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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.


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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.

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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)

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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.

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History and Now: A Pentecost Reflection
Rev. Bill Crawford and Rev. Julie Emery
Pentecost Sunday, with the Confirmation of New Members
May 21, 2010

Acts of the Apostles 1.6-8
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts of the Apostles 2.1-13
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

History – Rev. Dr. Bill Crawford

On the day of Pentecost they came from all over. They came on that day because it was familiar as a religious holiday – Shavuot – 50 days after Passover. Following the resurrection, Jesus had said he would come to them, sending a Spirit. There was anticipation and anxiety. All of these different folks from all over the place. They came with feelings that were all over the map as well . . . with fears for the future, concerns for loved ones and those suffering loss, questions about . . . and they came because their lives had been touched by Jesus, his goodness and grace. They were followers, believers in him.

Luke tells us that there were the original disciples, with Mattias soon to take the place of Judas, and many more: 120, a growing number.

The miracle of this event is that it drew people from all parts of the known world – Egypt, Galillee, Capadocia, Asia – of them speaking different languages. They were abundant and abounding in differences. And, yet, while each person spoke in their own native tongue, they understood each other. They were caught up in the Spirit together.

Without plan, without warning, like the fluttering of the wings of a dove, that Spirit settleed upon them, and they began to speak in profound ways. With the gentleness of a summer breeze, they were drawn together. With the force of a rushing wind, the walls that divided them cam crashing down. With the power of God’s deeds, the power of each one’s [common] humanity, common goodness was revealed and made known. The Spirit filled the place. It filled their hearts . . . this Spirit we share.

History – Rev. Julie Emery

We as Christians in the 21st century aren’t swept up so much by the Spirit. We tend to be more calculated, more intellectual about our faith. Confirmation classes often spend time discussing what they believe more than how they live out those beliefs. Having inherited this history and story of Pentecost we tend to want to debate it just as those who thought those early disciples were “drunk on wine”: is this how it really happened? What was actually going on? Instead of respond to it: what does it really matter? What does this mean for me?

In the history of church, and on that first Pentecost day, it surely mattered for different reasons. For some it mattered because of the community, the friendship and fellowship shared – the united message spoken in a multiplicity of languages. For some it mattered because there was a truth that was spoken about justice and reconciliation and God’s love and vision for the world. For some it was about acting out that truth in service, welcoming the alien, caring for the victim, loving the enemy.

And yet whatever the reason why they came together – the Spirit brought them together, just as it does today; Bringing together people of great differences and diversity. In our Confirmation class, even, people from three different high schools – across Mamaroneck and New Rochelle. People with wonderfully different interests: from theatre to music, to boy scouts to marine biology to lacrosse, even people with backgrounds that draw from various countries around the world, even people whose family lives and stories with the church are as varied as their personalities. The spirit has been and is at work, uniting in laughter, inspiring towards service, sharing experiences and connecting with one another.

The early Christians at Pentecost didn’t seem so much concerned with “right belief.” They didn’t spend the day arguing about doctrine – about what they believed about the Trinity or the divine make up of Jesus. That came much later. The beginning of the church was more about – a feeling. An experience of divine presence that could not be denied. An experience of hope and faith that was still a quiet seedling, waiting to be nurtured and grown.


Acts 2:14-21
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Now – Rev. Julie Emery

Perhaps you have felt that too: the divine presence in the midst of community. Maybe it came like a rushing wind. Maybe it was more an inkling, a feeling that these are the kinds of people you’d like to spend more time with. Maybe it was an intellectual discussion that brought you here – or maybe it was a friend with a welcoming smile. Whatever the reason you started – now you stand alongside others throughout time walking together on a journey.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Confirmation is less about figuring out just what you believe as it is about choosing to be open to the Spirit as it moves through this world and community. It is less about being sure and more about taking risks. It is less about certainty and more about faith – the kind of faith that steps even when you don’t know what is coming next. Because even after this day when the Spirit moved and claimed these gathered around, there were still doubts. There were still questions about the next steps. There were still confusions and struggles and wonderings. But in the presence of one another and in the fullness of the spirit, they lived through those questions with one another.

