This Sunday

Happy new (church) year! This Sunday we begin the season of Advent, the beginning of the church year when we anticipate the coming of Christ. Advent is a time for recognizing that our faith looks ahead to a future that is better, and part of that is taking stock of the ways in which God’s dream for the world is not yet fulfilled. Our sermon for this Sunday is about the prophet Jeremiah (focusing on Jeremiah 33:14-16), who has been called “the weeping prophet.” Jeremiah lived in a time when his compatriots were complacent and indulged in a false sense of security. He knew that a time of turmoil was coming, and that Israel’s faults were sowing a harvest that would be reaped in devastation. Nevertheless, Jeremiah also knew that God’s love for Israel was unconditional, and that, someday, there would be a new beginning when the fortunes of Israel would be restored and a “new covenant” in which God’s law would be “written on the heart.”

Jeremiah’s was a faith in the God of the future: the same kind of faith that we are called to embrace as we await the coming of Christ. Hope you will come hear more Sunday!

The end is the beginning (Revelation 1.4-8)

The end is the beginning (Revelation 1.4b-8)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, November 25, 2018 (Christ the King Sunday)
Tom James
When my father was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, he could step back and reflect on what it was like. I remember spending a week with him while we were on vacation and seeing the difference from day to day: there were good days and there were bad days. He knew the difference, too, and he told me that, some days, everything was perfectly clear: his thinking was sharp and he felt like himself; while on other days he felt like he was walking around in a thick fog.
I was struck by the image of walking around in a fog, because, of course, it is a familiar one: we probably all know something of the feeling. Maybe we have literally walked around in an actual fog, feeling disoriented by the sheet of grey that divided us from everything around us. Or maybe depression or anxiety or some other condition has at one time or another caused us to lose perspective and to lose confidence in our abilities to navigate our circumstances, to see the world as it really is. Whatever the cause of our particular fog, the fog is disorienting; the fog is a thick blanket of confusion and uncertainty.
The painfully ironic thing about the fog as a metaphor for dementia is that age is supposed to bring clarity. When I think of walking around in a fog, I usually think about my younger years when I understood much less than I do now. Life is supposed to teach us lessons, to make us more aware, more alert, more in touch with reality rather than less. But that terrible disease of the brain that my dad suffered reverses all that, sealing us off from the world, trapping us in the oldest memories, taking us back to our foggy pasts: to confusion, to unknowing.
Other things, besides disease, can do that, too. The book of Revelation was not written to us. It was written to people who lived in a different kind of fog: the fog created by an empire and its thick blanket of self-justifications, its systematic erasure of any alternative. The so-called “Pax Romana,” or Roman “peace,” was called “peace” because it meant the cessation of war by means of total military domination. It was called “peace” because it meant a relief from political conflict by means of eliminating political choice. It may not sound very attractive, but it worked for centuries because it replaced war and politics with a sophisticated technical administration of life: roads were built, water was transported, trade was expanded. So impressive were its successes and so complete was its domination that people thought there were no alternatives to the reign of Caesar. This was the kingdom of a god on earth.
But then Jesus came preaching.
Jesus came with a message from a different God about a different sort of kingdom. And the book of Revelation is about the hidden reality of that kingdom, a kingdom that Romans couldn’t see because they were trapped in the fog of imperial power. They were unable to see what was going on in the heart of their very empire because they were caught up in the fantasy of its imagined eternity. The Romans suffered from a kind of dementia: they thought they were living in the present, but in fact, a fog had descended upon them, they couldn’t process reality, and all they could do was staggeringly to repeat the past.
I don’t know if you’ve thought of it this morning, but today is the last Sunday of the church year. Since last year at about this time, the church has followed the story of Jesus—his birth, his teachings, his arrest and crucifixion, his resurrection, the beginning and expansion of his church. And here we are at the end. What does this story mean? What is its significance? How do we imagine a fitting end the story, before we begin it all over again next Sunday?
