“Hungry for the Kindom” Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and John…

The central question of faith is: What is the nature of your God? The Bible’s most repeated answer to the question is “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

The narrative from Exodus seems to be slightly expansive essay on the theme “God’s steadfast love endures forever” that helps people understand what that means and how it functions. In the book of Exodus, we encounter God who liberates the oppressed. In particular, we encounter the Divine hearing the cries of the people, and feeling compassion for them. The Holy One then works through some of the least likely individuals possible to bring the people to freedom, and then guides them along their way.

Here, in chapter 16, the people are in the midst of the wilderness. By some estimates it has been about 6 weeks since they became free, and that appears to be long enough for the excitement to have worn off and new anxieties to have settled in. One commentator puts it, “The narrative of Exodus 16 can be read as representative of the type of crisis that faith faces whenever God’s people move from bondage to well-being. … The wandering in the wilderness is for Israel the place to knock down the mental frame of being oppressed and to pick up the life of liberty.”1 Part of the framework of oppression is constant anxiety.

The newly freed former slaves are getting nervous about their situation. Now, when the Bible says “desert” or “wilderness” what it is trying to say is “a place so forsaken that human life cannot be maintained without Divine intervention.” The desert near Sinai was such a place, and I think most pictures of Egyptian desert do a good job of communicating just how scary it could be to suddenly find yourself in that place without sufficient provisions. I think the anxiety was founded, but I also think it was rooted in their oppression.

While other parts of Exodus indicate that the people were supposed to “have faith” and “trust in God to provide,” in this Priestly version of the manna in the desert narrative, the people grumble and God simply has compassion on them. After all, God’s steadfast love endures forever, and steadfast love looks A LOT like compassion. Another commentator said, “What is important here is that God – once again – heard the people’s cries and responded to their need, whether it was real or whether it was a misperception caused by panic.”2 They are hungry and scared, so God offers them consolation and food.

There is one way in which I often struggle with Bible stories that speak of God feeding hungry people. I love the stories, but I also know that in real life people starve to death, and there are even more who are malnourished to the point that their health is compromised. It can almost sound like God picks favorites and feeds those while ignoring others, when we hear the stories of God feeding the people, and I don’t think God works that way.

It is helpful to think about who wrote the story. This story is told up by the Judean priests, it is designed to teach of God’s trustworthiness. The Judean priests, in their regular work, oversaw food redistribution programs, and called on the leaders of the people to make sure that systems were in place to make sure that food was accessible to those who need it. The story didn’t come out of vacuum. It is in the midst of the Torah, which as a whole, OBSESSES over taking care of the poor and vulnerable. We have a story that suggests that God took care of the poor and vulnerable in the desert AND SO the people should take care of the poor and vulnerable in the Promised Land.

Thanks be to God, on this planet we have enough! We have more than enough food to feed all the people. We have enough clean water (for the time being). We are even getting to the point where we have enough renewable energy sources to feed our energy needs! (How cool is that?) The reason people struggle with malnourishment and starvation is a HUMAN DISTRUBTION problem, not a lack of Divine gifts of abundance. Creation is sufficient to our needs. However, people have decided to use the resources in ways that prevent others from accessing them.

In the Bible, food is not just food. The people are told, “’At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'” (12b, NRSV) A scholar explains, “In the Old Testament context, knowledge is not essentially or even primarily rooted in the intellectual activities of a human being. Rather, it is more experiential and embedded in the emotions. It therefore encompasses qualities such as intimacy, concern, communication, mutuality, and contact.”3 So the gift of the food was a way of “knowing” that God’s steadfast love endures forever. The food in the desert guided the people to trust in God, and God’s compassion for them. The food was food, and that was good. But the food was also a means of knowing that God is good.

James Fowler’s book “Stages of Faith Development” discusses faith development through the human life span. He says that if babies have human caregivers who notice and attend to their needs, they will later find it credible that God is benevolent. However, for babies whose needs are not met, it will be far harder in life to believe that there is any being with power who seeks goodness for them (or anyone.) We “know” God in part by having our needs met.

This has gotten me thinking about what our needs are. Maslov famously created a hierarchy of human needs, but further studies have indicated that they aren’t as hiearchical as he thought, nor as universal. Nonviolent Communication Theory has a list of universal human needs without any hierarchy. They fall into categories like: connection, honesty, play, peace, physical well-being, meaning, and autonomy. Nonviolent Communication teaches that all of us have all of the needs, and that most of what we do and say comes out of an attempt to meet those needs. Even more so, most of what we FEEL is a reflection of how our needs are met or unmet. Nonviolent Communication encourages us to notice what we feel, as a means of figuring out what we are needing. The needs are the key to it all.

The priests taught that God gave the people food so that they would KNOW (experience, live) God’s steadfast love. Having needs met makes so much else possible! When a need is flaring to be fulfilled, it is very hard to focus on anything else!!

In the end of our Gospel reading today, Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (35, NRSV) Based on the context, it is clear we’re not just talking about food here either. Earlier in the chapter, in the part we read last week, Jesus fed the masses. The verbs in that passage speak of not only being full, but being satiated. The people seemed to KNOW God and God’s love once again, through the bread. In today’s passage, they seem to be seeking those things again.

So bread IS bread, sometimes, because humans NEED food. But bread is also a metaphor for our other needs. So too with thirst. What hungers and thirsts is Jesus talking about? Knowing Jesus and his context, I suspect he was talking about bread and wine in physical senses AND at the same time in spiritual senses. Jesus never seems to focus apart from people’s physical needs, nor does he think satiating only the physical is enough. He fed people bread and hope. He offered people living water and compassion.

I suspect the bread of life and living water Jesus offers in John are intentionally vague, so that those of us who hear of them can attend to the needs flaring up in us. Then we can hear as we need to hear. Jesus offers food to the hungry, healing to the sick, liberation to the oppressed, release to the captives, good news to the hopeless, a welcome to the homeless, rest to the weary, comfort to the grieving, movement to the stuck, purpose to the lost, intimacy to the lonely, inspiration to the resigned, joy to the downtrodden, and inclusion to those who have been left out. 😉 To name a few.

The Gospel of John says the people had been satiated by Jesus, and they wanted to be again. The book of Exodus says the people’s needs were met so they would know their God to be the one whose steadfast love endures forever.

The Bible thinks about the needs of “the people” more often than it thinks about the needs of any individual person. It feeds the masses, because the conditions that make one hungry often make others hungry as well.

That leads me to wonder what the Body of Christ is hungry for today, the people together. I suspect we might hunger for justice and thirst for compassion, and I think that is what God hungers and thirsts for as well. God is the God of all the people, so whoever is hurting the most is creating aches within God. When the world becomes more just, God aches less. When the people receive compassion, God finds relief. When fewer people are hungry, there are fewer hunger pains within the Divine. Hunger for justice and thirst for compassion is a way of saying that those of us who have enough bread, hunger for a world where all people do too. It is also to say that we hunger for the kindom when all have enough to survive AND thrive.

May our needs be met – the ones we each came with today, and the ones we share as the Body of Christ. May we trust in God who seeks for us to know Holiness by meeting our needs. When human beings get in the way of God’s people getting what they need, may we be courageous enough to get in the way of those systems. And may we notice, when our needs are met, that the Holy One whose steadfast love endures forever is with us, ready to be KNOWN once again. May our hunger for the kindom help kindom come. Amen

1 Rein Bos, “Exegetical Perspective on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15” in Feasting on the World Year B, Volume 3; David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)293.
2 Dean McDonald, “Homiletical Perspective on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15” in Feasting on the World Year B, Volume 3; David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 291.
3 Bos, 295.

“Hungry People, Frightened Disciples” based on 2 Kings 4:42-44…

I have a tendency to get caught up in miracles stories and miss their points. Were there really 5000 people there? Does that include or exclude women and children? Did this happen in the country, in a city, or in the Transjordan (as various gospels purport)? Are we to understand this as the loaves and fishes literally being expansive? Are we to assume that one person’s generosity enabled others to share as well? Or, is this really another way of explaining communion, and we are to attend to the ways that small piece of the bread of life can feed our souls?

(I think for John, this is the communion story. He doesn’t have communion on Jesus’ last night because he has footwashing. And the verbs fit. John has Jesus take the bread, give thanks, distribute them … and also the fish, which seems a solid variation on the cup.)

