In the Lap of Mary

Galatians 3:23-29 (Homily)

Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And, the worst part is there’s no-one else to blame

Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, enfold me
I am small and needy
Warm me up and breathe me

Ouch I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe…Sia “Breathe Me”

This is one of my favorite songs to turn to when I’ve had one of those days. The days defined as terrifically terrible, where everything I touched seemed to turn to dirt, my words fell like stones destroying rather than bricks building. One of those days where I was clearly the one in the wrong, where I failed badly, did that thing I swore I’d never do again…Those days where I wish water could truly wash me clean inside and out.

The feelings that surround me are those that are products of an internal monologue that is in dialogue with the law. There are two sides to the law. It can be both positive and negative. The positive side of the law is the side that creates structure and order in our school, in our town, state and even in our nation. Laws create order out of chaos. To follow the law in this way can bring comfort: I know what is expected and what to expect.

But the negative side of the law is the side of the law that exposes something about me I’d rather have hidden. That side of the law that brings to light what I’m desperately eager to keep cloaked in darkness. That I’m not kind. That I’m not good enough. That I’m a failure because I’ve failed once again. That I’m not who I like to think I am and not whom I’ve lead you to believe I am. The negative side of the law exposes the imposter and drags her into the light. This part of the law doesn’t strengthen me and highlight my talents and capabilities, reminding me how powerful I am; rather it draws to the surface my guilt and shame, that I’m lost and fragile, small and needy. “Be my friend, hold me/Wrap me up, enfold me…”

The book of Galatians does well highlighting both aspects of the law. Paul refers to the law as working with and not against the promises of God but that the law also functions as a disciplinarian in the life and mind of the person. To deny both aspects of the law is foolishness; it is even more foolishness to think that by the law one can avoid the negative aspect of the law. That is the relentless hamster wheel of perpetual performing and existential self-denial of mass proportions. Everything is not fine. We are not peachy-keen and better than ever, or “too blessed to be stressed” and certain no Christian colloquialism will alleviate the tumult under the surface.

The reality is we’re all pressed in on every side. And now more than ever as we slide full-speed into the end of the semester. Grades hanging in the balance: will you fail or will you succeed?  College acceptances and rejections? The yays and nays depend on whether or not you’ve done enough on paper. Have you done enough and in the right time? Family pressures; friendships under strain; anxiety and stress rising; mind, body, and soul longing for a moment, a breath, a safe place.

This safe place so longed for rests in the lap of Mary. After giving birth, Mary was ceremoniously unclean according to the laws of Leviticus. However, Mary gave birth not just to any child, but the son of God. Thus she was, after having given birth, holding and nursing the new born Christ, for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of Very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet there she was: with God because He was with her, physically, in her presence and she in His. From the moment of His birth, Jesus had begun to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment. This is God with the guilty and shameful, the lost and fragile, the small and needy; this is Emmanuel, God with us.

During Advent we recall the long awaited event of the fulfillment of the promise of God: I will be your God and you will be my people and you will love me with all your heart, mind, soul, and body. We are brought to the one to whom the law directs and guides. The law’s reign as disciplinarian began to crumble the moment Christ was born; its ability to render a verdict about who and what you are was revoked when Christ died and was raised. Thus, the whispers of condemnation ricocheting in your head have been silenced; that fear of failure: stilled. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

Christ has fulfilled the law relieving it from its role as disciplinarian; thus, we are not to remain in the condemnation of the law. Our guilt and shame, those terrifically terrible days and seasons in our lives don’t have the final word because Christ has taken our burdens and given us His light yoke. So, as we go toward the end here, be gentle with each other and be gentle with yourselves. We’re all battling our internal condemning monologues with the law. And remember: In Christ, you are the befriended, the held, the wrapped up, the enfolded. No matter how all those cookies crumble, you are the beloved and adored.

