A Murmuration of Starlings

Acts 2:41-47
Lauren J. McFeaters
November 20, 2022
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By the time we get to Acts 2:41, Peter has finished his Pentecost sermon and he gives us a snapshot of communal life in the early church. Community. The Community of early believers.

Community. A word we toss around a lot. The idea of Christian community, attracts and repels most of us. We long for the life-affirming benefits of community, but we resist the demands that community makes. To be committed to Community, we realize just how much independence and autonomy we might have to lose. We’re tempted to dismiss the whole notion of early church community as quaint and charming, even as we yearn for the very same kind of faith-filled living, connected and attached.[i]

But when we’re faced with another day of fear, filled with unending violence against LBGTQ+ folks including last night’s massacre in Colorado Springs. Another day of fear, filled with mass shooting madness, unending pandemics, an exodus of teachers from our schools, and a tipping point in climate change, we cannot dismiss a passage that represents the best of what God’s people are capable of.

Each generation of faith is fed by this passage about those first believers, because we are in the end, just like them: not quaint, not charming, but flawed and broken, another generation of faith, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and hope.

Tucked in the first chapters of Acts are seven small verses that give us everything we need to know about what the Holy Spirit can do.

For these past five weeks, Heath Carter has taken us on an adventure in history. Have you been a part of Adult Education, a Small group, listened to a sermon? Heath has given us an honest look at our Presbyterian past, our present, and today – our future. He’s touched on a lot of fear we have about what’s ahead for the church. Fear of change. Fear of the other. Fear of a world moving too quickly. Fear of a nation intent on dividing itself.

This week, Heath has asked us to take a breath and face the fear of an unknown future. He quotes Martin Marty, who says, while it’s easy to become overwhelmed by stories of decline, and worries of the church, of cascading crises, we have not been given a spirit of fear. [ii]

And this is the crux of the matter. We have not been given a spirit of fear. We have not. We absolutely have not.

In the midst of our fear, the Spirit rummages around our hearts, plucks us out of our hiding places, and releases us from our dread. Thank goodness. Thank you Spirit for being relentless, steadfast, and unyielding, because fear, our fear of what we cannot control, is the very thing that freezes our hearts and makes us bitter. So the Spirit of God lays this at our feet:

  • Fear about the future has no place in our lives of faith.
  • This soul-sickness only demoralizes; it weakens our capacity for generosity; it keeps us immature and under-developed,
  • It damages our joy;
  • It harms all the things we’ve learned from our text, that awe is a spiritual discipline, that communion and baptism are grace-alive, and that prayer is ours to revel in;
  • We believe together, hope together, give our possessions and goods together, distribute together the proceeds to all.
  • What would we do without each other.

There is a perfect sound and image of this. It sounds like a whisper. It turns into a Murmur. A Murmuration. A Murmuration of Birds. (Stay with me here). It’s a Murmuration of Starlings.

Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s the name that’s given to animal groupings. The collective noun that describes a gathering of creatures. You know: a Colony of Bees; a School of Fish. The names of animal groupings are fascinating:

  • A Coalition of Cheetahs.
  • A Pandemonium of Parrots.
  • A Coterie of Prairie Dogs.
  • And Crows. What’s for crows? Do you know? A Murder of Crows.
  • A Conspiracy of Lemurs.
  • A Parliament of Owls.
  • And for those preparing for Advent, a Crèche of Penguins.

The most interesting to me, is the one about Starlings. The small, iridescent birds that fly all over the globe. A group of them is called a “Murmuration of Starlings,” because, when  in flight, they whisper to each other by the flapping of their wings, and that murmuring whisper provides guidance as they seek food and avoid predators.

But they also do something amazing:  when flying, starlings do so in complete synchronicity. Individual birds flock together as one.

It’s an aerial ballet. In one coordinated movement thousands of starlings swoop, plunge, climb, plummet, and twist, and then disappear altogether back to earth. Give yourself a gift and Google it: A Murmuration of Starlings.

It’s like watching:

  • a shape-shifting cloud,
  • a single being moving and twisting in unpredictable formations in the sky,
  • one swirling liquid mass –
  • as thousands, sometimes millions of individual birds act as one. [iii]

The flock’s movement is based on staying healthy as a whole.

No bird is left for the taking. There is protection in numbers, so the individual starlings do not scatter, but rather are able to move, thousands of birds changing direction simultaneously.

It’s the church isn’t it:

  • A Murmuration of the Church.
  • An Assembly Called Church.
  • Flapping our wings in glorious praise to God.
  • Swirling, shape shifting, twisting as we look out for each and every one.
  • Murmurs of everyday devotion as we plunge into teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer. [iv]
  • Eagerly swooping into commitments of selflessness and sacrifice for the one in trouble.
  • It is then, I think, from the perspective of heaven that we look like a Flock Called Church, moving and swaying in such exquisite harmony it takes away the very breath of God.

A gift.

Not from Peter, no matter how courageous his sermons;

Not from Martha, no matter how intense her devotion;

Not from Paul, no matter how deep and wide-reaching

his missionary work.[v]

A gift. A gift with the power to wipe out fear.

A swooping, shape-shifting gift, that reminds us of who we are.

A swirling liquid mass, heart-rending,

unpredictable, mesmerizing, gift of the Holy Spirit.

Given in love and given to you.

I pray we never, ever, forget it.

Endnotes

[i]  Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Acts 2:42-47.” Working Preacher, workingpreacher.org, April 13, 2008.

[ii] Martin E. Marty. “From Declinism to Discovery,” The Christian Century,  christiancentury.org, August 21, 2013.

[iii] See a YouTube video of a “Murmuration of Starlings” filmed by Dylan Winter at www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY, November 13, 2010.

[iv] Lori Anne. “An Unkindness of Ravens, A Murmuration of Souls.” Mammasteblog.com, December 2, 2011.

[v] Laura Truman. “The Church This Side of Heaven:  Acts 2:42-47.”  Day 1, Alliance for Christian Media Inc., Atlanta, GA, day1.org, May 11, 2014.


 

 

Putting God to the Test

Acts 15:1-11
David A. Davis
November 13, 2022
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When I was an undergraduate, all final exams were given in a huge hall with long tables that stretched the width of the room lined up in row after row the entire length of the room. Chairs were spaced out at the tables not for health and safety but to discourage wandering eyes. An exam for one class was given on one side of the table and on the other side someone was taking an exam for another class. There must have been  half dozen or more classes taking exams at the same time. All the students taking exams were writing answers in the notorious “blue books” and writing in long hand. Proctors roaming the room were graduate students. There was one person semester after semester, year after year, at a table in the middle along the side with a microphone. He was in charge of pretty much everything including the clock. He was affectionately known by all students as Mr. Test.

There was an apocryphal story that hung aground for years of an encounter between Mr. Test and student. Mr. Test had called time, exam over, pencils down. Most students had long since left the room when a student appeared before Mr. Test and asked which pike of blue books was for his class. Mr. Test pointed to a large stack in front of him but said “I can’t accept your exam. It is now too late.” The student, with all the attitude one can imagine, blurted out to Mr. Test, “Don’t you know who I am?” Mr. Test, with an equal among of attitude quickly responded to the student, “I have no idea who you are but I can assure you if I did, it would not make a difference.” The student smiled, said “Okay then” and quickly shoved is blue book into the middle of the pile and ran away.

The only reason that story probably still lingers, the only reason that story is funny at all, is that it hits kind of close to home. How power and privilege and access so often plays out in the world, in our lives, and even when it comes to living out faith. In the biblical text offered for your hearing this morning, Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and later James are engaged in an argument for what is, what became, what remains at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ; salvation by grace. The reading from last week that told of Paul and Barnabas “shaking dust” and setting out to bring the gospel to the Gentiles establishes the context for this scene we read this morning of the profound theological discernment in the earliest days of the church. Despite ongoing persecution and imprisonment, Paul and Barnabas traveled the region making many disciples. Just at the end of chapter 14. Luke reports that Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch and told the church “all that God had done with them, and he God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” (14:27). Shortly thereafter, a group of Jewish preachers and teachers came down from Judea and proclaimed to anyone who would listen, “Hey, don’t you know who we are?”

The “no small dissension and debate” between Paul and Barnabas and the other itinerant teachers about circumcision was an argument about whether one had to become Jewish in order to become Christian. As a professor of mine said a long time ago in reference to “opened door of faith for the Gentiles” that it was a matter of whether one had to go through the door of the synagogue to get to the door of the church. The sign of circumcision, the custom of Moses, the law of Moses, it sat at the very core of one’s faith, one’s identity as a child of God for the people of Israel. So, yes, the travelers from Judea were arguing with Paul and Barnabas. “Don’t you remember who we are?”