My questions are ones I’m interested in, BUT they’re distractions. However, as much as I want to make sense of the story by assessing the veracity of the details, the Bible doesn’t work that way! The Bible simply isn’t obsessed with factuality the way that moderns are. The Bible thinks that it is OK have 4 or 5 totally different versions of the same stories (like this one), and doesn’t mind the differences between them. That would seem to indicate that the details aren’t the point!! The Bible speaks in METAPHOR, because it speaks of things that are bigger than facts.

That being said, I think one of the easiest ways to figure out what metaphors and truths the Bible is trying to get to is to pay attention to the ways that stories are adapted as they are retold. One of the most common ways that the Gospels make sense of Jesus is by using references to Hebrew Bible leaders. For instance, the Gospel of Matthew spends a lot of energy constructing Jesus as the “new Moses” including having him come back in to the Promised Land from Egypt. Matthew and Luke each find a way to speak of Jesus as the “new David” by making sure to place his birth in Bethlehem. All of the Gospels also compare Jesus to the greatest prophets of the Hebrew Tradition, Elijah and Elisha, and this story is one of those examples.

Elijah came first. His story of miraculous feeding found in 1 Kings 17:8-16. That story tells of the prophet, who was on the run, being instructed to go to a poor widow’s house so that the widow would feed him. He was hungry and in need of food because of a drought, a drought that he had predicted would come, a drought that the Bible presents as an expression of God’s displeasure at royal behavior. Elijah wasn’t the only one who was hungry because of the drought. The widow he was sent to was also a mother, and she had only a small bit of meal and a tiny bit of oil left to her name. When the prophet asked for some bread, she responded, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” (NRSV, v. 12) The prophet asked for some of the tiny bit she had left, and she gave it to him. Somehow, the widow, her child, and the prophet had enough to eat for many days, and survived.

The Bible is affirming in this story that God is with Elijah. It is also telling us that what seems like a small and insufficient gift can be quite useful and abundant when given to God.

When Elijah died, his mentee Elisha was given his mantle and sent to continue his work as a prophet. At that point, the Bible spends some time showing that the miracles God worked for Elijah, God also worked for Elisha, proving that the mantle had been passed metaphorically and not just physically. A mantle is a long, sleeveless cloak. In this case it represented the power of the prophet to function as God’s witness in the world.

So, in our Hebrew Bible reading today, Elisha is able to provide food for hungry people when there clearly isn’t enough. It is a very different story, yet the miraculous part where too little food is somehow still enough, is still there. This one starts with a man bringing his tithe to the prophet. The Torah has very specific instructions about how to live well in community, and one piece of that is that the first fruits of a harvest be given away. Sometimes they’re given to the priests so that the priests who are landless in service to God have food. Sometimes they’re blessed to be used for a feast or festival where all the members of the community get to eat together. That method also ensures that those who are food insecure have access to food.

Probably most people were not bringing their first fruits to to Elisha, because his role was as a prophet and not as a priest. But this man sees holiness in Elisha, and brings his offering out of faithfulness to God, to Elisha to be used. Now, Elisha has surrounded himself with a large number of followers. That was very different from how his mentor Elijah worked. Mentor Elijah was a loner, who on good days allowed mentee Elisha to follow him. Elisha was better at working in community. However, both were really unpopular with the leadership of the day, and had trouble accessing sufficient resources on their own, without Divine help.

Elisha uses the gift from the man’s first fruits to feed those who surrounded him in HIS community. It shouldn’t have been enough to feed the people, and yet it was more than enough. The Bible is indicating that God is with Elisha. It is also telling us that what seems like a small and insufficient gift can be useful and abundant when given to God.

God was with Elijah, God was with Elisha, and God was with Jesus. This story, this miraculous feeding a large crowd that sounds a lot like Elisha feeding, is the ONLY miracle found in all 4 Gospels. Clearly the early Christian community thought this story was central to understanding Jesus.

In the second story, Elisha’s servant names that what was given to Elisha wasn’t enough to feed the large crowd. In John, the disciples who are expected to understand what God and Jesus are up to, articulate similar concerns. The crowd is BIG, and they’re all hungry, and they don’t have the resources to feed them.

But one person, in this case one small boy, offers his meager resources. 5 barley loaves and 2 dried fish, the traveling food of the poor in that day, were likely all he had with them. He offered them to God and to God’s holy one, a lot like the man who had offered his first fruits to God’s prophet Elisha. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even close to enough.

But the Bible is indicating that God is with Jesus. It is also telling us that what seems like a small and insufficient gift can be quite useful and abundant when given to God.

There is another unique detail in John. The story opens telling us that Jesus “went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee which is also called the Sea of Tiberias.” (NRSV, v. 1). It isn’t called that. The Sea of Galilee just isn’t called the Sea of Tiberias. BUT, it is super meaningful to mention it that way. In 20 CE, the tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas, created a new capital for himself in Galilee, on the Sea of Galilee, and named it for the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The goals seemed to be twofold: one to flatter the Roman Emperor Tiberius directly; another to commercialize the fishing on the sea, then building up the economy, and proving his powers as an good leader. Both of the goals were really aimed at trying to get access to lead more of the Roman Empire, as his father had.

Tiberias was a noticeably Roman city, one that offended the Jews as it was built on burial grounds, and represented the ways that the Empire sought to exploit the people for economic gain. To call the Sea of Galilee the Sea of Tiberias is to remind those experiencing the story of the social and political location of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, his miracle itself undermined the empire because it fed the hungry masses whose hunger the empire sought to exploit. The Sea of Galilee had been the primary food source for the people, but had become a source of income for the Empire, at the expense of the people’s primary food source.

On the shores of the Sea, Jesus fed the hungry and hurting people, both with food and with hope.
The initiating act of the miracle was the child who offered his meager bread and two small dried fish.

Those three characters shared what they had, despite it not being enough: that child, that man bringing his first fruits to a politically unpopular prophet, and that widow who shared her last meal. None of them did anything all that unusual. People share sometimes. People offer tithes. Desperate people make do and share what isn’t even enough for them over and over and over again. Many people have told me stories of their own parents limiting their food intake so they could eat enough as children. This happens.

But the Bible says that even little gifts can create significant good. That narrative is feeling really big right now, because the problems of the world feel really big right now, they feel like a hungry and frightened mass of 5000 people looking expectantly for food! Sometimes, for me, what I have to offer feels really small sometimes – a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, a voice to raise in prayer, a presence in the midst of the struggle that stays calm and peaceful. They’re SMALL when the problems are BIG. But the Bible says that God can do a LOT with what we give to God, even when it appears that what we have to offer is a lot less than what is needed to solve the problem.

God isn’t asking us to give out of resources we lack! God asks for what we can give, no matter how small, and then God works with it.

In the midst of the really hard times of life, the things that pick us up aren’t usually big miracles. They’re still the small stuff! They’re the little indications that someone cares and we aren’t alone in the struggle. I encourage you to think about the hard times in your life and what picked you up. Was it big things? Or was it things so small that the person who offered it might not even remember?

The small stuff matters. A little tiny loaf of bread. A regular tithe offering. The simple supper of a poor child. Each became a means of grace in the world. God can work with what we have to give.

So, let us go from this place, offer what we have, and watch to see how God multiplies our gifts into signs of hope and grace. God is able, and so are we. Amen

“Service Above Self” Luke 10:25-37

Let’s look at the Good Samaritan story:

A lawyer tried to trick Jesus by asking what he should do to get eternal life. The lawyer was trying to justify himself. He asked questions that tried to lower the ethic bar that Jesus had presented to him. Jesus responds with a question: What is written in the Law and how do you read it? When the lawyer answered to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Then Jesus praised him and told him to go take care of his neighbor.

The Lawyer wasn’t satisfied …..he asked Jesus the real question: “Who is my neighbor?”

Then Jesus related the story about the Good Samaritan – the story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. The distance is about 17 miles. It would have taken about 8 hours on foot. Not only was it traveled on foot but there was a thirty-four hundred foot elevation. While on the way he is robbed of everything he had, including his clothing, and is beaten to within an inch of his life.

That road was treacherously winding through desert country and was a favorite hideout for robbers and thieves to waylay defenseless travelers. It is very probable that the traveler had walked this way before and would have been very wary about the possibility of the robbers. This could have been a scene that Jesus saw many times in his travels. Jesus always told stories that his audience could understand – things from their daily lives.

