Do you like poetry? Have you ever read or written poetry? I think we can feel both daunted and bored by poetry. Daunted if we have to try to figure out what it means. One of my favorite movies is In Her Shoes, based on the book by the same name from Jennifer Weiner. In the movie, one of the characters, Maggie, is dyslexic. She ends up working at a nursing home, where one of the residents is a retired English professor. He encourages her to read to him, and not just read, but he helps her understandwhat she is reading. The first time she reads to him, she reads a poem. When she’s done, having struggled through word by word, he asks what she thinks. She says, “Good.” He says, “Unacceptable,” and then proceeds to ask her question after question until she realizes that she can figure out what the poem might mean to her, how it applies to her life right now. It’s a beautiful scene that captures how disinterested we can be in poetry, how much it overwhelms us, how afraid we are of getting the meaning “wrong,” and yet, how beautiful is can be when these artful words of others can speak deeply to our spirits.
You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still water.” (Psalm 23)
Have you ever written any poetry? I went through a phase of writing poetry when I was in late elementary school and junior high. I was inspired, believe it or not, by an episode of Roseanne, the soon-to-return sitcom from the 80s. The character Darlene, who I loved, wrote a poem on the show, a poem that revealed her deep, unspoken emotions, and I was enthralled and inspired. I thought Darlene was very cool, and I set about to write my own deep, insightful poetry. It was not the greatest stuff. I’ve had pity on all of you by not digging some out of my old journals to share with you today. But truthfully, writing poetry, even bad poetry, helped me process all the myriad and overpowering feelings one has in the tumultuous tween and teen years. Writing poetry gave me a place to creatively process all the stuff that was in my heart at a time in my life when I felt pretty misunderstood.
Do you like poetry? Do you like music? Consider all the lyrics to songs that you have stored away in your brain. Consider the songs that shaped you as a child, as a young person, as an adult. Sometimes hearing a particular song can transport us back to a time, a place, an experience, help us recall things so vividly. The lyrics to all our favorite songs are poetry set to music, a kind of poetry that most of us are more familiar with today.
The Bible is full of poetry. We find it in both the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, though less frequently. In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are considered books of poetry. These books are sometimes also referred to as books of wisdom. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the books of poetry in the Bible are not primarily about communicating facts, even though many of the passages of poetry refer to and respond to historical events. Instead, in the poetry of the Bible, we see the authors pouring out their hearts, sharing their deepest feelings in words they’ve written. To me, that makes the words of poetry in the Bible very meaningful and contemporary, because although our world has changed, I don’t think the range of emotions that we experience has changed. The authors of biblical poetry bring to us the feelings, the spirits, the souls of people of faith who lived thousands of years ago, and we discover that we experience the same intense emotions, and struggle with the same searching questions of faith.
Today we’re looking together at Psalm 136. There are 150 psalms, songs, in our Bible, and they fall into several categories. Some are called “royal psalms” – they have to do with the business of the kings of Israel and Judah – psalms about a royal coronation, a blessing on a new rule, a royal marriage, or accounts of a king’s military leadership. Some psalms are laments – individual laments and communal laments – mournful psalms written in times of despair. Others are psalms of thanksgiving. They’re meant to praise God, give thanks for God’s actions. More than a third of the psalms are addressed to the Director of Music. They were meant to be sung as a part of worship. Our psalm for today is like that, meant to be shared musically in the call and response way we read it together today. A key feature of Hebrew poetry is a style called parallelism. Parallelism is a repeated pattern where we find one verse stating an idea, and the very next verse restating the same or a very similar idea in a slightly different way.For example, our Psalm today starts with lines about giving thanks first to “the God of gods” and then to the “Lord of lords” in the very next verse.
In Psalm 136, the focus is on praising God, particularly because of God’s steadfast love. The psalmist praises God’s faithfulness, driving the point home by repeating these words as every other stanza of the poem. God’s love is forever, God’s love is forever, God’s love is forever. The psalmist writes in a way that will have the congregation repeating these words again and again, etching them into their memory, helping the congregation feel the truth of them. “God’s love is forever” is like the refrain, the chorus of the song, sung over and over.
Psalm 136 also shows us an example of Israel telling its story. Over and over in the scriptures, we hear reference to the Exodus, God leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. It’s their defining story. Remember, when we talked about the law, the commandments, the Exodus, God’s saving the people is the reason given behind many of the laws for the new nation. So too, in the poetry of Israel, the story of the Exodus is told again and again. It is the story that shapes Israel, that provides the example of God’s faithfulness, that provides their sense of future and purpose, and binds them together as a nation. This psalm, like many others, reminds the people of their core identity. As Christians, we do this with Holy Communion. We tell ourselves the story of Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples, and sharing his life with us again and again, until we know it deep in our bones.
I wonder, what’s our defining story as a congregation? What’s the story we tell ourselves again and again about our relationship with God? As a church, what story do we need to remind ourselves of again and again? What’s your defining story with God? What’s the message of your life, the way that God is showing up all through your days, again and again? How are you reminding yourself of God’s faithful presence in your life? And I wonder, what’s our refrain? What’s our chorus? What are the words that we need to etch onto our hearts about who God is? God is forgiving. God’s love is unconditional. God’s grace is for you. With God, everything is possible. What refrain do you need to hear over and over again?
I want to challenge you, as I challenged the children this week, to try to write your own poetry, your own praise song, your own words that help you share your heart, your feelings, your emotions with God. You don’t have to share your words unless you want to – they can be just for you. And if writing really isn’t your thing, I want you to think about how you might best express your praise for God, your love for God. Is it through art? Painting or drawing? Through music? Dance? How can you open your heart to praise God in a creative way this week? Try something.
“O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Amen.
Frost, Robert, “The Road Note Taken,” http://classicalpoets.org/10-greatest-poems-ever-written/
Angelou, Maya, “Still I Rise,” http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/world-poetry-day-28-of-poetrys-most-powerful-lines-ever-written-a6944301.html
Today we’re looking at the books of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, that we consider History books. These include the books immediately following the Law books, the first five books in the Bible, up to the section of Bible that we call Poetry, which starts with the book of Job. So the history books of the Bible are Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Are you “good” at history? Was it a subject you enjoyed in school? I’ve always enjoyed history, but I often struggle with dates, chronology. I can tell you what happened, just don’t ask me when it happened. When it comes to the books of the Bible, I often have to remind myself of what is happening when. If you read our summer newsletter, you’ll know that I have been reading some of our biblical history books as part of my personal devotional time, particularly trying to get a clearer sense of chronology as I read. Chronologically, the biblical books of history take us from the time that Joshua, successor to Moses, leads the Israelites into the Promised Land, all the way to the time described in Ezra and Nehemiah, when the Jewish people are allowed to return to their homeland after a long time of exile in foreign lands. This covers a span of about 1000 years. We have 1000 years of history in these 12 books of the Bible.
The word “history” comes from a root word that means literally someone who is wise and learned. From there, the word came to mean “finding out,” figuring out the narrative.To know your history, to know the story of where you came from, what has happened, to find that out is to be a wise, learned person. Sometimes we like to think of history as unbiased, as simply a statement of facts. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. Not open for dispute, just how it is, right? Of course, that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, which we know from personal experience. History isn’t just facts – it is a narrative, a story, and a story always has a point of view. Think of biographies that you might read. Depending on who is writing the biography, they might tell very different stories, different histories, of the person’s life. Two biographies from different authors of any of our US Presidents might read very differently.
Many of you know that I’m my family’s genealogist. I’m the one who does the bulk of family research, and I try to keep good records, and figure out family puzzles. Sometimes, I make discoveries that surprise everyone in our family. Not long ago, while researching my great-great grandfather Julius Motsch, who became Julius Mudge when he came to the US from Germany, I discovered several things that no one in my family seemed to know. First, although we all knew that Julius changed his named from Motsch to Mudge, I found the passenger manifests from the ship he traveled on from Germany, and discovered that when he left Germany, he was listed as Gustav, not Julius! No one in my family remembers ever hearing such a thing. Knowing I should be searching German records for Gustav, not Julius, made my genealogical inquiries much more fruitful. I also discovered that Julius and my great-great grandmother, Mary Margaret Starr, actually divorced and remarried a few years later. I was shocked when I read about their divorce in a newspaper article from the early 1900s. Apparently, my great-great grandmother was accused of running around with other men, but apparently she and Julius reconciled. Surely, this was something that at least my great-grandfather must have known about, but I know that my grandfather had no idea that this had ever happened. It wasn’t a part of the history that anyone shared over the years, just like Julius never shared that he’d once been called Gustav. These things might be facts, but they were not a part of the history that we’ve told ourselves as a family.
We’ve also had a lot of conversation recently in our national dialogue about our history and how we tell our stories as a nation. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a white supremacist rally followed shortly after the renaming of a town park from Lee Park, named for Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee, to Emancipation Park, honoring the end of slavery in the United States. These events have opened a national dialogue about racism and history and how we tell our history. What does it mean to make a monument or name places in honor of people whose beliefs and views don’t align with the values we uphold, or at least try to uphold? Is it “erasing history” to rename a park? Or is it trying to tell a more truthful version of our history? Whose story are we telling in history?
Think about how many of us learned about Christopher Columbus as a child. In elementary school, we learned about Columbus “discovering” America. We also learned that he was brave and thought the world was round, while others thought it was flat. It wasn’t until we were older, for me at least, that we learned about Columbus not really knowing where he was, ending up in the Americas by mistake, and that basically everyone already knew the earth was round. And later still, we learned that maybe Columbus wasn’t actually a very nice person, and maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have a holiday named after him. Many communities and groups, including our Annual Conference, are now choosing to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, instead of Columbus Day, a way to honor all the people who were living in these lands long before any Europeans arrived here.
These contemporary questions are the same questions we can bring to the biblical text of history. Whose story are we reading? What’s the point of view that we read in the Bible? What are the themes that are emphasized for us in this particular way of telling the history of Israel? In the scheme of things, on the world stage, Israel is a little nobody people. They’re a tiny nation. It’s hard to find much about Israel outside of the Bible from this time period. There are little snippets, written from the point of view of people who don’t really care about this little nobody people. But in the Bible, of course, they’re everything. Today, we turn to a text that’s key in Israel’s sense of history, identity, and future.
