As genocides go, this wasn't much of one. In and around Bethlehem when Jesus was a toddler – twenty people probably; thirty at most. All of them little brown-skinned boys.
About sixty kids a year die of child abuse, just in Indiana. Well over a hundred in California. Around 3000 total, more or less. Nineteen kids are gunshot every day in the US; three of them die. That's 1100 more. Ironically, almost the same number of kids who died of war injuries in Syria in 2017. Globally, 3.1 million kids under age 5 starve to death, a number way down from 25 years ago. 85,000 kids dead in Yemen since the American-backed bombing began in 2015. 9.6 million more children are in near- constant danger there.
So maybe we can admit to ourselves and one another that our shock and grief at this god-awful story here in Matthew, chapter 2, is slightly put-on – amen? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are but three of thousands – millions, really. Millions and millions of parents and children, terrorized and running for their very lives in the world right now.
Let's pray: How to live, O God? How to live these privileged lives of ours, and faithfully call ourselves faithful? You are our heart’s desire, and we are so easily overwhelmed by the suffering of this world. We pray to read the word with honest minds and brave hearts, to listen for THE word it might give us for our lives here and now – our time, our talent, our treasure, O God. Ease our grip on them; ease our want of them for ourselves, that others may be less afraid, that other children have a safe and happy life. Amen.
Let's quickly go over the characters:
Herod has heard that foreigners have come to worship a newborn king within his borders. Using his own advisors to locate the birthplace, he orders a raid. By the time his butchers arrive, the foreigners are gone by another road, and Joseph has been warned in a dream to get out. He picks up his family and gets them to Egypt. And while it may have been for only twenty little boys, Matthew says the wailing from Bethlehem sounded like Rachel wailing in Ramah for all her children who would never ever be. Because, of course, there is no such thing as a little genocide. The death of any child is the death of an entire history of people who will never, ever be.
I've another text for you this morning, written last week by my friend Christie Popp. She is an immigration lawyer and faithful member of Beth Shalom next door. She spoke here last year about the current immigration crisis. She wrote this last week while in Tijuana, volunteering with refugees stalled there. What is happening in Tijuana:
She goes on to share ways to give money and volunteer.
Friends, it's no more fun to read this than it is to hear it. But it matters. It matters hugely to read the scripture in the context of the world we live in. Guatemala, Columbia and Honduras are ALL more than 2000 miles from Tijuana. Russia is 5000. The Congo is 9000. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary had it easy compared to them. It's only 430 miles from Bethlehem to Egypt, the same as from here to Memphis. Google maps says it would take five days and ten hours to walk from Bloomington to Memphis and require one ferry ride.
But what difference does it make to compare? Ours is to figure what the text has to do with faith for us here and now, with any of us who claim faith in Jesus in this time and place. The text makes plain that in choosing incarnation as the vehicle of salvation, Jesus chose incarnation NOT among the privileged and protected, but among the lowly and the terrorized.
To ignore the suffering and injustice of the people Jesus most embodied – well, that's heresy, isn't it? At best it's idolatry. Flexing a self-indulgent faith to worship a made up god who asks nothing we do not want to give. Again, again, again, Friends, grace is free for everyone. Once. And. For. All. But stepping up to discipleship, we are no longer the ALL. We count ourselves as his. His followers. His servants. His disciples. His church. He is Friend-Teacher-Father-Lord of us. And our Friend-Teacher-Father-Lord has not kept secret what he wants from us.
He wants everything. Remember the rich young ruler? He wants everything. And we've re-written that story so that the young man keeps his fortune and follows Jesus after all. The church loves the Magi – Epiphany we call it – when the gospel is given to the Gentiles. But when we linger there too long it becomes easy-peasy to miss Baby Jesus doing what grown-up Jesus always does: situate the gospel in and among the least, the last, and the littlest; the frail, the forgotten, and the fearful; the terrorized, the tyrannized, the traumatized; the confounded, the coerced, the conquered; the bullied, the beaten, the broke, the babies; the harassed and the hounded and the hated; the ones who are so, so, so easy for people like us to never lose a wink of sleep about.
The fortune tellers left their gifts and escaped Herod by another road, Matthew says. In doing so, they did what? They financed Joseph's flight to Egypt, the undocumented years there. Friends, if we are the gentiles gathered around Baby Jesus' playpen, then I believe that, by default and by design, we are also his ally with every refugee father bribing his way across some border now; with every endangered, starving child. Not because we agree with the politics involved, but because that's where Jesus chose to be, and he called us to follow him.
We cannot do for them what Jesus did. But neither can anyone else do what Jesus has called you and me to do. No one but you governs the time, talent, and treasure in your care. Nor me and mine. God help us if we sit too easily with it, unchanged by the truth we know. God break us into people more generous and glad to serve this world than we've ever been before. Would you pray with me?
Your bulletin cover [a blank family tree] is a worksheet. You can write in a name. But see if you can remember a story to go with it – maybe a story you’re not sure you want a stranger to know about your kinfolks.
In the 1920’s, one of my great-great uncles was so depressed, the whole family organized a schedule to make sure he was never alone. Then one fall, they were all at one farm to work an apple harvest and realized nobody had eyes on him. They went searching and two of the boys found him in an orchard with a paring knife. In front of them he cut his own throat and bled to death. My grandma was a child at the farm that day, told me the story – the same grandma who hid her whiskey in the linen closet, even after she’d moved into assisted living. Two cousins from my own generation, boys I grew up with, have also committed suicide. One just this year. That’s only my mother’s people.
Carl’s Uncle Jack went to federal prison in the 1970’s, convicted for acting as bagman for a Mississippi sheriff. Another set of Briggs were small time bootleggers who fled Arkansas for Oklahoma, where one of the sisters was murdered. These are my children’s people: the suicidally depressed; secret alcoholics; bootleggers and bagmen. Along with a few soldiers. No more than a handful of devout church people. Many, many rent farmers. Housekeepers and shopkeepers, beauty operators (a term I love!), coal miners. But no teachers, preachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, professionals, politicians, not a single college graduate on either side before 1986. Just the plainest and poorest and hardworking-est of people, including the bootleggers, bagmen, suicides, and secret alcoholics. Anybody else have a testimony?
All of it is why I am so deeply comforted that Matthew’s account of the salvation of us all does not begin with the story of an eight-pound, six-ounce, newborn, sweet little baby Jesus. He did not come to us from thin air, Friends, but through a long line of the liars and crooks who were his kinfolk – just like our kinfolk – on this earth.
Let’s pray: For the great courage it takes to know and tell the truth of from whom we’ve come, we pray, O God. For the even greater courage necessary to keep loving ourselves and those other people – the corruption and the grace – we pray as well. Amen.
I read you a poem on Christmas Eve by Carol Penner. Here is part of another by her:
We love you in the manger, Jesus.
Your little hands and feet,
your soft breathing,
your eyes closed in sleep.
You may be a revolutionary,
but we like ours in diapers.
