Cloudy with a chance of manna

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Exodus is a matter of perspective.

Slavery in the ancient world was not based on race. It was based on the notion that the gods control what happens here, so one’s fate is decided by the stars.

That did not make slavery any less brutal or more humane. It’s just important to know that these religious understandings cannot be gauged through the lens of modern race theory. It takes white supremacy culture to do that.

So imagine if a man with an Egyptian name meaning “drawn from the water” and his brother named mountain put on a spectacular water and lights show, all the while freaking out the earthly representative of Ra, the mightiest god in the known world. And then these two guys say, stop what you’re doin’ ’cause God’s about to ruin the image and the style that you’re used to.

Everything you’ve known has been upended in a flash. Can you imagine the emotions? How do you think you’d be feeling as you pulled the bread from the oven before it had a chance to rise? Excited? Would you be confused as you threw what you could on your back and started walking forth? Hopeful? Scared? Uncertain? Tired?

And then, the greatest miracle: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, with the waters crashing down on the Egyptians, not upon the people whom this new god had saved by besting Ra.

Those two men, Moses and Aaron, along with their sister, Miriam, sing songs to God’s glory. The first night you sleep with a full belly, feeling exhilarated and filled with anticipation as to what comes next.

Now imagine it is a month to the day later. The optimism, like the hearty food, is long gone. You’re wandering. You’ve lost faith in water and mountain, and in the god they proclaim. You’re angry. You feel deceived. Forgotten. Without a place in the order of things. Despite the brutality of the enslaved condition, you start to remember the good things. Consistent food and a place to sleep. A sense of place within the cosmos. Hope.

Exodus is a matter of perspective. The idea of being delivered is powerful, but sometimes the process is brutal. The road to wholeness most often is paved with pain.

I’ve personally had some terrifying depressions that came after a blissful mania. Well, blissful until it wasn’t. This was before being put on medications. It was those experiences that propelled me toward treatment. Some of those walks in the valley of the shadow of death were horrific.

But I have also had horrendous experiences with medications. So bad that I was actually nostalgic about the darkness of my depressions. Why? Because it is a hell I know to survive. I don’t have much control, but I have some. With the wayward meds, I often have no control over my body functions or my mind.

I imagine we all have it in us to a certain extent, a fear of the unknown that can become so stark that we actually prefer slavery or madness to an uncertain tomorrow. I imagine there are not many hearing this who do not have their own version.

Maybe it was or is a job you stay(ed) at because of the benefits, the salary, the flexibility; some reason that you continue to use as justification for doing something that does little more than speed up your journey toward death? Maybe it is a relationship, or a substance, or food? We forget almost everything bad about it, convincing ourselves that this time will be different.

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Murmuring in the desert is natural. Life is difficult when you need a snack and a nap and none are to be found.

mannaToday’s passage features the famous “manna from heaven.” The word comes first from Aramaic (mān hû); in Hebrew, it translates to “what is that?” Our English word comes from the Greek μάννα. Like the Hebrews, though, we wanna know. What is that?

There are two general hypotheses based upon the biblical descriptions. First, the “fine, flakelike frost” like a coriander seed, white of color and tasting like honey points to one or more variety of flowering trees such as Alhagi maurorum (Sinai manna), Tamarisk gallica, or Fraxinus ornus (flowering ash). Each of these has a gum resin.

Which leads us to the second explanation. The Cocidae, insects indigenous to the Sinai desert often called tree louse, secrete a rough, white substance that changes to a yellowish-brown color, becoming sweet with the passage of time. The Bedouins refer to it as “manna from heaven.”

To this day, they rise early in the morning and collect it before the ants wake and the sun melts it. During rainy seasons, one Bedouin can collect three pounds, which is kept in a sealed jar. It can then be made into cakes, bread, porridge, and a variety of other dishes.*

Using mythopoetic language, the author(s) of Exodus describes this as a miracle from God in response to the people’s murmuring. I am not here to deny that; I believe in daily, minute-to-minute miracles.

But I prefer the definition provided by the Dalai Lama: “a miracle is something unexpected.” What is unexpected here? That the Hebrews do not need Egyptian taskmasters to provide them with bounty. God has done it through the natural world. This story, in my opinion, is likely rooted in the historical experience of eureka: “I HAVE FOUND!”

They go from “what is that?” to “I have found.” The act of discovery that one need not go back to those conditions that deny us of our humanity. The realization that many of the solutions to our issues are around us, from the natural world to the people whom God sends.

What God demands is an attitude of gratitude. Toward God, yes. But also toward one another. God tells us to cook and bake and boil for six days, and on the seventh to rest. To be with one another. To connect with God. To appreciate the natural world and the miracle of being an embodied spirit.

God liberates us from that which enslaves our hearts, minds, and souls. May we look around and see what the manna from heaven is within our own lives, and when we find it, let us say “thanks be to God.” Amen.


*Information gathered from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary and the Lexham Bible Dictionary

Not that kind of God: American Pharaoh and Exodus 3

 

bushIn the ancient world, if you were enslaved it was because your deity had been bested in the heavenly realm. The battles of human beings simply played out what had already been decided in the noumenal world, the realm of reality far removed from the puny humans. The realm perfection. So the enslavement of the Hebrew peoples was confirmation that their God was, well, not much of a god.

In the main, ancient cosmogony operated on the principle that the deities should be the main concern of humans, not the other way around. If calamity befell an individual or community, it was because the patron(ess) deity(ies) had been wronged or were upset. The capriciousness of these goddesses and gods is well-captured in myths. Over 5,000 years ago, humans could not fathom a divinity who would not place self-interest first over the well-being of persons.

But there was the belief that staying in the good graces of these powerful forces would result in divine benefits and protections. Dances, songs, sacrifices, offerings, rituals: all of these were efforts to appease the fickleness and fecklessness of the mighty spirits. Defeat in war, enslavement, occupation, and destruction were seen as the gods’ problems, though. The notion that God could raise another army to humble and chastise God’s people was pioneered by the Israelites.

But we’re talking about the Hebrews. Israel at the time of Moses was just an idea, a name attached to Jacob. Israel, which means “wrestling with God,” was not yet a place. The use of “Israelites” in the text reveals at least two things: the account was written from a point of retrospection and after the establishment of Israel proper, which doesn’t really happen until the time of King David, c. 1000 BCE.

The theology in Exodus 2 is revolutionary. Let’s read it again: “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Notice the verbs, the actions: groaned, cried, rose, heard, remembered, looked, took notice. This shapes a theology.

  1. Human cries and groans of suffering rise to God. Certainly, other gods have heard cries of affliction, but not from slavery. These reach the noumenal world.
  2. The cries are heard. These are not ritual actions, dances, ceremonies, etc. These are laments and anguishes directly related to the culturally assumed defeat of the Hebrew God, at this point still known as El-Shaddai.
  3. God remembers an agreement, not to point out human error but as an act of self-discovery. It is hard to picture this as an omniscient God though, right? Did God forget?
  4. God looks upon the Israelites. Imagine being told that you are seen even in the most horrendous of circumstance. Not only seen, but…
  5. God notices the cries of suffering. Your pain matters. It does not go unaddressed.

These actions largely frame what is described in 3:1-15. The Burning Bush is like God’s first Skype call. But let’s go deeper than literalism. God has mastery over the natural world. Fire needs fuel. It is the only way that fire can sustain itself. But fire is not so good for the kindling. Yet here, fire and fuel are in symbiosis. The fire does not consume the bush, yet it need not spread elsewhere to remain alive.

