Jacob

going home

“You can’t go home again.”  We’ve all heard that one.  You can’t go home again.  Why not?  I go home on a regular basis.  (By regular, I mean at least once per year.)  Home for me is Tennessee.  (That is, it’s my second home.  My first home is wherever Banu is!)  Tennessee is where my mom and sister live.  Home includes both space and time.  Every time I return, things have changed.  There are new stores and restaurants.  Some stores and restaurants Banu and I liked have disappeared.  (A couple of examples include the breakfast place, “The Egg and I,” and a lovely gyro place owned by an Egyptian family.  We do miss that place—and them.)

Of course, who knows how long it will be before we can enjoy sitting in a restaurant?

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More fundamentally, “you can’t go home again,” refers to memories: of people, of events, of good times and bad times.  For some people, home never really felt like home.

Regarding not being able to go home again, think of Jesus in Matthew 13.  He goes back to Nazareth and is teaching in the synagogue.  There’s no problem with that, right?  Wrong.  The people look at each other; they look at him.  Where is he getting all this stuff?  Son, we know your family.  You weren’t raised to be some kind of philosopher.  The scripture says, “And they took offense at him” (v. 57).

Jesus couldn’t go home again.

In Genesis 32, we see another fellow trying to make his way home: Jacob.  He has left his Uncle Laban, and not on the best of terms.  Let’s go back many years, and briefly sum up.  Jacob leaves home in a hurry because his brother Esau sees red and wants him dead.  Jacob has been up to his trickery.

(And if you recall, along the way he has his vision of a stairway to heaven!)

As he approaches Laban’s place, he sees Rachel, who we’re told is really good-looking.  There’s also her older sister, Leah, who apparently is not quite as good-looking.  Laban says, “Work for me for seven years, and you can marry Rachel.”  Seven years go by and Laban says, “Oh, I just remembered.  The older sister has to get married first.”  Seven more years go by.  (I wonder how Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law has fared!)

In time, Jacob figures out how to arrange for his goats to breed and become stronger, while Laban’s goats are the weaker ones.  He’s back to his shenanigans; maybe he feels justified this time.  Anyway, Jacob is found out, so he takes his family and possessions and hits the road.

There’s one little obstacle between Jacob and his destination—Esau, his aggrieved brother.

My obstacles in going home have been along the lines of road construction, a traffic accident, or bad weather.  I can’t claim to have ever had a family member blocking the path.  (That’s a claim I wouldn’t want to make!)  And I must confess, as I’ve gotten a bit older, stops at rest areas have become more frequent, as Banu will testify.

2 gnAs I said, it’s been many years since he last laid eyes on his brother.  Jacob wonders, “What will he do when he sees me?  How will he feel?”  Jacob decides to err on the side of “furious.”  He sends some of his guys ahead to take Esau’s temperature, so to speak.  When they return, they tell Jacob that Esau is on his way—and incidentally, he has 400 men with him.

We’re told that Jacob “took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had” (vv. 22-23).  He has everyone go first, including his beloved Rachel.  I wonder how she felt being used as a human shield.

{"Rachel: Noir Bible" by James C. Lewis}

Jacob has sent everything and everyone away.  He is all alone.  He is all alone in the darkness of night.  I imagine we can relate to that.  I’m sure there have been nights in which it seemed like dawn would never arrive.  We’re left with our thoughts, our fears, our hopes.  And we are struggling.

For Jacob, that struggling is quite literally true.  He is wrestling with a mysterious man all night long.  Who is this man?

Nancy deClaissé-Walford, who teaches at Mercer University, has some suggestions.  “Theories abound concerning the identity of ‘the man’ with whom Jacob wrestled.  Was the man God? Was it Esau?  Or was it Jacob’s own inner being wrestling with itself?”[1]  She favors that last one.  Maybe there are hints of all three.  Maybe it was his fear of Esau—I don’t believe it was the man himself.  There was certainly that inner struggle, that inner conflict.

It was all wrapped up in Jacob’s wrestling match with God at the Jabbok stream.  It might be helpful to know that the Hebrew words for “Jabbok” (יַבֺּק, Yabboq) and “wrestle” (אׇבַק, ’abaq) sound very much alike.  We have a showdown at Wrestle River.

So what happens when dawn finally comes?  Jacob’s combatant hasn’t been able to pin him.  But before the match can end with the ringing of the bell, he gets one more whack at Jacob.  He sucker punches him in the hip socket, and it’s put out of joint.  Consequently, Jacob walks with a limp.  It sounds like Jacob needs hip replacement surgery!  Still, he is hanging on to his opponent, and he’s demanding a blessing.