Forgive us, Lord,
for preferring a Saviour who can’t talk;
Who has no words of judgment;
Whose chubby arms can’t flip tables
Whose baby feet aren’t marching to Jerusalem.
No gospel writer goes on so long as Matthew about the baby Jesus – except his story doesn’t start there. Abraham and David – that’s Matthew’s beginning, the Founding Fathers of Judaism. Abraham – dirty old man. (Remember Hagar? Remember him passing his wife off as his sister?) David – the rapist-murdering king. In between them, Jacob the swindler; Rahab the prostitute; Solomon the colonizing slave-maker. And Manasseh – son of Hezekiah, grandson of Ahaz, king of Judah, whom the Bible describes as more evil in the sight of God than all the nations God destroyed in the sight of Israel.
They are all here, these men. Along with Rahab, Matthew mentions Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba – interesting because women don’t belong in Jewish genealogy. But they show up in Jesus’. None of these ancestors are blood kin to baby Jesus, remember. They are Joseph’s family, and Joseph was Jesus’ adopted father, at least as Matthew would have us believe. Adoption counts the same as blood for Jewish families, then and now. It must – otherwise Jews would be extinct.
So the pre-incarnate Christ looked across humanity to choose a family. As one Princeton preaching professor describes it, he selected a household of melodious healing, youthful courage, abusive power, rape, murder, incest and fratricide – a despicable history, making Jesus kin to those who need his forgiveness most. “Most”? Do some need it more than the rest?
Years ago my ten-year-old neighbor visited me after his trip to the country of his father’s birth. How did you like it? I asked. He replied, This world is a dirty, disgusting place. I expect that seems true to someone who’s only ever lived in a tidy subdivision half a mile east of here. But don’t you wonder, Friends, if from God’s perspective the difference between here and there, between the best and worst of us, is infinitesimal? That when deciding where to land as a newborn human being, God could pretty much just spin the bottle.
Pretending there’s no whiskey in my grandma’s closet doesn’t mean there isn’t. Or that it has nothing to do with me. It just means that I still don’t know all I might about why this world hurts me so, about why I’m sometimes mean or sometimes angry, or sometimes so very much afraid. Without knowing how broken and disgraced we are, Friends, we cannot know how very much God loved us. And not knowing how much God loves us, we have not yet taken in that God chose to save us instead of letting our messed-up nature take its course.
It hurts to know. It’s embarrassing to know. It’s necessary to know. It’s true repentance to know. It’s grace discovered and freedom found, to know how much God loves us in our brokenness and disgrace. To know ever more precisely into what circumstance God chose to come, to become like us.
To know is hard, hard work – the work of prayer and trust. And we don’t ever have to do this work. But I do want to point out that this work of knowing from where and whom we come is where the gospel of Jesus Christ begins. Crooks and liars. Saints and sinners. Secret alcoholics. Suicides. Bootleggers. Bagmen. Saints. And sinners.
Before Jesus says a word, we know so much about him, don’t we? We know he comes from folks pretty much like ours, into a world as messed up as this one – and wasn’t one bit surprised. After all, this is the world and we are the folks he chose in the first place.
Would you pray with me?
On this night we recall another –
the night God took a deep breath
for all that must be saved,
even the stars outshone themselves
and hillsides gloried with angelic music,
the good, good, good news bouncing down
like boulders, shaking the foundations royally,
announcing the advent of a ruler born
for all who must be saved.
It was the bloody same way
we all arrive on the scene
through the mother of all labor and sweat,
the pain stretching out like tidal waves
for all that must be made flesh.
Love is now newborn, if not exactly
recognizable . . . except to those who know
all must be saved from ourselves
Whatever evil armies occupy our affections
. . . by the bouncing baby news
that will throw even kings from their thrones.
Mary and Joseph and all of us are left
holding the baby,
Is this sensible, God?
Jesus doesn’t answer.
He just suckles and sleeps
and wakes to a new day.
I didn’t write that poem. But I would have if I could have, because poetry gets so much closer to what cannot be spoken.
God giving God’s own child for love of us, God’s other children. I’ll not make heads nor tails of it in words. But here we are just the same.
Can we even fathom such love – love meant not to crush us with guilt, but flood us with the realization of our own beloved-ness; to tempt us to imagine such self-worth that we treat our own lives like a treasure, and each other’s too.
The Creator God talking to God’s own self, reckoning what to do with the likes of us: “I will become one of them,” God said to God’s self. “A baby brown one,” God’s self answered back, “then they’ll really have to pay close attention.”
It’s only sweet because it’s a baby, because we’ve staged it with shepherds and lambs instead of the starving and the dying, the broken and the lost. They are the very evidence against us, the proof that we have failed to follow the simplest instructions: Do good and not evil; depend on me and not yourselves. Every story needs a beginning. Christ’s coming – at what we’ve named Christmas – was a new beginning.
Our celebration is our own new beginning, our do-over of the same project: to do good and not evil; to depend on God and not ourselves.
The church can use the season as we please: to refocus our lives and our life together on the mystery of our belovedness, on this invitation to be lovely to ourselves and one another.
Friends, the world doesn’t care where Christmas came from. The world cares if there is any cause for hope. We’re accountable to them for it – Hope. We who claim it now. Gathering. Reading. Singing. The Word became bouncing, brown, baby flesh – And then he lived among us to Set. Us. Free.
That is the story we’ve come to hear, and the one we’ve been sent to tell – here, now, to this waiting, wanting world. Would you pray with me?
The context for Isaiah 7 is II Kings, chapters 16, 17, and 18. Ephraim was another name for the northern kingdom, Israel. Aram was a foreign power, trying to stave off the even larger powers of Assyria and Egypt. The king of Aram, King Rezin, recruited Ephraim (Israel) to help them try and take Judah, the southern kingdom, in order to expand their border between Egypt and Assyria. It almost worked.
But the king of Judah, King Ahaz, made an eleventh-hour deal with the king of Assyria, his enemy’s enemy – a guy named Tiglath-pileser, who sent enough troops to drive the Arameans back and save Jerusalem. Which left Ahaz beholden to Assyria. Not ideal, but not wiped-out either. Summoned to Damascus to pay homage, he took some of his designers and engineers along and told them to study Assyrian religious temples, so they could build perfect replicas in Jerusalem.
God's spokesman in Jerusalem, Isaiah the prophet, saw all of this for what it was – covenant infidelity – and called the king out on it. “Ask God for what you need. Ask God for anything.” But the help Ahaz wants isn't the help God wants to give. God wants to give faith and fidelity. Ahaz wants troops. Ahaz is some kind of arrogant though, talks to the prophet as if he's doing God a favor. “No really, I'm fine. Go ahead and take the day off, God; no need to worry your head about me, God.” I love the prophet's response: “Is it not enough that you wear out mortals, you have to wear out God too?!”
Then comes the hit of the prophetic text. Judah shall be saved, but not by Ahaz. Another will reign. One not yet born. One called Immanuel, which means God with us. But that salvation shall not come before the judgment you fear has rained down on Judah. The very king you have trusted, the king of Assyria, is coming to crush you and yours, Ahaz and Judah, for your persistent, unwavering, infidelity.
