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

 

 

 

 

Samuel Speaks

 

Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” (1 Samuel 3: 1-20)

At first, Samuel thinks it is Eli calling—Eli, who has been both priest and adoptive father to Samuel for most of his young life—Eli, who has been the voice of authority, the voice of conscience. In this household of faith, it is Eli who speaks for God, and Samuel listens to Eli. But tonight, Samuel will listen to God directly, without parental supervision.

And tomorrow, Samuel will speak. When he does, he will break the silence surrounding Eli’s grown sons, also priests, who have been abusing their flock, while lining their pockets with offerings intended to God.

It will be Eli’s turn, to listen – and it will be hard listening. For Samuel’s message is the message of Eli’s sin as well. After all, this happened on Eli’s watch. It should have been Eli’s job, not Samuel’s, to call his sons to account. It should have Eli’s job, not Samuel’s, to protect the Temple, and its people.

On Ash Wednesday, a young man entered Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, and killed 17 students and teachers with an assault rifle. It was the second mass school shooting this year; in January, two students were killed and sixteen more wounded at Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky.

The day after the Parkland shooting, the young survivors held vigil. And the next morning, they began to speak. They are speaking still, demanding action to keep schools safe, and keep weapons out of the hands of those who would do harm. They are speaking to their parents, to their Representatives, to their Senators, to their President.

They are calling the elders to account for their failure to protect.

The voices of the Stoneman Douglas survivors have been joined by the voices of thousands of other young people from around the country. In state after state, in school after school, in walkouts and protests, students are demanding legislation to keep dangerous firearms out of dangerous hands. They are fighting for their lives.

Like many of us, I have been inspired by their passion, by the courage, by the persistence of these young survivors. But should we be any less passionate than our children? Should we be any less courageous, any less persistent? And by “we” I mean my generation. After all, it should have been our job, not theirs, to keep them safe. It should have been our job, not theirs, to hold our legislators to account.

We are the grown-ups now. We are Eli. This happened on our watch.

Samuel speaks today, as he does in every generation. Samuel speaks today, through the students of Stoneman Douglas. Samuel speaks, through 19 year old Chris Grady, and 18 year old Emma Gonzalez, and 17 year old Delaney Tarr, and 16 year old Kyle Kashuv, and 15 year old Christine Yarad – who wrote to the New York Times, “If you have any heart, or care about anyone, or anything, you need to be an advocate for change… Don’t continue this cycle.”

I can imagine that Samuel might have said exactly these words.

It’s time for some hard listening.

 

 

 

Photo: Gerald Herbert