Abraham

Jonah, where is the love?

I said a couple of weeks ago that sometimes events happen during the week that must be addressed on Sunday.  Sometimes it works in reverse.  On Wednesday, Inauguration Day took place in an atmosphere of a, let’s say, rather argumentative transfer of power.  And look at who’s featured in today’s Old Testament reading.  It’s none other than that argumentative prophet, Jonah.  I don’t think he set out to be a curmudgeon, but that’s how he wound up.

1 jonI will connect the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah in a few moments.

Those who know nothing else about him remember that he’s the guy who got swallowed by a fish.  (Or was it a whale?  Whales aren’t fish!)

Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah.  (I didn’t start going to church in earnest until I was in my twenties.)

Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those images that cling to a felt backboard.  Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me.  How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature?  He was there for three days and three nights!  How could he breathe?  Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?

It really doesn’t work to just talk about chapter 3 without telling the rest of the story.  And what a story it is!

The book of Jonah has plenty of satire.  There are numerous places where the humor breaks through.  If you want a story filled with zany and sarcastic images, this is the one for you.  The first word of the book in Hebrew (וַיְהׅי, vayehi) means “and it happened.”  Once upon a time.

The Lord wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people to turn from their wicked ways.  Something to understand about Nineveh is that it is a bitter enemy of Israel.  It might be the least likely place Jonah would want to visit.  He buys his ticket, but it’s for a ship sailing in the opposite direction.  It’s headed for Tarshish.  It’s thought to have been a city in modern-day Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean.

So basically, God tells him to go to one place, and he heads off for the other side of the world.

I don’t suppose anyone can relate to Jonah, that is, sensing God would have us do something—and our really not wanting to.  It’s “really not wanting to” to the point of running away as far as possible.

Very briefly, a storm breaks out, and the sailors are doing their best to handle it.  While the tempest is raging, Jonah is down below snoozing; he’s taking a nap.  They wake him up, and he winds up telling the crew to throw him into the sea, and the storm will cease.  Jonah is ready to die.  Anything is better than setting foot in that horrible city.  Even spending time in a fishy gullet beats it!

Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah (Mt 12:38-41).  He sees himself in Jonah’s three-day tour of the deep.  The ancient Hebrews spoke of Leviathan, the great sea monster dwelling in the watery depths.  Jonah prays, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (2:2).  This is a picture of death.  When that critter upchucks the prophet—that must have been a serious case of indigestion—Jonah, figuratively, goes from death to life.  And just as Jonah emerges from the grave, so does Jesus.

I’ll jump ahead to chapter 4, which is after we find out his message has done its job.

This is not what Jonah wanted.  He was hoping they’d shake his hand, say “nice sermon,” and then go right back to their deliciously evil stuff.  Unlike Abraham, who didn’t want Sodom destroyed, Jonah’s already got a spot in mind with a good view of the city.  He’ll set up his lawn chair, kick back, and get ready to watch the fire fall!  Okay Lord, smite them, O mighty smiter!

Unfortunately for Jonah, God has the best interests of the city in mind, and Nineveh is spared.  This is where we’re treated to some of that argumentative character I mentioned at the beginning.  In verse 1, the Hebrew word for “displeased” appears twice, and the word for “angry” (חׇרׇה, charah) literally means “hot,” “to burn.”  One might say Jonah is blazing with fury.

Here’s where I connect some of the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah.  He would rather die than have things work out for the Ninevites.  Does that sound familiar?  When we watch the news networks, when we peruse social media, it seems like it would kill some people to say something good about “the others.”  I would rather die than give them a thumbs-up!

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As for Nineveh, things work out so well that when the king hears Jonah’s message, he not only repents but he also issues a decree.  “No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:7-8).

Even the animals have to repent!

Maybe it’s clear by now that Jonah is a bundle of contradictions.  He senses his God-given duty, but he fights like the devil against it.  He sets off on the longest journey he possibly can and finds himself back at square one.  The thing that he believed would destroy him becomes the vehicle of his deliverance.  The message of the grace and forgiveness of the Lord becomes in him an occasion for anger and bigotry.

Jonah almost literally has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do his job.  He’s successful in his God-given task, and you better believe, he’s mad as a wet hen about it!  And yet Jesus sees in Jonah a lesson for others.  That’s the power of grace in action.

Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us.  Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up.  He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city.

There is another connection between Inauguration Day and Jonah, and it’s a contrast, thanks to Amanda Gorman.  At 22, she is the youngest poet in US history to appear at an inaugural event.  Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” begins with these words: “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry. A sea we must wade. / We braved the belly of the beast.” [1]  Maybe Jonah can relate to that.

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["There is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."]

She also references words from the prophet Micah.  Speaking of the vision of the Lord’s embrace of all peoples, we hear, “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken” (Mi 4:4).  Vines and fig trees are signs of prosperity.

What a contrast.  Micah speaks of hope and courage, and Jonah sits under a bush, stewing with anger!

Still, we hear the words of Jesus.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44).  Inauguration Day was four days ago.  How are we doing with loving our enemies?  Must we regard each other as enemies?

(By the way, the last verse in that passage, verse 48, has created plenty of confusion.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word “perfect” doesn’t mean “flawless.”  Rather, it means “complete.”  Jesus is saying we are to be completed, we are to be perfected.  In the same way, the US Constitution’s “a more perfect union” doesn’t mean a flawless union.  If that’s the case, Lord help us!)

Now, back to love!  Danielle Kingstrom speaks about love, saying, “Love is…not an easy phenomenon to engage.  It comes out of nowhere and rams into you like a semi-truck on the freeway.  It smashes all your senses and discombobulates your reason.  Of course, people are afraid of it!  It’s an explosion of accident and attention all at once.  What the heck do we do with energy like that when it surges?”[2]

Here’s a lesson for Jonah, and here’s a lesson for us.  She adds, “Love doesn’t have to decide what to ‘do’ about certain groups of people until love is face to face with the person.”  We can be face to face with people in a way that exudes disgust and disdain and dread.  So Jonah, where is the love?  (The Black-Eyed Peas asked that same question.)

“Love is like a mirror…  It shows you where you need to grow…  The thistles and thorns will stick us—it’s challenging to see a reflection of ourselves that we hadn’t expected.  But love is unexpected like that.”  It’s so easy to simply dismiss someone as lacking comprehension or lacking character.

And here’s a crazy thought: even if we hang on to those attitudes, even if we still look on them as enemies—even if we’re still not yet ready to make that step toward freedom—we come right back around to Jesus.  Love ‘em anyway!  Let’s take the actions, and refrain from the actions, that make life harder for them.  We don’t have to wait until bad stuff happens to us.  We can help each other walk a silver, if not a golden, path on this planet.

It’s like the question God poses to Jonah at the very end of the book.  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11).  I like the way the natural order is included in God’s concern.

Jonah doesn’t answer the question.  At least, we’re not told the answer.  What is our answer?

As we enter a new political landscape (and they do come and go), let’s learn a lesson from Jonah—and from Jesus.  When we love our enemies, we must first deal with the enemy within.  (I need to learn this as much as anyone else.)  To the extent we have division and fear inside ourselves, we project division and fear outside into the world.

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We need to realize that we are worth loving.  We need to realize that we are loved.  We are loved by our Lord, but to really experience it at the flesh and blood level, we need love face to face.  There are those who never see that.

Let’s love our neighbor and love our enemy.  Who knows?  We might find they’re one and the same!

 

[1] www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a35268337/amanda-gorman-the-hill-we-climb-poem-biden-inauguration/

[2] www.patheos.com/blogs/daniellekingstrom/2021/01/no-love-let-us-remember-that-we-know-love/


freed minds

One of my favorite science fiction movies came out in 1999: The Matrix.  For those who don’t know, The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves.  His character’s name is Thomas Anderson, who by day has a job as a computer programmer.  At night, he is a computer hacker who calls himself Neo.  The movie also stars Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, a legendary hacker who the government has branded a terrorist.

Morpheus contacts Neo, and a meeting is set up.[1]  During a captivating conversation, Morpheus tells him, “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”  The entire world, everything, is an elaborate computer program, the matrix.