After that long night of struggle, that long night of inner struggle, Jacob is still hanging on.  We’re told, “Jacob wrestled and received a new blessing (not one obtained by trickery, but this time by honest struggle).”[2]  Jacob is given a new name.  Says the man, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (v. 28).

Jacob has held on.  He hasn’t let go until he receives his blessing.  That takes stamina.  That takes determination.  That takes a stubborn resolve.

Terence Fretheim has an interesting take.  “God may encounter people in conflictual times by taking the very form of the anticipated difficulty.”  I find this interesting.  [quoting Walter Brueggemann[3]]  “‘In the night, the divine antagonist tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle in the day.’”[4]

I’ve heard it said that dreams prepare us for similar events in the waking hours.  They prepare us for life.  (I’m not sure how I feel about that.  I imagine I’m not alone in wanting to avoid a lot of the stuff that happens in dreams.)

Of course, this is about more than dreams.  He continues, “Having been through such a time with God provides a gracious rehearsal for the actual life circumstance.  To refuse to engage with God in that struggling moment denies oneself a God-given resource.”

It’s said, “The only way out is through.”  Encounters with God, and by virtue of the Holy Spirit within, encounters with oneself, can be annoying, fearful, painful—and yet, not without a certain joy and revelation of love and grace.

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Jacob has traveled that path and made the awesome discovery: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30).

Still, there is that limp!  He has been injured, and he will carry that injury, that scar.  Nevertheless, that dislocated hip is a sign of grace.  It is when we are weak that we are strong.  That area of vulnerability, whatever it is, is where God can especially work in our lives.

Last spring, I spoke of my surgery to remove a brain tumor, and I spoke of the scar left behind.  What I didn’t mention were the changes that experience made.  I came to new insights and understandings of people who suffer mental problems.  (Actually, for me, that wasn’t too much of a stretch!)

The steroids I was taking gave me a glimpse of those with wild mood swings.  (I’ve never been accused of that.)  Here’s one quick example.  One year when we lived at the seminary, people were decorating for Christmas.  I was upstairs in our apartment, watching Star Trek.  Banu, who was with two of our female friends, called and asked me to come down and help them hang a decoration.  As I descended the stairs, I became angrier and angrier.  How dare they take me away from Star Trek?

I noticed they had a ladder poised at the spot.  Any of them could have easily climbed up and attached the decoration.  They didn’t need me to do it.  I gave them the silent treatment.  It was clear how incensed I was.  Later on, I apologized for my unwarranted behavior, explaining about the steroids.  One of them replied, “Now you know how PMS feels.”

Understand, I’m not saying God gave me the brain tumor, but it could be seen as my own wrestling match.  I still carry that limp.  It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would learn anything.

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One way in which we all are going home is the return to our church sanctuary.  There are precautions to take, based on New York state guidelines, the CDC, and no doubt most of all, our calling to love one another—to love our neighbor.

As we go home, how have we been struck on the hip socket?  How are we limping?

We are limping, but as I said a moment ago, it is a gift of grace, as strange as that might sound.  In this time of pandemic, we hold on for the blessing.  We hold on for the blessing of the earth, for the blessing of the suffering, for the blessing that rights the wrongs.  If there were anyone who understood holding on for the blessing, while bearing scars, it was Jesus.  Even now, Jesus as the risen and ascended Christ, holds onto us.  He travels with us as we go home.

 

[1] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “Genesis 32:22-32: A Lonely Struggle and an Undeserved Blessing,” Review and Expositor 111:1 (2014), 75.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, 75.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 267.

[4] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 569.


this was always the place

1 gnHave you ever been given a nickname regarding something you had absolutely no control over?  You know, like being called “freckle face.”  (Assuming, of course, you have a generous supply of freckles.)  How about addressing someone of petite stature?  “Shorty” would be a nickname completely unearned.  That would also be true if the name “Shorty” were used ironically, referring to someone seven feet tall!

Here’s another question.  Have you ever given someone else a name about something they couldn’t help?

A lot of that goes on in the Bible.  Consider the Old Testament reading in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder.  We’re introduced to Jacob in chapter 25, just as he and his twin brother Esau are being born.  And what does he do to his elder brother?  He takes him by the heel!  Darn that infant.  Just for that, we’re going to call you Jacob.[1]  You know—the name that means one who supplants, the one who will shove you aside and take your place, the one who will grab your heels and try to trip you.

(I won’t go into detail now, but he does wind up tricking his brother into selling his birthright.  He tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, the one that should go to the elder son.  Esau is furious and is dead set on killing Jacob, so Jacob hits the road to go live with Uncle Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah.)

