You probably know that a new epic movie about Noah opened on Friday. The trailers show some pretty spectacular looking special effects. I’m sure you remember the Noah story from Sunday School, the rainbow and the dove and the olive branch and the procession of animals lining up two by two to get on the ark. From what I’ve read and seen, the movie seems to focus on the darker side of the Noah story, the grim implications of God’s decision to wipe the slate clean and start again. I don’t know that I’ll go see it in the theater; at two hours and seventeen minutes, it’s a bit long for me to sit still, so I’ll probably wait for it to come out on Netflix. I’ve also read that the movie takes some liberties with the biblical account. So, in case you are planning to see the movie, here’s a little quiz about what the bible actually says about Noah and the ark, with thanks to Joel Hoffman of the Huffington Post.
First question. How many of each animal did Noah put on the ark? a. Two; b. Seven; c. Fourteen; d. different numbers for different animals. The answer is d. Genesis 6: 19-20 says Noah collected two of each animal, one male and one female, and that’s the image that is seared into our imaginations from Sunday School, but Genesis 7:2-3 says two of some and “seven each” of others.
Second question. God sent the flood in response to human wickedness. What led to that wickedness? a. People ignored God’s laws; b. People offered the wrong kind of sacrifices; c. the Devil tempted people to sin; d. Evil angels mated with humans and bore giants. The answer is d. Genesis 6:2-4 refers to the time when angels took human wives and gave birth to giants. However, regardless of what the movie depicts, the bible does not say that the giants helped to build the ark.
Third question. How big was the ark Noah built? a. Much smaller that the Titanic; b. about the same as the Titanic; c. a little bigger than the Titanic, or d. much bigger than the Titanic. The answer is a. At 300 x 50 x 30 cubits, the ark was 450,000 cubic cubits. A cubit is about 1.5 feet, so the ark was 450 x 75 x 45 or 1,518,750 cubic feet. That’s the equivalent of about 1,300 of today’s standard 20-foot international shipping containers, and today’s megaships carry some 9,000 such containers. The Titanic was three times bigger than the ark, with a volume of about 4,600,000 cubic feet.
Final question. How long did the flood last? a. Seven days; b. forty days; c. one hundred and fifty days; d. one year and ten days. The answer is d. The rain lasted for 40 days (Genesis 7:14), but the water didn’t start receding until the 150th day (Genesis 8:3), and mountaintops remained submerged until about the 250th day (Genesis 8:5). But according to Genesis 8:14, the land wasn’t dry until the 27th day of the second month — one year and ten days after the flood had started.
It’s turning out to be quite a year for bible based movies. A few weeks ago, 20th Century Fox released Son of God, now we have Noah, and later this year, we’ll see Exodus in 3-D. This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course; movies based on biblical stories have been big box office draws for decades, think about The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben-hur, or The Ten Commandments. In more recent years movies like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ have sparked a fair amount of controversy for the liberties taken with the biblical text or for the depiction of graphic violence. I tend to think that movies about the bible are a good thing overall. I guess I hope that they get more people interested in this book that is at the center of our faith, a book which I have come to love more and more as I get older and continue to study it. My favorite stories from the bible, however, tend to not be the ones that end up on the silver screen. Rather, my favorite stories are like the one we heard this morning from John’s gospel, the story of the man who was blind from birth. It probably wouldn’t make a very good movie, at least not the blockbuster sort. There’s very little action, and no need for special effects. What there is, however, is a lot of dialogue, with very human characters doing their best to understand who God is, what their relationship with God is like, and how they are called to live with one another. It is a story about darkness and light, about blindness and sight, and maybe most importantly, about learning to see and choosing not to see.
Jesus and the disciples are walking along and they see a man blind from birth. The common understanding back then was that birth defects or illness or any sort of handicap were caused by sin, so the disciples ask Jesus whose fault the man’s blindness is, his own or his parents. Jesus tells them that neither the man nor his parents sinned; in fact, sin has nothing to do with the man’s blindness. His blindness, however, does provide an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed; specifically, it provides Jesus an opportunity to show people who he is as the son of God. And even though the blind man doesn’t ask for Jesus to cure his blindness, Jesus spits in the dirt and makes a little clay and rubs it on the man’s eyes. This sounds pretty unappealing to us today, but it was a common sort of healing remedy back then. Jesus tells the man to wash, and when he does, he is able to see.
This is when the story really gets going. The neighbors had been used to seeing the blind man sitting on the side of the road begging. They had probably felt sorry for him and helped him out here and there. They maybe even felt kind of good about themselves for doing this, for helping someone in need. But when the blind man shows up able to see, the neighbors don’t recognize him; they’re not sure it’s the same guy, but rather they think it’s someone who looks like him. Before, they couldn’t see anything about the man except his blindness; now that he can see, they can’t see him. The poor guy is standing there while they argue with one another, and he keeps saying, “I am the same man!” Finally, they ask him, “How were your eyes opened?” And he tells them, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, told me to go wash, and when I did, I received my sight.” They want to know where Jesus is, and the man tells them he doesn’t know.
The neighbor want to get to the bottom of this, so they take the man to the Pharisees, those so-called experts on how to live a godly life. The issue is complicated because Jesus did what he did on the sabbath, in violation of the rules against working on the sabbath. The Pharisees start arguing amongst themselves, some saying that Jesus must be a sinner because he doesn’t observe the sabbath, but others countering that no sinner would be able to heal someone. Finally they ask the man what he thinks, and the man replies that Jesus must be a prophet; after all, prophets proclaim a new vision for the world, and that is exactly what the man has received from Jesus. Some of the folks hit on a new explanation, that maybe the man wasn’t blind at all, so they call his parents over. His parents tell them that indeed he was blind, but they don’t know how it is that he now sees. So they go back to the man and question him again. “Look,” they say, “It’s clear that Jesus is a sinner, because he’s working on the sabbath, and since he’s a sinner, there’s no way he healed you. Tell us the truth, how is it that you can see?” I just love the man’s response. “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” I suspect in the few hours that he’s been able to see that he’s re-evaluated life as he understood it. Since birth, he’s lived with the belief that he was blind either through his own fault or through the fault of his parents. He’s believed that the only role for him in society was as a beggar. He’s believed that there was no way he would ever be able to see. He’s believed all this things because the Pharisees, the religious authorities, told them they were true. But now Jesus has come along and given him his sight, and he sees things in a whole new way. Maybe the Pharisees have got it wrong, maybe his blindness wasn’t anyone’s fault, maybe God’s love and mercy aren’t doled out in a complicated system of rules.
The Pharisees keep pressing him, asking again how he was healed. The man says he’s told them already and they wouldn’t listen: first the neighbors can’t see him; now the Pharisees can’t hear him. Finally, the man has had enough. “What is wrong with you people?” he explodes. “Who cares where he comes from, or whether or not he’s a sinner according to your rules: he opened my eyes!! If that isn’t a gift from God, I don’t know what is. And I’ll tell you another thing: If Jesus shows up again, I’m going to look carefully at what he does and listen carefully to what he says, because I think what he does and says is life-giving; I think he is from God.”
As I said, I love this story. I love that Jesus doesn’t let himself get caught up in the disciple’s theological and philosophical questions about why the man is blind or whose fault it is or why there is suffering in the world. Rather, Jesus sees someone in need and he helps him, no questions asked; he doesn’t even wait for the blind man to ask for help. I love how the neighbors’ inability to see the blind man once he is healed serves to remind us that a person is not defined by a handicap or an illness or something that makes them different from other people. There is more to the blind man than his blindness; there is more to a patient in the hospital than their cancer; there is more, I suspect, to most people that we meet than what we think we immediately see. Finally, I love the simple straightforward response of the blind man to his gift of sight. In spite of what he’s been taught from birth, in spite of being shouted down by everyone, the man knows what is life-giving and holy when he sees it and he refuses to ignore it.
The story of the man blind from birth isn’t blockbuster movie material, but it may help us to see God, each other, and ourselves in a new and different way. Look and see how we can help people in need. Look and see more than just the one or two most obvious things about the people we meet. Look and see what God has freely given us, the gifts that have changed our life for the better. Look and see how we can walk in the light of Jesus. Amen.
This week of course was the beginning of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. I don’t really follow basketball, and I’ve never filled out a bracket before. But, like millions of other Americans, the chance at a billion dollars of Warren Buffet’s money for a perfect bracket was just tempting enough that I did get online and fill one out this year. I had to pick Michigan State as the winner, since I went there, my sister graduated from there, and my mother would probably never speak to me again if I didn’t. I looked at a few statistics, and I consulted a couple of friends. I watched a video on the New York Times website that compared the bracket strategies of a university-level math department at Davidson College with the strategies of the four ten-year old actresses currently playing Matilda on Broadway. The Davidson College program is led by Professor Tim Chartier, and he and his students have devised a computer program with 350 equations and 350 unknowns to help them predict the winning teams. My strategies are more like the Matilda girls, who are much less scientific, choosing teams they recognize or going with a gut feeling. Neither group are particularly sports fans; Chartier says that his students who know less about the actual teams tend to do a bit better because they don’t let their own biases creep in and they allow the statistics to do their work. The Matilda girls pondered out loud between teams like Wichiita and San Diego Street; one of the actresses favors underdogs because Matilda, the character she plays, is an underdog. Unfortunately, two of the girls favored Syracuse. The Davidson College program has had some pretty good success in recent years, producing brackets with accuracy rates above 95%.
Still, the odds are against both groups, and really all of us. The chances of picking the perfect bracket are something like 1 in 9.2 quintillion. That means if all 317 million people in the United States filled out a bracket at random, you could run the contest for 290 million years, and there’d still be a 99 percent chance that no one would ever win. If you know the sport pretty well, you cut your odds to something like 1 in 128 billion, but you’d still need to fill out about 90 billion brackets to even have a 50-50 chance to win. Still, millions of Americans fill out brackets every year (even without the billion dollar incentive), buy lottery tickets, and play slot machines at casinos, even though we know the odds are against us. The chance of winning, even if it is infinitesimally small, is so enticing we put aside our better judgement.
