Sunday, August 28, 2011

Poor Folk Won’t Always Be Forgotten

Isaiah 10:1-4 / James 5:1-6 / Psalm 10

August 28, 2011

Series: Can You Believe That’s in the Bible?

William G. Carter

The sermon series this summer has asked, “Can You Believe That’s in the Bible?” I have enjoyed working on it and conclude today. We have traveled through a lot of foreign territory and it is good to have companions such as you.

The final text is the conclusion of a poem from the prophet Isaiah. In four stanzas, Isaiah denounces the people who make God angry. These include people who are arrogant, politicians and preachers who lie, and those who devour their neighbors. And then this part of the poem is spoken:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes,

to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right,

that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!

What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away?

To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth,

so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?

For all this (God’s) anger has not turned away; his hand is stretched out still.

Like a lot of people younger than me, I get a share of my evening news from Jon Stewart. For those who don’t stay up so late, Stewart puts together a summary of hard-to-believe headlines each weeknight. Then he proceeds to make fun of them. It helps me gain some perspective on the strangeness of the days.

Just over a week ago, the billionaire investor Warren Buffett made the news. He wrote a New York Times article to suggest that wealthy people like him ought to pay more taxes. Why, he declared, his secretary pays a higher tax rate than him!

So I tuned in to see what Jon Stewart would do with that. It turns out he didn’t do much at all. What he did, however, was to report all the negative responses to Mr. Buffett’s suggestion. He showed news clip after news clip from one particular television channel. One pundit after another carried on a harangue – not against Mr. Buffett, but against the poor.

To hear them speak, the real problem in America was not that five percent of the population has 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The real problem is all those poor people with all their “entitlements,” paying little or no tax, and getting a free ride. One man came on camera, absolutely scandalized. He bellowed, “Did you know that 99.6 percent of the poor in America have refrigerators?!?” He was absolutely outraged – those people have refrigerators!

That was his question. Well, here’s the question that Isaiah would ask: why would anybody hate the poor.

I remember Fred Craddock, the great preacher, speak about serving his first congregation in rural Tennessee. He grew up on an Appalachian farm in the Depression and his family lost the farm. His mother went to work for the Brown Shoe Company, and her job was to put the Buster Brown sticker on the soles of a pair of shoes. God called him into the ministry. He studied and struggled, then got ordained to preach.

He was serving out in the hills somewhere, and the congregation was really poor. Maybe some of them had small pension from the railroad. They would go into town and buy trinkets and flower seeds. He would stand up in the pulpit and fuss at them, and say, “Why are you buying trinkets and flower seed? You should be spending your money beans, potatoes, and pork.” They would glower at him, then look down.

Finally one of the older ladies pulled him aside, tired of his tirades. She said, “Craddock, even the poor have a right to their pretties.”[1] They aren’t animals. They are children of God. That is why they are worthy of respect, why they are worthy of self-respect.

Biblically speaking, who are the poor? They are the people in need. That’s the definition. Those who are most vulnerable. Those who do not have the means to make a lot of life choices. Those who are considered most disposable. Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”[2] He turned the whole economic system on its head. Read the sixth chapter of Luke sometime. He says, “Woe to you who are rich . . . blessed are you who are poor.”

I think one reason why he speaks up for them is because nobody else speaks up for them. Did you ever stop and realize how many people we take for granted? The lady without a pension who works the drive-through window? The young man who mows your yard because his father had to decide between sending the kid to college or having a clot removed from his lung? Jesus blesses those whom the rest of the world overlooks. He is in a venerable tradition of Israel’s prophets.

As we heard in the poem from Isaiah, God pays attention to those otherwise ignored. The scripture often characterized them as “the widow and the orphan.” That’s because widows and orphans had no means of income in that society. They were totally dependant on the mercy of others. They were specific representatives of more generalized categories like “the poor” and “needy.” However characterized, these were people entrapped by an endless cycle of poverty, with no way up and no way out.

The scandal in Isaiah’s day was a glaring selfishness among those who were already well-to-do. Not only did they have a lot of money, they made the policies, they fixed the rules, and somehow the whole system worked to their advantage. Isaiah named this for what it was: “iniquitous decrees” and “oppressive statutes.” The rich were getting richer at the expense of the poor. The prophet said, “That’s not justice. It’s a form of robbery!” And he declared this makes God angry.

