Saturday, July 22, 2017

Who Is The Enemy?

Who Is The Enemy?
Jesus tells a parable in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew that speaks of someone sowing good seed in his field; while everybody was asleep, “an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.” [Matt 13:24-30] Later, he identifies the “enemy” with the devil, and the weeds are “all causes of sin and evil doers.”

In a Bible Study of this passage with colleagues, the question was raised, ‘Who is the enemy today?’ Judging from reading my news feed on Facebook every morning there are plenty of answers being tossed around: it’s the media, it’s the alt-right, it’s the progressive left, it’s the Democrats, it’s the Republicans, it’s abortion providers, it’s anti-abortion activists, it’s Muslims, it’s Christians, it’s Russians, it’s liberals, it’s conservatives …. the accusations are all over the socio-political map.

Then, of course, someone proffered the Walt Kelly answer in Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us!” This perfectly sums up Kelly’s attitude towards the foibles of mankind and the nature of the human condition. Kelly begins to point us in the right direction. Then someone said, “It is each of us. It’s me.” There was a long pause. The ethics of personal responsibility. We all get mixed up in various causes of sin – sin defined as that which separates us from the love of God. Not least of which as we hurl hate-filled rhetoric against those we identify as “evil one.” And make no mistake, whatever separates us from one another also separates us from God.

I am guessing it’s this very real human behavior that attracts some folks to become atheists. If you choose not to believe in God, which is a choice, then you need not worry about doing something, anything, that might separate you from God’s love.

After the Bible Study was over I got in the car for a long ride home. I listened to an interview on Fresh Air – Terry Gross was interviewing the British folk singer Billy Bragg. Near the end Bragg was talking about his study of the music of Woody Guthrie and the pervasive cynicism in today’s political climate – according to Wikipedia cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others' motives. This occurs most often about people we do not even really know personally! Bragg brought this up in reflecting on what he has learned from Woody Guthrie about writing songs:
I think Woody — he's said as much in his writing, that he never wanted to write a song that made people feel down. When he wrote his political songs it was always about lifting people up and giving them hope and making them feel a better life was possible. He said he hated songs that made people feel like they were born to lose. So what I learned from that — it's something I've been feeling for a while, but I haven't been able to articulate, and that is the biggest enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism or conservatism. It's actually cynicism. And not the cynicism of right-wing newspapers or news channels — the cynicism that is our greatest enemy is our own cynicism, our own sense that nothing will ever change, that nobody cares about this stuff, that all politicians are the same. If we're gonna make a difference, we have to be able to overcome that. We have to be able to identify our cynicism — we all feel it, of course we all feel it — and we have to be able to curb it and put it to one side and go out every day and think the glass is half-full.

Cynicism is our greatest enemy. And cynicism is about all we get these days from all sides. The enemy, however, is our own cynicism.

I got to thinking: what if we all made the effort to never say things or write things that make other people feel down? What if all that we say and do was aimed to lift people up, give them hope and make them feel better? Stanley Hauerwas has said that Christianity is not primarily about happiness, but about maintaining a true sense of hope in a world that rarely provides much evidence that such hope is justified – admittedly a kind of cynical way of stating it. But this is our job, not just as Christians, but as people, human beings, who want to see the world become a better place. We need to begin with the simple thought every day, suggests Bragg, that the glass is half-full. Then Billy Bragg sang this song – a simple song, but an honest and hope-filled song- Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day:

To the misanthropic misbegotten merchants of gloom
Who look into their crystal balls and prophesy our doom
Let the death knell chime, its the end of time
Let the cynics put their blinkers on and toast our decline
Don't become demoralized by this chorus of complaint
It's a sure sign that the old world is terminally quaint

And tomorrow's gonna be a better day
No matter what the siren voices say
Tomorrow's gonna be a better day
We're gonna to make it that way

To the pessimistic populists to harbor no doubt
That every day we make our way, “to hell in a hand cart”
And the snarky set, who's snapping to get
Anyone who sticks their head above the parapet
Oh, don't become disheartened baby, don't be fooled
Take it from someone who knows the glass is half full

And tomorrow's gonna be a better day
No matter what the siren voices say
Tomorrow's gonna be a better day
We're gonna make it that way

The alternative is to be the weeds that choke out the all the goodness in this world – and there is much more goodness than not. It’s not even just about civility, it is about being willing to give up our cynicism and hate speech, and that is what it is, and be those people who know that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth; become those people who sow and cultivate hopefulness. As Ringo Starr once put it, “You know it don’t come easy!” It begins with addressing the cynicism in ourselves. The blame game, the clever memes, the “gottcha” attitude is all just a distraction – and a harmful one at that. We can be the whole wheat of hope that lifts people up. No more tearing others down. Tomorrow’s going to be a better day!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Sustaining Promise and Hope

Sustaining Promise and Hope in Present Circumstances
As we work our way through the Abraham saga, a story of promise and hope for a new future, we begin to note how odd and daring the narrative and the utterances of Yahweh seem. Abraham and Sarah are promised a new homeland, descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens, and that these descendants shall be a blessing to all of humankind. Yet, from the beginning circumstances appear to suggest otherwise. Not the least of which Sarah remains barren until Yahweh intervenes with the news that she shall bear a son. At age 90!

