A sermon preached at Living Water Community Church 12/9/12
Luke 1:5-25, 57-80
This is the story of Sarah. The name comes from the word שַׂר which means prince, chief, or captain. As her name suggests, Sarah was a woman of prominence. Abraham’s half-sister and his wife. She was celebrated for her beauty. Her husband got nervous when she attracted the attention of powerful men. Here she was: rich, beautiful, desirable, but Sarah carried a not-so-secret grief. Sarah was barren. She had born Abraham no children. Sarah had her grief, of course, for the children that were not hers and for the mother she might have been. But even more than that, her barrenness made her an object of contempt. She was different than every other woman. Her body could not do what women’s bodies were supposed to do. And she was a spiritual outsider, because she did not have the child that would be a sign of God’s blessing.
Sarah was 65 when she and Abraham left home to follow God to an unrevealed location. They were passing through Shechem, at that time inhabited by the Canaanites, when God appeared and promised the land to Abraham’s offspring, descendants who would be as numerous as the stars. A land for those children, whose absence Sarah had been mourning for decades. Her husband Abraham might still produce an heir. But was this really a promise for Sarah? “If this is what God wants for me,” she wondered, “then why God has prevented me all these years from bearing children?” Sarah waited five, ten, fifteen, twenty years later, and still Abraham’s only descendant was the child born to the family servant.
It was twenty-five years later, Abraham was 99 and his wife almost ninety, three strangers showed up to visit. Abraham ate and talked with them outside, while Sarah stayed behind in the tent. One of the strangers announced, “I will return in good time and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah laughed to herself and said, “After I have grown old, and my husband has grown old, shall I have pleasure?” But what was the meaning of that laugh? Cynical? despairing? was it angry rebellion or joyful disbelief. Sarah laughs as an outsider, and her laugh is her own, because we don’t understand it.
One year later, Sarah laughed again. She gave birth to Isaac, and he was circumcised on the eighth day according to the commandments given to Abraham. Sarah rejoiced saying, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” and, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?” Sarah’s salvation is that chuckle she hid in the background of the tent, transforms to a full-bellied laugh she shared with everyone who heard her story. This time Sarah did not laugh alone, and the laughing never stopped.
This is the story of Elizabeth. Her name came from two Hebrew words: אֵל, one of the names for God, and שָׁבַע meaning to swear or take an oath. Taken together it means something like God’s oath, or God has sworn. Elizabeth was well familiar with God’s promises and oaths. She lived in the land that had been promised to Abraham and his descendants. She prayed to the God revealed to Abraham and observed the signs of the covenant. Elizabeth was respectable, devout, and obedient. She lived her life out of the promise of God’s oath, God’s promises made to her ancestors.
Elizabeth knew the story of Sarah, she shared her pain and her shame. Elizabeth was also barren, and she called her barrenness, “the disgrace I have endured among my people.” To the hopes of her family, to the expectations of the world around her, Elizabeth could give no answer. She was righteous and lived blamelessly, but she appeared to be cursed by God. What good was her devotion, when the whispers of her neighbors followed her in the streets, to the market, and yes, even into church. No one said to her what they all believed, God must have closed her womb as punishment for some secret sin.
Elizabeth’s barrenness was public knowledge, subject to comment and explanation by family and friends. Elizabeth kept herself in seclusion for the first five months of her pregnancy. But news like hers won’t stay hidden long. The whispers, comments, and accusations still followed Elizabeth all the days of her pregnancy and motherhood. When the time came and she gave birth to her son, her neighbors and relatives soon heard and rejoiced with her at this show of God’s favor. But as the strange events unfolded, this amazement soon turned to fear. The neighbors wondered, “What will become of this child?” Thus began her son’s life: much talked about and much wondered at, an object of awe and consternation. A strange man with strange beginnings. She heard them, yes, but Elizabeth’s salvation was that she was no longer ashamed. The whispers followed Elizabeth all the rest of her life, and the whispering never stopped.
This is the story of Hannah. The name Hannah comes from the word חָנַן, and it means favor or grace. Hannah certainly had her husband’s favor. When he offered sacrifices, he gave Hannah a double portion, just because he loved her. But Hannah, favor, had not received such favor from God. God had chosen to bless her husband’s other wife with many children, while Hannah remained childless. The LORD had closed Hannah’s womb. Her rival provoked her; Hannah cried and she would not eat. Her husband tried to console her, but Hannah wept still.
