The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
November 18, 2007
First Congregational Church,
Scripture: Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.' Then he said to them, 'Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.’
In the majestically beautiful Indian movie, “Water,” the story begins with a little Indian girl being awakened from sleep by her parents. This eight-year-old angel has long flowing curly black hair, enormous eyes with thick eyelashes, the lovely fat cheeks of a well-fed child and the smile of a girl who has never known anything but love. The 2005 Oscar nominated film begins as she responds happily to her parent’s touch, gently shaken awake out of a tranquil sleep. ‘Chuyia,” she is asked, “Do you remember getting married?”
She shakes her sleepy head, as if to say that she does not remember such a thing. And, as the viewer contemplates how it is that an eight-year-old girl could be married, she is told, “Your husband is dead. You are a widow now.” And with that her parents take their little daughter off to a temple for Hindu widows, and leave her there.
Set in the 1940’s, this film is a remarkable reminder that
in relatively recent history, women in
Now she would live in total poverty, earning scraps by begging in the streets, her head shaven and dressed in the plain white robes that marked widows as less than all the other women in Indian culture. She came to live with fourteen other widows, all of them grown ups. But many had once been like her, widowed as children and then left for the next few decades by their families, who did not want to support them.
One of the widows in the temple did not have her head shaved. The beautiful Kalyani was instead shipped off across the river each night to the home of a wealthy Indian man, where she was forced into prostitution, her wages supporting the other fourteen widows in their meager existence. And most tragically, little Chuyia, thrust into this world as a child, was perhaps being groomed for prostitution herself, just to keep a roof over these women’s heads. These widows were outcasts, expected to be invisible in plain colors, while other Indian women wore brightly colored saris. In their plain white robes, the widows were to have no more romantic dreams, certainly no sexual desire, and they were forever forbidden to marry. For widows were considered unclean by the religion of the day.
The widows would go down to the water to bathe, the river being a holy and cleansing place, almost like a church, but there, the other women would avoid them, as if they had a contagious disease, for no Indian woman wanted to become a widow and end up in their fate. So in their pain, the widows became invisible.
They were especially supposed to be invisible to men. With their heads shaved, they were meant to be stripped of their attractiveness and all their sexuality, so as not to disrupt the social order that had been laid out by the religious leaders of the day. But they did not stay inside their temple all the time. They could come to those public waters, where much of the action in this film takes place, the holy river where all the community seeks healing and cleanliness.
In the spiritual hymn you heard as this morning’s introit and that at the end of the service, we all will sing together, the words go like this: “Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the waters.” Because sometimes, God does trouble the waters, the waters that have become stagnant and should be disturbed.
If you know your Indian history, you may be realizing that around this time, a figure was gaining in power who wore the same plain white robes as the widows and poor people of India, but who also wore the glasses of the educated elite, a man who had taken his Western education and adopted the principles of pacifism, of non-violent resistance, an Indian leader who was profoundly influenced by Jesus himself. This of course was Gandhi.
He plays a role in this film, as a backdrop. “Gandhi is coming,” the people whisper to one another, and not just the poor, but also the privileged classes who are either worried, or inspired, to take their wealth and education and stand at the side of the oppressed.
One such educated young man falls in love with one of the widows, and through this comes to understand the horror of their lives.
At this same time, revolutionary laws were being passed to allow widows to remarry, but the religion of the day still prohibited it.
So they remain in their temples, unaware of another way, until Gandhi comes through town and suddenly, another way is opened up.
When I saw the lives of these Indian widows, I thought of Jesus’ words in this text, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
And by their endurance, some of these widows, and the people of India as a whole, had a non-violent revolution that captured the imagination of the world, led by an Indian man who was not a Christian but had been so influenced by the teachings of Jesus that he was willing to take on a supposedly Christian colonial nation.
Make the connection here church. Does this remind you of anything today? A class of people considered outcasts, sometimes rejected by their families, laws changing to perhaps give them the chance to marry, and a religious culture that, for the most part, forbids it, and tells them they are not equal to others. Does this remind you of anything going on today?
In today’s gospel, Jesus has had his life threatened many times, and so have some of his followers. Why? Because they dared to have prostitutes and tax collectors share a table with good upstanding Jews. In that society, there were also rules about who was clean and unclean, and those groups were not supposed to mix. One group might even consider another group as a different class of person, and avoid them entirely.
Jesus insisted on mixing people up. When you mix people up, they actually get to know each other, and lo and behold, they come to care about one another. They worry about members of the community being persecuted, as surely as the wealthy young man in the film came to care for the widows, all because he allowed his world to mix with theirs.
“Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the waters.” And that’s a good thing.
Often in Christianity, Jesus gets toned down. We are approaching the season of Advent, when we tend to focus on Jesus as a tiny, helpless, passive baby. But even as an adult, there are those who want to reduce Jesus to merely being nice.
