A Contradictory Life

A sermon for Proper 25: Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

Here ends the Book of Deuteronomy. Yes, we jumped from Exodus 33, over last 7 chapters of Exodus, the entire book of Leviticus, the entire books of Numbers, and the first 33 chapters Deuteronomy. Here ends the Book of Deuteronomy. This is the story of Moses seeing the promised land but not being allowed to cross into it. We hear about Moses’ death, his unknown, unknowable burial place, and the thirty days of mourning by Israel for her sometimes scorned and sometimes beloved leader. We hear about the anointing of Joshua. We hear the praise of Moses as God’s unique prophet, who knew the LORD face to face and to whom there is no equal.

This is a story of ending: the end of Moses’ story, the end of Moses giving the Torah, the LAW as defined in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is the end of Moses’ leadership, the end of Israel’s wilderness journey, the end of Israel as a nomadic people.

This is a story of beginnings: Joshua begins his leadership of Israel, Israel’s beginning residence in the promised land the beginning of cosmopolitan Israel, of Israel as a nation of cities the beginning of Israel’s Temple-centered relationship with God.

This is a continuing story, Moses’ story is over, Joshua’s story is beginning, God’s story with Israel, God’s story with all creation continues (Gaventa, and Petersen).

This is a story of contradictions. Moses was God’s faithful servant. He left a life of luxury in the Egyptian Royal House to return to his people, to God’s people. He left the burning bush to lead Israel out of captivity in Egypt. He stood between Israel’s rebellious nature and God’s fierce anger. Moses was also a less than a faithful servant. The first thing he does on his arrival among the Hebrew slaves is to kill an Egyptian overlord and flees to Midian. He continually questions God’s decision by asking “Who am I?” He threatens to quit “What am I to do with your people?” At Meribah, he does not follow God’s instruction to speak to the rock to give water to the people of Israel. On his own, he strikes the rock with the staff God gave him (Exodus 17:1-7). On the surface, this is not a big deal; however, it questions the power of speaking, as if giving voice to God’s word is not enough. There is the possible implication that Moses believes the staff has some sort of power, which diminishes the power of God’s presence. So yes, Moses disobeys God, and is a less than a perfect servant; at the same time, he is also the unparalleled servant of the Lord. This contradictory relationship is seen in Moses relationship with Israel. Israel frequently rejected Moses’ leadership, “You have brought into the desert to die!” But, at his death, they are deeply grieved (Bratt).

When I read this lesson I immediately started thinking about the lessons of transitions it has to offer us. St. Stephen’s is in a big transition as I move to part-time, and some divine guidance is certainly welcome. However, the divine muse was strangely silent. What eventually emerged is the contradictions surrounding Moses, we have just explored. I want to explore a couple thoughts about contradictions, within the context of transition.

As a nation, we are in a time of change. The political upheaval we are witnessing is a sign of changes in our economic traditions, our relationships with other nations, our internal relations along lines of race, sex and gender, our relations along class lines. Another manifestation of these transitions is what to do with all the statues and memorials to controversial leaders from our past. I want to take a very brief look at two.

Robert E Lee did lead the army of Northern Virginia in rebellious action against the United States. It was possibly an act of treason. He did own slaves. That was an unquestionable moral wrong. Like Moses, and rebellious Israel, there is more to his story. Prior to assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia Lee faithfully served the US Army as a general, including service as the Superintendent of West Point, where he likely taught officers he probably fought against. After the end of the Civil War , e was asked to lead Washington College, named after George Washington (Virginia Historical Society). The college was in dire straits. And he did restore it to a successful path. Washing College is now known as Washington and Lee University a preeminent school in our country. As you know some statues of Gen. Lee have been removed, and an Episcopal church named in his honor, has been renamed.

The other person I wish to explore this morning is Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1836 to 1864 (Wikipedia). At the time, he was the longest serving Chief Justice. His term was very productive. However, what he is known for the Dread Scott decision which includes the infamous line that

current or former slaves and their descendants had “No rights which the white man was bound to respect” (thisdayinquotes).