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(On a side note, there are some physicists who speculate that our whole universe might be something like a computer program, possibly being run by others.)

Neo undergoes a procedure, and he wakes up to the real world, a desolate wasteland.  To make a long story short, Morpheus teaches Neo how to fight within the program.  He does this because he believes that Neo can liberate everyone from the matrix; he believes he is a kind of messiah.

As they’re sparring, Morpheus shouts at Neo, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”  They go back to fighting, and Neo stops his fist just before he hits Morpheus in the face.  “I know what you’re trying to do,” says Neo.  Morpheus responds, “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Free your mind.  Free your spirit.  I believe that’s a message the apostle Paul is giving the Galatians.  Or maybe the better way of putting it is, “God has freed your mind.  Accept that freedom.  Don’t go back to being a slave.”

Our scripture reading is part of a longer passage that goes back to chapter 3.  There, Paul speaks of the law of Moses as a kind of mentor, a supervisor.  But he also talks about Abraham, who lived hundreds of years before the law was handed down by Moses.  His faith, the faith of Abraham, was based on God’s promise that he would father a nation.  His faith wasn’t based on the law.

2 ga The law and the promise do not contradict each other, but with faith, in particular the faith of Christ, the law is transcended.  Old categories become meaningless.  As the apostle says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29).

So with chapter 4, he carries that thought of the law being a supervisor or a disciplinarian by saying that with faith, we grow up.  We become adults.  Paul compares inheritors, while they’re still children, as basically equal to slaves.  They are still under tight restrictions.

There’s something dramatic that happens, something befitting the Christmas season.  Paul says that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (v. 4).  One might say that’s a verse pregnant with meaning!

Like any other squalling baby, Jesus emerges from the womb of a woman.  And he is born into a family that faithfully observes the Jewish law.

This happens in “the fullness of time.”  That’s when the time, the hour, had finally arrived; it was just the right time.  What does that mean?  In part, we can think of the Jewish faith and culture, with the steadily growing hope and expectation that the Messiah is about to arrive.  That helps explain the bitter disappointment when their would-be Messiah is killed, and the nation is still being ruled by foreigners.

Still, there is something known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, with its many beneficial qualities.

For example, it enabled the Roman Empire to build a network of roads.  The Roman peace made travel on those highways much safer.  It’s easier to run an empire if you can put down those pesky local rebellions, as well as offering security against criminal elements.  Another benefit was the flourishing of architecture and the arts.

3 gaThe ease of travel made possible the spread of the Greek language, which served as a common tongue throughout the Mediterranean.  The translation of the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek helped spread the faith of the Jews, the faith in which Jesus was raised, into many different countries.

The work of human beings, the arc of history, usually serves a greater purpose than what we might imagine.  Behind it and through it emerges the fullness of time.

In this fullness of time, the Son has arrived to redeem us, to buy us back, to set us free.  We are now adopted as children of God.  There is no greater freedom.  As with Abraham and Sarah—as with the Galatian church—we have been set free because of the promise of God, not because we’ve been able to obey the law.

But there’s a problem with all of this.  Paul sees it in the Galatians, and honestly, it’s also a problem with us.  There’s something in us that wants to reject freedom.  There’s something in us that doesn’t want our minds to be free—that doesn’t want our spirits to be free.

Let me give you another example from The Matrix.  One of the characters is named Cypher.  He’s tired of life in the real world, with the running and hiding from the machines that maintain the matrix.  He’s tired of its blandness; he longs for the life he used to have—like what we too often have—even though it’s an illusion.

There’s a scene in which he’s sitting in a restaurant with one of the agents: computer programs in human form who are guardians within the matrix.  Cypher is eating a juicy steak.  He admits that the steak isn’t real, but he likes it.  He wants to have his memory wiped and be put back into the matrix.  Cypher wants to reject his freedom and go back to when he was enslaved—provided he doesn’t know he’s a slave.

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How appropriate for a guy whose name means “zero”!

So remember, the problem with the Galatians is that there are those among them who still insist they must observe the law, to unwittingly return to slavery.  It applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They want to go back to what they’ve known.  There is a comfort in hanging on to what gives you the feeling of control.  I certainly understand it!  Freedom can be a scary thing.

The apostle Paul sees even more at stake.  By rejecting their freedom in Christ, they actually are choosing idolatry.  He tells them, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (v. 8).  He’s having trouble understanding what they’re up to.

He continues, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” (v. 9).  The word for “elemental spirits” is στοιχεια (stoicheia), which has several definitions.  In this case, he’s probably speaking of the rules imposed by those old gods.  Paul is truly exasperated.  He says, “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (v. 11).  He wonders if he’s just been frittering away his time.

Last month, while speaking of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I noted he congratulates them on how they encourage one other.  How about the Galatians?  They must have an especially praiseworthy attribute.  If they do, the apostle doesn’t mention it.  He has already said, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1).  Some translations are even harsher.  “You stupid Galatians!  You must have been bewitched.” (Revised English Bible).  Has somebody put you under a spell?  Are you taking crazy pills?

And remember what they want to be enslaved to: “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits,” “those powerless and bankrupt elements.” (New Jerusalem Bible)  They’re playing the role of Cypher from The Matrix!

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I wonder, how often do we reject our scary freedom?  How often do we choose those powerless and bankrupt elements?  What are these pitiful, worthless things which we place on the altars of our hearts?  How can those who “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” choose slavery to what is nothing?

We so often imitate the Israelites who, having fled the chains of Egypt, berate Moses and long to return (Nu 14:4).

Richard Rohr comments on this business of serving what is nothing.[2]  “Less than a block from where I used to live in downtown Albuquerque, there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the winter sun.  Once I saw fresh graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement in front of the homeless.  It said, ‘I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing—thereby keeping us out.  Truly God is hated here.’”

So again I wonder, what are the nothings to which we so desperately cling?  How do we forget our status as adopted children of God and turn back to slavery?

Soon after being chosen as pope, Francis addressed the Vatican Curia, their governing body.  He listed fifteen diseases that he had noticed among them.[3]  (In doing so, Francis showed himself to be a frank pope.)

One disease is “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”: “a progressive decline of spiritual faculties…, living in a state of absolute dependence on one’s own often imaginary views.  We see this in those who have lost their recollection of their encounter with the Lord…in those who build walls around themselves and who increasingly transform into slaves to the idols they have sculpted with their own hands.”  Francis sees in the Vatican leadership this same forgetfulness of God and turning to slavery that we just looked at.

If we reject the loving freedom of God and turn back to idols, we will inevitably do harm to each other.

Those in Christ have been set free.  To explore that freedom, there are always new doors to open.  But like freedom, opening those doors can be scary.  We might want to stay where we are, circle the wagons, and hold on to what we already know, or perhaps, what we think we know.  We might want to stay behind the walls we’ve built, and not walk through the door into new territory.

We are on the verge of a new year—2021.

Recently during our prayer time, I shared some reflections of gratitude sent by readers of the New York Times.  They were asked to submit a statement of six words, expressing what they were thankful for from this past year.  Over ten thousand replies were received.  Many caught my eye, but here are three I mentioned: “There’s really more kindness than hate.”  “Thankful for sweet potato pie, y’all.”  “I am thankful to be thankful.”

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{a scene from Antwone Fisher of gratitude and welcome (the video's aspect ratio might be off)}

A freed mind, a liberated mind, is a grateful mind—it is a grateful spirit.  Having said that, I must also confess there is absolutely no doubt that this past year has brought way more than its share of heartbreak and sorrow.  People all over the globe can attest to that.  We here can attest to that.  Still, as the prophet says, “The people [we who have been] walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Is 9:2).

That is the subtle strength, the peaceful power, of Christmas.  This season is teaching us lessons.  Christ lives within us.  In what fullness of time do we now find ourselves?  May it be a time in which we welcome each other—and the Christ within us—as we together walk into that new freedom.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[2] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Daily-Meditations--How-Foolishly-We-Guard-Our--Nothing-----Ecumenism----July-8--2013.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=zXdIB1uvLD4

[3] www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2014/12/22/the-15-ailments-of-the-vatican-curia-according-to-pope-francis/


how are we called?

