Changing Addresses…

Hi Friends,
Thanks so much for your reading over the past year. I’ve decided after lots of discernment to change the url of my blog so that it no longer has my name in it. You may understand that this is for many different reasons. However, I am definitely still blogging, and posting sermons, etc. But I will no longer be blogging at this site. Look for me at:


See you there!!


A Future of Hope: A Sermon

A Future of Hope
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
October 10, 2010
Texts: Romans 12:9-18. Jeremiah 29:1,4-14

Romans 12:9-18
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;  love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream,  for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.

For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart,  I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.


Jeremy was one of my most thoughtful and genuine kids in youth group.  Raised by a single mom, he was wonderfully close to his grandparents and in particular his grandpa who had stepped in as a father figure to him.  Wonderfully intelligent and creative, his favorite pastime was creating movies with his friends – making up plot lines and acting them out in front of the camera.  The elaborate detail with which he could describe his movies conjured in my mind the extravagance of sets and costumes, makeup and story.

In youth group he was engaged, sweet, respectful, fun.  He was a joy to know and to be around.  He was also terribly bullied in school.  The school he attended was a very small rural public school and both kids I knew who attended both had problems with bullying.  As far as I knew at the time it wasn’t about sexuality or gender issues, although these kids were likely accused of that.  It was just about being different.  It was about being an outsider.  It was about being ostracized for who they were.

Their parents complained to the school.  The administrators said there wasn’t anything they could do about it unless they caught the kids in the act.  But bullies are notoriously secretive – words were usually spoken on buses or on the walk to and from school, whispers in hallways and locker-rooms.  Who could catch them?

It is a bit of an exile, isn’t it?  Perhaps not because we want it to be, but because our western culture has reinforced this idea that adolescence is this particular developmental period – that time when young people are betwixt and between.  No longer children, not yet adults.  The exile comes in part because children are set aside in education systems to learn, mostly with their peers, set apart from families and loved ones.  They are in many ways removed – removed from the work force, removed from family security, set aside to develop and grow into independent, autonomous adults.  There are good reasons for this separation – child labor laws, public education opportunities, but…there are some consequences as well.

If adolescents are already isolated, then the isolation that comes with being bullied is even more intense.  If a young person already feels not quite understood by the larger community, then how much more will they feel that if peers turn on them with words of hatred and bigotry.  Add to that the inescapable nature of the internet – so that bullying words can never be left behind but can appear about you even in your own home, on your own computer.  Add to that the way in which those words multiply and can be heard and read by thousands in just a few moments.  Add to that the possibility that the words used to bully and hurt are words that are true.  That the word that peers use to dismiss and denigrate is a word that names outwardly the very complicated feelings inside.  Add to that all those who stand by, silent.

Can we imagine a more painful exile or isolation?

The words of Jeremiah were spoken to the people of Israel during one of the most difficult times of their history: during the exile and destruction of the Temple.  The history of Israel during that time is a story of competing factions and alliances with Egypt and Assyria, finally ending with the prevailing Babylonians capturing the leaders of Israel and taking them in chains to Babylon.  At the time of our text we learn that the exiles have not been tolerating well their situation, and have begun to arrange a revolt against the Babylonians, joining with neighboring countries still resisting the conquests of Babylon.

They are preparing to fight back.

Jeremiah’s words come both as a surprise and as a warning.  For a people who had long been warned against marrying outside of their ethnic boundaries, for a people who understood themselves as set apart for God, Jeremiah seems to go against tradition and reason in his prophetic voice to the Israelites in exile.  Settle in.  He says, Find peace. “Build houses and plant gardens, take wives in marriage and raise your families… seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  Only when you have been there for seventy years will I bring you back to Jerusalem.”

We can only imagine how the exiles might have heard this word.  Despairing, desiring justice, desiring a return to hope.  So often when we want hope and justice we want it right now.  So often when we want relief we want it to come immediately.  “How can we sing a song in a strange land?” come the cries from our text last week.  How can we endure this pain any longer?

For the exiles, the need to revolt against Babylonian oppression must have been desperate.  But Jeremiah’s words are words of peace:  “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…”  The word translated as “welfare” in this text is one that will sound familiar:  The word is “shalom.”  Shalom:  a word that means peace, prosperity, completeness, wholeness.  “Seek the shalom of the place where you are in exile, Jeremiah says, ‘for in it’s shalom you will find your shalom.”

This surprising vision of peace: peace in the midst of foreign domination, peace in the midst of struggle and pain, peace in the midst of sorrow and isolation.  Is it even possible?  Can there be peace in the midst of such pain?

Over the past month or so we have heard story after story of young teenagers taking their lives in the wake of ruthless bullying by peers.  Each one of these young people: Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, and Tyler Clementi, had been ridiculed for being a homosexual.

In my struggle this past week to make sense out of the four suicides of young teenagers around the country – – in my struggle to understand and grieve – I came across a series of videos on you tube.  The videos are put together by Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender and supportive adults speaking to young questioning teenagers.  Each video is titled, “It gets better.”

In these personal testimonies, adults relate stories of how they endured torment and abuse at the hands of their own peers in high school.  Stories are told of being called names or spit on, of having property destroyed or being outed, of being physically abused, made to feel worthless and outcast.  But for each of these adults, they could also tell a story about how much better it got when they left high school, when they left a small community that could not see the beautiful person that they were, when they learned that there were others like them in the world – others who were ready to welcome them, others who were ready to respect them, to protect them, to believe in them, others who would worship alongside of them without asking them to deny who they were.  “It gets better,” they said, “you should be around to see it.”

As I watched I could not help but hear the words of Jeremiah to the exiles – “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your shalom and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

What was painful in watching these videos, in listening to story after story of bullying of LGBT youth now adults, was fact that any of it had to happen at all.  If only we could turn back the clock – find a way to speak a word of hope, a moment of shalom to each of these young lost lives.  If there was a way to save these young lives, wouldn’t we all do it?  It is difficult to balance these words of Jeremiah, the words that tell the exiles to sit tight and endure with the utter urgency for justice.  It is difficult to listen to person after person tell young people that it gets better when the bullying continues.

