Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Vegetarian Lions and The War on Christmas by Rev. Debra McKnight

Isaiah 11

Isaiah is putting together some pretty powerful images.  He is offering parings that seem impossible.  The scripture imagines that the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp and if you search asp google will promptly offer you photos of an Egyptian Cobra.  Isaiah does not stop there, he says, “the weaned Child shall put its hand on the adder’s den”..which means a toddler is hanging out with a whole host of snakes in the viper family.  This is a scenario you will never find encouraged in a parenting handbook.  The thought of my own baby playing in a den of poisonous snakes is so terrifying I thought about cutting this stanza from the poem.  I mean Babies hanging out with Snakes…is not the theme for a child’s nursery. 

 Isaiah is committed to these impossible pairings.  A pack of wolves hanging out with sweet little lambs, not even grown up sheep.  The calf, the sweet baby cow with those big brown eyes is hanging with a Lion and his mama cow is grazing near by with the bear that has developed a sudden taste for grass.  It’s like suddenly all these veracious predators have had an epiphany and decided to be vegetarians.  I like to imagine the wolf telling the Lion, “Oh I just have so much more energy on this green diet, you know plus I just feel good knowing my food is ethically sourced.” And the Lion nods while the Leopard and says, “Yeah, plus I have so much free time without all that hunting and its been kind of great getting to know the goats…you know one actually made a joke about having a BBQ.”  They pause awkwardly…”Such a kidder.”  And really its one thing to be the Lion or the Wolf but to be the sheep or the cows; stuck hopping none of your new friends have a relapse or remember that they don’t have four stomachs for processing grasses.  That’s faith right there.

Isaiah is writing about the impossible.  Snakes and toddlers living in harmony.  Lambs and wolves taking a little nap together, the lions and bears eating straw…you know…just chewing the cud with the cows…Isaiah doesn’t even need to say, ”though it may seem impossible, nothing is impossible for the Lord.”  He has pretty much clarified that God dreams an impossible dream.  Isaiah offers this word when Israel is in an impossible place.  Their days of being the Lion are long gone.  They are not the regional power they were when David was king.  He rose to power when other regional superpowers were in decline.  So with a bit of charisma, violence, cunning and luck David not only rises from obscurity into royalty, he takes his country with him.  They become an imperial power, they become the lion but no matter how much David invests into the future of Israel, his grandsons and great-grandsons will struggle.  And now they are the lamb and they are circled again and again by violent and deadly armies.  

If you read about this time period in Kings you will find an interesting litany.  Every chapter or so the new king is named, his parents and then it will say he did what was evil in the sight of the lord.  Over and other, the king, his parents and he did what was evil in the sight of the lord.  Clearly being king has a pass/fail grading system and only two pass.  Only two kings do what is right in the sight of the Lord.

The two right and just kings, the two good kings are Hezekiah and his grandson Josiah. They are notable for their commitment to their faith identity.  They are committed to listening to God and to being a part of the covenant that their fathers and grandfathers shared with God before them.  And when they commit to the covenant they re-commit Israel.  Israel has a complicated history of not listening or living into the covenant and the kings really highlight this struggle.  Listening to the covenant means putting the vulnerable first and creating just working conditions but most kings don’t grow kingdoms that way.  Additionally, as the nation grew in power, the opportunity to grow even more was enhanced by marriage.  A princess from another country brought wealth, trade agreements, access to goods and she brought her Gods.  Having many God’s complicates a covenant to the One God of Israel but they keep trying it anyway.  Jerusalem became a cosmopolitan city and priests and practices, altars and shrines from other faith traditions took their place in Israel, in Jerusalem and even in the temple that belonged to the One God of Israel.  Some of these practices involved priestly prostitutes and child sacrifice, practices Israel had long ago abolished.  And the relationship between people who want to be faithful to the covenant with God grow in conflict with the royal family that increasingly drifts from the covenant.  Hezekiah and Josiah go on a rampage cleaning house.  They tear down the altars and shrines and remove and even kill the priests.  And it begs the question is that what it means to do what is right in the sight of the Lord?  Do you have to remove the alternatives?

Israel has always had a mindfulness about their identity and about maintaining it often to the exclusion of others but that has not always been with an attitude of purity.  They celebrate the story of Ruth.  Ruth a Moabite who loves her mother-in-law so deeply that she will risk it all to journey with her, works the fields and even secures a new son and her family land by marring Naomi’s relative, Boaz.  Ruth is celebrated.  She is honored.  She is an outsider, from a different tribe with different Gods and she is King David’s grandmother.  David understood the covenant with God was about listening and about being faithful, just like his Grandmother Ruth.  David understood that even as he made mistakes God was still part of his family.

