Sermon on February 24, 2013

Today was the WELCA (Women of the ELCA) Bold Women Sunday. So, I took the opportunity to change the lectionary readings (that one from Luke today was just awful, anyway) to talk about some bold women in the Bible.  Instead of writing one sermon on all of the women, I did brief meditations on each woman. The women I chose were Rahab (Joshua 2:1-24), Deborah & Jael (Judges 4:1-24), Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43) and Martha & Mary (Luke 10:38-42).  Following are the meditations on these women.

 

A Meditation on Rahab, Former “Pretty Woman” and an Ancestress of Jesus

            The movie Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, was a story about a prostitute who posed as a rich man’s girlfriend for a week.  As a result of that encounter, the prostitute decided to change her life around and no longer be a member of the oldest profession in the world.  Many people said that this was a Hollywood fairy tale that could never come true.  And yet, here we find in the book of Joshua the same kind of story:  a prostitute whose heart was touched by the Lord, the God of Israel; a prostitute who was a traitor to her own people because she hid the Israelite spies and protected them from the city government; a prostitute who boldly stepped forward in faith and got the Israelite spies to promise to protect her and her family when they came to conquer the city of Jericho; a Canaanite prostitute ( a double whammy, to be sure!) who nevertheless married a man of Israel and had children with him, thereby becoming the ancestress not only of King David, but of the greater David, our Lord Jesus Christ.

            Not only was Rahab honored by becoming an ancestress of Jesus, she was also praised by the author of the letter to the Hebrews, who said, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.  By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”  We will never know exactly how the Holy Spirit worked in Rahab to bring her to that faith in the Lord—the ways of God are indeed mysterious.  But however it happened, Rahab had that faith in the God of the Israelites, and she believed that because of that God, she could leave her past sinful life behind and become a member of God’s family.  That is boldness indeed.

            Rahab was further praised by James in his letter:  “Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?”  We’re not going to get into the whole “faith vs. works” debate here.  It is important today to note that Rahab’s bold faith in the God of Israel resulted in the bold actions she took to welcome and hide the Israelite spies.  Our faith in God will likewise demand of us such bold actions from time to time.

            Perhaps knowing this story of his ancestress was part of what persuaded Jesus to hang out with those who had been rejected by society:  the tax collectors and the “sinners”.  After all, if a conversion happened once, it could certainly happen again.  Like the lost sheep, Jesus would search out those whom society rejected and offer them love and forgiveness, hoping to bring them into his family.  Let us likewise take a look around us here in Powell.  Who are the outcast ones in our town?  Who are our modern-day “tax collectors and sinners”?  Who are the lost sheep that we can welcome into God’s family?

A Meditation on Deborah & Jael, Warrior Women of Israel

            This story does not appear—at all—in the regular cycle of readings appointed to be read on Sundays in the church.  Probably with good reason.  Not only would the strong women and the weak men be off-putting to a lot of people, but it is a rather bloodthirsty story.  Killing a man by driving a tent peg through his temple?  Yeesh.

            But, this is in our Holy Scriptures, and because of that, it is something that we as Christians need to think about and try to understand.  When I was still in the Missouri Synod, Deborah was my hero, and she still is.  Deborah was a woman, a wife, and a prophetess.  She led Israel in her own right—not because she had a husband, for aside from the one mention of his name, we don’t hear from him ever again—and the people of Israel came to her for justice.  We don’t hear from the Bible how she came to this lofty position—probably because it’s not important to the story, even though I’m dying to know—but there she is.  God was using her to dispense justice to his people.  God was using her as his mouthpiece.  And as a woman in the Missouri Synod, where women’s voices tend not to be valued as they should be, this story gave me hope that God could indeed use me in a position of leadership, to effect change.

            But what do we make of this story?  Barak was unwilling to go into battle without Deborah, even though he respected her enough to believe that God was speaking through her.  There is no mention of her being a warrior, but she agreed to go with him, perhaps strapping on some protective gear that belonged to a younger man.  And she said that the honor and glory of killing the enemy general, Sisera, would go to a woman because of the way Barak was behaving.  Perhaps, instead of trusting in God, Barak wanted Deborah along as some kind of good luck charm.

