Wednesday, March 17, 2010

2 Kings 17:24-28 Lions, Samaritans, and Fear! Oh My!

Well, I preached at the Wednesday Evening joint service "Wade in the Water," at All Saints.
What you see here is the sermon as written, not exactly as preached, because you know, you double space these things to leave room for the Holy Spirit.
One of the best part of the nights was when I had people amening right and left--then I got to the line, "I believe this so strongly that at one point it almost made me leave Christianity!" Utter silence... so I asked, "am I not getting an Amen for that?"

Having grown up in Wyoming, it feels funny when people on the East Coast talk about nature.
Frankly, I don’t believe they’ve ever been in it. Their descriptions feel so bloodless, so sapped of power, and I would go so far as to say sapped of meaning, that I don’t believe they’ve ever seen the wild.
It is like they had only seen nature through the eyes of Walt Disney. It is like Bambi and Thumper are their only experience of the wild. It is like they really believed that birds would fetch Snow White’s slippers.
And it has taken me a while to realize why. It is because they’ve never been in the wild. No. Druid Hill Park, or Patterson Park or Park Heights, don’t count as the wild.
Friends, I want you to know that I’ve seen nature. I’ve been in the wild. And the wild can kill you!
I’ve looked into the golden eyes of a mountain lion lounging on a rock. I’ve seen a baby bear and smelled the rot and decay of a momma bear coming up to defend her child.
And I can assure you that being between a mother bear and her cub is not where you want to be!

And you know, while bears are dangerous, there are some precautions you can take to be safer.
For example, it is important to wear bear bells so they can hear you coming. That way you won’t startle them. Because you really don’t want to startle a bear!
And it’s also important to have Bear Mace with you, because Bear Mace it is one of the few things that might stop a bear if it charges you.
Of course, these precautions are only precautions—they don’t necessarily work in every situation.
You see, they say you can tell the difference between a brown bear and grizzly bears by looking at their scat. (explain scat? A predator’s poop)
Brown bear scat is filled with berrys, nuts, and small rodents.
Grizzly Bear scat is filed with bear bells and bear mace!

I say all of this because I must admit when it comes to Lions I could just as well be an East Coaster. I don’t know much about wild lions. I don’t know what it was like for the first generation of Samaritans that we read about in today’s lesson. I don’t know what being terrorized by lions is like.

But I want to make sure we don’t Disney-fy today’s lesson—this isn’t the Lion King.
There will be no: “Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our Kingdom.” There will be no: “Hakuna Matat.”
Because tonight I want to talk about how our Baptismal vocation is, “to serve all people following the example of Jesus Christ.”
I want to talk about what this vow means for the Samaritans and for all those who fear lions.
What this vow means for the Samaritans and for all those who fear lions.

Let us pray:
Lord God. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. May they remind us of your gracious gift to us in Baptism and its fruits of service and comfort for all people. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Imagine all of these Easterners—Babylonians, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim. They’ve been kidnapped by the Assyrians and transported far from their native land, dropped off, and made to colonize Samaria.
Its sort of like what the British did with their prisoners in the late 18th and early 19th century—they dropped their criminals off in Australia.
The difference of course being that the Assyrians dropped off their Prisoners of War—not their criminals—in parts of the world that they occupied.
I’d imaging things started off fine for these Easterners. They occupy the houses of the original inhabitants—the Israelites—who had themselves been kidnapped and moved elsewhere by the Assyrians.
These Easterners likely start to farm, and re-establish trading routes, and generally get the things done that need to be done for ghost towns to be enlivened again.
But after a time—once a rhythm gets established. Once the unknown becomes known—they get bored. They begin to wander farther afield. They begin to check out the back woods of Samaria.
And maybe that is kind of fun at the start. They feel like genuine woodmen—like Johnny Appleseed before Johnny Appleseed existed.

