Lent 1

(Matthew 3:14)

Out of the depths, we cry to you;
the waters are rising, and there is no foothold.
We call out for rescue, ask you to pull us out;
but instead you dive in with us.

You are the One whose firm hand
is supposed to support us —
the One whose head will stay above the water,
the One whose feet will stay firmly on the rock,
the One who will hold us, against the current —

but instead you lean into our arms,
floating,
and we tremble.

For there is an undertow,
to these waters, to this season

and we are afraid that you will slip
from our grasp
into the deep
and we will have no choice
but to follow
or to lose
you

 

___
Liza B. Knapp 3.1.2020
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA

Salt

You are the salt of the earth. – Matthew 5:13

The ocean is about four percent salt — and so, more or less, are you.  Life on this planet began in the oceans, and to this day, each cell of our body encloses a small ocean of its own. We may need fresh water to drink, but we have salt water in our veins. About four percent salt, to be specific.

Four percent is only a small part, a tiny fraction. The ocean’s salt is far outweighed by its waters; easily dissolved, the salt is invisible. But that tiny part flavors the whole.  In this respect, salt is more powerful than sugar; an equivalent amount of sugar in water would give it a faintly sweet taste, but 4% salt is enough to give it some bite.

You are the salt, Jesus said. Not the sugar.

Salt nowadays is inexpensive and commonplace, but in the ancient world it was hard to come by and therefore valuable. Soldiers in Ancient Rome were given a ration of salt as part of their wages. This was called the salarium— from which we get the modern word, salary. A hard-working soldier was said to be worth his salt.

But Jesus told his followers, you are the salt.

Salt is not simply a flavor but a seasoning. It enhances other flavors. It strengthens them, heightens them, brings them out of hiding. Salt, added to a chicken, makes it more tender. Salt, added to eggplant, makes it less bitter.

Salt in fact is not only a seasoning, but also a preservative. In the ages before refrigeration and canning, salt was used to store food for long journeys or lean times. Here in New England an entire colonial economy was built upon the export of cod; but without salt, most of that cargo would have been spoiled before it ever came to market. The salt, it turns out, not only helps to dry the fish but also has antimicrobial properties. The presence of salt resists corruption and slows decay.

You are the salt, said Jesus.

Salt is not always a welcome thing; after all, no one enjoys having salt rubbed in their wounds. As an idiom, to rub salt in the wound generally means to make a painful situation more painful. And I can certainly imagine that rubbing salt in a wound would be painful indeed.

But why would anyone apply salt to a wound in the first place? Well it turns out, salt was an ancient medical treatment for trauma. The presence of salt creates an antibacterial environment that resists infection. Salt in the wound can help prevent it from festering, and spreading disease throughout the body.

You are the salt, said Jesus.

Jesus’ followers were just a tiny drop in the ocean — a minority within a minority within a mighty and brutal empire. Yet Jesus told them, you are the salt of the earth — be salty.
Do not lose your distinctive flavor. Keep your edge. Love your enemies, forgive your debtors, do not return evil for evil. Be the salt.

Friends, we too are just a tiny part of the whole. We are wounded people, living in a wounded nation, on a deeply wounded planet. And like all wounded creatures, we are afraid to let anyone touch the site of our pain. And so, we lash out in anger, or withdraw in fear. We try to numb the pain, by turning it into rage or apathy. And meanwhile, the infection spreads.

But you and I are the salt of the earth.

A spoonful full of sugar may make the medicine go down — but we are not the sugar, we are the medicine. We are not called to sugarcoat the truth, or to sweeten the deal. We are not called to dull the world’s pain, but to heal it.

We are not the sugar. We are the salt.

Be salty.

 

 

 

 

(February 9, 2020, by Rev. Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, MA)

(photo: sea salt crystals, by Liza B. Knapp)

(all rights reserved)

 

Blessed

#BLESSED

Yesterday* I did a quick search on twitter using the hashtag #blessed.

I found a lot of tweets from young athletes, who reported feeling #blessed after receiving college admissions offers. Other tweeters reported being #blessed with a fresh new haircut, an A on an exam, and an awesome gynecologist.

A surprising number of the tweets were about food; black beans, enchiladas, tacos – apparently Tex Mex is especially blessed, although there was also a memorable reference to “pillowy pockets of Nutella heaven.”

All this blessedness is a somewhat new thing. Growing up I don’t remember people claiming a blessing every time something positive happened in their life. In fact, I don’t remember my family ever using the word except when someone sneezed, and even then, we favored “gesundheit” over “bless you.”

I thought maybe this was maybe just a regional thing, but it turns out that blessing has in fact been on the rise. One historian of religion has traced the sudden increase of blessedness in the past decade to the  rise of the prosperity gospel – a particular interpretation of Christianity that promises material wealth and health to its believers.

The prosperity gospel may be on the rise lately, but it is nothing new; it is the televised American reboot of an idea at least as old as the book of Proverbs, where we read: Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous. It is a program of divine behavior modification, in which good things come to those who are good, or who believe. We get what we deserve, or what we have earned.

#LUCKY

Out of curiosity, I also searched the hashtag #lucky. I found many references to the Chinese New Year. I also found many folks who felt lucky in love. Some felt lucky to have children. One felt lucky to be traveling to Barcelona. There was less Tex Mex food here, but one person did report feeling lucky to be eating popcorn.

