If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Prepare the Way: an Advent sermon

The senses come alive during this holiday season. The smell of burning candles rising into the air. The lights of the Christmas tree shimmering in the darkness. The warmth of a crackling fire while sipping a hot cup of chocolate with small marshmallows floating on top. Ahhhhhh… and the hushed silence of snowflakes gently falling on the…PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD! MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!!

John the Baptist enters the Advent season like a bull in a china closet. Amid the jingling of bells and carolers singing “Joy to the world,” we hear a cry that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. The grating voice of the Baptist disturbs our tender thoughts of a cooing baby in a makeshift crib. His ragged message of repentance seems as out of place as a wild eyed soup box preacher interrupting a presentation of Handel’s Messiah. John the Baptist brings strange gifts to our Advent table. Instead of a golden brown turkey, we get locusts with wild honey dip. In place of a new night robe and warm cotton lined slippers, we get scratchy camel’s hair with a leather belt.

Even so, if we are going to welcome the good news from the sweet voices of angels from on high, we will need to first listen to the raspy voice of John the Baptist crying out down there in the wilderness.

Listen…listen carefully to that distant voice crying out in the wilderness. The Baptist cries out for us to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. His voice echoes through the wilderness canyons. His apocalyptic cry has political overtones. In John’s day there were other prophets, like the one known as the Egyptian and is referred to in the book of Acts, who called the people of Israel out into the wilderness. It wasn’t because these prophets thought the desert might be a good place to spread their message. They cried out in the wilderness in a type of ritual reenactment of Moses’ deliverance of the slaves from Egypt through the wilderness and Joshua’s crossing the Jordan river in conquest of the Promised Land. Wilderness and river represented places of liberation from their oppressors and the possession of their land.

This may be the background of John’s prophetic wail in the wilderness. As Israel moans under the heavy weight of Roman imperialism, John the Baptist calls her out over the wilderness and through the river, the places where Israel was once liberated from the bonds of Egypt and took the land as their own. His cry in the wilderness may have been heard as an anticipation or preparation for liberation from Roman domination as the beginning of the coming reign of God. The symbolism of the setting was probably not lost on the politicians of the day, particularly king Herod. It wouldn’t be long for Herod to end a dinner date with John’s head on a dinner plate.

Words like “politics” “oppression,” “imperialism” and “liberation” are not words we necessarily want intruding into our Advent meditations. Who wants to hear the harsh voice of the Baptist howling, “Prepare the Way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”? We might more readily welcome his words if his announcement was akin to “O, you better watch out. You better not cry. Jesus Christ is coming to town!” You know what, when the words John quoted were first uttered, they did come as welcomed words. John was quoting the prophet Isaiah, who first spoke those words in the days of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. The imagery Isaiah uses is from the practice of clearing the pathway of a potentate or god in preparation for the ruler’s procession to the city in order to be inaugurated as the sovereign of the people.

Bumps were leveled. Potholes were filled. Rocks were removed. Weeds were pulled up. Crooked places were straightened for the ruler’s procession to his people. Isaiah uses this imagery to proclaim a word of hope to his people sitting with drooping faces and arms limp at their sides in Babylonian captivity. “Prepare the way for God, who comes to liberate you and lead you across the wilderness, where God will reign among you in your own land,” cries the prophet Isaiah. Now, that’s a welcome Advent message.

John uses Isaiah’s imagery to tell his people to prepare the pathway for the One who comes bringing salvation and liberation to the people. Prepare the way! Remove the injustices and inequities that block God’s pathway. Lift up those valleys sunken by despair and despondency. Knock down the haughty hills of pride and prejudice. Prepare the way for God, who comes bringing justice and liberation through the messiah.

I remember picking up an edition of The Marketplace, a Mennonite business magazine, and seeing on the cover a roadway full of poor, barefoot Haitians clearing stones from a dirt road. With hoes and hands they removed rocks, filled in holes, and knocked down bumps in the roadway. These roadways are the only route for bringing in food supplies, gaining access to medical facilities, and transporting products to market. The new smooth roads are a vein pumping life blood to some of the poorest people in the world. These roads are highways of hope. Mennonite business people have been about the business of preparing the way. They have helped the Haitian people fill in their valleys with fruit trees and improved springs of water. They have assisted them in smoothing out the rough places of 125 roads and 5 dilapidated bridges. The glory of the Lord has been revealed in the form of food, livelihood, and healing medicines coming down those smooth roadways. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!

This may not be the Advent message we were hoping to hear amid the consumerist clamor. It is the season to buy and consume, not to care for the poor and hungry. ‘Tis is the season to be jolly and to trample someone to death in order to be the first to get a bargain at the department store! We don’t need no sermons on liberation and caring for the poor, preacher. It’s not something we like to hear. Even my 4 year old grandson, Gavin, knows that. What we need is a more cheery message during Advent.

One evening coming home from school my wife our grandson, Gavin, if he had a good day at school. Gavin cheerfully said, “Everyone in the world had a good day.” Iris responded, “Well, not everyone had a good day. Some people are poor and don’t have anything to eat. You would’nt want to be without anything to eat, would you? Gavin came back, “I don’t need no sermon talk!” In other words, “Don’t preach to me your pious moralisms!” 'Tis the season to be jolly! Who wants to hear “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” during Advent? I don’t need no sermon talk.

Many did not want to hear this kind of “sermon talk” from another Baptist of our own day---Martin Luther King, Jr. We resisted his prophetic words, because it meant changing our way of life. And it still does. Martin used the very words of Isaiah in his I have a Dream speech in at the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C. (Get the symbolism of the setting?) He was not there just to create a warm, fuzzy Kum-Ba-Yah moment with blacks and whites holding hands and singing in harmony. His speech was both a sharpened prophetic vision of the reign of God and a concrete political and spiritual call for an end to white racism, discrimination, and segregation.
Like the prophets Isaiah and John, Martin stood in the wilderness of racial inequality and proclaimed:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted,
Every hill and mountain shall be made low,
The rough places shall be made plain,
And the crooked places shall be made straight
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed
and all flesh will see it together.
I have a dream…

And for the messenger, like John the Baptist Martin would end up with his head on a platter, so to speak. Prepare a way for the Lord! Make his paths straight! Do we really want to hear this harsh message during Advent? Do we want to listen to some cranky old voice denouncing racism after we have heard the joyful cheers around the world as Barack Obama, an African-American, was elected to the highest office in our land? Is the old sad song of antiracism what we want to hear when white racism seems to many people to be an anachronism, a thing of the past? Aren’t we now a post-racial nation?

Did we really need an open letter from Jim Schrag, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, going out to congregations during the 2008 Advent season about racism? Isn’t it just another “sermon talk,” pious platitudes amid the joyful sounds of “peace on earth, good will to all’? Doesn’t it sound too political? Doesn’t it just leave a sour taste in the church’s mouth? Isn’t Jim just “preaching to the choir”? Listen to this voice crying out in the wilderness of Mennonite Church USA:

Whether you voted or not in the recent election, or who you voted for, is not the issue about which I am writing. The issue is that the election of an African-American brings hope to our nation with its past record of discrimination and racism. At the same time it brings danger to our president-elect in threats of harm based on the color of his skin. People of color throughout our nation, some who may be our fellow church members, close neighbors, are experiencing new harassment and threats from some whites who are fearful, resentful or feel threatened by the election of President-Elect Obama.

Now we face a time when we must give witness to what we have said we believe. We are not dependent upon the political process to witness for justice and equality; these are not mere ideals of our nation, they are part of our witness of faith in Jesus and the power of His Gospel.

We are called to give witness that the healing of nations comes when Christians live up to the teachings of Christ in our daily lives. Now in this historic time of opportunity and danger, we must speak and act in witness of life, not fear and death. When we see oppression born of fear, we will speak against it. When we observe racist behavior, or hear racist language or stories, we will not silently ignore it, especially when we see and hear this among Christians, even in our own congregations. We have an active role to play in our congregations, community, at our places of employment, and in our social interactions. We can help to turn around a conversation from something negative and frightening by witnessing with our positive listening and speaking.

We are all created in God’s image. We will live our lives in witness of this truth from scripture. Now is a particularly important time to offer this clear and certain witness for the “one new humanity” in Christ.

Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! It’s seems such an intrusive message into this Advent season.

What makes the message so intrusive is that it calls for us to change. Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand! Change the direction of your lives! It sounds so guilt-producing. It seems such a negative message for Advent. In our seeker-sensitive-megachurch-consumer-oriented-self-absorbed-war-is-okay-until-it-becomes-inconvenient-culture words like “sin” and “repent” and “redemption” go over like a lead balloon.

This attitude is reflected in a Doonesbury comic strip. The “Reverend” is explaining to a couple inquiring about church membership about the basic approach of his Little Church on Walden:

Reverend: I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity. Basically I believe we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, its about recommitment, about redemption. It’s all in the brochure there.

Wife: Wait a minute---sinners? Redemption? Doesn’t that imply guilt?

Husband: I dunno, there’s so much negativity in the world as it is.

Wife: That’s right. We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.

Husband: On the other hand, you do offer racketball.

Wife: So do the Unitarians, honey. Let’s shop around some more .

There you have it--- John’s abrasive message for Advent. Do we have Advent ears open to hear what he is really saying? Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand! The dominion of heaven is near! The age of God’s reign is just around the corner. The time is coming when God will cut down the trees of self-centeredness and injustice at the root. The season is at hand when peace and hope will bud and bloom. The day when war and violence shall forever cease is upon us. The hour when we will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character is at the doorstep.

As the streets are decorated with wreaths and fake snow is sprayed on windows, the time is close at hand. As we make our shopping list and check it twice, the kingdom is coming! As we decorate the tree with lights and get out the Christmas recipes, the reign of God has a foot in the door. So, prepare a way for the Lord! Make his paths straight!

