"Haggai and the Origins of Ebenezer Scrooge"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 8/26/2018
Haggai 1:1-6
“Haggai and the Origins of Ebenezer Scrooge”
August 26, 2018
            The fear of poverty can be as harmful to some people as poverty itself. 
            Some people think that Ebenezer Scrooge was modeled on a man named John Elwes.  He was a Member of Parliament who had inherited money from his uncle and eventually had built up an impressive list of real estate in the West End of London, but he continued to live as frugally as he could, to the point of stinginess.  He would live in whatever rooms of his properties were not rented out at the time, to avoid maintaining a house.  He went to bed at sundown every day so he would not have to buy candles.  There are stories about how he put off buying new clothes so long that people on the street would walk up to him and hand him a couple of coins because they thought he must be a beggar.[1] 
            There was more to his story, though.  His father had died when he was four and his mother, apparently, was so scared of running out of money (even though her husband had left enough for them to live comfortably) that she eventually died of starvation because she wouldn’t spend the money to buy enough food for herself, although she made sure her son lacked for nothing.  In the same way, Elwes believed he was doing all this to save his fortune for his heirs.  So he went along walking in rainstorms when he could afford a cab buy wouldn’t pay for one, nor for an umbrella, getting home soaked and sitting there wet because he would not pay for firewood to dry himself out.
            The fear of poverty and the experience of loss may have underlain what was going on in Jerusalem at the time of the prophet Haggai.  He lived at a time when Judah had been reduced to a province of foreign empires that kept trading it around every few decades.  In his day, the people of Jerusalem had returned from exile in Babylon and had rebuilt much of the city from ruins into a liveable place, but there they stopped.  They saw to their own immediate need and comfort, and kept all that they could beyond that.
            Part of what Haggai, and other prophets like Malachi, would preach about was how the people withheld funds needed to rebuild the Temple. 
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” [Haggai 1:2-4]
But Haggai knew it went deeper than that.  
“Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”
[Haggai 1:5-6]
The people’s withholding was a symptom of the fears that they had inherited, the troubles that they, as a nation, had undergone.  There was some healing left to take place and the people needed their confidence rebuilt no less than the walls of Jerusalem.  To use a cliché, they needed to learn how to move from fear to faith.
            When there has been some sort of trauma, it leaves its mark.  On the one hand, it can leave someone weakened.  On the other hand, it can call forth a greater strength than was previously known.  In between there is a stage of caution where the desire to move forward and the fear of repeated tragedy live side-by-side.  That was where the people of Judah were stuck.  That’s where a lot of people get stuck.  It can help to set clear steps or definite challenges, and that was what the Lord was doing through Haggai’s words.
            Rebuilding the Temple would be a sign of renewed faith, but it would also be a means for renewal to happen.  You know how someone learns to swim, right?  They get into the water.  You know how you get over the fear of flying?  You sit down on an airplane and close your eyes and grip the arms of the seat as tight as you need to grip them, and when you open your eyes you tell yourself that you are riding on a very tall bus. 
            A friend of mine became a widower a couple of years back, and something that he did the first six months of being on his own was intentionally to go out to places they had liked to go as a couple.  He said that the first couple of spots were painful, the next run were awkward, then came the sad ones, and on and on.  When he went back to any of those a second time, it was a little better, and eventually he realized that no matter what, at least he wasn’t just sitting at home, staring at the TV.  Then one evening, he said, he went to the movies and had a good time and didn’t realize what had happened until the next day.
            The problem isn’t so much that the Lord’s blessings aren’t there.  The problem is that we see ourselves as needing more all the time or let our fears or sorrows get in the way of enjoying what we are blessed with:
“Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”
How different that is from the awareness expressed in as familiar a way as the twenty-third Psalm:
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil,
my cup runs over.”    
How different that is from the promise that Jesus offers us:
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?”  [Matthew 6:28-30]
            There is no denying that the world is full of trouble, and people get hurt, and all sorts of things go wrong.  Nobody knows that better than Jesus.  No one ever felt the weight of the world the way he did.  Nobody ever could.  We feel our own burdens and our own sins and our own griefs.  He feels them with us and for us, and for all people, every last one.  And it is exactly Jesus who said to his disciples, and who says to us,
“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”  [John 16:33]
“Take courage”: have you ever thought about that expression?  Maybe sometimes we can find courage inside ourselves, but that isn’t always the case.  What we can do, though, is take courage from Jesus’ hand, because it is one of the many gifts that he holds out for us, and it calms us down enough to see how very many other blessings are already ours, thanks to him.

