Exodus

400 to 1

It can be easy to think you’re hearing from God.  I suppose there are those who don’t believe they make much of an effort to do so.  However, I would contend that even the most hard-hearted, seemingly oblivious person still has within them the spark, the hidden desire, to make that connection.  It’s how we’re built.  We all are created in the image of God.

Now, as for those of us who have at least some interest in hearing a word from the Lord, as I suggested, it can be a tricky thing.  That divine voice, spoken in silence through the scriptures, through prayer, through each other, through life itself, is not always apparent.

Those who hear audible voices in their head might need to get some therapeutic help!

We can see the difficulty in 2 Chronicles 18.  We begin with King Jehoshaphat of Judah and King Ahab of Israel.  Quick note: after Solomon’s death, there was a division of kingdoms, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  It’s enough to make you say, “Jumping Jehoshaphat!”

(We should note Jehoshaphat was not known for his program of calisthenics.  He was not hawking videos of “Sweatin’ with Jehoshaphat.”  “Jumping Jehoshaphat!” is just a nice way to swear.)

Jehoshaphat is considered one of the “good” kings in the Bible.  He had a few flaws—the events of this chapter testify to one—but basically, he was a faithful leader.  He was concerned with following the ways of Yahweh, the Lord.  In chapter 20, the enemies of Judah are planning war against them.  Jehoshaphat calls the people to a time of fasting.  Their enemies get confused and they turn on each other, and Judah is saved.

But that’s in the future.  Right now, he has been blessed with wealth and honor.  Unfortunately, he enters into a marriage alliance with Ahab, who the scriptures describe as a rather notorious fellow.  He is one of the “bad” kings.  Jehoshaphat’s son is wedded to Ahab’s daughter—not exactly a match made in heaven.

Ahab has a proposal for Jehoshaphat.  This time, it has nothing to do with marriage!  He wants to reclaim Ramoth-gilead, which had long been part of Israel, but had been taken by the Arameans (later known as Syrians).  On the face of it, he would seem to be justified.  He invites Jehoshaphat to join him in the fight.  He accepts the invitation, but then thinks, “Maybe I’m being too hasty.  We need to seek the Lord on this.”

1 ch

Ahab gathers together four hundred prophets, and they give him the green light.  “Go up; for God will give it into the hand of the king” (v. 5).  Well, that settles that!  However, Jehoshaphat still has his doubts.  Apparently, four hundred prophets all saying the same thing—agreeing with Ahab’s plan—arouse his suspicion.  Isn’t there someone else to consult?  There are always two sides to every story, often more than two.

Oh yes, there’s the prophet Micaiah.  But Ahab adds, “I hate the guy.  He never says what I want to hear.”  In any event, he sends someone to retrieve the prophet, who explains to Micaiah the king’s policy and who warns the prophet against dissenting, that is, if he wants to stay healthy.

“Okay, that’s fine.  As long as the Lord gives the thumbs-up, we’re cool.”  In the meantime, the two kings have arrayed themselves with pomp and circumstance.  Micaiah shows up and says, “Reporting as ordered.”  Ahab puts the question to him, and he reports as ordered.  He mindlessly repeats the party line.

The king knows he isn’t being truthful, and he chastises him.  Then Micaiah lets everyone know why Ahab hates him.  “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains,” the prophet declares, “like sheep without a shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace’” (v. 16).  In other words, if you pursue this fool’s errand, you won’t escape with your life.  Your troops will have no leader.

Ahab turns to Jehoshaphat and says, “See what I mean?  I told you so!”

Here’s where we get back to Jehoshaphat having reservations.  He surely knows the prophet is speaking the word of the Lord.  Doesn’t he?  Is it possible he has convinced himself he’s doing the right thing?  Has he been swayed by all the other prophets?

How often do we go against our better judgment?  Something is telling us, “Don’t do this.  You will regret it.”  But we go ahead anyway!  On the flip side, we might sense that we should do something, but we stand aside and don’t get involved.

Meanwhile, Micaiah has some explaining to do.  He speaks of a vision of being in the throne room of God, who wonders how Ahab can be lured into pursuing this disastrous course of action.  A spirit (an angel?) steps forward and says, “I will trick him.”  Micaiah says all the prophets are following a lie, not the Lord.

This brings up a problem that appears on occasion in the Bible.  Does God force people to do the wrong thing?  We see it famously portrayed in Exodus when the Pharaoh hardens his heart and won’t allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt.  Still, there are two sides to that coin.  We see times when it is in fact God who is doing the hardening of his heart (Ex 9:12, 10:20, 27).  What’s that all about?

There isn’t any one easy answer, but we can imagine someone whose mind and heart are completely closed, like an iron gate slammed shut—one who is dead set on their intention.  It is conceivable to picture God honoring that decision, so to speak.  The person will get a nudge in that direction.  Still, repentance is always possible.

2 chphoto by Denny Müller at Unsplash

Whatever the case, for his trouble in delivering the message, Micaiah gets smacked in the face.  And then things really go south.