We often use the two words – blessed and lucky – as if they mean the same thing. If we experience good fortune, we say we are blessed. But there’s a difference between a blessing and a stroke of luck; for starters, fortune is a noun, but blessing – to bless – is a verb. There is a subject, an actor, a source of every blessing. Luck, on the other hand, just happens.

The third possibility, of course, is that we are the masters of our own fate, and that nothing befalls us by grace or by luck, but only by our own effort or merit. In which case perhaps we should speak of our rewards instead of our blessings.

But there is a difference, between a reward and a blessing and a stroke of luck. It is a difference that becomes more stark, when our luck runs out.

#BROKEN

When I was in my late twenties, I was injured in an accident; I was riding along the Potomac with a friend and for reasons I still don’t know my bike flipped and I came down hard. I was wearing a helmet, but I actually hit my face. I cracked the bone behind my upper lip, lost seven teeth, herniated a disk, and cut my face and mouth so that I needed three dozen stitches.

When I say all that aloud, I still think, wow, that sounds really bad. And it was, pretty bad. But I haven’t told you the whole story. Here’s the rest of it:

My friend rode with me in the ambulance, and waited for me while I got x-rayed, stitched up, and discharged. I was pretty dazed, and it wasn’t until we were leaving that I thought to ask: How are we going to get home?

I called Sarah, she said, and she’s on her way to pick us up.

What happened to our bicycles? I wondered.

They’re at the police station, she said. Cathy will pick them up tomorrow.

Okay, good. I remembered something else. My housemate’s out of town this weekend. I’m not sure I should be alone.

Don’t worry, she said. Simon and Carin are coming over to spend the night. They’ll have to go to work in the morning, but Deb can come and spend the day with you.

In the time it took me to get my stitches, an entire team of friends had assembled to get me through the night. By the time we got to  my house, there was even chocolate pudding waiting for me – which, by the way, is exactly what a traumatized toothless person needs.

I was unlucky that day. But I was also blessed.

My bike accident, bad as it was, was really just a temporary trauma. There are injuries far more lasting, and losses far greater than the loss of a few teeth. And not everyone has a circle of friends ready to pick them up when they fall.

When suffering is prolonged and severe – when we experience, not one, but a whole series of unfortunate events – the question of blessing becomes all the more urgent. For which is easier to believe: that God still loves us, broken as we are; or that God would fix us, if only God still loved us? Catholic writer Henri Nouwen once observed that for many of us, the sense of being cursed often comes more easily than the sense of being blessed. Our brokenness is all the more painful to us, because we see it as evidence of that curse.

For if prosperity is a sign of God’s favor, what are we to make of adversity – our own, or our neighbor’s?

#JESUS

Enter Jesus, on a hillside in Galilee.

Some of you were probably wondering, when I was going to get to him. I sometimes take a roundabout path, but I do get to the scripture, sooner or later.

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with a lavish litany of blessings.

Blessed are the peacemakers, and the pure in heart, and the merciful. Right.

Blessed are the meek, and the poor in spirit. Okay.

Blessed are those who mourn. Umm… Jesus?

Blessed are you, when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you. Okay, what is going on here?

Jesus radically uncouples God’s blessing from our good luck, by extending it not just to the healthy and wealthy but also to the broken and bankrupt. What sort of blessing is this, then, that belongs even to the meek, the merciful, and the mourning?

This is no prosperity gospel, my friends. This is an adversity gospel.

If we read the Beatitudes as a prosperity gospel, a gospel of reward for righteousness, we come away with the impression that God desires for us to be meek and mourning and reviled. This is how I used to read this scripture, as a list of desirable traits for which we would be rewarded.

But what if that was not the point of these blessings at all? What if Jesus was trying, not to instruct us, but simply to bless us? To bless us, in our adversity? To bless all the folks he saw on that hillside in Galilee – not just the lucky ones, but even the unlucky ones – especially, perhaps, the unlucky ones?

As Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “Maybe Jesus was simply blessing the ones around him that day who didn’t otherwise receive blessing, the ones who had come to believe that, for them, blessings would never be in the cards. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grow on trees?”

And those of us who wish to follow Jesus: should we be any less extravagant? If there is a lesson here, perhaps it is not that we should be meek, but that we, too, may bless the meek? Not that we should mourn, but that we, too, may bless the mourning? Not that we must earn our blessing, but that we, like Jesus, like Abraham, may become a blessing to our neighbor?

It isn’t really that hard to do. Sometimes all it takes is some chocolate pudding.

The evening after my accident, I sat in my living room, surrounded by my friends, eating chocolate pudding. If I was in pain, I do not remember it. I remember only two feelings: hunger and happiness. Broken though I was, I was blessed.

And so are you, my friends. So are we all.

For this is the story at the heart of our scriptures:
that even an enslaved people may be God’s chosen people,
that even a condemned man may be God’s beloved son,
that even the broken may be blessed.


For I the LORD am your God
You are precious in my sight,
and honored,
and I love you
(Isaiah 43:3,4)

 

 

*Sermon preached February 5, 2017,
at the First Church of Deerfield, MA.

Photo: Carl Nenzen Loven, unsplash.com

 

Followers

Why did they follow him?

Those very first disciples — Simon, Andrew, James and John – what made them drop their nets, and go? I mean, if a stranger approached you and asked you to follow him, would you go? Wouldn’t you at least ask for some references, maybe google him first?