Driving home from Little Rock Wednesday I heard that earlier this year descendants of the Scott and Taney families meet in Baltimore for a reconciliation (NPR). A joint statement in part says:

The Scotts and the Taneys believe that Americans should learn from their history, not bury their history,” they have said in a joint statement.

They hope to raise money for a permanent educational exhibit on the site that would contextualize the Dred Scott decision and explore its ramifications in American history. If possible, they said they also hope a statue of the Maryland abolitionist Frederick Douglass can be added (Pitts).

Their task is complicated by the removal of a statue of Taney.

The Scott-Taney families’ reconciliation effort has a lot to teach us as a nation, as a church and as a congregation as we seek to find our way through this time of emergent change (Tickle).

One lesson is that to successfully navigate times of transition we also have to navigate the complexities of our contradictions. It is rare that any group or any person is all evil, or all good; most all of us, like Israel, and like Moses, are a mixture of contradictions. The Scott and Taney families are right, we should learn from our history, which means knowing it in all its contradictory complexity. It also means, as scripture commands us to do to teach it to our children and our children’s children (Deut. 6:7). Deuteronomy 34 shows us how Israel, and Moses accepted their contradictory relationship. It also shows us how God honors such relationships. God never abandons Moses, or any other contradictory biblical figure, and there are plenty, like most all of them. Moses undisclosed burial place and his epitaph Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face (Deut. 34:10). signify divine honor.

As a nation this is the time to reconcile with those with whom we have deep differences and between whom there are deep hurts. The prevailing expectation of unquestioned loyalty to a president or a party is perilously close to following other gods and idolatry. If we start here, we cannot follow the remaining 8 points of God’s plan for our lives. If we cannot follow the ten-point divine plan of life, we cannot reconcile, and if we cannot reconcile we cannot make successful transitions that are a part of life.

As a congregation this is a time to name and accept our contradictions. If we fail to name our contradictions, we will not be able to see the changes that are necessary for successful transition.

As both a nation, and a congregation, this is a time to trust that God will not abandon us for our many rebellions. Our hope is in the knowledge that God is right here, right now and will be, till the end of the ages.


Bratt, Doug. Proper 25 Deuteronomy 34:1-12 . 29 10 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy (NIBC) Numbers 36:13. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 29 10 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Logue, Frank. “Everything Hangs on Love, Twenty-First Sunday after.” 29 10 20107. Sermons that Work.

NPR. “Soctt Taney Reconcilation.” NPR, n.d. APP. 25 10 2017.

Pitts, Johathan. “Roger Taney, Dred Scott families reconcile 160 years after infamous Supreme Court decision.” 18 10 2017. baltimoresun.com. 27 10 2017. <http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-scott-taney-reconciliation-20170306-story.html&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

thisdayinquotes. No rights which the white man was bound to respect. n.d. 27 10 2017. <http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/03/no-rights-which-white-man-was-bound-to.html&gt;.

Tickle, Phyllis. Emergence Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.

Virginia Historical Society. Robert E. Lee after the War. 27 10 2017. <http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/robert-e-lee-after-war&gt;.

Wikipedia. Roger B. Taney. 27 10 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_B._Taney.&gt;.



We can stop the violence

A sermon for proper 14

2 Samuel 18:59, 15-, 31-33, Psalm 130, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, John 6:35, 41-51

Three weeks ago, the last time I had the honor of preaching, we left David hearing that God would build him a house – make his family a royal dynasty. How did we get from there, to this morning? Well, its complex, so let’s see if we can touch on the major points.

