The Stars are the Light of the World- Romans 4.1-5 (Jason Micheli)
Over Memorial Day Weekend I joined 1,000 people from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Taize is a monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to their monastery in France to participate in the rhythms of their communal life.
Once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.
This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota Nation to welcome pilgrims to Pine Ridge.
Just as pilgrims do at the monastery in Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge worshipping 3 times a day, sharing simple meals, and sharing our faith stories in small groups.
On Saturday of the Pilgrimage Weekend, after morning prayer and breakfast, we were assigned small groups to reflect on the morning scripture lesson.
I was told our small groups were assigned according to the order in which we’d registered for the Pilgrimage, but I swear it was due to some some cruel, cosmic joke I can’t be sure.
The seven of us in my small group sat down in a circle in the dry, prairie grass.
Directly across from me in the circle sat a white-haired, tie-dyed Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California.
Next to the lady bishop sat a gay Episcopal priest from San Francisco.
Next to him sat a Unitarian lay person from Boulder, Colorado.
Next to him, a Catholic civil servant from Paris, France.
Next to her, a women’s studies PhD candidate from Barcelona, Spain.
Next to her, on my left, was a man who looked like a shorter, plumper, balder, older version of me- except he was dressed sloppy and had an unkempt beard.
His green Velcro sneakers, red tube socks and Trotsky eyeglasses screamed ‘European Socialist.’
And finally in the circle, there was me.
We began by going around the circle, introducing ourselves.
I went second to last. As I’m want to do, I tried to charm them with self-effacing, sarcastic humor.
‘I’m a Methodist pastor from Virginia,’ I began, ‘and I just gotta say my congregation back home would be shocked to hear that I could be the most conservative person in any group.’
No one laughed, which, I suppose, just proves how liberal they all were.
‘You didn’t tell us your name,’ the Bishop said with a tone of voice that suggested what she really meant was: ‘I’d prefer not to make your acquaintance.’
‘Sorry, my name’s Jason’ I said, ‘Jason Micheli.’
And when I said ‘Micheli,’ the shorter, plumper, older, balder version of me shouted: ‘Micheli! Italiano!’
He shouted ‘Ciao!’
And then got up and embraced me like Gepetto rescuing Pinocchio from the Island of Lost Boys.
He rubbed his sweaty beard across my face as he man-kissed me on both my cheeks, and then he began ticking off the names of people he insisted I must be related to back in “Roma.”
Wiping his sweat from my face, I gestured for him to introduce himself.
He adjusted his glasses and said in a thick accent: ‘My name is Tomaso.’
Tomaso told us he was a scientist, a geologist, from Rome. And then he laughed nervously and said: ‘I am nota Christian. I am not a person of faith.’
Both times the accent landed heavy on the ‘not.’
Our bible study felt forced. Everyone in the group kept deferring to the bishop and, being Episcopalian, the bible was an unfamiliar to her.
The bishop said the types of knee-jerk things you’d expect an Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California to say.
And- you’d be proud of me- initially, at least, I bit my tongue and didn’t respond with any snarky comments.
That is, until I remembered she wasn’t my Bishop- at which point I started to interrupt her with thoughtful, sober comments like:
‘Of course, you think that. You’re a tree-hugging, liberal,
Baby Boomer Episcopalian from California.’
In truth, I wasn’t really interested in our bible study- because, really, I was dying to ask Tomaso, the paisano to my left, why he’d flown all the way from Italy, driven all the way from Denver, agreed to sleep in a horse pasture and go without running water and spend 4 days with Christians and celibate monks if he was NOT a person of faith.
When our bible study wrapped up, I grabbed Tomaso by the elbow and I said: ‘Tomaso, call it professional curiosity, but what are you doing here if you’re not a person of faith?’
And, a bit anticlimactically, he said: ‘Because my wife made me come.’
‘Well, that’s nothing new. Half the men in my church are there because their old ladies force them to come.’
Tomaso chuckled and grabbed his book- a science fiction novel- like he was about to leave, but I said: ‘Tell me- why don’t you consider yourself a person of faith?’
He smiled like a professor who’s not sure how to water down his material for a freshman class, and then he launched into what sounded like a well-rehearsed litany. His reasons against faith.
