Saturday, August 8, 2020

Do Not Doubt Yourself! We Can Do This!

Jesus tries to get away, alone, to get some Facetime with his Father, but as we recall, over 5,000 hungry people followed him, so he and disciples fed them. Now he sends the disciples out on their own to the “other side” of the sea while he finally gets a break (Matthew 14:22-33). He trusts they know what to do. There are people there that need their help. But the seas are rough, the wind is fierce and they struggle to keep the boat afloat.

Perhaps this is a metaphor for so many of us buffeted by the winds of the Novel Coronavirus, over 160,000 Americans dead and counting, who knows how many times that number of families and friends who are grieving, confusion over what to do about the Pandemic, unemployment is high, businesses closing, racial tensions erupting nearly every day, lock-downs and quarantines, masks and sanitizers, the US Mail has slowed down, questions about a safe election in the fall, and more, so much more, all come together to make it feel as if the ship of State as well as our own personal boats are struggling to keep afloat. And if it isn’t external winds buffeting us, there are the sleepless nights, low and even high-level depression settling in, anxieties and fears and other effects of the ongoing isolation and disruption of much, if not all, of our daily routines becomes exhausting – physically and emotionally.

Jesus senses the problem and comes to his friends in the boat – walking on the water. They think it’s a ghost. Only Peter knows who it is and asks, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Take heart, it is I, says Jesus. Do not be afraid. Peter steps out of the boat. All is going well until he realizes how wild and tempestuous it is when you get out of the boat to follow Jesus! Peter begins to sink and cries out for help. “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reaches out his hand, catches him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

As courageous as it was for Peter to step out of the boat, which is really what Jesus is asking all of us who want to follow him to do; we who have promised in our baptism to follow and obey him. It is even more courageous for Peter to ask for help. How many of us do our best to pretend all is well, when things have rarely, if ever, been as dangerous and chaotic as they seem right now? Peter is the most courageous one in that boat, both for stepping out to follow Jesus, and for calling out for help. Asking for help is the first step to getting saved. Yet, how often do we really do this – call for help?

But why does Jesus say, “…why did you doubt,” I wonder. Why did you doubt? But he does not doubt it is Jesus; he steps out of the boat sure that it is. As I was running on Friday morning, and singing in my head, “Help me Lord, Help me Lord, Help me Lord I’m feeling low…” It happened. Like Elijah waiting in the crevice of a rock for God to come to him; Elijah who endures, like us and the disciples in the boat, wind, earthquake and fire – finally hears a still small voice. Suddenly I lost all sense of the world around me, and a voice came to me and said, “I was telling Peter not to doubt himself! I could see he believed in me, but he doubted himself – that he could withstand the winds and the waves and the danger we all faced all around us. I wanted him to know, “You can do it, Peter! You were doing it! You will survive long after I am gone. Don’t doubt yourself!” Just as suddenly, I was back running around the parking lot wondering what lap it was and where had I just been.

That’s what the Lord wants us to hear today: call out to Jesus for help, and He will remind you: Do not doubt yourself. Call on me. Call on the others. We can survive the winds and waves that swirl about us if we just step out of the boat and walk with Jesus wherever he goes. If we go to be with all those he goes to see. Indeed, when they get to the other side, we will read there are many more like us in need of his healing and saving touch. Just barely touching the hem of his garment, they are healed, saved, and given the courage to trust themselves to survive. Do not doubt yourself. Have faith and do not fear. Reach out your hand, and I’ll be there to lead you safely home – your true home is with me, my Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 Help Me Lord I'm Feeling Low

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Listen, That You May Live

I suspect the Jesus in Matthew 14:13-21 has memorized these opening words from Isaiah 55: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

In our consumer driven economy that can only thrive with people who covet, acquire and consume more and more stuff, much if not most of which ends up at some thrift shop or the local landfill, the prophet some 600 years before Jesus asks what is perhaps the pivotal question for all of us attempting to seriously pursue the life of the Spirit: Why do we insist on fattening the offshore bank accounts of those who claim to have a monopoly on the bread supply and labor for that will never satisfy?

