Monday, April 29, 2013

Taboos, Judgment, and Provision: The Ravens and Elijah

Preached at Klamath Falls Friends Church
April 28, 2013

I was driving through Newberg on a side street and came upon what is called “a murder of crows”—6 or 7 dragging a squirrel carcass to the side of the street to enjoy a free meal. Crows are in the same general species as ravens, birds that eat everything and are particularly drawn to carrion.  The crows I drove by illustrated the verse from Job 38: “Who provides food for the raven when the raven’s chicks cry unto God, when they wander for lack of meat?” This question is answered in Psalm 147, which says, “Sing thanksgiving to the Lord, sing praises to God on the harp…he gives food to the beast and to the young ravens which cry.” And then Jesus wraps up this thought by reminding his followers, “Take no thought for your life, don’t worry about food; don’t worry about your body, about what you will clothe yourself in.  Life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens.  They neither sow nor reap, they have neither bank account nor pantry; and God feeds them.  How much are you different from these birds?”

So the dead squirrel was God’s provision for the crows that day.  And God subtracted one squirrel from the total also, since God pays attention to both sides of the food chain, to prey as well as to predator; God listens to both the vulnerable and the strong.

But that’s not the meat of what I want to talk about.  I’ve been thinking about Elijah in hiding from Ahab and how God sent him meat via Raven.  This story is in 1 Kings 17.  In order to explore its implications, we need some background in ravens.

First, avoiding ravens is a sign of obedience to God.  When God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and slavery, God provided them with community laws they were to live by, what we call the Mosaic Law. In the Mosaic Law, ravens are unclean animals, ritually taboo.  Here is what the Law says:  The Lord has chosen you specifically; you are set apart from all other nations for the Lord your God.  You shall eat no abominable thing. 

You may eat the cow, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the antelope, the gazelle; every animal that has cloven hooves and chews the cud you may eat. 

Do not eat the camel or the rock badger or any animal that either has cloven hooves but does not chew the cud, or chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves. Do not eat pigs, and don’t even touch their dead bodies. 

You may eat fish with fins and scales; don’t eat anything else that lives in the water.

You may eat clean birds, but none of the raptors, whether eagle or owl, none of the vultures, none of the ravens, none of the fishing birds.  Don’t eat bats or most other things that both creep on the ground and fly. Don’t eat weasels, mice, tortoises, lizards, snails, moles. However, you may eat locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers.

And don’t eat anything that dies on its own.  If you even touch the dead body of an unclean animal, you are also unclean for the rest of the day. You can sell it to foreigners and feed it to outsiders, but don’t eat it yourselves.  You are separated unto the Lord.

Some of the prohibitions may relate to the uses of various animals in the worship of idols. Some may relate to healthfulness. The instruction to sell or give the carcass to a non-Hebrew with no penalty for the Hebrew seller or the non-Hebrew buyer (and eventual eater) suggests that these dietary restrictions help identify the Hebrews as set apart from other nations, as peculiar in every sense of the world. 

Even though the actual translations of the Hebrew words may include animals that are no longer around or that we don’t understand, these instructions are quite clear.

Second, ravens are signs of the judgment of God.  Isaiah 34 depicts God saying, I will bring my sword upon Edom and judge them for their quarrel with Israel, and the slaughter will be great… the raven shall dwell in this land.  In Proverbs 30:17, the result of mocking one’s father and despising one’s mother is that one’s eyes are plucked out by the ravens.  This likely means that dishonoring parents bends one’s steps toward death rather than life.  In both cases, the ravens are present to clean up the carrion.

So two things about ravens as background to Elijah’s story:

The Hebrews are forbidden from eating them; eating ravens is abominable. Even touching a dead raven makes a Hebrew unclean.

And ravens show up when sin has resulted in death.

So here in 1 Kings 17 is the story of Elijah and the ravens. King Ahab married the pagan princess Jezebel from Sidon and built an altar to her god Baal and angered the Lord more than any king before him.  Elijah stood before King Ahab and prophesied that God would withhold rain from Israel because of Ahab’s sins.  Then Elijah took off for the wilderness.  We pick up where God hides him by a brook and sends him meat by ravens.

“And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and in the evening, and he drank of the brook.  When the brook dried up, God said to him, Go into the land of Sidon and live in Zarephath.  I have told a widow there to take care of you.”

