May 13, Seventh Sunday of Easter:
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
It can be comforting to live in a black and white world. A world where good people are good, and do well, and thrive…and bad people get what’s coming to them. A world where you can tell who’s good and who’s bad by the color of their costumes. It’s a world that is often presented to us in advertising… “look at how successful those thin, attractive people are! They must be doing something right…I want to be like them.” Its a world that is presented to us in the Psalm today.
“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked….They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *everything they do shall prosper.”
But the wicked…”they are like chaff which the wind blows away…the way of the wicked is doomed.” (Psalm 1)
It can be comforting…this easy to understand world…It can be seductive…this very simple moral calculus—if I behave and do what’s right I will get good things…and if I don’t behave bad things will happen—“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5) Simple. Clear cut. You’re either in…or your out…walking in the ways of the Lord, or blown away like chaff…it’s super attractive…except that there’s the flip side to it as well…
Because what if I’m not doing well? What if I’m no longer young, and have never been thin, or attractive? What if I’m struggling to get by? How do I know if I’m in the club? What if people who look like me, or dress like me are not held up as role models but instead are constantly represented as “less-than,” “inferior,” “bad?,” or just, simply don’t exist at all? Does this simple moral calculus mean that it’s somehow my fault? Am I counted as part of the wicked just because I’m not any of the things that define what is successful, or righteous, or good in this particular culture?
Black and white might be a comforting way to look at the world—for some. It’s a tempting way to look at the world—for some. It’s not a realistic way to look at the world. Because our world is not black and white.
If only there were some stories…some counter narratives…that undermined…that subverted…this all-too-simple, and potentially damaging narrative…if only our scriptures only contained stories like that…
How many of you have spent time studying the genealogy of Jesus? It shows up in two places…Luke chapter 3, and Matthew chapter 1. Luke traces the genealogy all the way back to Adam. Matthew just goes back to Abraham. The two don’t exactly match up, and Matthew does some very interesting things that Luke doesn’t.
Luke’s list starts with Jesus and works back in time, listing only fathers—the paternal line. Matthew starts with Abraham and works forward in time and has some interesting additions: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah—the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…Who’s Tamar? A woman. And not just any woman. Tamar is a gentile—probably a Canaanite who was not married to Judah. Tamar’s story never makes it into the lectionary because it’s PG-13 at best, and that’s maybe too bad because it’s a great—problematic—story that works as a counterpoint to this dominant narrative (See Genesis 38).
Tamar was married to Judah’s eldest son, but he died with no children. And as was the custom, she then married the next son. He died. The same with the next, so Judah got concerned and wouldn’t let her marry his youngest son. Which, in that culture, at that time, was an improper thing to do.
Then Judah goes to a festival, and Tamar (feeling wronged) disguises herself, and meets Judah on the road. Judah thinks she’s “a woman who works near festivals,” wants to “transact business with her.” She says, “what will you give me.” He says, “I’ll give you a lamb.” She says, “No, I want your staff and “seal-cord” (sort of how you would sign your name).” He says, “fine.” They go off. She gets pregnant.
Months later, she’s showing and people say, “Judah, what’s up with your daughter-in-law? She’s been running around.” Judah says, “Take her out to be burned,” (terrible, I know). Tamar says, “Wait. I have proof of who the father is.” And pulls out Judah’s seal cord. So now everyone knows, that not only did Judah fail in his duty in not letting her marry his youngest son, he is responsible for her pregnancy. So, to his credit, when confronted with this he says, “She is more in the right than I.” She’s vindicated, and gives birth to twins (Perez and Zerah), one of whom is the ancestor of King David—and of Jesus.
Tamar is an outsider in every sense of the word. She’s an outsider making her way in a culture that is not her own. And she’s held up by Matthew—and later tradition—as someone who exhibits great faith, greater faith than the men around her.
A few lines later in the genealogy, Matthew mentions Salmon father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth. Two more women. Rahab might not be familiar, but Ruth should be. We’ll hear some of Ruth’s story later this year.
Rahab was also a Canaanite, and (according to her story in Joshua 2), but unlike Tamar, also worked in “the oldest profession,” who aided Joshua in the conquest of Canaan. In Jewish tradition she is held up as an exemplar of faith. But I’m sure the Canaanites (if any had been left to write a history) would have told a different story of her betrayal. The point isn’t to figure out if she was “good” or “bad” the point is that the inclusion of her story in this grand narrative raises questions, and complicates the story in instructive ways. She’s a stranger…trying to navigate her way in a dangerous world. And her presence serves as a constant reminder of the very troubling, and violent, history that we have all inherited.
Ruth’s story is actually closer to the “rags to riches” narrative that we’re familiar with (See the Book of Ruth). There’s a famine in Bethlehem so Naomi and her husband go to next door to Moab where their sons marry Moabite women. All the men die, and Naomi and her daughters-in-law are left penniless. Naomi tells both of them to return to their families in Moab, but Ruth refuses. Instead, she leaves her family, and the only homeland she’s ever known and comes with Naomi back to Bethlehem. Then the headline might read: “Poverty-Stricken Foreigner Finds Favor in the Eyes of a Prominent Rich Man.” (New Interpreters Study Bible. p 384). She’s gleaning in the field (picking up the leftovers) catches Boaz’s eye. Naomi and Ruth conspire to get her next to Boaz and…long story short…Boaz marries her and she becomes the great-grandmother of King David.
Another outsider…another stranger…another story outside of and slightly askew from the dominant structure. The fact that she is constantly referred to as “Ruth the Moabite,” underscores this. Moab was “the wrong side of the tracks,” it was the neighboring country, and everyone knew that nothing good came from Moab…to put it in terms that some of us might be more familiar with—Star Wars—calling her “Ruth, the Moabite,” is like saying “she’s a nobody, from Jakku.”
It’s true our scriptures are filled with voices that uphold the dominant narrative…that the good are rewarded…the wicked are punished…our ancestors who edited these texts put this Psalm first for a reason…it’s aspirational. But they also included minority voices…voices that question, and challenge, and move us to think and interact with our world in more nuanced ways. The most extended, comprehensive critique of this black and white narrative is the Book of Job. Job is also an outsider…from Uz…which again, is a little like saying, “if there is a bright center in the universe, Uz is the planet that it’s farthest from”… Job has no claim to being part of the “in crowd,” nevertheless, he is “blameless, and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1) and yet, horrible things happen to him…and his whole story is an extended argument about how this could be. It’s never really resolved. But I don’t think the Bible was ever intended to be a rule book with cut and dried answers for all of life’s questions. It’s an invitation to enter into a conversation with God and one another about what really matters in life….How we can go about faithfully determining what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s challenging, and often perplexing, but it’s one of the best tools we have to prepare us for being sent out.
We are being sent out into the world…”we do not belong to the world”, as Jesus says, but we are still in the world. But this world we’re being sent into is not a black and white one. It’s not even grayscale…it’s multi-hued…it’s a riot of color and shades and tones…let us go into it with eyes and hearts open, listening for and telling the stories that need to be told.