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1228112/The-Real-Scrooge-As-Dickens-miser-gets-3D-makeover-meet-MP-lived-like-tramp-inspired-story.html
"Practical Agnosticism"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 8/19/2018


Zephaniah 1:1-12
“Practical Agnosticism”
August 19, 2018


            In the late nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche declared, “God is dead.”  In the 1960’s a group of American theologians pointed out that as far as a large segment of the American public was concerned (and it’s become a much larger group since then), Nietzsche might as well have been right, because even if they use the word “God”, it means nothing to them.  As far as they are concerned, “God” is a quaint concept left over from the Middle Ages.  To answer the situation, the “Death of God” theologians tried to formulate a theology without God at its center.

            A writer for Time magazine heard about this project and wrote an article for the April 8, 1966 issue.   The cover that week made quite an impression. 

            Of course, there was a backlash.  One of my favorite responses was printed in a Methodist student magazine called Motive.  It was written in the format of a newspaper column and under that headline was the subheading, “Eminent Deity Succumbs During Surgery; Succession in Doubt As All Creation Groans; LBJ Orders Flags At Half Staff”.  I won’t read the whole thing, but I’ll quote some of it to give you the idea.

“…God, creator of the universe, principal deity of the world’s Jews, ultimate reality of Christians, and most eminent of all divinities died late yesterday during major surgery undertaken to correct a massive diminishing influence.  His exact age is not known, but close friends estimate that it greatly exceeded that of all other extant beings.  While he did not, in recent years, maintain any fixed abode, his house was said to consist of many mansions. …

Plans for the deity’s funeral are incomplete.  Reliable sources suggested that massive negotiations may be necessary in order to select a church for the services and an appropriate liturgy.  Dr. Wilhelm Pauck, theologian of Union Seminary in New York City, proposed this morning that it would be fitting and seemly to inter the remains in the ultimate ground of being. …

Public reaction in this country was summed up by an elderly retired streetcar conductor in Passaic, New Jersey, who said, ‘I never met him, of course, never saw him.  But from what I hear I guess he was a real nice fellow.  Tops. …”[1]

That’s satire, using humor to teach truth.  However, you really do meet that kind of condescending attitude in real life, and it is insulting to a living God, who is not just “a real nice fellow.”  Do not trivialize God.  One contemporary politician speaks of his own self-described spiritual practice,

“When we go in church, and I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and eat my little cracker, I guess that’s a way of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as I can because I feel cleansed.”[2]

That demonstrates – at best – a magical view of the sacrament, treating communion like swallowing a handful of Flintstones vitamins.  At its worst it is outright blasphemy.  It totally ignores the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; it laughs at the real death of the real God incarnate; it discounts the true cost of our pardon and ignores the source of real spiritual cleansing.

            And yet, such attitudes, decry them as we might as the result of modern skepticism or secularism, were known even to the prophet Zephaniah, around seven centuries before Christ.  To push God out of the picture or to treat him as a disinterested, ineffectual, distant figure of song and story who has nothing to do with the here-and-now, Zephaniah [1:12] warns, is to stir the Lord up in a way that you do not want to do.


“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people who rest complacently
on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’”

Do not presume to treat the Lord of heaven and earth as expendable or beside-the-point.