What an interesting story, full of challenges to the ways we think God ought to obey the rules.  First, God’s own prophet lives from day to day on unclean food, food brought him by unclean birds, meat that may well be from an unclean animal, certainly one that died “on its own.” (See Lev. 7:24, 17:15.) Elijah leans into the provision of God, even though it comes unconventionally, even though God breaks God’s own food purity rules. When he goes to Sidon and lives in the house of the widow, all the food she prepares is likewise unclean because she herself as a non-Hebrew is unclean. Yet Elijah eats it.

This reminds me of two other moments in the interaction of God and God’s messengers:  the priest and prophet Ezekiel cried out in pain when God told him to cook his food over a fire fueled by human excrement, saying, “I have never broken your laws; please don’t make me do this.”  (See Deut 14:3, 23:13.) God lessened the sting by allowing Ezekiel to burn animal dung instead.  Yet what God asked of him was still outside the laws governing priests.  The other moment is the vision of Peter when a sheet of unclean animals was lowered from heaven and God said three times, “Peter, kill and eat.” Peter’s argument with God ended with God saying, “What God has called clean, let no one call unclean.”

Jesus said this about the good news he came to bring.  John 3:  You must be born anew, born of the Spirit who, like the wind, blows wherever the Spirit wants to blow, descends on whomever the Spirit chooses, and distributes gifts as God wills, not according to rules.  You must worship in that Spirit and in your own spirit and in truth—actual worship that looks like the way Jesus worshiped—by listening to God our Father and doing what God says to do each day, each moment.  Where you worship is irrelevant because God’s Spirit, God’s Truth, God who is Truth, is everywhere. 

The founders of the Quaker movement among Christians witnessed to this by simply recording the gifts of ministry among them.  This witness allows God to choose, to gift, to pour out God’s spirit on young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave and free.  God provides all we need and has more where that came from.  There is no scarcity in God’s love or God’s Spirit.  Our boxes and restrictions ought not to be applied to things that are God’s prerogative to choose, not only because we are out of line when we do this, but because God looks on the heart and knows what we do not know. 

We can trust God to lead us in the uncertainties we face.  If we don’t know what to do, what is wise, we can ask God, who gives what we need to us liberally—generously and freeingly—without ever scolding us for not knowing in advance

The raven, the bird associated with judgment and uncleanness, is also a sign of God’s providence.  As Jesus said, “Take no thought for your life, don’t worry about food; don’t worry about your body, about what you will clothe yourself in.  Life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens.  They neither sow nor reap, they have neither bank account nor pantry; and God feeds them.  How much are you different from these birds?”

Think about this.  God provides even for ravens, unclean birds, and how much more God will provide for you what you need.  So ask God for wisdom, then be quiet and see what rises in your heart and mind.  Try acting on that in faith that God is being generous to you.  Keep track of what happens.  You will find that you can rely on God in more than a theoretical way, that God actually lives in you and sends you what you need to live a free, whole, redeemed life.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Listen, Learn, Obey

Preached at South Salem Friends Church
April 21, 2013

Mary and Martha, Radical Faith

Luke 10: 38-42
Jesus went into Bethany, a town close to Jerusalem, and was invited in by a woman named Martha, who had a sister named Mary (and a brother named Lazarus, as we remember from a later story).  Martha was hospitable and busied herself with serving everyone—the word is diakonia, root of deacon, by the way—and Mary sat at Jesus’s feet to hear what he had to say.

Martha was weighed down by her work, distracted and driven to do it right.  She came to Jesus and said, “Master, Messiah, don’t you care for my distress? I am drowning in work, and Mary is doing nothing to help me. Tell her to work alongside me and help me.”

Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha.  You are full of cares and disturbed about so many things.  But only this one thing is a duty, is required. Mary has chosen what brings health and is useful and honorable.  No one will be allowed to take it away from her.”

We don’t have the next bit of the story, which is where, perhaps, Martha sits down also, her worry smoothed away, and lets the words of Jesus soak into her.  We can see that there must have been some time when she did so, because she is the one who runs to meet Jesus when he comes to comfort them after the death of her brother Lazarus.  In John 10, she says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died, and I know even now that God will give you whatever you ask.”  When Jesus responds that Lazarus will rise again, she says, “I know that he will rise again at the last resurrection.”  Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, still lives. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She replied with as decisive a statement of faith as any in the Bible:  “Yes, Master, yes Messiah, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, come into our world just as you were meant to.” This belief is the foundation on which the church is built.

Clearly, Martha had done some listening, too. 

South Salem Friends are making this next year a holy experiment.  Though I know you are sad about being unable to keep Jim as your pastor, your elders have a vision of how to move forward in this next that can transform your lives individually and as a congregation.