            Then, when the battle is won, the enemy leader, Sisera, flees the field like a coward and expects to find sanctuary in the tent of a woman.  Instead, he is lured to his death, and in those times, for a man to be killed by a woman was an extremely dishonorable way to die.  But for some reason Jael doesn’t flinch.  She takes a deep breath and does what is necessary to execute God’s judgment by executing the enemy general, and then showing his bloodied corpse to Barak as he comes searching for Sisera.

            So, perhaps the lesson here is that God can use anyone, at any time, in any way, to lead his people and bring about his justice.  Deborah and Jael were both bold women who defied female stereotypes in order to do what God asked of them.  It didn’t matter if they were married women—God valued them as individuals, not simply as the wives of their husbands, and knew that they were the right ones for the job that needed to be done.  How is God calling us, women of God, to be bold and to do his work in spite of the stereotypes of our culture?

A Meditation on Dorcas, Servant of the Sick and Poor

            We see here in Acts that, from the beginning of the Christian church, women as well as men were both named as disciples of Jesus.  Dorcas, whose name in Aramaic was Tabitha, was a disciple of Jesus who lived out her faith by following Jesus’ command to care for the poor.  We don’t know what caused her illness or even what the illness was that she died from.  The Greek does not give us a clue either—the word used can mean either “to be weak” or “to be sick”.  So here is my idea of what may have happened to Dorcas.

            The Scripture says that Dorcas “was devoted to good works and acts of charity”.  When she died and Peter arrived, “all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them”.  I think it is possible that Dorcas was so devoted to clothing the naked that she simply overworked herself.  The zeal of the Holy Spirit consumed her so that she did many good things to live out her vocation, but perhaps she neglected to care for herself.  And after God raised Dorcas back to life through Peter, perhaps Peter took her aside and said, “What you are doing is good, but remember to get some rest, or else the same thing is going to happen again.”

            St. Francis of Assisi, who lived from 1181 to 1226, said, “Preach the gospel always.  If necessary, use words.”  Dorcas, who lived much earlier than Francis did, seemed to take that motto to heart.  As we follow in Dorcas’ footsteps, caring for those around us who are in physical need, by making quilts, donating food and distributing it, volunteering to help at the Heart Mountain Volunteer Clinic, the Powell Valley Care Center, and however else we do this, let us remember to also care for ourselves, so that God can continue using us to help others and spread his love in the world. 

A Meditation on Martha & Mary: Both Service & Worship Are Needed

            These two women are two of the most beloved characters in the New Testament.  Whole books have been written on them as women seek to be more godly:  Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World is probably the most well-known, but there is also The Mary Martha Principles: Discovering Balance between Faith and Works, Mary in a Martha’s World: Quiet Times for Busy Mothers, and so on.  Poor Martha just gets a bum rap:  all she’s trying to do, after all, is to extend hospitality to this honored teacher.  She wants everything to be perfect, and she’s annoyed with her sister for just sitting there.  I’m sure all of us can identify a time like this in our lives.

            The key to understanding this story is found in Jesus’ gentle rebuke: Martha is “worried and distracted by many things.”  Extending hospitality in the form of preparing food is a good thing, and such hospitality is praised throughout the Bible.  But, when the preparations for a meal and a clean house take over actually sitting and visiting with the guest—as they seem to have done in Martha’s case—then there is a problem.  I believe that Jesus was pleased with whatever preparations Martha had been making, but that he would have been just as pleased to sit and visit with her as he was visiting with her sister, Mary.

            And then there’s Mary.  Mary, the bold woman who defied female stereotypes that said she should have been helping her sister in the kitchen.  Mary, who felt that she had just as much right to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him as a man did.  Part of me can identify with Mary, too, because aside from baking bread and cookies, I’m pretty helpless in the kitchen.  I’d much rather be sitting and learning something than have to think about preparing food to eat.  And don’t even get me started on how much I dislike grocery shopping.  Erasmus, who was a contemporary of Martin Luther, said, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”  Yes, that is me.