But then, like some horror film—this new adventure goes sour. People start disappearing.
Perhaps the Assyrian officials begin by trying to cover things up—I mean what’s one more or one less Avva to an Assyrian? But then, I imagine, after a while, there are survivors who tell their story.
They tell of giant golden cats stalking them—playing with men the way house cats place with mice.
So the authorities get wise. They start sending people out wearing Lion Bells and packing Lion Mace.
Imagine it—these folk wandering through the valley of Jezzrel—the jangling of their Lion Bells echoing through the valley as they went. These folk clutching their Lion Mace until they get within the city limits of Meggedo.
But all this does, in the end, is change the content of Lion scat. It begins to contain mace, bells, and bits of Babylonians.
So, in desperation, as a last resort, they find an Israelite priest and bring him back to Samaria. These Easterners convert to some form of what will eventually be called Judaism, in order to protect themselves from lions. They convert because they are afraid of lions.

And you all are looking up at me, and down at your bulletins, and back up at me and wondering, “Isn’t this called “Wade in the Water?”
“What the heck does this have to do with our baptismal calling “to serve all people following the example of Jesus Christ.”?”
You think to yourself, usually—at these things—the preacher at least took the time to find a Biblical passage that involves water!

Well, I’ll tell you what this has to do with our covenant calling found in Baptism! These Babylonians, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim stay in Samaria. They become Samaritans.
And that doesn’t sit will with the rest of the people in the land. The rest of Judaism resent them.
They call them “Lion Jews”—that is L-I-O-N, not L-Y-I-N-apostrophe.

They resent these late comers—these people who are faithful only out of fear.
I would go so far as to say that Samaritans became, for their neighbors, the Eternal Other. They become the Eternal Other—the person you define as not you.
You know, “I may have a drinking problem… but at least I’m not a Samaritan.” “I may be out of a job, but at least I’m not a Samaritan.” “I may be a sinner, but at least I’m not a Samaritan.”
The Samaritans were a continued thorn in the side of Jerusalem—an unnatural addition to the family. The in-law that you really can’t stand—the houseguest that just doesn’t go away.
The person who has slept on your couch for so long there is a sweat stained imprint of them embedded into the upholstery.

Do you remember the most insulting thing ever said to Jesus? “You are possessed.” At least that’s the part we remember—because we read that as blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
But the full quote, found in John 8:48, is, “Aren’t we correct in saying that you are a Samaritan, and are possessed by a demon?”
Oh, yes, these Lion Jews were bad news, they weren’t the kind of people you want to associate with, talk with, or break bread with.
But Jesus has a different spin on these Lion Jews, these descendants of those Easterners who wandered around with Lion bells and Lion mace.
Jesus tells a story—a very famous story—in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor.”
Jesus tells a story about a man in distress—robbed and alone, bypassed by his own people—helped only by a stranger, by a Samaritan. Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms, “The Samaritan, the Lion Jew, is your neighbor.”
When Jesus heals and cleanses ten lepers the only one who thanks him, is the descendants of these Assyrian Prisoners, a Samaritan.
When Jesus stops at a well to drink he gets into an extended conversation—with a woman—scandalous enough—I know—but not with just any woman, with a Samaritan woman!
Not only that! This woman goes to all her Samaritan friends and tells them that the Messiah showed up, and they come and see.
Lets compare that to what happens when the Apostle Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. He then spends the rest of the gospel backtracking from that statement until the cockcrows and the Christ is Crucified—but this Samaritan woman—this Lion Jew!—oh, she goes out right away and tells everyone about her conversation with Jesus!

We are to serve ALL people following the example of Jesus Christ. All people—our neighbors—not just the Priest and the Levite—but also the Samaritan—not just the elderly church lady in the in apartment next to you, or the nice Pentecostal on the 3rd floor, but the young men who get drunk and pump up the bass and play Nas and Street Sweeper Social Club until 3am every Saturday night. Because they’re my neighbors too.
We are to serve ALL people following the example of Jesus Christ. All people—because it is those who we treat as farthest from the gospel that see it most clearly. It is those who don’t expect their leprosy to be cleaned that will rejoice when it happens.
We are to serve ALL people following the example of Jesus Christ. All people—because conversations with Samaritan women keep us honest—sometimes more honest than we can be with our own flesh and blood. And that refreshing honesty is infectious!