The allure of chance, whether a big payout, or the chances of being in the right place at the right time, or the life-changing possibilities of a chance encounter on the street or at the laundromat, captures our imagination, and I wonder if that’s not part of the appeal of this very familiar story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well. Certainly from the woman’s perspective, the chance that this encounter would turn out to be so life-giving had to have seemed incredibly small. The woman is a Samaritan, and you probably remember that Samaritans and Jews (like Jesus) did not get along. And all the details we have about the woman really seem to indicate that she is down and out on her luck. First off, she’s at the well in the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead and the heat is sweltering. Hauling water from the well was woman’s work in those days, and it wasn’t easy work. They would take a large clay jug from their home and walk to the well. They would tie a rope around the jug and lower it into the well to fill it with water. They’d haul it up by the rope, and then they would have to haul it home, heavier now that it was full. Most women went to the well in the early morning and late evening, before or after the heat of the day. They could chat and exchange gossip, and help one another out if the jug was too heavy to haul up. For some reason, this woman is at the well in the middle of the day, when no one else is around. John doesn’t tell us why; it may have something to do with her having had five husbands. Whether she lost her husbands through death or divorce, the system of marriage that was supposed to support her has utterly and completely failed this woman. I suspect she stays away from the well when the other women are there because she can’t bear to hear their happy chatter about their husbands and children. She likes the well at noon, when it’s quiet; she likes the anonymity. So, when she sees the strange man sitting there, she probably thought about turning around and coming back later.
And for Jesus’s part, I’m not sure he was too thrilled to see her. He and the disciples have been traveling on foot a long time on their way from Jerusalem to Galilee. Everywhere they go, people flock around him with questions or requests for healing; the disciples are constantly bickering with each other and asking him which of them will sit at his right hand and which at his left. The nice thing about being in Samaria is that no one knows who he is, people just leave him alone. Jesus is probably enjoying his few minutes of quiet at the well, and might have just ignored the woman. But he looks at her and something about the woman touches him, and so he asks her for a drink of water. The woman is shocked, to put it mildly. Men simply did not speak to women in public in those days, especially not strange women they didn’t know. Plus, the woman can tell by the way Jesus is dressed that he’s a Jew: no faithful Jew would ask a Samaritan for anything. She asks him why he would ask her for a drink, and then she and Jesus have this strange conversation about water and thirst and living water and eternal life. The woman has a hard time understanding what Jesus is saying, that he has a living water to give her that will mean she’ll never be thirsty again. She marvels that he knows all about her past, her husbands who either died or abandoned her. Before she realizes it, she’s forgotten that she’s not supposed to talk to men in public, that she’s not supposed to talk to Jews, that her life is filled with sorrow and shame. She asks Jesus about the difference between the mountain where Samaritans worship and the mountain where Jews worship, a question really about the difference between Samaritans and Jews, a question that really asks, “So, Jesus, which one of us is better? Which of us has it right?” And Jesus replies, “Pretty soon, that won’t matter. We’ll all worship together. All those things that you think separate you from me, that separate you from your neighbors, that separate you from God, they’re all in your head. They do not matter to God. God seeks those who seek to worship in spirit and truth. It doesn’t matter who you think you are; it doesn’t matter who others think you are. It only matters who God thinks you are.”
Everything changes for the woman because of this chance encounter with Jesus at the well. Now, she sees herself through Jesus’s eyes, she sees herself through God’s eyes. Before, she did her best to be invisible, to stay in the shadows. Now, she leaves her water jar at the well and she runs throughout Samaria telling men and women alike about this Jesus, who saw her as she is and talked to her anyways. Before, she saw herself as a cast-off, as a nobody. Now, she sees what Jesus sees in her, what God sees in her, that she is a somebody, that she has worth, that she has value, that her life has meaning and potential.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the movie A Late Quartet on Netflix. It’s the story of a professional string quartet as they approach their 25th anniversary of playing together. There’s a scene in the middle that really got me. Christopher Walken plays the quartet’s cellist, and he’s coaching a young group of musicians playing chamber music. One of the young musicians calls another out on a mistake, in a pretty harsh way. Walken’s character says, "Folks, disagree, but do it nicely. And please, try not to get caught up in mistakes. When I was your age, I met the great Pablo Casals. I was so intimidated I could barely speak. He must have sensed this, because...instead of a chat, he asked me to play. He requested the prelude to the fourth suite by J.S. Bach. I focused, took a deep breath, began, the notes started to flow, the music's in the air, and it was the worst music I ever made. I played so badly, I got halfway through and had to stop. "Bravo," he said, "Well done." Then, he asked me to play the Allemand. "A second chance," I think to myself. I never played worse. "Wonderful. Splendid," he praised me. And when I left that night, I felt terrible about my performance, but what really bothered me wasn't my playing, it was Casals. The insincerity.
Years later, I met him in Paris and by then I was professional, we played together. We became acquaintances, and one evening, over a glass of wine…I confessed to him what I thought of his insincere remarks all those years ago. And he got angry. His demeanor changed, he grabbed his cello, "Listen," he said. And he played the opening of the prelude from the fourth suite. "Didn't you play that fingering? You did? It was novel to me, it was good. And here didn't you attack this passage with an upbow, like this?" And he played a phrase from the Allemande. Casals emphasized the good stuff, things he enjoyed. He encouraged. And for the rest, leave that to the morons, or whatever it is in Spanish, who judge by counting faults. "I can be grateful, and so must you be," he said, "For even one singular phrase, one transcendent moment."
I really love this story. I think about all the teachers I had over the years who chose to hear and see and focus on the best of my work instead of the worst. I think of my parents who figured out how to bring out the best in me when I was doing my darnedest to mess up my life. I think of my friends and colleagues who have helped me to find that little glimmer of good in the many messes I’ve managed to create. I’m here today because they chose to see the best, and they helped me to see it. I suspect if you look back over your life, you’ll find the same pattern, that you’ve been shaped by those people who have helped you see your own God-given potential.
Today will be filled with chance encounters, chance opportunities, chances to have an impact in small and large ways. Be open to others seeing your God-given potential in ways that you haven’t been able to see before. Do your best to help others see their God-given potential. Choosing to do this, to see past all the noise and the mess, choosing to see the best in yourself and in others, may not win you a billion dollars. But it will help bring about the kingdom of God, here today. Amen.
In honor of St. Patrick’s day, a light-hearted joke by way of an introduction. Paddy O’Brien was just off the boat from Ireland, new to America. His cousins told him there were good jobs available on the docks. Paddy wasn’t a big man, but he was a hard worker. He arrived at the docks eager to prove his strength despite his stature. So he picked up a large anvil and carried it up to the gangplank to the ship. The anvil was very heavy, and the gangplank was very narrow, and Paddy lost his balance and took a bad step. He fell into the water with a huge splash. As the men on board looked over the side of the ship to see what had happened, they saw him come sputtering up to the surface. He was clearly struggling to keep his head above water. Finally he shouted, “Throw me a rope, ye spalpeens,” he yelled. “Throw me a rope or I’m gonna drop this confounded anvil!”
It’s not a great joke, but it does get at something basic about human nature. We often will hold on for dear life to what we know, even if what we know is about to kill us. I think at some level our story this morning about Nicodemus shows how Nicodemus struggles to let go of what he knows in order to grab hold of something new, something he sees in Jesus that he thinks will be more life-giving than what he has.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. You probably remember that Pharisees lived as holy a life as they knew how, following as closely and completely as possible the hundreds of commandments and rules laid out in the Torah. These rules defined what you could eat and who you could eat with, what you could wear, what you could plant, how to harvest your fields, and exactly what your obligation was to those in need. Nicodemus was probably a rich man, because it cost a lot of money to follow all those rules. He was also a leader of the Jews, maybe even a member of the governing council. If anyone had life figured out, it should have been Nicodemus. But something draws him to Jesus. Maybe, in a story familiar to us today, all his riches and power failed to make him happy. Maybe he saw some of the miracles Jesus performed, like turning water into wine, and he began to wonder about God. Maybe being close to God isn’t following a long list of rules; maybe God’s love isn’t reserved for just a deserving few; maybe God’s love is poured out freely for all. And when Jesus criticized the temple priests for being corrupt and too concerned about their own welfare, maybe Nicodemus found himself questioning the values of the whole religious establishment that he was a part of. So he comes to Jesus by night, when none of the other Jewish leaders will see him, and he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” It sounds a little like flattery, but it seems to conceal Nicodemus’s real questions: Jesus, he asks, how do you do these things? What is the nature of your relationship with God? How are you holy and yet not a Pharisee, not connected with the temple? And Jesus answers the implicit questions: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus says, ‘Born from above,’ because for the gospel writer, God is in the heavens. Jesus could have said “Born of God;” other translations say “Born again” or “Born anew.” Nicodemus doesn’t get it, wondering how a grown man can enter a second time into his mother’s womb. And as Jesus continues talking, Nicodemus gets more and more confused. What does this mean, people who are born of the spirit, born again, born anew, are like the wind, coming and going as they please, without anyone being able to tell why or how? Jesus in effect says, “Yes, Nicodemus, there is a whole other reality than the one you know: the reality of the kingdom of God. Accessing that reality does not happen by following rules. It happens by being born from above in the spirit. And if you are born again, you’ll come to know what is really important in this life: you’ll come to know the kingdom of God.
This encounter with Nicodemus gets at an essential aspect of what it means to be Christian: our need to be born again, or born anew. Our tradition has interpreted this in a variety of ways over the centuries. Baptism is in some ways viewed as a rebirth, as in the words in our prayer book, in the waters of baptism “we are buried with Christ in his death” and “reborn by the Holy Spirit.” Many Evangelical Christians believe in the need to be “born again” by making the conscious decision to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. I tend to think that being born again is a life long process, happening in small ways over time. Marcus Borg, a bible scholar and writer, says being born again is essentially a passive event, something that happens to us, something that we can’t control. But, he continues, in order for it to happen, we have to let go of what we know and embrace what we don’t understand. That phrase really struck me this week: We have to let go of what we know and embrace what we don’t understand. And we’ve all experienced this in big and small ways. The end of a relationship, or the beginning of a new one. The birth of a child, or the loss of a loved one. The loss of a job, or a new opportunity.
Stories about being born again, about experiencing new life, are really Easter stories, of course. This is the second Sunday in Lent, the period of time leading up to Easter that the church sets aside for reflection and self-examination. Intentionally letting go of what we know may be a question of deciding to face those things that are slowly killing us, like addictions or unhealthy relationships. Overtime, the alcohol or drugs have become the only thing we really know. We’re going through the motions of life, but really only living for that next drink. We know its killing us, but it feels like the only thing we really have. Likewise, the unkind or abusive friend or partner isn’t good to us, we know, but the fear of being by ourselves again is overwhelming. Giving up this life, as bad as it is, will be a painful and difficult process, but until we do, we will be unable to really experience re-birth.