The Cedar Sprig and The Baby

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Homily)

*I don’t believe in Bible reading plans, but I do read my bible every day—a chapter on some days, a small passage on others. I take my time and meditate on what I’m reading as I go. One cold, winter morning, back in Colorado, my attention was particularly pricked as I was reading through a part of text from the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel of the Old Testament is full of mysterious imagery and prophecy of Israel’s exile and destruction. While there is a word of hope of restoration, the bulk of the book is rather troubling. But none of that caused me to stop and contemplate. It was a portion about a tree planted on a mountain that snapped me out of my early morning mental fog.

I lived in the high desert, so maybe the idea of a great big cedar providing shade and comfort from the burning sun of the summertime or the cold wind and snow of winter sounded good to me. Or, maybe the idea of anything green and verdant appealed to me considering it was the middle of a white Colorado winter. Whatever it was, this tree caught my eye.

In this portion of our passage, God is promising to plant a great and “noble cedar” from a sprig God is going to break off from another. And God will plant this sprig, this tender one on a high mountain, so that it will become a “noble cedar.”

You know what grows on the top of a high mountain? Nothing. Well, nothing substantial, nothing qualifying as “noble.” The top of a mountain is typically bald because the environment is too frigid and the conditions too treacherous for foliage to grow let alone allow for a transplanted cutting to take root and grow and become mighty. What caught my attention that morning was God promising to plant a “tender one” on the top of a mountain; certainly, this is sure death for a cedar sapling. What a precarious thing for God to do.

In the midst of a book that is primarily [1] comprised of prophetic utterances of judgment against the current, corrupt, oppressive, militaristic, and hopeless monarchy of Jerusalem and Israel, [2] why prophesy about a great cedar on a mountaintop planted and grown from a sprig?

Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

Because the tree is the word of hope in this passage—not for the leadership of Israel but for those who are suffering under the leadership.

The tree will be so mighty in stature that winged creatures of all kinds will be able to find shelter in its boughs. Cedars protect those creatures who find shelter in them from harsh and inclement weather—they are the perfect safe-haven from cold winds and bitter precipitation. This particular cedar planted and nourished by God will be a beacon of hope to all who look upon it, and they will know that God is still active, that God’s power is still magnificent, and that God hears the deep cries and intimately knows the suffering and oppression of God’s people (Exodus 2:25; Acts 9:4-5).[3]

This cedar will stand as the promise of an answer to the repeated cries of the troubled, downtrodden, and the broken hearted. But even more than being a static symbol of hope for the people of Israel and Jerusalem, it’s a dynamic word for the people: God is on the move. This great tree is on a collision course with God.

That God so loved the world he sent his son into it as a vulnerable baby: a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit was born of a virgin woman; the fully divine and fully human Christ would enter the world defenseless, naked, and tender. What a precarious thing for God to do.

And just as God promised that the sprig in Ezekiel would become a great and mighty cedar, so too will this baby grow to be great, becoming the Son of the Most-High God (Luke 1:32). Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the cosmos receives her loving messiah, her merciful king, her faithful high-priest.

The sprig of the high mountain top and the baby of Christmas have the same fate in Easter: to be the final answer to all of humanity’s pain and suffering, to bear the weight of sin and bear life into the world, to break down strongholds and redefine justice. For this great man, Jesus, who is God, will carry this great cedar to the top of a high mountain. He will climb upon this great cedar, and this great cedar will bear the entire weight of Christ as he bears the entire weight of our sin and the brokenness of the world succumbed to the powers of sin and death; and this cedar will holdfast those three nails.

Like the winged creatures mentioned by Ezekiel in our passage, in the boughs of the cross and the limbs of our crucified and resurrected Christ, we receive our comfort and the fulfillment of our hope, it’s in the safe and protective shade of the Cross where we hear the divine “it is finished” to our pain and suffering, to our grief and fear–where the rejected are accepted, counted as God’s own, children and heirs of the long awaited great king; where the captives are set free, the oppressed relieved, the hopeless are hopeful, the voiceless have a voice, and the refugee finds refuge.