You see I believe in my heart of hearts that serving all people is central to Christ’s message and to the very meaning of his existence. I believe that expanding the borders of the kingdom of God. Recognizing the full citizenship of Samaritans—is the gospel of Jesus Christ!
I believe this so strongly that at one point it almost made me leave Christianity! For you see, I was on board with Jesus’ kingdom plan—with trudging through Galilee on the way to Golgotha picking up the neer-do-wells, losers, outcasts, sinners, and Samaritans for the journey.
But, when I looked out at the church I didn’t see any of that. I didn’t feel any Galilean wind rippling the calm tides of our baptismal pools. I felt that Christ had called for the Kingdom of God and the Church showed up.
And you know who I blamed? The Apostle Paul! I did not believe his testimony that Jesus Christ had came to him after the resurrection. I knew Jesus and I knew he didn’t want women to be silent in the church. He didn’t want to strengthen Roman family structures. He didn’t want formalize structures of authority.
But, the more I beat my head against Paul and spilled my heart out to Jesus I realized something. All those things we accuse Paul of—sexual repression, patriarchy, and all sorts of malarkey—were secondary to Christ’s calling on his life.

His calling was to bring Gentiles into the kingdom—to bring us on the journey. Us Lion Jews, holding tight to our Lion Bells and clutching our Lion Mace for all its worth. Us Samaritans stuck in a strange land fearful of lions.
It was finally Paul’s magnificent words, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus,” that shown through as a light in my dark night of the soul.
I finally realized if it is true that this Radical Rabbi from Galilee who supped with sinners and Samaritans was raised from the dead and sits at the right hand of God.
If the cross of Christ filled the whole cosmos and the resurrection revealed God’s risky yes to all people—then Paul’s messy and dangerous ministry to gentiles—his improvisational-free-style form of, “serving all people following the example of Jesus Christ”—while flawed, was still faithful!
We’re all here—all of us who are non-Jews—because Paul served all people following the example of Jesus Christ.

Now I know that “the mind can only comprehend what the seat can endure,” but please come with me a little farther.

If we are to serve all people following the example of Jesus Christ we really need to serve ALL people. Samaritans, as well as all those who clutch Lion Bells and Lion Mace so tight their knuckles crack.
We need to remind them that they don’t need to fear Lions, because we serve the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
But, more than that, we need to remind them
—and remind ourselves… because I’ll admit it, I sometimes fear lions more than God and want God to be my Lion Bell and Lion Mace—
we need to remind all the world of what John the Revelator found out about the Lion of God as he wrote the book of Revelation on the Island of Patmos.
Do you remember?
Do you remember John’s powerful vision?
John stands with an angel, fearing that the full revelation of God will not happen because there is no one powerful enough to open up the scroll. This so distresses John that he weeps.
But then it is powerfully sung to him, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
And he turns to see this Lion. This powerful character—this king of the beasts—this Lion Bell and Lion Mace guaranteed to succeed against all animals in heaven and on earth.
And John turns!
--And behold, “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.”--
Conquest, powerful revelation, salvation itself, is effected by a slain lamb that has rose again.
Oh yes, sometimes we spend so much time worrying about lions.
And we spend so much time worrying about who is in and who is out—that we forget that God is not a carnivore! God is not a carnivore!
Our baptism is death with Jesus and resurrection with Jesus. It is an unconditional yes from Jesus. It is the grace of Jesus.
Our Baptism is entering into the messiness of life with Jesus. Serving Samaritans with Jesus. Comforting those who come to God out of fear with Jesus.
Our baptism is stepping out into the wild world—not into Disney world, but into the wild world—with Jesus.
Our baptism is stepping out into the wild world with Jesus amongst lions. Our baptism is stepping out into the wild world with Jesus amongst Samaritans. Our baptism is stepping out into the wild world with Jesus amongst fear!
Lions, Samaritans, and Fear. Oh my! And Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

How and Who

How and Who
I have to admit that I’ve dreaded preaching this sermon for about a month now. I have dreaded it ever since I was told by pastor Gregg that I would be preaching on the subject, “Blessed are those who weep.”
At first I was just uncomfortable confronting suffering, loss, weeping, mourning, and tears.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say about these things. I’ve suffered through 4 open-heart surgeries, I’ve felt the loss of leaving loved ones scattered all across the country and the globe as I’ve moved from place to place. I’ve mourned the death of family. I’ve shed my share of tears.
But, I ask, “what can I say from this pulpit that your own tears have not told you?” “What effect can my words have upon your soul that your soul has not already effected in you?”
But that’s not even the whole of it. As Lent came these questions became even more serious.
You see this Lenten season—this season in the church year in which we remember our mortality and our sinfulness, this season in which we talk about being “in the wilderness for 40 days,” has seemed to be just that—a wilderness experience. It seems like everyone I know is “going through some things.” And I had to ask myself, “Can I really say something from this pulpit that is meaningful for people as they weep?”

