Fasting as Reconciliation

Acts 11:1-12
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,  “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.

A_Girl_in_the_River_The_Price_of_Forgiveness-232358981-large.jpgI recently heard the story behind the Oscar-winning short documentary this year. The film, entitled “A Girl in the River” tells the story of a young woman named Saba. When she was 18, Saba fell in love with a young man and decided to get married. When her family forbade her, believing the man to be too poor, she defied them and eloped with her lover.

I sorely wish that we couldn’t all guess what comes next, but the truth is horrifying. Her father and her uncle, believing their family disgraced by her decision, took Saba, shot her in the head, tied her in a bag, and threw her in the river. They did this to preserve their family’s honor.

But somehow, Saba survives. She escapes the fate of an estimated 1000 young women and girls who are killed for honor every year in Pakistan, and finds her way to a hospital, where they are able to save her life.

But there is more to this story. While Saba is initially able to hold her father and uncle accountable—they are accused and placed in prison for what they have done—ultimately Saba is faced with intense community pressure to pardon them. Despite saying that she will never forgive them in her heart, Saba is forced to offer public forgiveness, which frees her uncle and father and lets them return home, where they triumphantly declare that they are more respected than ever, and that, remarkably, they have forgiven HER for putting them in the position in the first place.

I am telling you this story because of two words: Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Sometimes it can seem as though these two words mean the same thing. And I think that this documentary, even with its coerced, forced definition of forgiveness, reminds us that forgiveness and reconciliation may be related, but doing one is not the same as doing the other.

So what’s the difference?

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I think we often imagine forgiveness as something like the picture to the left. It is most often solitary work. It is the act of letting go of something, of pardoning an offense. When it is genuine, forgiveness can be incredibly personally healing. It can allow us to move forward from a place of great pain. But ultimately, forgiveness is an interior process. It is for you.

Forgiveness is what happens in Luke  15 when the father races out to gather his wayward son in his arms. He chooses to let go of his anger, and to set aside the past, and in doing so he is free to embrace his child. In our reformed tradition, we sometimes say that it forgiveness is such a soul-shift that it is possible only by the grace of God. It is something accomplished in us by God’s power.

Saba’s story, however, reminds us that there is a shadow side to forgiveness that is purely individual–that when this kind of forgiveness is all that is required for healing, forgiveness can be coerced. People can find themselves under enormous pressure to “forgive and forget,” as the saying goes, because it is far easier to force one person to relent than it is to make a community change. Forgiveness, then, can become cheap amnesty for an offender, who can simply wait for his or her accuser to grow weary, or frightened, or traumatized by the process. This version of forgiveness can look, at its worst, like emotional blackmail. This sort of forgiveness is not forgiveness at all.

So that is forgiveness. What about reconciliation?

Take a look at the picture again and imagine for a second with me—what if there was someone else on the other side of the wall? Imagine—what would it be like to know that there is someone else swinging the hammer, someone else sharing the load, removing the barrier that divides you?

That is what reconciliation looks like. It looks like hammering at a wall, knowing that the other party is hard at work as well. It is a deeply relational, and therefore outward process. It is the business of repairing the damage that has been done to a relationship or relationships. Reconciliation is what happens when people—those who have been wronged, and those who have offended—come together to pick up the rubble of what was and see what might be built in its place. Reconciliation can only happen when the community joins together.

In the words of Lewis Smedes: It takes one person to forgive; it takes two persons to be reunited.

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What can this look like in the real world? One of the most famous cases of public reconciliation is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. Following years of apartheid, the entire country committed to a difficult and at times painful process of reconciliation. The commission, headed by Desmond Tutu, sought to bring healing to a broken community. It began with detailed, exhaustive research of the crimes. It continued with honest, unflinching testimony. It did not require forgiveness. Victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and perpetrators could give testimony and request amnesty. The conditions for amnesty were: that the crimes were politically motivated, proportionate, and there was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty. Nobody knew if it would work—but somehow, it did. Society healed. Communities came together. South Africa moved forward. Reconciliation.

