Peace / Light

It was a forbidden, daring thing for a small child to hold a live flame.

Each year, a week or so before Christmas, the church of my childhood held a sunset caroling service. At the end of the service, we would be given candles – real candles, even for the kids – and one by one, as we left the warmth of the building, the ushers would light our wicks. We would carry our little lights into the church courtyard, where we would huddle against the cold and sing carols to the dark night sky.

It felt thrilling, like holding a tiny wild bird in my hands. But it was hard to keep that little creature alive. My sister and I always struggled to keep our candles lit in the cold evening breeze, sheltering it with our hands and bodies; but inevitably, a gust of wind would blow it out. But then some nearby adult would offer us a light from their candle, and ours would be reborn. Sometimes, most amazing of all, an adult’s candle would go out, and they would turn to us, to rekindle their flame.

During the half hour or so we spent caroling outdoors, every single candle would blow out, at least once. But at the end of the evening, the courtyard was still filled with candlelight.

Our world has been buffeted by some strong winds lately. Strong enough, at times, to snuff our hope of peace. But here is the good news: we were never meant to carry that light alone.

In this season of the longest night, we will gather again, in our houses of worship, in our homes, in our communities, to share the flame.  And again, we will know this to be true: The light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not overcome it.

 

NOTE ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL PEACE LIGHT: Each year, a group of international Scouts travels to the shrine of the nativity in Bethlehem, and lights a lantern from the perpetual flame that burns there. That lantern in turn lights others. The flame is passed from person to person, across oceans and continents, kindling other candles and lamps along the way. And so it becomes a tangible sign, of our common desire for peace.

This year’s flame has now arrived in Deerfield, and will be shared at our Community Service of Lessons and Carols this Sunday, December 9, 2018, at 4pm, at the First Church of Deerfield, MA. Traditionally transported by Scouts, the flame will be presented to our church by a member of local Girl Scout Troop 12926.  If you can help harbor the flame until Christmas Eve (oil lamps, enclosed candles, or pilot lights work well), please contact me at deerfieldpastor@gmail.com. If you would like to carry the flame to your home or another community, bring a wind-proof lantern to Sunday’s service.

Peace out,
Liza

 

 

Scandal

Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones that believe — it would be better for him to have a millstone hanged around his neck, and to be cast into the sea. (Matthew 9:42)

This has been a week of painful memory for our people.

This week, 20 million people tuned in live and collectively bore witness as a woman stood before the world and shared her private memories of being sexually assaulted as a teenager.

There was pain enough, in her story, but it was just a small part of the collective pain of that day.

Because for many those who watched and listened, Dr. Ford’s testimony called to mind their own experiences of sexual abuse. For survivors throughout the country, for survivors throughout the world, this has been a week of pain remembered.

I want to start, then, by acknowledging the strain of this week. Statistics alone tell me, that there are such memories present in this room. And that every person here has at least one friend or loved one who has their own story, of rape, or trauma.

So let our first task today be, to set our firm intention: that this place might truly be a sanctuary, a place of healing and safety. We have wounds that cannot be seen. Let us treat one another gently.

The country, I know, is divided over these hearings. Whether this room is divided, I cannot say with certainty. On the surface, that division seems to be about the reliability of Dr. Ford’s testimony. Does she accurately remember, after all these years, the identity of her attacker?

Perhaps reasonable people may disagree about this. Or perhaps not.

But there is also another question, a more painful question, that divides us, a question that lies heavy on the hearts of survivors around the world. Not, “Is this story true?” but, “Does it matter?”

Does it matter, if a woman is sexually assaulted? Does it matter still, even if it happened a long time ago? Does it matter, even if she never tells the story? And, does it matter, even if she does?  Will anyone care, will there be any consequences,  DOES IT MATTER?

This isn’t really the sermon I had planned to preach this week. I had planned to riff on the first part of the weekly gospel reading [Mark 10:38-50] — the part where the disciples come across a stranger has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they tell him to stop because he’s not “one of us.” And Jesus tells them, essentially, What are you thinking? Our team doesn’t have a monopoly on grace.

It’s an easy sell, that sermon. I could have been happily and comfortably preaching about inclusivity and common mission and celebrating the good works of others. It would have been a feel-good sermon.

But the events of the week have turned my attention instead to the second part of this week’s reading. The part where Jesus says, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Better to enter heaven maimed, then to go intact to hell.”

These are the kind of extreme words that tend to put people off religion. The obsession with sin, the draconian punishments – surely these are relics of a more primitive and violent time. Moreover, the very idea of a lost limb or a blind eye as a punishment for sin can feed into the terrible stigma, that can turn a physical disability or difference into a social disease. Disability is never a deserved punishment (as Jesus also taught).

The fact that Jesus suggests we inflict this punishment on ourselves is an indication that we should not think of this literally, as an actual bodily dismemberment, but figuratively, or spiritually.

