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The Geography of Healing

July 13, 2019

657f5ff7f72ee67269af83b40561d09eWord of God, Word of Earth – Part IV
Psalm 104         2 Kings 5:1-14

This is the fourth sermon in my summer series called Word of God, Word of Earth in which I am exploring ways the natural world challenges, comforts and grabs our attention so that we might be grabbed by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation.[i] We are in the midst of exploring this topic through the Elijah and Elisha narratives in First and Second Kings. Above, artist Janet Mckenzie depicts a mother and child, which for the purposes of this sermon represent the parents and children being separated at my nation’s border right now. They are like all those in the Elijah and Elisha stories who suffer the trauma of national wars – overt and covert – stories filled with mothers and children.

We are part way into a summer sermon series on the ways God comes to us in the natural world; comforts us, challenges us, grabs our attention so that God might grab our attention and make us useful and responsible in this world. We are in the midst of the stories of Elijah and Elisha and I am so excited to be talking about these stories every week and feel we are just scratching the surface of them.

It would be hard to over estimate the importance of these stories of Elijah and Elisha for our New Testament and for the gospels. The gospel writers clearly thought of Elijah when they were trying to understand who Jesus was for them.

  • When the New Testament was being put together, for example, the Hebrew scriptures were ordered in such a way that the prophet Malachi was placed last so that the final words of that book seem to herald the coming of Jesus as they look for the return of Elijah who would turn the heart of parents and children to one another and restore a covenant community.
  • When John the Baptist appeared out of the wild, he appeared to be the prophet Elijah dressed in the telltale costume – a hairy man with a leather belt eating locust and wild honey.
  • When, in John’s gospel, inquisitors from Jerusalem came out to see John the Baptist they wanted to know, “Are you Elijah come back?”
  • When Jesus asked his own disciples who people thought Jesus was, the first answers was, “They think you may be Elijah.”
  • On Mt. Tabor, when Peter, James and John witnessed what we know as Jesus’ transfiguration, they saw Jesus atop the mountain in the company of Moses, and Elijah.
  • At the crucifixion, onlookers hear Jesus cry, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” meaning “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Now the Roman guards witnessing this don’t speak Aramaic, so they are confused and think that Jesus is crying our for the prophet Elijah to return and save him. You see, even they knew the importance of the prophet Elijah to God’s people.

These are all will known references to Elijah in the gospel stories, but it wasn’t until just this week that something else was driven home to me, and that was not only how importance the stories of Elijah were for the gospel writers, but how importance of the stories of Elijah and Elisha were for Jesus himself.

Last week I said that Spirit that was upon the Prophet Elijah, the Spirit that was passed on to the prophet Elisha, was the same spirit that animated Jesus in his ministry, descended upon him at his baptism, drove him into the wilderness, and led him back to Galilee where he stood in his hometown of Nazareth and recited the words of the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim released to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor (Luke 4:18-19)

Immediately after reading this scripture, Jesus tells two stories: one is about the prophet Elijah, and the other is about the prophet Elisha.

And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow [and her son] at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ (Luke 4: 24-27)

Remember, Jesus says, the prophet Elijah, during a time of drought and famine, helped the foreigner first. Crossed the border and helped a woman and her child in need. And remember the prophet Elijah who when a foreign military commander came for healing in Israel, Elisha helped him, though there were lepers aplenty in Israel. The significance of these stories for Jesus seems to be that prophets do not serve at the behest of local or national rulers, but serve the real needs of people no matter which side of the border they are on. There is a geography to healing.

[Read 2 Kings 5:1-19]

ON KINGS AND PROPHETS

The story cites an aphorism that ‘prophets are not welcome in their hometown,’ but I think that skirts some of the politics of these stories, the particularities of why these prophets – Elijah, Elisha and Jesus – are in conflict with the rulers of their day. So there are several things that I want to point out about this story and the first is that these prophets operate entirely outside the halls of power. There is a conflict set up between both of these prophets, Elijah and Elisha, and their respective kings. While the kings are busy parading their horses and chariots, their means for making war, while they bicker across their borders with their neighbors fighting back and forth, the prophets deal with the fallout. Elisha in particular is a prophet who picks up and cares for the victims of the kings wars.[ii]

I mentioned last week that biblical scholar Gale Yee opens her commentary on these stories by saying:

In 1879, General William Sherman declared “War is hell” to give a reality check to those in the graduating class of Michigan Military Academy who looked on war [in the post-Civil War era] as all glamour and glory. Much of the background for the so-called miracles that Elisha performs is the hell of war.

Do you know remember what Elisha’s first prophetic act was? It was to prevent a mother from being separated from her children by selling them into slavery during a time of national crisis. Elijah ministers those experiencing the trauma of war, particularly

  • war captives (5: 2);
  • famine (4: 38–39);
  • starvation (6: 24–25; 7: 3–4);
  • cannibalism (6: 26–31);
  • economic chaos (6: 25);
  • and ecological destruction (3: 25).[iii]

Elijah brings healing and help and hope outside the halls of power. Elijah frees and feeds and heals and helps people, while the kings/rulers can think of nothing but making war. Elisha performs miracles at a local level. The kings, in these books of 1st and 2nd Kings stand helpless before the people’s real needs. Walter Brueggemann suggests we think of the books of 1 and 2 Kings as 1 and 2 Kings? (with a question mark) because it is the prophets, not the kings, who bring to people what is truly needed.

Naaman comes from his own king with a letter, he comes to the king in Samaria with a letter, asking for help and the king in Samaria says, “What? I cannot heal anybody.” But so that Naaman may know that there is prophet in Israel, Elisha says, “send him to me.”

INDOORS AND OUTDOORS

There is another really fun aspect of this story in light of our special service today where we are beginning indoors and moving outdoors; there is a whole indoor outdoor aspect to this story. Naaman crosses the border out of Aram and into Israel, enters into the hall of the King of Samaria with his letter of recommendation, and then has to travel back out of doors to the prophet Elisha – and then when he arrives at the home of the prophet, Elisha remains inside, he doesn’t even bother to come outside. Instead, he sends a messenger, “Tell Naaman to go wash.” While the prophet remains inside, the commander is left standing outside.

“Surely the prophet is going to come out and wave his hands around and do something really impressive to heal.” Naaman is looking for a show. For a display of power. And the prophet simply says, “go wash.” Naaman recalls the geography and rivers of Damascus, “What is the Jordan River to all this, he wants to know.

Well last week was saw that when the prophet Elijah passed on this authority, power and wisdom to the younger prophet Elisha, he did so by taking him on a tour of Israel’s sacred geography, its topogeny, he took him both literally and mythically through the Jordan River to remind him that the God of Israel is a God who takes slaves and sets them free, that the God of Israel wishes health for God’s people, that the God of Israel helps. The true power is not in the great display but in the land and waters blessed by covenant care. This is the river, the River Jordan, into which Naaman must descend and in which he will find his healing.[iv] Word of God, Word of Earth.

It’s a very funny story when the servants have to tell Naaman, this great commander, “Surely if the prophet instructed you to do something difficult, you would have done it.” Naaman is no doubt used to giving orders to others, probably these very servants, and to telling people to do difficult things; he’s been successful on the field of battle. He is asked by the ‘Man of God’ to do a very simple thing. His servants, those also outside the realm of power, get to point and get to point this out to him – outdoors, in the water, a sacrament of healing for this foreign commander. When it comes to healing as opposed to war making, there is a reversal here of who the insiders and outsiders are, of where true power lies.