We also see reconciliation, albeit of a different sort, at work in our Scripture today. In this case, the situation is a bit different—there is no obvious conflict. But in Acts 11, there is a problem: gentiles want to follow Jesus. In fact, they are like moths to a flame. This may not seem like a problem to you, but you must remember that the early church was a decidedly Jewish one. And so, when Gentiles begin asking to be baptized, Jewish Christians don’t know what to do about it. For a while they ignore the problem, perhaps wondering whether it might go away.

But then things get more complicated—gentiles start having visions, and reaching out to the apostles. And in our story today, the apostle Peter starts having visions too, and God starts telling him things that he never expected to hear—that gentiles are part of God’s plan. Gentiles even start experiencing the Holy Spirit, a classic sign in the early church that God is present, that something important is happening. This problem can no longer be ignored.

And in our Scripture this morning, Peter struggles. He is at a loss for what to do, even when his mind is filled with visions. God’s plan is just so different from everything he imagined. But ultimately, he takes what he has seen, what the disciples have experienced, back to Jerusalem.

It isn’t easy for him. Peter is greeted upon his arrival with criticism—“what are you doing with those people,” the church in Jerusalm asks. And so Peter explains all that has happened. Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he lays out the facts as honestly and transparently as he can. He shares what he has seen, and he brings witnesses to confirm it.

And it is in that circle of trust that the church in Jerusalem finds itself in a new place: affirming that God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Which is their way of saying that God has broken down the dividing wall that formerly existed between Jews and Gentiles. It is a new day.

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Reconciliation. It is what happens when insiders and outsiders, victims and offenders, sinners and saints, set down their weapons and reach out to one another. It is what happens when different people become ONE PEOPLE. A BODY. The body of Christ.

And when they do, the Body flourishes. Like the promise of Isaiah 43, God’s love is revealed. A reconciled world looks like Isaiah’s powerful vision, where the people can trust that God is with them, no matter what happens, because God has restored and reconciled them before. Reconciliation looks like new doors that open, and new directions to journey. New life springing from the rubble where the wall once stood.

Because love and reconciliation, at the end of the day, aren’t all that different. We seek reconciliation because we desire love, because we as created beings desire relationship with one another. And we who crave relationship must be willing to put in the work of reconciliation if we are to reap the harvest of love, peace, and justice.

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Ultimately, reconciliation is a gift that we can only give or receive in community. In fact it is God’s gift FOR community, an affirmation of Immanuel, God with us.

It is what it looks like when everyone wins. And it is something that we choose to do every day, by choosing relationship over isolation, choosing community over “my way.” It bears fruit as we find God along the pathway.

As we march ever closer to the cross, I invite you: Seek the way of God, which tears down walls and reaches across dividing lines. Follow Jesus, who broke the barrier between life and death, and find freedom in God’s embrace. For the road is narrow which leads to life, but it is paved in the peace, justice, and reconciliation of God.

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Fasting In Forgiveness

Luke 15:11-32

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

There are a lot of questions that we can ask about this parable, but perhaps the first and most pressing, is this: who is it about?

Prodigal-Son-Pigs.jpgPerhaps it is about the younger brother. Certainly, most of us have a bible that labels this story as “The Prodigal Son,” or we learned it that way in Sunday school. And if this is a story about the prodigal son, or the younger son, then perhaps for us this is a story about someone who really screwed up his life.

It becomes a story about how far a person can fall. In the case of the younger brother, the answer is pretty far– not only does he wish his father dead, but he breaks ALL the rules when he is out on his own. Notice that Scripture is circumspect on what exactly he has done, but suffice it to say, it was “dissolute.” He runs hard to the bottom of the barrel, and he stays there, even after squandering all that he has, wallowing in self-pity and beyond the grace of God.