Yet they leave their nets, their boats, their father, even, and follow Jesus, no questions asked. No one asks, Where? Let alone, Why? Don’t you think you’d want to know, before you started following someone, just where they were going? You know the joke, about the motorist who gets caught in a terrible fog; he slows way down, but still he can’t see a thing, except that he can just barely make out the taillights of the car in front of him, so he follows them, until they suddenly come to a stop. He rolls down his window and calls out, why did you stop? And the driver of the other car answers, “because I’m in my driveway.”

Let’s face it, no one wants to think of themselves as a follower. We all want to be leaders – entrepreneurs, innovators — co-creators, maybe, but certainly not followers. It’s downright un-American, to be a follower. We are supposed to be rugged individualists, marching to the beat of our different drummers. Years ago, my Mom asked a friend of hers, a prominent international reporter, what he thought was the most distinctive characteristic of Americans. He answered, our belief that we have nothing to learn from anyone else. The mere fact that someone else came up with an idea first, is enough to make us reject it.

So despite our sentimental attachment to Jesus as the good shepherd, none of us really wants to be a sheep. To call someone a sheep is to accuse them of mindless conformity and thoughtless obedience. As the pig is the symbol of gluttony – fairly or not – so the sheep is the symbol of gullibility. Because an animal that can be easily led, can also be easily misled. Sheep are vulnerable creatures.

History affords any number of examples, of bad shepherds and false messiahs, who led their people into violence, delusion, or despair. The word Fuhrer, we should remember, simply means Leader.

Jesus warns his disciples of this; he tells them again, near the end of Matthew’s gospel, to beware of false shepherds. “Many will come,” Jesus says to them, “claiming to be the Messiah. If anyone says to you, Look, here he is! – do not believe it.” Of course, if they had followed his advice back in Galilee, they would never have become Jesus’ disciples in the first place. It’s a bit of a catch-22, really.

Some of us can relate to the fishermen’s enthusiasm. You know who you are — adventurous souls who are happy to go off the map, or trusting souls who will leave the details to others. Some of us prefer to travel familiar roads, with a map in hand.

Or at least to ask a few questions, before we sign up for the trip.

The fishermen were ready to follow Jesus, no questions asked. Not so, John the Baptist. John, after all, knew a thing or two about bad shepherds. He had already been arrested by one. I imagine him, waiting in prison, knowing he may never leave there, and wondering, what will become of his own disciples? And remembers his cousin Jesus, who came to be baptized in the Jordan. And he wonders, if this Jesus might be the One to come after him, the One who will fulfill the promises John merely proclaimed. But John will not endorse candidate Jesus without a bit more information. So John’s disciples come to Jesus, and ask: “Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

And Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

John asks Jesus a straightforward, either/or, yes-or-no question, but Jesus, as usual, throws it right back at him. Judge for yourself, Jesus says. You’ve heard the stories about me. Is this what you’ve been waiting for, or not?

The answer, of course, depends as much on John as it does on Jesus.

Just what sort of Messiah, is John waiting for? What sort of savior was he envisioning? Was he expecting a charismatic prophet like Elijah, who would bring back that old time religion? Was he expecting an avenging liberator like Moses, who would call plagues down upon their oppressors? Was he expecting a military leader like David, who would drive out the foreigners and make Israel great again?

John may have prepared the way for Jesus; but was he really prepared for this unlikely leader who shunned all power but love, and all arms but truth?

John asks Jesus, Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies, You tell me. Am I?

So what about us? Who are we waiting for? Are we waiting for One who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear, who preaches good news to the poor but sends the rich away empty, who embraces the outcasts and welcomes the stranger, who chastises the pious and forgives the sinner? Are we ready for this messiah, this imprisoned, crucified and risen messiah? Or are we looking for someone else?

Like John the Baptist, we ask: Are you the One we are waiting for?

And Jesus replies: You tell me. Am I?

 

 

by Liza B. Knapp
sermon for The First Church of Deerfield, MA
January 26, 2020

Photo: Ronnie Overgoor, Unsplash.com

 

 

Hope, Rising

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2: 1-12; NRSV)

The first constellation I learned to recognize in the night sky was Orion – the Hunter. Most of the others made no sense to me (how could anyone think Taurus looked like a bull?), but Orion I could see. The four corner stars marked the outline of the hunter’s body; the three aligned stars in the middle were his belt; and those fuzzy stars just below the belt were the sword at his side.

Only many years later did I learn that, in some parts of the world, the three stars of Orion’s belt are also called the Three Kings – because during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, they march steadily across the sky from East to West, like the Magi on their way to Bethlehem.

Of course, the Magi were not actually kings; as much as medieval Christians liked the image of foreign kings bowing down before their personal savior, there is nothing in the gospel to suggest they were royalty. Matthew, from whom we receive this part of the Christmas story, never makes these visitors out to be kings. They are called, simply, Magi. Persian astrologers. Students of the stars.

Modern-day students of the stars teach us that the star just south of the “Three Kings” — the “sword” that hangs from Orion’s belt – is not a single star at all, but rather a nebula, a great cosmic cloud within which thousands of new stars are forming. It has been described as a stellar nursery, a celestial cocoon. The Orion Nebula is some 1300 light years away from us; meaning, that it takes more than a millennium, for the light of those new stars to reach us.

By the time it reaches earth, that light has been a long time coming.

