Taking Action Like Nachshon

Three weeks ago we began our series of readings from the book of Exodus or from what our Jewish brothers and sisters call the Book of Names, Shemoth. I invited us to consider how our individual names and how our collective name (Redeemer) call us to embody God’s love in San Rafael and the world. Just as the Hebrew understanding of the name “Moses” recalls God’s rainbow promise of love and protection to Noah so too do each of our names call us to express the rainbow diversity of God’s love. We are what Desmond Tutu calls the “Rainbow People of God.”

We live into our own particular expressions of God’s rainbow by first immersing ourselves in prayer. We learned from Moses that, without a prior commitment to prayer, our attempts to protect the vulnerable and resist oppression can often make things worse rather than better. It was only when Moses made himself at home in God’s presence (and rested in the Ground of Being) that he was able to align himself with the redemptive mission of Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh and to effectively liberate an enslaved group of immigrants from the dogged grip of the world’s most powerful empire. Service to the poor and the oppressed is most effective when rooted in prayer. Faith without action is dead, but action without faith is deader.

The Exodus readings from last Sunday and this morning echo this call to embody God’s love and live into our own unique expressions of God’s rainbow through prayer and service to the poor. However, the emphasis in these readings is not so much on the prayer but rather on the courageous action that one must take after receiving clear direction in prayer.

Last Sunday’s readings included detailed instruction on how to observe the Passover Feast. God says to Moses, “This is how you shall eat the Passover lamb: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly” (Exodus 12:11) Now as someone who lives in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, a few doors down from the world famous Slow Food Movement restaurant Chez Panisse, I am a proponent of eating mindfully and slowly. According to Exodus, however, the Passover meal is not to be eaten slowly, but rather very quickly. In fact, one commentator refers to the Passover feast as the first “fast food” meal. It is not a time to prayerfully savor every taste and texture of the food. It is to be eaten in haste, with staff in hand and sandals on feet because God may call you to action at any moment.

The reading this morning recounts the most dramatic event of the Exodus story: the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. As I read this passage in light of Jewish midrash, the message is once again not so much a call to prayer but rather a call to courageous action after receiving clear direction in prayer. There are some gaps in the biblical narrative and whenever there are gaps, the rabbis tend to fill them in with creative details and stories, called midrash. When it comes to the crossing of the Red Sea, the rabbis emphasize a character who is actually not mentioned in the story itself. They emphasize a character who is named earlier in the book of Names, in chapter 6 (verse 23); a character named Nachshon. Nachshon was a young prince of the tribe of Judah who was in his early 20s during the Exodus; and it is because of the courageous action of Nachshon that the Israelites successfully crossed the sea. So what is the action of Nachshon?

We first need to look at verse 10 of chapter 14 in your pew Bible when the Israelites cry out to the Lord in great fear as Pharaoh’s army approaches. However, the Israelites cry out to the Lord mostly by doing some serious kvetching to Moses: They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

And then according to the rabbis, Moses starts to pray to God. Moses makes himself at home in God’s presence and rests in the Ground of Being; and Moses invites all the people to keep still and rest in God’s loving presence. But, even though stillness and contemplative prayer are necessary, this is not the time to keep still. This is a time for courageous action. God makes this clear to Moses when he says in verse 15, “Why do you cry out to me? Why are you sitting still in prayer? And why are you telling the people to keep still? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Now is the time for action! Bold and courageous action. Although the action is driven by and drenched in prayer; the action does not involve sitting still, but moving forward in faith.

There is a powerful song by the rock band U2 titled “Please” in which Bono sings poignantly to Christians who use prayer as an excuse for not taking action. He sings, “Please, please, get up off your knees.” That’s what God says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Get up off your knees, take action and move forward!”

So while the Israelites are complaining and Moses is still crying out to God, Nachshon takes action and steps into the water. He continues walking as the water comes up to his knees, then his waist, then his shoulders, and then his neck. And the Israelites see him and stop their complaining. Moses stops crying out to God. And as the waters cover Nachshon’s mouth and nose so that he can no longer breathe, Moses finally takes action and does what God has been telling him to do all along. He lifts up his staff and the sea splits so that all the children of Israel can move forward and cross the sea on dry ground. All thanks to the courageous action of Nachshon.[1]

The Book of Names calls us to first root ourselves in prayer, but once we have received direction in prayer, there comes a time when we have to get up off our knees and take action like Nachshon and move forward in faith, even when the obstacles might seem insurmountable.

How is God calling us to take action like Nachshon? When we pray together in a few minutes, let us listen to how God is calling us to take action for those for whom we pray. We can take action like Nachshon by donating money to Episcopal Relief and Development to help the many victims of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Jose. Maybe God is calling you to take action by spearheading the Rise Against Hunger packaging event that we did last January and hope to do again. Maybe God is calling you to take action by participating in the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy Wellness Gatherings on Tuesday nights at 5 PM at the First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael. You can join us in October when the Youth Group serves salad and cookies to the hungry and homeless. Maybe God is calling you to take action by helping Redeemer Preschool find a new teacher. How is God calling you specifically to take action like Nachshon?

Let us pray and listen; and again I invite us to consider how our individual names and our collective name (Redeemer) calls us to take action. The name Nachshon is connected to the Hebrew word Nachshol which means a stormy tidal wave. Nachshon lived up to his name by walking courageously into the dangerous waters and thus stirring up a tidal wave of freedom and deliverance. The name Moses means “to draw out from the waters.” Moses lived up to his name by drawing the children of Israel out from the waters and also by reminding God of the rainbow that was drawn out from the waters as a promise of divine love and protection. How is God calling you to live up to your name? How is God calling Redeemer to live up to our name? How is God calling us to take action like Nachshon?

[1] Exodus 14:21, Mekhilta Beshallach 6, I 234. See The Classic Midrash: Tannaitic Commentaries on the Bible, trans. Reuven Hammer (Paulist Press: Mahwah NJ, 1995), 92.

Prayer and Service to the Poor

My mantra for ministry for about the last decade has been “prayer and service to the poor.” Prayer and service to the poor. These two pursuits have been the primary mission of my youth ministry in southern California and the mission of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group since it began in 2012. Sometimes when I talk about it with youth and their parents, I like to continue with the alliteration and add, “prayer, service to the poor and pizza parties.” And sometimes when we have meetings devoted mostly to fun and games and pizza parties, the youth are the ones who remind of our commitment to prayer by asking, “Hey, can we pray Compline?”

Since we first met five years ago, the youth group has concluded its meetings together around a sand bowl as we pray for each other and the world by lighting beeswax candles and placing them in the sand. We begin this time by first lighting one single candle and then opening our prayer books to the Compline prayer which is on a page number that I often forget, but the youth always seem to remember: page 127. It’s a very simple and beautiful prayer that is meant to be prayed before going to bed. With our prayer books open, we then take a couple deep breaths, sit together in silence, appreciating the gift of our shared time together; and as we pray and ritualize our prayers with candles, usually with a student officiating the service, we watch as our common fire grows. Even in the midst of the occasional giggling, I often feel like we are sitting together on holy ground around that bowl. It’s like our burning bush.

And from that fire, the youth group has felt called by God to serve food and give clothing to the hungry and homeless in San Rafael, to send bags of stuffed animals to orphans in Vietnam, to support a missionary family in South Sudan and Kenya, and to provide relief for hurricane victims. I see all of our outreach as the overflowing extension and natural outcome of our communal prayer together. I see prayer and service to the poor as inextricably linked; as two sides of the same coin.

The apostle James put it bluntly when he said, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:14). In a sense, he was also saying, “Prayer without service to the poor is ultimately lifeless.” But I would also say that service to the poor and the oppressed without any prayer might be even more dangerous and deadly. That is one of the messages from our readings this morning.

