Sunday, July 29, 2012

Faith Countdown: Four!

 Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Albrecht Durer, ca. 1497

Scripture can be found here...

Last week I was able to travel with four women from our congregation to participate in the triennial Churchwide Gathering of the Presbyterian Women in Orlando. The theme of the gathering was “River of Hope,” taken from Psalm 46: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” Each morning and each evening we were invited to wade into that river of hope, through the inspiring preaching, through prayer and the study of scripture, through the stirring calls to action for peace and justice, and through visible and tangible evidence of Presbyterian Women’s ongoing commitment to building an inclusive and caring community of faith.

If you’ve ever been to a gathering like this one, you know exactly what I mean: there is nothing like being immersed for five days in this kind of worship experience, this kind of bonding and fellowship, this kind of sheer jubilation. It’s exhilarating. It’s amazing.

Then we all woke up to Friday’s news. A young man had opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where hundreds of young people had come together for that consummate summer recreational activity, the opening of a big budget action movie. By the time the shooting had stopped, 12 people were dead or dying, including “a U.S. Navy veteran who served three tours of duty in the Middle East, a 6-year-old girl excited about learning to swim, and a New Jersey native who shielded his girlfriend with his own body when the shots rang out.”[i] An additional 58 people were injured.

And whoosh—we were taken and thrown like a raft going over the rapids, into the swirl of violence and despair that, at times, seem to epitomize life in this broken world of ours. And it is true: life immersed in the gospel in no way exempts us from life immersed in the pain and cruelty of this world. In certain ways, it makes us more vulnerable to it. There are so many mass shootings in the United States we are starting to lose track of them—there have been 645 separate events of mass killing in this country since 1976. That’s an average of nearly 18 mass killing events per year.[ii] We continue to watch in helpless horror as the Syrian army goes about its systematic crushing of opposition among its own citizens. The Pew Economic Mobility Project tells us again what we already know: the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.[iii] And despite being the wealthiest country in the world, US citizens are less healthy than ever: we’re 49th in life expectancy, 41st in infant mortality (placing us behind Slovenia, the Falkland Islands and Cuba), but holding firm worldwide at first place in obesity.

I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer… And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword… I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand… I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death… (Rev. 6:2,4, 5b, 8)

This week we have arrived at “Four” in our countdown of the symbolism of numbers in scripture. And though I was tempted to preach on the fact that there are four gospels, for example, or the four rivers flowing out of the garden of Eden, or the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, earth, air, fire and water, the ancient four elements: there was no real question: I wanted to talk with you about the four horsemen. This image is incredibly powerful and pervasive in our culture., so much so that many people with little or no familiarity with scripture have heard of the four horsemen and have some sense of what they portend. In fact, this concept has so thoroughly saturated popular culture, there is a therapist on the West coast who has come up with “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of relationships,” a checklist for couples who want to make sure they aren’t engaging in behaviors that will signal the “end of the world” for their marriages.[iv]

But it would be good to back up, really back up. This image of the four horsemen, that they signify the end of the world, is predicated on one particular and very popular reading of the book of Revelation as being a blueprint for the last days and times. That’s an approach called “premillenial dispensationalism,” and the popular form of it gained traction in the 1830’s in the writings of Irish minister John Nelson Darby. More recently, it has earned the authors of the “Left Behind” books untold riches. But this is a view of Revelation that has been rejected by theologians from the earliest days of Christianity. At the 213th General Assembly (2001), the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed an overture urging pastors to communicate to their congregations that “Left Behind” theology is not in accord with a reformed interpretation of scripture. But there are numerous scholarly approaches to this beautiful and complicated portion of scripture that do fall within reformed understanding: I’ll share just a few of them with you.

One way of looking at Revelation is that it is a description, in code, of first century Christianity struggling to survive in the midst of the hostile Roman Empire. Seen through this lens, the reader can try to match the grand metaphors of the text to the historical events of that era. That’s one approach. But Revelation can also be seen as a mythic/poetic dreamscape, a kind of diary of the journey of the human soul towards Christ. Looked at this way, it is an intensely personal document about its author—but it is also an invitation to each reader to find our own dreamscape, our own journey to Christ. That’s another approach. Finally, Revelation can be seen as a lens through which to interpret all of human history. Viewed in this way, you could say that it is a story about empire and oppressed religious minorities—a story we see playing itself out over and over again. The main point I want to make about Revelation is this: The text is explosive, filled with whiplash-inducing turns of phrase, and maddeningly obscure and double-edged symbols—despite the fact that this book is called by a name that means “revealing.” To try put it in a box, and say, “That’s it, there is only one way to understand this,” is to treat the text with far less respect and awe than it deserves.

