Rabbit Season – The Final Chapter

Rabbit Season – The Final Chapter

04 May 2015

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. – Acts 8:26-40

=====

Oh for Pete’s sake, another week about rabbits? Well, I promise, this is the last week; next week it will be on to something different.

So as we start out this week, and just as they did in that children’s sermon in Toronto that I mentioned two weeks ago, let’s rewind, and remember where we are in this story. The rabbits in the novel Watership Down learned they couldn’t get along only as individuals; they had to learn to be a real community, working together and valuing all the members of the community in order for it to survive. And a big part of their being a community was the telling and retelling of their common stories; the morality-shaping stories of their hero-rabbit, “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies”, stories that explained how they should act and what made them a distinct community. Through those stories, they learned that they couldn’t keep silent and unengaged when someone was suffering or in trouble, or they became complicit in the wrong that was being done. They learned that doing this was a matter of justice, and extending hospitality to others, and that they were to do this even when it caused them personal risk. And that’s where we pick up our story today.

After wandering and roaming around, the rabbits finally found a suitable place to settle down and make a new home. When they did, they ended up encountering a wounded bird. At first, the rabbits didn’t want to welcome this outsider non-rabbit, but Hazel, the rabbits’ leader, said that based on all they’d learned along the way, the moral teachings in their communal stories had to be extended to more than just themselves – they applied to everyone. So the rabbits extended their welcome and hospitality to the wounded bird, and they worked together to nurse him back to health. They built a nest, and they even got over their own personal revulsion of the bird’s insect diet and they gathered up all the insects they could and fed the bird. The bird recovered and became as much a member of the warren as any of the rabbits, even providing aerial reconnaissance when the rabbits are attacked by the members of a neighboring rabbit warren. The rabbits had learned that their moral teachings, the wisdom of the hero-rabbit, was for all creatures, not just the rabbits like themselves.

This is a perfect parallel for the lesson the church had to learn, beginning in its very earliest days after the resurrection. Just like the rabbits, Jesus’ followers had to learn, step by step, that the good news of God’s grace, and love, and welcome was meant for all people, not just some specially chosen small group. Jesus himself taught them this in the incredibly diverse makeup of the apostles, the ones he chose to be part of his innermost circle. He picked both well-to-do and average working stiffs; members of the religious and political establishment and Simon the Zealot, who was what we’d call a terrorist today; people who were soft-spoken and people so loud and argumentative Jesus called them the “Sons of Thunder.” Cynics and doubters. There was a real broadness in Jesus’ inclusiveness and welcome – or what we’d often just call hospitality. And after the resurrection, it became clear that God wanted this inclusiveness and hospitality to extend even wider. In fact, this becomes a major theme of the Book of Acts; it shows up over and over and over again. We see it at Pentecost, when the welcome is extended to all the receptive Jews visiting Jerusalem at Pentecost. Then it’s extended even to the Jews who were among the Christians’ worst enemies, including Paul. Then it goes on to include Gentiles, who the scriptures said were unclean and had no place in God’s kingdom according to the scriptures. This 180-degree shift in understanding of God’s will is seen in all of Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles, and Peter’s encounters with Gentiles in this book, also. And we see it in today’s Lectionary text from Acts, this extremely important story of God calling the apostle Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch, and to teach him, and to extend hospitality to him, to welcome him into the faith by baptizing him. Philip certainly knew, and so did the original readers of the Book of Acts, that eunuchs were specifically prohibited in the scriptures as being unworthy of being part of the people of God. There wasn’t anything he could do to repent and stop having been born an Ethiopian, a Gentile. There wasn’t anything he could do to stop being a eunuch. And yet, Philip accepts God’s new word, contrary to all he’d been taught previously, and he extends hospitality – God’s grace, and welcome, and acceptance to this eunuch.

