Wisdom Not Always the Obvious Choice – Proverbs 9:1-6

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

The tragic loss of two 14 year-old boys in Florida last month brought back a lot of memories. While the Internet lit up with outrage at the parents for letting two boys go fishing in a 19-foot boat, I thought of my own childhood that involved a lot of boats.

Boats gave me an autonomy that nothing else could – I have been sailing since I was seven and I wasn’t much older than that when I was allowed to take out a 16 foot fishing boat with a 5 horsepower motor. Of course, that autonomy came with a great deal of responsibility. There were rules about when and where I could sail or fish. And even though I was much younger than some of the other boaters, often I was more versed in safety and seamanship.

That was the case with the boys in Florida. They grew up around boats; they knew their stuff. No one knows what their intentions were when they went out that day, but it seems like they exceeded their boundaries and the consequences were terrible. Even though I had strict rules on the lake and followed them most of the time, I have to admit that I exceeded my boundaries a few times. I got away with it both in terms of not getting caught, and in terms of nothing disastrous happening.

The lesson from Proverbs introduces us to Wisdom. Wisdom is described as a woman living in a house built on seven pillars. She mixes wine, prepares a feast and sends servants out to invite people to come. A few verses past our lesson, we are introduced to another woman. She is Folly. She does not prepare a feast but instead sits in her doorway and invites those passing by to come in. Her words are the same as Wisdom’s, but her table is spread with food and drink that has been stolen. Folly’s guests, the writer tells us, “are in the depths of Sheol.”

How quick we are in the face of such tragedy, to find someone to blame. Uncovering a scapegoat helps us to rest in the embracing arms of the delusion that terrible things won’t just happen. There doesn’t need to be a why or a who, terrible things do just happen. We all have taken a seat a Folly’s table and gorged ourselves.

The amazing thing about grace if that God loves those at Folly’s table just as much as those seated at Wisdom’s. Maybe even a little more.

 

Here is a portion of William Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence:”

 

Man was made for joy and woe

And when this we rightly know

Thro the world we safely go

Joy and woe are woven fine

A clothing for the soul divine

Under every grief and pine

Runs a joy with silken twine

What is Satisfied? – John 6:1-21

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

Feeding the multitude is the only pre-crucifixion story about Jesus that occurs in all four gospels. I conclude from that that the early church found it to be particularly important. In John’s telling of the story, it was close to Passover so you might imagine that the people were thinking of Moses. At very least, you might imagine that Jesus was thinking about Moses because he seemed to go out of his way to do Moses-y things.

Moses went to the wilderness, Jesus crossed to the south shore of the lake. Moses was concerned about what the Israelites would eat, Jesus asked Philip how they were going to feed everyone (even though he knew). Moses went up a mountain and so did Jesus. Moses parted the water, Jesus walked on it.

But something else takes place that sends the message that Jesus isn’t just like Moses; Jesus is more than Moses! Moses gave the law, but Jesus feeds the people. Instead of the law, Jesus demonstrates in a physical way that when we give ourselves away we end up with more left over than we started with.

John tells us that everyone’s hunger was satisfied. I was at lunch this week on a typically hot Phoenix day, and I asked the waitress to suggest a particularly light and refreshing beer. She nailed it. It was really quite nice. She came around later in the lunch and asked if I wanted another. Oh, yes, I wanted, I said, but had to get back to work. She replied that there is a difference between want and need. She nailed it again.

“They were satisfied,” John writes. The bread was distributed and the people were satisfied. Is this a story about hunger, a story about a miracle? Perhaps, but I think this is a story about justice; distributive justice. Distributive justice is not about everyone getting the same or everyone getting what they want: distributive justice is about everybody getting what they need.

One compelling interpretation of the story is that Jesus did not pull off a magic trick in which five loaves and two fish fed thousands with 12 baskets full of left overs, but that the “miracle” is that when everyone shared what little they had, and all were satisfied.

What is it you want? What is it you need? What would it take for you to be satisfied? Now ask the same three questions substituting your neighbor for you.

 

Here is a prayer for justice from the United Church of Christ:

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it:

a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;

a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;

a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;

a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.

Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

No Stars Upon Thars – Ephesians 2:11-22

PastorSteveDr. Seuss, in his wonderful book, “The Sneetches,” tells the story of two groups of creatures that were identical with the exception of one little thing: half of them had stars on their bellies. “Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.”