In our text for today, we find ourselves in 2 Samuel. Samuel was the last in the line of Judges of Israel, the leaders of Israel in the time between their formation as a nation and their first King, Saul. Samuel was a judge and a prophet, a spiritual advisor for the people. Samuel, acting on God’s commands, anoints first Saul, and then, when Saul fails to follow God, David as king over Israel. But it takes a long time between Samuel anointing David and David actually coming into power as king. In fact, by the time David becomes king, Samuel has died, and a new prophet, Nathan, acts as spiritual advisor to David. Here in chapter 7, David has finally been named king over all Israel, and he tells Nathan that he wants to build a temple for God. After all, David is now living in a palace, a house of cedar, but God, represented for the people in the ark of the covenant, a container that holds the Torah, the law, the book that represents God’s relationship with Israel, God in the form of the ark of the covenant gets carried around and housed in a tent. David feels like this isn’t right. If David has a house, a palace, then God should have a house, a temple.
At first, Nathan tells him, “Yes, build this. God is with you.” But shortly after, Nathan returns to David, after receiving a vision from God. God says, “Are you the one, [David], to build me a house to live in?” I’ve never lived in a house, but have been moving about, God says. And in all the time I was moving among the Israelites, have I ever said, “Why haven’t you built me a house?”
God continues, “I took you out of the pasture where you worked as a shepherd boy and made you the leader of Israel. I’ve been with you wherever you went. Through me, you’ve been able to defeat your enemies. And I will make you a great name. I will make a place for my people Israel, and plant them there, and give them a time of peace from their enemies. And I, says God, I will make you a house David. God continues, just after our text closes, to say that God will make David and his house, his descendants “sure forever,” David’s kingship, his line, “established forever.”
The message that Nathan delivers to David from God might seem simple, but it is a very important statement for Israel’s sense of identity and their hope for the future. Nathan’s words are sometimes known as the Dynastic Oracle.A dynasty is when one family stays in power over a long length of time. And what God says through Nathan here in this passage is that David and his descendants will be established as the family who rules Israel forever. That’s a significant promise! And so during later times in Israel’s history, when there was a disruption in power in the line of David, when the people were conquered by foreign rulers, when someone in the line of David wasn’t ruling Israel, the people looked for, longed for a time when a descendant of David was king again. When people were imagining a messiah, that as an anointed one, a king, they would imagine someone who would restore the throne of David, restore someone from the House of David to the role of king. You can imagine, then, why some of the gospels writers take great pains to show us that Jesus is a descendant of David. The gospel writers wanted to demonstrate that in Jesus, a descendant of David, these words of promise made way back in 2 Samuel are fulfilled forever. Whoever else might rule on earth, Jesus is theruler, the ruler from the house of David, and yet the highest of all, a ruler beyond even beloved David himself. This passage, this bit of history has a big meaning, big significance in the story of Israel, in the story of the church, and how the early church tied itself to the promises of God’s covenant, how we tie ourselves to that covenant.
The other part of this text that I find compelling is God’s insistence: I’ve never asked you to put me inside a building! I’ve been just fine where I’ve been, moving among you all this time. Now, God eventually does allow David’s son Solomon to build a temple, and it serves some important purposes for the people of Israel, drawing them together as a worshiping community. But the point remains: God wants us to remember that God has always and will always be with us, and maybe trying to box God in, limit God to dwelling in a stationary place isn’t the best idea we’ve ever had. It might seem like we’re trying to make a special place for God in our lives. But sometimes it’s really a sign that we want to get God into our lives in a controlled way, where God can be involved in certain parts of our lives and not others. In this text, I think God reminds us that that is not how God works. God doesn’t want a corner of our world, a corner of our hearts. God wants us to know that God is already in all of it, our whole world, our whole lives. How will we let knowing and trusting that change us?
As we see how God is at work in the story of Israel, as we remember that God is not boxed in, but on the move, as we give thanks for God’s promises that we see fulfilled in Jesus, ruler of all our days, we get a sense of the richness of biblical history. And we can ask ourselves: what is the story of our own lives? What is our history with God? When we look back over our days, and we look to the future, where do we see God at work in our lives? Our own history is the story of our identity. Who am I? Who are you? How are our lives shaped as disciples, as people seeking and struggling and growing in faith through the years? Just as God promises to David, so too these promises are for us. For all of our days, in all of our stories, God is with us, beginning to end, to beyond. How will we let that promise shape our history, and our future? Amen.
This week we’re starting a new sermon series called Back to (Bible) School. Each week, we’ll be looking at different parts of the Bible, particularly the texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. I’ve been encouraging folks all summer long to sign up for our Disciple Fast Track Bible Study, a twelve week study that takes us deep into the writings of the New Testament. And it isn’t too late to sign up – we start this Wednesday evening, and I would love for you to be a part of it! It is never too late to learn more about the Bible. You never have “advanced” far enough that you couldn’t enjoy a Bible study, and you are never too new to the Bible and too inexperienced in reading the Bible that you should fear studying the scriptures is not for you. It is one of the best ways I can think of to explore and deepen your faith, studying the scriptures, and studying them together is a special blessing of a community of faith. So alongside our Bible study Wednesday nights, we’ll also be trying to learn more about the Bible during worship.
I’m particularly interested in not only encouraging you to read the Bible regularly, but also in helping you feel like you are understanding what you’re reading. We learn a lot of reading comprehension skills when we are in school. Having excellent reading skills is one of the things that will set students up for success in any number of other areas of learning and in any number of future life endeavors. In the midst of these Back-to-School days, I looked around online to remind myself of some of the ways elementary teachers talk to student about reading comprehension skills. How do you figure out what something you’re reading is all about? I found lots of great tools creative teachers use, like this poster, that encourages young readers to ask lots of questions: “What is happening in the story? What’s happening with the character? Is the character changing? What do I think will happen next? What is the problem? Was the problem solved? If so, how? What does this word [that I don’t know] probably mean [based on the words around it]?” (1) For adult readers, fluent readers, when we’re reading books and newspaper articles, magazines, even messages from our friends online, we employ these reading comprehension skills all the time and don’t even think about it. We automatically are asking ourselves these kinds of questions when we read. It eventually becomes second-nature for us. But in my experience, we do this weird thing when we start to read the Bible. We stop using all of the skills that we’ve built up over the course of our lives and approach the Bible in a completely different way.
I’m not sure why exactly that is. I think we get a bit hung up with the Bible. I think sometimes people are scared of understanding it incorrectly, and so we can get overwhelmed or confused, and it makes our minds a little muddled when we come to the text. Or, we’re so aware that we consider these words sacred and holy that we can’t believe we have any skills that could be useful when we’re reading the Bible. Whatever the case, I want to encourage you to put to use all of the skills you already have when you read the Bible. Ask those same questions teachers might ask young students to consider: What’s happening here? What’s happening to the people? How do people change? What’s the problem and how does it get resolved? How can I figure out what this means based on what comes before and after?
In this sermon series, we’re going to look in particular at some of the types of literature we find in the Bible, and we’ll think about how we read different types of literature. For example, if you go in a bookstore or library, you’ll see that books are group together by genre – cookbooks are all in one section, and biographies are all together. Reference books have a spot. Fiction is in one place, and non-fiction is in another. Newspapers and magazines – everything gets its own spot. We expect a certain type of content, a certain style of writing when we read a newspaper, and another type and style when we read the latest book in from a mystery writer. If we read a book of poetry, we wouldn’t go hunting for facts, probably. Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you! That’s not something that’s meant to be a fact, even if all the words are true. The purpose of a poem is different than the purpose of a textbook, and how we read each of those things, then, should be a bit different.
As our Fast Track looks at the New Testament, here we’ll look at the 4 main types of literature in the Hebrew Bible (although not only!): Law, History, Poetry, and Prophecy. Today, we’re starting with the law. If you’re ever read through all the details and specifics of modern day legal language, you might know that it can be tedious and incomprehensible to someone without legal training. Thankfully, the biblical books of the law are a bit different. The first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, are known as the Torah, the law books of the Bible. Through these five books we see origin stories, stories that lay out exactly who Israel is and who Israel is called to be as God’s people. And a large chunk of the law relates to the journey of the Israelites from living as slaves in Egypt to entering into the land that God promised them as their own people, God’s own people. These books are not the only sacred text of Judaism, but these five books are at the core of Jewish faith and identity still today. They’re called books of law because once Moses and the people leave Egypt, God, speaking through Moses, works to set up a covenant, a set of rules for living that will govern the Israelites in their new home.
If you were trying to set up a brand new nation, a brand new community of people living together, where you were writing your laws from scratch, what would it be important to include? I think there was some reality show a couple years back that tried to ask these questions, throwing together a group of people and asking them to create a mini-government of sorts. I’m not sure how it worked I suspect that it wasn’t as easy as folks thought it was going to be. I think that ideally, people don’t uphold the laws of a community only because they are laws. Hopefully, for example, most of us don’t drive 100 miles per hour not only because it is a law, but also because that would be dangerous, putting our lives and the lives of others at risk. But laws provide a framework that the community agrees to uphold at least because they are laws, ordering a community, if nothing else.
