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.

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.

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

 

 

 

 

Act like one.

And the devil said to him: If you are the son of God…   (Luke 4:1-14)

It is important to note when the story begins: Jesus is returning from the River Jordan, where he went to be baptized by John. But instead of returning home, he ventures into unfamiliar territory.

Something happened there at the river, something that drove him to the wilderness. As he was baptized, he heard a Voice. “You are my beloved Son,” the Voice said; “In you I am well pleased.” The story really begins with that Voice, the Voice that sends Jesus into the wilderness. He goes there to confront it. For what does it mean, to be the Son of God?

In the wilderness, Jesus hears other another voice. A voice offering answers to that question.  Luke’s gospel tells us it was the voice of devil.

In most English translations of this story, the devil’s temptation begins with the words “If” – “If you are the Son of God.” But in Luke’s original Greek, the devil’s words don’t necessarily imply any doubt about the matter. An equally accurate translation would begin with the word “Since” – “Since you are the Son of God, why not turn this stone to bread?”  The devil is not questioning Jesus’ divinity. He’s defining it. He’s not saying, “If you’re really a god, then prove it”. It’s more subtle than that. Essentially, the devil tells Jesus:  ‘You’re a god…. Act like one.’

For what else does it mean, to be the Son of God?

The devil tells Jesus, “Since you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” For surely a god should be always free from want?

Next, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and offers him dominion over them. For surely a god should command the respect of others?

Finally, the devil dares Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. For surely a god is exempt from the consequences of his own behavior?

So what does it mean, to be the Son of God? According to the devil, it means privilege. It means power. It means invulnerability.

This picture of divinity that the devil paints for Jesus was a familiar one in the ancient world. The official public gods of the Roman Empire weren’t exactly moral exemplars; they were worshipped more for their power, than for their goodness.  Morality in first century Rome was the realm of philosophers, not priests. The defining characteristics of the gods were privilege, power, and invulnerability.

No wonder that Caesar who was called the “Son of God.” For who on earth could be more god-like than the Emperor?  He was at the top of the social and economic pyramid.

He had everything the devil had to offer.

The devil’s theology is tempting indeed, and history is full of those who have succumbed to it. The Europeans who colonized the Americas succumbed to the devil’s temptation when they justified their invasion with the argument that they were more godly than the native peoples they conquered. The slaveholders in the antebellum South succumbed to the devil’s temptation when they justified slavery with the argument that they were more godly than the African peoples they enslaved. If you equate privilege with godliness, it becomes easy to confuse tyranny with divinity. After all, who seems more god-like, the master, or the slave?

(Ask yourself why, in many paintings, Jesus is white, but the devil is black.)

But Jesus rejects the devil’s temptation, saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”  Jesus has an entirely different picture of divinity in mind, so he turns down the devil’s gifts of privilege and power and invulnerability. Jesus will be everything that Caesar is not. He will identify with the poor and hungry. He will be arrested and convicted by the rulers of this world. He will be beaten, and publicly executed.

What could be less god-like than that? Yet  Jesus’ followers insisted that it was in his very lowliness, that the nature of God was revealed.

Nearly a half-century ago, an African-American Christian theologian named James H. Cone ignited controversy by boldly declaring that “God was Black.” The statement “God is Black” sounded pretty shocking to 20th-century  white American ears  – but perhaps no more shocking than the statement that “Jesus is Lord” must have sounded to 1st-century Roman ears.

In declaring “God is Black,” James Cone did not just mean that God loves all people, or that all people are made in the image of God. Nor was he referring to the fact that Jesus himself was in all likelihood a brown-skinned man. In America, “blackness” was a not just a shade of human pigmentation but a condition of oppression. And so, as radical as it may have seemed to talk about the “the blackness of God,” Cone was in fact expressing an ancient Christian belief – that in Christ, God chose to make the  oppressed condition his own.

It was the same belief that the apostle Paul expressed nineteen centuries before, when he wrote to the Philippians, saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus – who, although he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7).

When we are on top of the pyramid, it is always tempting to believe that we are somehow closer to God up there, that our view of the world is a God’s eye view. The gospels tell us that the devil takes Jesus to “a high place” and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. But if you survey your kingdom only from some high place, it is impossible to see or hear the people below.  To look down on others is not to look at them with God’s eyes.

Jesus chose to look at the world not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Jesus rejected power and privilege, and the invulnerability they can purchase. Jesus turned down the devil’s invitation to rule from the mountaintop. He chose instead, to walk that lonely valley down below.