Speaking of nicknames regarding something of which you have no control, my own name wends its way through history back to Jacob.  James, by way of the French (Jacques), back to the Latin (Iacomus), back to the Greek (Iakobos), and finally to the Hebrew (Jacob or Ya‘aqōv).  Am I a supplanter; do I scheme to take someone else’s place?

I guess I can take heart in that there have been, and still are, a ton of Jameses throughout time and space!

But let’s go back to that sneaky Jacob.  Pastor and writer Renita Weems says of him, “What makes Jacob’s story so incredibly engaging and kind of inspires the energy that we’re feeling now is that it is the first character in the Genesis story that provides us with so many different dimensions of a particular character.”[2]

She isn’t kidding.  Later on, Jacob wrestles with a man/angel all night long.  Eventually, the man throws in the towel, but not before getting in one last lick at Jacob’s hip!  Jacob is told, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32:28).  His craftiness is rewarded.

2 gnWeems goes on, “I mean, here we finally have someone we have some adjectives we can use—deceptive, clever, shrewd, subtle, whatever.  Before Jacob, we’re finding mostly characters are pretty one dimensional.  They pretty much do what God says and may protest a little here and there, but in Genesis, this is, aha, someone who’s human, the first real, human person.”

When called upon, he can also do an incredible Hulk imitation, though without the green skin!  He comes upon some shepherds at a well which is covered with a large stone.  Removing it is a job for several men.  Jacob, upon seeing the beautiful Rachel approaching, walks over to the stone and picks that bad boy up!  I don’t know.  Does this display suitably impress Rachel?

Still, all of that is in the future.

I started by asking about nicknames, but the real focus here is something deeper and more inward.  Jacob has a dream.  We’re told he comes to “a certain place” and stays there for the night.  The Hebrew simply says, “the place.”  And at “the place,” he uses a stone for a pillow! (v. 11).  Who knows what kind of dreams that might prompt?

I don’t want to get into the mechanics of dreams.  There are numerous interpretations of what they might mean.  Some people remember their dreams on a nightly basis; some almost never remember them.  I think I’m somewhere in the middle.

There was a dream I had for many years.  If you’ll indulge me; I’ve told this story before.  It dealt with McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

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I haven’t had that nightmare (yes, nightmare) for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my needing to complete something.

All of us have had dreams, even recurring ones, that have had special importance.

Jacob has a dream that is exceptionally important—and quite vivid.  He dreams “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (v. 12).  The word for “ladder” is better translated as “ramp” or “stairway.”  Jacob dreams of a “stairway to heaven,” to reference the old Led Zeppelin song.

The Lord meets him and identifies himself as the God of his fathers.  God gives him the promise given to Abraham and Isaac, that he will inherit the land and his offspring “shall be like the dust of the earth.”  Furthermore, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (v. 14).  God promises to be with him until these things are fulfilled.

(On a side note, it’s always the men who are given credit for the number of children.  The women are mysteriously absent.)

After that promise of amazing grace, Jacob wakes up and it dawns on him, “God is here, and I didn’t know it!”  Something is stirring inside him.  Whoa!  God is here, and I didn’t know it.  That something stirring inside him is fear.  It is reverence.

Remember what’s going on with Jacob.  He’s on the run; he’s literally running for his life.  Is it possible he has only himself to blame?  Maybe.  How many times have we been on the run, seemingly for our lives, only to realize that we are our own worst enemies?

We come to “the place,” just as Jacob does.  Where is that place for each of us?  Where is that place for us as a community, as the church?  Where is that place where we stop running?  Where is that place where it might take a dream, a vision of angels ascending and descending, to make us realize that God has been here the whole time?  This was always the place.  It is a time of awe, of holy fear.

What does the dream signify?  What does Jacob’s ladder mean?  Now we’re back to the multiple understandings I mentioned earlier.  That’s certainly true with this dream.  If you don’t believe me, do an internet search for “meaning of Jacob’s ladder,” or words to that effect.  I imagine you’ll find two or three takes on it.

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[Jacob's Dream by William Blake]

One that I find interesting and helpful comes from Ephraim of Sudlikov, a rabbi from eighteenth century Poland.  He speaks of the “ladder filled with upward and downward motion [as] a metaphor for the religious life of any human being here on earth.”[3]  Very briefly, when we feel a profound closeness to God, we are ascending the ladder.  When we feel a profound distance from God, we are descending the ladder.

