Saturday, November 7, 2009

[unpreached sermon #4] All Saints Day 2009 (Our God is a God of Life)

[Yes, I wrote this as if I were preaching it on November 1, despite not finishing it until the next week.]

All Saints Day 2009 (Our God is a God of Life)

Pentecost 22 (Year B) - November 1, 2009

Ruth 1:1-18
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

Our Old Testament reading is from the Book of Ruth.  Is *the* passage from the Book of Ruth.  Bringing heathens to the one true God through the power of queerness.  On this Sunday when Cambridge Welcoming Ministries celebrates and honors contemporary saints who have worked for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons at all levels of the United Methodist Church.

And then we get to the Epistle to the Hebrews, which makes explicit that blood atonement theology that so many of us find so problematic and even hurtful.
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), she entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with her own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered herself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

For this reason she is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
The more time I spend at Cambridge Welcoming, the more uncomfortable I become with the body and blood language in Communion.  My mother was one of the people who pushed back on me about this.  She said:
I still think that the fact that Jesus was literally broken for us is core to the Christian faith. [...] And I thought that your birth required that I be cut open. It strikes me that the greatest treasures require sacrifice of some kind. Some are harsher than others.

It reminded me of the poem I wrote when George was born. Somehow it is important to me to remember that Jesus suffered for us. His pain was real because he was really human. And if we don't acknowledge his brokenness, somehow we are disrespecting his sacrifice.
My brother George and I were both born through caesarian section (yay modern medicine -- my mom would have died twice over otherwise).  The poem she refers to is about the experience of receiving Communion in the hospital after having given birth to him.  In it she says:
In my hand I hold the bread;
Cradling, blessing, my baby's head.
Rememb'ring when I was torn
That this new life might be born.


As I drink His holy wine,
My baby partakes of mine.
He takes his life from my breast,
His tender self in quiet rest.

Reenacted holy communion
With every birth, at each nursing breast.
Mother and child in holy union.
What strikes me in this is the LIFE imagery.  It's not about glorifying the pain and suffering that were a part of the journey to this moment; instead it's celebrating the life that has come out of this.

Hear again the Gospel:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, the scribe asked Jesus, "Which commandment is the first of all?"
    Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no other commandment greater than these."
    Then the scribe said to Jesus, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'God is one, and besides God there is no other;' and 'to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,' — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."
    When Jesus saw that the scribe answered wisely, Jesus said to the scribe, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."  After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question.
I admit, the first time I read this lectionary passage this week, I only kind of skimmed it -- having heard this basic story so many times before. But when I went back to edit the gendered language, I noticed something I hadn't caught the first time: "this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."  This -- to love God with all that one has and to love one's neighbor as oneself.

This reminds me of Jesus saying elsewhere in the Gospels (Matthew 9:9-13), "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."  He's quoting the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:4-6, NIV):
"What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
    Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth;
    my judgments flashed like lightning upon you.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings."
What is most striking to me in reading that Hosea passage is, "Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears."  That's a harsh critique -- that our devotion evaporates under the slightest heat.  The verse that follows says, "Like the first human (or like humanity) they have broken the covenant — they were unfaithful to me there."  We don't offer burnt offerings these days, but there are many other ways in which we make as if to give to God without offering our hearts.  How many times have we failed to live into the covenant with God?

We call ourselves Christians -- at least most of us gathered here do -- and yet we are so very much "of the world."  We go on "diets," not because we want to honor the body we have which is created in God's image by feeding it food full of justice and nutrients and love, but because we believe the voices of the world that there is some magic number at which we are acceptable.  We mutter curses at those traveling the road with us rather than joining our hearts with theirs and praying for peace, patience, and safety.  We shake our heads at those we pass on the street who are begging for spare change rather than inviting them to sit with us in a coffee shop, to buy them something to warm their hands and fill their bellies.  Over and over we turn away from that Emmaus encounter, when the risen Christ was revealed to the mourning disciples in the breaking of bread -- the breaking of bread with an apparent STRANGER they encountered on the road.  Tiffany exhorts us to "look around," to see that "Christ is present" in the gathered congregation.  Far more challenging is a practice Anne Lamott writes about in one of her books -- to see each person she encounters when she is out walking her dog as if that person were Christ.  Because that person is Christ.  We can all recite Matthew 25 -- "whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me"... feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned.  And we are ALL "the least of these."  Everyone is hungry for something, sick from something, imprisoned by something.  And we are called to be God's hands and feet and voices and shoulders in the world -- to be the BODY of Christ in the world, ministering to this embodied world.