David Lose writes that biologists would tell you that we’re designed to look out for our own wants and needs over all others, and that this is where the concept of the strongest and most self-interested surviving comes from. Theologians, he says, would tell you that this is what human sin is: self-interest, selfishness that puts our needs above the needs of others, but actually limits “human flourishing” and contradicts God’s desire for us to love one another. The law, then, at its most basic level, is something that God gives us to curb us from our tendency to put ourselves first. The law creates boundaries that enable us to flourish as a whole, that “create room in which we can live with each other.” Lose concludes, “That’s the law, in its first use, functioning as a gift from God to tell us – children and adults alike – “no” so that we can then say “yes” to a richer and more abundant life together.” (2)
For the Israelites, the Ten Commandments are a starting point of the new community that they’re building. A way that they will agree to live together, so that all people in the community have the chance to flourish. The Ten Commandments are perhaps the most famous section of the law of Moses. Many of us memorized the commandments when we were young, and we tend to memorize them in their simplest form. But as we listened to them again today, I hope you heard that they have more depth to them. They’re a bit more complicated than the simple words we might know. The first several deal particularly with our relationship with God. I am your God, the one who brought you out of slavery. Don’t forget it, and don’t have any other gods. Don’t make idols, or worship anythingother than me in any form. Don’t make “wrongful use” of the name of the Lord. To me that goes far beyond simply not using God’s name while you’re cursing, although I also consider that a bad idea! How often do we use God’s name wrongly, to hurt instead of heal, for our purposes instead of God’s purposes? Five verses are spent focusing on the commandment to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. Not only are we meant to rest, but we’re meant to let others rest too. The words in Deuteronomy ground our need for Sabbath not in God resting at creation, but in the fact that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. They should remember, always, what it was like to have to work without rest, and never make things so that they and others cannot seek rest going forward.
The rest deal more with our relationships with each other in community, and are simple, shorter, more direct. Honor your parents, because doing so will help build a long-lived community in a new land. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t say things that aren’t true about one another. And don’t covet things that belong to others – family, homes, property, livelihood. So, the commandments provide a framework for our relationship with God and one another.
Shortly after these commandments are given, we find a short passage that emphasizes the importance of knowing, deeply knowing these words, not as an “at least” minimum requirement, but as something that is at the heart of our relationship with God and others, something that guides our lives, our actions, a covenant for living together that leads to experience God’s blessings. The Promised Land that Israel is about to enter is described here, as elsewhere, as a land flowing with milk and honey, meant to signify a rich, sweet abundance.
We find next the words known as the Shema in Judaism. Shema means Hear, the first word of chapter 6 verse 4: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. God is God alone. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Jesus will, in the gospels, affirm this as the greatest commandment, pairing it, as Deuteronomy does elsewhere, with love of neighbor. Keep these commandments in your heart, the law says. Recite them to your children. Talk about these words when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down, and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and gates.
As a way to honor these words, the Shema is still recited daily by many faithful Jews, morning and evening, at Shabbat services, at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most sacred day in Judaism, before bedtime, when one’s death is imminent. And indeed, these words have sometimes been kept on doorposts, and bound to hands and head.
These last verses of our text tell us that keeping these commandments is as important as knowing them, living with God’s word in such a way that it is a part of all that we do. How will we do that? Keep these commandments – not just because they’re God’s law, but because we have a deep desire to live in communion with God and one another? This week, I have a challenge for you. I want you to take a moment right now to write down the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-5. And I want you to carry those words with you all week, and try to follow the directions of the text we’ve shared today. Share these words with your children or folks in your household, and pray them in the morning and at night, and when you leave for work and when you come back home, and each time you come through the door. I challenge you to try it for a week. See what it does to your days to make these words the first and last words of your day, and the words that mark your comings and goings. This is how central God wants to be in our lives, how much God desires for us to be living with God at the heart of all we do. And that’s the heart of the law: it’s beyond just, “Well, I didn’t break any of the Ten Commandments today!” That’s the law reduced to its lowest meaning, but not the fullness of the gift God means it to be for us. This week, let’s see if we can experience the fullness of the gift of this covenant, these words that shape us as God’s people. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Amen.
The last hymn in our hymn story series is a southern gospel classic, “Victory in Jesus.” According to the Origin of Songs website, Eugene Monroe Bartlett, Sr. “was born on Christmas Eve in 1885 near Waynesville, Missouri … [He] dedicated his life to Jesus at an early age … Bartlett lived in the south and enjoyed a reputation as a fine music teacher. Based in Arkansas, he traveled the entire southern portion of the country holding singing schools for anyone interested. These … schools trained aspiring musicians in vocal technique, sight reading,” using a unique method called shape note singing,“and conducting and [they] were influential in the development of church music as a whole for much of the remainder of the century.
“Bartlett … was a very successful business man, and decided to invest his money [and eventually with it he] founded the Hartford Music Company in Hartford, Arkansas sometime in 1918. Within the first year of business he sold more than 15,000 copies of his hymnbook. Many writers, singers and musicians received their first opportunity in gospel music at Hartford Music Company including Albert E. Brumley who wrote ‘I’ll Fly Away’” (which we’ll sing later on.) (1)
Of all of his songs, nearly all have fallen out of regular use save one, our focus for today, “Victory in Jesus.” “In 1939, a stroke rendered Bartlett partially paralyzed and unable to perform or travel. He spent the last two years of his life bedridden. Amid such bleak circumstances, he wrote his final and most beloved song … The … verses and refrain enthusiastically tell of one’s own personal salvation experience from beginning to end. It’s said that Bartlett missed traveling and teaching, but he could still study the Bible, a study from which he gave us this wonderful song during a time when much of the earth sat on the brink of World War II.” (1) Despite all of his successes, it is from this song, born of Bartlett’s faith through suffering, that we remember today.
“Victory in Jesus” draws on the imagery we find in 1 Corinthians 15. Our scripture lesson today comes from the first of two letters that we have from the apostle Paul to the growing early church community of Corinth. Chapter 15 is a weighty chapter, and I recommend you take some time this week to read this whole thing. In it, Paul tackles the themes of resurrection and eternal life. He starts by reminding the Corinthians of the good news that Paul has proclaimed to them, which he sums up as this: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and then resurrected, and Paul counts himself as a beneficiary and messenger of the grace of God received through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. On these points, Paul’s audience seems to agree.
But apparently, some of the Corinthians have been arguing that we, humans, are not resurrected after death. This isn’t surprising – in Judaism and in other religious traditions that would have been part of the culture of the Corinthian community, many dismissed the concept of eternal life. But for Paul, such a conclusion means that his whole life’s work is meaningless. He makes a kind of logic argument. He says: Jesus died and was resurrected as human being. He was fully human, even as he was fully divine. And if he was fully human, and Jesus was resurrected, then resurrection is possible. You can’t, Paul argues, believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but not human resurrection in eternal life. If humans don’t experience resurrection, neither can Jesus. And if Jesus wasn’t resurrected then Paul’s work and our faith are in vain, because Paul has been mispresenting God, we are still mired in sin because death was not conquered, and we have no hope. In fact, Paul says, if this life was all there was, how could he have the courage to risk this life for the work of Christ? But in Christ, the last enemy, death, is destroyed, because God has power over all things, power realized in Jesus.
Paul says another topic he’s heard being discussed by Corinthians is speculation over how we experience resurrection. What will our bodies be like? Paul uses the metaphor of a seed and a plant. A seed doesn’t grow unless it “dies,” that is unless it is buried, planted. And you can’t tell anything from the seed about what the plant will look like. So many similar seeds, and such an overwhelming variety of plants that grow from them. This is what it is like with us. We can’t be resurrected without death. And this body, this life – it’s perishable, mortal, weak. And finally, we get to the text from today, Paul’s conclusion in this long chapter. These words might sound familiar to you because they are often part of the graveside service at funerals. Paul says he’s going to tell us a mystery. We will be transformed – perishable to imperishable. Mortal bodies changed into eternal life in God. Then, Paul says, the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Trusting in this, Paul says, we should be steadfast, faithful, persevering, excelling in God’s work, because we know that our work is not in vain.
There’s a phrase, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good.” There’s a lot of layers to what that could mean, but to me, I think of how we can get focused on doing good so that we get rewarded with eternal life. That makes for a pretty shallow relationship with God. It’s like being in a relationship with someone because they buy you nice presents. Not very deep. But for Paul and some other early Christians who faced considerable persecution, threats and actual harm in so many forms, being heavenly-minded meant being fixed on life’s ultimate goal – being completely united with God – instead of on the promises of earthly rewards that come and go.
What about us, though, twenty-first century Christians? How do we wrestle with these questions that Paul discusses? What do you think about when you think about life and death and life beyond death? There are so many questions that we understandably have about death and life after death, because of course, we only know this life, and it is hard to imagine something so outside of our daily experience. So we find these questions in the scriptures, like when the Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus with his answers, but still ask: To whom will we be married in heaven if we’ve had more than one spouse? Or like the Corinthians, who wanted to know what kind of bodies we get at the resurrection? Or the questions we might have: I asked my pastor when I was in junior high – won’t heaven be boring? He, a math major in college, drew his idea of eternity for me on an x-y graph. (I was not convinced I had been wrong in my original question!) We wonder. We yearn to know. Paul himself calls some of these things a mystery, the same word we use when we celebrate communion to acknowledge that we don’t know exactly how God does what God does to present with us in communion. Just so, how could we know the mysteries of life, death, and life beyond death?
When I was in 4th grade or so, my older brother was teasing me in the way that older siblings do, but his teasing wound up with me being scared – I was thinking about death and trying to imagine would it would be like not to feel anything – as if even adults could get their minds around such a thing, much less 9 year olds. I talked to my Mom about it, and she realized that despite being a life-long Sunday School and church kid, it never occurred to me to be thinking about eternal life with God. She set me on a course of prayer and reading the Bible that shaped my faith in countless ways. I took so much comfort in the words of scripture. I didn’t understand everything I read, but I got the gist: when we follow God, our future is safe in God’s hands. For a long time after that, my image of eternity was shaped by C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. In the last book in the series, The Last Battle, the world of Narnia ends and several of the characters find themselves in heaven. Aslan, the Christ-figure, the great lion, keeps calling to them to go “further up and further in,” and they find that heaven is like the worlds they know – Narnia, and earth, only they discover that the Narnia and earth they knew were but shadow copies, as different as a shadow is from the real thing, as different as seeing a reflection in a window is from looking at the thing itself directly. In eternity, they experience at last the real thing. Lewis narrates, “The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looks as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there, you will know what I mean.”
