Walter Brueggemann

calming the chaos

It was the evening of New Year’s Day.  There was a pitter patter of shower outside.  I decided to go for a walk; I wanted to hear what the rain would say to me.  Upon stepping outside, I realized the droplets were being outvoted by pellets.  A slushy crust was coalescing beneath my feet.  That’s okay, since the ice is making its voice heard, I’ll lend an ear.  So off I went into the night.

Actually, I did not lend an ear.  I was too busy thinking about my determination to listen to whatever precepts the precipitation presented.  Is there a word for me to receive?  It’s difficult to be aware if you’re trying to be aware that you are aware.  You wind up only hearing yourself.

In any event, it was a pleasant walk.

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It seems fitting that we would have that kind of weather on the evening of the first day of the year.  I say it seems fitting, in that our reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today, the Baptism of the Lord, is from Genesis—the first five verses of the book.  (You know: “In the beginning,” water, baptism, even if it’s a baptism of sleet.)

At his baptism, as the water flowed down his body, Jesus did hear a voice.  It was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).

There are two creation stories in Genesis.  The “macro” story is in chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, the creation of the world.  The “micro” story is the rest of chapter 2, focusing on the creation of the human race.  We’re in the “macro” story and looking at the first day of creation.

With each of the days of creation, we have the repeated statement, “God said.”  God speaks, and something appears, something happens.  God speaks the word in creating.  Over and again, we are told God saw that it was good.  It is the word pervading all of creation, permeating all of the cosmos.

The gospel of John borrows from this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

Summing up each day of creation is the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day,” and the second day, and the third day, and so on (v. 5).

I want to include a side note.  I imagine you’ve heard it said the Bible isn’t a scientific textbook, or words to that effect.  If we read these words as though they were lab notes from a science experiment, we will miss the wonderful and beautiful truth these words really convey.

2 gnFor example, on the third day of creation, plants appear.  It’s not until the fourth day that the sun, moon, and stars appear.  To force these images into that system of logic is completely alien to how the ancients perceived it.  Obviously, they knew plants could not precede the sun!  Actually, to force these images into that system of logic is alien to how we ourselves use art and poetry.

Today being the Baptism of the Lord, I would like to focus on the first two verses, which are the reason this text was assigned to this day in the first place.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

The earth was a formless void.  The Hebrew word for “formless” (תֹּהוּ, tohu) also means “confusion” or “chaos.”  It was a nothingness of chaos.  The word for “void” (בֹּהוּ, bohu) also means “emptiness.”  It was an emptiness without form—an emptiness without shape.  The earth was a real “fixer upper.”

Some might say 2020 was a nothingness of chaos.

What we see is God bringing order to what is the ultimate picture of disorder.  (If it’s possible to have a picture of disorder.)  God is setting boundaries.  “God [separates] the light from the darkness” (v. 4).  In the days following, we see other things being separated, being distinguished.

Sometimes my dear wife Banu will prepare a dish with ingredients carefully portioned into distinct layers.  She often shows me how to eat it, sometimes using a fork to demonstrate.  I am reminded to not mix them together, so as not to deprive, or to diminish, the individual flavor of each element.  I am not to mess up the texture of the various components.  I am forbidden to bring disorder to order.

(Please understand: I’ve never been one to take a utensil and clumsily stir the contents of my plate around until I’m left with a blob-like specimen with the consistency of thick paste.  Furthermore, I’ve never been one to then say, “Hey, it’s all going to the same place anyway.”)

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Perhaps my favorite of the prophets is Jeremiah.  The Bible tells us more about him as a person than any of the other prophets.  And he has quite a story.  I mention him because, in a startling passage, he uses the word bohu (4:23-26).

“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.”  The earth is again described as “void.”  He continues.

“I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked, [he’s doing a lot of looking!] and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”

Walter Brueggemann comments on Jeremiah’s looking.[1]

“The fourfold ‘I looked’ is a staggering study of creation run amok, creation reverted to chaos…  [E]ach time the poet looks at the world, he sees more and more of creation being nullified, regressing to the murky condition of Gen. 1:2…”  God’s covenant with Israel “held to the [astonishing] notion that human conduct matters for the well-being of creation.  Working from that notion, the picture of this poem is grim.  Since there has been no obedience, there will be no viable creation.  Disobedience finally leads to chaos for the entire creation.”

Lest we think that’s an exaggeration, our own disobedience in tending the garden is leading to a twenty-first century version of chaos for creation.  We too often ignore God’s covenant, now expressed in the living Word, Jesus Christ, in our dealings with each other.  We foment disorder in each other’s lives.

As I’ve said before, sometimes events happen during the week that simply must be addressed.  The horror at the Capitol building on Wednesday is definitely in that category.  We witnessed a mob storm the building in an effort to disrupt the proceedings of a joint session of Congress.  For a while, the rioters had their way.  Officers were attacked, weapons were carried, windows were smashed, offices were ransacked, and worst of all, there was loss of life: four protesters and one police officer.  To use the Hebrew word, it was tohu.  It was disorder.  It was chaos.  It was an obscenity.

