Thicker than Blood
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia
April 1, 2018
Rev. Jeff Liebmann
Call to Worship
from Isaiah 61 and Amos 5
[In the time following the exile in Babylon, a disciple of the prophet Isaiah wrote that] The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn…to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations…
[And in the words of the prophet Amos, the Lord takes] no delight in your solemn assemblies…offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Story for All Ages
A Place You Can Trust
One of the hardest parts about being a parent is learning how to protect your children. Of course, we want to protect you from getting hurt or getting sick. We also don’t want you exposed to scary and horrible things, to violence, to the awful things that people do to each other. So, we keep track of the things you read, or the shows you watch. And yet, we are surrounded in our society by stories and pictures that are scary, horrible, and violent.
Sometimes, people use scary and violent movies, books, and TV shows to try to get us to act the way they want. Sometimes, people want us to buy a certain product, to be scared of certain people, or to support a certain idea. And sometimes, real events in the world happen that we cannot shield you from. You may hear news reports, or overhear adults talking about bad things, and you have a hard time understanding.
How do we separate innocent and fun scary stories from real world blood and violence? There is no easy answer to this question – and every parent must find the answer that best works for them. We want you to enjoy fun things and to avoid things that are too scary. And we also want to prepare you so that you can understand when someone is trying to hurt you.
Here in this Congregation, we are committed to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. So, whenever anyone has a question, this is one place that children or adults can come to seek an answer that makes sense out of things we do not understand.
We do this in a number of ways. We try to understand why others think the way they do. We try to figure out what is right and wrong. And we try to think about ways to solve problems so that the bad things don’t have to happen, or so that people can’t exploit our fears.
So if you see something that scares you, or that you don’t understand, never be afraid to talk to your parents, to your teachers, to me or Stephanie, or to any of the other adults here in your Congregation. Because here in this community, we are connected to each other, we care about each other, and we would never hurt each other.
from History of Qing dynasty by Chung Yoon-Ngan
The phrase “blood is thicker than water” appears in many places over the past several centuries. Its current familiarity, however, derives from an all-but-forgotten military engagement.
In 1856, China fought a war with Britain over the unceremonious hauling down of the British flag. The Chinese were easily defeated and a treaty was signed in June 1858, subject to ratification by the Chinese Emperor a year hence.
As the end of the year approached, the British arrived at Taku at the mouth of Hai River. The British mission was accompanied by a battleship, two frigates and thirteen gunboats. Their intention was to sail to Peking and demand ratification by the Emperor of the Treaty.
The entrance to the river was blocked by sunken hulks, chains, spikes and bamboo booms and guarded by the Taku Forts. The British naval commander demanded the Chinese remove the obstacles. The Chinese explained that they were placed there by the local militia as a defense against rebels and could not be dismantled. The British gave the Chinese an ultimatum that unless the passage was cleared they would force their way through.
An American frigate was anchored nearby with orders to remain strictly neutral if any hostilities broke out between the Chinese and British. When the ultimatum expired, the British attacked. They were so confident of an easy victory that they did not bother to devise a plan of operations.
When the British ships passed the outer barrier there were sudden barrages of Chinese gunfire from the forts. Shots rained down on the British ships with surprising accuracy. The British ships could not sail any further and quickly retreated after suffering many casualties.
The British regrouped and tried again to capture the Taku Forts. Landing parties crossing the mudflats leading to their walls suffered heavy losses.
The American naval commander, Commodore Josiah Tattnall, watched the battle from his flag ship. He saw his British cousins being mercilessly butchered and felt that he could not stand idly and do nothing. He decided to ignore American neutrality and issued an order codenamed “Blood Is Thicker Than Water.” He ordered his guns to fire on the Taku Forts and his men to help the British to evacuate from the carnage. In the end, however, the American intervention did not alter the outcome of the battle.
Early next morning when the survivors of the landing parties had retreated across the mud to the water’s edge, the British had over 400 casualties. The Chinese, had inflicted a serious humiliating defeat on the British.