Let’s start with a fairly simple question. Why four horsemen? The number four in scripture represents God’s creative works, especially those works associated with the earth. Thus, four seasons, four elements, even four evangelists—four earthly voices telling us about Jesus and the reign of God. And the four horsemen don’t arrive in a vacuum… before they make their appearance in Revelation, we have the “four living creatures,” the ones who open the seals and bring the riders forth. They are introduced in chapter 4, and together they represent the creatures of the earth: one has the face of a lion, one the face of an ox, one the face of a human being, and one the face of an eagle (Rev. 4:7). “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come’” (Rev. 4:8). They see and they sing: these are some of the fundamental tasks of creation, to see the glory of God and to sing God’s praises.

The four living creatures introduce the four horsemen, who come representing conquest, and war, and economic inequality, and death.

Our job as living creatures is to know ourselves to be part of God’s good creation, and to see and to sing. And sometimes what we see is disheartening to say the least. Sometimes what we see, whether it is the illness of someone we love or the sickness at the heart of an entire social system or government or ecosystem, causes us to weep. And when we are confronted with all that is disheartening or downright heartbreaking, when we feel alienated from life and joy, we are presented with the conundrum faced by the psalmist. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Sometimes we can feel exiled right at home.

And we are compelled to ask: who or what will save us? Who or what will save the protesters who only want a voice at the ballot box? Who or what will save the land, that threatens to be despoiled with every latest attempt to squeeze water or blood or oil out of the very stones? Who or what will save the people who cannot afford food or prescriptions or shelter from the heat or wind or flood? Who or what will save the people who just wanted to see the latest Batman movie?

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10).

This is both the most hopeful and most frustrating prescription. The earth, this fourfold creation, is the Lord’s, and everything that is in it. That means that salvation belongs to God along with all the rest of creation. But what about this Lamb?

Here is where the “Left Behind” authors go seriously, devastatingly astray. In their novel “Glorious Appearing,” they describe a Jesus who is all too willing to wield heavenly power to deal out death and destruction. They write,

''Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again.''

This is a depiction of Jesus as Action Hero, a Jesus who would be entirely at home as the lead in “The Dark Knight Rises.” And this is the version of a savior our culture prefers—from Batman as portrayed by Christian Bale to the Navy Seals who killed Osama Bin Laden. But for those who read Revelation deeply, it is absolutely contrary to the vision of salvation depicted there. “Salvation belongs to… the Lamb.” Jesus is the Lamb. And the Greek word that is used for “lamb” in Revelation is “arnion,” which means, actually, “lambkin.” Lambkin is a word that conveys, not the kind of power that arms itself and fights back, but complete vulnerability. The power Jesus wields is not the power of one who is on the side of the great armies, ready to defend themselves and swallow up the bad guys in a hail of bullets. The power of Jesus is the power of one who emptied himself of power, and became just like us. The power of Jesus is the power of the victim. The power of Jesus is the power of compassion, the power of understanding what it is to be human, vulnerable, scared, and dying. As writer Diana Butler Bass writes of Jesus in A People’s History of Christianity, “His is not a revolution of militant victory, rather of humility, hospitality, and love.”[v] That is the power of Jesus’ salvation. Salvation belongs to the lambkin, the one who shows compassion for frail and broken humanity, and the frail and broken creation.