It was not until I got into seminary that I really struggled again with thinking about eternity. I’ve told some of you about part of this before – I confronted in seminary that gap between what I wanted to know about God and life with God and what I actually could know. I wanted to know all the answers, and was suddenly confronted with all that I didn’t and couldn’t know. I had more questions about eternity than could be satisfied by my images of heaven from The Chronicles of Narnia, and I was overwhelmed with anxiety about what would happen to me, to those I love, to the world. I scoured the scriptures for God’s promises about eternal life. There’s certainly a lot in the Bible to consider. The pictures of eternity are as varied as the genres of writing in the scriptures and the authors themselves. I didn’t find the defining answer: this is what happens in eternity. But what I did find was this: God loves us. God is good, all goodness. God’s purposes are good. God is ever faithful. God promises that we will be with God. Therefore what is in store for us is good, and we can depend on that. That might not sound like much. But for me, it was everything, a step in trusting in God and not my own answers that marked a sturdier faith, one that didn’t depend only on what was in my ability to comprehend!
I don’t mind confessing: I don’t know what happens after this life any more than I believe a caterpillar knows what it is like to be a butterfly, or what it will be like to turn into a chrysalis of mush in order to get to the butterfly part of life. I don’t know the details of what happens when we die, what heaven might be like, or if any of our visions or imaginings are even in the ballpark of the truth of what comes after we complete this life. But what I do know is that I’ve read these words from 1 Corinthians at countless funerals, read them to countless families who are grieving the loss of a loved one. And these words that once felt strange to my tongue, when I frankly hadn’t experienced much in the way of grief in my own young life, these words have become some of my favorite: “Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ.” I’m not sure I always understood those words, and I’m not certain that in the midst of grieving, people always catch the impact of them, the punch of them, the taunt of them. But Paul is laughing at death! Because he knows that death has no real enduring power over life. Death thinks it has buried us. Ended us. But death doesn’t realize that we are seeds, planted. Perishable, but made imperishable in Christ. I’ve learned this as I think about the loved ones I have lost to death, but who are still so alive to me, to my family. Death was not able to cancel out the power of their lives. Of their love, or ours, or God’s. Even death has no power to stop the work of God, the love of God, our life in and through and because of and with God. Where, O death, is your sting? It is nothing, and Christ and life are everything! Injustice, defeat, and death are not the final words, because life and love will find a path, a place, a way to grow. Instead we just leave buried our doubts and fears. We leave buried our prejudices and hostilities. We leave buried our insistence on our own way, our grudges, our anger. But what God draws forth from us is new life. Resurrected life. Real life, which we experience in part now, when we let God resurrect us, a foretaste of the full realization of God’s hopes and dreams that are promised for eternity. And nothing will stand in God’s way.
And so we hope, even as we wonder! We put our trust in God, who is good, who is love, who is grace, and who promises us life with God forever. And in the meantime, we do the work of God, knowing that our labor is not in vain. For death is swallowed up in victory. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dan Schutte is a contemporary American composer. He was born in 1947 in Wisconsin. As a young man, he entered the Society of Jesus, a religious order in the Roman Catholic Church. Members of the Society of Jesus are known as Jesuits. Dan was a founding member of a group called the “St. Louis Jesuits,” comprised of a group of seminarians studying at St. Louis University who were interested in composing music for worship in a “contemporary folk style.” Like Cesáreo Gabaráin, who we learned about last Sunday, Schutte began composing in the time of musical renewal after Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, when changes made allowed the Mass to be celebrated in the language of the people, and music to be more reflective of contemporary styles. Schutte is still composing, currently serving as Composer-in-Residence at the University of San Francisco. (1)
He is a prolific hymnist, but his most famous hymn, one that frequently tops lists of favorite hymns both in Catholic and Protestant worship music surveys (a rare feat!) is our focus today, “Here I Am, Lord,” written by Schutte in the 1980s. On his website, Schutte recounts the story of how he wrote the hymn:
When I was a young Jesuit, studying theology in Berkeley, California, a friend came to me one day asked me for a favor. “Dan, I know this is late notice, but I’m planning the diaconate ordination ceremony and need a piece of music set to the text of Isaiah chapter 6.” He saw the look of shock on my face knowing I was well aware that the ceremony was only three days away. I told him that I was sick with an awful case of the flu and didn’t know if I could compose anything suitable in that short time. He encouraged me and I told him that at the very least I would try to complete something in time for the ordination.
I had always loved the particular Scripture passage (Isaiah 6) where God calls Isaiah to be his servant and messenger to the people and Isaiah responds with both hesitation and doubt, but also with a humble willingness to surrender to God. If it was going to work, it would have to be God’s power and grace making it happen. Much like Isaiah I was not very sure that I could meet the request my friend had made, but I was willing to try.
I remember sitting at my desk with a blank music score in front of me and asking God to be my strength. As I sat there praying for help, I remembered also the call of Samuel, where God came calling in the middle of the night and asked Samuel to do something beyond what he thought he was capable of. I worked for two days on the piece and I remember being exhausted. I was making last minute changes to the score as I walked it over to my friend who lived several blocks away. I remember being very unsure of myself, but hoping that it would be what he had wanted for the ordination.
And it was ok. It was more than ok. From the very beginning, people loved the piece and clearly identified with the dialogue between God and us that is the core of the song. In the years following, so many have spoken to me or written how they had their own experience of God “calling in the night” and being given the courage to respond.
For me, the story of “Here I Am, Lord” tells of the God who overshadows us, giving power to our stumbling words and the simple works of our hands, and making them into something that can be a grace for people. The power God gives is far beyond what we could have planned or created. (2)
Much of renewal music in the Roman Catholic Church was constructed with a strong, singable refrain, and “Here I Am, Lord” is a great example of this practice. Sometimes, a worship leader would sing the verses, and the congregation would join on the refrain. “Here I Am, Lord” is unique in its alternating point of view. (3) We hear from God’s perspective in the verses, wondering, “Whom shall I send?” The refrain is the response from the people: “Here I am Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart!”
As Schutte shared in his story of writing this hymn, the focus text is the passage we just shared from Isaiah 6. This text, coming early in the long book of Isaiah’s prophetic writings, is Isaiah’s call story. He tells us, in the vivid language of visions, how he got into this prophet role. The year is 742 BC. It is the year of the death of King Uzziah, known elsewhere in the scripture as King Aazriah. And Isaiah has a vision. He sees God sitting on a high and lofty throne. Seraphs are attending to God. Seraphs are these very strange creatures – it’s hard to describe them or imagine them from Isaiah’s description. But they are some kind of creature that has three sets of wings. Isaiah sees that one pair of wings on each seraph covers their eyes – throughout the Hebrew scriptures a repeated theme is that no one can look directly at the face of God – so one set of wings covers their eyes. Another set covers their lower bodies, a sign of their purity. And with the other set of wings, they fly around God’s throne. And they’re saying to one another “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” We take those words – “Holy, holy, holy” and incorporate them into our communion liturgy still today. The repeated word adds emphasis – God is all holiness, and rules over all people. The temple fills with smoke – another symbol of holiness. (4)
In the face of such an overwhelming vision, in the presence of God, Isaiah is overcome with a sense of his unworthiness. He says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah can’t believe that he is seeing God. And then one of the seraphs takes a live coal from the altar with a pair of tongs and touches it to Isaiah’s lips. This should burn, but in Isaiah’s vision, the fire isn’t destructive, it’s purifying. The seraph says, “now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” And Isaiah hears God’s voice asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And purified, forgiven, Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me!”
In the verses after our passage, God accepts Isaiah’s offer of service, and sets Isaiah as a messenger to the people of the kingdom of Judah. Isaiah must warn the people to change their ways. But God tells Isaiah up front: almost everyone is going to reject the message. Isaiah goes in knowing that he will be almost entirely unable to get people to listen to him. Yet, God says, a small number – which God calls the “stump” that is left over when a mighty tree has fallen – a stump, a remnant will remain faithful to God, and endure through the hard times ahead.
When I think about our reading last week, where Jesus calls Simon Peter and some others to become fishers of people, side by side with this text, where Isaiah responds to God’s call, I notice that for both Simon and Isaiah, their first response is to note: “I am not worthy.” Not worthy to be in God’s presence, not worthy to carry out God’s work. You may have found yourself having a similar response, when called on by God, or God’s messengers to serve in some way. Right now, our lay leadership team is in the process of calling on people to serve in various leadership roles in the life of the church. And sometimes, the first reaction we get from folks is something like this: There is no way that I’m the best person for that job. I don’t know enough. I don’t have enough experience. My discipleship is not strong enough. I’m not dedicated enough. Nope, not me.
And you know what? You’re right! We aren’t qualified, not on our own. We aren’t worthy, if worthiness to serve God means that we’ve achieved some state of holiness on our own merits. It is God who qualifies us, God who purifies us, God who prepares us and readies our hearts. Sometimes, I think the first step to serving God, answering God’s call is in fact our honest humility, saying, “I don’t think I can do this – I am a person of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” When Isaiah says this, God doesn’t argue with him. Instead, God just says, “Don’t worry: I am going to purify you, qualify you.” What Isaiah does is acknowledge his own sinfulness, his own lack of readiness, and then, when he realizes that God has qualified him, he stops hesitating and says “Me!” when God asks “Who will go?” Our honest, hesitating humility is an ok place to start when we answer God’s call, when we allow it to be the starting place of letting God prepare us to be a part of God’s plans. I think again of Schutte’s words about writing this hymn: “If it was going to work, it would have to be God’s power and grace making it happen.” Thankfully, God offers power and grace in abundance.
After we answer “Here am I, send me,” the hard work isn’t done. God says to Isaiah: Hardly anyone is going to like what you have to say, and hardly anyone is going to really listen to you. But go anyway! What a pep talk, right? A few years back, I was really wrestling with God’s call and my ministry, trying to figure out where and how God wanted me to be serving. And nothing seemed to be working out. I was pretty miserable. My mom was talking to my Uncle Bill about it, saying something to him like, “Beth is trying so hard to be faithful. Why is it so hard?” And Uncle Bill reminded her, “Who ever said it’s going to be easy when we’re faithful?” She shared his response with me, and believe it or not, that reminder has given me a lot of strength since then. God makes many promises to us, including promises of blessings, faithfulness, love, and grace. But God never promises an easy path for us. In fact, God pretty much promises the opposite. Discipleship is hard. Answering God’s call: hard. Carrying it out day by day: also hard. But God who calls us also qualifies us. God who calls us also purifies our hearts and souls. And God who calls us goes with us, always. Whom shall God send? Who will go for God? “Here I am Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart!” Amen.
