Deuteronomy

Shavuot, Pentecost, and the word of revolution

How about New York Cheesecake as part of a religious celebration?  When Christians celebrate Pentecost, that particular dessert rarely figures into the equation.  However, the observance of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot often has mouths savoring that delicious treat.

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[photo by Monika Grabkowska at Unsplash]

Can we imagine cheesecake as a holy food?  It puts a whole new spin on the psalm saying, “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (34:8).

Okay, backing up a bit…  Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks.”  It is one of the three festivals in the Hebrew scriptures required for pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.  The other two are Passover (or Pesach) and the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot).

Shavuot was originally a harvest festival when the first of the crops sprouted, thus the term “firstfruits,” which were brought to the temple.  It was observed seven weeks and one day after Passover—fifty days.  In Greek, “Pentecost” means fifty.  For the church, Pentecost is today.  For Jews, Shavuot ended yesterday at sundown; it is celebrated for two days.  The timing difference is due to Shavuot being counted after Passover and Pentecost being counted after Easter.

When the Romans destroyed the temple in the year 70, there was nowhere to bring the firstfruits.  Consequently, the focus shifted to the revelation of Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai.  Other than the exodus from Egypt, this is the premier event giving identity to the Jewish people.  The giving of the word is the aspect I wish to make my focus.

Lacking any specific requirements, Shavuot is kept by special services, recognizing it as a day of rest, and among other events, enjoying holiday meals.  Dairy foods are highlighted, thus the mention of cheesecake!

Still, the divine encounter with Moses, associated with the day of Pentecost, is front and center.  That is given special attention.  One way of giving that attention is by pulling an all-nighter while engaged in the study of scripture.  Some might suggest having coffee and strong tea on hand!

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[As an aside, I have a story about strong tea—quite strong tea, which Turkish tea is.  Banu’s parents were visiting us from Istanbul when we lived in Jamestown (about 20 years ago now).  Turks drink a lot of tea, which is fine with me, because I love tea.  They use small glasses, which we had.  Then I got the smart idea of filling up a large mug.  Turkish tea, with its elevated volume of caffeine, has an even greater diuretic effect.  Suffice to say, I made a greater than usual amount of trips to the bathroom that evening.]

There is a legend saying God offered the Torah to 70 different nations, doing so in their own languages.  All refused to accept it.  However, when God approached Israel at Sinai, the word was welcomed.  In Exodus 19:8 we read, “The people all answered as one, ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’  Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.”

By the way, that puts a different spin on Israel being God’s “chosen” people.  They “chose” to follow the Torah.  (Perhaps the word is better translated as “instructions” or “teachings.”)

Naomi Wolf, who throughout her life has been a decidedly left-wing feminist (though doesn’t one have to be leftist to be a feminist!), has over the past couple of years, rediscovered her faith.  She speaks of the “Hebrew Bible [as] more about love and less about rules.  The rules are the guardrails for the love.  And God is always seeking out ordinary people—while clothed in his own Person.”[1]  I really like that definition of Torah: rules as guardrails for love.

In the New Testament, in Acts 2, we see Jews from many far-flung nations gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost.  We are told how the Holy Spirit rushed in like a violent wind with fire.  Descending upon them all, they spoke in tongues in their native languages, praising the Lord.

Incidentally, in verse 1 we hear, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  Were they doing the all-night study?  Maybe they had some strong tea.

Pentecost is often considered to be the birthday of the church.  After the fire fell, the Spirit being poured out on all flesh, the number of believers began to increase exponentially.  Starting in Jerusalem, the church quickly spread out in all directions.

The legend of the nations refusing the word of the Lord was reversed.

Can we see, or better, can we hear those with their own languages understanding each other?  The nations represented did not all live in blissful accord with one other.  Understanding that, the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace” of the Empire imposed in a somewhat and imperfectly harmonious way a sense of stability and prosperity.

We often hear of the Roman Empire as the enemy of the church.  That wasn’t always the case, through it’s true there were some emperors who made a special effort at persecution.  Having said that, the Empire greatly aided in spreading the gospel.  There are many ways in which this happened, but I’ll limit myself to three.

First, the Romans had an impressive and well-maintained network of roads.  This aided people in their travels, including folks like the apostle Paul and his friends.

Secondly, the imperial economy enabled commerce from a vast expanse of territory on three continents.  There was a great exchange of peoples, with various nationalities, beliefs, social classes, whatever—but it made no difference, because the gospel of Jesus Christ appeals to all.

The last one I’ll mention deals with language, since that’s the theme we’ve been addressing.  In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great did his part in spreading Greek culture throughout the Middle East and into Egypt.  Of course, the local languages remained, but the Romans used Greek as the primary language in the eastern half of the empire.  When you want to carry a message, it helps if there’s a common tongue to express it!

3 dtCan we not say we see the Spirit of the Lord at work?  Can we imagine the Spirit giving birth to the word of revolution?

I’m not really speaking of revolution on a national scale.  Rather for each of us, it must start from within: a revolution within our minds, hearts, and spirits.

That is the promise and power of Shavuot, of Pentecost.

In Deuteronomy 26, we see instructions on how the firstfruits are to be handled.  With verses 5 to 9, we have a confession of faith, an affirmation of faith.  “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” (v. 5).  The reference is to Jacob.  (By the way, Aram was a region encompassing Syria and northern modern-day Iraq.)

There follows a sketch of historical events.  The Israelites, having settled in Egypt, became numerous and the Egyptians in turn subjected them to slavery.  But the Lord heard their cry and delivered them.  They were brought into “a land flowing with milk and honey” (v. 9).  Acknowledging the goodness of God, the Israelites present before the Lord “the first of the fruit of the ground” (v. 10).

The passage ends at verse 11, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”  We often see special provisions for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and so on.  However, here we see singled out “the aliens who reside among you.”

There is the reminder just as the Lord had mercy on the Israelites while aliens in Egypt, so they are to extend that same mercy to the aliens in their midst, to the sojourners among them.

That is a big part of the promise and power of Shavuot, of Pentecost: the word empowering us to reach out to all nations.

The empowering word is ultimately focused in the Living Word.

John 7 declares, “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me’” (v. 37).

3a dt“Come, Thou Fount of every blessing / Tune my heart to sing Thy grace / Streams of mercy, never ceasing / Call for songs of loudest praise.”

The festival referred to isn’t Pentecost, rather it is the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three mentioned earlier requiring observation for those at all capable of making the trip to the temple.

Jesus continues, “let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (v. 38).  Which scripture is meant is a mystery.  It doesn’t appear in the Bible.  A number of suggestions have been made.  Perhaps the most likely is Exodus 17:6, where Moses strikes the rock and water comes gushing out.

[I mentioned this last month.  Due to their bitter thirst, the people threaten to stone Moses.  The Lord has Moses whack the stone.]

We are told, “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive, for as yet there was no Spirit because Jesus was not yet glorified” (v. 39).  That doesn’t mean the Spirit did not exist, but instead the Spirit had not yet been given.  This is, so to speak, a pre-Pentecost statement.

Later in his gospel, John has the final conversation between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus says, “When the Advocate [that is, the Helper or Comforter] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.  You also are to testify, because you have been with me from the beginning” (14:26-27).

The Spirit will speak the word on behalf of Jesus, on behalf of the Messiah.  We also are to speak the word.  We are to testify, to give witness, on behalf of Jesus.

Are we thirsty for the water of the Spirit?  We can be a well springing up with the Holy Spirit.

There is a word pointing to a reality beyond our imagining, beyond our usual frame of reference.  It bears an unveiling; it displays the debris.  It burns away the impurities.  We are given power to say no to squandering our lives and resources on meaningless consumption.  We are given courage to embrace a lifestyle not dictated by marketing trends or unhealthy spending habits.

It is the word come alive.  It is the word revealed at Sinai, the word spoken at Pentecost.  It is not simply the word to be read.  It is the word desiring to befriend us, to unleash our creativity.

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That is the word we desperately need when it calls our name.

 

[1] naomiwolf.substack.com/p/do-we-resemble-god


rock solid words

“This country’s going to hell in a handbasket.”  I’ve long wondered what a handbasket has to do with a trip to the infernal regions.  I’m not sure how that particular container became linked with shaking the hand of el Diablo.  I don’t suppose there’s anything particularly evil about handbaskets.  They frequently are taken on picnics, and there doesn’t seem to be anything especially sinister about picnics, unless a spot is chosen right next to an anthill!