The stars reveal to us the ancient history of the cosmos. When astronomers look to the most distant edges of the universe, they are seeing the light of stars that burned long ago.  When the Magi looked to the stars, they were studying a text more ancient than the Prophets.

It was against this backdrop of ancient light, that they detected a new light. A newborn star. And seeing it, they pursued it. They asked Herod: “Where is the newborn King? For we have seen his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

I love this translation. Some other versions of the Gospel say simply, we have seen his star in the East. But the Greek word Matthew uses means, literally, rising – as in, sunrise. We have seen his star at its rising.

I used to picture this new star as somehow brighter and bigger than all the others – brightest and best of the sons of the morning, as the old hymn goes – but I have begun to doubt that. If it were that obvious, then surely everyone would have been talking about it. But it took these devoted star-gazers, these students of the night sky, to notice it. So now I imagine it as just one star among many, hardly noticeable in the throng. Only the Magi recognized it for what it was: a new light in the old sky. A sign of hope, rising.

We live in time when there are many things on the rise, most of them troubling. You know what these are; you can name them yourselves. Gun violence is on the rise. Hate crimes are on the rise. Anti-semitism is on the rise. Global temperatures are on the rise. World hunger is on the rise. Extinction rates are on the rise. Wildfires are on the rise. And, as the past week has made evident, international tensions are on the rise as well.

In light of this reality, in the glare of these headlines, it can be hard to see any signs of hope. Any new star on the horizon seems pale and dim, compared to the fires burning here on earth.

The Magi, though, took a long view. They trained their eyes on the night sky; they grew accustomed to the ancient light of the heavens. And they saw there a sign, made visible only by the darkness; a tiny light, on the horizon. But it was enough, to make them leave their homes, travel great distances, offer their treasures, and ultimately risk their lives in disobedience to Herod — all in pursuit of that new star.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

We gather here, today, to honor the Magi. Here, following their example, we take the long view. We look at the present, against the backdrop of an ancient light. And we search, together for new light on the rise.

This is the quest of the Magi – not merely to find the new star, but to follow it.

So on this Epiphany Sunday, I offer you this charge:  Keep watch. Search for hope at its rising — and when you see it, pursue it. Offer your greatest treasure in its service. And do not be afraid to take a new road home.

orion_spinelli_c1_NASA

Photos:
1. The Orion Nebula, birthplace of stars. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI.
2. Orion on film, by Matthew Spinelli

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, January 5, 2020,
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA.

prophets and scribes

Toni Morrison. JK Rowling. Maurice Sendak. D.H. Lawrence. Aldous Huxley. Adolf Hitler. Anne Frank. Dr. Seuss.

The Prophet Jeremiah.

What do all these people have in common? The works of each of these authors has been banned, at some time or another, in some place or another, for some reason or another. Such is the strength of words, that even the mighty fear their power.

In Jeremiah’s case, his work was not merely banned, but burned. Destroyed. And this in an age when there were no carbon copies, no Xerox machines, no digital backup. The powers that be considered executing Jeremiah, as well, but relented. Others in history have not been so lucky. It is a small step from burning books to burning human beings.

A book, after all, is merely an extension of the human voice. It enables the writer to speak to those far away, in time or in distance. When writing first appeared on the scene of human history, it must have seemed as miraculous as the first phone call, the first radio broadcast, the first television would be to later generations. Remember, that in the early days of human literacy, not everyone could read and write; it was the job of scribes to set words to paper – to codify them, to digitize them, if you will – and then to retranslate them into sound. Until the invention of the written word, the only way to transmit speech was through someone’s living memory. The book replaced the bard, the mail replaced the messenger.

Speaking of messengers: let us return to our story.

Jeremiah runs afoul of the authorities when he forecasts the downfall of his own nation.  A little historical background here: Jeremiah was a prophet of the kingdom of Judah, whose prophetic career spanned the reign of five kings. This is not so much a testimony to Jeremiah’s longevity, as it is a testimony to Judah’s instability during this time.

When Jeremiah first received his call, the neighboring kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrian empire. Over the next decade it became clear to Jeremiah that his own kingdom of Judah would soon suffer the same fate. Yet Judah was in a deep state of denial; both king and people were certain of God’s favor and convinced of their own invincibility. Was not Jerusalem the home of the Temple, the Holy of Holies? Had not God promised David that his house would reign forever?  Other countries might fall, but it couldn’t happen here.

Theirs was the sin of exceptionalism, and Jeremiah called them out on it.

So when the King asked Jeremiah what God had in store for them, Jeremiah could offer no reassurance. He could not speak peace, when there was no peace. He could not speak comfort, when there was not comfort.  And so he was banned from the Temple.

Enter Baruch. Jeremiah enlists his friend to write down his prophetic warnings, on a scroll, and to take that scroll into the Temple, and to read it aloud. Baruch does this – and on a holiday, when the Temple will be crowded with visitors from throughout the kingdom. When the authorities seize the scroll and burn it, he does it all over again.

This guy interests me.

Baruch is not a prophet, he’s a scribe. His skills are intellectual, not inspirational. Jeremiah is the activist; Baruch is more of an academic. And yet he puts his life on the line, to carry Jeremiah’s voice to a place where Jeremiah himself cannot go.

Flash forward several hundred years.