            Our relationship with God is exactly that: a relationship.  It is not a tool to pull out of the box when you need it and put back when you’re done.  Exactly because God’s love never ends or grows less, God can be hurt.  There is not an exact correlation between human and divine ways – far from it – but we can say, in a way, that God has feelings and feelings that are far, far, more intense than our own.  Think what it means to be disrespected or trivialized by your own family, and then multiply that by whatever degree to imagine what it does to God’s heart.

            How often, though, do we do exactly that?  How often do we set one side of life over here and God over there?  How often do we act as if there is no place for God on the ballfield or in the courtroom or balancing the books?  How often do we make decisions in terms that are, for all practical purposes, those of an agnostic?  (That’s somebody who says, “I don’t know whether or not God exists, so I guess I’m on my own.”)  So we don’t spend any time asking what God wants us to do or how God wants us to live.  Maybe we operate on a vague sense that we should be good or do the right thing, but it never makes its way into specifics like choices about when to speak and when to remain silent or how to use our money or what medical treatments we go with or pass up. 

            The whole “God is dead” movement was right in some ways; modern people, even people of faith, do not ascribe every last detail of what happens in the natural world to specific divine commands.  Of those who do, only a handful of people like Pat Robertson have the hubris to claim that God is directing wildfires to burn California or hurricanes to hit Texas, and they can tell you why. 

           But the “God is dead” movement was wrong in saying that God has no hand in anything that happens anytime or anywhere.  God is very much involved in human life and human history.  God is so intimately involved that he became part of it.  He lived the life of a Middle Eastern peasant whose protest of the world’s ways was crushed by the unjust rule of a local theocracy and a multinational empire.  God is so intimately involved that he undid the wrongs perpetrated at the cross, going against all that is natural and normal and raising Jesus from the dead.

            And God still goes against all that is expected, working wonders in the lives of people who live in a world that pushes him aside.  God blesses the poor in heart and the pure and the merciful and those who mourn.  God fills those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  God brings new life to those dead in sin, including the sin of pride that so troubled the prophets – and rightly so. 

           By the way, Time published another cover story, the day after Christmas, 1968.

I think that Zephaniah might have felt better about this one.






[1] Anthony Towne, “God Is Dead in Georgia” in The Best of Motive (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1990), 127-128.