I posted something on Facebook that evening.  This was it: “This morning, aware that today is the Epiphany of the Lord, I wrote in my journal, ‘May the Lord shine today!’  No darkness, no violence, no thuggery can withstand that glory.  ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’”

Epiphany celebrates the light of Christ shining to all the Gentiles, to all the nations.  The visit of the Magi illustrates it.  When they asked about the one who was born king of the Jews, the powers-that-be in Jerusalem were terrified.  They feared the light shining into their darkness.

We are called to work for justice.  Jesus was all about that.  What happened on Wednesday had nothing to do with justice.  We didn’t see a Spirit-led struggle for justice.  Those folks were not guided by the Holy Spirit, and neither were the ones who urged them on, who planted the idea.

Our “God is a God not of disorder [not of chaos] but of peace” (1 Co 14:33).

I’ve been talking about creation as a process of setting boundaries, of bringing order to disorder.  Light is separated from darkness.  The sky is separated from the ocean.  The land is separated from the sea.

Are there broken boundaries in need of restoration?  Does order need to be brought to disorder?  Are there any things that need to be separated?

It’s important to take notice of something.  When God sets boundaries, it is indeed a creative act.  It isn’t a destructive one.  The boundaries are healthy boundaries.  They are boundaries that protect.  They are not boundaries that harmfully isolate.

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So, back to the beginning.  We are nine days removed from New Year’s Day.  Moving into 2021, what word is there for us?  “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  The fresh breeze of the Spirit brings order to chaos; it brings harmony to havoc.

As for me, the story of my nocturnal walk reinforces a lesson I need to heed over and over.  I could do with some restoration of boundaries, so that I can rightly discern the Word from the many words bubbling up in my mind.

So again, do you have any boundaries that need to be restored?  Is there any chaos that needs to be calmed, that needs to be set in order?

Thanks be to God, who speaks the word that creates, and who speaks the word into our lives to calm the storm.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 59.


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.


not me too!

When I was in junior high and high school, there was a certain group of people I did not like.  Unfortunately, there were quite a few of them.  I’m talking about boyfriends who treated their girlfriends, or just girls in general, disrespectfully.  They would boss them around; they would insult them.  They would brag about their physical exploits with them.

I will admit, sometimes I fell prey to the practice of blaming the girl.  “Why does she stay with him?  What does she see in him?”  Still, the vast majority of the time, it was the guy’s behavior that really ticked me off.  I guess he thought he was showing what a man he is by mistreating females.  Certainly, we can think of situations in which mistreatment is really serious.

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Last year, #MeToo really took off.  I visited the “me too” movement website, which said the movement was started in 2006 by Tarana Burke for women and girls who have survived sexual abuse.[1]  A greater spotlight has been cast on men who oppress women.  Sadly, that nasty business has been with us for quite a while—going back to the dawn of time!  And we see it throughout the scriptures, from start to finish.

In our scripture text from 2 Samuel, we see the ignoble conduct of King David.  He hardly acts in a noble way.  He would be a candidate for the “me too” movement’s rogues’ gallery.

Let’s see what leads to David’s fall from grace.

Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann frames our story with lavish language.  He says, “We are…invited into the presence of delicate, subtle art.  We are at the threshold of deep, aching psychology, and at the same time we are about to witness a most ruthless political performance.  In this narrative we are in the presence of greatness.”[2]

My guess is “the presence of greatness” he mentions doesn’t apply to David’s behavior.  Still, we all know this isn’t the only time a great man has fallen.

He continues, “For David and for Israel, we are at a moment of no return.  Innocence is never to be retrieved.  From now on the life of David is marked, and all Israel must live with that mark.”[3]

That mark is etched when the flowers are blooming, as we see at the beginning of chapter 11: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him” (v. 1).

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“In the spring of the year.”  There would be a ceasefire during the winter.  The weather would usually be too harsh to set up camp very easily.  The rain and snow would turn the ground into mud—which can be a difficulty if you want to ride horses or drive chariots!  And besides, there wouldn’t be much to eat if you’re trying to live off the land.

Kings were expected to lead their armies into battle.  Still, notice how the verse ends.  “But David remained at Jerusalem.”  When that sentence begins with “but,” you know something’s up, and it’s probably not good!

David has other plans.  “Let those boys go fight the war for me.  It’s time for me to enjoy being king.”  Power has its privileges.  And so we’re told, “late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful” (v. 2).  David decides he’s got to do something about this.  And that he does.

