canaan. Shiphrah and Puah had the courage and audacity to defy the unjust, evil, deadly orders of a very powerful king, and through that act of defiance, an entire nation was saved.
    • Makes me think of a line from one of the favorite movies in our house right now – Frozen II: When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again // Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice // And do the next right thing.[12] → “Do the next right thing.” Alleluia. Amen.

[1] https://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=24115.

[2] Ex 1:15 (emphasis added).

[3] Wilda C. Gafney. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 89.

[4] Ex 1:16.

[5] Ex 1:17 (emphasis added).

[6] Ps 139:14 (emphasis added).

[7] Ps 130:4 (emphasis added).

[8] Ex 1:18.

[9] Ex 1:19.

[10] Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 25-26.

[11] Ex 1:20-21.

[12] Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. “The Next Right Thing” from Frozen 2, directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2019), streaming platform: Disney + (Walt Disney Pictures, 2020).

Sunday’s sermon: Tamar: Woman of Misplaced Degradation

Text used – Genesis 38

If you’d like to watch or listen to this sermon, you can find the video from live worship on the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco website: http://www.oronocochurch.org.

  • Before we get started this morning, let me give you just a little reminder.
    • 2 weeks ago → started our summer-long sermon series on women of the Bible
      • Expressly and intentionally chose Bible stories we don’t hear often or stories that are widely misunderstood so we could get better acquainted with the wide array of women whose stories enrich our holy Scripture
      • First story (2 weeks ago) = Hagar
      • Took a break last week for our service of re-gathering/healing
    • Today = back into the fray with Tamar’s story
      • Quick clarification: there are 2 Tamar’s in the Old Testament → not the same person
        • Today’s story = Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah
        • Other Tamar = King David’s daughter (also not a pretty story but not one we’re going to tackle during this series → read more in 2 Samuel 13)
      • I think it’s pretty clear why Tamar’s story isn’t exactly a Sunday school story. → Carolyn Custis James (American Christian author, blogger, commentary contributor, and adjunct seminary professor at Missio Seminary in Philadelphia) puts stark words to our aversion to Tamar’s story: When we [modern readers] read [Tamar’s] story in Genesis 38, the word “prostitute” leaps off the page and colors everything else we read or think of her. That one word says it all. Without a pause, the judicial gavel comes crashing down with a thud, and we become incapable of seeing that she is dealing with a complicated situation. Instead, with a single blow Tamar is tried, convicted, and sentenced with no possibility of parole. Never will I forget the awful words of condemnation that thundered from the pulpit of one pastor. “Tamar corrupted the line of Christ!”[1]
        • Going to delve a little more into the ins and outs of what she said there (esp. the bit about Tamar and the line of Christ) BUT I think it’s safe to say that if there was ever a story in the Bible that made it abundantly clear how difficult it was to be a woman in Biblical times – how truly subject women were to the whims and fickle choices of the men in their lives – it’s Tamar’s story.
    • So let’s hunker down into Tamar’s story a little bit more. → a few things we need to understand/remember as we talk about Tamar: 1) Levirate Law, and 2) plight of women not familially tethered to a male in ancient Israel
  • Let’s begin with Levirate Law because that has everything to do with this complicated story of Judah and Tamar.
    • MOST BASIC: Levirate Law had to do with inheritance (both material belongings and ancestral name/heritage)
    • Carolyn Custis James (in Lost Women of the Bible): In ancient times, a man’s name lived on through his sons … To die without a male descendant was to be erased from history. The ancient world had an emergency plan to save a childless dead man from extinction. In Moses’ day, it was formalized as the Levirate Law (levir is Latin for “a husband’s brother”) … According to this ancient custom, if a man died without a child, his brother would marry and impregnate his widow. The son born from this union inherited the name and estate of the deceased.[2]
      • Not a cultural law exclusive to the people of Israel → found in a wide array of other ancient civilizations including Greeks, Moabites (hence Ruth’s story), Persians, Hindus, and Assyrians (among others)
    • Tamar’s story → Levirate Law is both what causes all the trouble for Tamar in the first place AND what saves her in the end
      • Levirate Law causes all the trouble:
        • Tamar is married to Judah’s eldest son, Er → Er is considered “immoral”[3] by God and dies → after Er’s death, Judah tells his 2nd son, Onan, to fulfill his Levirate duty with Tamar → but (text:) “Onan knew the children wouldn’t be his so when he slept with his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, so he wouldn’t give his brother children”[4] → This is the first part of the trouble that comes to Tamar because of the Levirate Law. You see, Onan knew that if he produced an heir with Tamar, that heir would be considered his brother’s child – Er’s child – not his and would therefore inherit the portion of his father’s estate that a firstborn son inherited, namely a double portion. However, with no heir from the line of the firstborn son, that inheritance went instead to … Onan! Not exactly prime motivation for Onan to do the right thing by Tamar according to the Levirate Law.
        • God is not impressed with Onan’s selfishness so he dies, too → leaves Judah with just one remaining son, Shelah → And again, according to Levirate Law, Judah should also have made an arrangement between Shelah and Tamar to produce an heir for Er. But instead, Judah decided to reneg on Shelah’s Levirate obligation. And he did so in quite the contemptible, cowardly way. → Judah tells Tamar that Shelah will marry her and fulfill his duty when Shelah “grows up”[5] → sends Tamar back to her father’s house in the meantime
  • But, as Scripture says, “a long time”[6] goes by, and Judah neglects (refuses?) to send Shelah to Tamar. And this is where the part about the plight of familially untethered women comes in. You see, at this point, Tamar is stuck in this nebulous, untenable place in society.
    • Tamar was married → as a woman, she’s no long her father’s responsibility
    • Tamar is widowed → clearly cannot be the responsibility of a husband who is deceased
    • Tamar has no children → And in a society that is solely based on patriarchy – on men being the sole providers – Tamar has essentially been left with no one to provide for her – food, shelter, protection, etc. And time, for Tamar, is not her friend. She knows her father cannot live forever, and without a husband or sons to take care of her, when her father dies, she will be reduced to begging on the street.
  • Levirate Law weaves it’s twisted and complicated way back into this story → provides both more trouble AND ultimately redemption
    • TROUBLE: Backed into a cultural corner, Tamar resorts to disguising herself as a prostitute to entice her recently-widowered father-in-law, Judah → demands payment from Judah before the act (payment Judah promises = young goat) → Tamar requests 3 personal items (seal, staff, and cord) as collateral so she can identify him if he should neglect to send payment → Judah later sends a trusted neighbor and friend with his payment but this neighbor cannot find Tamar → result of this singular encounter: Tamar becomes pregnant by Judah à Judah discovers this pregnancy and publicly accuses Tamar of being a prostitute (not realizing that she was the prostitute he himself had slept with) and declares, “Bring her out so that she may be burned!”[7] → Tamar has her moment of revelation when she produces Judah’s own personal items when she names the father of her unborn child
    • And finally, we come to the redemption – text: When she was brought out, [Tamar] sent this message to her father-in-law, “I’m pregnant by the man who owns these things. See if you recognize whose seal, cord, and staff these are.” Judah recognized them and said, “She’s more righteous than I am, because I didn’t allow her to marry my son Shelah.”[8]
      • Heb. “righteous” = very particular, meaning-heavy word that carries connotations of being right (as in correct) but also being justified, being declared innocent (with implications of the declaration being public, widely known/knowable) → both legal and spiritual implications wrapped up in this word
  • You see, with this one act, Tamar not only redeemed herself and her deceased husband’s name. She also redeemed Judah’s lineage, an act that carries serious historical weightiness.
    • Let’s talk about context for a second – find today’s story sandwiched in the middle of Joseph’s story at the end of Genesis And it’s in the context of the two halves of Joseph’s story that we find the real redemptive power of Tamar’s act.
      • Begin of Joseph’s story: as Joseph’s fed-up and frustrated brothers plot to kill him, Rueben is the brother who suggests they throw him down into the cistern instead of killing him (Rueben’s secret intent: coming back later to save him) → Joseph approaches his brothers → they tear off his new cloak and throw him down into the cistern → Judah’s bright idea: “What do we gain if we kill our brother and hide his blood? Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites.”[9]
        • Heb. reveals just how shrewd and calculating Judah is – Heb. “gain” = profit, yes, but profit by unjust means and violence → illegal profit, profit that cuts away at a life
      • So Joseph’s brothers haul him out of the cistern, sell him to passing slavers, bloody up his coat with goat’s blood, and present it to their father, Jacob, telling him that his beloved son, Joseph, is dead. Jacob is beside himself with grief while hundreds of miles away, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt.
        • Directly after that scene = today’s story about Judah and Tamar
      • End of Joseph’s story (after Judah’s eye-opening interaction with Tamar): when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking relief from the famine and they find Joseph in power but fail to recognize him → Joseph, wanting to test his brothers, frames the youngest brother, Benjamin, (his father’s new favorite son) and threatens to keep him in Egypt as a slave → In the midst of the chaos and high-running emotions of this scene, it’s Judah who begs for Benjamin’s life. It’s Judah who offers to sacrifice his life as well as the rest of his brother’s lives to stay with Benjamin – to save this youngest brother. It’s Judah who guaranteed to their father, Jacob, that he would bring Jacob’s beloved youngest son home safe again.[10] It’s clear that Judah truly has had a change of heart. He’s had a come-to-God moment. He has, indeed, been redeemed – redeemed by Tamar.
        • Carolyn Custis James: God works through Tamar’s bold actions to rescue her dead husband from extinction and her utterly lost father-in-law from a destructive downhill slide. … We stand in her debt – for the family line she was fighting to save was the royal line that ultimately led to Jesus. God chose a marginalized Canaanite woman to put the power of [God’s] gospel on display, and to advance [God’s] redemptive purposes for Judah and for the world.[11]
    • You see, from the line of Judah through the twins that Tamar bears comes the house and lineage of King David, and from the line of King David comes … Jesus. That’s the other reason that Tamar and this troublesome and thorny story is so important.
      • 1st of Mt’s gospel = long list of Jesus’ lineage (lots of those “so-and-so begat so-and-so”s) → in that lineage you find a whole lot of men BUT only 4 women are included: Ruth, Bathsheba, Rahab, and … Tamar
        • All Gentiles
        • All “questionable women” in some cultural sexual regard
        • And yet they’re all deemed righteous in God’s eyes.
    • Heb. “righteous” is not a word that was used lightly – Carolyn Custis James: Righteousness belongs to God and is the comfort of [God’s] people. … [God] sets the standard for what is right, and when [God’s] people bear [God’s] image, they do what is right, too. No Old Testament person, especially someone from Judah’s background, would ever thoughtlessly apply “righteous” to a Canaanite, like Tamar. The word simply means too much. … [Yet] according to the Bible, Tamar was righteous. She sided with God and did the right thing.[12]
      • Judah’s own words: “”She’s more righteous than I am”[13]
  • A lot of lessons Tamar can teach us today
    • Teaches us about both the power and unexpectedness of redemption
    • Adds a new layer to that phrase “You never know the burdens someone else is carrying” → reminds us of the danger of judging someone else’s circumstances and choices
    • Speaks a powerful message about victim blaming → pervasiveness and ugliness of victim blaming in our society has been brought more and more into the forefront since the Me Too movement went viral back in 2017: shed light on the stories of thousands of women who have suffered sexual harassment and abuse, shed light on the way that all of these women have been made to feel responsible for their own victimization
      • By relatives and “friends”
      • By co-workers and bosses
      • By mentors and educators
      • By pastors and priests
      • By marginal acquaintances and even strangers
      • Clearly, Tamar was the victim in this story. From the moment her first husband, Er, died, she was subject to the whims and frustrations, the fickle choices and sexual capriciousness of one male in-law after another. Her choices were not her own. Her future was not her own. At many points in the story, even Tamar’s body was not her own. And yet, even in the midst of all of her pain and struggling, it is Tamar who is righteous. Justice belongs with Tamar. Virtue belongs with Tamar. Vindication belong with Tamar. Righteousness belongs with Tamar. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Carolyn Custis James. “Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 31-32.