“He was a coward.”  That was Banu’s comment on reflecting how Abram had Sarai pose as his sister.  That is, he had her pose as his sister in order to save his own neck.  Upon entering Egypt, he knew that the Pharaoh’s officials would want to take her, because she was a good-looking woman.

1 gn(I’ll use the names they were given a few years later, Abraham and Sarah.)

I will admit that it might be hard to argue with her assessment of Abraham’s decision.  (That is, his being a coward!)  We’ll look at what might have been behind his choice in a few moments.

Once again, and I mention this from time to time, the lectionary compilers tended to edit out embarrassing or troublesome verses.  The reading in Genesis for today ends at verse 4.  Showing one of the great figures of faith like Abraham treat his wife the way he does might not seem especially heroic.  But we need to pay attention to that stuff.  If God’s calling of Abraham is to have any real meaning for us, then we should see how that gets worked out in, say, our own messy and complicated lives.

Still, as I just said, we’ll be getting to the too-often deleted aspect of the story momentarily.

As for the commonly-agreed-upon heroic aspect of the story, it’s not for nothing that Abraham is given the title “Father” Abraham—that the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their history back to him.  The whole thing got started when, somehow, the Lord said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (v. 1).

What precisely does that mean?  How did Abraham receive that call from God?  Was he hearing voices?  Did he have an exceptionally vivid dream?

Maybe it was a gradually growing awareness.  Some have suggested that Abraham grew disenchanted with the worship that was practiced in his homeland—worship of the sun and moon.  At some point, he couldn’t take it anymore, or perhaps, some people couldn’t take him anymore!

2 gnIn any event, as one writer tells us, “Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was…no routine expedition of several hundred miles.  Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history.  The all-important commencement is…‘Go forth.’”[1]

The part of the message that seals the deal is in verses 2 and 3: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  Okay, not bad: God will bless me, and I will bless others.  Now those others get drawn into the picture.  “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

That last line can also be translated as “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

What can we make of all that blessing?  As Christians, we stand in that tradition, the blessing of the call of Abraham and Sarah.  It’s important to include Sarah; Abraham could not have done very much without her.  Apparently, one of those things would be using her to make sure he stayed alive while in Egypt!

Verses 2 and 3 promise the blessing of becoming a great nation—of being a conduit of blessing to all the families of the earth.  Being a blessing means several things, among them being a source of good will, a source of shalom, a source of light.

As for that business of the calling of Abraham having meaning for us, Dan Clendenin refers to what he calls “Abraham in Three Movements.”[2]

“God’s call upon Abraham’s life,” he says, “is a call that’s repeated to each one of us today.  It’s a call that subverts conventional wisdom, and so it can feel counter-intuitive, for it’s a call to move beyond three very human, powerful and deep-seated fears—fear of the unknown that we can’t control (ignorance), fear of others who are different from us (inclusion), and fear of powerlessness in the face of impossibilities (impotence).”

Whenever I’ve thought of God’s call to Abraham to “go forth,” I’ve usually had the first of those three in mind.  I’ve thought of the unknown, with whatever fear and foreboding go with it.  He and some close family members are launching out into foreign territory.  This involves a different culture, with unfamiliar customs.  This involves moving from one’s kin, which would leave one vulnerable in many ways.

Clendenin combines the fear of the unknown with fear of others who are different and fear of powerlessness.  He says that Abraham “had to leave not only his geographic place.  He had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger,” the tendency to exclude the alien.

3 gn Which of Abraham’s three “movements” speaks most to you: fear of the unknown, fear of those who are different, or fear of powerlessness?  Which of the three would most likely hold you back?  Is there one of those fears that you’ve seen someone else conquer that gave, or continues to give you respect for them?

This speaks to us not only as individuals, but also as a congregation.  The same “movements,” the same fears to confront, affects churches as well.  All of this goes into answering the question, “How are we called?”  We can emphasize different words in that question and come up with different nuances.

Now, as for that apparently less-honorable part of our story, in which Abraham portrays Sarah as his sister, things become a little fuzzy.

E. A. Speiser tells us, “In Hurrian society [Abram was from Haran] the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the [legal] status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. This is why a man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her at the same time as his sister, in two separate steps recorded in independent legal documents. Violations of such sistership arrangements were punished more severely than breaches of marriage contracts.”[3]

In other words, it’s going to be bad news if you touch my wife, but if you touch my sister, you’re in for a world of hurt!

In fact, Chana Weisberg argues that Abraham showed such respect for Sarah that the question could be asked, “Was Abraham the first feminist?”[4]

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I mention all this, though not mainly for judging Abraham’s quality of character.  Instead, I’m wondering if Abraham is being obedient or disobedient to God’s call.  More specifically, I’m wondering if adapting to culture constitutes part of what it means to be called.

Admittedly, it is difficult to compare moral codes.  We are separated, not only by the distance, but by the time—four thousand years.  Their world was quite different from ours.

There’s also the element of desperation.  As verse 10 tells us, after Abraham arrived at his destination, there was a famine.  He was forced to go “to Egypt to reside there as an alien [we’ve just heard that word], for the famine was severe in the land.”  He was a refugee, dependent upon the kindness of others.  Factors beyond his control influenced him, even compelled him.  Factors beyond our control can do the same thing to us.

Still, the question of culture is timeless.  In working out our calling, we always have to deal with the culture around us.  It’s inescapable; we are immersed in our culture and in our subcultures.  Fish in water don’t know they are wet.  (Don’t ask me how I know that.)  Culture shapes how we perceive the world.  That’s why it’s important to learn about other cultures; it helps us to be more objective about our own.  It helps us, as best we can, to stand outside of it and look through the eyes of others.

There is also church culture; there is also congregational culture.  In a congregational system, there are written rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  We have our congregational bylaws.  As Presbyterians, we have our Book of Order.  But there are probably hundreds of unwritten rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  One reason for that is because everyone brings their own culture, their own experiences, to the table.

Imagine a pond on a quiet day.  Now picture throwing a rock into that pond.  The ripples spread out in all directions.  If someone else throws a rock into the pond, the ripples intersect.  Now imagine all of us throwing rocks into that pond.  Ripples are bouncing around everywhere.  Those interactions lead to the unwritten rules.  Otherwise, there is chaos!  (Although, sometimes a little chaos can be a good thing!)

What names, what rules, does our culture give us?  I’m fond of being called a “consumer.”  According to our economic system, my calling is to “consume.”  Maybe it’s just me, but I find that to be more than a little unsettling.

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That makes it all the more important to get a handle on the question, “How are we called?”  And going a little further, like Abraham, how are we called to bless?

A few years ago, Banu and I were invited to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh.  We were asked to do some workshops while there.

I did one which was inspired by an instructor I had in Clinical Pastoral Education.  What that meant for me was a student chaplaincy at a hospital, the result of which was my discovery that I was not cut out to be a hospital chaplain!  Still, I’m glad I was required to do it, being mandatory for Presbyterian ordination.  It was a good experience.  I really liked our instructor, although at times he tended to have a bit of a potty mouth!

There was one thing he had us practice which I thought was especially valuable.  He would challenge us to not use “God talk.”  That is, to avoid language that, for example, referenced “God” or “salvation” or “faith.”  It really forced us to stretch ourselves, to dig deep, to say what we meant by those words.

You might find this impossible to believe, but there are people who have actually had bad experiences with church or with Christians.  “God talk” can be a trigger for all kinds of negative stuff.  And then, there are those who simply don’t know what we’re talking about.

So that was my challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using “God talk.”  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

Some of them welcomed the test and gave it a good “faith” shot!  For others—not so much.  And when I started pushing them on it, some got irritated; it was even written on their faces.  Some of them let me know their displeasure.  They were not happy with me.

I observed how reaching out to those outside the four walls might mean learning a different language.  I don’t know if they didn’t believe me or just didn’t care.  It does require change.  Do you know what we call something that doesn’t change?  Dead.  Life, by its very nature (even at the chemical level), requires change.

5 gnFor many of them, they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends.  They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work.  In my defense, this little exercise didn’t even take a half hour, but that was enough to tick them off.