From this harmony comes God’s voice.

“Moses, Moses,” God calls. Moses responds with the words we first heard from Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and now, from one not of their genetic line. “Here I am.”

God’s response is theological. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham…” Abraham’s descendants are not determined by blood alone, but also by faith.

God does not demand that those enslaved offer sacrifices to him. Not yet. This God does not send a tweet saying that these cries of anguish and affliction are unfair because liberation is a communal effort. God does not sigh and say that the damn Hebrews want everything done for them. No. God does not.

God lays out a plan. Notice the action words: observed, heard, know, deliver, bring. And God does not expect worship until the people have been delivered to Sinai, just as God promises.

The revelation of God’s name is a sermon unto itself, and one that I’ve already delivered in past years. Today, let us notice, though, that one translation of YHWH is “I am.” From Abraham to Isaac and on through Jacob, we’ve understood their words “Here I am” to be a reference to themselves.

Let’s perform a through experiment. Picture the words “here I am” as though they are hovering before you, like the Sesame Street reading lessons. Now, place a comma after “here.” Here comma, I am. What happens if we read their words as though they are calling upon God, not identifying themselves.

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What happens in Exodus 4 is fascinating from an anthropology of religion perspective. We see the commissioning of two new roles within the nascent faith. The first is that of prophet, literally “mouthpiece.” Moses is charged with proclaiming the words that God has just delivered to him. Moses, as will many after him, claims that he is not up for the job. This ticks God off a bit, so he suggests Moses’ brother.

This just goes to show you, if you want something done just get a loudmouth named Aaron.

Aaron is a Levite, which from this point forward is the tribe of priests. Moses is the first prophet, Aaron the first High Priest, at least according to the Israelites who wrote down this story nearly a millennia after it happened. However it happened.

However, it happened. On some level, significant things occurred that allowed for these theological breakthroughs. A God who hears. Who cares. Who will send human agents to bring about liberation and community. A God who is in this with us. A God of verbs.

There are cries of anguish and suffering coming from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The storm was not punishment for sins. It does not represent the defeat of a god or the failures of the peoples on the islands.

We have a president who is centering himself and his ego whilst people are enduring an unimaginable hell. Let us call out to God both here comma I am, and here I am. We are God’s people. Us. I know that it’s overwhelming. We can’t do everything. In trying to do so, we do nothing. Not well, anyway.

But we can always remind ourselves that if God observes, hears, knows, delivers, and brings, we should as well. We may not be Moses or Aaron, but we are those who stand in relationship with a God who models for us the proper response, especially when we are being ruled by a despotic Pharaoh.

God understand the anger and cries of frustration whilst an inept, bumbling clod makes haphazard decisions that crush lives, while then using the State-enforced propaganda to gaslight people into disbelieving their own lying eyes. What are you talking about, the Nile isn’t red! Don’t believe the FAKE NEWS, there is plenty of food, water, and assistance. The place is teeming with it because of the beneficence of Pharaoh.

Let us all remember our verbs, our action words, and follow God. Amen.

On Jacob, Esau, Momma’s Boys, and Hypertrichosis in Genesis

We don’t like to talk about it, but it happens. A lot. When parents favor one child over the others. Or kids treat one parent drastically different than the other(s). It is so universal the Bible has a story about that, wanna hear it, here it goes!

Last week we left Abraham and Isaac as they walked away from the sacrificial altar.

Today’s passage features a nearly blind, dying Isaac. He and his wife Rebekah have twin sons, Jacob and Esau, who fought in the womb. Esau couldn’t escape the birth canal without Jacob holding onto his ankle, which was interpreted as one baby wanting to steal the birthright of another baby. Esau learned to be paranoid from jump street.

Isaac grew up to be what many consider a “real” man. I don’t know if it has anything to do with being lashed to a rock with a knife held aloft, but Isaac was a rough-and-tumble sort. He enjoyed the outdoors and related to the world on a physical level. So did his eldest son, Esau, who likely was filled with excess testosterone as evidenced by his overabundant hairiness. Isaac and Esau were buddies, it seems. Jacob was different. He was a thinker; some commentators have speculated that he was more stereotypically feminine. He was a momma’s boy–I say this as someone accused of being one myself. The story in Genesis 27 makes it clear that Rebekah prefers Jacob. She encourages him to steal his brother’s blessing of inheritance. What began in the womb is being brought to a head by a mother violating the principles of primogeniture. This is most intense.

Sibling Rivalry

Esau was a big, hairy dumbass. Jacob was a liar, a cheat, and a cunning opportunist. This isn’t a story with one good guy and one bad guy. Esau once returned home from an unsuccessful hunt and alighted upon Jacob making a pottage. Originally, this referred simply to a soup or stew. But through the Jacob-Esau cycle, it can to be defined as selling something for a ridiculously small amount, like giving a birthright for bread and stew. This Esau does, either out of stupidity or just being hangry. He has learned from his Jewish mother: If you’re going to let me starve, I’ll give you my birthright; what good is it if I’m dead?

This action, though, fulfills God’s earlier prophecy to Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb…and the older will serve the younger.” Sounds kinda similar to what happened with Isaac and Ishmael, no? The former was the successor to Abraham, the latter the progenitor of the Muslim people.

Again, strife between brothers that is encouraged on some level by parents is a theme. Esau has given away his birthright, but he still has the paternal blessing upon which he can rely to secure his standing.

“Far more important than the birthright, which simply passed on property and titles from father to son, was the blessing of the father. This was an official passing on of spiritual rights, and it designated leadership of the tribe or clan. Beyond this, the Hebrews believed that a father’s deathbed blessing determined the character and destiny of the recipient and that the blessing, once given, was irrevocable. Isaac’s blessing was even more special in that it passed on the leadership of all the people of Israel according to the promise that God had given to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham.”*

On the surface, Rebekah’s conniving ways seem untoward and indicative of a horrible mother. How could she do something like that? we might think. But we don’t really know, do we? We don’t know what has happened in the home. We don’t know what Rebekah has seen that might make her fear for the future of the people if Esau is in charge. Maybe she has hopes that her eldest son will be the supreme military commander. Speculation, to be sure. But we should not be so quick to vilify Rebekah.

She is wily, though, ain’t she? That’s a helluva ruse that they put on, ain’t it? Jacob, wearing the clothes of his brother that carry Esau’s scent. Lamb’s wool attached to his hands and neck to simulate Esau’s hypertrichosis.** Isaac, old, blinded, and dying, is confused about what is happening. It is hard not to feel for him. This could be seen as a form of elder abuse. The last thing that he can do for his people is to pass on the leadership to Esau. Have the pair talked about it on those long hunts, sleeping under the stars together and reflecting on how God has selected them to lead God’s people? 

What the selected passage leaves out is that when Esau returns home, he is livid. He has a violent outburst and threatens to kill Jacob. Rebekah tells her youngest to flee “until Esau has forgotten the wrong done to him.”

So it is on the flight from his enraged brother that Jacob puts a stone under his head and falls asleep. In his dreams, he sees a ladder with angels of God ascending and descending. Earth to heaven. Heaven to earth. Suddenly, God is there and in language similar to that uttered to Abraham, promises both a bloodline and land. A blessing and an inheritance. An affirmation that while Esau may think he has been cheated, God holds a different opinion.