Sermon – Thicker than Blood
Ralph Waldo Emerson is often famously quoted as saying that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. And yet, we sometimes yearn for consistency in important narratives.
For instance, even as a child, I found the frequent lack of continuity in biblical narratives frustrating. Particularly in the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, the tales of the exploits of Jesus often contradict each other with conflicting facts. These disagreeing accounts seem to serve little purpose beyond confusing the reader desperately struggling to interpret the tale and discern the meaning behind its telling.
When I would point out these inconsistencies to my teachers, my faith would be questioned. As an adult, now non-Christian, my commentary on these challenging texts is sometimes seen by Christians as a criticism rather than an honest attempt to discern truth and meaning. Maybe Emerson considered me a quibbler, but I refuse to shut down my powers of reason for the luxury of unquestioning belief and the numbing comfort derived from dismissing rational analysis.
But, before we go too much further, what did Emerson really say? In his essay titled “Self-Reliance,” here is the actual quote.
The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.
But why…should you drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day…
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.— ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ —Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
How one omitted word can change the meaning of a phrase! “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Emerson was not chiding us against holding fast to reason and analysis. Quite the contrary, he implored us to use our human gift of judgment to make religion relevant in our modern times. He decried the foolish use of history, of memory alone, in relating to the cosmos every day. Emerson warned against dogmatism and fanatical adherence to past wisdom simply because it was part of our heritage.
This example points out the incredible danger of the condition of information today. I hardly need mention the perils of deriving one’s understanding of daily news from events reported on Facebook. Stories and quotes pass down from mouth to mouth (or screen to screen) without context and nearly always without source attribution. As a result, facts and frameworks can be completely lost, so much so that the original meaning may even be turned on its head and dwarfed by an opposite interpretation.
Another example was presented in the reflection reading today. “Blood is thicker than water” is broadly understood to assert that the bonds of family and blood relationship – even if only by culture and distant familial ties – matter more than the temporal convictions of policy, the fleeting flow of circumstance. For Josiah Tattnall, his British ancestry mattered more than his duties as an officer of the United States Navy and the stated orders of diplomats and his current superior officers.
And yet, despite the widespread acceptance of this meaning of the phrase, there is evidence in rabbinical texts that its true origin asserts quite a different point of view. There are those who claim that the phrase actually refers not to the blood ties of family, but to the blood of the covenant with god. Further, the water is not meant as a metaphor for passing importance and impermanence, but as the water of the womb. Therefore, by claiming that blood is thicker than water, these texts assert that one’s human relationships actually matter less than one’s relationship with ultimate truth, with divine power.
To be great is to be misunderstood.
So if the blood is not our human relationships with each other through child birth and marriage, what is it? Biblical texts offer several differing answers. For instance, in Exodus, we have a rather baffling and almost certainly abridged account of Moses returning to Egypt after meeting god as the burning bush.
And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’”
On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah (Moses’ wife) took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me! A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.”
This episode, believed to be abridged from a fuller, hopefully clearer version, is extraordinarily puzzling. The motive of god’s attack on Moses is unclear but the pronouns are unequivocal. Zipporah’s remarks are, at best, enigmatic. However, one meaning that seems clear is that blood has a magically protective power. By touching Moses with the bloody foreskin of his son, Zipporah foreshadows the protective role that blood will play on the eve of the exodus.
Later, god details his laws to Moses, which are then sealed in covenant through a blood ritual.
Moses rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
So, not only does blood have magical power, but also the spiritual power of sealing the agreement between god and the people.
Assuming a literal interpretation, we should also make mention of the taboo nature of blood in ancient Judaism. Several times god forbids the people from consuming blood. Leviticus 3 details at great length the disposition of the body of an animal killed for consumption, ending with a prohibition from eating blood. This prohibition is repeated in Leviticus 7, including animals and birds.
