Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Take my camel. Please.

Note: These weekly blogs, based on scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, are prepared as sermons for North Baptist Church, Port Chester, N.Y. The writer is a Baptist layman, a life long journalist, and a communicator for church denominational and ecumenical organizations.

Jesus was one rabbi who knew how to get a congregation’s attention.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said, “than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23-24)

A camel passing through the eye of a needle! Jesus, you’re killin’ me! The image is vivid and unforgettable.

It’s also funny. Few notice the humor because no one expects Jesus to be a stand-up comedian. I try to imagine Jesus’ disappointment the first time he used the metaphor:

Jesus: “But seriously, folks, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Disciples: Silence. Puzzled expressions.

Jesus: Get it? Camels are huge!

Disciples: Silence.

Jesus: And needles are … tiny, right?

Disciples: Silence.

Jesus: (Clears throat) So … of course no camel could …

Disciples: Silence.

Jesus: (Walks away) OMG. What a tough room.

Dr. Elton Trueblood, the Quaker writer and theologian, thought anyone who missed the fact that Jesus sprinkled his sermons with witticisms – that on some occasions he was, as Mort Saul would put it, apocryphal of wry – is missing an important dimension of Christian theology.

God knows many of us missed that dimension. Some of us grew up in congregations where a sober frown was regarded as the appropriate mask of faith and where the giggles of children were sternly shushed.

That’s a shame, because there is so much funny stuff in church lexicology that goes undetected. How can one keep a straight face, for example, when reading local press accounts of church high school football rivalries: VIRGIN CREAMS PIUS XII.

Trueblood writes in The Humor of Christ (Harper & Row, 1964) that the scriptures offer ample evidence that Jesus loved to laugh. His sermons and parables were generously sprinkled with irony, hyperbole and droll scorn.

Actually, Jesus' scorn could be quite piercing. His reference to the Pharisees as “you snakes, you brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33a) is harsher than the more genteel “sons of bitches.”

Jesus’ love of laughter and the good life was used by his enemies to criticize him.  “For John came neither eating nor drinking,” Jesus said, referring to his cousin, the ascetic baptizer, “and they say, ‘he has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Matthew 11:24)

It’s hard to imagine eating and drinking without jokes and laughter, so it’s no theological leap to conclude Jesus was a joke teller and a laugher.

The camel and the needle is not the only time Jesus uses gross exaggeration to get his point across. It’s an entertaining spiritual exercise to leaf through the Gospels to identify the times Jesus was just kidding and did not intend his words to be taken literally.

In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus uses hyperbolic images to drive home the point that everyone sins.

Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart”(Matthew 5:28) 

This is a dismaying revelation to all us guys whose eyes stray toward well turned ankles in a crowd, telling ourselves it can’t hurt to look. It is especially challenging today as we are assaulted by mass media that offer images of hundreds of beautiful women and men for instant ogling and free-based fantasizing.

But wait, there’s more.

“If your right eye causes you to sin,” Jesus continued, “tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

Point made, but Jesus was not advocating mass blindness on an Oedipal scale. If vicarious lust required wandering eyes to be cast out, the whole world would bump blindly into another Jesus story: “If one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14b). Slapstick humor.

And if that isn’t clear enough, Jesus is not above sardonic scatology: “Do you see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” (Matthew 15:17-18) Again, the point is made and the mental image – even if it doesn’t elicit a giggle or two – is unforgettable.

Also unforgettable is Jesus’ send-up of the scribes and Pharisees as he explains in quick-fire Rodney Dangerfield staccato why they should get no respect:

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others, for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (referring to the more visible sartorial symbols of pharisaic piety, Matthew 23:5). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” he said, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27).  Jesus! Lighten up!

“Or,” Jesus said to the crowd gathering on the mount, “how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:4-5)

But as hard as it is to imagine a log in someone’s eye, the camel passing through the eye of the needle is the hyperbolic tour de force.

It’s also one of those biblical images we’ve heard so often that its rhetorical power may be waning. To get a better measure of how delightfully surprising the camel-needle image can be, tell it to a nursery class – checking, of course, that they know what camels and needles are. Children who encounter it for the first time recognize a riotous Sesame Street image when they hear one.

