Psalm 121; Genesis 32:22-31

Back before I started seminary, I really didn’t know much about the bible; so I was trying to get as much as I could in. Remember I grew up with no church in the home, and the one religious experience I had as a kid was going to Catholic Church for a year for a girl, so you can guess how much bible I actually absorbed then.

So I’m in Boston as a Unitarian Universalist and I see a community advertisement for a Jewish Bible Study at a local ice cream shop and I decide to go to it.

And I remember the lesson from it almost 10 years later; there’s a somewhat obscure passage in the book of Numbers that refers to something called the Book of the Wars of the Lord.

Scholars tell us that there was an ancient historical Hebrew book of some type, but has since been lost.

But that’s not what they cared about. In the Jewish Tradition- or at least the tradition of the folks who led this bible study, the book of the wars of the lord was the human heart, and the wars of the lord were the struggles that people had with God and with each other that would lead to greater understanding and greater compassion.

This is one of the great cultural-religious differences between Christianity and Judaism; whereas Christianity in general tends to favor unity as a principle born from submission to God’s will, Judaism finds the argument, the discussion, the back and forth struggle to be a vehicle for greater compassion and love.

In that Bible study they talked about the great tradition being that people, especially the men of a town, would gather at the gate after work was done and that they would argue with each other over religious matters, debating the meaning of certain Bible verses with just whoever was around, although in a small town, it’s going to be the same few characters. The goal for these wars of the Lord, was not to dominate and destroy our opponent’s arguments, but rather that we argue, debate, discuss so much that we cannot help but love each other. This is also a model for our relationship with God.

Where might this Jewish religious tradition have started, and why might we as Christians want to take a serious look at it? Our second reading is a wonderful place to start.

The protagonist in our reading starts out our reading named Jacob and ends it with the new name Israel. If his name only vaguely touches the back of our Sunday School memories, he’s quite an important figure; he’s the son of Isaac and Rebecca, and Abraham’s and Sarah’s grandson. The drama of his family takes up the last part of the book of Genesis. As Jacob, he’s popularly known for Jacob’s ladder, which he saw in a dream reaching up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. Furthermore, he is the father of 12 sons, who go on to be the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel. So yes, Jacob is an important guy.

This particular vignette takes place in the middle of his grand story; Jacob is a classic bit of a trickster character, always looking for an angle, a way to pull one over on those who oppose him. If he were a superhero, his origin story would involve him tricking his father Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of his brother Esau.

Jacob then goes to live with his wife’s family, in a foreign land and with foreign Gods, but that situation eventually becomes untenable, as Jacob is unable to forge his own identity, chart his own path. Therefore, Jacob leaves to go back home. Worried about how his brother Esau might react to his presence, Jacob sends ahead gifts to mollify his potentially very angry brother. Jacob sends his family out ahead, and encounters a man and a violent struggle begins. No reason is given for why this encounter begins, and we don’t even get an exact reckoning of who this man is. Yet struggle they do, and this man blesses him, changing his name to Israel, which means “The one who strives with God”

This story is ripe for metaphorical interpretation; all of us been at a low point and have wondered why things aren’t going well. We have all struggled with God at some time or another. I suspect that all of us have asked God why bad things happen to good people, why suffering exists, why things just seem so darn hard sometimes.

This might be at the personal level or at the public level; How Long, Not Long is a form of this public wrestling that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. engaged in in one of his most famous speeches.

Indeed, some of the most powerful voices have asked these questions publicly; Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., the street prophets of the 20th century demanding rights freedom from colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia and the modern prophets today have all wrestled with God and with humanity either in the words of scripture or in the public square.

I will say that the struggle cannot be eternal or constant; no one can fight forever, nor should we be expected to. We are all carrying heavy burdens and we part of why we come to God, come to church, come to Jesus is to lay down those heavy burdens, even if for a while. The Sabbath exists for a reason.