Every Christmas there are debates and discussions about a war on Christmas.  News personalities with great passion will argue that we are loosing our christian identity and that christmas is under attack….not because Lexus uses the name of a peasant baby born in a barn to sell luxury automobiles but because a cashier says Happy Holidays.  We live in a nation where we don’t have to doubt a vast majority will have Christmas day off of work and yet there will be a month of ranting and raving about Christians being oppressed because public school children don’t sing Christmas Carols anymore.  I suspect this energy is not a reflection of wanting deeper faithfulness as much as it is an anxiety about change.

Fifty years ago you could open up a Methodist church in any new suburb and the people that grew up Methodist would show up.  There was no need to prod, market or invite and if anyone got really angry with their church they might do something crazy like become Luthern.  Fifty years ago there were probably people lining up to join the finance committee or to serve as a trustee or to help bake cakes for the funeral lunch.  Maybe people were just better or maybe they really worked a forty hour work week.  Regardless, no one really gets enthusiastic about serving on a committee today.  Fifty years ago you could pray before the high school football game and you just had to make sure the Methodist pastor shared with the Baptist preacher and the Catholic priest.

The world is different and I don’t think we have to see it as a threat.  It’s not really even new…maybe just new to some of us.  Diversity is an ancient reality.  Maybe we are just starting to get back to the kind of diversity that the our faith ancestors negotiated on a daily basis…I mean Jesus is talking about people going to the Hebrew temple caring Roman coins and that is really just the start.  We live in a world where people are free to choose; choose their faith and even choose none.  You see when people can really freely choose, their choice means something.  When people can choose they can be rooted in their tradition.  

Maybe that’s what makes a king right in the sight of the Lord.  Maybe it’s not the removing of choices as much as it is this one thing that King Hezekiah and King Josiah practice.  They go into the temple and they pray.  They are the only kings that go to the temple; they listen, they read the sacred texts and they urge people to practice their faith.  They are the bearers of the covenant and they find themselves rooted in it.  It allows King Hezekiah to make a decision when the ruthless Assyrians are surrounding the city, proclaiming destruction and violence.  He listens to God, seeks council from the Prophets and maybe the covenant reminded him to care about the people so much that he turns out to be one of the only kings invest in the infrastructure of walls, tunnels and wells that could save his people.

We have the chance to do what is right in the sight of God and continue Isaiah’s wild dream.  Maybe if he was writing today he would day, Isaiah would add the Republican will sit down with the Democrat.  And the person with the Jesus fish tattoo will dip his toes in the water of the Jordan with his Jewish neighbor and his muslim friend.   Maybe the American general will sit down with the Afghan child.  Maybe the man that drives the car with the “GUN control means using both hands” bumper sticker will sit down with the father that lost his five year old daughter in the Sandy Hook School shooting.  Maybe the politician calling for war will sit down with the wounded warrior longing for peace.  We have a table.  It’s God’s table and we are invited to dream big about who can sit down at the feast.  May it be so, Amen.

One baby's response to the idea of playing with snakes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When Pharaoh says, "Call the Midwives!" by Rev. Debra McKnight

We all know the story of Moses.  It not only looms large in three major faith traditions but if you register for baby gifts you will find there is a thing called a Moses basket…which is not actually intended for use in the nearest river.  The story of Moses is dependent on five Middle Eastern women and historically the church’s cycle of readings called the lectionary has skipped them.  Shifrah and Puah are two of them.  They are Midwives and we join them as they are being called into the Pharaoh’s office.  Some of us can relate to being called into the Principal’s office or maybe even the Bishop’s office… or maybe some other office that invites a wave of anxiety or fear.  As much as we may not want to dawn that door, I am certain the Pharaoh’s office is worse.  With a glance or a gesture the Pharaoh certainly could have them disappeared, exiled, jailed or executed.  Fear and terror at the thought of seeing Pharaoh is reasonable but the Bible says they weren’t afraid of Pharaoh.  

The Bible says they fear the Lord.   They fear God.  I can understand them fearing Pharaoh but the thought of fearing God, well that is unsettling.  A good number of us have spent years trying to let go of notions or images of a scary, punishing, damming God.  But that’s not what the Hebrew Bible means when ancient voices say they feared God.  It is a three fold meaning braided together and I’m not sure that is captured in our translation.  The first strand, is awe.  Standing in awe and wonder before the mystery of God’s presence.  And translators may have said, “the Midwives thought God was totally Awesome"…but they didn’t want to risk sounding like 90’s valley girls or the script from “Clueless.”  The second stand is listening, it is being in relationship and covenant with an awe inspiring presence.  The third strand is discipline.  It is practice.  So fearing the Lord means not only listening in the awesome presence of God but doing something about it.  Fearing the Lord means your life reflects your faith.  It means to take a stand and a risk and when you make mistakes you try again.  Shifrah and Puah fear God and that means they don’t fear Pharaoh.  