She and Abraham laugh themselves silly, but a year later a child is born and given the name Isaac, “laughter,” or “he who laughs.” Although it is up to him to carry on to the fulfillment of the promises made, “He Who Laughs” becomes the one who sees the knife gripped in his father’s hand about to sacrifice him to the same Lord of the Promises, until, lo and behold, an angel say, “OK, that’s far enough! There is a ram nearby. Sacrifice that instead and let the boy live.”

Yet, for this all to go forward the boy needs a wife and child. Abraham arranges for Rebekah to be that wife. All looks well until she too remains barren for twenty years. [Genesis 25:19-34] One would think Yahweh, he who utters promises, might make it all easier. Nevertheless, Isaac appeals for help, and Rebekah conceives – not one, but two children ‘struggle’ within her we are told. The Hebrew is more like they are crushing one another, a sign of future struggles. Now Rebekah cries to the Lord in despair, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”

The Lord replies with what can only be described as an oracle: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger. Sure enough, first comes the strong and hairy one, Esau who becomes a great hunter, followed by Jacob, literally “the heel-grabber,” apparently trying to pull Esau back so as to emerge ahead of him. “Heel-grabber” really means more like “trickster,” “scoundrel,” or “rascal.” This is not a compliment. He, we are told, attends the flocks and lives in tents. Yet, as the younger, how odd it seems that he will be the one to further the promises made. There is trouble in the tenthold. Isaac “loves” Esau, while Rebekah “loves” the Trickster.

Indeed, he tricks his brother Esau to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. This appears to be OK with the Lord, thus upturning the rights of primogeniture. This also means he will be the spiritual and ancestral head of the family. Just to make sure, Rebekah conspires to trick the now old and blind Isaac into blessing Jacob disguised as Esau. The last is now first. Soon, however, Esau wants to kill his brother and retain his birthright. Rebekah urges Jacob to leave.

While on the lam, Yahweh renews the promises to Jacob. He who contrived to gain an undeserved birthright and blessing is now described as the one through whom the entire human family will receive blessing! Yet this is no accident, no “fluke” of history. It is the unfolding intention of God who, Jacob’s unsavory character notwithstanding, promises to accompany the fugitive in order to ensure his safety and well-being. The solitary Jacob is solitary no more: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” [Gen 28:15] Yahweh’s eternal presence is secured.

Jacob is renamed Israel by the Lord, meaning “he who has struggled with God.” Things do not go any more smoothly for Jacob as Israel. Esau remains out to get him. His relative Laban tricks him to marrying not one but two of his daughters, Leah and Rachel! Jacob never gives up his trickery, but remains loyal to Yahweh and demands the same loyalty of all his family which is, as the original promise suggests, quite numerous eventually becoming twelve tribes headed up by his twelve sons.

Yet, throughout this odd and daring narrative, among circumstances that seem deadly and insurmountable, Israel is to remember that Yahweh is with them, the promises remain in force, and that Israel is not to surrender the life of its destiny to present circumstance.

The circumstances of our present time are also freighted with many promises: promises of greatness, promises of economic progress, promises of security – the list is nearly endless among those in the political class. Yet, against all these sorts of promises we are urged to embrace self-sufficiency while continuing to acquire, accumulate and consume all that we possibly can. We are also urged to fear the stranger and believe that “God helps those who help themselves.” We are to depend on ourselves and what we can manage to consume, defending what we have at all costs. As Walter Brueggemann observes in his seminal work, Old Testament Theology: Our insistence on visible circumstance seemingly banishes promise from our world. When promise is banished and circumstance governs, we are most likely left with nothing but fear and despair, whether the fear of “the other,” or the despair of the self-sufficient or of the dis-empowered. And fear and despair, says Brueggemann, are no basis for a viable social community.

He goes on to ask if perhaps these odd and daring texts might offer an antidote to our ready embrace of despair? This story of Jacob/Israel and Esau, and the rest of the Abrahamic saga, strikes us as remote from our present circumstance. Yet, they have always struck Israel as remote!