He finds out her identity.  She is Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite.  He doesn’t waste time, as Brueggemann relates: “The action is quick.  The verbs rush as the passion of David rushed.  He sent; he took; he lay (v. 4).  The royal deed of self-indulgence does not take very long.  There is no adornment to the action.  The woman then gets some verbs: she returned, she conceived.  The action is so stark.  There is nothing but action.  There is no conversation.  There is no hint of caring, of affection, of love—only lust.  David does not call her by name, does not even speak to her.  At the end of the encounter she is only ‘the woman’ (v. 5).  The verb that finally counts is ‘conceived.’”[4]

Upon discovering her pregnancy, the wheels start turning in his head.  He comes up with the scheme to have his general, Joab, recall Uriah from the front.  David’s pretext is to get information about the war, but he simply wants Uriah to sleep with his wife.  People will think he’s the father of the baby.  Only Bathsheba will know the truth.  And if she were to recklessly dare say anything, it would be her word against the king’s.

Also, we can’t ignore that this is the ultimate difference in power dynamics.  King David is the leader of his country.

3 2 smDavid’s plan fails.  Uriah is too honorable to go to bed with his wife while his fellow soldiers are fighting and dying in the field.  So on to plan B.  David has Joab engage in a foolish military strategy, one that will cost the lives of many men—but he needs to make sure Uriah is one of them!  We’re told, “Joab is the kind of hatchet man every king must have, someone who acts always in the interest of the king without scruple or reservation.”[5]

The Hittite didn’t want to play ball, so he gets taken out.  He won’t be around when David pretends he’s really the father.

In that rapid fire series of verbs we looked at earlier, there’s one in particular that’s especially troubling.  In verse 4 we’re told the messengers are sent “to get her.”  The Hebrew word (לׇקַח, laqach) has the primary meaning of “take.”  It also means “seize.”  Bathsheba receives no invitation.  This is an offer she can’t refuse.  There is no discussion; she is simply taken.

The offense isn’t simply adultery.  It’s rape.  King David could definitely be a poster boy for the “me too” movement.

This isn’t the David we know and love.  This isn’t the man after God’s own heart (Ac 13:22).  This isn’t the man dancing before the Lord (2 Sm 6:14).

This isn’t the man who, when King Saul was out to kill him, had Saul’s life in his hands and then spared him (1 Sm 24).  That was when David was on the run, and he was hiding in a cave—a cave where Saul went to relieve himself.  David snuck over and cut off a piece of Saul’s robe to prove he could have done even worse.  But he was instantly stricken with guilt.  David had raised his hand against the king chosen by God.  (Even if there was more than a little comic relief!)

No, this is David at his worst.  And this isn’t something that just happened out of the blue.  It didn’t just come out of nowhere.  Remember how all of this starts.  David begins to lose himself.  What happens to the boy, and then the man, who’s fired up about the Lord?  He begins to lose his way.  Springtime comes, but he’s staying in the palace, living in the lap of luxury.  We’re told he gets up near sunset when he sees the bathing beauty.  Was he just taking a nap, or has he made it a practice to sleep the day away and prowl around at night—like a vampire?

Whatever the case, there’s been step by step, even baby steps, along the primrose path.

Something like that is true with us.  We can almost imperceptibly move in a direction we know we shouldn’t.  But then it gets easier, and in time, we wonder why we made such a fuss of it before.  Then we go a little further, and pretty soon, we’re like Dante in his work, Inferno:

4 2 sm“Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / for I had wandered off from the straight path…  How I entered there I cannot truly say, / I had become so sleepy at the moment / when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.”[6]  Such is the story of King David.

Now, I don’t think it’s a spoiler alert to say that’s not the end of the story.  We know that David repents.  We’re just not there yet.

As for Bathsheba, it takes a while, but things do turn out well for her, more or less.  Again, we’re not there yet.

 Jumping ahead quite a few centuries, the early church recognizes Bathsheba in the genealogy of Jesus.  In Matthew 1, we have the statement, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah” (v. 6).  Oh well, she is left nameless!  Bathsheba is joined by three other women from the Old Testament: Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.

(On a side note, really through no fault of their own, each woman has had some blemish attributed to her character.  Then of course we have Mary, who is the exact opposite of blemished!)

What can we take away from this sorry story of David?  “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!”  David first deceives himself, which leads to a snowball effect of further deception.  He becomes willing to manipulate others, even in a lethal fashion.  He treats them like objects.

That’s something we’re all capable of doing, although we might cry, “Not me too!”  We might not go as far as rape or murder (I would certainly hope not!), but we can still have something like that in our spirit.  It’s easier than we think to go down that path.  The next chapter of our story involves Nathan, someone who is there to hold the king accountable.

So, there are many ways we can stray from the right path, but the central theme of the passage is mistreatment of Bathsheba, mistreatment of females.  Although, it is also true that boys and men can suffer similar mistreatment.  To the men, I urge us to watch our own behavior, and however seems appropriate, call out other men when they cross the line.

To the women, I encourage you, if you feel comfortable, to tell your own story.  But it’s not like you need to hear that from me, with my vast understanding of how that feels!