Sometimes, we’re not aware of the things in our life that are controlling us, but I think Lent can help us identify them. The Lenten discipline of giving something up, whether sweets or fatty foods or caffeine, is another way of giving up what we know. By giving something up, we get a clearer sense of its real importance in our lives, the extent to which it may control us. We get a sense of whether it really makes us happy, or if it just fills a temporary need. Fasting has fallen out of favor in our Christian tradition, but it is still an important spiritual practice in many world religions, particularly for Muslims, who fast for the month of Ramadan. When I helped teach a class on spiritual practices for college students (most of whom had no formal involvement in religious per se), we decided as a group to do the 30 Hour Famine. Many students reflected about how they hadn’t realized how much they think about food during the day, and about how available it is, and about how grateful they are to live in a society where food scarcity isn’t a problem. I realized all the ways I use food in ways other than for nutrition: for instance, bribing myself into completing tasks I don’t want to do: finish this sermon and you can have a cookie. I was also aware of what a feast my life is everyday: the variety, quality, and amount of food I eat is truly amazing. I think this discipline of giving something up, for a day, or for the season of Lent, can give us valuable insights into our lives.
Being ‘born again’ is a process that involves more than an big event or two in our lives. Going back to Nicodemus: he leaves his encounter with Jesus still in the dark: he doesn’t get it. We don’t hear anything else about Nicodemus’ journey, but I like to imagine him playing the conversation with Jesus over again in mind, watching Jesus’ ministry unfold, maybe asking questions of some of the disciples and chewing on their answers. Later in the gospel, Nicodemus challenges the other Pharisees openly on their plans to arrest Jesus, and after Jesus’ death, he brings spices to wrap Jesus’ body with. He has moved from acting and living in darkness, to living in the light.
Martin Luther wrote of ‘daily dying and rising with Christ.’ For me, and maybe for you as well, there are the big events in my life that led to rebirth, but the process of being born again, born from above, is incremental. It can be daily if we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone, let go of what we know, and embrace what we don’t understand. Have the difficult conversation with a stranger, or a friend. Let go our of pre-conceived notions about others, or ourselves, and see what is revealed to us when we look with fresh eyes. Perhaps in some of our quiet time today and this week, we can identify those things in our life which are keeping us from God, and how we might let them go, how we might make room for the holy spirit so we might be born from above, again, and again, and again. Nicodemus somehow came to realize that he did not have life figured out: in spite of his carefully following all the rules, something was missing. Jesus suggests that accessing the kingdom of God means that we have to be born anew, born again in the spirit. This new birth is a gift from God that we can’t control. What we can do is learn to let go of those things we know but that get in the way of our ability to see or receive the gift of new birth. That is a good task for Lent, and I hope that we will all spend some time prayerfully and intentionally engaging it. Amen.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but things are not looking good for the banana. Before I go on, I should say as a matter of full disclosure, that I personally really dislike bananas; I haven’t willingly eaten one in years. But I take no pleasure in the trouble they are facing. In 1990, farmers in Southeast Asia cut open their crops to find that their plants were no longer bearing the soft, creamy fruits they’d been growing for decades. Instead, their bananas were tough, fibrous, and brown. The farmers called in experts, who isolated the problem, a pathogen they call the Tropical Race 4 strain of Panama disease. Since its discovery, Tropical Race 4 has steadily ravaged export crops throughout Asia, and recently has been found in Mozambique and Jordan. There is no way to combat the fungus, which spreads through soil and can travel halfway around the globe on a pair of infected boots or machinery. It infects the banana plant through the roots, and often the first sign the farmer has that there is a problem is at the harvest. That this fungus has spread from Asia to Africa is very bad news, because it is getting closer to Latin America, where about 70% of the world’s $8.9 billion dollar a year export banana crop is grown.
This is not the first time that a fungus has threatened to wipe out the world’s banana crop, or really, the export banana crop, which I’ll explain in a minute. In 1903, Race 1, an earlier variant of today’s fungus, began destroying the export plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean. Within 50 years, Race 1 drove the world’s only export banana species, the Gros Michel, to virtual extinction. That’s why 99% of the bananas eaten in the developed world today, those familiar long, bright yellow bananas you buy at the supermarket, are a relatively new cultivar called the Cavendish. The Cavendish was developed to be resistance to the Race 1 fungus, so as the Gros Michel crops died out, the big fruit companies encouraged their farmers to plant Cavendish bananas in their place. So, across Asia, central Africa, and Latin American, huge banana plantations are planted with Cavendish banana plants, all of these bananas grown for export to countries in the developed world like the United States.
And unfortunately, therein lies the problem. There are actually hundreds of varieties of naturally occurring bananas in the world. Some are starchy and are called plantains. Some are short and fat, others are long and skinny. They come in colors from red to pink to purple to green. Some even have furry skins. But Cavendish bananas are uniquely suited for export. They have tough exteriors and they take a long time to ripen so they can travel for long distances without getting banged up or going bad along the way. They are very productive, with each plant producing a lot of fruit. And most importantly, and most unfortunately, they don’t carry seeds. You don’t grow new Cavendish banana plants from seeds; rather, you chop off a bit of a chunk of a banana tree, plant it, and wait for it to sprout. They are clones. This is great for sales, for consumers who want a reliable, consistent banana they can depend on, because if you let banana plants cross-pollinate, variations would sneak in and you’d get bananas that were shorter or less sweet or a different color. But it is not great for keeping up resistance to disease. If banana plants were allowed to cross-pollinate, some of the genetic variations would end up being resistant to the Tropical Race 4 fungus, and natural selection would favor those strains. As it is, the Cavendish has no way of protecting itself.
This is bad news for all you banana lovers out there. According to the Census Bureau, Americans eat more bananas than any other fruit, in fact, about 25 pounds per person, or about 100 bananas, per year (if you’re one of the folks who eats a few more than that, let me say: you’re welcome). It’s worse news for the 400 million people in poorer countries around the world, the folks who eat nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas, because many of the varieties they eat are also susceptible to Tropical Race 4. According to Gwynn Guilford, who wrote an article about this bananapocalypse in Quartz Magazine, all of this has come about because of the centralization of agriculture on huge plantations and farms, where disease can spread easily, where limited varieties of crops are grown, and where natural selection has less opportunity to protect plants from new diseases. It amounts to a catch-22: large scale agriculture makes inexpensive food widely available around the world, but at the same time, it makes our food supply much more susceptible to disease and disaster.
So how will this play out for the banana? According to Guilford, farmers and scientists are working hard to develop new varieties of fungus-resistant bananas, and figuring out how to quarantine infected crops. In the short term, we may well see banana shortages. The banana industry as a whole is going to experience a sort of interruption, a time of study and reflection, re-thinking its growing practices, and re-planting destroyed crops with re-developed varieties. Hopefully, after this period of interruption, inexpensive, healthy bananas will be available around the world, and the industry will be better set up to deal with new diseases. Hopefully, this interruption, as costly and inconvenient and painful as it no doubt will be, will ultimately be good for the industry, and good for the banana.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent serves as a sort of interruption in the normal flow of things, an interruption in our way of going about our daily business. It is a time when we’re asked to reflect on our lives, take a look at what is not working so well, re-think some of our practices, re-work some of our bad habits, and maybe plant some new healthier, life-giving habits. It is a time to reflect on who we are, and who we are called to be. This is not a quick and easy process; it’s not a pain-free process. It is hard work, and it takes awhile. Interruptions in our routine are rarely welcome, and making changes in our lives, even positive changes, takes time. Two of our readings today give us some insight into this season of Lent, this season of interruption and reflection and re-thinking and re-tooling. I’d like to look a little closer at these stories, our very familiar first reading from Genesis and our reading from Matthew’s gospel, because I think we can learn things about God, about ourselves, and about what it means for us as Christians to live during this season of Lent.
First, our story from Genesis, a story I’m sure you know well. Adam and Eve are living in the garden of Eden. God has told them they can eat the fruit of every plant in the garden except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But of course, they do eat the fruit from the tree, and with that one bad decision, that one momentary lapse of judgement, in that one instant, everything is changed. They are kicked out of the garden for good, life becomes harder in any number of ways, and their relationship with God is damaged. In fact, their relationships with each other and with their own best selves are damaged as well: Adam blames Eve for a decision he made, and Eve tries to weasel out of her responsibility by shifting blame to the serpent. That is, I think, what sin is. Sin is separation from God, from one another, and from our own best selves. It’s not just breaking the rules; it involves our relationships with God, others, and with who we are called to be. We sin when we fail to live up to the people God calls us to be, when we tolerate or participate in systems of social and economic injustice, when we fail to take responsibility for our actions, when we put others down in order to make ourselves feel better. The painful and difficult thing about sin is that, as this simple story shows, it seems almost to be ingrained in who we are as human beings. Speaking for myself, I don’t know that I would have even waited for the serpent’s encouragement to try the fruit: just the fact that it was forbidden, that it was enticingly called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, would have almost certainly been enough to get me into hot water. Lawrence Kushner, a Jewish theologian and writer I like a lot, even goes so far as to suggest that Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit was God’s plan along. It was necessary so that humankind could fully mature. As hard as life is outside the garden, it also is so much more fulfilling and real than life on the inside. In Kushner’s scenario, Adam and Eve figure that out God set them up, and they go back to complain. They ask about the snake, and God replies, “Sammy? Sammy the snake? He was in on it the whole time. Come on out here Sammy and meet everybody.” However it came about, Adam and Eve’s failing is our own. Lent calls us to a period of reflection on how we have sinned, how we have missed the mark, how we have separated ourselves from God, from each other, and from our own best selves. We do this not to wallow in guilt and self-recrimination, but rather to see how we might repair our lives and our relationships and how we might try to live in new and life-giving ways. Sin is reality for me and for you, but Lent gives us an opportunity to face up to our shortcomings and to repair our lives.