Notice that Barnabas and Paul were “sent on their way by the church” to go back up to Jerusalem to continue the debate. The elders and apostles of the Jerusalem church welcomed them and were filled with joy as the report of the conversion of the Gentiles was received. The requirement to keep the law was brought up again. After much debate, Peter, the Rock upon which Christ would build his church, stood up to speak. He reminded them God had chosen him from among them to spread the message of the good news to the Gentiles. “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us”, Peter proclaimed. “In cleansing their hearts by faith God has made no distinction between them and us.”  Why put God to the test by imposing law after law that hangs like a yoke around the neck when our ancestors were never able to pull it off. It’s too much, too difficult to bear. “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will.” We will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. Saved through grace. And “the whole assembly kept silent”.

It wasn’t the kind of silence in Luke that the disciples demanded from the blind man by the side of the road who kept shouting “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.: It wasn’t the kind of silence in Luke kept by Peter, James and John after coming down from the Mt. of Transfiguration when they held their tongue and didn’t tell what had happened. This was more like the silence Luke describes after the scribes and chief priests sent spies to try to entrap Jesus with questions. Jesus answer left them amazed yet silent most likely because they didn’t like his answer and they knew they were not going to be able to trap him.

“We believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will. The whole assembly kept silence.” One has to wonder what was the greater cause of the silence of the assembly when it came to that last sentence, that exclamation point, that fine point at the heart of the gospel of Jesus etched on the sacred page proclaiming salvation by grace. “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will.” What was more disconcerting to the crowd; the first part or the last part. What was more upsetting, that the Gentiles would be included in salvation or the testimony that even those in the crowd will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. The easier choice is to assume that the listeners were upset about the inclusion of the Gentiles. But you can’t have the latter without the former. The door of faith can’t be opened to the Gentiles unless, at the end of the day, salvation for everyone is only by grace.

The biggest threat to the sign of circumcision, the custom of Moses, and the keeping of the law of Moses had to have been salvation by grace alone “We believe we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”  It was the biggest hurdle then and it is the biggest hurdle now in the life of faith. Because it is completely contrary to pretty much everything thing else in the world, contrary to pretty much everything else related to religion and faith, contrary to pretty much everything it means to be human, contrary pretty much to everything you and I have ever been taught anywhere and anytime, and contrary to pretty much everything that bombards us all the time. Salvation by grace. Biggest hurdle then, biggest hurdle now. Unfortunately, it is pretty much contrary to so much of the church’s history, the church’s behavior, the church’s actions from then until now.

I was listening to a blog on a morning walk this week that included audio from the oral arguments before the Supreme Court recently on two affirmative action cases that are before the court. As a kid from a public school in a suburb outside of Pittsburgh who got into Harvard in 1980 because some football coach put a check by my name, I am a product of admissions preference. On the surface, the goal of the lawsuit is to establish college admission as a fully merit based process. I learned in listening to the journalist being interviewed that 25 years ago the court, in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, believed that the need for consideration of race and ethnicity in college admission would eventually fade as the society became more and more equal and just. That if the process was working, it would put itself out of business and admissions could return to being solely merit based (which of course, it never was).

Perhaps it need not be said, but with or without affirmative action, the college admissions process could not be further from Paul and Barnabas’ teaching on salvation by grace. Yes, I know college admission and the life of faith are not the same. But the threat of a merit-based theology that embraces an individualism, a pull yourself up by your bootstraps, a good old protestant work ethic when it comes to God, salvation, the life of faith, the merit-based theology and spirituality and piety in the life of the church never goes away. It’s not that every now and then in history the church’s begins to lean back toward salvation earned/salvation deserved because the church was so good at grace and the spread of the boundary-less gospel both in word and deed. That the church did so well within and without that equality and justice thrived for a season. No, not 25 years. Not for 25 days. Not for 2000 years. It is more like the church and those in it, have this innate yearning to horde God’s grace and shout “what’s in it for me”.  Hording God’s grace rather than sharing it and all the while living like others who are labeled as different or other or worse don’t deserve it and have to earn it. “Don’t you know who we are?”

“We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  You can’t have the latter without the former. Any celebration and joy found in the boundless reach of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his grace has to include the knowledge and pretty much the daily discovery that you have been saved by grace alone. You weren’t born into it. You didn’t earn it. You don’t deserve it There’s nothing you can do because it is a gift of God through the faith of Jesus Christ. It’s not because you are religious enough. It’s not because you’re smart enough or humble enough. Not because you go to church. Not because you thank God that you are not like a Pharisee. Not because your grandmother raised you right. Salvation is by grace and yes, God’s love is that great.

The church of Jesus Christ and those in it will never fully embrace, welcome, celebrate “the other”, will never loosen the death grip on God’s grace, will never stop putting God to the test without the fullest, life changing, transforming acceptant of salvation by grace alone; heart by heart. Because you can’t have the latter without the former.


 

 

Shaking Dust

Acts 13:42-52
David A. Davis
November 6, 2022
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With this story of Paul and Barnabas in the 13th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we are continuing to encounter stories this fall of the preaching, teaching, and ministry of the leaders of the early Christian Church. We are also continuing to encounter a consistent theme. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and the apostles move about tell the story of Jesus and proclaiming the gospel. They are met by receptive and ever-growing crowds yearning to hear more about the grace and power of God. Again and again the religious leaders among the Jewish people are overcome with jealousy, sense the very real threat to their power and authority, and are determined to silence the rabble rousers by any means necessary. With the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of the Risen Christ, the preachers, the teachers, the church, the movement that is the gospel of Jesus Christ just doesn’t stop.

In this morning’s text Paul and Barnabas are about to head out after Paul’s tour de force sermon on salvation history in the synagogue at Antioch. The people urged them to come back on the next sabbath day. Luke tells the reader that “the next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.”  If the whole city, when the whole city turns out, the religious leaders are not going to like it. Paul and Barnabas strongly respond to the rejection and the hostility and decide it is time for them to move on to the Gentiles. Those same religious leaders stir up powerful and important people to unleash persecuting forces determined to toss those preachers, those teacher, those apostles out of town. As they move on to Iconium, “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” and hey shook the dust of their feet.

Shaking dust. “They shook the dust of their feet in protest”.  You will remember Jesus used that expression in his teaching to the disciples. Earlier in Luke when Jesus sent the twelve to bring the good news, Jesus tells them: “Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (9:5) Again in Luke when Jesus sent out the newly appointed team of 70, he told them what to say if they were not received. The words have a bit more of an edge. “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you. Yet know this, the kingdom of God has come near.” (10:11)

Scholars and commentators say surprisingly little about Jesus and his use of the expression “shake the dust off your feet”. The idiom may stem from the ancient practice of a Jewish person cleansing feet after traveling the unclean path of Gentile soil. Some scholars then suggest Jesus is making a not so subtle dig at keepers of the law telling the disciples to shaking the dust off on Jewish soil in response to the rejection and lack of hospitality. Many who write about the phrase focus in the area of evangelism and spreading the gospel and openness or the lack thereof to the Word proclaimed. A few commentators work to soften view any sense of judgment when shaking dust “in protest against” or “in judgment of the other”. I wonder if the use of the phrase may also be more metaphorical.  An expression, an image that leans into the persistence, courage, and determination ever so necessary when it comes to preaching, spreading, living the gospel. Jesus giving a nod to how this gospel life won’t always be easy rather than Jesus doubling down on a sort of “I am done with you and you are going to hell” approach. Shaking dust,

After Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to face the temptation of the devil, when the devil had finished every test, Jesus returned to Galilees and he began to teach in all their synagogues. Jesus went right at it. That’s Jesus shaking dust. It is Luke who tells of Jesus not being welcomed in his hometown of Nazareth. The people are filled with rage and drive him out of town and try to toss him off a cliff. Jesus passed through them and went on his way.  The next verse Luke writes that “Jesus went down to Capernaum…and was teaching on the sabbath.” Jesus kept at it. That’s shaking dust. When Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke, his first stop was Samaritan village where people did not receive him. James and John wanted the judgement and hellfire. Jesus rebuked them and went straight on to another village. Shaking dust. Along the way down the Mt of Olives, you remember the whole multitude of the disciples were praising God and shouting in in a loud voice. Some of the Pharisees told Jesus to make them stop. “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out”. And then Jesus kept going up to Jerusalem weeping for the city as he went. Jesus shaking dust, not in his rebuke to the Pharisees, but in his still going up, still heading to the cross. A persistence, a bold courage, and unyielding determination to live for the gospel and the affirmation that the reign of God is here. Shaking dust.

If you have not read Dr Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” from start to finish you should go to the Nassau website today, click on congregational life-small groups-more info-scroll down to this fall’s study guide and find the link to King’s Letter. Small groups and adult education participants read the letter this week. At one point King writes about the power of the early church during persecution and suffering. “In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than [humankind]”. That’s Dr. King on the church in the Book of Acts and “shaking dust’.

Dr. King’s letter written from a cell in August 1963 in response to a published statement of concern from a group of white religious leaders has become over the decades an open letter to the church of Jesus Christ in America. The letter itself is a profound example of “shaking dust”. Making it clear that the silence, indifference, or opposition to civil rights and racial justice will not impede the movement of the gospel, the reign of God. “even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom… If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” A persistence, a bold courage, and unyielding determination to live for the gospel and the affirmation that the reign of God is here. Shaking dust.