[2] Carolyn Custis James. Lost Women of the Bible: The Women We Thought We Knew. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 106-107.

[3] Gen 38:7.

[4] Gen 38:9.

[5] Gen 38:11.

[6] Gen 38:12.

[7] Gen 38:24 (emphasis added).

[8] Gen 38:25-26a.

[9] Gen 37:26-27a.

[10] Gen 44.

[11] James, “Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute,” 48.

[12] James, Lost Women of the Bible, 113-114, 115.

[13] Gen 38:26a (emphasis added).

Sunday’s service: A Service of Healing and Wholeness for Re-Gathering

As this past Sunday was our first Sunday worshiping in-person together since March 2020, we did things a little differently. We began by remembering the promise and hope of our baptism. We also held time and space for a service of healing and wholeness for the congregation. And we celebrated the Lord’s Supper with one another, reminding ourselves and each other of the unending, all-consuming grace of God given to each of us in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The following is the outline of our service.

 

 

GATHERING IN GOD’S WORD

Prelude

 

Sharing Our Lives in Prayer

               Prayer Requests

               Silent Prayer

               Pastoral Prayer

 

Welcome

 

Letting God In

               During this time, we invite you to prepare your heart and your mind for worship. We want you to be able to use this quiet time to settle your thoughts, set aside any distractions that may be troubling you, and focus your whole self on God. Open your heart, your mind, and your spirit, and let God into your life.

 

Centering Prayer: Make us one, Lord. Make us whole.

As you breathe in, pray, “Make us one, Lord.”

As you breathe out, pray, “Make us whole.”

 

* Opening Praise:

One: In this community,

Many: We find God’s promise.

One: In this community,

Many: We feel the stirring of the Holy Spirit.

One: In this community,

Many: We meet Jesus just where we are.

One: In this community,

Many: We show one another love, grace, compassion, and comfort.

One: In this community,

Many: We get to be the hands, feet, and heart of God.

One: In this community,

ALL: We are the body of Christ.

 

* Invitation to Confession

 

* Joining in Prayer: (from the Book of Common Worship, © 2018)

               O Lord our God, you call us to work for a world where all will be fed and have dignity, but we find ourselves distracted by our own desires. You call us to seek justice and peace, but we are satisfied with injustice and discord. You call us to bring liberty to the oppressed, but we do not insist on freedom for all. Forgive us, O Lord. Turn us to your will by the power of your Spirit, so that all may know your justice and peace. (Please take a moment for silent reflection and confession.)

               Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior.

               Amen.

 

* God’s Promise of Grace

 

Remembering Our Baptism (adapted from the Book of Common Worship, © 2018)

               Being Reclaimed by God’s Word

                              One: Hear these words from holy Scripture:

                                             Just as the body is one

                                             and has many members,

                                             and all the members of the body, though many,

                                             are one body,

                                             so it is with Christ.

                              ALL: For in the one Spirit

                                        we were all baptized into one body –

                                        Jews or Greeks, slaves or free –

                                        and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.   

               Giving Voice to Our Faith – Apostle’s Creed:

                              I believe in God, the Father almighty,

                              creator of heaven and earth.

 

                              I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

                              who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

                              born of the Virgin Mary,

                              suffered under Pontius Pilate,

                              was crucified, died, and was buried;

                              he descended to the dead.

                              On the third day he rose again;

                              he ascended into heaven,

                              he is seated at the right hand of the Father,

                              and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

 

                              I believe in the Holy Spirit,

                              the holy catholic church,

                              the communion of saints,

                              the forgiveness of sins,

                              the resurrection of the body,

                              and the life everlasting. Amen.

               Thanksgiving for the Water

                              One: Remembering the grace God has poured out upon us

                                        and trusting in the future God has promised to us,

                                        let us give thanks to God for the gift of baptism.

                                        Marked, claimed, cleansed, and called,

                                        through the gift of baptism,

                              Many: We are yours, O God.

                              One: Your breath moved over chaos in the beginning.

                                        Your feet danced with Miriam at the edge of the sea.

                                        Your voice tore through the clouds at the river Jordan.

                                        Your heart broke on the cross

                                        when you poured out your life for us.

                                        Your hands caught fish for Easter breakfast on the shoreline.

                                        Your tears water your thirst world as the rain.

                                        Your fingers mark our foreheads

                                        with abiding grace, perfect freedom, holy truth.

                                        Through the gift of baptism,

                              Many: We are yours, O God.

                              One: You wash us with grace,

                                        you anoint us with promise.

                                        You feed us with mercy,

                                        you fill us with joy.

          Fruit of the earth,

                                        watered and fed,

                                        we remember:

                                        in baptism we are risen to new life in Christ –

                                        forgiven sinners,

                                        beloved children of the covenant.

                                        Through the gift of baptism,

                              Many: We are yours, O God.

                              One: Thanks and praise to you,

                                        O holy, triune God,

                                        today, tomorrow, and forever.

                              ALL: Amen.

Being Blessed by the Water

 

* The Peace of Christ

               One: The peace of Christ be with you.

               Many: And also with you.

 

* Song of Peace: “Let There Be Peace on Earth”

(reprinted with permission, © Jan-Lee Music, copyright-protected alternate lyrics)

               Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

               Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.

               With God our Creator, we are family.

               Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony.

 

               Let peace begin with me, let this be the moment now.

               With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow.

               To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally.

               Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

 

HEARING GOD’S WORD

Prayer to Open Minds and Hearts

 

Scripture reading – Isaiah 40:1-11 (from the Common English Bible)

               1 Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. 2 Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins! 3 A voice is crying out: “Clear the LORD’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! 4 Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. 5 The LORD’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the LORD’s mouth has commanded it.” 6 A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?” All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass dries up and the flower withers when the LORD’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass dries up; the flower withers, but our God’s word will exist forever. 9 Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion! Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem! Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 Here is the LORD God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him. 11 Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.

 

Moving Toward Wholeness Together (adapted from the Book of Common Worship, © 2018)

               Offering of Our Lives

               Inviting Healing Together

                              One: God, our creator,

                                        your will for us and for all your people

                                        is wholeness and salvation:

                              ALL: Have mercy on us.

                              One: Jesus Christ, Son of God,

                                        you came that we might have life

                                        and have it in abundance:

                              ALL: Have mercy on us.

                              One: Holy Spirit,

                                        dwelling within us,

                                        you make us temples of your presence:

                              ALL: Have mercy on us.

                              One: To the triune God,

                                        the source of all love and all life,

                                        let us offer our prayer.

 

                                        For all who are in need of healing,

                                        in body, in mind, in spirit, in community …

                                        Lord, in your mercy,

                              ALL: Hear our prayer.

                              One: For all who are distressed by injury or illness …

                                        Lord, in your mercy,

                              ALL: Hear our prayer.

                              One: For all who are troubled by confusion or burdened by pain …

                                        Lord, in your mercy,

                              ALL: Hear our prayer.

                              One: For all whose increasing years bring weariness …

                                        Lord, in your mercy,

                              ALL: Hear our prayer.

                              One: For all who cannot sleep …

                                        Lord, in your mercy,

                              ALL: Hear our prayer.