‘I am a scientist’ he began, ‘and there is no scientific explanation for a 7 day creation, for an incarnation, for a resurrection.’
‘Gosh, there isn’t? I guess it’s a good thing scripture doesn’t try to explain them scientifically then, huh?’
My sarcasm apparently didn’t translate because he just kept ticking off his reasons for not believing:
How the virgin birth is based on a mistranslation.
How faith is just a psychological crutch.
How the Gospels don’t always agree with one another.
How the Church has been responsible much evil and injustice.
How it’s superstitious to think bread and wine can become anyone’s body and blood.
How St Paul endorses slavery and sexism.
How Revelation is about Rome not the Rapture.
How scripture is not the literal Word of God but instead bears all the messy fingerprints of people like you and me.
His list was surprisingly long and surprisingly unoriginal. And when he got to the end, he held out his hands like a magician, whose just disappeared his assistant, and he said:
‘See, mi amico, there’s nothing left for me to believe. There’s nothing left for me to be a person of faith.’
‘Abraham believed the Lord,
and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’
There may be no other sentence in the Old Testament that has been more significant to followers of the New. And more misleading.
God told Abraham that he and his wife, Sarah, would have millions of descendants- as many as the stars in the sky.
Abraham believed God and that was enough for God to credit Abraham as ‘righteous.’
Ever since Martin Luther, the Founding Father of Protestantism, Father Abraham has served as Exhibit A for what we think it means for us to have faith:
Abraham did not lift a finger to be saved.
Abraham did nothing to earn or deserve it.
Abraham simply believed in God.
Abraham was saved by faith alone.
At least that’s what we think Paul means in Romans 4.
But here’s the problem:
When we reduce Abraham to an example (for us) of someone who has faith in God and is rewarded accordingly- we lose the biblical plot of what God is doing IN and THROUGH Abraham.
And when we lose that plot, the seam Paul’s entire argument in the Book of Romans unravels. Because the argument Paul is weaving from Romans 1 to Romans 16 is that what we discover in Jesus Christ is God making good on a promise first made to Abraham.
Because when you go back to the Book of Genesis, you notice:
It doesn’t say Abraham believed IN God.
It says Abraham believed God.
It doesn’t Abraham accepted God as his personal savior.
It says Abraham believed God.
That is, Abraham accepted something God said.
Abraham believed a single thing God said.
A very specific thing God said.
Abraham believed the promise:
the promise that his children would be like the stars in the sky.
But this promise, it isn’t about God providing Abraham with progeny.
The promise is that THROUGH Abraham God would create a new and distinct People in the world.
The promise is that the way God would pick the world back up from its Fall, the way God would heal the world’s sin, the way God would bring forth a New Creation would be by creating a New People.
The promise is that through Abraham God would create a People who would do what Adam failed to do, a People whose trust in God and trust in one another would provide an alternative to the ways of the world.
The stars God promises to Abraham- they’re meant to be a light to the world.
That’s the unconditional commitment God promises and that’s what Abraham believes.
And God, scripture says, reckons that to Abraham as ‘righteousness.’
Now if, as I told you weeks ago, ‘God’s Righteousness’ is a specific biblical term that refers to God’s commitment to undo the injustice of the world and usher in a New Creation, then Abraham being ‘reckoned righteousness’ means Abraham was credited, acknowledged, signed up as a participant in God’s New Creation work.
Abraham didn’t believe everything he could possibly believe about God; in fact, plenty remained that Abraham still struggled to believe:
Abraham lacked faith that he and his wife’s old bodies could produce new life.
Abraham doubted the events in his life would pan out as God had predicted.
Abraham questioned God’s justice and mercy.
But despite his doubts, despite his questions, despite those parts of God’s Word he scratched his head at and crossed his fingers through- what Abraham always believed, what Abraham always had faith in, what it always meant for Abraham to be a person of faith, the person of faith, was his faith in this single promise:
The promise that God so loved the world, God would not give up on what he had made.
That just as God’s first creation began with God calling into the void ‘Let there be light,’ God’s New Creation would begin by God calling a People who would be a Light to the world.