When Jesus uses humor to grab the attention of his congregation, it’s usually to call attention to a very serious point. For many, the point he was making in the camel reference is too heavy to bear.

“Jesus said to (a rich young man), ‘if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:21-22).

The rich young man is never cited as an exemplary biblical role model, which is ironic. Most of us follow his lead anyway. There are many who tithe to the church, and many whose charitable contributions are substantial and generous. But few of us are inclined to sell all our possessions for the benefit of the poor, and those who do run the risk of being committed to mental health facilities for psychosis or dementia.

But Jesus knew very well how difficult it is for the saner among us to give away all we have.

“Truly I tell you,” he told his disciples – he may have been smiling wryly, but that was never recorded – “it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Da Dum. (Matthew 19:23-24)

The gross exaggeration challenges the imagination and has inspired hundreds of internet cartoonists. (Search “camel through eye of needle” on your computer to see some diverting examples.)

The hyperbole is so strained, in fact, that it’s tempting to hope Jesus was overstating his advice to the rich young man as well. “Jesus was kidding, right?” prosperous persons ask their spiritual advisors. “We don’t really have to give away everything we have to the poor?”

But Jesus does not appear to be kidding. And his use of the camel-needle metaphor does not mean we can dismiss the whole idea with a wink. On the contrary, the allegorical leap is Jesus’ way of saying he knows full well how hard it would be to give away all we have.

The disciples did not laugh at the far-fetched simile. They were, scripture tells us, astounded. “Then who,” they asked, “can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them reassuringly, perhaps winking, perhaps smiling. “For mortals it is impossible,” he said, “but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26).

Jesus used a silly simile to guide us toward several profound truths. Among them:

During our earthly life spans, it makes no sense to acquire more possessions than we need to live comfortably and support our families. Stored up treasures become the love of your life. (Matthew 6:21)

God has a particular love for the poor that is expressed in hundreds of scripture verses throughout the New Testament and Hebrew scriptures. If our pursuit of possessions causes us to be indifferent to the poor, we will be indifferent to God.

During our earthly life spans, our primary task is to love God and love our neighbors. When our neighbors are struggling amid poverty and injustice, God expects us to intervene in their suffering and do all that we can to help.

The meaning of life is discoverable in our love of God and our love for the human beings with whom we live. If we are distracted by the pursuit of riches, we will fall far short of God’s intention for our lives.

Getting our lives on track means setting aside the pursuit of riches, putting mere possessions in their proper perspective, and re-dedicating our lives to God’s love.

Accomplishing that is difficult beyond belief ; in fact, as Jesus observed with a grin, it’s virtually impossible. Like getting a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

But with God, all things are possible. And camels pass easily through the eyes of needles for the amusement of all and for the glory of the God of love.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Vive La Difference

One of the ongoing church debates is about the appropriate roles of women and men.

It is only within the past century or so that women have assumed ecclesiastical authority as clergy and bishops. In Orthodox and Catholic churches – traditions that were not formed by the Reformation – men still occupy an exclusive patriarchal hierarchy.

But even in Protestant traditions, the debate about gender role continues because men, who are supposed by biblical tradition to be in charge, are not always present in day to day church affairs. Some guys prefer to leave spiritual and religious matters to the little woman while they stay home organizing beer and popcorn parties for Sunday football.

I sometimes wonder how much of this macho avoidance of religion might stem from a guy’s worries that he may not be manly enough. This unease probably goes back to the early playground years when manliness was gauged by athletic prowess, but Victorian ambiguities of gender roles in childhood suggest insecurities are buried deep in the male psyche. Time was, even in middle class white households where male children were especially prized, a young lad’s gender could be hard to detect.

There is a photo of baby Franklin D. Roosevelt that goes beyond androgyny; in fact, the future president and wartime leader is unambiguously girlish in his cascading locks, dress, anklets and buckled shoes. One might assume that his mother, the indomitable Sarah Delano, was hoping for a daughter, but this gender-bending style seems to have been common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Even so, once FDR lost the locks and dress there’s no evidence he was confused about his Y-chromosomal condition. He may even have benefitted from the early realization that gender is not determined by hair length or clothes. For some boys, this is not necessarily obvious.