After God assures David that his house shall stand forever, David successfully leads Israel in several wars against neighboring kingdoms. For an unnamed reason he stays home for one campaign. While walking the roof top one evening he see Bathsheba bathing on the neighboring roof top. Their illicit dalliance results in pregnancy. David plots to have Uriah Bathsheba’s husband, spend time with his wife, so everyone would think he is the father. Because of Uriah’s honor, it does not work, and David orders him killed. Sometime later Amnon one of David’s sons by another mother, falls in love with his half-sister Tamar, yes a third mother. His passion drives him to follow in his father footsteps. David refuses to punish Amnon, which infuriates Tamar’s brother Absalom; who kills Amnon to avenge his sister. David banishes him for this. But David is distracted by his absence. Through a conspiracy by Joab, his commander, David allows Absalom to return home. After a while Absalom attracts the attention of several powerful families, and essentially raises an army of sufficient strength that David flees his own capital. What follows is worthy of a John le Carre’ spy novelette resulting in Absalom’s forces aligned and ready to assault David’s forces. As you heard, it did not go well for Absalom. Israel’s forces are routed, and while riding his mule, the customary ride for royalty, he is caught in the branches of an oak tree, perhaps by his much admired hair, where he is killed by Joab and his armor bearers (Petersen and Bevery). He is buried under a pile of stones, which maybe a further dishonor, or an honorable burial (Petersen and Bevery) (BIRCH). Even after death Absalom is a divisive figure. David’s grief is so consuming it eclipses victory.

As one commentator wrote it doesn’t get more tawdry, it doesn’t get sadder than this. The woefulness has its roots in David’s behavior. Amnon’s and Absalom’s behaviors are seen in David’s lusty behavior with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah (Hoezee). It’s seen in his disregard for women; one wonders if he had shown any affection for Tamar if Amnon and Absalom would have survived (Harrelson). The tragedy is seen in David’s pardon of Absalom. Although he was home, David would not see or speak to him; he showed him no love at all (BIRCH).

David’s grief over Absalom’s death reveals the generational effect of behaviors. The inequities of parents that bear upon the third and forth generation. (Ex 20:5, 34:0) It also reveals the social effects of behaviors across boundaries like generations, gender, race, or however we divide ourselves. We get angry, we grieve the tragedies of our sons and daughters even as we fail to take the necessary steps to deal with issues of

 “poverty, education, familial dysfunction, substance abuse, and consumerist values [that] distort the future.” (NIB)

We get angry about children not being prepared to work, even as we reduce the real value of public spending on education; or as Alabama did this week reduce actual spending by $250 million dollars. We disparage those, who, once out of jail, don’t have a job, as we make it more and more difficult for them to qualify. We rage at police killing unarmed people. We fume about petty drug dealers shooting and killing police officers, even as we tap the licensed concealed carried weapons on our person.

I suspect we are expressing a form of David’s grief in the angst over the proposed treaty with Iran. Iran seeks to be recognized as a sovereign nation. We are angry as they take or support violent actions in neighboring countries. All the while forgetting we supply their neighbors, with whom there is historic enmity, with billions in arms, from which US companies make billions. We are fearful as they take preparatory steps for what we see as apocalyptic violence. Yet we have forgotten that in 1953, over a dispute about oil, the US and Great Britain overthrew a democratically elected Iranian government in favor of the Shah; whom they threw out in 1979. Even as David’s grief emerges from his own action, our anger, our fear emerges from our own behaviors; from what we have done, from what we have not done, personally, as a community, and as a nation. We see in David’s lament, our own lament (BIRCH).

All our lives are a jumbled interconnected mess. Whether we acknowledge it or not our lives are connected to fleeing refugees on the Greek coast, displaced Syrians in Turkey, Iranians, Myanmar Rohingya refugees; our lives are connected to our neighbors in in Ferguson, Charleston, Auora, in Memphis, Manila, and Kennett; our lives are connected to our neighbors on Dougan, Walker, 6th, Ash, Holly and Hearn streets. We are connected to all the dysfunction and violence in our world. So, how do we avoid responding to violence with violence of our own? Such reflexive violence comes in all sorts of forms, from undisciplined policing to kneejerk demeaning of those who look like ‘them’. What is our responsibility as individuals, as a community, and as a nation? Can we stop the violence? What can we do?