So if you still have doubts: you are in good company. If you are still unsure: you are not alone. If you sometimes don’t feel or see that Spirit: you are in the right place. Today you join with generations before and this great community gathered here seeking to live out those questions together.

And so may it be for you eight gathered here and for all of us – continuing in the tradition of the early church. Finding ourselves coming together in our doubts and beliefs, despite differences. Coming together because of a common Spirit present in the church, the community gathered here at LAC and beyond throughout the world, coming together taking the first step and dreaming of where it might lead.


Now – Rev. Dr. Bill Crawford

And so, the church came into being on that day of Pentecost. The disciples who had been following Jesus stayed in Jerusalem and awaited “the promise” – that’s the word he uses — “the promise,” of God’s presence with them. The twelve had grown to a number of seventy followers. By the end of the gathering that day in the upper room – on the day of Pentecost — the number had grown to 3000!

Imagine, so many people clamoring to be a part of congregation! Imagine, droves of people outside our doors right now, pushing their way to come in, stirred by the Spirit, coming to be a part of the family! In these moments the church is being born.

That’s the Pentecost story. In that spirit, this day we welcome 9 new members – just as it was that day, when – as Peter in his sermon – lifted up the words of the prophet Joel: saying that those older shall dream dreams and those young shall see visions . . .

To dream and to envision a church with a vision and purpose: Who we are as God’s people, realizing what God is calling us to do and be . . . we are a community of Christ of all ages, welcoming and gathering in love, growing by grace, going forth to serve . . .

The vision is realized in this very place, on this very day… in the music we sing, the prayers we pray. The vision is realized in our coming together from different corners of our world, from different perspectives on life – joining our voices, joining in harmony… in community. Welcoming one another; reaching out to one another.

The vision is realized in this place and on this day… as we welcome new members to the church: Sarah and Kimberly, Alex and Russell, Julianna and Carina, Zach and Scott.

The vision is realized, and the vision spreads and grows this day and each day when we welcome not these 8, but when we welcome each one… each one here… each one anywhere. When we recognize a world in which no wall, no barrier, no divide or distinction nothing… when we recognize there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God we know in Jesus Christ. On this day, God’s love is realized. God’s community is realized. Dream is realized. This is our Pentecost, behold the Spirit alive in us.

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Open Heart, Open Home
Texts: Acts 16:9-15, John 14:23-29
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery
At The Larchmont Avenue Church
6th Sunday of Easter, Mothers Day, May 9, 2010

John 14:23-29
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Acts 16:9-15
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

I’d like to start by reading a poem titled, “I stop writing the Poem,” by Tess Gallagher

To fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.

On this day celebrating the prevailing faith of women we read about Lydia, the first convert to Christianity in Europe: a woman and the head of her household. Lydia is another of those women who seem to confound and confuse scholars – a woman unattached to a man and so strange. Perhaps she was a widow or divorced, they posit. She is a dealer in purple cloth, which may or may not make her wealthy but certainly means she worked with those of means, since only the wealthy were allowed to wear or could afford to wear the color purple. Since she is not mentioned to be with a man, the text makes us believe she is on her own. A worshipper of God, though a Gentile, she has joined a group of women on the Sabbath for prayer.

Paul’s presence among these women is strange as well, since in his previous tours of evangelism he has begun his preaching in the synogogue. Perhaps it is because this hasn’t always worked out that Paul and his companions are trying a different route. They have come to Macedonia because of a dream – searching for a man who called to them, “Come and help us!” And so Paul and Silas and their entourage travel to Macedonia, to Phillipi and are looking for the man in their vision. Instead they meet Lydia.

But it’s not just Lydia’s gender that makes her special. It’s her openness. She is open to hear the word of Paul even as he is a stranger offering a faith that must have seemed foreign and bizarre. When she converts she has everyone in her home baptized – probably slaves and children as well, and is at least part of the reason Calvin argued we should baptize babies. Like the woman in the poem by Tess Gallagher, she is a living example; as soon as she is baptized, she is inviting others into the faith.