The Lamb at the center of the throne, John tells us, will guide us to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. This is not a savior who is arming himself. This is not a savior who is gearing up for a political battle, to pass the best legislation or elect the right candidate. This is not a savior whose power will reside in economic policy or in health care reform. This is a savior who invites us to wade into the springs of the water of life, the river of hope, and drink deep. This is a savior who models for us the way of vulnerability and compassion. This is a savior whose power lies in understanding the depths of human pain, and in letting us know we are not alone in it. Are we called to a way of peace and justice? Yes. Are we called to protect those even more powerless than we are? Absolutely? Are we called to offer ourselves up as victims to an unjust system or even to a partner who abuses us? Never—Jesus has already done that and there is no need to repeat his sacrifice. But we are called to full immersion in Jesus’ way, the way of humility, hospitality and love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] “Colorado Movie Massacre: 12 Lives Cut Short by Violent Shooting,” Associated Press, July 25, 2012,
[ii] Joel Achenbach, “Colorado shootings add chapter to long, unpredictable story of U. S. mass murder,” The Washington Post, July 24, 2012,
[iii] Catherine Rampell, “Richer Rich, and Poorer Poor,” Economix Blog, The New York Times, July 10, 2012,
[v] Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 14.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Faith Countdown: Five!

Scripture can be found here...

I guess it had to happen: in the midst of a summer sermon series on the symbolic significance of numbers in scripture, I am, for the first time ever, preaching a sermon on the book of Numbers. There’s probably a reason for that; the first five books of the bible tell the story of God’s people from creation to the point of entry into Canaan, the land of promise. And, really, as far as I’m concerned, the best stuff happens in the first two of books, Genesis and Exodus. Genesis is a sweeping story of beginnings, including creation stories and the wonderful family drama of Abraham and Sarah. Exodus tells the story of that same family—now called “Israel”—their escape from slavery in Egypt and their wilderness wanderings, culminating with God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Things begin to bog down in Leviticus, though. Leviticus is fascinating if you are concerned with matters pertaining to the priesthood, ritual, sacrifice, ordination, uncleanness and purity, and the very specific requirements of the holiness code. From the commandment to avoid mixing fibers in clothing (Lev. 19:19) to the commandments to stone adulterers (Lev. 20:10) and disobedient children (Lev. 20:9), Leviticus is filled with laws that no longer carry moral weight, particularly among Christians (though I do wish we would pay more attention to Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”). Deuteronomy, the last of the first five books, is an ultimate “famous last words” scene: Moses is on his deathbed, re-telling the story of Israel, and giving some final instructions to God’s people, with whom he will not enter the land of promise.

Between Leviticus and Deuteronomy we find Numbers, arithmoi in the Greek because it begins with a census, and has yet another census in chapter 26. But Numbers has another name, its Hebrew name: bemidbar, “In the Wilderness.” Numbers details the wanderings of God’s people following Exodus, and their final preparations for finishing that forty-year-long journey and settling down in Canaan.

Here’s something fascinating about Numbers. I’ll introduce it with a question: Why do you think it took the people of God forty years to wander in the wilderness before finding their way to the land of promise? (Insert joke about men refusing to ask directions here.) The answer lies in the contents of chapters one through twenty-five of this book. Chapters 1-25 contain stories of rebellion and complaint; these actually reflect fairly accurately the disintegration of good will experienced by a family in close quarters in a station wagon for a long, cross-country summer vacation. The people complain about the food. Korah leads a rebellion of over 250 chieftains—the ultimate back-seat-drivers—who have lost faith in Moses’ leading, which results in God having to follow through on that ever-present threat, “don’t make me come down there.” (In a dazzling display of power that would stop even the worst whining, God causes the earth to open and swallow up Korah and everyone who joined with him). Even Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, resort to sniping at their brother because of the nationality of his wife, and it isn’t fair because only Miriam gets punished (Num. 12:1-16)! In all seriousness, the people’s complaints about their leadership—including the leading of God, whom they believe has taken them to the brink of slaughter—results in their refusal to enter the land of promise for fear of their own lives in conflict with the Canaanites. Finally, the people begin to intermarry with local tribes and worship the local gods, an intolerable situation. God sends a plague upon them, which is only arrested when the chieftains take disciplinary measures into their own hands.

God, the one in the driver’s seat, has had enough. It is God’s ultimate judgment that the rebellious generation that was rescued from slavery will not enter the land of Canaan.

So, back to our question: Why did it take the people of God forty years to wander in the wilderness before finding their way to the land of promise? Because that’s how long it took for the generation of rebellion to die off. The census in chapter 26 marks the moment, after forty years of wandering, when that occurs. The only one remaining alive who escaped from slavery in Egypt is Moses himself. And even Moses will not enter the land, but simply take people to the border.