The traditional answer is that Christ reigns in power. We call it “Christ the King” Sunday. It as if the point of the story were a complete and thorough refutation of Roman imperial pretensions. Christ came into the world claimed by Caesar, and we end his story by claiming the world for Christ.
But the book of Revelation is even more surprising than this. It’s not just that one ruler is exchanged for another—although the church has often imagined it that way. Rather, it is that the whole idea of “ruler” is put in question. The end does not provide closure. It doesn’t tie everything up in a tidy way, preserving the original roles but putting new people in them, like a TV drama that revolves around a contest for power where the plucky underling ends up on top and gets the chance to exact revenge on those who held her down before.
Michelle and I have been caught up for several years in a popular HBO series called “Game of Thrones.” In the show, there is an iron throne, made from dozens of swords, that sits in the capital city of the “seven kingdoms,” and the drama that unfolds is about who will sit in that throne. The contestants are many, and there are dozens of changes of fortune over several seasons, as one person seems to have the edge, and then another, and then another. But the throne never changes. The understanding of what it means to rule remains the same. Always, to rule means to dominate, to dispossess, to pacify by controlling. The question is only, who will get the power and the privilege of ruling?
Like ancient Rome. And also, perhaps, like politics in America. Every election cycle, there is always a horse race to see who finishes first, who holds office, but the office that is held seems always to remain the same. And so, we go from cycle to cycle, recycling the same old grievances and the same old lines, as if we have a compulsion to repeat the same old cycle of enthusiasm and disappointment as if we are walking around in a dense fog and can imagine no other way.
But Jesus came preaching. And the book of Revelation’s central image, the lamb upon the throne, does more than recount another episode in the cycle—it announces that the cycle is over, that the fog is lifted. Jesus reveals a life beyond the contest for domination, beyond the world that is managed and manipulated to pacify and control. The lamb upon the throne means that the throne cannot be the same anymore, that power is not a matter of swords and legions but of solidarity and love; that struggle between enemies must be replaced by cooperation and mutual aid between neighbors and friends; that the scramble to the top must give way to a community in which no one succeeds unless and until all succeed.
Preacher Eugenia Gamble tells the following story. Several years ago, she writes, when I was a pastor in the Denver Colorado area, a colleague of mine told me a story of a friend of hers who was traveling home to Denver on a Sunday afternoon from a conference north along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Fort Collins. The conference had been a good one. The man and the woman were driving home full of what they had learned and talking about how they might use their new learning in their work situations. As they rounded a curve in the road they came upon a serious motorcycle accident. The motorcycle seemed to catch on something and flip into the air. The driver, without a helmet, was thrown fifty yards or so, and the bike landed not far away.
The two were the first to arrive. The man was driving and pulled off the road just north of the accident. Before he shut off the ignition the woman was out of the car and running to the side of the accident victim. The man stopped another car and sent the occupants for help while he began to try to direct traffic. At one point in the chaos, he glanced at the woman. She was crouched next to the unconscious young man, stroking his hair and talking to him.
When the ambulance arrived and the young man was whisked away, the man and the woman got back into their car in silence. There was blood on the woman’s hands and around the hem of her skirt.
After a moment, the man said, “I saw you talking to that young man. He was obviously unconscious. He may even have been dead. What could you possibly have been saying to him?”
“I just told him over and over,” she replied, “I just told him, the worst is over. The healing has already begun.”
The apocalypse, the revelation, is that the end of the story is actually a beginning. Amid the wreckage, the healing has already begun. The devastation that we have witnessed, as the church has declined, as our communities have suffered, as we kneel over bodies that may or may not be alive, as the very order of the world has tottered, points toward a new world, a new community, and a new church: a world and a community and a church that we have not been able to see or imagine because of the fog that blankets our vision like a thick, grey veil, hiding our future.
But the preaching of Jesus says the new world is here: it is in the making; it is being born. At the side of the road in the very presence of the wreckage. Within earshot of the falling columns of a failing empire.