But I wonder.  I wonder what it means that Jeremiah told the exiles that their own peace was wrapped up inexplicably with those around them whom they saw as enemies.  I wonder what it means that he told them that their wholeness was bound up with the wholeness of the one they saw as “other.”  I wonder what it might mean for us to understand that the shalom of our youth, the wholeness of our young people – especially those who we see as most different and strange – is tied up with our shalom as a wider community.  I wonder how our words might change, how our actions might change, if we see how directly we are bound together with the young people who are trying so desperately to figure out who they are and where they belong.

I wonder – how do we respond as people of faith to a community in exile?

Can we ask the most difficult questions of all: How are we culpable for the deaths of these young people?  How do our words and actions help kids feel the need to fit into some particular mold of perfect: attractive, athletic, intelligent, straight?  How do our affirmations and questions silently close them off to those things or people that they love?  How might we look at each young person in a way that truly sees them for who they are, instead of who we wish they would be?  How can we stand against bullies and intolerance of all kinds and speak out for the outcast, the isolated, the exile?  How can we remind each young person, every day, of the gift that they are to us and to God?

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I have been a pastor to kids who are bullied and kids who bully, and I don’t know the answer. My heart is heavy with sorrow that any young person could be so painfully ridiculed and ostracized.  My heart is heavy with the knowledge that some of the worst bullying is reinforced if not done by those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ, because they have found words in our scriptures to serve their purposes.

What pains me is that the voices of hate and bigotry so often drown out the voices of love and welcome and grace.  Perhaps it is time for that to change.

What they fail to remember is that Jesus said not one word about sexuality, but instead ate with outcasts and healed division.  What they fail to remember is that Saint Paul said, let love be genuine, love one another with mutual affection, nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  What they fail to see is that we are all in this together – my shalom is your shalom, your wholeness is their wholeness.

Do we believe that God has a future of hope planned for these struggling youth, one that embraces their wholeness and peace?  Do we believe that God has a future of hope planned for each of us, no matter what our particular exile?  Do we believe that God has a future of hope planned for us, for each and every child of God?

Jeremiah says, “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your peace, for your wholeness, for your shalom and not for harm, to give you a future of hope.”

May it be so. Amen.

The True Things: A Sermon

The True Things

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery

The Larchmont Avenue Church

September 19, 2010

Text: Luke 16:1-13


Luke 16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Luke 16:10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”


Joe had been the church treasurer for all of two months when Cheri first came to him, needing money.  She was one of those people at All Soul’s church who everybody knew, even if they didn’t want to.  Her mental illness and addictions had made it hard for her to stay off the streets, and she had been the subject at many conversations around the deacons tables, as together the pastor and the church tried to discern how best they could help.

They had decided, as Joe had been informed, to help her as best they could through the pastor’s discretionary fund, which sat in a marked envelope in the desk drawer in the treasurer’s office.  But there was always talk about the fund running out.

The previous treasurer had been one of those more anxious than not, and had begun to refuse Cheri’s requests, citing the many other people who were in need.  “This Church helps a lot of people,” he had said, “You aren’t the only one…  We just can’t keep giving like this…”

As Cheri had been tended to by the congregation, Cheri had also begun to feel part of the family there.  She worshipped regularly – some days looking so haggard some wondered if she had spent the night on the streets, other days looking so put together that at a glance she could be mistaken for any of the other housewives.

On those put together days, Cheri would walk quietly into the office as the treasurer counted the offering plate and pass over her “tithe” – a wad of rolled up bills, that might barely pay for his lunch at a restaurant.  Joe would smile at Cheri, thanking her with the graciousness he poured on every one of the givers, from those who gave checks that could cover the entire heating bill for the year, to those who… well to those like Cheri.

After Cheri left, Joe would unfold the bills and stack them, count them with care, and slip them into the marked envelope and back into his drawer.

Our parable for this morning is often called ‘the parable of the dishonest or shrewd manager,’ and falls immediately after Jesus tells a number of stories directed at the Pharisees about God rejoicing over the lost.  He talks about losing sheep or coins, and then culminates in the story of the prodigal son who squanders his inheritance and yet returns to his father and is welcomed in with loving arms.

In our story for this morning, Jesus turns from the Pharisees toward the disciples and tells this confounding little parable.  The story Jesus tells is of a rich man who has hired a manager for his estate.  The manager is not making enough of a profit, either because he has been stealing or because he has poor business practices.  Nevertheless, the rich man tells him he will be fired.  So, anticipating his layoff the manager quickly goes to each of his clients and halves their debts, knowing that their gratitude will win him favor when he is out of work.  When the rich man discovers what his manager has done, he commends the dishonest or unrighteous manager for his shrewd business practices.  Jesus ends the story with a series of sayings that confuse even more: ‘whoever is faithful in a very little,” he says, “is faithful in much.”

If you found yourself listening to this parable and wondering what is going on; you are not alone.  One commentary states: “The parable of the unjust steward had baffled interpreters since the beginning of time.”  Each commentary says something different, each makes different choices in interpretation.  It’s no wonder why many preachers avoid this text as an unplumbable mystery.

In sifting through the text, however, there are some things we can surmise.  One is that while many parables can be interpreted allegorically, (including the parable of the prodigal son which immediately precedes our text for this morning) – understanding characters in the story to represent God and others to represent us;  This does not seem to be one of them.

Both the rich man and the manager are unsavory in some ways.  We cannot understand God as one who would commend the manager for his dishonest practices, nor can we see God as the one who cooks the books so to speak to win himself favor with his former clients.  Instead it seems, that Jesus is telling a story about everyday life: this is a story about the way the world works.

And it is isn’t it?  Change the job title and the story could come straight out of the newspaper.  These are tough times.  Like the experience of the manager, layoffs continue, and many still continue in fear that tomorrow it will happen to them, that tomorrow will be the day when their business practices don’t make the grade, when someone else shows they can do better.

For those facing their worst fears already: college grads and the millions looking for work: it is all about who you know.  Who owes who a favor, what currency one has and what it might get them.  Making “friends” with the power or tools one can leverage to create the path needed.  It is always boggling when a parable seems to hit upon a certain timelessness in our dealings with one another; a man who is out for himself behaves dishonestly to save his own neck.