But it did matter. The star-bellied Sneetches concluded that the stars made them superior to the plain-bellied Sneetches. They didn’t socialize with their plain-bellied cousins and walked around with their noses in the air. They taught their children to avoid plain-bellies, exclude them from games, and thus the difference gained cultural and historical credence.

And then came Sylvester McMonkey McBean. He had invented a machine that, for a price, could imprint the plain-bellies with a star. One group of Sneetches still felt that they were superior to the other, but it was no longer possible to tell which Sneetch was which. To add to the confusion, McBean reversed his machine so that it would remove the stars from the star-bellies.

He exploited his machine – adding stars and removing stars – until the Sneetches had spent all of their money. The he packed up his machine and drove off, gleefully proclaiming, “You can’t teach a Sneetch.”

Dividing walls were nothing new among the first Jesus followers. Those who grew up with the temple in Jerusalem as the primary sign of their faith and culture knew all about them. Something like concentric rectangles, moving inward from the gates there was an area where just about anybody could be, an area only for Jews, and area only for male Jews finally ending up in the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could go, and he only twice a year.

The early church knew all about dividing walls. Jew/Gentile, clean/unclean, male/female, citizen/alien. It made things orderly; you knew where you belonged and more importantly you knew whom to exclude. The early church had already blurred some of those boundaries; Jews and Gentiles were worshipping together. But of course, even after the walls tumble down, the boundaries still exist. The author of Ephesians refers to the two groups there as the “circumcision” and the “uncircumcision.”

And then he makes a powerful summary of the gospel, “Bun now you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he had made both groups into one and had broken down the dividing wall.” Our unity has nothing to do with our sameness. All of the ways humanity sorts humanity into separate pigeon holes have fallen away. It has nothing to do with uniformity or orthodoxy or politics or culture or national boundaries. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

How is a Sylvester McMonkey McBean supposed to make a living now?

 

Here is the last stanza of “The Sneetches:”

But McBean was quite wrong. I’m quite happy to say.

That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.

The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.

And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.

That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether

They had one, or not, upon thars.

Each Heard in Their Native Language – Acts 2:1-21

PastorStevePentecost is the fiftieth day since Easter Sunday. The first one just happened to be on a Jewish festival that celebrated the harvest and the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, so Jerusalem was probably filled with pilgrims and partiers. The party part is important because when a bunch of Galileans started speaking about the great deeds of God in multiple languages, the scoffers scoffed that they were just drunk. Being that it was only nine in the morning, the implication was that they were on an all night bender.

Peter assured them that this was not the meaningless babble of the overly beveraged, and when folks from around the Jewish world heard proclamations in their native languages, some began to realize that God was up to something.

Something is going on in Fountain Hills too, but I am pretty sure it is not God’s doing. Eight congregations are uniting by placing large banners on their property declaring, “Progressive Christianity: Fact or Fiction?” The pastors are all preaching on the same subjects for several weeks to, as one of the pastor’s explained, help people distinguish between “true biblical Christianity and progressive Christianity.”

It is hard not to see this as a direct assault on Pastor David Felton of The Fountains Methodist Church in that he was written a book on Progressive Christianity and is the co-author of the “Living the Questions” series done here at Esperanza several times.

First of all, I am bewildered by the language: true biblical Christianity. Is there an untrue biblical Christianity or a true unbiblical Christianity? Is it all or nothing? And while I am not exactly sure what the eight pastors understand Progressive Christianity to be. Religion Professor James McGrath of Butler University uses this definition: “Progressive Christianity is a broad tradition, encompassing all forms of Christianity which honestly acknowledge that being a Christian is not merely about preserving things from the past, but innovating, revising, reforming, and creatively engaging with the present as well.”

I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I think the Pentecost lesson is not so much about people speaking or hearing languages as it is the message of the gospel being a language that each of us hears in their own way. And it is not as if there is a right or wrong way to “hear” it, it is something that changes and develops over time if we are open to the changes.

Our culture presses us to eliminate ambiguity; we want to know what is right and what is wrong, or in the words of the eight congregations in Fountain Hills, what is faction and what is fictitious. Spirituality however, is not a polemic of fact against fiction, it is something much deeper than that.