Naaman comes out of the water and his skin is cleansed; he has skin like that of a young boy, the text says. Which might make you remember where this story began: mighty commander, skin disease, and a servant girl – a captive, a slave, taken in war, working in his household of a military wife, this young girl, the spoils of war, she says, “There is a God in Israel.” She knows what no one else knows. She does not appear again in the story, but she may remind us that the context for Elisha’s amazing ministry is both the fact that ‘war is hell,’ and the hell of war.

ON GOD AND THE GODS

God and the god’s: another aspect to this story. “Surely, I know now,” says Naaman, “that there is no other god than the God of Israel.”

This confession begins curiously. Naaman tries to offer payment for what has happened to him. “Please take a gift.” We recall that he came with gold and silver and ten changes of clothes. “Please take something.” He wants to monetize a miracle. He wants not to be in the prophet’s debt. If he can pay for this, then everything’s square. He’s good. He can go home. But he has received a free gift from Israel’s God, he is the recipient of God’s grace. The prophet will not take payment for this. And so what Naaman says is “please give me …” – did you notice this? I had never noticed this before and have yet to speak with a colleague this week who has taken note of it. Commentaries are all but silent – What Naaman asks for is two carts full of earth. He ask for soil from Israel, because he has learned the sacred geography of healing. The God of freedom and hope is the God of this land. Naaman will stand on this land when he worship God, from this point forward. The geography of healing.

Yet he asks for pardon while he takes his master, his king, up before the god of Aram. “You know, he’s old. I’ve got to take his arm. I’ve got to help him kneel down. Please, forgive me this one sin.” This later is an odd bifurcation of conscience and duty, but the prophet simply says, “Go in peace.”

We don’t talk a lot about the conflict between God and the gods in scripture, partly because it seems too easily to lead us into some kind of religious chauvinism or holy war. But I was arrested by an image a week and a half-ago, listening to the testimonies in congress over reparations to African-American’s for the legacy of slavery, that helped me understand this conflict better. Ta-Nahesi Coates gave a speech before congress in which he was addressing the Chairman and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell had said that “America must not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago.” You may remember these words as Coates spoke about the legacy of slavery, the assets accumulated to the country and to white people through the practice of slavery…

The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader.

It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders, and the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs. Coup d’états and convict leasing. Vagrancy laws and debt peonage. Redlining and racist G.I. bills. Poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism.[v]

The god of bondage! A god our nation has served alongside others gods, a god comfortable enthroned alongside God, God forbid! Right there I felt, ‘this is the kind of conflict our scripture is showing us.’ The conflict between the God of liberation and freedom and hope for all people, and the gods of bondage, slavery, oppression – Biblically Baal or Rimmon – the other gods that authorize enslavement and land theft and all those victims of the nations’ wars. Even Israel’s wars. These are the conflicts into which Elijah and Elisha entered, charging not only that both kings and people sometimes worship ‘other gods,’ but that all too often they also use the name of God to bless that which should not be blessed, that which is blessed by these other gods, to the destruction of themselves and others.

“I know there is no other God,” says Naaman, “but the God of Israel, who heals and helps and brings hope, and from now on I will stand on the earth, on the soil of Israel, having washed in the river, from now on I worship this God alone.”

These are really powerful texts for us, and they remind us that when Jesus appeared, and the spirit came upon him, he understood himself to be standing on the same soil, and in the same place as, and walking in the footsteps of, action prophets like Elijah and Elisha; and all those around Jesus saw this as well.

Today, we will in a short while move outside to continue our worship outdoors – indoors/outdoors – and we will slip off our shoes and stand upon this, our local earth, and we will greet ‘all our relations’ and share the sacrament of communion for the healing of all creation and share God’s presence with one another.

Our next hymn is “For the Beauty of the Earth,” to put us in mind of all creation as we walk outside.

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Note: The Indoors/Outdoors service drew on liturgy published by Prof. Lisa Dahill, California Lutheran University.

[i] David Napier published Word of God, Word of Earth in 1976. It was a fresh translation of the Elijah Narrative with an eco-focused interpretation and served as the inspiration for this sermon series. He reworked and revised the entire book in 1992, publishing it as part of The Best of Davie Napier through Abingdon Press. Throughout he pays attention to this juxtaposition of the Word of God which speaks in our scripture through the Word of Earth. Recommended, if you can find it.

[ii] Horses and chariots were the ancient world equivalent of tanks, and are so treated throughout scripture. Three days before this sermon President Trump’s partisan Independence Day Celebration featured tanks and fighter-plane fly-overs in Washington D.C., with a price tag of 5.4 million taken from the National Parks.

[iii] Yee continues, “To counteract and militate against the trauma of war in its myriad guises, Elisha performs miracles at the local level, but does not critique the roots of war at the systemic level. His prophecy to the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom deals with whether God will grant them victory over Moab (2 Kings 3), not whether they should engage in war in the first place. These texts encourage us to examine the systemic causes of war to eliminate the monstrous effects of war on the people and the land.”

[iv] On sacred geography, or topogeny, see last week’s sermon, Wisdom Sits in Particular Places.

[v] Ta-Nahesi Coates testimony before congress, and his original article on reparations.

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Wisdom Sits in Particular Places

July 9, 2019

lg A Brave and Quiet Heart

Word of God, Word of Earth – Part III
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20         2 Kings 2:1-14

Artist Janet McKenzie’s painting above captures for me the younger Elisha I try depict in this sermon, complete with double doves (of spirit), rainbow mantle, and all. This sermon was preached on Pride Day. The artist writes: “The subject within A Brave and Quiet Heart offers a gesture of possibility while simply looking at the viewer, flanked by doves symbolizing this person’s inherent sanctity, something that is so often forgotten or dismissed. The pride flag is interpreted as inextricably part of their essence. My hope is that A Brave and Quiet Heart will serve as a visual testament to hope over despair, to love over hate and to the memory of those souls who lost their lives at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando – June 12, 2016.”

I hope my appropriation of the image to be the Prophet Elisha ministering to the victims of those who do violence honors the artist’s intent.

It has been my intention to preach a series of sermons this summer that emphasize the earthy nature both of scripture and of our experience of God. Our Psalm this morning gives voice to a human being in despair. “I cry aloud to God; aloud that God may hear me,” shouts the psalmist; or perhaps cries. “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.” We never learn what the problem is that the psalmist has experienced, or is experiencing, but we get a sense of the pain involved when she shouts out loud in the face of silence to the point of exhaustion. The only comfort comes with memory. The psalmist recalls the ways God once before appeared in the elements of earth: the clouds and the rains, the thunderclaps and lightning, the whirlwinds and earthquakes. “Your way was through the sea,” she says, recalling the exodus from Egypt, “your path through mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen…” Word of God, Word of Earth.

[Read the Psalm]

This Psalm was chosen by the lectionary committee no doubt because of the reference to the experience of God in earthquake, wind and fire which we encountered in our reading of Elijah on Mt. Horeb last week, but also because of the appearance of the whirlwind and water crossing in our text today.