(Jacob and Esau reconcile twenty years later, and Isaac is still alive. Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife, dies giving birth to his second son Benjamin as Jacob is on his way to see his birth family. Esau is extravagant in his welcome, but the brothers soon find themselves burying their father. When they depart, they never see one another again. Esau is remembered as the patriarch of the Edomites, so-called after the Hebrew אדום, ʾadhom, meaning ruddy. Once again, an older brother has an unusual path in living out God’s plan.)

What do we do with this?

Scholars believe that the recurring theme of elder brothers having roles that buck against the principles of primogeniture indicates a rejection of the Arab custom. This is a God who will not be hemmed in by human constructs.

How often do we become upset, even enraged, when we are denied something which we believe is owed to us? Sometimes this is a proper response, such as what is happening right now with NFL and NBA players pushing back against a racist system headed by a racist president.  But sometimes our anger is misplaced. We feel we are owed something, but perhaps our behavior has not shown that we are deserving.

Sometimes we can foresee a potential disaster and we feel that God has led us to avert it. This is tricky, as using “God made me do it” as a reason for duplicitous behavior is problematic.

But this leads us to the crux of what is presented in the story. God’s ways are not our own. My atheist friends object to statements like this, and I get it. On the surface, it seems to be a cop-out. A way to justify horrid things as the will of God, thereby dismissing legitimate objections as evidence of a lack of faith. You don’t understand because you don’t believe.

Buddhism teaches that within us we have seeds of mindfulness and seeds of affliction. What blossoms and bears fruit are determined by that which we water. Do we tend to our afflictions, nurturing them so they become insidious weeds overtaking our entire being? Or do we nurture the seeds of mindfulness, examining our emotions, analyzing the factors that impact us, and tend to that which does not keep us angrily rooted in the past?

Once again, I ask where are you in the story? Isaac? Rebekah? Esau? Jacob? What this story is about depends on the perspective you take–the original authors most likely want us to take God’s side: Everyone has a path. Sometimes thinking that others can define it for you means it might take longer to see where God is leading. Amen.

*Losch, R. R. (2008). In All the People in the Bible: An A–Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture (p. 178). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

**

I mean absolutely no offense to anyone who suffers from hypertrichosis; if this posting is insulting, I apologize profusely. I love the D and I have an odd mind; combine those, and you get something like this 😉  

When We Don’t Like God: A Sermon Reflection on the Binding of Isaac

isaac sacrifice.jpg
The Binding of Isaac by Caravaggio, inspired by the Genesis narrative

Stories convey meaning. This is a simple observation on its face, but it is important to keep at the center of any consideration of scripture. No matter the context in which a story is situated, is told, is received: there is meaning conveyed. Imagine that you have just heard this Abraham/Isaac story for the first time. You know that it is meant to tell. you something about God, something about the nature of faith, and perhaps something about ourselves. These seem reasonable, general assumptions to hold. A story does not exist for the sake of itself.

So you’ve heard this for the first time. You’ve learned that this God made a covenant with Sarah, that she would conceive and bear a son for Abraham named Issac, and this God–whom you may or may not know from previous stories is named El Shaddai–has fulfilled the promise. You may or may not know that Abraham also has a son named Ishmael, who was born to an Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar.* You may or may not know that Hagar was visited by an angel and told that God was going to fulfill the covenant promise to Abraham, that of a bloodline and land, through two sons. Ishmael and Isaac.

Perhaps you are surprised, then, to hear it said by this God, “Take your son, your only son Isaac…” But it is not his only son, you might retort. Perhaps Sarah’s only biological son, but not Abraham’s.  With or without the knowledge, I imagine what really grabs your attention is God’s request to take Isaac, of whom God explicitly states to Abraham I know you love this child, and take him to a land called Moriah for the purpose of sacrifice.

Deeply unsettling, no? What kind of God would do this? 

You may not know of Moriah or how far away it is when the place is first mentioned but you quickly learn that it takes three days to get there. And Abraham has brought along two other young men, who are unnamed. You might speculate about whether Ishmael might be one of them, but such is a rabbit hole you need not burrow. You have enough to consider.

Three days. A party of four and a donkey. Hours of walking. It seems unlikely that they do so in silence. There is no evidence to suggest that Abraham has told the unnamed duo of God’s request. Three days of walking, eating, drinking, passing conversations settling into silence with only the sound of footfalls to be heard, morning greetings, and evening prayers. The mind boggles to think about what transpires on the journey.

The text beckons us to inhabit Abraham’s heart and mind. The details offered in the text are remarkable, from the gathering of the wood, the loading of the donkey, the instructions to the young men, the journey to the altar by father and son. So. Much. Detail.

Do you find yourself tortured by what isn’t written? So many questions. How could you, Abraham? How did you keep anyone from knowing? And what of the boy? The eagerness and excitement on his face. An important journey with his father, going to a mountain to meet God. Oh, Isaac. No matter what occurs, you will be forever changed. 

And then, the call of Isaac to Abraham.

“Father?”

“Here I am,” the patriarch responds. In Hebrew, hin-nē(h) anî bēn, the same reply that Abraham gives when God calls his name. You likely notice this but have little time to reflect upon it, carried away as you are by the developing plot. Isaac notes the presence of wood and fire, but wonders of the sacrifice.

Where’s the lamb, papa? 

Dagger to the heart! I can’t imagine a person of any compassion not feeling punched in the gut. The trusting child looking to his father. Oh, Abraham–what must you be feeling? One of the two sons born to him, necessary elements to covenant fulfillment, looking up at him with well-known eyes. A child who trusts his earthly father is told to trust a heavenly one as well.

“God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” Abraham says, knowingly. Is he angry? Scared? Is he questioning God? Does he have moments in which he almost tells Isaac, he has words on his lips only to stop, confused and frightened? One does not mess with gods. 

It’s in the knowing that we have pain, is it not? Isaac is blissfully unaware until the moment in which he is not. Caught by patriarch, he is trussed up upon the altar with knife at the ready.

It is almost too much. Artists as disparate as Caravaggio and Bob Dylan have speculated upon, have envisioned, have embodied that moment described in the Hebrew as שְׁחֹ֖ט (lish·chot), as sacrifice. Suddenly, a voice comes from the heavens, but it is not the voice of God. It is the voice of an angel of the Lord (mal·’ach Yah·weh) that calls out, speaking first Abraham’s name–again, “here I am”–before instructing him to replace the child with a ram caught in the thicket. Abraham then conducts the first Jewish rite of substitutionary sacrifice.

The angel also relays God’s reasoning: Because I know that you fear me, I won’t make you kill your son. The Hebrew word for fear, יְרֵ֤א (yā·rē), is used in a variety of contexts so we cannot limit its meaning to a specific one. Fear of God, it seems, is what we must give.

You may or may not notice that this story is attached to a place name; I think that depends on who you are and how you hear.

But there we have it, the story that is supposed to tell us something about God, about the nature of faith, and about ourselves. Millions of pages have been written on this story. Far too much to even hit upon in one sermon-length reflection.

Let us, however, consider how the three Abrahamic faiths relate to the story. In general–again, space constraints–Judaism notes the prohibition of child sacrifice as practiced by the Canaanites, and the nature of faith. What these observations mean specifically once again depend on how you locate yourself in the story, and of whose faith we are speaking. Abraham’s? Isaac’s? What about Sarah, the mother who has been told nothing, who has no idea that when her husband and only biological son set out, it is with the intention that only one return? Who’s faith?