Jesus came preaching. That’s the beginning of our story, and it’s also the end. It’s not about having a new king, but a new way of life. The end is our beginning, because the fact that Jesus came preaching means that the worst is over, and the healing has already begun. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

The power of the poor (Mark 12.38-44)

Sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do is to point out the obvious. We often think of Jesus as showing us things that are the exact opposite of obvious—hidden things, perhaps spiritual things that we wouldn’t otherwise notice. But such is the human condition, that we have an amazing ability to hide from our eyes what is in plain sight, to sweep under the carpet what is right in front of us. Just insisting on what our eyes are telling us is sometimes the bravest and most important thing we can do.
We sometimes call this, “naming the elephant in the room.” We all know the elephant is there, so there’s no special vision or awareness that is required to name it. But elephants make us uncomfortable, don’t they? Perhaps they expose divisions among us that we would rather not acknowledge, or they call attention to our complacency or our hypocrisy. And, so, we can go a long time acting as if the elephant is not there at all, when, in reality, there is hardly any room for us in the room, because the elephant takes up so much space.
Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to name any actual elephants—at least not yet.
For now, let’s talk about Jesus naming the elephant in the room where he was. Jesus’ words in our passage are the cause of a moment of social awkwardness, a bit of discomfort. But all he does is to point out the obvious. It was obvious, for example, that there were two kinds of people in the villages of Galilee: people who gave, and people who took. I hate to put it that way because the difference between “givers” and “takers” is so often politicized today. But it’s important that we see the difference. There were classes of people, takers, who profited from ordinary people by collecting rents or fees or tributes. And, there were people, on the other hand, who worked very hard, often in the fields or in homes, whether they were peasants or slaves. It was they who created wealth, who made possible the accumulation of vital resources. They were, if you will, the givers. And all that was obvious. It was the way the social order was. And people more or less accepted it as inevitable.
Our passage mentions the scribes, who were experts in the law, scholars, and who were of a privileged class and who drew their income from tolls and taxes. And they had a lot of power over the people in their villages and elsewhere. Jesus points out that they have no qualms about taking widows’ houses away from them to enrich themselves. We don’t know exactly how they did it. But everyone knew that widows were vulnerable to having their things taken since they could not legally own property. Widows were among the most vulnerable people in society, and it wouldn’t have been too difficult for experts in the law to take whatever might be of value from them. Jesus points out what everyone must have known, or at least suspected.
And, so, it is ironic that it is the scribes who parade themselves around in the temple area as if they were the benefactors rather than the beneficiaries. It is ironic that they are the ones making the most ostentatious displays when it came time for the offering as if they weren’t common thieves. It is clear that the scribes were trying to be seen as givers, graciously benefiting the poor, when, in reality, it was the very reverse.
The widow and her two coins, on the other hand, would have been objects of shame. It is interesting to me how poverty is so often shamed, even today. In any case, a poor old woman following the scribes in their long, flowing robes with their great gifts would have been an uncomfortable sight, uncomfortable, perhaps, because the contradiction between the respectable scribes and the poor woman brought vividly to light a deep social division. The people of God were divided.
Jesus points it out. As I say, sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is to point out the obvious. He refuses to sweep it under the carpet or gracefully to ignore it. And, sure enough, he makes people uncomfortable.
But he does something besides naming the obvious. Or, maybe, naming the obvious unleashes a new truth, one that is perhaps not so obvious. And that is the power of the poor. What the poor widow’s gift of virtually everything she has expresses is her unalloyed desire for righteousness. What it shows is an uncompromising love for community and for the promise of Israel, even when she has nothing to spare.