(Side note: the world’s largest handbasket is the building in Newark, Ohio, former home of the Longaberger Basket Company.  In the late 90s, Banu had a Longaberger Basket party when we lived in Nebraska.  That’s when her love affair of the baskets began!)

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I tried to find out the origin of that phrase.  It seems to date back to the 1600s.  Another variation was “going to hell in a wheelbarrow.”  Apparently, that wasn’t quite as catchy, so “hell in a handbasket” it was.

I think it’s safe to say, one who utters that phrase is expressing a grim outlook.  The poet of Psalm 12 clearly shares that perspective.

“Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from the human race” (v. 1).  Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket.

There could be any number of reasons for that lamentation.  It might result from certain beliefs or attitudes or practices.

The psalmist (who traditionally is identified as David) wastes no time in uttering his complaint, his cause for concern.  In the place of the godly and faithful are those who “utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a deceitful heart they speak” (v. 2).  The genesis of so much wrongdoing lies in the words that come out of our mouth.

What are we to make of “flattering lips and a deceitful heart”?  Has anyone ever experienced that?  Have we ever been guilty of that?

What does the psalmist suggest as a remedy?  “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts” (v. 3).

I’m reminded of the song by R.E.M., “Shiny Happy People,” which came out in 1991.[1]  It was inspired by a propaganda poster distributed by the Chinese Communist Party two years after the Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre.  There is the iconic image of the lone protestor standing in front of a tank.  He came to be known as “Tank Man.”  The government wanted to promote the image of the population as “shiny, happy people holding hands.”

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It was indicative of a policy of flattering lips and deceitful heart portraying deadly events in an obscenely deceptive way.

One of the ironies of that song turned out to be its popularity.  People often enjoyed the shiny, happy tune, thinking it was about shiny, happy things—not realizing it was satire, dripping with sarcasm.  R.E.M. didn’t intend it as propaganda, but it worked very well as such!

Verse 4 continues the thought of flattering lips and boastful tongue with “those who say, ‘With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own—who is our master?’”

The Revised English Bible puts it, “They say, ‘By our tongues we shall prevail.  With words as our ally, who can master us?’”  With words as our ally.  What a delicious phrase.  In another translation, it reads “our weapon is our lips.”[2]

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, who is the central character, makes the statement, “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four.  If that is granted all else will follow.”  By the way, I read his book in 1983.  I wanted to be sure I read it before the year arrived!

The Orwellian concept of language focuses on Newspeak, in which the government deliberately reduces words and the ability to express freedom of thought.  For example, “bad” becomes “ungood.”  “Very good” becomes “plusgood,” and “wonderful” becomes “doubleplusgood.”  Language becomes narrowed, as does awareness, even the ability to conceive.

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1984 gave us the helpful reminder, “Big brother is watching you.”  What a pleasant thought.

Would it be a surprise to know—to be “aware”—that we employ our own forms of Newspeak?  Of course in our case, the goal isn’t deletion of language but the deletion of trust.  That includes deletion of trust in definitions of words.

Once upon a time, a “vaccine” prevented, or almost certainly prevented, one from obtaining a disease and being able to spread it to others.  Sadly, that is no longer the case.  The word “appropriate” seems to have lost its contours.  Case in point would be drag shows held in schools, even elementary schools, being called appropriate.

With words as our ally.  Our weapon is our lips.

Moreso than any other, it is government who uses words to redefine the truth.  “The first casualty of war is the truth.”  So said the ancient Greek poet, Aeschylus.

In her article, “Acceptable Torture,” Karen Hunt comments, “It’s worse than that.  Truth has become the first casualty of everyday life.  The elites have manipulated, discredited, and denied the truth so convincingly that it has all but disappeared.”[3]

In a speech at Texas A&M University, a recent CIA director “jokingly asked his audience, ‘What’s the cadet motto of West Point?  You will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do…  ‘We lied, we cheated, we stole,’ he continued, laughing as if he thought that was very funny and clever.  And the brainwashed audience laughed along with him.”  He then added, “It reminds you of the glory of the American experiment.”[4]

I honestly don’t know what that last comment is about.  Certainly it doesn’t mean he believes deception is glorious?  Or does he believe it epitomizes America?  Beats me.

Chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel notes “every careless word,” or “every idle word” (v. 36).  We’ve just seen plenty of careless, idle words.

Words have power.  Besides “idle,” the Greek word (argos) also means “lazy.”  We too often don’t consider the impact our words carry.  Or maybe we do!  We might intend our words to hurt, calling each other stupid, ugly, worthless.  We utter curses rather than blessings.  Jesus tells us, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  What is in us has a way of coming out.

Words have power.  That power can be wielded for good or ill.  That power can be filled with grace or filled with reproach.

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Words have power; they have energy.  We are to pronounce blessings and avoid curses, not because it’s nice, but because what comes out of us comes right back to us.  We clothe ourselves with whatever we produce.  If we emit positive energy, we are bathed in what is good and true and holy.  If we emit negative energy, we are bathed (maybe I should say defiled) in what is wrong and false and unholy.

There are some words of wisdom which state, “truth is in order to goodness.”  (It’s a nugget from our Presbyterian history, but I think it’s available to all!)  The truth must serve the good.  It must promote goodness.  It is possible to tell the truth with the purpose of crushing someone, beating them down.  The truth can be told with malevolent intent.  I call that “the devil’s truth.”  It’s meant, as I just said, to hurt and not to help.  To the extent it does that, it really isn’t the truth.

What stories do we tell about each other?  What stories do we tell about ourselves?  Are they stories of despair and discouragement?  Are they stories of acceptance and affirmation?

I’ve often wondered, how many wars have been started (both wars large and small) over a word misheard?  Once the word is out there, it’s out there.  It really is impossible to “take it back.”

There’s an illustration all of us will recognize.  What happens when we give a tube of toothpaste a little squeeze?  Here comes the toothpaste.  But what if we have a change of heart?  Well, we could return it from whence it came.  I have tried that, and to my amazement, I’ve never been successful.  It’s impossible to take the toothpaste back.

5In his journals, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard makes an embarrassing confession.  “I have just returned from a party,” he says, “of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me—but I went away—and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit—[inserted in the text is a dash taking up half the line] and wanted to shoot myself.”[5]

Of course, none of us have ever spoken foolish words, whether accompanied by drink or not!  Idle words, indeed.  Having said that, even when we speak out of turn, our words can be transformed; they can be redeemed.

Far from words as our ally, from words that are idle, the psalmist paints a new picture.  “The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (v. 6).

All the impurity, all the duplicitous language is burned away.  The promises of the Lord—the words of the Lord—are rock solid to the ends of the earth.

“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found / Far as the curse is found.”

The Lord promises protection to all who seek it, because “on every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the human race” (v. 8).  Another translation puts it, “The wicked parade about, and what is of little worth wins general esteem.”[6]  What is of little worth wins general esteem.  That’s almost as delicious as “with words as our ally.”

Where are you with your words?  What are you uttering?  What are you claiming?  What are you rejecting or owning?  Words have energy.  They indeed have power.  We either build with our words or destroy with our words.

In Deuteronomy 30 the Lord says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (v. 19).  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).

That’s a tall order!  I don’t know if anyone ever really gets there, but it is a lofty goal.  If that’s the stratosphere, it makes it all the more doable here at ground level.  It makes it all the more likely that idle words are silenced.  It makes it all more likely that we see the faithful reappearing among the human race.  That includes the face in the mirror.

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There is a word which liberates.  It is the word—the word permeating the cosmos.  It is the word with all power.  It is the living word.  It is the word that defeats death, Jesus the Christ.  It is the word rising from the dead and letting us know that in the end, nothing has truly been wasted.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYOKMUTTDdA

[2] Mitchell Dahood, Psalms 1 (1-50) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 72.

[3] khmezek.substack.com/p/acceptable-torture?publication_id=258694&post_id=101510344&isFreemail=false

[4] www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPt-zXn05ac

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948), 7.

[6] Revised English Bible


table manners

Enriched flour (composed of wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid), soybean oil with TBHQ for freshness (by the way, TBHQ is tertiary butylhydroquinone), sugar, salt, leavening (which in turn contains sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, and monocalcium phosphate), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cornstarch, and soy lecithin.

Would anyone care to guess what this list is all about?  Well, it’s the list of ingredients on a box of Keebler Club Crackers.