In Christianity, it is difficult not to draw parallels to Jesus. God substitutes a ram for Isaac only to later substitute the paschal lamb, the sacrificial lamb, with God’s son, Jesus. Therefore, the passage is about the nature of faith and also of God’s sacrificial love.

In Islam, the specific son is not named. It might be Isaac, it might be Ishmael. Interestingly, neither Sarah nor Hagar is mentioned by name, either. The story is not limited to one son, one moment, one act of faith; it is so universal, we can find ourselves in a variety of roles within a single lifetime. Sometimes Abraham. Sometimes Isaac. Sometimes Sarah. Sometimes the donkey. 

What can we take from this that is of use?

That within the three religions that were launched by Abraham, we have three general viewpoints that have infinite specifics between them. Yet the story continues to do what it is meant to do, to bring us into a space in which we seek, we discern, we look for a God we cannot ignore. Despite our objections, our heartsick, our anger, our desperation, we are pulled, inextricably, back to this tale.

I may love you God, but right now I don’t like you very much.

Sometimes, it is the struggle that matters more than what happens at the end. It is about the impossible choices we make and why we make them. And it is about a God who is to be found, even in the midst of the unthinkable. Amen.

*I’m selective about linking Wikipedia, but this article is an example of how valuable such a free source of researched information can be.

The Revelation Equation: Is God a Hater?

revelation.jpgRead Revelation 1:9-2:7

A Troubling History

The Book of Revelation tends to bring out the worst in people. Hucksters with collars and racists with badges are disposed to like the enigmatic text because it is intimidating. The Eastern Orthodox do away with it completely in liturgy;* the pre-Vatican II, Tridentine Catholic Church required laity to have a family Bible, but only to record vital statistics and to be regarded with awed reverence. Revelation inspires terror of a coming, violent judgment, something religious art and literature has captured for centuries. Revelation was like a loaded gun left in an infant’s crib.

Protestantism scoffed at the Church keeping the Bible out of the hands of the laity; this has had mixed results. Scholarship has been an important part of Protestant traditions, and there is no doubting the impact this has had on religious literacy. But once the doctrine of sola scriptura mixed with anti-intellectualism, white supremacy culture, and the notion that anyone claiming to be anointed by the Spirit can call themselves pastor, Christianity found a new way to be hate-filled and violent.

I wrote earlier about my trepidation regarding Revelation. And once again, I feel like this month-long examination of the text via passages selected by Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary Project was directed by the Holy Spirit. Why? This is the time in which all of us need to be confronting our fears and misconceptions, and determine who we are.

On ἀποκάλυψις 

The Greek word is ἀποκάλυψις, a combination of ἀπό (away) and καλύπτω (cover), is used in at least three distinctive ways that impact our study.

  1. An apocalypsis is a revealing or uncovering of something. In its simplest sense, it is a vision or a dream that reveals something previously hidden. The Hebrew Bible is filled with examples of dreams and interpretations of dreams. These are apocalypses, but the meaning is not to be found in a literal reading of the dream. Symbolism abounds.
  2.  The term can also refer to the revealing of the true natures of good and evil. This is generally tied to eschatological expectations, that is, the end of time as we know it and the uncovering of God’s eternal rule. This is the most common interpretation that Evangelicals offer for the Book of Revelation, but as Christopher Rowland points out in the New Interpreter’s Commentary, there is no definitive argument to be made that John of Patmos, the author of the text, was describing a vision from God portending a literal future event. While there is also no irrefutable evidence that the text is an account of a symbolic dream only, there is more of a case to be made for the latter.
  3. Which brings us to the third point: ἀποκάλυψις refers to a literature type. Clear-cut examples are the Book of Daniel and the Enoch cycle. Again, according to Rowland, the purpose of this literature type is to present contradictions and cognitive dissonance to shake us from our realms of comfort. These texts are made to be unsettling, for the message is about how to follow God in a world that is openly hostile to God’s call.

Working Interpretations

In Revelation 1:9-20, we are presented with a fantastical description of the Risen Christ. To argue that this, in any conceivable way, is a depiction of the historical Jesus is ludicrous. It is part of the problem with American Christianity. How could anyone think that Jesus literally had a sword for a tongue or furnace eyes? Frankly, I am sick of hearing that we must agree to disagree or to allow others to present opinions as fact. This is clearly symbolism.

Notice that this Christ whom John sees is surrounded by lampstands, but not lamps. Seven, a number that appears throughout the text, is symbolic for, among many things, completion. The seven churches do not provide a complete, detailed list of all in existence–there were certainly more by the time John wrote in the late first century. Rather, it symbolizes the unbroken and complete Body of Christ. The Risen Christ stands surrounded by the seven lampstands because he is the light of the world. The double-edged sword as a tongue might represent how having the gospel on your lips will help you defend yourself in an evil world. It’s two edges might mean that Christ’s call brings us both God’s comfort and God’s requirements.

In Revelation 2:1-7, we read of people who were zealous and eager when they first accepted Christ, and in their jubilant love, they performed good deeds. They fought off the temptations that lead to a life outside of gospel commands, but the world wore them down. No longer do they love as they once did; no longer do they act as divine agents. He calls them to remember the circumcised hearts they had before they became jaded.

But what about…

A parishioner waited until I had greeted everyone before pulling me aside after the sermon and he said, “All this information helps and I am feeling better about a month of this, but you didn’t talk about God hating people. I’m wrestling with that part. Aren’t we supposed to love everyone?” I told him I struggle with 2:6 as well, that I plan to approach it in subsequent weeks, which is true. What I didn’t say, but will now, is that I was afraid if I opened that can of worms, I might say something that I regret.

I have made no secret about my commitment to justice, specifically for trans persons, Muslims, and persons of color. I have been criticized for alienating others. I am not looking to relitigate these issues because I feel they have been settled to various degrees, but I am acutely aware of the weight my words can have, especially in worship. Given what has happened over the last 48 hours, my heart has been filled with anger, disgust, frustration, and even hatred. I’ve been drinking the poison of my own making. I think others have as well.

But address it we must. John of Patmos writes that God hates the Nicolaists, a Gnostic group whose beliefs are not entirely known. Perhaps they followed a form of antinomianism, the notion that the Law is abolished completely by Christ. We are rightly wary of the notion that God hates anyone. This wariness is largely owed to the genocidal history of the Church. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, yes, but he prioritized those who were most oppressed by both religion and the State. Jesus stood up to those who abused their power so as to victimize others. Jesus did not let his heart be filled with anger and vengeance, but he made it clear that there are requirements. To argue otherwise is to ignore why Jesus went to the cross to die. When we blithely say it was for the forgiveness of sins, but ignore Jesus going to the cross in solidarity with those whom God calls blessed, we turn the Gospel into something that supports the vile, ugly, pervasive, and violent prejudice that has been with this country since its founding.

I’m okay with God hating white supremacism. It is foolish of us to think that reason and listening with compassion will gain anything except people more people in harm’s way because we don’t have the courage to stand up and be of account. We should not let ourselves hate people–which is most difficult because white supremacists are not good people–but that does not mean we have to act like they have a reasonable position. In fact, there is no room at the table.