(There is a nice postscript to this story.  That night, they broke out the board games.  Even the folks who got annoyed with me were happy when I joined in.  Playing games can be incredibly therapeutic!)

I will freely admit, it is not easy for us church people to avoid using “God talk.”  It is not easy at all.  It’s not easy for me.  Again, it forces us to explain what we mean.  But it is well worth the effort; it is well worth practicing.  It helps us to speak with others with understanding and one hopes, with compassion.

In the end, this business of culture pays off well for Abraham (and dare I say, Sarah).  He entered Egypt without; he is leaving Egypt with—a lot!  The chapter closes, “Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had” (v. 20).  He’s on his way, following the call to “go forth.”  It’s central to how he is called.

How are we called?

 

[1] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 88.

[2] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080211JJ.shtml

[3] Speiser, 92.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/2235031/jewish/Was-Abraham-the-First-Feminist.htm


wait, every living creature?

When I was young, for a little while we went to church—a couple of years or so.  My Sunday school teacher had one of those billboards covered with felt material.  (The kind that images can stick to.)  She would use it illustrate the Bible stories for us students.

Of course, one of the favorites was always Noah’s ark.  There would be all manner of critters obediently marching to the giant boat.  Natural enemies would behave themselves, or rather, they would not behave as nature designed them.  The lion would not tear into the lamb.  The eagle would not swoop down and snatch the rabbit.

1 noah

We can think about how we first learn the story.  “Here come the animals, two by two.”  That sounds nice!  However, reading Genesis 7:2 gives us a slightly different take on it.  The Lord tells Noah, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate.”  It’s about ritual purity.  So maybe it should go this way: “Here come the unclean animals, two by two.”

Anyway, that’s how we first learn the story.  But if we leave it there, we’re reduced to asking rather cartoonish questions.  How did every species find its way to the ark?  Where did they store enough drinking water for the entire time?  Did anyone take a bath?  (You get what I’m talking about.)

Obviously, no story in sacred scripture has such a limited meaning.  The central idea of this story is covenant.

Sometimes there’s confusion between a contract and a covenant.  With a contract, terms are spelled out.  If one party does not abide by the terms, the contract is broken, and sometimes penalties are levied, punishment is meted out!  In addition, we’re always warned about reading the fine print before we sign on the dotted line.  (But who actually spends half an hour with six-point type?)

However, a covenant is quite different.  This is an agreement entered into which oddly enough, is still in effect even if one party doesn’t observe it faithfully.  It’s a statement which says, “I will honor this, even if you don’t.”  It’s “for better or for worse,” though that “for worse” in a marriage covenant can finally reach the point where it’s unsustainable.

2 noah

In the Bible, God makes numerous covenants.  We’ll look at the one in our scripture reading in a few moments.  Here are a few notable ones:

In Genesis 15, a covenant is made with Abraham—and Sarah, though she doesn’t get proper credit (v. 18)!  One who has no children is promised a multitude of descendants.

In Exodus 19, God makes a covenant with the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai.  They are promised to be God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (v. 5).

In Psalm 89, we see the covenant made with David, who receives the promise, “I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.”  What if his progeny—what if a king in the Davidic line—becomes unfaithful?  No matter, the Lord will still honor the covenant (vv. 3, 34).

And of course, we have the new covenant in Jesus Christ, which applies to us.  Even when we fail, and fail we do, the covenant stands.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.[1]  It makes sense that this would be one of the readings for Lent.  Consider the number forty.  It rained for forty days and forty nights, and the result was the great flood.  Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days.  Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  The number forty appears many times in the Bible.

Oh, and then there’s sin!  Sin a’ plenty.  We see the Israelites falling into sin in the wilderness.  They even long to go back to Egypt.  After all, they did have food to eat.  And talk about job security!  Sure there were chains, but who wants to fend for themselves in this terrible freedom of the desert?

Then we have Jesus in the desert.  What happens after he is baptized?  St. Mark tells us, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-13).  Jesus is weakened and vulnerable, in body, mind, and spirit.  Come on Jesus, just give him a try.  The devil has some interesting offers, and besides, nobody has to get hurt.  Sin is dangling before him, juicy tidbit it is—but Jesus doesn’t bite.

And now we have a story of universal sin.  “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gn 6:5).  Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts.  And what is the remedy?  Complete annihilation (well, with the exception of Noah and his family).  That doesn’t sound like a loving God, does it?

One way to come at this would be to realize in ancient times, many of the gods just didn’t like people!  They found them irritating, and they constantly demanded obedience, or they would lower the boom.  That was the environment of the ancient scriptural stories.  The difference here is that this God shows mercy and establishes the covenant—the one I mentioned earlier.

Still, the portrayal of a God who unleashes fury isn’t so strange as we might think.  Isn’t the image of a God who hurls lightning bolts still with us?  I think there’s something within the human psyche, regardless of belief system, theology, or life philosophy, that knows we have done, and sadly still do, wrong.  And so, there’s an expectation of punishment, which can lead to all kinds of scenarios.

Of course, we also have that new covenant.  We have the covenant which says in Christ we are forgiven.  Period.

If we can agree the flood wasn’t a historical event—if we can’t point to it on a calendar—I think we can still say it was, and is, a reality.  The flood is still with us, the flood of evil thoughts and evil doings!  However, we haven’t been destroyed.  “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11).  That’s the promise.

So here we go: “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’” (vv. 12-13).  The rainbow is the reminder.  “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (v. 16).

There is a covenant with every living creature.

3 noah

In ancient times, the rainbow was imagined as a bow, a divine weapon used to shoot the arrows of lightning bolts.  But now, the bow is being laid down in the clouds.  God is laying down the weapon.  We’re told God “will find a way of defeating evil without waging war.”[2]

Timothy Simpson wrote an article called, “The Politics of Saving Everybody.”[3]  If you think about it, this rainbow covenant is an extremely radical thing.  Think of it.  This is one of the stories told by those who say they are God’s chosen ones, the treasured possession out of all the peoples.  These are people who believe they’ve been set apart from the other nations.  They have special status.

At the same time, this story told by the Israelites has “the unmistakable notion that there is no living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere that is not covered under the scope of this covenant.”  No living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere.  That’s quite a sweeping statement.

I find his phrase interesting: the politics of saving everybody.  There are always political divisions.  There are always differences in how people want to accomplish certain things.  Still, maybe we can notice how, over the past couple of decades, divisions have gradually become hardened.  Too often people are questioning, not only the intelligence of those with whom they disagree, but also their character.  Not only are they wrong-headed, but wrong-hearted.  In the past couple of years, that seems to have dramatically escalated.

It can be a tricky proposition to recognize how the rainbow covenant applies to everyone and everything.

But then, that’s why this story is so perfect for Lent.  We are reminded by Joan Chittister, “Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod.”[4]

God lays down the bow.  God buries the hatchet, so to speak.  Aren’t we called to scrape the sludge off our lives?  Aren’t we called to lay down our weapons?  To lay down the mistrust?  To lay down the hostility?  To tear down the walls we erect?  To stop praying for a flood to wipe out our enemies?  Isn’t that what this season of Lent is calling us to do?

I find Henri Nouwen’s prayer for Lent especially insightful.  “I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me.  The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life.  I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions.  There are not times or places without choices.  And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.”[5]

It is difficult to accept God’s throwing down the bow, God’s extending the rainbow covenant to every living creature.  It is difficult to escape lazy either-or thinking, to reframe the discussion, to creatively imagine a third way or a fourth way.

When the flood comes, don’t worry.  God will not let it destroy you!

 

[1] Obviously, this sermon was posted well afterwards!

[2] www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2010-07-01

[3] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-saving-everybody-genesis-98-17

[4] Joan Chittister, Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.

[5] drsheltie.blogspot.com/2015/02/snowy-ashes.html


what kind of father is that?

During the decade of the 90s, a term that became deeply entrenched in our political and cultural discussion was the phrase “family values.”  Many of the people who have been the strongest advocates of “family values” have held up, as examples of the model family, something that has largely disappeared in America: a husband and wife with no previous marriages, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence.

