Sunday, July 31, 2022

Unraveled: Unraveling Shame

 Jesus had to go through Samaria. He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.

The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered. “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”

Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” --John 4:4-18, 25-29 (CEB)

She came to our food pantry one day, a few minutes after we had closed. When we told her we were closed, she burst out in tears. In the midst of her tears, we heard her story. She was a mother of four sons. Trying to survive after her husband had walked out on her and left her all alone. She’d driven by our food pantry for a year - a whole year - unable to stop by, to get food, this mother of four boys who we’d later learn had her PhD. All because of her shame. 

Shame. It’s at the heart of this story today. This story of the woman at the well. Notice that I didn’t say the “adulterous” woman at the well. Because, the truth is, nowhere does the text say this. 

Sure, Jesus reveals that she has five husbands. That the man she’s living with is not her husband. But he does not condemn her. Because there are many possible explanations for this. Explanations that are reasonable, perhaps even more typical. Explanations that are within the bounds of the Torah. Yet, explanations that have rarely been considered, perhaps even dismissed, as so many commentators, so many preachers have viewed this text for far too long with a patriarchal lens. A lens that resists other possible explanations. A lens that we, in the church, along with so many other lenses, have been challenged to unravel. 

Because this lens would much rather accept Jesus’ offer of good news to the Samaritans - a people hated by the Jews and vice versa -  than to her. A woman. A Samaritan woman. A despised Samaritan woman. Of questionable moral character. Or who lacks the intellectual and theological ability to engage with Jesus in serious conversation. Both interpretations of this text that delegitimize her (and any woman, if we’re honest) as a conversation partner for Jesus and as a receiver and proclaimer of the gospel. 

So, instead, she is shamed. Not only by our patriarchy, but by hers, as well. And, perhaps, she has begun to believe this shame, too. Perhaps, that’s why she comes to the well at noon - the hottest time of the day, when no one else - no other women - would be there. Because it is so much safer - so less risky - to simply be alone. And isolated. So as not to trouble the waters. So as not to feel ashamed.

But, then, Jesus speaks to her. And in one of the longest conversations by far in the Gospels that he has with anyone, Jesus names her truth. Her woundedness and isolation. Her shame. And, in naming it, begins to unravel it.

Dr. Brene Brown is a sociologist and a researcher on shame. For six years she researched shame before she began to write about it. Why? Because, as she puts it, “shame is this horrible topic, no one wants to talk about it. It’s the best way to shut people down on an airplane. ‘What do you do?’ ‘I study shame.’ ‘Oh.’” When we begin to talk about patriarchy or whiteness. Sexism or Racism. Or privilege. She writes that when we begin to talk about these things, people get paralyzed by shame. Because “shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”

But, here’s the thing. We cannot unravel those things in our lives, in our world, without addressing the shame - the shame Adam and Eve felt in those first moments after eating the apple - the shame that is at the heart of our human brokenness. Shame that tells us that we are not good enough. And shame that then drives us to wound others.

What shame in your life needs to be unraveled? Where is your woundedness? What is the thing that you spend so much energy trying to heal through so many insufficient ways? Relationships? Religion? Success? More degrees? More therapy? Working out? Busy-ness? Perfectionism? Aspects of aging? Aspects of youth? Whiteness? Othered-ness? There are a million ways we seek to isolate ourselves or to use substitutes for God to try and make sure our woundedness - our shame - is not known.

But Jesus knows. Jesus knows this deep and hidden part of us. And Jesus loves us for who we have been created to be, people in God’s image. And, then, Jesus calls us, just as he called the woman at the well, to be his apostles. At this time. In this place. In this moment of great disruption in his Church. In this moment of great disruption in our world. To do the risky work of unraveling. Faithfully. 

But, it’s hard work. This work of unraveling. And it’s difficult to find hope in the midst of it. Where can we find that hope? Where can we find Jesus in this work of unraveling?

I would suggest right here. Here, in our midst, in this space, as we have begun to unravel our own frameworks of thinking and ways of being, as we have argued and wept together, it is here. Where we have witnessed hope for the church God desires, the church God has called us to be. It is here where Jesus has been. Present in the midst of our shame and all our unraveled-ness. Knowing us. Building trust. And weaving us together into a rich tapestry of the diverse and beautiful community God has created us to be, that God hopes for us, for the whole church, for our world, and for all creation. 