We are, to quote from Ann B. Day's liturgy in Shaping Sanctuary (p. 97, based on I Corinthians 12:14-31), "The hand clapping, toe tapping, heart pumping, mouth tasting, arms embracing, justice seeking, hymn singing, love making, bread breaking, risk taking, Body of Christ."

To return to the passage from Ruth... Ruth gives up EVERYTHING.  "Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried."

That is some radical fidelity.

I'm less interested in wrestling with Paul and making peace with atonement theology than I am in challenging us to live in to this Call -- this Call to walk with God, to make God's ways our ways, to love God and our neighbor and ourselves all with our whole being.  Yes, I believe that just as we are called to love God with heart, mind, strength, and soul, so too are we called to love our neighbors -- for we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and how can we love ourselves except with all of our selves -- our heart, our mind, our strength, and our soul.

So why should we want to walk with this God?  This God who calls us to give up the walks, the lodgings, the people, and the gods of our former lives?  This God who births us into the world but exhorts us to not be "of" this world?

In the daily lectionary readings leading up to this Sunday, Tuesday's readings are Ezekiel 18:1-32 and Acts 9:32-35.  From Ezekiel:
Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Sovereign Lord God.  Turn, then, and live.  (Ezekiel 18:31-32, NRSV)
And from Acts:
As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda.  There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years.  "Aeneas," Peter said, "Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat."  Immediately Aeneas got up.  All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw Aeneas and turned to the Lord.  (Acts 9:32-35, NIV)
Our God is a God of life.

God calls us to cast off that which keeps us from relationship with God and to repent, to turn back to God.  God lifts us out of our paralysis, calls us out of our beds, invites us to be a living sacrament pointing to the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all that is.

Every week at Wednesday night service I say, "This is the Bread of Life, that you might have life abundant."  I might also say, recalling my best friend's threefold reflections on the Bread of Life lectionary arc: "This is the Bread of Life, that you might have life, and have it abundantly, and have life everlasting."

Our God is a God of life.

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice."

The letter to the Hebrews speaks of the high priest Christ who entered into the Holy Place with her own blood.  But Ruth needed no blood to join with Naomi, she merely pledged her life to hers.  We have had enough of death when this story opens.  Naomi's husband Elimelech "died" we are told, and her two sons -- Mahlon and Kilion, the husbands of Orpah and Ruth -- "were killed."  Famine drove Naomi and her family from Judah to Moab, and famine (in some sense no less literal a famine, as she has no male kindred to provide for her in Moab) drives her back to Judah.  "So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning."  [Ruth 1:22, NIV, from Thursday's daily lectionary]  The famine in Judah is over, and Naomi is returning to her people, just as the harvest is beginning.

Our God is a God of life.  Of abundance and renewal, of welcome and family.

Hear again the Psalm:
Praise the Lord our God! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise you as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. God, you set the prisoners free;
you open the eyes of the blind. You lift up those who are bowed down; you love the righteous.
You watch over the strangers; you uphold the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked you bring to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Alleluia!
I struggled with the lectionary texts this week, and also with how to preach a sermon on All Saints Day, particularly in light of the sudden losses suffered by some of my friends.

I finished reading Emil Fackenheim's What Is Judaism? this Saturday.  In a section titled "The World to Come and the Holocaust," Fackenheim writes, "Only if we share in the anguish of the victims dare we affirm their resurrection.  Only then dare we affirm the resurrection of anyone.  For if the world to come does not exist for them, it does not exist at all." (p. 274)

And yet we are a resurrection people.  A people who affirm that Weeping may come in the night, but joy will come with the dawn.

In our brokenness, our barrenness, and even in our bitterness, we are over and over again welcomed back to Bethlehem, just as the harvest is beginning.  We are called to work the fields and welcome the stranger, called to embrace long-lost family members and those they bring with them.

On this All Saints Day, I invite us all to help share in the long birthing process toward new life and renewal.

No comments:

Post a Comment