The Children of the Barren One

Whenever I read this passage in Isaiah, I cannot help but think of this ministry I do, all the hurt, wounded, broken, and abused kids who have made their way to me over the last year — most of whom needed just a word or two, but a few have grabbed tight and will not let go.

1 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.

2 “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.

3 For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. (Isaiah 54:1–3 ESV)

And so, I sing. For my children, for the children of my heart that God has sent to me. For the children I find — and who find me — along the way.

“And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” So said the Lord to old, childless Abram as he sojourned in a land that was not his.

Abraham (neé Abram) never settled down. Never had a place to call his own. And yet… we all — Jews, Christians, Muslims — claim him as our ancestor, and struggle with what God’s promise of a patrimony means to us now.

He is my ancestor. He is yours. His tent is our home. His tent makes us a family. And my tent (such as it is) … is home to souls I’ve not even met yet. Broken human beings who need to know love and grace and healing and the promise of redemption.

My tent. My promise. My people. My tribe. My descendants.

SERMON — The Bawling, Puking Promise of God

I didn’t preach last Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Advent 4 (Year C)

  • Micah 5:2-5a
  • Hebrews 10:5-10
  • Luke 1:39-55

2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
5 And he shall be their peace.
(Micah 5:2-5 ESV)

46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
(Luke 1:46-55 ESV)

Do not be afraid. If there’s a single message I think you could boil down all of scripture to — all of Israel’s encounter with this strange God of ours — it wouldn’t be “God loves you,” as appealing and as true as that is.

It would be: DO NOT BE AFRAID.

Because we have so much to be afraid of. It’s hard to start with our fears — we have so many.

But all our fears begin and end with the fear of loss and the fear of death. All of them. Anything else we fear begins there.

And God, telling Israel, over and over again, as Israel experiences loss and death, conquest and exile — DO NOT BE AFRAID.

Our Micah reading is a reading of hope. From Bethlehem, the tiniest of cities, shall come a ruler. And not just any ruler, but one whose origin if from of old, from ancient days, and he shall shepherd the flock that is God’s people, and they shall dwell secure in them. “He shall be their peace,” Micah writes.

But missing from this reading is the context of Micah’s proclamation. This promise comes in the midst of war and violence.

Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops;
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the judge of Israel
on the cheek. (Micah 5:1 ESV)

It begins with an act of violence, a siege, a humiliation. And this promise of peace in this shepherd who is from ancient days is immediately followed by a promise of war — against Assyria as it comes to invade. Shepherds of Israel shall rise to lead battle against the Assyrians, and they, in turn, shall “shepherd the land of Assyria with the sword.” The promised ruler, the promised shepherd who will deliver peace, will do so in a battle against those who have come to conquer. Who have conquered.

That’s the promise Mary understand here when she sings this song. She knows who her redeemer is. She knows the fulfillment of the promise of God.

And she knows that redeemer is coming.

Let’s be clear what that fulfillment is. It isn’t morning in America, or making America great again, or a man from hope, or change we can believe in, or a new deal or a square deal or a fair deal for everyone, or liberty, equality, and brotherhood. It isn’t workers of the world unite. It isn’t a political program or a campaign for office or even a set of ideas.

Redemption is a tiny baby, growing inside her. This scattering of the proud is a bawling, puking, helpless child that cannot even care for himself. This bringing the mighty down from their thrones is a newborn presented to the priest for circumcision and the regular offering for first-born sons. This exalting of the humble is a man who will wander the country, preaching and teaching and healing. This filling the hungry with good things is a Lord who multiply loaves and fishes and feed thousands. This sending the rich away empty is a teacher who will say “follow me” to poor fishermen and outcast tax collectors, making them the first receivers and bearers of the good news of God’s restored kingdom for God’s people Israel.

This helping of servant Israel and remembering God’s promises is a man who die innocent on a cross for the sins of God’s people, rising again to fulfill all of the promises God made long ago to a man named Abraham as he wandered what is now a war-scarred land.

Mary knows this. Zechariah knows this. Simeon the temple priest knows this too, and so doesAnna the prophetess. They all know. They have looked into the face of their salvation and seen a tiny, helpless child who cannot even save himself. And they are glad. They celebrate. The world is changing, and God is acting, and God’s people will soon be delivered from their humiliation and conquest, from their exile, from their occupation. From the enemies in their midst who rule them harshly, without mercy or pity.

God has acted. God’s people are being delivered.

By one who cannot even save himself.

How Kids Are Different

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote something of an addendum to my long essays on what the story of scripture, and not just the law, have to teach us about sexual relations (Here, here, here, and here.) called “How Sex is Different.”

Israel faces a lot of penalties for failing to keep the covenant — disease, pestilence, famine, conquest, exile, slavery. But those are all externally imposed. They come from outside the land of Israel, in the form of Assyrians and Babylonians. Only in the case of these sexual sins does the land itself threaten to grow sick and expel Israel.

That’s what makes sex different, and what makes these acts unique. (The passage does not say why sex is different. We are free to speculate, but any conclusions we come to are just that — speculation.) They poison the very land, which grows so ill that it will expel Israel, just as God expelled the Canaanites so that Israel may take possession of the land.