In chapter 27, a new era has dawned. Instead of looking back at the trials behind them, instead of looking back with longing for the nice food and relatively cozy beds of their homes in Egypt, the ones whom scholars call the “generation of hope” are looking forward to life in the land of promise. And now the discussion turns to how the land will be divided. Enter the five daughters of Zelophehad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Five women whose names are preserved for us. More bible facts for your everyday living: There are approximately 2600 proper names used in scripture, and therefore at least 2600 individuals, likely more. Of those whose names are recorded, only 188 are women. That’s about one in twelve. The simple fact that we have been told the names of these women hints at the remarkable role they play.

The five sisters come to Moses with a request. Their father, Zelophehad, was a member of the tribe of Manasseh. He died in the wilderness, a member of the rebellious generation; though, as the daughters are careful to point out, he died for his own sins, and not one of the group swallowed up along with Korah. But Zelophehad had no sons. And that means that his family would not be included in the lottery to divide up the land.

This should not surprise us. If the stories of Exodus are understood as being historically based, the era of the wilderness wandering is estimated to have taken place at least 2800 years ago, if not longer. Scripture provides us with many stories of remarkable women who played key roles in the story of God’s people Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures, and as followers of Jesus in the New Testament. Still, the role of women in the biblical era can be nicely illustrated by looking at the fifth and tenth commandments. In the fifth commandment, honor is to be shown to both parents, without differentiation between the mother and the father. However, in the tenth commandment, a “wife” is included in a list of property which must not be coveted. Women lived in the tension between the recognition that humanity is made in God’s image, male and female, AND the fact that women were themselves considered property: first, of their father, and then, of their husband. The chief value of women in the biblical era was through procreation. Women who gave birth to heirs had fulfilled their design.

But enter Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the five daughters of Zelophehad. This is their request to Moses: since their father died without sons, they want to be given the right to inherit his share of the land.

It is important that we pause, just for a second, in honor of the boldness of these women. They looked at the status quo and saw an injustice. They took their request for relief from this injustice straight to the top. And they did so with no encouragement that their request would be given any consideration.

Moses, perhaps sensing the potential for controversy, declines to rule on his own authority. Instead, he takes the request to God, and God’s answer is straightforward: “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them.” God then provides instructions for inheritance if a man dies with neither daughters nor sons; in the end, the highest value upheld is that the land should stay within the tribe.

It is interesting to note, though, that scholars—those would be male scholars—throughout the ages argued with God on this point. Rabbi Pamela Wax, writing in the Women’s Torah Commentary, points out that the rabbinic sages go out of their way to mitigate God’s granting of inheritance rights to the sisters.

The rabbis, in fact, created two laws that were harsher to the daughters than those originally imposed by Torah… In the case of a family where the inheriting son predeceases the daughter, (the Mishnah), unfortunately, goes to great lengths to keep the inheritance out of the daughter’s hands...[i]

This also shouldn’t surprise us. Despite the great strides made by women over the centuries, they remain far, far behind men in something as simple as ownership of property. When the first Women’s Rights Convention gathered in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, among the stated concerns was the fact that women could not own, inherit or sell property such as land, homes and farms or personal property such as furniture, clothing and household goods. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, women are responsible, worldwide, for approximately 50% of the food crops that are grown and harvested; and yet they own less than 2% of all titled land. We still have a long way to go.

But there are five daughters of Zelophehad, and that in itself should give us pause. In scripture, five is the number of divine power and grace. The first principle undergirding God’s decision to grant inheritance rights to the women is this: God owns the land. Each and every week you hear me say some version of, “The earth is the Lord’s, and every thing that is in it.” I say this at the time of our offering, because it’s good to remember, when we open our wallets or write out our checks or reach into our pockets to give—not just to the church, but to whomever we want to give our hard-earned money. If everything is God’s, even the stuff we know we worked for, that understanding has a way of reordering our priorities. Taking the story at face value, in the case of the people entering the land of Canaan, the land of promise, God’s sheer grace in the giving of the land is undeniable. In the case of the paycheck I will deposit first thing tomorrow morning, it may be a little fuzzier to me, but it is no less real. If the earth and everything that is in it belongs to God, that includes the resources I personally possess, whether it is my perception that I worked for them or not.

