2017 September 3, Labor Day
I am the People, the Mob Carl Sandburg
I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass. Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and
clothes. I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.
2 Maccabees 7:1-9, 20, 41
It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and thongs, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”
The king fell into a rage, and gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, “The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song that bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’”
After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” He replied in the language of his ancestors and said to them, “No.” Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws….”
[Then, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh sons also were martyred….]
The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord.…
Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. Let this be enough, then, about the eating of sacrifices and the extreme tortures.
1 Maccabees 4:52-59
Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors. There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.
Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.
Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History
So we know that some Jews avidly welcomed the secular Greek culture while others mildly went along with it. As I’ve said, Hanukkah is the celebration of the revolt that reclaimed the Temple, and it is generally remembered as marking a clash between powerful pagan oppressors and determined Jewish victims. But the revolt’s first victim was a secular Jew at the hands of a zealot Jew, the further struggle entailed murder and forcible circumcision, and it ran the cosmopolitan Jewish way of life right out of town. When secular Jews celebrate this one, they might want to do it with some care—let one candle burn for the other side.
For Labor Day Prayer of Cesar Chavez
Left: Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.
Right: Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.
Left: Help me take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.
Right: Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.
Left: Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.
All: Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
So that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world.
We are transitioning next week in our tour of the Bible cover to cover in 2017 to the Jesus tradition. You can call it the New Testament or the Christian Scriptures, but I also want to include early Christian texts that were not included in the canon of scripture such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and so forth. Before we get there we need to wrap-up the TaNaKh and this other literature called the apocrypha or deuterocanonical literature.
Today the Maccabees.
I don’t want this to simply be a book report or a dry history of ancient texts. Those who wrote these texts and those about whom the texts were written were struggling with something that we struggle with today.
How does a person be a person of faith?
How does a community be a community of faith?
If others think the answers to those questions seem easy or straightforward, it is likely they haven’t considered the questions seriously. These questions are difficult, not just abstractly, in theory, but in practice. These questions are not answered only with words, but with our lives.
What does it mean to be people of faith?
To put it another way, how do we bear witness to faith?
The Greek word for witness is martus. It is translated into English as either witness or martyr, depending on the context. We think of martyrs as people who die for their faith or their principles, but the concept is larger. It is about bearing witness, a wonderful phrase. It can include suffering and dying for faith, but it can also mean living for faith. These stories of our tradition are about our spiritual ancestors who bore witness. They bore witness to what they saw, heard, felt, and thought was true. Their faith was connected to their lives.
There is a phrase in the beginning pages of the Presbyterian Book of Order that I find to be a guide. It comes from the 18th century, I believe. The phrase is “Truth is in order to goodness.” There is a paragraph about it near the beginning of the Book of Order:
That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.
Truth and goodness. Bearing witness. Being people of faith.
I didn’t grow up Presbyterian. I married into it. I found it to be home. I still do. It is that phrase and that paragraph about truth and goodness that certainly is one of guiding lights for me in my life and in my ministry. That does not mean I live up to it. Far from it, far too often. But that is what worship is about—to call us back to who we are to what it is we are to be. Worship is a means of grace to transform our hearts.
I should say a word about worship. Worship is not entertainment as if it is a show to critique. It is not about getting advice or being fed. It is about being transformed. It requires of all participants including worship leaders and congregants, to do the work, the work of the people. As such, we come with vulnerability, that is, openness in mind and heart, that we might be transformed.
Every Sunday is a resurrection Sunday. We bear witness to the mystery of dying with Christ so we may be raised with Christ. That language has depth. It is the language of bearing witness. Martus. Martyr. As Paul writes:
“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Romans 14:8.
Even if we don’t specifically use those words each Sunday, it is in essence what we are doing. We are participating in the great mystery of faith. As the late Marcus Borg wrote, “We die to an old way of being and are raised to a new way of being.” Every Sunday. Every day.
The seeds of resurrection were planted with the Maccabees.
The story of the seven brothers and their mother is a popular one. It is referred to in both third and fourth Maccabees as well as second Maccabees. It is an awful story. Seven brothers are tortured and killed by the king for refusing to partake of swine’s flesh. They do so in the faith that by being faithful to Torah, or to their interpretation of it, God will reward them with everlasting life. It is the first and clearest mention of resurrection. It is possibly the earliest meaning of the resurrection of Jesus, but not the only meaning. Resurrection evolves too.
I find this story of the seven brothers troubling on a number of levels. In fact, I originally titled the sermon, “Wouldn’t It Be Easier Just to Eat Some Bacon?” Maybe this story isn’t about bacon. What is it about? We will come back to that.
In First Maccabees we get a straightforward history of the establishment of the Hasmonean or Maccabean Dynasty. It is largely a book of battles that the brothers Maccabee have with the larger empire. Judas “The Hammer” (what Maccabee means) as in hammer of God, retakes the temple and dedicates it. They burn candles for eight days and is the story behind the Jewish celebration of Hannakuh.
But the story begins really with Judas’s father, Mattathias. On one hand the struggle is between Jews and the emperor who wants to enforce Greek culture and religion on the Jews. That is how the story has been presented. It is more complicated. It is also a struggle between different kinds of Jews.
You have Jews who wish to embrace modern thinking. Every period in history is a modern one. Greek culture is seen by many Jews as a good thing. They felt that some of their practices were old-fashioned and superstitious. They welcomed a modernizing of the temple and they embraced Greek practices, religion, and diet.