Now, to hear a lot of people in our own time talk, they don’t particularly care what God thinks. Or they assume that God agrees with them. Yet the God of the Bible is very consistent on this point. Yahweh, the God of Israel, pays special attention to those who are put down. Yahweh notices those who are deprived and downtrodden

Did you keep up with the psalm for today, Psalm 10? It describes those who live by greed: how they ignore the Lord, how they lurk in the bushes waiting to plunder others, how they fill their mouths with cursing and oppression, how they pounce to seize the poor.

I recall some of the clips and quotes that I saw reported by Jon Stewart. Rich people referred to the poor as “the mooching class.” They proclaimed a war between “the makers and the takers.” One blond beauty shouted, “Welfare will make generations of utterly irresponsible animals.” How pathetic, to spew hatred on those who have so little!

The Psalmist says, “But Lord, you do see! The helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan.” Then the Psalmist prays, “Lord, break the arm of the wicked and the evildoers!” (Psalm 10:15). That’s so they won’t be able to grab and plunder anything else.

The Bible is remarkable consistent about this. There are harsh words given repeatedly to the greedy. In a country like ours, the richest in the world, the gap between the wealthy and poor is growing exponentially. The lower 50 percent of Americans make 2.5% of our nation’s wealth. In 2009 alone, the pay of America’s highest earners quintupled,[3] while more Americans found themselves on the food stamps program than ever before. And those of us on the food stamps program are earning exponentially more than the beggars of Kolkata or the prostitutes in Soweto.

What scripture warns is that this won’t stand. God won’t have it. God cares infinitely about every one of his children; and those who plunder and demean their neighbors could have their arms broken.

Can you believe this is in the Bible? I can. It’s there on the third page of our Bible,
all the way back to the story of God’s first grandchildren. God made Adam and Eve, and then Adam and Eve made two sons named Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, and God said, “What did you do with your brother Abel?”

Remember how Cain responded? He asked, “How should I know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)

The question still dangles in the air. Are we to keep our brothers and our sisters? Well, if it’s keeping against discarding, I think the answer is “yes.”

Maybe you, like me, have been shaped by family stories. My grandmother tells what it was like to give birth to my mother during the Great Depression. Grandpa was on the road as a salesman, money was very tight. It has shaped a certain kind of caution. When I call her on my cell phone with the unlimited minutes plan, she still says to me, “You had better hang up soon, because this is costing you an arm and a leg.”

At the same time, she says everybody looked out for everybody else. Food was shared. Nothing was wasted. As many people as possible were cared for.

My mother tells me what it was like to be poor. She gave birth to me when my father was in engineering college on the G.I. Bill. Oh, the stories: they lived in a trailer park, they ate rice and beans. It was all they could afford. I used to hear the stories and say, “Sure, right.”

Years ago, I was speaking at a conference about five miles from the town in northern Indiana where I was born. I had never been back there. On a free afternoon, I got in the rental car and drove over there. I saw the factory where Mom worked until my birth. I drove by the oil tanks where Dad carried a part-time job while studying. Then I found the trailer park, just three blocks from the hospital where I was born. It was stunning.

Then I went over the hospital and walked in. I went upstairs and asked where the birthing rooms were; there were two birthing rooms, currently unoccupied. Could I step into each one of them, just to be sure? It was a profound, speechless moment. I went back to where I came from. The stories were all true. I decided that I wasn’t superior to anybody else; I may have been raised in privilege, but I was born in poverty. In fact, I was so poor, I was born without any clothes on.

How dare anybody think they are better than anybody else? The truth is, we are more alike than different. None of us are superior to anybody else. All of us were born without any clothes on, and all of us will depart this world some day and leave our clothing behind. That’s the truth. You know it’s the truth.

So it matters how we treat one another. How we regard one another. How we participate in one another’s lives. This is why mission trips are so important, especially in shaping what it means to be Christian people. We go beyond these church doors to do mission, not simply because it’s a way to do nice things for people in need, but because it removes every wall of isolation. We learn again to keep one another.

I listened carefully to my sixteen-year-old daughter after she went with our church’s youth to Mahanoy City, a small town about seventy minutes south of here. I asked, “What were the most important moments, Meg?” She said, “I got to know two old men who were in World War 2. We wire-brushed their iron railing to prep it for painting. They told us about the war, which was the biggest achievement in their lives.”