In recent years, there has been increasing attention to the food that Americans eat, especially the highly processed food we consume.  There’s a witches’ brew of chemicals—some benign, some quite harmful—all mixed up in it, along with added salt and sugar.

Some time ago, I saw an interview with a retired lieutenant general who said the number one reason that people are refused admission to the armed forces is because they’re too overweight.  On a side note, he said something I had never heard before.  In the 1940s, one of the main reasons for Americans being refused admission was malnourishment.  The military considered it to be a question of national security, so it pushed for the free lunch program in public schools.

Maybe it will take the military to push the food industry, and all of us, to get our act together and quit eating so much junk food!  (Although, what can I say?  I do like cookies.)

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Throughout history, cultures have addressed the stuff we put into our bodies in a multitude of ways.  What one group of people rejects as vile and disgusting is considered by others to be a treat that is absolutely scrumptious!

Ancient Israelites and modern-day Jews provide a classic example of distinctions in food.  Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 go into some detail.

These laws regarding what is proper and improper, what is ritually clean and unclean, to eat—they’re just part of a whole vision of life.  Along with birth, death, sex, economics, and everything but the kitchen sink, instructions about food demonstrate the way the people of Israel, who are called to holiness, should live.  In fact, the last part of Leviticus, starting with chapter 17, is referred to as the Holiness Code.

But maybe you’re wondering, “What is all this talk about food?  To remind us to eat healthy?”  Okay, that’s part of it.  Still, what we consume helps to define us.  You know, you are what you eat?  It may be largely an accident of geography, but different cultures are associated with certain kinds of food.  Thinking of cuisine, what comes to mind when I say Chinese…or Mexican…or Turkish?

However, there are other factors when it comes to eating.  What we eat can reflect many values, be they religious, political, ecological, or whatever.

So what’s going on with Peter in Acts 11?  It looks like he’s behaving—and eating—the way he’s supposed to.  It looks like he’s doing his very best to avoid food that is ritually unclean.  He hasn’t defiled himself by eating improper stuff; he has kept kosher.  But then, he has a vision!  (More on that in a moment.)

In chapter 10, we’re told the story of Cornelius, who lives in Caesarea.  He’s what people refer to as a “God-fearer.”  God-fearers are Gentiles attracted by the Jewish faith and who live according to its principles.  The Bible calls Cornelius “devout”; he gives alms generously and observes the hours of prayer (v. 2).

During one of these times of prayer, an angel appears to him, telling him to send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, about 30 miles down the coast.  He has a message that Cornelius needs to hear.  It just so happens, as Peter re-tells the story in chapter 11, that while he’s been praying, Cornelius’ guys show up.  And he has quite a story of his own!

It seems that he’s had a vision of “something like a large sheet coming down from heaven,” which contains animals of all kinds (v. 5).  Peter sees critters with feet that run, wings that flap, and scales that are…just scaly!  (This is not a vegetarian friendly vision!)  The heavenly voice rings the dinner bell, and says, “Come and get it!”

As I suggested a moment ago, there are plenty of items on the menu that have Peter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks!”  Then we’re told this: “a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven” (vv. 9-10).  It came from heaven.  That’s an interesting origin for all of this unclean stuff!

When Peter’s Gentile visitors arrive and tell him about Cornelius, something clicks inside him: one of those “a-ha” moments.  And after he returns with them, as he is speaking, he says that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning” (v. 15).

What has happened to Peter?  Dan Clendenin frames it like so, how “the purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually ‘clean’ who considered themselves close to God, and the ‘unclean’ who were shunned as impure sinners far from God.  Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated.”[1]

So in case you haven’t figured this out by now, this isn’t about food; it’s about people.  Notice the language of verse 3; look at how Peter is confronted.  The Good News Bible puts it this way: “You were a guest in the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them!”  Peter, what in the world were you thinking?

Clendenin goes on, “In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and perhaps even actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.  And as Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, Jesus asked him to do the same.”

Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  It’s obvious that we do have differences and distinctions but encouraging the ones that crush human life are not to be tolerated.

On that note about differences, there’s the story about the student who is speaking with the rabbi.  “Teacher,” he says, “you have told us that we are all made in the image of God.”  “That’s right,” the rabbi responds.  The student asks, “Then why do people come in so many different colors, have so many different sizes, and have so many different customs?”  The rabbi answers, “Because we are all made in the image of God.”

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Just like anything that is alive, our identity continues to change—one would hope becoming bigger in heart and spirit.  Think about it.  Do we describe ourselves the same way as we did when we were children?  (I hope not!  I hope we’ve learned a few things!)  What about when we were teenagers?  And through adulthood, our identity continues to evolve.

That’s where the church is in Acts 11.  They have to decide if they will let themselves grow in identity—who they say they are, how they define themselves—or will they turn inward?  When Banu and I did interim pastor training, that was something we were called to encourage, discovering and renewing your identity, at the individual level and at the congregational level.  We forget who we are, and we forget that we need to continue moving.

Remember, this isn’t something that Peter has welcomed.  He has struggled against this expansion of his vision.  (It had to happen three times, which is always a good symbolic number.)  But despite his resistance, he realizes that this change in table manners is a good thing!

What about us?  Do we need a change in table manners?

Do we have any purity laws of our own, ones that crush human life?  Do we have any convenient rules we rely on to avoid the love-affirming, community-building, Holy Spirit-obeying way of life we know we should follow?  Are there any people, or groups of people, that we think of as unworthy—and we move heaven and earth to avoid?  (I include myself in this!)

I don’t know the answer to all those questions.  I suspect that, if we’re honest with ourselves, much of it is true.

“A second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”  The New Testament church has to deal with this again:  “Who do we welcome to the table?”  That’s something I’ve been hearing from Banu in recent times: who is at my table?  That’s a good question for all of us.  Who is at our table?

What is it within us that seeks to exclude?  What is it that we regard with fear and loathing?  Who is it that we regard with fear and loathing?

Remember, as I said earlier, Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  As I said in the story about the student and the rabbi, God creates us with differences and diversities; we just need to not encourage the ones that lead us away from love.

I want to finish with a Polynesian prayer of confession of sin.

“Lord, you have made us known to friends we did not know, and you have given us seats in homes which are not our own.  You have brought the distant near—and made brothers and sisters of strangers.  Forgive us, Lord… we did not introduce you.”

Thanks be to God, who is always willing to teach us table manners!

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070430JJ.shtml


you are very much deceived

Throughout most of human history, the ties that bind in matrimony have been due to arranged marriages.  Many cultures today still embrace the practice.  Banu and I knew students at our seminary who had, or would have in the future, an arranged marriage.  Usually, it is the parents who do the arranging.  Cultural expectations frequently, if not always, play a large role in the matter.

I won’t go through all the pros and cons involved.  On the positive side, arranged marriages eliminate the stress of finding a life partner.  There’s no agonizing over, “Is this really the one?”  When it works well, it encourages harmony within the families and within the society.

Of course, there is the negative side.  Again, I won’t go into all the ins and outs, but one big thing is omitted.  There is something to be said for dating!  There is something to be said for getting to know the person and just having fun—maybe finding out how compatible you are.  And that’s not to mention those who never even planned on getting married!

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Still, I don’t need to tell you that marriages solely based on romantic feelings are not without problems.

Our Old Testament reading in Deuteronomy describes one version of an arranged marriage.  If a man dies, and he and his wife are childless, a brother who lives there is to take the widow as his wife.  The reason given is “so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (25:6).  It is important that the deceased man will still have an heir to keep his name alive.  Thus, the firstborn of this marriage will be reckoned as his offspring.

What happens if the fellow refuses to marry the widow of his dearly departed brother?  As we saw, that sets in motion a process which at the distance of cultures and centuries might seem, let’s say, eccentric.  The woman goes to the elders, who summon the brother and explain the situation.  If he still refuses, the woman, in public display, removes his sandal, spits in his face, and proclaims, “Here’s what happens to the guy who stabs his dead brother in the back.”  (Or words to that effect.)

To be known as one whose sandal was removed is a sign of shame.  The sandal on the right foot signifies ownership, and in this case, the claim of a bride.

I’ve gone through this little presentation because it provides the background for the Sadducees’ coming to Jesus in Mark 12.  So here we go.

“Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a ridiculous question” (v. 18).  Well, the text doesn’t say “ridiculous.”  I’m using a bit of artistic license.  They pose the scenario envisioned in the law of Moses, as we just saw.  We should take note, there’s no word of the woman going along with the plan, other than the cultural standards, which I suspect were concocted by men.