The prophet is treated like an enemy of the state.  The king orders him to be taken into custody and thrown in jail.  There’s a prison cell with his name on it.  He is to be fed what amounts to little more than a starvation diet.  He winds up defying the king’s orders, speaking against the state.  Ahab decrees that Micaiah is to remain under lock and key until he returns safe and sound.

He has one last word for the king.  If Ahab does return in one piece, then Micaiah will admit he hasn’t heard from the Lord.  He wants everyone to understand.  “Hear, you peoples, all of you!” (v. 27).  And that’s it for him.  We don’t know what becomes of Micaiah.  Unfortunately for Ahab, we do know what becomes of him.  Quickly, here is the conclusion.

He’s not quite ready to meet the grim reaper, so he goes undercover.  Ahab dresses like an ordinary soldier; he’s not wearing his kingly garb.  He doesn’t want to draw any attention.  He doesn’t want someone zeroing in on him.  However, as fate would have it, Ahab is struck by a random arrow which finds a gap in his armor, and he bleeds out.

It turned out Micaiah had listened to the Lord.  He had heard the divine word.

I began by noting it can be easy to think you’re hearing from God.  At the very least, it can be easy to believe what we’re doing has been blessed by God.  A degree of humility is called for.

When the four hundred prophets are proclaiming their message, it can seem like they’re speaking with the very voice of God.  Who would dare disregard it?  When the whole society is saying one thing, it might take bravery—or bravado—to go your own way.

Listening to God involves listening with the ear of the heart.  The ear of our heart can be seen as the most vital thing about us.  If we never listen to it, then our entire life becomes tone deaf.

3 ch

When our lives are tone deaf, we don’t listen.  Like King Ahab and the four hundred prophets, we don’t listen to the word of God.  Because we don’t listen to God, we don’t listen to each other.  And with all of that “not listening,” one day we arrive at the point in which we cannot listen.  Well, maybe we still do listen—we just listen to lies.

By not listening to the word of God, by not dreaming new beginnings, we make ourselves slaves to a past gone by; we hamstring our future with limited possibilities.

A big part of hearing, a big part of listening, is allowing questions.  When we mindlessly quote the authorities, when we do not make room for questions, we indeed harden our hearts.  We don’t listen with them.  We ignore that still, small voice within.

What good would Micaiah be today?  Would we hate him?  Would he say stuff we don’t want to hear?

Here’s a good question.  Who is he today?  Is there a Micaiah among us?  Is there a Micaiah who speaks to us?

We have to be careful, lest the church follow a growing trend in which questions are suppressed—when we’re chastised for asking.  Actually, I think we can agree that the church is often the worst of all when it comes to shaming and erecting walls.  Following Jesus means asking questions.  He surely puts questions to us!  When he was asked, “Who is my neighbor?”, he responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus then asked, “Who was a neighbor to the man left for dead?”  The answer: the one who showed mercy.  He asks tough questions.

One of my mom’s many sayings when I was a kid was, “You and God make a majority.”  When we encounter situations in which the score is 400 to 1, may we humbly hold on to the truth that’s been shown us.  Without question.


crimson detergent

Sometimes I’m inspired by a song when thinking and praying about a sermon topic.  Recently there was a scripture text about people reaching a conclusion about Jesus.  He was out of his mind.  He had lost his marbles.  The song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince kept going through my head.  Even among those familiar with it, many don’t realize that song is actually about overcoming the temptations of the devil.

Last month there was the Creative Christianity Summit.  Artists and worship leaders from around the globe participated.  There was a sermon / teaching series on the tabernacle of the Israelites.  It was done by Rev. Paul Blackham, who lives in London.  I’ll go into detail on what he said in a few minutes.

1 ex

The song that really captured me—that captivated me—was the hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?”  I must confess, it’s never been one of my favorite hymns.  I’m not terribly fond of its tune.  I apologize to those who do like it.  As for the lyrics, to my mind, they lack a certain theological depth.

However, Blackham’s presentation gave me a new appreciation for the musical question, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”  I discovered a solid Old Testament foundation for it.  Blackham spoke of the tabernacle (and we’ll take a quick look at it) as a model of the universe.  But again, it was that image of being washed in the blood which was my main takeaway.

Now, I’m warming up to the song!

As I just said, Blackham’s presentation dealt with the tabernacle.  It served as a portable temple when the Israelites traveled through the wilderness after fleeing the slavery of Egypt.  Every time they struck camp, the sacred tent and its accoutrements were packed up and taken along for the ride.  The tabernacle is described in Exodus, beginning with chapter 25.  I have included a chart of it which I will reference.

The entrance to the outer courtyard was always facing east.  The first stop was the altar of burnt offerings; that’s where the animals were sacrificed.  I want to circle around to the bronze basin or bronze laver (a container of water for washing), so I’ll mention the rest of the tabernacle beforehand.

2 ex

We next enter what was called the Holy Place, the first part of the inner court.  The priests conducted rituals, using the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  We then continue into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, which deserves some explanation.