Two weeks ago I was in London, with my family. On our first full day there, we took the kids to the Tower, to see the crown jewels and to explore the castle walls. If you follow those walls all around the castle, you pass through a series of small stone cells that once held prisoners; and on the walls of these rooms, you can see the graffiti that some of these prisoners etched into the stone walls. Some carved their names, others carved pictures: the outline of a hand, with a mark in its center; the outline of a footprint, also marked. These are religious symbols, signs of the crucifixion, left by Catholic prisoners during England’s century of bloody religious conflict.

One of those prisoners, we were told, was arrested for importing a Catholic book.

Which gave me pause. What sort of person risks prison for a book? What sort of book would be worth that risk? What story, what message, what memory is so important, that it must be passed on, at all costs?

Right before leaving for London, I went to see the movie Yesterday – did any of you see this? In the film, some unexplained warp occurs in reality, and the main character, a guy by the name of Jack Malik, awakens from a traffic accident into an altered world in which the Beatles apparently never existed. Jack is somehow the only person who remembers them, who remembers all of that music.

Now, Jack is a part-time musician, but he is no musical genius. He’s not the composer of these songs. He’s just, the guy that remembers them. But his memory imposes upon him a responsibility. And so this becomes his calling: to be the voice of the Beatles. Not to write down their songs, not just to record them and safely preserve them, but to sing them. To help the world remember.

Because it isn’t enough to archive our songs, our stories, our witness. Songs need to be sung, stories need to be told, truth needs to be spoken.

The moral of the film, perhaps, is this: We can’t all be Lennon or McCartney. But we can be Jack Malik.

As the apostle Paul reminds us, we are not all prophets. Not everyone receives that call, that breath of God that fills their lungs and forces them to exhale poetry. Not everyone has that vision, that ability to see clearly what others cannot imagine.

We can’t all be Jeremiah. But we can be Baruch.

We can lift up the words of the wise, we can bravely speak their truth in the presence of power.  This is especially true for those of us who enjoy the privilege of access – whether by virtue of race or religion or class or education. Those of us who still have access to the Temples of this age can use our voices to amplify the voices of those who have been shut out, and to remember the stories of those who can no longer tell their own.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel – another author whose work was banned at one time – once said that “Listening to a witness, makes us a witness.” Baruch knew what that sentence meant. He was a witness. And thanks to him, so are we.

What do you know, that must be remembered? What have you learned, that must be taught? What have you read, that must be spoken? What have you heard, that must be sung?

Photo: public domain

 

confession 7.4.2019

God of Compassion, have mercy upon us;
We are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves.
We have spent our money on that which is not Food;
We have squandered our time on that which is not Life;
We have offered our hearts to that which is not Love;
We have pledged our allegiance to that which is not God,
and the whole earth suffers for it.
Forgive us, God, and free us from our illusions.
Reveal to us the things that matter,
and lead us into life everlasting.
Amen.

 

Apocalypse III: Here be dragons

I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong…. My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death.

So says the dragon, Smaug, in JRR Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Hobbit.

Dragons have been part of the human imagination for almost as long as human have had an imagination. They cross cultural boundaries and endure across the ages, emerging in our dreams, our stories, and our art until this very day. The dragon in the myth may be slain, but the myth itself persists.

Why, then, are surprised to find the dragon lurking in the pages of our Bible?

Perhaps it is because we think of such creatures as suitable only for fairy tales and children’s stories. As the old song says, “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” Sooner or later, we grow up and realize that dragons aren’t real, fairy tales aren’t true, and there are no monsters under the bed. So as much as we may enjoy watching Game of Thrones at night, it’s a bit embarrassing to find such creatures appearing here in church on Sunday morning, lurking among the pages of the book of Revelation (Rev 12:1-12).

This is a night vision, this dragon of the Apocalypse. John of Patmos dreamed a dream, told a tale, saw a vision – pick whichever words you wish, but somehow, there came into John’s imagination a great red dragon. Emerging out of the darkness of John’s subconscious, it crouches in wait before a pregnant woman, ready to devour her child at birth.

It is an ancient and powerful image, one that was internationally known in John’s day. The dragon menacing the queen of heaven is a myth that appeared in various forms in Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor. To a Christian reader, the mother and her child are Mary and Jesus; to a Jewish reader, they are Israel and the Messiah; more universally, they are every mother and every child; they are the present and the future.

The child is hope, and the dragon threatens to devour it.

But in John’s vision, the mother and child are not alone. The child of hope is swept up in the arms of God, the mother flees to a place of sanctuary, and the hosts of heaven wage war on the red dragon. The serpent is cast down, from heaven to earth, where it continues its battle – not against angels, but against the children of the earth.

This is the stuff of high fantasy. Apocalypse is an ancient literary genre unto itself, with no precise modern equivalent; but if I had to shelve it in a bookstore or library, I think I would put it, not in the religion section, but next to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or The Handmaid’s Tale. In saying this, I do not in any way intend to diminish its importance, or to deny its truth.  At its best, speculative fiction creates a counter-reality that can unmask the status quo. It is inherently and powerfully subversive.

How else to explain the fact that in Thailand, following the military coup, young people began signing their resistance by flashing the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games? Or that, here in the US, during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, groups of women took to the streets dressed in the red cloaks and white hoods of The Handmaid’s Tale? In recent years, at anti-Fascist protests around the world, you can see young people carrying signs that say “Dumbledore’s Army.”  Such is the power of myth.