Last week at the Presbyterian General Assembly, one of the commissioners got up during a debate and actually uttered the words, “Greed is good.” I don’t know which version of the bible that particular commissioner has been reading, but it certainly doesn’t include chapter 27 of the book of Numbers. Here, the clear message is: The earth and all that is in it is on loan from God, and it is to be distributed even to those we have a hard time acknowledging as being “deserving” of it. It leads me to wonder: who are today’s daughters of Zelophehad? Women? The homeless? The mentally ill? The incarcerated? Jews? Palestinians? If the earth is God’s, if our inheritance comes to us, not because we deserve it, but because of pure and simple goodness and grace on God’s part, who have we been excluding? And how can we continue to justify it?

Many years ago a friend shared with me a poem by Merle Feld, a Jewish scholar. In it Feld imagines what it must have been like for the women who stood and listened to Moses sharing the law at Mount Sinai. It’s called “We All Stood Together.”

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me
It seems like every time I want to write
I can't
I'm always holding a baby
one of my own
or one of my friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
And then
As time passes
the particulars
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I'm left with is
the feeling
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
my brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he's got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying

The earth is the Lord’s, and every thing that is in it. Almost three thousand years ago, five women were bold enough to claim part of the bounty of God should be shared with them, even though the laws of the day did not provide for women to inherit. We are still struggling to understand how best, in our modern context, to live out the reality that all we have is by the grace and power of God. All we have has been given to us in trust that, together, we really can and will recreate holy time, the time when God spoke and said: this is what is right. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rabbi Pamela Wax, “Pinchas: Daughters and Inheritance Law,” The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions, ed. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000), 310-311.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Faith Countdown: Six!

Deuteronomy passage can be found here; Ephesians, here....

So, what was your first job? Let’s make it a rule that it has to be something for which you were paid by someone other than your parents—unless you had a family farm or business. Would anyone like to share?

I started babysitting when I was eleven. After that, I spent a summer working at the City Tennis Courts. A few years ago I was trading stories of first jobs with some Presbytery colleagues, other teaching elders. There was someone who worked at an amusement park, someone who worked at a ski resort, and, by far the most interesting, a guy who worked on a poultry farm, trussing up the limbs of dead chickens and turkeys.

Why talk about our first jobs? It’s pretty simple. For many people, I believe, the work we do has a profound impact on our self-understanding, the people we believe ourselves to be. For better or for worse, our work can define us, even those quirky first jobs we had while still in our teens.

And that makes sense, when we consider the amount of time we spend in our work, whatever that work may be. This morning’s passage from Deuteronomy gives us a sense of how the ancients understood the balance between work and rest: it is God’s commandment on keeping Sabbath. According to the commandment, we spend six days at work for each day we spend at rest.

So, why do we work? And, more importantly, what does God think of work? How does work fit into God’s design for life in this world?

I think we can divide the reasons for working into at least four categories:

Those who work because they love to work.

Those who work because they need to work, to pay the bills—but who are relatively free to choose the type of work they do.

Those who work in order to get rich.

Those who work because they are forced to work—slaves.

And, clearly, there is some overlap in these categories. But let’s take them one at a time.

Those who work because they love to work: If there’s anything I’ve learned in my almost nine years as an ordained teaching elder, it is this: It is a rare privilege to be able to do work that you find truly fulfilling, to be able to wake up every morning and say, “I love my job.” For much of the population, work is a necessity—not slavery, but not much of a joy either. There is one school of thought that, if we do something referred to as “following our bliss”—in other words, if we do the thing we love to do—we will find success, and joy, and complete fulfillment. Sadly, this isn’t always true, and it reminds me of a joke I heard when I was a philosophy major in college: “Q: What is the question most frequently asked by philosophy majors? A: Do you want fries with that?” Philosophy is all well and good, they warned us, But are you sure it will put food on the table? Those of us who love the work we do, whether that is engineering software or writing sermons or caring for our own or others’ children, need to be reminded: it is a rare privilege, and one for which we ought to be continually thanking God.