We are in the second part of our Exodus series. As I mentioned last Sunday, the Hebrew name for the book of Exodus is Shemoth, which means “Names.” And in our reading today, Moses stands on holy ground by a burning bush, where he learns the Name of God; and Names are very important in the book of Names.

But before Moses encounters God at the burning bush on Mount Horeb (which is also Mount Sinai), Moses tries to protect the poor and oppressed people of Egypt before he has made any prior commitment to prayer or to God. He learns the hard way that service to the poor and the oppressed without any prayer can be very dangerous and even deadly. Unfortunately, the lectionary omits this part of the Moses story, but fortunately, you all have Bibles in your pews so we get to read it. In Exodus chapter 2 verse 11, we read, “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When Moses went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, ‘Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?’ He answered, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses was afraid and thought, ‘Surely the thing is known.’ When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian.” So Moses tried to the protect the oppressed without being rooted in prayer, and as a result, all he seemed to earn was his name on the pharaoh’s hit list and on the blacklist of his own people, who now viewed him with suspicion. Without a prior commitment to prayer, our attempts to protect the oppressed can prove not only ineffective but also violent and destructive, ultimately making things even worse for them and for us. This approach did not work out well for Moses. So he retreats. He retreats to a place called Midian, which means “Place of Judgment” or “Place of Discernment.” And it is there that he learns to root himself in prayer and make himself at home in the presence of God.

On Mount Horeb, God tells Moses to remove his sandals because he stands on holy ground. In ancient Near Eastern culture as well as in our culture, many people remove their shoes when they enter someone’s home or their own home. In God’s command to Moses to remove his sandals, I hear God inviting Moses to make himself at home in God’s Presence. It is by making himself at home in God’s presence that Moses aligns himself with God’s deep concern for the poor and the oppressed, of God’s intention to deliver his people from a cruel system of violence and subjugation, and of God’s plan to make Moses a major part of this mission of liberation. And it is in God’s Presence that Moses learns the very Name of God, the Name that Jacob asked for after wrestling all night with God, but did not receive. The Name that God gives to Moses is not Yahweh, but rather Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh: “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be;” or more simply Ehyeh (“I am”). In this enigmatic Name of God given to Moses, I once again hear a call to prayer and service to the poor.

Christians have interpreted this name to mean that God is not a being but is rather Being Itself or what one theologian Paul Tillich called “the Ground of Being.” According to the Christian tradition, we all participate in God through our participation in existence. The English author of the Christian mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing says, “God is your being, and what you are, you are in God. For the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and many other Christian mystics, prayer involves quieting our hearts and minds in order to reconnect with and rest in our Ground of Being, to make ourselves at home in God’s presence, like the youth group does when we pray Compline, like Moses did at the burning bush.

Jewish commentators have interpreted the Name of God in their own creative way. The medieval French rabbi Rashi connects God’s Name with God’s previous revelation that he has seen and heard and even felt the suffering of his people. It is a revelation of divine pathos and divine solidarity with those who suffer. In the Name Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, Rashi hears God saying, “I shall be with them in their anguish just as I shall be with them (and all people) in future crises of slavery and persecution!” In his Name, God reveals himself as always with and among those who are poor and suffering. If we want to serve God, then we do so by serving the poor, which is the natural outflow of prayer and contemplation.

Last Sunday, I participated with Bishop Marc Andrus in an Interfaith Prayer Rally Against Hate in Berkeley, wearing a sign that said, “Hate is not a Christian Virtue,” and marching alongside the Rev. Molly Haws. Before we marched, however, we made ourselves at home in God’s presence, we drenched ourselves in prayer, renewed our commitment to non-violence and reminded ourselves that faith without works is dead, but works without faith is deader.

Moses liberated an enslaved group of immigrants from the stubborn clutches of the world’s most powerful empire not by arming the Hebrews with weapons to incite a violent revolt but rather by praying and making himself at home in God’s presence and courageously speaking truth to power; and letting God do all the rest. This is exactly what Paul calls us to do when he says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…do not fight violence with more violence, but…leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ …Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

And this is exactly why Jesus condemns Peter so harshly because he knows that Peter’s mind is set on the violent overthrow of the Roman empire, a revolution that was to be ignited and spearheaded by the Messiah himself. Peter, who has just confessed Jesus to be that Messiah, cannot understand how Jesus’s suffering and death could possibly fit into this plan. Peter wants to liberate the oppressed the only way he knows how, through violence; and as we saw with Moses, that approach only seems to make things worse.

Jesus calls Peter and his disciples and us to let go of our feeble attempts to serve the poor and liberate the oppressed through our own power. He calls us to pray, to make our home in the presence of God, in the presence of Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, the Ground of our Being, the One who is always with those who suffer, and the One who says “Vengeance is mine” and who will, in Jesus’s words, repay everyone for what they have done.

We are all called to serve the poor and liberate the oppressed, but before that, we are called to pray. So I ask you, how do you make yourself at home in the presence of God? Where is your burning bush? How do you rest in the Ground of Being? And when you are on that holy ground, how do you hear God calling you specifically to serve and liberate and redeem his people?

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion (which is service to the poor[1]); nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] See James 1:27

Our Redeemer, Rock, and Rainbow

Today our lectionary launches us on a nine-week long series of readings from the book of Exodus, which recounts the epic story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. This story serves as a central and foundational narrative for Judaism and Christianity and even for Islam. These next nine weeks in Exodus will serve as a countdown to the 60th anniversary of this church, which met for the first time in November of 1957. And it is most appropriate that this story prepares us for the anniversary since the primary theme of Exodus is redemption, God as Redeemer. The invitation is for us to find our redemption, liberation and deepest freedom in our belovedness. We are all God’s beloved and we are all unique expressions of God’s redeeming and liberating love. God our Redeemer has given us each different gifts, experiences, knowledge and expertise in order to share with the world the great height and depth and breadth and rainbow diversity of God’s unconditional and healing love. That is why we say in our mission statement that “Our church is a sacred space for sharing individual gifts as we seek to embody the redemptive and liberating love of God in San Rafael and the world.” And one way that we can discover and claim our individual gifts is by contemplating and meditating upon not only the meaning of the name of our community but also upon our own individual names. How is your name calling you to embody God’s love?

In the Hebrew Bible (the TaNaK), the book of Exodus is not called “Exodus.” Like other books in the Jewish TaNaK, it is named after the first word in the book. The book of Genesis is called “Bereshit” which is Hebrew for “In the beginning.” The book of Exodus is called “Shemoth” and if you look at the first verse in Exodus in your pew Bibles, you can probably guess what Shemoth means. The first verse reads, “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.” Shemoth means “Names;” and names are profoundly important in Judaism and in Christianity and especially significant in the book of Exodus or the Book of “Names.” So as we read through portions of Exodus, let us pay special attention to the Names.

The names listed in the beginning of the book remind us of how the book of Genesis ended, with Joseph and his brothers reconciled in Egypt. They continued to live together in Egypt with their father Jacob, and then as verse 6 and 7 read, “Joseph died, and all his brothers [whom are all named], and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” And so we arrive at our reading portion this morning: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph…” Although historians suggest that this new king was the Pharaoh Ramses II, that is really only a guess because the pharaoh remains nameless in the Book of Names. However, the book of Names (Shemoth) does name the two feisty God-fearing Hebrew midwives (Shiphrah and Puah) who disobey the pharaoh. Also, the parents of Moses are not named; however, they are associated with the name of Levi, which is important because Levi later becomes the priestly tribe, thus the name Levi legitimates Moses’s role as an intercessor and mediator between God and God’s people.