What else happened, Meg? She said, “We played with some children in the park. One of them wrapped her arms around my waist and wouldn’t let go. I asked if I could take her to the dollar store, and she said she didn’t have enough money. So I asked if I could get something for her and it made her day.”

She said, “You know, I didn’t miss my cell phone. I really enjoyed the trip. I could see living there some day, in a place like that. Maybe I could help them somehow.”

I prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for helping her. Thank you for shortening her arms and opening her heart. Make it stick as long as possible.”

Isn’t that what we need? Especially in a town like this.

You know, we can squabble all we want about politics, about who gets the tax breaks and who makes the money. We can grumble about the greedy, how they hoard their billions rather than create real jobs that pay a living wage. We can complain about the poor, how they buy refrigerators and cell phones and flat screen TVs and flower seeds. But when the dust of discontent settles, life is all about loving God and loving the neighbors that God gives us. The real neighbors, not the cardboard imitations.

Say what we want, but that’s the issue. That is almost always the issue. Either we do the hard work of being the human family, working for the mutual flourishing of all the people that God has made, or we turn in upon ourselves – which is really the definition of sin.

Isaiah decrees the wrath of God on the greedy, whoever they are. As someone notes, this kind of wrath is an expression of God’s love. It’s an expression of God’s deep concern for God’s people, all God’s people.[4] What God wants from us is to take care of one another, with special concern for those most vulnerable and at greatest risk. God wills the well-faring, the well-fare, of the largest possible group of people. That would be heaven on earth.

God’s kingdom comes in the mystery of caring for those who are most in need. Let me close with some wisdom from Jean Vanier, a Canadian Christian who spent his adult life creating communities of the developmentally disabled:

Poor people have a mysterious power: in their weakness they are able to open hardened hearts and reveal the sources of living water within them. It is the tiny hand of the fearless child which can slip through the bars of the prison of egoism. That is the one who can open the lock and set free. And God hides himself in the child. The poor teach us how to live the Gospel. That is why they are the treasures of the Church.[5]

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001) 125.

[2] Luke 6:20

[4] Bernhard W. Anderson, The Eighth Century Prophets (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978) 82.

[5] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, Revised Edition, pg. 96

Saturday, August 20, 2011

If I Had Jefferson's Exacto Knife

Deuteronomy 21
Series: "Can You Believe That's in the Bible?"
August 21, 2011
William G. Carter

This summer sermon series comes from a deep love of scripture. The Bible is indeed a lamp to our feet and a light for our path. It is precisely because it is helpful that we explore it, and that we question it. The last thing that I would want anybody to think is that a sermon series on strange Biblical texts is a way to denigrate the Bible. No, it is because the whole book speaks a Word from God that we wrestle with some of the parts of it that do not seem so helpful.

The plain fact is, there are a lot of Bible texts that are difficult to understand. The Bible says this about itself. In one of the latest writings in the New Testament, a church leader spoke of the Apostle Paul’s letters. “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter: 3:16). According to the Gospels, the devil tried to tempt Jesus by quoting one of the Psalms. So we must be good stewards of what we read, using both heart and brain.

And there are some texts that put a burden on us, not merely to understand them, but to like them. You have your list, I have mine. Those of you who have visited Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, may recall seeing a copy of Jefferson’s Bible. Our third president was a rational man, not given to miracles or mysteries. He had read the Bible, but he wanted nothing to do with anything that he could not explain. So he decided to take a razor to the book, cutting away the passages he did not like, and gluing the others to a fresh page.

He came up with a Bible of only forty-six pages, which he called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” It does not mention anything of miracles or angels, nothing of his resurrection, only good wisdom that seems timeless and applicable. As he wrote in a letter to John Adams, it was like picking “diamonds out of a dunghill,” and done only for his “personal use.”[1]

Criticize him, if you wish, but all of us do this. We have our favorite passages and would trim away the rest. If I had Jefferson’s Exacto knife, what would I cut away? I might begin with the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy. I’m going to read some of the text with commentary along the way. Here is how the chapter begins:

If, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess, a body is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck the person down, then your elders and your judges shall come out to measure the distances to the towns that are near the body. The elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi.

Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to pronounce blessings in the name of the LORD, and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled. All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O LORD, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the LORD.