Our other story this morning is from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus has just been baptized by John, and he sees the heavens open up and the Spirit of God descending like a dove. He hears a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” You’d think that Jesus would then be ready to begin his public ministry of teaching and healing, but God has other plans. God creates an interruption in Jesus’s life. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, and as you might imagine he is starving. And that’s when the devil shows up to tempt him. The temptations the devil offers are so dangerous because they are so reasonable. Jesus is hungry, so the devil says to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” It’s a reasonable idea. After all, God fed the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness with manna that appeared on the ground overnight, and in just a months, Jesus will figure out how to feed the crowds with just a few loaves and fishes. Jesus resists the temptation, not I think to wallow in his hunger and suffering, but to make it clear to the devil and to us what it means to be the Son of God. Being a child of God means radical reliance on God, trusting that God will provide what you truly need. So Jesus tells the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” The devil then takes him to Jerusalem and places him on a tower above the temple. He says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Let the angels come and rescue you.” Such a spectacular miracle would have instantly convinced everyone who saw it and everyone who heard about it that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, and instead of a rag tag band of followers, Jesus would have instantly had the support of the crowds. But Jesus says “No, I’m not going to put God to the test in that way.” People will come to follow Jesus one by one, through personal encounters with the living God. There is no quick fix, there is no shortcut to becoming a follower of Jesus. Finally, the devil takes Jesus up on a very high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and he offers a kind of power-sharing arrangement. If Jesus will bow down and worship the devil, the devil will let him rule all the kingdoms of the world. I think this must have been the most tempting of the devil’s offers. Think of all the despots and dictators, the corrupt kings and emperors. Think of all the good Jesus could do in their place, the changes to economic systems he could make, the ways he could help the poor and the needy and the disadvantaged, how many wars he could stop, how many lives he could save. But Jesus has had enough of the devil’s offers, and he says, “Away with you Satan!” Jesus knows that the kingdom he comes to proclaim, the kingdom of God, does not draw its strength from political and military power, it is not about the powerful ruling over the weak, even with the best of intentions. Rather, the kingdom of God comes as a sort of interruption in the normal way of doing things. God comes to earth not in the trappings of royalty, but as a vulnerable baby. Our response to Jesus is not worship and adulation but derision and crucifixion. And yet, in spite of God coming in weakness and vulnerability and in spite of our responding with the worst that we can do, God is ultimately triumphant.
Those forty days in the wilderness helped Jesus to fully forge his identity as the Son of God, to fully clarify for himself and for us just who he is and what he came to do. These forty days of Lent offer us the same opportunity. They are an interruption in our normal day to day lives. Lent is a call for us to slow down, to re-evaluate, to re-examine, to own up to our sin, to identify how we have separated ourselves from God, from each other, and our own best selves. Lent is an opportunity for us to try and live more fully as the children of God we are created to be. Forty days is a long time, Lent is a long interruption. I pray that this interruption will be blessing for you and for me, and that we will find ourselves drawn closer to God, to each other, and to our own best selves. Amen.
This past Monday, Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first American skaters to win an Olympic gold medal in ice dancing. They skated just about a perfect program, executing acrobatic lifts and moving in sync so closely they looked like mirror images of each other. Their achievement is the result of almost 18 years of training and skating together, starting back when they were nine and ten years old. It was thrilling to watch them on the ice, and really what maybe made their victory even more perfect and satisfying is who these two young athletes are as people. I found them both to be enormously appealing, Davis with her Disney princess looks and White with his mop of curly blonde hair, both using every opportunity with the media to talk about how much they appreciate each other, how grateful they are to have had the opportunity to work with each other over the years, and how grateful they are for their training partners, the Canadian silver medal winners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. There’s a kind of perfection that they have mastered on the ice together, and another kind of perfection that they seem to have mastered off the ice as well.
I didn’t get to see the women’s figure skating, but I read several stories online about Russian skater Adelina Sotnikova’s upset victory over Kim Yu-na of South Korea. Many viewers, including experts in the skating world, thought that Kim Yu-na showed superior skill and artistry. In fact, the official judges agreed: Kim received a higher score in the skill and artistry category. However, it appears that Sotnikova’s victory came about because of the complicated and difficult to understand scoring system. Individual jumps and spins are rated on their level of difficulty, so more difficult moves have a higher base value and can result in more points. Additionally, a skater can earn bonus points by executing difficult jumps later in the program, when the assumption is she’s tired. In an interactive feature on the New York Times website, Adam Leib analyzes just how Sotnikova won, with well-executed moves with somewhat higher base values, placed later in her program, which racked up the points and pushed her ahead of Kim. She also completed one more jump than Kim. Clearly, the decision was not popular with everyone, with millions of people signing an online petition to the IOC urging them to review the judging. Several commentators pointed to the number of skaters who fell on the ice trying to execute the more difficult jumps, and many people have questioned whether this new judging system isn’t negatively impacting the overall artistry of the sport. Furthermore, several skaters who actually fell during their programs ended up ranked higher than skaters who didn’t fall. It all raises the question: What should a ‘perfect’ program look like, a series of tough moves, or an integrated performance combining a variety of different factors and skills?
Throughout the games, the difference between gold and silver, or winning a medal or not, comes down to a few hundredths of a second, a few millimeters, a decision made almost subconsciously. Years of training and sacrifice and hard work go into the effort to achieve perfection for a few minutes, perfection that can be undone in a blink of an eye, perfection that can prove elusive even to elite athletes. Perfection is hard to achieve in any field; maybe it’s even impossible. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a musical performance I thought was perfect, or enjoyed a perfect meal, or seen a work of art that I might not like to see tweaked ever so slightly. There’s even something perhaps a bit unappealing about perfection - it seems un-human, robotic. And so the last verse of our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel is a bit jarring. Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Frankly, it sounds impossible to achieve: how are we supposed to be as perfect as God? Is Jesus setting an impossibly high bar so that we aim high? Does he want to make us painfully aware of our human imperfection? Or is he saying something else entirely?
Our passage this morning is really the continuation of last week’s reading. You may remember that last week Jesus was trying to explain to his faithful Jewish disciples, folks who did their best to follow the Jewish commandments and laws in Torah, the first five books of the bibles, just what the kingdom of heaven is like. Some Jews wondered if the coming of the kingdom of heaven would mean that all those commandments and laws would be washed away and replaced with something else. But Jesus tells them, “No, I’m not here to get rid of the law; I’m here to fulfill it. In fact, the kingdom of heaven invites you to not only follow those laws, but to go above and beyond, to do more than adhere to the letter of the law, but to embrace the spirit of the law.” You may remember he says, “It’s not enough that you follow the commandment not to kill; you have to learn to let go of anger and resentment because they poison your relationships with others.” This morning’s reading picks up where we left off last week. Jesus says, “You have heard it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jewish law had established this concept of “let the punishment fit the crime,” really as a means of trying to keep people from taking matters into their own hands and seeking retaliation. The rabbis who interpreted the law over the centuries had many problems with this concept of an eye for an eye, concerns that Mahatma Gandhi famously summed up by saying “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Jesus doesn’t put it quite that way, but he tells his disciples, “If someone hits you on the face, turn the other cheek. If someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go a mile, go also a second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow form you.” I’m sure the disciples had the same questions and concerns about all of this that you and I do. Is Jesus really saying we should be doormats when we’re wrongfully attacked, that we should invite even more abuse?
Before the disciples can get a word in edgewise, Jesus goes on: “It’s not enough to love your neighbor. I’m asking you to love your enemies, I’m even asking you to pray for your enemies. Be like God, who makes the sun rise on the evil as well as the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Anybody can love those who love them in return. Even tax collectors and Gentiles do that. Be perfect, be perfect like God is perfect.” The Greek word translated as “perfect” in our bibles is telos. Telos can be translated “perfect,” but it doesn’t mean ‘without blemish’ or perfect in a moral sense. Rather, it describes a state of having grown up and matured, of having reached true wholeness, having reached our end, our purpose, our goal. A fruit tree achieves its telos when it grows mature and tall enough so that it can bear fruit. Similarly, we, human beings, you and I, achieve our telos, achieve our perfection, when we learn to imitate God. And how do we imitate God? By learning to respond to violence and hatred with love. Matthew Myer Boulton, a commentator I read this week, sums it up this way: “In the face of the most extreme opponents and acts of opposition, Jesus advises defiance--but not defiance directed against the enemies themselves, since this simply perpetuates and intensifies the relationship’s adversarial character, but rather a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making. Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather fight fire with water, and thereby refuse to take part in the incendiary, all-too-familiar work of injury and domination.” I want to be clear that this is not simply passive acceptance of abuse. We are not called to remain in abusive relationships, we are not called to accept suffering for the sake of suffering, we are not called to be doormats. Rather, we are called to creatively respond to violence and hatred and anger with love. The Message, a contemporary language translation of the bible puts it this way: “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”
On April 3, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders began what was called the Birmingham Campaign in Alabama. They planned a series of non-violent marches and sit-ins to protest racism and racial segregation in Birmingham. Seven days later, on April 10th, Circuit Court Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing.” The leaders of the campaign announced that they would disobey the ruling, and on April 12th, Good Friday, King was arrested and put in jail for participating in a non-violent demonstration. That same day, the Birmingham News published a letter from eight white Alabama clergy, ministers and rabbis. This clergy supported the goals of the civil rights movement, which was a fairly radical stance in that day and place. However, they wrote in their letter that they felt the demonstrations were “unwise and untimely.” The letter acknowledged that hatred and violence are not to be tolerated by either Christian tradition or by the political tradition of the United States. However, the letter went on to say, “we also point out that such actions as incite hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.” King read this letter as saying essentially, “Yes, of course racism and segregation are wrong. But your non-violent protests are making things worse. Take a step back and give us all a little more time.” King sat down in his jail cell and began scribbling around the margins of the newspaper, the only paper he had available to him. He began, “While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try and answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” He then, in the course of a very long letter, written over the next several days on whatever scraps of paper he could get his hands on, laid out the case for non-violent resistance. Unjust laws have to be broken, and those who enforce unjust systems of oppression must be resisted. Turning the other cheek and loving your enemy doesn’t mean accepting injustice; it means being an extremist for love in the way that Jesus was an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, return evil with good, pray for those who persecute you.” And in response to the plea for “just a little more time,” King wrote, “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.””