Our first reading, psalm 121 reminds us of this; that God is our keeper, the shade that protects us from the harshness of the sun, the keeper of our lives.

It is not that God wishes us harm or ill in our struggles; but it is also true that we do not go unchanged when we struggle with God. Jacob has his name changed, a powerful thing in the book of Genesis, and begins to walk with a limp. In our own struggles, how often are our hearts softened, being able to recognize the pain that others face in their lives.

Jacob, now Israel, emerges a different and better man after his struggle with God. The back and forth, demanding his blessing, seems to stiffen his spine a little bit; he knows that he must deal with his brother Esau forthrightly and humbly to provide for his family, something he would not have been able to do earlier in the story.

So now I ask us to take the lessons of this story; of it being ok to wrestle and struggle with God and one another, so much that we cannot help but love one another, and think of our own relationships with God and each other.

Amen.

In our moment of silent prayer and reflection, I ask us to consider: when have we wrestled with God? What did you learn from it? What blessings did it give you?


Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19

Jeremiah is in a pickle.

The situation, which was bad when we last saw him, has collapsed into disaster. The city of Jerusalem, previously under siege, has been conquered by the Babylonian Empire and the temple, built by Solomon in ages past, has been destroyed.

Many of the elders, priests, prophets, and scribes, people, who held onto and passed on the cultural memory of what it meant to be Jewish, have been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon, one of the largest cities in the world.

This is the end of the world as they knew it.

The Jewish people are now a people without a state, without an army to protect them, at risk of having their history, their culture, their people wiped from existence.

What are they to do?

Christian Ethicist and professor Dr. Eldin Villafañe lays out four possibilities, and here they are with my commentary: Revolution- the complete overthrow of the existing social or political order, which is potentially good, but is a very high-risk option with a low chance of success, and if there is a failure, the situation often ends up worse than it was before. The Jewish revolt in the year 70 is a great example of this. The kingdom of Judea became independent from the Roman Empire for a while…but only for a while. Rome soon reasserted itself in imperial domination over the tiny Kingdom, and end up destroying the second temple in retaliation, completely changing Jewish religious life forever.

The second is Assimilation- that is, trying to erase differences between one’s culture and the majority or those in power. Assimilation is tricky, as it often leaves people adrift culturally, and sometimes acceptance doesn’t even end up happening- we can look at the book of Esther, where even though a Jewish woman had reached the highest levels of courtly political power, her people were still in peril of mass murder.

The third is Escapism, in which people simply disengage from society; this is a possibility…if you’re given the social, political, and physical space to do so. The funny thing about society, however, is that it has a funny way of engaging with us, even if we don’t want to engage with it.

The fourth is what Dr. Villafane says Jeremiah preaches: critical engagement and presence. It is to stay distinct, stay engaged, not to attack or retreat, but to hold fast, to survive, to struggle, and to one day, thrive.

In the face of an apocalyptic threats, sometimes the greatest act of resistance is simply to survive, to struggle against the forces of evil not with anger, but with love and hope.

But let us take a step back and to take a broader look at our readings; as I mentioned before, in our first reading, the city of Jerusalem has fallen. The city has been ransacked, the temple of Solomon destroyed. It’s art and treasures lay in ruins, the gardens and trees despoiled.

Even more of a disaster is that many of Jerusalem’s people are in the process of being displaced. Although today the term exile might seem…almost sanitized; both ancient and modern history tells us that this type of population exchange, splitting up and forced movement of people is always brutal. If you’ve ever heard of the lost tribes of Israel, they were lost to history because of a similar program by the Assyrian Empire. In more modern times we have the examples of population exchanges in Greece and Turkey in between World Wars I and II, described by historians as a legal ethnic cleansing; that is, genocide. Similar programs happened within countries such as the USSR, where different minority groups were moved around in the hopes that their ties to the land and history would disappear.