In the end, it will be our consideration of these and other promissory statements in the Bible that can sustain the very notions of promise and hope wherever we find ourselves, just as they did for our spiritual ancestors of our faith. Indeed, it is Jesus who urges us to careful and faithful reading of God’s Word in his Parable of the Sower in Matthew chapter 13. We are to be the fertile ground upon which God’s promises take root, are nourished, treasured and maintained against all present circumstances to the contrary. These stories are meant to sustain us as they have Israel in its various exiles and periods of occupation and oppression.

 “In the end,” writes Brueggemann,” our consideration of these promissory statements is as it always was for Israel: a massive assurance grounded in the flimsy evidence of the witnesses” – people like Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Isaiah and Jesus. [p.173] We return to these stories because they have held and sustained the promises of Yahweh that make for viable social community. We are not in this on our own. We are those people who know that the God of these utterances and promises is with us no matter what circumstances we face. These stories remind us that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth. For as he says to Jacob he says to us all, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go!”

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Rebekah - Her Story/Our Story

Rebekah – Her Story/Our Story
“What a degenerate age do we live in, in which appear all the instances of pride, luxury, and laziness, the reverse of Rebekah’s character, whose daughters are few!”
So wrote Matthew Henry, a Seventeenth Century Nonconformist minister and writer, about the woman who dominates the 24th chapter of Genesis who becomes Isaac’s wife and upon whom rests the future of God’s promise to humankind. Henry calls attention to her humble, courteous, industrious and charitable disposition. She remains to this day the epitome of how the God of the Bible wants us to welcome and care for strangers, following in the tradition established by her soon to be father-in-law, Abraham. Sadly, Henry’s conclusion is just as apt today as it was when he first wrote his Bible Commentary. But we get ahead of the story.

Genesis 24 is considered by some as a self-contained novella, a woman’s story in the middle of the Abrahamic saga of Israel’s patriarchy. It is surprising that from this moment on, Isaac nearly disappears from the story arc and Rebekah takes over: First, passing the test set by Abraham’s servant to become the chosen wife for his son; Secondly, choreographing the deception that results in the younger of her twin sons, Jacob, to receive his father’s blessing and thus be the one to carry on the hope for God’s promises and blessings for all humankind. Indeed, it is Jacob who wrestles with the God of Abraham and Rebekah and is renamed Israel.

Rebekah is far more dynamic and proactive than Isaac, for whom there is no independent episode from here on. The verbs used for her are action verbs. The verb “to go” is used seven times in this courtship narrative, a number used for emphasis in Hebrew literature, indicating her active nature. She runs, she draws water, she pours water, she rides a camel, and she veils her face. Furthermore, the text’s high regard for women lets her choose to go! And recognizes her great value in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. “Because of the centrality of Rebekah, in contrast to Isaac, the ancestral sequence might more accurately be called Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob. Indeed, when Rebekah’s favored son, Jacob, is sent to Mesopotamia to secure a spouse, he identifies himself to his future bride (and cousin) Rachel not as the son of Isaac, but rather as “Rebekah’s son” (Gen 29:12); his paternal ancestry is eclipsed by Rebekah’s lineage,” writes Carol Meyers on the Jewish Women’s Archive.

It begins with Abraham calling one of his servants and sending him back to the homeland around Ur to find a wife for his son Isaac. He does not want him marrying one of the idol worshipping Canaanite women. Abraham has the servant swear an oath with his hand on Abraham’s thigh - swearing on the “loins” inside the “thigh” represents reproductive power. In other words, this story is about the fulfillment of God’s promise through the continuance of Abe’s family!

The servant in turn prays to the God of Abraham to show him the right woman, devising a test: the woman who comes to the well and gives him a drink of water AND also waters his camels is to be the chosen one. Rebekah comes, draws water, gives the servant a drink, and without being asked continues to water his camels. He immediately gives her a gold nose-ring and bracelets – thus securing a wife for Isaac, and at the same time insuring her future: should Isaac pre-decease her she can sell the gold ring and bracelets if necessary to care for herself. The sheer beauty of the story and Rebecca, and her extended hospitality makes the reader want her to be the one God provides for Isaac.

This action of extreme hospitality is what sets her apart, and continues the same spirit of hospitality toward strangers first exemplified by her soon to be father-in-law Abraham. Herein lies the lessons for our time – according to the rabbis Rebekah teaches us to adopt this character of boundless lovingkindness, what the Hebrew Bible calls chesed, Rebekah teaches us to challenge ourselves with real, selfless commitment. Rebekah teaches us to be initiators, to look for times and places where we can be of service, to be proactive and useful, without calculating whether there are others around who could, or should, do the same.

We live in a time with more displaced persons throughout the world than in any other period of human history. Millions are fleeing warfare, draught, starvation and poverty looking for a place to simply live and start over. Abraham and Rebekah are just the first two of many examples all the way through the Bible to Jesus and St. Paul who call us to remember – we and/or our ancestors were also strangers in a new land. All of us are guests and appointed stewards of God’s creation. To this point in the Biblical narrative, it is this woman, Rebekah, who most embodies the character of God’s commands to welcome and care for the stranger – a command later to be enshrined in the story of the Good Samaritan.