At the end of our Exodus reading we arrive at one of the most important names of all: Moses. Now Moses is actually an Egyptian name that means “son” (s – o – n). Egyptian pharaohs had names like Thothmosis which means “son of Thoth” (the Egyptian god of wisdom and the moon) and Ramses which means “son of Ra” (the Egyptian sun God). The fact that Moses is an Egyptian name has actually inspired all kinds of creative and bizarre historical claims about Moses’s true identity. Perhaps the most famous or infamous of these claims are those of Jewish psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who basically conflates Moses with a Pharaoh named Akhenaton, who abandoned the traditional pantheon of Egyptian gods and introduced the worship of only one God: Aten. You can read more about these imaginative claims in his book Moses and Monotheism, which Rowan Williams called “painfully absurd” and which ultimately reveals more about Freud than it does about Moses. But I highlight it because so much of Freud’s argument hinges on the fact that the name Moses can indeed be understood as an Egyptian name. Names can hold tremendous meaning.

The Book of Names, however, seems to dismiss the fact that Moses can be an Egyptian name and instead gives Moses a Hebrew meaning. Verse 10 of Chapter 2: “The Pharaoh’s daughter took him as her son. She named him Moses “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” Now the author of the Torah [who has traditionally been considered Moses but is most likely several different authors] loves to use puns. I pointed this out a few weeks ago when we read about Sarah’s laughter in response to God’s promise. That whole story was one long pun on the Hebrew word for “laughter,” which is Yitzhak, Isaac. We miss most of the poetry and playful puns of the Bible when we only read the translation. That is partly why I continue to highlight the original Hebrew. So she named him Moshe because ki min hamayim mishitihu; mishitihu from the verb mashah, which means to “draw out” or “to rescue from danger” or “to deliver,” “to liberate” or even “to redeem.” So the author of the Torah takes the Egyptian name “Moses” which means “son” and re-imagines it and re-interprets it to associate it with deliverance, freedom and redemption. Moses lives up to his name when he delivers the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt and draws them out from the waters of the Red Sea. This drawing out from the waters can remind us of our own experience of being drawn out from the waters of baptism, a sacrament that has historically been connected to the naming of a child.

Jewish scholar Jerome M. Segal sees the author of the Torah connecting Moses’s name not only with this liberation from slavery and the waters of the Red Sea but also with another earlier biblical figure who was delivered from the treacherous waters of a flood. Segal associates the name of Moses with the story of Noah, specifically with the end of the story when God draws Noah out of the waters and then promises to never again destroy the earth with a flood, a promise for us to hold onto most tenaciouly in the midst of the current Hurricane Harvey in Texas and catastrophic climate change in general. God gives Noah a sign as a physical, visual reminder of his promise of love and protection, a sign which he also seems to draw out of the water and into the clouds. The sign is the rainbow and God says, “When the rainbow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between me and all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:17). Joseph Segal writes, “Moses, named by Pharaoh’s daughter to signify ‘I drew him out of the water,’ is to function as God’s rainbow. God knows that he needs a buffer between himself and humanity, and he has chosen Moses precisely because Moses has the courage and wit to play this role.”[1] God chooses Moses to serve as a living reminder of the promise he made to Noah and humanity, to be a reminder of God’s rainbow.

And Moses lives up to this aspect of his name when he intercedes on behalf of God’s people on Mount Sinai, stepping into the breach between God’s wrath and God’s disobedient children. When the Israelites revert to idol worship and cast for themselves a golden calf, God says to Moses, “I’m done with them. I’m going to destroy them. I want start over with you, Moses, and make a great nation out of you.” Moses then reminds God of how much he loves his people. Moses says, “Remember you are a God of love. Yes, your people have messed up royally. We are selfish, stupid creatures, but remember, your property is always to have mercy. Remember your love. Remember your rainbow.”

In this way, Moses lives up to his name as a deliverer, as a priestly descendant of Levi, an intercessor and mediator, as a prophet, as a redeemer, as God’s rainbow memento, reminding us of God’s love for us and by reminding God of God’s love for us. The Hebrew prophets continue to do this. They continue to remind God of His love for us, even though we can be hateful, violent and greedy people; and they continue to remind God’s people (us) of God’s love for us even when all the evidence points to the contrary; when it appears that God has abandoned us. If a Hebrew prophet wants to be effective, he or she must believe firmly and resolutely in God’s love, in the divine promise of the rainbow. Each of the prophets do this in their own unique ways because they each have their own unique names. There’s the chutzpah of Habakkuk, the jeremiads of Jeremiah, the hymns of Isaiah and the kvetching of Jonah. And each of our names points to our own unique calling to be reminders of God’s love, to each be colorful expressions of God’s rainbow.

Paul says, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” We are all different expressions of God’s colorful rainbow promise. How does your name call you to embody God’s rainbow?

The key is to believe resolutely in God’s love as expressed fully in Christ. Simon Peter claimed this key when he understood that the healing, nourishing and liberating power of Jesus was an incarnation of God’s love; that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus responded by telling Simon Peter that he lived up to his name—Peter, the Rock—because there is nothing more rock-solid for a person to believe in than God’s love. It is through faith in God’s love that we can live up to our names and fulfill our true callings as beautiful and colorful expressions of the divine rainbow. Amen.

[1] Jerome M. Segal, Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007), 124.


Hine Ma Tov (Behold, How Good!)

Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad. Behold! How good it is when brothers and sisters gather together in community.

I have been wrestling and praying through this morning’s Scripture readings for the last couple weeks while also lamenting and grieving over the horrific violence and hatred we have witnessed in our country and in the world. And the good news that shimmers throughout these texts and is expressed best in the Psalm, which essentially says, “Behold the healing power of a community that gathers together in love and reconciliation! It is like oil that heals and soothes and relieves our broken hearts and our fragmented selves.” We need that healing oil to cover us, to fill us, to drench us like the oil running down Aaron’s beard. I invite us to simply receive and rest in the healing power of this beautiful gathering of God’s beloved children. Let the healing power of this community right now fall gently upon you like the dew of Mount Hermon upon the hills of Zion. Let it heal you and anoint you. Lord knows we need it. Breathe it in deeply. Drink deeply from this well. The healing power of this beloved community. The healing power of our Redeemer. Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad. Behold! How good it is when brothers gather together in community and reconciliation, in the name of Christ.

In our reading from Genesis, a community of reconciled brothers is made manifest and possible by Joseph who embodies the love and forgiveness of God. Several years before this reconciliation, Joseph had opened up to his brothers by sharing with them his personal dreams; and they responded with jealousy and hatred. They mocked him by calling him a “dreamer” (37:19). The great songwriter John Lennon shared this moniker when he sang, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.” Behold how good it is when people live in unity! Just like his fellow dreamer John Lennon, Joseph in the Bible tragically suffered lethal violence from the hands of hateful humanity. Joseph’s brothers initially conspired to murder him and hurl his corpse into a pit to rot and then lie to their father Jacob about how he was slaughtered by a wild animal. But then they decided it would be more appropriate to essentially bury him alive; so they throw his body, still alive, into a waterless pit. And then they start thinking like brilliant capitalists and wonder how they can monetize.  They see a caravan passing by and decide to sell their brother’s body as human chattel; and they successfully become profiteers of slave trade, selling their brother for 20 pieces of silver.

Miraculously, after a series of adventures and misadventures, Joseph not only becomes a freed slave but also rises to the highest office in the world’s most powerful empire. He basically becomes the Prime Minister of Egypt.