Which brings me to: Those who work because they need to work, to pay the bills—and who are relatively free to choose the type of work they do. This is a huge category, I think the one most of us fall into. Even those of us who love our jobs, unless our last name happens to be Rockefeller or Gates or Zuckerberg, need to work, in order to eat, to clothe ourselves, and to be able sleep in a safe place. And I say, “relatively free,” because, of course, the kind of work available to us is limited by lots of things: by education, by geography, by ability, by family situation. Sometimes it is limited by prejudice—the most recent and insidious and just plain crazy form of this to come to light was created by our recent economic downturn: the prejudice against those who have been out of work too long. That is an injustice that is mind boggling.  But aside from these limitations, many folks we run into in the course of our ordinary lives are able, within reason, to do something they want to do.

Then there are those who work in order to gain great wealth.  In the classic Disney version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” we are introduced to the dwarfs by means of a song:

We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in a mine the whole day through.
To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig  is what we like to do!
It ain’t no trick to get rich quick when you dig dig dig with a shovel or a pick in a mine.
Where a million diamonds shine…

The pretty clear message about the dwarfs is that they are greedy, interested in only material gain. In fact, they are so greedy, they only do the work that is likely to get them rich—they don’t bother to care for their home, which is in such a dreadful state that Snow White sees the mess, plus all the tiny little beds, and arrives at the conclusion that the house is inhabited by motherless children. It is a great moral advancement for the dwarfs when they come to care more for Snow White than for their own schemes and safety.

And finally, those who work because they are forced to do so: Many of us learned, as children, that slavery was abolished in this country with 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation, a presidential executive order whose promise was delivered in 1865 with the end of the Civil War. It is an uncomfortable truth that slavery still exists, both in this country and elsewhere, though not in the old familiar forms. People are more likely to be defrauded into slavery: tricked by ads to come to this country expecting legitimate jobs, passports confiscated by their new employers, forced to live in squalor while working for nothing or next to nothing, all the while enduring intimidation and violence—for women and children, sexual violence. It’s estimated that between 12 and 27 million people worldwide are affected by this modern day slavery, at least 17,000 of whom are in the United States.

It bears mentioning: God doesn’t like slavery. In the passage we read this morning from Deuteronomy the balance of work and Sabbath are justified by the communal memory of enslavement “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). No one who is not a slave should have to work seven days a week. Those who must are usually a part of a system that is out of whack, inherently unbalanced, or just plain unjust. I am sorry to say that we are living in such a system.  Bill Moyers reported on his website in April that a person earning minimum wage in New York, that’s $7.25 an hour, has to work 136 hours per week to afford to rent an average two-bedroom apartment. There are 168 hours in a week, so that minimum wage worker is left with exactly seven hours per day in which to do all the rest of his or her living, sleeping, grocery shopping, caring for children.[i] The greed of those at the top is killing the working people of this country.

So where does God fit into all this? What’s God’s idea of work?

Scripture has lots of passages in which work is spoken of as a high calling, something truly good and holy. In the first chapters of Genesis—the very beginning of the great story of scripture—God creates the world and then rests, and that pattern is offered elsewhere (Exodus 20:8-11) as yet another rationale for a six-day work week. But something else happens in those chapters as well. After the long and beautiful liturgy of creation—the creation of the day and the night, the sun and moon, the seas and the dry land and the birds, the plants, the animals, the fish and the people to populate them, there is a single verse, so unassuming, you might miss it: “The Lord God took the man” (really, the human, the earth-creature) and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). In this short sentence, God, who has been engaged in this creative activity decides to bring in a partner: human beings. It is our job to be keepers of the world. It is our job to join with God in the great liturgy of creation, to keep co-creating all that is beautiful and necessary for the world to be a habitable place.