                              One: For all who have been hollowed out by loneliness …

                                        Lord, in your mercy,

                              ALL: Hear our prayer.

                              One: For all who have ached for the balm of community …

                                        Lord, in your mercy,

                              ALL: Hear our prayer.

                              One: For all who have missed anniversaries, celebrations, funerals, holidays,

          and milestones with friends and loved ones …

          Lord, in your mercy,

                              ALL: Hear our prayer.

                              One: For all who are staying home for the health of themselves or their families

                                        but long to be back in-person all the same …

                                        Lord, in your mercy,

                              ALL: Hear our prayer.

                              One: In your hands, gracious God,

                                        we commend all for whom we pray,

                                        trusting in your mercy;

                                        through Jesus Christ our Lord.

                              ALL: Amen.

               Laying on of Hands

               Prayer

 

Hymn #792 – There Is a Balm in Gilead

               There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

               There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

 

               Sometimes I feel discouraged,

               And think my work’s in vain,

               But then the Holy Spirit

               Revives my soul again.

              

               There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

               There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

 

               Don’t ever feel discouraged,

               For Jesus is your friend,

               And if you lack for knowledge,

               He’ll not refuse to lend.

 

               There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

               There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

 

               If you cannot preach like Peter,

               If you cannot pray like Paul,

               You can tell the love of Jesus

               And say, “He died for all.”

 

               There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

               There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

 

RESPONDING TO GOD’S WORD

Celebrating the Lord’s Supper

Our tradition in this congregation is to partake of the bread whenever you feel prepared to do so and to hold the wine/juice until all have been served so that we can all partake together. This gives us the chance to participate in this holy mystery as we participate in our faith – both as individuals and as a community.

               Invitation to the Table

               Great Thanksgiving

                              One: God be with you.

                              Many: And also with you.

                              One: Lift up your hearts.

                              Many: We lift them up to God.

                              One: Let us give thanks to God Most High.

                              Many: It is right to give our thanks and praise.

               Prayer for the Feast

               Lord’s Prayer: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

               Words of Institution

               Sharing the Bread and the Cup

               Prayer of Thanksgiving

 

Hymn #525 – Let Us Break Bread Together

               Let us break bread together on our knees;

               Let us break bread together on our knees.

               When I fall on my knees,

               With my face to the rising sun,

               O Lord, have mercy on me.

 

               Let us drink wine together on our knees;

               Let us drink wine together on our knees.

               When I fall on my knees,

               With my face to the rising sun,

               O Lord, have mercy on me.

 

               Let us praise God together on our knees;

               Let us praise God together on our knees.

               When I fall on my knees,

               With my face to the rising sun,

               O Lord, have mercy on me.

 

BEING SENT OUT IN GOD’S WORD

* Charge & Blessing

 

Postlude

 

 

 

* indicates please rise in body or spirit as you feel led

Sunday’s sermon: Hagar: Woman of Unexpected Promise

Text used – Genesis 16; Genesis 21:8-21

  • “What are little boys made of? / Snips and snails, and puppy dog tails / That’s what little boys are made of! / What are little girls made of? / Sugar and spice and everything nice / That’s what little girls are made of!” … Or so the classic nursery rhyme goes, right? “Sugar and spice and everything nice … that’s what little girls are made of.” But what about when those little girls grow up? Well, we’re going to spend the summer exploring that idea a little more – what some of the women of the Bible are made of.
    • More women in the Bible than you might even be aware of → I mean, most of the Biblical “heavy hitters” that we learn about in Sunday school are men: Abraham, Noah, Jacob, the 12 disciples, Paul. But just because many of the women have been neglected throughout Christianity’s history doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It doesn’t mean their stories aren’t important. It doesn’t mean that their stories don’t need to be told. Or retold.
      • Going to spend the summer with some of the women of the bible – more specifically: the most obscure and misunderstood women → Some of them will be names you’ve heard before, names like Bathsheba and Mary Magdalene – women whose stories and reputations have been twisted throughout Church history to downplay and denigrate the role of women in the life of the Church. And some will probably be names you may not have heard before, names like Huldah and Phoebe – women whose stories are rarely read and retold. A few of the women we’ll walk with this summer don’t even have names recorded in the Bible. Their names have been lost to history, but their stories still matter. Their stories still have plenty to teach us about God and faith and the movement of the Holy Spirit in people of all sorts.
        • Hear their stories → which in some cases (like today) means that we’ll be reading larger portions of Scripture than we usually do – so we can get as much of the story as possible.
        • Think about and explore their contributions to this Grand Story of Faith that we all share
    • So today, we’re going to start with one of my favorite women in Scripture: Hagar.
      • A number of reasons that I love Hagar’s story
        • 1) she’s an underdog
        • 2) she’s a woman in a difficult circumstance
        • 3) she’s unexpected
  • Okay, let’s dig into those a little more.
    • Hagar, the underdog → Hagar’s story is an uphill battle from day one.
      • Begins with something as simple as her name → meaning of “Hagar” = forsaken → A lot of the times nowadays, I don’t think we put a lot of stock into what names mean. More people pick names for their kids based on the way it sounds or perhaps a connection to a relative or dear friend. But the weight of the meaning of a name bears heavy in Scripture.
        • Two parts of our text this morning are perfect e.g.
          • First part of our reading – Gen 16 – speaks of “Abram and Sarai”
          • Second pat of our reading – Gen 21:8-21 – speaks of “Abraham and Sarah”
          • The first part of our story takes place before God makes an everlasting covenant with Abram and his household. When God makes that covenant, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, changing the meaning from “exalted father” to “ancestor of a multitude.” And God changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, changing the meaning from “princess” to “exalted woman of joy.”[1]
        • So God has changed Abraham’s name and Sarah’s name to bring them more honor, more blessing, more joy, more promise. But what about Hagar? Hagar remains Hagar. Hagar remains forsaken, in name and in story.
    • Clearly, Hagar is a woman trapped in difficult circumstances.
      • Role in Abraham’s household = “servant” → Heb. “servant” = interchangeable with “slave” → This was someone tasked with domestic work within the household, and it’s clear from the context we’re given at the beginning of our Scripture reading this morning that Hagar’s life and choices were not her own. – text: After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took her Egyptian servant Hagar and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife.[2]
      • Desperation and hardship of Hagar’s circumstance continues as the story goes on
        • Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child → Willingly? Unwillingly? It didn’t really matter in that time, place, and culture. When Sarah made the decision to “give” Hagar to Abraham just so he could have an heir of his own lineage, Hagar’s fate was sealed. Even if she hadn’t gotten pregnant and born Abraham a son, her fate would have been sealed. If she, like Sarah, had had trouble conceiving, she surely would have been thrown out, left to beg on the streets … or worse.
          • Given the circumstances, we can hardly begrudge Hagar her response – text: When [Hagar] realized she was pregnant, she no longer respected her mistress.[3] → Now, this is a challenging translation here. Our English text (and many other contemporary translations) make it sound like Hagar was being disobedient, unruly, intentionally rude and contemptuous. But the Hebrew itself is more complex. → Heb. word = connotations of self-loathing, self-demeaning, and being “declared cursed” – more like Hagar is overwhelmed by the pain, the unfairness, the injustice of her situation
      • Goes from bad to worse: Sarah treats Hagar poorly because she is jealous of Hagar’s pregnancy → Hagar decides to run away → messenger of the Lord finds Hagar in the wilderness and convinces her to return to Abraham’s household → Hagar returns and gives birth to a son, Ishmael → Sarah becomes pregnant with Abraham’s son, Isaac, in her old age → Sarah forces Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael so her own son, Isaac, doesn’t have to share his inheritance with Abraham’s firstborn son → And Abraham … does it! He takes some bread and water, gives them to Hagar, and says, “See ya later!”
        • To be fair, Scripture makes it clear that this was not an easy decision for Abraham – text: [Sarah] said to Abraham, “Send this servant away with her son! This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.” This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son. God said to Abraham, “Don’t be upset about the boy and your servant. Do everything Sarah tells you to do because your descendants will be traced through Isaac. But I will make your servant’s son a great nation too, because he is also your descendant.”[4] → I will admit that this is one of those uncomfortable moment in the Bible – one of those moments when we who are reading it can hardly believe God would do such a thing. It’s a hard and frankly ugly scene in an already hard story.
        • But still Abraham turns Hagar out into the wilderness with a child young enough to still be carried in a shoulder sling! And so Hagar wanders the wilderness “near Beer-sheba,” according to our text (modern day central Israel) until the water in the water skin runs out, and in a moment of abject desperation, she lays her beloved son down under a bush, walks “as far as a bow shot” away, sits down, and waits to die, listening and praying as Ishmael’s distressed cries mingled with her own weeping.
    • But then … then comes the unexpected. → God’s messenger calls out to Hagar a 2nd time and delivers not death but God’s promise – text: God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there. Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.”[5] → So Hagar goes over, picks up her son again, and God opens her eyes so that she sees a well for water. And she and her son continue to live in the wilderness until Ishmael grows up, marries, and indeed, becomes that great nation that God promised.
      • Ishmael = father of Islam → that’s why Islam is called one of the 3 Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can all trace their spiritual lineage back to Abraham
      • So here we have this blessing – this blessing of continued life in the midst of desperate circumstances and a future great nation – coming from God and being bestowed on Hagar: Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl; Hagar, the unwilling and exiled mistress; Hagar, the first single-mother.
        • Searched for something this week that spoke to the immeasurable grit and grace of single mothers because I think we all know that that’s one of the hardest jobs in the whole world à came across this short poem that speaks to all the fierce and steadfast single mothers I know and love but also to Hagar’s situation [READ “Single and Struggling” by Ademola Adeyoju and Onashile Peace][6] ***When reading this poem, I omitted the 2nd stanza.***
  • You know, I think that’s why I like Hagar so much. She’s as real as many people we know in our day-to-day lives. She’s not some righteous and mighty matriarch. She’s not a character that has been placed on a pedestal and perfected throughout history. Hagar’s story is real and raw and vulnerable. She is a woman caught in a toxic, unhealthy relationship triangle that is not of her choosing, and in her darkest moment of desperation, she weeps. She wails. She is just as vulnerable and frail and broken as many of us have often felt in the midst of our most painful days and our longest, darkest nights. But God calls out to Hagar. God works through Hagar. God bestows unexpected blessing and promise through Hagar.
    • Glimpses of this promise earlier in the story
      • God’s first contact with Hagar (when she runs away from Sarai in the beginning) → God’s messenger find’s Hagar in the midst of her flight and tells her to return to Abraham’s house and “put up with [Sarah’s] harsh treatments of [her]”[7] → messenger reveals that Hagar will bear a son who will “live at odds with all his relatives”[8] – text: Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El Roi” because she said, “Can I still see after he saw me?” → “El Roi” means “The God Who Sees.”
        • Heb. roi/“sees” = word loaded with meaning → not only seeing with your eyes but understanding, comprehending, knowing → There is an intimacy and a completeness in this knowing. Hagar is saying that God not only sees where she is geographically but also sees who she is – sees her circumstances, sees her heart, sees her fears and her worries and her deepest wishes for the child she is already carrying.
        • And in recognizing that Abram’s God has seen her and naming that God as The One Who Sees, Hagar – this foreign slave woman – becomes the first person in Scripture to actually name God. How … unexpected.
      • Also see this promise in Hagar’s 2nd interaction with God’s messenger – messenger says to Hagar, “Don’t be afraid!” → “Don’t be afraid” is one of the most common phrases found throughout Scripture. Some form of this phrase – “Don’t be afraid,” “Fear not,” etc. – shows up 365 times in the Bible. The first time it’s uttered is between God and Abram when God appears to Abram in a vision and promises God’s own presence and protection for Abram and his household. But the second time? The second time that God says to someone reassuringly, “Don’t be afraid” is here. With Hagar – this foreign, homeless, single mother in the wilderness. A woman full of fear and fierceness; a woman who had escaped one trauma just to find herself face to face with another; a woman who’s grace and grit, who’s abundant love and devotion was so strong that God worked an incredible promise both in her and through her. How compelling. How blessed. How … unexpected. Amen.