When Joseph’s brothers begin to suffer famine in their land, they are forced to got to Egypt to buy food; and when they meet the prime minister, they don’t recognize that it’s their brother Joseph but Joseph recognizes them; and he tests them to see whether or not they are still being driven by hatred, jealousy and greed. After they surprisingly pass the test, Joseph reveals himself to them when he says, “Come closer to me. I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed…because I have forgiven you. Even though your intentions towards me were pure evil, God’s intentions for me were good (50:20). And God has won the day.” And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. And they were healed and anointed by his tears. Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad. Let the healing power of the beloved community of reconciled brothers wash over you.

In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul invites us into God’s beloved community by first reminding us that God’s covenant with the Jews is still valid. The Jews are still God’s chosen people; it’s just that now, in Christ, that “chosenness” and the blessings of that “chosenness” have spread out to all of us, who want to share in it. Paul says, ‘Don’t think for a moment that God has rejected the Jews.’ Anti-semitism in any form is a complete distortion and perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s vision is for his chosen people, the Jews, to dwell together in unity with those of us who participate in that chosenness through Christ. Hine ma tov uma nayim shevet achim gam yachad.

Our Gospel reading this morning also invites us to experience the healing power of the beloved community. Although it includes one of the most challenging and initially disturbing stories about Jesus, the message of hope and reconciliation and anti-racism still resound clearly, perhaps more clearly than ever! Earlier in the chapter (Matthew 15), the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus why his disciples are breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating. Now it’s easy for us to demonize the Pharisees as the legalistic Jews who appear to be obsessed with external forms of purity. And that way of reading has unfortunately fueled the very antisemitism that Paul clearly condemns.

Although I won’t deny that there is likely a hint of criticism in the Pharisees’ question to Jesus, I hear them genuinely wanting to engage Jesus in a rabbinic discussion about his halakhah, which is the Hebrew word for ‘how one follows the Torah.’ Halakhah. There’s a great book called The Halakah of Jesus of Nazareth According to the Gospel of Matthew written by a Jewish scholar named Phillip Sigal. This is an appropriate way to read Matthew since it is generally considered the most Jewish of the four Gospels.

The portion of the Gospel today is part of Jesus’s response to the Pharisees’ question. Now I can say with some confidence that Jesus in Matthew is not opposed to people washing their hands before eating. In fact, I’m sure he’s all for it. It’s just not necessarily something that he emphasizes with his disciples when it comes to following the Torah. He seems to be much more concerned with teaching his disciples how to follow and obey the Torah in their hearts. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ but I say to you, ‘Don’t even look at someone with lust’”; And “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t murder’ but I say to you, ‘Don’t even be angry with anyone.’” He is concerned primarily with the halakha of the heart.

So Jesus explains, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander, [racism, white supremacy, bigotry, homophobia, hate-crimes, terrorism].” Unlike some people, Jesus is not afraid to call a spade a spade; he is not a coward; he is not afraid to peer deeply and directly into the human heart and name the sickness that infects all of us. And there is no denying that a vile sickness infects and poisons the heart of our country. For out of the heart of our country, what monsters have come! For out of the heart of the sick people who have hijacked the beautiful faith traditions of Christianity and Islam, what terrifying violence has come! This is what defiles a person and a nation: the sick heart that destroys the healing power of the beloved community. It’s not about forgetting to wash your hands.

Although we are all indeed made in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, brimming with heavenly potential, we also all have some sickness in our hearts. We all need healing. I can point out the evil of white supremacy, racism and bigotry and I do and I will; yet I can’t point my finger at someone else without also pointing three fingers back at myself. I have to acknowledge the sickness of my own heart; my own racism and bigotry; the many ways that I have benefitted and still benefit from systemic racism. The sickness infects us all.

According to the second part of our Gospel reading, even Jesus seems to suffer from the sickness of racism. I don’t think Jesus is just testing the Canaanite woman when he essentially calls her a dog. He is genuinely being exclusive and racist. That may sound alarming, but remember, although Jesus is divine, he is not omniscient. He himself admits that there some things he doesn’t know (Matt 24:36). Luke describes him growing in wisdom and it appears that here is another case in which Jesus needs to grow in wisdom, to grow out of his ethnocentric racism towards the Canannite woman, whom he ignores and then insults. But nevertheless, she persisted. She says, “Alright, if you’re going to call me a dog, at least recognize that even dogs get crumbs!” And here is where the hope of the Gospel story resounds: Because of these audacious words of a bold and brazen woman who is not afraid to suffer humiliation in order to bring healing to her beloved daughter; because of these words, Jesus seems to recognize his own sickness. He seems to realize that what he had just previously said to the woman came out of the sickness of his own heart. And because of her words, he seems to have a change of heart and mind and he sees her no longer as an inferior animal but as a human being, a woman beaming with the image of God. He says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. And so was Jesus. Hine ma tov…

The Gospel story demonstrates how prevalent and pernicious racism can be, even Jesus can succumb to it. And yet, it also shows how quickly healing can come if we let go of our prejudice and open our eyes to see the person in front of us, beaming with the image of God. That is what we do when we gather on Sunday mornings. We are training ourselves to see and honor the image of God in one another. That is part of the purpose of the Eucharist. To train ourselves to see Christ among us. As C.S. Lewis says, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Every time we gather here in the name of Christ, we are part of constructing a global community of love and reconciliation in which we learn to see and honor the image of God in one another. Through Christ, we are part of making the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. Yesterday, I attended a nonviolence training workshop at an Episcopal church in Berkeley and the leader told us that Gandhi (the great teacher icon of nonviolent resistance) said that resistance and protest, which are crucial, should only make up 20% of our work, while 80% of our work should be devoted to constructing a new reality, constructing the world in which we want to live, building up the beloved community. And that is what we are doing right now; building up the kingdom of God on earth. Next Sunday I will participate in a nonviolent demonstration in Berkeley, but I might be a little late, because I will be busy doing the important work of constructing the new reality here with you. Let us not underestimate the healing power of a community that gathers together in love, in the name of Christ. Behold how good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity. Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad.


Psalm 133


Oh, how good and pleasant it is,

When brethren live together in unity!

It is like fine oil upon the head

That runs down upon the beard,

Upon the beard of Aaron

And runs down upon the collar of his robe.


הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד

כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב  עַל-הָרֹאשׁ

יֹרֵד עַל-הַזָּקָן זְקַן-אַהֲרֹן

שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל-פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו


Hine ma tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad

Kashemen hatov al harosh yored,

al hazakan zukan-aharon sheyored

Al pi midvotaiv

It is like the dew of Hermon

That falls upon the hills of Zion 

For there the Lord has ordained the blessing

Life for evermore

כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל-הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן

כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה

חַיִּים עַד-הָעוֹלָם

k-tal chermon sheyored, al harrei tsion

ki sham tzivah Adonai, et habrakah

chayyim ad ha-olam


Think Outside the Boat

Jesus Walks On Water – Matthew 14: 22 – 33

Sermon by Roy Falk

We are blessed to have such a wise and discerning priest.  When Daniel asked if I would consider preaching, said yes without hesitation.  Then he told me he had selected the Sunday that we read Matthew’s gospel story of Jesus walking on water.  Now some might call this “type casting” because I have been passionately involved with water sports and boating all of my life.

I completely relate to the story in Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”  where Mole and Rat are rowing up the canal in Rat’s boat. They are discussing nautical things and life in general when Rat is heard to utter, Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

There are many reasons that I am drawn to Jesus, not the least of which is His involvement with boats.  Jesus is my kind’a guy.  I counted more than 25 occasions in the gospels in which Jesus is either in a boat or involved with a boat in some way.