This Sunday closest to All Saints Day, we read the list of names of those in our community of faith who have died in the last year. This morning Lauren and I will read 28 names. Last year there were 19 names. The year before that 21. When you listen to the names, the names of the saints, allow the words of scripture in Timothy to echo: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  To listen to the names is to remember that not all the saints were martyrs, not all the saints were the ones named in history. Rather the communion of saints, the list of those who have fought the fight, finished the race, kept the faith, most of the list, most of the communion of saints, most of those who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith are people like us, people like the ones we love whose names you will hear from the Table. And to fight good fight, to finish the race, to keep the faith, you will have more than your share of shaking dust.

Like a coach encouraging the little league batter who got plunked with pitch to “run it out”, like the loving parent at the playground softly asking a fallen child, “if they want to rub some dirt on it”, like the best friend who promises the one with a bruised heart that “tomorrow will be a better day”, allow the voice of Jesus to echo and lift your soul, strengthen your heart, anoint your faith afresh. “Shake the dust” Not in judgment or protest but in perseverance and with bold courage and determination to press on. Jesus in his words and in his actions taught the disciples and taught you and me that now then you have shake the dust.

Whether working a life time for racial justice or daring to do sit in the cafeteria next to the kid everyone else has shunned. Whether speaking up again and again for those who have no voice, those the world can never seem to see or finding the strength to rise another day though the grief is so raw. Whether working for years to free one more wrongly convicted after 28 years or making the visit to that lonely neighbor part of the weekly routine. Whether it is speaking over and over again for the right thing to do at work or offering to sit with a campus friend whose parent is in surgery hundreds of miles away. Whether it is reaching down deep to take on the powers and principalities of this world or simply finding, in Dr. King’s words, “the strength to love”. Whether it is shouting from a rooftop in gratitude to God or barely whispering because you’re convinced God no longer cares.  All of it, every part of the call to live the gospel life, to be a follower of Jesus, to be a disciple, to live in his name, it is going take perseverance, bold courage, and unyielding determination. And yes, every now and then, you have to shake the dust.

So fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith, and along the way, come to Table to feast and be nurtured for the journey. Come to the table and shake the dust.


 

 

If It Is of God

Acts 5:12-42
David A. Davis
October 30, 2022
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I am going to begin the reading from Acts 5 this morning at v. 27 but let me tell you what comes just before. Peter and the apostles were doing many signs and wonders among the people in and around Jerusalem. The crowds and the followers continued to grow in large numbers. People were carrying the sick out into the streets just hoping that loved ones would be healed if Peter’s shadow fell upon them. The high priest and the rest of the Sadducees were very jealous of the attention and the crowds so they had them arrested and thrown in a public prison. But in the middle of the night the Lord sent an angel to open the prison doors, lead them out, and tell them to “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.”  The apostles went right over to the temple at the break of day and continued to teach. The high priest, the council, and the elders of Israel were gathering in the morning to decide what to do next with the apostles and sent word to have them brought from the prison. Of course, they weren’t there. The doors were still locked and the guards were standing watch. Amid the confusion and perplexity, someone arrived to announce they were back in the temple teaching the people. The temple police went over and brought the apostles to the meeting of the religious leaders. The text records that they were brought without violence because the police were afraid of being stoned by the crowds. That brings us to verse 27.

Gamaliel, a Pharisee, “a teacher of the law, respected by all the people”.  He had the apostles removed and with authority told the other leaders to think carefully. He gave two examples of leaders “claiming to be somebody” who had garnered quite the following. Those two somebodies were killed and the followers disappeared. Gamaliel doesn’t say whether they were killed by the Romans or religious leaders. Neither does he mention what the reader knows, the somebody leading the apostles was not Peter but Jesus. He had already been killed and the crowd of followers was growing according to scripture by “a great number”

The teacher of the law respected by all the people offers the snippet of wisdom worthy of  preservation by the tradition. Let these people alone. Gamaliel, said.  “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”. If it is of God. If it is of God, it will last. Just a tidbit of lasting wisdom from a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, and remembered in the church by so very few.

In our linked in series for this week, adult ed leader Dr. Heath Carter invited participants to read a very famous sermon by Harry Emerson Fosdick entitled “Shall the Fundamentalist Win? Fosdick preached that sermon at First Presbyterian Church in NYC in May of 1922. At the time the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy was raging in the church. Put way to simply, the conflict was about how to read and interpret the bible, how to understand biblical authority amid the rushing waters of intellectual and cultural development in the early 20th century. Fosdick’s call in the sermon was for intellectual hospitality, open-mindedness, tolerance with the Christian fellowship of the church. In the sermon he references this text from Acts and the words of Gamaliel and call for the urgent need of the attitude of Gamaliel amid the fundamentalist apparent intent to drive out those who held liberal opinions. Fosdick was forced to resign from First Pres. NYC in 1925 and John Rockefeller built him a little preaching chapel called Riverside Church.

An interesting side note from closer to home, at that same time, old First Presbyterian Church where we gather this morning, Second Presbyterian Church then St. Andrews a block away at Chambers Street (now the Nassau Christian Center), and Princeton Theological Seminary were all in the thick of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. A year and a half after Fosdick’s sermon, Dr John Machen, faculty member at the seminary and then stated supply pastor at First Presbyterian, preached a sermon titled “The Present Issue in the Church” in which he “excoriated modernists with his usual vigor.” In the collection of essays on the history of First Presbyterian Church edited by Arthur Link, that Sunday sermon led to what is referred to as the “van Dyke incident”. Henry van Dyke was a Presbyterian clergy person and professor of English literature at Princeton University. Dr. van Dyke wrote to the session and said he was wasting no more time “in listening to such a dismal, bilious travesty of the gospel. Until he is don, count me out, and give up my pew in the church. We want to worship Christ our Savior.”.  The essay indicates that First Presbyterian Church of Princeton made national news in all the papers.

Contemporary readers of Fosdick’s sermon will sense a compelling, if not disheartening timelessness to it. Students of church history, specifically the history of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy will likely have a similar reaction. For when it comes to that context and the question raised, there is a relentless relevance for the church today; for church, for theological education, for the Christian life. But the wisdom of Gamaliel might not be the most timeless, telling, lasting, predictor when it comes to the church and the fifth chapter of Acts.

One day last summer I was listening to one of the podcasts of the NYTimes. This particular podcast is a series called “First Person”. The episode title was “A Pastor Ripped Apart by Our Divided Country.”  It was an interview with Rev. Dan White, a Baptist pastor of a modest sized congregation in upstate New York. He describes the stress and tension he experienced as a pastor serving a congregation of divergent political opinions. He was ordained in the early 2000’s.  The story he told was about serving the same congregation not during the pandemic, not after the 2016 presidential election. But during the 2012 presidential campaign with Barak Obama running against Mitt Romney. Not to bury the lede of the story, Dan White eventually left ministry after he was diagnosed with cumulative traumatic stress syndrome.

One experience he shared has stayed with me. He had been pastor of the church for about ten years. A woman came up to him, a woman he described as a dear church member he loved. She told her pastor “I have to leave this church. I am a conservative and I don’t feel safe. I feel judged.” Despite his efforts to assure her, she left. Just two weeks later, a young couple who had joined the church since he was pastor came up and said “We can’t stay in a church with people who are so conservative…there’s no space for us. We have to go.”  Again he offered a plea but to no avail. He shared with the listener his loss for words and how perplexed he was that the people were listening to the same sermons, the same teaching week after week.  What Dan, the former pastor said next to the podcaster had a tone of heartbreak that every pastor can understand.  “I was just in shock that both of these people didn’t think they could belong to the same community.” You read the same stories about the church these days that I do. That reality of church life has only magnified all the more, maybe to the nth degree since 2012.

“So in the present case,” Gamaliel said,  “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” They were convinced by him, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go.  The chief priests, the sadducees, and the elders were all convinced by the Gamaliel’s tidbit of wisdom. “If it is of God”. But? Yet? Then? They brought the apostles back in, had them flogged, and ordered them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus. Then…..they let them go. “And every day in the temple and at home, Peter and the apostles did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” Yeah they were convinced by Gamaliel. And they still had them flogged and tried to silence them.

The most timeless, telling, lasting, predictor when it comes to the church and the fifth chapter of Acts is that violent act of flogging that foreshadows humankind’s mark on the church and humankinds desire to demonize the other while always looking to drive them out. But unlike the movements that followed Theudas and Judas the Galilean, those that Gamaliel pointed out had disappeared, the church of Jesus Christ is still here. We’re still here. Because the mark of Christ is always more indelible than the mark of humankind. The power, the strength, the peace, the love, and the presence of the Risen Jesus is and will always be greater. Because that’s what he promised. That’s what he taught. That’s how he lived. That’s how he died. That’s how he rose again. And we’re all, this all, we’re all still here, amid all the brokenness and sinfulness, amid all the ragtaggedness, inspite of and despite our feeble efforts, we’re, we’re all still here.