The next character Jesus introduces to us is a priest. He spends no time describing the priest. He only tells about how the priest passed on the other side of the road, so he wouldn’t have to get involved. It is obvious since he didn’t help the traveler, that the priest showed no love or compassion for the man. If there was anyone who would have known God’s law of love, it would have been the priest. As a priest he should have been a person of compassion, always wanting to help others. Unfortunately, “love” was not a word for him that required action on the behalf of someone else.

The next person to pass by is a Levite, and he does exactly what the priest did: he passes by without showing any compassion. Again, he would have known the law, but he also failed to show the injured man compassion.

Selecting a Levite as the secondary character, Jesus moves from the most prestigious character —-(the priest, a pillar of the community) —–to a common “man-on-the-street” type of character. The Levite therefore provides a transition from one end of the continuum to the other. Despite this, this character is still one with which the expertise of the lawyer can identify, because most experts of the law were Levites.

In the days of Jesus this road came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” It’s possible that the Priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or was it possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to attack them for quick and easy prey because they were on a deserted road. So the first question that the priest asked himself and the first question that the Levite asked himself was:

“If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? The next person to come by is the Samaritan, the one least likely to have shown compassion for the man. Samaritans were considered a low class of people by the Jews since they had intermarried with non-Jews and did not keep all the law. Therefore, Jews would have nothing to do with them. We do not know if the injured man was a Jew or Gentile, but it made no difference to the Samaritan; he did not consider the man’s race or religion. The Samaritan saw his neighbor as anyone who was in need.

The “Good Samaritan” saw only a person in dire need of assistance, and he assisted him… above and beyond the minimum required….. He soothed the man’s wounds with wine (to disinfect) and olive oil (to sooth the pain). He put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn for a time of healing and pays the innkeeper with his own money – two silver coins which are equal to two days worth of work and would keep a man for 2 months in an inn.

He then goes beyond common decency and tells the innkeeper to take good care of the man, and he would pay for any extra expenses on his return trip. The Samaritan saw his neighbor as anyone who was in need. One wonders if the Samaritan had been to that inn before, perhaps paying for the stay of some other needy person.

We know this: The innkeeper trusted the Samaritan, probably because the Samaritan had proven himself to be trustworthy in the past.

Because the good man was a Samaritan, Jesus is drawing a strong contrast between those who knew the law and those who actually followed the law in their lifestyle and conduct. He is talking in cultural assumptions and stereotypes. The Samaritans were notoriously bad guys and traitors.

AFTER his story, Jesus asks the lawyer if the lawyer can apply the lesson to his own life with the question:

“So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him?  Who fell among the thieves?”

Once again, the lawyer’s answer is telling of his personal hardness of heart. He cannot bring himself to say the word “Samaritan”; he refers to the “good man” as “he who showed mercy.”

His hate for the Samaritans (his neighbors) was so strong that he couldn’t even refer to them in a proper way. Jesus then tells the lawyer to “go and do likewise,” meaning that he should start living what the law tells him to do.

By ending the encounter in this manner, Jesus is telling us to follow the Samaritan’s example in our own conduct; to show compassion and love for those we encounter in our everyday activities. We are to love others regardless of their race or religion— the criterion is need. If they need and we have the resources, then we are supposed to give generously and freely, without expectation of return. This is an impossible obligation for the lawyer, and for us.

You are asking: What does this have to do with today’s way of life and living in today’s society?

We cannot always keep the law because of our human condition; our heart and desires are inherently selfish because of never ending pressure from those around us. We can hope that the lawyer saw this and came to the realization that there was nothing he could do to justify himself, that he needed a Personal Savior to atone for his lack of ability to save himself from his sins. It is the same for you and me.

There is a story told about an experiment at a seminary. They recruited seminary students for a study on religious education. They began experimental procedures in one building and then told to go to another building to continue. They were given a map of the exact route they should take.

They varied the amount of urgency they told the subjects before sending them to the other building, and the task they would do when they got there. One task was to prepare a talk about seminary jobs, and the other about the story of the Good Samaritan. In one condition they told the students they were late for the next task, in the other they said they had a few minutes, but they should head on over anyway.

On the way they encountered a man slumped in an alleyway —a young man coughing and groaning and possibly in pain. The amount of hurriedness had a major effect on the helping behavior. In the low hurry situation 63% helped, in the medium hurry 43% helped, but in the high hurry group only 10% helped. That averages only about 40% willing to help in any fashion – asking if help is needed, getting help, taking the victim for help, refusing to leave the victim until help arrives.

The conclusion of this experiment was that a person in a hurry is less likely to help, even if he is going to speak on the Good Samaritan. Do ethics become a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases? Can we choose to help only if we have time? What is your answer?

Do you hold the door for a person behind you or are you in too much of a hurry to do that? Do you bend down and pick up trash from the road or floor or decide it might be too germy or do you leave it for someone else to pick up or do you even see it if you are in a hurry?

We can also relate this story to the Golden Rule as found in Micah 6:8:

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

OR as we know it

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

We can relate the story of the Good Samaritan to today’s life. Let’s talk a little about Service Above Self: That is the motto of Rotary International. Terry and I are proud to call ourselves a part of this world-wide group of men and women called Rotary International. As Rotarians we do things for others that are our service above what we would ordinarily do for ourselves.

We plant trees under which we will never sit OR dig wells which fresh water we will never drink OR build shelters which will never protect our family from the weather. There are many examples of Rotarians who give of their time to vaccinate children against polio; some even giving up their lives due to the conflict in the area served by the Rotarians and their volunteers. Indeed, the Good Samaritan could have been a Rotarian.

Do you say “I have given to the Salvation Army -– my part for the world –” or do you go beyond, to help those in need in our community and around the world. Let’s think about the 19th century slaves who show compassion for their plantation owners and even became a part of their families OR the Jewish prisoner who demonstrate concern for a Nazi guard during World War II.

It doesn’t matter who our neighbor is. It could be a sports rival, a person across town, a third world woman caring for her children…they all need compassion and love.

So, the Great Teacher tells a story to make the point stick. This is a wonderful story for creative expression. It speaks to our prejudice and hard hearts toward suffering. In the context, Jesus is showing that the Kingdom of God consists in action – not just talk.

Thus, the lessons of the Good Samaritan are three-fold:

First: We are to set aside our prejudice and show love and compassion for others.

Second: Our neighbor is anyone we encounter; we are all creatures of the Creator and we are to love all of humankind as Jesus has taught.

Third: Keeping the law in its entirety with the intent to save ourselves is an impossible task; we need a Savior, and this is Jesus.

Let us pray: Lord, give us the eyes of Jesus to see our neighbors and the strangers we meet. Teach us what it means to love the stranger as we love ourselves. Forgive us for our selfishness, for our silence, for not caring enough for the strangers who come to our communities. Teach us to love and care for the stranger the way you do. Amen.

“A Kiss and a Dance” based on Psalm 85:8-13…

What we do know about John the Baptist and Herod? Well, the Herod in this story is NOT the Herod in Matthew’s story of Jesus’s birth and immigration to Egypt. That one was Herod the Great, who was actually “King of the Jews.” This Herod is his son, Herod Antipas, and he ruled only 1/4th of what had been his father’s kingdom. He was a “tetrarch”, which literally means he ruled 1/4th of what would have been a kingdom if it was whole. He had other brothers who also had the first name Herod. Thus he was not a king, and it isn’t clear if Mark is unaware of that fact, or if he is rubbing it in with this story.

Herodias was a granddaughter of Herod the Great, who had been married off to Herod the II, son of Herod the Great, brother to Herod Antipas, and her half-uncle. Mark mis-states that her first husband had been Phillip, but got correct that it has been one of Herod Antipas’s brothers. Her second husband, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee was also her half uncle. Also her parents were cousins, but we’re now off topic. Both Herod Antipas and Herodias were each other’s second spouses, both of their first spouses were still alive and they’d each divorced them. The practicing Jews of the day would not have been chill about that. Herodias had a daughter from her first marriage, Salome. Mark also misnames her. To Salome, Herod Antipas would have been half-uncle, half-great uncle, cousin of some sort and stepfather. Observant Jews at the time would have found Salome and Herod Antipas’s familial ties too close for him to “appreciate her dance” quite so much. Of course, all of the marriages we have spoken about were intended for political gain.