Lydia’s sense of vision is of what God is doing – in her presence, in her life and home, and in the work and life of Paul and Silas. After her conversion, she invites these strangers into her home, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful, come and stay at my home.” Later in this story of Paul and Silas, before they leave Phillipi, they stop again at the home of Lydia, now a burgeoning house-church. Not surprising that Luke writes about this dynamic woman, “And she prevailed upon us.”

My own mother was one of those who is always inviting extra people to stay at our house for dinner. Did you have a mother like that? With two teenage boys in our house there was always an extra boy or two hanging around, and so an extra mouth or two to feed. Growing up everyone called her “Ma Hoek,” since she seemed to be a mother to everyone we met. Friends whose parents were going through divorce found solace at our table and on our couch. Hairdressers or church members struggling to make ends meet would be showered with huge baskets of food on the holidays, and invitations to join our family gatherings were always constant.

There were, at points growing up, that I didn’t so much appreciate having extra teenage boys at our table, given that I was the natural recipient of incessant teasing. There were times that I wondered if my mother’s endless invitations and gifts meant that I had less: less of those goodies being sent away, less attention. And yet now as a parent myself I long for many, many Lydias in the lives of my boys. Men and women both, I long for people who open their homes to them and invite them in.

As a mother I am aware every day that parents cannot do it alone – that as the saying goes it takes a village to raise a child. I hope for every child I know to be welcomed in by women and men of all paths and stories, some parents and some not. I hope for them men and women who take them under their wings and feed them good food and good advice. I hope for them people who show them the love of God in all her fierce and creative whimsy. I hope for them people who show them not just what the church is but what the church can be – whether or not those people are members of any particular church.

I hope for them people with vision and openness like Lydia – living without fear of strangers, without fear of the world, with openness to the Spirit at work in our midst, and with openness to each other. It is a hope I have for them, and for each of us too.

Openness to strangers, though, seems to be a bit countercultural these days. If you don’t see this as a parent you have perhaps experienced it as a stranger when your innocent “hello” to a child at the park is met with wary eyes and suspicion. Once I was in a store rumbling through my purse and I saw a young child standing there, watching me, so I offered her a piece of candy I happened to have. A smart girl, she refused, and I caught myself aghast. “I am the stranger my mother warned me about!” I thought.

We are wary of strangers, what they offer, what they represent. A few months back, in the New York Sun, a woman named Lenore Skenazy wrote an article titled, “Why I let my 9-year-old travel on the Subway alone.” She wrote later that she expected some backlash, but got significantly more than she bargained for as the people of New York wrote in to assert their opinions. There were some people who wrote back championing her courage and grit as a parent raising children in the world today. But the vast majority of parents called her crazy, and even negligent or abusive to let a small child travel unattended through what seemed to them the fires of hell – the New York City public transportation system.

Perhaps she is crazy and negligent. But perhaps not. Perhaps she is living out a certain amount of openness that is our call as parents, or even more important our call as Christians.

It is Easter season: Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed. And the question for each of us in this season of Easter is to ask ourselves, what do we do now? Now that Christ is risen, how then shall we live?

Jesus says all the time throughout the gospels just as he does in the passage from John’s Gospel today, the words “Do not fear, do not be afraid.” He says this even when he knows that he will soon die, and leave his disciples alone. He says this knowing the despair they will face, the grief, the pain. He tells them that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will be with them always. He tells them to be at peace.

It isn’t easy to do. In a world where car bombs are left in Times Square and the market continues to drop and the world seems so unpredictable, the natural tendency is for us to live out of fear. Fear for our loved ones, fear for what will happen tomorrow, fear for the future. Not only mothers but all of us can easily slip into that space where anxiety rules the day: What if I forget something? What if I never accomplish what I set out to do? What if I don’t make the cut? What if I get fired? What if something awful happens?

But the path of Christ is a path though fear into hope. It is not a hope that is naive or cheery in the face of pain and suffering. It is instead a hope that, as one scholar puts it, stares into the face of evil and despair and answers with the knowledge that God will win.

