Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Dumb and Dumber

Exodus 3:1-15
Matthew 16:21-28

The late New York City Mayor Ed Koch was once asked what he believed. “Whatever God wants to do,” he said, “is fine with me.”

That was commendable compliance for a politician. Even in the bible, one might search for days to find that kind of trust in God. Private phobias and social prejudices make most of us turn away when God calls.

God must get used to that. 

Humans have been spurning God, figuratively and literally, since the dawn of creation. Adam and Eve ate the pomegranate of insurrection. Cain killed his brother. David committed murder to justify his adultery. The patriarchs cheated and lied. God must have despaired like Casey Stengel, manager of the ’62 Mets: “Can’t anyone here play this game?”

God’s star players were worthless, at least at first. Moses and Peter, early draft picks for greatness, refused to cooperate.

God resorted to unearthly pyrotechnics to attract Moses’ attention. The scene of the burning bush was eye-catching. Curiously, though, the concept of a bush that burns but is not burned is hard to capture in cinematic special effects. Even high tech digital imagery is visually unconvincing and appears more cartoonish than real.

Also, directors have puzzled over how to stage the scene. Does Moses cover his eyes with awe as he approaches the bush, or does he casually amble over like a jaded New Yorker watching a a pillar of steam from a sewer vent? And what about the voice of God? Certainly it must be a male voice, but does it sound like John Carradine or Truman Capote? Would the command, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” resonate with authority if whispered with a reedy lisp?

No doubt God got the staging just right, but the supporting actor strayed off script. 

When God ordered Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of bondage, Moses was supposed to leap up, slap his fist in his hand, and roar, “Let’s kick that perfumed pissant’s ass.”

Instead, Moses backed away timidly and said, not me. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”


Fortunately, God can be persuasive and Moses eventually came around.

Moving ahead a few millennia, Simon Peter was another disappointment.

Protestants don’t grow up thinking of Peter as the first pope, so we’re free to enjoy him as the clod he was.

Hulking, headstrong, and impulsive, Peter was an alpha male. He barked out orders to other fishers who tripped over their nets to obey him. He was not introspective and had no reason to doubt the validity of his impulses, no matter how stupid. He talked before he thought. He was both a braggart and a coward.

But Peter also had a heart of gold and he was loyal to a fault. He protected his mother-in-law and was determined to keep Jesus safe from Pharisaical goon squads.

Often, Peter went too far.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  (Matthew 16:21-23)

How frustrating for God. With drama and clarity, God laid out the divine plan to two of the greatest heroes of the bible. One recoiled and said, “Who, Me?” The other tensed with indignation and thundered, “Hell, no!”

Left alone, they would be dismissed as the Dumb and Dumber of biblical lore. It’s almost enough to feed one’s inner agnostic. If God is too feeble to raise up effective leaders, what hope is there for the world?

Fortunately, God has a providential way of accommodating one’s free will while pulling us closer and nudging us to do the right thing. That worked with Moses and Peter. Once they vented their real feelings to God, they went on to become leading stars in our Sunday school lessons.

For the rest of us, it’s a spiritual comfort to know Moses and Peter started their careers with timidity and shame. In one of the bitterest metaphors in the New Testament, Jesus called the future pope Satan.

No doubt each of us have sinned sufficiently that we can imagine Jesus calling us Satan or something more anatomical (see The Book of Mormon, the musical, for clarification). All of us have heard God’s divine plan. But few of us are able to carry it out.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor and yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40.

So easy to hear, so hard to do. Sometimes our response is, “Who, Me?” Often it’s, “Hell, No.” 

Turn on CNN for an hour and you’ll see the state of humanity on a wide screen. In Gaza, Hamas flings rockets into Israel, which responds with the shock and awe of overwhelming weaponry. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS demands Christians convert instantly to their godless counterfeit of Islam, or die. In Nigeria, hundreds of school girls abducted by the extremist group Boko Haram are still missing as their story fades from the headlines.

And in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed African American youth was gunned down by a shadowy white cop, people choose sides. Supporters of the dead youth raise their arms as they shout, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.” Supporters of the cop point their fingers and shout, “Shoot. Shoot.”