There a lot going on in this little snippet of prophetic poetry: what you really thirst for and are hungry for can be had “without money and without price;” why do we labor for that which will never satisfy?; come to the waters and escape like the ancestors did at the Red Sea, or as all of Judea who bathed in the River Jordan with Wilderness John?

Speaking of whom, Jesus momentarily cuts short his journey to Jerusalem. After a long chapter of enigmatic parables, he learns that Wilderness John has lost his head at Herod’s Birthday party and now he, Jesus,  needs to get away from it all, so he heads for the hills – with 5,000 men and an additional unspecified number of women and children trailing him and his disciples! It turns out there is no rest for are weary and thsoe frightened by the Empire. And realistically, if you are in a boat on that lake we call the Sea of Galilee, anyone and everyone anywhere near the perimeter of the lake can see where you are headed. And they do, and they follow.

Jesus being Jesus of the Love Ethic we have heard was exemplified by Representative John Lewis, has compassion on the crowd and goes about healing people – which in itself is dangerous since also located on the shores of the Galilee Lake is a Healing Spa which was big business at the time – it’s hot springs were reputed to heal all your ills, and people came from all over the ancient world to spend their shekels lavishly at the spa and at the local hotels and restaurants. Who, those business people no doubt were asking themselves, is this bumpkin doing it all for free right out in the open? Does he not understand how the economy works?

The disciples try to tell him it’s late, the people are hungry, so let’s send them out into the towns and city to get a bite to eat. “Feed them yourselves!” Jesus says. “They don’t need to get hustled for whatever little money, if any, they have.” The disciples reply, “Uh, we only have five loaves of bread and two fish!” This is where I imagine Jesus thinks to himself, “Have you not read, marked and inwardly digested Isaiah chapter 55? “Come eat…without money…without price!”

But instead he sighs and says, “Bring that to me, and the rest of you get the crowds to sit down on the grass.” Like his Father in heaven way back in Genesis, Jesus is always bringing order out of chaos, abundance out of scarcity.

Now the results are so over-the-top that we tend to miss what really is going on. Everyone eats until they are stuffed, and there are twelve baskets of leftovers! One for each disciple, or one for each tribe of Israel. We see the symbolism. And we think this is a miracle about feeding 5,000+ people with so little bread. So much so that we miss what’s really going on: a lesson in Kingdom Living and Kingdom Economics – so different, as in Isaiah 55, from the way those who monopolize goods, access and power like Pharaoh and Caesar. Rather, it is what Jesus does that matters and is the lesson for Kingdom Living.

The short-hand version is: Take, Bless, Break and Give. He takes what little they have. He blesses it, offers to the one who is behind the alternative bread supply. He breaks the loaves open. And he gives it away. Do we see what’s going on here? Is it clear?

It’s about taking what little we have, blessing it, offering it up to God, breaking it, and giving it away. Jesus’s actions declare, “Whatever we have is yours,” to a crowd who no doubt also understand the danger of Caesar’s Rome which through its stooge Herod Antipas has beheaded Wilderness John who had baptized most of them, and whose father, the other Herod, had slaughtered all of Jesus’ baby cousins way back at the beginning of the story while Jesus and Mary and Joseph hid in Egypt, of all places! Egypt! Where Pharaoh had perfected hoarding and monopolizing all the food in the region such that their ancestors, Jacob and the tribes of his twelve sons had to succumb to becoming slaves in Egypt to avoid starvation - just as the crowd with Jesus were now slaves of Caesar in their homeland. Israel was no longer home. Yet, here is this Jesus giving it all away – both healing and bread just being given away. As if to say, what would happen if all of us with whatever little we have would begin to take, bless, break and give it all away as well? What would that be like? If I can do it, says Jesus, under threat from the Empire like Wilderness John, I believe we can all do it together. There is a way out of all this.

Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican churchwoman, observed, “…most of us remain enslaved, bonded, to three verbs: “to Want, to Have, and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual – even on the religious – plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life.” [Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life p 20]

In chapter 13 Jesus had said that those who have will get more, and those who have little will have it taken away. Now in chapter 14 he demonstrates that in his Father’s Kingdom those who have little will truly get more when we adopt the behaviors of the Kingdom of Living. Everyone will get enough with lots of leftovers! In Acts chapter two we learn this is how they lived!

Take, Bless, Break and Give. Some say this is about the Eucharist. Maybe, maybe not, other than the acts of the priest in the Eucharist are there to remind us how we are to live as citizens of another Kingdom, that of the alternative bread supplier of Isaiah 55.  Isaiah goes on to say, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Listen, so that you may live.

And this is why I believe Jesus is intimately familiar with Isaiah’s poetry, most especially passages like that in chapter 55. He embodies Isaiah’s vision. He lives it as an invitation to all who watch and listen. What will it take for us to take it as seriously as Jesus does? Or, do we wish to be spend our lives plagued by the prophet’s question: Why do we spend our money for that which is not bread, and our labor for that which does not and never will satisfy? Amen.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Of Perseverance and Pearls

The I Ching, the Book of Changes, is an ancient book of Chinese wisdom dating back to the time of Confucius. One tosses coins or yarrow stalks, and depending how they fall you create a hexagram: a stack of six solid or broken lines that correspond to a similar picture in the book. You then consult that hexagram that has a name like Fire on the Mountain for advice. Often the advice includes the words, “Perseverance Furthers.”

That is certainly the story of Jacob in his quest for a wife. He has stolen his older brother Esau’s birthright by tricking his father, Isaac. Jacob’s mother suggests he run away to lay low with a kinsman, Uncle Laban, and while there find himself a wife. Jacob falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. He offers to work for Laban for seven years so he can marry her. Laban agrees, Jacob works for seven years, which the narrative tells us, “they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”

He goes to claim his wife. Laban makes all the wedding arrangements, when lo and behold the Trickster Jacob is tricked! Laban gives away his firstborn daughter Leah, she of the lovely eyes to Jacob, which Jacob does not discover until the next morning. After confronting Laban, he is told that since he has already consummated the marriage, and besides local custom does not allow giving away the younger daughter before the firstborn. Complete this week of wedding celebrations, however, and work another seven years for me, then you may marry Rachel as well! Jacob agrees, and seven years later, marries Rachel whom he loves. Perseverance furthers!    

And that’s not all! Over time he also marries Leah’s servant Zipah, and Rachel’s servant Hilpah, and as we all know among these four wives he fathers twelve sons who become the heads of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, Jacob’s new name given to him by a stranger with whom he wrestles all night long beside the river Jabbok. Israel means ‘he who wrestles with God.’ Despite what this foundational story might tell us about the Biblical view of marriage, one can easily say that Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of father Abraham, persevered in his quest for the woman he loved, persevered in wrestling with God, and as such became the father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Jacob persevered for The Pearl of Great Value Jesus talks about in Matthew chapter 13!

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Years ago, long before Tom Shaw SSJE, became the Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, he gave a meditation to the clergy of the Diocese of Connecticut during a Quiet Day in Holy Week. He spoke about this parable of The Pearl of Great Value. He began by saying that our God is a very frugal God and does not waste one iota of our life experience. Each moment we live and breathe on this earth, God values and savors who we are and what we are doing.

One of the hidden truths of the kingdom, and this parable among these several that speak of hiddenness, is that we, each of us, and all of us together as God’s people, are the pearl of great value. That is how much our God loves each and every one of us! So much so that God would send His only son to walk among us as one of us to show us the way of the Lord. So much so that he did not let us get away with killing his only son, but returned him to us, so that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus himself is in the midst of us, calling us to return to the God from whence we come. We come from love. We return to love. And love is all around. God is love, and loves us even more than the merchant who gave everything for the Pearl of Great Value.

This is all meant to be an example of God’s Perseverance to love us. Even God’s wrath is an extension of God’s love for us. As Maggie Ross writes in her book The Fire of Your Life, “The wrath of God is his relentless compassion, pursuing us even when we are at our worst.”

