Notes

Blog updates

Most readers know this, but I wanted to state it clearly for anyone who is still here: I am now blogging exclusively over on my new website called Humidity and Hope. I am currently posting there six times a week, so if you have been missing your Hugh fix, you can get it there.

This site will still be here as a sort of virtual business card and a hub for my various online presences, and will use this as a place to store copies of sermons I have given, but I will no longer be blogging here.

I hope to see you over there! If you have questions, just shoot me an email at hughlhgmail.com and I will be happy to answer them.

Thanks for reading my stuff!

 

Making Room

NB: The following is a sermon I delivered at Presbyterian New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs, NY on October 6, 2019.

Making Room
Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church
Matthew 26:20-35
10/6/2019

It was a holiday weekend. Everybody was in town, and all of the shops were crowded.

And the word on the street was that the police were going to arrest Jesus. There was a warrant out for his arrest – the police had an informant who had given them the goods on Jesus, and now it was just a matter of finding him.

I find it interesting, and somewhat reassuring, that on the night Jesus knew he was going to be arrested, he decided to be with his friends. He could have run and hid. He could have left town, or hidden in someone’s attic. Instead, he had supper with the people who mattered to him.

We don’t know an awful lot about his mood that night, or what he was thinking. Thanks to a different witness to the story, we know that during dinner, a fight broke out at the table about who was going to be in charge after Jesus left.

I have to wonder if that frustrated him. I mean, over the preceding three years, they had seen the blind be given sight, had watched him raise Lazarus from the dead, had seen him tell beggars and paupers how to claim their dignity in the face of the most powerful regime the world had ever known.

And Jesus had told them that they could do it too. They could do even greater things.

Together, they had crisscrossed the countryside, telling people the Good News that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They had healed the sick, cared for the dying, gave meaning to those who had theirs taken away, fed the hungry, confronted the Powers that Be, and bore witness to the goodness of God to people who had legitimate reason to doubt that goodness.

And on the night when he is in grave danger, on the night he could have ran away, but instead decided to be with them – on that night, they are still not getting it. They are still bickering. Trying to grab power for themselves.

So, I think it’s safe to say he had to be frustrated.

We also know he was scared. The story goes that after supper was over, he is going to take his best, closest friends and go into the garden and pray – hard. He is going to fervently ask God to for this to go down any other way. He is asking for mercy, and he is so upset that he is sweating giant drops as he prays.

The New Revised Standard translation of the Bible tells us he is in anguish as he prays, but the old King James I memorized as a child said that he was in agony.

All of that had to be building up while he was eating, while he was watching the infighting and the bickering.

Frustrated, and afraid.

Judas had betrayed him to the cops – he knew that.

And then Peter. Oh Peter.

Mark Twain once said that no man was completely worthless, as he could always serve as a bad example. I feel that way about Peter sometimes.

Peter just kept going on and on about how much he loved Jesus, and the whole time, Jesus knows he is going to betray him too. Before the night is over, Peter won’t even admit he knew Jesus, let along stand up with him.

So it is in the midst of this, surrounded by fears and doubts and unworthy friends that Jesus does something both simple and yet radical.

He took the bread and the wine off the table. He blessed it. He shared it. And he told them that when they shared food with each other, they were to remember.

It was that simple. And that complex.

Because it wasn’t just about sharing food – but the sharing of the food was important. It wasn’t just about being with your friends, even though they were betraying you – but loving your friends in their failures was important. It wasn’t even about having a community that was large enough to include both a government employee and a zealot who wanted to overthrow that government, large enough to have people of various races and a wide range of educational levels – but the diversity of people at the table is important too.

No, Jesus showed them that sharing a meal with people – with people who are at odds with you, with people who frustrate you, with people who are different than you, with people who share your values but don’t always live up to them – that sharing a meal like that is an act of resistance to the Powers that seek to make us afraid of each other.

Imagine a world if we made room for meals like that to happen?

In a world like that, the supper table is an altar, and the meal spread out on it an offering of faith to the idea of a better world than the one we live in now.

* * *

My wife and I have some friends, Linda and Hank*. They are in their 70’s, and they have had a life full of adventures. As a result, they have a wide range of friends from all over the world. And when we lived in their city, so far from our own families, they sort of adopted us. A mutual friend said once that Linda and Hank collect people. And we were part of their collection.

They lived in a large old house, filled with knick-knacks from their travels – there is the ancient Turkish rug, over there the Buddha from India, the buffalo skin from the Southwest, the antique couch from Goodwill. It was an eclectic house, but in a good way.

And when we lived there, we went to their house for Thanksgiving. Everyone brought something, and just as their friends were eclectic, so was the meal – there was American style turkey and dressing, for sure, but there was also babaganoush, and eggrolls, and empanadas, and baklava. They would put out the invitation – if you don’t have a place to eat Thursday, well, now you do. Come as you are and bring what you can.