Year by year, Hannah’s distress grew. The distress was in her bones, settling deeper and deeper into her being ,until every heartbeat throbbed, “Lord, have mercy.” Barrenness for Hannah was more than an empty womb, it was a physical ache surrounding this part of her life that seemed pointless, where God had not been faithful. She saw the children born to her husband’s other wife and thought, “Where is God’s favor for me? If God is gracious, why do I still carry this empty ache year after year after year?”
One day Hannah was praying silently in the house of God. She moved her lips, but no noise left them. “God, look on your servant, remember me. If only you will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death.” Aware of nothing except her desperate need for God, she carried on in a fashion that startled the priest. He rebuked her for being drunk. “No, not drunk,” Hannah answered, “but I am a woman deeply troubled. I have been pouring out my soul to God out of great anxiety and distress.” To this the priest said, “Go in peace. May God grant your prayer.”
From that day on Hannah was sad no longer. Her face cleared and she resumed eating. God remembered her, and soon after she conceived. She received the grace that her name had promised. After the child was born and weaned, Hannah fulfilled her vows and took her son to the temple with many offerings. She said to that same priest, “I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD.”
Then Hannah sang. She sang to the God who watches and judges. The God who performs mighty deeds on behalf of the poor, and needy. Her song didn’t begin that day she presented her son in the temple. Hannah’s song began before she gave birth, even before she she learned she was pregnant. Her song began with her silent prayer in the temple. In the quiet pouring of her heart, Hannah met God. Somehow after praying for this son for so many years, she was ready to give him away. She didn’t hold too tightly, but she trusted in what no one could take away, the knowledge that God heard her. Hannah’s salvation is not the gift of her son, but the gift of her song. Hannah sang, and her singing never stopped.
This is the story of Zechariah. Zechariah’s name is formed from two Hebrew words, meaning “God remembers”. But sometimes, Zechariah wondered if God really did remember. Zechariah prayed across years and years that he and his wife might have a child. His heart continued to beat with this prayer after it’s fulfillment was likely, probable, and even possible.
After praying so long, Zechariah was still surprised one day, that God actually showed up. He was in the sanctuary of the Lord, which is where you might expect to run into God, but still he was caught off guard. An angel appeared and said that God had heard this prayer, too sacred to be spoken and too fantastic to be believed. Zechariah found this difficult to believe, and the angel rendered Zechariah mute. On the face of it, Zechariah’s muteness looks like a punishment for his lack of faith. But it was also a sign to help Zechariah believe. Those months without being able to speak, he was not able to explain, justify, or defend. Zechariah had spent all those years hearing God’s silence, now it was his turn to be silent. Nothing to do but wait. Nothing to do but pray for this child. Nothing to do but listen and watch for what God might be doing.
In those silent months, Zechariah learned the lessons he would need to be John’s father. This son was born to Zechariah, but did not belong to him. The child was lent to God for God’s work. The child was named by God and not by his father. Zechariah had to learn in the silence, as Hannah had learned in the silence of her prayer, to lend a beloved son to God’s work. The appearance of the angel was only the first in a string of puzzling circumstances: John’s childhood, his time in the wilderness, his public appearance to Israel, his strange habits, his imprisonment. There were plenty of times when Zechariah was caught off guard, confused, concerned,or doubtful about what God was doing. But he had given up trying to get ahead of what God, and had stopped asking God to behave in ways that made sense.
When Zechariah’s lips were opened, he was more than ready to sing, to praise. He sang about God’s goodness over years and years, and sang his prayers for his son. He sang that you don’t serve in order to get saved, you get saved in order to serve God freely and without fear. You get saved in order to sing. You get saved so that whatever you love most in the world, you can give it up to God, and give it joyfully. Zechariah’s salvation was that in his silence, he learned the free and joyful generosity that comes from trusting God. Zechariah gave his son, and his giving never stopped.
This is the story of Jonathan. Jonathan’s name came from words meaning God and gift. Jonathan means something like God’s gift, or God is gracious. Jonathan was the son of Saul, the first king of Israel. He had some success in battle, already as a young man. Jonathan was a prince and a warrior. He stood to inherit his father’s throne, but he was not captivated by the power and riches of his father’s office.