Ephraim says there’s nothing wrong with this.  It is an integral part of the spiritual life.  It is who we are.  It shouldn’t be lost on us that “God shows this to Jacob precisely at a moment in which he is alone and afraid.  It is as if God seeks to reassure him: ‘This very sense of alienation and disconnection you feel may yet lead you to find Me in entirely new ways.’  Just as your spiritual life wanes, it may yet wax stronger than you yourself thought possible.  And the waxing may owe much to the waning.”

Jacob now realizes, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17).

Jumping ahead a few centuries, John’s gospel presents Jesus telling Nathanael, “‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.’ [By the way, in Hebrew thought, a fig tree was symbolic of prosperity.]  And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (1:50-51).  John links Jesus himself with the gate of heaven.

How does Jacob finally respond to all of this?  He builds a shrine and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God” (v. 19).  Then he makes a vow in response to God’s promise of free and amazing grace.  He’s still not quite ready to fully trust God.  If you do this…then I will do that…

Thomas Whartenby tells us, “The man who has always lived by his wits now seeks to strike a bargain.  To the God who made gracious and unconditional promises, Jacob makes a very guarded and conditional vow: If you deliver, I will serve.  It is easier to build sanctuaries than it is to live the life of faith.  Conditional discipleship is much easier than unconditional surrender.”[4]  Can we all agree to that?

Yet, despite all of Jacob’s duplicity, despite all of his scheming, God is faithful.  Like Jacob, we come to our “place.”  And too often, we would rather be anywhere in the world but there.  We would rather be on Jupiter or Saturn than there.[5]

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Still, it’s true, that is where God meets us—where God has been waiting to meet us.

 

[1] יַעֲקֹב (Ya‘aqōv)

[2] billmoyers.com/content/god-wrestling

[3] www.beliefnet.com/faiths/judaism/2000/12/the-ladder-to-heaven.aspx

[4] Thomas J. Whartenby, Jr., “Genesis 28:10-22,” Interpretation 45:4 (Oct 1991), 404.

[5] Since we’ve been able to see both of them at night recently!


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.”

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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).

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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.

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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?

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{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)


listening in the light

On the mountain of the Transfiguration, seeing Jesus in glory, along with Moses and Elijah, Peter wants to set up camp.  He wants to capture the moment; he wants to stay, take this instant and freeze it.  That is his proposal.  But as Luke tells us, he doesn’t know what in the world he’s talking about.

Then a voice sounds from on high, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (v. 35).  Peter is basically told to shut his trap.  Or as the delightful Mt. T would put it, “Quit your jibba jabba!”

1 ps 99

In Psalm 99, the poet encourages anything but jibba jabba.  The whole world is exhorted to “praise [the Lord’s] great and awesome name” (v. 3).  If Peter, James, and John are struck by elation (and alarm) by their encounter on the mountain, the psalmist does one better when he proclaims, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!  He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!” (v. 1).

Peter would like to stop time; he wants to preserve the experience.

We do that as well, sometimes in trivial ways.  Some of us (and I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying this) like to photograph the contents of our dinner plate.  But who am I to talk?  No doubt, I take too many pictures of my dog.  (Still, if I’m able to catch him yawning—with the sound he makes—I’m going to try to get that on video!  That would be an experience to preserve.)

Maybe you can understand what I’m trying to say.  We often want to freeze life, to take a timeout, for good or ill.  Life is calling our name, and we’re not always sure how to answer.  The psalmist invites us to enter in, to allow the transfiguration light to guide us.  The disciples would do well to heed what the psalmist says.  They need to listen.  That goes for us, too.

As with much of Hebrew poetry, Psalm 99 is well constructed.  Stan Mast, who teaches at Calvin Seminary, says something about it.  “It deliberately uses the Hebrew number of perfection and completeness, the number 7, mentioning the Lord seven times and using 7 pronouns to refer to that Lord.”[1]  And in three places, it points out that the Lord is holy.  (Three is also a key number.)

Structure in poetry can be important.  It imposes a certain discipline, even in limericks.

2 ps 99A few days ago, Banu and I were at Wegmans.  They had the tasting stations set up around the store.  The one at the deli had something called chicken epicurean sausage.  I was struck by the word “epicurean.”  It dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.  Very roughly speaking, he taught that happiness is the greatest good in life.  He focused on simple pleasures.  Today, we think of an epicure as someone who likes the fine things, especially fine food and drink.  I told Banu it reminded me of an old limerick:

“An epicure dining at Crewe, / found quite a large mouse in his stew. / Said the waiter, ‘Don’t shout, / or wave it about, / or the rest will be wanting one too!’”

Admittedly, that’s not the best example of showing the discipline of structure!  Still, structure can mean being careful to transmit the message, and it helps in recalling it if there’s good rhyme and rhythm.  After all, it’s easier to remember something if you listen to the music!