Now, that’s a strange text. If you are living in the country and there is an unsolved murder, what do you do? I suppose you could bring in a team from CSI or Hawaii 5-0. The officials could investigate. But since nobody is able to solve the crime, the town leaders take a cow down to a flowing stream. Then they break its neck. The religious leaders come forward and lead a little ritual. They instruct everybody to wash their hands in the stream, and then announce, “O Lord, wash us clean even though we are innocent.”

Even though they are innocent? Yes, that’s the ritual. Scrub your hands in innocence, just in case the crime should pollute your community. Blood was spilled, and, in Hebrew thinking, blood is the life force in every creature. The guilt that accompanies a murdered life must be washed away. Even if you are innocent.

I don’t know why that is in the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy, and I don’t think we need it. So I would vote for cutting it out, simply because I don’t like it.

The chapter goes on. Actually it gets worse. Here is what comes next:

When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

This is advice for a lustful soldier. If your army defeats your enemy, and there is a pretty lady among the defeated, you can take her home and keep her in your house. Hide her for a month, and realize that will be an adjustment for her. It’s OK if she cries. After that, you can rape her and say, “You’re my woman.” Of course, if she doesn’t please you, you can let her go. Just don’t charge anything for her.

That is what the Bible says. It is very unsettling, and I would be glad to see this passage go. A few scholars give the benefit of the doubt, suggesting it gives Israelite status to an outsider. I think that’s a stretch, and when I checked it out with her, so did my wife. This ruling dismisses a human being who has a life, a family, a home of her own. And if she shaves her head, trims her nails, and stays locked up in a man’s house for a month, she’s all yours - - unless he decides later he doesn’t want her.

Now, let me just say that passages like this are one reason why the Bible has a black eye. Perhaps there was some practical reason for it a long time ago, but that’s lost to us. The two-fold assumption here is that men can do whatever they want and that women are something less than human. I don’t happen to believe any of that. It’s that kind of thinking that prompts us to build battered women’s shelters.

I think it best to get out the knife, trim away this text, and move on. In fact, let’s move on to the next paragraph in Deuteronomy 21. What helpful instruction does it have to offer? Listen:

If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.

This is guidance for the guy who has two wives at the same time. So much for family values! A lot of Bible passages talk about multiple spouses, as if to say the more you have, the more potent you are. That sounds exhausting to me. And to come right out say that one wife is loved and the other disliked – why, of course that has to be true. Otherwise there would still be only one spouse.

Yet the heart of this text is a matter of fairness. Whether a father likes his children or not, the inheritance law was supposed to go like this: the firstborn child is the one who bears the family responsibility. Therefore the firstborn child gets two shares of the family inheritance, and the other children get only one share.

I happen to agree with that, since I am a firstborn child. I need to tell my brother and two sisters that this is what the Bible teaches about inheritance. I wonder what they would think about that; I can only guess.

What the law is stating, I think, is that family preference and likability shall have no bearing on the right of a firstborn child to inherit twice as much as one’s siblings. I think that’s exactly right, don’t you? Even if I would like to believe that my parents like me more than the others, it really shouldn’t have any bearing. The law is the law. The firstborn gets twice what the others receive. I think we should keep this commandment; but my little brother and sisters borrowed my knife and cut it out of my Bible. So let's go on.

What’s next? It’s a rule about having a troublesome child. What do you do with the troublesome child? Listen to the next paragraph:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

Well, that’s pretty clear. If your son turns out poorly, what do you do? You drag him before to the elders and they will inflict the death penalty. That bad mark on your family’s reputation will be expunged.

OK – how are you do with Deuteronomy 21? It addresses more life-and-death issues than Deuteronomy 22. Deuteronomy 22 condemns cross-dressing (22:5) and removing a mother robin from the eggs in her nest (22:6). Chapter 22 declares you don’t sow a vineyard with two kinds of seed (22:9), you don’t yoke an ox and a donkey to the same plow (22:10), and you don’t wear clothing with two different kinds of thread (22:11). It might as well say you should not mix peas and carrots on the same plate.

But today’s text, Deuteronomy 21, is much harsher: an unsolved murder, stealing a war bride, inheritance rights, and eliminating bad children. None of it is easy to swallow. Fortunately, there are two more sentences left, and this is what they say:

When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you for possession.

It is a rule about capital punishment. If somebody does something deserving of death, and you hang that person on a tree, you don’t linger about the burial. Anybody is under God’s curse. Anybody . . .