So let us return to our dragon. Defeated in heaven, the red dragon falls to earth, to wage war against its inhabitants. But it does not do so directly; instead, it gives its “authority” – its power – to a great and monstrous beast that arises from the sea. This Great Beast in turn relies on another – a lesser beast from the earth – which acts as its agent and enforcer, demanding loyalty to the Great Beast. (Rev. 13:1-18)

Who, or what, is this Great Beast from the sea, this earthly incarnation of the dragon’s power? John gives us two details: first, that the Beast has seven heads, one of which has a mortal wound, yet lives; and second, that the number of the Beast is 666. These are clues to be deciphered by John’s readers; as he himself says: “this calls for wisdom.”

Here John’s vision becomes less global and more particular; for beasts, in the Hebrew apocalyptic tradition, represent specific earthly empires. In this case the beast with seven crowned heads is Rome and its seven emperors; the seventh head, with the mortal wound, refers to the Emperor Nero, who was at the time variously rumored to have committed suicide or to have survived the attempt.

As for the number of the beast: in Hebrew numerology, each letter has a number, and so each word has a corresponding number that is the sum of all its letters. The sum of the name Nero Caesar, is 666.

At this point, John’s vision becomes less high fantasy, and more political allegory; a bit less like Lord of the Rings, and more like Animal Farm.

Animal Farm, for those unfamiliar with it, is a classic twentieth century fable by George Orwell. It tells the story of a group of farm animals who rise up in revolution against the tyranny of their farmer. In this they are led by the pigs, who encourage them to build a utopian society in which all animals are equal. In time, however, the pigs themselves become as tyrannical as the farmers.

To those familiar contemporary world history, Animal Farm is clearly an allegory of the Russian Revolution, with the pigs corresponding to its leaders: Old Major is Karl Marx, Snowball is Trotsky, and the aptly named Napolean is Stalin. To those who are unfamiliar with this history, the story is still compelling, for its warning against totalitarianism rings true in any age.

And so it is with the book of Revelation. John’s contemporaries would have recognized his symbolism as referring to the particular political realities of their own time. Those of us farther removed from this setting may still find his vision compelling, for the forces of empire are active in every age. But we misinterpret the story if we read it too literally.

Let me be perfectly clear here; to come away from Revelation with a fear of the number 666 is like coming away from Animal Farm with a fear of pigs. In either case, it is to profoundly miss the point.

The purpose of John’s Apocalypse – and arguably, the purpose of Harry Potter or The Handmaid’s Tale as well – is to unveil the true nature of the Empire’s power, and to give courage to those who refuse to bow down before it. Apocalyptic literature is, in John’s own words, “a call for the endurance of the saints.” It is a loud and clear warning to those who drift into tyranny: Here be dragons.

This is no children’s fable. Quite the opposite.

I have been thinking back, this week, on the dragons of my childhood. Pete Seeger introduced me to Puff, the Magic Dragon, who frolicked in the autumn breeze with little Jackie Paper. Disney brought me the Reluctant Dragon, who wrote poetry and shared a cup of tea with the knight who came to slay him. Meanwhile, my books about dinosaurs taught me that giant lizards were a thing of the past.

But real dragons are neither pets or playmates. Real dragons devour and destroy. Take Smaug, for example. Now, that’s a dragon. He sits on a massive pile of plunder, for which he has slaughtered thousands. He craves gold – which is to say, wealth for wealth’s sake, power for power’s sake – and he will stop at nothing to acquire it.

As a child, I was lulled into believing, there were no real dragons. But I am no longer sure of that.

Real dragons cannot be seen by human eyes, or slain by human hands. Dragons exist in our world, the “real world,” only by proxy. They enlist us, to do their damage for them – to despoil and to dominate, to torture and to kill. We cannot lay hands on racism itself, or greed itself, or tyranny itself. But they are real enough. We can choose to serve them; or we can resist.

So, my fellow Hobbits, my fellow Handmaids, my fellow members of Dumbledore’s Army, take heart. You are not alone.

I leave you with this word of encouragement from John’s revelation:

The dragon’s wrath is great, because he knows his time is short.

 

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 19, 2019

(photo: Image from the 11th century Bamberg Apocalypse. Wikimedia Commons. )

Apocalypse II: Earth Day

While the sage, Honi, was walking along the road,
he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honie asked him,
“How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

“Seventy years,” replied the man.

“Are you so healthy a man, that you expect to
live that length of time and eat its fruit?

The man answered, “I found a fruitful world
because my ancestors planted it for me.
Likewise I am planting for my children.”

(from the Babylonian Talmud, taanit 23a)

Today is Mother’s Day. I am fortunate to be the mother of two kids who like to cook. So tonight, I can look forward to a delicious supper prepared by my daughters.

But I am not only a mother, but also a daughter. My Mom died some 25 years ago. What gift can I give her? How can I honor her, on Mother’s Day?

The story of Honi and the Carob Tree suggests an answer. It is a simple tale, with a simple moral: We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants. Not a bad message, really, for Mother’s Day: We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

It is a lesson easily understood, but less easily followed.

**

Last week the United Nations released a report on the state of the planet. It summarizes the results of some 15,000 scientific and government studies, and concludes that of the earth’s 8 million species, some 1 million are in danger of extinction within the next few decades. Some of us in the room right now, will live to see this happen.