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What a great role model we have in Jesus Christ.  He personified qualities considered both masculine and feminine.  He challenged the biases of his culture.  Jesus welcomed and taught women, right along with his male disciples (Lk 10:38-42).  He intervened on behalf of women unfairly accused by men (Jn 8:3-11).  Women traveled with him, and he accepted their help, including financial assistance (Lk 8:1-3).  He treated and understood them as equals.  (Some would say, being a man, he understood them as his superiors!)

We have been given the Holy Spirit, the spirit of Christ, so we also are called to personify all those qualities.  Where King David trips up, the Son of David triumphs.

Jesus says to the woman who is crippled and unable to stand up straight, “You are set free” (Lk 13:10-17).  He says to all of us—and that also means those who wonder, “And not me too?  Am I not included?”—yes, you are set free.  It really is true: where King David trips up, the Son of David triumphs.

 

[1] metoomvmt.org

[2] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 271-272.

[3] Brueggemann, 272.

[4] Brueggemann, 273.

[5] Brueggemann, 276.

[6] Mark Musa, trans. (New York: Penguin, 1984), 67.


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?’

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“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


daylight in the domain of darkness

Christ the King.  This is a rather strange day on the church calendar.  It comes at the end of Christ the King
the long season that we call “Ordinary Time.”  (Side note: It’s called “ordinary,” not because it’s routine or run of the mill or just plain boring.  It got that name because the Sundays are listed with “ordinal” numbers.  The 10th Sunday, the 30th Sunday, and so on.)

This is the final Sunday before Advent, when we commemorate the first and await the second coming (that is, the advent) of the Messiah.  This Sunday seems to be preview of things to come.  This young one will one day become the King of kings.  Walter Brueggemann said we can think of it as “a launching pad for Advent when we await a new king with a new order of reality.”[1]

The reason I call it a “strange day” is because Jesus never claimed the title “king” for himself.  It was always others who called him that, whether in joy or in judgment.  We see that in Luke 23, “The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’  There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews’” (vv. 36-38).  Those are not words of praise!

As for the ones who call Jesus a king as a matter of praise and joy, it looks like we’re in that category.

Maybe you can help me with this.  I’ve seen plenty of churches of various denominations which are called “Christ the King.”  But I don’t recall ever seeing a church called “Christ the Prophet.”  I wonder if we’re more comfortable with kings than with prophets.

Kings speak to our fascination with power.  None of us have been, or ever will be, a king or queen, but I think it’s easier for us to wrap our heads around the idea of monarchy.  In some ways, it represents the American dream of being able, and encouraged, to climb the ladder.

Does anyone remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by Robin Leach?  They would show swimming pools inside of bedrooms, people with an entire fleet of Maseratis and Lamborghinis, private reserves stocked with animals from all over the globe, taken from their natural habitats.  It was basically Robin Leach drooling over the one-percenters.  Still, that show is hardly the only example of that sort of fawning!

Psalm 49 says with a note of sarcasm, “you are praised when you do well for yourself” (v. 18).

The point is, we can deal with kings easier than we can with prophets.  To the extent that we identify with the powers that be—and with the privileges that come with it—to the same extent we do not identify with those who point out the flaws in that, those who criticize our comfort with power.  We just want to say to them, “Please go away!”

Having said all of that, it should be clear that Jesus is not that kind of king.  His kingdom is not of this world.  His kingdom takes this world and turns it upside down.  In celebrating Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate that new reality, even if we at times have some serious problems with it.  It calls us to account for our lives, to account for the sometimes questionable things in which we find solace.

We can see St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians as providing the biblical and theological underpinning for all of that.

That “new reality” I just mentioned is something the apostle attributes to God, “who has enabled [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (v. 12).  That’s not an inheritance, as Banu would say, that would get us a Rolex watch, a BMW, and a swimming pool.  The inheritance of the saints in light is something too mind-blowing for that.

image from farm3.staticflickr.com
The problem for us is that we struggle with, we resist, the new reality.  That’s the reality in which God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13).  The Revised English Bible calls it “the domain of darkness.”  We resist the new reality, God’s new reality, because we too often love the darkness.  That is, the part of us that is less than truly and fully human, the part that wants to reject redemption and forgiveness.  That is us, loving the darkness!

Why is this a text for Christ the King?  That bit about the kingdom of the beloved Son has something to do with it.

And then there is the paragraph, verses 15 to 20, beginning with, “He is the image of the invisible God.”  Image of the invisible.  Imagine that!  Ponder that one for a while.  There’s something about that only art or music can capture.  In fact, these were the verses of a hymn that the early church sang.

He is the “firstborn of all creation.”  The word for “firstborn” is πρωτότοκος (prōtόtokos), which is where we get our word “prototype.”  So Jesus, not simply the flesh and blood man, but the Christ who fills all things, is the prototype of all creation.  If that doesn’t fit the description of king of all kings, I’m not sure what would!