Scholars are quite certain that Herod Antipas, the tetrarch whose area included Galilee had John the Baptist killed. John the Baptist had a ministry in Galilee, where he preached repentance of sins, and thus called people back to observant Judaism. Ched Myer’s in Binding Up the Strong Man points out that the story Mark tells about how John was killed was intended to teach important lessons about how the world works. Given the distance from the events, and how little Mark seems to know about the people involved, he took poetic license in telling a story that was true in essence, but not necessarily factual. The inaccurate names and roles seems to uphold this theory, Mark may not have known the right names, but it also seems like he doesn’t care that much. He’s telling a different kind of story than direct history.

Myers thinks that John the Baptist “here represents the view that to claim to rule over the Jewish people is legitimate only if Jewish law is recognized.”1 This is relevant not only because of divorce or incest, but also because “Herod Antipas, however, was a staunch Hellenist and was notorious among religious Jews for his contempt of their religious practices. Indeed, he built his capital city, Tiberias, on an ancient burial ground, rendering the city religiously unclean to observant Jews”.2So Herod Antipas was ruling over the Jews, but didn’t live according to Jewish laws, and John the Baptist was a reformer calling on the Jews to reclaim the depth of their faithfulness and laws.

The story says that Herod was having a party with his “courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee” (v. 21) for his birthday. Meyers says: “Mark accurately describes the inner circle of power as an incestuous relationship involving governmental, military, and commercial interests.” Yet among all these powerful men it is a dancing girl who determines the fate of the Baptist! At the center of the story is Herod’s ‘oath’ to Herodias’s daughter, stated twice for comic emphasis (6:22f.). This fiction is no more an attempt to excuse Herod from culpability in the death of John than is the fiction of Barabbas or the crowd’s demand an attempt to excuse Pilate from the death of Jesus. The dilemma created by the oath is a parody on the shameless methods of decision making among the elite, a world in which human life is bartered to save royal face: Herod trades the ‘head’ (symbolizing his honor) of the prophet to rescue the integrity of his own drunken oath (6:24-28).

Mark’s account of the death of John is scarcely apolitical! A more sarcastic social caricature could not have been spun by the bitterest Galilean peasants.”3

So, Mark tells a story that clarifies how little the elite value the lives of the peasants, a story that the peasants already know based on every other part of their lives. Jesus told a lot of stories like that too, to clarify how things really worked and to make sure that the propaganda that said otherwise looked ridiculous. John the Baptist was killed by an order from Herod Antipas, likely because Herod thought he was either too popular or his message was too threatening. This story just takes it a little bit further, and makes parody, or maybe a parable, out of it.

Of course, this isn’t just a story of the Roman Empire in the first century though. John the Baptist was preaching repentance in the wilderness, he was calling on the people to recommit themselves to God, which meant recommitting themselves to God’s covenant. As was true of the prophets before him who has called for people to follow the covenant, he met resistance. The people in power don’t like God’s vision for how the world should be, because it involves shared power and equitable distribution of resources. God’s covenant doesn’t make space for consolidated power and wealth. Prophets get silenced or killed. This is a universal story.. Those who threaten the power structures take risks with their lives.

Mark’s version, which makes parody out of the choice to kill John, emphasizes the power differential and the lack of respect for human life that can happen at the top of the power pyramid. This isn’t a pleasant story. It isn’t uplifting. It doesn’t have a moral, or at least not one that you can feel good about. It serves to foreshadow Jesus’s death by reminding the audience of what happens when God’s dreams meet humans in power who have reason to maintain the status quo.

Sometimes these days I wish the Bible was an easier book, by which I mean a less honest one. I want the Bible I was taught about in Sunday School. From what I could figure then, that Bible was full of understandable stories of good people doing good things connected to the Holy One. I’m stuck with this really honest one that articulates the brokenness of humans, of families, of communities, and most especially of domination systems. The Bible we have doesn’t let me stick my head in the sand, sing Disney songs, and pretend everything is OK anymore than watching the news or talking with our breakfast guests does.

I have a long list of things I’m worried about in the country and the world (as well as the church) right now. I suspect you do too. I’m not going to name any part of that list today. Sometimes we need a rest, a respite, a chance to recover from the worries instead of just watching the piles grow larger. Recently, I’ve been feeling more and more moved to give us all that respite in worship. I hear the exhaustion among us, I hear the fears, I hear the sense of moral outrage, I hear sadness and anger, disbelief and grief.

I hear a yearning for good news, and within that a yearning for better news than that John the Baptist was killed because domination systems don’t like God’s prophets 😉

So, let’s look at the Psalm for a moment 😉 The lectionary had us skip the beginning of the Psalm, which could lead us to miss how relevant it is. The beginning of the Psalm reminds God of what God has previously done for the people, and then begins to BEG of God that the Divine step in again. Things are all going wrong, and the Psalmist requests forgiveness, restoration, salvation, revival, and love. Everything is wrong and the Psalmist wants God to intervene. I think I can resonate with that.

Then we get to the part we read out-loud today. The Psalmist asks for God’s words, particularly for words of blessing and hope: that “shalom” might be spoken to the people. “Shalom is the comprehensive concept of well-being, peace, and welfare which includes love, faithfulness, righteousness, prosperity, and glory.”4 – and it’s corporate. “’If there is to be well-being, it will not be just for isolated, insulated individuals; it is rather security and prosperity granted to a whole community – young and old, rich and poor, powerful and dependent. Always we are all in it together.’”5 The Psalmist asks God to speak shalom to the people.

The last stanza of the Psalm is presented as that speaking of shalom. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (v. 10-11) I’m going to give you a two tiny parts of the nuance of “righteousness” because like “shalom” it has a community emphasis that I don’t think we’re used to hearing. Righteousness “denotes not so much the abstract idea of justice or virtue, as right standing and consequent right behaviour, within a community.”6 Put another way, “Righteousness is about our accepting and living into the mutual, vulnerable, and interdependent reality of all relationships. It is about accepting the fact that from this reality, this righteous relationship, the life of God is experienced.”7

So, steadfast love and being in right standing with each other will meet; and treating each other mutuality will kiss with communal holistic well being. Faithfulness will spring up out of the earth itself without effort, and interdependence will fall from the sky like a gentle rain. It is a beautiful vision!

The Psalm puts together four of the most common qualities of the Divine: steadfast love, faithfulness (which is related to truth), righteousness, and shalom. Interestingly, they are also qualities of people who are working together to build the kindom of God. It doesn’t work without steadfast love, without honesty with each other, without being in good relationship, without an awareness that none of us can be truly well unless all of us are well!

Said a whole lot less poetically, the kindom of God is build on loving relationships. Good loving relationships are good in and of themselves and are the building blocks of the kindom. I’m not talking only about romantic relationships nor familial ones, although those count! I mean that loving each other – including loving our enemies (even the WCA) – is the way we reflect God’s nature in the world and build the kindom of God.

The work of advocacy, protest, and resistance is mean to be built on love and built through loving relationships, too. That’s actually where the hope is! When we can love each other, and when we are able to allow God to help us expand our hearts to love and be in relationship with a wider circle of people, the kindom of God is build.

Right now, it feels like a lot of things are going backward, and we can’t control all of them. It is scary and sad and frustrating and terrible at times! BUT, the key to it all is love: love God, love ourselves, love each other, and let the love expand. The kindom is build on loving relationships, and those are life giving in every way. May we go, and love. Amen

1 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 1988, 2008), 216.
2 Robert A. Bryant, “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 6:14-29” in Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett editors of Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 3 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2009), 239.
3 Myers, 216.
4 Marvin E Tate, Psalms 51-100 Volume 20; David A. Hubbard and Gleen W Barker, editors, World Bible Commentary series, (Zonderan, 1991), 372.
5 Tate quoting Walter Bruggemann from Living Towards a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom, 1982.
6 N.T. Wright “Righteousness” from NTWrightPagehttp://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/righteousness/ accessed on July 12, 2018.
7 Todd M. Donatelli “Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 85:8-13” in Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett editors of Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 3 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2009), 227

“Speaking the Vision Anyway” based on Ezekiel 2:1-5 and…

I grew up and went to school in a rural area that was pretty stable and unchanging. Teachers in my school district often taught multiple generations of the same family. It was normal for any of us to be referred to by our older siblings names, as our teachers had all taught our siblings before us. I attended the same school district k-12, and most of my kindergarten class graduated with me. Many of us, even, had gone to preschool together.