What’s harder to sort out, though, is what Jesus thinks about all of it.  One the one hand the gospels are never very kind to those with money.  The Jesus we meet in Luke’s gospel in particular challenges those with wealth and power again and again.  We hear it ring in our ears: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…sell all that you have and give your money to the poor…  you cannot serve God and wealth…  Jesus calls it “dishonest” or “unrighteous” wealth as if he thinks that all wealth is unrighteous.

On the other hand, he suggests that we might use it to make friends who might welcome us into “eternal homes.”  How can he commend the manager for behaving unethically?  The result is confusing: does Jesus think that all wealth is unrighteous?  What does he really mean when he describes wealth and God as two opposing masters?    He must know that money is useful not only for each individual but to help those in need.  One cannot serve them both, he says, but the parable seems to imply that one can, and in fact perhaps one should use wealth to serve God.

The result of this kind of thinking is complicated.  We get into very scary territory when we begin to interpret the gospel in a way that helps us to feel comfortable; when we start to see Jesus as a “genial suburban dude” who affirms our need for the security that money provides.

To be sure, Jesus is highly suspicious of wealth and power, and those who have a lot of it.  His stories and parables point to the ways in which the consumer can become consumed with stuff – distracted from the “true things.”

And yet.  And yet…

Jesus also seems to be saying is that there may just be a purpose for wealth and the kinds of gifts that go with it.

The power that the manager wields is a result of a faulty system in which there are haves and have nots.  The rich man owns much more than his fair share, and the manager has been making his living off of collecting money that continues to keep the peasants who work the land down and the rich man flush with cash.  The manager is in the middle.

For the wrong reasons, but still, in the face of crisis, the manager does something terribly radical, something only barely under his power.  He forgives debts.  He evens the uneven system.  He extends grace, and in so doing he participates in the grace of God.  Perhaps the dishonest manager is more of a prudent treasurer, like Joe who ignores the ‘ethical’ thing to act out of grace.  Perhaps he is commended because even by stumbling all over himself, he discovers how his power and influence can be used so that grace may abound even more.

On the heels of the story of the prodigal son, a story that continues to be told again and again about the radical nature of God’s grace to forgive and welcome in even the person who most deserves wrath and punishment, Jesus tells this strange story, that seems to say: Go and do likewise.

Perhaps this points at least a little bit to what Jesus wants us to understand: that faith is not simply morality, but instead the ability to orient oneself around the grace of the gospel and, by extension, by one’s ability to live out that gospel in daily life.  It is catching a vision of what the world might look like if God’s grace took over.  It is living out a life that creates that vision now.

As one commentator put it: “It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.”

This means understanding that if the gifts you have are great, the burden is also.  By pointing us to the manager Jesus reminds us of the power we have to participate in the grace of God.  We may not be at the very top, we may not even be the one with the highest ethics in the room, but we have the ability to choose small things that have enormous results.  “Whoever is faithful in a very little,” Jesus says, “is faithful in much.”

If you have the power to affect change…To feed the hungry as well as to work to reorient the systems that keep people in poverty; To give water to those who thirst as well as to work so that every human being has access to clean drinking water.  To welcome the stranger as well as to live out the conviction that in the eyes of God there is no stranger, only friends.  To forgive in a way that might transform lives as well as systems and structures of power…

If you have the power, or the money, or the influence, or the gifts to effect the kind of change that the Gospel points us to whether it is in small moments of grace or grand moments of forgiveness. if you can participate right now in the grace that abounds like a father who welcomes the prodigal home, like a woman who rejoices over a lost coin, like a manager who in his time of need looks to those around him and sees their need and acts – well…then what are you waiting for?

Seek the true things, and you will be rich beyond measure.  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Apostle Paul: Slave or Free
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 22, 2010
Text: Paul’s letter to Philemon

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

As we have been digging deeper into the letters Paul wrote to Churches and fellow Christians in the Greco-Roman world, Paul’s controversiality feels in some ways never-ending. Even those topics we might never have expected to be controversial, something such as slavery, Paul seems to make it so. Our text this morning is an entire book of the bible (though a short one) and remains perhaps the only personal letter written by Paul in our New Testament. The letter to Philemon in many ways exemplifies much of Paul’s ethic, that is, Paul’s understanding about how the gospel should effect our daily life, and so it does us well to spend some time with it.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is the one personal letter in our New Testament that is unquestionably written by Paul himself. I won’t go into detail about how scholars determine these things, but the letters to Timothy and Titus don’t seem to have the marks of true Pauline writing. However, this short letter, so often passed over in our New Testament, is Pauline through and through.

In it, Paul writes to a leader in the church in Collosae named Philemon, whom he seems to know quite well. The letter is brought to Philemon in the hands of a man named Onesimus, formerly a slave belonging to the household of Philemon, a runaway. As I mentioned last week the caste system was quite elaborate and culturally supported in the Greco-Roman world which Paul writes. A runaway slave was at the very bottom of the heap. The act of Onesimus returning to his former owner’s household would inevitably and necessarily result in severe punishment, even death. In other words, Paul is sending his dear Onesimus, his heart, into the lion’s den.

But why? What is Paul doing?

Once again Paul leaves us hanging. We want our scriptures to stand up for what we know to be right and true. We want Paul to say that slavery is an abomination. We want him to say, outright, that Onesimus should be freed, or even to say something like. “I’ve met your former slave and he’s staying with me.” But he doesn’t. Instead he says something more like: “I know you know what you’re supposed to do and I expect you to do it…”

While we don’t read this text very often, you might see quickly that it was read and preached quite frequently during the time of the Civil War in our country. Both sides had their opinions. The South preached that Paul allowed for slavery, pointed out that he sent Onesimus back to his owner to continue in his former life. The Northern anti-slavery preachers instead read between the lines of what Paul says and doesn’t say, and suggest that Paul “implies” that he expects his friend to be set free. He all but threatens him when he tells Philemon to prepare a bed for him, I’ll be there in a week. “Charge me any debt he owes you,” he says, “I expect you to do this…” But whatever we might try to argue – Paul’s inference is not as clear as we would like.

Is he ever? What is the deal? Is Paul against slavery or not? Why doesn’t he make things clear? Then again – Jesus didn’t make too much clear either.