Our scripture reading this morning in intended to present Elijah (with a “J”) and his disciple Elisha (with an “SH”) as a new Moses and a new Joshua. The experience of God in the elements atop Horeb connect Elijah with Moses, who also experienced God in a powerful display of elements atop the very same mountain when God appeared and gifted Moses with the language of the covenant. God told both Moses and Elijah to “go down” and “go back” to help and heal God’s people. And both were instructed to appoint successors – Joshua and Elisha respectively. Our text this morning is primarily about the transfer of spirit, power and authority from an elder prophet to a younger prophet.

I want to make a few notes here before we read this story together so that we can hear all the connections being made between Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha that the author intends.

  • First, there is the Jordan River crossing. Elijah and Elisha each strike the water to part it so that they may cross over on dry land, just as Moses and the people first crossed the Reed Sea in their flight from pharaoh and toward freedom, and as Joshua led the people through this very same Jordan as they entered Canaan.
  • Second, the mantle of Elijah plays a role in these stories analogous to that of Moses’ staff. This is presumably the same mantle Elijah wrapped around his head so that he would not be overwhelmed by God’s appearance in the storm.
  • Third, when Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, he is not asking to be a greater prophet than Elijah. He is asking for intimacy. A double portion is the inheritance of a first-born son. Elisha wishes to be treated like a son, to ‘take up the mantle’ of Elijah (yes, this is where the expression comes from).
  • Elijah rightly responds that this is not his to grant, but that it may only be given if God so wishes.
  • The intimacy of the prophets is expressed again when Elijah ascends and Elisha cries out, “Father, Father,” and rends his clothes in grief.
  • And finally, the chariot of fire (chariots, plural, actually) do not take Elijah “up.” Elijah is taken in a whirlwind. The chariots are there, in the end, to keep the younger prophet, who until now has refused to leave the elder prophet’s side, to keep him from following where he cannot go.[i]

Let us listen for God’s word to us.

[Read 2 Kings 2:1-14]

All of this is pretty conventional. We understand easily what is going on – Elijah is passing on, and Elisha picking up, prophetic power. With just a little help, we can make the connections to Moses and Joshua. But I have found myself wondering over the last couple of weeks, why the long journey? The two prophets take a four-legged journey from Gilgal to Bethel back to Jericho and across the Jordan. Three times Elijah asks Elisha to remain behind. Three times Elisha refuses. “I will not leave you.” Perhaps it is a test of Elisha’s loyalty, or perhaps a voluntary display of faithfulness. Could it be a reiteration of the wilderness wanderings? I don’t think we are intended to compare Elisha’s protestations to the commitment of Ruth to Naomi, though once thought I cannot unthink that. What is going on here?

WISDOM SITS IN PLACES

One of the my early summer reading books has been Robert Moor’s New York Times bestselling On Trails: An Exploration. It is not, or at least not primarily, about hiking, the kind of book you might expect from my reading shelf. It is, instead, about the search for meaning, about the paths and patterns we lay down, the very creaturely habit of ordering our world to make sense of the chaos. Moor, who started imagining this project while hiking the Appalachian Trail, starts the book with the oldest trails in existence, ‘footprints’ laid down by a creature so old it is still something neither plant nor animal. In other chapters he explores the chemical paths of ants and caterpillars, buffalo traces and deer trials, the lines and lanes laid out by animals as diverse as elephants and goats in order to find far-away food, and finally Native American footpaths and the interstate highway system.

While reading, I have learned a new word: topogeny. Topogeny is the study of the way language, story and culture are geographically rooted in the experience of the land. Barbara Duncan, for example, a folklorist who has studied Cherokee myths and legends describes a difference she discovered between the stories of eastern Cherokee who had managed to avoid being violently displaced from their land by Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1833, and the western Cherokee who were forcibly relocated to land not their own. The stories of the eastern Cherokee retain their reference to local landmarks, while the western stories do not. She describes

an ancient folktale about a race between a turtle and a rabbit, in which the clever turtle fools the cocky rabbit by positioning [all his relations] on top of a series of peaks, so that every time the rabbit crested one mountain, he was shocked to find the turtle ahead of him on the next. The recollections of eastern Cherokee mentioned that the story occurred on what is today Mount Mitchell, whereas those of western Cherokees typically do not specify a location. “And if you got the Mount Mitchell, you can see the land formation that is described in the story,” Duncan said. “You can tell the story without ever going to Mount Mitchell, it’s still an entertaining story. But when you go up on top of that mountain and you see that landform, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is what they’re describing.’ It’s amazing.”

“Almost every prominent rock and mountain, every deep bend in the river, in the old Cherokee country has its accompanying legend” […]. “It may be a little story that can be told in a paragraph to account for some natural feature, or it may be one chapter in a myth that has its sequel in a mountain a hundred miles away.”

The important thing I took from this is that “In the storytelling traditions of virtually every indigenous culture, stories don’t unfold abstractly, like Little Red Riding Hood skipping through unnamed woods, they take place.”[ii]

This is not unlike what we have learned about place-ed-ness from our embrace of watershed theology – learning divine speech and our own responsibility from the natural community in which we find ourselves placed by God.[iii]

In his book Wisdom Sits in Places, renowned linguist Keith Basso recounts meeting an Apache cowboy who he found talking to himself – muttering. Listening more closely, Basso discovered that the man was reciting place names. “Why?” he asked, and was told that when the old Apache “talked names” he could “ride that way in my mind.”

This explains for me why we have this extended and curious story of an elder and younger prophet visiting specific places. Far more important to the ritual act of passing on spirit, power and authority – more important than the passing on of the physical and symbolic mantle – is the passing on of geographically rooted story and experience. This is Elijah telling, training, grounding-through-memory the younger Elisha into the past/place so that he may faithfully serve God’s future/place.

[Here I took time to retell a series of important biblical stories that took place at…

  • Gilgal (1 Samuel 3 and 4): The initial, ritual, highly symbolic and memorialized crossing of the Jordan to enter the promised land for the first time. The stones described would have still been standing for the prophets to consider.
  • Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22 & 35:1-15): Bethel is the place where Jacob slept on a stone and dreamt of a staircase joining heaven and earth – “Surely this is the house of the God and I did not know it?” – and where Jacob was later named Israel, gifted with land, and erected an altar. It was still active in the prophets’ day.
  • Jericho (Joshua 6): Admittedly a difficult story, as it has been used to justify holy war. But it was understood as a ritual war in which God fought, not the people. More on this another time.
  • Jordan River (Deuteronomy 31 and 34): Crossing over the Jordan bring the prophets back to the region where Moses anointed Joshua and where Moses died, never to be found.

You can read them yourself]

There are four take-aways this morning. The first take-away from this sermon is … that ‘wisdom sits in places.’ These stories take place and learning from place, from the earth, the watershed, the local weather and wild elemental displays is a way of attending to and listening to God. Word of God. Word of Earth.

WARS AND THE WAGES OF WAR

The second take-away from this sermon should be … that of war and the wages of war.