This was the most sacred place; it was considered to be the dwelling place of God.  The Holy of Holies was a room separated from the rest of the inner court by a veil.  Only the high priest could enter, and that was only one time per year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The Holy of Holies contained the ark of the covenant, which according to the scriptures, held a golden jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded (Nu 17), and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The high priest would go into the tiny room, sprinkle blood from the sacrifice, and burn incense, thereby receiving atonement from God for his sin and for the sin of the nation.

According to Harrison Ford in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, one dare not gaze into it.  Those foolhardy enough to do so might suffer the fate of the impertinent Nazis and have one’s face completely melt off.[1]

Now, back to that bronze basin.

Slaughtering all those animals was a messy business.  I have never slaughtered an animal myself, but anyone who has can no doubt attest to what I’m saying.  With blood and guts spilling all over the place, a provision had to be made for cleanup.  We might need a large container filled with water.

Exodus 30:19 says, “with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.”  To be sure, this is about more than personal hygiene.  It’s about more than “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Or is it?  There is the reality that drawing near to God meant purification on the part of the priests.  There is a profound ceremonial aspect to the washing.  And as they say, this is not a negotiation.

If you don’t believe me, notice the repeated warning: “so that they may not die” (vv. 20-21).  So clean up your act, or else.

3 ex

As our friend Paul Blackham noted, the water became red with blood.  The priests were literally washed in the blood.

(That song, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” has been running through my mind for the past few weeks.  People call that an earworm—a piece of music or song, like an actual earworm, that burrows into your ear and infects you.  The Germans came up with the term.  Maybe someone couldn’t get Beethoven out of their head!)

“Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin, / And be washed in the blood of the Lamb; / There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean, / O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!”

We see that image brought into the New Testament, where we’re no longer talking about the blood of an animal.  Rather, the picture is now the blood of the crucified Jesus.  It probably isn’t more clearly illustrated than in chapter 7 of the book of Revelation.

That book is filled with visions given to John.  (This is likely John the apostle, but we’re not totally sure.)  We start with verse 9, which says, “After this, I looked.”  What has just happened is John’s vision of twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  They have been sealed as protection from damage about to be unleashed on the earth.  As we see in verse 9, his vision has been expanded.

He sees people from every nation, speaking every language.  John sees a gathering too vast to be numbered, all dressed in white, waving palm branches, singing praises before the throne of God.

Can you recall how large a crowd you’ve been part of, with everyone singing hymns?  Banu and I have gone to one General Assembly; it was in 2004 in Columbus, Ohio.  Being in a worship service with hundreds of people—and worshipping together in spirit—is an experience like none other.  Lifting up one’s voice in a multitude like that drowns everything in praise.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune.  The Lord is the best audience!

Notice who’s right next to the throne.  It is the Lamb, slain for us.  What an image this is: the crucified and now triumphant Christ pictured as an innocent, helpless critter.  But there’s more to it than that.  The Greek word here (αρνιον, arnion) is translated as “lamb.”  However, it is literally “lambkin,” a little lamb.  A little itty-bitty lamb.

4 exRemember Mary, who had a little lamb, a little lamb, a little lamb?  She had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.

I do have a point in mentioning the nursery rhyme.  The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s.  The Roman emperor then was Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” Domitian.  This was a fellow with some serious self-esteem issues.  Early in his reign, he hadn’t yet begun his plunge into paranoia.  He enjoyed a certain level of popularity.  Descending into a reign of terror definitely took care of that!

We’re not sure to what extent he persecuted the church, but those Christians calling their Lord and Savior “lambkin” made a powerful statement about what was seemingly powerless being the mightiest of all.

We see angels, elders, and the four living creatures worshipping at the throne, and then the question is put to John, “Who are these folks in white, and where did they come from?”  John replies, “I don’t know.”

The secret is revealed.  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14).  Eugene Peterson put it this way: “they’ve washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (The Message).  They’ve scrubbed them clean.  I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a laundry detergent company advertising that particular ingredient.  How indeed can blood remove stains?

It’s one thing, as those priests did, to wash your hands in crimson-colored water; it quite another thing to try it with clothing.

Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin.

John is told that they “have come out of the great ordeal.”  The word for “ordeal” (θλιψις, thlipsis) also means “tribulation,” “affliction.”  It has the idea of “pressing together,” of being under “intense pressure.”  Some people think this refers to a certain event or experience.  Others (and I think I would put myself in this category) believe this “ordeal” speaks to life in general.  We all are afflicted by sin.  We all feel the pressures of the world.

The law of Moses says, “The blood is the life” (Dt 12:23).  Washing those robes is washing them with life.  It is washing death away.  When we put on those garments, we put on Christ.  We clothe ourselves with Christ (Ro 13:14, Ga 3:27).  We wrap ourselves with Christ.

5 exWhat is to become of that multitude without number?

We see their destiny, and it is a glorious one.  “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more.”  “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (vv. 16-17).  The Lamb will shepherd the sheep.

There are a number of images that speak of the power of Jesus the Messiah: the miracles he performed, his wisdom, his love, and oh yes, a little thing called the resurrection.  Still, there is power in the blood.  The blood is the life.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcR9k8o4I0w


love, food, and toilet paper

One day while the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, they were grumbling because they couldn’t find any food.  Many were saying, “Wasn’t it great when we were slaves in Egypt?  We had plenty to eat!  And now—we’re looking at you, Moses—we’re going to die in the desert.”  God told Moses, “Okay, I’m going to give them something to eat.  They’ll call it ‘manna from heaven.’  Tell them that they will have as much as they need.”  That’s what Moses told the people.  In the morning, they found it scattered on the ground.

“Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until [next] morning.’  But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.  And Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:19-20).

They chose the path of hoarding.  Does that sound familiar?

1 blog

(Did they have toilet paper?)

At the last session meeting (that’s Presbyterian-speak for board of elders), we had an extended discussion on the uncharted territory our congregation and the whole world find ourselves in.  What to do?  How to worship?  How to care for one other?

We could choose the path of hoarding.  I’ve got mine.  Go fend for yourself.

We decided to go another way.  We’ll be worshipping online.  We will be having prayer times, classes, and other opportunities for sacred space.

The coming weeks and months will not be easy.  (That’s no doubt a colossal understatement.)  We can choose to hoard, or we can choose to share.  Every Sunday we hear the Trinitarian benediction, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship (or communion) of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  The Greek word for “fellowship” is κοινωνια (koinonia), which at root means “sharing.”

When we hoard, we wind up losing what we think we had.  The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Together, we will find new ways to be “sharing.”  Let us share, not hoard, the physical means of living and thriving.  Let us share, not hoard, the care and companionship that bring support to each other.  Let us share, not hoard, the living Word who frees us from the chains of fear and panic.

2 blog

[photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash]

“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).


after the fire

It’s not every presbytery meeting that has a worship service that seems especially meaningful to me, which is understandable, since not every service can speak to everyone in the same way every time.  Still, I’ve been to some meetings when it felt like the people putting the service together were trying to be a little too cute.  Sometimes it’s just been boring.

Please understand, I’m not expecting to be entertained, but a worship service should help us into something of a sacred space.  Among those I have found most meaningful was one several years ago in a different presbytery which focused on giving thanks, on gratitude.

It wasn’t the theme so much that struck me, but there were other aspects, such as the hymns we sang.  One of them was, “Let All Things Now Living.”  There was also a time when symbolic gifts were brought forward, as signs of thankfulness.

Something that really stayed with me was how one of the pastors concluded the Prayers of the People.  After going through the various praises and intercessions, he finished with this: “Help us to accept the truth about ourselves,” and then he paused.  I was mentally finishing the sentence with something like, “no matter how proud we might be” or “no matter how startling it might be.”

1 ex

But I was wrong.  What he said was, “Help us to accept the truth about ourselves…no matter how beautiful it might be.”  No matter how beautiful it might be.  You know, I almost wished that he had concluded on one of those more negative notes—like something I’d been anticipating.  Maybe no one here feels the way I do about it, but sometimes it seems like being reminded of our failings, of our shortfalls, can in a strange way, actually feel better than being told how creative and radiant we are.

It can feel better because, even though this really isn’t true, it seems to give us an excuse for not being more than what we are.  It’s a convenient cop-out.  But if we’re reminded that, in Christ, there are no limits—if we say with the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”—then we’re left with the question: What will we do about it?

Some people in our scripture readings today have that question to answer.  In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, the glory of God is revealed.  Being chosen for such an intimate encounter would no doubt dramatically change one’s outlook on everything.  After such an experience, nothing is ever the same again.

In Exodus 24, Moses and a group of the leaders of Israel are summoned by God to Mt. Sinai.  Words fail to describe what they see.  “Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (v. 10).  And they are convinced that it is God they see.  The next verse tells us that “God did not lay his hand” on them; God did not strike them.  They would have expected death.  Everyone knows you cannot see God and live to tell about it!

Moses, of course, is the one who is summoned even farther.  He goes up to the top of Sinai where, as the scripture says, he spends “forty days and forty nights” in the presence of God (v. 18).  The result of all this enlightenment is that Moses brings God’s law to the people.

In our Gospel reading, Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it’s Peter, James, and John who have an intimate encounter with the glory of God.  In their case, it’s their teacher and friend through whom they see that divine radiance.  Jesus reveals to this privileged trio the true nature of his being.

How does this happen?  People of many different cultures have traveled to the tops of mountains to meet their gods.  The ancient Greeks believed that Mt. Olympus was the home of their gods.  The indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, and America have had mountains of their own.  Elsewhere in Exodus, we see Moses’ face shining when he comes down from Sinai (34:29).  Something similar happens to Peter and his friends.  We’re told that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt 17:2).

2 ex

The Son shines like the sun.

Peter seems oblivious to all of this.  He babbles something about building three shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  Peter wants to stay on the mountain, literally and metaphorically.  He wants to enshrine this experience.  But what happens?  We’re told “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’”  The heavenly voice terrifies them, but Jesus calms their fears.

He leads Peter, James, and John back down the mountain.  He takes them back to their lives in the world.  And just so they know, they’re not even to talk about what happened up on the mountain.