This week marks the beginning of Lent, a period of time traditionally associated with Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. The season of Lent is an invitation to follow Jesus into that wilderness, and to confront, as Jesus did, the promise of our own blessing.

For what does it mean, to be a son — or daughter — of God?

During Lent, we can emulate Jesus by fasting, by giving up some favorite food or activity; or we can emulate Jesus by giving up our claims to privilege and power, and becoming vulnerable to one another. For the devil tempts us still, to set ourselves above and apart from others, whether by virtue of wealth or education, gender or orientation, age or ability, race or nationality.

But it turns out that power, privilege, and invulnerability are not marks of divinity, but of its very opposite. What would it be like, to empty ourselves of that privilege? What would it be like, to be truly God-like?

Remember that you, too, are a child of God.

Act like one.

 

 

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, February 18, 2018.

Photo: The Temptation of Christ, Ary Scheffer (1854). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Rescue Dogs and Refugees

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly  — Matthew 15:22-28 (NRSV).  

**

If this story strikes you as strange, you are not alone.

Granted, the whole demon-possession thing always sounds foreign to post-modern western ears, and miracles are miraculous in any age. But any semi-regular church goer has heard stories of demons and miracles before.

It’s not the miracle that seems strange here. It’s the miracle worker. It’s Jesus, who seems strange here.

How often does Jesus tell anyone, nope, sorry, no miracles for you? But that’s what he tells the woman in this story. A woman approaches Jesus seeking help, not for herself, but for her daughter, and Jesus says, sorry. No time. Gotta go help my people.

It doesn’t sound very Jesus-like, does it?

To make matters worse, he follows this dismissal with the most insulting of metaphors: It’s not fair, he says, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Yeah, that’s right. A woman comes to him, desperately seeking aid, and he responds with a derogatory one-liner and an “Israel First” slogan. That sounds like someone I can think of, but it ain’t Jesus.

So what’s going on? Is Jesus just joking around? It seems a cruel joke. Is he testing her? Again, it seems a cruel test. Or did Jesus really believe, at that moment, that he was called to serve only his own people? Maybe it was this woman, who opened his eyes to a much wider call.

Because she doesn’t give up. The disciples turn her away, but she persists. Jesus turns her away, but she persists. He calls her a dog, but nevertheless she persists. She tells him, Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.

Surely God must have some leftover grace, for us?

**

The woman, Matthew tells us, was a Canaanite. The Canaanites, you may or may not recall, were the people who lived in the Holy Land before the Israelites got there. Before it was Israel, it was the land of Canaan. But, as the Bible tells it, these indigenous people, these First Nation folks, were subdued and displaced by the armies of Joshua.

Mark’s gospel also tells this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, except that, according to Mark, she was not Canaanite by Syrian. Apparently the disciples who witnessed the exchange weren’t entirely certain of her ethnicity. Which I suppose is telling, in and of itself. All they knew, all they needed to know, was that she wasn’t one of their own. And so as far as they were concerned, she was someone else’s problem.

There are all sorts of borders, then, separating her from Jesus and his disciples. Borders of gender, of ethnicity, of religion – by all of these measures, she is one of them, not one of us. She is an outsider, an outcaste, an immigrant, a foreigner. But she won’t be shut out. She persists, because she has faith – faith that God’s mercy crosses all boundaries, faith that God has grace enough to spare, faith that even a dog deserves a crumb of compassion.

**

I’m reminded, here, of a story I heard on the radio last week, about a group of folks in Atlanta that has been importing rescue dogs from Turkey. Apparently, golden retrievers are considered a status symbol in Turkey, so lots of people get golden puppies, only to dump them when they get tired of them. The big, goofy, sweet-tempered golden retrievers don’t do well as street dogs. They aren’t aggressive, so they are terrorized by the other feral dogs. So a group of dog lovers has been gathering up the Goldens into shelters, and shipping them to the US, where a long line of willing owners stands ready to adopt them. The dogs are given patriotic American names – like Liberty, Freedom, and Glory – and issued passports. Over a thousand dogs have been rescued in this way.

Meanwhile, there are 3 million human Syrian refugees in Turkey, all of whom are banned from travel to the United States.

If we can recognize a Golden Retriever, no matter where we may find it, why is it so hard to recognize a human being?

If even the dogs may eat the children’s crumbs, surely we can spare some bread for the children themselves?

**

Last Sunday was World Communion Sunday, a date chosen by global consensus for all Christian churches to break bread on the same day. The symbolism is obvious: that although we may be separated by great distances, still we are one at the table. This is what the Canaanite woman affirms, when she asks Jesus for help: that God’s table is open to all.