But don’t let its symbolic nature fool you. These words are harsh.

Jesus is saying, better to be outwardly maimed, then to be inwardly corrupt. Better to let the whole world see how damaged we are, then to hide our sin behind a seemingly perfect façade.

Jesus is telling us to rip off the bandaid, and let everyone see just how ugly it looks underneath.

Well. Now, that’s a hard thing to do. Because the flesh below is exposed, and still tender. Because we don’t want other people to see it. We don’t want to see the looks on their faces, when they do. Sometimes this is because we want to protect them; sometimes it is because we want to protect ourselves. But sometimes, removing the cover it is the only way to heal the wound.

This week, at the Senate hearing, a bandage was ripped off, and all around the world, we flinched.

Again, let me be clear. Sexual assault is never a self-inflicted wound, but a wound inflicted by one person, on another. This does not mean it is any easier to expose it. The flesh below is still raw. And even when the wound is not our fault, we are often afraid to let other people to see its ugliness. We are afraid to see the looks on their faces, when they do. And we are afraid that they will turn away from us, in order not to see.

So let me be clear. It is the crime, that caused the wound, that is ugly.

There is a word, for the public exposure of an ugly crime. That word, is SCANDAL. We sometimes use that as a synonym for gossip, but they are not quite the same. Gossip provokes laughter. Scandal provokes horror. When we are scandalized, we are shocked to the core. Our trust is shaken.

Scandal is an ancient word, and by chance, it appears in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus speaks of “little ones who believe” — children, perhaps, or perhaps just trusting souls.  Jesus says, “whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him to be drowned in the river.” At least, that’s how the saying appears, in many English translations: “to stumble.” Sometimes it is translated, “to sin.” But both of these translations get it wrong. They get the subject of the verb wrong. It’s not that the little ones do something, but that something is done to them. The verb in Greek is SKANDALISE. Jesus says: whoever scandalizes one of these trusting souls, it would be better for him to be drowned.

Jesus is not speaking here of gossip, of social improprieties or breaches of etiquette. Jesus is talking about SCANDAL – about revelation of sin so shocking that it destroys trust. And he lays the blame for that shattered trust at the feet of the perpetrator – saying, in no uncertain terms: this matters.

We live in scandalous times. There is not a week that goes by that does not bring new allegations of abuse. Abuse of power. Abuse of privilege. Abuse of trust.  Abuse of human beings.

We have grown weary of scandal. We have been so thoroughly scandalized, so accustomed to misconduct, that we are beyond being shocked. We are in danger of becoming numb. Of becoming cynical, or resigned, or indifferent.

But this matters.

If you have ever experienced sexual assault or abuse, you don’t need Jesus to tell you that. You don’t need me to tell you that.

But I have been charged to proclaim the gospel. To preach good news to the poor, and release to the captives. And so, you may not need me to tell you this, but I need to say it. We all need to say it.

This matters.

 

Rev. Liza B. Knapp
Sermon preached at the First Church of Deerfield, MA
October 7, 2018

Naming the Flock

A tourist was traveling in the Holy Land, and as he went he came upon a man walking down the road with a flock of sheep. The tourist was surprised to see that the man was walking behind the sheep, and the sheep were trotting along in front of him. So as he passed by, the tourist commented that he thought the sheep followed the shepherd, not the other way around.

The man replied, “That’s the shepherd. I’m the butcher.”

Scripture offers  two very different images of those who tend the flock. On the one hand, we have some rather famous verses from the Gospel of John (10:1-15), in which Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.” On the other hand, we have verses from the Prophet Ezekiel (34:1-16)  (which may be less familiar to us, but which certainly would have been familiar to Jesus) in which Ezekiel speaks of – well, let’s call them the Bad Shepherds. Bad Shepherds do not bring back the scattered, or seek the lost. Bad Shepherds do not feed the sheep, but instead devour them.

I’m sure you all can think of some examples of Bad Shepherds. The headlines are full of them. Coaches, clergy, police, presidents – shepherds who have preyed upon those entrusted to their care, who have profited from those they should have served, who have slaughtered those they were charged to protect.

Good Shepherds make the news from time to time as well, when they lay down their lives for the sheep. I’m sure you can think of examples here, too.

So how do you tell the good shepherds from the bad? Jesus offers us an important clue, in today’s Gospel lesson. The good shepherd, he tells us, calls his sheep by name. And the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.

Now, I have a confession to make here. I grew up in Manhattan, at the foot of Fifth Avenue. So I don’t really have much first-hand experience with livestock. But my friends who grew up in farming communities tell me that as a general rule, there are two groups of animals on the farm: the ones you name, and the ones you eat. It’s best not to let them overlap.

As long as the sheep are unnamed, they are interchangeable. One is as good as another. The sheep we slaughter this season will be replaced by another next season. We may feel some sympathy for their pain, but no real grief at their loss. But it’s harder to devour them, when you know each one by name.