As luck, or providence, would have it, that report hit the headlines at the same time that the common church lectionary cycle turned to the Book of Revelation.  It was hard to miss the parallel between the two. The great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth used to tell his seminary students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other, but, honestly, as I went back and forth between the two, between the scripture and the news, it was hard to know which was which.

On the one hand, I read that “land degradation has reduced productivity in 23 percent of the global terrestrial area,” that habitat integrity has declined by 30% globally, that from 1990 to 2015 we cut down over twice as much forest as we planted, with a net loss of some 180 million hectares of trees.

In the other, I read that “a third of the earth was burned, and a third of the trees were burned, and the green grass was burned.”

On the one hand, I read “33 percent of global fisheries are overexploited.”
On the other, “a third of the living creatures in the sea died.”

When the daily news starts sounding like the Apocalypse, something is very wrong.

**

Around the year 100 – some three generations after Jesus was born – a follower of Jesus named John was exiled to the island of Patmos. It was there, the book of Revelation tells us, that John one day fell into a trance, and dreamed a dream – or a series of dreams – about the End of the World. His dreams are filled with cycles of seven – which in Hebrew numerology, meant cycles of completion. Seven lamps, seven seals, seven bowls, and, in today’s reading, seven trumpets, each bringing a new revelation.

The blast of the first four trumpets reveal massive environmental collapse. A third of the green earth perishes, a third of the sea creatures perish, a third of the waters are poisoned, a third of the stars are dimmed. (Revelation 8:6-13)

For John, this was a dream of unimaginable disaster. For us, it is still unimaginable, but it is no longer a dream, but a looming reality. We fell the forests, we empty the seas, we pollute our waters, even our view of the stars is dimmed by human activity; compared to the sky our ancestors saw, our own night sky is impoverished of stars.

We are living John’s dream, and it is time to wake up.

**

Now, in saying this, let me be clear: I do not necessarily mean to say, that John’s dream was a prediction of our present day crisis. I know that some see in these events the fulfillment of a prophecy, and come to the conclusion that somehow all of this is part of God’s plan, if not God’s actual doing. But the belief that God has ordained the destruction of our planet is a poor reading of scripture, not to mention a poor basis for environmental stewardship.

The first four blasts of the trumpet are followed by two more, which we skipped over in today’s reading. These bring a vision of suffering and death which will afflict the human species. For how can humans prosper, if earth perishes? But as terrible as they are, none of these events are punishments, or judgments. Judgment comes with the seventh trumpet.

The trumpet sounds, and the hosts of heaven declare:

The Kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God;
the time has come for judging the dead, for rewarding the saints,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Rev 8:15-18)

This devastation is not God’s doing. It is ours, and we are accountable for it.

The First Earth Day was in 1970; I was six years old. We were supposed to be the green generation. There was – and still is, I think – this belief that if we just teach our children about the environment, then the future of the planet will be secure. But the problem is, the world is not run by children, and children, unfortunately, turn into adults. Look at us. We knew better, but we have failed to do better; if anything, we have burdened the planet in unprecedented ways.  We currently extract around 60 billion tons of resources from the earth each year – that’s twice as much as generation ago.

We have eat the fruit of the carob tree; but instead of planting another, we cut the tree down, and paved over the orchard.

I’d like to be able to point the finger here, to blame our problems on someone else, on Big Oil or Big Government or people who drive Big Cars. But the truth is, we are all complicity, because our entire way of life is built on a wrong attitude toward nature. And – as T.S. Eliot once remarked – a wrong attitude about nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude about God.

Today, both nature and scripture, both science and religion, both speak to the urgency of our condition.

For here is the conclusion, of the UN report on the environment: “Goals for conserving… nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and… may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” [emphasis mine]

To rephrase this, in the traditional language of faith: Repent, for the time is at hand.

**

About five years ago, I had a conversation with a young man who was part of the church I was serving at the time. At the time he was about seventeen, so I guess he would be around 23 now. We met at a coffee shop, and talked about his life, and toward the end of the conversation I asked him, What does your generation want from the church? And he said: Hope?

The children of today can see what is happening, to the planet, and they fear for their futures. They know our climate is collapsing, they know our environment is degrading, and they are afraid. They are afraid that we can’t do anything about it. But even more than that, they are afraid we won’t do anything about it. As children protest, in the streets of London, in the streets of Greenfield, they are looking to us, for some sign of hope.

We are the grownups now. We have eaten the carob fruit. It is time to plant some seeds of hope.

The story of Honi and the carob tree is a simple one. Its lesson is easily understood, but less easily followed.

We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants.

We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

May it be so.

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 12, 2019

Desolate Trees in the Sandy Desert of Deadvlei Hiking Trail. These trees perished when the local climate changed some thousand years ago. (Photo by Marcel Novais;  Wikimedia Commons)

 

Apocalypse I: ending with a comma

Spring in New England is lambing season; they arrive just in time for Easter, all fuzzy, gentle, and innocent as… well, lambs.  And with all these lambs popping up in our fields, it seems seasonally appropriate that they pop up in our Easter celebrations — not only in our children’s Easter baskets, but also in our Eastertide readings. Every year, in May, the liturgical calendar marks Good Shepherd Sunday, with verses from the Gospel of John, about the tender shepherd, who calls his sheep by name.

This, however, is not that Sunday.

Today, Jesus appears as the Lamb of God, but not as the sweet and cuddly lamb of our Easter baskets. No, this is a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb, before whom the people cry out in fear, “Save us from the wrath of the lamb!” It’s like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Or some sort of B grade horror film. I’ve never seen an Easter card with a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb on it, and no one would give a child one to play with.