"Reality Check"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 8/5/2018
Obadiah 1:1-4
“Reality Check”
August 5, 2018
            I once knew somebody named Obadiah.  He was a teenager that was working with a summer daycamp that we ran in Philadelphia.  He had been sent to us as part of a program called PhilaJobs that was supposed to teach kids work-related skills on the job.  I fired Obadiah.
            It was a hot, August afternoon and the PhilaJob kids were on their half-hour break.  I walked downstairs into the church basement where they were hanging out (which was fine) and there I found some of them sitting at a table with a pile of coins in the middle, playing poker (which was not fine).  I walked over to the table, scooped the money into a saucer or something, and told them the game was over and so was their break.  They demanded the money back.  I told them it would be going into the campers’ water ice fund.  Obadiah protested.  He was going to complain to Mr. Roper, who ran the PhilaJobs program.  I said, “Good idea.  I’ll hold the money aside while you call him and explain how I confiscated the poker money.  Meanwhile, your break is over.”  They all went away grumbling.  Later that day, I asked Obadiah to sweep the floor.  He refused.  I told him he didn’t need to do it, but he didn’t need to come back in the morning, either.
            The next day he did come back, but he brought his grandmother with him.  She wanted to know if I had fired her grandson.  I said, “Yes.”  She asked why, and I suggested she ask him first.  He said I was making him sweep the floor.  She just stared at him. 
           “Anything else you want to add to that?”  I asked him.
           “No,” he said.
           His grandmother never took her eyes off him.  “You’re going to tell me whatever you left out, and you are going to be doing a lot of sweeping when we get home.”  She looked at me and said, “Thank you.”
           I never saw him again.
           Obadiah the prophet had a message for the nation of Edom, just south of Judah and east of Egypt, that had taken part in attacks on Jerusalem.  It was very much like what I imagine Obadiah the teenager’s grandmother had to say to him, but even more serious and frightening. 
“Your proud heart has deceived you,
   you that live in the clefts of the rock,
   whose dwelling is in the heights.
You say in your heart,
   ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ 
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
   though your nest is set among the stars,
   from there I will bring you down,
says the Lord.” [Obadiah 1:3-4]
Great or small, nation or individual, there comes a time when there is a reality check on what we think of ourselves, and it may be unpleasant.  We do need to know, though, and it’s for our own good to learn early on, that the world is bigger than we are, and God is bigger than the world. 
            Some people learn that lesson way too late, and some never quite get it at all.  There’s a poem by Shelley that goes:
“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Have you ever wondered what happened to all those statues of Karl Marx and Lenin that used to be all over Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union?  No?  Me, neither. 
            If we pay attention, we don’t fool ourselves about our own importance quite as much.  Corrections have a way of finding us and providing those reality checks.  For instance, as I wrote this sermon I realized that the name of the PhilaJob kid was “Hezekiah”, not “Obadiah”.  Reality check: I might not always remember details as well as I think I do.  Reality check: someday people will forget my name, too.  Reality check: very few people know my name now.  Reality check: that’s no big deal.
            The only one with a permanent memory is God, so in the long run, the only one really worth trying to impress is also God, who sees through us and our pretense.  We may try to show off our power or wealth or wit or learning or looks, but they do nothing.  We may try to look like we have everything together in our lives, or even like we are “ultra-spiritual”.  The prophet Micah asked himself about that.
“‘With what [he said] shall I come before the Lord,
            and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
            with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
            with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
            the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
            and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
            and to walk humbly [hear that? - “humbly”] with your God.”
                        [Micah 6:6-8]
            I’m not saying not to do amazing things for the kingdom.  I’m not saying not to take satisfaction in great accomplishments.  Only, don’t get so far ahead of yourself that you think any achievement overmatches the importance of simply being in relationship with the Lord.  In fact, it is being in a living relationship with him that matters more than anything else, because it’s the only thing that lasts.
            The good news is that it lasts forever.


"What We Forget"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 7/29/2018
Joel 1:1-7, 2:21-24
“What We Forget”
July 29, 2018
The United States had major crop failures in 2012, and we barely noticed them.  That year there was a drought over 80% of the country.  One article I saw summarized the year by saying,
“Missouri was hit particularly hard, with corn yields down 42 percent below its 2002-2011 average and Iowa, Kansas and Kentucky were also devastated, with yields at 20-year lows. In Illinois and Indiana, yields were down by more than a third. Kentucky, not a major corn producing state, had the largest overall corn crop failure, with more than a 50 percent reduction in yield, compared to its 2002-2011 average.
In Colorado and Nebraska, where most corn crops are irrigated, far fewer acres of planted corn were even harvested in 2012. In Colorado, only 70 percent of crops were harvested, compared to an average of 85 percent between 2002-2011, and in Nebraska the harvest was down about 7 percent from the 2002-2011 average.”[1]
We are incredibly blessed to be sitting here six years later and not even remember that.  We would also be unwise to think that our situation is inevitable, or to neglect the necessary connection we have to the land and how fragile it may become when we treat it as anything less than the gift of God.
            The book of Joel is a word to the people of God in the midst of an agricultural disaster.  The very first lines say to a country in the grip of famine,
“Tell your children of it,
   and let your children tell their children,
   and their children another generation.”
[Joel 1:3]
which is to say that there will be a future.  There is starvation now, which is terrible, but someone will live and there will also be future generations.  But do not let them forget.  Let them know what can happen.  Do not let them become complacent about the basics of life or take them for granted.

“What the cutting locust left,
   the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
   the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
   the destroying locust has eaten. 

