Monday, 14 February 2011 00:00

"The Great Reformer", February 13, 2011

“The Great Reformer”
2 Kings 22:1, 8-15
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 13, 2011
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

The story of Josiah

My name is Huldah and I’m a prophetess.  It was my job to authenticate a scroll.  You could say that I began the process of canonization of holy books.  So let me tell you about the young king who “found” this scroll.

Josiah was the king of Judah.  He was put on the throne at the tender age of 8.  Can you imagine?  I guess an older king couldn’t do any better so why not.  So he grew up in the palace.  He saw the ways that people took advantage of the royalty.  He saw first hand how people were ignoring the poor and the outcast.  He saw first hand how people gave big sums of money to the temple but the priests just hoarded it.

So, when he was 26, he decided the temple needed spring cleaning.  He reminded the priests that they had plenty of money in their treasury and that the house of God should not be such a mess.  He did his own public works program, employing masons, carpenters, builders all to repair the Temple of God.

While they were cleaning out a closet, the workers found an old scroll.  It was attributed to Moses.  Many of us had heard about the book of the law but none of us could remember hearing it.  So, Josiah read it.  And as he read it, his heart broke.  It broke because he saw how far the nation had strayed from the ways of old.  He saw how the nation had forsaken the true faith and gone after what was convenient or popular.  He then asked me if I thought it was true.

Imagine, a Hebrew king asking a female prophet to authenticate a patriarchal book.  It appeared that Josiah had real reform on his mind.   So I authenticated the book.  And alongside him, I helped him implement the teachings of old.  Josiah and the workers finished the rehabilitation project on the temple.  It now had the image of only one God in it.  Maybe people wouldn’t be so confused anymore.

Josiah also led the nation to expand its borders, reclaiming some of the land of the northern kingdom.  It was a time of fruitful peace and prosperity—all because he chose to focus on God.  It was the focus, but also the reforms he put in that made it best.

He died in the Megiddo valley in 609, trying the keep the Egyptians from reestablishing the Assyrian army.  Even though he died, the Assyrians never again threatened Judah.

Josiah was a great king, a great scholar, a great warrior.  But I’ll always remember him as a great reformer.

The Sermon

I think it’s an interesting coincidence that we are looking at the story of Josiah on the weekend after Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as the leader of Egypt.  Aside from the fact that Josiah died fighting against Egypt, we all have reform on our minds, even if we don’t know what it might entail.

In sociology 101 I learned that there is a difference between reform and revolution.  Reform changes things around but keeps societal structures and even leaders in place.  Voting people in and out of office is reform, not revolution.  Tax policy is reform.  Legislation dealing with a woman’s right to choose or marriage rights for all are reforms.  Revolution on the other hand is unseating not only the people in power, but completely rewriting the constitution and maybe even the economic system.  Kicking the British out of the colonies and renaming it the United States of America is a revolution.  Kicking out the Samosa government in and the Sandinistas taking power in Nicaragua is a revolution.  Especially when they institute a land reform and start trying level out the playing field.  Nelson Mandela becoming president of South Africa after decades in prison and his political party outlawed is a revolution, especially with the dismantling of apartheid.  Many people have mentioned that Egypt ought to look at the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa as a model for moving forward.

 

When people take to the streets, demanding that the ruler step down, it’s not the right time to enact reforms.  Hosni Mubarak tried all of that in his last two and a half weeks in office.  He abolished the cabinet.  He transferred power to his vice president. He said he’d step down in September.  Ultimately it was too little too late.

We see Egypt in triumphant jubilation as their Pharoah has left office. As Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Corp reported, the people in Egypt are saying “If Mubarak is Pharoah, then we are all Moses” (and Miriam).

So, what will happen there?  Is there one person or path that is the focal point of the revolution?  Not yet.  What will the instability of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen mean to the region?  That’s the challenge going forward.  What is happening in Egypt is fluid.  It’s unclear who is in charge.  All we know is that people are in the streets and people seem universally happy to see that President Mubarak has stepped down.  What will emerge in its place is the hard and creative work of the people of Egypt.  A good place to start might be to remember the fact that we are part of the tissue of humanity, all of us.  We must love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, as Jesus demanded, and pray and work for the day that all are loved and respected.

Josiah inherited a watered down and difficult nation. A previous King, Manasseh was loyal to Assyria. Assyria was the country that had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and sent the Hebrew people off into exile.  King Manasseh paid homage to Assyrian deities, allowed pagan cults in the temple, human sacrifice, cult prostitution—a total reversal of Hezekiah the king that preceded him.  Josiah sought a better way.

The scroll found in the back closet of the temple was the book of Deuteronomy.  That’s what most scholars think.  It is written a bit differently than the rest of the books of the Law, the Torah.  In fact, there is a strain of writings across the Bible that are attributed to Josiah’s reforms.  They say that this is the writings of the Deuteronomist.