When you got there, the table was already full, but Linda would always say, ‘Don’t worry – we will make room”, and another chair magically appeared and people would scooch their chairs and now there was room for one more person at this most unlikely of feasts. By the end of the day there would be several tables added to the end of the dining room table that now extended into the living room.

And I am here to tell you, that would be the best meal you had all year, and the most diverse. The last year we were there we ate with, among others, an undocumented house painter, a professional dulcimer player, a nurse who worked on death row, a Syrian mathematician, a folk singer, and the woman who worked the front desk at a nearby retirement community.

I think of those meals often when I think about the sort of meals Jesus envisioned. A table that is full, but there is always room for more. A table where there is already plenty, but we accept what people bring with them, and we can always scooch over to make room. A table where honest conversations can happen, where we can enter as strangers but leave as friends.

It’s worth noting that such meals do not happen by accident. They never went to a thrift store without  hunting for folding tables and chairs so they could fit more people. They had a huge stock of serving platters and mismatched flatware and plates. There was an intentional invitation – in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, if you had a conversation with them, you would be invited, and had a standing invitation from then on. These meals were planned to be wide ranging and inclusive from the beginning.

If we are going to have the sort of meals Jesus had, we are going to have to plan for them too. If you put it out in the world that everyone is welcome, and you really mean it, you can’t be shocked when the person who eats with you betrays you later. You can’t be shocked when one of your closest friends won’t stand with you when it counts. You can’t be shocked by who shows up.

And if you invite everyone and mean it, it means it’s Ok when the person who shows up doesn’t look like you, or vote like you, or live in a house like you, or have the same sort of manners you do. No, all you can do is scooch your chair over and say, “We will make room.”

And when we do that, the world changes. Not huge, earth-shattering changes, but in small, incremental ways, the world becomes better. We move closer to the better world Jesus imagined.

And we feel less afraid.

I don’t know about you, but from where I sit, the world seems pretty scary right now. There are days I am afraid to listen to the radio or look on social media, because I am just happier not knowing what new atrocity is happening.

When we are most afraid, when we are in anguish, when we are in agony about the future, when we are begging God to not make the inevitable happen – that is when we ought to share a meal with others, and remember.

When we share that meal, we bear witness to the Principalities and Powers that we are greater than our differences, and that while we may be afraid, we will not let that fear deter us from working to make God’s Kingdom a reality. That despite our fears, despite our frustrations, despite our bickering and infighting, we will persist in seeking the make it on Earth as it is in Heaven.

When we scooch our chairs over and make room at that massive, diverse table, we remember.

We remember that Jesus did amazing acts of power, and said that we could too.

We remember that Jesus showed love to the downtrodden, and we can too.

We remember that Jesus said the Kingdom of God is not some far off country, but that it is within us.

We remember that Jesus tried to love the Hell out of the world, and showed us that we can too.

We can go out into the world and share the good news that another world is possible,

It begins when we make room at that table.

It begins with a meal.

* I have changed names and some details to protect the privacy of folks, but otherwise, this is completely true, and those were the best meals ever.

Power

Open Door Mennonite Church
July 29, 2018
2 Samuel 11:1-17 (NRSV)

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well.

 

Over the last month I have been here in Jackson, I have been in a lot of meetings. I have had meetings with City officials, with school board members, with local activists, with bankers, with normal folks who just want Jackson to be better for them and their children.

But the biggest thing I have been trying to figure out since I have gotten here is how does Power work here. In community organizing circles, they call it power mapping, or power analysis. It’s important as a first step, because sometimes the people who look like they are in power really aren’t, and the ones who look like they don’t have any actually have a lot.

You have seen this first hand in your relationships. Like, when granddad bullies and blusters, but grandma is the one who really decides things. Granddad thinks he has the power, but really, he doesn’t.

Power mapping isn’t just useful in community organizing. It is helpful in personal relationships. It is helpful at work. And most importantly for our purposes today, it is a powerful spiritual practice.

Take, for example, today’s story.

History, they say, is written by the victors.

It has also largely been written by men.

Here in the US, we often talk about the Founding Fathers – men like George Washington, John Addams, Benjamin Franklin. Where were the women in these stories? Other than Betsy Ross, who was only notable because the Founding Fathers asked her to do something, I would be hard pressed to tell you any of their stories. Where were the women?

They were there, but their stories were not told. Mostly, I suspect, because it was men doing the telling.

And why did the men get to tell the stories? Because men had power, and in those societies, women did not.