When the earthquake hit Haiti the devastation was colossal. Some of you saw some of the photos of Haiti in my father’s slideshow a few weeks ago. The images are still startling. The world mused at how a country that had already been barely scraping by could weather such a disaster. How could they face this new, overwhelming destruction.

But then reports came back of the singing. Do you remember? As that first night fell in camps of thousands that had been set up around the city reporters could hear voices floating on the air in song: hymns of Salvation that they knew by heart. Reminders of the love of Christ that conquers even the worst evils, waves of hope prevailing in the darkness. They were singing, singing, singing. As the days moved on the world answered with an openness of heart and home. People shared what they had, people gave time and resources, gifts and skill. There was and is sorrow, yes. There was and is fear, yes. There was and is suffering, yes. But hope, love, prevails.

As Christians we believe, and that means that we trust that God loves us more than we could possibly imagine. As Christians we trust that God will guide and protect the people we love. As Christians we trust and do not fear. As Christians, we have hope. It is a hope that sings in the dark. It is a hope that opens our hearts to the great possibility of the Spirit at work among us. It is a hope that opens our homes to strangers knowing that God’s vision is bigger than our sight. As Christians we have faith, and so we believe that in spite of it all, God wins, Hope conquers, Love prevails. May it be a hope that lives in each of us – this day and forever. Amen.

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Handing Over
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
March 28, 2010 Palm Sunday

Luke 23:13-25, 32-33, 44-48
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”

Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.

I heard a pastor this past week refer to Palm Sunday as “whiplash Sunday.” She was referring to the experience we all have in beginning worship in Palm Sunday with Jesus’ triumphant processional into Jerusalem and ending it with his crucifixion and death. I learned as well that many pastors simply do not preach on this day. Instead they hold a dramatic reading of the passion story – much like we do at our Good Friday service. I don’t blame them. It is a challenge for anyone to try and deal with the onslaught of emotions that comes with the kind of journey that Jesus took over that week. From heightened joy and excitement to betrayal, trial, suffering and death. From the joyful cries of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord,” to the hate-filled shouts of “Crucify Him!” It’s enough to give any of us a sore neck.

It’s not an easy story to tell in any sort of shortened fashion either. Luke’s telling of the final days of Jesus is told like any good scientist – with attention to the smallest details. And so from the triumphant processional to the crucifixion we cover five long chapters. It is a big story. It is The Story. The Story of our Faith. The Story we remember again and again so no one will ever forget.

Most of us would just as well skip over the hard parts – including myself. I’m not much for blood and gore. I could leave out the beatings and mocking. I always feel myself mentally looking away at Peter’s betrayal, like trying not to look at a car crash you know is going to happen. I just wish for once he wouldn’t do it. I shake my head at Pilate’s inaction in the face of the crowd who calls for Jesus to be killed. How can any of us feel anything but shame?

Just as well to go from the height of the processional to the empty tomb and skip over all that stuff. Just as well to focus on the glory of what God can accomplish rather than the evil that humanity can perpetuate. Just as well.

When we fast-forward through the events of the week as Luke tells it – we begin to see two divergent understandings of power that are the source of the conflict that ends with the death of Jesus: One vision of power that demands obedience through fear and violence; the other self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, a non-violent protest against the powers of this world. Powers still at work today, vying for our attention and commitment.

I was reminded over the weekend that this past Thursday marked the anniversary of one of the most memorable tragedies in the history of New York City, one that came long before the attacks on the world trade center in 2001: the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. In memorial, schoolchildren in the city and relatives of the 146 garment workers who died fire 99 years ago gathered to remember something that never should have happened. Most of the victims were women, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants, most of them heartbreakingly young.

They were killed because labor laws allowed the clothing company to lock the doors to keep them there, because the fire department didn’t have ladders that reached above the sixth floor, which was two or three floors below the workers trapped in the fire. Labor laws and fire departments have changed since then – in part due to this unspeakable tragedy.

Part of the annual remembering is led by a filmmaker named Ruth Sergel. Each year on March 25, she leads volunteers around the city to the homes of each of the 146 victims, writing their names in chalk on the pavement outside the buildings. She describes it as “a different kind of power” – the power of communal memory, of standing up for innocent victims, of standing up for justice.