Now we’re entering ridiculous ground, as they dream up this totally believable story.  We have seven brothers, and we begin with the first brother dying.  However, the second brother also dies, leaving no children.  We move on to the third.  The same thing happens—or rather, does not happen.  Then to the fourth, then to the fifth, then to the sixth, then to the seventh.  Surely lucky number seven has success.  No, he meets his Maker, minus offspring.

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[These are not likely to be the brothers the Sadducees mentioned.]

After she’s run through all seven brothers (or maybe I should say, having been forced to run through all of them), the Sadducees end the story by simply saying of her, the one who’s been widowed seven times, “Last of all the woman herself died.”  You know, couldn’t they tell the story by allowing the poor woman a few years of peace and quiet?

Remember, these fellows don’t believe there is resurrection, so this question clearly makes perfect sense: “In the resurrection whose wife will she be?  For the seven had married her.”  I’m sure they told this tale with completely straight faces.

Who are these Sadducees, anyway?  We don’t know a whole lot about them.  They apparently are of an aristocratic nature; they are among the elites.  They aren’t exactly friends of the Roman government, but they also don’t want to upset the apple cart.

We’re told they don’t believe in the resurrection.  They rely strictly on the five books of Moses.  (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.)  There’s no word of resurrection in those books, or so the Sadducees believe.

One time while the apostle Paul is being interrogated, he realizes both Sadducees and Pharisees are in the group.  It was known that “Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three” (Ac 23:8).  Paul said he was being tried “concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (v. 6).  He is playing them against each other.  Predictably, the Pharisees come to his defense, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man.  What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (v. 9).

Remember, the basis of the scripture text is the story told by the Sadducees.  Perhaps I misspoke in labeling it “ridiculous.”  Perhaps it actually happened.

Every year People magazine names its sexiest man alive.  (I suppose “alive” is better than the alternative.)  Last year, it was Michael B. Jordan.  Who is next?  Here’s a question which makes perfect sense: “After James Moore is named People’s sexiest man alive, how will he use his newfound fame?”  It is a perfectly plausible possibility, or maybe I should say, probability.

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Long story short, Jesus knows they aren’t really searching for truth.  He points out several things they are unaware of and/or ignore.  He responds, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” (v. 24).  He finishes on this note: “you are quite wrong.”  The Greek word (πλαναω, planaō) can be read, “you are very much deceived.”  And it works both ways.  You have strayed from the path, and you would cause others to stray.

I’m reminded of Dante, who at the beginning of his classic book Inferno, lamented, “Midway through the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed from the straight pathway to this tangled ground.”

How often are we duplicitous, even in a ridiculous fashion?  In what ways do we engage in willful ignorance?  We stray, and we cause others to stray.  Whether it is the Sadducees and their stupid question and absurd story or my firm expectation to be anointed as the sexiest man alive—we can be willfully ignorant.

Fortunately, there is a cure for our ridiculous duplicity!  Jesus would remind us that ours is a God, not of the dead, but of the living.  Willful ignorance and distribution of the absurd do not enhance life, but as with Dante, we find ourselves lost in a dark wood.

And best of all, we can use our imagination for creative purposes.

If the Sadducees haven’t come to Jesus looking for the truth (as I humbly asserted), then why bother him with their song and dance?  Could it be their story is deliberately stupid because they want to show how belief in the resurrection is stupid?  Of course, as Jesus points out, they have it all wrong.  When people are resurrected from the dead, nobody is getting married, be it arranged or not.  There’s a new creation; old things have passed away.

When Moses encountered the Lord at the burning bush he was told, “I am the God” of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He wasn’t told, “I was the God” of those fellows.  Ours is not a God of the dead.  We need not consult mediums or necromancers.  Ours is a God of the living.  Ours is a God of the vital: filled with spirit, filled with life.  We are granted the indestructible life of Christ.

These Sadducees, being among the elite, the upper crust, have positions of respect.  They are influential.  People are expected to defer to them.  Doesn’t it seem likely that more than a little arrogance accompanies their grilling of Jesus?  (And it would seem “grilling” is an appropriate word.)  I would think they look down on this wandering rabbi who spends way too much time with the common folk.

How often do we express our own inner Sadducee?  Does arrogant disregard ever creep into our thoughts, even in a slight way?

Maybe I should start with myself.  Indeed, what haughtiness, what cynicism, what disdain do I express?

The Sadducees, due to their place in society, had certain privileges.  As a white, male, heterosexual, college-educated, lover of the NFL and NHL, what privileges do I have?  Do I deny they exist?  How desperately do I hold on to them?

The Sadducees manipulated the words of Deuteronomy to their own advantage.  How often do I do likewise?  How often do I treat the scriptures as an empty shell?  How often do I reckon them as simply a mental exercise—not fully permitting them to permeate me mind, body, and soul?

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[photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash]

Here’s a good one.  With the Sadducees having much to lose, due to their positions of power (relatively speaking—the Romans were still on top), they needed order.  What do I think of as order?  Who or what do I think of as possibly disrupting that order?

Jesus reminds me (and all of us) that we can know and love the scriptures.  We can know and love the power of God.  Do we ask for that?  Do we pray for that?  Will we pray for that?

Let us join with the Holy Spirit in resisting the powers that would hinder us.  We need not be very much deceived.


let’s go crazy

Of all the things said about Jesus in the Bible, only once was his mental stability openly questioned.  When we look at what led up to that, his actions and statements, maybe there was good reason to wonder about it!

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Mark 3 begins with Jesus healing a man in the synagogue.  So far, so good.  However, he does this on the sabbath, and according to the law, the Torah, that constitutes work.  The authorities start plotting against him.

Jesus goes to the lakeside, and the crowd follows him.  He heals many people, and he commands the unclean spirits who would identify him to shut up.  Later, we see him going up the mountain and calling twelve of his followers to him, he gives them the name “apostle.”  The word means “one who is sent.”

We pick up the reading with verse 20, which has Jesus going home to Nazareth.  As fate would have it, he draws another crowd.  Word has gotten out about this Jesus.

So often when we read the scriptures, we fail to envision the scene.  We don’t hear the sounds; we don’t smell the smells.  When this throng of humanity comes flooding down the street, it draws some attention, to say the least.  Just when you think too many people are already there, here come some more!  The mob keeps pressing closer and closer.  More and more bodies keep getting crammed together.  (This might be a good time to imagine those smells.)

It gets so bad Jesus and his friends don’t even have enough room to enjoy a decent meal.

Meanwhile inside the house, Jesus’ family is frantic.  They call out to him, “Why are all these people here?”  “Why are you embarrassing us?”  “What will the neighbors think?”  Indeed, what will the neighbors think?  With his behavior, Jesus is drawing unwanted attention to his family.  Things might get out of hand, which the Romans no doubt would take as their cue to crash the party.  The Bible says, “they went out to restrain him.”  The Greek word (κρατεω, krateō) is a forceful one.  It means “to grab” or “to seize.”  They want to yank him inside.

Here’s where we get to the point of wondering if Jesus actually does have a screw loose.

Let me pause for a moment and take notice of the saying, “Every family has one.”  For example, that could be the uncouth uncle who makes inappropriate comments.  Maybe some of us fit into that category of “every family has one.”  Maybe we were (or still are) the rebel, the snob, the perfectionist, or something else altogether.  With Jesus, I imagine his family isn’t quite sure what to make of him.  That probably had been always the case.

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We learn what people are saying: “He has gone out of his mind” (v. 21).  The word is εξιστημι (existēmi), which means “to throw out of position,” “to be beside oneself,” “to displace.”  Jesus’ mind has been displaced; he has gone insane.  By the way, it’s possible his family is included in the folks saying that.

If they are, they might feel the need to protect Jesus.  Scribes from Jerusalem have heard some stories, and when they see what’s happening, they conclude, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (v. 22).

If this were simply their own opinion, it would be bad enough.  But it’s probably more.  These scribes have laid a legal charge.  When he is accused of demonic practices, he is accused of practicing magic, sorcery.  If that’s true, he would be breaking the law.  Deuteronomy 18, among other places, condemns one “who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead” (vv. 10-11).  This is a serious indictment.

They accuse him of trafficking with Beelzebul.  Who in the world is that?  The word comes from the Philistine god who was “lord of the heavenly dwelling.”  The Israelites had some fun and called him “Beelzebub,” which meant “lord of dung.”  There are a number of places in the Old Testament where a slight altering in spelling resulted in a change from the sublime to the ridiculous.  They turned something revered by their enemies into a laughing stock.