Wake up, you drunkards, and weep;
   and wail, all you wine-drinkers,
over the sweet wine,
   for it is cut off from your mouth. 
For a nation has invaded my land,
   powerful and innumerable;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
   and it has the fangs of a lioness. 
It has laid waste my vines,
   and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
   their branches have turned white.”
[Joel 1:4-7]
The land may be invaded by locusts or by foreign armies.  Of the two, the army is easier to turn back.  Of the two, the army is less destructive.  Don’t think, says Joel, that it might not happen again.
            In my lifetime I have known two women who grew up in Oklahoma in the 1930’s.  Both of them remembered the Dust Bowl.  One was in her seventies and one was in her eighties, but when they talked about what had happened, each had a kind of strain in her voice that was like what you hear when somebody is describing a loss that they were still suffering.  The younger woman, predictably, recalled less details.  For her, it had meant being uprooted when her family moved to California and the sudden discovery that they had become poor, so poor that food wasn’t always on the table.  (If you’ve ever seen or read The Grapes of Wrath, the struggles of the family there were what her family went through.)  The other woman’s family managed to stay in Oklahoma but her parents’ lost their farm.  She could also tell about the dust storms that turned the sky black and buried the garden that they depended on to get them through.  Both of these women were intelligent and capable.  Neither of them finished school.  The Dust Bowl put an end to that, too. 
            Part of the tragedy in the Plains States is that the disaster was in many ways the result of human activity.  Too much land was planted with wheat.  Too much land was plowed up without regard to erosion.  Too many wind-breaks had been cut down.  If greater care had been taken in the preceding years, the Dust Bowl might have been averted, even when the rain stopped coming.  But the price of wheat was up.  The new tractors called for bigger fields.  Easy loans were available.  There was an assumption brought about by years of prosperity that prosperity was permanent.  It wasn’t.
           We forget, and forget to our own peril, when our decisions become based on the notion that we are in control and when our decisions look only at the short term, that we are setting ourselves up for disaster.  Joel had said,
“Be dismayed, you farmers,
wail, you vinedressers,
over the wheat and the barley;
for the crops of the fields are ruined.” [Joel 1:11]
The prophet saw the hand of God in the losses and in the hunger.  We are put into the world to tend it, not to abuse it.  We do alter nature, and that is not always bad.  I doubt it offends God that we have wiped out smallpox, dug wells, redirected rivers, and cleared land for settlement and farming, built great cities and flown to the moon and back.  But there is a degree of offense in creating conditions where nature, always a mighty force, turns against itself.  
            I fear that we have reached that point.  I won’t belabor you with examples.  One should do it: this past week, temperatures in Sweden, above the Arctic Circle, topped ninety degrees.  Let that sink in.  It was hotter in Lapland than in Pennsylvania.  It was only about twenty-five degrees cooler than in Arizona.
            Tell me that Joel is not speaking to us as well.  This is not a feel-good sermon.  This is a “what-now?” sermon.  We have clearly done something wrong, and have forgotten to our own endangerment that the earth is the Lord’s.  But Joel does say,
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing. 
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
   and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain-offering and a drink-offering
   for the Lord, your God?”
[Joel 2:12-14]  
Joel calls out to an entire society, then and now.  Averting anything massive takes everybody doing their part.  (That was one of the understandings of the Paris Agreement, that was negotiated to address worldwide climate change.  The U.S. pulled out of it last year, which means that more individuals must pay more attention more constantly to compensate for that action.) 
            Before I tell anybody else what to do, let me say publicly what I will take on. 
           I live in a relatively new house, with energy-efficient appliances and good insulation.  I don’t think I can make reductions there.  Another hidden part of my carbon footprint is in the number of plastic bags and paper towels I use.  I will have to become one of those annoying people with all the canvas bags at the supermarket, and start cleaning with washrags instead of Bounty (“The Quicker Picker-Upper”). 
           I drive a lot, and that’s going to be hard to curtail.  I will try to reduce my driving by 10% by this time next year.  Pray for me.  I will start making a point of walking or biking within a short radius.  I’m in charge of holding a bunch of meetings throughout the year that involve people from across the state and I will encourage them to take place by video-conferencing instead of having everyone drive. 
           One website I checked out[2] says,
“It has been estimated that 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from the production and transport of food.”
It goes on to recommend:
“Buy local and eat a more diversified diet including less meat and dairy to reduce your carbon emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, and gas required to produce and transport of the food you eat.”
I admit I don’t know what that would mean for me, but I will take a good look at it.  I can easily start by saying that I will pick a day every week (it probably won’t be the same day each time) that I don’t eat meat or fish.  (I hope eggs are a responsible substitute, but I’m going to have to see about that, too).  And eating less bananas and more blueberries isn’t much of a sacrifice.
            It would be foolish to think that such measures alone, especially if they are not part of some major social shift, will make a difference.  But it is even more foolish to think that we could go on for much longer without making changes, and they have to start somewhere.  So, these are some small commitments on my part, and I could use your help in holding me to them. 
            In turn, I ask you to look at your own situation.  Find one or two options open to you to make it more likely that a hundred years after we are gone, someone will stand up and read from the book of Joel [2:21-24] and say without hesitation, but only with proper gratitude to the Maker of heaven and earth:
“Do not fear, O soil;
   be glad and rejoice,
   for the Lord has done great things! 
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
   for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
   the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 

