Bridging the Chasm – Amos 6:1a, 4-7

This week’s lessons:

Psalm 113

Amos 6: 1a, 4-7

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

Steve Hammer

I have been enjoying Ken Burns’ newest docuseries on country music. One of the many wonderful stories was about Charley Pride. Pride was not the first African American in country music; the genre owes much to many nameless musicians of color, but he remains one of only three African American members of the Grand Ole Opry. When he came to Nashville to record, his first record was released without a publicity photo. He was told that eventually he was going to encounter one singer who would be a major racial impediment.

Pride concluded that if he was going to run into him eventually, he might as well get it over with. He sought the man out and said that the two started to play songs together, taking turns. The music transcended the barrier, and the two became life-long friends.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was born into a Polish family of Hasidic Jews in 1907. He studied for his doctorate at Berlin University. While living in Frankfurt in 1938, Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo and deported back to Warsaw. Weeks before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel obtained a scholar’s visa to London. His family did not fare as well: his mother was murdered by the Nazis, one sister died in a German bombing and two others died in concentration camps. In 1940, he arrived in New York where he taught at Hebrew Union College.

In 1962, Heschel’s German doctoral dissertation was expanded and translated into a two-volume English set called The Prophets. Heschel described the difference between the Jewish prophets and the soothsayers and diviners of other traditions. He argued that the role of the prophet was not to predict the future but to reveal the grief of God at a people who had turned their collective backs. The prophets reminded the people of God’s eternal concern for the poor and dispossessed, the weak and the voiceless.

In 1963 Abraham Joshua Heschel met Martin Luther King at a summit on religion and race in Chicago. An aging polish Jew from New York and a young black Baptist from Atlanta were an unlikely pair, but they shared a mutual understanding that the kingdom of God was not something that comes after you die, rather something to strive for here and now. “The exodus began,” he told those attending, “but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” Two prophets with very different histories but a common understanding of what King would call the “Beloved Community.”

Two years later, Abraham Heschel was the only white man on the front row of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel linked the struggle for civil rights in the United States to the struggle of the Jews seeking liberation from Pharaoh and empire. He was critical of religious traditions that hid behind stained glass windows and failed to confront the evil of racism. He remained an activist until his death in 1972.

Here is a critique from Rabbi Heschel on the failure of religious communities:

“We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love. …What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality. [Racism is] the test of our integrity, a magnificent spiritual opportunity [for radical change]. Reverence for God is shown in reverence for man. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”

Prophet of Profit

Amos 8:4-7

Psalm 113

1 Timothy 2:1-8

Luke 16:1-13

Steve Hammer

My brother lives in Florida and has exchanged blizzard readiness for hurricane readiness. He lives in the central part of the state so all he has really seen is a lot of wind and occasionally enough rain to close the golf course. Nonetheless, when the hurricane warnings start to go up there is a corresponding increase in things like flashlights and batteries, bottled water and even gasoline.

You might have noticed a little change at the gas pump here in Arizona too. After Labor Day, gas prices usually drop because the summer vacation season ends, but not this year. Since the attack affecting oil production in Saudi Arabia, gas prices have gone up about 9 cents here in Arizona even though the supply has not yet been affected. It is projected that prices might rise by as much as 25 cents per gallon.

When I lived in Evansville Indiana, there was a prediction of 4-6 inches of snow. That doesn’t sound like much to most of you, but it rarely snowed at all in Evansville and the city had very little snow removal equipment. We walked to the grocery store only to find that there was not a single loaf of bread on the shelf which was okay because the price was about 4 times the usual.

That’s three examples of what some would call the law of supply and demand, but others would call price gouging.

Amos lived in the eighth century before the birth of Jesus when what we now know as Israel was divided into two kingdoms: Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Amos was from Judah but took his prophetic message to Israel. It was a time of relative peace and prosperity, and instead of responding to some sort of shortage, merchants seemed to be grabbing for all the profit they could get. There wasn’t a middle class as we know it today, so the wealth was continuing to rise to the small number at the top while the working poor didn’t experience the prosperity.