3 mk Actually, it sounds like something an elementary school student would have thought up: “lord of poop.”  And going along with the insects attracted to such a substance, he became known as “lord of the flies.”  However, over time, he morphed into something truly evil.

Very quickly, Jesus responds by saying if Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?  It would surely fall.  How could that possibly describe Jesus?  Furthermore, to rob a strong man’s house, he has to be bound.  Jesus is indirectly saying he is stronger than Satan.

He has one more thing to say to the scribes and the people packed together.  This has caused no end of consternation and confusion down through the ages.  I will quote it at length: “‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (vv. 28-30).

People will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.  I think we understand the “sins” part, but what about the “blasphemies”?  Can we recognize blasphemy as an insult or curse against God or that which is holy?  Sorry folks, I will not give you an example!  That last word, “utter,” is key.  A blasphemy which is spoken, or even written, can be forgiven.

But what about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?  It doesn’t seem like we’re dealing with something uttered, something said.  After all, it is “an eternal sin.”  It can never be forgiven.  What could it possibly be?

Presbyterian minister James Ayers has some helpful comments.  “Here is the rope to pull you out of the quicksand; the rope holds no grudge if you reject it, but you cannot be rescued without it.  Here are the paramedics to extricate you from the wreck in which you are trapped; if you shout curses and slap their hands away, you will be unable to escape on your own.  They will not be offended, but will think you must be in shock and will go on trying to rescue you.”[1]

It seems that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an action, not an utterance.  Perhaps we could say it is a lack of action, an inaction.  It is a refusal; it is indeed a rejection.  Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a continual turning away from the liberty, from the salvation, conveyed by the Spirit.  That’s why it is eternal.  It’s a never-ending state of freely chosen slavery.  At some point, slavery simply takes control.

For the boys accusing Jesus, their slavery has them truly believing that something holy is actually evil.

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Here’s a word of comfort: if you are concerned—if you wonder—about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then you haven’t committed it!

Just as he began the passage with Jesus’ family, Mark ends it on the same note.  They decide to come outside and send someone to go fetch him.  They tell Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (v. 32).  He says something rather unexpected.  He doesn’t say, “Tell them to hold on.  I’ll be there soon.”  Jesus doesn’t want to assure them that he’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.

Rather, he redefines, he reimagines, he expands, the definition of family.  “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (vv. 33-34).

Jesus’ family wants him to come home.  He has found a new home.  This speaks to those who have taken a decisive step on the spiritual path.  It’s not necessarily the case their old home was bad.  Perhaps it was wonderful.  But they have found a new truth, a better truth.

Those who have had a dramatic, or sudden, conversion experience probably can relate to this.  However, it’s not necessary to point to a particular moment in time to see oneself pictured here.  Many of you have been in the church your entire life.  It might be you look back and think, “Yes, that’s when it really clicked for me.”

There has been that sense of repentance, of μετανοια (metanoia), literally a “change of mind,” a revolution of mind, leading to a change of path, a turning around.

Having said that stuff about family, I quickly add that those who would manipulate others love this scripture.  We can think of cults and churches with cult-like behavior.  Followers are told, “We’ll do the thinking for you.  Welcome to the family!”  That isn’t the freedom of the gospel, the good news; it’s the slavery of the bad news.

I have a quick story to tell.  I’ll leave out some pertinent details to speed things along.  A few days after arriving at seminary in Philadelphia, I decided to go for a walk and explore the area.  I came upon a group having a car wash.  It turned out to be a church group, and they invited me to worship.  I went for a couple of weeks, but decided it wasn’t for me.

One night before I decided to leave, we were at somebody’s house and having a Bible study.  It was the strangest one I ever attended.  I was literally in the middle of a circle; people were sitting on chairs and couches around me.  They kept directing questions to me—no one else—about what it meant to be a disciple.  I was talking about following Jesus, etc., etc.  At some point, I decided to have some fun with them; I asked, “Am I giving the right answers?”

5 mkThere was a really creepy family vibe to that bunch.  (Though to be sure, not quite like the Manson family!)

A couple of weeks after that, two guys showed up one night at my seminary room.  I had met one of them; the other one I had never seen before.  This was at 11:00.  They said they were wondering what happened to me.  I said I had found another church.  (It was the Presbyterian Church across the street from the school.)  The one I had previously met looked around the room and said, “Just because you’re in seminary doesn’t mean you’re a disciple.”  I replied, “I think you guys are a cult.”  They took off, and I never saw them again.

If you hadn’t figured this out already, their definition of disciple was joining their creepy family-like church.

Jesus gave this response to those asking about his family: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v. 35).  Jesus never employed mind games.  He didn’t coerce people.  In fact, when someone decided they weren’t ready to commit, he sent them on their way.

One thing I find interesting about Mark when talking about Jesus’ family is that he doesn’t mention Mary.  I imagine if there were one person in the family who understood Jesus, it would be his mother.  Still, it’s also likely at times he was a puzzle even to her.

Whatever the case, it’s okay to be puzzled.  We’re not expected to understand it all at once.  Actually, we’re not expected to ever understand it all.  There is room for all in the family of Jesus.  “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  If you love God, I’m with you.

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["Embraced" by Banu Moore]

Call me crazy, but I believe Jesus says to me there’s room for the creepy family crew.  There’s room for those who disagree with me politically…  who disagree with me theologically…  those who would shame and exclude me…  those I don’t like…  those who don’t like me…  those who love onions…  Jesus welcomes you and me into his family!

Call me crazy, but I believe there’s room for all of us.

 

[1] James Ayers, “Mark 3:20-35,” Interpretation 51:2 (Apr 1997), 182.


Spirit of repair and renewal

I want to steal Banu’s answer to something I asked her.  “What comes to mind when you hear the words, ‘creation and Pentecost?’”  “How about when you hear the words, ‘Earth and Holy Spirit?’”

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[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

She spoke of a portal to heaven being opened.  She spoke of the Spirit covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.  I mentioned the book of the prophet Joel, which assures the outpouring of the Spirit “on all flesh.”

This pouring out has sons and daughters prophesying, the elderly dreaming dreams, and the young seeing visions.  There is a note on male and female slaves also receiving the outpouring of the Spirit.  Maybe we can translate that to “everyone, both great and small”!

The promise of “all flesh” receiving the Spirit only refers to human flesh.  Is it possible the animal kingdom could also be intended?  I’m not sure.  I think the animals already have their act together.  It’s the human race that needs to be filled with the Holy Spirit of wind and fire—the wind to steer us straight and the fire to burn away the impurities.

Unfortunately, the church (at least, the church in the West), has rarely thought of creation and Pentecost, Earth and Holy Spirit, as going together.  Happily, that is increasingly no longer the case.

Regarding Joel, we really have no idea when his book was written.  Unlike many of the other prophets, there is no helpful mention of historical markers, such as who was king during that time.  There is, however, mention of a devasting ecological disaster—wave after wave of locusts have swept through and ravaged the crops.  The destruction has been frightful.

They are described in rather stark language.  “They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge.  As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle” (2:4-5).

I think I’m safe in saying these critters are unwelcome guests!

2 joelThese locusts are seen as God’s call to repentance.  Joel doesn’t go into much detail as to what the people need to repent of, as some other prophets do.  He just speaks of disobedience in general.  An interesting thing is that this call to penitence involves nature itself—the invasion of locusts and the resulting devastation of the nation’s harvest.

Likewise, the sign of the salvation by God also involves nature.  “I will repay you,” says the Lord, “for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.  And my people shall never again be put to shame” (vv. 25-26).

Before he gets that far, the prophet has a message for creation itself.  He addresses nature.  “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!  Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield” (vv. 21-22).  When we look at the reading in Romans, I’ll say more about why I’ve highlighted this.

We might want to dismiss Joel’s speech as flowery symbolism.  He attributes emotion to his non-human, even non-living audience.  (At least, not living the way we think of it.)  Fear not!  Be glad and rejoice!

However, we are today understanding more about these things.  For example, there have been experiments in which rats have been observed consciously sacrificing themselves for others.  (I should add, that wasn’t the expectation at the beginning of the experiment!  No one actually thought the rats would give up their lives to save one of their fellows.)

In the recent movie, My Octopus Teacher (2020), the filmmaker befriends a creature that apparently has a high level of sentience.[1]  I’ll think twice before eating calamari again!  (And I do understand that calamari are squid; but they’re close enough!)