That’s because Jesus is stronger. I don’t preach that out of flimsy piety. It’s not a toss away phrase for me. It’s the promise that I live by, the promise that rests deep within my heart, the only way I find myself rising to live and serve as a pastor and preaching in the church, in the nation, in the world these days. The mark of Jesus bestowed at baptism is a mark that is always stronger. Or as I have reminded you again and again with the words of the First Letter of John. God is greater than our hearts.

Yes, there is a relentless relevance to that Fosdick sermon now 100 years old, a relentless relevance to the Christian landscape so devoted to tossing the other out…or worse. You and I, the extended community that is Nassau Presbyterian Church, our Savior Jesus Christ still calls us to a bold hospitality, to opt for love over hate, to lean always into tolerance, to welcome the stranger, to love the neighbor and to see the face of Jesus in those we are called to serve. God calls an empowers us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. The Apostle Paul exhorts us to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is never in vain. And Jesus, well Jesus, he will never forsake us. And his mark is always, always stronger.


 

 

What about the Names?

Acts 9:33-43
David A. Davis
October 23, 2022
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Just last Thursday night the Session of Nassau Presbyterian Church met for our monthly meeting. The new ruling elders ordained and installed last Sunday here in the sanctuary began their team. It was an evening for introductions. I asked each elder to share an experience around Nassau Church, recent or long ago, that they carry with them in their heart. After someone finished sharing, they were asked to invite someone else to take turn. One of the advantages of a Zoom meeting is that the boxes all include names. I invite Keith. I invite Tais. I invite Laura. I invite Trip. I invite Claire. I invite Penn. I invite Sallye. I invite Bill. And it went on, the introductions and sharing went on for almost an hour.

A few folks talked about their wedding here in the sanctuary. Several mentioned this being a home to their kids, that their children sort of led the way when it came to Nassau becoming their church. One elder told of being born and baptized here, a third generation elder. We heard of a recent visit with a church member 100 years old. A faith-changing small group conversation that included people sharing thoughts about what eternal life might be like. A child’s baptism early in the pandemic with only worship leaders, immediate family members, and a few close friends here in the sanctuary yet with a strong sense of feeling absolutely surrounded by the community of faith and family near and far on livestream.  A hospital waiting room visit with a pastor as a parent was so sick. Incredible experiences for adults chaperoning youth trips and mission trips and building relationships with those young people that continue as they are become young adults. Being prayed over with a laying on of hands and the powerful experience of both the Spirit’s presence and being cared for. The community and relationships found in the choir room and choir loft. Children learning faith through song. Being greeted by children in coffee hour who know you because you teach or you tell bible stories. A life changing trip to Israel and Palestine that changed forever how to read the bible and brought new, now lifelong relationships and gave a parent and adult child a memory to talk about forever. A sermon here in the sanctuary after Roe v. Wade was overturned that supported and empowered an entire family’s struggle to process what has happened. The absolute importance of the weekly rhythm of Sunday in and Sunday out with worship, word, praise, and song etched ever deeper in the soul. I invite Kathryn. I invite Kate. I invite Tom. I invite Arthur. I invite Anne. I invite Carol. I invite Deb, Janet, Benjamin, Karen, Rich, Melissa, Jeff, Rachel, Carol, Tim, Barbara. All shared through laughter, tears, and gratitude. And the snippets I just shared were not near all of it. It was an hour-long testimony to the here and there in the Body of Christ that is Nassau Presbyterian Church.

Now as Peter went here and there” Luke writes in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. “Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers.”  I invite Aeneas. I invite Tabitha. Names abound in the text for today. Tabitha whose Greek name was Dorcas. Aeneas, Peter, a certain tanner named Simon. The town of Lydda. The town of Joppa. Plenty of details come with Tabitha’s story. Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. When Tabitha died, they washed her and laid her in a room upstairs. The widows, they were weeping with Peter, showing him the tunics and the clothing Tabitha/Dorcas had made. The details of sadness and remembering, the details of death, they resonate with the reader; a sort of universal response comes with death. The widows, their care and preparation for Tabitha’s body was matched only by Tabitha’s care and devotion to them when she was alive; how she must have provided for them, supported them, how her good works and act of charity rested at the heart of their existence. You know how vulnerable widows were in the ancient world. One preacher suggests that the disciples called for Peter to come not because they expected him to raise Tabitha from the dead but because they knew this community of widows was hurting and would need care and that Jesus would have told them, would have expected them to take the lead. But of course, Jesus wasn’t around, was he. “Peter, Peter, we need your help.”

The New Testament Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells of how the ministry of Jesus Christ continued and took the form of the church. These chapters in Acts tell of how the teaching, the serving, the proclaiming, the healing ministry of Jesus passed on to those who followed him. Peter announces to Aeneas that “Jesus Christ heals you.” Luke, the writer here, announces to the reader that through this story of Tabitha’s rising, many believed in the Lord. The literary and theological momentum here is to assert that the resurrection power of God in Christ Jesus did not stop back there somewhere after the Empty Tomb and the Emmaus Road.  With this coupling of a healing and a rising, Luke affirms an ongoing resurrection hope and sustains a gospel word of life conquering death, and points to the ongoing ministry of the Risen Christ among those who believe. With all the names and the details, Luke clearly seeks to embody that resurrection hope not just in the crowds of Pentecost but in the lives of each one. For according to Luke, it was more than just the gathered crowds, it was more than just Aeneas and Tabitha. According to Luke, Peter went here and there among all the believers. Here and there, now and then, this and that and such and such, in every corner of life, pointing to, living out, proclaiming, working toward life in God’s name, a vision of life as God intends in the kingdom of heaven, God’s victory over the power of evil and death. Resurrection hope embedded in the here and there of life.

This week our fall linked in series has started in our small groups and in adult education led by Professor Heath Carter. The series is entitled “The End of the (Main)Line: The Surprising Past and Uncertain Future of an American Protestant Powerhouse”. Part of the preparation for small group and adult attendees was to read the opening chapter of the Pew Research Center 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The survey results of 35,000 people in the United States reached by cell phone or landline are reported in a very granular way and tells of the statistical decline of pretty much every branch of the Christian Church in America between 2007 and 2014. I shared with the small group I lead on Wednesday mornings that Presbyterian Church (USA) has been in decline in terms of membership since before I was born in 1962. Those who have listened to my preaching over the years likely know that while I am not naïve to the struggles and realities of the mainline church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) and particular congregations near and far, I refuse to accept the apocalyptic gloom and doom predictions that sometimes sound more like a nostalgic lament that life in the church just isn’t what it used to be back in the day (50,60, 70) years ago. Part of my determination, to be honest and transparent, is for some semblance of occupational health. But there are two much more profound reasons for my own thought. First is a theological one. Jesus Christ alone is head of the church and the church’s future rests in him and him alone. The second is experiential. One of the real, significant reasons I have little patience of the gloom and doom is because of you and so many others who have taught me faith, shown me faith, lived faith, You and so many others. Maybe not Aeneas and Dorcas, but names far to many to mention.

Amid the loud trumpet blast of decline, you and I, we find ourselves back here again and again, now both in the room and virtually. The Holy Spirit draws us back. The grace of God bids us come. A routine of praise and worship offers something to lean on while life swirls. Our community of faith gathers here again where the echoes of God’s comfort still bounce off these walls, here where we offer our resurrection shouts, where we sing of “Immanuel” and celebrate the Light of World, here where we feast at Christ’s Table and bath in his love, here where we place our future days again and again and again in the wisdom and the faithfulness of God. Here to worship the Living God with you and me smack in the middle of it knowing, of course, that questions will always go unanswered and full explanations are rare.. But time and time again, we find ourselves here, together, on the Lord’s Day, knowing that even when words fail, that the promise of God surrounds us. Time and time again we come here, expressing both a bit gratitude and a bit of a plea, that God would once again meet us in the now and then and the here and there of life.

As I sat this week with the Pew Study in one hand and the story of Aeneas, Dorcas, Peter, and a certain tanner named Simon in the other, it occurred to me that the Pew Study doesn’t have any names. 35,000 people. But no names. I can’t explain away a crippled man walking anymore than I can explain a saint of the community who was dead and then was shown to be alive. But the bible gives names and tells their stories. And according to Luke many believed and turned to the Lord and had life in his name because what God did in and through Aeneas and Tabitha whose Greek name was Dorcas. Luke telling about Aeneas and Dorcas to proclaim the resurrection power of God in Christ Jesus lives on, Signs of resurrection power, and life-giving hope, and the gospel promise of life conquering death smack in the middle of all the names and details of life. These that are recorded and many others in the here and there of life. When I find my own cynicism or discouragement on the rise when it comes to the religious landscape so close to home, time and time again God grants an experience, a sign, like Thursday night. Or when in the here and there of this community of faith I come upon someone’s love, someone’s selfless care, someone’s courage moving forward, someone’s strength in the midst of unspeakable loss, someone’s constant prayer, someone’s undeterred commitment to justice or inclusion or reconciliation, someone’s fresh taste of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace.