In a conversation one time about places like that, I heard a very wise reflection, “It is really great to have people you’ve known since 2nd grade, but it isn’t always great that those people remember when you puked on the art teacher’s shoes IN 2nd grade.” It is with this background, and with that wisdom, that I consider this story of Jesus trying to “go home again.”

The problem is that, as humans, we develop theories of who people are. The longer we’ve known them, the more certain we are about our theories. In stable and unchanging communities, people get locked into particular roles, ones that don’t necessarily even fit them anymore. In those places, there isn’t a lot of space for people to take on new roles or identities.

This can also be true in families. Family Systems Theory even says that when one person in a system tries to function in a different way, the entire system around them works to re-stabilize the system, BY pushing that person back into their former role. This is why we often revert to ways of being that we’ve otherwise abandoned when we are with our nascent families.

Nazareth thought they knew who Jesus was. They knew his mother. They knew his brothers and sisters. They knew his training. It wasn’t a big village. Likely they ALL knew how many times he’d puked at age 7, and where.

In their list of knowing who he is, and thus why he can’t be the same guy who is shaking up the world around them with his teaching and healing, they call him “Mary’s son.” As one scholar puts it, “even if his father Joseph had died by this time, to identify Jesus as his mother’s son rather than his father’s might have been intended as an insult, shaming Jesus by insinuating that he did not have a father.”1 In fact, in the book of Mark, Jesus’ father is never mentioned. Mark is the first Gospel to have been written, which suggests that in the earliest stories told about Jesus, his father was not a part of the stories. It isn’t clear what this means. It may mean that the best memory of the community was that Jesus’ paternal parentage wasn’t known, it might just mean that an insult was launched at Jesus and was remembered. However, since Matthew and Luke attempts to “fix” the problem of Jesus not having a father, I think that may mean they were doing clean up work to try to gloss over this question.

Now, I don’t say this just to mess up our stories. I say it because I think it may be important. There has been so much emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God, which has distanced him from his humanity, and from the rest of us. There were rumors in early centuries that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier, which would certainly be possible. What impact would that have had on Mary? On Jesus? It seems to me that a questionable parentage reminds us of Jesus’ humanity, and perhaps even reminds us why he cared so much about vulnerable people who appeared to be at the bottom of society.

In any case, it seems that in his village of Nazareth, the people don’t think Jesus was meant to break out of his roles as his mother’s son and as a day-laboring builder. He was NOT supposed to be a wisdom teacher, a healer, a leader. He was supposed to be a little bit ashamed, and humble. These people knew him, and his secrets. He wasn’t a big deal to them. In fact, to them he wasn’t supposed to be a big deal to anybody else.

I love the little detail that says, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (verse 5) That indicates that the expectations of the people, the ways they saw him, impacted his abilities. It may mean no one asked anything of him. It may mean he tried, but couldn’t, not when faced with such disbelief from the people in front of him. In either case, it feels to me like that Family Systems Theory again. The roles people expect of us impact who we are when we’re around them! The energy in the room impacts all of us. I think he couldn’t, not there, not with how they saw him.

This matters for us too. How we perceive each other, and what space we make for each other to grow and change, impacts how we can able to grow and change! Perhaps, even more broadly, how we understand ourselves as a church likely impacts what we can be as a church!!

It seems that Jesus took the momentary setback of his hometown well. He takes the moment and uses it to give advice to his disciples as he sends them out. He seems to easily remember what it is like not to be heard, and tells them what to do if they aren’t heard. They are to shake the dust off their feet. Thus, they leave that place there, and don’t take any part of it with them as they go on.

Ezekiel, too, is about what is to be said whether or not the people hear. It is particularly direct about this, ending with the line, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” (verse 5) As one scholar puts it, ““The role of ‘hearing’ in a traditional society indicates more than an auditory event alone; it is a holistic response to the message. In Ezekiel’s case, the ‘hearing’ of the listeners does not affect the role of the prophet, nor does it require the acknowledgment of the audience. Even if they do not ‘hear,’ they will nonetheless know that there was a prophet in their midst.”2

In 597 BCE the king of Judah had miscalculated the outcome of the power struggle between Babylon and Egypt, resulting in a Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. That siege resulted in his removal, along with many of the leaders of Judah, “nobles, craftsmen, and smiths as well as ‘the men of valor’”3 to Babylon. The king of Babylon put a successor on the throne, one who also read the political winds poorly, which resulted in the nearly complete destruction of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE and a larger wave of exiles being taken to Babylon. Ezekiel was sent to be the prophet to the first group of exiled leaders. That group likely included his father, a priest. It included Ezekiel too.

As one scholar puts it, “There, in a foreign land, among a displaced people, God appears!”4 I don’t know that Ezekiel, or the exiled community expected that. At least in part, they thought of YHWH as the God of the Promised Land. And they thought of being exiles as being punished by God, or out of favor with God, or maybe proof that God wasn’t as powerful as they’d dreamed. Thus, they didn’t expect God to appear. At the start of this passage, after Ezekiel has experienced an initial vision of the Divine, Ezekiel is told to “get up.” He doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t seem able to. He seems like he is in shock, or awe, or something. God has appeared when God wasn’t supposed to. So the Spirit has to get him up on his feet so that he can be sent off on God’s mission!!

This vision of God in the exiled land “assures us that we are never so far away that God cannot find us. Even in moments of exile, God remembers us and comes to us.”5That was good news for the exiles, and it is good news for us when we feel like exiles in our own land. God sent Ezekiel to speak to the leaders in exile. Neither their status as the upper crust nor their status as exiles prevented God from wanting to speak to them. Furthermore, their status as “unlikely to listen” doesn’t to matter either.

God sends Ezekiel to speak, and says Ezekiel is to speak WHETHER OR NOT they listen. His job is not to convince them of something, is not to make himself heard, nor is it to change their ways of doing things. His job is to speak. In speaking to them as a prophet, inherently, he is communicating that God is with them, God still cares, and nothing they do can shake God off. God sends prophets to those God loves.

I have to admit, I’m a bit preoccupied with this idea of being asked to do work WHETHER OR NOT it changes anything. (I nearly said whether or not it matters, which is likely what I really think.) What things are worth doing, even if they don’t change out comes? What things need to be said, even if they aren’t heard? What are we called to do and to be, EVEN if the world around us stays exactly the same?

I guess that’s another way of saying, “What is God wanting us to do or say?” because it seems that the things that could matter so much that they need to be done regardless of outcome would be things that are that important because God asks us to do them. What injustices need to be named, what alarm bells need to be rung, what cries need to be wailed, what joy needs to be exclaimed, what love needs to be exclaimed… whether or not anyone hears it, just because it has to be done?

Jesus went and preached in his hometown, which wasn’t likely to matter. They already knew what they thought of him. Ezekiel got sent to preach to the leaders in exile, and they weren’t going to listen. But they both went anyway. Jesus sent his disciples off giving them a way not to carry with the the failure of any group to listen to them. In doing so, he made it possible to remember that what needs to be said needs to be said regardless of who listens. Some will listen, some won’t, the message needs to be shared.

So, what is it that God needs us to say, regardless of who listens? (Answers welcome at any time.) Amen

1 Feasting on the Word, Exegetical Commentary on Mark 6:10-13, p. 215.
2 Feasting on the Word, Exegetical Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5, page 199.
3 Katheryn Pfisterer Darr “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VI, Leander E. Keck Covener of the Editorial Board (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2001), 1078.
4 Feasting on the Word, Homiletical Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5, page 197.
5 Homiletical, 197.

“Is the Body of Christ Intersex?” based on Genesis…

There are a lot of metaphors for the Holy One. Some Biblical metaphors are: rock, fortress, shepherd, light, Alpha and Omega, vine, bread of life, fire, breath, father, laboring woman, king, nursing mother, warrior, mother hen – to name a few. As evidenced, some of the metaphors are genderless, some are masculine, and some are feminine.