We live in a time when hard lines are being drawn between “natives” and “foreigners,” or “resident aliens.” Stephen Greenblatt in a recent New Yorker (“Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia,” July 10&17) recalls that William Shakespeare penned some lines in a play about Sir Thomas More, a play that was probably never performed, but is preserved in the British Library. The lines speak to one of our most pressing modern dilemmas. More is confronting an angry mob demanding the expulsion of “strangers,” – “foreigners”:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires…
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?       [ Act 2 – Scene 4]

As Greenblatt concludes, “Such language isn’t a substitute for a coherent, secure and humane international refugee policy; for that we need constitutional lawyers and adroit diplomats and wise, decent leaders. Yet these words do what they can to keep before our eyes the sight of “the wretched strangers, /Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, /Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.” For a long moment in dramatic time, the distance between natives and strangers collapses; walls wobble and fall…” [p.39]

How much more are we, the sons and daughters of Rebekah, called to spontaneously, like her, extend hospitality to those in need, whoever they are, most especially those we do not know, but with whom we share the same plight – we all thirst, like Abraham’s servant, and all those who come to us are thirsty too. We are all strangers of one sort or another. Rebekah teaches us to be initiators, to look for times and places where we can be of service, to be proactive and useful. As Jesus once said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Getting Involved With God...

Getting Involved With God…
Is a book by Ellen F. Davis, one of the most insightful Old Testament scholars, teachers and friends I know when it comes to sorting out the obvious questions in stories like this one in  Genesis chapter 22, the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac, perhaps the most terrifying story in the Bible. Abraham is asked to offer “your only son whom you love (2)” as a korban olah, “that which goes up in smoke,” which in English is “holocaust.” The typical translation as “burnt offering” does not do justice to the horror of what is being asked.

Davis wants us to see the Old Testament not primarily as a moral rule book or set of prophecies of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; nor as simply morally and spiritually primitive and fully superseded by the New Testament. Rather, Davis zeroes in on what is truly at stake in this story and those which precede and follow it: God’s desire to enter into a binding relationship, a covenant, with all of humankind. God wants to bless all creation through God’s most precious creatures, man and woman, created in God’s own image (Gen 1:27). That is, our temptation to overly focus on Abraham and Isaac in this story is to overlook the main character of the entire book of Genesis, the “book of beginnings,” which is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Jesus and Muhammed.

Which God, it turns out, as far as Genesis is concerned, is anything but “omni”: omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Rather, Genesis presents us with a vulnerable God: “The Binding of Isaac shows us a God who is vulnerable, terribly and terrifyingly so, in the context of covenant relationship. … if we properly understand the dynamics of covenant relationship, then we are confronted with a God who is vulnerable. For, as both Testaments maintain, the covenant with God is fundamentally an unbreakable bond of love (hesed). And ordinary experience teaches that love and vulnerability are inextricably linked; we are most vulnerable to emotional pain when the well-being and the faithfulness of those we love are at stake. And as we have seen, the Bible shows that the faithfulness of even the best of God’s covenant partners is always up for grabs. So, it follows that God’s vulnerability in love is an essential element of covenant relationship.” (p. 62)

This story is remembered by all three monotheistic Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Somehow this story ought to be one of many founding narratives that binds our three traditions together with the One God who begins it all.

After several failures to establish a binding covenant relationship in the Garden, the Flood and the Tower of Babel episodes, God decides to work with one man and his wife, Abram and Sarai, later to be called Abraham and Sarah. God promises them a place to live, bountiful descendants to populate God’s creation with those who know and love the Lord, and to become a blessing to all the peoples of the Earth. God wants a relationship based on faith, trust and love. Through them, we are to become his proxies on Earth treating others as he would want them to be treated.

Verse 12 tells us that Abraham passes the test: “Now I know that you are one-who-fears-God, since you did not withhold your son, your one-and-only, from me.” In her article on Bible Odyssey, Davis points this out as the core religious virtue, “fear of God.” “To fear God is to live in humble recognition of the incalculable difference between God and humans. This is the first time we see anyone (allegedly) practicing that virtue, so the divine statement here leaves the morally alert reader with two questions”:
How could a virtuous person be willing to kill a child? The story is often said to be about obedience, but Davis notes what we all know, that blind obedience to a tyrannical demand is no virtue as the modern Holocaust and numerous human tragedies remind us. Verse one points us in the right direction beginning, “After these things….” Abraham has already exercised questionable, unvirtuous behavior in giving his wife over to the harems of two kings out of concern for his own life, demonstrating a lack of trust that God would get him through this journey to the promises and covenant made. God’s plan to bring blessings and good on all the peoples of the Earth depends on this one man. More than obedience is at stake here, but rather mutual trust: the point here is whether or not Abraham is willing to relinquish his son whom he loves, and upon whom rests the blessing, the covenant and happiness of God, Abraham and all the peoples of the Earth. Abraham’s fear of the Lord is a condition of complete vulnerability before God, just as God’s willingness to risk the end of this strategy with Abraham exposes his vulnerability as well. God does not know how God will react to his demand. It’s a test.