Let’s think first about your call to be ministers, deacons, servants to your neighbors through your Tuesday evening dinner.  This is an awesome ministry, and the fact you find it still invigorating and fun means you are doing it right.  Hospitality is high on the list of Christian values, as is generosity, another aspect of your ministry.

At the same time, this ministry is grounded in a vision of Jesus, the resurrection and the life.  Jesus is in our world, just as God means him to be, and his Holy Spirit walks with us every day to teach us what we need to learn and tell us what we need to do.  The work of Jesus in the world is to reconcile the world to God.  Reconcile means that you once again bring yourself face to face, eyebrow to eyebrow, with God.  You look God in the eyes and let God look you in the eyes.  What do you see?  What do you sense that God sees in you?

Let’s take a few minutes to sit with this picture.  You look directly into God’s eyes, reconciling with God.

Write down for yourself or to share what you saw in God’s eyes.

Part of the reconciliation is letting God see into your soul through your eyes.  God sees all that is there, alive, dead, beautiful, ugly, clean, dirty.  God loves you and wants you to be whole and holy.  What does God see in you that makes God happy? Write this down so you remember it.

What does God see in you that God wants to clean up, beautify, or resurrect? Write this down so you can remember it.

Please give God permission to fix what needs fixing and to love you into a life of resurrection.

Now, this is the business of sitting down to listen to Jesus, the Son of God, sent by God into our world to show us what God is like and what perfect human life is.  Jesus said about himself, “I do what God tells me to do and say what God tells me to say.”  Jesus's kind of life lived in connection with God wasn’t because Jesus was so different from us; this is what human beings are made for. Jesus came to teach us how to live this way.  It is a life of listening and risky obedience.  It can get you out of trouble with others and into trouble.  And it is not simply an individualistic way to live.  Whole congregations, like S. Salem, can live this way.

Many years ago, when I was in high school, a Lutheran minister named Bill Vaswig came to Newberg Friends.  Bill taught me to ask God for help, listen, and then try to do what I heard to do.  It was very simple.  I observe many times that I ask desperately for help over and over and never sit still long enough to hear what God says.  I also observe that sometimes when I get a nudge, I fail to recognize it as God and thus do not obey it.  I also notice that sometimes I ask, I do what I hear, and God is in it.  I don’t always even have to ask. 

How do I know it is God I’m hearing from?  The Holy Spirit turns out to be quite practical a lot of the time, and most often very matter of fact, and sometimes quirkily funny.  And what I’m told is not a violation of spiritual truth but instead advice about how to implement it in my life.

I may have told this very story here before, but it is a good one, so I’ll tell it again.  I spent about 10 years working to forgive someone who had wounded me so deeply it affects my life to this day.  I said to God over and over, "I know I am supposed to forgive, and right now, all I can do is say to you, ok, if you forgive this person, I will forgive you for doing it.  You can let him into heaven if you have to be so scandalously gracious.  This is the best I can do."

Then one day I was driving with the radio on, and I heard in my spirit the words, “Becky, you can do better than that.”  “Ok,” I said. “You’re right.  Please forgive this person.  Please let him into heaven.” 

Well, I can tell you that listening and obeying and saying what God wanted was so freeing to my spirit. The person had died, and I felt in my car a spirit that was grateful for my forgiveness. I believe my forgiveness set that other person’s spirit more free to receive God’s love also. 

At least twice when I have been so angry at God, I have been very frank in expressing my feelings about how things are going.  “Do you know what you’re doing?” I have cried out in outrage and despair.  My experience is that in the quiet following those cries, God talks back.  This is the crucial teaching of the book of Job.  Job rails against God, and God shows up to talk. And Job says, “I talked a lot, and now I see you, and I regret what I said, I choose God over myself, and I repent and am comforted here in my dust and ashes.”

Jesus comes to help us when we ask.  We need to have the faith of Martha to say, “We know you are sent by God, God’s Son. What you want to do, you can do.  What do you want us to do next?”

As you experience a year where you are caring for each other as pastors, it falls on each of you to prepare for worship together by asking God if there’s something you need to sing, pray, or preach, or if there is someone you need to bring to Jesus as the congregation meets. If anyone lacks wisdom, just ask God, who gives wisdom liberally and without scolding. 

Jesus is here today to teach you himself.  Jesus is the head of the church universal and local.  Jesus is smart, capable, and strong and well worth listening to, obeying, and following around.

Friday, April 5, 2013

God's Will for Women: Deborah and Phebe (and Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Hooten, Mary Fisher, etc.)

