Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. February 21, 2021 Lent 1 Psalm 51 (excerpts) Matthew 4: 1-11, 5: 1-3
When is the Kingdom of Heaven?
Worship for the first Sunday of Lent last year was the final time Rev. Rick, Monique and I were in the Sanctuary together before the pandemic sent us home to lead worship via Zoom. Hard to believe – if the dates don’t make sense to you, remember Lent began in March in 2020.
I can’t help but hear in Matthew’s accounting of Jesus in the wilderness tormented by the Tempter something of our own experience this past year. It feels as though we, too, have been in the wilderness – far longer than 40 days. Our temptations aren’t the same as those Jesus confronts, but the landscape of our lives has been a wilderness experience none-the-less. We have lost loved ones, lost work, lost physical contact with the people we love; lost the things we enjoy doing with others, lost confidence in our government and so much more.
As Rev. Rick, Monique and I prepared for Lent 2021 a few weeks back, we made a decision not to have a traditional penitential Lent – which all too often is Lent’s sole focus, but rather a Lent that would feed our souls with renewal, refreshment and restoration as we face the still difficult months ahead. And so, we decided to focus on the Beatitudes – the “declarations of blessings . . . [that assure] the addressees of the vindication and reward that attend the salvation of God” as the Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary describes the Beatitudes – and that salvation is personified in life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Following his time in the wilderness, Jesus begins teaching his disciples with the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
It is important to remember that at the time the Gospels were written, followers of Jesus were waiting for his imminent return. There was an expectation of “when” the Kingdom of Heaven would come. Jesus would return and time as it was known would end.
But Jesus has not yet returned. Those who depend on God, the “poor in spirit,” – including us –are still waiting. The Church has been trying to figure out how to make sense of this for two millennia now. Over time, the question shifted from “when is the Kingdom of Heaven” to “where is the Kingdom of Heaven?”
Christians in the early centuries believed the Kingdom of Heaven would come when Jesus returned to judge “the living and the dead.” Those who died “in the Lord” would “sleep” until Jesus would cause them to rise from the dead and “ascend to heaven,” as the Creeds of the Church put it. And as time marched on, Christians began to believe in a three-tiered universe – the Kingdom of Heaven above, life on earth in the middle and Hell below. How one lived on earth would determine where one would wind up in the after-life. This belief system still lives in our theologies to both the hope and terror of many, even though science has shown us that we do not live in a three-tiered universe.
I have been leading a Confirmation class this winter. The subject of Heaven and Hell, and the journey to either, has been a large topic of discussion and constant concern. We have spent several weeks wondering what Jesus meant by “Kingdom of Heaven.”
We have been asking: Is Heaven a place? A destination? Is Heaven where people go after they die? Is Heaven eternally located in a place we have not yet experienced?
Heaven may well be all of these things, but that is not what Jesus emphasizes in his teaching. He rejects the Tempters gift of dominion over the Kingdoms of this world during his time in the wilderness; the Kingdom of Heaven seems not to be located in this world. Think about the parables Jesus uses to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. Over and over, he begins a parable with “the Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . a merchant seeking a pearl of great price, a woman who searches for a lost coin, a sower who goes out to plant, a woman using yeast to make bread . . .” Jesus is not describing a place far away; he is describing ordinary things familiar to his listeners that are tangible and part of their daily life experience. The Kingdom of Heaven seems to be less about where and more about when.
Our elementary Sunday Schoolers and I have been reading Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quartet. You are perhaps familiar with the first book in the series A Wrinkle in Time. The stories follow the adventures of two siblings, Meg and Charles Wallace who travel through time and space to wrestle with the powers of light and the powers of darkness. Each book is a story of their wilderness experience. In the third book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet which we are reading now, Charles Wallace journeys through the wilderness with a unicorn guide named Gaudior – wordplay on the Latin for “joy” – to avert a nuclear disaster. As the unicorn accompanies Charles Wallace through time to find the origin of the problem, Charles Wallace keeps asking where he is. Gaudior has to over and over again convince Charles Wallace that “where” is the wrong question, telling him “You are not in a different “where,” you are in a different “when.” And Charles Wallace finally begins to understand that he is experiencing the place where he lives during several different “whens” in time. And that got me thinking.
Perhaps those early Christians were right – What if the Kingdom of Heaven is not a “where”? – what if the Kingdom of Heaven is a “when?” Would our experience of this seemingly eternal Lent change if we were to focus on finding the Kingdom of Heaven in our present when?
What if we try this instead: The Kingdom of Heaven is when . . . a small congregation collects and distributes kid-friendly groceries to Food for Kids. The Kingdom of Heaven is when we gather via Zoom to pray or study together. The Kingdom of Heaven is when Monique and the soloists work so hard to get the right blending of sound in our worship. The Kingdom of Heaven is when we do anti-racism work. The Kingdom of Heaven is when we check in on an elderly neighbor. The Kingdom of Heaven is when a friend calls us. The Kingdom of Heaven is when we choose to look for it – in the trust of a familiar hand we hold, in the first crocus that heralds the coming of spring, the meal cooked for us or by us, in the needle of vaccine in our arms, and in the patience to wait our turn.
This Lenten season, I invite you to be on the lookout for when the Kingdom of Heaven appears in your life and in our life together as a community of faith. The Kingdom of Heaven is always right now if only we look for it in the when of the lives we are living – even in the midst of our pandemic wilderness. Let that truth restore and refresh your soul: “Blessed are we– the poor in spirit, for ours is the Kingdom of Heaven – today, tomorrow and always.” Amen.
Song of Solomon Our theme for Epiphany has been, “Where shall wisdom for our day be found?” We have turned to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament—we already have looked into Ecclesiastes, Job, Esther, Ruth and Proverbs.
Today on this last Sunday in Epiphany, we open the Book called Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon who was for a long time thought to be the author because he is cast as having a role in the drama described. At most, he is the sponsor of the Book because its source may go back to his court. But that, of course, would have been a long time before it was actually set on paper in the 2nd or 3rd centuries BCE. Over that period, the various poems gathered here accumulated, possibly from Egyptian sources or Persian anthologies of wedding poetry or paeans to a goddess of love.
Why is it in the Bible at all? Many rabbis said no to its inclusion in their canon, as did early Christian commentators. The great Rabbi Akiba of the 2-3rd century CE said yes, justifying it partly as a parable about God and Israel, or, as Christian theologians did, about God and the church. Yet, although the utterly and explicitly erotic nature of the book could not be gainsaid, here we have it.
What exactly have we here, then? First, it is in verse, it is poetry. By (my) definition, poetry tries to say what can’t be said (because words are insufficient) or, more importantly, what shouldn’t be said (because it is antithetical to the proprieties of proper society). The poem asks an unanswerable question: what is beauty that we should desire it so; what is desire that it should drive us so?
Taken all together, these poems make us wonder whether we are reading a fantasy, a daydream, or for that matter a night-dream, or a ritual of courtly love or just the exaggerations of romantic frenzy. The exterior form of the book is a dramatic dialogue between a bride, a bridegroom, and a chorus of companions. The two are young lovers, perhaps a boy and girl (just post-adolescent), the girl a young woman of color and very beautiful, as she describes herself, the boy possibly being a king-to-be or at least king in the girl’s eyes. The chorus is comprised of “the daughters of Jerusalem,” her companions and peers.
The content of the dialogue is, in fact, very like the whole Bible—close to the ground, graphic, real, existential, not at all different than its candor about war, murder, deception, and—love. It has the taste of actual human life as lived. With its romantic and sexual subject and no reference to God anywhere, is the Song of Solomon setting up a dichotomy between romantic love and divine love? Is it opposing the sacred and the profane, the demonic and the angelic? It all puts me in mind of Mae West’s quip—or was it Better Middler’s—“Ain’t love divine?—which is to banish the dichotomy. Read in its biblical context, the book says that physical and spiritual love are one. To experience either is to experience both. The physical rapture contains a spiritual revelation that leads to a mystical rapture. It has always been my personal opinion that sex is nature’s way of leading us to God, and I got that from the Bible.
How can this be, since the Bible is wholly concerned with our actions, the ethics of our decisions, as evident in the ten commandments, the book of Proverbs, and Jesus’ sermon on the Mount? It is, because the Bible is equally and simultaneously concerned not only with ethics but with metaphysics (please excuse the technical philosophical term). That is, what scripture reveals is life’s most basic makeup at the granular level. It proposes that beneath, around and beyond the ethic of loving your neighbor and loving your enemy is the simple fact that love is a property of the universe. At the same time that the universe is expanding, it is simultaneously tending towards unification, this paradox being the source of the tension we feel in living human lives. Our “nature” is to be in love with God, with life, with the world as it is—if only someone would tip us off, which would help us make better decisions. In the Bible, metaphysics is prior to ethics.
Without the metaphysic, the ethics would surely seem unrealistic. Reinhold Niebuhr famously wrote that love is an impossible ethic, which indeed any Christian ethic is without the metaphysics. Think about how we feel today, following January 6th and the acquittal of the former President. How do we think we will cope ethically, with this political 9/11 of white supremacy facing us? White supremacy is not a political ideology, which you could argue with, it is something much more challenging, it is a state of mind. White supremacy has no political platform or program over which to debate possible benefits to society—white supremacy is a deep illness of the soul exacerbated by fear and a seemingly unquenchable resentment. If we are to be adequately empowered for our time, we must acknowledge the Bible’s metaphysics as the pre-condition for its ethics.
So, back to sexual love for a moment, because of Biblical metaphysics, sex is more than what it appears. Yes, it presents itself to us like all other human loves, as an inescapable blend of happiness and pain, a concoction of loss and consummation and more loss. Love not only can end (with somebody’s death), it can be ended by someone when it goes wrong. Yet love we will. Martin Buber wanted us to understand love not as a feeling but as a cosmic force, like a magnetic field. Whosoever realizes they stand in and within that force, will always behold any other person not to be an Other but as a Thou, an individual complete in their integrity, the opposite of an It that can be used or abused. The Bible shows us what it really means to be human.
Thus, it is believable when Jesus tells us that we, as planetary creatures, have a glorious destiny. He was not misleading us. To love and be loved is our unavoidable, glorious destiny, and to miss it is not to have lived at all. What the disciples saw on that mountainside, when Jesus’ face and clothing were transfigured in radiant light, was a signal formerly hidden in plain sight of life’s transcendence. In Jesus’ presence, they experienced the metaphysics which precedes ethics. In their midst, Wisdom was standing who revealed the key to their lives’ puzzle. They called Jesus the Son of God because he personified the divinity of humanity, mixed as we inescapably are with earth. That was the ultimate epiphany and the reason we conclude this church season of Epiphany with Transfiguration Sunday today. Rev. Richard Chrisman, 2/14/2021
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany February 7, 2021 Black History Month The Poetry of Amanda Gorman Proverbs 1:20-23 Johan 1: 1-5
During this Epiphany Season, we have been asking “Where is Wisdom to be found?” Rev. Rick has been guiding us through what is called the Wisdom Literature in biblical studies. We have sought wisdom in the pages of Ecclesiastes, Job, Ester, and Ruth. The people of God in these stories actively search for wisdom and what it reveals about living in relationship with God and with one another. Each one of these stories makes an important theological statement: Wisdom is reflected in the lived experience of the people of God.
But what about wisdom itself? Is wisdom something ephemeral? Something esoteric? Is it the second definition of a noun “an idea, feeling or concept?” The Old Testament Scripture for this morning tells us wisdom is embodied in persons. Wisdom is a first-order noun that has both a name and a personhood – Woman Wisdom.
In the book of Proverbs, we meet Woman Wisdom, “She comes down from heaven into the city. She “cries out in the street;in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out: at the entrance of the city gates she speaks. She chastises the people of the city, she reproves their behavior, she “will pour out [her] thoughts to [us]; she “will make [her] words known to [us].” Woman Wisdom is the embodiment of God in the female form in the Hebrew Bible; she reveals the hopes of God for common life in a city of refuge, a city of justice, a city of care for one another, a city of peace. She has a lot to say.
In the early Church and even today in the orthodox traditions of eastern Christianity, the divine wisdom of God is expressed in female form. There are beautiful paintings, mosaics and icons of the divine woman in cathedrals and churches in Turkey, Russia and throughout Asia Minor.
You won’t find these images in western cathedrals and churches. In western religious art when women appear in paintings, stained glass, and sculpture, they are women who fall into two categories, the virgins, particularly the mother of Jesus – and the prostitutes. In part this is because the reformed Protestant tradition has little imagery as a whole, but it is also true that a deep suspicion of women’s knowledge and experience – of women’s wisdom in fact – permeates the history of western Christianity. And the images that do exist in our tradition center their focus on the Trinity which is historically understood as male – two men and a bird – as generations of seminarians have referred to it.
So – why has the divine Woman Wisdom of Proverbs been exiled from the New Testament? Why has she been silenced? In part, the answer to that is found in the prologue to John’s Gospel that Rick read a few minutes ago. The personification of divine wisdom is embodied in the person Jesus – the Word of God eternally existing and without whom not one thing would have come into being. The Word is gendered – he became flesh and dwells among us, the light of the world that darkness cannot overcome.
The women of Eliot participating in the Real Housewives of the Bible study know that I read all Scripture paying attention to where women and their experience have been silenced or left out of the story entirely. And to be truthful, I am uncomfortable with John’s conversion of wisdom from female to male embodiment. It privileges male experience and knowledge of God over female experience and knowledge of God. As a result, the Woman Wisdom has been excluded from the New Testament in western Christianity, and therefore, women’s experience of the divine has no theological place – at least none worth mentioning.
That wisdom is embodied in human beings is a great theological truth in both the Old and New Testaments. Having bodies, no matter if they are gendered male or female, or manifested in non-binary gender, is an important answer to the question of where wisdom is to be found. Wisdom is to be found in us, the people of God in community.
As Epiphany winds down – next Sunday is Transfiguration (be sure to pay attention to the bodies when we read that Scripture) and Ash Wednesday leads to Lent the following week – we shift our focus to Jesus of Nazareth, the divine human whose life, death and resurrection is the model for our own experience of God – no matter our gender or lack thereof. Especially during Lent, we study the person of Jesus in his teaching, his healing, and the Kingdom of God he invites us to help create. That Kingdom is the same city Woman Wisdom comes down from heaven to build and what that city could be is found in the words of wisdom we heard from the poet Amanda Gorman this morning,
“Today in the spine of this meeting ground, new city, new village, we've reached a summit, and are ready to loudly name another. This be hope, this be home, we are hope, we are home, we be vigilant, we be united, we be good, we do good, we are good, as we should in the place where a millennium stood for what we understood was right.”
Divine wisdom is found in us. And that wisdom gives us the courage to proclaim and to live “we be good, we do good.” Thanks be to God, who is both Wisdom and Word. Amen.
Our story begins in Bethlehem actually, more than one thousand years before Christ. A man and woman set out from Judah, because there was a famine in the land, into the neighboring hostile territory of Moab. Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, had two sons, and they each married Moabite women—Orpah and Ruth. The husband died, and then the two sons died, leaving their wives and their mother to survive as best they could. Another famine arose and Naomi, having heard there was food in her homeland, decided to return to Bethlehem, but she discouraged her two daughters from coming with her.
I. Our time is one not just one of difference and opposition, but of bitter estrangement. This diverse nation has cracked open along the fissures defined by diverse ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, and religions. What was once a matter of disagreement over points of opinion or philosophy has become armed rage.
We all know what happened last January 6th at the Capitol. Everybody followed the buildup to this climax, going back to Charlottesville, going back further to having a black President in this white country. According to one scholar, Danielle Allen at Harvard, it goes back to 1955.
Prof. Allen writes, “Citizens of the U.S. have not yet fully come to grips with what changed for them since the 1955 Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education.” Slowly, painfully, tortuously, as the meaning of that decision became real on the ground, the push back came slowly, painfully and tortuously until it climaxed three weeks ago. Part of this country wants no part of democracy, if it means sharing life with strangers.
Increasing population since then, increasing diversity, the white majority about to be in the minority, led to where the gated community became the logical conclusion. This fortress mentality, at first a defensive move, has taken to the offensive. Which is where we are in 2021.
What is it about strangers, anyway? It is a way of thinking that keeps us in power by drawing a line around ourselves, or at least allows us to maintain the illusion of power. Everyone else is Other, as Toni Morrison writes in her last book, The Origin of Others (The Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard). The designation of Other to someone, to some nation, to some class, to some race, ascribes impurity, contagion, and threat to them—imputes a well-nigh extra-planetary mystery about them. And woe to anyone who befriends the Stranger, for to identify with the Other is to risk becoming a stranger to your own group. And so, the ever-tightening circle gives to mere difference of skin color (etc.) an absolutely negative value.
Toni Morrison wondered out loud, “How can you create a coherent nation out of immigrants?” There is only one way—when you accept the possibility of a friendship with strangers who may never become your friends. How to explain this paradox requires a look at the Book of Ruth and the political philosophy of Danielle Allen.
The Book of Ruth is a short book of 4 short chapters essentially about immigrants across enemy boundaries. As you heard in this morning’s scripture, Naomi was living in a foreign land when her husband and two sons eventually all died and she decided to go back to her native land. She would have gone alone, but one daughter in law, Ruth, insisted on going with her, although that would make her a stranger in a strange land with no husband. Ruth said, “Your people will be my people, your God will be my God.” Making this extraordinary testimony of love, loyalty, and complete bonding with the Other, she will leave her native country to become an alien in another and seems utterly unafraid.
When Ruth arrives in Judah, in the precincts of Bethlehem, although she stays out of the way as much as possible, eventually she is befriended by a wealthy landowner and they get married. (Aside: Ruth the foreigner became a mother to a son who was to be the grandfather of King David.) The moral: societies can absorb immigrants—they can even give birth to rulers.
III. Although making democracy work suddenly seems harder than ever, as I said last week, Amanda Gorman held up for our inspiration the imperative to “be the light.” What that light reveals is that the stranger is hidden treasure. To make friends of the stranger is possible if you see friendship the way Danielle Allen does, not as an emotion but as a practice. I would add, it is a spiritual practice, not just an institutional duty. And like all spiritual practices, it involves sacrifice, according to Prof Allen.
The first sacrifice is dealing justly even though we can’t address everyone’s interests to the same degree at the same time. Sacrifice is required by the democratic covenant when all agree: my consent is required, my autonomy will be respected; nevertheless, I am not above the law. We also have to sacrifice the luxury of our personal judgements about other people—it’s none of their business what I think of them. It is a sacrifice to give up our hatreds, as James Baldwin said it was given to him to do. It is a sacrifice to have to negotiate loss and reciprocity. And worst sacrifice of all is to exercise self-restraint in the freedoms you are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights—you just may find it advisable not to use a right in certain cases.
All of this sacrifice in the service of maintaining faith with people who are strangers to us. And why should that be so novel to a Christian—Jesus taught us to love our enemies, by which he never meant anything like “liking” them—it was more like the friendship of strangers. How remarkable that a nation founded on Enlightenment principles should require application of Christian virtues, now more than ever before.
So, churches still have a vocation—we have work we can do. People are asking, what can we “do” about racism, how do we eliminate it. It seems that we never can and never will, such a tall mountain of kryptonite rises before us! But it will help if we understood that it is not the abstraction of racism to be fought, but the very human reality of “interracial distrust,” the rejection of strangers. Let’s rethink our public mission and goals to focus on what it would take to rebuild trust as the path to a society that is just.