Summoning the courage to stand up for justice and creatively use love to resist evil on the scale of Martin Luther King seems as impossible to me as one day winning an Olympic medal. So, I’d like to suggest a simpler exercise. This afternoon, take out a piece of paper. Write down the names of people you’re upset with. It’s probably easiest to start with those closest to you, because I know for myself it is those people who I’m closest to who I often seem to get angriest with. If you really can’t come up with a person, start with a resentment and see if that doesn’t lead you to a person, preferably a real, live person you actually know, not “those idiots in Washington” or “the totally unhelpful and rude customer service person at Time Warner,” but if that’s the best you can do, start there. Once you’ve made your list, sit quietly and do your best to pray for each person on it. If you can’t pray that they will be happy or healthy, see if you can at least pray that God will hold them in love, or if you must, pray that they will stop doing whatever it is that has upset you. Do this every day this week, pray for the people on that list. And then, see what happens. What happens to your resentment and anger? What happens in your relationship with those people? What happens in your relationship with God? If you’re like me, you won’t see a huge change over night. But over time, you may find that you feel better because you’re not holding on to resentment and anger. You may find that letting go of your resentment and anger frees you up to figure out new ways of responding, creative ways to respond with love. You may find that you begin to wonder about the people on your list, what they’re struggling with, what demons they may be fighting. You may even begin to have a sense of compassion for them. Over time, you may find that you’re feeling, well, maybe not perfect, but more like the child of God you’ve been created to be. Amen.
Chances are, a fair number of us here today have ordered something from Amazon.com at some point. You can buy literally just about anything in the world on their website: lawnmowers, iPods, art work, toys, diapers, shoes, bike racks, gun safes, 3-D printers, cameras, auto parts, janitorial supplies, light bulbs, bath fixtures, mattresses, candles, office furniture, step ladders, televisions, groceries, fresh flowers, lip stick, shoes, jewelry, watches, skies, fishing reels, and on and on. If you’re one of the millions of people who have signed up for Amazon Prime, your purchases are delivered free of charge to your door two days after you click the button confirming your purchase. And Amazon is more than just a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer like Apple, building its own Kindle devices, it’s a utility company like RG & E, providing server infrastructure to start-up companies (as well as to the C.I.A.), it’s a video distributor like Netflix, a literary magazine like The Paris Review, a grocery deliverer like FreshDirect, and someday it may become a package service like U.P.S. Amazon is an enormous and still very fast growing company: they hired about 30,000 people last year in the United States alone. So, it can be hard to remember that Amazon started out selling just...books. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, was no great lover of books. He was working on Wall Street in the early ’90’s, and when the Internet started taking off, he had this idea. Book stores are limited by their physical space: they can only stock a certain number of titles. There are way too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. But a bookstore in cyberspace could provide access to every book in print. Bezos moved to Seattle and started his website. He priced the books close to cost in order to increase sales volume. Amazon really took off, and I remember how fantastic I thought it was: so convenient, and the access to any book I wanted was just amazing. And in general, in the early years, most everyone agreed. Publishers thought it was terrific to have another way to sell their books, authors were excited at the possibility of more readers having access to their work, and readers loved the convenience.
I read an article this week in The New Yorker by George Packer called “Cheap Words.” Packer provides a sort of history of Amazon and how its business has impacted the publishing industry. First, of course, is the impact on bookstores. In the twenty or so years Amazon has been in business, the number of small independently owned bookstores has shrunk by well over 50%, going from about 5,000 in 1993 to about 1,900 today. And it’s not just the small independent bookstores that have had trouble competing with Amazon, the big chains have suffered as well, with Border’s closing its stores and Barnes and Noble experiencing shrinking profits. All of that is sort of what you’d figure, and probably is just the reality of changes in how we do business in the Internet age. But what was really fascinating to me is the impact Amazon has had on how books get published. Traditionally, authors would send their manuscripts or book proposals to publishing houses. Editors would read the work and decide if it was something they wanted to publish, and they’d work with the author to polish and edit their work, they’d figure out how best to market the book, and they would sort of take care of their authors over the years to help them write more books. Amazon has pushed the profit margins for publishers down so much that there is not much money for them to do that sort of work with authors anymore. Plus, Amazon makes it very easy for authors to publish their own work directly, by-passing publishers and editors all together. Some authors really like that, authors who had trouble getting published before, folks who are happy to have just a few hundred people read their work. But Packer says there’s a problem: if you’re a big name author, you’re fine. If you’re happy self-publishing and having pretty limited readership, you’re fine. But if you’re in the middle, and most authors twenty years ago would fall into that category, you’re really left out in the cold. Publishers don’t have the resources to help you develop your work and help you sell it so you can support yourself. The result of this for readers is that while Amazon initially provided access to more titles and brought down prices, it has in essence decreased the number and diversity of books available. Giving people access to books takes more than the basic rules of economics and good business practices: it takes investment in up and coming authors.
I think we run into this problem a lot. We think we’ve figured out how something works, what is important, what we are supposed to focus on, only to find out that our focus really needs to be elsewhere. Take nutritional information, for instance. Remember when margarine was supposed to be a healthy alternative to butter? When eggs were supposedly bad for you? When saccharine was better for you than sugar? And it’s not just nutrition or economics or good business, we get basic things wrong about life. I think that is what Jesus is trying to make his disciples realize in our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel. Unfortunately, our lectionary, that schedule that determines what parts of the bible we read on any given Sunday, chops off what I think is really the introduction to our reading this morning. Jesus is up on the mountain with his disciples talking about the kingdom of heaven, trying to explain to them how it works. In the verse right before our reading, he says to them, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Pharisees were a group of folks within Judaism who did their best to follow the law, all of the commandments, not just the 10 big ones, but all 613 of the laws in Leviticus. These laws govern what faithful Jews can and can’t eat, what they can and can’t wear, who they can marry and how they can get divorced, and how they are to treat each other in all sorts of interactions, from business dealings to how to act in an ethical way in everyday life. All faithful Jews tried to follow the laws, but they are very complicated and it takes a lot of time and money to really follow them to the letter, so only the most dedicated and relatively well-off folks were able to do it successfully. These folks were the Pharisees, and they were generally well-respected, even if on occasion they could be a little full of themselves. So when the disciples hear that they will have to follow the law even better than the Pharisees, that can’t have been real welcome news; in fact, it sounds downright impossible.
But then Jesus goes on to explain what he means: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, I think Jesus is saying this: “You know the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s all well and good, but really, it’s not enough. If you’re angry with someone, if you’re holding a grudge, if you’re so ticked off that you want to curse them, you’re really not helping advance the kingdom. Don’t come to the altar and try and make things right between yourself and God if you haven’t already tried to make things right between yourself and those you live with.”
Jesus continues, “You know the commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” That’s all well and good, but really, it’s not enough. If you’re spending your days ogling people outside your marriage, if you’re online for hours at a time looking at websites that you’d be embarrassed to show your mother, if you’re daydreaming about your neighbor, it’s really like you’re already being unfaithful to your spouse. Keep your heart and your mind where it should be, and your body will follow. Get rid of those habits that lead you down the wrong path.”
Jesus then talks about divorce. I want to be a little cautious here, because really the understanding of marriage in the ancient world was very very different from today. Women were for all intents and purposes viewed as property of their husbands, and a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all simply by handing her a certificate of divorce: women had no such right. I don’t think that Jesus is saying divorce in cases where there is abuse or where a relationship has become toxic and unrepairable is absolutely wrong; rather, I think he’s trying to say this, “Yes, I know that the law allows you to divorce your wife for little or no reason, but really that’s not what marriage is for. Your wife deserves to be treated better, treated like a person and not like a piece of property.
Finally, Jesus says, “You know the commandment, “You shall not swear falsely,” but really, that’s not enough. Be upright and honest in all your relationships, in all of your business dealings, and there is no need to take oaths, or to promise in God’s name. Let your own words mean what they say, let your Yes mean Yes and your No mean No.”
I’ve really come to love this passage as I studied it this week, and here’s why. I think Jesus is saying, “Look, the kingdom of heaven is not going to be brought about by everyone following a few rules. This life isn’t about following rules so that no one gets hurt; this life is a gift from God, and one of the chief reasons life is such a gift is your relationships with others. Those relationships, with your spouse, your family and friends, your neighbors, and those you do business with, can’t just be governed by a few rules. If you really want to get the most out of this life, if you truly want to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, if you truly want to have life-giving relationships, you must be guided by love and compassion, that same love and compassion that God shows for you. Let love and compassion be your guide in this life, and you will experience the kingdom of heaven here on earth.”
This week, I pray that we will examine our hearts and our minds as we go about our daily lives. Where are we holding on to resentment and anger is ways that are poisoning our relationships? How can we let it go, how can we make it right with others? How are we letting ourselves stray from our commitments to our spouses and our family and our friends, and how can we get back on the right path? How can we make sure our Yes is Yes and our No is No? May we be guided by love and compassion, and may we experience the kingdom of heaven through our relationships. Amen.
This week of course is the beginning of the winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia. I’ve enjoyed the reporting from the games, about the inspiring backstories of various athletes, the analysis of strengths and weaknesses of the new rating system for figure skating, and particularly, as I was four years ago, I’ve been fascinated by that sport which only seems to be on TV during the Olympics: curling. On Wednesday morning, I heard a story about one of the many problems that Sochi has faced preparing for the games, one that they seem to have overcome with the help of a company from my hometown in Michigan, SMI Snow Makers. NPR interviewed SMI’s project manager Ian Honey. Honey has one objective: make sure that there is enough snow for all the outdoor events in Sochi. It’s not a particularly easy task, because temperatures in the winter in Sochi can be in the 50’s, and the snowfall varies year to year. Last year, as it turns out, there was ample snow in Sochi, and so Honey’s team stockpiled some 16 million cubic feet of it in ten huge piles high up in the mountains, covered with giant isothermal blankets to keep it from melting over the summer. Honey’s team also built two man-made lakes to hold water so that they can make more snow this year. They’ve installed about 450 Super Pole Cat snow machines on the mountain. In the past few weeks, they’ve spread the snow from last season out on the slopes as a base, and then pumped 970 cubic meters of water through their snow machines, making enough snow to cover 920 footballs with a foot of snow. As jaw-dropping as that figure is, I was really bowled over by what Honey said next. Honey moved to Sochi four years ago to get this project underway. Four years of work to ensure adequate snow coverage for the next two weeks, after which, he’ll come back home. He says, “It’s like having a child grow up and go away, you know. It’s good.”