This same desire of God’s continues in the church to this very day. Just like the rabbits of Watership Down, and just like Philip and the other apostles who sometimes struggled with the idea of stretching who could be considered part of God’s kingdom, we’ve had to learn this same truth – the truth of God’s calling of an ever-expanding circle of people into the fullness of the kingdom, too. Sometimes, we’ve learned this truth grudgingly and imperfectly, but time and again we’ve come to understand and accept this ever-increasing circle. This is the definition of hospitality in the kingdom of God. This is what God is trying to teach us, to accept those outside our own particular group, even when we might originally be viscerally opposed to them, just like the rabbits did with their insect-eating bird friend. This is the lesson that God has continually unfolding for us to live into as the church; in our past, our present, and into our future. This is the hospitality God has called us to adhere to, in recognition for the infinite grace and hospitality God has extended toward us.

In the final chapter of Watership Down, we read that the rabbits’ new warren succeeded and thrived, and it did so because they learned these important lessons we’ve talked about. But our own final chapter, as God’s people, hasn’t been written yet. God is continuing to call us to expand the circle that defines our community, and continues to call us to stand up and work for the good and safety and justice of all those within it. Will our story end up being a success or a failure? We’re the ones writing this chapter, so the answer to that question is up to us – but whatever the ending, it’s going to depend on whether we learned our lessons as well as the rabbits did.

Thanks be to God.

Advertisements

Rabbit Season – Part 2

Rabbit Season part 2

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” – John 10:11-18

=====

If you were here last week, you probably remember that part of the sermon talked about the rabbits in the novel Watership Down. I figured that we’re still in the church season of Eastertide, and we all think about the Easter Bunny and rabbits at Easter time, so that made some kid of sense. Well, it’s still Easteride, so I have some cover for still talking about those same rabbits and their adventures this Sunday, too.

Last week, I said that when the rabbits left the security of their old warren and set out on their own, they survived for two reasons. I talked about the first of those reasons last week – that they realized they couldn’t get by on their own as individuals, that they had to work together as a group, a community that recognized and valued the contributions of every member of the community; and that they developed that sense of community largely through maintaining and retelling their common stories that shaped their moral and ethical lives together. This week, we’ll look at the second reason that was the key to their success.

At one point in their wanderings, the rabbits are welcomed into another warren as guests. In some ways, the warren seemed like a paradise. It was near a farmhouse, and the people who lived there spread lots of food out for them; they didn’t have to work hard to find enough to eat. Life was easy, because the people had chased away and fenced out all the natural predators the rabbits would have had otherwise. But there was something that just wasn’t quite right about these rabbits. Without the need to work for their food, the rabbits had gotten fat and lazy, and even a bit self-absorbed. And they’d stopped telling all the great communal stories of the hero-rabbit, “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies,” because they didn’t really seem to have any to worry about. And because of that, these rabbits also had very little sense of community or connectedness. And for some reason, they never answered any question that began with the word, “Where”.

The band of roving rabbits learned why that was the case one day when one of them got caught in a snare set out by the people in the farmhouse, and when they ran to get the other rabbits to help get him free, they all just stayed quiet and turned away, ignoring their cries for help. It turned out that this happened every so often; the people would catch and eat one of the rabbits – not often enough to make the rabbits move away from their comfortable living, but enough to make them stop asking the painful question of where someone was when they went missing. That’s why they’d stopped telling the morality-building community stories of the hero-rabbit. It would only have reminded them of the moral compromise they were making for their own personal comfort. And forming close community bonds would only have made it more difficult to look the other way and let go of someone when they got caught in one of the snares. That was why these rabbits had been to welcoming to the visitors – they were just seen as snare-fodder; with them around the odds that one of their own getting caught was reduced.

It isn’t hard to see the potential parallels between this story and where we find our own society. Almost every day, we all participate in some way in preserving or enhancing our own personal comfort and well-being at the expense of other, more or less invisible people who we have little or no personal connection to. It shows up in all kinds of small ways. We buy shoes made by slave labor in some foreign country, in order for them to cost as little as possible. Or we eat food or drink coffee that came cheap to us because the corporate buyers have so much market clout that the producers can barely survive on the prices they can get for their goods. We look the other way when other countries treat their own people with all kinds of injustice, because we don’t want to rock the boat, or maybe more accurately, we don’t want to rock the oil tanker, and potentially disrupt the free flow of oil to prop up the standard of living we’ve become accustomed to. We pick up our value meal at the drive-thru, knowing full well that the person behind the window is working 55 or 60 hours per week, with no benefits, and still can’t get through the month without SNAP and the food pantry. We know all this, but too often we turn away and try to ignore it, refusing to confront the reality, because it means cheaper consumer prices for us and higher corporate profits for the companies our retirement funds are invested in.