Even his road to redemption is questionable—scripture says “he came to himself” one day, and realized that he would get better treatment as a hired hand for his father than his current living conditions allowed. And it’s difficult to tell whether his “turning” is heart-felt our not—he rehearses his lines to the point that it is difficult to tell whether he means them or not. Like Rubio, he repeats the same lines over and again.

If this is a story about the younger brother, then in some ways it is a story about injustice, about the unfairness of this world—you can be a horrible person, and still come back.

So maybe this isn’t a story about a younger brother. Perhaps instead is it a story about an older brother?

18prodigalson.jpgIf this a story about the older brother, then he doesn’t come off much better than his reckless sibling. Of course, the older brother is the good kid. The righteous kid. The one who does as he is asked and doesn’t complain.

But he is also harsh, even unwilling to embrace his broken brother on the way home. Notice, the older brother doesn’t have a problem with his brother coming home—he simply objects to the party. He objects to the embrace of the wayward son.

“Sure, let him come back,” the older brother seems to snarl. “Just make sure he does it on his knees. Make him beg for it. Make him pay for his mistake. Don’t ever let him forget that he is the one who screwed up.”

If this a story about the older brother, it becomes a story then about the limits of fairness—you can do all the right things for all the right reasons, and you might still live your life watching someone else get all the attention. You might find yourself bitter, and frustrated, sitting in the dark beyond the disgrace of the party. You might find yourself stewing over the fact that forgiveness just isn’t fair enough for you.

But is there another way to read this story?

Perhaps we should look at the text itself. Jesus said, “There once was a father who had two sons.” Ahh!!! Perhaps this is a story about a father!

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And if this is a story about a father, what do we learn that is different?

We learn a lesson about what lavish, profligate, limitless, offensive grace looks like. We learn about a father who does not keep score—he doesn’t ask what the son did on the way out the door. He doesn’t have conditions on the threshold. He simply embraces. Fully. And not just embraces, but celebrates. Even a scoundrel son.

Recall that it is that celebration that offends the older brother. But how then is this father disposed to his dutiful son, who never left, who never denied, who always did as he was told? He is lavish with his compassion. He does not deny the older son’s struggle. He does not tell him he is wrong. He simply reminds him: we have to celebrate, because something lost has been found. Someone dead is alive.


 

It is easy to forget this when we feel as though we are being passed by. Easy to start keeping track, to start ranking folks—who deserves what they have, and who does not? Who worked for it, and who is coasting on the hard work of someone else? Especially when we feel like the older brother.

But the father will have none of that. The father doesn’t care. Because what truly matters is communion. What truly matters is the reason for rejoicing: a house united with itself. A tear mended. A wound healed over.

We who sit in this church are likely to relate to someone in this story—but the truth is that each of us have both brothers within us. For there have been times where we were dutiful, righteous, and did the right thing. And there are times where we have felt beyond grace. There are times when we have fallen so far afield that we wonder whether anyone would care what happened to us.

Too often we allow people to starve out there in the cold. Or worse, we leave ourselves out there alone, because we feel ourselves unworthy. We cannot imagine that anyone is watching the road for the slightest sign of our return. We cannot smell the fatted calf roasting on the pit. But each of us have received lavish, undeserved grace. Each of us have been embraced by someone, at some point in our lives, when we felt we did not deserve it. When we feared we were beyond reaching.

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Our call, therefore, is to embrace one another. In this church. At this table. In our walk with Christ—we are called to embrace, and to be embraced. To love, and to be loved. To forgive, and to allow ourselves to be forgiven.

To remember, that the God who claims, the God who sent his Son to dwell amongst us, loves us and forgives us not after determining whether it is fair or just, but because God yearns for us to be in communion with one another.

 

Fasting in Faith

Isaiah 55:1-9

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.

I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.        See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.

See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.   For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.


 

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

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What does it mean to “have faith”?