But Jesus says no. My nation comes first.

Too many American Christians act as if the Gospel story ended right there. As if our faith and our nation shared the same borders. We mistake our country for God’s kingdom, and our tribe for God’s people. We confuse church with state and vice versa; we put God on our currency and flags in our sanctuaries. We say “America First” and “God Bless America” in the same breath, as if they meant the same thing.

But when we hear that same creed on Jesus’ lips – “my country first” — it sounds strange, doesn’t it? We know this is not the voice of Christ. And the Canaanite woman knew it too.

And so the story does not end there, because the Canaanite woman persists. She crosses over all the boundaries that kept her in her place, and she demands that Jesus do the same. And he does.

Jesus calls her a woman of great faith.

And so she was. She had faith that there was a greater God, a greater love, a greater abundance of grace, than she had been told.

Indeed, it is always the ones who live outside our own borders, of tribe, of nation, of class, of race, who call us to greater faith. For they persistently remind us, that God is not limited to our own narrow horizons, that God’s table stretches clear around the world, and that there is enough grace there for all.

We are not, and never have been, Americans first, but rather earthlings first: the children of God, made in God’s image.

Come to the Table, and break bread with the World.

(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, October 8, 2017.)

School of Love

Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, but do not put my teaching into practice?
— Luke 6:46

 

Something has changed, here in Old Deerfield. Since last time we gathered, something has shifted. It’s as if our sleepy little village has, somehow, awakened.

School is back in session.

The renowned writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once described fall in America as that “fine and dangerous season [when] all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalog looks wonderful.”

My datebook tells me that the year begins in January, and my church lectionary tells me that the year begins in Advent, but I always thought the Jewish calendar got it right when it placed the new year in September. September has always seemed me a time for new beginnings, and not just because it’s the month I was born in. For the children among us, September is a time of new shoes, new teachers, new classmates, and new blank notebooks just waiting to be filled. Even for the rest of us who are no longer children, September can be a time of renewed energy. The air turns crisp, and suddenly our days have a bit more structure and purpose to them.

This is as true for churches as it is for schools. September is the time when travelers return to worship, children return to Sunday school, and choir members return to the choir loft (as ours will next Sunday). There’s a palpable shift, in September.

This is true for churches, and particularly true for us here at the Brick Church. Because this is one of the distinctive characteristics of the First Church of Deerfield: we are a church surrounded by students, and filled with teachers. English, French, Latin, Music, Technology, Drama, Medicine, English as a Second Language, Woodworking, Mathematics, Second Grade — we’ve got an entire curriculum represented here in this church. So let me ask you: what are we all doing here? What have we come here, to learn? What new course of study, are we hungry to pursue, here?

Last year, I read a remarkable book called The Great Spiritual Migration, by Brian McLaren, and the most memorable passage for me, the part that really stayed with me, was his answer to the question I just asked. This is how Rev. McLaren describes his vision for the future of the church:

“What I believe can and should happen is that tens of thousands of congregations will become what I call schools or studios of love. That’s the desired future to which I am passionately committed. I’m not concerned about a congregations denomination, musical style, or liturgical taste; I don’t care if they meet weekly in a cathedral, monthly in a bar, annually at a retreat center, or daily online. I don’t care whether they are big or small, formal or casual, hip or unhip, or whether their style of worship is traditional or contemporary or whatever. What I care about is whether they are teaching people to live a life of love, from the heart, for God, for all people no exceptions, and for all creation. These churches would aim to take people at every age and ability level and help them become the most loving version of themselves possible. They would help people face the challenges of life – challenges that could make them better, self absorbed, callous, or hateful – with openness, courage, and generosity. They would help people recognize when they are straying from the way of love and help them get back on the path.”[i]

McLaren goes on to note that, although there’s plenty of research into the best methods of teaching mathematics — or reading or violin — the pedagogy of love remains elusive. How do we learn to love our neighbor? How do we learn to love our God? How do we learn to love creation?

How indeed?

Jesus has many titles in the gospels: Messiah, Savior, Lord, Redeemer, Son of God and Son of Man. But the title by which his own followers addressed him, was Rabbi — Teacher. And these followers themselves were called Disciples, which means students. The Jesus movement was essentially a school without walls, and its curriculum was love.

It was no lecture class. Jesus spoke to his disciples, yes; he preached to large groups, and held small discussion sections afterwards. But then he showed them what those words meant in practice, by healing the sick, feeding the poor, embracing the outcasts, challenging the powerful, and bearing the cross. And having demonstrated love, he told them, Now,  you try.