Luke, more than the other gospel writers, is concerned about justice. At the death of Jesus, the centurion roman guard is given a line that proclaims the center of truth in the gospel writer’s eyes. In Mark and Matthew’s gospels the centurion says, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

But Luke’s centurion says something different. The centurion in our text today instead says, “Truly this man was innocent,” he says.

“He has done nothing to deserve death.” “Truly this man was innocent.”

Luke takes pains to show us that Jesus went to the cross an innocent man. Pilate speaks to the crowd three times about his belief that Jesus did not deserve to die, but in the end sends him to his death anyways. The thief on the cross beside Jesus rebukes his mocking companion, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

“Truly this man was innocent.”

Despite his innocence, despite his words of hope and peace, there is something about Jesus that people resist and wish to eliminate. There has been something about Jesus that people have resisted all along. Throughout his life and ministry – the actions and words of Jesus have been met with opposition and even fury. This is not our kind of power. Our power is a power that keeps us – here and them – there. Our power is a power that builds walls of division, a power that perpetuates the huge gap between the poorest of poor and the wealthiest of wealthy. It is the kind of power that doesn’t want to share, that ignores the pain and suffering of others. Our power is a power that betrays, that condemns, that preserves the self at all costs.

Each of us has these stories – stories of our own betrayals and pain. Stories we have read or experienced which display the injustices that are part of the human condition. They have early beginnings – on buses and in school cafeterias – moments when we joined in mocking or at least looked away. Or perhaps we were the ones ridiculed and cast out because of a powerful crowd. Perhaps it is part of why remembering our adolescent years is so painful.

I can remember the faces of those I failed to stand up for. I can remember the shame I felt at being too weak.

Jesus spoke of a different kind of power – a power that proclaims release to the captives, a power that lets justice roll down like a mighty water, a power that lifts up the poor and downtrodden, and condemns the rich and haughty.

Throughout his life – Jesus acted with a different kind of power – a power that heals the broken, that welcomes the outcast, a power that forgives the sinner, loves the forgotten. In his final days ‘Jesus is silent when the world screams for vengeance, he is a man of peace while the world acts with violence, he is a person in prayer when the status quo is obsessed with politics and he is aligned with all who suffer and are wounded when the world looks towards power, prestige and ego satisfaction.’ In his final days Jesus stands with the least of these and in doing so Jesus stands for justice.

Jesus is all about justice.

Rev. Jim Wallis, progressive Christian author and editor of Sojourners Magazine tells a story about when he was in seminary and participated in a bible study that found “2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor, about God’s concern for the left out, left behind, the vulnerable and God’s call for justice.” And then they took an old Bible from seminary and they cut out of the Bible every single reference to the poor, to social justice, to economic justice. When they were done, the Bible was just in shreds.” There was almost nothing left.

At the very heart of the story of the Passion of Christ we find Jesus in solidarity with the prisoner, the lonely, the betrayed, the beaten, the outcast. Jesus dies between two criminals, unjustly condemned to death…and we must ask ourselves…can we live with that? Can we live with the kind of power that rules our world again and again? Can we live with the injustices that occur everyday around us? Can we live with unjust healthcare systems, unjust labor practices, unjust foreign policy, unjust behavior toward our neighbors?

We must ask: will we continue to resist the love, mercy and truth of Jesus Christ? Will we silence the honest voice? Will we condemn the innocent agitator? Will we laugh at the misfortune of others? Will we pursue our own agendas for the sake of expediency and personal profit?

Or will we decide, “For the sake of Jesus, I am no longer going to participate in something that is vindictive, punitive, or evil.” Will we hand ourselves over to the power that Jesus offers? The power that stands for what is right and just and merciful and true?

Will we tell the story or will we live it?

Will remember the story or will we hand ourselves over?

Hand ourselves over to love and peace and forgiveness?

Hand ourselves over to hope and grace, and self-sacrifice?

Will we hand ourselves over to the power that conquers all – even death?


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