Isn’t that how the transfiguration story is usually explained, at least regarding Peter?  Poor, stumbling Peter.  Poor, stumbling thick-headed Peter.  He prattles on about putting up tents, but he’s missing the whole point of he and his friends being there.  Lending support to this view are the versions in Mark and Luke about his not knowing what in the world he’s talking about (Mk 9:6, Lk 9:33).

The lesson we’re to learn is to not be like Peter.  Remember that we can’t always have those mountain top experiences.  And just like Peter, we should also remember that Jesus understands and builds his church with imperfect disciples like us.  We, like Peter, are destined for greater things.

Actually, that’s not such a bad thing to take from this story.  But is that all there is to it?

Methodist pastor Jason Micheli offers some thoughts.[1]  He admits he also has simply focused on the lesson I just mentioned.  There is a mistake, however, in concentrating on Peter and his apparent failures.  Why doesn’t Jesus correct him?  If Peter gets it so wrong, why doesn’t Jesus set him straight?

“In fact,” Micheli reminds us, “here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him.  This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.”  Maybe Peter isn’t quite as dull and obtuse as we might make him out to be.

“Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ, Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes.  In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become like God.  This is where the good news is to be found.”

God became human.  God entered into our matter, as frail and fragile as it is.

3 ex

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord.  It is the final Sunday before Lent.  We celebrate the fire of Transfiguration.  What happens after the fire?  What is left after the fire?  Are not ashes left over?  Appropriately enough, Ash Wednesday occurs this week.

A couple of weeks ago, Banu and I returned from study leave in Tennessee.  (We stayed with my mom, who was pleasantly and overwhelmingly surprised at how friendly and loving Ronan is.)

The feature of our trip was a visit to Penuel Ridge Retreat Center.  It was named for the place in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with the angel, and his name is changed to Israel, which means “one who strives with God” (Gn 32:22-32).  The center is in Cheatham County, which is an interesting county.  It’s almost hidden.  It’s a short drive from Nashville, and then you’re in hilly country; you might not know there’s a major metro area nearby.  The retreat center was located there partly with that in mind.

When we visited, we were cognizant of the soon-approaching Lenten season.  The day of our visit was an overcast one, punctuated by intermittent drizzle.  I won’t speak for Banu, but I think we both enjoyed the atmosphere—with the effects on body, mind, and spirit.  It was soul-enriching.  I was once again reminded of what retreat is meant to be.  We weren’t exactly on a mountain like Sinai or the mount of Transfiguration, but we were indeed on a ridge high above the Cumberland River.

At one point, I was reflecting and writing in my journal images that came to me.

“Penuel Ridge Retreat Center.  Gray day.  Sacred gloominess.  Conversation with the director.  Prosaic, yet brimming with possibility.  Traffic on the road fronting the property.  Mud.  Fire failing in the Duraflame-logged fireplace.  Water drops.  Banu behind me at the desk, paper shifting, rustling.

“My own thoughts, wondering how I can use this—how to put it into a sermon or a blog post.  (Of course.)”  That last bit is something of a confession of sin!  How can I use this, instead of simply letting it be?

4 ex

{scenery from Penuel Ridge, with a psychedelic touch}

As we think of the retreat house next door,[2] perhaps Transfiguration isn’t a bad image to use.  Transfiguration, a metamorphosis revealing the fire within, seems appropriate.  And yet, after the fire, we have the ashes.  The ashes, representing our mortality, remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

There is the busyness of being in a city (albeit a small city) along an often-busy thoroughfare.  It can be easy to miss the gift of retreat in the midst of all that.  That is a challenge for all of us—to see in the ordinary (especially an ordinary we’ve probably grown too used to) the fire within.  Our challenge is to claim the privilege of sacred space, there and here.

“Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ, Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes.  In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God.”

Help us to accept the truth about ourselves…no matter how beautiful it might be.

 

[1] www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/what-preachers-get-wrong-and-peter-gets-right-about-transfiguration

[2] Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center (108 South St., Auburn, NY 13021)


reflect on Sabbath

In his book, Sacred Necessities, Terry Hershey tells a rather quirky little story.[1]  It involves a man going on a journey.  It’s a journey on which he encounters the unexpected.  And it is, as they say, much to his chagrin.  Here’s how Hershey tells the story:

“An American traveler planned a long safari to Africa.  He was a compulsive man, loaded down with maps, timetables, and agendas.  [Workers] had been engaged from a local tribe to carry the cumbersome load of supplies, luggage, and ‘essential stuff.’

“On the first morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  On the second morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  On the third morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  And the American seemed pleased.  On the fourth morning, the jungle tribesmen refused to move.  They simply sat by a tree.  The American became incensed.  ‘This is a waste of valuable time.  Can someone tell me what is going on here?’

1 sabbath

“The translator answered, ‘They are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.’”

Do you ever feel that way?  Do you ever find yourself waiting for your soul to catch up with your body?

Or do you find yourself relating to the traveler who is on a schedule?  “We’ve got things to do and places to go…hey, we can fit another bag in there…and what’s wrong with these lazy people…don’t they know time is money…I’m not doing this for my health…”

Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe you should be doing it for your health!