Jesus points to this widow with her two coins. He recognizes in them something important. This unalloyed desire and uncompromising love of hers is not weakness but power—a power that is not understood, and perhaps not even seen, by those who think the world turns because of people in long, flowing robes and their magnificent gifts.
Do we see the poor this way today? Mostly, we see them as a problem to be solved. If we are kind and generous, perhaps we give them what they need, some bus tokens or some laundry money, and then send them on their way. And that’s a good thing. But the question is, do we really see them? Do we see them as something more than a problem? Do we see their desire, their love, their interests, their openness to God?
Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez was one of the great Christian thinkers of the late twentieth century. One of his themes was the “power of the poor in history,” as he put it. The poor, he wrote, are not simply passive objects of concern. They are not simply those people who receive our beneficent gifts. In fact, we distort reality if we think of them as takers. But, as I say, we have a remarkable ability not to see what is right in front of our eyes. What is right in front of everyone’s eyes, though sometimes difficult to see, are the contributions to people like the widow and her two coins to society. She had been a spouse, after all, and likely a mother. And, like spouses and mothers of every age, spouses and mothers of her time worked, and produced value, and sacrificed. The community depended on the labor of people like her, even if it didn’t reward her with honor and wealth.
This widow had not only given her years to a family that would not be able to support her but here she was—giving what little she had for the sake of those who would not support her, who would take advantage of her if they could. And here’s the power—her desire and her love and her hope would not be daunted by the fact that the social order was against her. Her desire and her love and her hope were not constrained by that social order. They went beyond it. They called it into question. They pointed to a better way, and a better world. That’s the elephant in the room.
And what’s the elephant in our room? Look at us here, good, faithful Christian folks gathered in this building, but not from this neighborhood, most of us. Here we are a group of mostly middle class, mostly white people, in a neighborhood that is diverse and economically stressed. The elephant in the room is that, in many ways, most of us are not like most of our neighbors here, and it may be uncomfortable to talk about it, but it seems to me that important truths can begin to emerge when we acknowledge it. It raises a question for us about how we are going to respond, about who we are going to be? About who we think our neighbors are, about what God may be making possible by the very fact that these two very different kinds of people find themselves in the same place, laying claim in different ways to the same streets.
Gutierrez also wrote about the church being “evangelized by the poor,” that the church hears its good news not only from the pages of Scripture or from scribes like me, with their flowing robes, but also from the people with real human needs in their communities. Now, he didn’t mean that people who are poor are secretly more happy than we are, nor that we should envy them. And it certainly didn’t mean that we should romanticize being poor. Being on the streets, or being in a home with no heat or with inadequate furnishings, having to deal with food insecurity and poor transportation—these are hardscrabble realities, and such a life can be brutal. No, what being evangelized by the poor means is that the lived experience of people in our society who struggle for lives of dignity can teach us something about life, and about God. It isn’t a one-way street. It isn’t a matter of enlightened, educated middle-class people bringing light to benighted souls, but, in some ways, seeing the light that is already there, and letting it shine.
Our ministry among people who struggle, at its best, is a partnership. We aren’t here to be the benefactors. We aren’t here just to write checks or to provide services. After all, we could be benefactors from somewhere else. We are here in this place to be partners, to learn from our neighbors and to work with them to realize their dreams for a better community. We are here because our faith calls us to believe in a God whose work includes their dreams.