The role of the prophet was not predicting the future but instead was speaking truth to power and cautioning about the consequences, which often were not very welcome. This would be a good time to point out that an ephah was a unit of dry measure a little larger than a bushel. Amos decries the practice of shorting the ephah while increasing the price to “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”

In addition to preaching about social and economic justice, Amos was concerned that in their prosperity, some of the people had become so convinced of their own power and superiority that they no longer saw a need for religious practice. He cautioned that abandoning their spiritual roots would lead to rot and ruin. A generation after Amos, Israel fell to the Assyrians.

Here is a quote on economic justice from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

Slave or Brother?

Philemon 1:21

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 1

Luke 14: 25-33

Steve Hammer

Last month, there was an observance of a most dubious event: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship to the colony of Virginia. To be perfectly accurate, 1619 was not the first appearance of African slaves in the colonies that became the United States and it might be missing the point to make too much of a specific date. What we do know is that the country became deeply divided about slavery leading to a war of unmatched cost and carnage. The issue of slavery was particularly challenging to people of faith.

The constitution of the Confederate States invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God,” and Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed that slavery was “established by decree of almighty God” and sanctioned by the bible. Some cited keeping families together and changing laws that forbade slaves from learning to read so that they could read the bible as a way of establishing “Christian slavery.”

Eliza Fain of Tennessee, whose husband and three sons enlisted in the Confederate army, wrote in her diary that the war was between those who were faithful to God and those who had abandoned God. As her own slaves fled for the north, she lamented the loss of the “sacred relationship” between master and slave. When the war ended, she could not understand how God would permit the end of slavery when the bible so clearly justified it.

In his personal letter to Philemon, a leader of a Christian community in Colossae, Paul reported that Philemon’s slave Onesimus had come to him while he and Timothy were being held in a prison either in Caesarea or Rome. Because Paul sent Onesimus back to his master, Philemon was often cited along with other texts as biblical and divine approval of slavery.

There is no doubt that slavery was an integral part of the fabric of Paul’s time. It is estimated that as many as one third of the population of the Empire were slaves. And while Paul did not explicitly call for abolition in his letter, he does encourage Philemon no longer see Onesimus as a slave but as “a beloved brother.” There was something about becoming a follower of Jesus that removed the social, cultural, economic and religious boundaries that so easily divided the world into us and them. God’s people cannot possibly become the Body of Christ if one part has ownership of another.

No, Eliza Fain, Paul did not explicitly condemn slavery, nor did he demand that Philemon free Onesimus. Instead, he asked Philemon to take up his cross and follow alongside his beloved brother.

The late James H. Come was Professor of Systematic Theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Here is a quote from his book, “God of the Oppressed.”

“The scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.”

Putting Yourself Forward – Proverbs: 25:6-7

Psalm 112

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

Two startling revelations made it into the news this week: Kim Kardashian-West revealed that when she was younger she became addicted to fame and money and Miley Cyrus concluded that after seven years of marriage, she needed some “me time.”

While the cult of celebrity seems amplified by social media and internet click-bait, it is nothing new. Alexander the Great named over 70 cities after himself. Roman Emperor Octavian re-named himself Augustus and sculptors drew his favor by placing his image on statues of gods. His celebrity happened by design: Augustus demanded that he be worshiped as a god born of a virgin mother and destined to live forever.

Proverbs warns against seeking that kind of status, not only as a way of avoiding the inevitable embarrassment that happens when the mighty fall, but also as a way of building community through egalitarian relationships. So while it seems like a simple bit of conventional wisdom, our first lesson this week, placed in it’s fuller context is anything but conventional.  The conventional wisdom of the time was to align oneself closely with those with power, wealth, position or prestige.

I am particularly drawn to the study of the 16th century. Yes there was the upheaval created by Martin Luther and the reformers, but I am really fascinated by the Tudor dynasty, especially the reign of Henry VIII. Employing the same conventional wisdom Proverbs warns against, Hampton Court was filled with those attempting to gain entry into the king’s inner circle. Those that got his royal approval thought themselves on top of the world – at least until Henry changed his mind. Many of them found their way to the Tower, some found their heads on public display on the bridge.

Our passage from Proverbs, echoed in the instruction of Jesus in the gospel this week, is not about being exalted and getting the seat next to the celebrity. It is the unconventional wisdom of taking the lower seat, assuming the humble role, not playing the competitive game of climbing over others to get to the top. And just to put some icing on Jesus’ unconventional cake, he tells all those people competing to look important that when they host a banquet, they should invite the poor instead of – to use today’s language – the influencers.