As I have been working with these texts over the last couple of weeks, we have heard the President of the United States call for air strikes against Iran, and then abruptly call them off, a response to the shooting down of an unmanned drone which may or may not have been in Iranian airspace. Which was a response to what may or may not have been an Iranian attack on a tanker ship. Which may or may not … so on and endlessly on …. We are dangerously close to war, and the United Stated is acting belligerently because we have backed ourselves into this corner by pulling out of the multinational Iran agreement. Those who desire this war will soon declare ‘we had no other choice’ but a strong display of force, and that is by design. Over the course of this week alone we have learned more about the awful conditions under which children are being held in Clint Detention Center on our nation’s border – concentration camps, interment camps, call them what you will – they are horrific and a national shame and they are happening on our watch. And we all saw the photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23 month-old daughter, Valeria, facedown, drowned in the Rio Grande, a poignant reminder of the desperate choices migrants make everyday. And then the brief but hopeful story of resistance as Wayfair employees shouted ‘shut down the concentration camps,’ hundreds walking out of work on Wednesday in protest of their company’s profiting off our government’s policies.[iv]

Do you know what Elisha’s first prophetic act was when he returned from the Jordan? It was to prevent children from being separated from a parent. (2 Kings 4:1-7).

Gale A. Yee, a Chinese-American biblical scholar, has written that “Much of the background for the so-called miracles that Elisha performs [after taking up Elijah’s mantle] is the hell of war: the death of a family’s financial support and the danger of selling one’s children into debt slavery (4: 1–7); war captives (5: 2); famine (4: 38–39); starvation (6: 24–25; 7: 3–4); cannibalism (6: 26–31); economic chaos (6: 25); and ecological destruction (3: 25). To counteract and militate against the trauma of war in its myriad guises, Elisha performs miracles at the local level.” While Elijah (with a J) worked against the war making machine of his illegitimate government, its land-theft and climate denial, Elisha deals with the consequences and casualties of those wars when they finally came.[v]

For all of their bluster, belligerence, and obsession with borders, the books of First and Second Kings (Walter Breuggemann suggest we call them First and Second Kings? – with emphasis on the question mark) the kings of Israel and Judah and all their neighbors have the power to produce casualties, but they cannot produce peace; they can prove their corruption, but they cannot correct their national course. That takes a prophet, or whole companies of prophets, working with the power of God that operates outside the halls of power.[vi]

WE PUSH FROM THE OUTSIDE

And so, here is a third take-away form this sermon … though it would surely be selling these stories short to reduce them to the point I am about to make. Nevertheless, I want to highlight an important aspect of how these ‘action prophets,’ Elijah and Elisha, worked. During the first Democratic primary debate this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren put forward a theory of change: “We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.” Elijah and Elisha pushed form the outside. Hard.[vii]

Elijah and Elisha worked entirely on the outside. They spoke truth to power, denounced official falsehood and lies (#fakenews), earning Elijah the title “the troubler of Israel” and “the king’s enemy.” But they also took prophetic public action to restore covenant community. They organized confrontations, marches and demonstrations against the kings and rulers; they healed the sick, fed the hungry, rescued those in debt, restored the land to productivity, protected drinking water, and food to eat. They addressed economic crisis.

And they did not do it alone. The vocation of the prophet of not that of a loner but one of active, activist, community. Elijah and Elisha organized something known as the Company of Prophets – units, cells, focus groups, churches and synagogues (if you will) ready to act. Did you wonder about that in our reading today? There were communities of activists in every village visited by Elijah in his training journey with Elisha – in Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho and Jordan. The Elder prophet was checking in, and checking up on, their readiness for action.

GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT

Which brings me to the final take-away. The call of the prophet is not a solitary calling but a general calling. It is our calling – to read the signs of our times and take action to confront those leading us toward destruction and turn ourselves toward life and community, not just in word but in deed; not only speaking truth to power but performing the truth with our lives.[viii]

Elisha asked for a double-portion of the prophetic spirit.

This is the same Spirit given to Jesus at his baptism – the spirit to enact God’s coming realm of love, peace and justice.

We are told that in Luke’s Gospel that this Spirit ‘descended upon him in his baptism’; that ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit of the God’; that ‘filled with the power of this Spirit, Jesus returned to Galilee,’ where he proclaimed

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim released to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor (Luke 4:18-19)

This is the very same Spirit promised to each of us in our baptism when we passed through their waters to the other side, to life in and with God. It is the Spirit that calls us to act today. I invite you to sing our next hymn, Carl Daw’s “O God in Whom All Life Begins”, as a prayer to receive a double-portion, an intimate portion, of God’s Spirit with courage to risk and dare our lives as these present days demand.

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[i] The image I have is that of Gandalf (obligatory Tolkien reference for Pastor Lynn) standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm exclaiming to the Balrog “You. Shall Not. Pass.”.

[ii] Robert Moor, On Trails: An Exploration. (Simon and Schuster, 2016). Native American footpaths are explored in Chapter 4. Barbara Duncan’s observations begin on page 180, followed by Keith Basso’s in my next paragraphs.

[iii] I have preached regularly on watershed discipleship, for example “When Jesus Was Baptized in the Bronx River,” July 26, 2016, and the references associated with it.

[iv] “’Shut Down the Concentration Camps’: Wayfair Employees walk out, Hundreds Protest.” USA Today, June 26, 2019. For an article more in the spirit of Elisha, see “Wayfair’s Walkout Against Concentration Camps. Jacobin, July 27, 2019.

[v] Prof. Yee continues, however, “but [Elisha] does not critique the roots of war at the systemic level. His prophecy to the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom deals with whether God will grant them victory over Moab (2 Kings 3), not whether they should engage in war in the first place. These texts encourage us to examine the systemic causes of war to eliminate the monstrous effects of war on the people and the land.” Gale Yee. “1, 2 Kings.” in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr. and Matthew J.M. Coomber. (Fortress Press, 2014).

[vi] On working outside the halls of power, see Brueggemann below.

[vii] On the idea of activist prophets or ‘action prophets’ as they are known in scholarship, see my earlier sermons on Elijah and Elisha and the references associated with them.

[viii] Walter Brueggemann uses the term ‘preforming the truth’ in his essay on Elisha, “Truth Has Its Day: Elisha,” in Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture. (WJK, 2013).

 

 

Black Bodies, Green Spaces

July 9, 2019

4dcaf554bf55a3b0822d2337d0f378c4
“Elijah Hears the Still Small Voice of God”
by artist Janet McKenzie

Word of God, Word of Earth – Part II
1 Kings 19:1-16

This is the second sermon in my summer series called Word of God, Word of Earth in which I am exploring ways the natural world challenges, comforts and grabs our attention so that we might be grabbed in by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation.[i] For the next few weeks we will be exploring this topic through the Elijah and Elisha narratives in First and Second Kings.

The big story here is that Elijah, like Moses and Job, is exposed to the wild otherness of God in the awesome power of earth, wind and fire, only to be given a task – to appoint a new king (and in so doing initiate a coup against an unjust ruler), and to appoint a successor. The danger in what Elijah is being asked to do may have something to do with the urgent need to prepare someone to take his place if things go south. That’s the big story, but we may relish in the details.

There has been a drought and consequent famine in the lands of ancient Israel. This ecological crisis is a personal matter between Israel’s notoriously unjust ruler, King Ahab, and the God of heaven and earth. King Ahab, with the help of his wife Jezebel, has led all Israel in the worship of another God, a foreign god who, it turns out, cannot make it rain. Government policy, however, favors and follows this foreign god and produces prophets who bless official oppression. This ‘other’ god authorizes the killing of God’s true prophets and, with the prophets out of the way, this ‘other’ god approves the expropriation of poor-peoples’ land. Before our story opens we learn that Elijah had organized a public demonstration against the king and sorely humiliated these false and sycophantic prophets of elite power and extractive greed with a powerful display of the true God’s power over the elements. He also, in sad imitation of Ahab and Jezebel, or perhaps in retribution, put all the prophets of Baal to death and subsequently fled for his life. As our reading today opens, Elijah has a price on his head. And he is on the run.