1 father

“Family values” is usually closely linked with one’s reading of “biblical values.”  The interesting thing about this is that actual biblical families are rarely mentioned as models.  Maybe that’s a good thing, though it isn’t very honest.  Those families tend to be too messy; they have too much conflict and dysfunction.  In that sense, they tend to look like American families!

A good case in point is the family in our Old Testament reading.  We’ve got all the ingredients necessary for some serious family therapy: jealousy, rivalry, power plays, squabbling over who’s the favored son, and feelings of betrayal.  I want to focus on the father, Abraham, because it is Father’s Day and because he is the one in the middle of the whole mess, a mess of which he appears unwilling or unable to seriously address.

To be honest, there are two qualities of this family that don’t exist in American life—at least not legally—polygamy and slavery!  Another aspect, surrogate, or substitute, motherhood, is usually performed in a way quite different from the method described in the Bible.  Most wives today wouldn’t suggest to their husbands that they have sex with another woman (indeed a much younger woman) in order to produce a child!

And by the way, if you have access to Hulu, check out the quite excellent TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel from 1985.  (I admit, I haven’t read the book.)  The show illustrates with brutal honesty, what’s behind our story and a multitude of others like it.

2 fatherToday’s account really starts in chapter 16.  God has already promised Abraham he will father a son, which so far in life hasn’t happened.  (On a side note, that’s something else from The Handmaid’s Tale.  Failure to conceive was always due to a barren woman, not a sterile man.)  Still, the fact that by this time Sarah is past menopause, which would be a legitimate reason, presents a problem.

Abraham believes Eliezer of Damascus, a trusted servant, will be his heir.  But God assures him his heir will be his own offspring.  Knowing she’s no longer able to give birth, Sarah comes up with an idea.  She has a servant, a young Egyptian woman named Hagar, who is certainly able to produce a son.  So here’s the plan: following the custom of the day, Abraham is to take Hagar as his wife, and maybe she can have his baby.  The scripture doesn’t talk about Abraham’s response.  He doesn’t seem to offer much of an argument!

The son who’s the result of this union, Ishmael, is legally Abraham’s heir.  And the same custom that provides for a male heir provided by a surrogate also forbids the expulsion of the slave wife and her child.  That partly explains Abraham’s distress when Sarah demands he do that very thing.[1]

But even before Ishmael is born, some of that serious jealousy and rivalry I spoke of earlier has already begun.  In a society in which women are valued primarily for their ability to reproduce, as breeding stock, Hagar is empowered in a way Sarah, even with all her wealth, is not.

All three of them are driven by different forces.  Sarah feels a sense of desperation and outrage at her fate and probably at her husband.  Hagar, the one with the least amount of say, has been forced to share her bed with her elderly master and now faces the wrath of Sarah.  And Abraham is torn by his love for Sarah, his respect for custom, and the very real bond that now exists with Hagar.  When Sarah presents her complaint, he simply withdraws and says, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (16:6).  In other words, “I don’t want to get involved; do whatever you want.”

Sarah proceeds to make life a living hell for her servant, and Hagar is expelled into the wilderness.  It’s there she encounters God and receives the promise that she, too, will produce offspring that “cannot be counted for multitude” (16:10).  This encounter is very important—Hagar is one of the few people in the entire Bible who gives God a name (El roi, “God of vision” or “God who sees,” 16:13).

Let’s jump ahead about fourteen years, to today’s scripture reading in chapter 21.  The Lord has told Abraham and Sarah she really will have a son, and he will be the true heir.  Isaac is born, and the rivalry between the two wives now involves their two sons.

Things reach a melting point at the feast celebrating the day Isaac was weaned, which can happen when the child is three years old or more.[2]  The party’s going fine until Sarah notices something that gets her really ticked off.  She sees, as the scripture puts it in verse 9, Ishmael “playing.”

What we have in verse 9 is a play on words, a pun.  The term for “playing” (מְעַחֶק, metsahaq) comes from the word meaning “laugh” (צָחַק, tsahaq), which is also the source of Isaac’s name (יִצְחָק, yitshaq).  The similarity in the words for “playing,” “laughing,” and “Isaac,” probably points to Sarah’s alarm at how similar Ishmael is to Isaac.  She knows he’s a threat to Isaac as the heir.  As a result, she takes decisive action.  She demands that Hagar and Ishmael be driven out, this time, for good.

I’ve taken some time talking about Hagar’s expulsion because it’s a turning point in the story of this family.  It also helps us understand Abraham.  As I said at the beginning, I especially want to focus on him, today being Father’s Day.

My sermon title asks the question, “What kind of father is that?”  If Abraham is intended, a rather harsh reply would be: “not a very good one.”  What kind of father would allow his own son to be driven away and abandoned in the wilderness?  What kind of father would allow the mother of his son to be treated that way?

Still, Abraham is chosen by God to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (12:3).  It’s God, not Abraham, who has the responsibility of bringing this to pass.  Abraham’s responsibility is to follow where God leads.  And despite himself, he succeeds.  And to his credit, we shouldn’t forget Abraham didn’t exactly ask for all of this.  Leaving his homeland wasn’t at the top of his “to do” list.

Thinking about Abraham and the question, “What kind of father is that?” has led me to think of my own experience.  It’s led me to think of my own father.  And I’m glad to say: my mother never encouraged him to take another wife and to father a half-brother with whom I now have a bitter rivalry!  I don’t think he would have gone along with that idea anyway!

3 fatherOn Father’s Day we are encouraged to praise the glories of fatherhood, and that is fitting.  But there are others who go in the opposite direction and talk about how their dad was the biggest jerk who ever lived.  Thankfully, I’m not in that category!

What I will say is that my father is someone I know really loved me.  Having been adopted as a baby, I later came to understand all the hoops he and my mother had to jump through in order to get me.  I know I was truly wanted.

When I was young, we did all the usual father-son stuff: going fishing, throwing the football.  But as I approached adolescence, sometimes it seemed like we were on different planets.  (I realize, I was the only teenager who’s ever felt that way!)  For example, he might be explaining how to fix something, and I’d be looking at our dog and wondering what it would be like to think with her brain.

Something happened in 1985.  Within the span of one or two months, both my father and I came to Christ.  Our relationship had never been a bad one; it just hadn’t evolved very much.  We didn’t have many deep conversations.  But Jesus Christ changed that.  We felt free to open up to each other.  (At least, that’s how I perceived it.)  And I rediscovered something I had believed as a little kid: my dad was a pretty cool guy!

Just as it was faith that redeemed our relationship, so it’s faith that redeems Abraham.  He and his family provide ample proof that “family” can be quite creepy.  In fact, we can be quite vicious to each other.  I like commercials with the promise, “We treat you like family.”  I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing!  But by the grace of God, we can rise above that.

“What kind of father is that?”  All of us can ask that question of our own fathers.  Each has a different answer.  But regardless of our own particular cases, there is a Father we all share.

4 father
My dad (Jim) and I at my sister's apartment, Christmas 1987. Someone is under the mistletoe.

Our final hymn today is “This is My Father’s World.”  (I realize, this being Father’s Day, it is a bit “on the nose”!  Also, please forgive the masculine imagery for God.)

We might see many families, as well as our society itself, being plagued by vicious dysfunction.  The second stanza has something to say about that:

“This is my Father’s world: Oh, let me ne’er forget / That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet. / This is my Father’s world: The battle is not done; / Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heaven be one.”

As the church, as our best selves, we’re called to rescue the image of God as Father.  So much violence has been done in that name.  But the God of Jesus Christ is the Father who loves, protects, liberates, enlightens, saves.  With joy and confidence, we can ask, “What kind of father is that?”

 

[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1981), 79.

[2] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Co., 1964), 155.


the art of blessing

Trinity Sunday is the only major holiday on the church calendar that isn’t based on the life of Jesus.  Instead, it’s based on a theological doctrine.  That might sound dry and academic, but the Holy Trinity is infused with life and joy and beauty and even humor.

Trinity Sunday doesn’t commemorate a single moment, but rather an eternal moment.  It’s not something in the life of Jesus the human, but rather the eternal life of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, one with God and the Holy Spirit.