As a member of the United States Coast Guard Auxillary, I first reflected upon this story from the point of view of physics and water safety.  And I have thus concluded:

  1. Humans cannot walk on water, they simply cannot do it They can swim, snorkel, SCUBA dive, water ski, sail, motorboat, kayak and paddle-board, but they can’t walk on it.
  2. The United States Coast Guard frowns upon our attempts to walk on water, unless we are wearing, at a minimum, a life jacket.
  3. If you are trying to walk on water towards a “boat, battered by waves, that was far from the land, in a strong wind, at 3 o’clock in the morning, as the story says, the Coast Guard would insist that you wear a life jacket or a full-flotation, high-visibility immersion suit.
  4. And it would be a good idea to have a utility vest that carries: a strobe light, a personal locater beacon, a waterproof marine radio and a hand bearing compass. (This gear will be available to look at after the service)

But, because we are humans, physics and water safety are not too helpful in understanding what is going on in this story.

And now from the wacky side of our limited human understanding: The National Geographic Society reports: “A team of U.S. and Israeli scientists say that a freak cold spell had covered parts of a lake with ice and this could explain hoe Jesus walked on water”.  Other brilliant scholars have  suggested that He walked on a sandbar. Really???  Again, not too helpful.

Okay, so, let’s look a little more closely at the story as it’s written in Matthew’s gospel.   (By the way, the Sea of Galilee is a spring-fed, fresh water lake about 13 mile long and 8 miles wide.  And it’s the source of the Jordan River which flows south to the Dead Sea.  The Sea of Galilee today supplies about 10% if Israel’s drinking water).

Just prior to our walking on water event, Herod, who is on a mission to eradicate all threats to his sovereignty, has John the Baptist arrested. Then at Herod’s birthday party, his naughty, dancing daughter, Salomé, encouraged by her mother, asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. And so it was done.   (I love Henri Rey-gnolt’s painting of Salomé – have a look after the service)

Upon hearing this, Jesus, understandably concerned, got in a boat and sailed away to a deserted place in the countryside.  But the crowds heard about it and followed him.  When Jesus came ashore he was met by a big crowd. He walked among them and had compassion for the people, and healed those who were sick.

As the day drew on, his disciples pointed out that there was not enough food in this deserted place for all these people.  You all know the rest of the story. Jesus said, Don’t worry, they don’t have to leave. He took a couple fish and some loaves of bread, blessed it, and fed every man, woman and child.  Plus there were leftovers!

Immediately thereafter Jesus dismissed the crowd and told the disciples to get onboard the boat. He told them to head on over to the other side of the sea.  I think it’s safe to say there were no life jackets in this boat.  (Here’s a replica of the boat they were using)

Jesus, in the meantime, went up alone onto the hillside to pray.  This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that Jesus sought solitude in nature.

This miraculous of Jesus walking on water appears not only in Matthew, but also in Mark and John.  In John’s gospel we learn that the boat was about four miles, offshore and was being rowed, probably to keep the bow into the waves.  They probably had sails on board, the wind was much too strong to use them safely.  The boat was being battered by waves and the wind was howling.

It was the fourth watch, which is about three o’clock in the morning.  And here comes Jesus  walking towards the boat – 4 miles offshore, in a strong wind, against big waves.  These are some serious conditions folks, more than a small craft advisory, more like a gale warning.

So our intrepid yachtsmen, the disciples, see Jesus walking towards them on the sea they were scared out of there wits  and they say “It’s a ghost!”   (Eye-va-zo-sky’s 19th century painting really captures this moment)

The  17th century poet and anglican priest George Herbert says, “He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea”.

Jesus, now within shouting distance, says, “Get ahold of yourselves, it’s me; don’t be afraid.”

We don’t really know, but the disciples may have said to themselves something like this: “This guy is too much.  He’s not bound by the laws of nature. He turns water into wine, heals the sick and now this!

So Peter, a former Galilean fisherman and an experienced mariner, says “Master, if it’s really you, call me to come to you on the water”.  This part of the story is really important and I’ll come back around to it in a few minutes.

So Jesus said “Come on” and Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water towards Jesus.  Imagine walking on the water!  A mere mortal, human being – like you and I – defying all that we know about water!  It’s one thing for the Son of God to not be bound by physics, but this is Peter, just an ordinary guy.

But, alas, Peter got frightened.  He suddenly remembered that they were in the midst of a gale with high winds and big waves.  He suddenly remembered he was a man, and men can’t walk on water.  Peter started to sink, he began to slip beneath the waves and he hollered, “Help. Save me! Man overboard”

Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter.  And what does he say? “You of little faith, why did you doubt me?”

As soon as they got back in the boat, the wind died down.  The disciples, having watched the whole thing, worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are God’s Son”.

Now what might all this mean for us here, today in Glenwood, San Rafael, California, USA?  I think there are some profoundly important lessons for us here:

  1. Jesus goes alone to a deserted place to pray and gain strength. Maybe we could make times in our lives to follow Jesus by seeking out solitude, in nature, and take some prayerful, meditative walks alone or together. Marin County has thousands of open space acres and hundreds of miles of  wilderness trails.  Would any of you be interested in taking a Sunday afternoon walk with me on a gentle trail?
  2. Jesus does not bid Peter to “Come” until first Peter asks Jesus to do so. What are we asking Jesus to do? What in our circumstances seems to defy the laws of nature and current affairs? Isn’t it seemingly impossible that our church might have dozens of new, young families worshiping with us?  That children might again fill our church with laughter and joy?  That our neighbors would recognize us as a sanctuary of peace where they want to be with right here with us in prayer and worship?  Have we directly, explicitly asked Jesus to help us do this? The utterly absurd is completely reasonable when Jesus is the one who is calling.  But first, the key ingredient is we must ask – “Call me Jesus to come to You”.
  3. Peter gets out of the boat. The boat is safe.  The Coast Guard recommends you never leave the boat, even if it is sinking.  Stay with the boat. Don’t rock the boat. But we’re going to have to get out of the boat if we truly want to fulfill our dream of a lively, sustainable church.  The world says, Churches are declining.  Churches are not relevant to people’s lives. We’ll never attract young families, they’re too busy. (We can’t walk on water!)  The question is: are we going to ask for Jesus to help?  Then, if we do, are we willing to think outside the box?  Are we ready to  make unconventional, perhaps non-traditional (even non-Episcopalian) choices?  and are we ready to get out of the boat?  What would that look like?  Could we unbolt the pews so that our space would be flexible enough to house the homeless on stormy nights?  Could we get a van that would provide transportation to church for the homeless and our neighbors in the Canal District?  Could we learn to worship in Spanish?  Can we plant an park-like urban forest around the labyrinth?  I think these kind of things would get us out of the boat, but only if we ask Jesus to call us.
  4. Notice that Peter doesn’t start sinking and then become fearful.   He first becomes fearful and only then starts sinking.  If we call upon Jesus and we begin to do the seemingly impossible, can we keep our eye on Jesus and remain fearless?

There’s an old sailor’s blessing says, “May you have fair winds and a following sea”.  As lovely as that is, our Redeemer, Jesus says,

  • Ask me to help,
  • Disregard the storm that surrounds you, and
  • Get out of the boat!