If we’re going to prepare the way for the coming reign of God, we better get started now. Grab a hoe. Get a shovel. Fill in a pothole. Level the road. Pick up a rock. Pull up a weed. Volunteer to feed the hungry. Work on a project for peace. Dismantle white racism. Let go of some of your privileges and possessions. Welcome a stranger. Visit a prisoner. For God’s dominion has already begun. God is coming down the highway of this wilderness world. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!

The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas reminds us that the coming reign of God we prepare the way for is already here:

(Jesus’) disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather the kingdom (of God) is spread out upon the earth, and (people) do not see it.”

From the baptismal waters John cried out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” It was nearer than even John could imagine. But, thanks be to God, he had Advent eyes to see. For the road sign pointing to God’s reign stepped into the muddy waters of the Jordan river right next to him. He opened his eyes and looked at Jesus, stepping into the muddy Jordan river and said, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The Messiah of God’s dominion has come. Do we have Advent eyes to see even now God’s reign is spread out across this wilderness world?

Look. An older man kneels in the front to the church to be initiated. He has just found faith. The water drips from his head. His smile is brighter than the Advent candles. Look. Soldiers are packing their camouflage duffle bags in Iraq and unloading their weapons. An army airplane hums outside their tent. It’s taking them home. Listen. The chatter of people waiting in line sounds like a Christmas carol. A doctor is spooning some stuffing into the plate of a homeless woman at the shelter. He does this every year during his vacation time. Listen. Children shout and laugh as water gushes from a newly built pump just finished in their village.

Listen…listen closely…can you hear it? A distant coyote is howling in the wilderness and a faint voice is crying out…Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Burning God: an old poem by Leo Hartshorn

flood my soul, O burning God
with light eternal shining brilliant
brighten my spirit against the darkness
that covers the world like thick tar

open the windows of the eternal
and blow a fresh wind across my face
that I might breathe in deep
the sweet air of freedom

as I live in the autumn of my days
cause my eyes to see the spring of life
fresh, alive, vibrant with color
dancing in the breeze of the Spirit

feed me with the bread of wisdom
and I will break off a piece and share
with others the food of my God
Baker and Maker of light

Thursday, November 26, 2009

life is not simple: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

life is not simple
no one, two, three steps
to peace and serenity
no bumpersticker morality
can capture ethical complexity
those who make it look easy
spent years struggling
in the fox holes of the heart

the preacher of singular purpose
does not speak for me
or for millions
caught in the teeth of time
who have married miss-fortune
and wear the rags of uncertainty

i would beg to differ
with the one road to happiness
the sure fire way to success
the prosperity in your pocket
messages of simpletons
who don't see life as it is
in its raw jagged-edged
complex and ambiguous beauty

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Gate and the Gap: A word from beyond the chasm

I remember being stunned when I first read Ron Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger back in the late 70's. Sider's book, which has been re-published several times, is a both a biblical study on wealth and poverty and a critique of the widening gap between the rich and the poor in our world. Reading the statistics on poverty was enough to send my head and heart reeling. But, what cracked open my eyeswas his compilation of biblical texts dealing with wealth and poverty. You see, I had been reading the Bible through the lens of a fundamentalist perspective, which was more concerned about dotting the eyes on its doctrine and sending souls safely off to the next life, than it was with compassion for the poor and feeding hungry bodies in this life. I started to see that the law, the prophets, and Jesus' life and teachings were crowded with words of warning about wealth and good news to the poor. I started to see my own world was crowded with people who lived in desperate poverty without enough to eat. My eyes were opened to another world on the other side of the gate.

The Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is one of those stories I read with new eyes. It was no longer just a story about heaven and hell. It became a story about life and death issues here and now. Jesus' parable paints two worlds---the world of Dives, Latin for "rich man", and the world of Lazarus, which means "God helps." The world of Dives and Lazarus are separated by a gate, but life in these worlds is as far apart as the earth is from the moon.

Take a look at the world of Dives. Peer through the gate from poor Lazarus' side. Dives is dressed in purple cloth and fine linen, signs of wealth and honor. He feasts at a table spread with sumptuous foods. Roasted hens. Nuts. Figs. Dates. Pomegranates. Jugs of wine. Dives wipes his greasy hands with bread and tosses it underneath the table. Boy, don't those rich people live high off the hog!

On Dives side of the gate you might see paper thin supermodels strutting down the runway in the latest Paris fashions. Racks and racks of clothing hanging at the department store of your choice. Muslin and mink, silk and suede, leather and lace. More styles of shoes than Heinz has pickles. Jewelry, diamonds, rubies, earrings, watches that can wake you up in the morning. And the food, glorious food, on Dives side of the gate! There is a smorgasbord to choose from. Turkey and chicken, steak and pork, Caesar salad, egg salad, tuna salad, chicken noodle soup, tomato soup, celery soup, Clam chowder, Reuben sandwich, roast beef sandwich, cheese steak sandwich, corn, potatoes, green beans, snow peas, with your choice of low sodium or cooked in butter. Wine, champagne, mixed drinks, apple juice, lemonade, milk, chocolate, sodas and teas in every flavor under the sun. And don't forget desert. Pumpkin, cherry, apple, lemon marangue, shoofly pie, ice cream, sundaes, banana splits with a cherry on top! Mmmmm!

On Dives side of the gate you might run into Donald Trump or Bill Gates with their billion dollar fortunes, their big casinos, their big houses, their big yachts. 0, those rich people have it all at their fingertips. Greedy, selfish people. You may not have all their money but you can turn on the TV and dream of being rich as you watch So You Want to Be a Millionaire or buy a ticket and hope to win the Powerball lottery. You may not be rich, but you still have your shiny new car, truck, jeep, van, convertible, station wagon, Ford, Chevy, Dodge, GM, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Honda, hybrid, or whatever you drive. You may not be rich, but you can turn on your surround sound stereo, CD player, Wii, Xbox, blu-ray player, surf the internet, watch over 1000 channels on your flat screen TV, call your friends on the cell phone or iphone. You may not be rich, but you can eat Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Soul Food, Southern style, Ethiopian, Indian, or go out to just plain ol’ McDonald’s, Carl’s Junior, Wendy’s, Burgerville, or Taco Bell for a change. Then, you can go to the spa, gym, weightlifting, aerobics, Tae Bo, Pilates, or get your own home equipment to work off all that food. You may not be rich, but you can still go to the bookstore, clothes store, furniture store, craft store, tool store, lawn care store, or pet store. And, thank God, there's always that one place where it all comes together….the mall! You may not be rich? Well, maybe we do live on Dives side of the gate!

Now, take a gander through the gate at Lazarus' side of the tracks. Look over at Lazarus' world. Lazarus is lying by the gate. He has no energy. Life is drained from his body. His arms and legs are covered with infected, runny sores. Flies buzz around them. Street dogs lick his wounds. Is it out of compassion or are they tasting their next meal? Lazarus' stomach is bloated. It growls like the dogs. Wet eyes look through the gate to see if a tossed scrap of bread might fall from Dives' table and land near his paper thin arms.

On Lazarus' side of the gate you might meet two-thirds of the world. 1.3 billion living in absolute poverty. A simple wardrobe or rags hang on their bodies. No shoes. A little rice and beans. Maybe some tortillas. Bad water. Sometimes nothing but empty stomachs. Starvation. Glassy eyes and supermodel-thin arms and legs. Walking skeletons. Open sores. Disease. No medical insurance. Few doctors. Long hour bending over in the fields or standing in welfare lines. Dirty diaper and alcohol smells. Run arounds and put downs. Frustration and anger seething. Drug dealers on the corner. Trash on the streets. At times it can be a hell hole. For heaven's sake, let's not linger long. Looking through the gate is too horrible, too painful. It makes us feel helpless, hopeless, and guilty. Lazarus' world overwhelms us. Be assured, we are on Dives' side. Everything will be all right in our world. Thank God, there's a gate that still separates us ... from them!

O, that gate. It separates Dives from Lazarus, rich from poor, insiders from outsiders. According to the prophet Amos, the gate is a place of judgment, where justice is to be done for the poor (Amos 5). If only Dives would have opened the gate, or at least passed threw a scrap of bread. But, I understand how tough that is. As I look back through the gate think I spot ol’ Bill Hawkins. Bill was a 62 year old, with a slow walk and mind. He lived in a rundown house painted proudly in red, white and blue, the colors of our great nation of tired and poor and huddled masses. Anyway, I got pulled into his world because he lived across the street from one of the deacons of the church where I was pastor. I was called upon to occasionally visit Bill. He wore old, Goodwill, secondhand clothes that smelled of body odor. His yard was knee high in grass, weeds, trash, and rusty vehicles.
I remember holding my breath as I walked into his home through piles of garbage on the floor.

Bill showed me his altar with pictures of Jesus and his mother lit by burning candles. At the time he had been hit by a Ford Mustang and was on crutches. His sole companion was his dog. "Me and my puppy is all I got," Bill said. He had no wealthy relatives, no brothers or sisters, no income, no disability or health insurance. I remember taking him to the Free Clinic and waiting there six hours to see a doctor. I wasn't being an angel. I was frustrated as a demon trying to get Mother Teresa's attention. Bill was used to waiting upon help from others. Or was he? The world on the other side of the gate is not a heaven on earth.

So, I can understand not wanting to linger too long on Lazarus' side of the gate. Helping Lazarus can take up your precious time. He's always in need of food, money, gas, rental assistance, payment for doctor bills, or some kind of help. Thank heavens, Lazarus is on the other side of the gate. He can become a bit dependent, expensive, and time consuming. And if you want to change Lazarus situation it’s a bigger issue than charity and a hand out. It’s also trying to change the whole darn system that creates m ore Lazarus’ than you can shake a dollar at.