[1] Gen 17.

[2] Gen 16:3.

[3] Gen 16:4.

[4] Gen 21:10-13.

[5] Gen 21:17-18.

[6] Ademola Adeyoju and Onashile Peace. “Single and Struggling – A poem to appreciate all single mothers.” Published at https://steemit.com/life/@tolarnee/single-and-struggling-a-poem-to-appreciate-all-single-mothers, 2017.

[7] Gen 16:9.

[8] Gen 16:12.

Sunday’s sermon: Singed But Sacred

Text used – Acts 2:1-21

  • You cannot come away from fire unchanged.
    • In the benign sense
      • Fire warms us
      • Looking at the light of the fire leaves a temporary imprint on the backs of your eyes
      • The smell of fire clings to us → transports us to memories of other times when we’ve been in fire’s presence
        • Campfires
        • Bonfires
        • Snuggled up next to the fireplace on a cold winter evening
      • Even tickles our tastebuds in the sense of tasting the char on a marshmallow or hot dog or some other delicious bit cooked over an open flame
    • Cannot ignore the more perilous side → fire’s unpredictable and destructive nature
      • Fires that consume people’s businesses, homes, even lives
      • Wildfires that can blaze out of control for days or even week and consume millions of acres of land and property
        • Wildfire that was burning in the BWCA just this past week[1] → relatively small
          • Believed to have been started by a lightning strike
          • Burned about 950 acres
          • Slowed by the recent rain we’ve gotten
        • Massive wildfires in the last decade
          • California wildfires in 2018 (including the Camp Fire)[2]
            • Deadliest fires of the decade: combined 188 lives
            • Destroyed more than 41,000 buildings
            • Burned nearly 2 million acres
          • Australian bush fire in 2019-2020[3]
            • Blazed through roughly 46 million acres
            • Destroyed nearly 6000 buildings
            • Took the lives of 34 people
          • BWCA wildfire in 2011[4]
            • Also started by lightning strike
            • Burned for about 2 weeks à consumed more than 100,000 acres
            • Peter and I actually drove past some of the destroyed areas the following summer. I was interviewing with a church up in Ely, and on our way there, we drove past mile after mile of charred forests that looked like someone had stuck giant, spent matchsticks into the ground.
    • On the other hand, we know through historical accounts and through wisdom passed down from generation to generation that Indigenous peoples had been using fire for thousands of years as a tool to both cultivate and regenerate the land. → known as “cultural burning”: the intentional lighting of smaller, controlled fires to provide a desired cultural service, such as promoting the health of vegetation and animals that provide food, clothing, ceremonial items and more[5]
      • Article from The History Channel website: Anthropologists have identified at least 70 different uses of fire among indigenous and aboriginal peoples, including clearing travel routes, long-distance signaling, reducing pest populations like rodents and insects, and hunting.[6] → yet another element of Indigenous life that European colonists completely misunderstood and tried to eliminate
      • What the Indigenous people knew that the European colonists didn’t: that many ecosystems actually require periodic burning to not only survive but to thrive → National Geographic article (“The Ecological Benefits of Fire”): Many ecosystems benefit from periodic fires, because they clear out dead organic material—and some plant and animal populations require the benefits fire brings to survive and reproduce. For example, as dead or decaying plants begin to build up on the ground, they may prevent organisms within the soil from accessing nutrients or block animals on the land from accessing the soil. This coating of dead organic matter can also choke outgrowth of smaller or new plants. When humans perform a prescribed burn, the goal is to remove that layer of decay in a controlled manner, allowing the other, healthy parts of the ecosystem to thrive. Moreover, nutrients released from the burned material, which includes dead plants and animals, return more quickly into the soil than if they had slowly decayed over time. In this way, fire increases soil fertility.[7] → We’ve all seen the images – either real life images or the kind produced for the benefit of Hollywood cinema – of a small green shoot or delicate flower poking out of the blackened and burned debris around it. There is renewal and life and possibility after the flames … but that doesn’t make the flames any more comfortable, any more tame. It doesn’t make them any less destructive or erratic. You cannot come away from fire unchanged.
  • Today = celebrate the holy day of Pentecost
    • Birth of the church
    • Gift of the Holy Spirit coming down on the disciples gathered in Jerusalem and alighting on them in the form of fierce, howling wind and tongues of flame → fracturing the good news of the gospel into a dozen languages and spreading the word of God like … well … like wildfire
    • Pentecost is a day born of and marked by Holy Spirit flames – by a fire that blazes and consumes and renews and changes things like none other. And sure, now we observe Pentecost as a day of celebration and joy! But I have to wonder what that day must have been like for those who lived it: for the disciples who felt the burning, ever-distrupting presence of the Holy Spirit descending upon them and rushing and swirling around and in and through them; or for the people watching, those who witnessed not only the wind and the flames but the after effects as well – the disciples, the known Galileans, the Jews who had all been speaking to one another in their own language just a moment ago but were now suddenly speaking a dozen different languages, probably with shocked and confused and even frightened expressions on their faces as the word of God poured out of their mouths. Did the disciples even understand what they were saying? Or was it more like those immediate translation programs that they have at global meetings like the United Nations or the G8 – those ones that translate whatever language is being spoken on the spot into whatever language the listener requires? … You cannot come away from fire unchanged.
  • Yes, we often talk about the joy and celebration of Pentecost. But we don’t often talk about the disruption. We don’t often talk about the upheaval. We don’t often talk about the scattering that that original Pentecost event caused in the life of the church.
    • From that moment, gospel began to be taken out into the wider world
    • From that moment, the disciples’ lives would never be the same
    • From that moment, many of them were marked for death → would die as martyrs spreading that same message that they proclaimed by the work of the Holy Spirit that morning
    • From K. C. Ireton’s The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (fabulous little book that explores the history, the wonder, and the worship that can be found in every season and holy day of the church year) – chapter on Pentecost: Stunning and scary. Beautiful and powerful. Wild and luminous. These words strike me as reflecting the paradox of the Holy Spirit, whose outpouring on the followers of Jesus we celebrate on Pentecost.[8] → Stunning and Beautiful and powerful. Wild and luminous. You cannot come away from fire unchanged. Especially not the fierce and stirring flames of the Holy Spirit.
      • And I think this is a paradox that we’ve felt particularly acutely over this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation of the power and pull of community … but only because we’ve had to stay apart this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation for the vital work done by so many in our community: healthcare professionals, essential workers (grocery store employees, mail and package delivery people, childcare professionals, etc.), teachers and those in education … but only because we’ve seen the sheer exhaustion and utter depletion they’ve experienced this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation for the strength and capability of our own bodies … but only because we’ve seen so many suffer through the pandemic and even lose their lives this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation for the power of compromise and coming together … but only because we have seen how truly devastating and toxic divisiveness and political in-fighting can be.
        • (Hopefully) come to a new appreciation for the gifts and stories and experiences and the very lives of our Black, Indigenous, People of Color siblings … but only because we have seen and heard of too many acts of violence done against them in this past year alone (let alone the centuries leading up to this one).
        • You cannot come away from fire unchanged. And while we cannot say that we have completely come away from this fire yet, my friends, we can say with certainty that we have been changed. We have been singed by the pain and the loss and the stress and the isolation and the desperation that this past year has brought in so many different ways. But it is my hope and my prayer that you have come through this past year knowing and believing that God is with you – that God has hunkered down in the midst of social isolation; that God has sat vigil at the side of ICU beds and grieved with millions of loved ones across this country and around the world; that God has paced the house with you in the middle of the night as you worried about distance learning for your kids or your grandmother’s health in her residential care facility or your mounting bills or how the heck you’re going to try to work from home tomorrow and actually get anything done with everything else going on; that God has irrevocably declared the lives of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color to be good and worthy and valued and beautiful. We have come away singed, yes, but we have come away reminded that we are also sacred.
          • Ireton: I want to see the Holy Spirit at work, transforming lives, drawing all people to Christ, changing hearts, comforting the afflicted, convicting the avaricious and the apathetic. Of course I want that. I just want it on my terms – slow and quiet. And a lot of the time, that’s how the Holy Spirit seems to work – slowly, inwardly, quietly, subtly, in ways that are not easily discerned unless one is paying attention or taking a long view of things. But sometimes the Holy Spirit is loud, raucous, obvious, even violent, as in the Pentecost story.[9]
  • Throughout Lent, we used some of the poetic blessings written by Jan Richardson in her book Circle of Grace.[10] Today, I want to leave you with the words of another one of her blessings – “This Grace That Scorches Us: A Blessing for Pentecost Day.” This one comes from Richardson’s website, “The Painted Prayerbook.” [READ “This Grace That Scorches Us[11]] You cannot come away from fire unchanged. Amen.