The Kingdom of God is like…a Margarita

In the Gospels, there is one subject that Jesus loves to talk about more than anything else. Does anyone what it is? A close second is the subject of money, but more than anything else, Jesus loves to teach and preach about the kingdom of God. We see this in our Gospel reading this morning in which Jesus tells several parables about the kingdom of heaven, which is a more Jewish way of talking about the kingdom of God (since Jewish people generally try to avoid using the name God lest they use it in vain). The kingdom of God is a deeply Jewish concept that is described in delicious detail all throughout the Hebrew scriptures. The kingdom is not described as some abstract pie in the sky, but rather as an extravagant party here on this earth, overflowing with the finest food and wine. The prophet Isaiah describes this kingdom when he says, “the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich [fatty] food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isaiah 25:6). This is what the Reign of God looks like on earth. The Hebrew prophets use imagery that we would more likely expect in a song by Jimmy Buffett, whom I have been listening to ever since Thursday, when I learned that our sister Sydney Kennedy was a fan. For Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, the kingdom of God is really not too unlike an everlasting “Margaritaville” where everyone can enjoy “cheeseburgers in paradise,” and where the cheeseburgers are miraculously kosher.

Following in this tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus also uses this imagery of overflowing abundance to describe the Reign of God. He says, “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Now when we hear “three measures of flour” we might think of three cups, but three measures (sata tria in Greek) is actually 144 cups! That amount of flour would produce about 52 loaves of bread, each weighing about a pound and a half[1]; that would be more than enough for 400 cheeseburgers. So once again, we’re talking about a lot of delicious food. Jesus also compares the kingdom to a net full of every kind of fish and then to a tiny mustard seed which grows into a great shrub and tree. In Matthew, Jesus seems to be very generous in calling the mustard plant a “tree” because it’s actually a relatively small plant, but the culinary and medicinal benefits of the mustard plant and seed are enormous; and for our friend Jimmy Buffett, they are the perfect addition to his experience of heaven on earth. He sings, “Cheeseburger in paradise / medium rare with mustard ‘be nice / heaven on earth with an onion slice.” Now please understand that I am not trying to cheapen the profound words of our Lord Jesus Christ by comparing them to Jimmy Buffett songs or to denigrate the kingdom of God by comparing it to a “Margaritaville”; rather, I am trying to bring out the Bible’s very concrete and earthy descriptions of the kingdom of God as an extravagant party here in this world, overflowing with delicious food, wine and abundant excess. After all, Jesus launched his ministry and message about the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth by bringing more wine to a party.

“The kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “is [also] like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Now when it comes to comparing biblical descriptions of the kingdom of God to Jimmy Buffett songs, here is the icing on the cake. When I looked at this parable in the original Greek, I learned that the Greek word for “pearl” is actually the word margarita. (I bet Sydney would have loved that). The parable certainly takes on a different flavor and texture if we hear Jesus saying that the kingdom of God is like someone who sells all that he has to buy that one “margarita” of great value. In this case, the kingdom of God can indeed be like “someone wasting away in Margaritaville.”

Now although this is certainly an amusing coincidence, it is also more than that. For us, hearing the word “margarita” instead of “pearl” may actually help us understand and appreciate how Jesus’s first listeners and Matthew’s first readers may have understood this parable. At the time Jesus was teaching, there were at least a couple popular stories in the air about excessively wealthy people taking a pearl worth about the equivalent of several million dollars and then dissolving it in vinegar and then drinking the residue. According to one story, Cleopatra did this in order to prove to her lover Marc Antony that she could consume several million dollars in one single banquet.[2] Another story, written by a Latin satirist named Horace of the first century BCE, describes a man taking a fine pearl earring from someone’s ear, dissolving it in vinegar “with the apparent intention of swallowing a million [dollars] in [one] lump.” The storyteller asks, “How is he any saner than if he were to throw that sum into a swift river or sewer?” (Amy Jill-Levine, 134). It is not unlikely that these stories of multi-million-dollar margaritas or stories like them were in the back of the minds of Jesus’s first listeners and Matthew’s first readers; stories of conspicuous consumption, of people wasting away their wealth in order to parade their prestige, of people throwing away their money in order to shame and outshine their neighbors.

The kingdom of God is indeed a kingdom of abundant excess, but it is not abundant excess for the sake of status and prestige, to trump up one’s own personal wealth and fortune. For Jesus, that would be ultimately equivalent to throwing one’s money down the sewer. That is why, after his series of parables about this kingdom of abundance, Jesus asks, “Have you understood all this?” Surprisingly, the people answer yes. They seem to understand that the kingdom of God is about sharing the abundance and generously giving it away to those in need. Jesus concludes by saying, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of God is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Once again, the original Greek is helpful here. The word translated as “brings out” is the Greek verb ekballo, which means to “forcefully cast out.” It is actually the same verb used in the Gospels for casting out demons. As Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill-Levine explains, “For Matthew, one does not store up in the treasury or the treasure; one ‘casts out’ (ekballo) from it.”[3] Citizens of the kingdom of God freely and even forcefully give away their wealth and abundance to those in need. They understand the paradox of the Gospel: if we store up abundance and wealth purely for ourselves, we end up wasting it; but if we waste it on others, we spread it and let it propagate and grow like yeast leavening bread. It is by giving our abundance away freely that God makes us part of the answer to the very prayer Christ taught us to pray when he said, “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

And that is what the church is really all about: bringing the kingdom of God to earth: feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, visiting the sick; spreading God’s overflowing abundance everywhere we can; making God’s love tangible, freely casting out from our own treasures what is new and what is old. Here at Church of the Redeemer we are doing just that in very practical ways. In the winter, we gave away hundreds of our old winter coats to help keep others warm and now we are gathering new school supplies to give to low-income families in San Rafael. Several months ago, we packed more than 10,000 meals which were shipped in a container totaling 285,120 meals which fed thousands of families in Turkey and Syria. And next week, we will learn how we can help spread God’s kingdom on earth by partnering with one of the largest hunger relief and development organizations in the country called “Food for the Poor.” And we continue to spread the abundance of God’s kingdom by supporting the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy and serving meals to the hungry and homeless in San Rafael; as well as by simply handing out Safeway gift cards to people living on the streets as some of us are doing. If you’re interested in doing this, ask me about it after the service.

The former Marin Interfaith Street Chaplain, Paul Gaffney, used to talk about a theology of waste. He always loved the idea of there being too much food at the Tuesday Night meals for the hungry because he understood that excess as an expression of the Reign of God on earth, inviting guests to bring the surplus to their friends on the streets.

This morning, the parables of Jesus call us to help bring the Reign of God on earth by being wasteful with our wealth and abundance; not wasteful in the sense of conspicuous consumption, but wasteful in the sense of being extravagant and prodigal in our generosity to those in need. I think our friend Jimmy Buffett, who loved to “waste away” would understand this. He said that in his relationships with friends and loved ones he discovered “treasure more valuable than gold.” I think he would understand that the entire purpose of wealth is to nourish and cultivate those treasured relationships of love with our family, friends and neighbors and all those in need. That is, in fact, what money is for. Jesus, who preached about money almost as much he preached about the kingdom of God, makes that very clear. That is the message of the parable of the pearl of great price (or the “margarita” of great price). All of our money, wealth and abundance has been given to us by God so that we can cast it out freely to others in order to build up the beloved community, in order to make God’s love tangible to a love-starved world and to be part of the answer to the prayer we pray every day, that God’s abundant kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so. Amen.

[1] http://breadmonk.com/my-bread-blog/three-measures-of-flour, accessed July 29, 2017.

[2] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 9.119-21; Horace, Sermons 2.3.239-242. Also see B. Ullman, “Cleopatra’s Pearls,” Classical Journal 52.5 (1957):193-201, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/journals/CJ/52/5/Cleopatras_Pearls*.html, as cited in Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 295.

[3] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 142 – 143.