Here is a bit of unconventional wisdom from 12th century Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides:

“When a person eats and drinks in celebration of a holiday, he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with God’s command, but rather the rejoicing of his own belly.”

Standing Up Straight – Luke 13:10-17

  • Isaiah 58:9b-14
  • Psalm 103:1-8
  • Hebrews 12:18-29 

Last week I departed from my usual preaching style to clarify some misrepresentations of a resolution from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee August 5-10. The resolution approved by the 900 member assembly and declared that the ELCA was a “Sanctuary Denomination.”

I particularly wanted to correct comments from Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a large Baptist church in Dallas and a Fox News contributor. He appeared incredulous that a denomination would encourage its members to break the law.

First of all, Pastor Jeffress is wrong. There is nothing in the resolution that encourages anyone to break the law. If you would like to know more about it, go to: https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/8004. There is also a link on that page to some talking points to help clarify what the resolution is and is not.

Having said that however, the church has a long history of civil disobedience when governments enact and enforce laws that are unjust. My first awareness of faith-based civil disobedience was the civil rights movement in the early 1960’s. People of faith very intentionally violated legal segregation, often facing violence, arrest and incarceration. If you wonder where they got such an idea, just take a look at this week’s gospel.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and a woman appears who has been bent over and unable to stand up straight for 18 years. She does not approach Jesus asking for anything, it is possible that in her condition she did not eve see him. No, Jesus saw her, went to her and put his hands on her.

If you’re keeping score at home, there are two big violations of the law. In Jesus time, a man was not allowed to touch a non-relative woman. Given that the woman is not named it is safe to assume that she is not a relative. But the greater violation has to do with Sabbath observance. The faithful are not to do any work on the Sabbath. The laws regarding Sabbath are pretty complicated and elaborate, but an official from the synagogue is quick to observe that healing a woman on the Sabbath counts as work.

Jesus points out the hypocrisy of being allowed to untie a beast of burden to get water on the Sabbath (depending upon the type of knot in the rope) but not being able to relieve a woman from a physical burden.

What I like the most about the story is that it defines the mission of the church: helping people to stand up straight. I was drawn to the church by the efforts of the faithful to see that everyone, regardless of race or gender was allowed to stand up straight and live as sons and daughters of Abraham.

Nobel and Pulitzer Prize laureate Toni Morrison died earlier this month at the age of 88. She taught English at Howard and Princeton universities and authored 11 novels and five children’s books. Here is a quote from a woman who always stood up straight:

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

Not Peace, But Division – Luke 12: 49-56

My father was an only child, but his father had four brothers and a sister so there was a crowd at family reunions. The one I remember most took place in the summer of 1964. I remember the date because that Sunday evening there was a rerun of the “Ed Sullivan Show” which featured the Beatles first U.S. television appearance.

I also remember it because family reunions were not a regular thing. This one was on my great aunt’s farm and inasmuch as I was just going on ten years old, I was blissfully unaware of some of the family dynamics. For reasons that remain a mystery to me to this day, my grandfather and his sister did not get along. As far as I know, there may have been other family reunions that we did not attend but for whatever reason this one was supposed to extend an olive branch.

It all started out well, cars and pick-up trucks loaded with people and coolers and casserole dishes rolled up to the home quarter and parked on the grass. People sat in various clusters of chairs and tables and umbrellas and a game of croquet ran continuously near the barn.

By the time the youngsters had gathered in the living room to watch Ed Sullivan introduce the Fab Four, the combination of heat, humidity, alcohol and too much food had taken a toll on the cordial détente of earlier in the day. Conversations ranged from politics to religion to whether rock and roll was the beginning of the end of decent society. Old conflicts rose from the depths. Everybody went home sweaty and sun burned and I cannot remember another family reunion.

So just what is up with Jesus’ comment, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” His only family reunion in the bible is in Mark’s gospel and it doesn’t go well. At first his brothers try to keep him from the crowd because they think he’s lost his mind and then later he denies being related to them.

One term I never used as a therapist was “dysfunctional family.” For one thing, its kind of a pejorative term. For another, we all come from families with dysfunction; it’s just a matter of degrees. I don’t think Jesus was really on a mission to divide families. On the other hand, he did call us to honesty. Like I said, I don’t know why my grandfather didn’t get along with his sister, maybe they didn’t even remember. Burying the truth however, never resolves conflict.