I thought about Honey’s story throughout the day on Wednesday as I shoveled and re-shoveled and then shoveled again my driveway and sidewalks. The main story of the Olympics, the reason most of us tune in, is of course the athletes, who train and work and sacrifice for years in order to compete for a few seconds in the spotlight in front of the entire world. But the reality, of course, is that the Olympic Games represent the hard work and sacrifice of thousands of people, many many thousands more than the athletes, thousands of folks who toil in obscurity to build the stadiums and the housing and the hotels and all the infrastructure necessary or the games. There are thousands who work anonymously to make sure that there is enough food and that the lights and water work (anonymous until there are problems, of course). There are thousands who work to make sure that the rest of the world can view the events from the comfort of their own living room. And I wonder about these thousands and thousands of people, who don’t go home with medals, who aren’t on the broadcasts, who won’t receive endorsement contracts for their performance, I wonder how they understand their work and their contribution. Are most of them like Ian Honey, looking back on four years halfway around the world from home and able to say, “It’s like having a child grow up and go away, you know. It’s good.” Or do many of them struggle to see and take pride in their small part in the overall success of the Olympics?
I think this is a struggle many of us have, about our jobs, about our contribution to society, about the meaning of our lives. The problems of the world seem so overwhelming, and we are after all such small players in the grand scheme of things. Most of us sincerely want to make a difference, want to make the world a better place for people in need, what to leave our planet in good shape for those who come after us, but it can be hard to see how our well-meaning efforts, our small contributions, and our own personally responsible recycling efforts are making any real difference. There are a number of possible responses to this. One which is particularly widespread in the age of social media like Facebook and Twitter is to become a sort of public exhorter on issues that you care about. If you’re online at all, you’ve seen what I mean, those people who weigh in at every turn about how terrible and awful this, that, and the other thing are. I often don’t disagree with them, at least not completely, but I get tired of the constant haranguing. Another response is to sink into a sort of despair of ever having a positive impact and maybe even just give up. The difference we can make is so minimal, why even bother?
I think then, the good news of our gospel lesson this morning is that Jesus offers a different and life-giving way to look at our lives. Starting last week and for the next few weeks, our gospel readings come from Matthew, from a passage known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has just started his public ministry, and he’s been traveling around Galilee, calling people to repent, calling people to turn their lives around, to change direction. He’s invited some of his friends, Peter and Andrew and James and John, to leave their jobs as fishermen and to follow him in his ministry. They have traveled throughout Galilee, teaching and talking about the kingdom of heaven and curing people who are sick. Great crowds have started following him around, and when he sees them, he takes his disciples up on a mountain and sits them down and starts to talk to them. I imagine that the disciples are pretty drunk on the heady excitement of the crowds and being away from their dull lives as fishermen, but I’m guessing at the back of their minds they’re beginning to wonder what all of this is about. Plus, there are the letters from their wives, wondering when they’re coming home, and if they’re not coming back, when they’re going to send some money so their children will have something to eat. Teaching and healing is great, but it’s not paying the bills. When Jesus sits them down, I wonder if they don’t think, “Finally! He’s going to tell us what the plan is, what the rest of our lives are going to look like.” They’re right, that is what Jesus is going to do, but what Jesus says is not what they expect to hear. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” And on and on. Jesus tells them that when the kingdom of heaven comes those who are downtrodden will be lifted up, those who are on the margins will be brought into the center, those who are sick will be made whole, those who are hungry will be fed with good things, those who are broken-hearted will be comforted. That’s not bad news, the disciples think, in fact, it’s pretty good news. Who hasn’t felt downtrodden or been an outsider, who hasn’t been sick and in need of healing, who hasn’t felt empty and been hungry for something that really satisfies, whose heart hasn’t been broken time and time again?
Then, just as the disciples are wondering if there’s some kind of catch, like maybe the kingdom of heaven is where we end up when we die, but that this life is still going to be full of misery, Jesus tells the disciples what their role in the kingdom is. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” Now, ever since I was a kid I was confused about this saying of Jesus, which also appears in somewhat different form in Luke and Mark. What confused me is that I had never heard of salt going bad, of salt losing its taste. Over the years I’ve read dozens of commentaries on this passage, biblical scholars who practically turn themselves inside out trying to explain what Jesus means, trying to find some way to explain how salt might lose its taste. Salt was important in the ancient world, probably even more important than it is today. Salt of course is used as a flavor enhancer, and was an important preservative in the days before refrigeration. It was used in Jewish religious rituals as a purifying agent during sacrifices; in the Roman empire, it sometimes served as currency (the word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin word for salt). “Sharing the salt” is a sort of Hebrew way of talking about sharing a meal and table fellowship.
It’s probably impossible to determine if Jesus was referring to one particular quality of salt, such as preserving, or flavoring, or purifying. But one thing is clear: it is the very quality of saltiness that gives salt its identity and purpose; if it loses that quality, it is no longer salt. So when Jesus says to his disciples way back then, and by extension when he says to us today, “You are the salt of the earth,” I think what he may be saying is, “The very quality of who you are, who each of you are, your own collection of talents and skills and abilities, your quirks and your rough edges, your own unique outlook on the world, the unique flavor of your thoughts and contributions, are all essential to this world. They are your gift to the world. They make this world what it is; they make life better for everyone, they are an essential part of the kingdom of God. The only way you can become un-essential to the world, the only way you can become useless to the kingdom, is if you choose not to be who God has created you to be, if you choose not to share your talents and skills and abilities. You, each of you, are the light of the world, each of you are a gift. Don’t hide yourself under a basket, don’t lurk in the shadows. Be who you are, be who God has created you to be.”
That, I think, is the good news today and everyday. We may not end up on TV, we may not get gold medals, we may not even feel like something special, but we are, all of us, the salt of the earth. We are the salt of the earth when we send encouraging notes to friends, when we pick up the phone to call someone to ask how they’re doing after their operation, when we buy a few extra boxes of macaroni and cheese for the food shelf to help make sure no one goes hungry. We are the salt of the earth when we organize support groups for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, when we knit mittens for kids who need them in this frigid weather, when we shovel our neighbor’s walk. We are the salt of the earth when we take communion to folks who can’t get to church, when we provide transportation for people so they can get out to events, when we faithfully say our prayers for those on our prayer list, when we use our skill and time and talents to make our worship welcoming and uplifting. We are the salt of the earth when we visit people in the hospital and in the nursing home, when we help out in Sunday School to make sure our young people get a sense of being grounded in God early in life, when we use our professional training in engineering or management or finance to help build up our church and other non-profits, when we give freely of our time and resources to make this world a better place for others. May we remember that God has made us the salt of the earth, and may we be a light to the world. Amen.
Some of you may know the comedian Emo Philips. He told this story about twenty years ago. He was walking across a bridge, and he tells the story like this:
I saw this guy on the bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it! don’t do it!” He said, “Why not? Nobody loves me.” I said, “Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes. I believe in God.” I said, “I do, too. Are you a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim?” He said, “I’m a Christian.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist, or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
It’s a funny joke, funny because it gets at the reality of religious division. Not only is the world divided into hundreds of different religions, each with their own beliefs and rituals and pathways to the divine and understandings of this world, but even within religions there are deep divisions. Christianity is a great example. Just three hundred years after Jesus died, Christianity had become the official religion of most of Europe and North Africa, but there were problems. Church leaders couldn’t agree on the exact wording for the creeds, those texts that are supposed to lay out exactly what Christians believe about God, and about who Jesus was and what his birth, his life and ministry, and his death mean. There were also cultural and language divisions, with folks from Southern Europe not always being able to communicate effectively with folks from Eastern Europe. And so the church split in two. The eastern church became what we know today as the Orthodox church, and the western church became what we call the Roman Catholic church. A thousand years later, and more divisions happened, this time with folks leaving the Roman Catholic church and forming what became the Lutheran church in Germany, the Reformed church in Switzerland, and our own Anglican church in England. The divisions continue today: more new denominations and new churches were formed in the 20th century then in any time in history, and our own Episcopal church continues to divide itself over various issues.
All of this has some sobering implications for churches like ours. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, about one-fifth of the U.S. public - and a third of adults under age 30 - are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in the Pew Research Center polling. There is some hopeful news, however. Two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated adults say they believe in God, more than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious, and one-in-five say they pray every day. Most of them also think that church and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor. But despite all that, 88% of religiously unaffiliated adults say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Why? Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics. And I can add from my conversations with my friends who for the most part don’t go to church that they find all of our theological disagreements and arguments about what the bible really means confusing and unappealing.
There is some comfort, then, in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which seems to show that disagreements in the church go back almost to the very beginning. First, a little background. Paul was not one of Jesus’s disciples; in fact, he never met Jesus, but despite this, probably no one else had a greater influence over how the early church grew and what the early church looked like. You probably remember the famous story about Paul. Originally, his name was Saul, and he was an important Jewish authority who spent his time persecuting those Jews who were following the teachings of Jesus, persecuting those very first Christians before they even called themselves Christians. One day on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute another group of Christian leaning Jews, Paul as an experience of the divine. A light from heaven flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and he hears a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks, “Who are you?” and the voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul are speechless; they have heard the sound but they couldn’t see anyone. Saul gets up from the ground, but when he opens his eyes, he can’t see anything. The men have to lead him by the hand into Damascus. After three days, the Lord sends Ananias to lay his hands on Saul, and something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he can see again. He gets up, is baptized, and from then on he is known as Paul. Paul spends the rest of his life traveling around the northern Mediterranean, from modern Turkey to Greece to Italy. He comes to a city, cities like Galatia, Thessalonica, and Corinth, sets up his shop as a tentmaker, gets to know some folks, and starts a church. These churches are very small, probably ten to twenty people, and they meet in people’s houses. Once Paul has instructed them and is confident they’re ready to go it alone, he moves on to another city. But he keeps in touch with these churches through letters, and it is those letters that we have today in our bibles, letters Paul writes to the churches he founded in various cities across the Mediterranean. These letters give us some insight into the issues that the early church faced, as well as let us know what Paul and the early church thought was most important about their faith, and most important about Jesus. They don’t give us a perfect picture, because we only have one side of the correspondence: none of the letters the churches wrote to Paul have survived, all we have are his responses.
The letter we read from this morning was written to the church that Paul founded in Corinth. The first nine verses of the letter, those right before our reading, are sort of boilerplate introductory language. He wishes the church Grace and peace from God from the Lord Jesus Christ, and gives thanks for them. And then he launches into the point of letter. Brothers and sisters, he writes, I appeal to you by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. This of course tells us that there were disagreements and divisions in the church at Corinth. Most of this letter will be Paul’s attempt to mediate a number of arguments that have broken out in the church in Corinth, and this first one seems to revolve around baptism. Paul had baptized some of the folks at Corinth, and then it appears that some more people were baptized by Apollos and by Cephas. It’s not clear exactly what the issue is, but most likely people have been arguing about whose baptism takes priority, was it better to baptized by Paul or by someone else. Paul reminds the church that they are not baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas, but in the name of Jesus.