You see this constantly in the Bible stories, too. You could, if you grew up in the church, perhaps tell me the story of Noah and the ark. If you were a hard-core Sunday School attendee, you could perhaps even tell me the name of his three children. But I bet you could not tell me the name of Mrs. Noah. Or the names of his son’s wives.

You couldn’t do it because their names were not considered important enough for us to learn. Because they were women, and it was men telling the story when it was first written down.

It’s about power. Men had the power, and they got to tell the story. And whoever tells the story gets to shape the story.

Like in this story. There are multiple ways of telling the story, depending largely on who does the telling.

The way I learned it was that David, God’s favorite, saw a beautiful woman, and they slept together. Then she got pregnant, and to cover it up, he had Uriah killed. That is the way I learned the story, and largely the way the story has been taught for generations.

That is how the story gets told – but that isn’t what happened.

What happened is that David, who was King and thus had power, saw something he wanted and he took it. Nowhere is the story is it even implied that Bathsheba was a willing participant. In fact, when one party has all the power and the other doesn’t, it is hard for there to be any consent. When the person who literally has the power of life and death over your spouse tells you to do something, you don’t really feel like you have a choice.

What we call the story of David’s adultery was actually the story of the sexual assault of Bathsheba.

But even that way of telling the story centers David. It centers the man, the person in power.

Another way of telling the story would be to center the story on Bathsheba.

Her husband Uriah was sent to war because, the Bible tells us, it was springtime, and that was the time to go to war. But David didn’t go – he stayed home, where it was safe, but men like Uriah got sent off instead.

So one night, after she got finished with her bath, she got summoned to the King’s palace, where she was sexually assaulted by the King. And then she discovered she was pregnant, and the King had her husband killed and made her move into the palace.

Bathsheba was a woman in a system that allowed no power to women, and on top of that, she was pregnant. And your only option is to fend for yourself or be protected by the man who sexually assaulted you and killed your husband.

Some choice.

Let’s look at this story from the framework of power.

In the story, we have four main characters: David, Bathsheba, Joab, and Uriah. Let’s rank them in order, according to who has power and who doesn’t.

David is king, appointed by God. David has ultimate power.

Joab is a military commander, in charge of men. He has the next amount of power.

Uriah is a man and a soldier. He has the next amount of power.

And Bathsheba is a woman, in a society run by men. She has the least amount of power.

Having mapped out the power, let’s look back at the story. The way it is written, who is the story about? Who is the main character? David, the person with the most power.

To who is no blame attached, but was complicit in the crimes? Joab, the person with the second most amount of power.

Who are we made to feel sorry for? Uriah, another person with power.

And who is the only person in the story who is only passive, who only has things happen to her, but doesn’t have any agency of her own? Bathsheba, the person with the least amount of power.

So that is a different way of telling the story. A story that centers the voice of the victim, the story of the person with the least amount of power.

I have spent, at this point, nearly 1000 words telling you about power analysis because I think it is perhaps one of the most important things we in the church can do. I think the Jesus story is ultimately about power, who has it and who doesn’t, how you use it if you do, and for whom.

Jesus was incredibly concerned with power. Most of the healing stories in the New Testament are about people who have little power being restored to a position of equality. Think about the man born blind, whose sight is restored. Or the woman who was constantly bleeding and thus considered impure being made whole, so she could return to society. The man possessed by demons, the man who could not get healed because he couldn’t get to the pool to get in because, you guessed it, people with more power than he had got there first.

In the story of the woman caught in adultery, where Jesus told the Pharisees that the one without sin should cast the first stone, whose side did Jesus take? The side of the one with the least amount of power.

In the parables Jesus told, they were always stories about power as well. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is all about power. I mean, the rich man is in hell and still thinks he has the power to tell Lazarus what to do. The wealthy landowner that won’t forgive debts, the rich young ruler who stored up his riches, the inequity of pay in the story of the talents.

Over and over again, the Jesus story is all about power. And I believe that is because God is concerned about power. The Exodus story is about people with Power using it against people who don’t, and God taking the side of the ones who don’t. The stories of the exile – Daniel and the lion’s den, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the fiery furnace and all the rest – are stories of God taking the side of the people with the least amount of power. The prophets constantly warned those in power that they were not aligned with God’s will.

Power is not bad – it just is. What is bad, however, is when those of us with power use it to harm others. Instead, Jesus believed that those of us with power had an obligation to use it on the behalf of those who do not.

The apostle Paul gave an example of Jesus doing this in Philipians when he quoted an old hymn as saying that Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Jesus had power, but didn’t use it for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others.

This story today is the story of power, and who has it and who doesn’t. And the clear witness of scripture is that God is always on the side of the one with the least amount of power.

So where does this leave us? I think it means that as followers of Jesus, we have to look for the power dynamics around us, and ask who has the power and who doesn’t. And then if we want to be like Jesus, we have to be on the side of the people with the least amount of power.