Our scripture text in Exodus 20, the first version of the Ten Commandments (the second one is in Deuteronomy 5), covers a lot of ground: living a life in which the Lord, Yahweh, is one’s God, not misusing the Lord’s name, and then, there’s a collection which basically deals with loving one’s neighbor.

But it’s the fourth commandment I want to focus on: the call to remember the Sabbath—to reflect on Sabbath, or perhaps, on the Sabbath to engage in reflection.

Speaking of reflection, Walter Brueggemann has a reflection of his own in his very interesting book, Sabbath as Resistance (the subtitle is Saying No to the Culture of Now).  He shows how Sabbath really is a counter-cultural thing.

He shares a story from his youth:[2]

“When I was growing up in rural Saline County, Missouri,” he says, “‘Mr. G.,’ our town grocer, and his wife always sat up front in church.  Every Sunday, during the last five minutes of the sermon by the pastor (my father), Mr. G. and his wife would rather ceremoniously walk the long aisle to the back of the church and leave.  They did not mind the distraction of their maneuver to everyone else at worship.  The reason they left is that the other church in town, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, got out of service thirty minutes earlier than we [did].  As a kid, I often wondered how often Mr. G. had looked at his watch during the service to be sure he left on time to receive Lutheran trade and Lutheran money.  I did not know the phrase at the time, but Mr. G. was ‘multitasking.’  He was worshiping, even while he kept an eye on the clock for the sake of trade and profit.”

2 sabbathBrueggemann says multitasking is “poisonous,” because it leads to “a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.”[3]  If we’re distracted by many things, it is difficult to keep the Sabbath holy.  But what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy?  It partly involves how we treat others, and like the fellow who needs his soul to catch up with his body, how we treat ourselves.

Look at the way our chapter begins.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (v. 2).  That sets the stage.  Everything following is set within the context of the exodus from Egypt, being set free from slavery.  And that applies to the Sabbath.  “The God who rests is the God who emancipates from slavery and…from the work system of Egypt.”[4]

Have you ever watched a dog chasing its own tail?  Our dog chases his tail, especially when he gets upset and throws a temper tantrum.  He spins round and round in a circle.

If you recall, earlier in the book of Exodus, the economic system the Pharaoh develops is a circle, a vicious circle.  Here’s what I mean.  The Israelites are forced to make bricks.  And they are driven to produce more, which in turn, raises expectations and quotas are increased, which then means the work force has to put in even more hours (and if you do get vacation time, stay in touch with the office).

Does that sound familiar?  It seems the ancient Egyptians aren’t the only ones chasing their own tails!

3 sabbathSpeaking of Sabbath and working, I want to tell another story.  I heard this from someone when I was at seminary.

It seems there was a pastor who refused to buy the Sunday newspaper.  He could not abide supporting something made on the Lord’s day.  He wanted nothing to do with it.  However, someone told him the Sunday paper was actually printed on Saturday.  He had a sense of relief.  He had permission to buy the newspaper.

Although, I never heard if he then refused to buy the Monday paper!

Now I want to bring this Sabbath stuff to a more personal level.  And when I say “personal,” I am including myself.  I have to ask myself, “Do I remember the Sabbath, and do I keep it holy?”  I go back to my earlier question, “What does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy?”  What does it mean to sanctify it, to set it apart?

Throughout the Ten Commandments, the only time the word “holy” appears is in reference to the Sabbath.  It’s not even used for God.

With the Sabbath, we’re not dealing with sacred space.  With the Sabbath, we’re dealing with sacred time.

I’m fascinated by time.  I spoke earlier about dogs.  I’ve often wondered how dogs perceive the passage of time—especially when we go somewhere and our dog Aidan is left all by himself.  We humans perceive it all too well.  Time is a precious commodity.  It is precious because we are aware that our lives have a finite amount of it.  It will run out, and we know it!

In 1951, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel published the now classic book The Sabbath, a true masterpiece.  It’s short, but it’s filled with rich and wonderful and sometimes stark imagery.

Listen to how he describes time: “Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[6]

Still, the Sabbath redeems time.  Heschel says, “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil.  He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.”[7]

4 sabbathIn soaring language, he says, “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”  The Sabbath is “architecture of time,” “holiness in time,” and most of all, “a palace in time.”[8]

I wonder about myself.  Do I regard the Sabbath as a palace in time?  Or am I embezzling my own life?

The Sabbath is not about laying down rules and regulations.  Jesus understands that.  In Luke 6, faced with some scribes and Pharisees who insist on dotting every “i” and crossing every “t,” he asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (v. 9).  He changes the focus; he changes the conversation.  He has us look at it in a different and unexpected way.

Still, the Sabbath does make demands on us.  God loves us so much that we are called to imitate God—to rest and to build a world in which others can rest.  We are reminded that, around the globe, there are too many who have no time to rest.  There are children who have no time to rest.

We’re reminded, “Christian practices—whether hospitality, forgiveness, testimony, or keeping Sabbath—impose rhythms that make demands on us, that break us out of zones of comfort and familiarity, and that enlarge our hearts.”[9]  The Lord commands and invites us to enlarge our hearts.

As I prepare to close, I want to include one more quote.  This is from Joan Chittister, the well-known Benedictine sister in Erie, Pennsylvania.  She speaks about the verse in Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God” (v. 10).