Lost in the smoke of these events are God’s plan and God’s great commandments. The response is: “Who, Me?” And, “Hell, No.”

No one is so na├»ve as to think all of these tragedies will go away if more of us step up to carry out God’s plan. That would be too complicated. Violence is usually caused ignorance and injustice, and there is far too much of both strangling the Middle East, Africa, and the United States of America. This will not go away until – as we Baptists are fond of saying to disguise our despair – the Lord returns.

In the meantime, God is presenting to each of us, with clarity and urgency, the divine plan for making the world a little more just and a little more livable.

We may respond, “Who, Me?” and “Hell, No.”

But as Moses and Peter prove: those who overcome their hesitations may one day be part of a mighty movement that can change the world.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Forget the Boys. Get the girls!

Pharaoh fails to take into account some important facts. Fact: girls grow up to be women. Fact: women tend to outlast you. Fact: at some point women will put their foot down. They will not join your procession to the grave. Sick of being hemmed in and pushed around, repulsed by casual violence in the name of order, power, principle and pride, they will finally refuse to budge. “Not our babies!” they’ll say. “Not our people! Not our future!” If Pharaoh had half a brain, he’d leave the boys alone and go after the girls.- J. Mary Luti 

No spiritual person should miss J. Mary Luti’s blog, Sicut Locutus Est. No doubt Luti will be quoted in hundreds of sermons this Sunday.

Luti, a retired Andover Newton Theological School professor and a United Church of Christ minister, says she “just keeps talking and posting for whatever it’s worth.” This week she expands on an obvious but overlooked truth: Pharaoh’s greatest disability was his Y chromosome. His dull male brain defeated him.

I say that not to diss my gender or the other fifty percent of earthlings who share it with me. I live in close relationship with a spouse, five daughters, a daughter-in-law, a sister, a granddaughter, and many nieces and grandnieces whose supercilious snorts and rolling eyes warn me when I have wandered into male obtuseness.

This happens several times an hour. That must count for something. My feminine side may be dulled by male dullness, but I try to be a good listener. And even in the most awkward moments, I am assured I have value around the house when it comes to killing spiders, chasing moths, and lifting heavy objects.

Pharaoh, unfortunately, had no advisers to warn him about the danger of women. His tactical blunder is revealed in Exodus 1:15-17:

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 

Shiphrah and Puah bowed and smiled disarmingly. But as they backed differentially away from the monarch, they both thought the same thing: “Hell no.”

This moral certainty came easily to them. The ability to act on it was not so easy. It’s impossible to exaggerate the courage of these two women, and equally difficult to emulate it.

Shiphrah and Puah were members of an oppressed class, whose daily survival depended on their ability to stay out of the way, avoid attracting attention, and do what they were told. 

Pharaoh, the undisputed monarch of a vast empire, was worried that the enslaved but prolific Jews would soon outnumber his army. He decided to thin their ranks by killing the boy babies. It’s unclear if he gave the order to other midwives, or if less courageous women smothered the babies between their mothers’ legs. But we do know that Shiphrah and Puah defied Pharaoh and let the boy babies live.

They lied to Pharaoh and told him the Hebrew women delivered their babies before they could get to them, and Pharaoh, a standard blend of ruthlessness and stupidity, let them go. But Shiphrah and Puah had no reason to count on official stupidity to protect them. When they defied Pharaoh, they expected to die. They chose to die rather than carry out an order they knew was wrong. Their survival was an unexpected miracle.

It’s a little surprising that Shiphrah and Puah are such minor characters in our Sunday school lessons. Their courage and faithfulness transcends all whose stories were told in Genesis, and sets the stage for the dramatic events that will follow in Exodus.

They are pivotal figures whose roles were noted but not fully acknowledged by the writers of Exodus, who were of course male. With a little more insight, Exodus would have opened with the lines, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not notice Shiphrah and Puah, lowly Hebrew women who would soon outsmart him and ignite the long fuse to revolution.”