 

 

1 “Ezekiel” The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler JPS Oxford: OUP, 2004. 

2 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament Vol. 1 Trans. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961. “Jeremiah and Ezekiel look from the monarchy of their own day, for which they can see no future, to a new order established by Yahweh himself, in which the ruler appointed by him will have become a theocractic official very different from the contemporary political and military king…This opinion on the part of the prophets was certainly strengthened by the fact that in despots like Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiakim they saw on the throne particularly blatant examples of human self-will in hostility to Yahweh” (Eichrodt 451) 

3 “The cedar, the grandest of trees, will tower over all the other trees, and all will see the power of God, who is responsible for the fall and rise of Judah” (Jewish Study Bible). 

 

*A longer version of this homily was given at The Cathedral Advent. Birmingham, AL, in 2017.

Why Sarah?

I’ve always read the story of Sarah and the casting out of Hagar as Sarah being nagging, and, sometimes, just down right mean. I saw it as petty. But then, last summer, I was given an opportunity to preach on Gen 21, and during research and writing the sermon, I saw something new. Sarah wasn’t being mean, she was defending the promise (this is what Luther tells us). Rather than, “just get that servant girl and her son out of here!”, I saw, “…it’s about the promise…the promise, dear husband!”  But then there was another question: why Sarah? Why would she care about the promise so much as to protect and defend it? Why would she be the one to remember?

Here’s my answer:*

God is the God of the Promise

In Gen. 21:1 we read, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised.” What was it that the Lord had promised both Sarah and Abraham? A Child—he would give them a child in their old age. We know this from Gen. 18:9-15,

“They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

One of my favorite verses is Gen 18:15. She flat out denies that she laughed…and Moses records it. Moses, inspired to record such an interaction, leaves one of our stately matriarchs completely human.

According to a webMD article, “‘Laughter isn’t under our conscious control…We don’t choose to laugh in the same way we choose to speak…” Sarah’s proof of this. Sarah’s laugh is an immediate and subconscious response to over-hearing the promise of a son the Lord makes to Abraham—and she uncontrollably scoffs…in disbelief. We’ve all done this. (scoffed in disbelief)

So Sarah laughs because she doesn’t believe what the Lord was promising. According to her, she is too old to have a child. Moses tells us that the way of woman had ceased. In her words, “I am worn out…” What a way to describe yourself. The word translated as “worn-out” in Gen 18:12 can also be rendered “used-up” or “exhausted.” Synonyms for “worn-out” are “spent,” “stale,” “deteriorated,” “destroyed,” “used,” and “useless.”

In Sarah’s eyes, she was—in her advanced age—“useless” because she could no longer bare children—because that possibility had ceased for her.  She had been created to bring forth children and she didn’t; in her opinion, this failure rendered her “useless.” Years of longing, years of praying, years of begging and yearning produced nothing. No child. Years of suffering through hope delayed in light of the physical possibility to produce a child give way to the concrete evidence that that possibility is now over.

For Sarah, there was no longer any reason or evidence or proof to hope for such a thing—it was over; it was impossible. So she laughs, because the words of the Lord being spoken contradict plain fact and promote the impossible. She laughs in disbelief. (no way! You’ve got to be kidding! What?!). Now, if the Lord appeared to Daniel and said, “this time next year Lauren will have a son” there would be NO laughter and most like wailing and gnashing of teeth (why?!!?), because it’s possible. It could happen. What could happen carries significantly far less comedic value than what flat-out could NOT happen. But the God Sarah worshipped, the one that was speaking with Abraham at that moment is the God of the promise. For, as I’ve said a million times before (at least!) with God, His promises are future facts. What He says, happens (Let there be….and there was!).

I’ve spent a lot of time in a passage of scripture that isn’t part of our reading because I need to set the scene for when we come back to chapter 21 (our passage). I want to paint with vibrant and bold colors where Sarah was prior holding the child in her arms, prior to nursing this child, prior to, how Luther referred to Isaac, “the promise [which has] now been made flesh” (4).