Jonathan had a keen spiritual vision. He saw the mistakes of his father Saul. Jonathan recognized that God had rejected his father Saul and had chosen a boy named David instead. Jonathan stood to lose more than anyone by David’s coming to power. But, Jonathan loved David, loved him as his own soul. Their souls were bound together. Jonathan shifted his allegiances from his father to his friend. He made a covenant with David by stripping himself of his robe, his armor, his sword, and his belt and giving them to David. Jonathan tried to protect David by pleading with Saul not to kill him, and by telling David to flee when Saul’s wrath could not be turned back. The two men stood in a field before they parted. They kissed and wept, but David wept the more. After that separation they would not see each other again. Finally David received news that Saul and Jonathan had died in battle, and again David wept bitterly. He sang a great song of lament for the strength and beauty that were lost, and because the enemy had been victorious.
Jonathan was the prince who walked away from the throne, the warrior who cherished friendship above ambition. Jonathan’s barrenness was not forced upon him, but he chose to empty himself of power to love and serve David, God’s annointed. Jonathan’s salvation was that he did not repeat his father’s mistakes. Instead Jonathan made himself less, so that God’s chosen might become more. Jonathan is remembered for his love, that he loved and was loved by David, and that loving never stopped.
This is the story of John. His name is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Jonathan, God’s gift. The baby John was God’s gift to his parents, yes. But more than that, he was God’s grace for the whole world. John became a prophet of the fire and brimstone variety, a political prisoner, a preacher proclaiming a baptism of repentance, and a wild man who lived in wild places. John’s position gave him some claim to power. His father was a priest. The story of his birth was miraculous enough. Some people took him for the Messiah, but John denied those claims. John didn’t seek the prestige he might have won so easily. But in his surrender, John became so much more than himself. John’s salvation was that he participated in the very life of God.
The angel’s prophecy about John hints at the threefold mystery of God, a mystery in which John will play a part. The Holy Spirit empowers John to bring our attention to the Father, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of David and Jonathan. The twist is that God doesn’t stay in heaven like we’ve come to expect. Already God’s emissaries move back and forth between God and humanity. Angel, spirit, and word dance along the border of heaven and earth, making the whole cosmos hum. All this is preparation. God’s being is about to break forth into the world, God is about to draw near to reveal who God is in a new way.
This movement is part of the life of God. The Christian way of talking about God uses this word Trinity, that God is one but also somehow three distinct persons named Father, Son, and Spirit. These three persons are bound together in what theologians have traditionally called a dance. Each makes a space for the other, each moves into the other. They love by giving themselves and receiving the other. This is what we mean when we say that God is love. God is a loving community of sharing. And John participates in this community. John receives the Spirit to bring the people to the Father and to wait the coming of the Son. John joined the dancers who play, right where heaven and earth are stitched together. John gave up his own power in order to be filled with God’s power. John joined the dance of God’s being, and the dancing never stopped.
How many more stories could we add to such a collection? We could take weeks, and still not exhaust the stories that are present in this room. Each one of us has a story about a way in which we are barren. Willingly or unwillingly, we have given up something we thought we had a right to possess. There are ways we feel empty, or our work seems fruitless, or we weather life circumstances that appear pointless.
I feel my own barrenness in the unmarked terrain that is young adulthood. I am empty before the great questions of my life. When will I find a work with my fingerprint on it, who will be the companions who will stick with me for the long-haul? Even more than the questions, I face the reality that I am maladapted for thriving in this world. I’ll go on an anger binge after a few ill-timed comments, I fixate on what is irritating or incomplete, instead of giving thanks for what is pure and holy and true. I bolster myself against my own demons by being critical of others; I despair of God’s goodness at the first sign that things won’t go my way. I experience my barrenness in the knowledge that I don’t have the tools to make myself happy or good.
If I can glean any wisdom from these stories, it seems that God waits to give us something, until we can receive it without needing to possess it. One of my theology professors has written that, “A person needs to be pinned silent for a time, jarred from comforting but distorted responses rooted in bad love.” We need that silence, because God only offers the gifts that we are ready to lend back to God. Our barrenness, becomes a means of God’s salvation. God’s salvation requires the barrenness, the hopelessness that each of us carries. Taoist wisdom teaches that the clay of a cup is good, but the emptiness is what makes it useful. Walls are good, but the space inside of a room is what makes it useful. Consider John the Baptist, a baby who filled an empty womb, an answer to his father’s barren hopes. A child born in emptiness in order to be useful to the Holy Spirit.