Knowing that, let's not come down too hard on ol’ Dives. Dives worked hard for his money, while Lazarus lays around the gate doing nothing. Why toss it away on lazy Lazarus. Besides, Lazarus would probably just go out and spend it on booze. Besides, if you help Lazarus it’s not going to change anything for all those others in his situation. So, why do anything for him? Cut Dives some slack. Maybe Dives thought of Lazarus when he was tossing his bread napkins under the table. Maybe he was just too busy to take them over to the gate. Mercy takes time. You know how busy life can get taking care of your children, your home, your friends, your work. Who knows? Dives might have been pondering the plight of Lazarus when he scraped piles of leftovers from his plates. "Remember all those hungry kids in China," he might have told his children. Away from the table Dives might have flicked past a TV commercial displaying a child with hungry eyes pleading, "Have mercy." I'll bet he was probably going to sit down and write out a check to World Vision or MCC or Sally Struthers or somebody who helps those kind of people. It must have just slipped his mind. For pity's sake, you can understand that, can't you? Mercy me, it's not like helping the poor is a life or death decision.

Lazarus dies. I wonder if he died from hunger. I wonder if he even got a descent burial. It doesn't say. Lazarus is carried away like a newborn baby to the rock-a-my-soul-in-the-bosom-of-Abraham. Abraham was a rich man. Now, ain't that a kick in the head. A rich man in heaven. Remember, Abraham, along with his wife Sarah, was also rich in hospitality. They fed three strangers at their gate. And, glory be, the strangers turned out to be God Almighty in cognito. Whew! Old Abe was lucky he treated them strangers nice. On the other side, where heaven's hospitality spreads its bountiful table, Lazarus is robed in God's justice. He feasts on the fatness of God's banquet.

Around the same time, Dives kicks the bucket. Maybe it was some bad caviar. You've got to watch out for bad fish eggs. He must have gotten more than a decent burial. Funeral home, hearse, organ, flowers, stone monument, the works. But, things get turned around in the world on the other side of the gate of life. Dives, poor soul. becomes a helluva guy. Literally. He ends up cooking like a potato in the Devil's stew. Gone to the dogs. No medical coverage for his fevered brow. No fire insurance. Not even a drop of water to quench his raging thirst. You would think that he would have changed his menu there in Hell's kitchen. No way. He feeds on the same old stuff he fed on as in his life.

Dives is still trusting in his family and religious heritage to save him. "Father Abraham," he cries. Even in Hades, Dives is still self- centered. "Father Abraham, have mercy on me." He still thinks of Lazarus as a second-class citizen and is trying to boss him around. "Father Abraham, have mercy on me, send Lazarus, my waterboy. The flames are licking my sore legs." Dives is cooking in his own sour juices. He is still imprisoned by his own narrow self-interests. "Father Abraham, I beg you, have mercy and send Lazarus to my father's house to my five brothers. Have him warn them so they don't end up tormented like me." As if his family was the only family, the only people in the world. Poor Dives, still trying to protect home and hearth. Still trying to protect the comfy world of plenty. Still reinforcing the bars that separate the two worlds. Except, in the world on the other side of life, the gate has been locked. It is now an unchangeable chasm, an unbridgeable gulf, an impassable gap.

If only someone from the dead could come back across the gap and give us the score. Tell it like it is. Show us how we build gates that separate the rich from poor, the haves from the have nots, the insiders from the outsiders. Have mercy, Lord. If only some resurrected person could come and tell us some good news, like how we can open the gate and unfix the gap. If only three Charles-Dickens-holy-ghosts could come to us in the dead of night to save us from ourselves. Or what about an Emmaus-road-resurrected- stranger who could walk along side us and teach us the law and the prophets, then we could invite him over for dinner and he could break bread with us. Then our eyes would be opened and we would recognize him. Mercy, Lord.

No. We don't need someone to come back from the dead to tell us the truth, to transcend this gap, to bridge the chasm. We have the bridge of this story. We have the bridge of Jesus’ words. We have the bridge of Scripture. We have preachers and teachers and storytellers and poets to tell us. We have a message from across the other side. We’ve already heard the voice from across the chasm. The voice has already said, “You have the poor with you always. You are your brother’s and sister's keeper. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Visit the prisoner. Care for the widow and orphan. Welcome the stranger and outcast.” So, hear God's Word from beyond the gate and have mercy.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Wedding of Thanks and Giving: a Thanksgiving sermon

This sermon, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11. was preached at Peace Mennonite Church, Portland, Oregon on November 22, 2009

Once upon a time God gave a party for all the virtues, great and small, humble and heroic. They all gathered together in a splendidly decorated hall in heaven and soon began to enjoy themselves immensely because they were all acquainted with one another. Some were even closely related. Suddenly God spotted two virtues who didn't seem to know each other at all and appeared ill at ease in each other's company. So God took one of them by the hand and formally introduced her to the other. "Gratitude," God said, "this is Charity." God had hardly turned around and they had already begun talking to each other as if they were long lost friends. And the story now goes around that ever since God brought them together wherever Gratitude is there you will also find Charity.

We also know the virtues of gratitude and charity as thankfulness and love that gives. We find these both relating to each other in today's text from the book of Deuteronomy. This scripture comes at the conclusion of a list of statutes and ordinances given by Moses to the people. It includes two sets of instructions that have to do with liturgy, particularly offerings. These acts of giving were to function as concrete demonstrations of love for God accompanied by the virtue of thankfulness. Let's take a peek at our text and watch the relationship develop between Thanks and Giving.

We see in our text in Deuteronomy that thankfulness begins with an act of remembering. Someone once said that gratitude is the memory of the heart. Thankfulness arises from a heart that has been moved by its memory. We look back at something we have experienced or received and perceive it to be a gift of God and we respond with thankfulness and gratitude. Like that time that you saw your first child being born and lifted up by the heels screaming to high heaven. With glassy eyes you held back the flood of wonder over the gift. Later, with sprigs of gray in your hair you thumb through the baby pictures and remember that moment and sigh, "Thank you, God."

Or someone asks a prayer in church concerning their shaky job situation and you remember when you were laid off. Those envelopes with see-through windows sat there quietly on the table waiting for a check and a trip to the mailbox. But, they just piled up one on top of another. All the newspapers in the house had circles in the classified section. The numbers on your phone are faded from all the dialing but each call ended with “Sorry…” on the other end of the line. Then one day, unexpectedly, the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, "Can you be here in the morning?"You hung up the receiver and almost jumped to the ceiling. And as you looked back over the months and months and remembered the phone call, you whispered a "Thank you, Lord." Memory gives rise to thankfulness.

For the Israelites thankfulness was to arise from the memory of their own story of Exodus from bondage and entry into the promise land. They were to remember from where and to where God had brought them. Their act of offering the first fruits upon entry into the promise land was to be coupled with the ritual of remembering and reciting God's mighty and gracious acts of delivering them, sustaining them, and gifting them with a land flowing with milk and honey. From the remembrance of God's gifts of liberation and land, Israel was to respond with thanksgiving.

Shouldn’t the remembrance of our own stories cause us to give thanks? Walk down the dusty back roads of your memory. Do you come across any stories of deliverance or release from your own bondages, addictions, or habitual patterns in your life? Are there any memories of being sustained with heavenly bread as you walked through desert experiences in your life? Can you think of places in your memory where you came upon a land of friends or unexpected opportunities or church experiences that made everything around you seem to flow with milk and honey? And when you remember those moments, don't you just you want to shout to the sky "Thank you, God!" Then, you know what I mean when I say that thankfulness arises from the memory of the heart.

One way we express our thankfulness is through worship. As we remember God's gifts we may want to go beyond the spontaneous “Thank you, God.” We may want to respond in worship. Thanks arises from the perception of being "graced" or “gifted.” We naturally want to express our thanks when given a gift. But, who do we thank for the sunshine and rain and growth of crops? Or the beauty of a rainbow or the purple hills and orange sky at sunset? Who do we thank for waking to a new day or a moment of silence that wraps its warm arms around us? Who do we thank? The atheist is in a rather awkward position when moved by awe, wonder or feelings of gratitude for life's giftedness. To whom do they offer thanks? Worship, prayer, and praise is one way that the believer expresses thanks to God for the gifts life has given them. As in the prayer of Johnny Appleseed, "The Lord's been good to me, and so I thank the Lord."

Israel's offering of the first fruits was, first and foremost, an act of thankful worship. It involved a sacred place---the tabernacle, sacred persons---the priest and Levites, sacred objects---the altar and offering, sacred words---their confession of faith, and sacred gestures- --bowing down. The offering of first fruits was an ongoing part of Israel's worship. The offering of first fruits to God was a ritualized form of expressing thanksgiving for the gifts life offered.
But isn't the offering within a church service merely something we have to do to pay our interim pastor, cover the bills, and support mission projects? No. It's true that we offer our gifts to keep the church running. But, first and foremost, it is an act of worship. It is a concrete, tangible response to the experience of our having been graced and gifted. We offer the first fruits of our labors. Notice I didn't say what little we have left over after paying off our bills and entertaining ourselves. We offer our first fruits as a response of joyful thanks for what God has given to us.

Worship as an act of thanksgiving does not mean our offering of thanks is to be isolated to yearly holidays, Sundays, or even religious activities, such as prayers of thanksgiving. It is an attitude of gratitude that permeates our living with thanksgiving. As one father learned from his wise child. The father of a certain household, as usual, at the morning meal asked the blessing, thanking God for a bountiful provision. But immediately after the prayer, he began grumbling about the hard times, the poor quality of the food he was forced to eat, and the way it was cooked. His little daughter interrupted him. "Father, do you suppose God heard what you said in your prayer?" "Certainly," he confidently replied. "And did he hear what you said about the breakfast?" "Of course," he said hesitantly. "Then, Daddy, which did God believe?"