She says that verse “is more than the simple observation that everyone needs to let go a little, to get rested enough to work harder next week, to change pace from the hectic and the chaotic.  It is far beyond the fact that everyone needs a vacation.  Oh no, it is much more than that.  What [it] teaches us is the simple truth that a soul without a sense of Sabbath is an agitated soul.”[10]  What about that?  A soul without a sense of Sabbath is an agitated soul.

I fear that, even in the church, there are way too many agitated souls.  What kind of damage does that do?  What kind of damage do we do to each other?  What kind of damage do we do to ourselves?

5 sabbath

So today, I would like for all of us to rest and reflect on Sabbath.  I would like for us to take the time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  I would like for us to thank the Lord for the wonderful gift of the palace in time.

 

[1] Terry Hershey, Sacred Necessities (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2005), 68-69.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), Kindle edition, Chapter 5, section 1, paragraph 1

[3] Brueggemann, 5.4.1

[4] Brueggemann, 1.1.2

[5] Brueggemann, 1.1.3

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), 5.

[7] Heschel, 13.

[8] Heschel, 8, 15.

[9] David F. White, “Keeping Sabbath,” Windows: Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Fall 2014): 12.

[10] www.huffingtonpost.com/sister-joan-chittister-osb/the-sabbath-making-someth_b_643716.html


can conflict be a gift?

After looking at my sermon title, I realize that it could lead to some unintended conclusions.  Raising the question as to whether or not conflict could be considered a “gift” might suggest that I enjoy conflict—even possibly that I seek it out.  I’m just itching for a fight!  I assure you, that is not the truth.

One day, Banu was looking through some old files.  That tends to happen when one frequently moves from one place to another!  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary, when we were just beginning the ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  Two decades later, I think I might say the same thing.  I realize that it’s something I still need to work on.  I’ve made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I still have a long way to go.

So, no, I do not enjoy conflict.

It would seem from the reading in Matthew that Jesus doesn’t either.  In fact, it looks like when presented with conflict, he simply wimps out!  Look at how our scripture begins.  Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

The “eye for an eye” Jesus starts with is the lex talionis.  That’s Latin for the “law of retaliation.”  It appears three times in the law of Moses (Ex 21:23-25, Lv 24:19-20, Dt 19:21).

We often hear calls for law and order, for greater security, based on this idea—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This one often finds its way into arguments for the death penalty.  It seems to provide for a very stern, no holds barred style of justice.  However, that’s only true if we take the principle of “an eye for an eye” completely out of its context.

It’s been said, “The lex talionis was in its time a social advance of great magnitude [in modern times, we can compare it with the outlawing of slavery]; it put an end to the vendetta, the blood feud, which allowed unlimited retaliation for an injury done to a member of the family or tribe, so that an entire group could be wiped out before the demands for vengeance were satisfied.”

To our 21st century ears, that law “sounds savage, but it was actually a softening of the primitive fierceness of the feud, which set no limits to the revenge” that could be taken.[1]  The idea was that, if you kill one of ours, we’ll kill ten of yours—and then, it would escalate from there.

Still, Jesus doesn’t say limit revenge to “the same injury; Jesus declares that we must take no revenge at all.”[2]  When he says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says don’t worry about getting payback (v. 39).

There’s one verse that isn’t so much a question of revenge.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42).  I wonder, would that include lending your car to someone who returns it with an empty gas tank?

It looks like everything that Jesus says in our gospel text runs contrary to what we usually do.  (Or at least, we might do it with a great deal of hesitation!)  Why is that?  Is this ethic he lays out something that can actually be done?  Many people simply say “no.”  Many people say that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.  I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by that!

In any event, I find the phrase in verse 39 especially interesting: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Again, there are many takes on what Jesus means by this, but I find the comments of Speed Leas, a consultant on congregational conflict, to be useful.

“What that means to me,” he says, “is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack.  I stay there.  I stay in range of getting hit again.  I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.”[3]  According to Leas, Jesus tells us to resist the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.  You know what that is:  the temptation, when faced with a conflict, to lash out, to take off, or to become paralyzed!

There’s something that tends to handcuff us when dealing with conflict.  This is true for all people, but I think it’s especially true for those in the church.  We have a tendency to see conflict as inherently bad, something to always steer clear of.

Episcopal priest Caroline Westerhoff talks about this.  “Conflict is not just inevitable…  Instead it is part of the divine plan, a gift.”[4]   So here’s the question I raise in my sermon title—with a little emphasis.  How in the world can conflict be a gift?

According to Westerhoff, conflict is part of the creative process.  Almost any story or movie has an element of conflict.  There’s the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflict is indeed inevitable; it’s built into creation itself.  Animals engage in conflict for food.  In a way, humans do, as well.  We certainly find ourselves in many different kinds of struggle.  A big part of the artistic process is struggling with ourselves and with God.  Westerhoff says that “newness cannot come without conflict.”[5]

The truth is, we have differences.  We look, think, act, smell, vote differently!  That’s how we’ve been created.  One of the main reasons for conflict is due to the fact that we’re not all alike.  We aren’t copies of each other.  We often try to impose a level of sameness on each other, but it’s a mistake.