Now, wait a second. Wait, just a second. The Apostle Paul knew this verse because he was a rabbi. In his training, he was required to memorize this verse. Years later, he remembered this verse because of what happened to Jesus. Jesus was killed for capital crimes, and quite literally, they put him “on a tree.” And the righteous people who condemned him said, “Hurry up and bury him, we are on the eve of a holiday.” And because of the manner of his death, Jesus was regarded as accursed, as despised, as rejected. Nobody ever expected such a person to live again, for God to raise him up.

Of all the harsh verses of Deuteronomy, this is the only one to find its way into the New Testament. Paul writes to the churches of Turkey, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14).”

Now, listen to me very carefully. If all we had was Deuteronomy 21, life would be very grim. We would be confined by unmerciful sacred rules. But what we have is Jesus – we have Jesus crucified, Jesus risen. Because of him, we return to read the scriptures differently.

He was the One who was cursed by scripture for the manner of his death, yet the scriptures teach he took all of life’s curses upon himself, and therefore took them away. He was despised at his death, so that no one would be despised ever again. If we believe that, if we trust that, suddenly it becomes a key that unlocks the forbidding scriptures.

Say, for instance, you have a problem child that you want to remove. Remember how he is described in Deuteronomy 21? “As a glutton and a drunkard.” How interesting! In the eleventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus is accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard (11:19). That’s the same book where his own disciples wanted to chase away the problematic children and Jesus said, “Let the little ones come to me (19:14).”

Or say, for instance, there’s a family squabble about who gets the inheritance. It happens all the time. Just ask the attorneys and the funeral directors. What does Jesus do? He tells a story: “Once upon a time there was a father who had two sons. The younger one said, ‘I’m leaving. Give me my inheritance now.’ The older one, with his double share, stayed home and felt smug about it.” Luke 15. The Old Testament is not about Jesus, but Jesus is all about the Old Testament.

If there is a woman who is plundered, he helps her to her feet, saying, “Where are your accusers? I will not accuse you either. You are free to go.” (John 7:53-8:11)

As for a town that is shaken up by an unsolved murder, frightened that God may regard them as unclean, it is Jesus who speaks to Peter from heaven, and says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15)

For those of us who know Jesus, for those of us who listen for Jesus, he opens our hearts and minds to read scripture differently. Beneath all the crusty rules and heavy obligations, he wants us to know how much God loves us. Behind the harsh dictates and stern warnings, he wants to treat one another with dignity. Behind all the demeaning curses, he reveals the cleansing, forgiving grace of God.

It is impossible to be a Christian and a fundamentalist. Jesus our Lord is crucified and cursed, yet risen and free. And the first thing he will do is free us from the tyranny of our own judgment. He is the One who extends the blessing of Abraham to Gentiles like you and me. He is the One who offers his own liberating, transforming Spirit to everybody who trusts him.

The Bible is important because it teaches us about Jesus. Yet the maddening thing is that he never stays confined to the pages of the Book.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Say What?

1 Samuel 5:1-12

Series: Can You Believe That is in the Bible?

August 14, 2011

William G. Carter

1When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod; 2then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and placed it beside Dagon. 3When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4But when they rose early on the next morning, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off upon the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. 5This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not step on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

6The hand of the LORD was heavy upon the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and struck them with tumors, both in Ashdod and in its territory. 7And when the inhabitants of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us; for his hand is heavy on us and on our god Dagon.” 8So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?”

The inhabitants of Gath replied, “Let the ark of God be moved on to us.” So they moved the ark of the God of Israel to Gath. 9But after they had brought it to Gath, the hand of the LORD was against the city, causing a very great panic; he struck the inhabitants of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them.

10So they sent the ark of the God of Israel to Ekron. But when the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “Why have they brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people?” 11They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; 12those who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

Susan Sparks is one of the funniest people I know. Trained as a trial attorney, she went to Union Theological Seminary in New York to get a divinity degree. But her real love is stand-up comedy. When Susan arrives at a speaking engagement, people are fond of saying, “A preacher, a lawyer, and a comedian walk into a room.”