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I grieve for trees that are cut down.  I see them as having some level of consciousness.

My point is that we too readily disregard our fellow earthlings.  Sometimes I think of war and the toll it takes.  Obviously, the loss of human life is both horrific and unnecessary.  When we go to war, it shows a failure of imagination and creativity.  Do we ever consider the mass murder we commit against animals and plants?

Actually, the Bible itself makes an issue of that very thing.  In the law of Moses, in Deuteronomy 20, there’s a section on the rules of warfare.  An environmental clause was inserted.  The Israelites are told, “If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them.”

When an army lays siege to a city, it is blockaded.  Supplies are cut off, including food.  Sometimes the water supply is hindered.  The strategy is if the population is starved, denied vital necessities, eventually it will have to submit.

The verse goes on, “Although you may take food from [the trees], you must not cut them down.  Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (v. 19).  I’m not sure how often that warning—that wisdom—was heeded.  We can learn a lot from it.  It’s an early version of the Geneva Conventions.

Now to my point about emphasizing addressing creation itself in Romans 8.  St. Paul speaks of the present suffering as not even close to the glory which will be revealed, adding that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (v. 19).  The creation waits with eager longing.  There is an intelligence at work, an intelligence that yearns, and it yearns for the unveiling of God’s children.

I wonder how often we act like the children, the daughters and sons, of God in our care of creation.  We are reminded of that ancient command in Genesis 1 in which the human race was told to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (v. 26).  We should remember that there is a difference between dominion and domination.

There is a reason given for creation’s longing.  It has been “subjected to futility” (v. 20).  That word “futility” (ματαιοτης, mataiotēs) means “vanity” or “emptiness.”  One translation says, “creation was condemned to lose its purpose” (Good News Bible).  Of course, we’re the ones who lost sight of creation’s purpose!  We too often lose sight of our own purpose.

4 joelVerse 20 goes on to say the creation was subjected “not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it.”  As they ask in the crime novels trying to solve a murder, “Whodunnit?”  Who subjected creation to futility?  Was it we humans, or was it God?  Majority opinion goes with the latter.  It’s unclear why God would do such a thing.  One explanation is the ones put in charge by God—us.  We are the ones who screwed it up.

We dump plastic into the soil and into the sea.  We pave over the earth with reckless abandon.  We do chemistry experiments with our atmosphere, altering its composition.  We even inject ourselves with chemicals, the long-term effects of which we really don’t know.

Despite our failings as caretakers, God has made sure that the futility, the purposelessness, we have inflicted has been done “in hope.”  The story isn’t over.  Ultimately, despite our destruction (including self-destruction, God forbid), creation will endure.  Creation will be repaired and renewed.

If all of this is giving you a headache, or maybe giving you a pain in the rear end, take heart!  You’re not alone!  The apostle Paul understands, and it’s causing him to groan.  Actually, what he does is to give us a three-fold list of groaning: “the whole creation” (v. 22), “we ourselves” (v. 23), and “the Spirit” (v. 26).

I won’t into great detail about all of this groaning.  All of these “groaning” words are related to στεναζω (stenazō), which besides meaning “to groan,” also means “to sigh.”  The creation groans with labor pains.  We groan, awaiting our adoption, the final redemption of our bodies.  And that bit about our bodies is important.  Remember, in Jesus the Christ, God chose to be manifest in flesh—to appear in matter, to become part of creation.  Resurrection is not about the spirit; it is about the body.

Lastly, there is the Spirit, who helps in our weakness, not knowing how to pray as we ought.  The Spirit intercedes with sighs (as just mentioned) “too deep for words.”  Some say that refers to glossolalia, speaking in tongues.  However, speaking in tongues is an occasion of elation, as Paul says elsewhere.  In this context, the word is used as an expression of pain, of great discomfort.

The Holy Spirit grieves for us; the Spirit grieves for the creation.  Yet, as I said before, this is not the end of the story.  At this point, let me return to my original question I put to Banu.  That portal to heaven is open.  The Spirit is poured out as the waters cover the sea.

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[photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash]

Our duty, our calling, our joy isn’t simply to each other.  The gospel, the good news, goes throughout all the earth.  “God so loved the world (the cosmos)…”  Pentecost is a powerful reminder of the awesome privilege we have.  God issues the invitation to join in repairing and renewing the world.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt12888462


eulogize! mourn! move on!

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

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Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on occasion, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land; we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”  There’s no word on who actually dug the grave.  Maybe it was arranged by an earthquake!

2 dtNo one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.

All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but he again whacks it with a club, releasing the water.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed!

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would be someone who had a long tenure.  His or her pastorate would often be considered one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past are not always good ones!  Sometimes they go the other way.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

3 dtWhat in the world could have been their motivation?  Maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test?  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is hardly a fresh approach to a dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.

2a dtLook at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man.  He was ripped.

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires more praise, even legendary praise.

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were crying 24/7, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is fly the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

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Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  Everyone mourns in their own way and at their own pace.

Having said that, we do indeed move on.  Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  This can apply to anyone in a position of leadership: pastors, politicians, even parents.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  The people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

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This play has a divine director, and in Joshua 3, we again hear the instructions regarding Moses’ understudy.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (v. 7).

What is Joshua’s first message after he takes the oath of office, so to speak?  (I want to get this out of the way!)  He tells the people their God “is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you” all the nations (v. 10).  If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see what that means is genocide, or at least, attempted genocide.  If you’re wondering how a loving God—no, a God who is love—could require such a thing, you’re not alone.

The truth is, that was not an uncommon form of warfare then, and sadly, it’s still with us.  A call of the Hebrew prophets was to no longer mimic the other nations, indeed, to be a light to them (Is 42:6, 49:6, 51:14).  It’s hard to be a light to someone you’re slaughtering.  We are capable of even the most heinous activity, and the most trivial activity, if we believe we’re serving God.

Moving on!  The Israelites face a bit of a hindrance in their journey: the Jordan River, which we’re told is at its yearly flood stage.  What are they to do?  Simple.  Now there are twelve priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  As soon as they set foot in the river, the water will stop, and there will be dry land for everyone to cross over.  Easy-peasy.

We have echoes of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea, and here is Joshua following in his footsteps.  The nation faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Put yourself in their shoes.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  Are you overjoyed?  Are you supremely confident?  Or is there something else?  Are you anxious?  Are you terrified?  Do you feel abandoned?  Do you feel betrayed?  Do you feel rage?  Can we see ourselves as facing our own Jordan River, and with the river overflowing its banks?  This time of pandemic can seem uncrossable.

Banu and I have had those thoughts, those emotions.  It can feel like suffocation, or more appropriately, it can feel like drowning.  Seriously, what sane person can believe the river is going to make way for us, just so we can stroll to the other side?

I wonder, when will we be able to have people over for dinner?  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas?  What about Super Bowl parties?  (We like to have those; we even invite people who couldn’t care less about the game!  It’s just fun!)

We might find ourselves eulogizing.  We praise the way things were before.  Sure, they weren’t great, but they were better than this!  We mourn.  As I said earlier, it is important to mourn and to acknowledge that we are mourning, otherwise, it will be impossible to move on.  And so, are we ready to move on?

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It would be easy to just to settle down next to the river.  I think we could get used to life there.  Despite everything that’s happened, it could be worse.  As just noted, we all have our Jordan River; we have it as a congregation.  We have it as a nation, just like those ancient Israelites.  However, if we don’t plunge ahead, if we don’t take that first step into the racing river, if we don’t trust where God is leading, we become complacent.  We lose our joy.  The colors are not so vivid.  They become a gray wash.

There is the promise of God given by the prophet, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2).  We eulogize.  We mourn.  And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we move on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.


presence among us

I want to begin with a confession.  I think I might be improving in this particular regard, but I still have a long way to go.  I too often feel like I need to air my opinions, especially on controversial subjects.  I fear I am far from alone in that.  Go to Facebook or scroll down through the comments on almost any article, and you’ll see what I mean.  Watch what passes for news in our country.

We love to fight.  We prefer heat over light.

And it’s in the church—sometimes it feels like the church has turned fighting into a fine art.  We ask, “How can you be a Christian and think that?  How can you be a Christian and support him or her?”

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When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches. (Not that their being Episcopal Churches had anything to do with it.  I love the Episcopal Church!)  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it, perhaps plotting some ever so slight retribution!