If we can’t, or shouldn’t, avoid conflict—if it can’t be prevented—what we can and should do is to manage it.  We need to guide it, set boundaries around it.  (Recall what I said about the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” being a boundary, a limit.)  We have to use conflict for constructive, and not destructive, purposes.

Westerhoff continues, “To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind.”[6]  I must say that I don’t often think of conflict as being a breath of fresh air!

“Following this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, violence and war becomes not conflict…out of all bounds, but the final outcome of conflict [when it is stifled].  They result when we will not allow the other to be different, when we deny our life-giving dependence on the different one with all our might and means.”

This is the first Sunday since the presidential election.  There’s no debating that our country is divided.  That’s been true for a long time.  No matter what your political orientation, no matter who you voted for, I think I’m safe in saying that this past year has had a distinctly different feel.  I think I’m safe in saying that there has been a narrative of not allowing the other to be different.  There’s been a narrative of denying our life-giving dependence on the different one, and doing that with all our might and means.

The “other ones” who have been insulted and verbally attacked for over a year from on high have found a green light, permission has been given, implicitly or explicitly, for them to be physically attacked, to have fear instilled in them.

In that context, Jesus seems to wimp out again in verses 43 and 44.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Really, that sounds outrageous!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

Far from wimping out, what Jesus proposes takes a great deal of courage.

In another congregation, I asked the session to read the book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke.[7]  (I mentioned that people are always anxious at some level, so this book would probably work any time.)  He doesn’t exactly use the language of “loving the enemy,” though sometimes it might feel that way when we’re in the midst of conflict.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, he salutes “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized.”  Remember, these are church folk!  “They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.”[8]

Remember what I said at the beginning about recognizing my own need to keep working on being assertive in situations of conflict?

Steinke goes on, “Some leaders patiently and calmly stayed connected to people with opposing viewpoints and to those known to be troublesome…  To their credit, they did not regard their own judgments as placing them on higher moral ground.  They simply could not set aside distressing circumstances or avoid a difficult decision even if it meant individuals would be hurt or the congregation would suffer.  They spoke ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) so that the truth could set people free (John 8:32).”

Friends, this is not easy.  That’s why we let things go for so long that we know in our heart of hearts need to be corrected.

Twice in our scripture text, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…  But I say to you…”  In the midst of conflict, Jesus shows us the way forward.

In the midst of conflict, it can feel like the walls are closing in.  We can feel tightness in our chest.  We need to remember to breathe.  We need to remember that the Spirit is within us.  But we also need to remember to actually breathe!  There’s nothing like being still, taking some deep breaths, and getting oxygen into the lungs to help us regain some perspective.

Jesus closes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  That sounds like a tall order!  But this isn’t “perfect” in the sense of being flawless; this is “perfect” in the sense of being “perfected,” of being made whole.  That is the Lord’s desire for us.

We are fragmented, broken creatures.  We are not whole.  Still, in the strange and unwanted gift that is conflict, we come together.  Sometimes we come together by crashing into each other.  But thanks be to God, in all of that craziness, the Spirit is there to lead us into new avenues of truth, returning insult with blessing.

We need that now more than ever.

[1] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981),158.

[2] Beare, 158.

[3] Speed Leas, “The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations,” Conflict Management in Congregations, ed. David Lott (Bethesda, MD:  The Alban Institute, 2001), 30.

[4] Caroline Westerhoff, “Conflict:  The Birthing of the New,” Conflict Management in Congregations, 56.

[5] Westerhoff, 56.

[6] Westerhoff, 57.

[7] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).

[8] Steinke, xv.


must we sing the song of Lamech?

Forgive

Our Bible study will be taking on the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35.  It’s quite a colorful story!  It features a king releasing a slave from his debt, that slave then grabbing his fellow indebted slave by the throat, and last but not least, God being pictured as a vengeful torturer.
 
(Of course, the amount owed by the slave to the king, ten thousand talents, should clue us in that the details of the story are fantastically exaggerated.  One denarius was the usual wage for a day’s labor.  With one talent equaling ten thousand denarii, ten thousand talents would equal one hundred million days of labor!)
 
The parable is introduced by Peter’s question to Jesus regarding how often he should forgive a brother or sister (vv. 21-22).  “As many as seven times?” he asks.  Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
 
I’ll avoid the temptation to go off on a tangent about our embrace of hateful, unforgiving practices and policies.  Often quoted in justifying those practices and policies is the principle of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”  This is the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation” (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21).  However, this wasn’t intended as a command to commit violence; it was meant to limit violence.  It was designed to keep blood feuds from spiraling out of control.
 
An example of vengeance gone wild is shown in the song of Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24).  We see that “Lamech said to his wives:  ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:  I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.  If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’” 
 
Seventy-seven.  Why is that number familiar?  Jesus quite deliberately turns the song of Lamech on its head.  In so doing, he turns plenty of our practices and policies on their head.  Can we think of ways in which we want revenge?  Can we think of ways in which we hold grudges?