Here is some wisdom on families from Anne Lamott:

“I wish I’d known what I wrote to my grandson, Jax, in “Some Assembly Required,” that everyone goes through life thinking that he or she missed school on that one day in second grade when the wise Elder came and taught the kids the secret of life, of living to find your self and your own purpose and voice, instead of needing to become addicted to people-pleasing or domination. But that no one was there that day. Everyone is flailing through this life without an owner’s manual, with whatever modicum of grace and good humor we can manage.”

Fred and Jerry – Luke 12:32-40

  • Genesis 15: 1-6
  • Psalm 33: 12-22
  • Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
  • Luke 12: 32-40

43 years ago, one of the first classes I took in seminary was on the varieties of ways houses of faith communicated their message. I chose to focus on the use of television by comparing and mostly contrasting two rising stars of religious television.

The first was Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg Virginia and host of The Old Time Gospel Hour. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Falwell had campaigned against desegregation of schools and started his own all-white private schools as a ministry of the church. When I studied him, he has recently co-founded Liberty University and was increasing his visibility in politics through the Moral Majority.

The other person I studied was a skinny Presbyterian minister whose low-budget local children’s puppet show had been picked up by National Educational Television. His name, of course, was Fred Rogers.

The focus of my paper was had nothing to do with politics. Instead it was contrasting the way each of them connected with their audience. The Old Time Gospel Hour seemed like the kind of tent revival meetings I remembered happening in the summers in the rural town where we lived. Falwell’s church was portrayed as a “pro-life, pro-traditional family values, pro-American” bastion, and his preaching regularly railed against “secular-humanists” and what he called fake Christians, including then President Jimmy Carter.

The consistent theme of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was acceptance and inclusion. While it was not outwardly a religious program, unconditional love was at the forefront of every broadcast, with Rogers reminding his viewers at the end of each show, “I like you just the way you are.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I did in that paper was describe the theological chasm that has been widening ever since. I have examined and attempted to describe exactly what the chasm is but it has so many dimensions that a concise description has thus far eluded me.

Have you ever had the experience of trying to recall something and then it comes to you when you quit thinking about it?  That was what happened to me, and it was seeing a trailer for the new Tom Hanks film about Fred Rogers that reminded me that the answer has always been there: it is it scripture itself. “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Are we a community that sets boundaries for entrance and then points out the differences between us and them, or are we a community that removes boundaries and “Likes you just the way you are,” no matter how broken?

Just what is our treasure? More on this Sunday.

Here is a quote from “The World According to Mister Rogers.”

“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one really is, that each of us has something no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Storing Up Treasure – Luke 12:13-21

I have been making preparations to retire this fall and one of the required steps was filling out a lot of paperwork regarding the pension plan that I have been a part of for over 37 years. So it was just a little ironic earlier this week when after finishing up the paperwork I took a look at the gospel – specifically Jesus’ warning to those who “store up treasures for themselves.” Gulp.

The setting of the story is a man in the crowd who asks Jesus to arbitrate a dispute he has, presumably with his older brother. Luke does not give us specifics but in general when a man died, his estate was divided among male heirs but the eldest son was given two shares. It is worth noting that in the first century, nine out of ten people had a subsistence living. Even without knowing the details, it is safe to assume that the man was complaining about not getting his fair share.

Luke also does not tell us anything about what the man’s single share of the estate is, and maybe it doesn’t matter, but the fact that there even was an estate to divide put the man ahead of most. Thus, Jesus declares, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” and then tells a story about a rich landowner.

The first and tenth commandments form a set of bookends for the other eight. “You shall have not other gods,” and, “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Isn’t all the other stuff just a question of breaking one or the other of those two? And if you can accomplish either the first or the tenth, have you not also accomplished the other? I ask those questions in full awareness of my own inability to consistently keep either one.

When I was young, my grandparents had a small cottage across the lake from industrialist Eli Lily. He began working in his grandfather’s pharmaceutical company while still a schoolboy and eventually became one of the richest men in the world. He was also a lifelong Episcopalian, and with his father and brother created the Lily Endowment, the largest philanthropic foundation in the world. In addition to the gifts given through the endowment, after his death it was discovered that Lily had given millions of dollars anonymously.