Recognizing that we are precious in the eyes of our God, said Bishop Shaw, we need to take time each day in our prayers to be silent and allow God to thank us for what we have done for God today. Every day we are to leave some silence in our prayers and to allow ourselves to feel God thanking us for all that we do for God in this His world. It sounds so easy. But are we really capable of believing and knowing that God loves us that much? Do we feel like pearls of great value? Bishop Shaw assured us that we can. And more importantly, that we must. It is central to the life of faith to accept and receive God’s love. To know how much our God values us and everything that we do.

This is why all these kingdom parables are so very important to understand. They each point to the hiddenness of God’s reign, God’s Kingdom, in our midst. They each suggest that the life of faith begins with something as small as a little bit of yeast or a single grain of mustard seed. We do not need to do big and heroic things. Though in truth, as God’s own pearls of great value, every little thing we do for others brings a smile to the face of God. 

And the more we let God thank us for what we can do for God, the more confident and empowered we become as God’s own people. And soon the people around us and the people we meet begin to feel like pearls of great value as well. All we really need is faith as small as a mustard seed to make the whole creation new! To give new life to our own tired bodies. To put a smile on the face of a stranger. To plant seeds of God’s love throughout the neighborhood which God has called us to make our home.

Take time today, to be silent and to let God thank you for what you have done for God today. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Just feel God’s thanks and love for today. Imagine God washing your feet at the end of a long day. Imagine God offering you a piece of his bread and a sip of his wine. Imagine God making you an integral part of His body, that sacred mystery the Church. Beginning today make time every day for God to thank for what you are doing for God. Persevere in accepting that you are God’s Pearl of Great Value.

As we luxuriate in God’s thanks, mercy, compassion and love, we will become a new people. We will come to accept that we are God’s pearls of great value. As that new understanding takes root and grows within us, others will come and make their home among us, take rest among our branches, and discover their value as God’s own pearls as well. Such a life of love and thanksgiving is all ours. If only we will have faith as small as a mustard seed. Amen

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Let There Be Music!

Let There Be Music
This Sunday we pray: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask.

I don’t know about anybody else, as the Time of Coronavirus wears on, I’m feeling not so much ‘weakness’ as a sense of weariness – weary of all the measures we take day in and day out to be safe wherever we are; weary of witnessing those who refuse to take a simple measure like wearing a mask; weary of treating a Public Health Crisis, a worldwide Pandemic, as some sort of political football; weary that there just may be no football, baseball or basketball at all despite heroic and not so heroic efforts to resume play, “Safely,” whatever that may look like. And of course, I am aware that those who are on the frontline fighting the Coronavirus, and those in “essential jobs,” are infinitely wearier than I will ever be, or most of us will ever be.

That’s why I am feeling the compassion and mercy in our wisdom literature for today, because Jacob (Genesis 28:10-19a), the Poet of the Psalms(139), and Jesus in Matthew (Matthew 13:24-30,36-43) are all offering us words of hope delivered in the midst of weariness!

Jacob is weary – and running for his life. Having stolen is older brother Esau’s birthright, his mother, Rebecca has urged him to run away and hide, for Esau the hunter is after him. He is alone, isolated, and weary, trickster though he is. With nothing but a stone for a pillow, he lies down to sleep his weariness off. Suddenly he sees a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. And then! The Lord God standing beside him to announce that all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well: he shall inherit the land upon which he sleeps as promised to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac; his offspring will be like the dust of the earth stretching out to the north, the south, the east and the west; you and your offspring shall be a blessing to all the peoples of the Earth; “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Jacob awakes, weary no more, and exclaims, “How awesome is this place!” He takes his stone pillow and erects it as a pillar, anoints it with oil and proclaims the names the place Bethel – Beth-El, the House of God, the House of Elohim!