Worship and thankfulness are not to be isolated to religious rituals or particular days of our lives, as if we could come here on Sunday and give thanks, but live with an attitude of ungratefulness the rest of the week. Worship is a ritualizing of our response to God and serves as a reminder that all of life is sacred, all of life is gift, and deserves a response of thanksgiving. Worship is a most important form of expressing our thanks to God.

Our thankfulness is also expressed in giving and sharing. Gratitude begins within the person or community as an act of remembering, moves upward in worship toward God, then outward toward others in acts of giving and sharing. Israel's first fruits offering was not only a gift to God, but was be shared and eaten by the Levites and the sojourners who resided in the land, those who had no direct access to the fruits of the land. Thanksgiving to God is expressed in the giving and sharing of our gifts with others, particularly those without access to the fruits of the earth. Our acts of giving and sharing become a repetition of the God's giving and sharing with us.

There is no more powerful way to express our thanks than to give and to share with others. Rosemary Prichett and Cheryl Wood both understand that thanks is expressed in giving. But after you hear their story you may wonder which one was most thankful and who gave to whom. Rosemary, an African-American mother of three, living in a homeless shelter, found an endorsed $400 check on a windy downtown sidewalk. She could have seen the money as a gift of God to her. Instead, she looked through the phonebook and found the name on the check---Cheryl Wood, a white nurse from a nearby town. Cheryl was so grateful that her check was returned she wanted to offer a gift to Rosemary, but she refused. As they sat and shared about their lives and their children, Cheryl learned that Rosemary had bid $1200--- her entire savings---on an abandoned house, which she hoped to fix up. Two days later, who shows up at Rosemary's dilapidated house, but Cheryl. She had called a number of businesses asking for donations of supplies, workers and equipment. An army of contractors, suppliers and volunteers donated $30,000 in goods and work! All of this came as a response of thanks for the gift of a returned $400 check!

Thankfulness to God is expressed through giving and sharing with others. When we give and share our money, our time, our talents, our support, our encouragement, and our energies with others, we are making concrete our gratitude for the gifts that God has given to us. Sharing and giving as a thankful response to God is a way of creating a little slice of heaven on earth.

There is a story about a man who wanted to see both heaven and hell. "I'll show you hell,"said the Lord, and they went into a room which had a large pot of stew in the middle. The smell floated through the air and caressed the man's nose. But around the pot sat a bunch of desperate, thin, grumbling people who were starving. All were holding spoons with very long handles which reached into the pot, but because the handle of the spoon was longer than their arm, it was impossible to get the stew into their mouths. Their suffering was terrible. "Now I will show you heaven," said the Lord, and they went into an identical room as the first one. There was a similar pot of delicious stew and the people had the same long-handled spoons, but were well-nourished, talking, happy, and thankful. At first the man didn’t understand. "It is simple,” said the Lord: "You see, they have learned to feed each other." Giving and sharing can be a bit of heaven on earth.

Our gratitude to God is best expressed in sharing our bounty with others. We give because God has first given to us. And what greater way to express our thanks to God than by giving to others. We say “thanks” to God when we share the first fruits of our labor and support this church's ministry and the ministry of others. We say “thanks” to God when we give a cup of cold water to the thirsty or a piece of bread to the hungry. What more noble virtue could there be than to share our gifts, time, and support for the homeless, the hurting, and the hopeless? Are we not giving thanks to God when we visit someone who is sick or lonely or elderly? And, thanks be to God, are we not making a little patch of heaven right here on this sod where we live? In giving of ourselves we are celebrating the wedding of the two virtues----Thanks and Giving.

So, you see, that ever since God first introduced Gratitude and Charity, they have always been found together. And their marriage has produced the fruit of thankfulness. So, as one poet put it:

Go break to the needy sweet Charity's bread
for giving is living;" the angel said
"and must I be giving again and again?"
My peevish and pitiless answer ran.
"Oh" no,," said the angel" piercing me through
"Just give till the Master stops giving to you."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Aung San Suu Kyi: Artisan of Social Change

Finished a new drawing in my series Artisans of Social Change of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1991). Seeking a new democracy for Burma she was elected by an overwhelming majority as Prime Minister of Burma but was arrested by the Burmese military before she could serve. Aung has been under house arrest 14 of the past 20 years. She was the recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, both while under house arrest.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things I Will Probably Never Do Again in This Lifetime

As I get older sometimes I look back and ponder things that I have done in my life that I will probably never do again. It’s not that there is no possibility to do any of these things again. Some people re-engage in some of these kinds of activities because they have grandchildren or in order to revive their inner child or to see if they still have the energy. But, as you grow older you tend to leave certain things behind that you did when you were younger or they became more of a physical challenge.

Remembering these ordinary things is a way of appreciating the life I have lived. As I mediate on these things, realizing that they are activities that are now gone from my life, they feel like sacred activities, although most of these things have nothing to do with religion. But, come to think of it, isn’t it because life itself is sacred? As they say, you only come by this way once. It is a grace just to have lived.

Here are some of those things I will probably never do again:

1. Run barefoot through the lemon fields. Ouch! Stickers!
2. Swim with goggles in a creek with crawdads, and a few crawmoms. Watch out for those pinchers!
3. Buy a plastic model car, glue it together and paint it. Ed “Big Daddy” Roth rules!
4. Eat a hamburger , fries and coke for breakfast. I did this on my summer vacation trips to Oklahoma.
5. Poke sticks in my chest while jumping off high places with my new superman shirt on. Ouch again!
6. Chase girls with my sword and Zorro outfit on. Touche!
7. Pop wheelies on a Lambretta scooter. Sometimes with another kid sitting on the back tire.
8. Cruise “A Street” downtown and race against another car on a dark back road. Watch out for the cops!
9. Awkwardly call up a girl and ask her to the prom and get rejected. Ouch! Knife to the heart.
10. Hoe weeds in the bean fields under the hot summer sun. Whew!
11. Avoid horse poop while marching with the band in white buck shoes. Yuuuck!
12. Feel the exhilaration of playing “Wipe Out” on the drums in a surf band. Ha-ha-ha-ha. Wipe out!
13. Work on an engine under a car hood with my dad.
14. Go to Sunday School with my mom.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Love Once Past: Poem from the early 70's

Love was once a still blue moment
Pasted to my mind like a catalog of iridescent colors
But time stole the colors from my eyes
and has turned them into gnarled tumbleweeds
blowing in the desert wind

The hurt was etched into my body like a sailor's tattoo
A mistaken love has left its scar upon my tissues
Its sting lasted the morning and grew from within
to eat at my consciousness, for what seems an eternity

Pregnant with thoughts of self-condemnation
I searched for the truth, but the tongue of life
found only the bitter taste of a love gone by,
still echoing its melody in the caverns of my soul

But at last the echo is fading and leaving a hollow inside
The question begins to haunt me
Should I try to fill the deep hole of a love once past
or go on living, molded to a dream?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The death of a forgotten man: a poem from the early 70's

Flowing forms and figures pass uninterruptedly
through the mind of the old bearded man
His body has experience, his mind has too
He reaches for companionship
but only too often the tide does not reach the land
He is a man of the past and not of the new

Crashing to his chest comes a pain he cannot hold back
Time has taken from him what many years cannot replace
For this old man’s destiny is upon him
His cards have been stacked
The judgment day is upon his mind
and torment upon his face

On the day of the sunset the flowers flourished beneath his feet
The song of the white dove has fallen on his ear
before the tide reached the land
The darkness that now engulfs him is not that of defeat
It is just a resting of his weary soul that
was for so long in demand

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Early Poems by Leo Hartshorn

Found these poems from the 80's in a notebook I uncovered in some unpacked boxes today:

Food for Thought

To deduce a Creator from creation
through Paley's analogy of machination
is a prior assumption
for cerebral consumption
But just as Pascal said,
The heart eats things
passed over by the head

Pizza Communion

A small voice intones a give-us-this-day-prayer
over a pepperoni pizza with extra cheese
The three young disciples of Tom-foolery
wash down the pizza with blessed Coca-Cola
A simple meal
A sacred Meal
to the one whose eyes have been opened
at the slicing of the pizza

Mobile Sanctuary

Through the silent spaces of air
outside my car
while waiting at a red light
the Word flies into my car radio
the silent, invisible Word
made audible in my mobile sanctuary
through my car stereo
beneath a dirty dashboard horizon
and valley of coke cans and trash
the Word bursts into the silence
birthing itself in my ears
with heavy beat and screaming guitar
a just-alright-Jesus
the Rock of Ages
The Word
born in an audio manger
amid the trash
and a dusty dash

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Taxing Question

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he-said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians; saying, "Teacher, Tell us ... what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?" Jesus said. .. "Show me a coin used for the tax. " And they brought him a denarius. The he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's" Matthew 22: 15-22

Death and taxes. The two proverbial certainties in life. People worry that the deficit and government providing health care will raise our taxes. Our two major political parties perpetually debate tax increases. Republicans do not want taxes raised at any cost. Democrats would rather the rich carry a greater percentage of taxation. But questions about taxes are nothing new. They are as old as the Bible. Read my lips. Taxes will follow us to the grave.

The subject of taxes is a topic for heated debate. Taxes are a powerful symbol of the clash between the interests of the individual and the interests of the society. They are the point where the personal and the political collide head on. So, it is not surprising that the subject of taxes has provoked debate, incited revolutions, and split people along political party lines. Talk of taxes raises a lot of debated questions.