Yet we need not travel too far to find more recent examples; how different is the exile of the people of Jerusalem from the Trail of Tears here in the United States, where tens of thousands members of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Ponca nations were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and marched westward to what is now Oklahoma, where they had no connections, no infrastructure, and little hope. Of the 60,000 indigenous people trafficked, some 10,000 are estimated to have died, either in resistance, or in terrible conditions on the westward march.

I mention these events not simply because we ought to make connections between the world and events of the Bible and Modern History, but so we can understand the brutal and traumatic nature of what Jeremiah and the people of Jerusalem faced during their exile. It was no road trip, no easy friendly relocation project.

I believe this makes Jeremiah’s guidance and prophecy even more remarkable; Jeremiah could have chosen despair, or assimilation, or escapism, but instead he says survive, people of God, survive. Choose the path of life; build houses, plant gardens, get married and have children. Do not assimilate but thrive. Do not separate yourself from the people of your communities but ensure mutual flourishing instead.

If this seems like easier advice to say than to do, you’re right. Indeed, this conversation about how to be a captive people, how to be a distinct people in a hostile world we see again and again throughout the bible. The book of Esther, as I mentioned before, contains themes about assimilation and community safety. The first half of the prophet Daniel raises questions about collaboration with brutal empires; Daniel’s job is as an advisor to this same regime that sends his people into exile.

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the situation is a bit different. Jerusalem is still not independent, but it does have a measure of self-rule under the Roman puppet kingdom ruled by folks like King Herod and his family. The area around Jerusalem, was then, just like today, a diverse place in its own way; there were Jewish dominated cities and villages, near culturally Greek and Roman dominated cities.

But the human landscape of Jesus’ ministry was much more diverse than a simple binary of Jewish and Gentile. There were also smaller minority groups, some of which straddled or blurred that line. Sometimes they had their own cities and settlements, at other times they were dispersed in other cities.

One such group was the Samaritans. They claimed to be descended from the people of the northern Kingdom of Israel and Ephraim, a region called Samaria. This has been contested by others, including Jews at different points throughout history, although today they’re considered a Jewish sect by the state of Israel.

There are some key differences, however; they use only the first five books of the Bible, the section of the Old Testament that is today called the Torah- Let’s see if we can name them: Genesis, exodus, numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy.

They also claim that the holiest sight for worshipping God was never in the temple in Jerusalem, but rather on Mount Gerizim, near the modern Palestinian city of Nablus.

The Samaritans were always a smaller ethnic group than the Jewish people, and historians tell us that the period of Jesus’ ministry and its aftermath were an extremely important time for the Samaritans in terms of their own identity formation; that is to say, they were becoming a distinct people during the time that the gospel of Luke was being written. Indeed, we can imagine an early Christian Church having a Samaritan member and there being a vigorous debate about if they should be received as Jewish or Gentile.

So enter this story about shared suffering, community, and gratitude. The Samaritan shares material conditions- poverty, isolation, sickness, with his fellow Jewish sufferers. Yet when things change, the Jewish folks have a community to go back to, they did all the right things for them, yet we see no solidarity from them toward the man who earlier that day had been suffering alongside them. So perhaps it is no surprise that this Samaritan man, who faced oppression not only because of his illness, but also because of his racial and religious identity, knows that his struggle is not over.

Although life will become better for him because his illness has been lifted- something that all people who have chronic illnesses know about- it does not mean it will become easy.

He knows that his struggle continues, that the struggle continues, and there is but one means of moving forward; to continue to survive, to struggle, and to thrive. No matter if your people are hurting or if its just you. Build, grow, connect, love, and hope.

Amen.


Psalm 37:1-9; Luke 17:5-10

What are Ethics? Or maybe it’s What is Ethics, not sure on the grammar on that one.

But anyways, what is it?

Perhaps the easiest definition is “the systematized study of right and wrong.”

My favorite definition is, “identifying and attempting reduce the gap between what we do, and what we ought to do.”