[1] https://kstp.com/minnesota-news/wildfire-moves-out-of-boundary-waters-canoe-area-wilderness-bwcaw-toward-cabins/6115424/.

[2] https://blog.batchgeo.com/largest-wildfires/.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019%E2%80%9320_Australian_bushfire_season.

[4] https://wildfiretoday.com/2011/09/14/minnesota-pagami-creek-fire-mapped-at-100000-acres-evacuations-ordered/.

[5] https://www.history.com/news/native-american-wildfires.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/ecological-benefits-fire/.

[8] K.C. Ireton. The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year, tenth anniversary edition. (Edmonds: Mason Lewis Press, 2018), 98.

[9] Ibid, 100.

[10] Jan Richardson. Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. (Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press), 2015.

[11] http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/06/01/pentecost-this-grace-that-scorches-us/.

Sunday’s sermon: Somewhere Between Doing and Believing

Text used – Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

  • At the college I went to – the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire – they have an event every year called the Viennese Ball – V Ball, for short.[1]
    • Spans 2 nights in early Apr.
    • Big fundraiser event → money raised goes to scholarships and awards for music, international study, etc.
    • Use the entire student center for various venues
      • Concerts (chance to showcase incredible talent of instrumental and vocal groups alike)
      • Drinks and refreshments
      • Silent auctions
      • 2 separate ballrooms for dancing
        • Viennese waltz (all night)
        • Swing dancing/polka (alternate every hour)
    • Kind of event that alumni return for every year long after graduation, even those who have to fly halfway across the country to attend
      • Been going on for more than 40 yrs.
    • Tickets go on sale in early Feb. (if memory serves correctly) → better get them quickly because they sell out fast!
    • When I was a student and Peter and I were dating, a choir that I sang with was performing, so I got one ticket for free. I lined up with everyone else and got a second ticket so we could go together, so with tickets in hand, there was only one more thing to do: we needed to learn how to dance. → friend of mine from InterVarsity (who was a trained and exceptionally gifted ballroom dancer) ran a day-long workshop for anyone who wanted to learn
      • Viennese waltz
      • Foxtrot
      • Swing
      • Salsa (just a little)
      • And let me tell you what … it was a day. Lots of very different dance steps. Lots to remember. Lots of people in a relatively small room with less-than-satisfactory air circulation. It was hot. It was tiring. It was a miracle my saint of a husband didn’t wash his hands of the whole thing by lunchtime! Do we remember much of it today – more than 15 yrs. later? Not really. A few steps here and there, enough to have fun and look just a little bit fancy at any wedding dance.
    • Thing about that day = we needed both the learning and the doing to make the day work, both the rules of it and the feel of it
      • Couldn’t do the dances without the instruction
      • Couldn’t complete the learning without the movement
      • By the end of the day, the rules that we learned at the beginning had found a sort of fulfillment as we made our way around the room with the other couples. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t elegant. There was certainly room for improvement! But the point is we were moving. We were dancing. Our movement was inspired and led by the music but informed by the instruction.
  • Today’s Scripture reading = this complex and challenging passage from Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia wrapped up in this idea of the rules vs. the feel, instruction vs. movement, Law vs. faith → Part of what makes it so complex and challenging is the way it’s been used throughout history.
    • One of many passages (many of which have been written by Paul) that have been used throughout history by the church to promote and cultivate anti-Semitism
      • History that began to be examined back in 1947 when it became clear after the end of WWII that anti-Semitism was still rampant → effort to quell that = gathering of 65 religious leaders – both Jews and Christians – from 19 different countries met in Seelisberg, Switzerland[2]
        • Based its work on a critique written by Jules Isaac, a Jew → spent years in hiding during the war studying hundreds of ancient church documents → traced Christian hostility toward Jews all the way back to the early church when Jesus’ followers were trying to differentiate themselves from their Jewish roots → Isaac’s critique: Christian [teaching], once started in this direction, never stopped. Utterly convinced of its rights, it has repeated and [spread] these mythical arguments tirelessly, with methodical thoroughness, through all the powerful means that were—and still are—at its disposal . . . The result is that the myths . . . have eventually taken on the shape and consistency of facts, of facts that have become incontestable. They have ended up by being accepted as though they were authentic history. They have become an integral part of Christian thinking; nay, of the thinking of all educated people living in a traditionally Christian civilization.[3]
      • And our text for today is part of that legacy – that legacy of the Church trying to set itself apart from and even above Judaism after the death of Christ. The arguments that spurred Paul to write this letter to the churches in Galatia in the first place were the beginnings of that legacy. Paul’s arguments in our text today are part of that legacy. And it’s important that we recognize that legacy and name it for what it is, how it’s been used, and the immeasurable harm that’s been done because of it.
    • Also have to recognize that there’s cultural and historical nuance here that we’re losing because we’re more than two millennia removed from Paul and these words → This text – and many of Paul’s other writings that have to do with Christians differentiating themselves from the Jews – speak about the Law in this way. – text: Before faith came, we were guarded under the Law, locked up until faith that was coming would be revealed, so that the Law became our custodian until Christ so that we might be made righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian.[4] → It sounds like Paul is being pretty negative, doesn’t it? It sounds like Paul is saying the Law – the Jewish Law, the spiritual practices laid out in the Torah that included things like dietary laws, cleansing and purification rituals, laws about observing the Sabbath, and even circumcision … it sounds like Paul is saying the Law is unnecessary, obsolete, inferior. But that’s not true.
      • John Frederick, lecturer in NT at Trinity College Queensland (Australia) – same scholar that I read last week also wrote about this week’s text: Paul did not conceive of Christianity as the replacement of Judaism, but as the fulfillment of the promises of Judaism for the sake of the whole world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.[5] … Central to the narrative of Galatians—and to the story of salvation throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture—is the truth that Judaism does not exist as a sub-par foil for a superior religion called ‘Christianity.’ Rather, Christianity exists as the gracious fulfillment of the already gracious Judaism. Christianity is the “climax of the covenant,” as N.T. Wright has said, not its cancellation.[6] → Remember, Paul himself was born a Jew and highly educated by Jews. Before his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, he was actually a Pharisee – one of those tasked with adhering to and interpreting the Law of Moses so that his fellow Jews could live lives that were honoring and pleasing to God. à This brings it back to the idea of fulfillment instead of replacement. – text: Understand that in the same way that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, those who believe are the children of Abraham. But when it saw ahead of time that God would make the Gentiles righteous on the basis of faith, scripture preached that gospel in advance to Abraham: All the Gentiles will be blessed in you. Therefore, those who believe are blessed together with Abraham who believed.[7]
        • Hear how Paul is honoring the covenant God made with Abraham
        • Hear how Paul is trying to include Gentiles in the fold even all the way back through Scripture – Paul refers to God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 17): I will bless [Sarah] so that she will become nations, and kings of people will come from her.[8] → Heb. “nations” = word that was specifically used for other peoples … pagan peoples … Gentile peoples → So Paul is trying to draw the Gentiles back into the fold using God’s own words of promise to Abraham, the first father of the people of Israel.
  • Central dilemma that Paul is trying to address in today’s text = those other Christians who had come to Galatia trying to convince the churches that their faith didn’t count unless and until the participated in Jewish rituals and followed Jewish Laws → I think we’ve made it clear that Paul’s main issue is not about the flavor of faith, if you will, that brought people to Christ. It’s about the idea that their actions could earn their faith. This is not an argument about Jews vs. Christians. It’s an argument about legalism and the efficacy of grace.
    • Unnamed Christian teachers to the churches in Galatia: “Your faith is only faith if it follows the Law. You can only be part of the fold if you follow the Law. Without the Law, you cannot be a Christian and cannot be saved.” → represents fundamental misunderstanding of the Law
      • Purpose of the Law = to help people of Israel lead lives that were pleasing and honoring to God → a way to put their faith into action, not a way to earn their place with God
        • Today’s text = Paul trying to help the Christians in Galatia understand that, while their faith can be informed by the Law, it cannot be earned by the Law → It’s sort of like that dance workshop Peter and I went to a million years ago. Our movement was inspired and led by the music but informed by the instruction.
      • Yet the Law was being wielding in this way by these unnamed Christians as they attempted to bend the early Galatian churches to their will. But in doing so, they completely negated the purpose of Christ’s coming in the first place: grace – undeserved, unearnable, unconditional grace. A grace that was available for anyone and everyone, regardless of who you are, where you come from, or what you bring with you.
    • Clear in Paul’s words at the end of today’s text: You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothes yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.[9] → Paul is holding up three of the most stark lines that could be drawn between people in his time – cultural heritage (neither Jew nor Greek), indentured status (neither slave nor free), and gender (neither male nor female) … Paul is holding up these stark lines and saying, “None of these matter when you follow Christ. You are a child of God, a child of the promise. That’s what matters.”
      • John Frederick: Now, clothed in Christ, we are no longer meant to function as autonomous individuals separated along party lines, but as integrated co-communicants knit together in love by the Spirit who makes us one. Our identity is no longer informed and governed by the characteristics of our individual selves in separation from one another. Rather, we are transformed as persons in communion with one another, and we are guided by the characteristics of the Christ in whom we have been clothed. In a season of great national and global division, it is the call of the Church to live out this radical charter of unity in Christ through our union with Christ.[10] → And we get to live out that unity in Christ through our union with Christ not because we’ve earned it. Not because we deserve it. Not because we’ve checked the right boxes or dotted the right I’s or crossed the right T’s but because God’s grace through Christ Jesus has set us free – free to approach God with confidence, free to love one another with hope, free to follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in us and through us. Grace upon grace. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] https://www.uwec.edu/centers/viennese-ball/.