When you read the names, when you hear the names, when you know there are names, there is a profound ordinariness about it all. Among people like us. Stories, powerful testimonies, week after week, year after year, signs of resurrection hope….in your life and in mine. So many of them we point to and celebrate and remember here when we are together. It must be part of brings us back each Lord’s Day. Time and time again we come here, expressing with laughter, tears and gratitude and also a bit of a plea, that God would once again meet us in the now and then and the here and there of life.

Like the here and now of just today in the life of Nassau Presbyterian Church:

Hyun Jin and Soohjun, Joseph, Cherrie, Michael and Grace and Charlotte, Wendy and Steve, Jane, Elizabeth, Charles and Sharyn, Jean and Ed, Chaijung and Heejeoung and Sung Ryung.

Rob, Robbie, Robert Dixon Hayes III, I baptize you.

What about the names? Isaiah 43:1

“Now says the Lord, the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you O Israel, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

What about the names? Yes, its about a whole lot more than Zoom hospitality. Because the invitation, the invitation to you comes from God by the power of the Holy Spirit in and through Jesus Christ who will never, ever forsake you or his church, the Body of Christ.


 

Losing Heart

Luke 18:1-8
David A. Davis
October 16, 2022
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Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. A parable about how they “ought always to pray and not to faint”.  Jesus told them a parable to “show them that they should always pray and never give up. The parable comes here in Luke after a few tough parables that begin with “there was rich man”. When a parable begins “There was a rich man”, its not going to an easy one. After a few parables about a rich man, after Jesus teaches about mustard seed faith and forgiveness, after Jesus tells the one about the leper who came back to say thank you, after Jesus tells the disciples about the days of suffering that were surely to come: suffering for the Son of Man, suffering in the world when the Son of Man is to be revealed, suffering in the life of discipleship, shortly after Jesus in Luke proclaims  “those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” After all that in Luke, right then in Luke, Jesus tells them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God not had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to the judge to ask for justice in a particular case. The judge refused for a while, maybe for a long while, maybe a good long while. Then like a ruthless politician that so often confirms the worst fears people have about a person, the judge confirms that he has no fear of God nor respect of people. “Yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out”.  The judge making himself look all the worse complains that the widow is just going to wear him out with her persistent whining.” Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Tradition and bible editorial committees most often label Luke 18:1-8 “the parable of unjust judge”. Newer editions sometimes give equal billing calling the section “the parable of the judge and widow.” The protagonist in the parable is clearly the widow not the judge. One would think if you had to give the parable a title you would call it “the parable of the persistent widow”. After all, Jesus told them the parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. While one can imagine that a more accurate labeling of the parable didn’t happen until women gained a seat at the editors’ table and pointed out to the men that the widow was the one not giving up and losing heart, my hunch is that the historic focus on the judge is more a result of the problematic interpretive move that casts the judge in the god-like role. It’s such a common approach to parables; to try to assign every role, to try to turn the parable into an allegory.

It is true that with his own commentary after the parable ends, Jesus offers a comparative reference to God; “Will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” Notice when it comes to Jesus’ take on the judge, there is both comparison and contrast when it comes to the ways of God.  An effort to stretch further in portraying the non-God fearing judge as a god-character is misguided. But John Calvin himself in writing about this parable states that “the point of it is that God does not help God’s people immediately because in a sense God wants them to tire themselves out with praying.” Really, John?

The parable is not comparing prayers and a cry for justice to bothering God. Nor is it providing an object lesson to support intercessory prayer and how or why it works. It would seem Luke’s Jesus could not have been more clear; he told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. So the take away for the listener, for the reader, for all who encounter the parable of the persistent widow, the take away isn’t to figure it out, or to claim a mental victory, or to squeeze the life out of it interpretively, or to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s and make sure to use your highlighter….the take away is to pray always and not lose heart. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will he find his disciples crying day and night for justice, praying always, and not losing heart?

Praying always.  Pray in the Spirit at all times (Eph 6). Continue in prayer (Col. 4). Pray without ceasing (I Thes. 5). Praying always. Always praying doesn’t just describe life in a monastery or a daily quiet time that lasts forever or a dinner prayer never missed. Always praying implies a relationship with God, a disciplined commitment to nurture one’s awareness of God and God’s mercy, and an honest openness to the presence of God in every area of life. Always praying. It’s an aspiration to deepen and nurture the gift of faith. An acknowledgment that when it comes to prayer, one can never have enough. Praying always. In the canon of scripture praying always is more of a promise than it is a pipe dream. Fewer promises of God can be more essential to daily life than how the Apostle Paul describes the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words…for we do not know how to pray as we ought. Always praying.

Praying always isn’t the hardest part, losing heart is. Not losing heart. Not getting discouraged. Not losing one’s passion for righteousness. Not giving up. Not wanting to quit when it comes to working for the kingdom, and serving a vision of the world as God wants it to be, and being an instrument of God’s peace, and believing that mercy and compassion ought to thrive in creation now and not just in the world to come, and living out the conviction that the everflowing stream of  God’s justice and righteousness ought to be gushing forth now in a world so full of resources and wisdom? Not losing heart? Well, that can be the hardest part.

A few weeks ago, I spent a couple days in Richmond, Va. with a peer group of pastors. One of our activities was walking a portion of the enslaved persons’ historical tour in downtown Richmond with two pastors who have worked for decades to learn and tell all of Richmond’s history. One of the pastors is an African American Baptist named Sylvester Turner. Friends call him “T”. The other is white Episcopalian named Ben Campbell.  I would guess they are both in their upper sixties, early seventies. Our docents of city history explained that the enslaved person’s trail came about in the 21st century as Richmond started to come to grips with all of it’s history. A history not full told. A history still being discovered. They told us that in the first half of the 19th century, Richmond had become the very heart and economic engine that of the evil of the domestic slave trade. The buying and selling of enslaved people in auction houses there in the city down the hill from the state capital. A section of the city called “Tobacco Row”.  We stopped at one of the sites that is an archeological site. The site of Lumpkins Slave Jail only unearthed and excavated in the early 2000’s, Lumpkins Jail was described in the discovered writings of enslaved people as “the Devil’s Half Acre”.

We stood at the site just below the elevated I95 running through the center of Richmond, as our leaders had to shout over traffic noise so we could hear. They told us more about Lumpkins Jail. Robert Lumpkin was known for his cruelty and abuse toward enslaved persons. An enslaved woman named Mary was the mother to several of his children and when Robert Lumpkin died that property was turn over to Mary who by that time after emancipation was legally allowed to have ownership. She eventually sold it and the property was the site of a seminary training African American clergy, Richmond Theological Seminary. That became Virginia Union College now University, a historic Black university. The first African American governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder, was a graduate of Virginia Union College.

The dig has been covered up with layers of earth in order to best preserve it until plans and funds and vision for a proper museum can come to fruition among city and state leaders. We were told that current leaders at both the city and state level including the governor of VA. are now waffling as to the historic development and preservation just down the hill from the state capital and are entertaining other offers for a more profitable redevelopment such as a parking garage. When asked what they thought would happen to the site in the future, the weary episcopalian cited the current debate in VA about how and what to teach when it comes to US history, specifically racial history. He said he thinks they will pave it over and described it as a metaphor for paving over so much of Richmond’s history. He sounded like he had lost heart. The Baptist pastor stood up a bit straighter and disagreed with his friend of forty years. “No, I believe it will happen. It’s God’s work now.”  He preached with confidence.

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Somewhere, someplace last night a parent or grandparent was joining in the bed time ritual with a very young child. Before prayers and lights out, it’s the reading of a few picture books.  After the first book, the child says “just one more”, and after the second book, “just one more”. “Just one more.”.  Well, the one doing the reading didn’t really want the moment to end either. The parent, the grandparent cherishes every plea because it’s a sacred time. A sacred plea. Just one more.

Some days all you can do is ask Jesus to tell you just more. Just one more Lord. One more about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Because when the Son of Man comes, the Son of man is going to find faith on earth. By God’s mercy and grace and with a whole lot of sighs of the Holy Spirit too deep for words, folks like you and me, children of God, followers of Jesus, disciples crying day and night for justice, praying always, and not losing heart. Praying always and not giving up. Tell us one more, Jesus, just one more…so we can pray always and not lose heart.


The God of Hidden Choices

Exodus 2:1-10
Andrew Scales
October 16, 2022
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I grew up in a family that was obsessed with science fiction and fantasy literature. My brothers and I spent a lot of Saturdays with Return of the Jedi in the VCR during our childhood, smashing our Han Solo and Darth Vader action figures against each other. Dad read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to me before bed every night. Mom used to chase us around the house with her very own toy proton pack from Ghostbusters. As we got to high school, my brothers William, Joseph, and I devoured books like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and deeper cuts like A Canticle for Leibowitz, as well as classic films like Blade Runner, Alien, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There’s something missing, though, from this hodgepodge canon my brothers and I cobbled together. None of them are works by women authors, directors, or artists. This year, I’ve been working really hard to address that deficit. Right now, I’m making my way through Octavia Butler’s dystopian climate change novel Parable of the Sower. This summer, I was reading the meditative masterpieces of Becky Chambers’ Monk and Robot Series alongside some of our students in Princeton Presbyterians.