I have no doubt that detractors will go to the trope, “Here’s the so-called tolerance of the Left; they only tolerate what they agree with.” Bullshit. It is a pernicious lie that all worldviews must be given equal credence. And while those on the far Right will claim that it is “PC culture” that has descended us into a world of relativism and hostility to facts, that is not the case. I argue that it is directly related to anti-intellectualism, faux-patriotism, and two political parties that don’t care about anything except “winning.”

What’s It All About? 

What do we do in a world that is full of hatred, lies, corruption, and deception? We look to the light of Christ. And I am not talking about some pie-in-the-sky, abstract notion of Jesus. Rather, the Jesus who stepped between religious fanatics and a woman about to be stoned to death. The Jesus who hung on a cross and showed compassion for one hanging next to him. The Jesus who went to a man chained by villagers on the outskirts of town. The Jesus who walked into Gentile territory, let a perpetually menstruating woman touch him, spoke truth to power, stood up for God’s message and never descended into hatred. In a world in which there are lots of lampstands without lamps, the light of Christ can help us see.**
*Many thanks to Rev. Lathe Snider for this bit of information.

**Just a reminder, I am not an exclusivist. I acknowledge that there are infinite paths to God, the Spirit, Creator, the Truth. This is the one I choose and I write from within the tradition but do make claims that I am right and everyone else is wrong.

After the Sermon: Unity is not uniformity

Paul employs “armor of God” imagery in both Colossians and Ephesians. It has been a staple of Christianity since the inception of the faith. This Sunday in worship, after we heard Ephesians 6:10-20, I brought an easel with a pad of flip-paper into the aisle running between the pews. I then asked the following two questions in turn: who has a positive reaction to this terminology, and who has a negative reaction?

The congregation was split, interestingly along gender lines, at least as represented through those who spoke openly. I imagine if I could read minds, that division might not have held. But if you go by crude gender stereotypes and assumptions, you know who fell where on the spectrum. I’d be one to defy said exceptions: I generally do not like the armor of God imagery and do not find it beneficial to my own spiritual walk. I’ve had to frame it up differently.

This is largely because I understand the historical milieu in which Paul operated. He believed that the Parousia–the second coming–was imminent. He eschewed the very religious laws he once helped enforce as a Pharisee because he felt that time was short and grace was all-sufficient. Paul really only had one message; it was fairly nuanced and systematic but had Saul of Tarsus been in the Beatles instead of Paul of Liverpool, the famous would song something like, “All you need is Christ, doop-dadooby-doop.”

This is not insignificant. Paul wrote to a people who were living under a powerful and capricious empire. Persecutions depended upon who was in power, and Paul had to contend with Nero, perhaps one of the most batshit crazy emperors in history. There are compelling reasons to regard Nero as the antichrist mentioned in Paul’s writings. Paul was clear that he meant a spiritual armor for a spiritual war, but that has not been the prevailing understanding throughout history. In fact, the image is one used by white nationalists. Paul believed that demonic forces were behind the brutality of Rome and that these were unleashing themselves upon the bodies and spirits of Jews and Jesus believers. Paul was waiting for a celestial clock to run out.

Paul was wrong.

I can’t throw away Paul completely, as he is vital to Christian theology. He’s in the canon whether I like it or not. So, here’s how I frame it up: We don armor when we feel the need for protection from an expected assault. Our cultures have largely regarded those wearing armor as brave, but I submit to you that armor is used primarily when one feels fear. War is always the result of fear, and some fears are good. We should fear white nationalists, but they only exist because of fear. They fear that others might do to them what white people have been doing to the rest of the world for centuries. This doesn’t mean other nations and races have not committed atrocities; such objections are simply obfuscations to distract from facts. We wear armor because we are afraid. I think to deny this is to deny something basic about the purpose of armor.

In this week’s worship, I asked the congregation to be honest about their fears regarding our future. Some voices shook, some contrary opinions were offered, but everyone was engaged. After the Spirit had moved us on that question, I asked the bigger one: what are your hopes?

Because that is how I ultimately frame up the armor of God: it is, as my fellow United Theological Seminary alumnus Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright has written, the audacity of hope. I choose not to give in to fear. That doesn’t mean that I ignore it. Not at all. I am well aware of that which frightens me, but the armor of hope is what helps me remain at the proverbial table. The armor of God can help protect us from the allures of greed, avarice, envy, covetousness, and other myriad sins. But it is up to us as individuals to get to the point in which we no longer need the armor because those weapons can no longer hurt us. I’m hoping to get down to a light chain mail, myself; this bastard sword is getting too big to carry around, too.

This Sunday’s worship, as on each first Sunday, we shared the Lord’s Supper. All are invited, none are compelled. We share a common cup, all receive the same amount of bread. We dwell in unity, even if we have different fears and different hopes. We stay committed to one another because that is what we believe God calls us to do. The failures of white nationalist “theology,” along with myriad other reasons, is that it holds that purity is racial and that everyone must look the same, act the same, think the same, be the same. That is not Christianity, even for Paul. His entire ministry was literally race-mixing.

Unity doesn’t mean we all think the same thing, it means that we don’t walk away from the table when we don’t get our way. Unity means the courage to speak your heart, but also to listen to others, as well. It doesn’t mean, though, that things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, or any other accidents-based phobia should be respected in-and-of themselves. Christians have a primary call to seek out those on the periphery and then to ask them what being at the center might look like; it means listening and then acting appropriately. It means hearing how we have been complicit, knowingly and unknowingly, in structures that keep others oppressed.

Unity is nigh impossible if we do not prioritize the pain and needs within our immediate communities. Unity is not saying that all fears and experiences are equal. They are not. It is binary thinking that gets us into trouble, though; if someone else’s pain is deemed more profound or immediate, too many of us respond as if the claim is that our pain does not matter. Emergency rooms prioritize people by the severity of their injuries and needs. Churches should do that as well instead of setting up triage for people who aren’t bleeding.

I do not accept the notion that somehow it is inhospitable to take a stand against prejudice. The idea that the feelings of the oppressors are more important than the pain of the oppression is perhaps one of the most dangerous circulating today. Racism is not a matter of opinion upon which we can agree to disagree. At least it isn’t for me. It does not mean that I will automatically walk away from a racist, but it does mean that as a spiritual leader I am clearly going to say, “if you want to work through your prejudices and start developing healthy relationships with those you claim to hate, I can help. This church can help. But if you want to dominate the space and conversation, accusing others of intolerance because they call racism what it is, then I think there are some churches in the surrounding towns that are more your speed.”

When I first heard Queen Latifah–we so close I just call her Queen now–and the song “Unity,” my already inbred racism and misogyny kicked it. It was still so unusual to see and hear a black woman speaking out and not backing down. Luckily, I had several female mentors who lovingly, but forcefully helped me guide through it. A few years later I had to do the same thing with Arab men and Islam. I don’t point fingers at anyone I don’t point first and most emphatically at myself.

But I can say that it is better on the other side of those prejudices. I have many powerful female friends and colleagues, specifically women of color. I have learned and continue to learn from them, but more importantly, we share our lives. Same with Muslims and Arab men. Unity means that we bring the whole self to the table and are honest about our fears because we believe there is hope. That’s the only armor I need.

 

Sin-talk (Or Tautologically, Hamartiology)

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Who is this who even forgives sins?