This past week I got into a short conversation with a beloved family member about scripture. The conversation was familiar, since I’ve had it many many times before with many different people, and in that way I felt somewhat on edge and exasperated. It began in reference to my sermon last week, and my tendency throughout this series to speak of what Paul says, rather than what God says through our Holy Scriptures. “Aren’t these the words of God inspired by the Holy Spirit?” he asked…

The question of the divine inspiration of Scripture is a tricky one, particularly when it comes to Paul. There is much of what Paul says that seems heavily loaded with his cultural context. His assumptions: that women are in the image of man, that slavery is an institution we should accept rather than rebel against, that the purpose of marriage is to quell our enflamed passions. Paul contradicts himself often, leaving much of what he means somewhat unclear. The reality is there is much in our scriptures – even beyond Paul – that is hard to swallow. Stories sometimes called “texts of terror,” stories for which we should have no tolerance, texts which contradict themselves. None of this is easy to sort out.

So as thinking, believing people, how do we read these texts? How do we live out a life of faith that accepts some but not all of our scriptures as divinely inspired? How do we determine which to follow and which to leave out? It’s a good and necessary question for any faithful Christian.

The truth is, all Christians make these choices. We make choices, like I did in this conversation, about whether or not to engage or to look away. We make choices about whether or not we’re going to read the whole bible or just the parts we like. We make choices about which text will be our guiding principal, the text through which all other texts are read. Will it be – “Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life, no one can come to the father except through me (John 14:6)”? Or will it be “God is love. Whoever loves knows God.(1 John 4)”?

The point is that it is a conversation. Divine inspiration means not that the texts were inspired once a long time ago and now we’ve got the truth in our hands. It means that the Holy Spirit speaks in and through our texts again and again if we only read them. And so as we discover new truths about gender equality and slavery and homosexuality we read our scriptures with new insight and new questions. They are the living word. A word that is not static but elastic, growing and revealing new truths at every turn.

As we look back at Paul’s letter to Philemon, we could point out that Paul does not explicitly say that Onesimus should be freed. In fact, the truth is that if he were freed, Onesimus would likely have been worse off than he was as a slave. With no protection and possibly no way to earn power for himself in his world. Please know that I am not, in any way, suggesting that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was like modern-day slavery; I am not suggesting that any slave today is better off. But in the Greco-Roman world, freed slaves were exiled and ostrasized, and their survival was often only through even more abusive and disgraceful means.

But Paul has said there is no longer slave or free. And if he truly means that, then how can he send a newly baptized Onesimus back to Philemon acting as though nothing has changed?

Everything has changed. Whereas we might fault Paul for coming up short, we miss Paul’s understanding of just how far the gospel of Christ goes to change the world in which we live.

Paul does not suggest that Philemon should free his slave, instead Paul suggests that he should treat his slave as a brother. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while,” he says, “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

This is no small thing. Brothers in the Greek and Roman Social systems were supposed to have close bonds of trust and affection. Slaves, on the other hand, were orphans. They may have been born to slave parents, but their familial connections were unrecognized. As one commentator puts it, “A deep, broad, menacing chasm cut slaves off from legitimate children and free blood siblings. A slave was a filius neminis, a son of no one.”

Paul’s suggestion was outrageous. It was a joke. In Philemon’s cultural context, bringing this slave into his family tree makes any sense whatsoever. And yet, Paul suggests not only that Philemon can, and should take his former slave in as a full member of his family, but that it already is so. Paul suggests that in Christ these two men are already brothers, with those close bonds of trust and affection, and merely asks Philemon to act accordingly.

When Bill Nathan appeared on the stage at Purdue University during our Triennium worship, he already had us in the palm of his hand. We had just watched a video produced by ABC News about how one of their writers, Ben Skinner, had put everything on the line to charter a plane to Haiti in the first few days after the earthquake to save Bill’s life

Bill and Ben had met years before, when Ben was writing a book on modern-day slavery; Bill was one of the directors of an orphanage that took in former child slaves. During his time in Haiti Ben contracted a severe case of malaria and Bill tracked down the medicine he needed and nursed him back to health. Bill saved Ben’s life.

And so, when he learned Bill had been severely injured in the earthquake, Ben chartered a plane, got himself to Haiti, and evacuated Bill to Florida for treatment. Bill would not have survived if Ben had not made such a daring move.

The story of the earthquake is only half of it. As Bill Nathan walked back and forth on the stage he told us his own story of slavery. Bill had been orphaned at the age of five. Like many orphans in Haiti, had been given to a family who at first assured the nun who knew him that they would take him in and treat him as family. They lied. A few weeks after Bill’s parents died he began serving his new family as a slave. He slept on the dirt floor of a shed in back of the house. He ate only what was leftover and only alone in the dirt, never at the family table. He worked dusk until dawn, and if he resisted he was beaten severely.

After a few years the nun who had cared for him at the death of his parents rescued him and brought him to Saint Joseph’s orphanage, where they continue to help former child slaves. Bill grew up there. He was educated. He was hired. Now he works at the orphanage that saved his life. He spends his life returning the favor.

Both men in the story were visibly moved by their connection. The debt of life is a hard one to put into words. The newscaster asked Ben why he went to all these lengths to save his friend. “It was a debt I owed him,” he says… His pilot and friend in the rescue operation said, “When your family is in need – you show up.” Bill said, “God was watching over me.”

Brothers. Beloved. Free. What we see as impossible, God makes possible. Where we see no bond, God sees family.

Somehow, in Christ, these two men have been changed. Yesterday they were slave and master. But today, something new has formed. The old has gone, the new has begun. Today they are beloved family members. They share food at the same table. They share inheritance.

Paul’s ethic tells us that we are to go above and beyond what is required of us for one another. We do more than the minimum. We do more than write the check; we make the meal with our own hands and sit down and eat with together. We do more than put the welcome sign out; we sweep the floor and make the bed and put on the tea. We do more than forgive; we become family. We do more, more than we imagined, more than we can spare, much more.

We don’t always have the opportunity to save another’s life. We don’t always have the opportunity to bring another up out of slavery or poverty or hunger. But Paul’s ethic is one of boundless, irrational love. A love that is from God. A love that has already been set in motion through Christ. What he shows through his letter to Philemon is that the rules have changed even if the landscape has not. We are a part of a family that is beyond our vision or understanding. And when family is in need, you show up.