It can be quite easy to convince ourselves that faith is something we have to be or do on our own. We look at Jesus in the desert, and we see him stand up to Satan and we wonder—is that what faith looks like? Is that how I am supposed to be in order to be faithful?

In Luke 4, for example, we see Jesus wandering in the desert, being tested multiple times by Satan, the accuser (think of him as the prosecuting lawyer). And Jesus is out there, alone, and the accuser shows up and offers him all sorts of things in exchange for his allegiance. Food, Power, you name it—Jesus can have whatever he wants if he just rejects God.

Before we make any other observations, I think one thing we can learn from Jesus in this moment is that, if nothing else, faith looks an awful lot like an endurance sport. It is an exercise in building up our Spiritual Muscles, so that you can become capable of seeing where God is at work in the world, and where God isn’t. And that takes practice. That requires self-control. That requires good posture.

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How many of us got our posture checked when we were in kids? I remember when I was in elementary school the local nurses’ association came through and checked everyone’s posture and alignment. They were looking for signs of trouble—early detection of scoliosis was a big thing then, and they could see whether you were at risk by evaluating your posture. Of course, plenty of us didn’t have scoliosis, but most of us definitely had poor posture. And the nurses, bless their hearts, would remind us that posture matters—that we needed to practice good posture, because good posture turns out to be really good for your health—studies today show that good posture supports overall muscle and skeletal health. And poor posture, it turns out, can create all sorts of problems.

So if faith is about good posture, then how do we get it? Two places:

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1) The Bible teaches us good faith “posture”

The first way that we can develop a good faith posture is by learning how to recognize God. We need to learn how to trust that God is who God says God is. And we can begin to figure that out by opening our bibles, and learning about what God’s vision for us looks like.

Visions like Isaiah 55, which say:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;

And you that have no money, come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

Notice what God does not say: “Come, you who are powerful, you who are worth billions and own your own jet. God does not say, “Come, all you who follow this religion, or speak that language, or come from this particular part of the world.” God does not say, “Come, you who are beautiful, or popular, or successful.”

No, God just says, “come, all who are hungry and thirsty.”

We who desire a good posture towards God need to hear what God is saying: that we have put our faith in a Creator who envisions a kingdom in which those who are hungry, those who are thirsty are fed. We have put our faith in a God who doesn’t build walls to keep people out—instead he breaks down the barriers so that as many as possible may enter.

And as we seek to build up our endurance, our posture, we must take the time to ask ourselves: what does this mean? How does God’s Word convict me? What is God asking me to do?

If the Kingdom of God looks like a banquet that is open to everyone who is thirsty or hungry, with not other restrictions—are we willing to come? Will we show up? Will we share the invitation with others?

Or do we prefer exclusive gatherings? You know, those parties with the carefully curated guest list, where simply being invited makes you feel special?

The problem with seeing faith in a certain way—in seeing faith as some sort of personal achievement—is that sometimes we start telling ourselves that we know what the rules are—we start making statements of faith that we imagine are universal. And we begin to exclude those who don’t fit our criteria. But God has only two criteria: hunger and thirst.

The real irony here is that God doesn’t exclude anyone from the Kingdom—more often, we exclude ourselves. By our insisting that there is some place that we would rather be. By turning down the open invitation, either it is because we want control over the menu, the guest list, or the seating chart. We tell ourselves that the limits we prefer protect the party, but God just wants the people to eat.

It turns out faith is not unlike an open door that we choose to walk through, or an invitation that we choose to keep. Faith is what happens when we accept the invitation, with our lives, and let go of the need to control what is on the other side of the door, or what the party will look like. It is being open to the surprise of what God has in store for us, and trusting that whatever it is, it will be good. Because God will be in it.

Which means that faith isn’t a list of “I believes;” it is the practice of trusting in God. Faith is a posture of openness.