How could a good God demand that Abraham kill his son Isaac? First, this is a real test. Again, God has no idea how Abraham will respond. Only by demanding everything can he know that he can trust Abraham the rest of the way. Secondly, God demands everything of Abraham to remind him and to remind us, the readers, that God, not Abraham, not us, is in control of this covenant relationship. A relationship that demands balance. In chapter 18 Abraham boldly challenges the Lord’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, and skillfully argues to save the righteous people in those towns. God listens to Abraham and names him a prophet on the power of his intercessory prayer. In the worldview of Genesis, writes Davis, genuine relationship with God demands a balance between boldness and submission.In Gen 18, we see Abraham’s unstinting compassion for humans; in Gen 22, we see his unstinting devotion to God. Psychologically speaking, it may be nearly impossible to hold those two in perfect balance, but theologically speaking, both are necessary for those, both Jews and Christians, who struggle to live in covenantal relationship with God. Thus, with this most important ancestor, the Bible begins to show what it is to serve ‘prophetically’ in covenantal context: negotiating dual commitments to humanity and to God, from moment to moment discerning when to challenge God on behalf of weak and sinful humanity and when to submit in “fear” to the sometimes inscrutable divine demand.” [The Bible Odyssey]

Boldness and Submission. Submission is the root meaning of Islam, a tradition that also preserves this story, but chooses not to identify which son, Isaac or Ishmael his older brother, is led up the mountain. In the text, verse 8, it says, “The two of them walked together.” Father and son. In a sense both of them are victims, and both are survivors. In a greater sense God walks with them as well. All three are vulnerable to the risks involved. All three come through the test bound together in a deeper sense than before. Is it possible that this most terrifying of all stories means to bind us all together, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Jainist and all the peoples of the Earth to finally, with one another, reap the blessings of the promise that begins Abraham’s journey in the first place? This story is meant to demonstrate to one and all what is at stake when we choose to get involved with God. The story ends, “And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: 'In the mount where the LORD is seen.' When we honestly and trustfully walk together, the Lord will be seen in us and through us. All of us.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Hagar's Children

For six years I took several 14-passenger busloads of girls from my religion class to visit a mosque – The Islamic Center in Washington, DC. If time allowed after the always wonderful conversation with Sheikh Abbas we would allow the girls time in the Center’s gift shop. In the gift shop there are bottles of something called Zamzam Water. This water purports to be from the well that God/Allah revealed to Hagar  when she and her son Ishmael were in danger of dying from thirst (Genesis 21:8-21). Legend says that Hagar ran between two hills seven times before coming upon the well that saved her life and that of Ishmael who is recognized in the Quran as having assisted his father Abraham in establishing the first monotheistic worship site, the Kaaba, in what is today Mecca, the religious and geographical center of Islam. Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael are revered as ancestors of the prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him.

Thus the importance of reading these stories in Genesis. Hagar is believed to have been acquired as a maidservant to Sarah while she and Abraham were in Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. We may recall (Genesis 12) that Abraham had Sarah pretend to be his sister, not his wife, “so that it may go well with me.” Indeed, Pharaoh himself takes Sarah as his wife and it goes well with Abraham who acquires sheep, oxen, donkeys, and male and female slaves from Pharaoh. The Lord is not happy with the ruse, however, and brings plagues upon the land of Egypt until Pharaoh also discovers the ruse and sends Abraham and Sarah and “all that he had” out of Egypt. Hagar is believed to be among the servants.

As Sarah has so far not conceived a child let alone a male heir for Abraham, it is she who suggests that Abraham take Hagar as a second wife, which he does and Hagar becomes pregnant. (Genesis 16) At this point Hagar begins to “look with contempt” upon her mistress who in turn treats Hagar harshly. Hagar runs away and is resting by a well when an angel of the Lord appears to her commanding her to return to Abraham and Sarah. The angel of the Lord commands Hagar to name the child Ishmael, or God Hears because “the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” The angel further announces that the offspring of Ishmael shall be numerous beyond measure, the same promise made to Sarah and Abraham! Hagar, we are told, submits to the Lord’s instructions (which is a root meaning of the word Islam – submission to God), returns and bears a son and names him Ishmael as the Angel of the Lord had commanded.