Most theists I know believe that the Divine is Spirit, and Spirit is beyond gender. At the same time, most of them use masculine pronouns for the Holy One, often unconsciously. As Rev. Dr. Michelle Bogue-Trost stated in a petition to this year’s Annual Conference entitled “Expansive Language,” “imagery conveyed by language becomes a teaching methodology as we articulate our understandings of humanity and of God, and influences our understanding of the nature of the Divine and of all creation, including all of God’s people.”1 Thus, she said, “limiting our use of language and imagery to male-only naming for God or for humanity; … is hurtful to faithful persons of all varieties.”2 The United Methodist Church already has a Resolution “encouraging United Methodist clergy and laity ‘to use diverse Biblical images and titles for God, including masculine/feminine metaphors; use language for humans that reflects both male and female; use metaphors of color, darkness, ability, and age in positive ways,’ and further, that we affirm the use of Biblical language and images in all their forms as appropriate for use in hymns, liturgy, teaching, and in all areas of our common life together.’”3

Her petition asked that “the Upper New York Annual Conference commits itself to use language and imagery about God and humanity in ways that are faithfully inclusive of the variety of humanity and myriad of understandings of God.”4 (It was more extensive, and even better, but that’s the succinct version.) To the horror of our church representatives, the resolution did NOT pass. There was anxiety in the Annual Conference about speaking of the Divine in expansive and inclusive ways. (Yes, it is OK to face palm at this point.)

That was a shame. When we limit our metaphors of Holiness, especially by associating the Holy One with the ones who hold disproportionate power in society, we do great harm. It was at the moment that the Expansive Language Resolution failed that Alice Nash suggested we take the time to celebrate in worship The Holy One who is gender non-binary. This church is blessed with wise lay leaders!

The another piece fell into place. Our delegation to the United Methodist Women’s Assembly had also returned and brought back with them a book entitled Beyond a Binary God: A Theology for Trans* Allies by Tara K. Soughers. Rev. Dr. Soughers offers some very helpful definitions, ones that I think we all need.

HOWEVER, before I can offer her definitions, I need to be clear that definitions of words around gender identity are not universally agreed upon. This is one set, even I can find issue with some of the words, and some people will find them inaccurate in meaningful ways. That said, I believe this would be true of any definitions, and we need to start somewhere. She says:

Gender identity is the gender that the person knows oneself to be interiorly. Those whose self-understanding of gender is inconsistent with their biological sex or gender assigned at birth are known as transgender, the ‘T’ in our list of letters. Trans– means “across” so transgender individuals are those whose gender is across from, or on another side of, the gender they were assigned at birth. Alternatively, those whose self-understanding of gender is consistent with their biological sex are known as cis-gender – in other words “on the same side.” Some people do not identify with either masculine or feminine gender. Those people often identify as agender. Others identify with both masculine and feminine genders, and often consider themselves gender fluid. Collectively, those who do not have a singular gender identity are often called “gender queer”, a variation of “Q”5 … Non-binary trans* people are those who do not fit into the binary understanding of gender. They can present as masculine, feminine, or androgynous; sometimes they can present differently depending on the context. Often they prefer to use “they/them/theirs” as pronouns, or other non-gendered personal pronouns that are becoming more widely used.6

If that was too much, let me repeat the most succint line, “Non-binary trans* people are those who do not fit into the binary understanding of gender.” The binary refers to the binary of masculine and feminine, particularly when they are understood as opposites.

Our first Scripture gives us one of the best examples in Scripture of the Divine as gender non-binary. It is from the first creation story in Genesis, the priestly version, and our text comes from day 6 of creation. The core part of that story for our purposes are the words, “Then G-d said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. … Humankind was created as G-d’s reflection: in the divine image G-d created them; female and male, G-d made them.” (Inclusive Bible, Genesis 1:26a, 27) Do you hear it? Female AND male are created in the image of the Creator, that the Holy One contains both what is reflected in the masculine and what is reflected in the feminine!! That would mean that the Divine fits the definition of gender non-binary. The Holy One presents as female at times, as male at times, as androgynous at times, and as non-personified at times too! The Divine doesn’t fit our human categories, but it is more than that. The Creator is fundamentally non-binary, and in specific, gender non-binary.

You may remember that in Genesis 1, creation happens by creating light, then separating light from darkness; then creating sky, and separating sky from water; then creating land which separating land from sea; then creating vegetation and so on, culminating in the creation of humans then the Sabbath. Rev. Dr. Soughers makes a further wonderful point about this passage, in the context of the first creation story:

“only day and night were created, but not twilight or dawn. Dry land and water were supposedly separated, but we also have marshes and swamps where dry land and water mix. Just because marshes or twilight are not mentioned in creation does not mean that either is impossible or excluded. The binaries were meant to suggest not only the extremes that are named, but everything in between. If that is the case with dawn and with swamps, why exclude the possibility of that also being true in the case of gender?”7

Thus, there is even more in this story than the Creator containing both masculine and feminine, there is space for both the Creator and the created to be both/and and to be neither/nor. The range of gender is in the image of the Creator, and the Creator is reflected in all varieties of gender identities. This also includes “agender”, which for many of us might be the easiest gender to associate the the Creator, who we think of as a Spirit beyond gender. In any case, we are blessed by the opportunity to expand our metaphors and see expressions we’ve previously missed about the Holy One.

Now, onto the question of this sermon, “Is the Body of Christ Intersex?” First, let’s get a definition, in this case from the Intersex Society of North America, “’Intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.8 Depending on the breadth one uses with that definition, one can conclude that between 0.07% and 1.7% of babies born are born intersex. To be very clear, to speak of people who are intersex is to talk about biological sex, and not gender identity. In the past, intersex babies were often assigned a biological sex and surgery was preformed to conform their anatomy to the assigned sex. Luckily, this is much less common now. Today, intersex people are most often raised with a presumptive gender, one that the individual may or may not affirm later in life.9 By not preforming surgery at birth, the intersex individual can later decide if surgeries are appropriate to express their gender identity.

Our second reading today introduces the concept of the Body of Christ, of which we are all members. Each of us contribute our gifts, given by the Spirit, to the work of the whole. The continued living Body of Christ, doing the work that Jesus began in his life time, is the most profound explanation of resurrection I know. “And that Body is not one part, it is many.” (Inclusive Bible, 1 Corinthians 12:14). The passage goes on to pontificate about how the ear has a differentiated role from the foot; and that our suffering and joys are shared. Maybe I am extending the metaphor too far, but I tend to think that the Body of Christ is a real, full, and human like body. I think there is Holiness to bodies themselves, and they serve as a great metaphor for the Body of Christ.

When Jesus was alive, to the best of my knowledge, his body was male. However, I don’t think that gives us information about the gender (nor sex) of the current living Body of Christ. The answer to my question about the Body being intersex is “I don’t think so” because to be intersex never refers to being fully female and fully male at the same time, because that doesn’t physiologically occur in bodies. Yet, to imagine the Body of Christ in its fullness, for me at least, requires imagining the physiologically impossible. The Body cannot be the Body of Christ, a composite of all the humans who are a part of it, and lack the fullness of femininity, nor the fullness of masculinity. I can’t tell you with the gender identity of the Body of Christ (although I’d imagine gender non-binary and perhaps oscillating between a both and to masculine and feminine and neither/nor to the same), but I do think the full range of biological sex options have to simultaneously co-exist. I guess, then, that I have to revise my answer. I think the Body of Christ IS intersex, and female, and male, all at once.

And I think the Body of Christ reflects the Creator’s own self, which is broad enough to also contain all gender identities and biological sexes. And I think this is very, very good news for humanity, which has been created in the image of Holiness itself, which a wide range of diversity and variety. Not only does the full range of gender identity reflect the Holy One, all people in all gender identities are reflections of the Creator’s own self!!