In our passage from Ephesians, the writer implores the readers to “lead a life worthy of our callings,” and this includes our calling to be workers on behalf of God, equipping one another, all of us, for ministry, for service to this hurting world.  Work is a holy activity. Saint Benedict of Nursia tells the monks and sisters, straight out, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the community members should have specified periods for manual labor…” Elsewhere, Paul is more brutal: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” he grumbles (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But he doesn’t stop there. And neither does the writer to the Ephesians stop there. We are looking at the number six this week, and what we learned about the number “seven” last week is relevant to what we learn today about “six.” Seven was the number of fullness, completion, perfection. It is a number that tells us something holy is going on. So, it’s not a far stretch to imagine that six is the number that tells us, something human is going on. Remember the creation story? Both human beings and the serpent were created on the sixth day; six is the number of both humanity and imperfection and even rebellion. It is the number, in scripture, of incompleteness, of the lack of God. That is why the sixth commandment is the commandment not to commit murder, and why the sixth petition in the Lord’s Prayer, which we will pray together in a few minutes, is “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” That is why the mark of the beast in Revelation (13:18) is 666, a Hebrew numerical equivalent for the Emperor Nero, that early brutal persecutor of the church.

So, Benedict tells his monks and sisters, “the community members should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading…” He includes a provision for those who are too weak to do manual labor, that they be given something useful to do, so that they don't lose heart. In fact, the ancient way of monastics is a balance between work, prayer, study, and leisure. As balanced lives go, you could do far worse. And the writer to the Ephesians, while listing the various modes of ministry we could participate in, begins with instructions on leading our lives with “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3).

Work is noble and good and holy—even when we don’t love it. Work is what we spend, most of us, one sixth of our days pursuing, and work is a gift from God for our growth and enrichment and the tilling and keeping of this planet. But work is not enough. The work we do has a profound impact on our self-understanding, the people we believe ourselves to be. But work alone leaves us incomplete, partial, un-full, because work alone leaves no space for loving relationships with others, no space for caring for ourselves through nurturing activities, no space for God, who is “the one hope of our calling”—in other words, the One in whom it all make sense, comes together.

And so, in that intriguing way of numbers, six leads us again to seven. Work is good and noble and holy, but work cannot be the totality of who we are as human beings. And the country we live in is a place where, today, those who fall into that category of folks who work to pay the bills but don’t have a lot of choices available to them as to where and how they work, are at the mercy of a system that doesn’t much care if they have time to take a day off to take their kids to the park or to go to church or to synagogue or to the mosque to worship God and to be in community. As we seek to find out how we can lead lives worthy of our calling, we are called, not only to seek balance for ourselves, but to seek justice and the hope of balance for those whose work is very close to slavery. In ourselves we are partial, incomplete, and never full. In God, in our service to one another, in the tangible reality of the body of Christ that binds us together, we can hope to find that which, not only blesses our work, but spills out to bless the whole world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] “Making the Rent on Minimum Wage,” April 2, 2012, Bill Moyers—What Matters Today,

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Faith Countdown: Seven!

Scripture can be found here....

It’s summer! And there are a few things that are different today about our worship—we have J. kindly filling in for H. by playing the piano, we have a preacher in the pulpit without an actual pulpit robe… and we have our annual Summer Sermon Series! Recently during the summer it’s been my custom to depart from the lectionary to do something a little different; two years ago it was “People’s Choice;” last summer it was “Beach Reading.” Today begins a series of seven weeks in which I address something that comes up, every once in a while, but to which we don’t often give a whole lot of attention: numbers in scripture. I’m calling it “Faith Countdown.”

As those of us who spend some time reading the bible know, there are certain numbers that come up again and again. Think, for example, of the number 40: forty days and forty nights of rain in Genesis, while Noah and his family and all those animals bob around in the ark; forty years of wilderness wandering by God’s chosen people after their Exodus from slavery; Jesus’ forty days and forty nights of self-imposed retreat in the desert. In scripture, forty means something, something about the time it takes to be sanctified, tested and toughened, made ready for the challenges ahead. Forty means something. And mostly, when numbers appear in scripture, they mean something, as well.

So today we begin a countdown from seven to one, each sermon addressing a particular number as it is found in a passage of scripture, but also taking note of the overtones, the echoes, if you will, that number brings to the passage.

When I thought of preaching about the number seven, I realized there were many, many overtones and echoes, scriptural and otherwise. So, to begin, what do you think of when you hear the number seven? Anything come to mind?