Death and taxes. Jesus had to deal with these two certainties in his last days. Death and taxes are linked together in today's biblical narrative. But the question of taxes seems to have hounded the heels of Jesus from his cradle to his grave. It was a census for taxation that brought his parents to Bethlehem. And the accusation that Jesus taught the people not to pay the poll tax was thrown at him during his trial.

Even the Christ of God could not escape the question of taxes. Death and taxes. In Matthew's gospel they both are headed in a collision course, with Jesus in the middle. The instigators of this collision are a collusion of two major political groups in Jesus' day---the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Herodians were Roman puppets who supported the rule of Herod Antipas. The Pharisees were elite religious leaders who governed within the political sphere allotted to them by Rome. In any question of taxation the Herodians would have supported it. Like most Jews under Roman domination, the Pharisees would have been opposed to taxation. They were primarily out to get the one who was disturbing the peace of their power. But politics always seems to create strange bedfellows. Pharisees and Herodians. Bush and Noriega. And believe it or not, at one time, even the U.S. and Iraq!

The Pharisees and Herodians were working together to trap Jesus into making a political blunder, so as to get him out of their hair. The followers of these two groups came to Jesus one day. They spoke with a forked tongue. There was venom in their sweet words. Beneath their flattery was hidden deceit and trickery. You can almost hear the spring catch on their steel trap as they say to Jesus, "Rabbi, we know that you are a sincere person. You truthfully teach the way of God. Neither do you express personal preference toward people, or show partiality." You see, they were craftily setting up Jesus. They were trying to force him to admit political neutrality, while all along they knew that there was no way he would be able to void taking sides on the issue of Roman taxation.

What they wanted Jesus to tell the crowd was not his personal opinion, but the way of God on the issue of taxation. We might compare it ot a secular scene with Congress asking Sonia Sotomayor, "Judge, we know that you are fair, honest,truthful, unbiased, non-partisan, without pre-judgment or partiality, a wise Latina woman. So, tell us then, does an unborn child have constitutional rights?" Hear the trap go “snap!” But into the sizzling stew that Jesus was placed, add the extra ingredient of God. In other words, they didn't want just his opinion, or the law's. They wanted Jesus to pronounce the word of God on this issue! So, whatever he said to this crowd, Jesus was going to hang himself.

Then the question with teeth was thrown at Jesus: "Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not." They were ready to snag Jesus on the sharp horns of a dilemma. And Jesus was aware of their deadly intent. If he said "no", then he would find himself in hot water not just with the Herodians, but with the whole imperial Roman government. He would have been labeled a revolutionary. If he answered "yes", then Jesus would have cooked his own goose among his people, who opposed the taxation.

You see, taxation was a symbol to the Jewish people of Roman oppression. A resistance movement was even formed and Jewish revolts broke out over Roman taxation. For Jesus to approve of imperial taxation would prove to be volatile. Beneath this question of taxation hid other perplexing questions like; "Can one be a faithful Jew and a loyal subject of Rome? What business have the people of God to do with secular governments? Who is to be obeyed---the Torah or Tiberius? Who is really the Lord---God or Caesar?" The Pharisees and Herodians were hoping for a simple, incriminating answer from Jesus. The trap was ready to spring. But Jesus' drew the hunter's into their own trap. He asked them to show him the coin used in the tax.

The live bomb that they placed in Jesus' hands was about to explode in their own faces. They were being called upon to participate in answering their own question by producing from their own pockets the evidence that would entrap them. They handed Jesus a denarius, a coin equivalent to a day's labor. Jesus then turned the tables on them and asked them a question: "Whose head and title is on this coin?" This coin, used to pay taxes, was a highly controversial symbol in first century Jewish Palestine. It was minted by emperor Tiberius. It bore his image and the blasphemous title, "Tiberius, Caesar, Augustus, the son of the divine Augustus." The image and title were an abomination to the Jew and a sign of sovereignty. The Roman coin was such a slap in the Jewish face that during the period of several rebellions the Jews minted their own coins as symbols of liberty. The question of whose image the coin bore had an obvious answer---Caesar.

You can almost hear the snap of the trap as Jesus' turns their question upon them. But we will have to listen closely to hear it. He says, "Well then, pay back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." On the surface it sounds like a rather straight forward response. His words seem to provide a black and white answer. How simple. Give to Caesar his due and to God his due. The two realms of politics and religion get sorted out and put in their nice, neat compartments. In this drawer are the "things of Caesar." And over there in that drawer are the "things of God." And what are the things of Caesar? Why, they must be things like taxes, politics, economics, the military, government policies, and issues of social welfare. Then, what are the things of God? Well, they must be things like the church, the Bible, worship, prayer, fellowship, and morality. Jesus' answer sounds like a nice, neat formula for putting religion and politics in their right and proper places.

We might hear Jesus' words as a sermon on the separation of church and state. Or we may hear Jesus as an Anabaptist preacher proclaiming a theology of two separate kingdoms; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. This is Caesar's realm and this is God's realm and never the twain shall meet. If we are not careful, Jesus may even begin to sound like a middle-of-the-road politician or a Boy Scout master who tells the loyal troops that they should do their duty to God and their country. As a matter of fact, in the movie of Sergeant York's life, these very words of Jesus are used by the good sergeant to determine the answer a question he had concerning whether, as a Christian, he should allow himself to be drafted into the US Army in 1917. And we know the answer he pulled out of the hat of Jesus' statement. If we are not careful, we can turn this saying of Jesus into something as innocuous and non-threatening as the admonition to be both good Christians and good citizens at the same time. And that is exactly what most Christians have done to this revolutionary saying of Jesus. Scout's honor!

Jesus' answer to the question of taxation is intentionally ambiguous. Those who hear his answer must struggle to answer for themselves what are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God. The two halves of Jesus' answer are not to be taken as referring to two equal but separate realms that deserve our honor. By placing the two realms side by side Jesus forces us to deal with the relationship between the two. We are placed in a position of having to deal with the relationship of the private and the public, religion and politics, faith and society, the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of God. Jesus will not allow us to quietly slip away and hide in our private realm of personal piety. We cannot treat the two realms of God and Caesar separately. Or as someone put it; "We cannot settle questions of political life without considering the claims of God, nor seek to live a religious life oblivious to the problems of society." Jesus throws the "things of Caesar" alongside "the things of God" and causes us to wrestle with them.

This struggle is intensified when we place the emphasis on the second half of Jesus' answer, where it properly deserves to go; upon rendering unto God the things that are God's. If we were to ask the common Jew of Jesus' day, "What are the things of God?", the answer would have been obvious. Everything. What things bear the imprint of God on them? Everything. As the Psalmist says, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. The world and all that is in it." God's things are everything. Politics and prayer. Wealth and worship. Everything. God is Sovereign of everything. So, by placing the statement of what is God's next to what is Caesar's, Jesus is not positing together two co-equal realms that deserve our due. Rather, Jesus has thrown into question not only the things that belong to Caesar, but also the very sovereignty of Caesar.

The claims of Caesar's lordship, become relative alongside the absolute sovereignty of God. The "things of Caesar" are dramatically minimized by the second half of Jesus' answer. Caesar and God, like God and Mammon, are not two lords who stand on equal footing when it comes to our allegiance. God alone is Lord. What we are to render unto Caesar shrinks before the towering question of what we are to render into God. Jesus has given an answer that explodes our narrow and isolated categories. So, in the midst of our own religious and political questions Jesus' answer, we may become as amazed at what Jesus said as those who first heard his answer.

And we may well ask ourselves the question; "What in the world are God's things?" In a world where Caesar rules, that can be a rather taxing question. Jesus' response to the Pharisees and Herodians gives us no simple black and white answer to our own contemporary religious and political questions. How do we sort out the legitimate requirements of loyalty to society, and the absolute demand of loyalty to God? Should we always obey the government? What if Caesar were a Hitler? Should the Christian ever be involved in civil disobedience? What if Caesar's policies send Central Americans back to poverty and death or segregate South African blacks? Should we always pay our taxes? What if they are used to support wars and to stockpile nuclear weapons? If Caesar requires us to go to Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran and defend our country's interests, must we render unto Caesar his due? Do we, as Christians, merely answer these questions along liberal or conservative political party lines? These are indeed taxing questions.

Now, wouldn't you like for me to give all of you a simple answer to each one of these questions? I'm afraid that if I did, I would find myself in the position of Jesus. But I am not Jesus. Your answers must come from him. And I suspect that he will not give you an easy answer, but will hand your questions back to you and say to you words like, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."

The answers to our questions will come to us only as we struggle with Jesus' words and as we place all of our questions alongside the ultimate sovereignty of God. And the one question that will override all other questions will not be "what must I render unto Caesar?", but rather, "what must I render unto God?" And the answer is obvious. Everything.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Remembrance of Bat-Jiftah: a reflection on domestic violence

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord's, to be offered up by me for a burnt offering. .. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him..Judges 11:30-31, 34

If you read the title of this article you may be wondering, "Who is Bat-jiftah?" I've never seen her name in the Bible. In reality there is no one by that name in the Bible. I use this name to identify an anonymous person (1). She is a victim of domestic violence, as well as anonymity. We may know the name of Nicole Brown Simpson only because her batterer was a celebrity. But, the victim in our text goes unnamed, like the women abused every fifteen seconds, the more than 4,000 women killed annually by domestic violence, or the estimated 2 to 4 million women physically abused each year. They have become mere statistics to be recited; nameless persons, victims of domestic violence. So, I give this victim a name. Bat-Jiftah in Hebrew would be translated "daughter of Jephthah." By giving her a name and remembering her story we may help to break the silence of abuse. And by remembering the unnamed victims of abuse today we may move toward their healing.