And that takes practice. Like good posture or good athletic health, we have to work at it every day. Every day we are faced with the choice again, just as Jesus is in the wilderness: will I succumb to the temptations of this world, or will I choose God, choose the Kingdom, choose the banquet God has set for me and all who hunger for God?

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2) Good “posture” is learned in community

Now there is a second way in which we learn good posture, and that is this: we learn from each other. Every time we gather together, every time we choose community over isolation, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn what it means to have faith in God. When we spend time with a little person, or an older person, or anyone in between, because we choose to be here instead of somewhere else—we learn about how to love Jesus. When we give freely of our time, our hospitality, and our compassion, to be with someone who is suffering, grieving, or rejoicing, and do not count the cost—we learn what it means to be a servant like Christ. When we take the time to learn about teen homelessness, or food insecurity, or poverty, from other people of faith, and struggle together with how to be the face of compassion in a suffering world—we are building a posture of faith.

It is something that we do better together. Because alone, we aren’t Jesus. But together, we are the body of Christ. And the Body of Christ together has the power to withstand the forces of darkness, those who would demean, belittle, and dis-empower the people of God. The Body of Christ can endure the slings and arrows of hatred and violence, wherever it may be found. The Body of Christ can stand as beacon of God’s light for the powerless, the vulnerable, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

All that is required for us to stand—Together.

To learn—together.

To love—together.

To resist—together.

Because that is the power God has given us.

Let us together be a people of faith such as this.

Fasting in Appreciation

Joshua 5:2-12

At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth (the hill of foreskins).

Now this is why he did so: All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the wilderness on the way after leaving Egypt. All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt had not. The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord. For the Lord had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way. And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed.

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal to this day.

On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.

Rituals. We all have them. When I was in college, and I played in the marching band for USC, there was a guy in our section who wore the same pair of underwear for every game—”It’s lucky!”  He liked to say.  “Helps our team win!” (and did I mention that part of the “luck” involved not washing them either?) We had our doubts about magic underwear, but perhaps you can relate to the sentiment he expressed.  There are just some things that we do that give us courage, or put us in the frame of mind to believe that we are going to achieve our destiny. Things that make no sense apart from their context.  Rituals.

The Maori people of New Zealand are no strangers to ritual either. They are, perhaps, most well known for a ritual dance called the haka.

Who wouldn’t want to get married after that?

I just have to pause and share there are a few moments that really make this video for me.  First of all, there is this moment in the beginning where they pan to the bride and she is crying.  The first time I saw the video I thought to myself, “man, I think I would be crying too if this happened at my wedding!”  But that was before what came next.  As the dance deepened in intensity, the groom, and the bridesmaids, and then the bride herself jumped in!  The ritual–this dance–invited their participation.  This was something bigger than a dance in that moment.  Like every other meaningful ritual, it had a story to tell.  Through the dance, those guests told the world who they are—they were able as well to share their sense of belonging to their culture and their values. The dance was them.


It turns out that the Israelites of the Hebrew Scriptures have a special ritual too. In our scripture this morning, they mark their entry into the land of Canaan…. By celebrating a mass circumcision.

I would just like to take a moment and admit that the last thing I expected to be talking about when reflecting on a fast of gratitude was the subject of circumcision. And yet here we are. So perhaps the first thing this story can help us appreciate is the fact that the Christian faith does not require adult male circumcision.

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And they thought eating manna for forty years was rough…..

But the question remains-why circumcision? What was the point?

In order to understand, we must go back, and remind ourselves where circumcision comes from:

Genesis 17:4-11

You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.

In circumcision, the people carry on their very bodies a reminder of God’s promise to them—their own created selves bear the imprint of God’s covenant, that God will provide for them. It is this that allows them to say with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation: of whom shall I be afraid?”

But still—why circumcision, specifically? Couldn’t God have gone with a cool tattoo or a special hairstyle instead?