Singing the Story: Lord You Have Come to the Lakeshore
“Lord, you have come to the lakeshore looking neither for wealthy nor wise ones. You only asked me to follow humbly. You know so well my possessions; my boat carries no gold and no weapons; You will find there my nets and labor. You need my hands, full of caring, through my labors to give others rest, and constant love that keeps on loving. You, who have fished other oceans ever longed-for by souls who are waiting, my loving friend, as thus you call me. O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me, and while smiling, have spoken my name. Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me; by your side I will seek other seas.” Cesáreo Gabaráin
Last month I asked you all to guess at my favorite hymn as part of the “Year 1” quiz I handed out, and I shared with you that Be Thou My Vision is top of my list. It’s long been my favorite hymn. But I have to tell you that another hymn has been creeping up my list and knocking on the door of first place, and that’s the focus of our sermon today: Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore. For the last few weeks of summer, we’ll be looking at the stories behind some of our congregation’s favorite songs. About a year ago, I gave you all a congregational survey, and I’ve chosen some of the top hymns from that survey to explore in the next few weeks. Who wrote these hymns and why? What are the messages of faith the authors of these beloved texts are trying to convey?
“Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore”was written by Monseñor Cesáreo Gabaráin, a Spanish priest, born in 1936. Gabaráin studied music as a child in schools that were part of the local seminary, and he continued his studies both in music and theology, and was ordained to the priesthood when he was 23 years old. He served his ministry primarily as a chaplain, both at colleges in nursing homes, but eventually he served as part of a parish ministry as the head of religious education. He became known for his work with young people and with athletes, cyclists especially. He spent his summer vacations ministering to cyclists at the Tour de France, and connecting with well-known Spanish soccer players. (1)
Some of the changes from the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic church opened the door for more creativity and flexibility in sacred music, and Gabaráin took advantage of that freedom. His hope was to share the good news through music and bring others into a relationship with God. Gabaráin said, “I went to seminary when I was very young – when I was eleven. The seminary was very musical and there I learned music very well. Later, when I was a priest, I was particularly involved with the children of several large schools. Then – out of necessity – I began to compose. I went to meet the children and they began bringing their guitars. I saw that with the old songs and Gregorian chants I would not be able to teach them much. So then I began to compose out of a pastor’s necessity, intending to share the things and ideas that I was trying to convey to the children.” (2)
His most popular hymn is one of four of his in our United Methodist Hymnals, officially titled, “Pescador de Hombres”, or “Fishers of Men.” The translation of his hymn in our scripture is what we know as “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore.” It was known to be a favorite of the late Pope John Paul II. The hymn is based on the stories in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that recount Jesus calling his first disciples. The melody calls to mind the gentle “rocking boat by the lakeshore.” (1) Gabaráin said, “[When] you ask me what makes me most satisfied with a song, it is not that the popes like it. What interests me most, and is more important, is that a missionary deep in the jungle can tell me that a song has helped him to evangelize.” (2)
He died of cancer in 1991 at just 55 years old. Gabaráin’s obituary shared that while he was travelling in the Holy Land, tour guides would sometimes claim that his hymn was composed on the Sea of Galilee, when in fact it was written in Madrid. But Gabaráin would simply smile to himself. (1)
I think Gabaráin’s beautiful hymn brings our text from the gospel of Luke to life, and evokes in us a deep sense of need to respond to God’s persistent call. In our gospel lesson today, we find Jesus preaching and teaching, the crowd gathered, and the setting, the lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, where many fishermen would be busy at work. When the scene opens, we read that Jesus is standing by the lake and the crowds are “pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” What an image! They’re impatient – anxious – hungry to hear God’s word – that’s how excited they are about what Jesus has to say. They want the words that he’s about to speak. Have you ever been so eager to hear the Word of God?
Now, in the chapter before this one, after his baptism, after spending 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus had just begun his ministry, marked by preaching and healing, including a woman described as the mother-in-law of Simon. But we haven’t yet met Simon, really, until this passage we read today. When Jesus encounters Simon Peter with his boat, he’s already connected with him through the act of healing. So, with the crowds pressing in, Jesus sees fishermen washing their nets and their boats nearby on the shore, and he gets into the boat of Simon Peter and asks him to put out a little way from the shore. This way, Jesus can comfortably teach the crowds from the boat without being smothered by them in their excitement. When he’s done teaching, he turns to Simon, and tells him, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Not a suggestion – not a question – but a direction, an imperative. Peter responds in a way that I admire, since I think most of us wouldn’t respond so openly. Jesus wasn’t a fisherman; he was a carpenter, and now a teacher; Simon Peterwas the fisherman. And Peter knew where to fish. And Peter knew that they had already been fishing all night without catching anything. But Simon Peter didn’t respond that he knew better than Jesus, or that they tried what he said already and it didn’t work, or that this new way wouldn’t work. He said instead, “Master, if you say we should try it, we’ll try it.”
So they let down their nets, and begin to catch so many fish that their nets are breaking. They signal for help, and another boat comes, and still, there are so many fish that both boats are filled to the point that they can barely stay afloat. Peter, overwhelmed, falls on his knees before Jesus and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus responds, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And with those strange words, Peter, along with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, partners with Simon, leave their boats and nets and everything, and they begin to follow Jesus.
I think Jesus’ invitation – well, he doesn’t even really ask, does he? – his announcement that these fishermen will now be fishing for people is an invitation, an announcement that extends to us too. In church language, we call the work that we are called to do a vocation. But sometimes I think we do a disservice in the church when we leave people feeling that the only vocation we’re talking about is people becoming pastors. Some of you might have read my brother Tim’s facebook post this week. He’s always so thoughtful in complimenting me and my brothers – I’m a pastor. Todd’s an acting professor. Jim is a manager working with people with disabilities. Tim hasn’t ever felt that same tug toward a particular career. But God calls us in so many different ways. Fishing for people, the life of discipleship, that is simply committing to trying to follow the teachings and practices of Jesus as much as we can – this can take so many different forms. Remember, when we talked about Esther a couple of weeks ago. Was her calling to be a Queen? Maybe, or maybe not. But her calling was definitely speaking out against injustice, using her role as Queen to do so. Fishing for people is helping draw others closer to Jesus, inviting them to walk with Jesus. The ways that we can do that are endless, starting with the witness that we make in our own lives of discipleship.
Jesus tells us how we do that – practice discipleship, and prepare ourselves for a life fishing for people alongside Jesus. We go to the deep waters, and we put down our nets, expecting a catch. Bishop Robert Wright says, “Some people don’t catch fish because they don’t expect to catch fish. When Jesus tells Simon, “Let’s go to the deep water,” he doesn’t stop there. He says, “…prepare for a catch.” What an encouragement. This is a word for us … who go to church regularly,” he says. “Week after week we go to the deep water of worship, but do we go preparing for a catch? Do we go believing that a blessing is just waiting for us? … Expectations count with God. It’s all over the Bible. Expectation is the first-born child of faith, “the substance of things hoped for.” No expectation, no real faith. When we say we believe in God, we are not saying I am agreeing with some abstract idea; we’re saying we expect the things that God has promised to us.”
Wright continues, “Some people think they know more about fish than God. It happens to all of us sometimes. It’s not that we actually think we know more than God; it’s just that we behave that way. We hear God’s instructions: Forgive a whole bunch. Bless those who curse you. Give abundantly. Visit the jails. Forget your life and you’ll have a ball … But we ignore God’s invitation to abundance. We say to God by our actions: I know more about [life], more about healing, more about forgiveness, more about children, more about money than you do, God … Some people don’t catch fish because they don’t go to the deep water, and some people don’t catch fish because they don’t expect to. But some people don’t catch fish because they know more about fish than God. People say that the net full of fish is the miracle of this story, but I disagree. The real miracle of this story is that Simon decided that God was God and that he would live that way beginning immediately … Just look at what Simon says before the miracles begin to happen, “Yet, Lord if you say so….””
Simon Peter wasn’t called to be a disciple because he was good at catching people, or fish for that matter. Simon was called because that’s what God does! God calls us because God demonstrates grace and love through our lives, because God can use even us, we, who like Simon, feel overwhelmed with how unqualified and worthy we are. We just need to let Jesus into our boat, and commit to going to the deep water again and again, commit to putting down our nets, commit to trusting God so that we’re expecting a catch. What are you doing to get to deep water in your faith life? What are you expecting God to do in your life?
In Cesáreo Gabaráin’s hymn, we are reminded that God sees the humbleness of our boat, the lack of what we have to offer, and God smiles, and says, “Come, follow me. Let’s seek other seas together. And I will make you fish for people!” “O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me, and while smiling, have spoken my name. Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me; by your side I will seek other seas.” Amen.
Today we’re looking at the story of two women, two queens, Vashti and Esther. The book of Esther is a fairly short book, set in the time of exile. Remember, Israel had been conquered by foreign rulers, and many Israelites had been sent away from Israel to live in foreign lands. Some Jews find themselves living in the kingdom of Persia, under the rule of a man named King Ahasuerus, who is known elsewhere as King Xerxes. Persia is in the region we know today as Iran.
Esther is unique in being one of only two books of the Bible named for women – we read from the other, the book of Ruth, two weeks ago – but it is also one of only two book of the Bible that doesn’t explicitly mention God anywhere. (The other is Song of Songs.) So why is this book part of the scriptures you might wonder, if God isn’t mentioned? Today we’ll talk about this story of Esther, and see if we can see God woven throughout this text, even when God isn’t explicitly named.
Ahasuerus gives a banquet for the leaders of his government, including military figures and nobles of the region. The display of his wealth and splendor and pomp goes on for 6 straight months. And at the end of that lavish party, he gives another party, this one 7 days long, for all of the people present in the citadel – higher ups and regular folk. The scripture describes the extravagant decorations, food, and festivities in detail. We read that drinking was “without restraint,” and that the king ordered everyone to do just as they desired. At the same time, Vashti was giving a party for the women of the palace.