Shiphrah and Puah set the gold standard for defending the powerless against bullies and tyrants. Almost all of us get a chance to take stands similar to theirs, even if on a smaller scale. All of us would like to think we would have their courage to stand up for others. But when you look at the history of the world, you quickly realize how rare were Shiphrah and Puah.

Throughout history there have been Shiphrahs and Puahs who have risked their lives to stand as a barrier between the powerful and the weak. And, like Shiphrah and Puah, “they feared God; they did not do as the King … commanded them” (Exodus 1:17). They recognized an authority far above the powers and principalities of perfumed Pharaohs and ranting dictators.

Fortunately for us in our increasingly treacherous times, there are still many who have the courage to speak truth to power. And, from the point of view of dictators and despots, the most dangerous opponents are women.

In 2012, a Taliban assassin shot Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager who advocated for the education of women in Pakistan, in the head as she rode on a school bus. Hovering between life and death for weeks, Yousafzai – now 17 – recovered to resume her campaign for equal rights.

During the civil war in Liberia (1989 to 2003), rape was used as a weapon of war and children were abducted from their homes to serve as soldiers and prostitutes. Leymah Gbowee publicly confronted Charles Taylor, the ruthless warlord and president, and demanded an end to the terror. She helped organize thousands of Liberian women, both Christians and Muslims, to “pray the devil back to hell” and who stood as human obstacles between the warring sides until, peace was restored, Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

Aung San Suu Kyi, moral leader of the human rights and democracy movement in Myanmar (Burma), Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1991, endured years of threats and house arrest at the hands of the ruling generals until growing international opinion led to her release in 2010 and election to parliament.

Dorothy Day, a writer, social activist, and Catholic laywoman, helped establish the pacifist Catholic Worker Movement that continues to aid the poor and homeless in New York. The movement also engages in nonviolent protests and advocacy for the poor and homeless. She was editor of the Catholic Worker from 1933 until her death in 1980. The church has begun the process to lead to her canonization, but one of Day’s best known declarations was,  Don’t make me a saint!”

Rosa Parks’ quiet act of civil disobedience on December 1, 1955 when she refused to obey a Montgomery, Ala. bus driver’s order to move to the back of the bus, helped ignite a non-violent revolution in civil rights in the U.S.

Sophia Magdalena Scholl was a German student active in the White Rose non-violent resistance group in Hitler’s Germany. She was convicted of treason for the crime of distributing anti-war leaflets in Munich and was executed by guillotine in 1943. Scholl is now recognized as one of Germany’s greatest heroes.

Years later, Hitler’s former secretary said she had been the same age as Scholl and lamented she had not been as moral or as courageous. 

All of us have reason to regret not taking moral or courageous stands as exemplified by these and other women, and by Shiphrah and Puah.

Pharaoh’s power was absolute. The Nazis were evil on a scale that drains the imagination. They were archetypal bullies against which all other bullies pale.

Usually, the forces we are called to confront are not as awesome. Homophobes who shout “God hates fags” at soldiers’ funerals. Islamaphobes who think Muslims are the enemy and yell vile threats at Muslim children. Xenophobes who think 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. should be arrested, deported, or deprived of basic protections under the law. Ecclesiophobes who hate the churches for accepting and welcoming everyone – everyone – into the fellowship of Christ.

We often encounter individuals or groups who don’t believe God loves everyone, or that Jesus accepts everyone. What do we do when we hear these people say hateful, bullying or merely ignorant things about the people they don’t understand? My approach is to be passive-aggressive. Not wishing to get involved, I listen silently and politely to the rants of ignoramuses. But I write nasty blogs about them later.

The lesson of Shiphrah and Puah is that we have to take a stand when evil is afoot. And the lesson of the Gospel is that we don’t have to keep silent about it. God has given us the authority to speak out.

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:16-20)

Jesus (in the non-apostolic view) is not addressing Peter alone.  He is addressing all who confess him. Jesus calls you and me individually, and all of us together, to be the bedrock on which the church is built. And along with that comes the keys to the kingdom, the authority – and the responsibility – to speak God’s truth.