And as with sheep, so with people.  Because all of this talk of sheep and shepherds is of course by way of metaphor. We are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.

As long as I think of other people collectively, I can keep my emotional distance from them.  This is why we feel more intense concern for the one named child who falls down a well then we do for the thousands of unnamed children who fall into poverty.  We may feel sympathy for the plight of the poor, or the homeless, but we do not grieve deeply over it.  “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus once said, and he was right. For as long as they are simply, “the poor,” they are interchangeable, replaceable.

In the midst of the “Occupy Boston” movement, I remember reading a newspaper article in which someone was complaining that “the homeless” were stealing things from the protestors tents. As if all the city’s homeless people were there, acting of one accord. When we don’t know our neighbors by name, it is easy to make sweeping generalizations about the homeless, or the poor, or the rich, or the undocumented, or the Democrats, or the Republicans, or the Evangelicals, or the Muslims, or… well, you get the idea.

If you see one sheep, you’ve seen them all.

Unless, of course, you are a sheep.

Or just a good shepherd.

Or both.

**

My first experience in street ministry was as a seminary student with Cathedral of the Night, an open-air church in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. I had been living in Northampton for a few years, but when I started serving its streets I realized that I was finally meeting people I had been blindly passing by for years. I learned their names, and they learned mine.  Walking down Main Street took a lot longer, with so many people to greet.

That’s the interesting thing about learning someone’s name: It’s a two-way process. Whenever you ask someone their name, you begin by telling them yours. You exchange names. There’s a certain inherent vulnerability taking that step. Once you have exchanged names, you can no longer be anonymous to one another. You can no longer pass each other by on the street corner. You are now members of the same flock.

In fact, that’s the tricky thing about this whole sheep metaphor: we are all simultaneously sheep and shepherd. Jesus told his disciples, “feed my sheep.” But he also told them, “I send you out as sheep among wolves.”  As the old hymn tells us, “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Yet, we are also all called to be shepherds to one another. To be our brother’s or sister’s keeper. To strengthen the sickly, to heal the diseased, to bind up the broken, to bring back the scattered, to seek the lost – even though we ourselves may be sickly, or broken, or scattered, or lost.

This is the calling of the church to embrace this mixed metaphor — to be shepherd and flock at the same time. It is, after all, what Jesus did. That’s why he is known, not only as the Good Shepherd, but also the Lamb of God.

So here then is our charge on this Good Shepherd Sunday:
Be good shepherds, and love your flock.
Be also good sheep, and love your flock.

For we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts,
April 22, 2018

Photos:
Stained Glass sheep — public domain, source unknown
Lamb — photo by Liza, shepherding by Marti

 

 

Show Me Jesus.

Today is April 15th.  It is two weeks since Easter morning.

But next year, on this same date, Easter will still be one week away. Easter, you see, is a moveable feast. It is tied to both the solar and lunar calendars, so its celebration can fall anywhere from March 22nd to April 25th. Sometimes Easter comes early. Sometimes Easter comes late.

And so it has been, from the very beginning.

For Mary Magdalene, Easter arrived early. It arrived on the morning of the third day, when she heard Jesus call her name outside the empty tomb.

But for most of the disciples, Easter didn’t come until later that evening, when Jesus appeared to them in the locked room where they were hiding.

And then, of course, there’s Thomas.

Today’s gospel reading tells us that Thomas wasn’t in the locked room with the other disciples. He wasn’t there, when Jesus appeared to them. Perhaps he was more fearful than the others, and so was avoiding their company altogether. Or perhaps he was less fearful than the others, and was braving the public streets. Or perhaps he just wanted to be alone in his grief. We don’t know; the scripture doesn’t tell us. All we know is, Thomas wasn’t there.

And so when the other disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas finds it impossible to believe them.  He hasn’t had the experience the others have had. “Unless I see his hands,” he says, “unless I feel his wounds, I cannot believe.” And so for seven more days, Thomas continues to mourn, even as his friends rejoice. For seven more days, Thomas is left alone in his grief.

But then, on the following Sunday, Jesus comes again. And this time, he has come for Thomas.

“Reach here,” he says to Thomas. Reach here, and see my hands. Reach here with your hand, and touch my side. And do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And Thomas, at last, is able to rejoice. Easter has finally come, for Thomas.

*  *  *

Some of the spiritual early risers among us may perhaps identify with Mary Magdalene, walking alone with Jesus in the garden, confident and reassured of his love, hearing the good news that none other has ever heard. Not me. I have always identified with Thomas – the patron saint of the late bloomers and the left behind.

I know most folks refer to him as “doubting Thomas” but this has always struck me as an unfair characterization. Nothing in John’s gospel suggests that Thomas was any more skeptical than the rest of the disciples. After all, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus early Easter morning, but John tells us the other disciples “rejoiced when they saw the Lord” that evening– not when Mary told them the good news, but when they saw Jesus for themselves.  Thomas was no different from the other disciples in this regard. If Thomas was slow to believe, it was for the simple reason, that he missed Jesus’ visit.