He didn’t quiz them — “Now, who remembers which kinds of people are blessed?” — he just sent them out to actually bless people. He sent his disciples out in pairs – with a lab partner! — with instructions to heal the sick and raise the dead. And when the crowds were hungry, he told his disciples, You give them something to eat.

There are some subjects that just cannot be mastered by the intellect alone. They require our whole bodies, our whole selves. They require practice.

Take music, for example. Some of you may remember the old Broadway show, The Music Man. The main character, Harold Hill, is a traveling salesman / con artist who sells band instruments together with the promise that he will teach the youngsters how to play. Not actually being a music teacher, he cannot show them how to practice their instruments. instead, he employs what he calls “the think method” — he assures the kids that if they just think about the piece they are going to play, the notes will come out right.

But a musical instrument is not an abstract idea but a physical body, with which we must cultivate a physical relationship. And this takes practice. If we merely listen to music, but do not practice, then we are learning music appreciation, not actual musicianship.

The same is true when we are learning to drive. There’s a reason why you have to take a road test, and not just a written test, before you can get a license.

The same is true of sports, or art, or science.

The same is true of love.

On the last day before his arrest, Jesus told his students, I’m giving you a new assignment: “that you love one another, as I have loved you. “ It was their final exam. Not a written test, but a road test.

Love, you see, cannot be learned by rote. It is not a subject to be memorized or even a concept to be understood. It is a skill to be mastered. It requires practice.

Which is why it’s not enough, for us to gather here in this room, sitting in rows, listening to my sermon, which let’s face it is basically a lecture. If church is to be a school of love, then there needs to be a hands-on component. Which is why there’s a time every week when y’all get up out of your seats and take the hand of a person near you in a gesture of peace. It’s why there’s a time every month when we fill our arms with clothing and food and supplies to bring to the folks at the Greenfield Inn and the Recovery Center and the Food Pantry. It’s why we gather together in small groups, like our “Being Mortal” book group, to share our stories and talk about things that really matter. It’s why when one of us is in the hospital another of us goes to see them. It’s why we break bread together and sing together. It’s why we baptize our babies together and bury our dead together.

Church is the place where we learn to practice love, so that we may get better at it. We come to church, because we have heard love’s music, and we want to play in that orchestra.

So as we begin this new school year, this new church year, let us re-commit ourselves to be diligent students of love. To practice love daily. To seek always to improve and expand our capacity for love. To be open to feedback and criticism, knowing that this is how we improve. To turn this sanctuary into a school of love, a studio where we practice until the notes of love leap off the page, and the music spills out the window, to fill the streets.

That’s our syllabus, for the year ahead. And in case you forgot to write it down, here again is this week’s assignment (from Philippians 4:8-9):

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute,
if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise:
dwell on these things.

The things you have learned and received and heard and seen:
practice these things.

And may the God of peace be with you.

 

 

 

 

[i] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent, 2016), pp. 53-54.

Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 10, 2017.

Image: from Pinterest; original source unknown. Zoom in and check out the sentences on the blackboard.

When Disaster Gets Biblical

The waters are slowly subsiding from Southeast Texas, which Hurricane Harvey inundated with over 24 billion gallons of water.  Meanwhile, the Caribbean is recovering from Hurricane Irma, and bracing for another storm right on its heels. The news media have described these storms as historic, record-breaking, unparalleled, unprecedented. For some, there was only one word that seemed sufficient to capture the scope of the disaster: Biblical.

So we turn to scripture, to make sense of the storm.

The story of Noah’s ark is probably the best-known story in the Bible. Most of us learn it as children, whether or not our families attend church or synagogue. Songs, books, and toys all tell the familiar story of how Noah collected the animals, two by two, into his wonderful boat. It is a story with undeniable kid appeal.

Perhaps because we learn it as children, it is easy to dismiss Noah’s ark as a mere child’s fable, to see the story of the flood as colorful fiction. Although tabloids periodically announce the supposed discovery of the ark on some remote mountaintop, most of us question the historical reality of a worldwide flood, or the practical feasibility of transporting all the world’s creatures in a single hand-made boat.

I’m hardly a literalist when it comes to scripture, but think that we perhaps make a mistake, when we too readily dismiss Noah’s story as a fable. What if the story was fashioned in response to a real event? How would it change the way we read it?

Consider this: geological evidence shows that thousands of years ago, the entire Black Sea changed abruptly from freshwater to salt. At the same time, the borders of the Sea expanded dramatically. One theory is that melting glaciers gradually raised water levels in the North Sea to the point where they crested the Bosporus and a huge volume of sea water flowed suddenly into the low-lying Black Sea basin. The resulting flood could have raised the surface of the Black Sea by six inches a day, flooding 60,000 square miles within a few years.