That passage is an awesome meditation on the glory of Christ.  I really encourage you to go back and read it and just sit with it.  If you can, use a couple of different translations.  Let it sink into your mind and spirit.  It’s okay if you have trouble understanding it.  I certainly don’t claim to get it all.  But see what happens.

There is a problem, however, with claiming Christ as our king.  Subjects of a monarch are expected to do certain things.  They’re supposed to fall in line.  Brueggemann says, “Celebrating ‘Christ the king’ is easy until we try to embody our citizenship.”  It’s easy to do in worship; it’s not so easy when we try to do it physically, out in the world.

Remember though, Christ is not the kind of ruler we’re familiar with.  This is a kingdom, or queendom, that is inside out.  It isn’t based on force, but on love.  This is citizenship which isn’t compulsory, but is a loyalty flowing from joyful obedience.  And in many ways, acting out of love is more difficult than simply following orders.  It asks so much more of us.

I said earlier that we tend to love the darkness.  I’m afraid that in this past year, we’ve seen that infect our citizenship as Americans, and what’s worse, as members of the church of Jesus Christ.

A few days ago, an article was published by Jonathan Martin, who is a pastor at a nondenominational church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[2]  He speaks of the darkness he has seen revealed in our country, and especially the darkness revealed during our presidential election campaign.

He starts by talking about encounters he’s had with people who are afraid of what’s been going on, people who fear the future.

He wonders, “Does it feel like the world has turned upside down and inside out?  Does it feel like people whom you love and know — good people — almost seem like they are under some kind of spell right now?  Saying odd hateful, hurtful things you can’t account for based on your history with them?  Does it feel like we are under some sort of powerful…mass delusion?  Are you shocked, not only at what is being said, but what is not being said by Church leaders whom you have known to have a heart for justice, mercy and truth?”

Crazy pills

To be honest, I also have wondered about that.  Have all of us been taking crazy pills?  2016 has been an insane year.

Martin talks about something I mentioned recently, and that is the idea of the apocalyptic.  In the Bible, “apocalyptic” is defined as “revealing” or “unveiling.”  And it uses some bizarre images.  He says, “This is apocalyptic time…when the hearts of men and women in America are being revealed — deep divisions that have long been present are being exposed.”

This is more than mere political and cultural divisions; something darker, more sinister is at work.

He continues, “Apocalyptic time drives the demons that have been hidden in the darkness into the light.  It is now-there-is-no-place-to-hide time.  It is a time for principalities and powers to be exposed.”  But there is good news which goes with it.  The apostle Paul says that in Christ “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (v. 16).  Those forces which are bent on evil, and on warping us, still must answer to Christ the king.

But again, there’s our tendency to love the darkness.

In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, one meaning of the word “satan” (שטך) is “the accuser.”  Thinking of God, we would say that God is not simply loving; God is love.  In a similar way, Satan doesn’t simply accuse; Satan is accusation itself.  In this apocalyptic time, when principalities and powers are being revealed, Martin says, “In our absurd blame of people who are not like us, people we deem as other, we actually consort with dark spirits.”

We invite those forces which make us look like we have gone crazy.  We can’t explain it rationally.

He doesn’t side with conservatives or liberals, but he does feel compelled to point out some things about our president-elect.  His campaign made it a priority to single out certain groups of people for unwelcome attention, to put it much too lightly.  Scapegoating and accusation, pointing of the finger and blaming are becoming the rule of the day.

The resulting terror this inspires in people is the fruit of those thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers.

But guess what?  In our Lord Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (v. 19).  Pleased to dwell!  Not grudgingly, not reluctantly, not because it’s my job, not “I might as well get this over with,” but pleased to dwell.  This is what I live for!

And guess what again?  Through our Lord Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (v. 20).  There we go again.  God was pleased to do this.

What can fear do when faced with unrestrained joy?  Daylight dawns in the domain of darkness.

One more note from our friend Jonathan.  “So finally, for the preachers, dreamers, artists and poets; for the pastors, lovers, and would-be truth tellers: in the chaos of so much rage, violence, and racial injustice: you must, must, must, must not cower before the agents of fear, when you are an ambassador of heaven.”

If we are ambassadors of heaven, if Christ is truly our king, Christ must also be recognized as prophet.  A prophet speaks truth.  A prophet speaks truth to society.  A prophet speaks truth to the church.  A prophet speaks truth to us.  But this isn’t the truth of petty accusation, of dividing into us versus them.  That is the truth of Satan.  And Satan’s truth is a lie.

Our king, our prophet is undeterred by our stubborn rejection of the inheritance of the saints in the light and our stubborn rejection of redemption and forgiveness.  That’s fine; there’s no giving up.  Our king, our prophet, speaks the word and will not let us go.

HPIM0860

That is the daylight in the domain of darkness.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “A New King and a New Order,” Christian Century 109:31 (28 Oct 1992): 963.