The only one truly afraid in this story is Pharaoh.  He is afraid of this growing ethic minority within his nations boarders, the Hebrews.  As they grow so does his fear.  While he may have everything he is terrified of losing it.  I imagine him tossing and turning in bed, wondering what if they take over, what if they are loyal to some other country, what if we all have to speak Hebrew.  He is so afraid of loosing everything, his power, his privilege and his stuff.  Which seems further ironic because he quite literally has everything because of the work of a former Hebrew Slave named Joseph, you know the one with the technicolor dream coat.  A previous Pharaoh listened to Joseph and prepared for a coming drought.  Now a leader preparing to feed people when they are starving…that might be a story of about the kingdom of God but this story is about an earthly king.  And that king takes his advantage.  Joseph is the lead administrator and when the land is of little value and the farmers will do anything to feed their family, he buys it.  Joseph secures absolute power  for the Pharaoh who in turn thanks him with choice real-estate in the Nile Delta.

Maybe the new Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph.  Or maybe he always through someone else should have had that job or that land…you know someone more Egyptian.  Maybe he didn’t know Joseph but perhaps he went to school with one of his sons or his grandsons.   That guy was probably picked first for kick ball, he was probably voted most likely to succeed or crowned prom king and he probably won the spelling bee which is a huge insult since Egyptian isn’t even his first language. Maybe the Pharaoh was always interested in Joseph's great granddaughter and she never texted him back.  Maybe there were slurs, maybe everyone thought why do those people get to live on the best piece of land around the Nile.  Maybe there were jokes, you know the kind you can’t say in church, about those Hebrews reproducing like rabbits.  We have to imagine the details of why and how but we know he is afraid.  He is terrified that this group of people will team up with an enemy and help over run Egypt or maybe they will be come so powerful he will lose all of his.  And even through he is more afraid of loosing his own power then he is of the Hebrew people he sets Egypt on a course of genocide.  

Of course, genocide is a modern word with a long and ugly tradition.  We know it.  We have seen it and learned about it.  We know it starts with slurs and slander.  It starts with stereotypes that diminish and belittle.  Sometimes it looks like generations of hatred and violence.  Sometimes it looks like people rounded up into camps and onto reservations.  Sometimes it looks like patches, uniforms and numbers in permeant ink.  Sometimes it looks like forced labor and starvation.  Sometimes it looks like mass graves and smoke stacks.  We know it.  On occasion, we in this country have been perpetrators and on occasion we have been liberators.

Pharaoh’s course of action looks like many others.  It begins with labor, forced labor.  But that doesn’t break the spirit of the people.  Then ruthless, cruel, impossible labor but that doesn’t break the Hebrew people down.  So now he has decreed that all sons born to hebrew women will be killed.  And he expects the midwives to do his dirty work.  Now you may be able to convince the people you pay like solders to carry out acts of cruelty and violence, they may even come up with some added insults on their own.  Your money might help you sway the public opinion to buy into the fear and stereotypes.  You might get people to put ugly bumper stickers on their chariots and you might be able to get the media to shape the story in your favor.  You may be able to get some religious leader to rial people up enough that they carry signs to say, “God HATES HEBREWS.”  There may be some ‘academic’ that writes a landmark paper or makes a great play that proves Egyptians are just morally, physically and mentally superior.  And you may even be able to silence your objectors.  But convincing midwives, women who stand in the sacred threshold of life, to kill a baby.  I don’t think so.

They are midwives.  They stand at the threshold of life and of death.  When there is a man who is nervous or belligerent or losing his lunch because of this delivery…they know how to handle him.  If there is a matriarch making all the wrong comments at all the right moments…they know how to handle her.  They know how to coach the most timid of women into loud screams of strength.  They are there at the threshold of life and death; coaching, soothing, urging.  They know how to focus a woman through the pain and panic of labor.  They know how to stay calm when even they fear the worst.  And I suspect that midwives have a sacred and holy calling and they know that a woman can die be she rich or poor.  They know a baby can die by he Hebrew or Egyptian.  They know a healthy mother with a healthy baby bring relief and joy whether they are surrounded by animals in a manger or marble in a palace. 

They know something about life and the sacred that Pharaoh doesn’t or has forgotten, and so when they are called to his office they may bow before Pharaoh but they don’t bow to him.  They take him by the hand and subvert his call to genocide.  “Oh Pharaoh,” I imagine them saying, “you know you just wouldn’t understand what it’s like?  How could you your a man.  You see, just like you said Hebrew people are strong and robust…you know those mothers just deliver so fast we can’t even get out of the house fast enough to be there.”  They will not be tools of one man’s quest for destruction.  They will not deal death and honor his fear.  They honor a higher calling.  They fear the Lord not Pharaoh.  They stand in awe of life and act to care for it.

We are called to do the same.  To stand with the midwives who have brought us safe this far.  We are called to use our hands for guiding life into the world.  To wipe the sweat from anthers brow and to urge them forward in the quest of giving life.  We are called to open our hearts and minds to ask questions and restore hope.  We are called to be midwives birthing justice and subverting norms.  May we have the courage.  Amen.

Rev. McKnight one year ago...when she was about to call the midwife.