With the Holy Trinity, we have the very definition of community.  We have the perfect example of κοινωνια (koinōnia)—of communion, of fellowship.  In this community, everyone abides by the law of love.  No one prefers self before others.  This is the model for human family, for human society.  There is no grasping for power.  The desire is to be a blessing.  The Trinity lives out the art of blessing.

Speaking of blessing, the last verse of 2 Corinthians should be familiar.  It is to me, since that’s the benediction I like to use at the end of services of worship.  This is the Trinitarian benediction, with all its simplicity and depth.

1 trinity

It’s included at the end of St. Paul’s farewell to the Corinthian church, one that has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; they’ve treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  To their credit, one thing they haven’t been is boring!  But through it all, Paul has consistently guided them in, and to, the love and peace of Jesus Christ.

In fact, he tells them how “the God of love and peace will be with” them.  That’s ultimately what verse 11 is all about.  First of all, when he says, “Put things in order,” he’s not demonstrating OCD!  He’s not being a neat freak; he’s not being a tidiness Nazi.  The apostle wants to avoid the disorder that has so often plagued them.  The word used, καταρτιζω (katartizō), can also mean “be restored.”  So he’s not browbeating them.

Secondly, his plea to “listen to my appeal” is a plea to learn humility.  That flows into his request when he says, “agree with one another.”  Paul’s not telling them to act like clones.  He wants them as best they can, to obey the law of love.  This will enable them to “live in peace.”

In verse 12, the apostle adds this: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  He says this in several letters.  This is where our “kiss of peace” comes from.  And for anyone who’s ever wondered why we usually do not kiss each other—besides concerns about inappropriate contact—there’s also the fact that fairly early in church history, they also had concerns.  The liturgical practice of men kissing women who were not their wives, and women kissing men who were not their husbands, was abandoned.

I have a little story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road.  (There are a few differences between the Armenian Orthodox and Presbyterians!)

The entire service was in the Armenian language, except for the sermon and the prayer of confession, which were in English.  Included in their liturgy was the kiss of peace.  The only other people in the pew where I was sitting was a family with a father, mother, and daughter.  She looked like she was about 20.  They started down the line, kissing each other on the cheek.  Then the daughter started moving toward me; I became a bit nervous.  She extended her hand, so a holy kiss turned into a holy handshake.  Potential drama averted!

2 trinity
Ryan Gosling does some theologizing.

In any event, maybe you can see why this epistle reading is used for Trinity Sunday.  With the Trinitarian benediction, we get a triple blessing.  Something similar is going on with our gospel text in Matthew, the so-called “great commission.”  The baptismal formula of “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” fits nicely for today.

What does the Holy Trinity mean in our lives?  There are many ways to go with this.  An image that might be helpful is one I suggested earlier—the Holy Trinity as the example of the perfect community of love.  That has ramifications for all of life, including the call to make disciples.  Then it won’t be just a song: they really will “know we are Christians by our love.”

I must confess, though; I don’t know what I’m talking about!  I say the words, “perfect community of love,” but I have only the scarcest idea what that means.

Well, it’s been said a picture is worth a thousand words.  And it is a picture, more specifically an icon, that I want us to consider.  It’s “The Trinity,” by Andrei Rublev.  This icon is a prime example of the art of blessing.  Rublev was inspired by the visitation of the three men/angels to Abraham when they announce that Sarah will have a child (Genesis 18:1-15).

The word “icon” (εικων, eikōn) appears many times in the New Testament.  It’s usually translated as “image.”  The apostle uses it in Colossians, when he says Christ “is the image [the icon] of the invisible God” (1:15).  We Presbyterians, as well as Protestants in general, tend to be suspicious of icons.  They seem to be too “Eastern Orthodox,” like the Armenians I spoke of a few moments ago.  You know, there’s nothing wrong with being in an Orthodox Church!  (We all have our plusses and minuses.)

Icons are considered to be windows into heaven, windows into the eternal.  This one features, from left to right, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  They show mutual deference to one another.

Over the centuries, many gallons of ink have been spilled over descriptions of the icon and what the various parts of it mean.  As you might guess, there is far too much for us to deal with right now.

Briefly, we can see the Father wearing a shimmering robe, reflecting many colors.  One writer says it “seems transparent,” it “cannot be described or confined in words.  And this is how it should be.  No one has seen the Father, but the vision of him fills the universe.”[1]

The Son is the Incarnate one, and his garments unite the brown of earth and the blue of heaven.  “In his person he unites heaven and earth, the two natures are present in him.”

The Holy Spirit is clothed in “the clear blue of the sky…with a robe of a fragile green.  So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth.  All living things owe their freshness to [the Spirit’s] touch.”

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There is so much here.  We can go riffing, waiting to see what inspires us.  There’s the house behind the Father, maybe the one Jesus says has many mansions.  There’s the tree behind the Son—maybe the tree Abraham sat under, maybe the tree of life.  They all have wings; they all are carrying staffs.  They’re seated around a table featuring a chalice, which has been surmised to hold the lamb slain for us.

Maybe you get what I’m talking about.  All kinds of meaning can be seen in it.

In his excellent book, Praying with Icons, Jim Forest says this of Rublev’s work: “If one were to search for a single word to describe the icon, it is the word ‘love.’  The Holy Trinity itself is a community of love so perfect that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one.  All creation is a manifestation of God’s love.  The Incarnation of Christ is an act of love as is every word and action that follows, even if at times it is what Dostoevsky calls ‘a harsh and dreadful love.’”[2]

At first glance, I wondered what the big deal was.  Why all the fuss about this image?  But it was just that: a first glance.  I hadn’t taken the time to be with the icon, to pray with it, to let it speak to me.

Forest finishes his discussion of the icon in what I thought is a surprising way.  He says, “‘Of all the philosophical proofs of the existence of God,’ wrote the priest and scientist Pavel Florensky, who died a martyr’s death in the Stalin era, ‘that which carries the most conviction is not mentioned in any textbook.  It may be summarized as follows: “Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon exists, therefore God exists.”’”[3]

Imagine that: a work of art, the product of human hands, being given such lofty praise.

In a few moments, we’ll sing the hymn, “O Lord, Our God, How Excellent,” which is based on today’s psalm reading, Psalm 8.  The second stanza goes, “The heavens shout Your handiwork; / We stand beneath in awe, / To think the One who made all things / Should care for us at all.”

We are surrounded by blessing, even if you’re like me and really don’t understand!  Trinity Sunday reminds us that we are not alone, in fact, we are enveloped by love.  In one of my favorite verses in the Bible, Jesus says in our gospel reading to “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).  The blessing given to us—the benediction pronounced over us—both reassures us and calls us to action.

In our stumbling, halting way, we try to envision the Holy Trinity.  We use geometry, such as a triangle.  But that’s not the only way to picture the Trinity, with the inner being separated as points.  The Trinity can also be envisioned as a circle, ever flowing, never ending, encompassing all that is, existence itself.

I want to close with this.  It’s a question and a challenge.  How can we choose blessing over cursing?  How can we model the art of blessing?  How can we do that even today?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Amen.

 

[1] www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon%20explanation.htm

[2] Jim Forest, Praying with Icons (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1997), 99.

[3] Forest, 100.


make way for the weak

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Most of you have no doubt heard that prayer before.  It has been attributed to St. Francis.  There’s a lot of good stuff in it.  There is so much that is praiseworthy about it.  And none of it is easily reflected in our lives.  But there’s one thing in particular that I find challenging—and irritating.  It’s the part of the prayer which says “grant that I may not seek so much…to be understood as to understand.”

Misunderstood

I don’t know about you, but I hate being misunderstood.  It’s too easy to take things the wrong way, to take someone the wrong way.  Maybe that’s why emoticons (or emojis) have become popular online.  It might be difficult to distinguish between a comment being snarky or good-natured.  (Though, I think the overuse of emojis suggests a poor grasp of language!)

As for St. Francis, it seems clear he doesn’t believe that he has arrived.  He knows that he still prefers to be understood.  And that isn’t good for his spiritual growth.  To be honest, it isn’t good for simply living together in society.

This idea of understanding, instead of striving to be understood, is part of the background of our epistle reading.  St. Paul wants to emphasize the humility involved in that.  Learning to be humble means it becomes more difficult to throw our weight around.  As we’ll see, he uses our Lord Jesus Christ as the icon of humility and welcoming.