            But the point of the story of Mary and Martha is not to elevate worship and learning over service, or service over worship and learning.  Both are needed.  We each need to strive to find a way to balance both in our lives.  Jesus commanded us in Matthew to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners.  But in John, Jesus also said, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  As Christians, our lives are to be both that of service and of worship, but of neither one eclipsing the other.  And so, when Martha boldly complains to Jesus as a child to a parent that her sister is not helping her with all the work, Jesus lifts up what Mary is doing, boldly sitting at his feet and learning from him, to put Mary’s act of hospitality on equal footing with Martha’s.  May the Holy Spirit help us as we strive to keep these things in balance in our lives.

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Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13

Sermon for Epiphany 4C

1 Corinthians 13

 

            When I decided, last week, that I was going to preach on the entire story of Jesus returning to Nazareth in one sermon and that this week, I would preach on 1 Corinthians 13, suddenly the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love” started going through my head off and on.  As I started researching this chapter and its context in the entire letter of 1 Corinthians, this earworm (that’s the official name for a song that gets stuck in your head) became more and more insistent.  So, I looked up the lyrics to this catchy tune, and it turns out that they fit quite nicely with what the Apostle Paul is saying to the Corinthian church.  So, let’s start our time of reflection together by singing the chorus to this song.  (sing:  All you need is love.  All you need is love.  All you need is love, love.  Love is all you need.)  The reason that I think this song fits so nicely with this chapter is because, despite the fact that this passage is almost always chosen for weddings, the Apostle Paul did not write it to be used at weddings.  Paul’s purpose in writing this beautiful chapter on love was to get the Corinthian church to understand that, without love, all of the spiritual gifts each of them had and were so proud of meant absolutely nothing.

            So, let’s back up a minute here and first look at the church that Paul was writing to in this letter.  I’d like us to picture Corinth as America appeared to the first Europeans that came to settle here.  Like America was, Corinth was a city of opportunity.  The original city had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C., but by 44 BC, the emperor decided it was time for the city to be rebuilt.  It was, after all, in an ideal spot for trading, with access to both the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.  The new settlers who came to Corinth were from the lower classes of society with over half of them being freed slaves.  These were the people who, if they stayed in the places where they had been, would never be able to break out of the existing class structure.  But by moving to Corinth, they had the chance to start over and become the new upper class.  By the time Paul got there and began a church, the population was around 30,000 people.  The society was extremely competitive as each person vied for a higher status and more business than everyone else.  It sounds a bit like America is today, doesn’t it?

            Paul had founded this church in Corinth and then moved on to other cities in the region to continue this missionary work.  While he was in Ephesus, word reached him that there were problems in the Corinthian church, and this is what prompted him to write this letter.  The Corinthian church was badly divided over many issues, but the issue surrounding today’s chapter on love was that of spiritual gifts.  The members of the Corinthian congregation were bringing their culture into the Christian church by vying with one another for more glory and honor.  They thought that speaking in tongues was the most important spiritual gift, and that those who did not have this gift were inferior.  In chapter 12, Paul wrote to begin correcting that idea, saying that each person was given a spiritual gift for the benefit of the whole community, not to lord it over others.

            But now, in chapter 13, comes Paul’s crowning argument.  If I have all of these wonderful, fantastic gifts, and all I’m using them for is to prove myself superior to everyone else, Paul says, then I am nothing.  Not only does the Holy Spirit give these gifts for the benefit of the whole community, he says, if you do not use these gifts out of love and for love of the others in your community, it will gain you nothing.  Paul then describes the characteristics of love, which are the exact opposite of how the Corinthian congregation has been behaving, and ends by saying that, when Jesus returns, the spiritual gifts that the Corinthians are so proud of will be destroyed, and all that will remain are faith, hope, and love.

            Love is an action verb in the Greek, not a state of being as we translate it into English.  So let’s look at some ways today in which we see love act, using Paul’s list.  The first thing that Paul says is that “Love acts patiently.”  I’m sure there are many examples of acting patiently that each one of us could give.  One example that I can think of, however, is visiting with people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  Speaking with someone whose memory is disappearing requires a person to step out of the world he or she normally inhabits and enter the person’s world whose memory is disappearing.  My maternal grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s, and one evening when the whole family was together visiting, I remember my uncle asking me to sit with my grandfather and talk to him.  His powers of speech had faded at that time, and I couldn’t understand anything he was saying.  But I nodded along with him and pretended that I was having a conversation with him, and he seemed content.  Love acts, not for any commendation from family that it might receive, but solely for the sake of the person who needs that act of patience from another.