The story of Bat-Jiftah begins with a violent male. This is true of most stories of domestic violence. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators of domestic violence are male. Studies have shown that a larger percentage of males than females display aggressive and violent behavior. 89% of all violent crimes are committed by men. Males, in general, seem to be socialized toward aggressive behavior. So, we begin with the male in this particular Biblical story, whose name is Jephthah. He was the son of a prostitute, a "mighty warrior." He was skilled in the art of violence. Driven out of his home by his half-brothers he fled to the land of Tob, where he gathered around himself a band of outlaws.

Jephthah was invited to return to Gilead and command the military forces in a war against the Ammonites. This society practiced human sacrifice to the god Molech. The crux of the story centers around a vow he made. Before Jephthah goes into battle, he bargains with God by making a vow.Strangely enough, the text says that he made the vow while "in the spirit of the Lord." Jephthah said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's to be offered up by me as a burnt offering." This was a man driven by power. Jephthah desperately needed a military victory to legitimate himself in the eyes of his people. And his victory was to be sealed with the offering of a human sacrifice.When the battle was won, Jephthah returned home to Mizpah.

At this point in the story the writer intends to create in the story a sense of anticipation, even anxiety,as Jephthah makes his way home. Who will come out to meet him? Jephthah himself doesn't seem to know. When he was some distance from his home his daughter, his only child, came out to meet him.Like Miriam at the Red Sea, she came with timbrels and dancing in joyful celebration of the victory of her father and her people. Jephthah appears to be genuinely surprised and falls into deep sorrow on account of the outcome of his vow to God. Knowing the place of sons in such an ancient, patriarchal society, I wonder if the one who came out to meet him were a son, would his sorrow have been even greater? Might he have reconsidered his foolish vow? Nevertheless, it is his daughter who will be sacrificed on the
altar of male egotism and blind faith.

First, Jephthah rends his garments in an act of mourning. But, then he places the blame of his forthcoming violence upon his daughter. He says, "Ah, my daughter you have brought me low and you have become the source of my trouble." Blaming the victim is the classic justification perpetrators use to excuse their violence. The batterer says to the victim, "If you wouldn't make me so angry, then I wouldn't hit you," As one battered wife said: "I was blamed for just about everything and got so that I accepted that blame. Once he threw a brush at me and accused me of breaking it." This tactic of blaming the victim is seen in the title of one "pro-family" tract: Wives: 90% of the Fault. A battered woman may be blamed by her family, counselor, the church, or clergy when they tell her that she shouldn't have provoked her partner to anger. The victim will even blame themselves for their abuse. She may say to herself, "I should have cleaned the house and had dinner ready" or "I shouldn't have said anything about the bills." By blaming the victim the whole system of male domination is protected from its need to change. "Ah, my daughter, you have brought me low... "

As strange as it may sound to us, Bat-Jiftah responded to her father's rash vow in complete submission. The Lord has fulfilled his part of the agreement, her father can do no less. In no way did she challenge paternal authority. We may want to question whether teaching children an unqualified obedience and honor of parents may set some of them up for accepting parental abuse. Like her father, she accepted the vow as irrevocable. So, she submitted to the vow. We may not know whether to praise her or feel sorry for her. Some interpreters of this text have lauded Bat-Jiftah for her submissiveness to her father's vow to God. I read a sermon on Jephthah's daughter that compared her "noble" self-sacrifice to the "sacrifice of God's Son." The preacher said, "An oath has been made to God and she will do her duty." One modern poet would have us remember Bat-Jiftah's submission by putting these words in her mouth to her father:

When this blood of thy giving hath gushed,
When the voice that thou lovest is hushed,
Let my memory still be thy pride,
And forget not I smiled as I died! (2)

One may wonder whether this portrayal of unquestioned submissiveness to paternal authority is rather the narrator's male-oriented interpretation of what happened. Some interpreters would read in Bat-Jiftah's words a tone of ironic judgment upon Jephthah. Others consider that she even may have already known about Jephthah's vow, which seems to be indicated in the text, and intentionally took the place of someone her father considered more expendable, thus challenging his senseless vow. Even if this were a case of humble submission to such an act of violence, it can in no way be used to legitimize a woman's submission to domestic violence, even if it is done "in the name of the Lord."

Someone reading this may be saying, "They sure were brutal back in those days. I'm awful glad that in our modem times people don't do such things in the name of religion." Jephthah was ready to commit an act of domestic violence in God's name. And yet, even today acts of domestic violence are perpetrated in the name of God and religion, or at times with religious justification and sanction. I am reminded of the criminal case of John List, who considered by many around him to be a devout man of faith. The bodies of his wife, Helen, their three teenage children, Patricia, John Jr., and Frederick, as well as his 85 year old mother, Alma, were all found in List's New Jersey home shot in the head. One could point to List's enormous debts, the loss of his job, pressure from his wife's illness as triggering events. But, List was also frustrated with the unchristian attitudes of his family. He told his daughter, who rebelled against his rigid religion, that her interests were interfering with her continuing to be a Christian. His wife, also frustrated with his dogmatism and its negative effects on their lives, asked to have her name removed from the church roll. That incident with his wife happened right before the murders. List decided instead of removing his wife from the church rolls he would remove his whole family from the evils of this world.

He left a note for his pastor at the murder scene. List later professed a positive spiritual benefit in the murders saying, "At least I'm certain they've all gone to heaven now." Following the murders he even returned to regular church attendance under another name in another place.Truly, this is an extreme case. But, religion, even Christianity, has often been used in many ways to justify, sanction, or directly support committing or submitting to domestic violence. In a 15th Century Christian publication called Rules of Marriage we read:

Scold your wife sharply, bully and terrify her. If this does not work, take a stick and beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul than to damage the soul and spare the body. .. Then readily beat her, not in rage but out of charity and concern for her soul so that the beating will rebound to your merit and her good (3).

As appalling as this may sound, theological justification is still being used to condone or ignore violence within the family. Are we not condoning Jephthah's act when confronted with a situation of marital violence we advocate the sanctity of vows made to God over the sanctity of human life? Clergy, Christians, and friends have advised battered women to respect their marriage vows, be submissive to their battering husbands, as the will of God, with little or no admonition to the husband to end the violence. By no means does everyone who believes in a divine plan of male domination over women and husbands over wives abuse or approve of abuse. And yet, there appears to be a direct correlation between the theological viewpoint of male domination and authority over women and abuse. Research has shown that men who batter embrace the traditional view of male supremacy.

Our theology can, when misused, reinforce domestic violence. The Christian virtues of self-denial, self-sacrifice, suffering for the sake of others, and taking up one's cross have been literally applied in the situations of domestic violence trapping the victim in the deadly cycle of violence. In the light of our knowledge and experience of domestic violence should we not reconsider perpetuating one traditional formulation of the doctrine of redemption, more particularly the doctrine of "substitutionary atonement"? In this portrayal of redemption the Father is all-powerful and the children are all-guilty. There is nothing the children can do to earn mercy, no moral basis upon which appeal to the love of the Father. The Father's rage is justified because of the sinfulness of the children. No matter how they are treated by the Father, it is their fault and they have to carry the blame for whatever the Father might do to them. The children's guilt is exacerbated by the presence of a perfect child. Out of love for his children, the Father takes out his wrath upon his blameless Son through a violent; and by divine necessity, bloody death.Thus, the perfect Son accepts the punishment that the Father's hopelessly sinful children rightly deserve, so that they can be saved and go to live forever in the home of the all-powerful Father (4). I don't know about you, but that sounds like a nightmare to me! Imagine how it might sound to the millions of victims
of domestic violence.

It is not hard to see how this doctrinal construct could be used to give divine legitimization to domestic violence. As one who has heard many horror stories of abuse and has personally experienced the deep pain, trauma, and permanent emotional damage left in the wake of domestic violence, I would have to say that I would find it extremely difficult to worship a God who would in any way condone or justify domestic violence, or violence of any sort. The God that I worship is a God of love and compassion. The God of our Jesus Christ is a God of healing and hope, who defends the abused and oppressed.

Some might well be saying, "Yeah, but all that stuff about domestic violence may be true for others, but we Mennonites, with our peace theology, don't have to deal with the problem of domestic violence." Sad but true, one recent study done by Isaac Block of Mennonite families in Winnepeg revealed that sexual and domestic violence occurred as frequently in Mennonite families as it did in the general population.(5) Some believe that a Mennonite theology of Gelassenheit, or humble submission to God's will, self-denial, self-sacrifice, suffering love, following the way of the cross, turning the other cheek ill passive nonresistance, and quick and easy forgiveness, have contributed to the further victimization of women in situations of abuse. On the other hand, I am encouraged by Mennonite women and men theologians and ethicists who are applying our peace theology in new ways to the issue of domestic
violence by advocating that we work for social justice and practice active, nonviolent resistance. We can follow the way of Jephthah and without question literally and woodenly apply our beliefs in situations that can only further victimize people. Or, by the healing grace of God, we can discover alternative ways to be faithful to our covenant vows with God.

In the end Jephthah carried through with his vow. Frozen in my mind is a painting I came across on the internet, a 17th century painting by Venetian artist Pietro della Vecchia entitled The Sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter. It captures the moment right before Jephthah robs his daughter's life in human sacrifice. The figures of Jephthah and his daughter fill the canvas. The bottom of the canvas is strewn with the shadowed heads of bystanders looking on as if at a peep show. The figures of father and daughter are set against a brooding sky. Their heads touch in the center. In one hand Jephthah tenderly holds the back of the neck of his daughter. The muscles of his other arm bulge with a steely knife reflecting light in the shadows. Light falls bright on the bare flesh of Bar-Jiftah, with only her legs draped with a cloth and her hands protecting her uncovered breasts. To our modem sensibilities there is something almost pornographic in this mixture of subtle sexual titillation and misogynist violence. Bar-Jiftah's head is bowed in quiet submission waiting for the inevitable plunge of the knife blade.

Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible has rightly called this story a "text of terror" (6) There is no word in the text that condemns the sacrifice. No where do we read anything in the the book of Judges like, "And Jephthah did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord." God did not stay the hand of Jephthah as God did with Isaac as Abraham lifted high the knife to plunge it into the breast of Isaac. There was no one in the community to hold back the hand of a violent father, as in the case of Saul, who was kept from doing violence to his son Jonathan on account of a rash oath that he made. Even though we may find human sacrifice condemned elsewhere in the Bible, there is no direct indication in the text that God was displeased that Jephthah followed through with his vow. Could it be that the death of the daughter through human sacrifice, the silence of God, and the lack of anyone in the community to protest such violence are but signs of something rotten and evil in their midst?

Before Jephthah offered his daughter as a human sacrifice she asked only one small favor. Within the limits of her own patriarchal culture, Bat-Jiftah assumed some responsibility in her dire situation by bargaining for herself. She asked that she might go into the mountains for two months with her female companions to "bewail her virginity." The narrator notes that Bat-Jiftah "had never known a man," as if that makes her fate more tragic than it already was. One might reply that she had known a man, at least one and all too well, and that is at the heart of her tragedy. But, her pilgrimage to the mountains with her female companions was not to bemoan the fact that she had never had sex with a man. She was mourning the fact that she would not make the transition to adulthood.

From textual and cultural analysis, we may conjecture that this pilgrimage involved a rite of passage from puberty, a common ritual depicting the death of adolescence and the emergence of adulthood (7).The ritual became associated with the premature death of Bat-Jiftah. It is interesting to note that in her book In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan presents a study of female moral development from an adolescent stage of self-sacrifice to a woman's mature recognition of responsibility for her own well being in moral decision making (8). For women to appropriate Bat-Jiftah's story today it may mean that they move beyond the stage of adolescent self-sacrifice in solving moral dilemmas to a mature recognition of the need to care for their own well being. Anyway, we do know from the text that there existed some kind of ritual reenacted for four days each year, in which the daughters of Israel would go out to lament Bat-Jiftah. These women kept her memory alive in a ritual of emembrance.

In Africa there is still a belief that a person does not really die until the last one remembers that person dies. Let us keep the memory of Bat-Jiftah alive, like the women who for four days each year remembered her in an annual ceremony. Even more so, let us remember the countless Bat-Jiftah's, unnamed women,daughters, and sons sacrificed on the familial pyres. And let us remember them not merely by the ritual of listening to a sermon or observing Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday. Let us remember by working for the healing of bleeding women and children, as Jesus healed the woman with a menstrual hemorrhage. Let us in remembering work to break the silence of abuse, advocate a zero-tolerance attitude toward any form of family abuse, support organizations, like the Houston Women's Center, that educate the public,support and shelter battered women and children. Let us remember that there are faithful people like my friends Stan and Jeanette Harder, who used their home as a temporary shelter for battered women and their children, and all those workers in shelters who provide temporary homes for the battered and bruised. Let us remember the contemporary Bat-Jiftahs by dismantling oppressive patriarchal structures and ideologies and tearing down the walls of a theology that condones, justifies, or supports domestic violence.

Let us also remember to listen to the liberating Biblical stories of the healing of women, children, and men, that can transform our personal and social consciousness and moral vision. Let us remember stories of the triumph of the human spirit, like the Alice Walker's fictional story of Celie in The Color Purple, a survivor of domestic abuse. Let us remember the real life stories of those around us who have, by the grace of God, experienced a measure of healing from abuse. Let us remember Bat-Jiftah. For those who do not remember history are bound to repeat it. By remembering the unnamed victims of domestic violence, we can hopefully avoid repeating a history of abuse. By remembering, we all may continue to live.


(1) I am indebted to J Cheryl Exum for the name "Bat-jiftah." See Cheryl Exum, "Feminist Criticism: Whose lnterests are Being Served?" in Gale Yee's Judges and Method. (Minneapolis:Fortress, 1995), 75-78.
(2) Lord Byron, Jephthah's Daughter in Robert Atwan and Lawrence Wieder, eds., Chapters into Verse, Vol. I, (Oxford:Oxford University, 1993), 182.
(3) Cited in Marie Fortune, "The Church and Domestic Violence," Theology, News and Notes, Fuller Theological Seminary, June 1982.
(4) I have benefited from the theological reflections on the atonement by James Poling in his book The Abuse of Power.(Nashville:Abingdon, 1991).
(5) Isaac I. Block, Assault on God's Image. (Winnepeg:Wildflower Communications, 1991).
(6) Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror. (Philadephia: Fortress, 1984).
(7) Peggy Day, "The Story of Jephthah's Daughter" in Peggy Day, ed. Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. (Minneapolis:Fortress), 60.
(8) As cited in Peggy Day, "The Story of Jephthah's Daughter."

In honor of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's birthday today

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (November 12, 1815-October26, 1902)was a key leader of the early women's movements, an abolitionist. Although an abolitionist she opposed voting rights for African-American males, over against Frederick Douglas and often with racist language, while at the same time she called for a universal rights, including voting rights for freed African-American women. Her Declaration of Sentiments were read at the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, which declared that men and women were created equal. She worked alongside Susan B. Anthony in their struggles for women's rights.Stanton is also known for writing one of the first feminist critiques of the Bible in the 1890s called the Women's Bible.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

William Sloane Coffin: pastor, social activist, peacemaker

Finished this ink drawing of William Sloane Cofin for my series Artisans of Social Change.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006)was a liberal Protestant cleric, social activist and international peacemaker. Coffin was pastor of famous interdenominational Riverside Church in New York City for many years, who publicly opposed the war in Vietnam, calling for civil disobedience, was part of the Southern Freedom movement (he hosted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Luther King Jr. at Riverside), supporter of gay rights, and a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Does Mite Make Right? a different interpretation of the story of the widow's mites

As he taught he said, "Beware of the scribes ... they devour widows houses ... " He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, " Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." Mark 12: 38,40,41-44

Religious institutions have a potential for great good and great evil. When their goal becomes the glory of the institution itself, the institution can become corrupted and its religious leaders lose sight of their role of helping the poor and, instead, end up oppressing them. In a Time magazine article on "Gospel TV: Religion, Politics, and Money" the writers quote a Televangelist, who headed a religious broadcasting network with a budget of $35 million. This preacher-of-prosperity told his viewers that a widow had donated her life savings of $7000 and commented, "Do you realize what an awesome responsibility it is for me to stand here and encourage people to literally give all they have to God. I'm either the biggest fool and idiot and con man in the world or else I'm plugged in to heaven." (1) Now, a lot of us may have already figured out what he is. Who could spend this poor widow's $7000 on air time as quick as a child gets rid of a dime on candy? I’ll bet you may be wondering if this guy's plugged in at all! But, hold your opinion for just a minute.

Would you praise this poor widow for giving all that she had to an already wealthy religious institution? Yes? No? Well, ask yourself this question: Would you praise the poor widow in Mark's gospel for putting all that she had into the treasury of the already wealthy institution of the temple? It may be that we need to reexamine our traditional interpretation of Mark's story about the widow's mites and see if there might be a different lesson that Jesus' wants to teach his followers.

Are we to praise the poor for giving away all that they have to religious leaders and wealthy institutions? How we answer that question for ourselves may depend on how we interpret the story of the poor widow. The narrative tells how one day Jesus was sitting “over against” the temple treasury. Notice the intentional spatial language. In the Court of Women there were 13 trumpet-shaped receptacles where money could be deposited for the work of the temple. Jesus sat at the foot of one of the temple pillars near the treasury and watched the crowd.

The priests, part of Jerusalem's upper class, could be singled out from the common crowd in the temple by their long, flowing robes. They liked being noticed for their flashy clerical garb, getting ministerial discounts, and sitting next to the mayor or bishop at religious and civic functions. When they entered the court, commoners made way for them and evacuated the best places in the house. Cushions were brought and seats cleaned for the temple priests to sit and pray. To one side of the court the scribes, also a part of the upper class, sat and listened, to legal difficulties, often of poor widows and disinherited orphans, for a goodly fee, of course. The rich, robed in finery, processed by the treasury in all their pomp and circumcision and dropped in handfuls of coins, which loudly jingled as they fell into the trumpet-shaped receptacles. These grandiose offerings of the rich would go to feed the already bloated institution of the temple. And it didn't even make a dent in their finances.

Then, in contrast to the wealthy and powerful, who were throwing in handfuls of money with plenty left over, there came by the treasury a poor widow. Widows were among the poorest strata of Palestinian society. Life was difficult for the widow, living in a patriarchal society without a male to financially provide for them. Israel's covenant had its commandments to protect the rights of widows. But these often went unheeded.

We need not imagine the widow as elderly, since only about 20% of the population survived beyond their fortieth birthday, which would be the mortality rate of modern Bangladesh. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for "widow" was very close to the word for "be mute." Widows were the powerless and voiceless in a society which listened to the sound of money talking. Is there nothing new under the sun?

This poor widow had in her feeble hand two mites; literally, two quadrans, the smallest Roman coin of the time. Each coin amounted to about 1/8th of a penny. Together, her two coins amounted to 1/8th of what rabbi's taught should be given to a travelling beggar from the "Pauper's dish." It appeared that her two coins were her "life savings", all that she had.

Jesus called together his disciples to watch what was about to happen. The widow did not even keep one of the coins for herself She dropped both of them into the coffers. It was a flash in the pan, but it was everything that she had. And any small contribution that those two small coins made would be for the upkeep of the magnificent temple and the support of its upper-class attendants. Jesus turned to his disciples and said, "Truly, I tell you. This widow gave more than all the others. For they all gave out of their abundance, but she, out of her lack, gave all that she had, all her living." The question is: Was Jesus praising the woman, as we have traditionally interpreted the text, or was he lamenting the sorry state of affairs inflicted on the poor by the institutional system of the temple?