O children of Zion, be glad
   and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
   he has poured down for you abundant rain,
   the early and the later rain, as before. 
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
   the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.”

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/feb/18/drought-us-states-crop-damage
[2] https://cotap.org/reduce-carbon-emissions/
"A Heartless Prophet"
Category: From Our Pastor
Tags: Sermon - 7/22/2018
Ezra 9:1-4
“A Heartless Prophet”
July 22, 2018
            “Zeal” isn’t a word that we hear very often.  Occasionally, you do hear somebody called a “zealot”, which usually comes across as criticism, if not even an insult.  “When it comes to exercise, she’s something of a zealot.”  “He takes his dislike of messiness to the point of being a zealot for shelving and cabinets.”  “They were zealots for Bernie Sanders and for Ted Cruz, and haven’t spoken in years.”
            Zeal itself is not a bad thing, though.  Whole-hearted devotion to God is something I aim for, and urge you to do the same. 
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22:37, 40]
The Wesleyan Movement has always insisted that a big part of the Christian life is to nurture that zeal for holiness, that zeal for God, that puts all of life into God’s hands.  John Wesley’s “Covenant Prayer”, that we often use at New Year’s, leaves no loopholes.
“Lord, make me what you will.
I put myself fully into your hands:
            put me to doing, put me to suffering,
            let me be employed for you, or set aside for you,
            let me be full, let me be empty,
            let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and with a willing heart
            yield all to your pleasure and disposal.”
            Many people living in Judea at the time of Jesus’ ministry sought to develop that kind of devotion.  For them, says Reza Aslan,
“Zeal implied a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master-to serve any human master at all-and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God. To be zealous for the Lord was to walk in the blazing footsteps of the prophets and heroes of old, men and women who tolerated no partner to God, who would bow to no king save the King of the World, and who dealt ruthlessly with idolatry and with those who transgressed God‘s law. The very land of Israel was claimed through zeal, for it was the zealous warriors of God who cleansed it of all the foreigners and idolaters, just as God demanded. ‘whoever sacrifices to any god but the Lord alone shall be utterly annihilated’ (Exodus 22:20).”[1]
One of those “zealous warriors of God” was a man named Ezra, sometimes called Ezra the Scribe, and we read his memoirs just like they did.  But when we read them, it doesn’t sound quite as heroic.  In fact, there’s a kind of tragedy involved in how he went about things because he did great harm as he tried to do great good.
            To summarize the background: when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and most of the survivors were carried off to Babylon as prisoners, there were a handful who were not considered worth the trouble or who had run for the hills just in time and they slowly began to build up life again among the ruins.  These were like the folks we see in our day who survived the bombings in Iraq and Syria and who came out of their cellars shell-shocked and starving when ISIS was scattered.  Their children grew up among the ruins and, as happens, when they came of age they began to marry.  But the people they married were not necessarily Jewish, since they had been greatly reduced and ethnically cleansed.
            After decades passed, Nehemiah led a party of exiles and their children back from Babylon and they began to rebuild Jerusalem.  Some of the survivors (not all) welcomed them back and slowly the city walls began to rise again, and the Temple would also be restored.  At some point, another outsider came from Babylon: Ezra the Scribe, who brought with him scrolls that he called the Book of the Law (basically an early edition of the Hebrew Scriptures, with at least the Torah, the first five books, and possibly more). 