For this I say, thanks be to God. Amen.

Unraveled: A Radical Unraveling of Vocation

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. The Human One came to seek and save the lost.” -Luke 19:1-10 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you, from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Alright. Time to tell the truth. How many of you sang this song? 

Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree.
Spoken: And he said, Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house today.
For I’m going to your house today.

Ah, Bible camp! How it made Zacchaeus famous! Did you also know that, early in the pandemic, there was an internet meme of Zacchaeus on social media - one of the earliest to “socially distance.”

It’s an interesting story, this story of the wee little man, Zacchaeus. Whose name means “clean.” Or “innocent.” Isn’t that interesting? Because I don’t know about you, but I have never heard Zacchaeus portrayed as innocent. 

In fact, Zacchaeus was, based at least on his identified vocation, far from innocent. He was a tax collector. Tax collectors were hated. They were considered to be traitors because even though they were Judean, they worked for the Roman empire. So they were not allowed to serve in positions as judges or witnesses. They were thrown out of the synagogue. Their families were disgraced. They were known for skimming off the top of what they collected. So, they were very wealthy. And Zacchaeus was not just any tax collector. He was a chief tax collector. It is a title we see nowhere else in Scripture or even in any surviving Greek literature. That Luke, in this story that is specific to his gospel only, would identify the vocation of Zaccheus to be chief tax collector - well, it’s to show us how much he was hated! How much his family was hated! How much they were outcasts in their community. Even the description of his stature - that he was short - suggests, at least metaphorically, that he was without character. And held in the lowest regard.

But, there’s something unusual about this story as we’ve heard it all these years. It’s verse 8. It’s the verse where Zacchaeus is responding to Jesus: Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.

The problem with this verse is that it can be translated in the future tense, as we just heard and are likely most familiar with. Or it can be translate in the presence tense. In the present tense, it’s more a declaration of the way in Zacchaeus is telling Jesus about how he is using the wealth he has accumulated in his position: Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.

So, which is it? Is it the future tense? A confession by Zacchaeus about how he intends to turn over a new leaf? Or is it in the present tense? And Zacchaeus lifting up an old leaf for all to see.

What I know in my few years of biblical translation is that the harder, least expected version is usually the right version. We, like the crowd, want to jump to the conclusion that this chief tax collector is like all the rest. A thief. A traitor. Someone who should be despised, simply because of what he does and what he’s worth. 

Rather, though, than this story being an unraveling of Zacchaeus and his vocation, perhaps it is the unraveling by Jesus of a culture that casts him aside. That despises him and counts him as nothing. Even worse than nothing. 

Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. There is an intentionality and an urgency in Jesus’ request for him to come down. To, of all things, take Jesus home for dinner. By seeing Zacchaeus. By calling him. By staying with him and blessing him through his presence, Jesus is making a strong statement that this one - even this chief tax collector - is a child of Abraham and a child of God. 

The faith and resilience of Zacchaeus is a lesson for us. He is determined to find a way to see Jesus. Even though a towering and discouraging crowd is in his way. And as he climbs that majestic sycamore tree. As he goes further and further up so that he can see Jesus, both his faith and his actions are rewarded. Jesus looks up. Sees him. Tells him to come down. Calls him by name as Jesus calls all, particularly all on the edges of our world. And tells him, as Jesus tells all of us, you belong. You are mine. You are loved.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Unraveled: Rizpah Mourns Her Sons

Now Saul had a secondary wife named Rizpah, Aiah’s daughter. Ishbosheth said to Abner, “Why have you had sex with my father’s secondary wife?” 

There was a famine for three years in a row during David’s rule. David asked the Lord about this, and the Lord said, “It is caused by Saul and his household, who are guilty of bloodshed because he killed the people of Gibeon.” So the king called for the Gibeonites and spoke to them.

(Now the Gibeonites weren’t Israelites but were survivors of the Amorites. The Israelites had sworn a solemn pledge to spare them, but Saul tried to eliminate them in his enthusiasm for the people of Israel and Judah.)

David said to the Gibeonites, “What can I do for you? How can I fix matters so you can benefit from the Lord’s inheritance?”

The Gibeonites said to him, “We don’t want any silver or gold from Saul or his family, and it isn’t our right to have anyone in Israel killed.”