I preached a Lenten sermon on this text last year in which I suggested that Elijah is, on Mt. Horeb, wrestling with his quite justified fear of the consequences of his prophetic action.[i] However, there are other dimensions I want to lift up today as we continue our summer reading strategy of attending to the natural imagery in the story.

THE BROOM TREE BEYOND BEERSHEBA

First, Elijah flees to Beersheba, which is about as far as it is possible to run while still being within the land of Yahweh, the jurisdiction of Judah. Any further and he truly enters the wild, which he will, of course, soon enough. From there Elijah travels one day further toward the wild and hides himself under a broom tree. The allusion, twice, to this being a solitary broom tree underscores the prophet’s sense of loneliness and isolation. “I am the only one left,” he cries to God; though it turns out he is far from the only one left. The prophet Obadiah has hidden and protected scores of prophets in caves throughout Israel (1 Kings 18:2-6). More on that in a bit. But the broom tree itself evokes a Elijah’s mood – which commentators describe as downcast, distressed, dismayed, discouraged, disheartened, depressed – a whole lot ‘d’ words. But also quite self-pitying and even whiny as Elijah declares his wish that God allow him to die.

  • It was under a broom tree just beyond Beersheba that Hagar and her infant child Ishmael lay down to die when jealous and fearful Sarah instructed her husband Abraham to cast out her servant and his first born son. And Hagar and Ishmael were fed by an angel (Gen 21).
  • The prophet Job, when the discouraging encouragement of this friends failed to lift his spirit (or even address his complaints) – Job evoked the broom tree as a place of desolation, ruin even abandonment by God (Job 30:3-4).
  • The psalmist too connects the broom tree with mourning, distress and punishment (Psalm 120).[ii]

A broom tree is where one goes to die, abandoned by God. But it is also the place where one is recued, fed, and sent on one’s way – by an angel (Hagar), toward a cosmic vision (Job 38), or through pilgrimage and prayer (Psalm 120 leads to Psalm 121).

Elijah, like those before him, crawls under the tree to die. He sleeps; perchance to dream? It is interesting that the entire encounter of being fed may occur in a dream state, as a vision of sustenance. Elijah is told to eat, for he needs his strength for the journey ahead. This is, of course, the last thing Elijah expects. Journey ahead? You can almost hear him ask, “What journey? I came here to die.” But God has others plans.

ON CAVES, CORPSES, AND CRIMINALS

Up and on his way again, Elijah travels forty days and forty nights until he comes to Mt. Horeb, the Mountain of God. Moses called it this mountain Sinai, but it is the same mountain. It was here that God appeared to Moses in loud thunder and bright lightning, a display of elemental power that left Moses’ face shiny. Here God ‘passed by’ and Moses was forever changed. This is mountain where God gave to Moses the very covenant about which Elijah is so zealous. Here, in God’s home, Elijah hides. In a cave.

When I mentioned to my twelve-year-old son that Elijah hid himself in a cave, without any other prompting from the story he shouted, “You don’t hide in a cave! Caves are where you bury dead people.” And of course he was right. Abraham with his sons and daughters-in-law are buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Lazarus was buried in a cave. As was Jesus.

Caves were also used as hideouts for criminals and as meeting places for guerilla fighters. We should not forget that when Ahab and Jezebel began killing God’s prophets, Obadiah had hidden from them scores of prophets in caves to preserve and protect them. And we might remember that the young shepherd and mercenary David – soon to be king – conspired a coup against his own king in a cave. Elijah is, of course, on the run as just such a criminal and outlaw.

THE THEATER OF GOD’S GLORY[iii]

Elijah may try to hide, but God instructs him to come out so that he might experience God’s presence as God ‘passes by.’ Elijah, knowing that no one but Moses might see God and live, wraps his mantle, a kind of cloak, tightly about his face so that he is not overwhelmed, which gives the scene a slightly surreal auditory sense – Elijah only hears the earthquake, the violent wind, and could only feel the heat of the fire. And while the King James Bible has led us all to believe that God spoke in a “still small voice,” the text says that there was a ‘pregnant silence.’ One can imagine Elijah, with his eyes closed and head wrapped tightly in his mantle, straining after what might come next – expectant, waiting, anxious. Only then does God speak, and our text does not say that the voice was small or quiet. It was, in fact, crystal clear and what it said unmistakable: “Go back, Elijah. I still have work for you to do.”[iv]

I know the text says that God was not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire. But God was not entirely absent either. as we sang earlier

Storm and Stillness, Breath and Dove,
Thunder, Tempest, Whirlwind, Fire,
Comfort, Counselor, Presence, Love,
Energies that never tire:

May the church at prayer recall
that no single holy name
but the truth behind them all
is the God whom we proclaim.
(Hymn 11 – Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud)

We are going to learn much more about Elijah and his disciple Elisha next week. This week, I want to linger a bit longer on the experience of God in the natural world that these prophets were so open to which kept them ‘grounded’ in the covenant justice, love and peace of God and infused their witness with spirit.

BLACK BODIES, GREEN SPACES

Last weekend, the New York Times published a piece by Harvard professor Tiya Alicia Miles. Miles teaches cultural history and her research interests include the way Native American and African American histories are intertwined. Her piece for the Times was called “Black Bodies, Green Spaces” and addressed the question, “Why is the image of an environmentally conscious African American hard for us to picture?” She opens with a reference to comedian Wanda Sykes’ new Netflix special, “Not Normal.”

“Black people,” declares Sykes, “we need a better publicist.”

Ms. Sykes has just told the story of a black security guard in Chicago who apprehended a gunman and then was himself shot by the police. Her solution for changing the perception of African-Americans as dangerous is a nationwide publicity campaign featuring photos of black people doing “fun, nonthreatening, frivolous” stuff — bowling, for instance, or “something environmental” like taking out the recycling. Ms. Sykes reaches for an imaginary waste bin and tips one foot at a perky angle that says she is ready for do-gooder action, sending the crowd into uproarious laughter.

I wondered, as I watched (and chuckled), [opines Miles,] what makes this image of Ms. Sykes taking out the recycling so funny? At least part of the laughter is elicited by an unspoken asymmetry that viewers can recognize regardless of their racial identity: the image of a black woman being “environmental” versus the picture of the environmentalist that most Americans carry around in their heads.

More than 30 years into the movement for environmental justice, and more than a decade into a global, multiracial campaign led by groups like 350.org to raise awareness about climate change and push governments into action, many Americans still do not associate black people with environmental engagement. But this notion of African-Americans existing apart from natural environments is more than just a contemporary stereotype ripe for satire; it all but ignores crucial aspects of American experience. The truth is that African-Americans’ relationship to the environment is complicated and runs deep.[v]

I encourage you to read the entire piece as it explores this ‘complicated relationship’ from slavery to sharecropping and from the death of reconstruction and outright land theft to the Great Migration. I was reminded of it repeatedly during the congressional hearings on reparations this week. A link to the article is provided in your bulletin this morning.