But, not all blood is equal when it comes to biblical impurities. For instance, touching a corpse, or a woman during her menstrual period is simply a matter of ritual impurity. Waiting a prescribed period of time or bathing are all one needs to reclaim a pure state. However, the shedding of blood calls into doubt one’s moral purity. These purity systems were complex and often intended less as divine commandments and more as blunt instruments of social control. Such rules, even for the pre-Christian Jews, were a holdover from more primitive times and subject to modern context.
Therefore, one looking for a consistent interpretation of the nature of blood, at least in the Jewish testament, faces a daunting task. So, let us turn to the Christian scriptures. Stories of the life of Jesus or accounts of his teachings rarely occur in all four of the canonical gospels. One event that is referenced in all four books concerns the Passover meal preceding his arrest and crucifixion, the Last Supper.
In each account, Jesus passes wine to the disciples and bids them to drink. He tells them that this wine represents his blood and that this is the blood of the new covenant. Therefore, since Jesus specifically references the covenant, that is the promise god made to the people of Israel for obeying the Mosaic Law, he is clearly stating that his teachings represent a new covenant with god. And like the ox blood used to purify the altar and sanctify the covenant after the exodus, the blood of Jesus will seal the new covenant between god and the people.
And what was the new covenant? For me, the new covenant is represented by the teachings of Jesus, perhaps most clearly articulated in the Beatitudes during the Sermon on the Mount. But for a moment, let’s revisit the gospel accounts of the Last Supper.
All four gospels talk about Jesus knowing that Judas would betray him. And in each account of the meal itself, the same speech immediately precedes (in Matthew and Mark) or immediately follows (in Luke) the first communion of bread and wine. In each account, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man (Jesus) goes as it has been determined, but woe to him who betrays the Son of Man.
Is there a connection? Did Jesus mean to foretell of dire consequences to betrayers as part of his announcement of the new covenant? I don’t know. But, one cannot easily dismiss the proximity of the two points in every account – not when the surviving texts rarely offer such consistency, even if it is coincidental.
Consistency. There’s that word again. Is the consistent telling of the story of the Last Supper relevant or meaningful? Or is attaching any significance to the seeming consistency foolish?
Perhaps. However, a warning against betrayal would certainly seem like a point relevant to the establishment of covenant. If I covenant with you to certain behaviors, certain beliefs, certain actions, then betraying those behaviors, beliefs, and actions would certainly be the strongest form of violation of that covenant.
There is the tension. For covenant to exist, we must trust. And the biggest threat to covenant is betrayal of trust. So perhaps using blood as a symbol or a metaphor for sanctification, or purity, or connection is simply that – a symbol, a metaphor. The tension arises not in how we interpret phrases or remember the stories of our past. The tension, the blood pressure if you will, increases when trust is threatened.
If we do not trust each other, then all the blood ties in the world, all of the fancy words and language will mean nothing. Blood may indeed be thicker than water. But trust, trust runs like molasses in a snow storm by comparison.
Spirit of life and love that we know by many names, be with us as we enter an attitude of reflection, meditation, and prayer.
Words. Written or spoken, words are really quite simple things. We may lack an elaborate vocabulary, or the eloquence of a polished orator. But words are actually pretty easy. Sound as we exhale – a gentle stroke of pen or tapping of keys. Words cost little, require little.
Living one’s words – living one’s word – that is a different matter. People suffer, even die for their words, for their word. People bleed to defend their words and the meaning they hold.
And despite our modern comforts, regardless of the distance we put between ourselves and our past, the threat of betrayal of our words lingers every day. For every silence, every turning away, every failure to stand up and be counted, to stand alongside our sisters and brothers in community, is a tiny betrayal of our words.
Here in this sacred space, let those tensions drain away. Do not let fear, or anxiety, or hopelessness keep you from living the covenant of this place. Do not let the shouting voices and angry speeches keep you from your bond to this community. Whatever binds us – water, blood, or trust – will strengthen us in the days and years ahead. Blessed be. Amen. Let it be so.
from Ephesians 4
…some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way…joined and knitted together by every ligament…promot[ing] the body’s growth in building itself up in love.