[Seven days of creation, seven days of the week, seven seals and seven churches of Revelation. There are also the seven brothers married to the woman, all of whom die without fathering children (Luke 20:27-33). The seven brothers of David (1 Samuel 16:10). Seven brides for seven brothers! The first seven deacons, chosen to serve the people (Acts 6). Seven swans-a-swimming! Seventh heaven! The seven seas!]

There are too many incidences of the number seven for us to name them all—both in scripture and in popular culture! And yet, today we read a passage in which the number seven appears to be—almost—incidental, accidental.

So imagine a warm and lovely summer day. Jesus is in Gentile territory, outside his comfort zone, but still doing the things he does: teaching. Healing. Casting out demons. Getting into religious and philosophical “discussions.” And the passage begins by signaling that Jesus is somewhere he has been before: “In those days... there was again a great crowd without anything to eat...” [Mark 8:1]. So, we are to witness another great outdoor picnic—the first Mark tells about happens in chapter 6. And, again, Jesus uses the language of compassion to explain what happens next:

“I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance” [Mark 8:2-3].

And Jesus’ disciples are no dopes. They know what’s coming, because this has happened before. “You give them something to eat,” Jesus had said, just two chapters earlier, when the crowd was closer to home, in more familiar territory, more comfortable. And Jesus then, as now, got some push-back from the disciples. “Are we supposed to spend 200 days’ wages on this group?” they asked him then. This time, it’s even more pointed: “How can [we] feed these people with bread here in the desert?” [Mark 8:4]. We’re not even in our home region. And you keep sending us out without money and food!

And Jesus asks, “How many loaves do you have?” And this time, the answer is “Seven.”

And because the answer is “Seven,” we know that something marvelous is about to happen.

Seven is the number of fullness. Even the Hebrew word for seven, “sheva,” comes from the word that means, “to be full.”

Seven is the number of spiritual fullness. There are seven days in the week, because the time for work is six days and the time for rest, for Sabbath, is the seventh day—and “Sabbath” also comes from that same number, seven, and that same root, meaning fullness. The full week, the spiritually perfect week, is the week that contains the right balance of work and rest.

There are four numbers in the Old Testament that are believed to be “perfect.” Seven is one of those perfect numbers. It is the number of spiritual perfection and fullness, and gives a message—to the disciples who are digging around in their pockets for bread, to the eager and hungry crowds waiting to be fed, and to the readers and hearers of the gospel of Mark as it travels the countryside and city streets of the ancient world. It gives all these listeners a particular message, and the message is this: There will be enough.

There will be enough.

How many of us spend significant portions of our lives dwelling in the anxiety of not knowing whether there will be enough? Will there be enough soap for the dishes, enough kibble for the dog, enough change for the meter? Will there be enough food, enough money, enough work, enough love? How many of us spend significant portions of our lives dwelling in the fear—even the certainty—that there will never be enough?

The message of seven loaves is this: there is enough. There will be enough.

We are encouraged much of the time to believe that there absolutely isn’t enough. Every advertisement is selling us the idea that we don’t have enough, and we’d better get yourself some of this product to correct that problem. And we are asked to make decisions based on this prevailing attitude of scarcity: decisions about our health care and our food consumption and how much we will give and how much we will save and how much we will spend and how much we should have in an endowment.

We are encouraged, most of the time, to embrace the notion of scarcity: to run around secure in the conviction that there isn’t enough, there was never enough, there will never be enough.

But Jesus, by helping the panicky disciples to find seven loaves, is encouraging an entirely different faith: he is asking them—and us—to believe that there is enough, despite perhaps even the evidence of our own senses. That the work of humans plus the blessing of God will always ensure that there is enough. That the first step to “enough” is the practice of compassion. That, even when things are scarce, there are resources we didn’t realize we had, and if we all dig around in our pockets, we may even find a loaf we didn’t realize was there. And that, if we are giving ourselves over to be followers of the one known as the Bread of Life, we will be fed in ways we never dreamed.

And Jesus gives thanks for the seven loaves, and they are shared. And in the end, after a few fish are thrown in for good measure, the excess, the extra food, amounts to seven baskets. Enough, and more than enough. We are fed by our compassionate God, and we are encouraged to compassionately feed one another, and to know: in this world that God created, when people stop panicking and start sharing, a miracle occurs. There is enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.