May our images and metaphors for the Divine continue to grow and expand, along with our love for the Creator’s children and creation. Amen

1Michelle Bogue-Trost, 2018 Upper New York Annual Conference Journal Volume 1, for the May 2-June 2, 2018 session, page 96.
2Bogue-Trost, 96.
3Bogue-Trost, quoting the 2016 Book of Resolution, #8011, page 96.
4Bogue-Trost, 96-97.
5Footnote in the book says, “The Q in our alphabet of letters stands for queer or questioning. Queer, originally a derogatory term for the LBGT community, has been reclaimed by the community as a source of pride. It is often used as an umbrella term for those whose gender identity, gender expression/presentation, or sexual orientation deviates from cultural norms. Gender queer individuals are those whose gender identity is ‘queered,’ i.e. they do not identify with the gender binary.” Others would say that Q is an umbrella term for sexual orientations other than straight and that trans is a gender term for gender identities other than cis.
6Tara K. Soughers, Beyond a Binary God: A Theology for Trans* Allies (New York: Church Publishing, 2018) p. 16-17.
7Soughers, 71-72.
8Intersex Society of North America, What is Intersex found at http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex on June 28, 2018.
9Intersex Society of North America, How can you assign a gender (boy or girl) without surgery? found at http://www.isna.org/faq/gender_assignment on June 28, 2018.

“Calm Seas” based on 1 Samuel 17:32-49 and Mark…

In seminary, I learned that the calming of the sea narrative was one of many that was meant to one-up a story about the Greco-Roman gods and and goddesses. Specifically, in Aeneid, the god Neptune calms the waters that had been raised in a wind storm. I thought that was really interesting. I also thought it was sort of irrelevant to faith.

As the years have gone on, I’ve revised my opinion. I still think a competition of “my God is better than your god” is silly, but I have come to suspect that significantly more is going on. There were a whole lot of Greco-Roman gods and goddess, and they were said to do a lot of things. Thus, I suspect there was intentionality in the choices of which stories of Greco-Roman gods and goddesses were one-upped. It is similar to when stories in the Hebrew Bible are adaptations of stories told by their Ancient Near East neighbors. Both the choice of the which stories to adapt AND the adaptions made tell a lot about how our ancestors in faith understood God!

In Aeneid, as the protagonists ships sail from Troy to Italy, the goddess queen tells the god of wind to send a storm to capsize their ships and prevent them from their task. The god Neptune feels infringed upon, as he is the god of the sea, and decides to calm the storm. The story in Aeneid sounds like this:

[Neptune] spoke, and swiftlier than his word subdued the swelling of the floods; dispersed afar th’ assembled clouds, and brought back light to heaven. Cymothoe then and Triton, with huge toil, thrust down the vessels from the sharp-edged reef; while, with the trident, the great god’s own hand assists the task; then, from the sand-strewn shore out-ebbing far, he calms the whole wide sea, and glides light-wheeled along the crested foam. As when, with not unwonted tumult, roars in some vast city a rebellious mob, and base-born passions in its bosom burn, till rocks and blazing torches fill the air (rage never lacks for arms)—if haply then some wise man comes, whose reverend looks attest a life to duty given, swift silence falls; all ears are turned attentive; and he sways with clear and soothing speech the people’s will. So ceased the sea’s uproar, when its grave Sire looked o’er th’ expanse, and, riding on in light, flung free rein to his winged obedient car.

– Aeneid book 1:142-156

So what does it mean that the early Christian community chose to adapt stories about gods calming storms into a story about Jesus calming the storm? And what else does our particular story seem to be communicating to us?

There are some similarities – Neptune spoke and the result was immediate. The wind started the storm. There were multiple boats involved. Overall, it is a similar enough story to be clear that there is a connection. There are some differences too, there are helpers for Neptune, and Neptune’s own life wasn’t threatened by the storm. I find it potentially notable that Neptune’s actions were motivated by a sense of being infringed upon. The ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses had their own spheres of influence. Perhaps part of the point is that YHWH, and thus Jesus, had no need for such jealousy about spheres of influence because there is no competition and there is no end to their spheres.

This also fits with the many ways that stories are adaptations of the stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses- the point is not that Jesus was better than ONE of them, but rather that he was better than ALL of them. In the Gospel narrative, the storm was simply a part of nature (not the work of another deity). Furthermore, in this story Jesus is leaving Galilee and thus leaving the lands of the people who knew YHWH, and yet his influence remains. Jesus is not just powerful in one small region of the world – his sphere of influence is not limited. Thus, in adapting this story the Gospel writer is able to claim that Jesus is more powerful than the forces of nature itself. Thus, a theological turn on an older and well known story.

It turns out this story is especially interesting because it seems to both adapt and retell Hebrew Bible stories and Greco-Roman ones. We remember the story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt, and controlling the waters. One scholar explains the similarities:

Paralleling Mark 4:35-41, with darkness looming on the horizon Jesus and his disciples set sail. Later that night, they encounter a furious storm on the Sea of Galilee. At this critical moment Jesus is found sleeping on a cushion and his disciples are in a state of terror as the waves begin to break over their boats. They awaken Jesus and cry out, “Teacher, don’t you care if we perish?” (Mk 4:36). There is harmony here in all the Synoptic narratives, but the next detail sets Mark apart from the others when he tells us specifically what Jesus said to the wind and waves, “Peace! Be still!” (Mk 4:39).

Returning to Exodus 14, Moses is pressed for answers as the tension mounts and the future of the children of Israel hangs in the balance. With the crowds pressing him, he exclaims, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex 14:13-14).

With both Jesus calming the storm and Moses calming the Israelites, we have two nearly identical moments involving imminent doom that is tranquilized by the words “Quiet, be still” or “Peace be still.”1

We start in this story on the seashore, and the crowds have gathered to hear Jesus teach. Crowds were a little bit dangerous to Jesus. They put a target on his back in the Roman Empire, and yet they seemed to emerge anywhere he went. Jesus was always trying to satisfy the people AND get away from the crowds. So, in characteristic style, he decided to leave the crowd that had gathered. To me it sounds a bit desperate, especially when getting in the boats and going to the other side meant leaving Galilee and thus leaving the Jewish homeland. Perhaps that’s part of the metaphor. Maybe the disciples were stormy about where they were headed, but Jesus was calm. Perhaps they were all stormy, because of Jesus being worried about the crowds.

Now, I’m not sure what to make of the idea that Jesus can sleep through a ranging windstorm, of the sort that would sink boats with crashing waves, but then again he had taught all day, and after just once worship service I take a nap I call the pastor’s-coma. So maybe it was just that? Or maybe it is just that Jesus can keep calm and focused when no one else can? Or perhaps their panic was not his, as he trusted all would be well? I’m not sure.

They wake him up saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you hear how human this is? It doesn’t sound like Neptune, it doesn’t even sound like Moses. Jesus, the human, was sleeping, and had to be roused. His followers were terrified and he hadn’t even noticed! They were horrified he wasn’t helping – I suspect they might have expected him to participate in bailing!

Now, when you hear this story, do you imagine it like a movie in your mind? If so, how does it sound when Jesus “rebukes the wind”? Does he actually yell at the wind? Does he just motion? Is he annoyed? Or parental? Is the wind touching him until he rebukes it, or is he excluded from it the whole time? Is he standing, sitting, or still reclined on that cushion? Are the words “Peace! Be still!” repeated for the wind and the sea, or just the sea, or are his words for the wind not recorded?

I don’t know what it means to rebuke the wind. But the wind and the sea are said to go from roiling and threatening death to a “dead calm.” Similarly though, both the storm and the people are settled by the action! The storm isn’t just raging on the waters, the storm has entered the hearts of the people and they are terrified.

The people are not calmed as easily as the storm though. While the fear of death from drowning has passed, their shock at what had happened seemed to replace it. In this story at least, calming the sea with words is not considered normal, and the supernatural isn’t considered the way of the world. They were awed, which has a tinge of “scared” to it. They were attentive to him and terrified by him. Jesus, meanwhile seems not to understand why they were scared in the first place, nor afterward. It is not the most empathetic story told about Jesus.

So why did they choose to tell a story about Jesus calming the storm? One option is because he did so, but even if he did it raises the question of why this story made the cut to be in the gospels while others did not. As always with the Bible, my suspicion is that the stories that kept being told and retold were the ones with great metaphorical value and insight. In this case, the story tells us that the storms of life will come, but God is more powerful than they are. It is a story that encourages us to trust God, and trust in Jesus’s power as well. Since human life comes with a lot of metaphorical storms, there is a lot of value in a narrative that tells us they won’t overcome us.

This explanation also makes sense of the story of David and Goliath that is presented to us in the Hebrew Bible lesson offered us today. In many ways, it is a very similar story. Death, which was the reasonably assumed outcome from facing a gigantic and successful warrior, was avoided and even overcome with God on David’s side. Both stories are told to remind us that God can overcome adversity, and what looks doomed to humans may not be to God.