And yet, as I have shared this article with black members of the congregation and neighbors this week I was greeted with a great laugh-back: “Black people have always recycled,” they chuckled. Which confirmed my own experience. When I first read the article I immediately felt, “we’ve got this!” Meaning we, in this congregation, with our mission commitments to confront the triple threats of structural racism, systemic poverty and climate change, we simply are the publicity campaign for environmentally conscious Black-Americans, as well as Asian, Indian, Hispanic and white Americans, all together caring for our world and one another. And so I began imaging what a local campaign might look like, answering the question about black Americans first, and by the end of the week I had dozens of photos of black members of our congregation displaying their love of, care for, and work on behalf of our environment, the natural world, all creation.

  • Here is Olga, at 93, standing in her rooftop garden with a sign that reads, “I love to spend time in my vegetable garden” beside a photo of four year old from Malawi working in our church garden.

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  • Here is Carmen standing beside an open door of her car holding a large bag in one hand and a sign in the other which reads, “ I deliver plastic bags and plastic containers to the soup kitchen every week for re-use.” Did you know that you can deliver your bags and take out containers like this one [holding it up] that I received Indian take-out in last night, and Carmen will give it another life before it is recycled?

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  • Here is Barbara (doing her best Wanda Sykes imitation) who recycles both at home and at the church, and Beryl enjoying summer beauty while disposing of her plastics.

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  • Here is Edna who became a vegetarian for her health and the planet.

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  • Our member Jackie, who is camera shy, submitted this photo of her colleagues at school displaying their love of nature, love of children, and love of teaching.

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  • Here is Avis who helped raise over $6000 last spring to care for our watershed and help children in the Bronx learn from and enjoy the river the seat of canoe. Shout out to our mission partners in the Bronx River Alliance. 

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  • Here is Food Justice advocate L.S., who coordinates our local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to support local farmers, food justice, and healthy eating. This is our fourth year working with the farm, distributing fresh produce every Saturday right out of our front hall.

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  • And here is Norma, who travelled (with La-Sheila) to Peru to learn about Climate Change on a church sponsored trip. 

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  • Here is Leslie, and her daughter Adina, camping in the great outdoors.

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  • Here’s Sharon, who loves walking through creation.

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  • Here are the Nifty Thrifties, running our Thrift Shop.

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  • Here we are, West Indian, Native American, and white protesting a local gas pipeline.

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  • Here we are all together at the People’s Climate March in 2014.

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1924382_776448099082706_923714326797387762_nSporting our Presbytery T-Shirt: “Climate Changed. Will We?

The photos keep coming in. Even as I was putting my notes together for this sermon I received this photo of Kitty, representing not only herself but the entire garden club, holding a sign that read “Spring brings forth the rain and flowers which is a manifestation of the miracle of life. All our garden club members invest our time and effort in preserving the beauty of God’s creation by planting in our gardens  trees, flowers & shrubs which helps to extract carbon dioxide from the air and supply oxygen to sustain life.”

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And as I look around the congregation this morning we could magnify this testimony with each of your stories. Each and every one of us. God comes to us in the natural world, calls to us, speaks to us, surprises us with beauty and ravishes us with wonder.

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
“Great is Thy faithfulness, ” Lord, unto me!

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Our congregation in 2016 witnessing green

[i] David Napier published Word of God, Word of Earth in 1976. It was a fresh translation of the Elijah Narrative with an eco-focused interpretation and served as the inspiration for this sermon series. He reworked and revised the entire book in 1992, publishing it as part of The Best of Davie Napier through Abingdon Press. Throughout he pays attention to this juxtaposition of the Word of God which speaks in our scripture through the Word of Earth. Recommended, if you can find it.

[i] https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2018/03/12/forty-days-hiding-in-fear-with-elijah/

[ii] https://fivetalents.org/blog/2017/8/21/beneath-the-broom-tree-discovering-hope-in-the-deepest-moments-of-suffering

[iii] This is John Calvin’s name for the Book of Nature, or what I am referring to the Word of Earth.

[iv] See also Walter Brueggemann, Walter. 1 and 2 Kings. Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. (Smyth and Helwys, 2000)for a description of how the elemental display as well as this silence, “whatever is was,” served to get Elijah’s attention.

[v] Tiya Miles, “Black Bodies, Green Spaces: Why is the image of an environmentally conscious African American hard for us to picture?” New York Times, June 15, 2019.

 

 

 

 

Woman Wisdom Makes a World

July 8, 2019

JanetMcKenzie-The-Prayerartist Janet Mckenzie depicts Wisdom and Revelation
http://www.janetmckenzie.com

Word of God, Word of Earth – Part I
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

This was the first sermon in my summer series called Word of God, Word of Earth in which I am exploring ways the natural world challenges, comforts and gathers out attention so that we might be gathered in by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation.[i] For the next few weeks we will be exploring this topic through the Elijah and Elisha narratives in First and Second Kings.

Wow. So unfortunately I don’t have this sermon. I preached this day without notes and with only my heavily marked up bible and a photocopied quotation with me in the pulpit. It is unlikely I will come back to reconstruct it, though it was an important one for me. It introduced the theme of my summer sermon series – God comes to us and wakes us up in, with, and through the natural world, and in particular the figure of Woman Wisdom of Proverbs 8. Instead of trying to remember all that I said, I‘ll jot down a few memories from that day, and, in place of the exegesis, a reflection on Woman Wisdom that I wrote for my Monday evening bible study when we covered this same material (which is clearly not a sermon). I thank Rev. Sarah Henkel for reminding me of the artwork of Janet McKenzie who graciously allowed us to use her images in worship many years ago. They will accompany my post during this series. 

I opened my sermon by sharing how hard I find it these days to keep track of the big picture. I have trouble keeping my sense of emotional focus. The newspaper, radio and media feeds expose me to stories that keep me afraid, then suddenly hopeful, then on the edge of despair, then rejoicing in something beautiful – sometimes all within the same half hour. I move emotionally up and down, up and down, like a yoyo. Years ago I used to experience good weeks and bad weeks – today I don’t even use the terms good day or bad day; its more like a succession of moments. I relate to Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

In the midst of chaos, I said, the Wisdom traditions in scripture come as a breath of fresh air, lifting us to cosmic visions of God’s work and God’s ways. I practice mindfulness mediation, which helps with keeping myself focused and calm, but two recent reads reminded me that the question of ultimate meaning is inescapable, and each of these books wrestled with meaning in a cosmos without a center. Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a theoretical physicists’ quest for permanence and certainty in an impermanent and uncertain world. Paul Wallace’s Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos is a study in biblical wisdom (and the Book of Job, in particular) from one who both teaches physics and astronomy and is also a pastor (a pretty cool combo, if you ask me). Each encouraged me toward this sermon, the bulk of which was an introduction to the figure of Wisdom personified (incarnate?) as a Woman in Hebrew Scripture (Job 28, Proverbs 8) with generous selection from the apocryphal (Baruch, Sirach, the Wisdom of Solomon) and pseudopigraphal (1 Enoch) writings. I suggested that the cosmic visions of wisdom (increasingly) incarnate were themselves a search for a place to stand in the midst of chaos.[ii] On what this tradition says, see me letter below.

Here is the quote I ended my sermon with. I found it in a collection of prayers to the feminine divine by poet William Cleary. Cleary wrote, and by the end of the sermon I felt…

It’s when the second hand is ticking around my watch and I am plodding from task to heavy task, just holding my world together so another hour can come about, that I feel those futile doubts: those doubts I wish I did not have to have. Is it worth it? Am I achieving anything? Is there hope after yesterday’s tragedies? Then I almost haven’t time to believe, no time for a vision or a hope or a prayer.