           He was welcomed, too, at least at first, because when these books were read out publicly, people heard the voice of God speaking to them in their words.  They restored their sense of purpose.  They talked about God’s formation of and care for a people, from the start of time, and gave them a place within his eternal plan.  Hearing it, people broke down and cried, so deeply were they touched.
           Then something happened.  Ezra himself tells it this way:
“After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, ‘The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.’ When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.”  [Ezra 9:1-4]
After that, he gave and enforced an ultimatum.  Anyone who had entered into a mixed marriage could either divorce his wife and renounce any children, or else be cut off from the people of Israel forever, shunned and outcast.  And, yes, he did follow through.
            Before we condemn him utterly ourselves, let me point something out that we don’t like to discuss.  We don’t see too many people marrying Hittites and Perizzites these days, but we do see Christians marrying someone who has no faith at all or who, for some reason, has renounced all religion.  Garrison Keilor used to refer to them as people who attend the Church of the Brunch, whose Sunday mornings revolve around pancakes and eggs.  It takes courage and persistence for the believing partner to continue to worship regularly.  It becomes even harder when there are children, and they reach the age where it is natural to test the parental limits, and they start saying, “Why do I have to go to church?  None of my friends go to church.  Even Mom doesn’t go.”  At the same time they get the message from their sports coaches, “If you want to be part of this, you have to be at every game.  We have a tournament every Sunday starting at 9:00.”  Those go together a lot of the time, and prey on the adolescent fear of being left out. 
            Ezra was right about what can happen.  He was wrong, as both history and our gut reactions tell us, about the solution.  Family separation does not do anyone any good.  The gospels, written centuries later, point out over and over that the Jews and the Samaritans held onto deep distrust and even hatred for one another.  Guess where a lot of it began.  Guess what happened to the people whose connections were sliced off at the time of Ezra?  Maybe part of the Good Samaritan’s motivation in helping a wounded traveler was to be able to say to himself how clearly he and his people were better than the Jewish priests and Levites who had rejected his ancestors and now, concerned with the same religious purity, could leave a bleeding man at the side of the road.
           The apostle Paul took a different view.  He said that if there is a believer in the household, that person could be like a missionary stationed right there. 
“For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.  Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” [I Corinthians 7:14]
Nobody said that would be easy, but very little about marriage is simple or clear-cut.  In practical terms, one of his great helpers was Timothy, whom Paul says came to faith through his mother and grandmother.  (In other words, don’t rule out the beneficial influence of meddlesome grandparents, either.)
            In Ezra’s day, somebody wrote down a story already old at that time, yet one that we still read.  It’s about a Jewish woman who had lived abroad for many years but was forced back to her hometown by poverty following the death of her husband and her two sons.  One of her daughters-in-law wouldn’t leave her and it happened that when they got back to Israelite territory and sought out what was left of her family there, one of this woman’s relatives took a shine to this foreigner who had tagged along from the land of Moab.  Eventually the two hooked up and then married and had children.  Her name – this foreign woman – was Ruth.  Her husband, whom Ezra would have cut off from Israel for marrying her, was named Boaz.  They lived in a town called Bethlehem, from which Ezra would have banished them.  They had a son whose name was Obed, whom Ezra would have barred from among the people of God.  Obed’s son was Jesse, the Bible tells us [Ruth 4:22] and Jesse’s son was David.

[1] Reza Aslan, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2014), 40-41.
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