Laura tells of sharing her failed efforts to protect her family from dysfunctional behavior. She wants to know “What can I do?” She is shocked by the answer “Nothing.” After allowing the truth of the shocking answer to settle in,  the speaker continues:

 “You could make your own health and wellbeing a priority so you can respond in a healthy, [loving] way to whatever life throws at you.” (Walsh)

We are in the midst of a series of bread of life Gospel readings. Behind them is Deuteronomy 8:3

… that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

To try and live by bread alone, or anything else we believe is necessary for life, like safety,  limits our vision and we see no farther than the things themselves, and miss the presence and the love of God. God gives us all we need for life so that we may see more than we would see otherwise see, and live as we otherwise would not live. So that we may live as imitators of God, in love, with kindness towards all (Liggett), (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). From here we can use the divine gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation to break the cyclical chains of dysfunction and violence (Klein).

Are we up to stopping the dysfunction and violence? There is group of churches in Blytheville making the effort. On the surface it seems overwhelming. However, as David Lose notes:

[It is] amazing and miraculous that God works through flawed pastors, jaded teachers, worn-out secretaries, overworked government officials, exhausted parents, and the like – that God would choose these and so many other unlikely candidates through whom to work, even when they don’t suspect it (Lose).

In just a bit we will offer to God ordinary, simple bread, and nondescript wine; then we will receive them as the sacramental divine presence. Similarly, our simple, nondescript selves, as we are heard, seen, smelt or touched, can be a sacramental presence to our neighbors; here in Blytheville, across our nation, and across the world.

We can stop the violence, by working on our own behaviors, living on what God supplies, being kind to all God’s people, extending forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, and living as a sacrament to the world.

As it always has been, our missteps have led to the missteps of our children, and others in our community, and in other nations. Nevertheless ~God is present, herein lies the strength to change the world, one self, one neighbor at a time.


BIRCH, BRUCE C. New Interpreters’ Bible; THE FIRST AND SECOND BOOKS OF SAMUEL. Abingdon Press, 2001. CD.

Ellingsen, Mark. Proper 14 B 2015. 9 8 2015. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. “Proper 14B | Center for Excellence in Preaching.” 9 8 2015. Working Preacher.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 9 8 2015.

Klein, Ralph W. Commentary on 2 Samuel 18:59,. 9 8 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Liggett, James. “Proper 14 B.” 9 8 2015. Sermons that Work.

Lose, David. Pentecost 11 B: Ordinary Things. 9 8 2015. <http://www.davidlose.net&gt;.

Petersen, David and Roberts Gaventa Bevery. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.

Walsh, Lora. Speaking to the Soul: Only Through Prayer. 7 8 2015. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com/speakingtothesoulonlythroughprayer/&gt;.

Change is coming

It is Advent; we are preparing the greatest change since creation, God becoming incarnate in humanity; we are preparing for the greatest change since Jesus’ ascension, Christ’s return. Change is coming. Isaiah prophesizes about change, John calls the people of Jerusalem and Judah to change, and Paul calls the Gentiles in Rome to change. I believe those who observe Advent, as best we can in a Christmas obsessed land, realize Advent is about change. However, I am concerned we’re focusing on the wrong sorts of change.

For those who are drawn to the feast of the incarnation, I suspect our efforts are to more or less be the misplaced Kings bearing gifts, and through some sort of gift giving, to family and friends, those in need in our community, or perhaps through a charity like Episcopal Relief and Development or Heifer Project, or one of the many good charitable organizations around the world.  For those draw to the return of Christ, it’s a bit more Lent like, and the focus is attaining a status of purity, of which similar generosity would be considered a sign. But it’s a phrase from Paul and a chance story that catches my attention.

Paul writes a prayerful petition to live in harmony with one another. [i] It is Paul’s belief God wants us, indeed empowers us to live in harmony with each other, and gives us the gifts to do so.

Thanksgiving is thought of as a family time; though some families do not gather because they are divided. There is a family that has been divided for some nine or ten years. Members have not even spoken to one another. Facebook cracked the shell of separation. But this thanksgiving, disparate family members, of differing faith traditions, took a common teaching of their faith, God wants to reconcile broken relationships, seriously, and their division was healed. Thanks be to God.

At the heart of the family’s healing is a change of behavior, on everyone’s part. That change is what repentance is all about. The healing such change brings about is what repentance is all about. Healing of broken human relationship is the greatest gift one can offer God. There can be no purity if there are any broken relationships.


[i] Romans 15:5