But first, here are some brief comments about Paul’s letter to the Roman church.  It is the longest, most theologically packed, and influential of his works.  Some people can’t praise it enough.  Its main theme is justification by faith.  In the letter, Paul covers a wide variety of topics.  Among other things, he talks about Abraham as a model of being justified by faith and not by law.  He addresses life in the Spirit and the role of Israel.

When we get to chapter 12, there is a big turn in direction.  This is where he starts applying what he’s already said to specific ways of living.  The apostle is talking about acting on what we believe, or at least, what we say we believe.

Again, among many other things, Paul says to not take revenge.  (Even though it’s a dish best served cold!)  He tells the Christians to be good citizens of the empire, and that includes paying your taxes!  He warns them against squabbling with each other over matters that divide them into factions—matters which at the end of the day, aren’t exactly of earth shattering importance.

Today’s scripture is part of that last section, which begins with chapter 14.  He kicks things off by talking about the “strong” and the “weak.”  That goes back to what I said about throwing our weight around.  “Welcome those who are weak in faith,” the apostle says, “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1).  Why not?  Doesn’t he know how much fun it is making other people look bad?

Strong and weak

And there were all kinds of ways they were doing this.  For example, there were arguments about food.  Actually, those arguments never seem to end.  I like what he says.  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (v. 2).  My guess is that Paul heard other people calling those vegetarians “weak.”  I don’t imagine he had a beef with them.

(I should add:  those folks’ abstaining from meat wasn’t necessarily for reasons of health or helping the environment, as they tend to be today, but for reasons of ritual purity.)

The point is, they were arguing over what they thought is vital to the faith.  At least, that’s the presenting issue.  There’s much more going on below the surface.

The so-called “strong” have knowledge, and they might dismiss the concerns of the “weak” as irrelevant.  The so-called “weak” want to defend the faith, and they might condemn the self-appointed “strong” as too cavalier, too casual.

As Paul continues through chapter 14 and then into today’s reading in 15, he yearns for them to get some perspective.  Don’t cause each other to stumble.

Our text begins, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”  (By the way, isn’t it convenient that Paul counts himself among the strong?)  Another version puts it this way: “Those of us who are strong must accept as our own burden the tender scruples of the weak, and not just please ourselves” (Revised English Bible).  The strong must accept as their own burden the tender scruples of the weak.[1]  Just because it’s your right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.

When I was a kid, my mom told me to not set things out where they could be a temptation to others.  Something really blatant would be, “Don’t show up at an AA meeting, and plop a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table.”  In a similar way, if the cops do something like that to get you arrested, it’s called entrapment.

We are such fragile creatures.  In the Lord’s Prayer, don’t we ask that we won’t be led into temptation?  St. James says in his letter, “all of us make many mistakes” (3:2).

I like a prayer by St. Philip Neri, who lived in 16th century Italy.  He was known for being both humble and for having an offbeat sense of humor.  This prayer seems to sum up his approach to life: “Lord, beware of this Philip or he will betray you!  Lay your hand upon my head, for without you there is not a sin I may not commit this day.”

Sometimes I insert my name into it.  Lord, beware of this James or he will betray you!

Taking all of that into account, Paul presents Jesus as the model of humility and welcoming I mentioned earlier.  He tells them to emulate Christ, who didn’t put himself first.  He is the example of understanding, rather than insisting on being understood.  He “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (v. 3).  He accepts insults; he accepts weakness.  In a way, he gives us permission to be weak.  He becomes weakness.

During Advent, we prepare the way; we make way for the weak.  The voluntarily weak one is the one of understanding and welcome.

But we aren’t to be left floundering in weakness.  This passage is shot through with hope.  Verse 4 says by the steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we discover hope.  They aren’t dusty, stale documents of times gone by.  They are brimming with life.

In the book of Isaiah, the scriptures promise that “the root of Jesse shall come,” that is, David (and the son of David).  One day, the Gentiles will find in him hope (v. 12).

And of course, our passage ends with the awesome blessing, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (v. 13).  These aren’t empty words.  They provide the sure basis of the hope that doesn’t disappoint.  Though at times, to be honest, that hope might feel like it’s a million miles away.

Our scripture passage hinges on verse 7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Welcome one another.  Practice hospitality.  That can be just as tough as the petitions in the prayer of St. Francis.  Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.  And do it, not for your glory, not for our glory, but for the glory of God.

Sometimes I see on church signs, “All are welcome.”  Really?  Do they sincerely mean that?  All are welcome, without any preconditions?  If so, that’s great.

Some people say that Paul’s appeal to welcome one another applies to welcoming both the strong and the weak.  Others say it’s about both Jews and Gentiles.  Maybe it’s about both meat-eaters and vegetarians!  Whatever the case, it seems to be a pretty expansive, wide open statement.

image from 2.bp.blogspot.com

This business of welcoming one another also has certain ramifications, certain implications, for congregations in transition.

Banu and I have mentioned these on several occasions, so let me review the developmental tasks for interim time.  Five are usually cited.  They are (1) Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, (2) Discovering a New Identity, (3) Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, (4) Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and (5) Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.

Right now, I want to look at number 3, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders.  This is where Paul’s appeal to welcome one another is especially relevant.

I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  It’s a strange committee, I have to say.  It’s like an ugly duckling.  It is mandated by our Book of Order (G-3.0103).  And there are a good number of presbyteries which list it, but in name only.  They don’t function; there are few, if any, people who staff them.  And it’s not hard to understand why.  A Committee on Representation can feel like a quota system.  We have to check off boxes in various categories.  What can get lost is the call to welcome one another, to be sensitive to the Spirit’s call to welcome all voices.

In congregations, leadership changes and empowering new leaders might be easier said than done.  We might feel like we’ve tried that, to no avail, or we might feel like we’re filling spots with warm bodies, so to speak.  In the nominating process, creative approaches are often called for.  Too often, we neglect a valuable resource, or at least, we don’t take it seriously enough.  We neglect bringing the matter before the spirit of creation, the Holy Spirit.  Where we don’t see a way, the Spirit of God does.

Sometimes those creative approaches might mean letting a position remain vacant.  Sometimes certain ministries or activities fade away, due to lack of interest.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Ultimately, it’s not about us.  It really isn’t “our” ministry.  It is the Lord’s ministry through us.

It can be difficult to commit to empowering new leaders.  It is important to be open to the fresh wind of the Spirit.  The wind blows where it chooses.  We use our gifts and abilities, but the true empowerment doesn’t come from us.  “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Our task is to create the space where the glory is not ours, but God’s.

So as we move deeper into the season of Advent, let us be mindful of our call to welcome one another, in both our strengths and weaknesses.  Let us dare to seek to understand, rather than to insist on being understood.

[1] “accept as their own burden”: βασταζω (bastazō), “bear,” “carry”

[The bottom image is from the movie Antwone Fisher, starring Derek Luke and Denzel Washington. It’s from the powerful scene near the end, when Antwone finds his extended family. They are gathered for a banquet when the matriarch calls him over. She places her aged hands on his face and says, “Welcome.”]


great minds...

It’s often said that great minds think alike. If that’s true, then Jeremiah and his contemporary, Ezekiel, might be a case in point. As we continue “journeying with Jeremiah,” looking at various scriptures in chapters 3 to 6, we’ll notice some distinct similarities in the messages of both prophets. Jeremiah is still in the land, while Ezekiel has been hauled off to exile in Babylon.

However, I’m afraid both of them could be accused of having a potty mouth; their descriptions of their fellow countrymen (and women) are hardly flattering! In fact, they’re downright disgusting. (Ezekiel’s parallels come in chapters 16 and 23 of his book.)

Still, Jeremiah stands in solidarity with some notable figures in his people’s history, including—as we see in chapter 5—old Father Abraham.


family ties

Sometimes when I’m watching television, a commercial will come on in which the advertisers make an interesting promise. Whether it’s a business that will bake you a pizza or fix your car, this is their claim: “We treat you like family.” In fact, I think that the Olive Garden makes such a claim. I recently said to Banu, “‘Treating you like family’ is not necessarily a good thing.” I can think of plenty of people, and plenty of situations, in which being treated like family would be a bad thing—even a terrible thing! In fact, something you might avoid like the plague is being treated like family!