Abraham’s first son grows up and is among those males both slave and free who are commanded by the Lord to be circumcised as people of the covenant. Abraham is 99 and Ishmael is 13. A year later Sarah is promised a son, and despite the hilarious impossibility of it all, Isaac is born – Laughter, or He Who Laughs! Sarah sees the now teenage Ishmael “playing with” or “mocking” her now toddler son Isaac. She orders Abraham to dismiss them both. Abraham is distressed “because of his son,” but the Lord commands him to “do whatever Sarah tells you to do,” good advice for all husbands always and everywhere!

Abraham gives them some bread and a skin of water and sends her away. She and Ishmael wander in the wilderness, but soon the water is gone and the boy becomes faint. Hagar lies him beneath a bush and goes off at a distance so as “not to look on the death of the child. She lifted up her voice and wept.” Yet, God hears the voice of the boy and an angel of the Lord appears to Hagar saying, “What troubles you? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand for I will make a great nation of him.” And as God opens her eyes she sees a well nearby, fills the skin, and gives the boy a drink from the Zamzam well. He goes on to be lauded in pre-Islamic poetry and is, nearly 2,500 years later, mentioned ten times in the Quran as revealed to the prophet Muhammed, pbuh.

Hagar, as Jewish sages picture her, was a woman of humility and piety. Indeed, few others were privileged to have an angel of the Lord speak to them twice, and produce miracles for them! She is a woman of strength and perseverance. She is obedient and submits unto the Lord.

Unfortunately, she does not fare as well in Christian literature. Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians chapter 4 draws an odd allegory depicting the children of Hagar as “children of the flesh” and slaves unto the Law given at Sinai, while Sarah is depicted as having children of “the promise” who serve not in Jerusalem under the law, but in the “heavenly Jerusalem…now you, my friends, are children of the promise like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.” Ishmael’s “playing” with his little half-brother is characterized by Paul as “persecution.”

Such theologizing is only compounded and made worse by Saint Augustine who depicts Hagar as mother of the Earthly City of Sin, and the medieval scholar and reformer John Wycliffe who declares that the children of Sarah are redeemed, those of Hagar are unredeemed, “carnal by nature and mere exiles.”  One can readily see that such characterizations of a woman who faithfully submitted to the will of the God of Abraham can be read by Muslims as at the least unhelpful, and realistically problematic and blasphemous in today’s world.

It is interesting to note that although neither Sarah nor Hagar are mentioned in the Quran, Islam is largely a religion of practices, not philosophical ideas, and that to this day during the Hajj (one of the five pillars of Islam), pilgrims still run back and forth between two hills outside Mecca to recall Hagar’s attempts to save her son, and the miracle of discovery of the Zamzam well that ultimately revives Ishmael and saves the patriarch of an important religious tradition. And, as the Biblical texts in Genesis proclaim, Ishmael has become a great nation of people devoted to the One God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Muhammed.

A lot of ink is spilled with little close investigation or analysis over things in the Quran that are easily misunderstood out of context – the context of the poetry itself, and the context of the culture in which it arose. It is safe to say the same is true of our Bible. Few of us have ever spent much time reflecting on these stories. Yet, we live in a daily world of generalizations like “the West,” “the Islamic World,” “the War on Terror” and other fictions and lazy catchall phrases that are the fodder for headline writers and zealots. The truth is always more nuanced and tied to context – context that is often stated in poetry, allegory and metaphor.

It is no wonder that when Pilate asks the soon to be crucified Jesus, “What is truth?” that Jesus has nothing to say. What can be said to the Pilates of this world who want to see all of life in black and white when we live in a world of a thousand shades of gray? How ironic it is that the stories in our Bible ought to make us more understanding of Muslim faith, history and culture. It  is, in fact, subsequent theological metaphors in Christian tradition that ought to be seen in part as the source of our own misconceptions of the world’s fastest growing religious tradition. Islam is not the problem. Not knowing our own stories is. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Gospel As Comedy

Faith, Hope and Charity – The Gospel as Comedy
It seems to have been a week that has tested all three-Faith, Hope and Charity. It is a week that has seemed endless in many ways, leaving some of us looking for, hoping for, praying for an end to it all – endless violence, endless scandal, endless finger-pointing, blaming and shaming.

Along come an old man and an old woman and Jesus to redirect our attention if only for this moment. Yet, this moment always promises to be just enough – just enough time to disengage from the seemingly endless frays that constantly demand our attention, our thoughts, our emotions – enough to allow ourselves to reboot, refocus and rejoice in the good faith, hope and charity that can form the very foundation “under everything that makes life worth living.”