But my favorite has been an undisputed genius of American literature: the author Ursula K Le Guin.

It’s easy at first glance to fit sci-fi and fantasy into a box, to dismiss it as kids’ stuff with all its lasers and magic swords and made-up names. But in an essay in her book, No Time to Spare, Le Guin gets at the heart of great science fiction and fantasy literature with a simple statement: “It doesn’t have to be the way it is.” [Pause] That’s what science fiction and fantasy have to say to us. It doesn’t have to be the way it is.

Le Guin writes, “It doesn’t have to be the way it is is a playful statement, made in the context of fiction, with no claim to ‘being real.’ Yet it is a subversive statement.

Subversion doesn’t suit people who, feeling their adjustment to life has been successful, want things to go on just as they are, or people who need support from authority assuring them that things are as they have to be. Fantasy not only asks “What if things didn’t go on just as they do?” but demonstrates what they might be like if they went otherwise—thus gnawing at the very foundation of the belief that things have to be the way they are.”

“It doesn’t have to be the way it is” is the powerful rallying cry of women in the book of Exodus. Princeton Presbyterians is in the middle of a sermon series on women in Exodus, and last week, Len preached about the midwives Shiphrah and Puah. When the Egyptian Pharaoh saw that the enslaved Hebrew people were becoming a large nation, he demanded that midwives kill any male Hebrew children at the moment of childbirth.

But Shiphrah and Puah, leaders of the midwife guild, refused. They made excuses, they slow-walked the order, they bungled the roll out, they failed to comply. Over and over again they invented new ways to resist this cruel edict from Pharaoh, and thus saved the lives of many children.

When Pharaoh learned he’d been deceived, his policies became even more violent, demanding that Hebrew children be thrown into the Nile River. Exodus tells us that at least one woman, whose name we later learn is Jochebed, refuses to obey. When she and her husband Amram have a son, she faces an impossible choice: give him up to the authorities, or try to raise this little boy in secret and endanger the whole family.

So Jochebed takes Pharaoh’s order and twists it. Pharaoh said all male babies had to go into the Nile River, but Jochebed knows that Pharaoh didn’t say how. She says to herself, “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.” She makes a basket for her baby—a tevah in Hebrew—Robert Alter explains it is the same word for “ark” from the story of “Noah’s Ark” in Genesis. She carefully waterproofs it and adds a covering so he’ll be safe. Jochebed places her newborn baby into this basket, this ark, and sends her daughter, Miriam, to follow it.

Under the pressure of extreme, cruel demands, Jochebed makes a choice deep in her heart—a hidden choice from Pharaoh and his edicts—to use all her creativity, love, and trust in God to resist and help this baby survive. It’s a heartbreaking, desperate choice: Jochebed lets go of her child in the hopes that something, someone, will deliver him from these deadly circumstances. A young woman, a servant to the daughter of Pharaoh, finds the baby in the reeds. Pharaoh’s daughter sees this little human being, realizes it’s one of the Hebrew children, and she, too, chooses compassion and defiance of her father.

The young sister Miriam runs over and gets involved: wouldn’t you know it, her mother Jochebed would be the perfect nurse for a baby like that. Pharaoh’s daughter names the baby Moses, an ambiguous choice that sounds like an Egyptian name for “Son,” and also the Hebrew word for “drawn from water.” It’s a story that depends on a mother, a sister, a servant, a princess making a hidden choice in their hearts, each one saying to themselves, “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.”

Biblical scholar Terence Fretheim observes that God doesn’t speak in the story of Exodus until the burning bush, when Moses is well into adulthood. At first glance, God seems to be absent. It’s just human beings looking out for each other in Exodus until the swarms of locusts and frogs and darkness and plagues show up to afflict Pharaoh into letting God’s people go.

But Fretheim proposes that God might be at work among the courageous decisions of these women—Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, the Egyptian servant girl, Pharaoh’s daughter—as they make these hidden choices to resist and defy the king. God chooses in freedom to work with human beings when they do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. We worship the God of hidden choices, who sees and hears resistance to evil and decides to get involved. God is a storyteller, after all, and whenever she sees evil and injustice she will find a way to work with those who resolve deep in their hearts that “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.”

Our series on women in Exodus with Princeton Presbyterians has, unfortunately, taken on new gravity since we began with Shiphrah and Puah last week. Protests in Iran that began with the death of Mahsa Amini in government detention have swelled into a women-led rejection of Iran’s brutal morality police and calls for other reforms.

Since last spring, we have seen the courage of women like Marina Vladimirovna Ovsyannikova, a Russian journalist who burst onto a live broadcast with a sign saying “NO WAR.” She fled house arrest in Moscow for Germany last week and continues to condemn the war in Ukraine.

Amid one global crisis after another, when it often feels like there is no word from the Lord, is it possible to imagine that God telling some new story in and through the voices of women who are shouting out, “it doesn’t have to be the way it is”? When it’s hard to see good news on the horizon, Exodus urges us to remember the stories of women who have said and lived out this truth. When we remember that the God of hidden choices has been faithful to us in the past, we can place our trust in God to provide a surprising, hopeful future.

I’ll close with a story I’ve told before at Breaking Bread about women who transformed their community by saying “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.” In Spring 2013, I traveled to El Salvador with a group of students from Davidson College. We were there to learn about how Christians lived out their faith during a terrible civil war in the 1980s. One of the places we visited was a small town called Suchitoto. Suchitoto is a beautiful place in the mountains, and its name in the indigenous language Nahuatl means “Land of Birds and Flowers.”

During the war, Suchitoto had been subject to some of the worst abuses of the government, including attacks by soldiers, bombing runs by American-funded warplanes, abductions and torture of citizens by paramilitary groups. It is a place where Catholic priests and laypeople, many of them tenant farmers on coffee plantations, endured persecution as they organized and demanded things like the right to vote, meaningful access to public education, economic reforms that would lift most of the population out of subsistence living. Suchitoto carries deep generational trauma, and a long history of witness to human rights.

We met with a local women’s rights group, and they talked about some of the ways those traumas continued to have an impact on the community. At that time, the town was struggling with an increase in incidents of domestic violence. They showed us a home where one of the organizers lived. The group had spray painted a stencil of block-printed words: “EN ESTA CASA QUEREMOS UNA VIDA LIBRE DE VIOLENCIA HACIA LAS MUJERES.” “In this house, we want a life free from violence against women.” It was a sign that this house, these people, this family had agreed together that they would transform deep generational trauma through a radical commitment to non-violence. They would not hurt each other, and they were committed to being a safe haven to any neighbor fleeing an abusive situation at home. Part of the stenciling was a little drawing of a bird resting on a flowering branch, a symbol of the ancient name of Suchitoto, “land of bird and flowers.”

Standing there, surrounded by the green mountains of the Cuscatlán region, my students and I looked as one of the women gestured from her home to the other houses on her street. Every few houses, all the way down the lane, families had spray-painted walls that said, En esta casa queremos una vida libre de violencia hacia las mujeres. In this house, we want a life free from violence against women. Birds and flowers. Hope that the way the world has been is not the way the world has to be. Resurrection hope for a better future that can transform deep-seated trauma, violence, and despair.

“It doesn’t have to be the way it is.” That’s something we hope our students learn from their experiences in Princeton Presbyterians. Not simply as criticism or constant dismissal, but as an invitation to creative resistance to deadly ways our world silences and breaks people down. We trust that, in Jesus Christ, the God of hidden choices has said, “It doesn’t have to be the way it is. I am coming soon. I am making all things new.” Amen.

Between Complaint and Praise

Habakkuk 2:1-4
A sermon written by David A. Davis and preached by Lauren J. McFeaters
October 2, 2022
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A few weeks ago, I was driving south on Interstate 71, between Columbus and Cincinnati. As I drove, I was looking for a very particular sign. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. Lauren Yeh had told me it was on the north bound side of the road, but facing the south bound traffic, and has to do with a soccer rivalry between two professional teams.

Lauren had also told me that when the two professional Ohio soccer teams play, one from Columbus and one from Cincinnati, it’s called “The Hell is Real” Derby, pronounced “Darby.” The name comes from the sign I was looking for. I didn’t want to miss it.

Decades before, this sign in a field was put up by a farmer and reads: “Hell is Real.” I had seen pictures, but I wasn’t sure how big it was, or how hard it would be to see while driving. Turns out, there was no way you could miss it. It was very plain. A passenger, a driver, a runner, probably a pilot could read it. I take some joy in the notion that the content of the sign as been repurposed for a non-theological, non-judgmental, non-threatening use. The “Hell is Real” derby. A soccer match.