[2] medium.com/@theboyonthebike/you-want-it-darker-on-race-trump-apocalypse-and-the-need-for-more-prophets-than-priests-48b683d187b#.czj1f8wvw

[The first photo is "Walking from darkness into light" by Andy Teo; the bottom one is from our front porch in November 2009]


wish you would hear

Has anyone here ever been exiled?  I wouldn’t suppose that any of us have been banished, or taken by force, to a foreign land.  I suppose it might be possible that someone has been taken from their home.  Perhaps I should rephrase it to say, “Has anyone here ever felt like they had been exiled?”

FightMaybe someone has had to go to a Thanksgiving dinner with that certain family member present who likes to air his or her annoying opinions.  It could be political or religious ideas.  Maybe it’s the one who makes inappropriate remarks.  Is there someone who chastises you on your life decisions?  “You know, if I were you…”  “I don’t want to be critical, but…”

For four or five hours, you might feel like you’re living in exile!

Banu and I had a sort of exile last year.  Please understand, my mom had nothing to do with that!  I’m just talking about my wife and me!

We felt compelled to make the trip to Tennessee, largely to help with my mother’s health needs and some house repair.  In effect, we took a hiatus from the Presbyterian Church; we were sent from our “homeland.”  In our “exile,” we tried other options: among them, pursuing chaplaincy at an urban community center, substitute teaching, even ordination in the Episcopal Church.  In one way or another, the doors remained closed.

We realized that, for right then, we needed to settle down, at least as far as our direction in life was going.  Jeremiah says something like that in his letter to the exiles in Babylon (chapter 29).  They need to make a home for themselves there.  And in reality, our calling to ministry had not changed.  It was simply the venue, the location, the nature of it.

In time, Banu and I were called out of exile.  It came in the form of a certain congregation looking for interim pastors!

The text from Jeremiah deals with people who actually are in exile.  That relates to some stuff I’ve said since we came here.

On several occasions, I’ve spoken about people in transition, congregations in transition, especially as it relates to the interim process.  I did that last week, using a term referring to the middle part of transition, the neutral zone.  Being in the midst of that in-between state, we’re like a life form in a cocoon at a certain point of its development.  We are transitional goo!

The exiles taken from Judah, the Babylonian captivity, are an excellent example of people in transition.  They certainly didn’t choose this transition; this is transition, big time!  Or maybe there’s another way to look at it.

There is something that deals with change and transition.  It’s from William Bridges, the one who uses the term “neutral zone” (though not in the Star Trek sense).  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.”[1]

The exiles definitely don’t choose this change.  They’re presented with some radically new events, whether they like it or not!  (Of course, I know none of us have ever had that experience.)

So they have this change.  The fact that it’s seriously dramatic, heartbreaking, and historic clearly make it more intense.  The question is how will they experience this change.  Their transition, if you go along with Bridges, can happen in many different ways.  They’ve been plopped down in the thick of it.  Now what?  That’s where the prophet Jeremiah steps in.

You might recall that Jeremiah has long been warning his fellow Judahites about the imminent threat of exile.  Well that day has come and gone, although we who are on the other side of history know that even more folks will be taking that road to Babylon.

Jeremiah 32 deals with the time the prophet bought some land while the country was being invaded—not the best time to purchase real estate!  Still, God promised him, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (v. 15).  There will be people who return from exile.

And on this occasion, he’s writing a letter to the exiles.  Here is where he suggests the transition that can be their experience of change.

One writer sums it up like this:[2]

“The opening words of a pastoral letter sent to the exiles in Babylon: Get used to it; build a life in exile.  Adjust: build, plant, marry.  Create a communal infrastructure in exile.  Your task: seek the shalom (welfare) of the city…  The mission is not to overthrow a hostile regime, but to hold the regime to its own best promises.  The empire can practice shalom.  The exiled church [so to speak] can influence the empire.  Close your ears to liars who say we’re going back to normalcy.  Dismiss such illusions of escape.  Instead, make do, witness in your situation.”

We can see some themes here.  First, there’s Jeremiah in a pastoral role.  It might be hard to imagine that party-pooping prophet as a pastor, but he really does love the people.

Then there’s the instruction that they should stay put and build a life for themselves.  Don’t start guerrilla warfare!  Love your neighbor.  Invite them over for dinner.

And thirdly, they are reminded that they won’t simply be living there, but they also have a mission.  Their job is to witness—to testify!—that their God is still with them, even in the far away land of Babylon.

It’s possible to see Jeremiah’s letter in terms of developmental tasks for congregations in an interim period.  Typically, five tasks are mentioned.

They are (and they go by various names): Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, Discovering a New Identity, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.  I want to especially focus on that second one, Discovering a New Identity.

Discovering a new identity can be really tricky.  There can be a fine line between holding on to what is still relevant and life-giving from the past and saying goodbye to what no longer is.  We learn from the exiles that in saying goodbye, there is loss to be grieved.