I must have been close to 10 before I understood why some of my friends were girls and others boys. My sister was not born until I was 12, and I tended to think my three brothers and I were boys because our mother found it convenient to keep us all in crew cuts, and because it facilitated the handing down of identical striped t-shirts and patched jeans.

I concluded early on that the length of one’s hair was the determining characteristic of boys v. girls which, in the early days of the Eisenhower Administration, seemed a reliable guide.

That was until the iconoclastic birth of an actual female in our small neighborhood, a baby sister to our playmates Tommy and John.

Our pals seemed delighted by the new arrival until the first changing of her diaper, when they spotted an upsetting malformation. Their parents may have thought Tommy and John were too young to notice but the baby’s misshapenness was hard to miss.

The brothers looked pale and shaken as they joined my brother Larry and me at the top of the hill across the street, where we shared our secrets. John worried that the baby might be falling apart, while Tommy sought solace in an objective statement of facts. “Her fanny,” he whispered as the three leaned so close our foreheads touched, “starts in the back and doesn’t stop.”

In the age when nuclear tests created reptilian monsters that ravaged Tokyo, it was one more thing to worry about. “What is wrong with you boys?” my mother asked as we shook our heads in bug-eyed panic when she suggested we cross the yard to meet our new little neighbor.

Fortunately, the physical attributes of male and female were clarified for my brothers and me before our sister was born, but I learned later that we weren’t the only boys with a flabby learning curve. One of my fellow chaplain assistants in the Air Force, Sal, admitted that as a child in a Catholic household, he thought there were three genders: male, female, and nun.

I thought about Sal several years later in anthropology class when we learned some societies recognize androgyny as a third gender, while others identify four and even five genders.

Wikipedia (which should always be reviewed with skepticism) cites an ancient rabbinic interpretation of Genesis – “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 5:2) – that God “originally created Adam as a hermaphrodite, bodily and spiritually both male and female, before creating the separate images of Adam and Eve.”

Exactly why God would create male and female as one flesh is not explained, unless it was to reduce the carbon footprint in Eden. One can only imagine hermaphroditic Adam’s internal discord:

“Self, I want to wander among the flowers and listen to the birds sing while I watch the sunset tonight.”

“Nah, Self, I want to invent beer and fall asleep watching the lions wrestle.”

“Self, I never take us anywhere nice anymore.”

Enough of that. But even setting these bizarre interpretations aside, the story of Adam and Eve is not particularly useful in clarifying gender roles.

To be sure, the traditional roles of women and men seem quite reversed. Adam is hesitant, weak and eager to follow. Eve is assertive and strong, a leader willing to take risks to get what she wants. She defies God to sample the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and Adam feebly follows.

Christians assign to Eve the theological opprobrium of being the originator of sin. But any lawyer would understand that Adam, her spineless co-conspirator, shares her guilt equally.

It is not entirely logical that Eve carries so much of the blame for original sin, nor is it logical that God would condemn her and her gender descendents to live under the authority of her weak-kneed husband. But thousands of generations who grew up in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions believed women were divinely subservient to men.

Where does this puzzling and contradictory bible story leave us today?

To be frank, I don’t believe I’ve ever known a woman who was subservient to men. I’m sure such females exist, but there are no such women in my immediate or extended families. There are no such women in North Baptist Church or any other congregations I have known.

Most of us have our own anecdotes that illustrate the point. My spouse, Martha, is an ordained church leader in both the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ, and has been the primary family breadwinner for years. Together we have five daughters who have proven to be strong-minded, resourceful and successful women. Next week our son will marry a woman in the same category.

Martha and I also have mothers who ignored the patriarchal injunction that they live in graceful submission to the men around them.

In late 1956, Martha’s father, Benigno, emigrated from Cuba to the United States, leaving his wife, Julia, and daughter Martha home in Cuba. (For Martha’s commentary on Benigno’s pilgrimage, see

It’s impossible for those of us who didn’t have to do it to fully appreciate what it is like to leave behind everything you know to begin a new life. Julia, like millions of immigrants before her, focused resolutely on the future. She arrived in New York in the middle of the week, and by Monday she had a full-time job in New York’s garment district.