Sin is a sticky wicket. On one hand, we can hardly deny its existence. We might disagree on what constitutes sin, but on a fundamental level we who follow the Abrahamic God must confess the reality of sin. Genesis reports that sin begins with knowledge of good and evil. Have you ever really thought about that before? I imagine you have, I mean this more as an invitation than an inquisition: think about the fact that our foundational myth maintains that in knowing the difference between good and evil we encounter sin. It is not a simple choice of good or evil; it is not a cut-and-dried division of evil bad, and good, well, good. Good intentions can still lead to evil acts. Evil can have attenuating good. The reason forgiveness is so messy is because sin is slippery.

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Sin is in the nuances. Sin is missing the mark, in terms of etymology. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words have the same meaning. A term that comes from archery. To miss the mark. How, though, do we measure this miss? Inches can translate to miles, depending on your metric. A centimeter on the highway is not the same a centimeter on a map. Sin is in the nuances.

We began our talk by weighing hands, and we have not yet considered the other one. Sin-talk can leave scars. Sin-talk too often is spoken in abusive language. Sin-talk plants seeds of self-hatred that blossom into shame. Augustine blathered on in sin-talk. He looked at an infant suckling at a breast and saw a bag of skin filled with sin. John Calvin felt Augustine was too forgiving, and summarized the essence of humanity with two unforgettable words: total depravity. Jonathan Edwards agreed when he described humanity as being held by a gossamer thread over the pits of hell in his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Perhaps you, like me, know people who use the word “escape” to describe their relationship with the Church. An escape from abuse. An escape from homes in which sin was screamed about but words of grace were barely whispered. When sin becomes an obsession, when the purpose of sin-talk is to spin purchase-less tires in the mud so that they will splatter it over all in its path, when SIN is rendered in capital letters but love is shunned like a four-letter word, we miss the mark. We sin in our sin-talk when it is not a dialogue with love.

Sin is not uniquely an Abrahamic concept; the Hindu notion of karma and the Buddhist concept of dukkha are similar. Both sin and karma are seen as impacting life in this world and the next; both sin and dukkha, which translates best to unsatisfactoriness, hold that humans cause harm because we act with certainty when we should act with trepidation. We mistake the part for the whole. We privilege the ego, the self, the individual. Most religions, on some level, provide practitioners methods to recognize the pain they have effected; to discern the causes of this pain; to offer restitution and seek forgiveness from those harmed; and to commit to methods that will prevent a repeating of the same behaviors, thoughts, words, or deeds. Sin-talk that is aimed at transformation and progress is good talk. But far too often, rare is the good talk of sin.

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Jesus knew how to talk about sin. He wasn’t shy about bringing it up, but always for a purpose. Yes, sometimes he was harsh; for those drunk on religious certainty, Jesus promised a hangover. For those being haughty in their heads—“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner”—for them, Jesus might pull out the somewhat passive-aggressive, but always effective story-told-to-one-person-but-clearly-aimed-at-others technique. Simon, I have something to say to you. Jesus brought up sin, but always with the objective of unsticking those who were mired in the mud; no spinning tires, no indiscriminate splattering here. Jesus may have spoken of sin loudly from time to time, but he always bellowed the good news of grace and forgiveness. Who is this who even forgives sins?

In my upcoming book on the Gospel of Mark, I make the argument that early Christian storytellers used unnamed women as paradigms of proper discipleship. We see it in the Syrophoenician woman who tells Jesus about the dogs who get scraps from the table; in the hemorrhaging woman who is healed because she dare break the taboo of touching a man not her husband while she was in her menses; and in the woman with the alabaster jar. We return to the triple tradition—remember that? the material shared by Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but once again Luke’s emphases and additions are telling. Only Luke has this story that Jesus relates about the relationship between forgiveness and gratitude. It’s a wonderful story; it makes sense to both ear and heart. Great debts require great forgiveness. Great forgiveness results in great joy. There is little subtlety to Jesus’ approach; we know both about and to whom Jesus is speaking.

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But scripture is about more than the events in the story world. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and about the woman, but he’s also speaking to us about us. About our sin. If you’re like me, you’re thinking of that worst sin. Details aren’t important. We should be careful not to brag on our sin. Still, chances are you have it; most of us do: that thing we did. Or said. Or didn’t do or didn’t say. That way we missed the mark by so much the arrow plunged right into someone’s heart. Jesus beckons us to receive the forgiveness that relieves burdens, that lessens yokes, that changes lives. The forgiveness that cancels debts. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to the woman. “Because you believed, you are saved from your sins. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” He says to her.

He says to us.

The Pharisees are shocked by Jesus’ audacity, but I don’t think that is what Luke is wanting us to be shocked by; I don’t think this passage is ultimately about the Pharisees being judgmental or Jesus being ostentatious. I think it is about how knowing that you are forgiven impacts the way you live.

By all rights, this unnamed woman puts a target on her back the minute she takes it upon herself to touch a man who is not her husband. Add to that the reputation Jesus has as being one who is dedicated to God, and he might as well be a walking X for her. Forbidden. Her very existence is deemed a threat to God by the established authorities; she is the embodied bridge too far. They believe that God cannot reach her. Even if they were to confess Jesus the Messiah, never would it be assumed that Jesus’ holiness could overpower her sin. We can rest assured that all the Pharisees believe that Jesus leaves the building unclean. The fact that she has a reputation for being especially sinful makes this a potent cocktail. Stonings start in such ways. But straight to Jesus’ feet she goes, weeping tears of gratitude and using her hair when no towel is proffered. Of course, it is important that the person to whom she tends is Jesus, but in some ways it really doesn’t matter. She has no verbal guarantee that Jesus will respond positively; she has no assurance that she will not be targeted when he leaves; what she has is an internal knowledge—what the Greeks call gnosis—that she is more than sin. She is more than the ways she has missed the mark. She knows that she is a child of God; with this knowledge, she gives herself permission to love life. To express her gratitude. She does this before Jesus ever utters a word about forgiveness. What he proclaims is not a magic spell; he does not speak something into existence; he merely diagnosis a pre-existing condition. She is forgiven.

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Let us not mistake forgiveness for permission. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer called it; that notion that forgiveness exists so that we can continue to create suffering as a result of our selfishness, to look away again and again because of our fear, to proclaim God’s forgiveness with our lips but to close our hearts to what it entails. Forgiveness is a pay-it-forward transaction. We don’t have permission to hurt others just because forgiveness is available. It is a reality that pushes our frame of reference outwards. When we understand that nothing we can do puts us inextricably outside of God’s love, we stop seeking ways to prove God wrong. We still sin, but not in the same ways. We still hurt others, but not without recognizing the harm; not without seeking reconciliation. We see being forgiven as the pre-existing condition, not sin. And this unnamed woman who tends to Christ’s body—the role that we in the Church are to play until God returns, that of tending to the Body of Christ—this woman shows us what living life knowing that you are forgiven looks like. And for that, let the people of the Church say Amen.

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Church Stories (or, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ Two-Woman Show)

Click this and read

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For the past few weeks, we have been talking about the Gospel of Luke and its relationship to the Gospel of Mark. We’ve noted that the author or authors of both Matthew and Luke’s gospels use the Gospel of Mark as a narrative template, so there is a sizable amount of material the three have in common. This shared material is called the triple tradition. As we are following the Narrative Lectionary, we have had several recent opportunities to look at how the author of Luke uses, edits, and presents the triple tradition in order to say something important about Jesus.