The Apostle Paul: On Keeping Silent
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 14, 2010

Galatians 3:26-29 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

1Cor. 7:1   Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a
man not to touch a woman.” 2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

1Cor. 11:2   I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

1Cor. 14:33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.
 (As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)


Imagine with me: a world in which people have been divided into a very elaborate and tiered caste system. Men born free and citizens are the rulers of this world. They have the power to do what they want to whom they want, with very few normative rules to restrain them. Theirs is the power for which all strive or covet. Next come freed men, only slightly less powerful. Then free-born and freed women, but the power that remains with them is limited severely. Women are good for only one thing: to give birth to strong, healthy boys, who will grow into the men of power. When they cannot accomplish this task they are viewed as mostly worthless. Slaves, both male and female are last in this caste system, and their status is next to that of an animal. They are to be used, in any and every way, and once they are no longer useful, they are discarded as such.

The tiers are further extended by career choice, attractiveness, wealth or political status, which contributed to where one might fall on the scale of power – how influential a man or woman could be. Status is everything: it follows a person everywhere. Not only is it a part of who they are, but it must be worn like a banner; Respectable women were allowed to wear head coverings, prostitutes or slave women were not. For all hair was a status symbol: both men and women with full heads of hair were more powerful or attractive. Clothing matters, schooling matters. What’s more: it is easy to slide down the scale. Advantages are taken of young women and men that can change the course of their life and status forever.

In addition to the layers of power differentials, the normative behavior when it came to relationships between men and women can be described as transactional at best and violent and abusive at worst. There is no expectation of equality, no assumption that the purpose of relationships are anything more than servicing the needs of the powerful, no sense of give and take, only take.

This is the world in which Paul writes. As we heard in the various passages I read from the letters of Paul, Paul says a lot about women in his letters to various churches. Much of which doesn’t sit to well with our 21st century sensibilities. It may be obvious to you that these passages from 1 Corinthians are the verses from which Paul gains his reputation as a misogynist. These represent the bulk of what Paul says about women, excluding the passages in the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus.

Now might be the best time to illuminate why I am focusing on Corinthians and not the Pastoral letters. There are some here who have read extensively on Paul and some for whom Paul is fairly unknown, so it’s important to get some textual issues out in the open. Paul, as we discussed last week, was one of the early apostles who spread the news of the death and resurrection of Jesus throughout the Greco-Roman world. He was known for getting into trouble with folks of all sorts, and was the founder of church communities in several different cities and towns throughout the ancient world.

Of the 27 books in the New Testament, 14 have traditionally been attributed to Paul. However, scholars have determined that it is more likely that Paul wrote only 7 of those letters, the rest likely written by another author who wrote in Paul’s name, a common act in the ancient world.

The letters most scholars agree were written by Paul are: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and the letter to Philemon. The other letters are commonly referred to as Paul’s “contested letters.” Even more closely related to our texts for this morning, the last passage on women keeping silent in church is hotly debated as to whether or not Paul actually wrote it, the reason being because the verses appear in various places in different copies of the text – meaning that it was likely written in the margin of a manuscript, either by Paul or by another interpreter of Paul, and scribes disagreed as to where or whether to keep it in the text.

The struggle with all this debate is that it is unlikely that we will ever truly know whether these texts were written by Paul or not. These statements fit in some ways with Paul’s cultural context as a Jew and a Greek, and in some ways they contradict some of Paul’s other statements – in particular the Galatians passage read prior to the 1 Corinthians texts. How can Paul say that there is neither Jew nor Greek, Male nor Female, Slave nor Free for all are one in Christ Jesus, and then say that women should be silent, or that men are the head of women? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as readers in our modern context.

But in the context of Paul’s world, perhaps it did. Paul was speaking in a world where the norms of behavior between men and women were so different from our own it is hard to imagine. When Paul says that all women should worship with their head covered, what we don’t understand is that during Paul’s time, head covering was a sign of respect, and some women were denied the opportunity to recieve that respect. Prostitutes and slaves would have been severely punished for having their head covered – it showed that they were acting higher than their caste allowed. But Paul says all women should cover their heads in worship – what might this have meant for those who would be denied respect in a world so tiered with power dynamics?

What’s more, in the Greco-Roman world, there was absolutely no place that allowed men and women to assemble together in public. Women present in public assembly was presented as a farce in poetry and Greek writings. But from Paul’s letters we know that women and men gathering together was common in the early church. We also know from Paul’s letters that in some of these churches, women were permitted to prophesy out loud even as he tells them to be silent in Corinth.

Paul’s statements on marriage also contributed to what might have been the very earliest beginnings of a women’s movement, when women were given by Paul grounds on which to refuse marriage for religious reasons. The upset this seemed to cause was enormous – women were martyred for choosing celibacy. Perhaps, even, Paul’s words were the precursor to understanding marriage as a mutual engagement. While Paul’s rationale seems misogynist, he describes marriage as a reciprocal relationship. How radical this might be in a society where the purpose of women was to be used by a man for childbearing and nothing else.

Paul names in many of his letters (particularly the letter to the Romans) a long list of women: Phoebe, Prisca and Aquila, Mary, Junia are only a few of those he names, calling them apostles even greater than himself as well as deacons, sisters in the faith, saints, and mothers and benefactors. He commends them to churches, honoring them publicly even as more valuable than himself – something that Free-born citizens would rarely do in writing. In fact, much of what Paul says about women would have been radically feminist for the times in which he lived.

But the few verses in Galatians suggest that Paul was interested in something far beyond equality. Paul understood the gospel of Christ Jesus to have shattered the world that we know, replacing it with a new creation. When he says that there is no longer Jew or Greek, Male or Female, Slave or Free, he is naming the major power battles in the Greco-Roman world. This is no small thing for a world defined by the haves and the have nots. It is no small thing for us today.

In contrast with Paul’s world, let’s imagine our world: a world where the word “relationship” itself connotes a certain level of reciprocity. Violent behavior between two people, any two people is almost always unapproved and illegal. Power dynamics have changed significantly. Slavery is no longer acceptable, men and women both participate in virtually every career available and thrive in all realms of society. The norms of what is acceptable for men and what is acceptable for women – in vocation, at home, in marriage are very different than the world I first described.