On the last day of festivities, Ahasuerus orders his servants to bring Queen Vashti before him and his guests, wearing her crown, so his officials can see her beauty. And Vashti refuses to come. We’re not told why. In fact, we never hear Vashti speak a word. Readers of the Bible have imagined a variety of possible reasons over the millennia for her refusal, including everything from her being ill, to being modest, to being unhappy with her appearance that day, to being simply stubborn. But to me, it seems pretty obvious why she doesn’t want to appear. She’s being ordered to present herself to be stared at by a large group of very drunk men. It feels like a demeaning command, and one that would leave her vulnerable. So she refuses. The king is enraged, and he seeks to impose the harshest punishment possible. For a woman in her time and context, her actions are actually illegal. She’s not allowed to refuse the king this way! And her bold refusal might stir up other women to question the commands of their husbands! So, Vashti is permanently banished from the king’s presence, and letters go out from the king declaring that “every man should be master in his own house.” And then, a group of young women are collected together to undergo beauty treatments, so one of them can be chosen as a new queen for Ahasuerus. Although we never hear Vashti speak, I can’t help but admire whatever led her to refuse the king. It seems it was the only power she had at her disposal, and she used it.
Her banishment paves the way for a young Jewish woman named Esther to be chosen as queen instead. Esther has been raised by her cousin, a man named Mordechai, because Esther was an orphan. She was raised as Mordechai’s own daughter. When Esther is made queen, Mordechai tells her not to reveal her Jewish identity, and she obeys. She is loved and admired by the king and his court, and showered with gifts. Mordechai somehow also uncovers a plot to kill the king, and through Esther, the king is warned, further putting Esther in the king’s good graces.
Eventually, though, Haman, a high-ranking official promoted by the king, is insulted by Mordechai, who fails to bow when Haman enters the city gates. Haman isn’t satisfied just to punish Mordecai though, so he decides that he will try to have all Jews in the whole kingdom put to death. He suggests to the king that it’s not right to have these people, these Jews, scattered through the kingdom who have different laws and practices than everyone else. “It is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them,” he says. Haman offers to pay a lot of money to the king for the right to have them all put to death, and the king agrees. A date for the execution of all the Jews, men, women, young and old is set.
When Mordechai hears what is happening, he puts on sackcloth and ashes, a sign of mourning. All the Jewish people fast and weep and lament. And Mordechai appeals to Esther to beg the king for mercy. But Esther is scared. No one goes to the king without being summoned. And look what happened to Vashti! She can’t risk it. She could be put to death! Mordechai speaks to her bluntly: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Finally, she agrees to go. She asks Mordechai to fast on her behalf. And she says, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” Fortunately, she finds favor with the king, receives an audience, and saves her people from death.
The book of Esther is about this moment of truth: when crisis comes our way, when conflict comes, what will we do? What is safe, or what is right? What is comfortable, or what is hard, but just? What protects ourselves, or what will serve God and serve others? It isn’t an easy question to answer. But we have to ask it of ourselves, again and again.
Some of you may know the famous poem penned by Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller during World War II. He has a compelling story of transformation, and over time, he became more opposed to and more outspoken about Hitler and Nazism. He wrote about our tendency to not speak up for others as long as we ourselves are safe. He wrote, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I was thinking about Niemöller’s poem as I thought of Esther. It was so tempting to stay silent, even as her own people were being set up for slaughter, because speaking up might mean forfeiting her own life. What does it take for us to be moved to speak on behalf of someone else who is being wronged, hurt, threatened, mistreated? What does it take for us to speak up for what we believe is right, when doing so would put ourselves at risk? When by staying silent, we might be able to remain comfortable and safe? Esther could have stayed quiet and played it safe. I think perhaps a large part of her wanted to stay quiet. I know that would have been my impulse. Who could blame someone for wanting to protect their own life? Mordechai helps Esther see things differently. Perhaps Esther – a Jewish woman who somehow ended up as Queen of Persia – perhaps Esther is where she is when she is for just such a time as this, for just such a purpose as this – standing up for a whole people.
Remember earlier this summer, when we talked about Sarah and her long-awaited child, and about kairos, God’s right time for action? God’s right time, kairos time, is all over this story. Esther is in just the right place at just the right time to act for God, for others. So where has God placed you? Where are you now, in the right time and the right place to serve God? Who are you in just the right place at just the right time to serve?
Is God explicitly mentioned in Esther? No. But God is all over Esther’s story, and working so clearly in Esther’s life. Is God’s work in our life so clear? Can we see God written all over the stories of our lives? Sometimes I hear Christians lamenting a diminishing of Christianity in the public sphere. People might mentioned prayer in public schools, or the separation of church and state, or settings becoming more secular that once seemed more steeped in religious language and practice. But I have to tell you, I’m not too worried about these things. Because I think that our lives can have God written all over them, like Esther’s life eventually does, when our actions are steeped in following God’s call. You might work and live and move in a “secular” setting, but your discipleship and faithfulness and openness to God’s call can be seen in all that you do. Your voice, speaking up for those who are in desperate need, is a voice of faith, a sign of God at work in the world, and at work in you.
Who knows, friends, but that God has called you for just this time, and just this place? How will you answer that call? Amen.
The most common passage people ask me to read at their weddings is 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient, love is kind … love never ends. For obvious reasons, it makes a good text for folks starting out in marriage together, as the apostle Paul calls us to love in a way that puts the other before the self, always. Of course, I remind folks when I’m talking to them about this text that Paul wasn’t talking about love in a way that was meant only for married couples to share. Paul actually wants us to love everyone in this selfless way, not just spouses!
One of the next most-popular verses for weddings comes from our text for today. “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” Often, when I’m sharing with couples possible verses for their wedding, I’ll read this passage, and the couple will say, “Yes, that’s the one, that’s the passage we want.” And then I have to explain that again, this text isn’t about love between spouses. This text describes the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. It’s unusual, certainly. Still, though, most couples I meet with recognize that this kind of devotion and commitment is indeed something they want to find in their married life together.
So what is the story of Ruth and Naomi? The opening verses tell us that Ruth’s story is set in the time of the judges, the time period we talked about last Sunday, between the Israelites coming into the Promised Land and the time when they were ruled by earthly kings. During this time, there is a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem – yes, that Bethlehem – leaves Judah to go live in Moab. Bethlehem literally means “house of bread,” and biblical authors were not blind to irony, certainly. There’s a famine in the House of Bread. So this man Elimelech from Bethlehem leaves to live in Moab with his wife, Naomi and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Mahlon and Chilion’s names mean literally “diseased” and “dying.” Yes, this is biblical foreshadowing! Mahlon and Chilion marry women from among the Moabite people. The Moabites haves a common heritage with the Israelites, but they are a different nation, with different religious traditions. They worship different gods than the Israelites. The Moabite women are named Ruth and Orpah (not Oprah!) But after about 10 years in Moab, Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion all die. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are all left widows.
Naomi, an Israelite, hears that at last there is food in her homeland again – the famine has ended, and people are saying that “God has considered” the people and their plight. She sets out with her daughters-in-law to head back to where she was living before she left home with her husband. She, Ruth, and Orpah are vulnerable, at risk as widows in a patriarchal society. They have little to no social standing as they are, no one to provide for them, few legal protections. And as Naomi thinks on that, she encourages Ruth and Orpah to return to their families in Moab, to find security in the home of a new husband. “Go back each of you to your mother’s house,” she says, “May God deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” They weep together, and both women say they will stay with Naomi. But Naomi insists she cannot provide for them. If Naomi were to remarry and have more sons – could her daughters-in-law wait until they were grown to marry them? Of course not. It would be foolish for them to not remarry. Naomi feels like God has turned against her. Her husband and sons have died. In a culture where a family line means so much, Naomi feels bitter, like a failure. In fact she will eventually adopt the name Mara for herself, which means bitter. Orpah decides to go back to Moab. But Ruth still chooses to remain with Naomi. And that’s when she says the words that are a vow, a commitment: I will follow you. I’m going where you’re going. I’m making my home where you’re making your home. I’m making your people my people. I’m choosing your God as my God. And if I don’t honor this vow, let God do to me what God will!
Ruth honors her vow, and she and Naomi return to Naomi’s home, where Naomi works hard to secure a good life for Ruth, and where Ruth remains focused on making sure Naomi is cared for too. Naomi helps Ruth connect to a kinsman, Boaz, who fulfills his role as “redeemer,” for the family line, marrying Ruth. And when Ruth gives birth to a child, Obed, Naomi serves as wet nurse. The women of Naomi’s community say to her: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin … He shall be to you a restorer of life … for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne [a son].” They say of the baby Obed, “A son has been born to Naomi.” Our reading closes with the author letting us know that Obed becomes the father of Jesse, father to David, most beloved of the kings of Israel.
The Book of Ruth is a favorite book of many Bible readers. After all, compared with the violence of war and Jael and her tent peg we read about last week, Ruth’s story has a lot to recommend it. No wars. A bit of romance. A story of devotion and commitment. A young woman, devoted to her mother-in-law. A man willing to step up and protect those who are vulnerable. But even though the story is drastically different than last week’s, our driving question still is the same: what’s the good news in the Book of Ruth? Some biblical scholars think Ruth was written to counter books of the Bible like Ezra and Nehemiah, which include serious statements against intermarriage, a marriage between Israelites and people of other faith traditions. Here is Ruth, a non-Israelite, who nonetheless commits her life to following the God of Israel, who becomes the great-grandmother of King David. And certainly, I think there’s something to the hopefully-now-unsurprising fact that God works through the story of an unexpected figure like Ruth. We talked last week about God using unexpected people to accomplish God’s work. Here, we find a Moabite, a foreign woman, a refugee, a widow, and her commitment Naomi leads to her being the right person at God’s right time to continue God’s covenant for generations to come. Phyllis Trible (1) notes that Ruth’s story is a bit like Abraham’s story in the degree of their radical life-changing decisions. Both leave home and country to go to a completely new place. Abraham has an explicit call from God to do so. Ruth doesn’t have an explicit call from God. But throughout the text, Naomi and Boaz both note that Ruth behaves with loving-kindness. The word has a sense of practicing loving-kindness toward someone even when they have no rightful claim on your compassion. The call on Ruth’s life that drives her to a new place is the call of loving-kindness, of compassion, and it changes her life as much as God’s more direct call changes Abraham’s.