As I have pondered this question, I don’t know that I have the answer, but I wonder if it has something to do with intimacy—for circumcision is, if nothing else, something between you and God. You don’t wear it on your forehead because it isn’t for others to see. It is for you. Every time you see it, every time you bathe or change your clothes, every time you have intimate relations with your partner, you will remember God’s covenant promise—that God is with you. That God will provide for your present.

God will also provide for the future. In this covenant remember that God is promising to create a physical people. It is a new identity, one that we cannot take back. The scars of circumcision will forever remind the one who bears them of the moment that they left their old life behind in order to hold fast to God’s promises. And God is promising that Israel will become a mighty nation of faithful people.

This perhaps is why it is so important the people in the wilderness fulfill the covenant before they enter the land—the last step of their journey is to embrace the promise of God as a promise FOR them. Until they do, they cannot embrace their destiny. They must therefore remember from whence they have come, and give thanks for God, the stronghold of their life, who will keep them safe and will lead them in straight paths.

I hope I am not making too much of circumcision here. But the important truth to remember is that it is more than just a hygiene choice—it is a lasting and meaningful a mark of faith for the Jewish people.

Now as Christians, circumcision plays little to no role in our religious expression.  And that is, in large part, because we have our own ritual, our own moment where the promise of circumcision finds its full expression, and that is the ritual of baptism. According to Colossians, in Christ we “are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” We are, Paul says, “buried with Christ in baptism.”

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Mass baptism of children in the Orthodox Church in Atlanta, GA.

Baptism, like circumcision is something that is between you, the community, and God.

It is intimate.

It is personal.

It is a covenant, like circumcision, a promise that we will learn to live into every single day. And it begins in the reminder that our journey to the font is preceded by a God who has been there for us every step of the way. That everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. And so we approach the waters as babies, as teens, as young men and old women, because we know that God has claimed us in baptism, just as God claims Israel in circumcision, from the very beginning of time.

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Like circumcision, baptism also moves us to act.  It pushes us out of ourselves and into a world in which we are called to respond to God’s promise.  In recognizing God’s generosity to us, we are moved to be generous with one another.

To appreciate one another.

To love one another.

To baptize one another.

Because the gifts we have received are meant to be shared. The question becomes—how will we share it?

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This woman can’t wait to share her baptism with the world!

 

Remember, the Maori people share their culture, their traditions, their values through dance. So how do we share our baptism? What would our Christian “haka dance” look like? How might we communicate the Good News we have received? The gratitude we feel to the God who claims us?

Perhaps like the Maori we can begin with the reminder: What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!”

Let us go out into the world, and seek to appreciate what we have been given, appreciate those around us, so that our lives might become a fast of gratitude. And let us walk through the world leaving wet footprints as a sign of the baptism that will never dry up when we hold fast to Christ.

 

Fasting in Humility

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

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Around this time of year, when throngs of people are packing into churches (or not) and marking themselves with ashes (or not), there is this commentary that seems to creep up over and over again—and it goes something like this:

“Does your church do ashes?”   Yes, we do.

“Isn’t that…well…a little ritualistic?” Not really.  It’s a practice that helps us draw closer to God.

“Seems awfully religious to me.  I mean, I like God and all, but it seems like the church likes rules more.  Seems like y’all are going through the motions and not actually doing anything.” Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr……………*sigh*


 

All this gets back to a conversation we started together on Ash Wednesday with our friends at Warminster UCC. Pastor Josh preached and he proposed that the biggest problem that the church faces is authenticity. He pointed out that those who are suspicious of religion and Christianity often are pretty knowledgeable about what we believe, and are often spiritual people themselves. But they look at the church and see lives that do not reflect the claims of Jesus.

It’s an authenticity problem.

Now there is some good news and some not so good news, and that is that when we look back on the story of God’s people in the Bible, we quickly realize that the people of God have always struggled with authenticity. Long before Jesus, the prophets were pointing out that our ritual is empty unless it is for something (see Isaiah 58:1-12). And that something is the righteousness of God.