There are some things that are similar, though. While we can’t relate so much to the more obvious power dynamics, we can certainly relate to the subtle ones. We still live in a world where the type of car you drive or your career choice effects the way you will be received by another. We still live in world that splits people into categories: citizen, immigrant; married, single; working, unemployed; wealthy, poor… We still live in a world where clothing matters, along with hairstyle and beauty and political contacts… Power is still at reign in our lives and in our world = who has it, who can get it, who can use it to their own advantage.

What might it be like if we stopped striving for equality in power and started striving for Christ? What might it mean for us if we did not see in each other the things that give us power in this world: race, gender, wealth, background – but instead we saw the Christ who calls us and loves us and binds us together. There is no citizen, no immigrant, no woman or man, no parent or child, no skin color or jail time – but only Christ that binds, only Christ who shines through us. As many of us were baptized in Christ are clothed in Christ, Paul says. Put on Christ who makes us one.

Paul’s words are Utopic and eschatological, which brings up another aspect of Paul’s writing. It is clear that Paul thought the second coming of Christ was immanent. He speaks of the crisis of our present age, the glory about to be revealed, the time when we will be caught up in the heavens. He thinks the time is near when he and other believers will be brought together in God’s glory in the end times. As his life goes on, this intensity dissipates in his letters as we would expect. But Paul continues to straddle the gap between two worlds: One world in which Christ’s salvation and grace has already made all things new, and another in which the world has not yet caught up with God’s new creation. Paul lives in the Already, but not yet of the Gospel.

He is both provisional and eschatological. He is both practical and utopic. He is present and future tense at the same time. And so are we.

Pastor Martin Copenhaver tells a story about his grandmother, who at the age of 15 knew she was called to be a preacher. She told her father, who brought her to their local pastor to inform him of his daughter’s calling. The year was 1905, well before any church even considered letting women speak in church. They gave no thought to that fact, no thought to the fact that it had never been done before, no thought to the ways in which the world must change to accommodate her calling. No thought to the powers of the world – only to God’s power to call whom God wills and equip them for the work of the gospel. This is what it means to live in Paul’s world.

If we as women (and as men…) are to look to Paul to help regulate or appease our power-driven relationships we might be missing Paul’s primary message: that God’s power is the only power that matters. Paul urged us to see in all people the love of God, the grace of Christ. He urged us to put away the powers of this world: put away sexuality and race and citizenship and gender.

Put away what you think God could do in this world of power struggles and battles over land use and discussions of who you think deserves to be in or out and who you might allow to do what where. Put it away. See Christ. Put on Christ. Understand how Christ binds you and compels you. Strive toward what is greater – strive toward God – and you will find a power beyond this world.

With God’s help may it be so.

(This sermon and my study of Paul have been greatly helped by Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Dr. Sarah Ruden)

The Apostle Paul: Changing Names
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Acts 9:1-22
A Sermon Preached at Larchmont Avenue Church
August 8, 2010

Acts 9:1-22
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

You’ve probably heard the news: “Anne Rice has had a conversion: She’s no longer a Christian…” Recently Rice posted on her Facebook account, “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ…I quit being a Christian.”

If you don’t know the full story, you may think, as I did at first, “who cares?” You may think that anyways. But I suppose that for thos who have followed Rice’s soaring career writing vampire novels and who later converted or ‘reverted’ to her childhood faith in the Roman Catholic church and proceeded to re-invent a career in Christian-based novel writing, well, it seems that her most recent ‘conversion’ has caused quite a stir.

Bloggers and journalists of all types have been weighing in on her statement, some to question why she might not choose a different faith tradition that would allow her to hold those ideals she and remain in a Christian community, some to join her in denouncing the Christian faith, some to say “good riddance” to one who thinks she can say ‘yes’ to Christ while also saying ‘yes’ to the world and it’s values. Everyone seems to have an opinion.

It struck me while reading of Rice and the various responses to her ‘conversion’ that I could relate. Not only to her feelings about other Christians who preach hatred and exclusion but about scripture. I used to feel that way about Paul.

I didn’t like him. I’ve never liked him, really. For much of my life as a Christian I was like many who would prefer to leave Paul out of the picture. I’d rather just focus on Jesus. After all, Jesus was the one who welcomed, healed, died for us. Jesus was the one who seemed to live a life of love, and not just talk about it. He was the radical rule breaker, the center of our faith.

Paul, on the other hand, seemed to be all about rules and regulations – don’t drink or dance, don’t marry unless you absolutely cannot control yourself, don’t speak up in church. I’m sure you can imagine how much I liked the ‘women be silent’ line. I would point out that Paul never even met Jesus in person – he only saw him in a vision. Why do we give him so much power? Of all the things I could take or leave in scripture, Paul is one who I could leave. Paul was human; Christ was divine. I thought – I could be a Christ-follower and take Paul on my own terms. Paul was more like a secondary source who said some things that were worthwhile but other things I chalked up to culture and confusion.

What perhaps helped my impression is that Paul wasn’t very likeable even in his own time. Almost every story about him gets him into trouble with someone. He spends much of his post-conversion life in jail. And his letters are often corrections and admonitions couched in words about love and unity. Paul infuriated Jews and Gentiles who had not accepted the gospel he proclaimed; And he frustrated Jews and Gentiles who were followers of Christ. Paul had made enemies of just about everyone.

But then, something changed for me. Something small.

Kathleen Norris writes that the word “conversion” comes from the Latin for “to turn around.” Thus, she says, it denotes a change of perspective but not of essence: a change of view but not location. And, while neither Paul, nor Acts ever says the word “conversion,” I think this is a bit of what Paul went through.

Even after his time in Damascus, he was passionate and stubborn, determined and fierce. Perhaps Paul didn’t come as far as we imagine from the man who was determined and impassioned against the disciples of the Lord, he simply turned that passion in a different direction.