“Identifying and attempting reduce the gap between what we do, and what we ought to do.”

There’s a lot we can go into about ethics but this isn’t philosophy 101, this is an 8 to 10 minute sermon at the Miami Shores Community Church. Although our Bible readings don’t answer these questions directly; we ought to keep this framework in mind as we explore our scripture readings. Both answer some important follow up questions that are still quite relevant today; What do we do when others are rewarded for unethical behavior? What is the reward for ethical behavior? That is, what should we expect to get in return when we have closed the gap between what we do, and what we ought to do?

Let us begin with our psalm; Psalm 39. One of the most integral questions of any religion is the question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This psalm tackles the opposite; “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Or, if we don’t believe in bad people, people who tend to make decisions we call wicked or wrong.

We’ve all seen it; folks making large piles of money off of unethical behavior. Heck, there’s a good argument to be made that much of Miami’s wealth, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, was built off of drugs, money laundering, and other illegal activity.

And if we have a God who loves the good and hates evil, what are we to make of these situations?

I believe there are two takeaways from our psalm; First: Evil often contains the seeds of their own destruction. Greed and ego are often contributors not only to great wealth, especially in our day of social media, but also to our downfalls, ensnaring us in moral and legal trouble.

Our psalmist contrasts these things with the virtues of one who trusts in God. Better to be patient than brash; to trust in God and do good work for its own sake than to fade as the grass and wither in the sun. Our psalmist calls us to live in harmony with our neighbors and the land, trusting that God will work through God’s paths.

This does not mean we ignore injustice; but rather that we do not become so consumed by anger and wrath and anxiety that we lose ourselves and forget who we are and who we belong to.

The second is implied, but not directly stated here, that material wealth is not a sign of divine favor. As Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew, the Sun rises on the evil and sets on the good, rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.

This teaching leads us directly to our gospel reading today. Jesus’ parable is an answer to the demand of the 12 to increase their faith through Jesus’ teachings. Although the analogy and imagery of the mustard seed is an important one, I believe it serves merely as a set up to the ethical question and answer that Jesus gives.

Jesus’ question is more implied than explicit: What are the rewards for doing good things, for making good choices?

Jesus’ answer is: nothing. Do you want a cookie for not murdering people? Do you want a special star for not robbing the corner store?

We should note that this directly counteracts the narrative of the prosperity Gospel. If you’re not aware, the prosperity gospel says that material wealth is the reward for faith. And one way to show faithfulness is of course, to give to the pastor’s watch and private plane fund.

The more serious problem, I believe isn’t that a few pastors have become fabulously wealthy, although that is a problem, as massive wealth leads inevitably to massive corruption. Instead, that it implies that people are poor not because they don’t have enough money, but because they don’t have enough faith.

This transforms poverty from a material issue to a moral problem, and allows the wealthy to judge the poor as morally unfit and unfaithful categorically, which has all sorts of societal implications, many of them disastrous.

Indeed, Christian ethics under that system is transformed into a transaction; Do the morally good things not because we ought to, but because it will benefit you personally. Our highest Christian duties and ideals; justice, kindness, equality, hope, faith, love, are transformed into coins for the divine slot machine, God’s primary purpose to reward us with shiny baubles.

Jesus ends our story quoting the slaves, “we have done only what we ought to have done.”

Jesus calls on us to close the “is-ought” gap; why? Because, it is part of whom we are called to be when we choose to follow Christ, not just in the big ways but in the small ways as well. Our God is a god of justice and mercy, compassion and kindness, who shepherds us toward bearing good fruit for their own sake, not because God will reward us for it. Indeed, God calls us to do not just the easy moral decisions, the ones anyone can make, but the ones that most would not.

Which leads us to the question I will leave us with; a glaring omission in our time together today considering our focus on ethics: What exactly are our duties and obligations as Christians? What are we called to do, and even more so, who are we called to become?

Let us consider these things in our moment of silent prayer and meditation. Amen.