“The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Gen 21:1-7)

 

The promise has now been made flesh. The long awaited yearned for child is here.  The Lord, who questioned why she had laughed in chapter 18, has now fulfilled His promise and has given her a tangible reason to laugh but this time rather than laughing out of scoffing disbelief, she laughs because of hope and joy fulfilled. Because of God’s promise—and His faithfulness to that promise—Sarah is no longer the cursed one (barrenness would have been seen as a curse (Luther 11)) but as the blessed-one.

Now, finally, our passage:

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (Gen 21:8-13)

“But Sarah…” At some point Sarah notices and sees something. One day, Sarah looks upon the two boys her Isaac (the promise made flesh) and Ishmael (Abraham legitimate first born) and something dawns on her. And she speaks up. “Cast out this slave woman and her son” she says to Abraham. She continues, “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” While Ishmael had a promise made about him (Gen 17:20: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.”), it was not the promise, the promise of the established covenant; Sarah “makes a very fine distinction between her own son and Hagar’s” (Luther 20).

Luther writes about Sarah at this point, “It is her purpose to prevent Ishmael from coming into the inheritance together with Isaac” (20). Rather than allow both sons to be heirs, Sarah steps up and speaks out to protect the promise; Isaac would be the heir, and not Ishmael. According to Sarah, Hagar and her son, Ishmael had to go. Rather than being petty and possessive, Sarah is protecting the promise. And so is God, “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you…” “[Sarah] is compelled by God’s command to undertake something contrary to her husband’s will” (Luther 23) [Abraham was very distressed]. Luther writes, “Abraham had not given such careful consideration to the promise. Therefore God repeats it…” (24).

Why does Sarah give more consideration to the promise than Abraham does? Why does Sarah seem to remember it more vividly than her husband? Luther makes the point that Sarah was alert and keen to the promise and Abraham wasn’t. (“But Sarah has her way and accomplishes what she had undertaken, for she looked more closely at the promise and understood it more clearly than Abraham did” (36)).

I’ll fill in the gaps. Why Sarah and not Abraham? Because, the woman, who has suffered from deferred hope and years upon years of longing for a child, when she holds that child that has been given to her by the very word of God and with that child there is a spoken promise, she remembers. She remembers it every day she looks into his eyes. The woman who suffers barrenness (infertility and loss) suffers the one-two punch of a broken and fallen world. Every month she is reminded of what hasn’t happened or what was and is now no longer. A woman who suffers in this way cannot hold the living, fleshy baby—the baby promised by the very word of God–and not think: God is faithful.  The Heir is born.

I have three children, but I’ve also lost three pregnancies. After our last loss, four years ago, I kept hearing “Nehemiah” a name of an old-testament minor prophet, a name which means “No more tears.” I went three years with that word and with the feeling that we weren’t finished yet, we weren’t finished having children. But month after month proved that we were finished, and the tears came every month. And then in January of 2014, there was hope. I was pregnant. In October, we held our daughter, a near 10lb pile of screaming baby, and I heard it again, “No more tears.” 9 months later, rocking her before a nap or nursing her at 2AM I hear it again and again, “No more tears.” Every time I look at her, I hear it. God is faithful. No more tears.

So, if it is so with me, how much more with Sarah? I was still (barely) at child-bearing age; but Sarah was 90. Every time Sarah looked at Isaac she remembered the promise. God had promised the impossible and had made the impossible possible, and she couldn’t forget it so she reminds her husband. “The Promise, dear husband, is with Isaac.” It is by the promise that rescue and salvation come and not through the flesh and bone of birth right. True heirs are heirs of the promise. “‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named,’ not through Ishmael; that is, the people of God are not those who have the physical succession but those who have the promise and believe it” (Luther 33).

God is a God of the promise.

*this is the first part of the sermon that was not published yesterday (2.9.15) with the rest of the sermon that went up on http://www.mbird.com (read it here).