From the Book of Habakkuk:

“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets,

so that a runner may read it.

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;

it speaks of the end and does not lie.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.

It will not delay. Look at the proud!

Their spirit is not right in them,

but the righteous live by faith.”

Write the vision on a tablet and make it plain. So that a runner can read it. Its not a sign like “STOP,” “YIELD.” It’s not a sign held up, telling a distance runner, her time as she passed by. The vision, it is to be written so that the person can carry it along, and read it, and comprehend it, in the middle of the run. Write so the messenger has the message. The message, the vision, is for the journey itself.

The message is sure and true for the appointed time. For the here and now. It’s a vision of God’s future. If you don’t see it, if you don’t grasp it, be patient. Wait for it. It is surely coming. God is here and God’s future is real. Despite all the signs that the world may be crumbling, God is still in control.

And the righteous – they shall live not by answers, not by certainties, not by threats, not by fear – but by faith. Write the vision, make it plain, etched not on tablets of stone, but etched in the hearts, of all those who are called by God, “to run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12)

There’s not much to know about Habakkuk. There’s not much information here in the Hebrew Scriptures, little, if anything, added by the historians of antiquity, not much more that comes from biblical scholarship. Habakkuk was a prophet of God. A prophet who most likely lived in or around Jerusalem, that ancient city, with expansive walls, and plenty of watch posts. Habakkuk was a Hebrew prophet at time when Babylon was the empire of the day. That means that his city was in ruins. Jerusalem was under siege. His world was literally crumbling around him. Not much more can be said about Habakkuk. What is known about Habakkuk is his complaint.

Right from the start. Right at the beginning of the book of Habakkuk, the first chapter: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing? So the law becomes slack, and justice never prevails…” Come on, God! Look around! I’m not sure which world you’re watching over, but mine, mine is falling apart. Evil carries the day. Violence never seems to stop. Righteous leaders are nowhere to be found. Aren’t you the God of old? Aren’t you the one to do something? What is known about Habakkuk is his complaint.

And yet, Habakkuk begins with a complaint, and ends with a prayer. A prayer that God would come and save God’s people, that God’s people would endure. Right at the end of the book, the last few verses, the last words from the prophet, the end of that prayer, he acknowledges that he will have to wait. The victory is yet to come. Right there at the end: “Yet, I will rejoice in the Lord. I will exult in the God of my salvation. The Lord, is my strength.”

Many of you know that Nassau Church is the spiritual home of Centurion, the Princeton based organization founded by Jim McCloskey in 1983. Just shy of 40 years, 67 individuals freed. Over 1,200 years of life spent in prison for crimes they did not commit. This week Centurion once again held their family gathering here in Princeton. The events always includes the ritual of the recently exonerated and returning citizens, removing their names from the board in Centurion office that lists the names of the current cases the team is working on. This year the names removed; the men freed: Shawn Henning, Kevin DeSalle, Ben Spencer, and Larry Walker.

In March of 2021 on a Friday, I watched a livestream video from a courtroom in Dallas, Texas. It was the hearing in which the judge vacated the conviction of Ben Spencer and ordered his immediate release.

According to the account written by Jim McCloskey, Ben Spencer was released after 34 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He walked out of prison into the arms of his wife Debra, his 82 year mother Lucille, and his son BJ, who was born three months after his father’s arrest. When asked about his strength and perseverance, how he kept going all this years, Ben said,

“Even though I had seeds of doubt, I always had Hope. I couldn’t see giving up. My Faith told me that somehow, someday, God would provide a way out.” Then he added, “Patience wins out over time. It always does.

Ben Spencer knows what it means to stand at the watch post. “Someday God would provide.”

Or as the prophet put it: “Yet, I will rejoice in the Lord.

I will exult in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord, is my strength.”

Bring your complaint here, even when, especially when your life is crumbling. When the liturgy of your life begins with a gut-wrenching plea, Jesus bids you to come. And this is our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise. This feast, a watch post really, unfolds  under a liturgy of plea and thanksgiving. This table is full. Yes, bread, wine, body, blood, grace, forgiveness, presence. The table is full. But the table overflows with the reality of our lives as well. There is still a vision for the appointed time, for here and now, and the righteous shall live by faith.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded

by so great a cloud of witnesses,

let us also lay aside every weight,

and the sin that clings so closely,

and let us run with perseverance,

the race that is set before us,

looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

(Hebrews 12)


I Am Yours

Romans 13:11-14
Lauren J. McFeaters
September 25, 2022
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My smartphone offers at least 80 alarm options. For my morning wake-up, I can choose Smooth Jazz, Ocean Flow, Chimes. For mornings that might need a lot of energy there’s Horn Honk, Bark, and Typewriters. For mornings where there are hard things ahead, like a burial, a difficult hospital visit, there’s the calming Sherwood Forest, Minuet, and Swoosh.

“Snooze” is the one function on my smartphone alarm, Paul wouldn’t approve of. [i]

Paul is adamant that the Roman church wake up from sleep. Alyce McKenzie says, we, as readers, are prodded to wake up from sleep with them. Paul defines sleep as the works of darkness. What does that mean? We can guess at our own darkness. Relationships fueled by selfishness and self-indulgence. Our greed for more. Our malevolent unkindness for those who have less. Our vindictive gossip and rumor-making.

A laid back ringtone like Choo Choo or Popcorn is unsuitable for the insistence of this wake-up call. For 1st Century Paul, the urgency appears from the certainty that Christ has arrived, and Christ will be back any moment.

We need this call to urgency as much, or more, than the Roman church. When centuries have passed and this dawning has still not occurred, it is easy to lose our urgency. But there is still the urgent truth that our lives are short, and we have a limited time to serve Christ in this world. Paul understands this as “putting on the armor of light; living honorably as in the day.” [ii]

For Paul, time is of the essence.

He’s just spent eleven chapters of his Letter, proclaiming the power of the Gospel and the mercy of God. Now he begins to give instruction on Christian life:  How our worship is central to our wellbeing, and our wellbeing is central to how we behave. How we take our everyday life:  our sleeping and eating, going to work, going to school, our walking around life, and we place it before God as an offering.

Our everyday, ordinary life, is a life to be lived in decency; a life of graciousness; a life which honors the gospel. The Christian life honors the everyday simplicities of openness, gentleness, tenderness, and serenity. When was the last time we lived a day in the Spirit of openness, gentleness, tenderness, serenity? For Paul, everyday simplicity is freedom. Duplicity is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear. And it begins with the dawn.

You know what time it is. How it is now the moment for us to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is near.

For the first believers, life was lived with a sense of anticipation. Everyday life held expectancy; a keenness, for the Lord is near. The promises they knew from Hebrew Scriptures were tangible, touchable things, for the Lord is nigh. The reign of God is close at hand. When they prayed, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” they knew it as a real and solid event happening in their lifetime. Two thousand-plus years later, not so much.

What do we anticipate? A lot of us reduce the word to a feeling of expectation. Here comes that trip, better pack. Here comes that party, better dress. Here comes that project, better be energized. Here comes that meal, better be hungry.

But “anticipate” comes from the Latin for “taking into possession beforehand,” “to foresee and act in advance of.” Anticipation is an expression of faith; a dependance on the love of God; a strengthening of the partnership we have with our Lord, and what we can do together.

You know what time it is. It’s the chance to wake up and offer your life to God. And it starts with your eyes opening each morning; that holy, liminal instant, when life is lived between the already and the not yet. There’s space to breathe; there’s room to go deep; there’s opportunity to pray, saying to God:

I give myself to you.

I trust you.

I am wholly dependent on you.

I am yours and you are mine.

Do with me in this day what you will.”

May this be our prayer. Pray it with me.

I give myself to you.

I trust you.

I am wholly dependent on you.

I am yours and you are mine.

Do with me in this day what you will.”

The dawn is breaking.

  • We don’t squander precious hours being frivolous and superficial.
  • We don’t sleep around and overindulge.
  • We don’t grab and hoard.
  • We stop the bickering and backbiting.
  • We cease the gossip and end the resentment.
  • We turn from the decadence and wastefulness.
  • We end the shallowness and insincerity.
  • And we do it because, in the kingdom of God, there’s no room for it.
  • It’s an utter waste of and a scandal to the gospel.
  • It injures relationships and destroys our community.

Because when at dawn you say to God:

“I give myself to you.”

“I trust you.”

“I am wholly dependent on you.”

“I am yours and you are mine.”

“Do with me in this day what you will,”

then there’s no room for darkness.

There is freedom.

You know what time it is.

It’s time to come and meet your Lord.

Thanks be to God.

 

Endnotes

[1]  Romans 13:11-14 NRSV:  Besides this, You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you  to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

[2] Alyce McKenzie. “The Cross as Our Ringtone: Reflections on Romans 13:8-14.” September 4, 2014, patheos.com/progressive-christian.

[3] Alyce McKenzie.


Really? Snap! Ouch!