Shiphrah and Puah took a courageous stand to speak God’s truth in action, even if it meant their lives. 

Jesus bids us to take similar stands. Because he has anointed us “to bring good news to the poor … proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18).

Whenever tyrants or bullies or ignoramuses bid us to do evil, or to stand aside silently while they taunt and threaten the weak and powerless, Shiphrah and Puah have shown us the way. Christ gives us the authority and, God willing, the courage to act.

And God grant that when we men lack that courage, the women in our lives will warn us with supercilious snorts and rolling eyes and invite us to follow them into the fray.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Selling Joseph

“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him.” Genesis 37:19-20)

The famous phrase is inscribed on the tomb of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. But there’s another phrase from the same chapter of Genesis that not only clinches the dysfunction of Jacob’s family, but informs only-children what it’s like to have siblings.
“But when his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more that all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” (Genesis 37: 4)
This particular passage, like the sagas of Cain and Abel, Jacob’s battles with his brother Esau, the parable of the prodigal son and others, is easier to understand if you have siblings. The rivalry is natural. And while most sibling encounters don’t lead to fratricide, many sisters and brothers who have pulled back from one another’s throats could paraphrase Chris Rock: “I don’t approve of brothers killing brothers – but I understand.”

I was the oldest of four brothers and a sister. 

While I spent my teen years wishing I was a Kennedy, I now realize that to outsiders, we looked like a black-and-white sit-com. “The Adventures of Elmore and Mary”. “Leave it to Paul”. “Dad knows best.” Even our daily dialogue, recalled decades later, sounds like it had a laugh track.
Scene: 14-year-old Philip is in his room typing letters to his political idols while Dad has drafted Larry and Jim to help him hang tools on the garage wall. 
Dad: I can’t find the stud. Where’s the stud?  
Jim: He’s upstairs typing. (Laughter. Applause.) 
There is photographic evidence that we weren’t always arguing. One black-and-white portrait looks like it was initially discarded by the photographer, Mr. Nickel, who by day was a teaching colleague of Dad’s. Seated from left, I’m the one with evil eye, Jim is in the striped Charlie Brown T-shirt gazing into a distant future, Larry is happily day dreaming about Ann-Margaret (or he should have been) and Paul is studying the photo optic mechanics of the SLR camera. The inserted color portrait is baby sister Susan in her Little Miss Sunshine stage. 

Actually, the sibling issues began before Susan was born when Mom began preparing us four boys for a new member of the family. Paul held resolutely to his demands: “I want a doggie.”

I spent two glorious years as an only child. Alone and adored in the tiny apartment over Flora Cramer’s house on Main Street in Morrisville, I couldn’t have been happier. 

Early snapshots show me sitting on Dad’s lap, chewing on his pipe, or sitting bathed by sunlight in a bay window, watching bulldozers on Main Street in 1947. 

I even enjoyed the luxury of an imaginary friend only I could see, but whose ectoplasmic form was mysteriously captured on film while I stood nearby. (See the red circled figure, for which I offer no explanation.) 

As any only-child knows, having one’s parents to one’s self is an Edenic experience. It was only after the fall that siblings Cain and Abel began competing for parental attention and Cain killed Abel. 

Looking back, I think Cain had a reasonable defense. God liked Abel best and praised him at Cain's expense. 
“The Lord said to Cain why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin in couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7) 
Just the kind of condescending, parental preaching no child can bear. 

My brother Larry was born almost exactly two years after me. I was too young to be aware of any Cain-like hostilities toward him, but these animosities are often unconscious and revealed in family tales told decades later. One of my favorite relatives was often reminded by her mother that when she was a toddler, she reacted poorly to the usurpation of a baby sister. “What shall we do with Sissy today?” her mother asked her. “We could drown her,” she suggested.

I don’t recall having fratricidal impulses when I first met Larry – and I should interject here that Larry is a retired architect, writer and water color artist in Oregon. I don’t encounter his quiet wit and unconditional affection often enough. But perhaps it was not always so.