Sunday afternoon, a group of us there for the Pilgrimage weekend made another pilgrimage. To Wounded Knee, the place where the US Army, without provocation, slaughtered over 300 Indians, little more than a hundred years ago. 2/3 of the victims were children…with their mothers.
In 1973 Wounded Knee became the site of a standoff between Lakota Indians and the Federal Government. Resulting in more violence.
Wounded Knee remains a festering reminder of suffering and injustice that persists to this day.
So on Sunday afternoon, in reverent silence, we loaded on to 3 school buses.
And silently we rode the 30 minutes to Wounded Knee, riding past shacks and trailers and the kind of poverty that seems to fit a 3rd world nation better than this one.
When we arrived at Wounded Knee, the brothers put on their gleaming, white-as-light, monastic robes and then they led us all, silently, down the road and up the hill to the graveyard.
Some locals from the reservation were there, loitering, sitting on top of rusted, broken down cars and squinting at us with justifiable suspicion.
There’s a church there by the graveyard. It had ‘F$#% you white people’ spray-painted on the sanctuary doors.
An old woman was in the graveyard planting flowers by an old tombstone while a young woman tamped down the dirt of a freshly dug grave.
The mass grave, the hole where the victims bodies had been dumped, is at the center of the cemetery.
Brother Alois, the head of the monastery at Taize, motioned silently for us to make a circle around the mass grave.
I glanced around the circle at all the people, literally, from all over the world, from as many nations as there are stars in the sky.
Then Brother Alois held out his hands for us to take hold of one another’s hands.
Then Brother Alois bowed his head and so did we.
And then we prayed. Silently.
For a long time.
Silently- because how else do you pray when some of the people you’re holding hands with share the same names as the bodies you’re standing on top of and still suffer the consequences of so many empty words?
As Brother John, another monk, had told us the previous morning, we were going to Wounded Knee:
‘as people of faith, to a place of broken promises, to be a silent, visible sign of a different promise, the promise that the God who made the world in love will, with us and through us, redeem it.’
Many of us kept the silence as we rode the way back from Wounded Knee. After we’d returned to our campsite, I ran into Tomaso. Both of us were coming out of adjoining Port O’ Johns and reaching for the hand sanitizer.
‘If it isn’t Doubting Tomaso’ I said.
‘Mi amico, how are you?’
‘I’m not sure. I just got back from Wounded Knee.’
‘How was that?’
‘Did you not go?’
‘To pray?’ and he laughed like it was a ridiculous notion. ‘No, I stayed here and read my book.’ And he held up his sci-fy novel.
‘Like I tell my wife: faith is the easy way out in this world.’
‘Easy? How can someone with a PhD be so stupid? Jesus has done a lot of things in my life but made my life easier is definitely not one of them. Faith hasn’t been my way out of the world; faith has thrust me into the world: to places I’d rather not go, to pain and poverty I’d rather not have weigh on my conscience, to people towards whom I’d be happy not to feel any responsibility.
Easy way out? Are you a complete idiot? Most of the time, to believe in God is to feel heartbroken over all the places you see God absent in the world. I just watched and prayed as a 20 year old Indian girl wept over a mass grave beneath her and a hopeless future in front of her. Faith isn’t an escape from the world’s problems; it’s a summons to wade waist deep into its problems. I know you’re a geologist, Tomaso, but does that mean you have rocks in your head?’
I thought to myself.
But instead I squirted some Pure El into my hands and I said- the only thing I said:
‘Easy way out? That’s and interesting indictment coming from someone who spent the afternoon relaxing in his tent, reading a trashy novel.’
Doubting Tomaso laughed and said: ‘Like I said, there’s too many things I don’t believe ever to be a person of faith.’
‘Tomaso, you don’t seem to understand that, being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.’
‘Why do you care so much about me anyway?’ Tomaso asked, ‘Do you care about ‘my salvation’?’ he said with sarcastic air quotes.
‘That’s just it- it’s not about you and your salvation. Ever since Abraham, it’s never just been about you, you selfish coward. It’s about God calling- God needing- people to be light for the world’ I wanted to scream at him.
But I didn’t.
And he finished wiping the Pure-El into his hands and said ‘Ciao.’
And then he walked back to his tent, and with the world just a little bit darker for it.