And what is faith? As one has put it, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] Abraham, the old man, “and he as good as dead” [Heb 11:12!], has heard it all before – a place to call home, to be a blessing to all nations, and descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, stars in the sky, atoms of dust in the universe – most all of which, 95% of which we are told, remains not seen.

He and the old lady have been on the road to this home, these blessings and promises of children for nearly 25 years now and in their weariness have settled down beneath some terebinth trees – trees sometimes considered sacred in that region, if only because of the stories associated with them like this one. [Genesis 18]. The journey from Ur to Mamre and this oasis of trees has been anything but a blessing. Twice Abe has had to order Sarah to pretend to be his sister, rather than step-sister and wife, so as not to be killed by hostile war-lords along the way who would make off with this obviously still desirable woman who was already in her sixties when the journey began. There were problems with his nephew Lot and his family, and even more problems with Sarah’s hand-maid Hagar and the son Ishmael she bore from Abraham himself. All the things promised by Lord YWHW remained conspicuously ‘not seen.’ Like Woody, like Pete, like every one of us, the old man and the old woman have seen some hard travelin’ too.

Along comes the Lord, in the disguise of three men. A foreshadowing of father, son and holy ghost? We should note the character of hospitality to these otherwise strangers. Abe does not wait for them to knock on the tent door but races out to greet them, bows, offers water, arranges to wash their feet and invites them to rest. Then orders Sarah to get cooking, finds a good and tender calf to serve with curds and milk. Note also, this is no kosher meal! Abe stands by looking on as they eat, waiting to see, perhaps, how many Michelin Stars their little oasis might earn whence comes the comedy.

“This time next year I (we?) will surely return and Sarah will have a son.” Now you think they might both say something like, “Sure, sure, we’ve heard this all before,” which they had over and over again. But no. Sarah laughs. This is no chuckle. It is belly busting out loud fall on your face, tears streaming down your face, laughter! The narrator solemnly and somewhat piously notes, “…it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” As if even the narrator has given up all hope on all the promises made and re-made. The Lord hears her laugh and asks, “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?” Abe’s hope for even one or two stars begins to fade. Sarah denies laughing, which is hard to do – and hard to distinguish from all the tears shed these past 25 years just waiting for this very moment and having long ago given up even the very thought of becoming a mother. “Oh yes, you did laugh!” says the Lord. Having used up all their tears there is nothing for the old man and the old woman to do but laugh, thinking it’s too good to be true. It turns out that the truth of it is that it’s too good not to be true!

Indeed, the next year things do not improve for the family overall as the regrettable episode at Sodom and Gomorrah intervenes, and Abraham is ordered to circumcise not only himself but all males young and old, slave and free. Yet, along comes chapter 21, and lo and behold, Sarah is holding a bouncing little baby boy. Sarah is laughing again. Sarah is laughing still. “Everyone who hears will laugh,” she declares. We are meant to laugh at the very thought of it, rather than  piously intone, “The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God.” It’s all a cosmic joke! It is the foundation of our faith, of our very life, to be able to laugh with Sarah to this day! The significance of all this is captured in the boy’s name: Isaac, which means laughter, or he who laughs.

If that’s not enough, here’s another one. In the ninth chapter of Matthew we find Jesus sending his twelve disciples out to do the work he is doing, ‘and greater things than these.’ After noting that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few, he gathers them and us together and gives them and us authority. He gives them authority because he sees that the crowds that had gathered and followed him from place to place like so many camp followers during the War for Independence were, in the words of Matthew, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus gives them, and us by proxy, authority over “unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” He goes on to say, “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” These are marching orders for divine Charity! One notes that the disciples forget to laugh! But, this is the Gospel as divine comedy. We are meant to laugh, if only at our disbelief that we can do any or all of this that Jesus himself authorizes us to do.

Where does the laughter of Sarah and Abraham come from, asks Frederick Beuchner in his little book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale? “It comes from as deep a place as tears come from, and in a way comes from the same place. As much as tears do, it comes out of the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed, except that it comes not as an ally of darkness, but as its adversary, not as a symptom of darkness but as its antidote.” [p.57] When we succumb to only the tragedy and darkness that confronts us almost daily, we often become paralyzed, or even worse, simply used to it.

When we go deep beyond the tears and laugh we free ourselves and are reminded of the often ridiculous promises of hope and redemption that have been given us by traditions that have been forged on the anvil of tragedy and darkness. We recall the faith of our mothers and fathers, our Sarahs and Abrahams. We remember that nearly all that lies ahead of us is in the realm of the  not seen. And that for the promises to come true we need to respond to the call for laborers to go into the field for the harvest, authorized to perform extraordinary acts of divine charity!

The fields are ripe and the harvest waiting, and the laborers are few. Our gospel of divine comedy is meant to make us laugh beyond our tears so that we can be free to join with those individuals of yesterday, today and tomorrow who in the hour of deepest darkness respond to the call, “Here am I, O Lord send me.”                                  