[2] https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-11/christian-churches-and-antisemitism-new-teachings.

[3] Jules Isaac. The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 42.

[4] Gal 3:23-25.

[5] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/one-in-christ-2/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-3. Accessed May 16, 2021.

[6] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/living-by-faith/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-4. Accessed May 16, 2021.

[7] Gal 3:6-9.

[8] Gen 17:16.

[9] Gal 3:26-29.

[10] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/one-in-christ-2/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-3. Accessed May 16, 2021.

Sunday’s sermon: Authentic Faith

Text used – Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21

  • In December 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life put out a report entitled “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.”[1]
    • Produced as part of Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project – initiative jointly funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and John Templeton Foundation
    • Purpose: analyze religious change and its impact on societies around the world
    • Findings:
      • 2,184,060,000 Christians in the world → just under 1/3 of the global population
      • Of that 2 billion
        • 50% = Catholic
        • 37% = Protestant
        • 12% = Orthodox
        • Remaining 1% = other traditions (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, etc.)
    • Working definition of “Christian” for this research = “very broad”: The intent is sociological rather than theological: We are attempting to count groups and individuals who self-identify as Christian. This includes people who hold beliefs that may be viewed as unorthodox or heretical by other Christians. It also includes Christians who seldom pray or go to church.[2] → gets at a really important point when it comes to Christianity = DIVERISTY
      • Catholic worship looks different than Lutheran worship looks different than Greek Orthodox worship looks different than Presbyterian worship looks different than Pentecostal worship
      • Worship practices in different congregations of the same denomination look different → Just here in our presbytery – our local geographical area – I can guarantee that worship at First Presbyterian in Rochester looks different than worship at Community Presbyterian Church in Plainview looks different than worship at House of Hope in St. Paul looks different than worship here at the Presbyterian Church of Oronocoand that was the case even before the pandemic!
      • Worship practices from the same denomination look different in different global settings
        • Catholic mass at a small, rural parish in South America looks different than Catholic mass at Our Lady of Mercy’s Church in the Bronx looks different than mass celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
      • And we can only imagine how different worship looks in those nations around the world where it is dangerous to practice Christianity in any form – North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan (just to name the top 5, according to Christianity Today[3])
    • All that vast and varied difference in the body of Christ!
      • Different languages
      • Different practices
      • Different worship elements
      • Different hymns
      • Different prayers
      • And yet, here we all are … part of the body of Christ. Here we all are, bearing the name “Christian.” Do we agree on everything? Definitely not. But instead of causing rifts and arguments between us, those differences should bolster our faith because it means that we’re practicing our faith in a way that is truthful and real – a way that is authentic to who we are, where we come from, the stories we carry with us, and the life that has formed us.
  • Assertion of importance of an authentic faith is what Paul is getting at in our Scripture reading this morning
    • Interesting Scripture when it follows what we read last week (Acts 15:1-18) because this passage from Gal is Paul’s account of that same encounter … and Paul’s account is a little different! – text: But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy so that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy.[4] → From the Acts account that we read last week, it sounded like Peter and the other apostles came around to the decision to include the Gentiles without requiring circumcision pretty quickly. But from Paul’s account this morning, there was more to it than that.
      • Contention
      • Backpedaling
      • (To use Paul’s word) hypocrisy
    • And it’s this hypocrisy, this flip-flopping, this disingenuous way that others were living into their faith that really got under Paul’s skin.
      • Problem is not that Peter was a Jew eating with Gentiles or that Peter was a Jew eating with Jews → problem is that Peter was a Jew happy and content to be eating with the Gentiles until “certain people came from James” → after this relatively unnamed contingent shows up, Peter flip-flops and begins to separate himself from the Gentiles because he’s afraid of what the other Christians would think
        • John Frederick, lecturer of NT at Trinity College Queensland (Australia): By refusing to eat with Gentile Christians when a faction of Jewish Christians arrived, Peter was essentially saying that there are actually two classes of Christians divided by ethnic lines. To be a ‘real’ Christian, Peter was inferring, all disciples (whether Jew or Gentile) must live according to boundary markers of the Jewish Torah. Paul was not having any of that.[5]
    • Actually, that’s the whole purpose of Paul’s letter to the Galatians in the first place! – scholar: Paul’s angry, passionate letter to the churches of Galatia provides a glimpse of the controversy that surrounded the expansion of the Christian movement into Gentile communities in the ancient Mediterranean world. The identity of the newly established mission churches was up for grabs: Were they to be understood as branches on the tree of Judaism, or were they to be understood as belonging to a new and distinctive community, neither Jewish nor pagan? Were Gentile converts bound to accept Jewish practices and values? In what ways were they free to maintain their former ways of life?[6]
      • Clear in Paul’s words: When I saw that they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We are born Jews—we’re not Gentile sinners. However, we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.[7] → It’s clear that Paul is upset by Peter trying to put on a face for other Christians – trying to play the part of the staunchly observant Jew when there were other staunchly observant Jews around but playing the part of the all-embracing, welcoming leader to all Christians – Jews and Gentiles alike – when he was in the company of Gentiles. At this point, Peter had already made it clear that he believed the Gentiles were welcoming into the Christian fold.
        • After his encounter with Cornelius, the Centurion, Peter: “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all!”[8]Those are Peter’s own words … and yet, according to Paul’s account in our Scripture this morning, Peter was acting like God did show partiality for the Jews over the Gentiles just because he was in the presence of those who “promoted circumcision.” It’s inauthentic. And as John Frederick said, Paul was not having any of that.
  • Interesting inclusion at the beginning of our text today – interesting choice by those who selected the verses for this lectionary passage
    • Begins with Paul explaining his own origins in faith: You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors. But God had set me apart from birth and called me through his grace. He was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach about him to the Gentiles.[9] → Paul, who established this church in Galatia himself, is reminding them that he himself is far from perfect. He’s made mistakes. His faith journey has been a rocky one. But God still called him in the midst of that rocky journey.
    • See Paul’s conviction in that purpose in his words later, too – text: We know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law—because no one will be made righteous by the works of the Law. … I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.[10] → For Paul, that’s it. That’s the point: “The life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.” That’s all of it!
  • Many of you have probably heard of Brené Brown.
    • Professor, researcher in field of social work, author, speaker → spent the last 2 decades of her career studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy[11]
      • TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the top 5 most viewed TED talks ever → 50 million views worldwide
    • Big element in Brown’s work is authenticity: Authenticity is a daily practice. Choosing authenticity means: cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are. Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough.[12] → Friends, we spend too much of our lives comparing ourselves to others. We spend too much of our lives worrying about what others will think, especially when it comes to our faith. Our faith – like our faces, our homes, our Bibles, and our prayers – looks different. Your faith won’t look like my faith. Your prayer won’t sound like my prayer. Your walk with God will wander into places I’ll never even see. But in all that difference – in all that diversity that spreads across Christianity as it’s practiced in every corner of this world – in all that difference, what matters is that Christ died for you. Christ rose for you. Christ prays for you. And Christ loves you. What God wants from us is an authentic witness of our faith in this world – a witness that matches the unique, precious, beloved person that God created you to be. Amen.

[1] Conrad Hackett and Brian J. Grim. “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.” (Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center), 2011. https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2011/12/Christianity-fullreport-web.pdf.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] “The 50 Countries Where It’s Most Dangerous to Follow Jesus in 2021” from Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/january/christian-persecution-2021-countries-open-doors-watch-list.html. Posted Jan. 13, 2021, accessed May 9, 2021.

[4] Gal 2:11-13.

[5] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/living-by-faith/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-4. Accessed May 9, 2021.

[6] Richard B. Hays. “The Letter to the Galatians: Introduction” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 183.

[7] Gal 2:14-16a.

[8] Acts 10:1-36

[9] Gal 1:13-16a.

[10] Gal 2:16, 20.

[11] https://brenebrown.com/about/

[12] https://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Authenticity_download-1.pdf

Sunday’s sermon: Faith Out of Discord

Text used – Acts 15:1-18

 

  • There’s a short story by Dr. Seuss called “The Zax” which can be found in the book The Sneetches and Other Short Stories[1] (originally published in 1953).
    • 2 characters: a north-going Zax and a south-going Zax
    • Paths of these two characters just happen to meet head-on
    • Both Zax refuse to alter their course by even a single side step
    • Stand there arguing with each other in perpetuity as the world goes on around them because neither is willing to give an inch
      • World develops around them
      • Highway is built over them
      • But they continue to stand there, neither of them actually going anywhere anymore, because “this is who I am, and this is the way I do things, this is the way I’ve always done things, and no one can make me change! Things would be so much easier, so much better, if you did them my way because clearly, my way is the right way, so you must be wrong!”
        • An attitude that doesn’t work out terribly well for the Zax → still standing there arguing at the end of the story (with the distinctly Seussian implication that they’re still standing there arguing to this day)
        • An attitude certainly not confined to the pages of whimsically-rhyming children’s books
          • Attitude that has permeated the halls of Congress
          • Attitude that has polluted many relationships – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors
          • Attitude that has plagued many communities of all sizes – small towns all the way up to big, teeming cities
          • Attitude that has pervaded even the stained-glass beauty of the Church → In fact, it’s an attitude that’s as old as Christianity itself. It’s the very attitude that sent Jesus to the cross because those in power felt threatened by the message Jesus was spreading. And clearly, from our Scripture reading this morning, it didn’t stop there.
  • Today’s text sounds like it could have come out of contemporary headlines
    • Background: Paul and Barnabas have returned to the city of Antioch (modern day south-central Turkey) after one of their long, evangelizing/church-planting journeys – text leading up to what we read this morning: They sailed to Antioch, where they had been entrusted by God’s grace to the work they had now completed. On their arrival, they gathered the church together and reported everything that God had accomplished through their activity, and how God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. They stayed with the disciples a long time.[2]
      • Important point: Paul and Barnabas reported to the church in Antioch “how God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” → Remember that at the very beginning of the early church, the vast majority of those who were Christians were also Jews. There were a few Gentiles that Jesus had interacted with during his ministry, but within the congregation of the early church, they were certainly the exception, not the rule. Yet on the other hand, remember that all of Paul’s many long mission journeys took him only into Gentile lands, so Paul’s entire life and mission was to bring the good news of Jesus Christ and God’s love to Gentiles … to The Other.
        • People that the Jews had grown up being taught not to mingle or intermarry with
        • People that had probably conquered or oppressed the Jews at some point in their long and difficult history
        • People whose wide array of gods certainly looked nothing like Israel’s God
        • And yet here were Paul and his helpers taking the good news of Jesus Christ to these Gentiles.
    • Clearly this is where the problem arises – laid out in the beginning of our text for this morning: Some people came down from Judea teaching the family of believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.”[3] → “This is who we are, and this is the way we do things, this is the way we’ve always done things, and no one can make us change! Things would be so much easier, so much better, if you did them our way because clearly, our way is the right way, so you must be wrong!” Even more dangerous: “If you want to be part of us, you have to be like us. You have to look like us on the most intimate, visceral level. Your discomfort doesn’t matter. Your pain doesn’t matter. If you don’t look like us, you don’t belong.”
      • Plenty of times this same mentality has been applied throughout history … never for good → most immediate example that comes to mind: Indian boarding schools
        • Established through the Civilization Fund Act (1819)
        • Established for the sole purpose of obliterating Native culture and language all across the country → America’s attempt to solve the “Indian problem”
          • From an article in The Atlantic marking the 200 yr. anniversary back in 2019: This is what achieving civilization looked like in practice: Students were stripped of all things associated with Native life. Their long hair, a source of pride for many Native peoples, was cut short, usually into identical bowl haircuts. They exchanged traditional clothing for uniforms, and embarked on a life influenced by strict military-style regimentation. Students were physically punished for speaking their Native languages. Contact with family and community members was discouraged or forbidden altogether.[4] → “If you want to be part of us, you have to be like us. You have to look like us on the most intimate, visceral level. Your discomfort doesn’t matter. Your pain doesn’t matter. If you don’t look like us, you don’t belong.” Friends, this is a legacy that the Presbyterian Church participated in. This is a legacy for which we need to repent.
            • Work that the PC(USA) has recently embarked on[5]But we’ve still got a long way to go.
    • In today’s reading, Paul and Barnabas push back → argue their point until it becomes clear that they need some 3rd party intervention → take the matter to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (This certainly was no small feat. It required a journey of roughly 300 miles. And yet, they went.) → arrive in Jerusalem → both sides make their arguments before the apostles and elders → apostles and elders confer and come to their conclusion (delivered by Peter) – text: “Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”[6]
      • Paul and Barnabas put a powerful and inspiring emphasis on Peter’s words with more stories of “all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity”[7] → This is their testimony. This is their public witness of the faith that God has not only worked through them but in them.
      • Apostle James puts the final note on the assembly by quoting words of hope and promise and restoration from the prophet Amos, not just for the Jews, but for all – text (God speaking): I will rebuild what has been torn down. I will restore it so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who belong to me.[8]
  • Friends, we cannot deny that change is difficult, especially for something like the Church – something that is big and expansive in structure and doctrine, something that is old and established, something that is near and dear to the hearts of many. But change happens. Change comes. All the time. No matter what.
    • Think back to the Zax who stood arguing about who would change and who would not → The longer they stood there, the more they argued, and the more they argued, the longer they stood there. Little did they realize that in refusing to give, they’d both already changed who they were. The minute they refused to change – the minute they refused to open their minds and eyes and hearts to a new idea, a new possibility, a new way – they ceased becoming a north-going Zax and a south-going Zax because they weren’t going anywhere anymore! They weren’t going north or south. They were standing still. They were stuck. That core element of their identities that defined them so deeply that they couldn’t let go of it was necessarily erased by their obstinance and unwillingness to find common ground.
      • Today’s Scripture = tale of hope and tale of warning about who we can become and what can become of us when we try to cling so desperately to church “the way we’ve always done it” or when we open our hearts and our doors to something new
        • Spill the Beans commentary: Perhaps what is significant is that debates such as the one in Acts 15 are the mark of the church moving beyond what it originally understood itself to be. There were no signposts, no one had been this way before, and so as the church faced these open seas, the whole structure creaked like a boat suddenly changing direction as it tried to come to terms with what it understood itself now to be.[9]
    • Here’s the crazy thing, all. This Church – capital C “Church,” as in the whole body of Christ, all believers, the Church universal … this Church that we think is constant and unchanging is far from it.
      • Late Phyllis Tickle, Christian writer who was one of the most respected and internationally renowned authorities on religion in America until her death in 2015, wrote a book called The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why[10] → In this book, Tickle talks about how, every 500 yrs., Christianity goes through a shift – a major shift. She playfully calls these times “rummage sales – when the church cleans out its attic.”[11]
        • 500 yrs. after the death of Christ = councils that established things like which books would be included in the Bible, what was sound doctrine and what was heresy, the established structure of the church
        • 500 yrs. after the councils (1054 C.E.) = The Great Schism → disagreement which ended up establishing the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western/Roman Catholic Church
        • 500 yrs. after the Great Schism (1517) = The Reformation → birth of Protestantism and the thousands of branches that have grown out of that central Christian trunk since then
        • And if you add 500 to 1517, friends, you’ll realize that we are exactly there. 2017 was the 500 yrs. anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses being nailed to the door of that church in Wittenberg. And here we are, 4 yrs. past that anniversary. We are in the throes of just such a time of change, and like those in our Scripture reading this morning, we don’t know what waits for us on the other side. We don’t know what the Church will look like. But as Peter reminded those early Christians and reminds us even today, God is working. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires. God, who makes no distinction between us and them (no matter how we choose to define “us” and “them”). God, who saves everyone in the same way: by the grace of Jesus Christ. So as this change swirls around us, how will we let it change us? Will we be Zax who dig their heels and lose themselves in the argument and the discord and the refusal to try something new? Or will we be like the early church and open ourselves up to all the beauty and diversity and newness that’s coming? Amen.

[1] Dr. Seuss. The Sneetches and Other Short Stories. (New York: Random House), 1953.

[2] Acts 14:26-28.

[3] Acts 15:1.

[4] Mary Annette Pember. “Death by Civilization: Thousands of Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools created to strip them of their culture. My mother was one of them” from The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/03/traumatic-legacy-indian-boarding-schools/584293/. Posted Mar. 8, 2019, accessed May 2, 2021.

[5] https://www.pcusa.org/news/2020/9/24/stated-clerk-issues-call-action-behalf-indigenous-/.

[6] Acts 15:7-11.

[7] Acts 15:12.

[8] Acts 15:16b-17a (quoting Amos 9:11-12).

[9] “Easter 5 – Sunday 14 May 2017: Bible notes – What Is The Nature Of The Church?” from Spill the Beans: Worship and Learning Resources for All Ages, iss. 22. © 2017 by Spill the Beans Resource Team, http://spillbeans.org.uk.

[10] Phyllis Tickle. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), 2008.

[11] Ibid, 19.