 

Here is a prayer by J. Philip Newell from his book, “Celtic Benediction:”

May the light of God illumine the heart of my soul.

May the flame of Christ kindle me to love.

May the fire of the Spirit free me to live this day, tonight and for ever.

Growth Amidst the Rubble – John 15:1-8

PastorSteveIt has been a lousy news week. Last weekend, one of the strongest earthquakes in the last century struck Nepal causing massive damage, a death toll expected to exceed 10,000 affecting more than 8 million. Nepal is a country woefully unprepared for such a disaster and has still not reached some of the more remote villages that have been leveled.

In Baltimore racial tensions, driven particularly by questions about the relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve and the death of an African-American young man while in custody, boiled over into the streets.

The Gospel of John has a fascinating literary structure. With the number seven symbolically representing perfection, John’s gospel has seven signs – sometimes called miracles – indicating who Jesus is and seven metaphorical statements by Jesus about who he is. “I am the vine, you re the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

One common interpretation of this passage is that unless you bear fruit, you will get pruned; cut off from the vine and thrown into the fire. I think it is a horrible interpretation. For one thing, it makes “bearing fruit” a work; something you have to accomplish. For another, those who interpret it that way assume they know who should be cut off.

Here is a different take: this passage is not so much about judgment as it is about community. Pick a tomato while it is green and it will not ripen; cut a branch from the stem and it will not grow.

Pointing fingers at the police and shouting “fascists,” or pointing fingers at young black men and shouting “thugs” will not restore the community. There is a systemic problem. Community has broken down in ways that pointing out a culprit will not put together. Many in Baltimore understand that and are striving to find ways to reconnect the community. There may still be dark days ahead, but the sprouts of hope can be seen amidst the ruble.

In the midst of an overwhelming natural disaster, the Nepalese are being reminded that they are part of a world community. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is part of that community. This Sunday we will be taking a special offering for Lutheran Disaster Response. For more information on how to help in Nepal, go to: http://elca.org/News-and-Events/7739.

It has been a tough week in the news, but the Easter promise calls us to light of hope even in the midst of darkness. By staying connected, we grow to what we are intended to be and there are no more “those people,” just, “our people.”

 

Here is Psalm 42:9-11

I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”

As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Answering the Call (Or Not) – Mark 1:14-20, Jonah 3:1-5,10

PastorSteveTwo very different responses to the call this week: Mark tells us about Jesus hanging by the Sea of Galilee and inviting brothers Simon and Andrew and then James and John to join him. Not sure if it is a commentary on their faith or how lousy a job fishing is, but the two sets of brothers “immediately” dropped everything and followed. They put no thought into it at all, made no preparations, just walked off the job.

Jonah’s answer may have been immediate, but it was not at all like the one in Mark. Called to go to Nineveh, located near present day Mosul in Iraq, Jonah booked passage to Tarshish (the precise location is not known and the word might only indicate “very far away” although one possible location is on the Iberian peninsula which indeed would be very far away.

The word that gets translated as “repent” literally means to change your mind. It is also used to describe a course change on a ship. Jonah went 180 degrees from where God wanted him, but the great fish provided him with another 180-degree course change. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and a traditional enemy of Israel, but that was not the reason why Jonah didn’t want to go there.

Jonah didn’t want to go because he knew that God would change God’s mind and not destroy the city. Jonah understood the nature of God (“gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”), he didn’t want to go because he knew God would let the Ninevites off the hook (fishing pun intended). Jonah wanted them to get the punishment they deserved. Funny thing is, trusting in your own righteousness is just as bad a transgression as those committed by the Ninevites.

I cannot miss the opportunity to give thanks for the life and work of Dr. Marcus Borg who died this week at the age of 72. Sometimes the source of controversy, Dr. Borg’s field of study was the historical Jesus and his work did a great deal to strengthen my own sense of call to ministry as well as my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In his last book he wrote, “Imagine that Christianity is about loving God. Imagine that it’s not about the self and its concerns, about ‘what’s in it for me,’ whether that be a blessed afterlife or prosperity in this life.”

 

Here is a quote from Dr. Borg’s book, “The God We Never Knew:Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith”

 

“The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good). Rather, his teachings and behavior reflect an alternative social vision. Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself.”

 

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