Since Matthew, the Isaiah text has been assigned to Baby Jesus in the manger, as though Isaiah himself had seven hundred years of foresight. Most likely, Isaiah was talking about Ahaz's second son, Hezekiah. Are we taking scripture wildly out of context to read Jesus into Isaiah, chapter 7? Did Matthew? Matthew wrote for Jews and so wove Jesus into their history's context.
Can we faithfully inscribe the text over our own nativity scenes? I think so, so long as we are honest with ourselves. This week I've been reading articles with titles like:
One had a link to a graphic of a crackling fireplace to run on the sanctuary screens. Single use is only $7. Another suggested a foyer photo booth with reindeer and Santa props. And the craziest: fake snow that falls from the ceiling during the closing candlelight hymn – Silent Night, of course.
What exactly is out of context about how the church does Christmas, Friends? Celebrating the birth of Christ without the blare of corrupt and fearful kings making alliances with dictators – that is wildly out of context! Celebrating Christmas without the goose-step of 20,000 stamping boots getting louder every minute is Christmas wildly out of context. Celebrating Christmas without foreign armies to whom we'll be beholden. Or with preachers taking Santa pictures instead of doing their job, which is to preach keeping covenant with the God who made us free and to warn us of the consequences when we choose not to listen. It’s all Christmas wildly out of context.
So yes. Only wildly out of this world's context can we know, faithfully know, and worship the baby Jesus. He is the one who comes where everything is broken and we keep trying to pretend it isn't. He is the one who comes to us to interrupt the judgment we brought upon ourselves before it destroys us all completely. The breaking-in of Christ breaks every definition of a life of faith in God: our sense of time and boundary; our under- standing of relationship; even our vocabulary becomes a language foreign to this world. Words like safe and rich and free mean something different to this world than to followers of Jesus.
We are safe because Christ has saved us. And rich because we want for nothing God has not given. We are free because the principalities of this world can never manufacture the power to keep us apart from God. Words like productive, successful and work – who defines those words for us? this world or the love of God in Jesus Christ? How about the word enough? Or happy? Or content?
Friends, it's awfully easy to think sweetly of the season with lives as safe and rich as ours. To us occupation is a job – not a geo-economic-socio-political circumstance that bears down on us like a gathering storm. A poor peasant girl giving birth in a shack with animals is a story only rich white people could think is sweet.
We don't have little toy sets for the genocide one chapter over, little Roman soldiers tossing boy baby carcasses into wagons. That genocide one chapter over casts no shadow on our Christmas bliss, so long as we keep nativity next to the Christmas tree. Context is everything, remember? It absolutely is. Jesus belongs smack center of Isaiah, chapter 7.
Into this world's disgrace and brokenness, God-came-to-us because left to ourselves humanity ruins everything every time. We cannot, for the life of us, do right – by ourselves, by one another, by the earth itself. Our fear, failure, and greed infuriate the God who made us – and then break God's heart. God was moved to do once and for all what we could not, would not, did not.
God moved in the Christ event, from covenant to grace – a story we tell to the sounds of stamping boots and a crying baby or of Christmas trees and fake snow. It is our choice again, this year and every day, what story to believe and tell.
Would you pray with me?
For understanding the holocaust, we have the novel Night by Elie Wiesel. For the great depression, we have The Grapes of Wrath. For American racism we have To Kill A Mockingbird. For labor in America we have The Jungle. Nothing in these stories is real. All of them are as true as any textbook. The stories are outrageous, but not exaggerated. The half has never been told, either in terms of atrocity and suffering, or courage and sacrifice.
Many scholars treat the book of Esther similarly – as a fictional, but no less true, account of Jewish history everywhere and always: exile, pogrom, genocide and survival; scapegoat and doormat in every country and culture where Judaism ever landed. Outrageous, but not exaggerated. This morning I want to consider Esther, both the story and the character, in light of Advent. Specifically, as we wait for Jesus to come do for us what we cannot for ourselves, what is Jesus waiting for us to do for one another?
Let's pray: These little lives of ours are not our own, O God; we know it and yet forget it all the time. With Esther as our teacher, help us to remember: these little lives of ours are yours, to spend as needed for the loving care of your precious creation. Amen.
The story is set in a place called Susa, a palace complex in Babylon around 600 BCE. There are four main characters. King Xerxes and King Ahasuerus are two names for the same person. He was the king of Babylon, from Ethiopia to India, as the story goes – 127 provinces. (Very little of this telling matches other history books, by the way.) King Xerxes has no idea how to govern. His twin goals in life are to be admired by important people and have beautiful women fawn over him. He stays drunk a lot of the time. He has a ring of power that he hands over to anyone with a bad idea.
Haman was the right hand of King Xerxes. He is as gross as the king, but with slightly less power. Mordecai is a Jew who had come to Babylon from Jerusalem in one of the Jewish deportations. He lives near and is constantly present in the palace complex. Hadassah was his cousin, an orphan whom he had raised. Hadassah's other name is Esther. As the story goes, at one of King Xerxes’ drinking parties – this one lasting for 180 days – he had the idea that his wife, Queen Vashti, should put on her crown and parade around in front of all the men, so they could see how beautiful she was. While not every commentary agrees, not a few read the Hebrew to say wearing ONLY her crown. Naked or clothed, Vashti refuses.
Xerxes is enraged. It's a national emergency. He calls together his advisors. Knowing upon what side their bread is buttered, they tell him to banish her immediately and forever, lest wives everywhere hear of it. They say, then there will be no end of contempt and wrath. And issue a written proclamation too, they say, something like, “from now on all women everywhere will give honor to their husbands, high and low.” The king loved their plan and said, “Make it so.” Then he wrote personal letters to all the provinces that said, “Every man is master of his own house.” (And the simultaneous eye-rolling of women everywhere no doubt caused the earth to tip on its axis.)
So then Xerxes had to find a new queen, so he sent eunuchs throughout the kingdom to raid villages and kidnap the most beautiful girls from each one. It's sort of like Hunger Games, only instead of training, the girls endure a year of beauty treatments in preparation for their one night with the king! One by one, they go to his chamber. His favorite is Esther. Mordecai has kept an eye on her the whole time and made her swear to tell no one she's a Jew. In a year, Hadassah has catapulted from orphan refugee to Queen of Babylon, a position of consummate privilege based entirely on her looks – and a secret.
Time goes by. Mordecai keeps his eyes on Esther the best he can. He gets word to her of an assassination plot against the king. She tells the king, credits Mordecai, and the assassins are caught and hanged. Haman continues to be the worst. It's decided that everyone must bow down to him. Mordecai refuses, day after day. Seeing upon which side their bread is buttered, other officials in the court tell Haman, the reason he won't bow to you is that he's a Jew. Haman is enraged. As Eugene Peterson translates it, Haman hated to waste his fury on just one Jew. He goes to Xerxes with an idea: Let me exterminate each and every Jew in the kingdom, and I'll pay for it myself. Xerxes, who five minutes before hadn't thought about it one way or the other, loves this plan. He gives Haman his ring of power and says, Keep your money and make it so.