But I am most moved by Ruth and Naomi’s move forward in spite of what can only feel like utter disaster and failure in their lives. For Naomi, everything is lost. Where once she had a whole family, now she will have no descendants at all. For Ruth, though, there’s an escape plan. She can leave. This wouldn’t do anything for Naomi, but for Ruth, how easy would it be to just go back home and start over again? I don’t mean to malign Orpah’s decision. It was certainly a sensible choice, and Naomi didn’t seem to begrudge her path. But what on earth motivates Ruth to persevere and stay with Naomi despite what seems like a dead end?
Samuel Wells preached on this passage at a Baccalaureate service at Duke several years ago (2), and it struck me as an odd choice of text at first. But Wells in his message speaks to the students about failure that will inevitably be part of their lives. He writes, “I’m thinking right now of young man who left college 10 years ago. He went into consulting work on the East Coast. He spent a bit of time on Wall Street, and … [three] or four years ago he and a couple of others set up their own company. It was tough at first but soon it became quite a success … That company was his life, his identity, his pride, his joy.
“January just past it all went wrong. The company slid into bankruptcy like a sandcastle engulfed by the incoming tide. The young man saw his dream disappear and his security, prestige, and self-esteem melt away with it. Four months later, to my knowledge, his mother and sister have yet to find a way even gently to refer to the subject with him. His life is shrouded in silence and dominated by the f-word: failure.”
Wells continues, saying that in our culture, where we judge and are judged constantly, there are “a thousand ways to fail. We come to fear earthly failure in the same way we fear death — in fact failure becomes a kind of equivalent of death — which is why the young man’s mother and sister found they couldn’t even mention the subject to him. Our earthly successes become our quest for immortality, and if we fail, it’s like a double dose of death.”
But Ruth, in the face of “poverty and possible death says that, for her, there’s something that means more than self-preservation and survival. That something is loyalty and love. In showing such steadfast love against all expectations, she shows us the face of God in a way we might never have seen it if she’d been lucky and successful.” It’s the same perseverance that we find in Christ’s death, and the ultimate victory of life over death. Who would continue to have hope after the seeming failure of Jesus’ death on the cross?
While Wells was spending time in Northern Ireland, he spoke with a priest there who had dedicated his life to working for peace after decades of strife and violence. The priest had experienced failure after failure. But he persisted, dedicated to his work. He told Wells, “It’s better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed than to succeed in a cause that will finally fail.”
Ruth and Naomi experience utter devastation. But they bind themselves to each other, and to a path with God’s people that will last them beyond the hopelessness of their present circumstances. I can only imagine that when Ruth makes her decision to stay with Naomi, she makes her choice not only out of loving-kindness, but also with her eyes set on the horizon, into a future longer than her immediate suffering, into a plan and path that is grander than she can see in that moment.
What about us? What is God’s call to us in the midst our failures, in the midst of our suffering? Without a doubt, we will encounter times in our lives, seasons when it feels like we have come to a dead end, and the only thing we can do is go back to the beginning and start all over. When we find ourselves in such a place, what will we do? Like Ruth, maybe we can turn our pain into compassion, into loving-kindness that keeps us thinking of others instead of ourselves, even in our pain. And like Ruth, we can remember that we have committed our lives to serving God’s cause, and even when we are failing, God’s cause is the one that finally succeeds. Let’s stick with that path, even if we can’t see that far down the road just yet.
Remember, I told you that Naomi asked to be called Mara, which means bitter? No one ever calls her that. Because the bitterness is for a season. The toughest season of her life. But Naomi means pleasure. And through Ruth’s loving-kindness, Naomi holds a child in her arms that brings her joy beyond the future she could see. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Today we’re turning our attention to the book of Judges as we continue to explore the stories of some of the women of the Bible. This book represents the story of Israel between the time in which the Israelites moved into the Promised Land after the death of Moses, and the time when Israel began to be ruled by earthly kings, as other nations were. In the interim period, somewhere around the 12th or 11thcentury BC, they were ruled by judges. They served two functions: the first was like the role of judges today. These leaders settled legal disputes for the Israelites. But the biblical judges also served as military leaders. They were commanders-in-chief of Israel’s army.
The Book of Judges provides us with glimpses of the leadership of these judges and into the hearts of the Israelites. According to the author, the people and their leaders seem to go through these repeated cycles where they are “do[ing] evil in the sight of the Lord.” Over and over, the people seem to make the same mistakes, seem to turn away from their faithful God, seem to do the very things that they know have always resulted in pain and heartbreak in the past. If you know any stories from the book of Judges, it might be the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson was one of the judges of Israel. But I’m guessing that the story of Deborah and Barak and Jael is new or unfamiliar to many of you.
Deborah, the fourth of the twelve judges in this time period, follows one of these time periods of wandering away from God. The opening verses of chapter 4 tell us that the Israelites were doing what was evil in God’s eyes, and their actions resulted in their being sold into the hand of King Jabin. The commander of Jabin’s army is a man named Sisera, who commands a fierce army of nine-hundred chariots of iron. For twenty years, King Jabin oppresses the Israelites. We don’t know exactly what this oppression looks like, but it’s a long enough time to be feeling pretty desperate and downtrodden. Twenty years of cruelty.
Into this setting, Deborah rises as judge of Israel. She is called a prophet, a title not given to the other judges, and a title only given to a handful of women in the scriptures – a little study project for you to track down other women prophets in the scripture! A prophet hears God’s voice and speaks God’s message to the people. When our scene opens, Deborah summons Barak, a military commander, and tells him: God commands you to take 10,000 soldiers from the tribes of Israel to fight against Sisera and his army, and God will give them into your hand. Barak responds saying to Deborah, “If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go.” It’s unclear why he responds this way. You could think of his words as flattering – he wants Deborah’s wisdom and leadership there with him in the battle. Or you can think of him as skeptical, doubting Deborah’s words, or God’s words, or fearful, unwilling to step up and lead on his own. Deborah agrees to go with him, but perhaps because of his reluctance to just lead as God had called him to, she tells him that the glory of the journey, the victory will not fall to Barak, but to a woman.
As the battle unfolds, Deborah sends Barak out saying, “The Lord is indeed going out before you.” Sisera’s chariot are thrown into a panic – later in Judges we find that storm has caused all the chariot wheels to get stuck in mud, rendering them useless. And the army of King Jabin is being steadily conquered. When Sisera, the commander, sees this, he runs away. He flees and seeks safety in the tent of Jael, the wife of a man named Heber. Heber is part of a clan of people called Kenites, and they are allies with both King Jabin and Israel. Sisera expects welcome, and indeed, Jael tells him, “Have no fear.” She covers him with a rug, and gives the thirsty man a drink of milk. He asks her to guard the entrance of the tent and to turn away anyone who approaches. And then he fall asleep. And Jael takes a tent-peg and hammer and drives the tent-peg through his skull, killing him as he sleeps. Barak shows up at her tent, only to find his foe already defeated – by the woman Jael.
After the battle, Deborah and Barak raise their voices in a song Deborah composes, saying, “Hear, give your ear, I will sing to the Lord, I will make a melody to God.” The song that they sing is thought to be some of the oldest material in the entire Bible, and recounts in dramatic fashion all the events that have unfolded, naming Deborah a Mother of Israel.
So, what do we make of this intense, crazy story? Weeks ago, I was seeking advice from colleagues about what hymns might be suitable to go along with this scripture text. And of my colleagues responded saying that it depended on what the “good news” was that I planned to share from this passage. That was such a helpful focusing question because my first response was to think, “Wait, where is the good news in this story?” I’ve wanted to share with you some of the stories of women in the Bible, since their stories are often overlooked. But is there any good news in this vividly gory story?
Perhaps the good news is in the victory: the Israelites were freed from their oppression through Deborah’s leadership, Barak’s military action, and Jael’s, well, decisive actions. After these events, Israel experiences a peace under Deborah’s judgeship that lasts for forty years, a meaningful duration of time in the scriptures. Is that enough good news for this story? One of the struggles I often hear folks express when reading through the Hebrew Bible, the stories in the Old Testament is about the level of violence that takes place that gets attached to God’s name. I’m glad people are so uncomfortable with it. I’m glad we don’t read story after story of war and violence and wonder if that could really be God’s plan. It would be worse if we didn’t raise such ethical questions. They are contemporary questions after all: Is there such a thing as just war? Does God choose “sides” in a war? Is God with one side and not the other? We can think of the religious crusades of history, of action and inaction during World War II, of turmoil over our role in Vietnam to more contemporary questions: What is the right response to genocide, like in Rwanda in the 90s? How do we respond to war and destruction in Syria? Rev. Alex Joyner writes that there’s a monster in the story of Deborah and Jael. It’s not Jael, not Sisera, but the monster of violence. He says, “But there’s still that monster, isn’t there? The monster that stalks our streets and our homes and our relationships even today. There’s still that monster. The monster of violence can never have the last word — not on a hill called Calvary and not here.” (1) Can we give thanks for freedom from oppression, even while we lament the violent means that brought about this new peace for Israel? I think, at least, it is good news when we faithfully wrestle with texts like this, because we’re paying attention, we’re searching, and seeking God’s wisdom and clarity, and realizing how contemporary this ancient story is, how God’s word is a living word.
Perhaps we find some good news in the fact that this story is yet another testament to the fact that God surprises us, uses unexpected people, works in unexpected, mysterious ways. There are very few one-dimensional “hero” figures in the scriptures, even if we thoughtfully like to gloss over the less savory parts of the stories of biblical figures. At our animate faith study this spring, we talked about a phrase reformer Martin Luther used – “simultaneously sinners and saints.” Sometimes we think of God’s followers in the Bible as a bunch of saints. And they are that, but they’re sinners too, struggling and sometimes failing to do what God desires. Deborah, in her victory song, gloats, taunting Sisera’s mother, saying she’ll watch for her son who is never coming home. Jael – she helped deliver Israel – but she had to take some questionable actions to do it, certainly disregarding concepts of hospitality and sanctuary. I’m thankful for these women, these complex women, who aren’t painted as perfect by any stretch. But God doesn’t look for perfect. God perfects us as we learn to love and serve God over our lifetime. And so God can use people as complicated as Deborah and Barak and Jael, and draw good out of the messes we make, when our motives and actions are less than God desires for us.