Luke 16:1-13
David A. Davis
September 18, 2022
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Yes, you heard right. I changed the word to “mammon”.  I changed the word “wealth” in the New Revised Standard Version to “mammon”.  “Dishonest mammon (v.9)…..dishonest mammon (v.11)…..You cannot serve God and mammon (v. 13).  It is the term used in the King James and several other more modern versions of the bible. It is actually pretty much the Greek word, mammon, It’s a word with its roots in Arabic. The word “mammon” occurs 4 times in scripture. Two of them are in the quote from Jesus in Matthew and Luke, “You can’t serve God and mammon.” The other two are here in chapter 16. The oh so familiar term, “mammon” is not all that common the pages of scripture. Just not a lot of mammon. A whole lot of wealth, other words for wealth, but not much mammon. But “mammon” sounds better than “wealth”. “Mammon”. It’s more fun to say and it has a bit of a nasty ring to it. “Mammon.” When it comes linked to this incredibly difficult parable from the teaching of Jesus, the parable of the unjust steward, it kind has an onomatopoeia feel to it. The parable is kind of nasty and the term has a nasty ring to it.

A few years ago, New Testament Professor Dale Allison from Princeton Theological Seminary taught an adult education class on interpreting parables. With his words he very creatively took us on a tour of the seminary library and the section that has all the books on the history of interpretation of the parables. When it comes to this parable named by tradition as “the parable of the unjust or dishonest steward”, some would focus on the historical and cultural analysis of the business practices described in the parable. Knowing he was about to be fired, did the manager simply cut his own commission or eliminate the predatory elements that put cash in his pocket, or was the immediate discount coming out of the owners’ profit? The shrewdness commended was an urgent decision that allowed the rich man to cut some losses and move on.

Others would look to the existential crisis of the manager, “what will I do now…I’m not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg”. The manager’s employment predicament becomes symbolic of an Ebenezer Scrooge-like transformation that leads to kindness and mercy. Or perhaps reflects his blatant political expediency of acting in ways to ingratiate himself to the debtors becomes some kind of exaggerated indicator of an awareness of others and the ripple effect of one’s own behavior. Or his quick thinking to save his own hide becomes a metaphor for a spiritual creativity that ought to apply to things eternal. A street smart, edgy wisdom applied to figuring out what is necessary for the salvation of one’s own soul. The shrewdness commended has to do with some kind of conversion process going on in the unjust steward that adjusts his focus, his energy, his business like mind, his entrepreneurial spirit toward important things, toward eternal things.

It is also possible to step away from the details of the parable, step away from trying to figure it out completely point by point and do a kind of flyover. Take a step back and observe the broad contrast between the children of this age and the children of light. The firing of the manager and the reference to being welcomed into eternal homes creates a kind of end time apocalyptic teaching of Jesus. The children of light must be more alert, more on guard, more prepared than the children of this age. The shrewdness commended relates to being on God’s side when the Son of Man comes with power and great glory, out-smarting the world with a wisdom that is from above and that lasts forever.

Yet one more approach is the effort to distinguish the parable itself form the commentary of Jesus. In this case, one could argue the parable concludes with verse 8. “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; because the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Stop right there and the listeners to the parable then and now are left shaking their heads. “Really Jesus?”. But Jesus continues teaching. The sermon goes on and the preaching heats up a bit. “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest mammon, who will entrust you the true riches?”  Snap Jesus!

In November of 2015, The Christian Century published a short article I wrote and titled “When it Comes to Talking about Money, Pastors Can Never Win.” It started as an 1800 word essay on the bind that pastors face because congregations and most of the folks in them are uncomfortable talking money; especially the combination of their money and their faith. Over and over again, pastoral search committees look for the next pastor to help them improve stewardship and then the pastor catches flack at the door: “you talk about money too much” or you ought to stick to spiritual things”. The piece included bits of wisdom shared with me early in ministry and a few things I have learned over the years. One example is that the pastor should always understand the church budget as well or better than the finance committee. After comments from the editor, I cut the article to 1400 words. When it was published it was about 750 words and the title was “Why Pastors Should Know Who Pledges How Much?” Which was never the intended gist of my work and most of the tips were on the cutting room floor. It was a print version of what social media now refers to as “click bait”.  When it comes to reading, teaching, talking about mammon, the title editor made it all the more a third rail issue. The editor knew what we all know. Don’t talk about mammon, mine, yours, or ours. But then, Jesus says you can’t serve God and mammon! When it comes to the first half of Luke chapter 16, it’s all about the mammon. Ouch Jesus!

Not just mammon but dishonest mammon. The two times Luke’s Jesus pairs the words mammon and dishonest. “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest mammon so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”  Dishonest mammon, unrighteous mammon. One commentator suggests the best translation of the Greek could be “the mammon of injustice”.  The adjective in the Greek is the same used to describe the steward as dishonest, as unjust. The master commended the dishonest manager, the unrighteous steward, the manager of injustice. The mammon of injustice. The manager of injustice.

Injustice, then, in the sentence is in contrast to “making friends.” Make friends for yourself by means of the mammon of injustice.”  Making friends must be more than light-hearted fellowship, more than making an acquaintance. Making friends must be more than scoring political points, more than keeping score and counting favors. Making friends must be a reference to welcoming someone as a member of the very household God. It must be what comes after finding the lost, after a tear-filled embrace, after a grasping shout of joy. Making friends, It must be comes after the one about the lost sheep, the one about the lost coin, the one about the lost. Making friends, as when Jesus announced in John’s gospel “I no longer call you servants….I call you friends.”

Making friends connotes relationship, care, partnership, equality. The shrewdness commended in the parable points to a participation in a transformation, not simply in the heart and soul of the steward, but a transformation of the economy of injustice, a turn toward the household of God. Taking part in transforming the world’s practice into the very kingdom of God.  The minister of injustice took the mammon of injustice to make friends for eternity so that when the mammon is gone, when the injustice is gone, the glorious welcome of eternity will last forever. It’s a parable about ridding the world of economic injustice one manager at a time.

Economic injustice seems at the heart of stories coming out of Mississippi the last few weeks. The poorest state in country. As one writer put it; far too many people in Mississippi only aspire to the poverty level. The water crisis in Jackson, MS, like the previous one in Flint MI, has everything to do with systemic, economic injustice. The poorest of communities made vulnerable by a system that diverts public funds and resources elsewhere. And then there is the story of the Hall of Fame football quarterback who participated in a scheme to defraud the state welfare fund of millions of dollars. Along with others, the effort a million dollars into his own pocket for speeches and more than a million dollars to fund a new volleyball arena at the university where his daughter was on the team. As more than one sports journalists has pointed out; he made enough money in his career and his ongoing ubiquitous endorsement deals, he could have funded the arena himself. The mammon of injustice

If you are not aware of the compelling and convicting work of  “The Eviction Lab” at Princeton University, you should be. https://evictionlab.org/    The Eviction Lab is under the leadership of Professor Matt Desmond. The purpose of the lab is to gather massive amounts of data related to eviction and poverty and to make it available for policy makers, think tanks, and local and national legislative offices. More than gathering the data, the work of the lab advocates against economic injustice. To quote Professor Desmond, “Eviction functions as a cause, not just a condition of poverty. You may have heard me quote from Desmond’s award winning book Evicted before. But I can’t study the parable of the unjust steward without thinking about all I learned when reading Evicted.

This from the very end of the book: “Establishing the basic right to housing in America could be realized in any number of ways—and probably should be. What works best in New York might fail in Los Angeles. The solution to housing problems in booming Houston or Atlanta or Seattle is not what is most needed in the deserted metropolises of the Rust Belt or Florida’s impoverished suburbs or small towns dotting the landscape. One city must build; another must destroy. If our cities and towns are rich in diversity—with unique textures and styles, gifts, and problems—so too must be our solutions.”  That sounds like a call for being shrewd enough to find solutions regarding economic injustice. If the managers of injustice could use the mammon of injustice to make friends with the 3.6 million individuals and families facing eviction every year.

Mammon. It’s one of words in the bible so rare that no one ever forgets. Would that the followers of Jesus would never forget that Jesus calls those followers to participate in transforming the world’s practice into the very household of God. Use the word “mammon” when reading Luke 16 and the parable of the unjust/dishonest steward. The whole section ought to be read with a crescendo above it and an increasing tempo below it.  The whole section almost rushes toward “mammon.” The parable proper with all its ambiguity and then the squirm-worthy sermon from Jesus, the post-game press conference as it were; it all has a rhetorical momentum that builds. The swirl of questions and complexity that whips with the increased pace of the teaching of Jesus; stirring up head and heart…children of light, dishonest mammon, faithful in little, faithful in much, hating the one, loving the other…..You cannot serve God and mammon, Ouch Jesus! A mic drop of divine proportion. The listeners to the parable and the preaching of Jesus then and now, can’t feel good about it and can’t explain it. You just experience it and try to somehow by God’s grace and mercy, try to somehow to be faithful in your life, in following Jesus when it comes to God…..and mammon.