Paul also began a Jew, and considered himself a Jew till the end. While he parted ways from the Jews of his time that refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, he was always in conversation with the Jewish faith he had known his whole life. In his letter to the Romans Paul expresses deep concern for Israel in light of the new revelation in Christ. While he considered it his divine calling to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul’s Jewish-ness was evident in his understanding of Christ and Salvation.

Maybe Paul’s change was subtler than we imagine.

Conversion stories seem to be a dime a dozen at the bookstore these days. Over the last few months I’ve read two, and I know there are several more on the bestseller list. Lately it seems that everyone has a story about how they’ve left the faith as a child or grew up an atheist only to return after some hardship or pain, and had their own Damascus Road Experience.

Many of these stories begin in a similar way – with a vast description of how life was before they became a Christian. Some begin with addiction of some kind, others with tales of their or their family’s staunch paganism. Like Paul’s conversion many of them have a certain moment where they were knocked off their feet, so to speak. The book I most recently devoured is the spiritual memoir by Sara Miles. When Miles writes of the beginning of her conversion she writes, “It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind.”

I wonder if that’s a bit of what Paul felt, when he was blinded and led to Damascus, what he felt after hearing the voice of Jesus naming Paul as his persecutor: “Saul, Saul, Why are you persecuting me?” I wonder if he was shaky even before he fasted for days and saw a vision of a well-known disciple of Jesus healing his blindness. Because even if it was just a change in perspective, “Any sort of change can be scary…Too sudden a turn, too quick a spin, and we can’t adjust to what our eyes are telling us. We lose our balance.”

When I arrived at seminary at Princeton, I thought I had a lot figured out. Not everything, but a lot. I was a progressive-liberal and I knew it. Growing up in Western Michigan had gotten me accustomed to being one of the few liberals Christians in the room, so seminary felt familiar. The struggles I had gone through in high school and college with more conservative Christians had only reinforced my inner calling that the Church needed more people like me.

So I began seminary by trying to seek out like-minded Christians, progressive in their politics and theology. It wasn’t easy. As another of my favorite memoir writers once said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” In spite of myself, I found myself thrown in with Christians of all types and backgrounds, some more conservative, some more liberal. And slowly I was forced to come to grips with the fact that I live only one of a great variety of ways to follow Jesus.

At one point I was asked to represent a liberal interpretation of a hot-button theological issue on a panel, and found myself trying to articulate my beliefs in the midst of some very intelligent thinkers with very different opinions. One of the others on the panel, a PhD student named Scott, represented the conservative interpretation. We disagreed, openly and a bit vehemently, in front of a large group of the student body.

A few days later, Scott found me in the campus bookstore where I worked. He was genuine, friendly. He invited me to be a part of a group of young, pastorally minded friends with all sorts of different theological stripes, to continue the conversation on this issue. I accepted. When we gathered together we worshiped, we prayed, we studied. We kept talking. We found that our common ground somehow outweighed our differences. We glimpsed a vision of God that was beyond what we might imagine ourselves.

In my time of knowing and loving Christians who believe far different things than I do, I’ve found my faith grown in ways I’ve never expected. I’ve been turned around, fallen off balance, corrected and converted. And I could not imagine being faithful without their presence in the community of believers.

There are theological, political, social issues that pull Christians apart all the time. Anne Rice mentioned only a few of them in her reason for leaving the community of believers in favor of going it alone. The issues are alive and well at dissonance in the Presbyterian church: apparent this past month at our General Assembly where they addressed issues like the definition of marriage, the ordination of homosexuals, the conflict in the middle east, and health insurance. These don’t even mention the things that divide us from Christians of other denominations and traditions. There are things that many of you might disagree with me on. But, the God who unites us is so much bigger than the issues that divide.

What is fascinating to me is that in spite of all the things about Paul that I struggle with, (many of which we will look at in the coming weeks) one of Paul’s most common and transcendent themes is unity in the midst of diversity, forgiveness that trumps the hurt, Love that binds us all together in spite of ourselves.

Ananias is as doubtful about Paul as I was, with good reason. When Jesus appears to him in a vision and sends him to heal Paul, Ananias resists. He names how much evil Paul has done to the followers of Jesus, conjuring up Paul’s presence and approval at the stoning of Stephen. After all, Paul was still breathing threats and murder’ only a few days before. But God’s vision is wider than Ananias’s sight, or even Paul’s – Paul will be an instrument, chosen by God, for a purpose beyond what either of them could imagine.

Ananias goes to Paul reluctantly, but something changes for him too. Partly his own vision and call by the Lord, but maybe the sight of a man so well-known for violence brought into meekness and vulnerability. Perhaps it is in this moment, when Paul is truly converted. Not when he is blinded or when he sees visions, but when this man Ananias who is his sworn enemy comes to him, heals him, forgives him and re-names him, calling him, “Brother.”

This is what Anne Rice is missing, I think. Because being called by Christ means being called into community with those who trouble and confound us, who challenge and convict us. Being called into the Christian community means you are called to be brothers and sisters with those who may not think you should speak in church or who may not agree with what you’d say. It means calling someone ‘Brother’ in spite of all your feelings in opposition. It means trusting that the Spirit of God is at work among us, in spite of us, through us, and is bigger than anything we might see or imagine by ourselves. Converting us, binding us together, calling us to be one.

May it be so. Amen.

Raising Life: A Sermon

Raising Life
A Sermon Preached at Larchmont Avenue Church
by Rev. Julie Emery
June 27, 2010

Luke 7:11-17
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

There is a gut-wrenching moment that changes you. There is a moment when distant caring becomes a tangible, visceral, bodily response. For some it comes when experience unites your heart with another’s. For some it comes when feeling overflows into the body so that inaction is no longer an option.

If you talk with any activist you will hear the story of that gut-driven moment, and how it suddenly all changed. I myself have little moments – moments when the issue of violence against women became very real and terribly essential. The moment when the beauty of my surroundings made me reconsider my laziness towards recycling, the moment when I sat at the bedside of a dying man and understood what it might be to die with dignity and the expansive depth of grief. We have all felt them – those gut impulses of compassion for another, the desire to help, the desire to change something for the better, the desire to reach out beyond ourselves.