Does this story teach us to praise the poor when they give away everything they have to religious leaders and their wealthy institutions? Should we praise the sacrificial contributions of those poor who helped to pay for a certain preacher's $1million dollar home, another's $100 million dollar a year ministry, and another's $172 million theme park and rare 1939 Rolls-Royce, just to name a few of the extravagances of some religious leaders and their institutions? Some religious leaders even encourage their followers to use their savings and to borrow in order to give to their ministry. Are these practices to be commended, particularly when their TV appeals are often heard by low-income families, widows, or the elderly on fixed incomes?

Now, I don't want to just beat up on TV preachers, but they do seem make rather easy targets! At times the sneaky tactics of some Televangelists are directly aimed at getting the Christian dollars of those lonely widows, who sit at home with no other companion than the TV. There's one tactic that can yank on a thousand purse strings. All the preacher has to do is say something like, "The Lord is speaking to me. Thank you, Jeeeeezus! He's telling me that there's an elderly woman out there in Televisionland, who has some money stashed away in her house. She's been saving it for herself But the Lord told me to tell you, sister, not to hoard His money. Glory be to God! The Lord is telling me, yes, the word is clear, to take that step of faith and send it all in, so it can be used to do Gaaaawd's work. Amen? Amen!" Now, "figgerin'" that you got a TV audience of about 15 million watching, how many are old ladies with money stashed away for themselves somewhere in their house? The Lord doth move in mysterious ways His wonders to perform! Now, should we praise those widows, who do send in the little money they have to live on?

Social workers have complained that the elderly poor often give to religious broadcasters more than they can afford. One such incident occurred in Altoona, Pa., where a 67-year-old widow was threatened with a heat shut-off when she couldn't pay her gas bill. She had sent a large portion of her $331 monthly social-security check to a well known TV preacher who, to say the least, was not pinching pennies. Should we praise that Altoona widow for her sacrificial giving, particularly when we know that it is just going to add to the accumulated wealth of a religious institution and its leaders?

We need to beware of justifying institutional oppression of the poor, even if the institutions are religious. This is the danger we encounter with the traditional interpretation of Jesus' words about the widow's offering as being words of praise. Jesus' words have been interpreted as a commendation in a variety of ways as teaching First, the story is supposed to teach us that the true measure of gifts is not how much is given but how much remains behind. Second, the story teaches us that it is not the amount which one gives that matters but the spirit in which the gift is given, that is, as in self-offering, total commitment, loyalty to God's call, generosity, humility, detachment from possessions, or in trust that God will provide one's needs. Third, the story teaches us that the true gift is to give everything we have. Fourth, it teaches us that alms and other gifts should correspond with one's' means. Or fifth, the story of the poor widow teaches us that almsgiving is a duty. It would be interesting to examine each one of these interpretations of the story, but as we interpret the text within its context we will find that each of these interpretations is not without its problems.

Would Jesus commend the action of the widow in light of his previous condemnation of the Corban? This was a practice, among some in Jesus' day, of withdrawing financial support from their parents by declaring it "Corban", that is, "given to God." Jesus is remembered for having said that human needs take precedence over religious ritual, obligation, and observance when the two come in conflict. Would Jesus condemn the Corban, that could impoverish elderly parents out of a pretense of religious obligation, and then turn around and commend the widow for giving away all her money, leaving her totally destitute, in order to support the corrupted temple institution?

The story of the Widow's mites is preceded by a warning against and condemnation of the scribes, the elite and wealthy religious leaders who loved to "strut their stuff" in the temple and who under the pretense of long prayers "ate up widow's houses." In other words, their so-called trusted position as religious leaders in "the house of prayer," had allowed them to benefit off poor widows, like the one in our story, to the point that they "ate them out of house and home" with their profiteering. They did this by either a practice of pilfering off widows' estates, while holding their property in trust or by the simple fact that they were the one's in charge of the temple, whose costs were devouring the goods of widow's.

We must interpret the story of the widow in light of its context of the preceding passage that condemns the scribes who "eat up widow's houses," the story's anti-temple context, which includes the story of the cursing of the fig tree (a symbol of the temple), the parable of wicked tenants (which represent wicked religious leaders ), Jesus' expulsion of the money-changers from the temple (a prophetic act symbolizing the condemnation of the economic exploitation of the temple institution), his condemnation of the temple as becoming a "den of thieves," as well as the story that follows today's text about how the disciples marvel at the wondrous temple, while Jesus predicts that one stone shall not be left standing on top of another. Within this anti-temple context, the interpretation of the story as Jesus praising the widow for offering her last red cent to the temple becomes questionable.

Could it be that Jesus is rather lamenting the sad situation of the widow, exploited by the corrupted temple institution? Could it be that he is saying something to his disciples like, "Look at that poor widow. The rich can just skim off the top and support the temple. No loss. But she has given to the temple everything she had to live on. Her house has been completely eaten up."

If we take the traditional interpretation of this story as Jesus' praise of the widow's offering, we may need to apologize for our negative reactions to all the widows of our day who give everything they have to wealthy religious institutions, and rather praise them. Even if we see this story as one of praising the widow's offering, we must at least remember its context and beware of using it to justify institutional oppression of the poor. Institutional oppression of the poor is something we must beware of even in our day. Institutions, including religious ones, can become sinful and exploit those in need. Sin is not only personal. It is social and effects institutions, just as it had effected the institution of the temple in Jesus' day. Sin can stain the social fabric of any society.

When we buy our coffee from "Juan Valdez", who is in reality a poor South American living in a shack with a sick wife and six underfed children and is paid pennies to harvest coffee beans by a U.S. multinational corporation, instead of producing edible food for his own country, but is exploited for an enormous profit, which is passed on to us, then... we are involved in the social sin of economic institutions. Social sin happens when we pass budgets that support the military-industrial complex by allocating billions to building stealth bombers and advanced nuclear weapon technology, while we cut Social Security for widows and the elderly, and reduce medicaid and medicare benefits for the poor, the fatherless, and those on fixed incomes.

The institutional sins that plagued the poor widow with only two mites to her name, still plague the church today. Like Jesus and the disciples, who watched it happening in the temple, we can see it happening in the church. And it is a cause to lament the sorry state of religious institutions. We must lament what happened in countries in South America in the 80’s, and even today, where the official church supported the wealthy and turned a blind eye toward their US backed military, which supported the oligarchy of elite landowners, who exploited the poor campesinos. And when the poor sought land reform or tried to improve their situation, they were terrorized and murdered by the military's death squads. EI Salvador has been a country full of poor widows. Yet, the majority of US churches remained silent or oblivious to this exploitation of the poor that was in our own back door.

We may look and lament when we see, in our own wealthy country, the treasuries of large churches spent on expensive church buildings, padded pews, stained glass windows, and extravagant musical productions, but find it hard to cough up a few dollars to help house the homeless or pay the light bill of a single mother. But even small churches need to take a hard look and lament how their budgets and personal energies are spent on their own agenda to the point that the needs of others are forgotten.

The unjustifiable exploitation of others by religious leaders, like the scribes and priests of Jesus' day,still happens and is to be lamented. I once watched on the news two rather well-fed pastors being arrested and accused of siphoning off money from a widow's estate that they held in trust for her. When I heard it, I immediately thought of Mark’s story of the poor widow, which accuses the scribes of "eating up widow's houses." Clergy, such as myself, must always beware of the danger of using others for personal gain, in whatever form it may take.

If we are not aware and responsive to this word of Christ from the widow's story, we may become blind to how economic, political, social, and even church institutions, can exploit those already in need, and then justify it in the name of supporting religion.

As Christians, who are a part of a religious institution, the church, we are to creatively work toward caring for those in need. Did you know that the office of deacon was created by the early church as a response to the needs of widows? (Acts 6) The church even created an' official ministry of widows;elderly women who were to care for the needs of others (I Timothy 5). What dignity it must have given to those widows, who in that society were mute and forgotten."

What can the church of today do to help, instead of exploit the needs of widows and the poor? Mennonite Central Committee relief sales are a contemporary creative means of supporting a worldwide effort to not just give charity, but dignity through teaching skills and providing markets that enhance the economic development of the poor, a great majority of which are women and widows. Mennonite Central Committee contributes, in a significant way, in helping those poor widows with their work among poor indigenous peoples. Through voluntary service young people, and retired alike, give of themselves to helping the poor widow and others with needs like her.

If you go to the church down on the corner of our street on a weekday you can sit and watch, not the poor widow giving away her last cent, but rather picking up bags of groceries from the food pantry, which we have the opportunities to contribute to. And we have heard personal reports of needy people, like the poor widow, living right next door who could be helped through our compassion. Could it be that our neighbor might just be that widow that gave away her last two cents? Maybe we could simply visit the widow next door. The apostle James said that one of the things that makes religion authentic is to visit the widow.

The story of the widow's mites, as traditionally interpreted, may truly inspire us to give. Just as long as the inspiration is not that poor widows impoverish themselves by giving everything to religious institutions, or that wealthy, North American Christians just need to skim a bit more off the top in their giving. However we interpret the story of the widow, it can, and probably should, inspire our giving.

But there is something even more profound that can happen with this story, more than just widow's mite inspiring us to greater giving. It happens when the might of Christ's word, which wants to speak from this story, is unleashed on our world. This word can shake the temple to its very foundation and spill the contents of its treasury. This word can alter the face of economic reality to look more like the face of Christ. This word can crack open the church's heart of compassion and justice.


(1) RichardN. Ostling, "Gospel TV: Religion, Politics, and Money," Time, February 17,1986,62-69.