And imagine how that must have felt — to be the one left out of the miracle.

*  *  *

A few years ago I got a phone call from a friend whose mother had recently died of cancer. My friend had just turned thirty, and most of her peers had not yet experienced such a loss, and so she called me long distance, to talk about her grief.

I remember her saying, “I don’t even know how to think about my mother now. I can’t picture my mother because I don’t know where she is. I can’t imagine that her someplace else, like in heaven. It just feels like she’s gone.” And she went on to say, “You know, I’ve heard other people talk about how could feel their parent’s presence even after they died, or how their parent had come to them in their dreams, but that hasn’t happened to me. All I feel is her absence, and all those stories just make me feel more alone.”

Having lost my own Mom to cancer at about the same age, I understood how she felt. Soon after my Mom’s death, I remember receiving a letter from one of my Mom’s oldest and dearest friends – the kind of family friend you call “aunt” even though she’s not really your aunt. And in the letter, my Aunt Alice told me of an experience she had the night my Mom died. She said, she felt my as if my Mom’s spirit had come to her, saying a last goodbye.

I know that this experience comforted her, and I am sure she thought it would be a comfort to me as well, but all I remember thinking was, Why didn’t my Mom come to me? I’m her child, why didn’t she come to comfort me? Alice may have felt my Mom’s presence, but all I could feel was her absence.  I didn’t want hear about my Mom, I wanted to hear from my Mom. I didn’t want to be told; I wanted to be shown.

I sometimes imagine that this is how Thomas felt, when the disciples joyfully told him that Jesus had appeared to them. That they had seen the Lord, and that Thomas had missed it all. Guess Jesus didn’t have time to wait for you, Thomas.  Sorry you didn’t get to see him yourself, but we’ll tell you all about.

But Thomas didn’t want to be told; he wanted to be shown.

*  *  *

Some years ago, I met a man – let’s call him “Henry.” Henry has no job, and no address; when I met him, he had already been living on the streets for several years. And I do mean, on the streets; he refuses to stay in a shelter. Even among the city’s homeless population, he remains apart — an outsider among outsiders.

I did not learn all the details of Henry’s history, but he shared enough for me to understand some of the barriers that keep him from re-entering society; they are real, and they are formidable. Henry does not have an easy life. But one of the things that troubles him most is that he feels himself to be an outsider, even in church. He is still a regular church-goer, in spite of all the other changes in his life. And while his fellow congregants tolerate his presence in worship, they keep him at arm’s length.

I asked him once, if you could get your congregation to really listen to you, what would you want to say to them? Henry answered in six words:

“Why don’t you show me Jesus?”

*  *  *

Sometimes it isn’t enough to be told of Christ’s love. Sometimes, we need to be shown. The Church, after all, isn’t called to be Christ’s biographer, or press secretary, or PR firm. The church is called to be the body of Christ. To show up, and to say “Reach out, and take my hand.”

I know this is not easy to do. To open up our hands is to expose our own wounds. But this is precisely what Christ asks of us. For as our morning meditation* reminds us,

“Christ has no human body now upon the earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours… are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion has to look upon the world, and yours are the lips with which His love has to speak.”

 

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Thomas is still out there—in the pews, on the street—waiting for Christ’s touch. But here is the good news: It’s not too late.

Easter, you see, is a moveable feast.  It goes where it is needed.

 

 

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, April 15, 2018, for The First Church of Deerfield, MA

*Meditation: Rev. Mark Guy Pearse (1888), adapted by Sarah Eliza Rowntree (1892); sometimes apocryphally attributed to St. Teresa.

Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio.

 

 

 

 

Easter Fools.

Happy—- April Fool’s Day.

It’s not every year that Easter falls on April Fool’s day, but there is always something a bit foolish about it.

For fool’s we must be, to believe this outlandish tale. Empty tombs? Resurrected bodies? Nonsense.

It sounds like an elaborate hoax. You can just imagine the hidden camera waiting near the tomb for the moment when Jesus whips off his gardener costume and reveals the prank at Mary Magdalene’s expense. You can imagine the other disciples emerging from their hiding places, saying “OMG Mary, you should have seen your face!”

Truth be told, as a kid I was never a big fan of April Fool’s Day. I didn’t like the idea of being set up. I didn’t like being tricked. I didn’t like people laughing at me.

Neither, apparently, did the men who followed Jesus. When the women returned from the tomb with tales of resurrection, they dismissed their witness as mere silliness. They weren’t going to fall for it. It was clearly too good to be true. Like those phone messages I get all the time telling me I’ve won a free vacation cruise. Who falls for that?

Fools, that’s who.