Psalm 99 is broken into three sections, each of which has something to contribute to the whole.

Verses 1 to 3 praise the Lord for reigning worldwide—being king of the world!  Verses 4 and 5 praise the Lord for justice.  Verses 6 to 9 praise the Lord for entering into relationship.  Moses the lawgiver, and Aaron and Samuel, perhaps prototypes of priest and prophet, are highlighted.  Of course, the starting point throughout is the focus on Israel: in Zion, in Jacob, in the pillar of cloud—with each of them expressing a different stage in its history.

I won’t go into great detail, but I do find verses 4 and 5 especially interesting.  After the first section urges all nations to praise the Lord, we now get a sense of who this Lord is.  “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (v. 4).

What does justice mean here?  What is justice for this Lord?  The God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is an ethical God.  By that, I mean this God cares about ethics; this God cares about how we behave.  This God is not like other gods, the blood drinking gods who lash out in blind fury if they don’t get their sacrifices.  As long as they are appeased, they don’t care what their worshippers do.  (Sometimes we treat our Lord the same way.  If we pay our dues, what we do doesn’t mean quite so much!)

3 ps 99

Reinforcing that idea is verse 5: “Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.  Holy is he!”  We are called to worship a holy God.  Verse 9 agrees: “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.”  We are called to worship twice in Psalm 99.  We are called to listen to these words.

Stan Mast comments, “Unlike the gods of the nations who cannot hear or speak, God both hears the cries of his people and speaks in words they could hear.”  God speaks through visions and dreams and written words and through his servants, the prophets, and of course, through Jesus the Messiah.  God speaks through the still, small voice of prayer—the sound of silence.  We are called to listen, like those early disciples.

Listening is easier said than done.  Listening is hard work.  Prayer and meditation are hard work.

There’s a concept originating from Buddhism, but I think it applies to everyone.  It’s called “the monkey mind.”  It refers to a sense of restlessness, thoughts bouncing from one thing to the other, constant chattering.  It’s called “monkey mind” because it’s like monkeys swinging from one branch to another.  One thought leads to another and another and another.

4 ps 99Whenever we enter silence, it is inevitable that thoughts will surface.  “I need to do that today.”  “What’s that dog barking at?”  “I wish I could get that stupid song out of my head.”  Thoughts will come and go, but the trick is to not hold on to them.  Let them pass through.  I believe that, at least in some way, it’s expressed by St. Paul’s comment on “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Ph 4:7).  We can hear the voice of transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

I will not claim to be an expert practitioner of what I’m saying.  As I said, it takes work—and patience.

As I said a moment ago, the psalmist calls us to worship.  We are celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (“Eucharist” comes from the Greek word which means “to give thanks” [ευχαριστεω, eucharisteō].  It appears all throughout the New Testament.)

Today being Transfiguration, it provides the theme.  Part of the service is the Great Thanksgiving.  It’s the prayer reciting the story of salvation, the history of salvation.  Here’s part of the prayer:

“You are holy, O God of majesty, / and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. / On a lonely mountain / his human body was transfigured by your divine splendor. / In his face, we have glimpsed your glory. / In his life, we see your love.”

Here’s a question: how does listening tie together worship and the justice the psalmist is talking about?  Does worship lead us to seek justice outside these walls?

Our friend Stan says, “This emphasis on justice and righteousness is something many North American Christians don’t appreciate as much as we should.  We praise God for his grace and mercy and love, not his righteousness and justice and judgment.”  He does say “many” Christians focus on God’s mercy and not God’s righteousness and judgment.  In reality, all of those things go together.  You can’t have one without the rest.

5 ps 99However, it’s definitely not “all” Christians who take that approach.  There are many who think of God’s judgment as someone wielding a sword preparing for execution, rather than someone making sure all is put right—all is restored to proper balance.

I’m sure none of you have ever encountered this: the one with a scowling disposition, harshly critical, the finger-wagging party pooper.

Still, the point is made.  We who live in warm houses, who have plenty of food to eat, who live in safety, too often can’t relate to those around the world and those here at home who do not have such things.

Listening to the voice from on high, listening to the voice within—that still, small voice of the Spirit—we are called to move into the light leading us into action.  We listen in the light; we listen to the one who is called the Beloved, the Chosen.  We are guided by the light shining in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/last-epiphany-c/?type=the_lectionary_psalms


family ties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

733px-Isaac_Blessing_Jacob_-_Govert_Flinck

Isaac Blessing Jacob -- Govert Flinck (1638)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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