When I close my eyes, I can actually remember this: I’m not sure how old we were, but Larry had just started crawling. We were still living in the apartment, and we must have been rambunctious (one of Mom’s favorite words) because Flora the landlady often knocked on our door to ask Mom to keep the noise down. Those ominous visits would unnerve Mom, but rarely deterred me as I took advantage of my superior ambulation to chase Larry with objects he found terrifying, such a serpentine enema hose that made him scream.

My siblings and I were alternately loving and rowdy, forgiving and aggressive and always competitive for attention. We got into loud fights and vicious wrestling matches that led to the parental prime directive: don’t bleed in here. 

Later, when I entered the parenting business myself, the three youngest members of our blended family engaged in the same loud confrontations in Port Chester. My spouse Martha – an only-child – was appalled at their behavior and thought there must be something wrong with them. But as one-of-five, I knew better. Noisy sibling rivalry is normal. All too normal.

The story of Joseph and his brothers begins in Genesis 37, and it’s not a pretty tale. 

Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s large brood of sons – remember Jacob, the dirty rotten scoundrel who stole his brother’s birthright? – is his father’s favorite. “Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his children, because he was the son of his old age,” goes the story (Genesis 37:3). 

To understand that dangerous dynamic, it helps to be old. I’m nearly 68, and a miracle baby at this stage of our lives would certainly attract my attention. I would probably spend the rest of my life staring at the kid with my mouth open.

This is probably what happened to Joseph. He and his brothers noticed that their old man was constantly staring at Joseph with his mouth open. 

Joseph began to get the idea that he was special. His father lavished him with gifts, including the famous robe of many colors – actually “a long robe with sleeves” if the correct translation is used – and Joseph proceeded to make several tactical errors proving that his frontal lobe had not yet developed. 

He had dreams that wheat sheaves representing his brothers were bowing down to his special sheaf. Stupidly, he told his brothers about it. 

The dreams continued, and “his brothers were jealous of him.” (Genesis 37:11) 

They plotted to kill him but, out of mercy, cowardice, or guilt, they sold the boy to Midianite traders for 20 shekels of silver. The Midianites took Joseph to Egypt. 

Then, in a breathtaking act of sibling cruelty, the brothers killed a goat and smeared the blood of Joseph’s coat so Jacob would think the boy was dead. 

The story has been told in many forms for millennia. One of my favorite versions is the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, where the Pharaoh of Egypt is portrayed as an Elvis impersonator. 

But the fate of Joseph and his brothers is yet to be told, and the Common Lectionary wants us to stop reading here today. Imagine Joseph in shackles, humiliated and rejected, in the hands of a Midianite caravan en route to Egypt. 

What happens next? It’s a lectionary cliff-hanger.

Now, back to my own band of sibs. We turned out all right. As time passed we grew up and began our own families in various parts of the country. We eventually evolved into occasionally mature and often nurturing human beings who love each other and wish we had more opportunities to see each other. Growing up in Elmore and Mary’s sitcom may not have been easy on Mary and Elmore, but we survived. And looking back on it, the memories are happy ones.*

And one of the benefits of growing up as competitive siblings is that when we read the story of Joseph and his brothers, we don’t have to Google bible commentaries to understand what is happening. We already know. We lived it. 

Perhaps very few of us would have sold our most annoying sibling into slavery. Unless we were sure we wouldn’t get caught.

And the grace we hold in common is that the God who watched over Joseph and brought him from slavery to salvation is the same God who brings order to our own lives. 

The God who guided Joseph’s brothers from murderous dysfunction to ultimate reconciliation is the same God who watches over us all.

Fraternal love may not be instinctive, and it’s not always the sort of thing we can accomplish on our own. But with God’s grace, siblings can transcend their natures. 

With God’s grace, we can overcome the Jungian turmoil to which we are born and dwell as loving sisters and brothers together.

* Larry, as I mentioned earlier, is a retired architect in Tigard, Ore. Jim is a semi-retired physician in Saranac Lake, N.Y. Paul is an electrical engineer in Saint Cloud, Fla. Susan is a healthcare professional in Orlando, Fla.