“What do you want?” David asked. “I’ll do it for you.”

“Okay then,” they said to the king. “That man who opposed and oppressed us, who planned to destroy us, keeping us from having a place to live anywhere in Israel— hand over seven of his sons to us, and we will hang them before the Lord at Gibeon on the Lord’s mountain.”

“I will hand them over,” the king said.

But the king spared Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son and Saul’s grandson, because of the Lord’s solemn pledge that was between them—between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. So the king took the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Armoni and Mephibosheth, whom she had birthed for Saul; and the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, whom she birthed for Adriel, Barzillai’s son, who was from Meholah, and he handed them over to the Gibeonites. They hanged them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them died at the same time. They were executed in the first days of the harvest, at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Aiah’s daughter Rizpah took funeral clothing and spread it out by herself on a rock. She stayed there from the beginning of the harvest until the rains poured down on the bodies from the sky, and she wouldn’t let any birds of prey land on the bodies during the day or let wild animals come at nighttime. When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s secondary wife, had done, he went and retrieved the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen the bones from the public square in Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them on the day the Philistines killed Saul at Gilboa. David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there and collected the bones of the men who had been hanged by the Gibeonites. The bones of Saul and his son Jonathan were then buried in Zela, in Benjaminite territory, in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish. Once everything the king had commanded was done, God responded to prayers for the land. --2 Samuel 3:7; 21:1-14

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I want to begin this morning with an acknowledgment. This is a hard and horrible story. It is the story of Rizpah - a woman, a wife, and a mother - whose two sons, along with five other men, sons of another woman, wife and mother, are executed by the state. Their bodies and lives given as blood-sacrifices. 

It is a hard and horrible story, this story of Rizpah, particularly for us on this day, as we prepare to celebrate Independence Day in our nation. But, perhaps, this year, it is a timely story, difficult as it may be. A reminder of what real freedom and true patriotism is.

To fully understand the context of this story, we need to back up just a bit. We are in the days of the early monarchy in Israel. Saul, Israel’s first king, has become disfavored by God, who has anointed David to replace him. Throughout much of the first book of Samuel, they are at war with each other - King Saul fighting to hold onto his reign against David, one who had been beloved by him, who had even married Saul’s daughter. This is a war between a father and a son-in-law. By the end of first Samuel, Saul is dead. Killed in battle. So, too, is Jonathan, his son - David’s best friend. This family fight has been devastating, resulting in a kind of hunger for blood on all sides. 

We first hear of Rizpah in chapter three, the first verse of today’s reading. We learn that she is Saul’s concubine, most likely considered a second tier wife of Saul. Like Hagar and Abraham. 

As the story continues a famine has struck the land. David seeks an answer from God about the reason for this famine. He hears that it is because of a covenant broken by Saul - a covenant made with Israel and the Gideonites, remnants of the Canaanite people, whom Israel had promised not to harm. Saul, in his zeal to preserve his throne, has killed many of them. David, now Israel’s king, is dealing with the consequences of this broken promise. 

He goes to the Gideonites. (Notice that God does not tell him to go to the Gideonites.) David asks what kind of blood-sacrifice they will require to end the famine. They tell him that neither gold nor silver will compensate for these unjust deaths. They also tell David that they cannot legally ask for anyone in Israel to be killed to compensate. So, David gives them what they cannot do. He hands over seven of Saul’s sons to be executed. 

But, he does not hand over sons from Saul’s first tier wife. Instead he takes two sons from Rizpah, Saul’s concubine. And five sons from Merab, Saul’s daughter. Thus, Saul’s grandsons. He gives them over to the Gideonites and all seven are executed. 

Do you notice that after this happens, after this blood sacrifice is complete, God does not end the famine? Is it possible this was not God’s desire That this was not how God envisioned Israel might be freed from famine? 

It’s important to note that, if we read this text carefully, nowhere does God tell David to do what he does, even though the text hints at this as justification. I’ve mentioned using a hermeneutic of suspicion before. This is a framework for reading scripture that challenges any notion that any violence or harm or atrocity that is done in God's name is actually demanded by God. The hermeneutic of suspicion challenges these notions with an understanding that, rather than God making such demands, it is, as transcribed by human narrators, the human desire for power and control that actually underlies those atrocities in Scripture. 