This week is different; the healing of the centurion’s slave is not found in the Gospel of Mark. It is, however, found in the Gospel of Matthew. This allows us to discuss another of the central theories in biblical studies: the two-source theory. Now, I don’t want to turn devolve into a lecture, so we’ll keep it as straight-forward as possible. Scholars long had been trying to figure out the literary relationship between the Synoptic Gospels, the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, called synoptic from the Greek, “with the same eye.” This is known as the Synoptic Problem. The theory of Markan Priority holds that the Gospel of Mark was written first. The authors of Matthew and Luke use Mark as their narrative framework, accounting for source number #1. Matthew and Luke have a sizable amount of material which is exactly or nearly exactly alike, but is not found in Mark. Scholars believe Mt and Lk could not have arrived at that material independently of one another, so they must have had a common written source. Scholars have constructed that source through meticulous study and debate, and have named it Q, short for Quelle, the German word for source.

Biblical scholars are ingenious in some regards, and really disappointing in others. Really? “Source”? That’s the best we can do? Why not, “super secret awesome Jesus stuff?”

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So, today’s passage comes from the Quelle source, numero dos in the two-source theory. Q is not a narrative gospel like the canonical gospels. It is a discourse gospel, like the Sayings Gospel of Thomas: a collection of sayings that contain the teachings of Jesus, and a few teachings about Jesus, but there is no mention of a sacrificial death or blood atonement. What is important is what Jesus says and does. Collections like these sometimes are called gnomologia traditions, literally “words of wisdom.”

Bear with me for just a few more points; I promise you that this information will come in handy as we discern together what it might be that God is wishing us to see. Early Christianity was not uniform, but the elements of worship were developing. We have always been a people who gather around the Word. But the Protestant model does not do a good job in approximating our ancient counterparts. There is too much personality of the preacher in Protestant homiletics. For better or worse, I’m present in each and every sermon. Two thousand years ago, presenters of the word were storytellers. They did not have a single Bible to which they could turn; they assembled stories from other story tellers, from texts they had read (if they could read; perhaps a majority could not), and they would go from community to community. They were apostles, which literally means “ones sent out.” And at each place the storytelling apostles arrived, they would discern the needs of the community and would tell stories aimed at using cultural and context clues familiar to audience so they could better see Jesus.

While there are many different theories about biblical storytelling–and perhaps the greatest scholar in the field of performance criticism is Dr. Thomas Boomershine, who teaches at United Theological Seminary where I study–a prevalent theory holds that the tellers arranged stories into “types.” Miracle stories. Conflict stories. Healing stories. Parables. These narrative types have been identified and discussed by biblical scholars within other sub-disciplines, most often called criticisms. All of this to say, what we encounter today is a familiar story type with some unfamiliar contours.

Let’s start with the cast of characters. A Roman centurion is not anyone you would expect to be caring about a slave. Also unusual would be a Roman centurion, which is the equivalent of a sergeant-major, providing personal money to construct a synagogue. The Romans had a complicated relationship with religion. William Barclay notes: “As Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said in a famous sentence, ‘The various modes of religion which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.’ But this centurion was no administrative cynic; he was a sincerely religious man.” So religious, in fact, that he dispatches Jewish messengers to assure Jesus, a Jew, that he need not risk becoming ritually unclean by entering into a Gentile home, a violation of Jewish law. The conversation happens by proxy, not because Jesus believes the Jewish law should be binding, but because a Roman centurion, whose entire education would have been based around enforcing the supremacy of Rome and the degradation of the occupied, has such great respect and belief in Jesus he uses his power to show humility.

Without question we should be uncomfortable about how tacitly Scriptures approve of slavery, but that is a conversation for another day; what is remarkable about today’s pericope is the context of the proxied conversation. The centurion communicates the content of his faith basically like this: I give commands and they are followed; I command my slave, and it is done. How much power must Christ have, then, to act in the world?

Jesus’ response is telling: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

There are many ways we could interpret this story; many ways that it has been used across history. We don’t have time for them all, so let us develop more fully just one. For a Roman centurion to become the paradigm of faith toward the Jewish God and a Jewish Messiah would have been shocking, for audiences both Gentile and Jew. But this  relationship is not one-sided: the Jewish officials of the town show a genuine love and support for the centurion, and there is no indication of power abuse. Both sides have moved beyond the stereotypes and pain, and have been united in a love for God. This is huge. This is like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis doing a two-woman show. This is Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr going to Bill Goodman’s Gun and Knife Show together. This is the Hatfields and the McCoys getting a time share.

The point of the story, dear beloved, is not that the slave is healed. Not the literal point, anyway. The healing is the finger pointing toward the moon, with the moon being the power of faith. It is the power of faith to bring together people who have been taught to hate one another. To bring together people who have reason to hate one another because they have experienced violence and prejudice. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which the centurion built the synagogue (was it with Roman money and under Roman orders?), but the fact is the local Jewish community feels enough regard for him to acts as emissaries, not on his behalf but on the behalf of his slave.

Remember when we talked about story types? Well one of the story types concerns the formation of community; the fancy terms is ecclesiology. Who and what are we to be when we gather around God in Christ? This pericope is a perfect example: a Roman in a position of power, along with Jewish leaders willing to see God work in others, come to Jesus because they believe he can transform a slave. Think about that: Gentiles and Jews pooling their time, talent, and treasure in order to connect a slave to Jesus. The Apostle Paul uses slavery imagery throughout his epistles, so it is clear that this language is foundational to our faith story. But here the imagery is potent: Jewish and Roman powers demur to Jesus, who responds to such faith by transforming a beloved slave?

Isn’t that pretty much the whole purpose of the Church?

In fact, I think the story about Jesus raising the widow’s son makes essentially the same point. Widows were incredibly vulnerable members of society, largely because of patriarchal structures. Losing her only son meant she had lost any status or protection she once had; this funeral might as well have been her own. She is in a procession of death, but Jesus, with his disciples, come as a procession of life. He is moved by compassion—the same things that causes God to respond to the Hebrews in Egypt: their cries of affliction move God’s compassion and pity—and he raises the boy. Jesus restores his life, and in turn her social standing.

We can absolutely take these stories literally, but that’s not the direction offered this morning. Let us think about how God is calling us to come together; how God is reminding us that the rules and regulations that keep us from seeing another person’s humanity can get in the way of transformation. Of resurrection. Let us hear the ancient story teller in our sanctuary selecting what to say, only to alight upon these two narratives. These two tales that remind us that whether we are powerful or on the margins of society, God sees us. God works in us. God calls us together in defiance of what keeps us apart and says, “Do not weep. I say to you, rise.”

“Do not weep. I say to you, rise.” So let the people of the Church say…

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Yada Yada Yada: (T)ruth on the Threshing Floor

Click here to read Ruth 3.

The Yiddish expression yada yada yada derives from the Hebrew word yada (pronounced with a long first a), which means “know.” So yada yada yada essentially means “you know, you know, you know.” A way to indicate that you’re cutting to the chase, making a long story short.

Above is a clip of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, when Elaine yada yadas sex. In Hebrew, the word “know” can also mean to know someone sexually. Same with the Hebrew word for “lie down.” It can be literal, like lying down with someone. Or it can mean to know someone carnally. Similar to our English word sleep. If I were to say, “I slept with someone not my wife last night,” you would probably ask for clarification before smacking me in the face. Maybe not 😉

The words “know” and “lie down,” along with the idioms used in connection with a cloak or wing being spread for protection are throughout Ruth 3. The Hebrew is filled with double entendres; and add to that the fact Ruth and Boaz meet on the threshing floor, biblically the site where prostitutes meet their johns, and you’ve got yourself an exegetical stew going.