A date is set. The edict is published in every language and posted in every province, “On this particular day, all Jews shall be killed, massacred and eliminated.” Published and posted, the story says, so the people can get ready. Which people? The Jews or their neighbors? The Jews are devastated, naturally. None more than Mordecai. He puts on the garment of death – sackcloth and ashes – and goes to the palace gate. Because, in spite of the public service announcement, not every Jew has heard.
Esther sees Mordecai and thinks he has a wardrobe problem. That's privilege, don't you know? She’s protected from what threatens her family. Her secret is now secret from herself. She identifies more with the banished queen than with her own people. A good house, good food, and servants make assimilation to privilege easy-peasy. Mordecai wants Esther to go to the king and beg for their lives. It's too dangerous, she replies. She's now fluent in privilege, its language and its math. The crisis is about her. Her life is suddenly worth more than all other Jews.
But she didn’t grow up in a palace. Mordecai raised her. Now he reminds her, this is who we are: Jews. We will survive. We always do. The question is, how shall you live? What will be your part in it? Will you be found faithful or not? What will you do with this one little life you have been given?
Here’s the thing about privilege: it’s useful when one has it, but it can be tenuous. Esther's privilege is perishing with each new wrinkle or gray hair, and she knows it. The king hasn't asked for me in a month, she tells Mordecai. No doubt he had a younger harem at beauty camp right then and talent scouts in the provinces too. Who knows, Mordecai says, perhaps all that's happened to you was to bring you to this exact moment?
Is that a question? And if it is, doesn't the answer have to be “yes”? However any of us got to this moment, this is the only moment in which to spend this one life we have. Esther knows what she must do. And I would offer, her obedience happens in four movements. I call them movements, because they are acts of faith.
1. She accepted the reality of privilege. However passing her power might have been, however slim her chances for success, however dangerous for herself personally, she had access and resources other people didn't. She had a hundred reasons to stay quiet and only one to speak up: because it was right. She didn't do it because she knew she'd win. She did it because it was right. And being righteous matters. Following Jesus matters, most especially through terror and chaos. But every day, our assignment is to act justly and love mercy, spending whatever privilege we have to maximum efficiency.
2. First Esther accepted the reality of her privilege. Then she applied that privilege to the problem at hand. Obviously, Esther was arm candy. She was responsible for being beautiful and available – until SHE decided to re-write the job description of queen. I have the lovely idea that she called Vashti for advice. However she came upon her plan, she used her position as queen to beat the system at its own game. She saved her people and took down Haman too. His demise is soooo satisfying. You should read it. This privilege of ours spends like money – on what, we decide. Ourselves? Our comfort? Justice? Kindness? Righteousness?
Queen Esther did beat the system and save her people. But in real life that almost never happens. Even now, 2500 years later, women going up against the system more often end up like Vashti than Esther. In the long history of human oppression, people like Esther lose and lose and lose, until enough bodies get stacked up that things finally begin to move. But nothing starts to move until someone goes first. Esther went first. St. Stephen, St. Paul, the disciples, so many through the persecutions, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romeo, Reverend King, and all the people whose names are gone – people going first to do right to break up the hard, hard ground of injustice.
3. Esther accepted the reality of her privilege. She applied that privilege to the problem at hand. And third, she asked for help. She prayed. She prayed and she fasted and she told every Jew in the kingdom to pray and fast with her. In his book on Habakkuk, Howard Thurman points out that folks who do evil work hard at it and that somewhere, people who want to do right got the idea that our job should be easier just by virtue of it being right. Esther has good reason to expect to be killed for walking into the room. She can only go in alone. But knowing that everyone is with her in heart and spirit, that is powerful stuff. Stuff that will keep her legs under her. To people facing genocide, three days of prayer and fasting may not have a been a big ask. But would you do it? Would you do it for others?
It's a hard question – isn't it? – since people the world over are facing genocide by starvation and war and abuse right now. We're tempted to say, “Who's asking?” as if that would make a difference. What if the one asking was the arm candy wife of the worst king ever? In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, Esther is described this way, just before confronting the king: “She was radiant with perfect beauty, and she looked happy, as if beloved, but her heart was frozen with fear.” Most anyone can be brave once. Or twice. But only in the deep waters of God's peace and grace will the strongest of us keep our legs. We are too afraid of pain. Not even pain – just discomfort, inconvenience. How shall we face death if we haven't learned to pray?
4. Esther accepted her privilege. She applied that privilege to the problem at hand. She asked God for the courage she needed. And then, she acted in faith. She acted out the most genius plan. All the stars fell into line; the good guys lived happily ever after; and the bad guy died a gruesome, yet satisfying, death. You want me to tell it or do you want to read at home? Nah, I'll talk about Jesus and you can read at home.
This Advent ritual is just pretend. All Jesus came to do for us is done. He lived. He died. He rose. We are set free from death. We wait only to be set free from fear of death, fear that binds the courage that would have us spending our privilege, our very lives, on behalf of people who live in the real terror of hate and meanness dealt by the principalities and powers of this world, being salt and light as Jesus said in Matthew 5. Salt: living unspoiled in the spoiled and ruined world. Light: helping other people see what they can't see in the shadows of the spoil.
Taking off eighteen years for childhood, five years for really old age and a third for sleep in those middle years, a 90-year-old is left with a little less than 47 years to decide what she'll do with. Drs. Bonhoeffer and King both died before they were 40. We have today. We have the world we have. It may not be the one we wish we had. We may know exactly what we would have done in 1942 Europe. Or 1968 Birmingham. But those were not our times and places. We have here. We have now.
Jesus has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. Here and now, he calls us to do what we can for the people around us who are waiting for hope, who are waiting for peace. Would you pray with me?
Here we are again on the first Sunday of the Christian year, when preachers turn to the prophets to make the case all over again, in a world already full of religion, Why Jesus? Small-town and as unknown as he may be, Habakkuk puts words to it as well as anybody ever did.
This is from the Pastor-Annette,-slightly-snarky-and-very-free translation: This is a sorry world full of faithless people, God. And I don’t know why you make me look at it. Further- more, I don’t know why you let it be this way?
As Howard Thurman puts it, Why does the God of right permit the rule of wrong? It is the most universal of religious questions. In Habakkuk, chapters 1 and 2 God answers, but not to the prophet’s satisfaction, Look and See! Look and see is God’s second favorite thing to say, after do not be afraid.
Look and see something you would not believe. I am rousing the Chaldeans as they march the face of the earth. Chaldeans is another word for Babylonians, the way Hoosiers is another word for Americans. Hear that? God answers the prophet’s question about why God lets evil rule by saying, I’m the one stirring up that trouble!