But which part, I wonder, did they find more unbelievable? That Jesus was now alive? Or that he had died in the first place? Was believing in a resurrected messiah any more ridiculous than believing in a crucified one? Fool me once…

In the catacombs of Rome, there is an ancient piece of graffiti that shows a young man worshipping a crucified, donkey headed figure. The Greek inscription says, “Alexamenos worships his God.” Whoever this Alexamenos was, his buddies clearly found his religion hysterical.

Well, they were right. If we think this story is anything other than ridiculous, we are probably missing the point. The apostle Paul admits as much:

We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to some, and foolishness to others, but to those whom God has called, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.

But notice that the foolishness Paul refers to here is not the resurrection, but the crucifixion. The stumbling block to faith in Christ was not the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, but rather the way that he died in the first place. What sort of messiah gets nailed to a cross?

The job of the messiah was to restore the nation, to vanquish its enemies, to free it from occupation. To make Israel great again. Getting executed was a pretty poor start to that project. Who follows a messiah like that?

Fools, that’s who.

To make things even more ridiculous, some of his followers had now begun to preach that Jesus himself was somehow God, in human form. The supreme creator of the universe, nailed to a cross. Who wants a God like that?

Fools, that’s who.

But really, the foolishness began even before the crucifixion. Jesus had been spouting foolishness from the moment he began to preach. “Blessed are the poor,” for example. That’s just silly. You start off saying blessed are the poor, and right away people expect a punchline – “How blessed are they Johnny?”

Then there was that nonsense about forgiving people not just seven times, but seventy times seven. Who does that? Or that nutty thing Jesus said about turning the other cheek. Only a fool would let down their guard, after they’ve been punched.

Yet, in every generation, in every nation, in every faith, there have been folks who believed this sort of foolishness. Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai. Saint Francis of Assisi took the blessedness of poverty so seriously that he once stripped naked in public and walked away without his clothing. Talk about embarrassing. That is the stuff of nightmares. But it is also the stuff of sainthood.

Every saint is a fool, one way or another.

Before I continue, I need to pause here a moment for lesson in basic logic. The proposition that “every saint is a fool” does not imply that the converse is true as well.

Not every fool is a saint.

The mere fact that you have appeared on America’s Funniest Home Videos does not qualify you for sainthood. There are as many varieties of foolishness there are human beings, and many of them have nothing to do with saintliness.

Jesus tells this story, of a foolish man who found himself with a surplus of grain. Rather than share it, he built himself a huge barn, so that he might story up a supply to last him all his days. No sooner was the project finished, than the man died in his sleep.

Lord, what fools these mortal be, Shakespeare wrote. Foolishness is our lot in life. It runs in the family. So maybe the only real question, then, is: What kind of fool do you want to be?

Many, many years ago, when I was going through a pretty severe crisis of faith, I sought guidance from my childhood pastor, John MacNab. John had baptized me as an infant and confirmed me as a teenager, and now as a young adult I was hoping that perhaps he could tell me something that could dispel the panic of uncertainty I was feeling.

I asked him bluntly, “What if it’s just not true?”

“What if what isn’t true?” he asked.

“God, Jesus, any of it,” I answered.

“Well,” he replied, “then it sure was a great story.”

I remember finding this a distinctly un-reassuring answer at the time. At the time, I suppose I was hoping for some sort of logical proof or conclusive evidence to secure my faith. But John was expressing what Martin Luther also taught: that faith is ultimately not about certainty, but about love. Perhaps John was a fool. But he was a holy fool.

If you look up the phrase gospel truth, you will find one of its definitions to be “unquestionable fact.” But I don’t buy that. Everything about the gospel is in fact highly questionable. Its claims are outrageous and ridiculous, and nothing can prove them otherwise. So what is the gospel truth?  The gospel truth is the truth that makes us free.

Free to be foolish, in the eyes of the world. Free to love your enemies. Free to respond to violence with peace. Free to walk the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, free to lay down your life, free to speak truth to power, free to embrace the outcast, free to befriend the sinner. Free to love, and do as you will.

Mary Magdalene could offer no proof, of her encounter with Jesus in the garden, and the rest of the disciples were unpersuaded. But she testified to what she knew: that Jesus had called her by name.  For Mary, that was the gospel truth.

This my friends is the gospel truth I share with you today: that God loves you, however foolish that may seem. And nothing can put an end to that.

Christ is risen.

Happy April Fool’s Day.

Easter Prayer (John 20:15)

You rise to walk among us, God,
not as an angel,
unsoiled and untouchable,
but as a gardener,
hands in the soil,
feet on the ground —
and we are amazed to find you
so down to earth.

Help us to bloom.

For we know what we are,
but what we shall be
is yet to appear.

Prune us where we need pruning,
so that we may bear sweeter fruit.

We pray today for those among us
who have lost all hope of spring –

we who have stopped believing
that the drought will end,
or the war will end,
or the pain will end,
or the injustice will end,
or the fever will break,
or the depression will lift,
or the demons will let us go,
or the stone will ever roll away.