She tells of discovering our scripture text. It was a hot August Sunday in the Baptist church of her youth. Susan was just seven years old. Like the other overheated people around her, she was fanning herself as the preacher stood up to read the Bible passage for the day. He announced it was a text that tells us what God does to his enemies. And he read from the King James Bible,

And it was so that after the Philistines had carried the Ark of the Covenant about, the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had ‘emerods’ in their secret parts. (1 Sam. 5:9, KJV)

Susan said the fans stopped. People looked around. Even though the King James language was somewhat obscure, everybody knew what that meant. ‘Emerods’ was an old word for “hemorrhoids.” God smote them with hemorrhoids. Even though she was only seven years old, even though she had never actually encountered the affliction, she thought it was funny enough to burst out laughing.

Her mother whispered, “Susan Grace! We don’t laugh in church. Jesus doesn’t like it!”[1]

That was the day she discovered that Christian people are just a little too uptight to enjoy what’s in their Bibles, and that they worshiped a God who punished people by giving them hemorrhoids. It was enough to push her to find out what kind of God we really have.

I mean, there is some Jewish humor here. The Rabbi stands to recount the terrible judgment of God. Those blasted Philistines stole the Ark of the Covenant. That was the big chest that carried the original Ten Commandments. It was carried on long poles so nobody could actually touch it. The Hebrew people believed it was super-charged with spiritual energy, for it contained the very words of God. It was as if God was present wherever his Commandments were located.

And those nasty, dirty Philistines stole the Ark! They stole it. Like the Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie, they took it as a spoil of war. And how did God respond? Not by melting their faces or blasting them with a holy laser beam. The Lord God smote them . . . and gave them hemorrhoids.

I think it’s OK to laugh. That’s what the Jews would do. In Jewish practice, sarcasm is a prophetic trait. If you want to strike out against God’s enemies, you make fun of them. You trust God will humiliate them in the most degrading way. And in a day before Preparation H, that’s exactly what God did.

Oh, I know: our New Revised Standard Bible has tidied up the language. Three times in 1 Samuel 5, we hear the word “tumors,” not the word “hemorrhoids.” That is an unfortunate translation. The actual Hebrew word refers to small tumors of the tuchas. They are benign yet painful. And they were clearly sufficient to get the Philistines’ attention.

Now, this is a graphic, disgusting story to make a simple point: the Philistines should not have stolen the Ark. It contained the Covenant between Yahweh and the Jews, the two stone tablets as they were first given to Moses. The Covenant was not intended for the Philistines. It was not a prize from battle or the bottle that confines a good-luck Genie. The covenant was a special pact between a group of redeemed slaves and the God who brought them out of Egypt. Yahweh is the Liberator of Israel, the God who has no equal. You’re not supposed to mess with such a God.

This is what the Philistines discover. They steal the Ark and take it into one of their temples. It was the Temple of Dagon, who was one of their Philistine gods. In the early days, Dagon was the god of fertility, so he had a lot of worshipers. By the time of our account, however, he had been demoted in popular imagination, and was regarded as the god of good fishing.

The Philistines had built a house for Dagon and placed a statue of him inside it. That’s where they took Israel’s ark. They put it in the temple of Dagon and stood guard at the door. The next morning, when they opened the door, the statue of Dagon was tipped over on its face. So there! Told you not to mess with Yahweh!

The Philistines tipped their statue back up, and shut the door. Next morning, Dagon’s statue was tipped over again – and the hands and the head of the statue were knocked off. See, you nasty Philistines! We told you not to mess with the Lord our God.

Well, that’s about the time that the Philistines started having their posterior problems. The storyteller says, “The hand of the Lord was heavy upon them.” They were terrified and, shall we say, “tumorized.” So they moved the Ark to another place. They moved it from the town of Ashdod to the city of Gath. A few years after this, Gath would become the hometown of Goliath, the giant warrior. The people of Gath said, “Bring the Ark here. We’ll take care of it.” No sooner did it arrive, and they were similarly afflicted. To a person, they said, “We have to get this thing out of here!”

So the Philistines moved the Ark of God from the city of Gath to the city of Ekron. But as they neared that city, the people of Ekron said, “Oh no, you don’t! We don’t want that poisonous artifact around us! Get that thing out of here. Take it back to the people of Israel.” They felt the heavy, heavy hand of God when the Ark was near. In the Philistine city of Ekron, as in Gath and Ashdod, the Ark caused all kinds of painful itching – along with many other indignities. For seven months, the Philistines had the Ark, shuffling it around from place to place. And they came to believe the thing was such a pain in the . . . well, you know.