Turns out, God is absolutely right in verse 5: nobody wants to believe that. So the prophet does what people always do. He keeps asking, pretending he hasn’t heard a thing God said, just waited his turn to talk again. Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, And you cannot look on wrongdoing. Did God say that? No. God did not say how he could not bear to look at the Chaldeans. But that’s what Habakkuk heard, apparently. Before asking the perennial religious question again, Why do you look on the treacherous and keep silent as wicked people consume good people?
The prophet goes on a bit about those nasty Chaldeans and decides, Fine, I am going to stay right here until God answers me, his rampart and watchpost. I’ll just stay right here and watch to see what God will say regarding my complaint.
Write this down, God says next; write it so plain that people can read it while on the run, so anyone asking later can read the answer I am giving now. Which Habakkuk did, obviously, since, here we are. But have we read the answer? Are we any more satisfied with God’s response than Habakkuk and the Judeans were back then, than religious people have been since?
Let’s pray. Give us hearts and minds, O God, brave enough to see and hear what you would have us see and hear. Amen.
My sermon title has evolved over the last few days, from “Things That Really Get God’s Goat” to “What Gets God’s Goat,” to “Five Goats.” Many commentaries refer to chapter 2 as “the five woes,” but I like the alliteration of get God’s goat. And everyone knows that awesome alliteration is two-thirds of good preaching.
If we asked, why doesn’t 2+2=yellow? and God said, “Because yellow isn’t a number,” we’d be satisfied. But when we ask, why does God allow suffering? and God answers, You bring this suffering upon yourselves and I hate it as much as you do, all we know to do is to repeat the question. By the time God tries to explain God’s self, we’ve stopped listening again. But if we could keep watching and listening, we’d see something of God’s answer in the five goats of Habakkuk, chapter 2.
Care to guess the origin of get one’s goat? Or maybe you already know it? It comes from a tradition in horse racing. Thought to have a calming effect on high-strung thoroughbreds, a goat was placed in the horse’s stall on the night before the race. Unscrupulous opponents would then steal the goat – get his goat! – in an effort to upset the horse so he will run poorly and lose the race.
Things that get God’s goat are the things that make God jumpy, angry, out of sorts, make God be other than God most wants to be, for us and with us. Five of the things that get God’s goat are:
Perennial Oppression; and
all perpetrated by the Haves against the Have-Nots, by those who have political/ economic/social power against those who don’t. Not only does the prophet name them, but he also describes their effect on everyone involved: the Haves and the Have-Nots.
Plundering theft. Google images of looting are mostly of brown and black people smashing storefronts to steal TV’s. That’s wrong, but not even close to all that’s wrong. I could talk more or show you a cartoon which says it better than I ever can: Rang-Tan in My Bedroom. And it’s not just monkeys, but people. People in Indonesia, whose land got taken away and sold by the state to palm-oil companies. From forest to storefront, the two are not unrelated, friends, as much as we would like to believe otherwise. The Haves cannot pillage endlessly and expect the pillaged to put up with it forever.
The Bible says they won’t, on this very page.
7 Will not your creditors suddenly arise?
Will they not wake up and make you tremble?
Then you will become their prey.
8 Because you have plundered many nations,
the peoples who are left will plunder you.
For you have shed human blood;
you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.
Goat-getter #2: Pervasive exploitation (verses 9-11).
9 “Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain,
setting his nest on high to escape the clutches of ruin!
10 You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.
11 The stones of the wall will cry out,
and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.”
We who have built our houses in safe neighborhoods, where we can’t see the effects of this economy on those it robs, how it takes advantage of the desperation of people with few options for education and work – it is all one economy, all one system. And it’s built on sand, to borrow from Jesus’s parable in Matthew 7. The same way all the stones hold up the wall and all the framing holds up the house, in a system built on sand – corrupt from top to bottom – being closer to the top will not keep us safe.
Goat # 3, Perpetual Conquest.
“Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!”
13 Is it not from the Lord of hosts that people labor only to feed the flames,
and nations weary themselves for nothing?
14 But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.
Nations built on blood and cities built on crime. In his commentary on these verses, Howard Thurman wrote that every place called civilized is born of conquest. And that every one will fail, until humans know God the way water knows the sea. We cannot act against the ways of God and please God at the same time.
We can pretend, of course, which was one source of Judah’s agony. The prophet gives voice to their frustration, demanding to know why God treats them so. But the sound of their own terror drowns out what they most need to hear. Maybe greed is just another shape fear takes. The more we have of what humans need, the safer we feel. And the safer we feel, the less able we are to discern the difference between safety and opulence, bringing us to the fourth goat.
Perennial oppression. What makes something perennial? It can reseed itself. Mint and lemon balm are the most persistent perennials in my yard, and they are less perennial than the oppression of humans upon humans.
15 “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors,
pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk,
so that he can gaze on their naked bodies!
Now it is your turn! Drink and let your nakedness be exposed!
The cup from the Lord’s right hand is coming around to you,
and disgrace will cover your glory.
17 The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you,
and your destruction of animals will terrify you.
For you have shed human blood;
you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.”
Again, the tyrannized will tolerate it so long as they have something left to lose, but hardly longer. Why do you think people risk their children drowning in the sea or being tear-gassed by our soldiers? Because they’ve so little left to lose otherwise. Had we eyes to see, we would see this prophecy playing out before us now: the violence you have done will overwhelm you. In reference to Judah’s violence, the text speaks of Lebanon.
For these times, we can write in most anywhere brown people live: Central America, the Middle East, Alabama, American inner cities, and so many other places. We cannot trap people militarily or economically or socially and expect them to tolerate it endlessly. Our ancestors didn’t. People are meant to be free and treated as beings made by God in God’s image. How you know God wants us to treat our loved ones is how God wants us to treat everyone.
Finally, the fifth goat, Perilous Idolatry.
19 “Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’
Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’
Can it give guidance?
It is covered with gold and silver;
there is no breath in it.”
Call dead things live. Call live things dead. Call good things bad and bad things good for long enough, eventually you won’t be able to tell the difference – nor need to, maybe, once no moral bar exists, save the one that serves oneself. What is valuable to Empire? What is valuable to God? What is valuable to us, and what has that to do with life?
Again, friends, again, again, again, Judah thought she was the victim of Assyria and Babylon. The prophet’s task was to show herself to herself, that she herself had plundered, exploited, and oppressed, and all the while lived by a story, a theology even, of God’s goodness to her that took no account of the abuse she inflicted on others. That was violation of the Mosaic covenant, plain and simple, the consequences for which they had always known and the prophets had continually reminded them of.
They could refuse to know what they knew by pretending not to understand. They could refuse to listen. They could refuse to see. They could refuse to change. But finally, what they could not do was save themselves – save themselves from a faithless world full of sorry people who had created a mess that the best of them were not smart or good or strong enough to redeem.
Therefore, Jesus, the one in our other text today, asking those who would follow him the same question, giving the same invitation God issues to Habakkuk and Judah: Watch with me. Watch and see this thing that I am about to do. Shall we? Shall we be the ones who see and hear God’s answer to this world’s troubles?
Welcome, dear ones, to another season of watching and following. Would you pray with me?