Mary Magdalene, the Mother of Female Mystics

For years, I have been drawn to the spirituality of female mystics like the German Hildegard of Bingen, the English mystics Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and the Spanish Teresa of Avila. And today is the feast day of one who might be considered the mother of all female mystics: Mary Magdalene.  I honestly had not given her too much thought throughout my studies probably because of all the hype associated with her. Books like Holy Blood Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code tantalizingly suggest that she married Jesus and bore his child, whom she brought to France. Their supposed daughter Sarah carried on the royal blood of Christ, which was the true “Holy Grail” (sang real – royal blood – being mistaken for san greal – holy grail), and gave rise to the Merovingian dynasty. All of this pseudo-history about the Magdalene (and there is much more) certainly tickles the imagination, but I don’t think Mary needs all of these extra-biblical accretions to demand our attention.

The New Testament clearly sees her as the first woman apostle if not the first apostle altogether, depending on how one might define the term. She was the first to encounter the Risen Christ, who then sends her (apostello) to the disciples to share her Easter experience, making her the “Apostle to the Apostles.” Curiously, she does not show up at all in the Book of Acts or in any of Paul’s Epistles, which makes many wonder if the early male leaders of the church were suppressing her witness and apostolic authority.

Over the centuries, church leaders continued to downplay her apostolic status and emphasize her identity as a penitent prostitute, while also upholding the perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the ideal woman for females to emulate. The truth is that Mary Magdalene is never once called a prostitute in the New Testament. According to Luke 8:2, she had been exorcised of seven demons, but this does not necessarily refer to the seven deadly sins and her lust-filled past, as church fathers like Pope Gregory suggest. Instead, according to theologian Jean-Yves Leloup, this means she has “done her psychological work,” that hard but necessary inner work that most of us need to do, at one point or another in our lives. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which traces Mary’s progress through seven stages of spiritual purification, would certainly support this interpretation.[1] So Mary Magdalene was not a demon-possessed prostitute; but rather a psychologically mature Apostle to the Apostles.

The Gospel reading for the feast day of Mary Magdalene recounts Mary’s recognition of Jesus in the garden, early in the morning, while it was still dark. This text oozes with nuptial references, recalling the encounter between the first man and woman in the garden of creation (Gen 2) as well as passages from the Song of Songs that link the garden with sensuality and spices: “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice…eat, friends, drink and be drunk with love” (5:1). In fact, Sandra Schneiders suggests that the Song of Songs should be read as the soundtrack to this garden scene. We can easily imagine Mary Magdalene saying, “All night I lay on my bed; I searched for the one my heart loves. I searched for him. I will arise now and go about the city, among its streets and squares I will search. I will search for the one my heart loves…for love is as strong as death, its fire a mighty flame. Waters cannot quench love; Rivers cannot quench it, waters cannot wash it away.”[2] With all of this passion welling up within her, we can also imagine Mary wanting to embrace Jesus when she recognizes him in the garden. However, Jesus tells her not to do the one thing that her whole being is screaming to do. He says to her, “Do not touch me.”

Although translations often interpret Jesus’s words as “Do not cling to me,” suggesting that Mary Magdalene can’t stop hugging Jesus, the Greek verb is hapto, which clearly means “touch.” So why does Jesus tell Mary not to touch him? The explanation Jesus offers for his prohibition is slightly esoteric and confusing, as Jesus is wont to be in John’s Gospel. However, I hear an answer to this question in Jesus’s following commission to Mary to “Go to my brothers” (20:17). Jesus is telling Mary that if she wants to touch his body she is now invited to do so among the community of believers, which, after Easter, is understood to be the Body of Christ. Sandra Schneiders writes, “The fundamental sign, the ur-sacrament, of the really present Jesus is the ecclesial community itself, which is now the Body of Christ, the New Temple raised up in the world.”[3] This is why it makes sense for Jesus to invite Thomas to examine his flesh in chapter 20 (verse 20:27) because he is among the community of disciples, surrounded by the Body of Christ.

The Gospel of John is communicating something similar to what former presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori tried to communicate when she said, “The great Western heresy –is that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God…that individualist focus is a form of idolatry.”[4] Although Bishop Schori may have been using hyperbole a little too recklessly, I appreciate her point, especially as someone who grew up in the Evangelical tradition, which may overstress the personal relationship above the communal relationship with Christ. A personal relationship with Christ is immensely important, but if we want to delve deep into the Body of Christ we are invited to do so within the community. We are invited to encounter the face of Christ among those with whom we serve and worship. We are invited to experience the Body of Christ sensually in the Eucharist when we taste and ingest Christ’s flesh. In fact, we are invited to touch the Body of Christ through all the seven sacraments, which use the earthly elements of water, wine, bread and bodies as vessels and conduits for divine encounter. One of the seven sacraments of the church may even have roots in the ministry of Mary Magdalene herself; and that is the sacrament of unction; that is, of holy anointing.

Ever since the sixth century, church fathers have understood Mary of Bethany (who anoints Jesus’s feet in John 12) as the same literary character as Mary Magdalene (who does not show up officially as “Mary Magdalene” in John until verse 19:25, at the foot of the cross.) New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton follows in this tradition and argues that Jesus and Mary Magdalene may have shared a common ministry of ritual anointing. Furthermore, he suggests that Jesus learned about this Hellenistic and Jewish shamanic tradition of anointing from Mary herself. We have a record of Jesus engaging in this practice of anointing when he makes an ointment from his own saliva and then anoints and heals a blind man (in Mark 7:33 and John 9:6).[5] When Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume, Jesus points out that “she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). According to our earliest Gospel (Mark), Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb of Jesus with spices “so that [she] might anoint him” (Mark 16:1). So when Mary Magdalene shows up at the tomb in the Fourth Gospel, asking the “gardener” for Jesus’s body, we can assume she wants to anoint him then too. Episcopal priest and contemplative author Cynthia Borgeault points out that the Passion of Christ is therefore framed “around these two parallel anointings—at Bethany and in the garden of the resurrection.”[6] So the ministry of Mary Magdalene invites us to continue in the ministry of anointing one another, to revivify the sacrament of unction. She invites to believe not only in the healing power of anointing but also in its power to help us see Christ (the “Anointed One”) in each other. And we are invited to participate in what Caryll Houselander calls the “Christing of the world” as we offer the healing and holy power of Magdalenic anointing to a world that is sick and in pain.

This mother of female mystics inspires us all to direct and release our overflowing love for Jesus onto the living Body of the Risen Christ, that is the Church. And one way she invites us to do this is by recovering the ancient healing power of sacramental anointing, this ancient ritual that marked the ministry of Mary Magdalene and the healing ministry of Christ. Ultimately, this mother of mystics seems to suggest that the goal of all visionary experiences is to bring us deeper into love with each other as we are blessed and anointed by the Christ who continues to surround us and touch us whenever we gather as the beloved community. Amen.

[1] Jean-Yves Leloup, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Rochester VT: Inner Traditions, 2002), 106-9

[2] Song of Songs 3:1-4 and 8:6-7. Cynthia Bourgeault placed these words in the mouth of Mary Magdalene in a libretto she wrote. Borgueault, 209.

[3] Sandra M. Schneiders, Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013) 58.

[4] http://www.startribune.com/templates/Print_This_Story?sid=50579302, accessed July 22, 2014.

[5] Bruce Chilton, Mary Magdalene: A Biography (New York: Doubleday / Image, 2005), 63.

[6] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity  (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), 208.

Deepening our Roots in the Soil of the Psalms


Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 25:19-34

Psalm 119:105-112

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Daniel London at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh PA on July 16, 2017.