Our loss doesn’t begin to compare with that of the exiles, but there has been loss nonetheless.  There is a call for mourning.  Without acknowledging grief, without facilitating the process of mourning, we can hold on to what has already faded away.  Making room for grief is essential for spiritual, mental, and even physical health.

Sometimes it helps to just have a good cry!

Seek the peace

Jeremiah says God wants them to discover a new identity, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (v. 7).  This is how they need to witness.  Exercise some holy defiance (not ill-tempered defiance, mind you!).  Show those around you that you lovingly claim the future into which God is leading you.

Still, some will say this is not necessary.  Don’t believe it!  Don’t listen to that hogwash!  Don’t say goodbye to the past, go back in time and reclaim it.  Sometimes they might claim God told them to say this.

God says of them, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord” (vv. 8-9).

Jeremiah must be going crazy about this.  He must want to tell them not, “I wish you were here,” but “I wish you would hear.”

This business of rebuking false prophets is a bit extreme for our situation, but it can be difficult to take the step of discovering a new identity.  As I hope I made clear, there doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) a sharp break with the past.  But the willingness to let go opens us to that new identity, God’s new name for us.  And that helps in our witness.  It helps to form and clarify our mission.

image from 1.bp.blogspot.com

I like something Walter Brueggemann says about the exiles’ staying put, seeking the well-being of the place where they’ve been sent, and doing the difficult work on a new identity.  It all places on “this vulnerable, small community a large missional responsibility.  In this way, the community is invited into the larger public process of the empire.  [This] prevents the exilic community from withdrawing into its own safe…existence, and gives it work to do and responsibility for the larger community.”[3]

That’s a fancy way of saying that daring to ask ourselves, “Who do we want to be?”  “How do we adapt to our changing world?”  “Where is the Spirit leading us?”  All of that makes us vulnerable.  As with the exiles in Babylon, our mission reminds us to not withdraw into our own narrow concerns.  Don’t hunker down into a fortress or scarcity mentality.

Something that came out in a session on the interim process was about that very thing.  This congregation is, Banu and I believe, ahead of the curve in avoiding that fortress / build a wall / dig-out-a-moat-and-fill-it-with-alligators mentality.  One comment was “a current of receiving and giving” is evident here.

Keep that current flowing, and your mission will flow out of it.

Ending with verse 11 of our chapter, we see the promise to the exiles and to us.  “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  That’s a rock solid guide during all of the interims and exiles of our lives.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] Handbook for the Revised Common Lectionary, Peter C. Bower, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 257.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 257-258.


sign on the dotted line

image from https://s3.amazonaws.com/feather-client-files-aviary-prod-us-east-1/2015-12-12/e34d5df0e1aa4e819376f8c23b1058e8.png

In Jeremiah 32, we encounter what is probably the most detailed business transaction described in the Bible.  The prophet is exercising his “right of redemption” in purchasing a field.  This is based on the law in Leviticus 25 which enables the next of kin to purchase, or “redeem,” property which has passed out of the family.  It’s one of the mechanisms, including the year of Jubilee, which is intended to avoid the concentration of wealth in a few hands.  Our society today, with the 1% versus the 99%, could learn something from this!
 
But this isn’t just about economics.  This story is profoundly theological.  Walter Brueggemann says in A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, “In the exercise of family economic responsibility, the prophet enacts the long-term fidelity of God as well.  Jeremiah invests in God’s promised future exactly when that future seems completely closed off.” (303)
 
Why does the future seem closed off?  Well, the Babylonian army is at the gates of Jerusalem, about to destroy it.  During wartime, real estate prices are not exactly hitting the ceiling!  And what about Jeremiah’s future?  He’s been almost alone in saying that we shouldn’t be surprised that the Babylonians will make us pay dearly.  He even says that we shouldn’t fight against them, which gets him labeled as a traitor—and he gets treated as harshly as that label suggests.
 
Suffice to say, Jeremiah doesn’t have a future.  That is, outside of the promise of God.  Even though Judah will be punished severely, there will be something glorious on the other side.  The promise of God is that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (v. 15). 
 
Jeremiah puts his money where his mouth has been, even when his actions seem to be madness.

listen


It makes so much difference when we listen!

In his book, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Walter Brueggemann applies this to King Zedekiah in chapter 37. The king sends delegates to Jeremiah, requesting prayer. Of course, Zedekiah has disregarded what the prophet has been trying to tell him about a number of things—like doing justice and not scheming against the Babylonians.