Emptiness is useful. The soul’s cracked landscape offers channels through which the healing waters of salvation can flow. Salvation never stops. Salvation is the loving, whispering, giving, laughing, singing, dancing movement of God’s Spirit among us to transform and reconcile. Salvation never stops. Never stops across centuries, but works its way through the many unfolding and interweaving stories in which every character is made new. Salvation never stops, healing Sarah’s bruised heart, wiping Hannah’s tears, teaching Zechariah a way beyond fear, lifting Elizabeth’s shame, bringing down Jonathan from his throne, filling John the Baptist from before his birth. Salvation never stops. It doesn’t come to us, or for us, but through us, a gift that we offer to God for the sake of the world. Salvation never stops. The end of salvation is to bring us into communion with God, a God who has chosen to be empty, in order to give space to the other. Salvation brings us into the life of God, into the emptying, giving, receiving, filling, pouring dance of love that never ends. Wait, watch, and pray. The empty womb is being prepared for God’s own self. And we pray, Come, Lord Jesus.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Above is a link to a brief video that speaks to the situation of Roma in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine. Its disheartening portrait of the living situation and educational opportunities of Roma in this region rings true with what I have experienced here as a volunteer.
This video interviews Roma and non-Roma who attend separate classes at the same school. This is similar to the situation of the school where I volunteer, except that it is attended exclusively by Roma children. Whenever I have commented on the poor quality of education at this school, non-Roma are quick to correct me that these low standards are true for all schools in Ukraine. Certainly, the quality of education in Ukrainian schools is a shock to volunteers like me who come from North America or Western Europe. Nevertheless, my encounters with Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Roma children convince me that huge disparities remain in the quality of education. Here some children are interviewed who cannot read simple words or write their names. While some of the children I know are proficient readers, and most are able to write their names (if not much else), these interviews confirm my own experience that Ukrainian schools do a huge disservice to Roma children.
One of the interviewees comments that Roma families don't value education, regular school attendance, or schoolwork. I want to complicate this statement. I have met some young Roma who aren't interested in school because their job prospects are equally dismal with or without a diploma, children who are expected to help out at home with chores, younger siblings, or odd jobs, and many don't attend school because they don't have shoes or good, clean clothes. The children often receive humiliating treatment at school; their teachers are mostly ignorant of the dim living conditions for many (not all!) inside the camp, and indifferent to Roma culture or history. I once accompanied a girl home who tried to do her math homework on her lap in a room with two younger siblings, no natural light, a soap opera on tv, a parent who wasn't able to help, and little to no understanding of the task before her. The all too common narrative about the laziness of Roma does little to illuminate her dilemma.
The most disheartening aspect of this picture is that most non-Roma in this region fail to recognize that this is a problem. For most, the problem is Roma themselves, Roma laziness, dirtiness, or criminality. I encounter little to no awareness of, and even less will to reform, the oppressive systems that bind the majority of this region's Roma in poverty and bar them from integrating into Ukrainian society.
One of the favorite games of the children is "Office." They set crayons and papers in piles on their desk, "telephone" one another using nearly any square or rectangular object, and hurriedly scribble notes to present importantly to someone at the adjacent desk. Girls who grew up like I did were not taught to dream of secretarial work, but I sadly wonder how many of these children will achieve even this modest ambition.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
A lot of us are worried about why people of my generation are fleeing organized religion. The topic may be tired, but I can’t avoid it because I feel the conflict within my own self. I am both a church insider puzzling over the indifference of youth and young adults, and I am also a young adult who thinks about walking away to try and live her life in her own way.
Most of my life, I have loved being a part of the church. I have disagreed and I have raged, but I have never been able to be indifferent. I have always seen so much good that my frustrations inspired me to try and make things better.
But there is another side. When I see the bad and the ugly I wonder, “Is this church thing really worth the bother?” Today I give voice to this other side and speak about what pushes me away. And though I speak of “the church,” I really mean a segment of my church experience, those things that, when I see them, send me running in the opposite direction.
(1) My ministers are not in therapy. I see pastors leveraging their ministerial authority to meet their own sexual and emotional needs. I see ministers whose arms are full and whose backs are breaking under the baggage they carry.
(2) The church’s talk about the world and humanity feels false to me. I don’t believe that our suffering is punishment for our sins. I don’t believe that praying and reading the Bible will make my problems disappear. I don’t believe that the disco is evil. I hear sermons that tell me how bad I am (simply repulsive in God’s sight), while expecting me to far “better” than I could ever be (a person without lust, anger, or doubt.) The church isn’t talking about the things that make me weep or laugh or set my teeth on edge or keep me up at night.
(3) The church restricts my behavior. Yoga is suspect; partying is definitely condemned. I don’t care if these suggestions are good or bad, I simply don’t like rules. The church isn’t teaching me to live in a way that contributes to my health, or the flourishing of my communities and my world.