Listen to sermon here: Deepening Our Roots in the Soil of the Psalms

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus tells the parable of the sower, in which a sower casts his seed generously and liberally all over the place, apparently everywhere he goes. Some of the seed lands on rocky ground, some fall among thorns, some become bird food and some fall upon good soil, subsequently bearing much fruit. Jesus then explains that the seed is the “word of the kingdom,” the message of God’s transformative love. I recently had the privilege to hear presiding bishop Michael Curry preach on this very parable at my Commencement service a couple months ago at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in California. He highlighted the seeds that got scorched by the sun and withered away because they had no root. “Such a person,” Jesus explains, “endures only for a while, but when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away, because such a person has no root.” Bishop Curry then urged us to people with roots, explaining that if we want to move this church and if we want to move this world, we need to “plant …roots that are deep, deep in the soil of the ancient traditions, deep in the soil of ancient wisdom.”[1]

This message resonated deeply for me since I had just spent the last several years studying and exploring the rich soils of our Christian and Anglican spiritual traditions, traditions that we are invited to claim as our own as Episcopalians; and to plant our roots deeply within so that we can produce fruit that can potentially change the world.

The other Bible readings this morning offer a similar message, inviting us to plant our roots in the soil of ancient wisdom and to claim our spiritual inheritance, not to despise our tradition as followers of Christ. We see this message in story form in the reading from Genesis in which Esau forfeits his birthright in favor of instant gratification, in favor that delicious “red stuff” which he craves; while Jacob, on the other hand, claims the birthright and thus deepens his roots in the soil of the wisdom and blessing of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham.

And in our reading from Romans, Paul describes our inheritance through Christ as a fundamental freedom from all condemnation, from all sin and from all death; saying that we have received a spirit not of slavery but of adoption. Elsewhere, Paul elaborates by saying that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind. This spiritual inheritance is ours for the taking. The invitation is to claim it and root ourselves deep within its soil.

My specific invitation for us all this morning is to deepen our roots in the soil of a particular set of ancient prayers, which really gave birth to all the great contemplative traditions within Judaism and Christianity, including the traditions of Centering Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, various forms of Jewish chant and meditation as well as perhaps my favorite Jewish prayer tradition called chutzpah k’lapei shemaya which means “Boldness towards Heaven” or even “Boldness against Heaven.” And the particular set of ancient prayers to which I am referring are the prayers in the book of Psalms. My invitation is for us to deepen our roots in the soil of the Psalms.

The early Christian theologians believed that the words of the psalms encompassed all possible human emotion and human experience before God: Joy, praise, thanksgiving, confusion, sadness, anger and much more. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th and 5th century believed that the words of the psalms were so effective in funneling the vast array of human emotions before God that they recommended praying them constantly.[2]

Our psalm this morning is one brief portion of the longest psalm in the Psalter, which is also the longest chapter in the entire Bible: Psalm 119. If you want to experience the range of poetry, prayers and emotions within the book of Psalms, I encourage you to read Psalm 119 in its entirery. The psalm is an acrostic poem based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in which each Hebrew letter is given a section in the psalm that is 8 verses long, thus totaling 22 sections altogether. The first 8 verses all begin with the letter aleph (A)the second eight verses all begin with letter bet (B) and so forthBy using all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in this way, the psalm offers a mnemonic device for Hebrew readers to memorize the psalm while also demonstrating that the primary purpose of the Hebrew alphabet and of language itself is prayer.

 Each section of the psalm includes one or two driving images that begin with the particular Hebrew letter of the section. The driving images include a a sojourner (which in Hebrew is the word (ger), a pathway (derek), God’s hands (yadeka), God’s face (panekha), the sweetness of honey (midvash) and the sound of God’s voice (qol). Our section this morning consists of eight verses that begin with the letter nun, similar to our letter “N;” and one of the driving images of this section is the lamp, which in Hebrew is the word Ner. “Thy word is a lamp (ner) unto my feet and a light unto my path.” The other driving image of this section is the word nachalti, which is Hebrew for “my inheritance.” Verse 111 reads “Your decrees are my inheritance forever; truly, they are the joy of my heart.” So the Psalms, which are our spiritual inheritance, invite us and urge us to claim and find joy in our tradition, to deepen our roots.

This last Lent, I had the opportunity to deepen my roots in the soil of the psalms by immersing myself for several hours in its many prayers and poetic images. I learned from a clergy colleague, the Rev. Christopher Martin, about a particular prayer discipline practiced regularly by an intentional community in England in the seventeenth century. The community was called “Little Gidding” and the was leader Nicholas Ferrar, who was a close friend of the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert. Apparently, on a fairly regular basis, this Anglican community would gather together and pray through the entire book of Psalms in one sitting.  We decided to do this at my church in San Rafael. The two of us committed to read through the entire book, while inviting others to come and go as they pleased and while also taking some breaks to stretch and get some snacks every hour or so. We called it the Psalmathon and the whole experience took about five hours, but as Christopher says, it was “a most peculiar five hours […] Time shift[ed], somehow, into a kind of deep stillness […] By the end, [we felt] as though [we had] been on a retreat many days long.”[3]

At the time, I was facing some personal challenges and struggling to find the right words to pray so it was wonderful to be able to relax into the ancient words of the Psalms, which express a kaleidoscopic range of emotions. We lit some frankincense and together prayed psalms of joy, anger, confusion and sadness. We chanted the Psalms; we read responsively, antiphonally, softly, joyfully, loudly, rambunctiously. When we got to Psalm 119, we took turns reading the 22 different sections, seeping ourselves in its many different images, and claiming these beautiful prayers as our inheritance, as our nachal; and deepening our roots in their soil.

The driving image for the entire book of Psalms, which is described in the first psalm, is the image of a tree planted by streams of water, with deep roots that are constantly being watered, nourished and refreshed thus yielding an abundance of fruit in season. This image is contrasted with the chaff that has no root and blows away, much like the seed that withers away in Jesus’s parable of the sower. Without regular and consistent deepening of our roots, our own spirituality can easily become superficial and impotent in times of trouble and difficulty; but by regularly deepening our roots in our inheritance we can learn to persevere and grow and become strong and fruitful, even in the face of difficulty and opposition. In the words of Bishop Curry, “If you go deep, then you can go long.”

We all face difficulties and challenges that can easily scorch us and make us wither away, but our inheritance offers a powerful resource in the Psalms, through which we can express our own personal fears and anxieties to God; and in return receive courage and hope so that our roots become even stronger and deeper in times of trouble.

So one of the best ways to heed Presiding Bishop Curry’s invitation for all Episcopalians to “go deep” is to deepen our roots in the soil of the Psalms. I encourage us all to immerse ourselves in these ancient prayers, perhaps by reading Psalm 119 in its entirety. And as a church that knows how to participate in Bible-reading marathons, I encourage you to try a Psalmathon, if you haven’t already. It is by deepening our roots in the soil that we are not despising our rich birthright like Esau but rather claiming it like Jacob, as our “inheritance forever; as the true joy of our hearts.” By doing this, we nourish the Word of God within us and we strengthen our roots so that we can grow, even in the midst of difficulty and we can continue bearing an abundance of spiritual fruit. Amen.


[1] https://vimeo.com/218832970, The Most Rev. Michael Curry at CDSP Commencement on May 19, 2017 at 40:03.

[2] The Desert Christians would often pray and meditate by simply repeating a verse or two from the Psalms. One of their favorites was the first verse of Psalm 70 (“Oh God, make speed to save us; Oh Lord, make haste to help us”). This repetition of verses from the Psalms by the early Desert Christians became the seed that sprouted into the great Contemplative Christian practices of the Jesus Prayer and Centering Prayer and much more.

[3] Christopher H. Martin, The Restoration Project: A Benedictine Path to Wisdom, Strength and Love (Forward Movement: Cincinnati OH, 2013), 69 – 70.