Brueggemann says, “The central issue is that the king did not ‘listen’ (shema`).” (354) He’s alluding to the Shema (which means “listen” or “hear”) in Deuteronomy 6. It’s a statement of faith that begins with verse 4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”

He continues, “No one listened—not the king, not his royal entourage, not the city nor its citizens. ‘Listening’ becomes the key motif for this part of the text.…‘Listening’ is to acknowledge that Yahweh and the torah tradition provide the dominant clues to life and to power. Zedekiah’s refusal to listen is a decision to ignore the tradition, to reject the prophet, to scuttle a theological identity, and to disregard a transcendent purpose in power politics. A refusal to listen is to imagine that the king is autonomous and therefore destined for self-sufficiency. In his refusal to listen, so the text suggests, the king has sealed his own fate and that of his people. His future depends not upon his ingenuity nor his power, but upon his readiness to accept the theological reality of his life and his rule, that is, the reality of Yahweh’s rule.” (354-5)

Refusing to listen isn’t the sole domain of foolish kings. Can we think of ways in which we are Zedekiah-like by ignoring “theological reality”?


a really new covenant

 

In Jeremiah 31, we’re presented with a passage that appears later on this fall in the lectionary. But we’re talking about it now in our Bible study! In verse 31, here’s the prophet, speaking under the influence of the divine: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

What is this new covenant? As a Christian, I’m familiar with the interpretation that telescopes this ahead six centuries to the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Still, how does this speak to Jeremiah and his audience? Are we to believe that it means nothing to them? If we can wrench it from its context, then why is Jeremiah risking life and limb to speak these words? (I should also note that I have similar complaints regarding the way the book of Revelation is treated.)

In his book, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Walter Brueggemann says, “The ‘old’ covenant belongs to that Israelite community which through its sustained disobedience forfeited covenant with God, even as it lost the city of Jerusalem. The ‘new’ covenant now wrought by God also concerns the Israelite community. This is the community formed anew by God among exiles who are now transformed into a community of glad obedience.” (292)

This seems to fit with Jeremiah’s agenda. Up to this point in the book, we’ve heard warnings about impending invasion and exile by the Babylonians. Now, in chapters 30 and 31 (some extend it to chapter 33), we have the so-called “Book of Comfort.” The prophet is stating that the worst is almost past. God is about to do a new thing. But it’s not because the people—including those in exile—have done something to bring this about. It is a completely voluntary act on God’s part; it’s an act of grace.

Again, Brueggemann: “All the newness is possible because Yahweh has forgiven. Indeed, beginning again in and after exile depends upon Yahweh’s willingness to break out of a system of rewards and punishments, for the affront of Israel and Judah could never be satisfied by punishment. God has broken the vicious cycle of sin and punishment; it is this broken cycle that permits Israel to begin again at a different place with new possibility. This is an uncommon statement, utterly Jewish, utterly grace-filled; upon it hangs the whole of reconstituted Judaism out of exile. Jewish faith is deeply rooted in forgiveness.” (294)

“It is of course possible to read this in terms of Jewish triumphalism, but such is not the intent of the text. Indeed, the text invites Jews (and belatedly Christians and others) to stand in grateful awe before the miracle of forgiveness, to receive it, and to take from it a new, regenerated life. Thus the promise occasions no arrogance or pride, but only genuine gratitude.” (295)

Imagine how our world would look if we lived lives of grateful awe before the miracle of forgiveness!


a couple of Pashhurs


At the beginning of chapters 20 and 21, we’re introduced to two different guys with the name Pashhur. In chapter 20, it’s Pashhur son of Immer. He’s given the title “chief officer” of the temple. It’s his job to make sure the machinery of the temple runs without any hitches. After hearing Jeremiah’s ranting in chapter 19, he decides enough’s enough. He has the prophet beaten and locked in the stocks overnight. Notice how Walter Brueggemann portrays him in his book, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming.

“The action Pashhur takes on behalf of official truth is not a personal act of revenge, but is the public, ‘legitimate’ procedure which deals swiftly and harshly with dissent.” (179) Pashhur has the force of law behind him; he is a servant of the system.

So, does Jeremiah repent of his criminal, traitorous ways? Hardly. As Brueggemann notes, “he dramatically renames the temple administration…The temple was to bring shalom, but it brings terror.” Pashhur “is renamed ‘Terror on every side,’ or ‘Surrounded by trembling.’ The temple (represented by Pashhur) and the city are now marked by terror and not peace. The temple cannot keep its promises. The system is under judgment and has failed. It may mouth shalom, but it embodies terror.” (179-180)

What about the other Pashhur, the son of Malchiah? In chapter 21, we see the duplicitous (and cowardly) King Zedekiah send him and other officials to the prophet, hoping for some last-ditch reprieve. The prospect of Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem has Zedekiah quaking in his boots. He wants Jeremiah to give him hope that “the Lord will perform a wonderful deed for us, as he has often done” (v. 2). Oh, something wondrous will occur, Jeremiah warns—wondrous destruction, that is.

In chapter 38, this same Pashhur son of Malchiah helps orchestrate Jeremiah’s arrest and confinement in a cistern.

I wonder why Pashhur isn’t a popular name for boys?

The image is of broken pottery, on which one piece has the word “Pashhur” written in ancient script.