Deuteronomy is an attempt to take the traditions of Moses’ age and restating them for a new generation. In Deuteronomy, the covenant is open-ended.  The thesis of the book is found in Deut. 29:14-15.  “God is the then, the now, the not yet”.   In Deuteronomy 5:2, God makes a covenant at Horeb with “us” not our ancestors.   The Deuteronomist doesn’t see the past as complete but as continuous and moving to the future.  Deuteronomy also emphasizes the oneness of God.  Your neighbor is also an image of God.  If you worship God, you will worship your neighbor as a manifestation of God, says Deuteronomy.  Jesus would quote this as the core of the law and prophets: “love the Lord your God with all your mind, heart, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. On this rests the entire law and prophets.”

The scroll became a major tool in the reform of Josiah.  In 621 there was a covenant renewal ceremony where the book of the law was read aloud.  Kind of like reading the Constitution in congress.  Go figure.

Josiah achieved independence from Assyria for Judah. Josiah gained back some of the land of northern Israel.  He ordered the purge of cult idols, magic and also wanted to destroy the cult places of northern Israel whether they were pagan or YHWHist, thus centralizing worship in Jerusalem.

But it was more than that.  Josiah helped the people embrace the fact that God was working amongst them.  There were ways that they were a unique people.  There was a narrative of liberation and love that was a part of the people’s DNA.  How do we make the ancient words relevant to a new generation?  What reforms do we need to put in place?

In Baptist life, welcoming and affirming churches were seen by many as the enemies.  Our Baptist sisters and brothers likened us to cancers that had to be cut out so the body could survive.  We fought for a place at the table.  We pointed out the short-sightedness of their arguments. Many did leave or were forced out.  Not satisfied that the denomination had gone far enough in excluding the LGBT friendly churches, many of the movers and shakers of the so-called evangelical wing of the denomination left.  In particular, one entire region on the West coast left the denomination and formed their own independent body called Transformation Ministries.

Most of the AWAB churches stayed in the denomination.  But our tunes changed.  The movement made a decision in 2007 to no longer be defined by the battles for a place at the table.  We would instead push for excellence amongst our congregations, ethics and inclusion.  In short, we would become models for other churches and Christians seeking to live in the ways and example of Jesus.  We would seek relevance by connecting with the liberative and inclusive narrative of the Bible.

In short, we should be about doing the great reformation work to be healthy people serving healthy churches.  As such, our welcome needs to not only be about the LGBT community.  Our welcome needs to inhabit our posture on race and class and political affiliation and physical ability and mental capacities.  We are called to be the church of God for all people.  We are called to remember, like Josiah encouraged the people to do, that God has made a covenant with us.  And God wants life for all of us.

I had the opportunity to speak at the Freedom to Marry rally on Thursday afternoon.  Connecting to that liberative narrative was important.  I always enjoy the cognitive dissonance that happens when I come out of the closet as a straight, liberal Baptist who calls for inclusion.  Among the things I said are this:

“I’m here to say that good religious people support equal rights for all people.

Good religious folks support marriage rights for all people.  Good religious folks support freedom and justice and equality for all people.

We do this because we are part of an ancient narrative that has always stood by those whom religion and society had deemed as outcast.  We do this because just as Moses brought the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt toward the promised land of freedom and self-determination, so too do we recognize that God is always on the side of liberation and justice.

And we have seen the way that God has moved in establishing freedom to recognize marriage rights for all in five states and the District of Columbia.   Will Minnesota be next?

If you wondered if the momentum is on the way, hear this litany of towns that have made decisions for equality in the form of domestic partner registries: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, Edina, Duluth, Golden Valley, Maplewood, St. Louis Park, and just this past week Richfield.  There are now over 1 million people who live in jurisdictions that have gone on record as being inclusive for all families.  Is one million enough?

We believe as the ancients said it that with God all things are possible.  Is it possible to remember the core of our faith? Is it possible to advocate for equal rights for all? Is it possible for people of faith to find their voices? Is it possible for those voices to be united in freedom, in justice, in equality?

It is possible, but it is only possible if we use our God-given freedom and our God-blessed energy and inspiration to make it happen.  Talk to your legislators. Advocate for justice for all.  Advocate for our families.

But don’t do it by simply supporting or denying one piece of legislation.  Let them know you.  Let them see you.  Peel off the mask of one issue and let them see the core of your being.  The apostle Paul said that we once saw through an obscured cloud, but we will be seen face to face.  Yours is the face of the present, the past and the future of Minnesota.  Together we can make it a bright one for us and for our families.”

So friends, as we look at our posture in the world, remember the core of our faith.  Remember the love of the stranger; the welcome of the outcast; the place at the table; the blessing of sisters and brothers; the commitment to love God more than money, to embrace beauty more than cruelty, to foster community rather than territorialism, to become the beloved community that Josiah envisioned and Jesus inspired.

It’s the same vision that’s embodied in the following poem by Judy Chicago with which I’ll close this sermon:

“And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with one another and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.”

That’s a reform we can believe in.  We need not only look to the great reformers of the past.  We need to embrace the call of God to remember the narrative of liberation that is the Bible. Remember.  Embody it.  And BECOME the great reformers.  That’s the call of God taking seed among us.  May it bloom into a rich, colorful and fertile field of beauty and blessing for all the world.