I’m trying to give an example of what Jesus references in Matthew 18 when he speaks of the offenses, the sins, that go on in the church.  When I mentioned this before, I jokingly said some might consider this to be a matter of life and death.  Due to this coronavirus craziness, that has taken on a nature which is quite disconcerting, bordering on the truth!

Jesus starts this off by saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (v. 15).  (The NRSV has “member of the church” instead of “brother” or “sister.”)

Going first to the person alone says and requires a number of things.  One thing it requires is a certain level of maturity.  Being willing to lovingly confront, to face them alone in person, rather than talking about them behind their back—or spreading gossip—means you’re willing to “own” your complaint, to take responsibility for it.  You’re not playing the game of reporting what anonymous “others” have said.

That’s a good example of being unwilling to “own” your complaint, a refusal to accept responsibility.

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.  If we meet with them alone, there’s less chance of an automatic defense reaction—especially if the person doesn’t want to lose face in front of his or her crowd.  Actually, that could wind up being dangerous, depending on how prone to violence the crowd might be!

The late Wayne Oates, a congregational consultant, said when we go to the person first, we “[g]ive the person the benefit of the doubt by saying, ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’…  Give ‘the offender’ an opportunity to say it in [his or] her own words.”[1]

2 mtI want to include a disclaimer about a private meeting.  In cases where people have been abused or threatened, it is never a wise course of action.  That’s when others should be called in.  It is likely a case in which other people are necessary.  It’s important to let them be witnesses, or even be advocates on behalf of the abused party.

So, with that in mind, sometimes lovingly going to the person first doesn’t always work.  “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  But if you are not listened to…”  That’s where verse 16, with its call to bring one or two wise people with you, comes into play.  You notice I added “wise.”  It’s important that these others know how to keep confidence—that they’re not going to go and blab to somebody else.

Confidentiality and secrecy aren’t the same things.  Sometimes there’s confusion about that.  Among the differences between the two is confidentiality maintains the other person’s integrity and helps build relationship.  Secrecy works against both of those.  Confidentiality honors and builds respect; secrecy dishonors and destroys respect.

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[2]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

On a related issue, sometimes we need to check our sense of humor.  Understand, I’m not talking about a really serious matter.  Still, being able to laugh at oneself can take the sting out of an intended slight.  It takes away all the fun of insulting someone if they don’t get offended!  (I know, I know—I remember how I started the sermon.)

Back to the main point.  What if a meeting with one or two others present doesn’t work?  What if there is no peaceful resolution?

Jesus says, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).

This whole matter of correction by the church obviously is a tricky business.  It can take many forms, some helpful and some absolutely horrific.  In our own Book of Order, the section called “The Rules of Discipline” takes that on.  It says church discipline “should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” (D-1.0102).

It’s not something to rush into.  We’re told it “remains the duty of every church member to try (prayerfully and seriously) to bring about an adjustment or settlement of the quarrel [or] complaint.”  We should “avoid formal proceedings…unless, after prayerful deliberation, they are determined to be necessary to preserve the purity and purposes of the church” (D-1.0103).

It’s the duty of every church member prayerfully and seriously!  That’s a high bar.

However, what’s the deal with considering someone to be like “a Gentile and a tax collector”?  That seems a bit harsh.  Some have tried to soften the blow by focusing on Jesus’ commandment to love, and not indulging in such offensive behavior.  It’s been pointed out that what is meant is such a person should “be regarded as outside the community.”[3]  It’s a decision made by the person themself.

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Having said that, we should be careful about watering down Jesus’ words.  Sometimes they should hit us in the face like a bucket of cold…water!

Then he gets into the subject of binding and loosing.  There have been all kinds of meanings attached to this.  Some traditions speak of “binding the devil” or “binding Satan.”  One day in class at the Assemblies of God college I attended, a fellow student said that very thing—we can bind the devil.  Our professor stopped and said, “Then do it.  Bind the devil.”  There was an embarrassing silence.  I guess he wanted us to figure out what binding the devil actually meant.

Binding and loosing really refers to a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it didn’t apply.

The passage ends with verse 20, with the well-known words: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The verse is almost always used in the contexts of worship and prayer, and it is appropriate for that.  However, that is not how it is used here.  The “two or three gathered in my name” appears in the context of discipline.  The presence among us is about confronting or challenging.

They are words of wisdom, based on the requirement in Deuteronomy 19: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing….  Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (v. 15).  The concern is to avoid relying on a false witness.

When Jesus says, “I am there among them,” he’s drawing on a rabbinic principle, which holds “two that sit together and are [studying] words of Torah have the Shekinah [the glory of God] among them.”[4]  Jesus is the glory of God.  Jesus is the presence, the glory of God among us when we gather in his name—when we gather in his authority.

As already said about correction by the church, considering the presence of Jesus in discipline can be tricky.  And understand, “discipline” is far more than simply enforcing rules.  It is about training, getting into shape.  Discipline can be intimidating.

Karen Chamis, who is our presbytery’s Resource Presbyter, notes the fear that would hinder us from helping each other on the path.[5]

“Fear keeps us from being who we are called to be,” she says, “and if that isn’t bad enough, there are those in this world who will use our fear against us.”  She speaks of those who thrive on intimidation.  “It’s fear that keeps bullies in power, and conflict under the floorboards where it can do the most harm.  Fear is what keeps us from doing what we know is right, and true and just.

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[photo by Bram on Unsplash]

“And so, we steer clear of fierce conversations.  We allow bullies to control what direction we will paddle.  We permit bad behavior, because we fear retribution…  We forget who we are.  We forget Whose we are…because we belong to the fear and not to the Love.”

That presence among us is present in worship.  It is present in prayer.  It is present in discipline.  And today we are reminded that the presence of Christ is present in sacrament.  It is present where love is unleashed, and to borrow a word from Chamis, it is “fierce.”  Maybe that’s why love itself, in its unbridled power, can be very intimidating!

“Where two or three are gathered…”  The presence in worship, in prayer, in discipline, in sacrament—the presence of Christ means fear has been defeated by love.  We are given the courage and grace to help each other walk the path, even if means correcting each other—in love.

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Wayne E. Oates, The Care of Troublesome People (Alban Institute, 1994), 5.

[2] Oates, 6.

[3] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 220.

[4] sacred-texts.com/jud/sjf/sjf05.htm

[5] cayugasyracuse.org/index.php/blog/e-newsletter-presbytery-matters-september-3-2020/


pink and purple

I am a fan of the NFL.  (I’m especially a fan since last week, when the Dallas Cowboys had a last second win over Detroit!)

If you are not an NFL fan, you might not realize that for several years, the league observed Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is this month.  One of the more obvious ways it did this was by festooning the field, uniforms, and graphics with pink.  This happened all through the month.  Pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness appeared all over the place.  Last season, the NFL expanded awareness to other types of cancer, with the motto “Crucial Catch.”

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Aside from dressing football players in pink—and focusing awareness on breast and other kinds of cancer—October is the month for another kind of awareness.  It is for domestic violence.  And by the way, that campaign has purple as its color.  (Purple is my favorite color, so I’m often dressed in purple, as opposed to pink.)

Still, acknowledging that kind of awareness in October would be a tricky proposition for the NFL.  The league, although making some minor steps on the issue, is just that—minor steps.  Players have tended to get in more trouble for smoking marijuana than for beating their wives or girlfriends.

The scripture readings deal with the issue from different angles.  They aren’t precisely about domestic violence, but they do address the mentality from which it flows.

For example, there’s the book of Esther.  There were debates about whether or not it should be in the canon.  One reason was the lack of any reference to God.  (There were later additions which had many mentions of God.)  But I’m glad it’s there.  It’s such a crazy book, and it is plumb full of biting humor, sarcasm in the service of the Holy One.

Chapter 1 deals with events before Esther enters the story.  All of the men, starting with King Ahasuerus (who in Greek is known as Xerxes), are portrayed as buffoons.  Queen Vashti, as they say, is the only adult in the room.

The story is told with over-the-top exaggeration.  The king has military and government officials gather from throughout his vast empire.  He wants to show the place to everyone.  So what if it takes half of a year?  Finally, it’s dinnertime.  Everyone, loosen your belt; we’re having a seven day banquet!  Folks are sprawled all over elegant couches, and oh, the drinking.  The goblets are overflowing; there is guzzling without restraint.

2 esOn the seventh day, the king is drunk as a skunk—no, drunker than a skunk.  He issues an order that Queen Vashti be brought in.  He wants to show her off to the boys.  You know, she is pretty hot.  But guess what?  She gives him a big fat “no.”  Apparently, she doesn’t think of herself as his property.  That doesn’t go over very well.  The scripture says, “At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him” (v. 12).