Still weighed down by these questions I drove back to Philadelphia on Tuesday in order to attend “Preaching with Power.” This is a weeklong event held by my seminary that brings some of the best Black preachers from across the country together to preach.
Dr. Cleophus LaRue—Princeton Theological Seminary’s Professor of Homiletics—that’s the art of preaching—gave a lecture entitled, “Why black preachers still love artful language.”
Being the studious guy that I am I took extensive notes. But there were two things Dr. LaRue said that struck me hard enough that I didn’t need to write them down. These two things seemed important to my struggle to preach on the subject, “Blessed are those who weep.”
The first thing he said that struck me was that “Sermons must take the assembly”—that’s all of you—“more seriously than they take themselves.” “Sermons must take the assembly more seriously than they take themselves.”
The second thing Dr. LaRue said that I found important was, “Preachers call forth a world that doesn’t exist…at least not yet.” “Preachers call forth a world that doesn’t exist…at least not yet.”

And it was because of these two comments on the art of preaching that I chose our lessons from the book of Lamentations and from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Lamentations takes the assembly seriously and Romans calls forth a world that doesn’t exist… at least not yet.

And so let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts are acceptable in your sight Lord God that they might take seriously these present sufferings and weeping. So too LORD may they point us beyond tears, to joy. In the precious name of Jesus. Amen

The book of Lamentations was written as the first response to devastation. Lamentations was written in response to Babylonians destroying the Holy City of Jerusalem. In response to Babylonians knocking down walls, burning the Temple, and destroying houses. In response to the purposeful depopulation of the city through the means of killing the poor and kidnapping the rich.
It was, in a sense, a man made disaster.
We’ve seen the images from Haiti and Chile. Those were natural disasters…devastation by means of earthquake. What the Babylonians had brought to the city of Jerusalem was the equivalent of a human caused earthquake.

And imagine the author. Tradition says he composed the book in the midst of the ashes, and the rubble, and the grief, and the misery of his city ground to bits. Tradition also has it that he wept while writing and the ink ran wet with his tears even as he wrote.
Think of it. He survived the devastation, he wasn’t rich enough to be kidnapped, but wasn’t poor enough to be slaughtered.
Perhaps he was shaken with survivor’s guilt? Perhaps he was rocked by Post-traumatic stress disorder?
And brothers and sisters—there is one more layer of tragedy embedded in this book. This layer of tragedy has been covered up by time and bad translation.
You see the title “Lamentations” is not the title of this book. Or at least it wasn’t the title given to it by the earliest of scribes, neither, I would claim, was it the title given to it by its original author as he wept in the ruins of his wrecked city.
You see the original title of Lamentations was Akah. Now when the Bible was being translated into the Greek they didn’t know how to convey “Akah,” so they translated it as Lamentations. But that’s not what Akah means! (Ask Matt to translate…how)
You see the horror the author is experiencing is so fresh—so present—so real to him that all he can say his Akah! How!
Note that this isn’t a question. It is a sort of verbal punctuation, a spoken exclamation point!
How! How! How!
This word How! Punctuates our tears just as this book HOW! describes the content of our tears.

How! Our tears are loneliness!
How! Our tears are being downtrodden!
How! Our tears are mockery!
How! Our tears are loss!
How! Our tears are being stripped naked.
How! Our tears are worthlessness.
How! Our tears are physical aching! Fire in our bones, a wrung out heart, a churning stomach!
How! Our tears are deception by a lover, abandonment by the faithful, and even by God!
I’m not being melodramatic here! In the moment of crying it is real! How! is what it feels like when we cry. Our tears are real. They’re serious, they express the trouble we’ve seen. They are an admission that sometimes we don’t even have it in us to say, “God is good, all the time.”