Happy Easter – welcome to the Apocalypse.

***

The book of Revelation – or, to call it by its Greek name, the Apocalypse — is arguably the weirdest book of the New Testament, and certainly the most violent. Those of us in the mainline churches, who like to think of our faith as rational and peace loving, tend to find Revelation disturbing, if not downright embarrassing.  It comes up in the common cycle of scripture readings only every third year, and even then the readings are highly selective; we skip over the most outlandish sections. Meanwhile, in other branches of the Christian family tree, the entire Book of Revelation is embraced as, literally, the final word on their faith – a reliable guide to the end times.

This divergence of opinion is not new. The book of Revelation has been controversial from its beginning. It barely squeaked into the canon; when the church begin drawing up lists of the “official” Christian scripture, there was fairly wide consensus about the Gospels and the Letters, but the church leaders of the day were sharply divided over the Revelation.

So what sort of book is this strange, last chapter of the Bible?

Well, for starters, it is emphatically not a Gospel. The four canonical gospels – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are testimonies to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as variously remembered and passed on by his Apostles. The gospels claim their authority from this Apostolic witness.

The author of the book of Revelation, however, makes no such claim of Apostolic authority. He tells us his name is John, but John was a common name, and nowhere does he claim to be the Apostle John. We know only this – that he was a first-century Jewish follower of Jesus, that he was exiled to the island of Patmos, and that while there, he saw visions, which he believed were sent by God. It was these visions that impelled him to write his Apocalypsis – a Greek word which means, revelation.

So how are we to read such a book?

Certainly not in the same way we would read a gospel story, or one of Paul’s letters. Dreams and visions have a language and narrative logic of their own. The shape of our dreams is informed  by our experiences and our traditions – our external and internal landscapes, if you will – but also by wells of meaning and creativity beyond the grasp of our conscious minds.  John had a vision, of a heavenly throne, surrounded by winged creatures, and of a sealed scroll – a secret, waiting to be revealed. He is told that the only one able to open the scroll is the Lion of Judah; but when he appears, he is no lion, but a slaughtered lamb – not the predator, but the prey. Yet somehow, in the way of dreams, he can be both of those things. The one who conquered, is somehow the same one who was slaughtered.

Clearly, this is not meant to be taken literally. Jesus is not, literally, a seven-eyed lamb, any more than he is, literally, a lion. But there are truths best seen in the non-literal world; in the world of dreams, or of poetry, or of imagination; in the world of symbols and signs, of art and archetype.

John’s vision is full of images and phrases from his Jewish faith tradition – the winged creatures around the throne are found in the prophet Ezekiel, the Lion of Judah is a phrase from the book of Genesis, the lamb to the slaughter is an image from the prophet Isaiah. The God of his ancestors has visited John in his dreams, thereby revealing himself to John as God not only of the past, but of the present, and the future – the one who was, and is, and is to come.

***

It is that God-who-is-to-come that calls to John, that haunts his dreams. For from where John is standing, God has unfinished business.

For where was the promised kingdom of heaven? The Roman Empire was no realm of God. The righteous still perished, while the wicked prospered.

These are the first secrets revealed, when the scroll’s first four seals are broken. The four horsemen of the apocalypse – which is simply to say, the four horsemen ‘revealed’  — embody the injustice and suffering of this world: warfare, civil strife, economic exploitation, an death.  None of these is new. None of these is yet to come. They are the terrible reality of our human past and our human present. They were the reality of John’s world as well as of our own, the reality we hide from, the reality we push away from our conscious minds, as perhaps John did. But they emerged in his dreams, taking on the shape of monsters and mythic creatures.

When the fifth seal is broken, it reveals the company of the martyrs, those who have died in witness to their faith, those who have suffered for speaking the truth, those who have been punished for their righteousness. And they cry out the question of all those who thirst for justice: How long? O Lord, how long?

This is the cry of John’s heart as well.

This dream, this revelation, came to John in the midst of a crisis of faith: For he believed God’s messiah had come in Christ; yet the four horsemen continued to ravage the earth.  Suffering continued, with no end in sight.

No wonder John dreamed of the End Times.

John needed to know, that the horsemen would not ride forever; he needed to know, that dead would be avenged; he needed to know, that justice would prevail.  He needed to know, that the future still belonged to God.

As do we.

***

There is a deep irony in the fact that this book was the last admitted to the official Canon, before the church sealed it shut. For its very existence points beyond the traditions of the faith, beyond the teachings of the elders, beyond the infallibility of scripture, even. The book itself warns that nothing may be added to its words; but the book itself is an addition, a divine addendum, an acknowledgement of truth yet to break forth. The Bible ends, not with a period, but with a comma.

The very possibility of revelation — of dreams yet to be dreamed, of deeds yet to be accomplished, of surprises yet to come — is deeply hopeful.  For like John, we live in an unfinished world, and so we need an unfinished gospel.

John’s dreams may not be our dreams, but perhaps their presence among these holy writings can give us permission, and courage, to dream our own dreams, and hear the word that God is still speaking, to us.

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
May 5, 2019
The First Church of Deerfield, MA
Lead photo shows Jacob sheep lambs (from JacobSheepSociety.com),
who grow up to look like this (from WashingtonPost.com)