(4) The church is racist. Churches are filled with people who look, think, and talk the same way. Worse yet, they don’t desire or imagine that things should be any different.
(5) The church is sexist. As a woman pursuing ordained ministry, I despair when I remember that I could enter almost any other field and encounter less resistance based on my gender.
(6) The church doesn’t see me or make use of my gifts. I am seen as volunteer power, one unit to fill a slot in a long-running program. No one asks me what I like to do, what I’m good at, or what I might dream up for our community.
(7) Fundraising, programming, and ceremony are take precedence over relationship. Church leaders don’t have time to talk to me because they are writing an email to someone more important.
(8) A lot of religious people are really annoying. I don’t know if religious people are any more annoying than the general population, but they do seem to be more self-righteous about it.
(9) Worship is boring. Nothing happens. I don’t do anything, feel anything, smell anything, learn anything.
(10) The church forgets that God is real. People don't go to church expecting that God will move, or open the Bible expecting that God will speak. The church asks God for help with its work, but doesn’t pay much attention to what God is up to.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Fifty or so parents, mostly mothers, crowded into the school cafeteria. Most of them squeezed into child-sized benches facing the front. Others, like me, sat on tables at the side or stood in the back. They held babies in their arms, sometimes nursing them, and were followed by small children who played by their feet or at the edges of the room with their friends. These were Roma: parents, siblings, or students of the school for Roma children on the edge of town. The school's Hungarian and Ukrainian teachers stood in a line along the side near the front of the room, and a few others with the director in the center.
For the next hour, those up front directed themselves to the room at large. A chief concern was the problem of school attendance. They spoke about the importance that kids come to school and on time and stay for the whole day, and that children continue to attend as they progress to the older classes.
Whatever the intentions, the results as I surveyed this scene were comically tragic. At several points the parents erupted in laughter at this or that suggestion. I felt so much loose energy in the room that I myself could not sit still by the meeting's close. These parents began by talking with neighbors, but were soon motioning to others across the room. They shifted in their places or announced an opinion to no one in particular; nearly all the men stepped out for a cigarette.
I expect that the teachers left feeling that all their negative opinions of Roma had been confirmed - irresponsible, disrespectful, uncooperative, indifferent to the wellbeing of their children, impossible to work with. And these beliefs will come out in the way teachers interact with their students. I doubt that the parents left with a flattering portrait of their children's teachers, and this will do little to mitigate the problem of low school attendance. The disappointment is that two groups of people left the room continuing to believe the worst about one another. It's not a surprise; the meeting wasn't conducted any differently than if the audience had been the children themselves.
I'm trying to imagine my way toward a different model, one in which both parties get the benefit of adult-sized furniture. The conversation might begin with questions. Why are children missing school? Because their help is needed at home? Because they worry that others will tease them about their clothes or shoes? Because they are sick? And if so, why? Because they simply don't like the humiliating treatment they get from teachers? What can we do together to work on the problems? How do the parents understand the community's challenges, and do they get any say in the way their children are educated?
Until we truly listen to another adult human being, we find no antidote for our negative stereotypes.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
The child who exclaims my name every time she sees me. Surely God also takes such delight at my ongoing presence in this world.
A certain wise, young woman with whom I would love to knit for hours on end, discussing theology and the shape of our lives. Because God is also a safe place in which my deepest knowings find their way into expression.
A young man who is learning to let his heart break. Maybe God once also wavered before choosing the heartbreaking risk of love.
A mentor who winks from the corner right before my voice begins to waver: Yes, this is right, keep going. God also supports my cause, both a cheerleader and a dread warrior.
Another young girl who runs alongside my bike, smiling, after we say good-bye; God also goes with me on my journey.
When I forget that it is not customary for men and women to shake hands, God is a man who steps in and shakes my hand after I offer it to one who doesn't take it or doesn't see. Even the day's small dyings do not go unnoticed, and my God will not let me be put to shame.
An old woman who makes sure I have food for each day, and plenty of it. In her God feeds me, and cares for my needs with steadfast dailiness.
A woman who smiles at me from the pulpit when I enter church a minute late. God always invites me in, however frantic my arrival.
To whom do we bear the image of God but to one another? How would I know what God looks like apart from my sisters and my brothers? We are not God, none of us but one. And yet somehow we are God, from body to breath to spirit, just as surely as we are also dust and carbon and animal.
Take care, you are the presence of God on earth. Far from perfect, I know, but an imperfect witness to something of the mystery of God, a piece to which you bear witness more perfectly than anyone else. If you do not believe me, ask, and I will tell you what I see of God in you.