It’s a rotten part of our common life; one that hurts to shine the light on too brightly or too often, but it is a very real moral dilemma for us as Christians; as followers of Jesus. The reality of the brokenness of our world is that we can never totally avoid our complicity in things like that, which unjustly harm others. But we do have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to minimize the situation. What can we do? For each of us, it might be something different. Do we boycott companies that operate in unjust, exploitative ways? Do we shift our investments to more socially responsible funds or companies? Do we only buy Fair Exchange coffee for our fellowship time, or refuse to shop at the big box store that rolls back its workers’ wages while raking in excessive, record-breaking profits?

We’re all knee-deep in this situation – this sin – and there’s just no getting completely out of it. None of us is going to do some big thing to solve the whole problem. But all of us can do some little things in the way we live, in the decisions we make, to at least minimize the problem. We can all focus on ways that we can structure our own lives in ways that don’t exploit those nameless, faceless others that are caught in the snares of our world. We can, and we have to, find ways to help get as many of them out of those snares as we can. Because even if we don’t know their names, or they’re faces, they’re all just as much God’s own as we are. God has said that we’re all part of the same rabbit warren.

Our own hero-rabbit – our own “Prince with a Thousand Enemies” gave us the model for how we need to think ethically of others. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, who loves and tends and cares for his own flock even to the point of laying down his life to protect and shelter them – us. This same Good Shepherd says that we’re all to be part of one flock, or maybe we could say one warren, and he gave us the command to go onward, in his name, doing the same for others – extending that same loving care to those we meet, and even to those we may never meet, in the way we live and in the way our lives affect theirs. This is really a matter of justice, the kind of justice that God calls us to as part of the kingdom of God. And it’s a matter of hospitality, too – not the shallow, self-serving hospitality of the host rabbits in the story, but the radical, extensive, costly kind of hospitality that our Good Shepherd extends to us – leading us to green pastures and still waters – and that he’s told us to extend to others.

Thanks be to God.

Rabbit Season (sermon 4/19/15)

rabbits

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  –  Luke 24:13-35

=====

While I was up in Toronto last weekend, we went to worship at the Bloor Street United Church. Most of the Presbyterians in Canada merged with a couple of other Canadian denominations in the 1920s to form the United Church of Canada, so they’re kind of our sister denomination up in the Great White North. And during the service, I noticed that their children’s message was based on a children’s and youth curriculum called “Echo the Story,” which reinforces the overarching message of the Bible through story-based building blocks – each week, adding a new story, a new nugget, and focusing on its significance in terms of the whole arc of the story. But before the storytelling adds the new piece for the week, the whole story up to that point is briefly rewound and retold (a sample video of this curriculum can be seen here). I suppose each time the story rewinds and starts again, some people’s eyes might roll at the repetition, but really, it’s a brilliant idea. Because too many people don’t have any internalization of the Bible, and a lot more have only internalized little bits and unconnected pieces, but they don’t understand how it’s all meant to fit together as one gradually unfolding story. This rewinding and retelling the story from the beginning helps many of the kids – and honestly, many adults, too – to internalize the story, and to understand that we’re all part of a community that’s identified and given meaning by this story.

Watching this unfold in that service last week made me think of another instance of the same kind of thing. The same process shows up the 1970s novel Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Just out of curiosity, how many of you have read it? How many of you threw up your hands before getting through all 500 pages and just read the Cliff’s Notes or an online summary of it for a book report?