I don’t know if this event is the one behind the story of Noah and his ark. But to those living on the shore of the Black Sea at the time, it must certainly have seemed as if the entire world had disappeared under water. Everywhere they had ever known would have been engulfed by the relentlessly rising tides.

My point is not that the Biblical flood is an historical fact, but that it could have been. For things this sudden and tragic have indeed occurred, and do indeed occur to this day. An earthquake devastates Haiti or Chile, a tsunami engulfs Japan, a hurricane ravages the Gulf Coast, and the known world disappears in the blink of an eye.

Noah’s Ark is at once a beloved children’s fable, and a real-life tragedy. As children, we naturally identify with Noah and his family, safe and snug together in the ark, with all that fabulous menagerie of beasts as our personal pets. As children, our world is our home, and we trust that our parents will protect us. But as adults, we begin to see the world beyond our home. We begin to put ourselves in the place of those left behind as the waters rose. We become aware of the tension behind the tale, the fear behind the fable.

The story of Noah and the ark is, ultimately, a tale told in the aftermath of a natural disaster, to the children of those who survived. It addresses the questions all survivors ask: Why did this happen? Why were they lost? Why was I spared? Could it happen again? And finally, fundamentally, where was God?

The story of Noah’s ark offers one set of answers to these questions. Why did this happen to them? Because they were sinners. Why was Noah spared? Because he was righteous. Where was God? In the flood.

These were the answers that the survivors of the flood offered to their children. And they are often the answers that we offer to our children – and ourselves — today. We want to reassure ourselves that tragedy cannot befall us, and so we distance ourselves from the victims of that tragedy. We tell ourselves, we are not like them. We tell ourselves, it could never happen here. And we tell ourselves, God will keep us safe.

The problem is, these are the wrong answers.

They are the wrong answers, for the Texas mother who has just identified the body of her 25-year-old son who went out in the storm to rescue his sister’s cat. They are the wrong answers, for the man who watched the family van plunge beneath the flood waters, carrying three generations of his family with it. They are the wrong answers, for the homeless family, the grieving widow, the orphaned child. They are the wrong answers.

So I offer you instead a different Biblical disaster story, less colorful, less well known. A tower collapses in Siloam, in the south part of the city of Jerusalem. Eighteen people re killed. Jesus asks his followers, “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower fell were worse sinners than all the other people in Jerusalem?” And then he answers his own question: “I tell you, no.”

In that simple sentence, Jesus changes the moral of the story. “I tell you, no, but unless you all repent, you will all likewise perish.” The natural disaster was not an act of judgment. It was not the victims of the tragedy who needed to repent, but rather those who blamed the victims for their fate.

When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, conservative televangelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haitians must have been cursed by God because of their ancestors’ pact with the devil. After Hurricane Katrina, a number of pastors speculated that God was punishing New Orleans for its gay and lesbian community. Reverend Jerry Falwell famously claimed that abortion was to blame for the 9/11 terror attacks. It would be easy to dismiss such hard-heartedness were it not so widespread. We want to believe that only the guilty suffer; we want to believe that tragedy can be avoided if only we follow the rules. Last week the New York Times interviewed the bewildered sister of a man who had drowned in Houston. “He was a minister,” she said. “He followed all the rules.”

Why do such things happen? The answers that we offer our children in the tale of Noah may seem reassuring to those of us who have so far escaped disaster. But ultimately, there are no easy answers to these questions.

Jesus never did tell his followers why those eighteen people died so suddenly and senselessly when the tower of Siloam fell. But Jesus did tell them, over and over, by word and by example, how to respond to such suffering: not with judgment, but with compassion.

What story, then, shall we tell our children, when the flood is over?

The Reverend Fred Rogers – known to most of us simply as “Mister Rogers” —  once said that, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

And so it was, in Texas. Volunteers and first responders searched the flooded streets, helping people to escape from the rising waters. They carried their neighbors to safety, in boats, in kayaks, in their arms and on their backs. A group of neighbors formed a human chain to help a man to safety from his flooded car.

In the midst of the storm, these are the only stories that make sense.

And maybe this is the story the Bible has been telling us all along, if only we have ears to hear. Because Noah wasn’t alone on that boat; he brought along every type of animal he could find. Noah was more than a survivor.

He was the one who rescued all of creation.

 

 

(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 2017; published in part by the Greenfield Recorder on September 9, 2017.)

(image: Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark. Phildelphia Museum of Art.