Once reunited with Benigno in New York, Julia remained in close contact with her family in Cuba. She sent money home to her family in Cuba and visited them as often as the geopolitical situation would allow. By the time she had been in the U.S. for ten years, she had sponsored the emigration to the U.S. of 12 members of her family. Julia is still the matriarch relatives seek out now that the international political situation has eased travel restrictions between our two nations.

My mother, Mary, grew up on a hard scrabble dairy farm near Andes, N.Y. By the time she was 16, she realized she was going blind due to the progressive deterioration of her cornea, a genetic condition.

Two years later, 21 days after Pearl Harbor, she married my father before he was shipped out to the Pacific Theater as an infantry officer. She was 18. During the war she joined the women’s work force that replaced the men who had been called to battle. She worked in a war materiel plant near Oneonta.

After the war, Mary’s eyesight continued to deteriorate as she began producing babies one after the other, five beginning with me. She tried not to let her progressive blindness get in the way of responsible child raising and she never missed a school assembly, sporting event or student drama presentation. Occasionally she couldn’t see well enough to know when food was fully cooked, but we learned to surreptitiously discard blood-streaked pieces of chicken.

In 1967, when I was in the Air Force overseas, Mary underwent a pioneering cornea transplant. As her vision began to improve, she returned to school to study nursing and earned her R.N. degree. As she worked at a local nursing home, she formed her own real estate company, Morrisville Quality Homes, Inc., and closely supervised the construction of five family homes. She traveled constantly to visit her adult children in Colorado, Florida, and Pennsylvania and included occasional pleasure cruises with my sister or on her own. (“I’ve been lei’d,” she announced in a startling phone call when she arrived in Honolulu.)

Julia and Mary are two women I think are fairly typical of their gender, which historically has produced powerful monarchs, corporate and institutional CEO’s, three U.S. secretaries of state, a score of U.S. cabinet secretaries, presidential and vice presidential candidates, as well as pioneering aviators, astronauts, scientists, teachers, civil rights icons, and church leaders.

So what does the story of our common parents – Adam and Eve – have to teach us about gender role and relationship?

Although the patriarchal traditions of many churches insist the first couple are exemplars of male superiority and female submission, it’s difficult to find biblical evidence that two ever modeled it. Quite the contrary.

The second chapter of Genesis makes it appear that the creation of woman was an afterthought:

“So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” (Genesis 2:21-22)

But the passage can be exegeted in several ways, as Borsht Belt humorists have demonstrated for decades.

“So when the LORD God created the man, he stepped back and scratched his head. And the LORD God said, ‘I can do better than that.’”

Genesis 5, a re-writing of the basic story, reports the man and woman were created simultaneously:

“When God created humankind he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created.” (Genesis 5: 1b-2)

At the risk of offending old rabbis who perceived an androgynous creation, I think the message is that God created women and men equally, and in God’s likeness.

Being created in God’s likeness, I think, is the key to understanding gender roles.

Because (and at the risk of offending my old Sunday school teachers who thought the passage meant God has hands and feet and a hoary head and human male genitalia), it is our human likeness to God’s essence that places humankind – women and men – inseparably and eternally at the top of God’s order of creation.

Being in the likeness of God means humankind – women and men – have attributes shared by no other order of animals, especially the apes whose likeness reminds us of us.

Being in God’s likeness means we share this with the creator: an eternal spirit; a sentient consciousness; a drive to create; a moral discernment of right and wrong; a faith in the evidence of things not seen; a common sense of justice based on a spontaneous understanding that we need to treat all other creatures the way we want to be treated ourselves; and the sacred power to love another person – the ultimate human attribute that Victor Hugo said was “to see the face of God.”

God is love, and to be created in God’s likeness is to have the capacity to love.

The creation myth of Adam and Eve may be puzzling and at times confusing, but if all we see in it is a patriarchal assignment of gender roles, we are missing the point.

The God of love has created women and men equally in the likeness of God. Women and men are not identical physically, emotionally, psychologically, or in the ways we perceive God’s world. Vive la difference.

But women and men were created by God to be equal exemplars of God’s love.

Humankind has not quite achieved that perfection yet.
But when God created us, male and female, in God’s likeness, the long journey toward human perfection began.