With Jesus, with God, calm seas are possible. We aren’t doomed to live in fear. We can even be freed from fear, to live in trust. Its pretty good news, this adaption of an ancient story. Thanks be to God. Amen

1 Exodus Muses: Jesus as a Type of Moses Calming Storms & Drowning Legions First Published JCF Newsletter April 2012 By Jon “Yoni” Gerrish http://www.jerusalemcornerstone.org/resources/articles_main-page/calming-storms-drowning-legions

“Not Seen, Not Forgotten” based on 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13…

It must have been about a decade ago, more or less. I was jogging one evening, around dusk. It was a really beautiful evening, the sky had transformed into one of those dark yet vivid shades of blue that always delights me. The temperature was just right – I was neither hot nor cold. I’m not sure how it happened, but I got thinking about floating in a body of water that was also neither hot nor cold, but just right. Just easy floating in comfortable water.
Then I started considering how easy it is to move your body when you are floating in water. A flick of the wrist can shift you around. As I thought of that, I realized that in this envisioned body of water, there was a teeny tiny current. It was so small that a flick of my wrist could keep me from being moved by it, but it was enough that it could guide my way.
That was it. I had a conception of a warm, safe body of water with a tiny current that I could float in, and either allow the current to move me, or not, with great ease. It felt like a lot more though. It felt like a vision of wonder and grace that was a gift from the Divine. I experienced it as a reminder that I had the freedom to easily follow through with my own will, that God would not overpower me. And a reminder that there was guidance available to me, a path that I could let myself be led on if I choose. I need not be aimless if I wish to allow the current to lead. The balance of guidance and freedom co-existing together was powerful.
It was a relief to think about my relationship with God, my life decisions, and even my life itself as FLOATING. I have sometimes had a tendency to think of them more as a swim race across the English Channel. In this vision the floating was good. It was not only good because it was easy, although it was easy. It was also all that was asked of me. I could float where I wanted, or float along as the current lead me, but the current was too slow and gentle for me to find it swimming. All I had to do was float. And even then either choice was OK.
(The few times that I’ve had visions that I think are of/from the Divine I’ve noticed that the God I experience is profoundly nonjudgmental and supportive.)
All in all, for me, that vision reminds me of the experience of Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is prayer based on the name of God, YHWH, which means something like “I am” “I am who I am” “I will be who I will be”. It is a prayer of BEING, rather than a prayer of doing, or thinking. It is silent prayer, but not just silent on the outside. Centering prayer is prayer that is silent on the inside too. It is simply BEING, along with the “Great I AM.” So much of life is about doing, or speaking, or listening. It is active, engaged, intentional. Centering prayer is like floating on the warm, mostly still waters of God’s care, and just enjoying being alive.
Or, at least, it is when it works. It can be really hard to be silent on the inside, and then it doesn’t feel at all like that when you are trying and failing.
The parables in the gospels seem to tell a similar story. They speak of God’s mysterious actions, ones that humans wouldn’t be able to replicate. We can sow seeds, the gospel says, but we can’t control if they germinate or not. We might as well go to sleep and let God do God’s mysterious things. Soil, water, sun, and air work their magic on the the seed, all giving gifts no human can offer. After all that, the human can cut it down and enjoy the grain. But the human can’t make the grain. (This was true in the time of Jesus, let’s give it to him.)
We also can’t always predict how things will go. “The mustard seed was a common metaphor in Palestine for ‘the smallest thing.’ The plant could grow as tall as a house, and birds seemed to love its little black seeds.”1 The people knew about the disparity between seed size and plant size, talked about it. In the gospel, it is used to indicate how vibrant and abundant God’s work in the kindom is. What appears small and insignificant to human eyes is plenty to change a landscape and an eco-system.
God is at work in building the kindom. God can make big things happen out of a tiny start! God’s work is mysterious and happens out of our sight, and yet we can see the fruits of God’s labor and with it we are fed and nurtured. God is invested in building the kindom and God is capable of doing it. The planted seed is no longer seen, but is not forgotten as it germinates and grows.
But, this raises some significant questions. Another commentator names them this way:
“One suspects that the early Christian communities were often as puzzled by this parabolic presentation of the kingdom as we are. These two parables that Mark stitches together have generated may theological interpretations over the centuries. Does the kingdom come slowly, over the long haul? Should we understand the harvest in due season as the future event of the eschatological time? Are we to believe that God is in control of the growth and harvest, despite the evidences of the way the world is?”2
Another commentator offered a great explanation of the words themseves.
“Hē basileia tou theou, found fourteen times in the Gospel of Mark and usually translated ‘the kingdom of God’ or ‘the dominion of God’ is an ancient metaphor not easily translated into today’s culture. In the first century CE, power and dominion belonged to Caesar. Early Christians preached that Caesar’s domination had been overtaken by the domination of God. This was an in-your-face radical claim defining insiders not by Caesar’s proclamation, but by relationship to the community that followed Jesus. (cf. Mark 3:31-35) In various twenty-first century cultures, the claim of radical inclusion is seeking expression in terms reflecting the egalitarian relationship of God’s beloved community. To that end, we translate hē basileia tou theou as ‘the kin-dom of God.’”3
So, then God’s beloved community comes into being mysteriously, with God’s effort, and is able to grow big and strong even from humble beginnings. It is as if the beloved community itself is a gift from God for God’s people. Then, as a part of the beloved community we are able to share that love – and it doesn’t always have to be difficult – and sharing love is building the kindom. I know sometimes it is difficult, and that’s good too. But it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be difficult! It is OK to float along in the current of God’s love. It is OK, sometimes, to just be.
Now, in the Hebrew Bible story, God also acts in mysterious and unexpected ways. The first of which is when text clearly states that God changes God’s mind! 15:34 b, “for YHWH regretted making him ruler over Israel.” (Inclusive Bible Translation) I think it is helpful to notice when the Bible says God changes God’s own mind, it reminds us that we are allowed to also! As I was taught in Process Theology, it also indicates that God is responsive to us! What we do in the world impacts God’s own being, and God has to change and response to the realities that we have created.
The story goes onto say that Samuel thinks he knows what God is going to do next! Samuel is sent to make a king from one of Jesse’s sons, and Samuel figures it will be the oldest one, especially when he sees that the oldest one is tall and handsome. Samuel is terribly human in that way, assuming that stature and beauty have to do with competence and blessing. Samuel is said to be rebuked by God, who does NOT care about those things. Although, I have to admit, later in the passage David is described quite exuberantly as handsome, which sort of undermines the message.
In any case, all of Jesse’s sons were present, except one. The final one was the youngest, doing the task usually assigned to the youngest son, the one least likely to become the head of the family. He was herding the sheep. His father didn’t choose to call for him, to join them at the feast. David had work to do, and he was doing it. But one by one, Samuel assessed that none of the older brothers had been chosen to be king. Finally he had to ask if there were any more sons, and then David was called for.
David hadn’t been seen at the party, Samuel didn’t know him, his family wasn’t paying any attention to him. He wasn’t seen, but he wasn’t forgotten by God either. David in this story is presented as being a lot like that mustard seed – small and forgettable, almost invisible, and yet capable of greatness. God’s work in David is also presented as being like God’s work in seeds planted underground, God transforming what is possible into what is.
The story of David is of God choosing the unexpected one. The parables of Jesus are of God’s mysterious power. These are stories of God at work, NOT of humans at work. I tend to like to emphasize what we are able to do in the world, how we are able to transform the world with God’s love, how God is able to work with and through us. Those are true things. But they aren’t the only true things. It is also true that God works when we least expect it, in the places and people we least expect to be open to it. God’s mysterious work is a source of hope. Not everything is on our shoulders. Not everything good is hard. Sometimes it is OK to just float and trust in God’s love and guidance. Thanks be to God. Amen
1 Nibs Stroupe “Homelitical Perspective on Mark 4:26-34” found in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 3 edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2009)143.
2 Don E. Saliers “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 4:26-34” found in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 3 edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2009)142.
3 Judith Hoch Wray, “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 4:26-34” found in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 3 edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2009)141.

Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
Pronouns: she/her/hers
http://fumcschenectady.org/