And we find good news in this: God is faithful, offering us redemption again and again, offering us paths to freedom even when our captivity was a result of our own destructive choices, present with us even when we doubt God’s plan, surprising us even when we sure we’ve got it all figure out, giving us grace even, perhaps especially when it is undeserved. Deborah and Jael and Barak are part of a compellingly strange story, but it is one story of many in this long cycle of judges, and one story of many in our long story of turning away from God who never turns away from us, and one story of many where we fail to see God’s constancy through victory and failure. Thank God for unsettling stories, and God’s consistent grace within and throughout them. Amen.
Time is such a funny thing. It rules our lives in so many ways. We’re governed by time, appointments to get to, schedules to be kept, not enough time to do what we want, time wasted. Time that seems to drag too slowly for us, and time that rushes by. Today is my one-year anniversary of being the pastor here, and people sometimes ask me, “Does it seem like a long time?” In some ways, I can hardly believe it has been a year already. I can vividly remember my first day as pastor here last year, which was the last day of Vacation Bible School that year. It was really hot – as was most of the summer. And I got a flat tire that day. I can tell you what I was wearing, and I can remember some of the people I met at VBS, and I remember struggling to learn all the new names and faces I was encountering. It seems like just a moment ago. But it also seems like a long time, too. I don’t feel like your “new” pastor. I feel like we’ve been in ministry together for a long time, like we’ve been working together on this following Jesus thing for a long time now.
In my first religion class in undergrad, I learned what is still one of my favorite theological concepts: Kairos. There are two common words for time in the scripture: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, for example, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen. Kairos. God’s right time for action.
Can you think of a promise someone made you that took a really long time to come to fruition? Or plans that you made that were in the far-distant future, and you had to wait, and wait, and wait for the day to arrive when your plans would become reality? Today, as we start our summer series of looking at some of the stories of the women of the Bible, we encounter Sarah and Abraham. Sarah and Abraham started out as Sarai and Abram, but God gave them new names, a sign of the covenant God was making with them. When Abram was seventy-five years old, and Sarai was in her mid-sixties, God spoke to Abram, told him to leave his home and travel to a new land that God would point out, and there promised Abram that God would bless him, make of him and his descendants a great nation. Today, we read about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah when Sarah learns that she will give birth to a son. By the time Sarah delivers her child, Isaac, Abraham is one hundred, and she is ninety-one years old. Twenty-five years pass between God making a promise to them and when the promise is fulfilled. Twenty-five years for it to be “God’s right time.”
Today’s first text opens with God appearing to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, where Abraham’s tent is. This is a holy place – it is at this place where Abraham earlier built an altar when God renewed the covenant with Abraham and Sarah and gave them their new names. God appears in the form of three men, messengers of God. And Abraham, seeing them, immediately makes arrangements for their welcome. He has their feet washed, invites them to rest, brings them water, and has Sarah make them cakes from choice flour. Often, in fact, this passage is cited as a text that leads us to think about hospitality and how we welcome strangers into our midst. But today, I’m more interested in the message these men bring.
“Where is Sarah?” they ask. “Sarah is in the tent,” Abraham answers. Nearly twenty-five years ago, Sarah and Abraham had been told by God that Abraham would be blessed with descendants more numerous than the stars. After more than ten years of waiting on God’s promise, Sarah took matters into her own hands. She told Abraham to have a child by Sarah’s slave, a young woman named Hagar, so that at least Abraham’s line would continue, even if not through Sarah. This is the best way Sarah can figure out how to make God’s promise come true. And indeed, Hagar has a son by Abraham named Ishmael. We’ll come back to that in a bit. Then, another decade and a half pass until we reach today’s scene. “In due season,” one of the men says, “Sarah will have a son.” Sarah is listening from the tent, and she laughs when she hears this news. She’s not laughing happy, joyful laughter. She’s laughing her disbelief, her skepticism, her disappointment. She is ninety years old. She is in menopause. She has already secured a son for Abraham. She has waited two and half decades on God’s promises. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” she wonders. She thinks that God, in the form of these three visitors, has lost it.
God says to Abraham, “Why did she laugh?” Why did she express doubt? “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? This is going to happen.” Suddenly, Sarah wants to deny laughing, fearful of God’s response, and in my favorite line, God responds, “Oh yes, you did laugh!” It’s like two children arguing: “Nuh-uh.” “Yuh-huh.” Beyond today’s passage, we find that indeed, God “deals with Sarah” as said, and God does for Sarah what has been promised, at God’s right time, twenty-five years later. Sarah’s son is named Isaac, which comes from the word “to laugh,” for, Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Her laughter, once the laughter of bitter doubt and disappointment, has been transformed into joyous laughter at last.
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Throughout the scriptures, we hear similar sentiments. With God, all things are possible. Nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe it? Sarah tried to fulfill God’s promises by her own actions, in her own way, in her own time, and the results were not so good, which we’ll hear more about. Have you ever found yourself trying to force God’s plan into your own plan? Into your own sense of timing?
I remember while I was on sabbatical a few years ago, I was trying to make some decisions about my next steps in ministry. I was trying to listen to God’s voice, but I was impatient. Every year, pastors and churches have to fill out paperwork expressing their hopes about ministry appointments in the coming year. When I asked friends to pray for me, to pray for clarity for me, I would ask them, “Please tell God to give me an answer by November 1st. That’s when my paperwork is due!” Last year, when I was appointed to come here to Gouverneur, it was most definitely not my timing. I wasn’t ready to move. I wasn’t looking to move. And I can’t say that Gouverneur was one of the places I had imagined myself serving as pastor. And yet, here I have found blessing upon blessing, because it seems that this has been God’s plan for us. Is anything too wonderful for God? Of course not. We can say it with our lips. But frustrated by God’s strange sense of timing, by God’s strange sense of humor, by God’s dreams that seem impossible, we end up getting in the way of the truly wonderful that God wants to reveal to us at God’s just-right time. God is faithful, and God’s promises to us are always, always fulfilled. Let that knowledge fill our hearts with the laughter of deep joy.
There is another woman in the story of God’s promises to make Abraham into a father of nations. As I mentioned, when Sarah was not conceiving a child, she decided to take things into her own hands. She gave her slave Hagar to Abraham, and Hagar gave birth to a son named Ishmael. This isn’t a part of the story that often gets a lot of attention, because it is all pretty uncomfortable, isn’t it? Hagar is a slave, and she has no choice in what is happening to her, no option to give or withhold her consent.
What is unusual, a blessing in its own way, is that we get to hear some of Hagar’s story, even though she is a woman, even though she is a slavewoman. We’ve been talking about God’s special care for the most vulnerable, and Hagar qualifies on more than one account. Some chapters before we encounter Hagar in Chapter 21, when Hagar became pregnant, the text tells us that Hagar “looked with contempt on Sarah.” We don’t know exactly why this is, whether she feels proud that she has been able to conceive, whether she’s hopeful that bearing Abraham’s child will mean her freedom, whether she’s angry that she has to be a parent on terms that were not her own. But because of Hagar’s contempt, Sarah, with Abraham’s blessing, begins to treat Hagar harshly. Hagar runs away. One of God’s messengers finds her in the wilderness, and tells her to return to Abraham and Sarah, promising her, just as she has promised Abraham and Sarah, that her offspring will be numerous, her descendants numbering more than a multitude. The messenger tells her to name her child Ishmael, which means, “God hears.” Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah, and her child is born, and for a while, everything seems ok.
Until Isaac, Sarah’s son is born. Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and something seems to snap. She tells Abraham to send Hagar and her son away. “The son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Abraham is reluctant, but God says essentially that in both Isaac and Ishmael God’s promises will be fulfilled. So, with some food and water, Hagar is sent away, and again, she finds herself in the wilderness, this time with her son. God’s messenger finds her again, when she is at her most desperate, believing that she is going to have to watch her child starve to death. “Do not be afraid,” the messenger says, “God has heard the voice of the boy. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast, for I will make a great nation of him.” God opens her eyes to see a well of water, a sign of life and hope. We read that Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, becoming an expert with the bow, and God is with him. Yes, God fulfilled the promises made to Abraham and Sarah, but God had promises for Hagar too, and was as faithful to those promises as the ones that drive the “main” story of the scripture.
Uncle Bill has told me that when he and my Aunt Shari were expecting my cousin Ben, their second oldest child, Uncle Bill was filled with anxiety, sure that he would never be able to love Ben as much as he loved his firstborn Bekah. But, with my grandfather reassuring him, Uncle Bill discovered that his love would grow, would stretch, would multiply, rather than be divided among his children.
Even though Sarah had just experienced the fulfillment of her wildest dreams, her deepest joy, come true, it somehow still wasn’t enough. She let herself be ruled by fear. It was as though she were afraid that someone else having joy meant there would be less joy less for Sarah, that God’s promises being fulfilled in Hagar would mean that promises to Sarah would somehow be lost or ruined. Even though I believe we know better, somehow, when it comes to God, God’s gifts for us, God’s promises to us, God’s love and grace in our lives, we end up afraid that blessings for someone else leaves less for us, as if God’s love needs to be divided among us, portioned out. Sarah has gotten all that she could barely even hope to receive, and somehow, she lets her blessings, her promises received seem like a meager portion. God, though, is faithful, the God of Isaac and Ishmael, the God of Sarah and Hagar.
When have you been Sarah, trying to make God’s promises fit your own plans? When have you been Hagar, needing a reminder that God will see you, hear you, be faithful to you, even when you feel hopeless, lost in the wilderness? When have you been like Sarah to a Hagar, worried that God has less left for you, because of the blessings another receives? Nothing is too wonderful for our God to bring about, in God’s right time, in God’s right way, in fulfillment of God’s faithful promises to us. Let us open our hearts and lives to the wondrous ways that God wants to work in all of us. Amen.