Prove us wrong again,
as you did on Easter morning.

Gracious Gardener,
we are the flowers of your heart;
shine on us,
that we your people
may at last become
beautiful.

The Stories We Remember

Jesus entered a city on edge.

On Palm Sunday, Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims, faithful Jews from all over Israel. They were there for the celebration of the Passover. They were gathering in Jerusalem, just as families will be gathering in their homes later this week, to hear again the story of their deliverance. The Passover Seder may have been different then, but the Passover story was the same: how God heard the cry of a suffering and enslaved people, and led them, with many signs and wonders, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, into the freedom that was their birthright.

That’s a mighty dangerous story to tell to an enslaved and colonized people. No telling what sort of ideas they might get.

On Palm Sunday, Jerusalem was also crowded with Roman soldiers, keeping a close eye on the crowds. They knew that Passover could be a particularly troublesome time in this occupied city. Crowds could get out of hand. A strong show of force would be needed to keep things under control. Any sign of unrest, and the Empire’s response would be swift and brutal. The High Priests knew this, and did their best to keep the celebration peaceful and orderly, for fear of retribution.

It was fine for the people to celebrate the Exodus of long ago, to tell the ancient story of deliverance. The danger was, that they might apply it to the present day. That the people might decide, not merely to tell it, but to live it. For who was Pharaoh, now?

Yet this had been God’s command to the people of Israel: that they tell this story every year – so that their children, and their children’s children, might remember it. Consider that word: re-member. It is the opposite of dis-member.  When we re-member a story, we give it hands and feet, arms and legs. We embody it.

Which was exactly what the Priests and the Soldiers were afraid of.

Their concern would be shared, centuries later, by American slaveholders, many of whom forbid their slaves to read the Bible for themselves. The white preachers offered an enslaved people a carefully censored scripture of obscure verses from minor epistles, urging obedience to masters. But meanwhile, out in the hush arbors, far from the masters’ eyes, stories of the Exodus spread like wildfire. When Harriet Tubman began to smuggle her people to freedom, they named her Moses.

Such is the power, of a story remembered.

So it is no wonder, that Jerusalem was on edge, on that Passover long ago.

And now, into this troubled mix comes Jesus, and right away, they can see he’s trouble. He  rides into town on a donkey, openly mocking the imperial procession with its display of military might. It’s a piece of guerrilla street theater. Jesus is acting out a scene from scripture, a verse from the prophet Hezekiah: Shout O daughter Jerusalem, for behold, your King comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey. The people recognize the story, and they join in, playing their part – until the line between past and present begins to blur, and the story is no longer an historical reenactment, but an act of non-violent civil disobedience.

Years ago I saw a stage production of Crime and Punishment, in which the lead actor strode on stage, picked up one of the footlights, and turned it around, so that it illuminated the audience members. Suddenly we weren’t just watching the play, we were in it.

I imagine that Palm Sunday was something like that. Jesus broke through that fourth wall, the invisible barrier between stage and spectator, past and present, religion and real life. Suddenly the people weren’t just telling the story; they were living it.

Such is the is power of a story remembered.

For the past few days, my Facebook feed has been filled with photographs — images of processions filling the streets of cities and towns all around this country, of protest marches led by young people of all genders and races. And among these images, I found this thoughtful posting, reflecting upon the youthful determination of the student protesters:

“Conservative parents in the 90s burned copies of the early Harry Potter books because they feared the influence of fictional wizardry and magic. They should have looked deeper. Their children are smart enough to know the difference between the fantasy of magic and the reality of bravery in a world with pervasive darkness. Through J.K. Rowling, they have seen “their” school be attacked by and defended from far more frightening forces than lawmakers and ministers. They have learned that evil doesn’t live in one villain, but is spread into others and sometimes feels like it’s screaming across the sky. But you don’t give up. You don’t run. You don’t hide. You pick up the sword of Gryffindor — whatever that is in your life — and you wield it with all your strength until every last flailing lashing venomous reptile lays at your feet. That’s perhaps Ms. Rowling’s most important and lasting legacy. Not magic, but persistent courage and perseverant action. This is the Harry Potter generation, and they’re picking up their swords.”

Such is the power, even now, of the stories we tell.

What story will you remember, this Holy Week?

Embed from Getty Images

 

SERMON by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, March 25, 2018.

IMAGES:

Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1846). Christ Entering Jerusalem, from the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

David Silverman, Getty Images (2010). A Palestinian boy carries palm branches for sale to Christian pilgrims, past Israeli police guarding the traditional Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City of Jerusalem, March 28, 2010.

Palm Sunday Prayer

It is easy to sing praises,
when the palm branches wave and spring is in the air.
It is easy to speak out,
when it costs us nothing and earns us applause.
It is easy to march
when the sun is shining and the police are friendly.
And it is easy to fall away, when the seasons change.