So when Jesus stands before the crowds of people and preaches about empty ritual in the sermon on the mount, he isn’t breaking from tradition. He isn’t saying something that the people haven’t heard. No, like any good preacher, he is standing within his own faith tradition and proclaiming a truth that we humans just can’t seem to hear enough: that faith is only meaningful when it is AUTHENTIC.

But how are we supposed to be authentic, you may ask? In the time of hipsters and artisanal pickles, isn’t everyone striving to be the most authentic they possibly can be? Isn’t it awfully easy for “authenticity” just to become another badge we proclaim pridefully—“we are more authentic than YOU are!”

The answer is pretty simple. And it is found in our Scripture this morning.

Consider Deuteronomy 26. Now this text is on the tail end of the covenantal law, which, I will be the first to admit, is probably one of the driest parts of the Torah. Move over Leviticus! Deuteronomy, with its detailed dimensions for tents and poles and copper bowls HAS YOU BEAT.

But there is also a lot of important information in Deuteronomy about how we are to live.

If you can make it through the lists of families and the dimensions of the tent of meeting, you get some pretty neat advice on how we are to live together. And all of it is in the context of faith and fidelity to God. In other words, living authentically.

The passage in question this morning deals specifically with rules regarding something called the First Fruits offering. Now, there are lots of offerings that can be made to God in the ancient Hebrew religion—there are sin offerings and guilt offerings, tithe offerings and peace offerings. I could go on. The First Fruits offering is given at the beginning of the harvest and given with gratitude to God for the gifts that we receive.

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The first fruits offering didn’t look anything like this….

But Moses isn’t satisfied just with the giving. Moses (and God too!) wants us to remember why we give. And so, in Deuteronomy, we are told that those who give a first fruits offering should approach the priest with these words:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”

Sounds like an awful lot of ritual, right? Imagine having to memorize those lines– it’s a lot longer than the Lord’s Prayer, to be sure!  But let us also consider what the ritual is for. Throughout this proclamation, the people are asked to refer to themselves in the following ways:

-a wandering aramean: in ancient times these were a nomadic, landless people.

-an alien: again, outside of any nation or community of belonging

-a foreigner: have we gotten the point yet that the people of Israel have no place to call home?

-few in number: did I mention they were a small group of people?

-treated harshly and afflicted: oh yes, and they get trampled on by other people on a regular basis.

I assume we have picked up on the intended point: that the people of God aren’t much to look at on their own.  They have no nation, they aren’t terribly large, and they are functionally powerless as other nations abuse and misuse them.

As they prepare to offer their gifts, the people of God are reminded first and foremost not of their own awesomeness, or power, or might—instead, they are called to reflect on their vulnerability and weakness. They are reminded of just how little we have on our own.

But that is not the end of the story.

For these powerless people depend on a God who:

-hears us: we are not alone!

-sees us: we do not suffer without witness!

-brings us out of our affliction with terrifying displays of power, with signs and wonders: Our God is invested in our well-being, and will do anything to protect us.

-gives us landless people a home and citizenship in a new land: God will bring us out of our poverty and our homelessness and give us a place to call our own!

Have we figured it out yet?

Alone, we are weak and exposed; with God, we are safe and secure.

Here is the kicker: this ritual isn’t for the benefit of other people. It isn’t religious theatre, not for the benefit of the crowds who gather or for the priests who receive the offering. Rather, this ritual is the for the benefit of the giver. This ritual is meant to put us squarely where we need to be: in a posture of humility.

Jesus will later expound on this further—he will remind us that when we give alms, or pray, or fast, we must remind ourselves whom these practices are for—they aren’t for the benefit of others seeing what good Christians we are. They are for the benefit of our relationship with God, and for the righteousness and justice of the world. When we are doing them correctly, they will have their source in humility.