Baptism was important to the early church because from the very beginning, baptism became the way one officially joined the church, the way one became a Christian. Baptism was originally for adults, and generally followed long period of instruction and reflection, maybe as long as a couple of years. Then, during the season of Lent leading up to Easter, you received even more intensive instruction and engaged in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting. Finally, at the long Easter vigil the night before Easter morning, you were baptized. You were asked a series of questions: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? and Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? There would be a large body of water, either outside in a river or stream, or inside in a large pool. You would be taken down into the water and the bishop would literally push you down under the water, symbolizing your death to your old life. And as you came out of the water, it was as if you were sharing in Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and being born again to your new life as a Christian.
For all the ways the Christian church has figured out how to divide itself into various denominations and factions, nearly every Christian church practices baptism. What is even more astonishing perhaps is that for the most part we all accept baptisms from other churches: you don’t have to be baptized again because you decide to switch from the Lutheran church to the Episcopal church or to the Roman Catholic church. Some churches practice adult baptism today, but for the most part, Roman Catholic churches and mainline Protestant churches like ours practice infant baptism. This morning we will baptize Aria Grace Romeo. The questions that we would ask Aria if she were an adult will be answered on her behalf by her parents and godparents. They will promise to help bring Aria up to be a good and loving person, and we will promise to do everything we can to support her. In a few years, when Aria is a teenager or a young adult, she’ll have the opportunity and the choice to confirm these promises for herself.
Now, I suspect there is a wide range of beliefs here this morning about what baptism means, about who God is, who Jesus is, about what this life means. Maybe none of this makes a lot of sense to you. Maybe some of the language of the baptism service is foreign or uncomfortable for you. I want to say I think that is okay: I have spent most of my life feeling uncomfortable with a lot of things we say and do in the church. But the reason that I’m still here, and the reason that I wanted to be ordained and become a priest in this church, is that the Episcopal church is a place that welcomes questions and doubts and even disagreements. I’ve had parishioners I would call faithful Christians tell me that they’re unable to say the creed without feeling like a hypocrite or holding their fingers crossed behind their back. I know other faithful people who find it very hard to believe some of the things they think all Christians are supposed to believe. But in spite of this, they’ve found a home in the Episcopal church, and I’m thankful for that. So if you’re in that boat, if you’re not sure what you think about all of this, there is a prayer at the end of the baptism service which I wonder if you might find useful. After Aria is baptized, we will pray that God will give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. This is one of my very favorite prayers, and expresses for me the hopes I have not only for Aria, but for all of us. I pray that God will give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. Amen.
In America, we seem to have a sort of fascination with con artists. Two of the films nominated for best picture this week, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street feature main characters who are con artists. American Hustle tells the story of political corruption in New Jersey and the way two con men play all sides against each other; The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a smooth talking Wall Street broker who convinces people to buy worthless stock. Or if, like me, you haven’t been to a movie in awhile, think back to classic movies like The Sting with Robert Redford and Paul Newman or Elmer Gantry with Burt Lancaster or The Music Man with Robert Preston. You can probably add to this list yourself, movies whose ‘heroes’ are really scoundrels, and yet we root for them anyways. Walter McDougall, an historian at the University of Pennsylvania writes, that “far from despising flimflam artists as parasites or worse, American popular culture habitually celebrates rascals as comedic figures.” He says that we do this because con artists, despite their vices (like lying and stealing), represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made. They don’t have to kowtow to a boss. They succeed or fail based on their own wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. In “The Financial Page” column this week in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki puts it like this: “The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.”
Surowiecki points out that to raise money to start a business, you’ve got to sell an imaginary future--a dream. Unless you already have a great deal of money, you have to convince other people, people with money, to give you money so that you can buy the materials you need to make a product which you then hope to sell to make more money. Before building a single car, Henry Ford had to persuade his major supplier to take stock in lieu of cash, because he didn’t have the money to pay for thousands of dollars’ worth of parts. The stockholders, in effect, believed Henry Ford’s dream that he could build cars that people would buy, and that he could make a handy profit selling them. Sociologist Alex Preda writes, “Talent for persuasion is key: after all, the public must be convinced to part with their money on the basis of the simple promise that an idea will yield profit in the future.” Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you. Like a con artist, you’re peddling optimism. The tantalizing combination of risk, hope, and hype provides both the capitalist’s formula for transforming the world and the con artist’s strategy for turning your money into his money. As Mel Weinberg, whose life provided the model for American Hustle said, “It’s my philosophy to give hope...That’s why most people don’t turn us in to the cops. They keep hopin’ we’re for real.” Both the capitalist’s and the con man’s are dreams of a sort, one the American dream of making good through your good ideas and hard work, the other a dream of an easy path to quick riches. Both dreams captivate our imaginations.
Dreams and dreamers are scattered throughout the bible. In Genesis, we read about Jacob, a scoundrel and a con man if there ever was one. After cheating his brother out of his inheritance, Jacob flees for his life. He stops to rest for the night, and taking a stone for pillow, he lies down to sleep. He dreams of a ladder set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Then God stands beside him and says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” When Jacob wakes up, his life is transformed. He believes he will be able to return home one day in peace, he vows that the Lord shall be his God, and he pledges a tithe of all he has and all he will have to the Lord.
Dreams figure prominently in Matthew, the gospel most of our gospel readings come from this year. Just before Christmas we heard about the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream to tell him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, for the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. Later, an angel again speaks to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take his family to Egypt to escape Herod, and a couple of years later, once again the angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, telling him it is safe to come home. A couple of weeks ago, we heard about the dream the wise men had warning them not to return to Herod after they have found the baby Jesus. These dreams in our sleep are familiar to us, of course, whether we dream of ladders and angels and God or if our dreams are harder to understand. Freud suggested that our dreams come from our subconscious will, our subconscious desires, and you’ve probably spent time trying to figure out what your sleeping dreams mean, what you’re trying to tell yourself, or what a particularly bizarre dream might mean.
The bible has waking dreamers as well, day dreamers who spend a lot of time imagining how the world might be a different place, dreamers who ask “What if?” These day-dreamers are called prophets, and they lay out a vision for how we should live according to God’s dream for the world. The book of Isaiah is a collection of these dreams, these prophecies, and our reading this morning is sometimes called a song of a suffering servant. It’s not clear exactly who is speaking, but whoever it is is not a popular person: they are deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers. But none of that matters. The prophet-dreamer says, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And the Lord said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” The speaker protests that they’ve tried their best, but nothing has worked, they have failed. God says, in effect, “Never mind. You will not only restore the nation of Israel; you will be a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Our Christian tradition sometimes understands this suffering servant through whom God brings salvation to be Jesus; whether that’s what Isaiah has in mind really doesn’t matter as much as the basic message of the passage: God works through the unlikely person, God works through the outcast and the downtrodden, or as Martin Luther puts it, God carves the rotten wood, God rides the lame horse. No vessel is too humble to carry and no tongue is too weak to proclaim the word of God.
On the night of January 27, 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t sleep. He was twenty-seven years old, fresh out of seminary, with a wife and young children. Just seven weeks earlier, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. King had become the leader of the boycott when the other black ministers had hesitated, knowing how dangerous and difficult it would be. And it was proving to be just that. The night before, King was removed from his parked car for going 30 mph in a 25 mph zone, he was arrested and briefly imprisoned before the police and mayor became frightened by the crowd that gathered outside the jail. King’s day had been filled with all the many details of the boycott, encouraging those who had to find alternate means of transportation to get to work, reassuring the other leaders who had received death threats. Taylor Branch tells the story in his book Parting the Waters. “Late that night, his mind was turning over as he lay in bed. Coretta had fallen asleep. The phone rang again. “Listen,” said the caller, “we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” King hung up on the angry voice. Hope of sleep receded further. He paced the floor awhile before giving in completely to wakefulness, which drove him to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. The phone never stopped ringing, and King never knew what to expect, whether a hate filled white caller, or black caller with a kind inquiry about his arrest, or a black caller complaining about the carpool or needing help. It was overwhelming. There was no idea nor imaginable heart large enough to satisfy all of them, or to contain them. Before coming to Alabama, he’d had a limitless potential to think anything was possible, but all that was constricted by hard reality. King buried his face in his hands at the kitchen table. He admitted to himself that he was afraid, that he had nothing left, that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength. Then he said as much out loud, praying “I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” As he spoke these words, the fears suddenly began to melt away. He became intensely aware of what he called an “inner voice” telling him to do what he thought was right. Such simplicity worked miracles, bringing a shudder of relief and the courage to face anything.”
You know the rest of the story after that dark night of the soul for Martin Luther King. A couple of days later, his house was bombed, but he continued on. The death threats continued, he was attacked and stabbed, but he continued on. A year later, the Montgomery authorities caved and the boycott was over, but King was not done, he continued on. He traveled the country tirelessly, speaking out for civil rights. King was a prophet and dreamer in his own right, and fifty years ago he took the podium on a hot, humid August day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The details and pressure of organizing the March on Washington had been overwhelming, and he hadn’t had much time to think about what he was going to say. He’d been speaking for several minutes when Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, urged him to “Tell them about that dream.” And King said, “I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia children of former slaves and the children of former slave-owners will be able sit down together at the table of fellowship. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” On and on he took the refrain, “I have a dream,” finally quoting the prophet-dreamer Isaiah: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Martin Luther King’s dream did eventually begin to transform our country, even if he didn’t live to see it through. His dream inspired his followers and generations not yet born to work for justice and freedom for all. The sleeping dreams of Jacob, Joseph, and the wise men shaped and changed their lives. The waking dreams of the prophets continue to inspire and encourage us to live in the image of God. I have come to believe that nothing changes, not in our community or our country or our world or even in our own lives without someone first having a dream. Our church is here because twenty years ago this community dreamt of a future here in Hilton. We’re still here because a couple of years ago we began to dream of a church that worked to make life better for seniors, young people, and our wider community. Each one of us represents the hopes and dreams of our parents and our grandparents and their parents and grandparents before them. So, on this day before the Martin Luther King holiday, a day we remember a great dreamer, let’s take some time to reflect on our own dreams. What are your dreams for yourself? For your family? For this church? For our community? For our country? What is your dream for our world? You probably saw on the way into church the wonderful trees that Eileen Henion painted on the sanctuary doors. In the bulletins are leaves for us to write our dreams on, and then after worship we’ll put them up on the trees, as a way of speaking our dreams out loud and sharing them with each other. As our dreams transform those bare tree branches may they also begin to transform our lives, our community, and our world. Amen.