Seminary is not the most risque place. Most of what we study is really important and heavy. We have to be prepared to deal with a wide variety of possibilities. But every now and then, things get juicy. I’ve found there are two types of religious people when it comes to talk about sex. There are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get interesting; and there are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get uncomfortable. I’m certainly the former.

The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest in the canon, but also one of the most enigmatic. Lots of congregants have come up to me after service over the past few weeks to express they feel like they are understanding the story for the first time. I mention this not to commend my own preaching, but rather to say that sometimes English translations fall flat. What is at play here in Ruth 3 are commentaries on the nature of power. Who is really in control? Is it Naomi, who sets the plot into motion? Is it Ruth, who goes to the threshing floor to uncover Boaz’s “feet,” which is clearly a euphemism for male genitalia? Is it Boaz, who wants to bed Ruth but is looking for a way to make it culturally justifiable? Numerous books and articles have been written claiming one over another.

Power is as power does.

Boaz clearly has no levitical responsibility to Ruth,that is no legal requirement to marry her as a next of kin. She is a Moabite and not a blood relation. He might have a legal responsibility to Naomi, but most likely not, as she is beyond child-bearing age. We must ask why Naomi forms her plan: is it for her safety or for Ruth’s? Both? Why does Ruth go along? Because she has pledged herself to Naomi? Or because she understands this will be the only way she can discover any sort of protection.

Also at question is the sort of protection she is asking for; is it marriage? Is it permission to live on the land and do more than glean for food? Does she present herself to Boaz to seduce him and trick him into protection? Or does Boaz meet her there so he can purchase her services. The bestowing of six barley complicates the matter even more, as it could be seen as a bridal price, a payment for, ahem, services rendered, or something even more symbolic, like the restoration of six generations of Elimilech’s line. Interpretations abound.

What is the protection here? What is the security? What is the bond between Boaz and Ruth, Boaz and Naomi, Ruth and Naomi? What kind of family will they be?

The system has let Naomi down, and Ruth is an outsider. Can it be made to work for her, and in turn for Naomi, too?

God is in the business of redemption, or forgiveness, of bringing wholeness out of brokenness. But God does not work with magic wands. God works through people and situations. And here, in this beautifully complicated story, we see the ultimate outsider, Ruth, being an agent of redemption. Being one open to God using her to bring together what life has rent asunder.

So often we think we know what a good person looks like; we imagine that if God were going to use someone for good in our lives, those people will likely look like us. Think the same things as us. But this story shows us that God works in mysterious ways, unusual ways, ways that may seem foreign or even uncomfortable for us.

For Christians, the example of Christ mirrors that of Ruth. Jesus went to those who were forced to the periphery and affirmed their blessedness. He brought them into the center of his community because they are at the center of God’s heart. Are we open to that happening with us? For us? To us?

I’ll meet you on the threshing floor.

Looking for a Job: Job Creators

job

Read this if you don’t know Job. 

Now that’s settled, and we can commence to begin. 

From a young age, I’ve loved love.

My mother likes to tell a story about my earliest attempts at flirting. At a kindergarten parent-teacher conference, the teacher said I was a bright, sweet kid but that it would behoove my parents to teach me how to tie my shoelaces. My mother responded, “Aaron has known how to tie his shoes for a year!” The teacher responded, “Huh. He’s always asking the little girls in class to do it for him.”

Flash-forward to the age of eleven; I had a little girlfriend living next door, but despite our close proximity we spoke on the phone. Real phones, you know? The kind with a rotary dial, an extra long extension cord like Lloyd Dobbler used when he called Diane Court; the kind of phone you could use as a murder weapon. One day I was in my parent’s room, sitting on the bed, chatting her up and I said, “I love you.” My mother overheard it, and when I hung up the phone she came in and said, “Aaron, I’m glad that you have a special friend. But I don’t think you should say you love her; you’re too young to really know what love is.” This was before Forrest Gump, so despite the perfect set-up I was not able to respond, “I’m not a smart man, mama, but I know what love is.” I think I stomped into my room, pushed play on my Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet tape, and sang “Living On a Prayer” as though it was about me and my beloved. We were misunderstood. We would run off together and we would make it, dammit, by our pluck and love.

I mean, we were already halfway there.

Of course, Mom was right. I didn’t know what love is. It took a perspective shift, like learning how to love my schizophrenic brother without needing anything in return. It’s about loving a person when you don’t particularly like them. Love is messy, gritty, painful. It is not ideal. Not all the time, anyway.

So we look at Job. Job so certain. Confident that he is blameless. Sure that justice has been denied him, that he is owed better, that he has been given short shrift and now is the time of reckoning. Time to square the accounts. And Job has filled himself with the sort of indignation that is righteous. He has God in a corner, God on the ropes. It’s going to be a hell of a show.

Until Job is given a perspective shift. God’s words from the whirlwind are crushing. Defeating. It almost makes us want to look away, it gets so uncomfortable. We shift in our seats because Job is getting his ass handed to him. And, frankly, if I have to take this literally I really don’t like this God. This God feels hostile. Unloving. Diffident.

But there is a great deal of truth in this story even if the facts are in dispute. When we mistake the part for the whole, when we allow ourselves to go off half-cocked because we are certain we are the moral arbiters of the world, when we think we know a person’s motives, or heart, or sense of self, when we project onto others the ways we think we have been wronged, but then are given new information, we stop short. What is this dark magic? It is almost like we have new eyes, really. Because that’s what happens when we have a shift in thinking. We see things differently. We enter more fully into the complexity of human experiences and relationships.

People often ask me if I believe in an interventionist God. A God who controls or influences history, and I am generally hesitant to give a quick answer. Not that I don’t have one. You might have gathered by now that I like to talk. A lot. And write. A lot. That’s part of the bipolar. But when it comes to God I’ve learned to slow down. It makes me a bad Calvinist, but I don’t believe that everything is already decided and we are merely meat puppets acting out a divine drama. But I do believe that God’s spirit animates us and flows through our lives, that we experience it, in part, through love. And through the people whom God places in our lives. Through the situations that arise, requiring us to navigate them with some sort of discernible principle.

In our nation, right now, we are facing a fundamental choice about who we are as Americans, as Christians (for some of us), as citizens, as human beings. Choices about how we view the world and each other. In many ways, history is calling for all of us to use our lives as testimonies regarding how we understand Jesus Christ. God is calling us to account for what we think about justice. Just like with Job. We Christians testify that through Christ, we see anew. Through the model of Jesus, we have a definitive example of how to live. How to be in relationship with others. How to discern God’s priorities and make them our own.

We have a choice. We can be certain we understand justice and that wrong has been done to us, that we have been robbed of things that are rightfully ours, or we can take God’s view. The larger view. The longer view. The view that shows the totality of love, justice, compassion, mercy, and grace. Or we can rage and rail until we are red-faced, tilting at windmills. We can continue to allow mechanisms and structures to be Job creators; manufacturers of persons who are so blinded by their own certainty, they lose nuance. Perspective. The ability to be transformed and shaped. The supporters of this vision are looking to create more Jobs. The question is, will we let them?

God gave us free will and Jesus. The rest is up to us.