David does not ask God what to do. And God does not - here - tell David to hand over these sons and grandsons of Saul. In fact, one could argue - and many theologians do - that this was intentionally done by David - not to end the famine, but to ensure his reign and to eliminate any potential threat or claim to the throne by any of Saul’s remaining heirs.  

Whatever the motivation, however, the end result is that the sons of Rizpah and Merab are executed. Even worse, their bodies are left to hang in the public square, to rot, and to be eaten by animals. Like garbage.

None of God’s children are garbage. And Rispah’s devotion to her sons will not allow them to be dishonored in this way. She pitches a tent by their bodies. And from the beginning of harvest until the rains begin, she fights with scavengers night and day.  For six months she is there - sleeping, eating, toileting, protecting, bearing witness. Bearing public witness to the atrocity that has befallen her sons. 

How many women have we seen bear this same public witness in our lifetimes? Immediately, the mother of Emmet Till comes to mind. Or the mother of Matthew Sheppard. What about the mothers of the children killed the very next year at Columbine, some 23 years ago? Or the first and second graders gunned down at Sandy Hook? Or the mothers of the high school students at Stoneman Douglas? Or what of the mothers of all those whose lynchings are commemorated at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL? Or the mothers of those killed in the racially-motivated shooting in Buffalo? Or what of the mothers of the third and fourth graders in Uvalde, TX? Or the mothers of the five immigrant children left to suffocate to death in a refrigerator truck in the outskirts of San Antonio? All because leaders of our country fail (or refuse) to act. Over and over and in this country - in our world - mothers, like Rizpah, bear public witness to the results of our human lust for power and money. Like Rizpah, the unraveling of their lives and their families leads to public grief that leads to activism. Activism that calls out our government. That calls out our leaders. That calls us out.

That, my friends, is true patriotism. Holding us all to account - to repent. Just as David was finally called to repentance and then to act - to bury, not only the bodies of the sons of Rizpah and Merab, but also the bodies of Saul and Jonathan, which he had left behind. Buried together in the royal tomb of Saul's family. Once he did, it was then that God ended the famine.

There are few clergy who have preached on this story. And for good reason. But there is one clergy woman who has preached on this story. Womanist theologian Wilma Gafney writes this

Some of you may be asking, “Where is God in Rizpah’s story?” God was right there with Rizpah weeping a mother’s tears. God was with her sons exhaling their last tortured breaths on crosses not of their own making. God was with the hungry and thirsty earth and her desperate dying creatures. God was with the Gibeonites in their righteous rage and grief. God was even with David though perhaps not in the way the authors would always have us think. Wherever you look, God is there. Wherever you see yourself in this story, God is there. Present, accompanying, never abandoning us to our sorrow and grief and the worst the world can do or the worst that we do.

She continues: 

Whether Rizpah’s gospel is good news for you depends on where and with whom you stand. Where do you stand church? Where do you stand when the victims of sexual violence are in the church and so are the perpetrators? Where do you stand when the justice system works for you but not your neighbor or her sons? Do you stand with the legally lynched and corruptly crucified? Where do you stand? Where do you stand when some folk are declared disposable because what side of the man-made border imposed on stolen land they come from? Where do you stand when women are being forced into Iron Age reproductive slavery like Hagar and Bilhah and Zilpah, denied the right to make decisions about their bodies, their reproductive health. Where do you stand when folk are calling the truth a lie and a lie the truth? Where do you stand?

I know where Jesus would stand. He stood with the women with bad sexual reputations, the women who were used by men and left [behind in shame….] He stood against a crooked and corrupt government without concern for the cost. He stood with the dying and the dead…He stood in such solidarity with the dying that he died himself. And in his dying he destroyed death and took away its power. Petty kings and would-be kings might say “death.” But Jesus says “Life!” He cried out “Life” from the grave. And when he came back to stand again with the living and the dying, Jesus chose a woman very much like Rizpah to be the first preacher of his gospel and the apostle to the apostles. Jesus stands with us in life and in death - his and ours - as Rizpah stood with her sons in their bloody vicious deaths. 

Where do you stand church? Don’t tell me. Show me.... Amen.

Preached July 3, 2022, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Samuel 3:7, 21:1-14; Psalm 86:8-17