O God of the broken, God of the cross, God of the scattered stones:
Give us courage enough to stand with You until the bitter end;
and hope enough to rise in the morning, when You begin again.

 

 

 

(NB: Did I write this? Possibly.  If you know otherwise, please tell me.)

 

The Serpent and the Cross

Most people know just two things about Saint Patrick: one, that he was Irish, and two, that he drove the snakes from Ireland.

Wrong, on both counts.

Turns out, Patrick was born in Scotland, not Ireland. As a teenager he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland by Irish pirates, who sold him into slavery there. After several years he escaped aboard a boat to France, and from there he made his way home, to be finally reunited with his parents, six years after his abduction.

You might think that after an experience like that, the last thing Patrick would ever want to see was the coastline of Ireland. But Patrick felt called to return, and after studying for the priesthood he returned to Ireland as a free man, to bring the liberating news of the gospel to place of his captivity. And so it was, that a foreign-born slave became the patron saint of the Irish people.

As for the snakes, well, it turns out, there were no snakes for Patrick to drive out. Snakes did not begin to colonize northern Europe until after the last Ice Age, and by the time they reached Britain, Ireland was already cut off by the Irish Sea. There is now, and ever has been, only one species of reptile in all of Ireland, and it is a lizard, not a snake. Legend may tell us that Saint Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland; but science tells us, there never were any.

But perhaps the legend refers to serpents of another kind. Reptiles are not the only creatures who can be venomous.

***

The Torah tells the story of a people wandering in the wilderness after their escape from slavery. They have been wandering now for years. They have become weary, and anxious. They have no water. They have no food. Things are so bad, they grow nostalgic for the days of their captivity. They begin to lost trust. They begin to turn on one another. And then, just when they think things can’t possibly get worse, the snakes appear.

Fire serpents, the Hebrew text calls them.

Are these fire serpents real, or metaphorical? Did the Israelites stumble into a literal snake pit, a valley full of vipers? This is entirely plausible; unlike Ireland, Israel is home to several species of poisonous snake. On the other hand, perhaps these serpents are not reptiles at all. Perhaps the venom in the Israelites’ veins came not from another species, but from their own human hearts.

Whichever interpretation you prefer, the scripture makes one thing clear: these serpents were real enough to kill. The people murmured, and the serpents came, and with them, they brought death.

The people cry out for help, and God offers a strange remedy, a sort of symbolic anti-venom. It will not banish the serpents, but it will render their venom powerless. Moses is to craft an image of the serpent, and raise it up high—and the people are to look upon it.

Is this magic? some sort of homeopathic cure? or maybe a desensitization treatment for a snake phobia? I can just magine Moses saying to God, Now, let me get this straight: so a golden calf was sacrilege, but a bronze snake on a stick is somehow okay?

Remember, the people in this story had watched their neighbors die of snake bite. You’d think the last thing they would want to see, would be a snake. But for whatever reason, the cure works – whoever looks upon the bronze snake, survives. The people with venom in their blood look upon the symbol of that venom, and they are cured.

But first, they have to look at the serpent.

It is the serpent we can’t bear to see – the poison we will not acknowledge, the venom we deny – that destroys us. Look at it directly, and it loses its power. As I once told my kids: The bee you are watching is not the bee that will sting you.

***

This story of the snake on a stick is not often told in mainline churches. It seems too superstitious, idolatrous even. But once every three years it crops up in the Christian lectionary, and this is that week. It crops up now, during the season of Lent, not because of our proximity to Saint Patrick’s day, but because of a passage from the Gospel according to John, where Moses’ serpent is mentioned again — immediately before what is arguably the most famous sentence in the whole New Testament:

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”

Jesus is speaking here of his impending crucifixion. He is speaking of the cross – of the power of the cross, which is, he implies, is somehow, like the power of that crazy snake on a stick.

If this comparison seems odd, ask yourself this: To a first-century Jew, which was more terrifying – the serpent, or the cross?

To Jesus and his followers, the cross was not an abstract symbol, but a concrete reality. Around the time Jesus was born, some 2000 Jews were crucified outside Jerusalem. The cross was not invented for Jesus. There were always crosses in Jerusalem.

Roman crucifixion was part of a deliberate strategy of terror, designed to let the people know who was in charge. It was never inflicted on Roman citizens, but was reserved for the rebellious slave, the rebellious peasant, for those who did not know their place. Crucifixion was intentionally painful, dehumanizing, and public. The cross was the lynching tree of the Roman Empire.

If you had watched your people die of snakebite, you would think the last thing you would want to see, would be a serpent raised high. If you had watched your people crucified, you would think the last thing you would want to see, would be that cross raised high.

Yet somehow, the cross of Jesus gave strength to those who lived in the shadow of the Roman cross – just as, centuries later, it would give strength to those who lived in the shadow of the lynching tree. Not by magically banishing the serpent — but by taking away its sting.

