From Pastor Ray’s sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, March 19, 2017
Let’s talk about bowels. Now you may think that bowels may be an appropriate topic for the privacy of your doctor’s office, but not for polite conversations and especially not for a public worship service. I assure you, bowels are a perfect topic for today and for “Stranger Love”, our fast for immigrant and refugee justice.
Bowels are appropriate because of how frequently they show up in the Bible–both Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word for bowels, ‘rachem’, is found 44 times, and the Greek word, ‘splanchnon,’ shows up 11 times. However, the word doesn’t always refer to the literal body part. Both the Jews and the Greeks believed that the bowels were the location of deepest feelings and emotions. Our culture puts the location of emotion and passion in the heart. For the Jews and Greeks, it was the bowels. We have several phrases that are similar–“gut reaction”, “gut-wrenching”, “gut-churning” that connote reactions of disgust, of being deeply disturbed, of aversion. But for Hebrews and Greek, ‘rachem’ and ‘splanchnon’ connoted reactions of compassion, mercy, and pity.
The English word ‘pity’ gets a bad rap. The English word is usually associated with feelings of concern for someone’s suffering from a distance. It has an air of separation and disconnection and condescension. It is rarely associated with taking action to relieve suffering. Not so with Hebrew and Greek. Pity is an action word. Pity is a “bowel movement!” Yes, I went there.
Today, we read the story about Israel’s interaction with Edom at Edom’s border (See Numbers 20:14-21. The Israelites had just left Egypt and slavery and were on their way to the ‘Promised Land.’ But to get there, they had to cross the land of Edom. Moses sent a message requesting passage through the territory and giving assurances that Israel would not use Edom’s resources (food and water) for themselves or their livestock without paying for it. Despite the assurances, Edom refused to allow the Israelites to pass their their territory and proceeded to enforce the ban by military action. They turn away their flesh and blood (Edom and Israel were cousins since the Edomites were the descendants of Esau and the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob). Edom would not welcome them or show any hospitality. Edom cast off all pity. That’s what the prophet Amos declared many generations later. “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity; he maintained his anger perpetually, and kept his wrath forever. So I will send a fire on Teman, and it shall devour the strongholds of Bozrah.” Amos 1:11-12
They “cast off all pity.” A literal translations of the Hebrew is, “they shut their bowels”. And God, who is compassionate and merciful, who is described as “having pity on his people”, responds to the Edomite’s lack of compassion with an announcement of judgment.
The story of Edom is a cautionary tale. Don’t be like the Edomites. Don’t be the people who turn away their flesh and blood in their time of need. Don’t be the nation that “shuts their bowels” to those who are in distress, to those who need help, to those who are under oppression. God watches the nations and judges the nations in relationship to their response to those in need.
The apostle John reminds his community that love is more than words, but it is action for our brothers and sisters in need that comes out of the “bowels of compassion.” “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:16-18
The parallels between Edom and the world we live in are obvious. There are refugees seeking shelter from war. There are immigrants fleeing environmental disaster. There are people in poverty and deep distress. They are at our borders, seeking protection, seeing help, seeking refuge. But like the Edomites, our nation is shutting our bowels, casting off all pity, sending them away—back into the wilderness—even though we have the means to help them. And then our nation militarizes our borders to ensure they do not cross. Our nation has cast off pity. Our nation has shown contempt for our sisters and brothers, expressing hatred rather than love. Our nation has not heeded the warning. GOD IS WATCHING.
But we are the children of God–not the children of Esau. And we must must resist Edom. We must refuse to breathe in Edom’s toxic atmosphere of xenophobia and fear. We must not give ourselves over to the demands of Edom’s gods of self-interest and self-protection. We must not conform to Edom’s ideologies of hatred and rejection of the ‘other’. No! We worship the God who loves the “alien and the stranger, providing them with food and clothing.” And because God shows pity on those in distress by relieving their distress, we must also show pity. Our bowels must be moved by the passion and compassion of God. We must open our doors to welcome the stranger and provide for those who need refuge. Our actions will demonstrate God’s love for the immigrant and refugee, and God, who sees what is done, will say to us who have seen the stranger and welcomed her, ‘Come, you who are blessed; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
May we live out our calling as God’s people. Amen.
Kimball Avenue Church will be joining Bethany United Church of Christ and Pilgrim Lutheran Church to resettle a refugee family in the Chicago area through Refugee One. At the end of Lent, we will receive a special offering for the project. Individuals are encouraged to set aside an amount of money each day or week during our Lenten Fast From Xenophobia, “Stranger Love”, to help reach a goal of $6000 to support the refugee family. If you are interested in assisting in this project, contact the church through the church web site, or via our Facebook page.