Jeremiah was a prophet. And he never had a good friend his whole life. No one understood a single word he said and, in the end, he drank the same bitter wine drunk by everyone else in Judah: the bitter wine of exile. Wine fermented by the deep conviction that hearing the truth was the same as doing the truth, the conviction that our covenant promises can be faithfully ignored while God keeps God's, regardless – because that's who God is.
With Jeremiah, we've come close to the end of the Old Testament narrative. Babylon is crushing Assyria everywhere. Egypt wants Judah in place as a buffer on her northern border between herself and Babylon. Both Egypt and Babylon offer alliance with Judah, and the successive kings of Judah tease them each in turn, until Babylon has had enough. They invade. They occupy. The deportations begin in 598 BCE.
Jeremiah escapes into Egypt, which is exile all the same. Eleven years later, there's nothing left of Judah politically. The Temple is destroyed and the last deportations occur. All the while, Jeremiah is preaching repentance. Because no matter how late the hour, the truth is still the truth, even when conducted by kings and presidents. Repentance is theological work. Foreign alliance may or may not have been bad politics. It was terrible theology.
Judah made her alliance centuries before, in the wilderness promises of covenant. Promises summed up by the prophet Micah as “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.” But as Israel grew in power and in wealth – became an empire in her own right – that theology morphed into another, one that said “we can do what we want, since God can't help loving us most,” despite all prophetic preaching to the contrary. Then other empires grew ever bigger, ever stronger, and these biblical people found a way to align themselves with empire values and still keep their theology – at least the part about being God's favorite people, about God's dedication to their personal well-being and safety.
They kept this theology, even as Israel collapsed to Assyria, even as Babylon breathed down her neck in pursuit of Egypt. Along came the next prophet Jeremiah, preaching into the wind, because no matter how late the hour, the truth is still the truth. Your presence in the Lord's house does not qualify as obedience to covenant, he said. Don't oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow; don't shed innocent blood in this place; don't go after other gods.
Who is he describing? He's describing every worldly empire everywhere. And Judah too, if they choose to make alliance. Their values will be yours, Jeremiah says. You don't get their protection without their reputation too. The blood they shed is on your hands as well. The prophet continues, You stand here, trusting in deceptive words, to no good end. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, pledge allegiance to idols?
Is there any line you won’t cross? seems to be his question. Then come back in here, stand before me, in my house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only go leave again and keep doing the very same things? Has this house become a den of robbers? (That should sound familiar to you!) You do know I can see everything you're doing, right? says the Lord, in the voice of Jeremiah.
The tricky part, of course, is that no one thought they themselves were doing anything wrong. Such is the nature of systemic injustice, systemic evil. Everybody feels personally innocent. Or, at least, nobody feels personally responsible. And great is the temptation, of course, to compare the times, to note how so-called biblical people in our own day bow down to empires, after kings and presidents who promise to keep us safe, no matter the price in terms of justice, kindness and humility, the things we know God requires of us.
And yet, I'm more and more convinced that faithfulness to the gospel is not concerned with how others ought to live, but how I choose to live. And how I live begins and persists with how I pray. And by pray, I merely mean, live inside my own heart, and soul, and head. Which is no small thing. And I keep wishing it came down to something other than this, other than each of us getting our own hearts/heads/souls right with God.
But if I skip that, I am ever-so-slowly coming to understand, nothing works. The longer I listen to myself pray those lists of things I'm always praying – the list of things I'm grateful for; the list of things I think I need, for myself, for others, for the world; and the list of things that grieve me and give me cause for fear – the longer I hear myself praying these three prayers, the more clear it becomes to me how innocent I believe I am when I’m not praying. The sense that this is MY life. That MY life is in some way removed from the flow of all life and every other life. The more it’s clear to me that the great pretense of my life is that all our destinies are not wrapped up together when, in truth, they are. The world does not go to hell in a handbasket and the church NOT go with it, simply because we think we are safe.
Jeremiah knew what was true and right. He knew what was wrong with Israel and Judah. But knowing did not save him from their same fate, any more than knowing will save us, if we are wise enough to know. Which I am certainly not.
Real prayer isn't political. It isn't knowing who is right and what the right course of action is. Real prayer is remembering where our alliance lies, so that our faith and hope can be rightly placed and our lives directed, not by the values of empire, but by the values of covenant: justice, kindness, humility. In prayer I put myself – heart, soul and head – before God alone, and stay there unafraid of whatever is at the gate or border of my country or my heart, unswayed by the empires or the personal promise-makers who beg for my allegiance as if they can protect me from the destiny of forgetful people or my own failing faith.
Those first Bible people used the word chosen-ness to describe God’s favor upon them. We Jesus people use the word grace. God's grace is what gathers us together; grace is that to which we sing and speak and testify. Grace is not most visible in here, but out there where we walk and talk, where we spend our money and take our stand.
Grace is first of all theological. It says the allegiances offered by the empires of this world are too little too late for humanity now. That what's needed, most of all and all the time, is justice, kindness, and humility. Covenant-keeping in quotidian scale. Daily justice. Daily kindness. Humility through and through. Discovered first and always in the quietness of prayer. Continuing here and now.
Pray with me.
When it seems like my sermons are long, I want you to remember that we have covered nearly the entire Old Testament narrative Genesis‒Chronicles in 8 weeks.
Israel is now split into two kingdoms: the northern, whose capital was Samaria; and the southern, also called Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem. One hundred more years have passed since the time of Elisha, the prophet in our story last week. Elisha was a preacher in the northern kingdom, still called Israel.
Micah was a prophet in the south, as was Isaiah; only, Isaiah was a headliner prophet, working out of Jerusalem. Isaiah had the ear of the king, as well as religious authorities. Micah was a small-town preacher from Bethlehem. He and Isaiah agreed on a few things: that Jerusalem was wildly corrupt, for one thing, in danger of being destroyed by the Assyrians. The northern kingdom has collapsed, been razed, and swept into Assyrian territory. Judah is merely occupied, functioning at the benevolence of the Assyrian king. However, Micah is less optimistic than Isaiah. More likely, he's an independent-contractor-kind-of preacher, less beholden to king or congregation, so he speaks more freely.
He's of the mind that Jerusalem is as doomed as Samaria, Judah as doomed as Israel. Not hard to see why he didn't have a job. Micah's pitch was that Judah's hope lay not in avoiding defeat, but rather in persisting in faith when defeat inevitably comes. Someday a new king will rise, he says. From the little town of Bethlehem. And his kingdom shall be different, not like any king or kingdom ever seen before.
Christians like us attach Jesus to that prophecy and mostly ignore the rest – at least the parts about disobedience and defeat and suffering. Maybe we do that because the defeat of Judah didn’t happen for almost 200 more years, and to us that's a really long time. But 200 years is only about two inches on a Bible page, a speck in the history of time. Nevertheless, we each only have this one life in which to do our part. One life with which to listen to Micah and to choose to hear or to ignore him, to admit that we do know what God requires – justice, kindness, humility – and that we are capable of all three, or to keep pretending that the principalities and powers of this world are somehow magically going to transform a dumpster fire into something other than a holocaust.