James H. Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, speaks of his childhood in the black church. “There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme,” he says. “The cross was the foundation upon which their faith was built.” In the crucified Christ, they saw the affirmation of God’s solidarity with their own crucified people. The hangman might do his best, to rob them of their humanity. But the cross revealed the truth: that the one hanging from the tree was none other than the God’s beloved.

O death, where is thy sting?

***

But there is an addendum, to our story.

Moses lifted up the serpent, and the people were cured. And so it came to pass, in time, that a cult grew around the bronze figure, until eventually the people began to worship the serpent, instead of the God who delivered them from it. They began to serve it, to make offerings to it — to bow down before its sting, instead of facing up to it.

Here, too, perhaps, we see a parallel, between the image of the serpent and the image of the cross. The church has been tempted, again and again, to worship the cross, instead of the God who delivers us from it. The cross of the crusader, the cross of the inquisition, the cross of the Klan – the church has bowed down before these crosses, when it should have faced up to them.

Let this be a cautionary tale, then.

There is nothing supernatural about a bronze snake, or a gold cross. They are not magic, and they are certainly not gods. But seen through the eyes of faith, they are signs — of God’s presence, even in the most threatening and godforsaken of places.

The world is full of serpents still, and their sting can be deadly. But do not let them keep you from your journey. Remember that God journeys with you. So do not be afraid, for this death will not kill you.

Once upon a time, a young man named Patrick was sold into slavery, and escaped. You would think that after that experience, that last thing he would want to see was the coastline of Ireland. But God told him, do not be afraid.

These serpents cannot harm you.

 

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

 

 

 

sermon: Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts

image: Stained glass window, Central United Methodist Church, Kansas City, MO

 

Passing

Esther is not her name.

Y’all catch that? Her name is Hadassah. But she is a Jewish woman living among Gentiles, an Israelite living in exile. She needs a Persian name – one her neighbors can pronounce. And so she is known as Esther.

Hadassah, in Hebrew, means Myrtle. Esther, in Persian, means Princess.

The name Esther is a mask that Hadassah wears, a costume she puts on so that she can fit in more easily in this new homeland. As Esther, she can fly beneath the radar. As Esther, she can belong. As Esther, she can be beautiful. As Esther, she can even be queen.

But it is not her name.

 Esther was taken into the king’s palace… but she did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to tell. (Esther 2:8,10)

I had a good friend in college who was the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She married an Anglo guy from the Midwest. When their daughter was born, they named her Gabriela.

A short while after the birth announcements went out, a mutual friend called me on the phone. “I don’t understand why she would give her daughter a name like that,” she said. “Why would you give your daughter a Spanish name?”

“Um… because she’s Cuban?” I asked.

“But why draw attention to it?” my friend wondered. “It’s just asking for trouble. Why not spare her all that discrimination?”

Why indeed.

The Megillat Esther – the scroll of Esther — is about many things: gender dynamics, racial violence, leadership, pride, faith, risk. But the dramatic heart of the story is hidden right there in its name: Esther.

Esther is a story about passing. About the masks that we wear, to fit in; and the consequences, of leaving them on, or taking them off.

I recently came across an article in the UU World magazine, written by a man whose mother passed as American Indian. She was actually Mexican, but to her white neighbors it was more glamorous, more praiseworthy, more acceptable for her to be Native, than for her to be Mexican. She named her son, Brando Skyhorse.

He defines “passing” as claiming membership in a group of which one is not, in fact, a member, in order to access the privileges of membership. It can refer to a Jew passing as Christian, or a light-skinned African American passing as white, or a sick person passing as healthy, or a gay person passing as straight. I know something about that last one.

Passing confers privilege, but at a cost. The mask may protect us, but it is also suffocating.

Then again – perhaps Esther embraced her new name. She was, after all, a fourth generation Persian. When does an immigrant family stop being immigrants, and just become part of the melting pot? Maybe she never really liked the name Hadassah. Maybe she felt more free, more herself, as Esther.

But then Haman comes along, breathing murder for the Jews, and Esther must decide:

Who is she, really? Who are her people?

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

Here’s an interesting thing about the book of Esther. God is never mentioned. Not once. Among the books of the Bible, it is unique in this respect.

Of course, God is implicit in the tale; why else would Mordecai refuse to bow before Haman, if not for his belief that God alone is worthy of homage? Yet when Haman asks him why he won’t bend the knee, Mordecai says simply, I am a Jew.

It is an answer with consequences.

Who am I? Who is my God? Who are my people? These are not three separate questions, but all one and the same. They must be answered together. And the answer will have consequences.

What is your answer? What might those consequences be, for you?

For who knows – perhaps you, too, have been called here, for just such a time as this.

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for The First Church of Deerfield, 3.4.2018

Image: Esther, painting by John Cox