Some days, it seems to me that the Kingdom of God is among us.  When I see wheelchair access to sidewalks, for instance, I remember the teaching in the Jewish laws and prophets to remove barriers from before the blind and lame.  When I remember that I am a mandatory reporter for abuse, I recognize the implicit Gospel, the good news that God cares for the child, the weak. When I hear about mediation training and teaching conflict resolution in schools, I hear behind that the Sermon on the Mount and how deadly anger can be.  When I stand up to share what God has given me, I recognize that God’s Holy Spirit comes to sons and daughters and enables them to worship in spirit and in truth. 

And then some days, I hear of Christians who have a real concern that the evils of our society are permeating the community of believers in Jesus, and they/we want to be counter-cultural.  And suddenly, some of the very ways the Kingdom has changed our world for the better come under condemnation as anti-Biblical.  And then it feels like we have to start over. 

Since the mid-1600s when the Quaker movement began, the principle that God calls and gifts humans and humans in response recognize and record God’s gifts has made it possible for the callings and giftings of women to be used, recognized, and affirmed by recording them.  When early Quakers took this stand, they were astonishingly counter-cultural.  George Fox’s Journal records his response to someone who asked if women even had souls.  He prooftexted Mary’s song, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and said obviously they do have souls. The fact this was being debated helps us understand the culture of the time. The second evangelist in the Quaker movement was Elizabeth Hooten.  She became an itinerant preacher and suffered persecution in both England and the Colonies for it. Along with ten other women, she was one of the group of evangelists called the Valiant Sixty.  Mary Fisher traveled to Turkey to preach to the Sultan.  She was imprisoned and flogged for her ministry by the Christians in England, but was received respectfully by the Sultan of Turkey.  Margaret Fell, also jailed, wrote a pamphlet on “Women’s Speaking Justified,” basing the legitimacy of women preaching on the Biblical witness. She spoke before King Charles II on behalf of freedom of conscience in religious matters. One of the martyrs for freedom of religion in the colonies was Mary Dyer, who persisted in witnessing to the Massachusetts Bay Colony despite being banned.  She was hanged on Boston Commons. 

Margaret Fell’s pamphlet contrasts the stories of how God used women with pronouncements often cited to exclude women from certain activities and functions in the church.  She uses the creation of humans in God’s image as male and female to conclude that God puts no distinction between them.  She includes the fact that the church is referred to as feminine in relation to Christ, and the church is also charged with spreading the good news of Christ.  She tells the stories of Jesus sharing the good news of the Kingdom with women and never despising them.  She remembers the loyalty of women to Jesus as followers even to his death.  And she honors the women who visited the grave as the first bearers of the news of the resurrection.  “Go tell,” said Jesus.  She points to the reiterated message that God uses the weak to meet the objection that women are weak. She cites the willingness of Apollos to learn from Priscilla as well as Aquila.  She notes that Paul referred to women praying and prophesying, that he advises women to set aside preoccupation with appearance and learn without disputation. 

She attributes the prohibitions from Paul against women speaking out in the services to their unlearned and unruly manner of doing so, just as Paul asked all to have orderly worship and not speak all at once.

To paraphrase a small part of her pamphlet: “And what about those who have had the power and Spirit of the Lord Jesus poured out on them and the message of the Lord Jesus given to them?  Must they keep silent because of these irreverent and indecent women of the past?  Must words spoken to tattlers and busybodies be taken as silencing all women for all time? What has blinded men to take these scriptures and stop the message and the word of the Lord in women? Can’t they see that Paul talked of women who labored with him in the Gospel?  Can’t they see that the apostles joined with women and others in prayer, and that the unity of the early church included women?

“In the Old Testament, God gave the Spirit to whomever God pleased, including Deborah, Huldah, Sarah, and to Anna who witnessed to the Messiah in Jesus when he was just a baby.  The Lord Jesus showed himself and his power to men and to women without respect of persons; He poured his infinite power and spirit on all flesh. Women and men led by the Spirit are not under the Law. Christ in the male and the female is the same Christ; his wife is the church, where God said that the daughters would prophesy as well as the sons.  And where God pours out the Spirit, those men or women must prophesy.”

Thank you, Mistress Fell.  Yet today in 2013, this must be addressed again and not to people of evil intent, but to people endeavoring to read the Bible carefully and keep its teachings faithfully.  What can be said to help them see that the Bible itself contains the seeds of the destruction of gender-restricted roles in the church, seeds of hope that all are called into freedom to love and obey God’s call without barrier?

We can start with the Old Testament to see these seeds of destruction and hope. When Moses was overworked with hearing and mediating disputes and judging between Israelite and Israelite, his father-in-law suggested the following:

Exodus 18:21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: and let them judge the people (KJV).  The Hebrew word translated here as “men” is usually masculine, though sometimes it is translated as persons; the word for rulers is masculine. 