Sunday’s sermon: Stay With It

Text used – Acts 8:26-39

  • There’s a scene at the very end J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring[1] – the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – that’s been running through my head this week. I had planned on reading the short passage to you, but when I looked at it again, I realized (with a bit of chagrin) that the part that’s been running through my head is one of those parts that they altered when Peter Jackson made The Fellowship of the Ring into a movie 20 yrs. ago in 2001.[2] So let me tell you about this scene:
    • Basic story of the Lord of the Rings
      • Frodo, a Hobbit from the Shire, finds and evil, master ring sought after by the dark Lord Sauron → if Sauron gains possession of the ring, it will mean the end of freedom for the entire world → Frodo is tasked with traveling into the heart of enemy territory and destroying the ring → 9 traveling companions that accompany him (make up the fellowship): Gimli, the dwarf; Legolas, the elf; 2 men: Boromir and Aragorn; Gandalf, the wizard; and 3 other hobbits: Pippin, Merry, and Samwise Gamgee (Frodo’s gardener and the one who is by far the least excited to be so far from home caught up in all the danger and drama of such an adventure)
    • So as I said, the scene that has been occupying my mind this week comes at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring when things for this fellowship have gone from bad to worse. Their company has already started to splinter, and Frodo realizes that in order to keep both his companions and the ring safe, he must continue on alone. So while the others are all occupied with yet another battle, Frodo steals back to their boats, and sets out on his own. Or at least … he tries to.
      • Paddling away from the shore all alone
      • Sam, who has figured out what Frodo is doing, comes running through the forest → reaches the edge of the water just as Frodo is paddling away (maybe 30 ft. out from shore, clearly already in deeper water) → cries out, “No, no, no! Frodo! Mr. Frodo!”
      • Frodo says to himself as he continues paddling, “No, Sam.”
      • Sam hesitates a moment → begins wading deeper and deeper in the water
      • Frodo hollers at Sam to go back: “I’m going to Mordor alone!”
      • Sam’s response (all the while wading deeper and deeper): “Of course you are … and I’m coming with you!”
    • The dedication and devotion, the unconditional and inescapable love in this scene is palpable. It’s what drives the scene, and it’s what imprints it on your memory when you see it. Despite Frodo’s intention and concerted effort to strike out on his own, despite his belief that his friends and companions are better off without him, Sam comes after him. Sam follows him. Sam stays with him which, in the end, makes all the difference.
      • Journey that changes both Frodo and Sam → changes that would never have been possible – changes they never would have made it through – if they hadn’t been together
  • Scripture reading this morning = story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch – story of another profoundly transformative journey that wouldn’t have happened had any of the participants not been present → So let’s talk about these main players a bit.
    • Philip, the Evangelist (not to be confused with Philip the Apostle) → This is not the Philip called by Jesus to be a disciple along with Andrew, Peter, and Nathanael in John 1.[3] This is a different Philip.
      • Back in Acts 2, we have the story of Pentecost and the birth of the early church, and after that early church started, we read that the community of believers grew exponentially – text: The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. … They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.[4]
      • By Acts 6, the size of the faith community had grown so large that the original apostles decided to appoint 7 leaders to help ensure the fair distribution of resources to everyone → one of these 7 was Philip, the Evangelist[5]
        • Beginning of Acts 8 makes it clear that it’s this Philip – Philip, the Evangelist – who’s involved in our story today, not Philip, the Apostle
    • Okay, so what about the Ethiopian eunuch? What do we know about him? – a bit of a juxtaposition → Let me read you a description by Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, professor of New Testament studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary: a man, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official over the treasury of the [Ethiopian queen], a pilgrim coming from Jerusalem, a reader of the prophet Isaiah. Luke’s list illuminates the power and the marginality of the unnamed chariot-rider. His wealth and literacy are signified by his chariot and the scroll of Isaiah. He is an Ethiopian, a descriptor likely referring to the color of his skin, and possibly also to traditional items of clothing. As Jews were exiled to Ethiopia after the Babylonian conquest (Zephaniah 3:10), and as he has just made a pilgrimage to the Temple, he may well be a Jew. Five times over the entire narrative, Luke calls this person a eunuch—a castrated man. Eunuchs were easily spotted, being shorter and softer than their peers, and usually beardless. Enslaved boys and men working in positions of power were often castrated to render them infertile and ensure the purity of the royal line. Being a eunuch would have restricted his access to the portion of the Temple reserved for Jewish men, even if he were born a Jewish male (Deuteronomy 23:1)[6] → So this man was a man of power and position, of wealth and privilege … but only up to a point. He’s someone who was essential to the royal household, but excluded from the house of God. He’s someone who held great power and great knowledge but was only trust with those things because of the physical alterations that had most likely been forced on him when he was jus a boy. He was different. He was Other. And yet it was to him that the Holy Spirit directed Philip.
  • So let’s dig into the heart of our story a bit: Angel directs Philip to a specific place and time: travel the road from Jerusalem to Gaza at noon → as Philip is traveling, we’re also told that this Ethiopian eunuch is making a similar journey in his chariot (an incredible luxury at the time) while reading a scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah (another incredible luxury) → text: The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.” Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how can I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.[7] → Acts relays a particular passage out of Is 53[8] which the eunuch had been reading → Philip starts with that passage and “proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him”[9] → results in the Ethiopian eunuch being so moved that the minute he spies some water along this desert road that they’re traveling, he orders the carriage to halt so Philip can baptize him on the spot
    • I mean, we have to admit that this is quite the powerful, dramatic, inspiring story, is it not? There’s action. There’s heart. There’s the mysterious but purposeful movement of the Holy Spirit. There’s a sensational, life-changing ending. There’s even a bit of a cliffhanger because after the impromptu baptism, we’re told “the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away.” Whoosh! Gone! It’s like a scene straight out of some epic movie, right?
    • Because it’s so epic – because it’s such an enthralling story – there are a lot of important elements of this story that we could focus on today:
      • Could focus on the passage from Is that Philip uses as his jumping-off point → passage about how Jesus would suffer humiliation and injustice despite his innocence
      • Could focus on how Philip proclaimed the good news from Scripture → Gr. = literally “evangelize”
      • Could focus on the powerful pull of Philip’s testimony in that it inspired the eunuch to immediately ask to be baptized into this new life and this new faith
      • Could even focus on the dramatic nature of the Holy Spirit, first directing Philip to this mysterious time-and-place-but-no-clear-purpose meeting, then whisking him away out of nowhere after he had completed the baptism
        • Our text this morning: When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing.[10]
        • Other versions even more dramatic (believe it or not): When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more and went on his way rejoicing.[11] (NRSV)
  • But there’s another part of this story that really captured my attention and my heart this week. Let me read that part to you again: The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.” Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how can I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.[12] → It’s the moment when the Holy Spirit directs Philip to the chariot in the first place – the moment when Philip is given his mission. And it’s this part that’s stayed with me because of one seemingly-simple phrase: “Approach this carriage and stay with it.Stay with it.
    • As I said, phrase seems to be a simple one but, in actuality, is far from simple → Gr. “stay with it” = powerful word, indeed
      • Join closely together
      • Unite with
      • Cling to
      • Even “become a follower”
      • Gr. for “glue”
      • Connotations of intimacy, of a connection that is not fleeting but has staying power → word often used when referring to marriage
    • The second he heard this word – this command – Philip would have understood that this was no quick and simple task the Holy Spirit was calling him to.
      • In truth, we have no idea how long this task actually took! → All that our passage tells us is that somewhere along the way from Jerusalem to Gaza, after hearing Philip’s testimony about the good news of Jesus Christ, the eunuch chooses to be baptized.
        • Jerusalem to Gaza = roughly 76 mile journey (by today’s roads, anyway) → more than a day’s journey by horse and carriage, possibly even more than two days
    • When he heard the Holy Spirit’s direction, there’s no way Philip could have known how long this mission would take – how long he would be required to stay with this man … this man whom he didn’t even know, whose life story was a mystery to him. And yet, when Philip heard the Holy Spirit direct him to “approach this carriage and stay with it,” he didn’t even hesitate. Not for a moment. – text: Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah.[13] → Running up to the carriage” … running up to it! Philip embraced this call – this directive to the unknown, to the new, to the different – wholeheartedly and literally at a run.
      • Reminds me of the end of that scene from The Fellowship of the Ring: despite his inability to swim, Sam tries to swim out to Frodo in the boat, but weighed down by his things and his lack of experience, Sam sinks → at the last moment, Frodo reaches down in the water and grasps Sam by the hand, pulling him to safety → Sam reminds Frodo of a promise that he made to Gandalf: “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo – a promise. ‘Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee.’ And I don’t mean to. I don’t mean to.”

 

        • Wherever the road led
        • Whatever trials and challenges lay ahead
        • Whoever else they were going to encounter along the way
        • Sam had no idea about any of those things – any of what lay in store for them – but he knew that whatever it was, staying with Frodo was where he was meant to be.
    • Philip had no idea what God had in store for him, but he knew it would require him to cultivate intimacy and connection with someone wholly unlike himself. He had no idea what God had in store for him, but he knew that it wasn’t going to be a change encounter – a quick in-and-out gospel blast on his way to somewhere else. At that point – as his arms and legs were pumping, as his feet were pounding the hard and packed dirt of the roadbed – he didn’t even know anything about what awaited him in that carriage. It was only after he approached it that he heard the eunuch reading Scripture and offered his interpretation. But God said to Philip, “Stay with it,” and so he ran, not away from the uncertain, but straight toward it. Amen.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin), 1954.

[2] The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson (New Line Cinema, 2001), DVD (New Line Cinema, 2001).

[3] Jn 1:43-51.

[4] Acts 2:42, 47.

[5] Acts 6:1-7.

[6] Margaret Aymer. “Commentary on Acts 8:26-39” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/ethiopian-eunuch-baptized/commentary-on-acts-826-39-3. Accessed Apr. 25, 2021.

[7] Acts 8:29-31.

[8] Is 53:7b-8a.

[9] Acts 8:35.

[10] Acts 8:39 (CEB).

[11] Acts 8:39 (NRSV).

[12] Acts 8:29-31.

[13] Acts 8:30a.