What to do?  Xerxes consults the experts in the law, and here’s their response: because of her outrageous conduct, the queen should be removed.  But that’s not the only reason, and it’s not the best reason.  When all the women hear about this, they will “look with contempt on their husbands” (v. 17).  And what will be the result?  Here’s my favorite verse in the entire chapter: “This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” (v. 18).  For me, that’s one of those “laugh out loud” moments.

Have you ever heard the slogan, “Well behaved women seldom make history”?  Well, here’s a good case in point.

I like the way some other people have translated it.  Check out Carey Moore’s take on it.  “So, this same day those ladies of the Persians and Medes who have heard about the queen’s conduct shall show themselves obstinate to all the king’s officials; and there will be contempt and anger to spare!”[1]

And how about the way it’s put in Eugene Peterson’s The Message?  “The day the wives of the Persian and Mede officials get wind of the queen’s insolence, they’ll be out of control.  Is that what we want, a country of angry women who don’t know their place?”

I told you they were behaving like buffoons, to put it very lightly.

So the letters go out, “declaring that every man should be master in his own house” (v. 22).  King of the castle!

3 esOne more note before we leave this ridiculous tale.  As we begin chapter 2, we’re told his servants propose finding beautiful young virgins from throughout the empire and bringing them to his harem.  They will undergo a regimen of cosmetic treatments, and the king can select the one who pleases him the most.  So the proposal is a beauty pageant.  Jon Levenson describes it as “The Search for Miss Persia.”[2]

You have to pity the king.  He truly agonizes over the decision, but grudgingly agrees.  Yes, he’ll bite the bullet and take the most stunning young female in all the land.

Lest you think I’ve strayed by giving too much attention to these foolish fellows, I did say this mentality is what leads to violence against women.

Our gospel reading in John 8 is more specifically concerned with physical violence.  It’s a really insane story.  Some scribes and Pharisees bring a woman to Jesus and tell him that she was caught “in the very act of committing adultery” (v. 4).  We aren’t told how she was caught.  I hope we’re not dealing with peeping toms.

They want to test Jesus.  They remind him “in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?” (v. 5).

They’re referring to Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22.  What they conveniently leave out is that those scriptures also call for the man to be executed.  I’m sure it just slipped their minds!  And by the way, where is the gentleman involved in this little escapade?  I guess it also slipped their minds to bring him along!

As for the rest of the story, Jesus simply bends down and starts writing on the ground with his finger.  I’ve heard various theories on what he’s writing.  Some say he’s writing the names of the men there.  Some say he’s listing their wrongdoings.  No one really knows.  Maybe he’s just doodling while they continue to badger him and just blather on.

Eventually he just says if anyone among them is without sin, be my guest and throw the first stone.  Then he goes back to doodling, and everybody takes off.  No one condemns the woman, and Jesus says that he doesn’t condemn her, either.  It’s true that you sinned; just don’t do it again.

With his approach, Jesus helps the men see their attitude of hate and violence toward the woman.  He’s holding up a mirror to their culture of violence.  Whether or not they actually learn the lesson is another matter.

We also are part of a culture of violence.  And going with this month’s theme, it’s violence against women and girls.  A culture of violence encompasses more than overt physical or sexual violence.  It can be latent, not readily seen.  Among other things, it includes an atmosphere of harassment or intimidation.  Shockingly enough, that also includes the church.  It can even happen in a church building.  (Who would have thought?)

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Alaina Kleinbeck

Alaina Kleinbeck, in her article “Christian accountability in a #MeToo world,” points out our “institutional structures whose imperfect systems of accountability presume not only innocence but also forgiveness before repentance and reparation.”[3]  There can be pressure to forgive an offender who has not repented or owned up to what was done.  Organizations, including church hierarchies, can be more concerned with saving face than reaching out in care to those who have been hurt.

Maybe you’ve witnessed or even experienced groups that, under usual circumstances, embrace and act with the highest of motives, but when some serious events happen, they stray from those practices and basically betray the reasons they exist.

Kleinbeck continues, “I regularly hear stories of men and women in ministry who have treated others dismissively or abusively.  Our work cultures in the church have failed to foster the full accountability we need for every person to thrive.”

Treating others dismissively, not being accountable to each other: clearly, that extends beyond sexual misconduct to almost all of life.  I like how she mentions the genuine interest “for every person to thrive.”  I’m reminded of the choir at the PC(USA) Synod of the Northeast Assembly who led us in worship.  They performed Hezekiah Walker’s “I Need You to Survive.”  I was especially gripped by the third verse.

“I pray for you, you pray for me. / I love you, I need you to survive. / I won’t harm you with words from my mouth. / I love you, I need you to survive.”

What a wonderful pledge.  I won’t harm you.  I need you to survive.  I want you to thrive.  On this World Communion Sunday—and it’s true, I’ve paid special attention to this as Domestic Violence Awareness Month—we are called as the catholic, that is, the universal church, to witness to Jesus Christ’s desire and empowerment that we not only survive but thrive.

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The apostle Paul says that among you who “were baptized into Christ [and who] have clothed yourselves with Christ…there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:27-28).

Whether we’re wearing pink or purple, we are called to clothe ourselves with Christ.  Wearing those garments, we reject the violence that cannot be domesticated, and we embrace the peace that cannot be defeated.

 

[1] Carey A. Moore, Esther: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1971), 2-3.

[2] Jon D. Levenson, Esther (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 53.

[3] www.faithandleadership.com/alaina-kleinbeck-christian-accountability-metoo-world


eulogize, mourn, and move on

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

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Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on rare occasions, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  That seems pretty harsh!  It sounds like Moses is being tantalized.  Look, but don’t touch!  It’s like a thirsty dog tied to a leash, with its tongue hanging out, and there’s a bowl of water just out of reach.

There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land, and we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”

No one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.  If you say, “I pride myself on my humility; in fact, I am the humblest person you will ever meet,” then clearly you are not!

2 Dt 34All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but instead he again whacks it with a club, and water flows out.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it, bub!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed! 

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson, who is a political theologian, says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would usually be someone with a long tenure.  His or her pastorate is often considered to be one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.  And I suppose, different people might have different BFPs.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past in a congregation are not always good ones!  There are some people who go the other way: folks who are not so enamored with days gone by and with the pastor who is held in such high esteem.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

3 Dt 34Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is a fresh approach to an old dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, or a beloved former pastor, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.  It is entirely appropriate and necessary to celebrate who the person himself or herself has been.

Look at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  He’s like those folks in AARP commercials!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man, or so the tale is told. 

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires even more praise, even legendary praise. 

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were constantly crying, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is flying the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular song or piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

The Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

4 Dt 34

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

To mourn well means to embrace our inner poverty.

Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, speaks about this inner poverty.[5]

“At the center of our being,” he says, “is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…  This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.  It is so to speak [God’s] name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence…  It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  To say the least, it can feel uncomfortable.

Still, remember what I said earlier.  Mourning is not just an emotion.  Of course, we will miss someone beloved who is no longer in our life.  It would be heartless not to!

5 Dt 34
“People frequently overlook [the] need for mourning.” (Stefan Kiechle)

Mourning is more than emotion; it is action.  That’s one reason why the church, in its liturgy each year, relives the life of Jesus.  We relive the passion of the Christ.  We relive the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, the abandonment of Holy Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday.  And we relive the Ascension, when Jesus is no longer present in bodily form, but now as the Christ, as Ephesians 1 puts it, “who fills all in all” (v. 23).

So we do indeed move on.  Jesus also says in John 12, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25).  If we cling to things that are passing away, then we’re clinging to an illusion.  But if we reject that impulse, we find new life.  That’s why after eulogizing and mourning, there’s the need to move on.

Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  It means the leader is staying in the system.

Despite whatever good intentions might be present, it almost always has a harmful and toxic effect.  If a leader whose time to move on remains involved in the system, the people are left in a kind of limbo; they are denied the chance to properly mourn.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  This obviously doesn’t diminish what Moses has done.  He is remembered as the great liberator and lawgiver.  Still, the people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

6 Dt 34

I think it’s safe to say life itself is always transition.  Everything passes away—even the earth and sky.  Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who orchestrates transition, in the eternal God of Moses and of Jesus and of the church, throughout all the ages.

Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who leads us in eulogizing, mourning, and moving on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.

[5] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 3, section 39, paragraph 8.