So what about my pension? Am I storing up treasures for myself? Honestly, the answer is “yes.” But look at the full sentence: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Those three words make all the difference.

Here are the “Seven Social Sins” from a sermon by Anglican priest Frederick Lewis Donaldson at Westminster Abbey in 1925:

“Wealth without work.
Pleasure without conscience.
Knowledge without character.
Commerce without morality.
Science without humanity.
Worship without sacrifice.
Politics without principle.”

 

Knowing and Not Knowing – Acts 3:12-19

You probably have heard the old saying, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” Consider one of my nieces in Canada. She has had some health concerns and was finally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. No one ever welcomes a cancer diagnosis, but she is in stage 2, and the prognosis is pretty good. She is facing some difficult days ahead because of the treatment, but her spirits are good now that she knows what she’s up against.

For the seven-week Easter season, our first lesson will come from the Book of Acts instead of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The lesson this week is the second of five sermons from Peter. The general theme of the sermons is that humanity kills but God defeats death. As an example, he reminds the crowd of their complicity in the death of Jesus, “I know that you acted in ignorance.”

I tried to picture Peter in one of my preaching classes in seminary. I’m guessing the professor might have suggested that calling one’s congregation ignorant is not a particularly good strategy. It turns out that Peter didn’t really call them ignorant, at least not in the insulting sense of the word. The Greek word for knowledge is “gnosis.” The prefix “a” means the absence of, so “agnosis” means “without knowledge” and is where we get the word agnostic. Ignorance does mean “without knowledge” but in our culture at least, it has a pejorative feel to it.

What Peter is actually saying to the crowd in regard to Jesus’ death is, “I know that you acted without knowledge.” Jump back in time to the crucifixion when Jesus pleads, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Acting without knowledge often has serious consequences. You may have read that the alleged shooter in the Parkland, Florida school shooting wants to donate his inheritance to his victims. Did he act “without knowledge?”

And that leads me to another word used in this lesson: repent. It does not really mean remorse. Metanoia means to change your mind. In fact the element of change is so important in the word, that it navigation, the word came to mean a change of course. It makes me think that Peter’s call to repentance might simply mean, change your mind from not knowing to knowing; be mindful because what you do really can make a difference.

Here’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln about changing his mind:

“I may be wrong in regard to any or all of them; but holding it a sound maxim, that it is better to be only sometimes right, than at all times wrong, so soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”

 

Blinded by the Light – Matthew 17:1-9

When I was in my third year German class in high school, I had to read “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka in German. It was not cheerful stuff. To oversimplify, the novella is about a guy who wakes up to find he has been transformed into a human sized cockroach. Kafka himself was no bundle of joy: riddled with anxiety, guilt and obsessive thoughts of being repulsive to others it is not a reach to suggest that “The Metamorphosis” was somewhat autobiographical.

Biblically, the word metamorphosis is translated as “transfigured.” The last Sunday of the season of Epiphany is Transfiguration Sunday. Epiphany is a little odd in that it can be as short as 4 Sundays and as long as 9 (including Transfiguration Sunday). The word “epiphany” can mean appearance, unveiling or disclosure and the stories of the season are ways in which Jesus’ identity and purpose are revealed.

Not surprisingly, Epiphany begins and ends with a bright light – the first act of creation in the book of Genesis. It also begins with a voice from heaven declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Throughout the season the stories shed light on who Jesus is. Some get it, others don’t. Some get it one minute and then seem clueless the next.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus experiences a metamorphosis that is nothing like the one in Kafka’s novella. Matthew writes that Jesus’ face shone like the sun, a reference to Moses’ face when he came down from the mountain. Matthew Mark and Luke write that his clothes became “dazzling white.” But it wasn’t just Jesus. Elijah and Moses, representing the Prophets and the Law appeared with him.

On the other hand, just because something is illuminated does not imply that there is full understanding. The “inner three” of Peter James and John get up close and personal with the Divine but they will fall asleep when Jesus needs them in the Garden and Peter’s denial is an abandonment second only to that of Judas.

They know who Jesus is, but they do not yet understand what Jesus will do.

 

Here is a quote from “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” by Marcus Borg:

“The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. That people ever thought it was is strange, when we think about it — as if one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be saved are those who know the word “Jesus”. Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables. Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection — the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being.”

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