Tears are serious. Tears are also universal.
What do I mean by that? Let me tell you a story:
There was once a woman whose son had died. She mourned him deeply. She wailed and wept, she threw herself onto his grave. She became obsessed with her dearly departed son. She stopped eating and couldn’t get out of bed.

So one day her neighbors came to her and told her of a wise man who lived one town over. “Maybe he can make things better,” they said.
And so the woman caught the next Greyhound bus and went to the next town over and she found the wise man.
“What can I do to bring back my son? What can I do to get over his death?” she asked.
“Here,” he said, handing her a cup, “fill this with wine from a household where no one has cried in sorrow.”
And so she started out right away, going from house to house, asking if they had experienced sorrow.
“We are still mourning our Father,” one said.
“I was left at the altar and live alone,” said another.
“I’ve committed terrible sins,” said still another.
And after she’d went from house to house, town to town, city to city, she finally saw that there is no household empty of tears—no person without pain.

But I would take this story a little farther. Well, actually Paul takes this story a little farther.
In today’s reading from Romans the Apostle Paul describes creation herself groaning-weeping-crying. Creation cries because it knows the way things are supposed to be, and yet they aren’t that way. Creation knows death and war, sin and separation—all the ills of the world—are unnatural and so she weeps. Creation herself exclaims “How!”

Tears are no laughing matter. Nothing to sneeze at. Nothing to just (sign) brush off. Our tears are not ours alone, for all cry with the same passion and pain. For that matter the world itself weeps.
Yet today Jesus says, “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.”
Creation is crying, humanity is wailing, I am mourning—yet Christ calls this blessed!
How! How?
When we look around at what else Jesus says we can see that, “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh and woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep,” is part of a larger program of Jesus. The Kingdom of God program. The firsting the last and lasting the first program.
Yes, this is what we call theology of the cross. This is finding God in the last place you would look. This is a solid statement that God is with the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, and yes the weeping.
But like the author of the book formerly known as Lamentations—the book of How—I ask How! how! How?
How are those who weep now blessed?

It could be that you need the bad to appreciate the good. You can only see the stars at night, you can only read the letters on a page if there are blank spaces around it.

It could be as simple as “there is a time for weeping and a time for laughing.” Our emotions and our life situations are transient and temporary. If things are going poorly, blessed are you because they will get better. If things are going well, woe to you because the other foot is about to drop.
It could be that the seeds of despair grow into the heights of beauty and greatness. That pressure produces pearls. There are after all plenty of examples of this. Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while mourning the death of his son Willie and Beethoven wrote some of his best music while deaf.

And all of these are blessing to those who weep. But to my ear none of them transform the moment—none of them “call forth a world that does not exist…at least not yet.” None of them transform How!
And that’s why I turn to Romans. It tells us things too deep for us to perceive and too high for us to hear. Paul writes of the inner workings and logic of the universe itself! Paul “calls forth a world that does not exist…at least not yet.”
Paul tells us that we all jointly suffer—that none can see the sensibility of our suffering and so we step out on hope—we look beyond ourselves and what is. We peer forward into the future and into the invisible face of God.
You see Paul shifts the focus of our suffering from how! to who! From how to who!
How is suffering, but the who is God! The who is God!
We are blessed in our weeping because we are grounded in hope that God is for us.
Hope that despite suffering God groans through the Spirit and is birthing out of this messy life a wide and deep family.
And hope in the unseen workings of God gives us joy.
Now Joy is not happiness. It is not a sloppy emotion. Joy is an inner-equilibrium. A sold stone on sinking sand, good suspension system on a slippery road.
You can have joy while weeping and have joy while laughing. You can have joy in the ashes of Jerusalem and Joy this morning at church. Joy in prison, alone. Joy in a crowd of people, at a party. Joy at a wedding and joy at a funeral.
We can have joy because we know who holds tomorrow.
Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
Who Death? Who Life? Who Angels? Who Rulers? Who Things that are? Who Things to come? Who powers? Who heights? Who depths? Who anything in all of creation?
No nothing! Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand; but I know WHO holds tomorrow, and I know WHO holds my hand! (415)