I read a review in the New York Times of a new book about cats by John Bradshaw, called Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. As an aside, I should explain that in the past I would have ordered the book immediately from Amazon, but one of my new year’s resolutions is to cut back a bit on my book buying habit, for financial and storage space reasons. So, using those “if...then” statements I talked about last week, I came up with these: “If I read about a book I want to buy, then I will get online and put a hold on it at the public library,” and “If after getting the book from the library and reading it I still want to own it, then I will order it from Amazon, assuming I’m not already over my monthly book budget.” So far, it’s been working, but it means I haven’t read the book yet.
Anyways, John Bradshaw’s book Cat Sense relies on his 30 years as a biologist studying animal behavior. The starting point of his analysis is that cats are still essentially wild animals. They wandered into our lives when we first started to store grains, because the grains attracted mice, which in turn attracted the cats. Unlike dogs, which we domesticated from their wolf ancestors, cats for the most part have not been bred for a purpose. They sort of cohabitated with us, catching mice and taking advantage of whatever other food we might try to entice them with in exchange for a little companionship. That is still the case today. Our population of so-called domestic cats is maintained in a semi-feral state because of our wide-spread practice of neutering. About the only males available for domestic female cats to breed with are the wildest and least people-friendly tomcats who have escaped into the feral cat population: 85 percents of all cat matings, Bradshaw writes, are arranged by cats themselves, meaning with feral cats.
As a result, when cats interact with people, they have to rely almost entirely on their natural social behaviors, which are not especially highly developed. Unlike dogs, cats don’t naturally get alone very well with one another. The strongest social bond in the cat population is between a mother and her kittens. Kittens purr as a signal to their mothers to stay still and feed them, and they knead their mother’s belly to keep the milk flowing. Some of their other behaviors, such as grooming and rubbing up against you, are signs that a cat is treating you as another non-hostile cat. An upright tail is a greeting sign between cats, and “is probably the clearest way cats show their affection for us,” Dr. Bradshaw writes.
Finally, there’s the cat behavior of killing small animals and bringing them into the house. I’d always heard that this behavior was either the cat’s attempt to teach us to hunt, or to feed us, but Dr. Bradshaw says that is not the case. Cats bring their prey into the house, he says, basically to keep it safe. They know there are other cats around, and once they’ve killed a mouse, they don’t want another cat to get it, so they bring it inside. However, once the cat has taken their catch into their house, they remember that canned cat food tastes so much better, and so the freshly killed rodent is dumped on the floor.
None of this is to say that cats aren’t intelligent. You may have heard about the study published about a month ago at the University of Tokyo. Two researchers studied twenty house cats in their own homes. They waited until the owner was out of sight and then played recordings of three strangers calling their names, followed by their owner, followed by another stranger. They analyzed the cats’ responses to each call by watching how their ears, head, and tail moved, whether their eyes dilated, and if they shifted their paws as if getting ready to move. The cats reacted to all of the sounds, and they reacted a bit more to the sound of their owner’s voice, but they declined to move when called by any of them. In other words, cats can recognize their name, and recognize their owner’s voices, but basically, they don’t really care that much. Bradshaw concludes that cats view us as a combination of a mother-substitute and a larger, non-hostile cat.
Now, I’ve lived with cats my whole life and none of this comes as a huge shock to me. You’ve probably heard the saying, “One day I hope to be as good a person as my dog thinks I am.” Few cat people I know would say something similar about their pet. You’ve also probably heard things about the differences between dog people and cat people, dog people are friendlier and more outgoing and cat people tend to be more aloof and standoffish. It’s all part of being human, I think, that we try to define and understand ourselves and others by all sorts of outside characteristics, what pets we have, what sports we enjoy, whether we live in the city or the country, and so on. Of course, none of these things are ultimately very important, but I think because of this tendency we have, it is the wisdom of our church’s lectionary, our annual cycle of readings from the bible, that every year on this first Sunday after Epiphany we remember Jesus’s baptism. Baptism is central to our identity as Christians, and our practice of baptism comes from this story of Jesus’s baptism. The story of Jesus’s baptism was very important to the early church, and I can say that because there is a version of this story in each of the four gospels. All four gospels have accounts of Jesus’s death, but only two of the gospels, Luke and Matthew, give us any details about Jesus’s birth. Only a handful of Jesus’s sayings and parables can be found in all four gospels, and only a couple of the miracles, a healing or two and the feeding of the crowd with loaves and fishes, appear in all four. The account of Jesus’s baptism in Matthew that we heard this morning is really a very plain account, without a lot of details. Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the river Jordan. Matthew has already told us about John, this strange guy out in the wilderness wearing clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. He eats locusts and wild honey, and he says, or probably yells, to anyone who will listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And people do come, crowds of them from Jerusalem and all around Judah, walking out into the desert to the river to be baptized by John. John baptizes them, dunking them in the river as they confess their sins, and sending them on their way with a clean slate, a new chance, an opportunity to start over.
When Jesus shows up, however, John hesitates; in fact, Matthew tells us he doesn’t want to baptize Jesus at all. Rather, he says, “I need to be baptized by you!” Now this is all before any of Jesus’s public ministry, before he starts teaching and performing miracles, before he gathers the disciples around him. He’s just the barely grown-up kid of Mary and Joseph, that carpenter. Matthew doesn’t tell us why Jesus goes out to the desert. Maybe he’s heard about John and he goes with the crowds to see what all the fuss is, or maybe he’s bored at home and needs a break from his father teaching him how to build furniture, or maybe he’s gotten into a little trouble, he’s been hanging out with the wrong people, and he wants to get a fresh start. And I don’t know what John sees in Jesus that gives him pause, but it must have hit him pretty hard. Maybe Jesus is one of the few people who doesn’t flinch when John reaches out to touch him, who doesn’t hold his nose because of the way John smells. Maybe Jesus is one of the only people who doesn’t look sheepish or uncomfortable there on the bank of the river when he asks to be baptized. Or maybe John is taken by the way Jesus looks him straight in the eyes without blinking, straight through his eyes right down to his heart, in a way that almost says, “I know who you are, John, I know all the good and all the bad things you’ve done, and it is all alright with me.” In any case, Jesus insists, and John baptizes him with the others. And Matthew tells us that as he comes up out of the water, Jesus sees the heavens opened up and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And he hears a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” And from that moment on, Jesus is on a new path. He’s not just the son of a carpenter, he’s not a kid with some rough friends and a bit of a past, he’s not a young man trying to figure what to do with the rest of his life. After hearing those words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus retreats to the wilderness for a period and prayer and contemplation, and then begins his ministry of teaching, healing, and reconciliation.
Another way we know that this story of Jesus’s baptism was important to the early church was that from the very beginning, baptism became the way one officially joined the church, the way one became a Christian. Baptism was originally for adults, and generally followed long period of instruction and reflection, maybe as long as a couple of years. Then, during the season of Lent leading up to Easter, you received even more intensive instruction and engaged in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting. Finally, at the long Easter vigil the night before Easter morning, you were baptized. You were asked a series of questions: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? and Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? There would be a large body of water, either outside in a river or stream, or inside in a large pool. You would be taken down into the water and the bishop would literally push you down under the water, symbolizing your death to your old life. And as you came out of the water, it was as if you were sharing in Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and being born again to your new life as a Christian.
There are still some churches that practice adult baptism today, but for most part, Romand Catholic churches and mainline Protestant churches like ours practice infant baptism. The questions are the same, but they’re answered on the baby’s behalf by the parents and godparents. The water is sprinkled on the baby’s head, but the symbolism of dying to your old life and rising to a new life with Christ is still in the prayers we say over the water. And with that, we hope that the baby is started out on a path to be a faithful, caring person who will grow up knowing that she is a beloved child of God, and that God is well pleased with her. Because most of us cannot remember our baptism, we have days like today in the church year when we are reminded that we were baptized, that we are beloved children of God and that God is well pleased with us. This I think is important, because unfortunately the reality for many of us is that we don’t hear that message enough. If you are fortunate, you had parents who regularly told you in various ways that you were their beloved child and that they were well pleased with you. If you are fortunate, you have had a spouse and family and friends who have told you that you are their beloved and that they are well pleased with you. If you are fortunate, when you look in the mirror, you see someone looking back at you, a person that you love and that you are well pleased with. But this isn’t the case for everyone, and it isn’t the case for any of us all of the time. Parents are human and aren’t always at their best. Relationships go bad for all sorts of reasons. Even the most successful and confident people struggle sometimes with their self-esteem. In times like those, it can be a blessing to remember that when we were baptized, our family and friends and the whole church, said that we are a beloved child of God, that God is well pleased with us, and that their very highest hopes went with us.
I read this week about the football team at Gilman High School in Maryland. At the beginning of each practice, the coach Biff Poggi asks the young men on behalf of his coaching staff, “What is our job?” The players respond, “To love us.” Then Coach Poggi asks the players, “What is your job?” to which they respond, “To love each other.”
The coach continues, “I don’t care if you’re big or small, huge muscles or no muscles, can barely play football or you’re the star of the team. If you’re here, then you’re one of us, and we love you. Simple as that. The rest of the world will always try to separate you,” the coach says. “That’s almost a law of nature. The rest of the world will want to separate you by race, by socioeconomic status, by education levels, by religion, by neighborhood, by what kind of car you drive, by the clothes you wear, by athletic ability. You if let that happen now, then you’ll let it happen later. Don’t let it happen. If you’re one of us, then you won’t walk around putting people in boxes. Not now. Not ever.” I don’t know if that coach is a person of faith, but I know he gets it: he’s telling those young men that they are beloved children of God, and that God is well-pleased with them.
We are human beings, created with the tendency as the coach says to put ourselves and other people in boxes. This week, I wonder if we might try this experiment. In the course of our day, can we say to ourselves about the people we meet, “You are a beloved child of God, and God is well-pleased with you.” Can we figure out ways to say to our family and friends, “You are my beloved, and I am well-pleased with you.” Can we remind ourselves when we look in the mirror that we are, each of us, a beloved child of God, and that God is well-pleased with us. Amen.