Something similar to that is a humorous observation about family. It’s the idea that every family has an oddball. (Some more than one!) Maybe it’s the uncle with wild conspiracy theories, like the secret army of dolphins being trained by the military in mind control. Or maybe it’s the cousin who insists on speaking with a British accent, even though she isn’t British. (I’ll let you decide if I invented these people, or if they actually exist.) But here’s the point: if you can’t think of an oddball in the family, then it’s probably you!

This is all about putting the “fun” in “dysfunctional”! The Bible is no stranger to dysfunctional families. It is filled with them, from start to finish. Genesis 25 gives us a look at one such family—the family of Isaac and Rebekah. We’ll get to the dysfunctional part in a moment, but first we have a theme that is repeated several times in the scriptures: a woman who is said to be barren.

In ancient times (and even today, in some quarters), if a couple could not conceive, it was almost always considered to be a problem with the woman. She was the soil to receive the man’s seed. And if nothing took root, then there was something wrong with the soil.

Before the invention of microscopes, the idea that some men’s seed were not very good swimmers never occurred to them! (By the way, contrary to what we now know about chromosomes, it was thought that the woman determined whether the baby would be a boy or a girl.) Along those lines, it was often thought that, with couples who could not conceive, the woman was cursed by God. She was being punished.Amazingly enough, there are still some people today who have that idea.

Accordingly, Isaac sought divine intervention for Rebekah. And guess what? It worked. They had been married for twenty years before Isaac was born. That’s a long time for people to look down on you, to make you feel like you’re worthless. Who knows what stories were passed around? Who knows what tales were told? In any event, when they find out that Rebekah is pregnant, it looks like they’re home free. This is an answer to prayer. But hold on a minute: Rebekah has a difficult pregnancy. In fact, her suffering is so great that she gets to the point of wondering if life is even worth living (v. 22).

When she does give birth, there are twin boys who are said to be struggling with each other—as if they could possibly know to do that! The first to come into the world is Esau, but Jacob is right behind him, holding onto his heel. The author of our story, looking back in time, sees this as a sign of things to come, of fighting between their descendants.

There’s something that I hope we all know—and if you don’t, you find this out pretty soon. It’s that, when you get married, you are also marrying the other person’s family. That’s something I make sure those with whom I do premarital counseling understand. In my case, I have a little bit of a buffer, since my in-laws literally live on the other side of the world! Still, my wife and I are both products of our families.

We don’t know very much about Rebekah’s family, but we have a good bit of insight into Isaac’s upbringing. I won’t go into great detail, but the son that Abraham fathers with Hagar, the servant of Sarah, becomes the focus of jealousy and contention. (Honestly, who could have foreseen such an outcome?) Ishmael is pitted against his half-brother, Isaac. There’s another problematic event in Isaac’s childhood. It happens when his father tries to kill him!

Abraham thinks God wants him to do it, but going on a camping trip, the highlight of which is the father tying the son to an altar, while brandishing a dagger, doesn’t help very much in father-son bonding! It’s probably not the best of role models in showing one’s son how to be a father. Who can say what effect this has on Isaac?

One thing we can say is that he and Rebekah play favorites with the two boys. As the scripture says, “Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (vv. 27-28).

Esau’s idea of fun would be to go out and shoot a deer, but Jacob would just as soon read a book. Esau is the outdoorsman, while Jacob is more the stay-at-home type. And based on the next paragraph, it looks like he learns a thing or two about cooking from his mother. The way it’s presented, Esau is the impulsive one; Jacob is the intentional one. One wonders how much influence his mother has had on him.

At any rate, one day Esau comes home and smells the stew that his twin brother has been whipping up. Esau blurts out, “That smells delicious! Give me some of that stuff.” He’s the older twin, so the inheritance that goes to the eldest son belongs to him. Jacob replies, “You can have it on one condition: let’s switch places and give me your birthright.”

“Fine,” says Esau, “I don’t care about that stuff. Here I am, starving to death. I’m ready to eat!”

It would seem that Esau isn’t the sharpest tool in the drawer, so to speak. But maybe he isn’t as dim-witted as the scripture portrays him. We have to admit that this is told from the perspective of Jacob, later known as Israel (32:28).

There is a certain bias at work. I think it’s fair to say that we don’t know all of Esau’s motivations. Is it possible that he is relieved to be rid of the responsibilities that go with being the elder son? Esau knows how his brother is. Could it be that this is the opportunity he’s been waiting for?

733px-Isaac_Blessing_Jacob_-_Govert_Flinck

Isaac Blessing Jacob -- Govert Flinck (1638)

Whether or not that’s the case, how does that play into our own families? Some of us are an only child. The rest of us fall somewhere in the order of siblings. What were, and possibly still are, the expectations laid on each of us? Which of those expectations are unwanted, and on the flip side, which of those are desired? Much of life is based on things we didn’t choose; much of it is based on an accident of birth.

When we bring in the element of faith, we find out that God makes choices in the family. Isaac, rather than Ishmael, is chosen. (Though Muslims say the opposite is true.) And Jacob, rather than Esau, is chosen. Again, the author is looking back in time and seeing how things played out.

But we can still ask, on what basis is one chosen, rather than the other? It seems so arbitrary.

Aside from that, they all have their dysfunctions. None of them is deserving of blessing. One writer says, “In that all of these undeserving characters are so deeply flawed…God’s choice was clearly not based upon merit.”

This is a radical picture of grace—undeserved grace, as grace is by definition.

On that note about the often arbitrary nature of life, the often random nature of life: none of us chose the family we were born into. And in my case, I didn’t choose the family I was adopted into.

I have to say that I am not a fan of country music. Here’s where we get into what I just said about accident of birth and/or adoption. I was raised and loved by two people who were really into country music. When I was growing up, I was bathed in the sounds of Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn, just to name a few.

But there’s one song in particular that has stayed with me. It speaks of the frequently arbitrary nature of life—the cards that we’re dealt—but also, what we do with those cards. It’s “The Gambler,” by Kenny Rogers.

To set the stage, the singer is “on a train bound for nowhere” when he is joined by the gambler, who dispenses some advice about life. The gambler says that “every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.”

But it’s the gambler’s final words that especially impress the singer: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run / You never count your money / When you’re sittin’ at the table / There’ll be time enough for countin’ / When the dealin’s done.”

As the gambler has discovered, we don’t choose how we come into this world, but we do have a say in how we live in this world. Again, some decisions are made for us. We are not consulted in the matter. Some of us were dealt a lousy hand. Still, as the song says, “every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.”

Having said that, there is a reality we must admit. My current hero, Richard Rohr, puts it this way in On the Threshold of Transformation:

“Have you ever met [someone] who didn’t seem comfortable in [their] own skin?… Consider the possibility that, as a child, when that person first came into the world, [they were] not given the first permission—permission to exist.

Many people have never been given this foundational permission—either spoken or unspoken. No one ever held their face, looked into their eyes, and said, 'Welcome to the world, dear little one. I’m so happy you’re here, that you exist. I love you.’”

God gives us permission to exist. Indeed, God does much more than that. We have been adopted into the family of God.

In Romans 8, Paul says that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (vv. 14-15).

We have received a spirit of adoption. What does that mean? What does it mean to receive a spirit of adoption? Among other things, it means that in God’s eyes, the hand we’ve been dealt, whether good, bad or indifferent, is not the one we’re stuck with. There’s something better.

Can we see how this applies to Jacob and Esau? For whatever reason—and as already mentioned, we don’t know all of his motivations—Esau rejects his birthright.

Here’s a question: what do we do with our birthright? Again, as with Esau, we haven’t chosen our birthright. Our birthright includes all of the images, the worldviews, the ways of looking at reality, even religious biases that were given to us by those who raised us.

Birthright includes the way we were shaped as children. But our adoption by God goes beyond all of that. Adoption into the family of God, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit, brings us into a new relationship—a new creation. Our birthright is transformed into something in which the old rules no longer apply. It is a new kind of family tie. As disciples of Jesus, we hear his words “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).