By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the fourth sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Scripture excerpts from Exodus – Joshua (see below)
We have a lot of ground to cover today so we’ll be reading excerpts from scripture throughout the sermon. The scope of the sermon is Exodus through Joshua… Suffice it to say this sermon wins the hot mess award for our series this fall.
Last week Sheri talked about the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. “Being chosen doesn’t mean that you’re God’s pampered favorite child and you can throw tantrums and steals toys and treat everyone around you like crap. It means you’ve been chosen for a divine purpose and that God has blessed you for that purpose.”
This is the third sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Before we continue telling the story of the Bible, I want to say about how I think of story. Stories do not have to be literally true to be profoundly true. Stories do not have to be factual to tell us the truth about the human condition and our relationship to the Sacred. When I approach Bible stories, I often think of a saying that has been attributed to a Native American storyteller: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” We listen to these stories again and again to try to find the truth in them and to orient our lives by that truth.
And so… We started our series on the story of the Bible two Sundays ago with — creation! It was good, very good. A beautiful garden abundantly filled with life! Humans created in the image of God! And then, last Sunday: the fall. Humans — desiring to be like God — go beyond God-given limits and broken relationships result, with God, ourselves, each other and creation.
This is the second sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17; 3:1-24
We are going to do a Bible Study much like I remember preachers doing when I was growing up. Like those “olden times,” this will be easier if you have the text in front of you. So: Did you bring your Bible like I told you to? If not, do you want a hard copy? Joanna can pass them out. Or, you can go to biblegateway.com and type in the scripture reference exactly as it appears in the order of worship.
While you’re doing that, I’m going to give a bit of introduction to our story for today. Last Sunday, we began the story of the Bible with the story of the creation of the world. In that story, we learned of a world created not from an act of horrific violence — as in the Babylonian creation story — but through the intentional creativity of God. Our world was created good; it is not intrinsically violent or evil. The God who created this world is both transcendent — that is, independent of the creation — but also immanent, a deity who desires relationship with us and who is very present in this world. And, last, we said that we are created in the image of this Creator, which means that we, too, are powerful, creative and made for mutual relationship.
This is the first sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Imagine you are an ancient Babylonian. You’re going about your daily business of whatever it is that ancient Babylonians did — harvesting crops, carving stones for the ziggurats. Imagine the kind of world you live in if this is your creation story?
The world was born from the freshwater god Apsu and the saltwater goddess Tiamat. From their union, other gods are born. But these god children are noisy, and their parents are not getting any sleep. This enrages the father Apsu, who decides to kill his children. But before he can carry out his plan, his children discover his plot and kill him instead. Their mother, Tiamat, is furious that her children have killed her husband, and she declares war against them. Terrified of their murderous parent, the divine children choose a young warrior god, Marduk, to lead them against Tiamat and her few loyal offspring. He agrees, but only if he can be named king of the gods if he succeeds. A bloody battle ensues, and Marduk kills Tiamat, dismembers her body and fashions the heavens from her body parts.
In a moment of whimsy, Marduk then decides to form a human being out of the blood of another god he had killed. These lowly creatures are created for one purpose only: to be slaves to the gods so that the gods may enjoy lives of leisure. (This summary of the Enuma Elish comes from Linda MacCammon’s book Liberating the Bible: A Guide for the Curious and the Perplexed.)
Before we even begin to talk about our story for today, I want to provide some context because there are anti-Semitic land mines in this text. I asked Andrew Ramer to comment, and here are his eloquent words:
The first thing to bear in mind when hearing these verses is that all of the characters in them, every single one of them, are people who today are labeled Jews. These verses explore an internal conversation between two groups of Jews in one community, who disagree about how to observe the Sabbath.
This is our second annual “Throwback Sunday,” where we look at a theological concept that many of us might have grown up with and where we also engage in gastronomic rituals that many of us may have grown up with. This year, we’re having a jello salad extravaganza! And I’ll be talking about eternal life. I also have to say that this passage from John is written in a context where the Jews who follow Jesus and the Jews who don’t are starting to have much more conflict and hostility between them, and you can hear that antagonism in much of John and certainly in the passage we just heard. Let’s remember these words from John are not justification for anti-Semitism today; how could they be? They are recording an intra-Jewish conflict, for the most part.
So, for many of us who grew up in church, that last verse we heard read— John 3:16 — was the most important verse in the Bible. It summarized the essence of our faith: that we are sinners who should be condemned to death because of our sin. But God, out of love for us, decided to send a substitute — his Son, Jesus, who was sacrificed on our behalf. And now, if we believe in Jesus – believe that Jesus is God’s son and believe in his saving work on the Cross – then we can avoid the fiery pits of hell and go to heaven after we die and be there with our beloveds in the faith who have died before us. We can have eternal life. Sound about right?