A gentle, kind, loving, nice man, but also passive, weak, thin, in the art work, and certainly not the force for change that we heard in today’s gospel, one who, in these words, does not hold dear the most holy temple. The gospel reads, “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ ”
For Jesus cared more about people than rules and institutions, and he was willing to say so in angry words. He waded in the water, and knew that God would trouble the waters, for the better.
I believe without a doubt that if Jesus were walking around in India at the time when widows were housed in poverty-ridden temples, he would have shaken an angry fist at the religious leaders of his day, outside their fabulous ornate temples and beautiful robes, and said, as he does in this reading ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
For Jesus would be appalled then, as he was in his own time, whenever religion took on the role of oppressor, and whenever in the name of religion, people cast one another aside, and claimed superiority one over another. He was angered whenever the rules or the religious laws contradicted the spirit of love that he knew as the son of God. And he challenged those rules, sometimes like an outlaw.
In our nation today, I believe that there would be many things that would make Jesus angry, too many even to name. But let me name just one, that sits heavily on my heart as I consider the world of Indian widows decades ago, forbidden to marry and stripped of the right to be sexual beings, not permitted to love and to live. Today, I believe Jesus’ anger would be incurred at how our society treats gay and lesbian people.
As with the widows of
And every time a pastor gets up in a pulpit or on television to say that gays and lesbians are going to hell, or that they should be converted, re-programmed or de-programmed, or that their coming together in marriage somehow affects my marriage, (and that’s the part I really don’t get). I imagine Jesus shaking an angry apocalyptic fist at the religious powers that be, and saying of these mighty, built-up, modern mega-temple preachers, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.’
Do not go after them.
In the weeks after my now teenage son, Calvin was born, I was at that age, fairly recently married myself, that I had dreamed of getting a wedding invitation. I had this idea of the experience, where I could be at a wedding as one of the new mothers with a new baby, taking in that sacred moment. In fact, long before a wedding invitation ever arrived, I had long since purchased the little blue and white sailor suit that I wanted Calvin to wear. When an invitation to a wedding did arrive, we were ready with that sailor suit. But in my hallmark card fantasies of that moment, I had never imagined that this moment would take place in a wedding between two women.
The bride was a dear friend from divinity school, a minister, and the other bride was her long-term partner who worked in the insurance industry. On one side of the church, one set of family members filled up the front row. And on the other side, the rows were empty, representing the other woman’s family who could not accept their daughter’s lifestyle, and therefore were absent on this special day.
The service was serious and dignified to an extent that I wish all heterosexual marriages would be. For this would not have any legal or economic status. They were doing it for the purest of reasons, to commit to one another before God, and fifteen years later, they are still together, married in their hearts and in mind, but not in the eyes of the state. Despite the hardships thrown their way, as a couple they endure, and live joyfully.
I think again of Jesus’ words from the gospel, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
I am a Christian, who loves the Christian tradition, and
strives to follow Jesus in how I live.
But I am disgusted by the majority of Christian leaders these days,
because of their stance against homosexuality. They may be in the majority in
the world, and they certainly are in
But as Jesus said, I will not go after them. I would rather follow Jesus, the outlaw, who railed against the lawmakers and the religious hypocrites whenever they used the language of God to condemn entire groups of people.
You see, I want to follow in the way of the Christians who struggled for the civil rights of African Americans, who challenged unfair laws, and who wrote songs like this, “Wade in the water, wade in the water children. Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water.”
And if church is not a place where we can wade in the waters, where we can ask these hard questions, and where we can stand up for people who society is treating badly, if we can’t be a place where we wade in those waters, then we may as well be nothing but a fancy bejeweled temple that deserves to fall down around itself.
There is a theory of church growth that says that to address issues like the one I am addressing today is no way to grow a church. You grow a church, the theory goes, by avoiding tricky issues, and by aiming for the least common denominator in all you do. And if you do take a stand, take one in which you attack or condemn the outsiders and the minority in a way that fits with the majority point of view. Then find a few obscure Bible quotes to bolster the majority’s point of view, and move on to telling people how they can have a great day. This is not my theory of church growth.
While that indeed works and grows churches, it doesn’t grow a church that I would want to be a member of. I want to grow another kind of church.
And I know there are many thoughtful Christians out there who are bored by the pettiness of the prosperity gospel and are deeply embarrassed when their faith is used to condemn others or to justify prejudices that our society should do away with.
I think there are thinking, intelligent, spiritual people who want a church that welcomes everyone to the best that society has to offer, even before society has caught up–a church of extravagant hospitality.
So because the rest of Christianity does not appear to be there yet, we need a church for outlaws. Not outlaws in the sense of people who steal or rob. But rather outlaws as the people who think following Christ in the path of compassion is more important than petty respectability.
We may not all agree on every issue, but please, let’s not
sacrifice wading in the water at the altar of making everybody happy–because
that would make us a club, and we are called to be a church. A church where, “wherever
you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” And if saying that makes me
an outlaw in
Let’s be a band of outlaws and stand up for each other. And for what it’s worth, that’s my theory of church growth.