Other Jews saw this behavior of their fellow Jews as betraying the Torah. When you read Maccabees and come across labels such as “sinners” or “ungodly,” it is Jews who embraced Greek culture to whom they are referring. As with all polemical literature, that disagreement is often hidden by the rhetoric of how bad and ruthless the other people are. It is like modern-day politics where the Democrats and Republicans don’t talk about issues as much as the what they think of the others’ behavior.
The issue is deeper. An excellent analysis of this issue is in the book by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. She was raised Jewish and is now a secular Jew or an atheist Jew. Her book is a history of skeptics, doubters, innovators and atheists. Notice Jesus is included in the list. I highly recommend her book. Her prose is beautiful and insightful. I discovered it about ten years ago and I couldn’t put it down.
At one point in her history of doubt, she tells the story of Hannakuh from the other side. Not the side of the Greek emperor, but the side of the secular Jews, Greek friendly Jews. We think of the seven brothers and their mother as martyrs, but Jennifer Hecht points out that there may have been another martyr in the Maccabee story that started the whole thing.
According to First Maccabees, there is a scene in a village where Mattathias is the priest. He is the father of Judas, Jonathan, Simon and so forth, who come to be called the Maccabees. What happens is that Anthiochus, the Greek king, wants to enforce Greek thinking and culture (and we know that “enforce” is usually always a mistake) and he invites Jews to eat swine’s flesh. A Jew steps up and does so publicly.
Mattathias is so enraged, that he kills the Jew and one of the king’s officers. This is the event that begins the Maccabean revolt. Mattathias’s son, Judas, takes over and begins a long guerrilla war. He gathers up the Hasidim and they go into the hills. They don’t just fight against Antiochus and his army, they also fight against Greek-friendly Jews, who they call sinners.
While we often think that the martyrs were the Torah-abiding Jews against the powerful Greek empire, the first possible martyr in this revolt, as Jennifer Hecht points out, is the Jew who publicly ate pork and was murdered by a Torah-abiding Jew, Mattathias. We are not told of his motivation or even his name. But if he ate pork not because he was afraid of the Greek emperor, but because he really did believe in modernizing his beliefs, then he was the first martyr for Jewish secularism, who died at the hands of a zealot Jew.
She says when secular Jews observe Hannakuh, they might take care and light a candle for the other side.
I bring all this up regarding the Maccabees because I want to raise doubt. I want to suggest that it isn’t so simple as good guys versus bad guys, as pagan oppressors versus faithful believers. Most often the struggle is within and between people of the same faith tradition in terms of how the various parties interact with modernism. Modernism is simply the present. We might call it culture.
It isn’t so simple as Christ versus Culture as some of my fellow Christians frame it. Sometimes culture is a better option than Christian doctrine. One might say, that sometimes Christ is culture over against Christian doctrine.
On the other hand, what we might think of as Christ can be little more than yesterday’s modernity. For example, in our intra-faith debates over the place of LGBTQ people in the church, where is Christ and where is Culture? To what extent did people because of their Christianity call LGBTQ people sinners and to what extent did people because of their Christianity (or was it in spite of it) embrace LGBTQ people as beloved of God? Was the Christian rejection of the sexuality and gender expression of LGBTQ a particular cultural bias with Christian clothing?
That I suggest is the struggle.
What does it mean to bear witness to our faith?
What does it mean to be people of faith?
How do we embrace truth and goodness?
It isn’t just a matter of having the language right. It isn’t a matter of obeying the traditions. On the other hand, it isn’t a matter of saying that religion is outdated and we need to let it go. I feel there is a role for religion and that role is to present these questions to ourselves and to others.
People have asked me in many settings why I went into the ministry. We ask it in this way: what is your sense of call? I think it is a good question. I think we can ask it of ourselves, not just professional clergy. What is our sense of call? Each of us can ask, “What is my sense of call?”
I was a professional radio announcer when I felt the call to enter the ministry. I loved being a disc jockey. In my five years of being a radio announcer, there were few days when I didn’t look forward to going to work. But upon following my Lovely back to church, life changed. I am sure I have told you this story. She had been attending White River Presbyterian Church in Auburn, Washington and wanted me to go. One day while we were in the car, I asked her what the minister, Francis Horner, talked about in his sermon. She said, “Francis said it is time to stop living for ourselves and to start living for God.”
That hit. It hit me in the heart. I did decide then to go to church with her. The rest is history. She has said since that she just wanted me to go to church, not become a minister.
There is nothing wrong with radio announcing. It isn’t against faith. But I slowly began to realize that there was more for me, that there was a path that radio led me to take. As a minister, I have been able and am able to talk about things and think about things and work on things that have to do with that old Presbyterian phrase, truth and goodness.
I know some people might wonder if I am all about being a disc jockey and my radio show. I do enjoy it, but no, I am not a disc jockey. I am a religious leader, a spiritual leader, if you will. I use radio to that end, even as it may sound secular. It is one of the ways I try to bear witness.
I titled the sermon, “For Whom Do You Light A Candle?” I was thinking of Jennifer Hecht’s comment about Hannakuh. But then I thought, for whom do I light a candle? Who do I remember as being a witness, a martyr, for faith? There are so many throughout history who I admire: Sojourner Truth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, David Friedrich Strauss, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, Maya Angelou, Robert Funk, Gloria Steinem, David Ray Griffin.
All of them faced incredible opposition, some dismissal, others ridicule, but they held on, not in a stubborn way, not in a way that said, “I’m right and everyone else is wrong,” not in a way that refused growth and new knowledge, wisdom, and truth, but in a way that said,
“I will not keep silent just because it makes some people uncomfortable.”
I will bear witness.
Until truth leads me another way, I will bear witness.