By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
It felt like a punch to the gut to learn about another shooting in this country yesterday in El Paso. And then this morning while preparing for worship to learn about Dayton. And this follows less than a week after the tragedy in Gilroy at the Garlic Festival, which is very close to home. A member of our congregation had attended the festival the day before the shooting.
Lord have mercy. These are difficult times. What words of hope are there? What words of comfort in the face of loss and trauma?
I’ve found some solace immersed in the Psalms and reflecting on God’s steadfast love. In the NRSV the first verse is translated to include the word “steadfast.” It reminded me this week of a song I learned in childhood:
By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
We do what’s possible and God does what’s impossible. That is the actual title of my sermon, it was just too long for the bulletin.
One of my favorite places these days is the Faith in Action office located at the corner of Folsom and Cesar Chavez. I walk in the door saying “Hola, como esta?” and giving hugs and kisses all around the table. I’m usually one of the only people in the room that doesn’t speak Spanish but that hasn’t gotten in the way of getting to know these neighbors. And thankfully someone is always gracious enough to translate for me.
At a Faith in Action meeting this week we began by answering the question: Where have you sensed the Spirit of God in our work together?
The other day, I walked the dog in my neighborhood on a morning that was just right. It wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold. It was just right. The sun was warm on my skin, the birds were singing, flowers were blooming. And then, I saw him: a thin man in his early 20s, standing in the middle of the street on this just right morning, barefoot, tattered, talking to himself, arms waving above his head like he was fending off a swarm of bees. As I walked near him, he turned an eye to me, and the look he gave me was wild. I had no idea what he was going to do next, what vision he was seeing as he looked at me. I found myself glad that my little guard dog DeeDee with me. As I turned the corner onto another street, I looked back and saw that he was taking off his clothes, still standing in the middle of the street. I wanted to help him — he was some mother’s son, not much older than my own — but I was afraid to and didn’t know how.
I’m reading a book in which the author, Cheryl Strayed, talks about working with poor, white middle school girls who were deemed not just “high risk” but “highest risk” by the school they attended. These girls had had the roughest of lives before they were even technically teenagers. Poverty, incarceration, missing or drugged-out or abusive parents. They girls told her, as Strayed put it, “ghastly, horrible, shocking, sad, merciless things. Things that would compel me to squint my eyes as I listened, as if by squinting I could protect myself by hearing it less distinctly… Endless stories of abuse and betrayal and absence and devastation,” many of which were still happening. She told the girls that what was happening to them was not okay. It was unacceptable. It was illegal. And that she would call someone and that someone would intervene and this would stop. It never did. Not once did a police officer or a child protective service worker ever come and help any of the girls during the year that Strayed worked with them. Finally, Strayed asked a child protective services worker why no one came, and she explained that there wasn’t enough money to go around and so they had to do triage. They would intervene quickly with a child under the age of 12, but for those over that age, they put their name on a long list of children whom they hoped they could check up on someday when there was enough money to do so. The woman told Strayed that it would be better if the girls ran away from home, because there was more funding for runaways.
By Sheri Hostetler
Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43
Our story from Acts takes place in Joppa, a coastal town about 35 miles west of Jerusalem. It is now a suburb of Tel Aviv. Dorcas, or Tabitha (the Hebrew version of her name) — actually, I’m going to call her Tabitha because I can’t get this middl-school snicker out of my mind whenever I hear the name Dorcas. Tabitha is one of the main disciples of a small community of Jewish followers of Jesus that has formed in Joppa. Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity, the text says; she was a beloved person in this community, caring for the most vulnerable by making garments for them. Today, in our world of fast fashion, we might not realize what a big deal this was. Clothing back then was major expense — one cloak might cost more than half of the annual wages of a poor person. Tabitha was seriously into the redistribution of wealth by giving widows and poor people clothing.
This is how our story begins: “On the first day of the week, when it was still dark, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” When it was still dark, the women who loved Jesus set off to do the equivalent of a first-century embalming — taking spices and oils to put on Jesus’ body to slow down the decay. So, clearly, they were expecting to find a dead body. Clearly, they were not expecting resurrection. They thought they knew what had happened and what was going to happen. Jesus had died, and he would remain dead. He would not save them; his movement would not overthrow the Roman Occupation and inaugurate the kingdom of God, that place of peace and justice and liberation and enough for all. That hope was over. Dead, just as Jesus was, killed by the very forces of injustice they thought he would overthrow. At his death, says the Gospel of Matthew, darkness fell upon the whole land.