It seems probable that there were no women chosen to be part of this group of early judges.  In fact, any subsequent group that read this literally would never put a woman in as a ruler in this system. 

It is not that different a statement from the one in 1 Timothy 3: If a man desire the office of bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, able to teach, not a drunk, not abusive, not money-hungry, not a brawler, not a coveter. He should be patient, rule his own house well and soberly, and have obedient children.  And the same is true for deacons—they must be serious, straightforward, honest, not drunks, not greedy, respectful of the mystery of the faith with clear consciences, with wives of sober, faithful character, not slanderers. Deacons also should have one wife, and their households and children should be above reproach (mostly KJV; worth noting is that “if a man” really means “whoever” as in “If a man has ears, let him hear.”)

It certainly appears from this that the activities and position of bishop (sometimes called elder) and deacon (also called minister) must be filled by men.  And good Christians trying to obey God read the Bible and believe this.

But look at the history of how God behaves, even in a world where these are the norms.  In Judges 4, God chooses and gifts a woman to fill the role set up by Moses for men, namely Deborah. 

The world the Israelites lived in was decentralized into tribal lands.  All the people who had witnessed the miracles God did for them in their journey to Canaan died off.  The Israelites began worshiping Canaanite gods, and God was angry and allowed them to be raided and oppressed.  Periodically, God raised up a hero who delivered them.  One of those heroes was Deborah.  She was a prophetess, married to Lapidoth, and she was Israel’s judge.  People came to her from all over for judgment. 

The word for judge here is shaphat. It means to judge, govern, vindicate, punish; to act as law-giver or judge or governor; to rule, govern, judge; to decide controversy; to execute judgment ( It is an action performed by God, by Moses, by David, and by the coming Messiah  (Isaiah 2:4, Isaiah 11:4, Micah 4:3). (May the Lord judge between us; the judge of all the earth; God judge betwixt us; the Lord judge you.) Judges are included in lists with priests, Levites, elders, heads, officers. The children of Israel came up to Deborah for judgment (mishpat), a word used of actions of David, of kings, of God, of Moses. 

The point here is that God chose, God raised up, God gifted, and Deborah cooperated.  She was recognized by her people as possessing the Spirit and gifts of God that suited her for this authoritative role representing God to her people.

Therefore, it seems wise to allow God the last word in the church as well.  Rather than take a socially normative statement as a commandment for us to follow, let us likewise recognize that God has chosen, raised up, and gifted women in our congregations to act on God’s behalf and to pray, prophesy, sing, and teach in obedience to God. This is still counter-cultural. Our culture is not friendly to the witness that Jesus is present through the resurrection to teach us in our own hearts and through each other, and we are responsible to obey, to be deacons in the household of God.

Recall with me that Paul himself speaks lovingly and approvingly of Phebe, a diakonos, a deacon, a minister, a servant of the church at Cenchrea.  Paul tells the Romans to receive Phebe in the Lord, to assist her however she needs because she has been a woman set over many to care for them, a guardian.  The word for “succor” (KJV) is prostatis. It comes from proistemi, which means to be over, to superintend, to preside over, to protect, to guard, to care for, to attend to.  In the root of that second word is the idea of establish, keep intact, sustain, stand firm. 

What we can learn from Phebe is two-fold.  First, diakonos is translated three ways (KJV): minister (20 times), servant, (8) and deacon (3). We can find that Jesus advised his followers, “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” Jesus promised that his servants would be with him where he was going.  Servanthood, doing what another tells you to do, is at the heart of diakonos

We can also learn that Phebe got the very least powerful translation of the term, despite evidence in the next verse of her authority in the church at Cenchrea.  This helps us remember that translations do not take place in a social vacuum, that the King James Version, for example, comes from the same century that saw the rise of Quakers and the imprisonment, beating, and hanging of women who witnessed publicly to the presence and power of the resurrected Jesus and their own sense of obligation to do what Jesus laid on them to do.   

The witness to equality in ministry is not “Women’s Lib”; the witness to equality makes space for women to be equally obedient to God as men can be.  If anything, the increasing freedoms given to women in England and the Colonies derives from the Gospel and is a sign that the Kingdom of God is here. (The fact that women are no more perfect than men in their exercise of freedom is another sign of equality.)  Let us once again return to acknowledging that God has the right to call, gift, empower and inspirit anyone God chooses and that we humbly listen to God’s word through God’s messenger, put our faith in the God who inhabits each of us, and do what God tells us to do.