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Third Person

Day of Pentecost ~ Acts 2: 1-21/John 20: 19-23
We name you wind, power, force, and then
            imaginatively, “Third Person.”
We name you and you blow …
blow hard,
blow cold,
blow hot,
blow strong,
blow gentle,
blow new …
Blowing the world out of nothing to abundance,
Blowing the church out of despair to new life,
Blowing little David a shepherd boy to messiah,
Blowing to make things new that never were.
            So blow this day, wind,
                 blow here and there, power,
                 blow even us, force,
Rush us beyond ourselves,
Rush us beyond our hopes,
Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world.
            Come, come spirit. Amen.
            -Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, (Fortress, Minneapolis: 2003), p.167

This day we call Pentecost is about making things new that never were. Even Pentecost is made new. Formerly it was an Israelite agricultural festival, then a celebration of God giving God’s people Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and now it is transformed again as that day when the wind blew, or the breath blew depending on your reading, and the gift of the Holy Spirit transformed fearful, hiding, cowering people into hopeful, public, proclaiming people.

Luke (in “his” volume II, Acts) and John present similar yet vastly different accounts of this world changing event. In Luke there is wind and fire and the sound of rushing water. In John Jesus breathes on them. That is, there is some serious blowing going on. In my favorite Terry Gilliam movie, Baron Munchausen, the Baron has some sidekicks: one with incredible vision, one with incredible speed, one with incredible strength, and one with incredible lung-power. Gustabus can blow over an entire platoon of soldiers with a single breath! So, when we read of Jesus blowing on the disciples, it may in fact be more like Gustabus than the gentle, intimate breath felt on one’s neck from the one sitting next to you. This Breath/Spirit/Wind can knock you across the room and around the world!

The word is Ruach. When we hear of this ruach we are to think of how the ruach of God hovered over the waters of chaos we call creation in Genesis 1, and the same God of Israel is depicted breathing into a handful of moist dust to enliven the first person in the very next chapter, Genesis 2. We are not to concern ourselves with the Bible making up its mind. God’s Spirit-Wind is capable of taking any form, force or character. It is the power of life, the power of creation, the power that can blow something out of nothing!

Next, the two stories share a picture of Jesus’ friends huddled behind closed doors, in a house, fearful of all that lies on the other side of the door. There was good reason to be afraid. Jesus was dead, though not exactly gone. The Roman soldiers were looking to round up his followers. In Acts he has already ascended into the heavens, in John he keeps coming back and coming back and coming back again. No wonder they are afraid!

Then Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” followed by a display of his wounds on his hands and his side. As if to say, “See, here, this is what fearful people do to others.” Then he says, “Peace be with you. As the Father sends me so I send you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit!” Then all this stuff about forgiveness.

One suspects that when the Risen Lord breathes on you you feel it. You really really feel it. It moves you to a new and unexpected place. It sustains you, enlivens you and gives you the courage to walk out the door and do and say everything you do In His Name.

Next, he gives them power to forgive. How do you want your forgiveness? He teaches them to pray, forgive others as you wish to be forgiven. Don’t forgive and you carry it with you forever. That would be the retention part. Those who feel the breath are to become a community of forgiveness, forgiving the way we would like to be forgiven.

How hard is that? Look at his hands and his side. And consider what is really being said here: get outside of this locked room! Get out in the world! It’s time to make things new that never were! No time to sit around and be afraid. It is time to blow the world into a new world of Shalom and Forgiveness. Shalom. That would be his word, not mine. Peace is about as anemic a translation of Shalom as we can imagine. Shalom means justice and peace for all people. Not some people, not a lot of people, not most people, but ALL people! Shalom means respect and dignity for ALL people. Shalom means seeking and serving Christ in ALL people. Shalom means taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

One day when our daughter Cerny was still in grade school she asked me, “Dad, what’s the common good?” This was her homework assignment. We talked about it. I should have said, “Jesus calls the common good Shalom.” He breathes on us. God breathes in us. The Spirit blows us away! So that we might have life and have it abundantly. So that we might be energized. So that we might be driven out the doors! So that we might get out into the streets and provide for the common good. For all people. What the Bible is all about is The Common Good combined with a huge helping of forgiveness.

In the end, my friends, it is all about this Shalom he talks about. My goodness, he says it over and over again. He calls us to receive his Spirit and his Shalom. It is up to us to accept it, get out of here and work for the common good. That is Pentecost. It does not get any simpler than this: Time to make things new that never were!

So blow this day, wind/ blow here and there, power/ blow even us, force/ Rush us beyond ourselves/ Rush us beyond our hopes/ Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world.    Come, come spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire!