Food and Faith (ninth/closing sermon in the series, “Memorable Biblical Meals”)

I.
I became a great-uncle this week. My eldest niece, Lauren Dodson Cheatham, gave birth to her first child who is the first member of the next generation in our family. My great-niece’s name is Layla Avery Cheatham, and she is beautiful indeed. I couldn’t help thinking about babies this week, and that has something to do with where I’d like to start focussing our Gathering thoughts today.
If you were a part of a devout Hindu family practicing at least most of the rites and rituals associated with the ancient religion, then when your baby reached the age of about 6 months your family would celebrate a food ritual, a rite of passage called Annaprashan, which in Sanskrit apparently means literally first solid food ritual. For those Hindus who practice their faith in an English-speaking culture, this ritual is called “first rice.”  It works something like this.  The baby’s mother or grandmother will place in a very small bowl some boiled rice, milk, and a little sugar.  A priest is on hand to bless the food, oh what would we do without out clergy, and while the mother holds the child either an uncle or a grandfather will be the first to feed the baby a small spoonful of the first rice. After that, other family members give the baby a tiny bite of her or his first solid food.  This ritual is supposed to be a part of symbolizing for the child’s future that she or he will always be well fed.
At the other end of life, at termination of life in this realm–the incarnation through which the deceased person has just passed–there is a meal served called the Sraddha, which is food provided as a treat for the deceased’s relatives and friends who care enough about the well-being of the deceased to offer prayers asking God or the gods, depending on how you view Hindu theological perspective, to give peace to the soul of the one who has departed. She or he will either have reached Nirvana and will not come through another life form in this realm again, or the person will not have reached Nirvana and will, therefore, have another life form to live through in this realm.
As with all religious movements of any size there are varieties of expressions and emphases within the religion, and this is true of Buddhism.  One of the uses of food in Buddhism as practiced in Thailand is that the lay people in the communities are responsible for providing for the physical needs of the monks, including their daily nourishment, because the monks are the spiritual leaders in those communities.  In exchange the monks provide spiritual support for each member of the community.
The way this works out in daily practice is that the monks leave their monasteries very early each morning and walk out into the community single file. There is a prescribed order for walking in this line; the oldest monks are first, followed by the younger ones.  All carry their alms bowls in front of them, and the lay people either come out to meet them or are already waiting for them to give them food and in addition, perhaps, throw in a stick of incense or a flower, some small gift.  The women who most often are serving food to the line of monks must be very careful not to touch the monks because of their extraordinary holiness.  Many of the lay people kneel before putting food or anything else in the alms bowls of the monks.
The food most frequently served to the monks is rice, sometimes with a little something added, but at least the rice.  The lay people are typically serving the monks the food that they will eat in their own homes.  I have seen films of this ritual in process. It is quite touching; food is a key part of spiritual practice.
Scholars of Islam say that eating is a matter of faith in the practice of Islam.  Like Jewish dietary laws recorded in Hebrew Scripture, Muslim dietary practice is also fundamentally about obeying God.  All faithful Muslims are expected to obey God by eating foods that the Qur’an indicates are allowed foods and avoiding foods condemned by the Qur’an. Muhammad could not have known fully how nutritionally beneficial many of the directives were as he recorded God’s very words given directly to the him by the angel Gabriel, as tradition has it.
So if you’re going to eat as a Muslim obviously you’re going to recite the name of God, Allah, and then you’re going to give thanks to God before and after you eat the meal.  Further, you are supposed to contemplate every morsel of food you eat, remembering the Creator who provided the means for humans to have nourishment, and this may well create a prayer-like state during the a meal.
Kit Calaguas is very much involved right now in the study and practice of mindfulness and eating.  The multiple benefits of healthy foods are enhanced by concentrating on the food while chewing more slowly and deliberately.  Perhaps Kit will catch us up with his ongoing research at one of our forums in the coming year. Hint.  Hint.
According to the Prophet Muhammad you can eat only when you’re hungry, and when you do eat it must not be in excess. As you are eating, he taught, you need to think about dividing your stomach into 3 parts:  one-third for food, one-third for fluid, and one-third for the air needed to help along the process of digestion.   Further, when you eat, you’re supposed to remember those who don’t have food and share all the food you can with someone who’s hungry.  In fact, in certain circumstances, and I don’t know what they are, it’s possible to avoid spending eternity in hell if someone is compassionate and feeds a hungry person or a hungry animal.

II.
I am intrigued as I think about the connection of food to so many of the major religions in the world as well as some of the much smaller religious sects. The connection is in its way both prehistoric and modern, beginning perhaps in the most ancient of animistic faiths and leading right up into the present to the most sacred of all religious food events, the church dinner.
An animistic religion, in case you haven’t gotten around to the formal study of religion as a discipline in its own right within the humanities–which many have not and will not any more than I will study physics–is one practiced by ancient peoples and peoples yet today who remain primitive.  I mean that in an entirely descriptive way, not in any pejorative way whatsoever.  An animistic religion is one that focuses very much on nature, and an adherent believes broadly that every part of nature is inhabited and controlled by some kind of deity. There’s a rock god in control of the rock; there is a tree god controlling the tree.  The sun god controls the sun and so forth. Not only is one aware of the presence of these deities within both animate and inanimate objects, but also the person practicing the religion believes that her or his life depends on a positive, productive relationship with the various deities. So, if you want a good harvest you must be in good with the god of farming, the god of gardening.You must be in good with the sun goddess to make sure your plants get ample sunlight, and you must also be in good with the god of rain so you don’t lose food to drought.
In animistic religions the gods and goddesses are entirely anthropomorphized. Not only do they have human emotions, but also they have human needs. So if you as a human being get hungry and have to eat to satisfy your hunger then you will know that your deity also get hungry and needs to eat. The thing is, since they are limited by the object to which they are attached, they cannot go out in search of their own food. Therefore, they depend on their subjects, their followers to go and get the food for them.  In one way or another these practices must have led to the practice of offering sacrifices. The earliest sacrifices in most animistic religions were food items.
Many of you will know the story of Cain and Abel, the first two children of Eve and Adam.  One of them, Abel, grew up to become a rancher, a person who raised animals for a living. Animals helped the people in a number of respects, but many of them finally became food on the table. Their other son, Cain, was a gardener, a person who raised fruits and vegetables.
Because their crops and livestock were so valued by the themselves, others, and God (they believed), and because they believed that God was behind the success of a crop or the births of numerous healthy animals, the best crops and animals became sacrifices to God.  The first tenth of the finest crops and the first ten of the finest animals born on a livestock farm in any given year were offered as sacrifices to God.
Cain and Abel were not animists.  They were practicing a more advanced kind of religion on this side of the development of monotheism.  Even so, they still believed God required sacrifices to continue acting positively toward those who offered the sacrifices.  In their case they did not believe God ate the produce or the meat; rather, they believed God was nurtured and appeased because of the good smells from what was burned on an altar.
Into the time of Jesus, he and his contemporaries–descendants of the ancient Hebrews, were still practicing sacrifice. We have no stories about Jesus offering a sacrifice to God though he almost certainly did sacrifice; we do have stories about Jesus participating in feasts where sacrifices were typically part of the rituals. By the way, in Jesus’ day there were no more grain or produce sacrifices; the sacrifice had to be living so that blood could be shed on the altar in order for God to be appeased.  A dove for poor person, a goat perhaps for a person not quite so poor, a sheep for someone with a little more money to spare.  In any case, the throat had to be slit so the blood would spill out and burn on the fires of an altar.  The remains of the animal even though there were untold numbers of starving people around could not be eaten officially. This is something with which the apostle Paul did not agree, and he said in his own sort of lowkey way (not typical of Paul!) that the remains of animals offered as sacrifices could certainly be eaten by spiritually mature people as long as they didn’t cause spiritually immature people still trying to understand the ins and outs of religious rules to stumble.
Tragically, and I do mean “tragically” in its most intense form, some person or persons sitting around one day trying to make some sense out of the senselessness of Jesus’ death, having been put to the death by the Romans, came up with a metaphor that has evolved into what womanist theologian, Rita Nakashima Brock, has called the worst heresy ever propagated on the Christian.  What she was referring to is a doctrinal formulation that ended up with the name “atonement theology,” which says that God required a living sacrifice whose blood would be shed as an appeasement sacrifice in order for God to be able to put aside God’s anger at “sinfully depraved humanity”; otherwise, God would eventually wipe us out because of what the formulators of the doctrine regarded as extraordinary evil and disobedience.
Indeed when the book of Revelation was written, one of the last Second Testament books to be written though perhaps not the last as the Gospel of John may very well have been the last in the collection that has been left to us, Jesus is symbolically presented as the lamb that was slain but who lived again. There are scads of people, including most of us who grew up with any kind of church background unless it might’ve been Unitarian, who were taught that Jesus died for our sins, had to die for our sins, in order for God to love us and accept us. Then, on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice we can and must have the courage to step forward and come into the presence of God asking to be accepted not because of who we are or of how God relates to us individually but because of Jesus’ bloody death.
Holy Week for people of this ilk is a rather odd combination of sadness and celebration that Jesus was put to death.  Yes, the pain was real, and that’s regrettable; but without the shedding of blood as an old adage put it there is no remission of sin. So they take Jesus’ death as a necessary evil.  That’s one of the many reasons the death of Jesus on this side of that horrid act is glorified.
No one ate the flesh of the sacrificial lamb, which symbolized Jesus, but some traditions eventually believed that that was necessary and important so their communion celebrations tell those who participate that after certain key prayers and blessings by priests the bread, the wafer, the loaf becomes the literal body of Jesus and the wine or juice the literal blood of Jesus sacrificed. In this mystical moment they are taught that they are ingesting the very body and blood of Jesus. It is a grotesque thought, and some of those who first heard about the belief called Christians cannibals.

III.
Daniel is one of the great heroes of the First Testament.  In many ways he was an eccentric, which we in this congregation know nothing about, but maybe you know one or have read about an eccentric so that you can help shape the mental picture of Daniel that the writer of the book that bears his name wants her or his readers to picture.  Eccentric or not, however, Daniel was a courageous person who stood up for what he believed regardless of the potential consequences.
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Empire holding many of the Hebrews in exile, decided that he would take several of the brightest and best young Hebrew men and essentially turn them into Babylonians in terms of what they learned, how they thought, dressed, and behaved.  Eventually, brainwashed and recultured, these young men could be given places of responsibility and honor in the Babylonian political hierarchy.  The process of being recultured could be a very glamorous one, as Moses found out with the Egyptians and as Esther found out with the Persians.  The opportunities that came to these highly gifted Hebrews with more evident potential to develop made hating that Babylonians more difficult for many of the Hebrews.  Once they had been declared a winner in one of the rounds of “Babylonian Idol,” that famous game show from ancient times, many of their sister- and brother- Hebrews loved the tremendous opportunities the King of Babylon offered them–and not just performance opportunities using the Babylonian names given to these young men to replace their Hebrew names, but also cultural and educational opportunities as well.  Again, this made it difficult for a good number of the Hebrews to hate Babylon with the same intensity with which they had hated the world power before some of their own began to get opportunities to flourish.
The first step in the reculturation process was to live in special apartments away from everything Hebrew where they only heard the Babylonian language, specifically the dialect preferred by the King for conversation with him and his advisors and in the conducting of business on his behalf, which some of them would go on to do.  In these comfortable apartments, which were still guarded like jails with plain-togaed officers just in case any of the “chosen” might try to run away–even though not many would give up the niceties afforded them to go back to the ghettos where most of their sister- and brother- Hebrews lived.
Other than more comfortable surroundings, maid and butler cleaning services, and memberships in the gym on the palace grounds with their own personal trainers, the food was to die for–maybe literally, at least Daniel and three of his closest friends thought so.  The food was fancy, fatty, and seasoned with attention to taste only, not to health.  The wine was consumed at excessive levels.  Daniel and his pals, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; knew that part of what got them noticed in the first place was good health reflected in their physiques.  They believed that they were strong and healthy not only because they exercised well, but also because they ate well; and eating well for them meant a strict and serious vegan diet.
This conviction compelled them one day to ask the chief of their nutritional program for a change.  “Please don’t offer us only this rich and unhealthy food; eventually, it will break down our health.  We ask you sincerely to speak with the chef and request for us water and no wine; healthy whole grains; and vegetables only, without a trace of meat.”
The health advisor said, “We’re serving you the best foods there are; they are chosen and prepared to enhance your health.  If we allow you to eat this menu preferred by camels, your physical decline will become almost immediately evident, and when the King finds out what I allowed to happen I will be headless; you’ll be back in chains.”
Daniel and the boys pled for a chance to make it work, an experiment.  If they were permitted to eat what they knew had enhanced their health before Babylon came into the picture, they knew they’d be even stronger and healthier than their counterparts in the reculture program.  If they showed the slightest sign of physical regression, they’d instantly be placed back on double portions of the King’s recommended diet.  If they still looked like fine physical specimens, however, they could continue the vegan diet as long as they wished.
The so-called “Bible diet” is really in these days, but Daniel and friends didn’t ask for all possible healthy foods, even under the category of vegan.  They asked only for vegetables and water.  As a result, some of nutritionists and wannabe-nutritionists today who recommend that diet as a ten-day detox program–believing that omitting fruit, grains, and seeds will not contribute to long-term health.
That could well be the case in Daniel’s story.  The Hebrews may have felt that after a time of eating the fancy food with low nutritional value, their bodies needed a detox plan before asking permission to get back to the day-to-day vegan diet they’d probably eaten before the Babylonians had taken most of their people into exile about 606 years before Jesus was born.
Have you ever noticed in a run through the first couple of chapters of the book of Genesis, which purport to describe how God created the earth, the skies, as well as plant-animal-human life, that God gave Eve and Adam eating instructions?

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in the divine image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

So, just before God winds up creation and takes most of the seventh day off, God creates human and animal life–according to one of the two creation accounts that open the book of Genesis.  Each group is told what to eat before God calls it a day, if you will.    Humans were supposed to eat plants that can be eaten, but which also produce their own seeds so the species can be propagated.  Similarly, humans were to eat fruit that grew on trees and produced something to eat plus seeds so that other fruit-bearing trees could grow.  Non-human life that breathes is directed by the God of early Genesis to feast on the abundance of green plants.  In paradise, which is what the Garden of Eden was, humans don’t eat animals, and animals don’t eat humans.  It is Noah, later, who encourages the eating of meat.
In any case, we can’t miss the fact that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were trying to make food choices related to their faith commitments.  They believed that part of being faithful to God meant taking care of themselves, and a key part of taking care of self–which hasn’t always been understood and isn’t understood by many today even in our own health-conscious culture–is eating in such a way that our bodies are built up and not torn down.  That is a sacred thing indeed.

Inviting the Guests after the Feast Is Prepared (Eighth Sermon in Series, “Memorable Biblical Meals”)

I.
We have many superior hostesses and hosts in our church family, so I’d think that the parable from Jesus that we’ll get to today would cause you a fair amount of consternation, which is exactly what Jesus wanted it to do when he first told it and what he hoped would happen whenever someone might tell his story after him.  To get in the story’s groove, I want you to take just a second to think about the largest banquet or feast for which you have ever been the primary planner; the weight fell on your shoulders to see that all the details were done by you or by those whom you paid to do a portion of the work.  Even if you’re supervising many assistants and not doing most of the hands-on work yourself the pressure is on for making certain that everything is done just right.  Once it’s all over, and not until then, you realize how exhausted you are, how much work was collectively done, and how many problems were solved so that the food did not distract from the reason for the feast.  At that place of physical and, perhaps, emotional exhaustion is where I want you to keep yourself for a while, though on the back burner for most of the sermon.
Part of the reason we want a banquet or feast for which we are responsible to go well is to “save face.”  We don’t want people to remember the event because of the bad food, and we as hostess and host also want to save face as competent hostesses and hosts.  We can’t stand the thoughts of having people tell their friends invited to an event at our homes, “Oh, no.  You’d better find an excuse or create one.  Don’t go.  They’re nice people, but there are only three possible responses to the cuisine they serve:  1) food that tastes bad; 2) food that gives you an upset stomach; and 3) food that gives you food poisoning, hopefully not severely enough to require the planning of another reception, the one to be held after your funeral.
Dr. John Pilch was for many years a Roman Catholic lay scholar of religion at Georgetown University.  Dr. Pilch lived in Baltimore so while I was serving there so we were able to get him over to our church a few times for lectures, discussions about his latest books, and so on.  He was a brilliant, engaging, and most humorous speaker.  I remember the Wednesday evening when he taught us the importance of “saving face” in the culture in which Jesus lived and to which Jesus contributed.  It was much more intense than in our day where the president of one world power can throw up on the president of another world power and only be mildly embarrassed.
In Jesus’ world one always had to be the best and the most with what financial resources she or he had.  Some of you may remember the story from the Gospel of John in which Jesus changed the water into wine.  He performed this sign as the wedding feast was coming to a close, and at least one of the guests–probably more–noticed distinctively that, unlike the typical feast where the best wine was served first and the Mogan David goatskins brought out toward the end of the multi-day event (when most guests were already three mats to the wind), here things were reversed.  One half-sober guest finds the wedding feast host and says, “My compliments to the family and the professionals working with them here.  They have saved the very best wines till last”–major face saver that most feast-planners couldn’t have hoped to arrange.  Always remember that most of those with whom Jesus ran and rubbed shoulders were poor.
Is there a standardized check list for a banquet planner or a feast planner?  It seems to me that if there isn’t there should be–just for purposes of reminders.  Anyone juggling tons of details can overlook one or two.  I attended a wedding reception once, a pretty big to-do in New Orleans, and the catering staff had forgotten to bring serving spoons.  A fairly large group of hungry well wishers were rather comical though amply disgruntled as everyone was having to serve herself or himself from the large serving dishes with teaspoons.  Add to that the extra time required for people to get through the food line.
Well, as it turns out, there are numerous such lists for those who can remember to find them and use them.  Here’s one from the internet, picking up a week before the event:

1 Week Before

___Meet with all committees for last-minute details

___Finish phone follow-ups

___Confirm number attending

___Finish seating/table arrangements

___Hold training session with volunteers; finalize assignments

___Secure two or three volunteers to assist with emergencies

___Distribute seating chart assignments to hosts/hostesses

___Schedule pickup or delivery of any rented or loaned equipment

___Double-check arrival time and delivery times with vendors

___Reconfirm event site, hotel, transportation

___Deliver final scripts and timelines to all program participants

___Finalize catering guarantee

___Make follow-up calls to news media for advance and event coverage

___Distribute additional fliers

___Final walkthrough with all personnel

___Schedule rehearsals

___Schedule volunteer assignments for day of event

___Establish amount of petty cash needed for tips and emergencies

___Write checks for payments to be made for the day of the event

1 Day Before Event

___Lay out all clothes that you will need the day of the event

___Recheck all equipment and supplies to be brought to the event

___Have petty cash and vendor checks prepared

Event Day

___Arrive early (with your change of clothes)

___Unpack equipment, supplies and make sure nothing is missing

___Be sure all VIPs are in place and have scripts

___Reconfirm refreshments/meal schedule for volunteers

___Go over all the final details with caterer and setup staff

___Check with volunteers to make sure all tasks are covered

___Setup registration area

___Check sound/light equipment  (It’s too late for this.  If something isn’t working it’s too late to get it fixed.  Just saying….)

All of this, and not a single guest shows up!

II.

If you have done any parable study on your own or heard someone competent person offer an informed interpretation of one of the parables, you know that generally speaking when Jesus told a parable he had one overarching saying or point that he wanted to get across. If there are some interesting sidelines and subplots in the longer parables they might be worth taking note of, but they are not generally seen as part of a parable’s central message.
In this case we have a parable about a banquet; it’s not just any banquet, but a banquet put on by a king. It was the occasion of his son’s, of the prince’s, wedding. Naturally there would be a big banquet to accompany the ceremony itself, and while the king was involved with his servants ensuring that all the details went according to plan, the king did very little of the work himself.  Nothing surprising about that.
In keeping with what one would expect from the king, the finest of everything was planned for; nothing was too good for the prince.  The finest musicians were hired; the finest cooks and caterers were employed.  The finest menu items were selected.  Everything that could make this the best of the best among banquets was arranged for. The guest list was attended to with great care and on the day of the wedding, the feast being held after the ceremony itself, the foundation had been laid for perfection.
The king was perplexed, and he thought he might also be angry; but he wasn’t sure if he should be since he couldn’t understand why not a soul who would’ve been invited to the banquet would bother to show up.  Worse, maybe, or almost as bad at least no one bothered to send word that she or he would be unable to honor the invitation they’d responded to with a “Yes.”
The king sent some of his slaves out to the homes of the invited guests to remind them that there was a banquet in process to which they had been invited.  The slaves were barely acknowledged, and they brought their report back to the king.  OK, now some royal anger is definitely slipping into the picture.  A different group of slaves then goes out to the same guests, and they go into great detail about what energy their king had invested in planning this event.  How could they choose to miss out on the celebration?  More significantly, how could they dare to flat out ignore their king?   The second set of servants talked about the delicious menu items prepared for the absentee guests, food just sitting there because there was no one to eat it.
This time a couple of absentee guests offered vague and flimsy excuses about why they weren’t present.  For example, one said, “Well, I had every intention of being at all the wedding festivities, but things just got out of hand on my farm all of a sudden.  I have several workers out, and I have to be there to make sure all goes well.”  Yeah.  Yeah.
There’s this horrible turn in the story, and we’re going to have to say more interpretively about exactly what Jesus was trying to convey.  Some of the absentee guests called on by the king’s servants a second time didn’t appreciate being bothered again about their decisions to do something else in place of attending the banquet so they killed some of the servants who had done no wrong; they had only done what their king had commanded that they do.
We are beginning to think in this sermon series on memorable biblical meals that no one ate a thing.  Not so.  There was a shocking third effort to try to get people to come to the king’s feast.
This time, the king’s directive to the slaves who thought the feast was jinxed was to invite anyone and everyone whom they might encounter out on the streets.  By no means, though, were they to favor society’s higher ups who paid large sums of money to get seats at an intimate dinner for 5,000 people supporting a political candidate, and no effort whatsoever was to be paid to those who’d been formally invited initially but who ignored the invite.   Wealthy people could be invited as could the destitute.  Yes, those largely ignored by society at large on a daily basis were to get invitations to attend a banquet at the palace.
There were many takers, rich and poor.  It was customary to wear certain attire at a wedding feast.  Maybe some of the poor people didn’t own the proper attire.  Maybe some of the rich invitees did own the proper attire but had no time to retrieve it as the banquet was already in progress.  Thus, the king provided a proper wedding garment for everyone who FINALLY came to his feast.

III.
The characters in Jesus’ parable were fictional, but they symbolized someone or some group in the real world.  It means everything for understanding the parable to know whom each of the characters in the story represented.  Again, the parables themselves do not narrate history. The stories are all fictional, but with very important focused spiritual meanings and messages.  We surely know that the truth is not the captive of so-called historicity.  Many great truths have been made known to us, to humanity, in stories that weren’t historically factual.  Think of the amazing power of the mythology found in any number of ancient cultures.
Okay, so the first character, the central character, is a king, and the king represents God.  It is God Godself who has arranged for a massive feast to honor the prince on the occasion of the prince’s marriage. Some scholars of the sociology of Jesus’ time, like Dr. Pilch, tell us that there was no social event in any community more important than a wedding ceremony. Almost everybody in any town would’ve been invited to almost every wedding there.   Think “Fiddler on the Roof,” a different time and place but a reasonable example communally of what a wedding would be like to the inhabitants of a small village.
The son of the king, the prince, would be a reference to Jesus although in this parable Jesus has a very small role, let’s say a cameo at best.  In reality from most indications Jesus was not married and did not celebrate at his own wedding feast although not all scholars and writers, notably Dan Brown, would agree with such an assessment, but that is another sermon or maybe another series of sermons.
Anyway, here’s the king and in the background the king’s son who will celebrate his marriage just prior to this magnificent feast thrown by none other than his own father, the king.  The people who are invited first represent those who first understood the reality of a one and only loving God desiring relationship with humanity, the ancient Hebrews following the leadership of Abraham.  I know Jesus was a devout Jew; so do you, but he could be constructively critical of his own faith tradition despite the pain it brought him. So the people first invited to the great banquets represent the ancient Hebrews who for time had a strong relationship with God but who according to how the ancient Hebrew prophets interpreted history finally, largely ignored God meaning that as time passed fewer and fewer of the Hebrews gave any concern or attention to God.  Even so, they are the ones represented in the parable and as those getting fancy invitations and first choice seats at the banquet but not bothering to show up.
God is not erased from their experience, but in time God is not important enough to warrant any investment of their time. The servants who go out to try to bring in these first choice guests would be none other than the ancient prophets themselves:  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so on; but their pleas for the people to come to God go ignored.
Another round of prophets is sent to the people of Israel, and these would be prophets like John the Baptist and others in his generation whose names we don’t know.  Jesus could well have been considered one of those second generation servants to bring the same people back into intimate relationship with God represented by attendance at the great feast.  In this case, not a lot is different than the first effort.  Notably, a few people do bother to offer excuses though they’re essentially pointless excuses as I’ve said, and in their frustration that they are even asked again to bother with God they have a hand in killing the servant-messengers like John the Baptist and Jesus and many others whose names we don’t know.
So, there sits the big banquet table filled with food that has been there quite a while, and still no one is eating any of the food because there are no guests. God sends out some more servants to invite anybody and everybody to the banquet; forget the Hebrews who are ignoring God’s love and just ask anybody regardless of religious background if any to come and take a place at one of the tables set up for this great banquet.
I have to pause here enough to say that this is not an anti-Semitic diatribe, although some writers do color a handful of Jesus’s teachings with anti-Semitism trying to teach that Jesus grew to dislike his own people and the religion to which he was devoted.  That is absolutely untrue.  Jesus loved his people and his religious grounding in Judaism.  He was a proudly practicing Jew from bar Mitzvah to burial.  This parable is told at a terrible time in Jesus’ life; he was frustrated with some of his sister- and brother-Jews.  The recent execution of his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, was freshly in his mind as was a keen awareness that his death could come soon because of Rome’s anger and paranoia.
Guess what?  The third effort to get people seated at the banquet works.  All kinds of people come to the palace’s banquet hall for the grand to-do.  Some are nicely cleaned up for the occasion; some dirty and smelly, but they come.
As we’ve mentioned, while the guests enter the banquet hall, the king has monitors to make sure that each one is dressed appropriately in wedding feast attire.  As they enter the great banquet hall the king’s staff made sure that each one is appropriately dressed.
It makes absolutely no sense, but one of the guests did not bring his own garment and would not bother to put on the garment the king’s staff tried to provide for him. The king kind of goes berserk here; with all the other things that could’ve made the king lose it, this one rebel gets the brunt of the king’s anger and frustration.  The king has him bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness; he cannot rescue himself or be rescued by anyone else. This is not a very pretty picture of God and in reality not the way God operates, but this is a parable making points for thoughtful reflection.
Jesus had no idea of exactly what was on the horizon in terms of religious groups that would be functioning when he was no longer living on this earth. He wasn’t concerned that Christianity would be lost because there was no Christianity until a good while after his execution.  He was a Jew, but he was convinced that his beloved religion was more or less moving toward some kind of extinction because his sister- and brother-Jews were giving less and less of themselves to what really mattered in connection to God, which was relationship rather than the keeping of rules.
The Pharisees, the chief rules keepers in Judaism, would’ve been highly offended by this parable, which of course Jesus knew, because they were keeping the rules and assuming this was their guarantee of an invitation to the banquet, but Jesus is saying in the parable that that’s not a way to get on the guest list.  Of all things, the poor guy who refused to put on the proper garment represented the Pharisees who, in reality, took great care and pride in their attire.  They refused, however, to put on the proper garment for the feast to which they desperately wanted to be invited.  Jesus’ story had them being tossed into a place of darkness from which they could not be rescued.
This should be an alarming parable or at least something to cause raised eyebrows.  If Jesus had the courage to say that his beloved religion, which unbeknownst to him, would be the founding religion for monotheism let us be equally as brave and say that the message Jesus had for his fellow Jews can apply, must apply to any religious group in our day or in any day.  In our country, Christianity has been regarded as God’s favored religion; if I’m being polite I say that’s a serious misunderstanding.  Ignoring me, the same people who believe that Christianity is God’s favored religion believe that Christians, especially American Christians, are God’s favorite people among all the people in the world.  Again, if I could still manage to be polite, I’d say that this idea also is a serious misunderstanding.
In the extreme, these folks believe that being American and being Christian are essentially the same thing.  Even those who know they don’t care squat about religion or have a milisecond to minister to the needy people to whom Jesus gave almost all of this time believe that their nationality will get them in good with God here and hereafter.  Let me say that in another way.  There are numerous US Americans who have no particular connection to God relationally, but because they are Americans many of them assume that the benefits of Christianity spill over onto them. Therefore, we get the horrible responses from would-be theologians in the face of crisis saying all this happened to us because God is punishing God’s favored people, us, because we are slipping in our devotion to God.
Heads up! Here’s the message from Jesus’ for today.  Christianity may not always speak and/or show God’s love to the whole world.  In fact, we may become so caught up polishing our religion that we can’t make time to get over to God’s banquet when invited.  Let me take this is a step further and be more blunt.  God does not need organized religion to accomplish God’s purposes in the world, but if there’s going to be organized religion it must be concentrated on encouraging adherents to share relationship with God and live out the love of God, which has overtaken us and them. Otherwise, it has no purpose. There’s no long term need for dogma, which often changes from generation to generation anyway.  Church buildings age, fall apart, and typically are eventually torn down.  The arguments within a church community that cost many members friendships are forgotten in a handful of years.
When Paul is writing to the Christians in Corinth he said at the end of the day, at the end of the world as we now know it, there will be only three realities that remain:  faith, hope, and love with the greatest of the three being love. Everything else that humanity has done in the name of any religion will fade away or will have already long faded by the time this chapter in human history comes to close.  There should be a lesson as we connect the teaching of Jesus’ parable with the insightful words of Paul at his best.
If we want to be connected to what God is all about why concentrate on anything else?  Faith is not saying, “I believe that God exists.”  Faith is confidence that God is love and that every human being deserves the benefits of the full measure of that love.  Hope is not wishful thinking; hope is a vision of humans living out God’s love so that the world cannot help but become a better place.  Love isn’t nurturing, mushy feelings for everyone you meet; it is a specific act, often selfless, for someone who has a need, even if you happen not to like that person.
Those who are extraordinarily attached to organized religion, the people in Jesus’ parable too busy to come to the banquet, cannot imagine a world without their religion influentially at work.  There are Christians who cannot imagine this world without the dominance of their religion overriding all others even though demographics tell us that in the next 38 years if things keep going the way they’re going Christianity will be in decline, and after having been the largest organized religion in the world will take the second seat as Islam takes the first.
God does not need any religion to be God or to accomplish divine acts. God does not need any religion in order for truths about God to be made known. Organized religion is a nice accessory, potentially, and meaningful for some people if it holds together well enough; indeed, some organized religious movements have done exactly what they were supposed to do without making themselves their own reason for being.
Usually what happens when religions decline is that they begin to see self-preservation as their reason for being; finally, they have nothing else to live for. They forget all about being catalysts of divine love to the second- or third-stringers initially uninvited to the banquet, those who thought the king didn’t even know they existed, and before you know it you mostly read about those religious movements only if you order a history book for your Kindle. Amen.

A Carpenter Also Cooks (Seventh Sermon in Series, “Memorable Biblical Meals”)

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I.
In the collection of materials the Gospel writers passed along to generations after them we have a limited number of stories, which is to say, among other things, that we don’t have a whole lot of information at our disposal about Jesus. Many of you have heard me say before that we have about 33 days of information and that out of a life that lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of 33 years. That’s not much data. It is important detail, but what we can know is painfully limited.
By the way, there was upheaval in the world of scriptural scholarship this week, the scholarly world of those who are primarily experts on Jesus material. One of the more liberal Jesus scholars at work in our time is Dr. Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Dr. Ehrman is an agnostic who takes a strong interest in the material about Jesus, and usually comes down at a liberal place, rather consistently irritating conservatives or even moderates.  Here’s the lowdown, and remember you heard it here first–most of you, anyway.
There’s so little material available about Jesus, and much of it parallels the events in the lives of other notable religious figures, including some who were known as deities, that some scholars across time have concluded that Jesus is a fictional character.  They have said out right that Jesus never existed. Now Dr. Ehrman is in the fascinating place of defending Jesus. Rather than interpreting something Jesus said an entirely new way or questioning whether Jesus would’ve said such a thing, it is Professor Bart Ehrman taking the lead and criticizing those who are trying to start a new round of doubt about the existence of Jesus. Those kinds of arguments are theological fads, and they come and go.
Ehrman, however, is absolutely convinced that Jesus lived, and he believes that no one has or will ever be able to disprove that. So the conservatives are applauding him guardedly because they know that, even though he will bolster a means for believing that Jesus existed, the Jesus he believes existed isn’t anything at all like what most of the conservatives want Jesus to be.
Among the limited number of stories we have about Jesus some few are accounts of post-resurrection appearances. If you are familiar with the Jesus material you know that after the story of the resurrection there are accounts of Jesus dealing with people, seeing his closest followers and so forth over a 40 day period. And it is not until the so-called ascension that he leaves the earth and goes to dwell in heaven with God. So in this 40 day time span there are some significant encounters Jesus has with strangers as well as followers and friends before being taken up into heaven, his ascension.
Some folks believe literally in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus; others do not.  I once assigned the ascension text to a preaching student for his next in class sermon. I was teaching in Switzerland at the time, and the student went to his advisor who was a liberal theologian and complained about having been assigned this impossible text, which the student claimed not to believe.  He told his advisor that he did not believe in a literal resurrection or literal ascension but rather looked for the spiritual meaning in such accounts. The professor who remains one of my great friends, I’m happy to say, said to the student, who by the way has preached in this pulpit, “Why would you worry about that text; its message is simple:  what goes up must come down.”  Preach that and enjoy the look on Farmer’s face.  The student came and reported the advice to me, and I said, “If you do preach on the text as if that is the meaning I can guarantee that you will not pass the assignment.”
The story before us today falls in that category. It is one of the post-resurrection appearances Jesus makes presented as such. On occasion a Gospel writer will take a post-resurrection appearance and reposition the story as if it were something that occurred before Jesus’ execution/resurrection/ascension. Perhaps as one scholar suggested to me some years ago this would’ve been one way of having Jesus appear to have been clairvoyant. That is not the preferred interpretation for a number of readers and hearers, both conservative and liberal, but it is an option.
In our story, Jesus comes across several of his closest male followers, the disciples, and he is clearly in this state of having been raised from the dead as the story goes yet awaiting his departure from the realm in which we now live.  This is an absolutely fascinating story.  It has so many levels of meaning, and it offers us so many reminders of what is involved in being a follower of Jesus in the real world.
The connection with the current sermon series, which has to do with memorable biblical meals, is that Jesus prepares breakfast for his disciples who have been fishing all night long.  The post-resurrection Jesus who is the same guy who did carpentry work is now cooking breakfast for some of his closest male followers who were fishermen.

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.

Not all the disciples were present, only seven of them.  If we keep symbolism in mind, which would be a very appropriate and important thing to do when we read the Gospel of John, then we would immediately take note of the fact that seven is the number in Jewish numerology of the period that symbolizes perfection–the completion of divine acts involving humans at their best, the blending together of the divine number, 3, with the number representing humanity at its best, 4.
Since Judas had committed suicide and hadn’t yet been replaced, there were eleven men remaining in the men’s group.  Wouldn’t you have hated being one of the five not included at this important event?  Well, maybe those four not present, like Matthew who was a tax collector, didn’t do fishing.  Even so, what about the two unfortunate souls who were unnamed by the storyteller who goes into detail naming the other five?  Ouch!  It would be something like Dr. Bill Linn publishing his Church Council minutes in our newsletter, and in the section that reports attendance he reports something like this:  “Attending our meeting were Council Chair, Bruce Smith; Council Vice-Chair, Karen Smith; Clerk of Council, Bill Linn (of course!); the Pastor; and a few others.”
The fact that the writer of the Fourth Gospel listed seven men was his subtle way of saying to his first readers and hearers that precisely those who needed to be present were there, even if there were two whose names the author neglected to reveal.  Seven represented just-right-ness; God is pleased and present (#3), and humanity is at its best (#4).  Three plus four equals seven.
My college math professor, Dr. Cary Herring, began class one morning at our small religiously affiliated college by insisting that mathematics would be part of our careers whatever they turned out to be.  I raised my hand and said, “I’m going into the ministry, and none of what we’re learning will ever be used by me.”  Well, I have just proven that Dr. Herring was right, and I was wrong!  Three plus four does equal seven.  I suppose I owe Professor Herring a letter of apology.

II.

Simon Peter said to his six colleagues, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” The seven of them went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

So just the right people were present; perhaps just the right people in this case meant those who were fishermen by trade and were getting ready to go to work on the graveyard shift. Perhaps there were a couple of others whose names we won’t bother to mention or even think about who were pretty decent at fishing and might’ve come along to help out.  Who knows?  The professional fishermen did not want any of the others to come along if they knew nothing about fishing. They did not want colleagues to come along who talked loudly and incessantly and scared the fish away.  Maybe one or two of the other four disciples did not want to come along because they easily became seasick.
The next point the writer is making in the telling of the story is that sometimes we do poorly what it is we supposedly do best. These professional fishermen went out as they regularly did–sometimes during the day, sometimes during the night.  It was their job.  On this particular evening, they worked a whole shift and caught not one fish.  This was their livelihood so not only were they disappointed fishermen, but also disappointed businessmen, disappointed fathers and husbands because they had no fish to bring home to their own families. They had caught nothing, zilch.
I would guess this was probably rare, but this likely was not the first time it happened. The disciples who were fishermen were well trained in their profession, but sometimes they did poorly. Occasionally, that had something to do with their technique or where they decided to fish, something like that; at other times they did everything perfectly from a technical standpoint, but the fish just weren’t biting, or in their case diving into the nets.
I think this passage should call highly competent people like all of you to realize that there are times when we set out to do what we do well as a rule, what some say we’re the best at, and the results are zero. How hard it is to explain a failing to our peers, to our bosses, and to those whom we supervise. People watch us all the time to see how this particular task is done.  We, directly or indirectly, are their teachers, their coaches, their encouragers; but here’s a shift when we’re supposed to be doing what we usually do well during which nothing goes correctly. It is as if we expended no energy whatsoever. Others who watch us to see how this particular task is done shake their heads in disbelief and wonder if what they’ve heard about our great skills is reality.  Most painfully, during these disappointing times, we doubt ourselves.
Here is a therapist who been counseling effectively for years. One day, client after client after client comes and goes, and the therapist realizes that she or he has offered not one of them even the tiniest bit of help or support. The right words would not come. The connections that usually were there emotionally weren’t there. No matter what the counselor tried to do between sessions to make sure it didn’t happen again was futile; she or he did essentially nothing except of course to collect the fee at the end of the counseling hour, which is 50 minutes not 60 minutes.  I might need to check with Dr. Herring to be sure, but I don’t think 50 minutes make up an hour.
Here’s an athlete who has been noticed by the whole world for her or his amazing skill and success in this particular sport. During the Olympics is a great time to visualize what I’m about to describe.  In every game or contest she or he is a winner and most often the top winner. One day this athlete goes into the event, and nothing happens; she or he is at the bottom of the list of performers that day. Nothing happens; nothing is accomplished.  Failed effort after failed effort.
Here’s a presidential candidate who won the oval office by a landslide.  On the next try, however, he and one day she suffers a humiliating loss. How could this possibly be the case?  The pundits are puzzled, and the news writers don’t know what to say except, “Carter loses.”
Here’s the church who has been exemplary. This church has done all the right things, and its members along with any nonmembers who care to observe know that’s the truth. For years other churches looked to this church’s success with envy, though envy is not supposed to be a trait planted in the hearts of spiritually-grounded people. The church grows; the church has blooming finances.  The programs the church offers never fail to meet the needs of those who participate in them. It is an amazing sight to behold year after year after year, and then finally one day nothing goes right anymore. The staff is shocked and confused and saddened as are the lay leaders of the church. They do things the way they’ve always done them, the way that always brought results and success.  Suddenly, that way doesn’t work no matter how many times they retry.
I hope you don’t know what that’s like, but my suspicion is that most of us know exactly what that’s like.  We set out to do what we know we do well and what others know we do well, and we fail miserably.  We aren’t sure what that means. If we are aging we may say to ourselves, “I knew I would be slipping one of these days, and here’s proof.”  We have been cool, calm, and collected as parents, and then one day we lose it and create distance between ourselves and our children; we wonder if anything we’ve ever done parentally has been worthwhile.
I could give more examples, but you know what I’m talking about.  Thankfully there’s more to the story.

III.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”  He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

The weary disciples feeling the full force of failure did not know what to make of the question the stranger on the shore asked them as they left their boats behind and began to call it a night.  “You didn’t catch anything did you?”, the stranger asked the seven disciples who did not know he was Jesus.  They didn’t know if it were an honest question from somebody who knew they were the best fishermen around.  Or was the question a way of mocking them, a way of saying, “You must be losing your touch.  Will you ever be able to catch fish again?”
Then the stranger still completely unknown to the disciples gave them some fishing advice. They weren’t accustomed to taking advice from anybody.  They were the best around, and had they known this was Jesus resurrected they would still have been put off at the directive because he was a carpenter.  Carpenters didn’t know what fishermen knew about fishing.
This story is part of the closing of the Gospel of John.  The very well-placed episode is intended to make a number of points; one of the points was especially directed to the struggling Christians at the end of the first century when the Gospel, the last of the four, began circulating in its final form.  The final point of the story is probably the crux of the story:   never become unteachable. Never think you know so much that you are unable to benefit from the input of others–someone who may know a little more than you know or someone who simply might have a different approach.
Never become unteachable.  I think of two notable instances in my life when I felt stubbornly unteachable–one happened a long time ago and the other fairly recently.
The one from long ago took place while I was teaching in Switzerland–right after grad school. Occasionally, between classes I would slip over to the chapel when nobody was present and enjoy playing the piano, which for much of my life has been something I’ve enjoyed doing primarily for myself. One day I was in the chapel playing away, and the Seminary’s gardener, Herr Rosenthal, entered the sanctuary and stood at the back listening to me for a while.  I assumed he was taking a break and enjoying what I was playing.
When I finished the piece, he walked up to me as I sat at the piano, and I assumed a compliment was on its way.  Instead, Herr Rosenthal said something like, “You could get a much better sound if you used your wrists more; you are too stiff.”  I thought to myself, “Well, even if I am, who are you to give me instructions on how to play the piano; you’re the gardener.”  I remember making a decision to pay no attention whatsoever to what he said.  I’d taken lessons for years; I knew how to play–though today were you to hear me play you might question that, not that you’re going to hear me!
Actually, I was an OK pianist.  The problem was never that I lacked the ability to play; the problem was insufficient practice although I didn’t have what it took ever to become a virtuoso or even live in the next neighborhood over.   I would say that at one time I was competent, and that’s as far as it went.
I left the chapel and went to the faculty lounge where I happened upon one of my colleagues with whom I felt free to talk, and I laughingly told him the story of what had just happened in the chapel.  He laughed and I laughed. What I didn’t know for several minutes was that he was laughing at me; when he regained his composure he said, “You should listen to Herr Rosenthal; he is a concert pianist who just does gardening for the benefit of his physical health.”
The other incident, which was fairly recently, was an editorial matter.  I have been an editor for 30 years.  I have edited much more than I’ve written in terms of publication, and I think I learned to be a good editor, which is not to say that good editors always provide error-free work.  Once a publisher hired me for an editing gig, and the contract she asked me to sign read, “…will submit error-free manuscripts on or before designated deadlines.”  Hilarious!  I wouldn’t sign the contract, and I don’t recall what the amended version read.  I certainly do make editorial mistakes, and even the best of editors are not typically good at editing their own work.
Well, be that as it may I was asked several months ago to write four brief chapters in a book for preachers, duh, coming out next fall, and I completed my assignments and turned them in according to the process that was pretty much as it has been for years. I have written for this annual volume a number of times and kind of know my way around the process.
Three of my chapters were well received by the new editor, but the fourth he hated.  Never have I been criticized stylistically for anything I’ve written.  This new editor sent feedback on that one chapter, which insulted me as a writer and as a theologian.
I did not take kindly to his critique of my writing at that level or his suggestions for improvement, but I pondered the situation and the critique for a day or so and told him and the publisher that while I didn’t like how he, the editor, related to me, I wanted to force myself to be teachable in that moment.  The publisher who has known me for years was stunned and speechless when she heard my response.
I was so proud of myself for being so mature.  I called both of my sons to tell them their dear old Dad was mellowing.  Each of them asked me what I’d been drinking.
This story is not told to brag; in fact, I share it with you because it is one of several moments in my life when I needed to be teachable, but was not.  In the end, I suppose it’s the end of the issue for real, I was insulted to the point that I could not make the corrections; I couldn’t adjust the material. I’m not proud of how I responded.  I was and am in the wrong in more ways than one.  Chances are, I’ll be the loser because I am refusing to learn from someone who just might be a better editor than I, who just might have a better sense of what his readers want and need.
Jesus said to those disciples who were professional fishermen, “Hey, boys; try putting your nets down on the other side of the boat,” and the fishermen looked at each other in disbelief.  They knew that it wouldn’t make any difference which side of the boat they dropped the net from.  Why they took the stranger’s advice, we don’t know; but they did, and when they tried one more time they had so many fish they couldn’t pull the nets up out of the of the water.  Had they remained unteachable they would’ve caught nothing at all, but because they were teachable even though at the time they thought it was probably an unskilled fisherman giving them direction they were more successful than they ever had been.
My friends, all of us individually and in the groups in which we are a part–whether families, churches, corporations–are rut-inclined.  We will follow a workable pattern we have set knowing, probably subconsciously, that one day we’ll have to make some changes but dreading that day.  New information will be discovered.  Technology will advance.  Our competitors in the work world will leave us in the dust if we refuse to keep up with the times, which means that from time to time we have to learn new things and make changes. What finally forces the change, if we are able to manage a change which some of us are not, is most likely when we fail miserably at what has been for us the tried and true way.
When I am critical of the church, my intent is always to be constructive, and I am ever aware that I am a part of the reason constructive criticism needs to be offered.  That said, I have two questions for us.

1) Is change our enemy and routine our friend?
2) Have we already learned all we’re ever willing to learn as we try to be a church in the tough modern world?
Walter Shurden, one of the finest lecturers with whom I was ever privileged to study, wrote a book he called Not a Silent People.  In that book, he wrote that the most famous LAST words of a church (that is dying) are:  “We never did it that way before.”
Eventually, the seven disciples realized that the stranger was Jesus, the carpenter.  A carpenter had taught them to fish successfully after which he cooked their breakfast–some bread and what else was it?  Oh yeah.  Fish!

This Is Going to Hurt Me, More than You. Right! (sixth sermon in series, “Memorable Biblical Meals”)

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I.
The subtitle for my sermon today, if I had one, would probably need to be “Disposable People.”  Now, I thought I came with that designation, but as I did some research I found out it wasn’t my phrase after all.  Turns out that Kevin Bales has a hot off the press book about the subject titled, of all things, Disposable People.  He is dealing specifically with the enslaved and only the enslaved.  My concerns are broader, but the phrase is his.  Before we leave him for the moment, let’s hear a word from him on our topic for the day.
Slavery is illegal throughout the world, yet more than twenty-seven million people are still trapped in one of history’s oldest social institutions. Kevin Bales’s disturbing story of slavery today reaches from brick kilns in Pakistan and brothels in Thailand to the offices of multinational corporations. His investigation of conditions in Mauritania, Brazil, Thailand, Pakistan, and India reveals the tragic emergence of a “new slavery,” one intricately linked to the global economy. The new slaves are not a long-term investment as was true with older forms of slavery, explains Bales. Instead, they are cheap, require little care, and are disposable.
Back to us.  What do we do with those who have been a part of our lives that we no longer want to have in our lives?  I can think of at least six primary possibilities.
One, we could simply ask them to leave. Now, if they do not want to leave, being comfortable with the situation and surroundings where they have been living with us, they may refuse to leave. This was a serious problem on one of my favorite television shows that is no longer running, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The main character and his wife separated, and after a bit he took up with another lovely young lady. Soon, she moved into his home, and in a short time she brought a house full of her family members to live with her in the large home of her new man. The last season of the show centered around his frustrated efforts to try to get rid of everybody except the woman in whom he was interested. Claiming some kind of squatters’ rights, the person or persons we want out of our homes manages to thwart our efforts to have them removed, and so they stay put. Any humor in the mess, if any in the real world, quickly dissipates.
A second way of getting rid of people that we don’t want to have to deal with anymore is to force them to leave or have them forcibly removed from our home. I remember when one of Liberace’s boy toys was no longer welcome at the Liberace mansion, and the talented Liberace forced him out. It wasn’t long afterwards that I first heard the word “palimony.” The young man, maybe his name was Scot Thorson or something like that, who was forced to leave what had been his residence for a number of years sued Liberace for palimony, which was to cover the expenses of having lived with Liberace and presumably been at Lee’s beckon call 24/7.
Sometimes in a divorce settlements one party is forced to leave the house for which she or he has made most of the payments so that the other person may have control over the house entirely as a part of living post-divorce. The person forced to leave is the one who made possible having the house for both of them in the first place.  Something seems very wrong about that to me.
A sub-option to this possibility of getting rid of somebody by forcing her or him out of your life and/or your home would be to give away the person or abandon the person if she or he has no ability to find a way back home. Unsuspecting suburbanites find babies in baskets at their front doors because some parent is no longer willing or able to care for the child; leaving the child in the care of God knows who is a gamble that the kid will have at least a 50/50 chance, maybe, of making it.  There are those who deliver their parents to a retirement home of some sort and then disappear forever.  When it’s time for more money, the home can’t find the adult child who admitted the mother or father to the care facility; same thing when the parent dies.
People have tried this with pets they thought they could no longer take care of; they didn’t hate the pet enough to do direct harm to it, but they wanted the pet removed from their list of day to day responsibilities.  They drive their dog 25 miles away somewhere and leave the dog out in a field or in the woods there.  I love the stories when the dog eventually finds her or his way back home and waits on the porch for the owner to come home as if the dog won an oddly twisted game of hide and seek.
A third way of getting rid of someone that you don’t want around anymore, thereby making her or him a disposable person, is to arrange to have the person killed or to do it yourself. One of the standout news stories during my years here in Wilmington, 12+ of them, has been the story of the New Jersey rabbi who had his wife killed by two paid assassins.  The murder took place in 1994, but the trials were held shortly after I took up my duties here.  The good rabbi is now serving a thirty-year to life term in a prison near Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
It is shocking even to imagine the possibility, and yet that option is a rather frequently chosen one. Children have been known to get rid of their parents this way. Friends have been known to get rid of ex-friends this particular way, and spouses of course have used this option for ages. Parents also have used this means of getting rid of their children, and we have had some nightmarish stories in the news in the last few years proving that this is the case.    Several years ago there was a bloodcurdling story about a mother of, I think, three children.  She drowned them all three in the bathtub of their home, and when asked why she did it she said that God had told her to do.  I believe the mother was insane, but what both frightens and angers me is that she was part of a fundamentalist church that constantly portrayed God as killing humans or commanding humans to kill other humans; somehow the church that preaches that kind of violence has some complicity in what an imbalanced person has rattling around in her or his consciousness to the same degree that manufacturers of children’s games centered on violence have when one of their customers, a kid, acts out in the real world what has been seen on a video screen for more hours than anyone can count.  More to come.

II.
A fourth way, by the way I’m not assuming this is a comprehensive list, would be to act so badly and so ridiculously that the person decides that she or he can no longer live with you.  The person runs away from you to sanity and tranquillity.  Your irrational behavior finally drove the person you wanted to be rid of over the edge.  You got rid of your disposable person.
A fifth way to make someone who has been of value into someone who is now disposable is to call on the community in which the person is living to freeze the person out, to turn its collective back on the one who has violated some primary community standard.  Many of the Amish send their children out into the big bad world when they are in their late teens; the Amish teens are told to live as wild a life as they wish and then after a year or two to decide if being traditionally Amish is going to be a way of life for them as long as they live.  Those kids/young adults who waver or who blatantly say, “No,” are treated from that moment on as dead or nonexistent.  Officially, they can no longer visit with their parents and friends, or even talk to them on the one shared phone at the town’s general store or at the home of one of the residents who does business with the outside world often enough so that a phone is required.  Community freeze out.
I suppose the dominant way to declare a whole group of people “disposable” is to declare war on them and start killing them systematically.  Once this begins, if it hadn’t already, the enemies are all the same.  For practical purposes, they look alike, think alike, and share hatred of us.  We can get rid of them with our high-priced weapons with no more flinching that hitting a paper target at shooting practice.
You may know from your personal study of Greek mythology or from a course you took somewhere along the way that the King of the second generation of Greek deities, the Olympians,  Zeus, the King of that collection of gods and goddesses residing atop Mt. Olympus, was lucky to be around at all since his father, Chronus, had been so jealous of competition that each time his wife, Rhea, presented him with a beautiful new baby, he ate it.  Zeus only lasted past the first few hours of god-life because Rhea gave her husband their newest baby in the form of a stone all wrapped up in swaddling clothes and such, and Chronus ate the stone instead of his son.  Their relationship was never very chummy, as you can imagine.
A hint of that horrendous practice creeps into our story for today in that after waiting most of his life for the gift of a son, Abraham eventually gets two, and he tries to kill each son, though not by eating.  No doubt human sacrifice, including child sacrifice, was a part of ancient Hebrew religious practice.
If you are familiar with the scriptural stories surrounding Abraham, founder of monotheism, you likely know more about his second attempt to kill a son than the first.  If you were a Muslim, chances are you’d know more about the first story than the second.
In both stories regarding Abraham’s sons, he is intent to kill one, different ways perhaps and different reasons.  We in the Jesus tradition know more about the Isaac story than we know about the Ishmael story.  This is because the Jews trace their ancestry back to Abraham through the second son, Isaac; and Christianity is an outgrowth of Judaism.
The story of Isaac is fundamentally a delightful story at first, a story about how a couple in their old, old age are able to conceive and have a child together, something that just wouldn’t happen for them in their youth or middle age.  When each of them hears from God that they will be conceiving a child any day now–they laughed, Sarah as she waited for her hormone therapy injection and Abraham as he discussed Viagra with his health care professional.  Therefore, when little Isaac was born he was given that name meaning “laughter.” Before we know it, the tenor of the story has changed; so has the locale, and suddenly Isaac is bound atop a stack of kindling, his father with a sharp knife in hand eyeing the artery for which he would aim to minimize his son’s pain as he died a sacrifice for no one knew what.
Some scholars say it was nothing more than a test of Abraham’s faith, to see if he’d really go that far in sacrificing what may have been God’s greatest gift to him.  God stops the cruelty before the worst happened, but it’s still not funny; and I think it proves nothing except that Abraham feared disobeying God.  He’d sacrifice his son if he thought he could please God.
What about the first story, though.  It is equally as confusing, but in it, Abraham tries to take the life of his first-born, Ishmael, whose mother was one of Sarah’s maids and eventually one of Abraham’s concubines who was permitted initially by Sarah to attempt to conceive a son with him and for him.  It worked, and even though Sarah had sent her maid, Hagar, to perform this function, she detested the results:  a greater closeness between Hagar and Abraham along with Abrahams’s utter delight with his son, Ishmael.
Sarah tried to pay little attention to what was grinding away at her, but when Isaac was born and big brother Ishmael was playing “bug your little brother games,” which I’ve always thought were pretty much universal, Sarah went ballistic.  She demands that Abraham get rid of his first-born son and the mother of his first-born son.  Sarah didn’t want them around her child, and she didn’t want to have to remember the pain she’d lived through before Isaac had come into their lives.
The most stunning part of the story is not that jealous Sarah wanted to rule the roost again without reminders of previous complications and pain.  The absolutely shocking part for me, even if it’s a fictional tale, and I don’t know that it is, is that Abraham would consent.  The storyteller said that God told him, Abraham, it was the right thing to do.  Pleez!  God has been blamed for everything from tsunamis to fratricide to wars to the results of American presidential elections.
The sermon serious is about memorable biblical meals so look at what Abraham had packed up for his former professional sex partner and the son they bore together.  He was sending them into the wilderness, and sent them with a really scrawny set of supplies:  some water, some bread, and some dates.  At most, they could have stayed alive in the wilderness for a few days eating those rations.  They weren’t long for this world.  Disposable people.  God, however, rescued them.  Odd huh?  Since God had pressed Abraham to send them to where their lives were in danger.

III.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year.  Its dates are moveable.  This year Rosh Hashanah will begin at sunset September 16 and end at sundown on September 18.  During this part of High Holy Days, the Jews reaffirm God’s sovereignty over creation, and in doing so they blow a ram’s horn, reminiscent of the ram caught in the brush that kept Abraham from having to go all the way with the sacrifice of his son.
During Rosh Hashanah two years ago, Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, preached on the same story on which our sermon for today is based.  What follows is what I take to have been the core of his sermon preached mostly to Jewish hearers, and I find it chillingly powerful and on target, truly a message for all of humankind in our time:

This year as every year, we [Jews] recount the juxtaposed stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac in the midst of the most highly charged moments in our sacred calendar. At the heart of the two days on which we acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all Creation, and recommit ourselves to be partners in the task of speeding the arrival on earth of God’s kingdom—at that very moment, we tell the stories of two births to Abraham in old age, two threats to life (on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read about the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac), two acts of salvation of life, a double fulfillment of divine promise, and the making of a covenant that is marked not only on male children of Israel but on male descendants of Ishmael. Contemporary Jews stand in a long line of ancestors who have pondered this relationship over the centuries. We do so [still] with renewed urgency born of wholly new developments both in Israel and in Diaspora communities.

How shall we address these perplexities? At the very least, I think, Jews should resolve at this High Holiday season to give careful attention in coming months to the vexed relationship that binds us, our land, our faith, our Scripture, our view of history, our position in the world, and our profoundest hope for the future, to Muslims. (This relationship is arguably far more intimate and troubling at this moment than the age-old ties and tensions that connect us to Christians and their faith.) I offer [two] observations….

One: Muslims will not go away, either in Diaspora or in the Land of Israel. Nor should we want them to. I remember when a thoughtful Israeli professor I knew well…said to me about thirty years ago that he wanted Israel to return all of the conquered territories, every square inch, because he wanted nothing to do with Palestinians. Like Sarah in relation to Hagar, he wished them out of his sight. Some thirty years later, it is clear that this cannot be. Muslims will not disappear from Jewish vision or Jewish concern. They will remain an integral part of the State of Israel, and that State must find its place in the Arab world. Whether Muslims are wholly reconciled to that reality or not, they and their faith—used by some to support violent opposition to Israel’s existence, and by others to promote peaceful coexistence—must be seen, heard, and confronted. And not only fought. God heard the cry of Hagar and of Abraham’s son Ishmael. That is what his name, given by God, means. We too should heed Muslim voices.

Two: there is much to be learned about Ishmael and his descendants [as well as] about Isaac and the children of his son, Israel. This is no mere nicety or cliché. Key elements of Jewish tradition stand greatly indebted to Islam, from the grammar on which all reading of Jewish sacred texts depends, to the most profound insights of Jewish mystics and philosophers….I bear a great debt to Islam—and the more I compare notes with Islamic thought and practice, the better I understand Judaism, religious community, sacred space, and more. There is political urgency to Jewish-Muslim conversation. But there is even greater religious benefit to be had from this dialogue. The loss to both sides if we do not undertake it will be immense.
    May it be God’s will that Islam and Judaism help to guide one another through our shared perplexities. May the latest chapter in the age-old story of the two communities achieve a peaceful resolution and lead to better times for both of us. May blessing, goodness, and life choose us, and we them, at this precious moment of new beginnings.

You know, my friends, if these two groups can be called on by an undisputed leader who doesn’t carry around concerns for his people’s best interest alone, the rest of us can listen too.  A key part of what Professor Eisen preached insisted the Muslims are not disposable people.  Stunning.  Neither are Jews disposable.  Neither is your spouse, your trouble-making kids, or your church, which will less and less in the years ahead fit into any kind of mold.  The status quo powerfully convinces many people that they have to be a part of the group most like an historic counterpart, and those who don’t meet the challenge should be swept out of the way.
I had the serious privilege this week of having lunch with Professor Dr. Carol Puhl on her nearly annual visit back to the States to visit friends and take care of business.  Carol was already living in South Africa before I arrived, but we became pen pals and eventually friends.
Carol found her way into Silverside when Jack Orr was our pastor.  She had left the Roman Catholic Church and the convent.  She was warmly welcomed here, to no one’s surprise, but she felt like she was less than she should have been; her former church had a way of making her feel like a disposable person.  Silverside wouldn’t stand for it.  Eventually, she believed the Silverside folk, and adjusted her self image and her spiritual pathways accordingly.
In time, she met and eventually married Johan.  She has been in South Africa for years now.  They farm and tend vineyards for wine.  She’s still a part time university professor, and he’s a consulting economist.
She had assumed she’d never darken the door of a Catholic Church again, but in her area of South Africa, the Catholic Church is where there’s the greatest post-Apartheid intermixing of Black people and White people.  So, Carol’s baggage (my word, not hers) notwithstanding she attends Catholic services to support the interracial blending going on there.  Perhaps still a liberal nun at heart–I did not make the accusation while she had a wine glass in hand–but Carol Puhl will not live as if there are disposable people anywhere.  May her tribe increase.
Amen.