            Love acts kindly.  This is more than just holding a door open for someone when their hands are full, although it does include that action as well.  Love acting kindly means that love will also show mercy to the other person.  In the movie “Les Miserables”, the main character, Jean Valjean, is released from prison, but his papers are stamped with the mark that he is a dangerous person.  This, of course, makes it difficult for him to find both housing and work.  A kindly priest takes Valjean in one night, feeding him and giving him a place to stay.  But Valjean decides to steal all of the silver that belongs to the priest and runs off.  The police catch him and bring him back to the priest.  But the priest, instead of pressing charges against Valjean, tells the police that he did in fact give the silver to Valjean.  The priest then tells Valjean to use the silver to change his life around and help others, which an amazed Valjean does.  This is what love does to act kindly:  it shows mercy to others, even when others have no reason to expect mercy, and, as Paul says later, love hopes that in showing this kindness and mercy to others, it will change the world into a kinder and more merciful place.

            What would our world look like if we, out of love, acted more patiently, more kindly, and more mercifully to one another?  On Tuesday, the Powell Tribune printed an article about a woman who had embezzled money from the animal shelter in Cody.  Many of you know that I have a special love for animals.  I am currently spending Saturday afternoons volunteering at the Powell animal shelter.  And as I read about how this woman stole money from the Cody animal shelter, my sense of justice grew more and more outraged, for not only was she stealing money, she was stealing the ability to care for the animals, and she was stealing the credibility of the animal shelter so that they would have a more difficult time raising funds from the community.  Finally, when I read that this was the second time this woman had committed such an act, my sense of justice agreed with the judge’s sentence:  3 to 5 years in prison, and the woman must pay back the $18,000 the animal shelter’s insurance paid.  But then, I read the woman’s side of the story.  She seemed apologetic for what she had done, said that she had a family she needed to care for, and that she needed to work to pay back the money, which she couldn’t do in prison.  And a grudging sense of mercy started to be at war within me against my outraged sense of justice.

            Paul writes, “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  How would this woman’s fate be different if she had encountered love and mercy from the judge?  Here is a possibility:  Love would have believed the woman’s statement that she was sorry for what she had done.  Love would have given the woman the chance to go free, and work to pay the animal shelter back.  Love would have borne the possibility that this woman would run off and steal money again, but it would have believed that, because she had been shown mercy, she would in turn show mercy to others and work to pay back the wrong she had done.  And love would have endured the pain if the woman had stolen again.

            When we look at it, this is the kind of love God has for us.  It is an intentional love that acts patiently with us when we do not have the strength or the words to come to God, or when we simply ignore him.  It is an intentional love that says to us, “Even though I know you are going to backslide and do wrong again and again, I have hope that you will see the mercy I have shown you through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and that you will show that mercy to one another.  I have hope that, not only will you use the gifts I give you to help one another, but that you will do so out of love and not out of lording it over one another.  And when you fail, I will endure the pain and continue hoping, because I love you.”  This is the kind of love that we are called to emulate—God’s love for us—and because it is so much bigger than the love between a husband and wife, this is why I don’t care for this passage being read at weddings.  The kind of love being described here is inclusive of everyone, no matter if you are single or married, young or old, and so on.

            “All you need is love.”  I think the Beatles definitely had a point.  In order to do anything worth doing, the song says, all you need is love.  This is the motivation that should move us to do all of the things we do:  love for one another, and not for a desire to compete with one another, or to lord it over one another, but simply to help one another and build one another up.  And you know what the great thing is?  Even though we fail, God shows us the same kind of love, bears it, forgives us, and continues to hope all things for us.  And when everything else disappears at Jesus’ return, God will be there and God will continue to love us.  And so, in the words of 1 John 4:7:  “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”  Amen.