Humility is a difficult concept to fully embrace, I know. It sounds an awful lot like subservience or weakness. And yet humility is the life that Jesus calls us to. Again and again, Jesus tells us that the last will be first, to take the less desirable seat at the dinner, to be meek, to be a servant, to pick up a cross, too pray for our enemies—and that through these humble actions, we will be lifted up.

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Josh shared with us on Ash Wednesday about something he called the generosity paradox, that often it is in letting go of things that we gain something more. And I think that the same can be said of humility. Humility is a moral imperative of the Word of God, not because we are supposed to feel bad about ourselves, but because it makes room for others—the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the sick, even the enemy. When we operate from a posture of humility, we can let go of the need to always be right, always be first, always be stronger/wiser/richer/more powerful. Instead, we can free our hands to be generous: with our time, with each other, with our gifts and talents. Humility frees us to serve Jesus, who revealed to us the paradox that there is strength in weakness, and life in death.

Will you join me in a fast of humility? Will you follow Jesus? The way is long, but it is worth it.

 

 

Lenten Hunger Challenge 2015

food-stamp-restaurantsHow much money do you spend every day on food?  That is what I found myself wondering recently. I was wondering because I had recently come across the statistic that the average family on food stamps receives benefits roughly equal to three dollars per person, per day, on food.  Three dollars.  That makes one dollar for each meal, day in and day out.

c_103443Interested to know more, I did some research.  Turns out that in Bucks County, where I live, there were 37,733 people receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) as of April 2014, a total of 6% of the local population. The average monthly benefit per person in PA in the year 2014 was $119.41, which works out to roughly $3.85 a day, and $1.28 a meal.

Given that nearly one sixth of the world’s population lives on a dollar a day, $1.28 per meal didn’t look so bad.  But that was before I did the math on my own family’s spending habits at the table.  I was astonished to discover that, over a three month period, our family spent an average of $682 a month on food, which, in a family of three healthy eaters (and one baby, who is just beginning to eat himself), works out to $7.34 per person per day, over twice as much money as is provided in the average SNAP benefit.

That number, which over the course of a year works out to over $8000, places our family slightly above the middle 20% of the country in terms of total spending on food produced both inside and outside the home.  Compare that to the lowest 20% of the country, who in 2011 spent on average $3500 on food, and the highest 20%, who spent nearly $11,000, and you get the sense of just how vast the chasm is in our country between those who have plenty to eat, and those who count every penny.

What was most amazing to me was that our family considers ourselves to be fairly conservative in our spending.  We produce most of our meals at home, mostly from scratch, and we tend to favor making our lunch over picking something up at a restaurant.  And yet we still managed to rack up a sizable grocery bill!  A grocery bill, mind you, that betrays our relative comfort, for our family has the luxury of time to spend preparing meals from scratch or exploring recipes in the latest Ottolenghi cookbook.

Armed with this knowledge, I found myself wondering: what might it look like to be in solidarity with those whom our government recently described as the “food insecure?”  How might Jesus be calling me, a person of relative security and privilege, to respond?

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet writes:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

So here is the fast we choose: this year, in this holy season of Lent, we choose to stand in solidarity with the hungry and the food insecure in this nation we call home.  This Lent, our family will participate in the Hunger Challenge: to eat within the constraints of the average SNAP benefit, or $3.85 per person per day, as an act of witness to the fact that, for many, this isn’t a choice at all. And we will donate the difference in our spending to the One Great Hour of Sharing, which provides food aid and emergency assistance to empower the poor and the oppressed.one_great_hour_sharing

Will this be hard? If my jonesing for Starbucks on Ash Wednesday is anyindication, then yes, we are in for a rough journey.  But I also believe it will be worth it. Because sometimes the harder thing is exactly where we are meant to go.  Sometimes God calls us to do something that makes us uncomfortable because justice requires it. Sometimes, in order to change the world, we have to change ourselves first.