The passage in Leviticus 20 that contains some of the strongest admonitions against unlawful sexual relations — that is, sex with close relations — is also bundled with strong condemnations of anyone who “turns to mediums and wizards, whoring after them” (Lev. 20:6) and anyone who “curses his father or his mother” (Lev. 20:9). Death awaits the latter, and a cutting off from the people await the former.

But Leviticus 20 begins with this warning:

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. 3 I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. 4 And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, 5 then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech. (Leviticus 20:1-5 ESV)

Leviticus 18 contains a much smaller version of the same warning, right before it condemns men lying with men “as with woman”

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God:I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:21 ESV)

Molech — מֹּלֶך — comes from the very same Hebrew root “king” does, and it implies sovereingty and rule. We have few references in Molech in the Bible (Stephen mentions Molech in his final witness before the high priest), but all the references we have describe a god to whom children are sacrificed. Specifically, they are burned alive.

This burning alive, ushered in by Solomon’s wives (1 Kings 11:1-8) and performed by kings Ahaz (2 Kings 16:3) and Manasseh (2 Kings 21:6) of Judah, is one of the indictments Jeremiah hands to the Kingdom of Judah during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem:

34 They set up their abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. 35 They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jeremiah 32:34-35 ESV)

This is a special sin, this sacrificing of children, on par with illicit and unlawful sex (as outlined by Leviticus). And it pollutes the land.

Scripture doesn’t say much about what Molech demands or why anyone would sacrifice a child in a roaring fire. It is simply portrayed as a repugnant act — even as scripture also tells the story of God demanding (and then rescinding the demand) that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, slitting his throat and setting him alight atop a large pile of wood. And as God takes the lives of the firstborn of Egypt in the horrible night of the Passover as Israel waited in terror for its redemption.

It is a horrible thing, this sacrifice of children. A detestable thing. It defiles and sickens the land. And Israel, despite the command, tosses it’s children into the fire to appease a god who isn’t even real.

Some evengalical protestant groups have used this bit of scripture to describe abortion. But it’s not a mainstream view (no one with an angelfire website has been mainstream since 1996). And not why I’m writing about this today.

I have, in the last couple of months, come face to face with a foster care system that has, for want of a better term, gladly and happily sacrificed at least some of its charges to Molech. Living, breathing, thinking, feeling, beautiful, amazing, smart, sweet, wonderful kids, bound and tossed into a fire. Kids no one cares about, except maybe for profit and/or for sadistic pleasure. Kids given up, and given up on.

Kids, faithful and persistent, who — despite the suffering and horror they have endured — have not given up on themselves.

And it makes me angry. Like nothing else has ever made me angry before. Because how we treat our children matters.

I cannot say much more about this right now. Except that I’ve gotten a sense, through all my whining about not having work and my book not selling, what my real calling and my real ministry is. To these kids. Who persist, and live, and hope, and love, like plants growing out of the side of a brick wall.

There’s a story in thge Qur’an that also happens to be a Jewish legend. Young Abraham has already become a devoted follower of The One God, and he asks his father about the idols his people worship. “We found our father’s worshiping them,” Abu Ibrahim said, as if that settles the matter. Abraham then tells his father they are all wrong to worship these things made by human hands, and during the night he sneaks in and smashes all the idols except one — the largest of them.

When the people come and find all their gods broken to pieces, they accuse Abraham. “Did you do this?” they ask.

“Nope,” he replies. “The biggest one did it. They are your gods, ask him!”

“You know very well these things cannot speak!”

“Then why do you worship them?” Abraham responds.

At which point they tie Abraham up and toss him into a fire — a fire God commands to be cool and safe for Abraham. (Quran 21:51-70) Such is the fate of those who challenge what “we found our fathers doing.”

I want to break some idols and rescue some kids. Because those idols need to be broken.

And those kids need to be rescued.

Why I Am Not a Liberation Theologian

Not that anyone (at least anyone who knows me) has called me one. But it Liberation Theology is inescapable at seminaries today, and this is a decidedly mixed blessing.

I’ve never been a Liberation Theologian. What I’ve heard during (and since) my time at LSTC of and about Liberation Theology sounded an awful lot like the Marxism — particularly the kinds of Marxism coming out of the Third World — I encountered at San Francisco State University in the late 1980s. (In fact, all Social Justice talk sounds like that to me…) The big difference is that Liberation Theology is a lot less intellectually rigorous and a great deal more sentimental than proper Marxism. Continue reading

Giving Up on the “Church”

I meant to do more blogging this week — especially on the lectionary, and a piece I’ve had rumbling through my mind about mid-century liberalism — but never quite got around to it. And then Rod Dreher asked me to read his upcoming book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. So I’ve been a little engaged this week.

Part of this comes, actually, in response to reading Dreher’s book. (And in response to a letter I received from a longtime seminary friend and fellow pastor.)

I’ve been I’m limbo for the last few years, doing a lot of waiting. In fact, Michaela told me recently — and rather pointedly (I’m not sure she entirely approves) — “Ever since I met you, you have always been waiting.” And yes, I have. At first, it was waiting for… well, God knows what. I had been denied approval for ordained ministry by the ELCA’s Metro DC Synod, with no hope there would be a second chance at anything. After some work on my part, persistent and patient work, and some serious agitating on my behalf by some reasonably well-connected folks, I got a second chance, as was approved. Continue reading