Well, if you’ve done either of those things, you know that it’s an allegorical novel about a community of rabbits. At the beginning of the story, the rabbits are living together in a community that’s more or less stable and peaceful. It’s a community run by a relatively benevolent dictator rabbit, supported by a group of strong fighters. And while things overall aren’t terrible, things are still pretty tough for the weaker rabbits, or the ones who disagree with the head rabbit, or who are unusual or different from the norm. So when one of the rabbits sees a billboard posted near their warren and warns that something bad is coming their way, and he proposes that they make a change, that they should move their warren somewhere else, the head rabbit and his inner circle aren’t very impressed or amused with him or his ideas.

But still, a small group of rabbits thinks he might be right, and since they’re all outsiders and marginalized members of the warren, they figure they don’t have much to lose if they followed this rabbit with the discomforting message and left the warren behind.

As the story plays out, this group faces all kinds of experiences and threats. And they get through these challenges for two specific reasons. The first reason is that they spend a lot of time together as a community. They do pretty much everything together, as a community. Since they’re always in community with each other, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they learn how to work together and complement one another other for the common good. They learn that every member of the group – even the weakest, most unusual member, has something important and valuable to contribute to the community, and to the lives of each of the rabbits individually, too.

And a big part of what holds them together to continually retell their communal stories. These stories tell about the exploits of their common hero, a rabbit whose rabbit-name translates into English as “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies.” These stories focus on how the hero outwits and defeats his enemies, which give them all a common ground for their own actions and moral behavior whenever they face dangers themselves.

The stories aren’t new; the rabbits have all heard these stories a thousand times. If anything, the familiarity of the stories are actually a part of the feeling of community that the rabbits share. And even though they’re very familiar, they end up being retold in new situations and end up having new applications as the rabbits go through new things they’d never experienced or considered before.

This is an important thing for us, too. As Christians, we’re called to be a distinct, identifiable community defined by and centered around our own common story. And this shows up in the stories we have of Jesus after his resurrection, including the one we heard today. I think it’s important to notice that with only one exception, all of the post-resurrection stories about Jesus involve groups – whether it’s just three people, as in today’s story, or the larger group of followers in the locked room in Jerusalem that Jesus appears to, or according to the apostle Paul, at least one time when Jesus appeared to more than 500 people. If there were any doubt before Jesus’ crucifixion, his post-resurrection appearances make it clear that to be a follower of Jesus means that we can’t do it solely as individuals on our own. Jesus’ intentional message of being in community is the same thing the rabbits all had to learn: that we have to be together in the faith, as a community. And a big part of what holds us together, and solidifies our common identity, is the telling and retelling of our story, and instilling it into our hearts and minds.

Jesus understood the importance of the common story. Did you notice that, in this passage from Luke that we heard today? Jesus is walking together with these two disciples, he does the same thing that happened in that children’s message in Toronto. He retells them all their old, familiar stories – rewinding all the way back to the earliest stories in the Torah, and moving through the prophets – but putting them all in the context of their new reality, the reality of Jesus himself and their new experience, their new understanding and application of the old stories. This idea, that we’re an identifiable as a community centered around a common story, is an old familiar story itself. But it’s an important one to really think about this season of Eastertide, for it to be a season when we focus on the same lessons learned by the rabbits in that story.

Even in a general sense, there’s power in community that no individual can ever have. In particular, in order to be a Christian, we simply can’t go it alone, without ties to the larger community. Our own faith is nurtured and deepened, and the community of faith is, too, through sharing the common life together – working together, playing together, eating together, laughing and crying together; really getting to know one another. Complementing one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Valuing one another, even the weakest or most unusual among us, just as it was with the rabbits in the novel. Being gracious about the shortcomings in other members of the community, just as we hope others will extend grace to us when our own shortcomings show up. In short, learning to truly love one another. For us as Christians, the common life begins with the common story.

Our common story is the very same one that Jesus retold to his friends as they were going for a walk together. Have you ever wished you had a time machine, where you could go back in time and experience some great moment in history? If I had one, this walk to Emmaus would be one of the things I’d want to go back and peek in on. Just imagine how Jesus must have explained and told this story, our story. Oh, to have been a fly buzzing around the three of them, listening to the conversation. Or maybe a rabbit, eavesdropping from the grass along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.