Eventually they put it on a cart pulled by two strong cows, put a bit of gold on the cart next to it, and then returned it to the Israelites. With that, their affliction disappeared.

Now, this is a really strange story. Nobody knows quite what to do with it. By the fourth century AD, when the Bible was translated to Latin, St. Jerome added a clarifying note. He said there were rats – that God released rats on the Philistines. That, he explains, was the reason for the so-called tumors and corresponding illness.

The notion continued, and no less than Martin Luther preached a few sermons on the text. At the high water mark of the Reformation, Luther thundered that the Roman Pope was the Bubonic Plague of humanity, and that God was perfectly within his right to afflict all enemies with illness.

The question, of course, is the same question that Susan Sparks asked as a seven-year-old: is this the kind of God that we have? Does God send disease and discomfort upon people?

Maybe you remember that Far Side cartoon from a few years ago. It’s entitled “God at His Computer.” The white-bearded Deity sits at his desk, computer screen before him. On the screen, a hapless slouch walks down the street. An upright piano dangles over his head. God reaches toward the keyboard to hit the SMITE button.

Is that how God is? Just waiting to hit the button and do us in? There are days when it seems so. As singer Mark Knopfler famously said, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.”

There are seasons in our lives when it feels like the hand of God is fiercely against us – when things are not going well, where joy seems depleted, where the bad diagnoses pile up (so to speak), when all our luck is bad luck. Such moments come to us all, and it is worthy to wonder if we are bringing difficulty upon ourselves. Perhaps we are traveling in the wrong direction and God is trying to get our attention.

Yet it’s never as easy as that. In the Gospel text from the 9th chapter of John, Jesus sees a blind man in Jerusalem. Everybody knows him. He has become a fixture on the street corner, begging for a hand-out from all the passersby. The friends of Jesus ask, “Rabbi, who sinned to make this man blind? Did he do something wrong? Or did his parents grieve the Lord?”

Jesus says, “None of the above. Neither he nor his parents sinned. He was born blind, that’s all. If anything, he is an example of how God works in human lives.” With that, he made a salve, rubbed it on the man’s eyes in the manner of all the healers of that time, and told him to go and wash it away. The blind man came back seeing.

Now, that seems to be the work of God – the work of the kind of God that I want to believe in. Jesus goes to a man blind from birth, doesn’t bother to ask if he wants to be healed, and then heals him anyway. That’s the kind of goodness and mercy that doesn’t wait to be asked. It is aggressive grace. Jesus heals the man almost randomly because that is who he is – the healer – and that is how he works – out of the goodness of God’s heart.

The only way that I can make any sense out of that story where three cities of Philistines get hemorrhoids is that it is a satire – a caustic, sarcastic judgment on anybody who tries to steal God for their own purposes. The Philistines plunder the Ark so they can have what Israel has, yet they are not willing or able to live with a covenant that was not intended for them in the first place. They believe, somewhat falsely as it turns out, that if they can grab a hold of Yahweh, then he will be forced to bless them and give them success. It’s the same kind of ploy that many politicians are prone to still use. It’s the same insistence of many counterfeit pilgrims have, that if they keep repeating the old religious words, it will actually make them religious.

Ah, either you live as if God loves you or you do not. Either you live by the Torah’s instruction to be a blessing to other people or you do not. Either you honor God with everything you do, or you end up grabbing for what it not yours.

What the Philistines painfully discovered is that the one true God, the God of Israel, is strangely indifferent to all of our striving. It is possible to reach for a big piece of holiness and miss it entirely. People still do that.

Meanwhile, the deeper purpose of Yahweh is revealed. God shows steadfast love to all who honor him. God remembers those who do the commandments and not merely cart them around. God comes to us in Jesus to forgive all iniquity, to heal every disease, to lift life right out of the Pit. God is the One who crowns people with love and mercy. God alone can satisfy every hungry heart with overwhelming goodness, provided, of course, that the heart is willing to be satisfied with what God provides.

So that’s it. I’ve been trying to figure out how to end a sermon like this, but I don’t know how. I’m just going to stop. Some of the Philistines have been sitting for entirely too long. Now it’s time for all of us to stand and sing.

[1] Susan Sparks, Laugh Your Way to Grace (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2009) 32.

(c) William G. Carter
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