This is the time of year in the church when we tend to worry about problems of scarcity. Do we have enough? Enough money? Enough people? Will we have enough next year? But those questions tend to fade a little in significance when we consider the wealth that is around us in our neighbors. Not their money—that may amount to little more than a few coins—but their desire for a better life, their longing for a better community, their openness to God. This is the power that can fuel our mission. This is, I trust, the power of the Holy Spirit that awaits us when dare to work alongside our neighbors and to love these streets like they do. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

Leaving Moab (Ruth 1.1-18)

Ruth 1.1-18
“Leaving Moab”
Ordinary 27B/November 4, 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend was another reminder that anti-Semitism remains a factor in American life. Anti-Semitism has been fueled less by racial disgust than by fear of outsiders. It’s always difficult to understand the motivations of a perpetrator of a mass crime, but reporting suggests that his animus toward Jews was driven at least in part by his belief that they were somehow supporting the so-called “caravan” of migrants making their way up through Central America. The murder was, you might say, timely. In a perverse way, it was even strategic. Killing Jews was seen as a way of stopping the flow of immigration which the shooter saw as a vital threat. “Jews must die!” sounds like almost like a medical indication—as if by killing Jews, he was choking the life out of a contagion. Whatever you think about immigration from Central America, we have a pretty clear picture here of a kind of anti-Semitism that stands in for a paranoid fear of the other.
We have a long history of that. In 2002, in the midst of an uptick in our paranoid fears after September 11th, filmmaker Martin Scorsese directed an epic film about gang warfare in the five points district of New York City during the nineteenth century. The plot of Gangs of New York revolved around two rival gangs battling for control of the district. One of the gangs was Protestant and American-born, led by “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, while the other was Catholic and Irish immigrant. It’s not an edifying film: its scenes are basically one violent confrontation after another. But it is clear that what drives the violence is a nativist fear of losing control of “turf” due to the influx of threatening foreigners. Much like the alt-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia a few years ago, their angry and violently irrational cry to the outsider is “You will not replace us!”
Ancient Israelites, like Jews in Europe and North America, were also subject to nativist violence, fueled by a paranoid fear of the other. We all know the more recent history, but in some ways that history was prefigured not only by countless pogroms in Europe but even in the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. Conquered by larger, more powerful nations, ancient Israelites often had to be integrated into larger, imperial societies in order to survive. But it was their very status as minorities who persisted in their ancient Jewish identity that made them all the more contemptible to the people around them. And, so, a strategy for survival has, again and again, suggested itself, much as it has to oppressed minorities around the world, and that strategy was nationalism. What we need, some thought, was to re-establish our own territory, where our own language would be spoken and our own cultural traditions would be honored. We could set up rules to keep Jewish men from marrying foreign women, for example, to keep our national identity intact.
Such was the rule imposed during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, anyway. The Jews had just begun to come back from Babylon after having been in captivity there for many years. They began to trickle back a fragile, beleaguered remnant of a nation, and a renewed nationalism became their strategy for survival. This was not a time to be cosmopolitan. This was not a time to recognize their kinship with surrounding peoples or their common interests with other nations. This was a time for circling the wagons, for doubling down on their own identity as a people, to build themselves up, to strengthen the walls and to consolidate their lands.
But here we have an odd little story. Many scholars believe that the book of Ruth was written during this very period of return from exile, though it tells of a time many centuries before. That earlier time was very mobile and fluid, before there were settled kings in Israel—when Israel was a loose confederacy of tribes banding together to fight for their independence from the city-states of ancient Palestine that were always trying to exploit the countryside and siphon off its wealth.
Borders were not very well-defined, so when famine strikes, it isn’t too strange for Naomi and her husband Elimelech to migrate into the territory of Moab. Now, the Moabites were not the friends of the Israelite tribes. During this period a king had consolidated power in Moab and was oppressing the region by exacting tribute. Moab was an enemy.
The story of Ruth is the story of a Moabite woman—a wife of one of Naomi and Elimelech’s sons. The setting is a catastrophe for the women in the story. In a culture in which women could not own property and were completely dependent upon men, for Naomi to lose both her husband and her two sons in a foreign and hostile land where she had no connections meant that she had nothing to fall back on. And the only hope that Ruth and her sister-in-law Orpah had was to go back to their family’s homes in Moab where sympathetic relations might take them in.