And if we are with them, then God is with us.

Amen.

 

Don’t Be Afraid

Open Door Mennonite Church
July 1, 2018
Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV)

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing ?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

When I was a little boy, there was a swimming hole we all went to. It was just a small pond, really, but there was a big tree with a rope hanging from it, and when the weather was as hot as it is right now, we would take turns swinging from it and dropping into the pond.

Nothing ever felt as good as crashing into that cool water on a hot day like today.

I probably swam in that pond 50 times, at least. Everybody I knew did. It was a thing you did if you grew up where I did, when I did.

One day when I wasn’t there, a boy whose family was known to us went swimming, and this time when he let go of the rope and went crashing in the water, he landed in a nest of water moccasins. He got bit more than a dozen times, and he died before anybody could get him help.

Nobody went to the swimming hole after that.

It was still pretty to look at. The water was still cool to your skin, and the weather was still just as hot as it ever was. But the problem was, you couldn’t see what was under the surface. You didn’t know if the water was safe and refreshing, or full of water moccasins. It no longer felt safe, and you couldn’t tell if it was safe.

The safest thing was to just stay out of the water. To this day, I won’t swim in a pond of any sort.

We always have fears about the things we can’t see, and people in the ancient world were no different. The sea, the water, was a wild, unpredictable place, where sailors went off in boats and never came back. It was a place inhabited by strange creatures that lived hidden under the surface and would suddenly grab you and pull you under. The sea was calm and beautiful, but a storm could suddenly come up that would destroy your village, or crash your boat, or take your family from you.

The sea was a wild and dangerous place in the ancient world, and it was often used by ancient authors to represent chaos.

In the book of Genesis, when the author is trying to explain the chaos that existed before God created the world, they used the image of the sea:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

It was so chaotic before God put order to it, the author tells us, it was all water. All sea. All unpredictable. All scary. All unknown.

In the story today, Jesus and the disciples head out to cross the sea, and sure enough, a storm came up out of nowhere. It was a fierce storm, full of fury, and it threatened to sink the boat.

One of the things about this story that stands out to me isn’t that there is a storm – storms happened on the water. It’s that the disciples are so scared. I mean, these guys were fishermen, who made their living on the water. They had seen storms, had survived many storms. And this storm scared them. It must have been a serious storm to have scared such men as that.

Back in the late 90’s, I had a chance to go deep sea fishing off the coast of Florida with some people I knew. It was a beautiful day, and I had never been deep sea fishing before. But we hadn’t been out there but a few hours before the wind picked up and the waves started. First they were little waves, but they kept getting bigger and bigger until they were six feet tall or more, and the little boat was rocking hard, and we had to head back to the port.

But we were several hours out when the storm hit, and so it was a rough trip getting back. At first I was scared, seeing as I know nothing about boats, but the crew seemed calm, and that had a calming effect on me. After all, these were guys who did this sort of work every day, and they were not scared.

No, I wasn’t scared at all until the moment I saw the first mate throw down his pole, shout out a curse word and run to grab a hold of the mast to keep from being swept over the side. If he was scared, this must be serious!

But in the storm in the story, Jesus is calm – so calm, in fact, that he falls asleep. And when in desperation the disciples cry out to him, he rebukes the storm, and it stops.

How is it, they wonder, that this man can calm the storms with his commands?

Today in 2018, the world seems like a pretty chaotic place. Like the sea in the ancient world, dangers are everywhere. Young black men get killed at alarming rates by police officers. The opioid epidemic is, well, an epidemic.  Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you can’t say it is all calm there, either.

If you turn on the news, or talk to your friends, or even just open up Facebook, it seems like everything is going bad all at once.

It seems like chaos rules the day.

And sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by the chaos, when the storms are raging all around us and it seems like we just are not capable of surviving this one, it can sometimes feel like Jesus is asleep and we are left to handle this all by ourselves. Sometimes, it feels like he is not even there at all.

You know, when you read the story of Jesus and the storm, it seems like the important thing is that Jesus can stop the storm and save you from it. But to me, that is not the most remarkable thing. To me, the thing that stands out is this: In the midst of the storm, Jesus is right there beside you, enduring the storm with you. And what’s more, he has been there the whole time. Even when you were losing it. Even when you were terrified. Even when you didn’t know what to do, or how to do it. In the midst of all of that, Jesus was there, right beside you.

Don’t be afraid, dear ones. Don’t be afraid. The storms are bad – bad enough to scare seasoned fishermen who have survived many storms. But don’t be afraid. God has not forsaken us, and even in the midst of the storm, we are not forgotten nor are we alone.

And we never were.

The one who can command the storms and have them obey him is in the boat with us, and we will ride through the storm, together, to the other side.