Let's pray: We wish you wanted something more exciting, O God, than our daily trust in you. We wish to do great works for you,to change the world for you, to be a great church for you. We pray for wisdom to listen to what you have already said, to do what we already know to do. Amen.
"National theology" is a term I first found in John Bright's book on the history of Israel. Others use it as well. National theology, in ancient Israel's case, was a geopolitical- religious identity of chosen-ness – a belief that God was on Israel’s side in every situation – that was thought to be natural to the very order of creation itself. Inasmuch as God made the heavens and the earth, God favored Israel. By God's own nature, God would preserve Israel in all circumstances. It was who God was. National theology, rooted in David instead of Moses, in monarchy instead of relationship, had no element of covenant. People could behave as they pleased, and God would replace bad kings as God saw fit.
The prophets pointed out the problems in this perversion of faith, faith in a government that impoverished and oppressed its people in order to expand territory, enrich the monarchy, then fund the troops needed to defend those lands and riches. Making alliances with enemies, while provoking division within. A clergy that sucked up to that government to their own benefit, leaving worship polluted and the truth untold.
All these things the prophets were warning Israel and Judah about, long before Micah. Reminding the kings and clergy and people of the conditions of covenant, in sermons nobody much listened to. Then, what was supposed to be impossible, happened. Assyria annihilated the northern kingdom, Israel. It jerked a knot in the tail of that national theology.
You might think Judah would take a new listen to the prophets. You'd be wrong. Remember what Jesus said about that: “A prophet gets no hearing in his hometown.” John Bright says there are two choices for die-hard nationalists (by the way, Bright wrote this in the 1950's). The first choice is fanatical confidence in a failing theology. There is no challenge too difficult, no mountain too high, no battle too fierce; just like when David struck down Goliath, God will forever be on our side too.
King Hezekiah fits this to a T. He was king during Micah's preaching career. He was determined to reform Judah, to restore the two kingdoms, even. He staged rebellions against Assyria, even rebuilding parts of Jerusalem's waterways in the event of a siege. All his rebellions failed, and Jerusalem was besieged, of course, with Hezekiah trapped there like a bird in a cage, the Bible says. What in the world made him think he'd win that? A detailed story shaped over long history – of God's providence, no matter what.
The second choice Bright calls, simply, cowardly faith: faith led, guided, and directed by fear. Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, is a study in the cowardly faith approach. When his father died, Manasseh couldn't kiss Assyria's foot fast enough. He undid every Hezekiah reform, and Judah survived as vassals until Assyria fell to Babylon. And in the midst of governments and religion, boomeranging from one form of nationalism to another, there are the prophets. There is Micah. We might hear him. But his people then could not. Because they would not.
From chapter 6, Oh my people, what I have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! You remember this, right? We read it every year. It's the liturgy of reproach which we read on Good Friday. For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, And redeemed you from the house of slavery. A litany of God's saving acts in the time of covenant.
Micah speaks for God, begging to know why the people have forgotten, why they have chosen to treat God this way. Then he turns, Micah does, praying on behalf of people who have not asked him to, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Micah mocks their cynicism: Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
If Micah mocks them, it is because they have mocked God. And why might they do that? – because people are terrible? Yes. But also, people are generally the most terrible when they are the most afraid. And I can see why rank and file Judeans might have been afraid. There was no good news from the north, from Israel. None from Jerusalem. Leaders who were supposed to know what to do, clearly did not. Every day was a new dumpster fire, if you will.
In that space, Micah delivers the sermon for which he's remembered: God has already told you, O People, what is good and what the Lord requires. To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. It does make a lovely cross-stitch, a nice painted plaque or bulletin cover. But really, as an alternative way of life to Empire? As a way of life in times like these?
Anyone else feel like things are just a little extra crazy lately? I read the news and think, “Is this The Onion? No. This is really happening.” With the Bible open on my lap, I find this text and wonder, Am I supposed to believe that justice, kindness, and humility are the alternative to. . . democracy? And friends, here’s the thing. If we’re going to compare the times, we have to admit that our empire is NOT Israel. We are Assyria, running roughshod over the little places of the world, taking what we want because we want it and we can, then needing bigger armies to defend it all.
Justice, kindness, and humility? Really? To which I hear Micah responding, Why are you asking questions you already know the answer to? Is it because you don't like the answer and are hoping for another? That's usually why we keep praying, don't you know? God hardly ever strays out of these three lanes: justice, kindness, humility. But these three don’t much suit our ego, do they? Imagining that the things God really wants are those ten thousand rivers of oil? How famous would we be if we gave that? And since we can't, well then, we're off the hook.
It's easier to pretend God wants what we can't give than to accept that God wants what we have: our breath, our will, our privilege, along with whatever influence and energy and resources are therein. God wants those things willingly given to God's purposes. Because God made us and keeps us, because God knows what's best for us. And when we let ourselves know the truth that we know, friends, we know that trusting in empires is a fool's game. You know that, right? Every empire from Egypt until now has the same things in common: they are self-indulgent, abusive, and arrogant; and none of them has ever lasted.
We are citizens of an empire, an empire no less self-indulgent, abusive or arrogant than any which came before. An empire that will not last forever. Does it scare you to think that? Or make you angry to be asked to think that? In empire years, ours is a baby. So maybe it will be around a long time. But back to the question. Am I seriously suggesting that justice, kindness, and humility are the alternative to Empire? I think Micah is. I think the whole Bible does. I think Jesus does, when disciples shake him awake in terror on that boat in the storm, and he says, what are you so afraid of? As if there's nothing in this world we can't lose and be okay without.
Chosen-ness, biblical chosen-ness, always exists as an alternative to Empire. (Walter Brueggemann said that.) What it means to me, is that we can either consider ourselves God's chosen people, or we can consider ourselves an empire. But we cannot, biblically, faithfully, be both. One must trump the other, because the rules are simply too different. Empire demands selfishness, cynicism, and pride. Armies, money, leadership, alliances. Aggression, coercion, and power. Unyielding power. And faith in the power of men and women to save humanity. And friends, the best of us are not interested in saving all of us. Only God cares for such a project as that.
God’s project operates on justice, kindness, and humility. They are so little and undramatic. So quotidian, if you will. Do you know that word? It means daily and never done. And, most of all, ordinary. Like laundry and dirty dishes. No one anywhere imagines laundry done once and for all. My laundry will be done when I'm dead, and probably there will still be a load waiting to go into the dryer. We can do justice, kindness, and humility all day today and have just as much to do tomorrow and the day after. Because tomorrow will have its own set of human beings in need of all three.
Micah was a small-town preacher from Bethlehem. Like King David. And Jesus. Between them, actually. A lovely preacher, though virtually ignored in his own time and place. The essence of his preaching was hope. Quotidian hope. Hope re-centered in little-ness. In the ordinary, in the everyday lives of people who know God made us and saved and sustains us. Hope re-centered away from Empire, away from government and religion.