But when I’m touched with wonder, then I can begin to believe and not to doubt. It happens when I see a courage and beauty that seems greater than human, when I see plain humanity but suspect inspiration, when I hear a harmony among impossibly disparate sounds, when the grace of a series of events so take me by surprise that I cannot not pay attention.

It’s when events like these revive a deep hope beneath my own despair that I begin to doubt my worthless doubts, to doubt that some doubting is really wise and justified, when I may live for a moment in faith and glimpse a faraway land of light as small as a star on the dark horizon of my inner world.[iii]

And finally, here is a letter I wrote to my bible study that day after I covered much of this same material with them in preparation for reading the Gospel of John. By the time we get to this rather unusual gospel we encounter a quite gender-bending idea: Jesus is Woman Wisdom incarnate, a queer Jesus.

jmjepxartist Janet Mckenzie depicts “Jesus of the People”
an African-American Jesus modeled by a woman

THE LETTER

Good morning Interpid Travelers,

As a couple of you have already asked me this morning – yes, I found my book bag and bible. Thank you for your prayers concerning that.

Now, some thoughts about last night. I dropped a lot of information on you on topics often skipped over in churches, and we read from books most of you were unfamiliar with. Let me try to sum up a bit.

The Wisdom Tradition has it’s origins in the long exile of Israel in Babylon (587 – 520 BCE) and kept developing right down to the time of the Greek Empire (until around 200 BCE). During the time of exile there was neither Temple nor Holy City. Priests in exile performed no sacrifice. The traditions of ancient Israel were in shambles. All God’s people had were their stories and a need to survive. While the end of exile in 520 BCE allowed a some to return to Palestine and rebuild the Temple and City, the successive ’Empires Over Israel’ always remained.

The Wisdom Tradition tries to make sense of this world by developing practical advice for human life, often centered around home and business. (you might usefully ask, what, then, is left out?) Proverbs is at times too confident in our ability to discern and live by wisdom. Job stands in awe before the wisdom that created a truly wild world that exists for more than humans alone and challenges the idea that suffering and death are always the result of sin. Ecclesiastes almost despairs in coming to terms with the reality of death and the temporary nature of all things.

The universally accepted canon of scripture includes the wisdom writings of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, as well as some of the Psalms and sometimes the Song of Songs (as well as portions of Isaiah). All were written in Hebrew and were, with the exception of Job and Isaiah, said to have been written by Solomon (who had, of course, died 500 – 700 years earlier).

The Hebrew Scriptures we all think we know were translated into Greek starting sometime around 250 BCE. The translations took place in Alexandria, Egypt, the cradle of Greek Wisdom. Over the next 250 years the tradition continued to develop, and new books were written: The Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Sirach), the Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Enoch, and even parts of Daniel. All were considered Scripture in the New Testament period, and are quoted by Paul, Peter, Hebrews, the synoptic gospel writers, and especially John. The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon are considered scripture in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Coptic churches. 1 Enoch is contained in the Psuedopigrapha (other writings).

Within this collection of writings sits Dame Wisdom, Woman Wisdom, wisdom personified. She was God’s first creation, God’s co-creator, through whom and with whom all things were made and all things sustained. As a master-crafts-person she formed the cosmos that so awed Job, she visited Solomon and guided him, she called fools in the marketplace to repentance and richly rewarded the righteous. She draws all to God with beauty and reason. She could not be grasped with the intellect but could only be given, or give herself, to the just. (In some ways, she was a Jewish response to the popularity of the Goddess Isis in Egypt. Wisdom is not a goddess, though, but God’s first creation, or an aspect of God him/herself).

The wisdom tradition vacillated as to whether wisdom could make her home on earth (Wisdom of Solomon said yes) or whether she would always find ’no place to lay her head’ (the perspective of 1 Enoch). Ultimately, the community that formed and was formed by the Gospel of John came to understand Jesus as the Wisdom of God, Woman Wisdom, incarnate. 

In the beginning was Wisdom, and Wisdom was with God, and Wisdom was God. She was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through her, and without her not one thing came into being. What has come into being in her was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This is of course unfamiliar to us to us, and might even sound jarring, because the Gospel writer used the masculine Greek word for wisdom (logos), then dominant in the West, instead of the more familiar and scripturally warranted feminine word (sophia). Logos is translated as Word, while Sophia is translated as Wisdom. Both Jesus and the Spirit embody aspects of Wisdom.

This is a tradition were rarely spend time with in church, and even more rarely preach from (unless we are quoting some of the aphorisms). This is one reason everything was unfamiliar last night. As we have spoken of before, we can no longer speak of Judaism and Christianity as if they were (or are) monolithic traditions. There were (and are) Judaisms and Christianities (plural). The diversity of traditions in the world of our scripture is dizzying. which is one reason the Word is unfathomably rich. The Wisdom Tradition is one one these traditions that has powerfully shaped our understanding of Jesus. We will understand and benefit infinitely more from the gospel by having this tradition under our belts, so to speak.

So that you have them, the relevant passages are

  • In Your Bible
    • Proverbs 8
    • Job 28
  • In Bibles containing the Apocrypha
    • Sirach 24 (is the one I couldn’t find last night)
    • Wisdom of Solomon 7 (but also the narrative of chapters 1-30)
    • Baruch
  • In the Pseudopigrapha
    • 1 Enoch 42

Finally, how might all of this have come from Alexandria, Egypt all the way to Ephesus where Prisca, Aquila, and Paul, and then later the Elder and “John” may have learned it? [Our bible study had just finished read the Johannine letters]. I don’t think we need to think hard to imagine the links that brought together scholars and teachers and preachers across the Roman Empire. Just look at the movement of soldiers and taxes. But if you want a scriptural text to hang on to, I am quite taken by the powerful preacher Apollos, who learned about Jesus in Alexandria and brought the good news, as he understood it, to Ephesus, where he was further instructed by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:24). If the gospel as he knew it sounded anything like the opening poetic prologue in John 1, we can see why his preaching was so powerful.

See you next week,

Pastor Jeff

[i] David Napier published Word of God, Word of Earth in 1976. It was a fresh translation of the Elijah Narrative with an eco-focused interpretation and served as the inspiration for this sermon series. He reworked and revised the entire book in 1992, publishing it as part of The Best of Davie Napier through Abingdon Press. Throughout he pays attention to this juxtaposition of the Word of God which speaks in our scripture through the Word of Earth. Recommended, if you can find it.

[ii] I know I cited Kee Beom So’s reflection in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice (WJK, 2012).

[iii] I found this passage in William Clearly’s Prayers to She Who Is (Crossroad, 1995), which ‘turns the third-person theological writing of Elizabeth Johnson’s classic [She Who Is: The Mystery of the Divine in Feminist Theological Discourse] into second-person prayers that everyone can say. With beautiful drawings by Morningstar, here is an “open it anywhere” prayerbook to help us speak–and listen to–the God who cares as passionately about us as a mother for her children in pain.

 

Word of God, Word of Earth (Series)

July 6, 2019

This page serves as an introduction to a summer sermon series I am preaching called Word of God, Word of Earth in which I am exploring ways the natural world challenges, comforts and gathers out attention so that we might be gathered in by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation. We will set these sermons in the cosmic context of Biblical Wisdom and then spend most of our weeks with the Elijah and Elisha narratives in First and Second Kings.