We don’t know why Ruth chose not to do that. The words recorded in our passage are some of the most moving words of faith and loyalty that we find in all of Scripture: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you. Where you will go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die.” For whatever reason, Ruth chooses in these words to be a helpless migrant, identifying herself with homeless Naomi, without a secure and stable place, clinging to the mother-in-law that she had grown to love and entrusting her self to a foreign people and its fortunes.
And what’s just as interesting here is what this story of brave faith and faithfulness means for Israel. Remember, I said that during the time when this story was written, Israel was in the process of circling its wagons, trying to preserve its identity—even going so far as adopting policies forbidding its men to marry foreign women. And yet we have this story of the Moabite Ruth, choosing to align herself with Israel, showing by her words and deeds that she was more Israelite than those who were native-born.
And who was Ruth? Why does her story matter? As is often the case in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have to turn to a genealogy, and one is provided at the end of the book of Ruth. Ruth, it turns out, is the grandmother of the one who will become King David, the greatest, most beloved ruler of ancient Israel and the true beginning of its monarchy.
To be a true Israelite, the story tells us, has nothing to do with who are parents are or what our national origins might be. To be a true Israelite, all you have to do is to take leave of Moab and be faithful to Israel’s people and Israel’s vision of hope.
It seems to me that we could take two lessons from this story, depending on whether we focus on the issue of migration from the standpoint of those who show her hospitality or from the point of view of the migrant herself. One of the themes of this story is the hospitality that in the region was considered mandatory. There were always things like famines and other catastrophic events that displaced people. Life was precarious, and it was well known that the only way to be assured of some chance for surviving was to embrace an ethic of hospitality. Mi casa es su casa. My place, my space in the world, was not made just for me—it was made for me to share, for some day I may be in need of the same generosity. Our own privatizing and greedy society is no doubt very different from the ancient world, and yet the God who expects compassion and generosity is no different. And, indeed, human need is no different, either. It’s hard to imagine a way of being faithful to the God of Scripture without opening our doors, and our hearts, to those who have been displaced by forces they cannot control, whether they be from other countries or from East Toledo.
But, as I say, there’s another lesson to draw here, one which we can learn as we put ourselves in the shoes of the migrant herself. Ruth and Naomi are both migrants, in a way. But Ruth is the one who chooses to get up and leave her place, not because she has to. We can only assume that it would have been easier for her to stay in Moab. No, Ruth takes leave of Moab for the sake of Naomi, and for the sake of the people she has come to love. And how might we be compelled to take leave of our places of comfort? Do we have that kind of motivation? Are we that faithful? Do we love the future that beckons to us enough that we can take leave of our past? Do we love the future Eastminster United Presbyterian Church enough to let go of the past Eastminster, the Eastminster of 100 years ago, or ten, or yesterday?
I pose these questions because I believe that the testimony of Scripture is that to believe in God is to adopt the attitude of the migrant—or, as we sometimes call her, the pilgrim. To believe in God is believe that we are called to take steps forward rather than digging in our heals and standing pat.
One of my former parishioners, an older woman from Nigeria, used to preach impromptu sermons whenever I would take home communion to her. She was a migrant, too, and she had a deep understanding of God’s providential care that calls us to embrace what is in front of us, even if that means leaving what is behind. One of my favorite lines that she repeated often was, “God never gives us an old day. Every day that God gives is new.”
Wisdom born of many years, and many miles. Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God. So may it be. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

Coming up Sunday (November 4th)

This Sunday we are going to look at the beginning of one of the most interesting stories in the Bible: the book of Ruth. I think we will find that, aside from the fact that it is just a really good story, there are lots of themes in it that are quite contemporary. For example, what does it mean to be a part of a community when there are different nationalities and ethnicities involved? Beyond and beneath that question is a still more pressing one: what does it mean to be faithful in times of difficulty? Also, what does the faithful community look like, and how should it maintain itself when it is challenged? I hope you will join us for worship this week!
Ok, last week I said that my installation service was going to be on Sunday afternoon because I was really looking forward to it and apparently tried to turn the clock ahead. But this time I double-checked, and it really is this upcoming Sunday afternoon–4:00 p.m. Hope to see you there!
Speaking of turning clocks, don’t forget to turn yours back this Sunday!