The word is pronounced “splagch – niz- omai” and it means literally “to be moved in the inward parts.” Rev. Crawford mentioned it last week when he named the word used to describe God’s fatherly compassion for the prodigal son returned home, the same word used to describe God’s love for those God knit together in our mother’s womb. Luke uses this word in only three places in his gospel: the story we heard last week of the prodigal son welcomed home by his ever-loving father, and the story of the good Samaritan, when the Samaritan is moved with compassion for the man left beaten on the side of the road. And then again in our story for today, when Jesus is so moved by the weeping of a mother at her son’s funeral that he breaks all boundaries to help her.

To be moved on the inside. To be moved in your guts.

In our story for this morning, Jesus is walking with a large crowd of followers and approaches the gate of a town in Galilee called Nain when he comes upon a funeral procession. The funeral is for a grown man, and we are told he is his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.

What seem to be small details are big ones for the widow. As I may have mentioned before a woman’s status and stability in the ancient world was tied to the men in her life. She belonged to her husband and then to her sons. Not only that, if a woman was left without both of these – she was in dire circumstances. This woman, upon the death of her son, likely would have all of her belongings returned to her deceased husband’s family, and she would be left with nothing. If the grief that one feels at the death of a child were not enough to collapse the walls around her, certainly the loss of all property and community would be her total demise.

Jesus sees her weeping. She says nothing. He sees her weeping and is moved in his guts with compassion for her. His words seem at first cold and hurtful, “Do not weep,” he says, as if that were even possible at the grief of the death of a son. But when he crosses over to her and puts his hand on the funeral bier; his gut feeling becomes bodily action.

I’m not sure there is much that can compare in our culture to the taboos that Jesus broke by touching the beir. The Jewish rules about cleanliness had strict guidelines about touching the dead, and this action of Jesus makes clearly violates those rules. Not only that but the mere fact that Jesus is moved by the plight of someone who is small and unimportant is problematic for the culture he lives in. By allowing himself to moved with feeling for a powerless woman makes him seem weak and unbecoming.

The widow is cast aside by her culture, now with no man to claim and provide for her. Jesus sees the unsightly, he notices the undervalued, he sees and he responds with action.

Today it is hard to imagine that by crossing cultural boundaries or physical boundaries we might truly jeopardize our own place in society or our own personal wellbeing. Maybe it is as simple as hugging a stranger at the passing of the peace without that squirt of sanitizer. Maybe we still know how eating with the wrong kind of kid at lunch makes us a pariah by association. Maybe we’ve experienced that inviting a certain person to the tennis club for dinner or reaching out to that immigrant on the street corner might put us in an awkward position with our friends.

But none of that really compares to the move that Jesus makes in our story today. It’s more like – kissing a dirty homeless man on the mouth in front of all of our friends, or treating an aids victim without gloves. Perhaps it’s more like giving so much of our own money away that it jeopardizes our own family’s security, or taking an addict into our home till they get back onto their feet. The act of Jesus toward the widow is reckless – without care for consequences. Can you imagine?

It isn’t simply that Jesus notices the woman, isn’t only that he welcomes her, feels for her, cares for her. It’s also that he takes tangible action to change her situation. It’s not just that he weeps with her, but he crosses the prescribed boundaries to act on that feeling-in-the-gut compassion. “Jesus doesn’t just take the widow’s needs seriously, he takes them into the core of his being and makes her pain his own.” And when her pain becomes his, it is impossible not to act.

I’ve recently started reading a wonderful little memoir called “Take this Bread,” by Sara Miles. She was raised an atheist, assured over and over again that anyone who would believe such silliness is deluded at best. And so she begins her book with her experience, raised as a liberal, and then giving over her early adult life to reporting on various communist revolutions in Central America and throughout the world. You know from the beginning of her story that she eventually finds a home in the church, but her writing is compelling enough to keep drawing you in, wondering what is the next step on her road to Damascus.

She writes a lot about food – and how throughout her travels and experiences in countries in the midst of civil and bloody wars she seemed to again and again be fed by people hungrier and poorer than she was. She understood even before she came to faith, that what we have in common with each other is our bodies, which means that we all have common needs. She understood, then, finally, when she accidentally received her first communion, that being moved in her inward parts was fundamentally about both feeling faith and doing faith.

After Sara Miles’s conversion she starts a food pantry in her church, which springs into dozens throughout the poorest parts of her city. For Miles, compassion is naturally linked to action, and so she lives out the gut-driven-faith she adopts. She is particularly drawn to the act of sharing communion, but I think she might also experience the act of baptism with that same deep movement. The waters that clean dirty, tired feet, the waters that refresh after hours of work in the hot sun; the same waters that cover a child’s head and claim her as God’s very own. Tangible, bodily, physical.

Professor Rolf Jacobson talks about how when we are baptized as Christians our relationship to the world changes. We still feel pain, we still make mistakes, but there is a new relationship formed with the world. One that means our solidarity with the rest of humanity matters; how we live in this world matters: what we buy, what we eat, what we give away, what we say… it all matters.

The way that Jesus marks change for the widow at Nain is more miraculous than we can fathom. Jesus says to a dead son, “I say to you, rise!” The text says that Jesus “gave him to his mother,” and in doing so he not only reunited and reconciled them but also saved her from the pit of despair and destitution. The act is one of those moments of the gospels meant to show us the power of Jesus as beyond even the most powerful prophets of Israel, meant to show us the divinity of this one called “Lord.” And in this way, the action of Jesus is beyond us too. Because that kind of raising of life is still beyond our power.

But for us, raising life may instead be about the act of crossing boundaries and changing the way things are seen. In seeing the unseen and acting in ways that bring about new life here and now. It may be an act of going just a little bit further: of letting the pictures of oil covered birds in the gulf move you to actually doing something about your own dependence on oil and dirty energy. Of letting the knowledge that you have a job when so many others don’t move you toward offering your resume skills to the jobless or finance expertise to the single mom looking for help with her budget.

Raising life may be letting the pile of food on your plate every night move you to pile food on someone else’s plate once a week at HOPE, or letting those bags of groceries you lug toward your house weekly move you to fill a few bags at the Hunger Task Force. Perhaps for us here and now Raising Life is not about raising one but about raising everyone’s life a little higher.
Perhaps raising life is about letting yourself be moved, in the gut, into action that Raises Life and Love for all. Amen.