About the title for the series: A couple of years ago when I was studying the Elijah-Elisha narratives with Walter Brueggemann’s Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, I came across a series of side-bars and footnotes alluding to Davie Napier and a small book of Napier’s called Word of God, Word of Earth. I was intrigued. Napier was an ordained Congregationalist minister, had taught at Yale and later Stamford and served until his retirement as President of the Pacific School of Religion. He was also a life-long activist. Word of God, Word of Earth, first published in 1976, was an early commentary on Elijah and Elisha with a decidedly eco-justice lens. The book also included Napier’s own fresh translation of the Elijah-Elisha Narrative. The entire text was fully revised for publication as part of The Best of Davie Napier in 1992. I have used it as a go-to ever since. I have borrowed Napier’s expression as the title for this short summer series because it demonstrates what Prof. Ellen Davis, in Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, has called a ‘healthy materiality” or “Torah from the Earth.”

Sabbath Day – Meditation on the Move

June 1, 2019

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“Do not give credence to any thought that was not born outdoors
while one moved about freely – in which the muscles
are not celebrating a feast, too.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, who walked daily.

I used my Sabbath Day this week to continue my southbound walk along the AT in New Jersey. Fourteen-plus miles of gorgeous green woods, mountain lakes and moors, and grand summit vistas brought me from the offices of High Point State Park to Culver’s Gap. It was day of vivid contrasts and great beauty.

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I left my car at the trailhead on NJ23 at 6:50 AM and entered the woods. I immediately found a half-dozen deer holding the ridge above me. They watched me pass with all their attention but did not yield the high ground. The next half mile or so was the lushest fern forest I have ever seen. (Alas, no photos). The previous night’s rain and the rising sun created an elegant world of light and shadow with delicately changing patterns. Herbert Durand wrote his classic Field Book of Common Ferns to help people like me appreciate what he called the ‘natural treasures of the wild.’ It was a most auspicious beginning to my day.

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I took very few pictures but appreciated as many micro-changes in my day as I could – the moment when the early morning chatter of birds gave way to true birdsong, the protected cool air in hollows between mountain tops, the arrival of mosquitoes when the day began to warm, the great show given me by three startled turkey vultures, the sudden leap of a deer ten feet in front of me who either didn’t hear me coming or thought I was heading somewhere else. 

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The path was at times all stone, and often mud, then gave way to needles strewn and soft, only the a ridge run along solid slabs of rock. The temperature was in the mid-70s, but a week of rain left everything feeling damp and alive. It was the kind of day Robert Moor describes in his bestselling On Trails: An Exploration: “I inhaled the fir-sweet  air, exhaled fog. The forest gave off a faint chlorophyllic glow.” Nevertheless, I was kissed by the sun, uncomfortably so.

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Everything felt so alive. David Cooper refers to the way a walker constructs the world into a mysterious whole as ‘meditation on the move,’ an apt term for the engagement of body and mind in both constructing, deconstructing, and discovering the mystery at the heart of creation. All day I was engaged in such mediation, and it was joy.

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I had plenty of time to look up, to look down, to look all around, and to look inside.

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By lunch time I was in Culver’s Gap where the Mountain House Tavern and Grill for a well deserved local beer and bowl of homemade chile. Afterward I relaxed in a beach chair beside Kittatinny Lake (behind the Mountain House) while waiting for Mark, my Lyft driver, to take me back to my car. 

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Oh, Happy Sabbath.

Sabbath Day – The Great Animal Orchestra

May 25, 2019

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The twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen remarked that for him, ‘the only real music’ was ‘in the sounds of nature’, especially in the singing of birds. That may be an eccentric view, but we could agree that ‘the great animal orchestra of nature’, as one musicologist calls it, is the origin of the music that human beings have come to create and enjoy. Whether or not, at the end of the day, birdsong is labeled ‘music’ is less important than the fact that it is hard to hear it as being other than musical or music-like.[i]

I started my hike this week with these thoughts about music in my head. I walked, attuned not only to the ‘great animal orchestra’ of Northern New Jersey but also to the burbling rhythms of living water and the chorus of trees, plants and mountain top being played by the advance winds of an approaching thunderstorm. This section of the trail is an ideal location for listening, as the path passes through the Wallkill Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the only national wildlife refuge on the whole AT.

My hike began on the boardwalk, where I left off last week, and took me up and over Pochuck Mountain (were I took the first photo below), across the Wallkill Valley (across which I am looking), to High Point State Park in the Kittatinny Mountains (seen in the far distance in the same photo). A total of 17 miles.

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In fact, standing at the overlook to take the photo above I could just make out High Point Monument on the other side of the valley toward which I would wend and walk all day. An obelisk in High Point State Park marks the highest point in New Jersey at 1,803 ft. The monument was erected in 1930 and dedicated to those who lost their lives in our nation’s wars, past and future. It was so far away it can’t even be made out in the photo. Three hours later I caught sight of it again, and uttered an expletive. It was both so much closer, and yet still so far away. Am I going to make it before the thunderstorm? I felt distinctly like Bilbo Baggins and the Company of Dwarves when the eagles set them down on the Carrock in the middle of the River Anduin and they could finally see their goal, the Lonely Mountain. Having come so far, there was so far to go. 

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At the five and a half hour mark I finally stood below the monument.

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The view was unequaled. From here I could

Look east to view the Kittaninny Valley with Pochuck Mountain in the forground and Wawayanda Mountain on the horizon. Look southeast and you may be able to see the New York City Skyline. Delaware Water Gap is to the southwest, and Lake Marcia and Highpoint Lodge with the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania are to the west. The Catskill Plateau is to the northwest, and High Point Monument is to the north.[ii]

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Looking back at Pochunk Mountain where I took the first photo above

The overcast day did not allow me to see the city, but I was able to see the upper reaches of the Delaware River that I will following south on my next several weeks of hiking toward the Gap.

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To get to this point I had traversed Jersey wetlands and lowlands, bogs and marshes on boardwalks, bridges, dikes and sometimes simply through mud; climbed mountains stairs and descended stones strewn paths, and enjoyed some lovely forest trails. I encountered singing songbirds beyond belief (including a beautiful crane family), herons and hawks, duck, geese, and a regal swan ,as well as frogs and turtles, snakes, spiders, centipedes, squirrels and chipmunks, the odd mouse and a startled groundhog, and fields of flowers filled with honey bees in paradise doing what they do. And cows. And horses. As well as evidence of dogs, deer, fox, and something even larger.

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The trail was actually crowded, not with thru-hikers, but with north bound flip-floppers who started a month or two ago at the mid-way point of the AT in Harper’s Ferry. They will then flip back to complete the southern route by mid-summer. This way they avoid some of the extreme weather associated with thru-hiking. 

As I descended from High Point Summit the thunder sounded and the wind picked up. The rain began as I emerged from the woods in sight of the State Park Office. I had intended another three miles, but I stopped there and called for a Lyft. As I waited for Muhammed to take me back to my car at the trailhead, I enjoyed the smell of rain and ozone. I watched the steam rise from the sun warmed roof. And I listened to the birds. 

Happy Sabbath

 

[i] Cited in David E. Cooper, Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life. (Routledge, 2018)

[ii] Victoria Logue, Frank Logue and Leonard M. Adkins, The Best of the Appalachian Trail: Overnight Hikes. (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 1994/2004).