Both are corrupt beyond redemption, Micah was not afraid to say. He said that the only hope his country had left lay in whether or not ordinary, god-fearing people would choose to do what they already knew God wanted them to do. Would you pray with me?
Naaman was a foreigner – and Syrian at that. Syrian, mind you. He was general of the army of Syria, called Aram in the story. Naaman's Aramean army had recently crushed Israel and carried young girls away as slaves, one of whom lived in Naaman's own house. Today we call such men – what? Syrian militants who attack other countries and enslave their citizens? Terrorists, right? We call them terrorists.
Not the Bible, though. The Bible's adjective for Naaman the foreigner is “highly favored of the Lord.” The Bible says it was the Lord who gave him the victory in battle, battle against Israel whose children were captured and enslaved. Friends, I cannot say the Bible has an answer for every question of our lives. But one thing I know for sure: there are more lessons here than we can learn in one lifetime.
Would you pray with me? How you, O God, manage to teach redemption out of violence and war is a mystery to us. And yet, our own hearts are neither free nor clean. We covet. We wish harm upon our enemies. We need much faith if we are to let ourselves know the truth of our own fear and weakness. Let us read and hear your word with faith, we pray. Amen.
How rarely I open my commentary on 2nd Kings became clear from a note I found there, dated July 14th, 1998. “Annette, congrats on being officially voted in. That made me very happy. I'm leaving for a 5-day vacation so I won't be there Wednesday or Sunday. Rob D. already knows I won't be there Sunday. Also, here are the ushers for Sunday: Andy C., Michael U., Alisa T. Andy and Michael will find a 4th person, perhaps Mitchell, and Andy has the notes I made about what needs to happen. I think they'll do a great job. See you next week. Greg.”
The church knows something of the healing of Naaman – more from Luke, chapter 4, than from 2nd Kings, chapter 5. Jesus' mention of it made his hometown congregation so angry they tried to throw him off a cliff – on the same day they praised his parents for what a good son they'd raised. They tried to kill him, simply for pointing out that God chose to heal a Syrian leper rather than a Jewish one.
How afraid does a people have to be, to get so worked up over the idea of God being kind to foreigners? There's the story-you-know; today is the story-we-don't-know, the story of Gehazi. Gehazi isn't a foreigner. He's Jewish – and religious. A prophet in training. An assistant pastor, we might call him in church. In the service of Elisha, 2nd Kings says, as Samuel had been to Eli once upon a time.
Naaman is headed home from Israel now, healed both of leprosy and his arrogance. He professes faith in the God of Israel, and he promises henceforth to worship Yahweh only. Furthermore, as a symbol of his gratitude, Naaman offers Elisha a fortune: ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. Two to three million dollars to us. Every penny of which Elisha refused, as was – and is – entirely proper. The healing of God is not for sale. The grace of God is not for sale.
Instead, Naaman asks for two things. He asks for some dirt – two mule loads are enough, apparently – to take home and spread around so he can worship Yahweh on the ground where he'd first met Yahweh. Secondly, he asks for some pliancy around the interpre- tation of the first commandment. “Yes, I'm only really going to worship the God of Elisha,” he says, “but I still have to work for Aram, which means I'm going to have to pretend to worship those other gods. So, just know, really, I don't mean it.”
Naaman is gone from Elisha just long enough for Gehazi to drum up his angle on the offering Naaman mentioned. Gehazi catches up to him with an adjusted explanation. Turns out there's need for a small gift, after all – just one talent of silver and two sets of clothes. $15,000 and the clothes. Some other prophets just arrived and need to be outfitted. Can Naaman help?
Classic, I am telling ya. I've been in ministry a long time. It’s a classic, minister, sideways way of pretending their malfeasance is for the benefit of others. Naaman couldn’t be happier. He gives Gehazi double what he asked for, plus servants to carry it back – 150 pounds of silver, plus the clothes. Gehazi has his hidey hole picked out, and he's back at work before Elisha could miss him.
Of course Elisha missed him. Elisha is a prophet. We know Elisha always knows what’s going on around him. Furthermore, Elisha is Gehazi’s teacher, his mentor, his spiritual director. Elisha gives Gehazi the chance to turn this mess around. Gehazi declines. Then, Elisha sounds just like Bill C.'s grandma, when he and his brother were acting up: “I seen what you done and I know what you're up to.” Elisha goes on: the leprosy that once afflicted Naaman would now cling to Gehazi and his descendants.
The question that clings to me as the story closes is: did Naaman also know? Did Naaman also know that Gehazi was lying? Did Gehazi really fool him or did Naaman give away the treasure knowing full well he was being swindled? It's always the question, isn't it, when we're asked to help? Whether or not we help depends upon who's asking – and if we believe they're being true. Because, unlike Naaman – who felt privileged to be able to give – our own sense of privilege too often has us feeling like stakeholders, complicit in the outcome of the investment we're being asked to make.
What if Naaman knew? What if he knew and gave Gehazi twice what he asked for anyway? Does that make him crazy or faithful? And is that question “either/or”? Everyone knows, don't be like Gehazi. “Don't be like Gehazi” is a perfectly good sermon. It’s also a really good theme for a mid-career pastors' conference.
But what about “be like Naaman”? The Bible says he was God's highly favored. We first hear of him from Jesus, but it's almost as if Naaman's heard of Jesus too: the things Jesus says about giving everything you have to follow him; stories of Zacchaeus,and Jesus’s friend Mary and her perfume. “Be like Naaman,” who was healed not only of his gross skin disease but his arrogance – the arrogance with which he insulted Elisha in the beginning, that turned to gratitude that had him on his knees ready to give Elisha all he had at the end, because of what God had done for him at his baptism in the Jordan river.
“Be like Naaman,” who couldn't wait to give away his fortune to anyone who asked, apparently, regardless of their motive or their reason – as if he didn't even want it, as if it didn't much matter if he was rich or poor, or what other people did or didn't do. As if what mattered is what God had done for him.
Of the dozen sermons in this story, one runs below them all: God does as God chooses. And if we can get quiet enough to listen, the same true things stay true. Hear two of those true things:
ONE: God loves whom God loves, whether we like it or not. And however articulately we state or how deeply we believe in this world's most sacred standards of who is right or wrong or good or bad or who belongs or doesn't, we'll never pre-determine God’s preference. And if the Bible is any indicator at all, God’s preference leans to the poor, the outcast, the foreigner.
TWO: Knowing God changes people's values. Before he knew the Lord, Naaman cared deeply about his own reputation. How he was greeted mattered to him. Afterward, he bowed in gratitude to the same man. Jesus said, Give to anyone who asks. Naaman did. Was he a fool? was he a victim? or was he, simply, a very grateful, faithful man with his priorities finally in order? And if he was, what does that mean to you, a person of faith today?
Has your experience of God left you more grateful than arrogant, more generous than suspicious, and more sure than ever that God chooses and God favors whomever God chooses and favors, for God's purposes in the world today? – just like God has always done.
Would you pray with me?