Psalm 139, a song, a poem, may as well been written by Jacob as it proclaims that there is nowhere we can go or hide that God is not with us! Whether we climb Jacob’s ladder up to heaven, lie in our grave, dive into the depths of the sea, “your hand will lead me, your right hand hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night, darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.’” The light shines in the darkness, the light shines on our weariness, the light surrounds us in our weakness and holds us fast, and leads us always closer to the light, sings the Psalmist!

After yet another enigmatic agricultural metaphor and parable that acknowledges that there is evil planted amidst the good, do not worry! After the harvest, the Lord will bundle up the evil and burn it. It will be taken care of. Meanwhile, says Jesus, “The righteous will shine like the Sun! The one who has ears should hear!”

At the words, “shine like the sun,” I recall sitting in an empty theatre somewhere near Pughkeepsie, NY, listening to John Hall and Orleans rehearsing, “When the world was in trouble/And it looked like there was hell to pay/ Fire, Fire everywhere!/And the news got worse each day/Well, people really wondered/Just how long they could hold out/God looked down from heaven above/And He began to shout: Let there be music! Let is shine like the Sun! Let there be music! Everybody’s got to have some fun!” A lyric that surely has resonance in our time of weariness: weariness with a pandemic, weariness with racial and economic injustice, weariness with uncertainty about what to do next, all kinds of weariness.

Our texts invite us to remember. Remember: Singing is what has sustained God’s people for millennia! Telling odd stories has sustained God’s people for millennia! Visions of ladders and angels and the Lord God standing right by our side has sustained God’s people for millennia! Day or night, in heaven, in the depths of the sea, or on terra firma, there is no escaping: God is with us: Emmanuel. Evil will pass, righteousness shall shine like the Sun. Let there be music! Let it shine like the Son! We have ears! Do we hear? The Lord God stands beside us in the present weariness, and with mercy and compassion invites us to sing and to shine like the Sun! And urges us to remember that all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well! Everybody’s got to have some fun!

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Poet and the Storyteller

Both Isaiah chapter 55 and Jesus in Matthew 13 invite listeners to…well, listen! To listen carefully; to incline our ears to the Word of God. Let anyone with ears, listen! The invitation is to ‘anyone.’ But they both know not everyone will listen. Really listen. Both are addressing people who are in some form of Exile: 700 years before Jesus, all of Jerusalem was carted off to Babylon where they lived in Exile for several generations; while Jesus and all of Israel is in Exile at home under the oppressive regime of the Caesar’s Roman Empire. Isaiah writes a poetic vision of hope, while Jesus tells a story with a surprising ending.

Both are addressing people who feel no longer at home. For those in Babylon they were literally not at home, which they understood as punishment for idolatry and not listening to the Word of God. Especially traumatic was being separated from the Temple, the center of cultic religious life. Jesus and his contemporaries were under a repressive military occupation. Rome is squeezing every ounce of produce, livestock, oil, wines and fish out of the land along with a system of tolls and taxes on the fabled Roman roadways. And for those who did not cooperate, the Casesars, Herods and Pilates promised only violence and certain death – spiritual death as well as literal death. Both Isaiah and Jesus address people who feel as if they have returned to the days of slavery in Egypt with no way out.

Think for a moment where in this world or even in this country there may be people in similar circumstances struggling to get free from systems of domination that appear to be holding them back or down. Or, ponder how we sometimes let ourselves become assimilated, tenured or even enslaved to spiritual, political, economic, religious or others kinds of idolatry, or slavery to systems of external or internal or emotional domination from which there feels as if there is no escape. There are any number of ways to find ourselves in similar circumstances to those who have been carried off to Babylon, or those held hostage in Israel. So, let us incline our ears to what the poet and the storyteller have to offer.

Isaiah 55 begins like this:
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live.

If you are thirsty for justice and righteousness, or if you are just plain hungry and thirsty, guess what? There is an alternative food supply to that which is monopolized by the Empire! Why spend your time and your money, why do you labor, for that which does not and will never satisfy you? This is the question for us all. The solution is to listen to the word of God. Incline our ears so that we may live, because staying on the Babylonian treadmill is the way of death – death of the spirit, death of the community, and just plain death from living on the junk food of the Empire. Staying in the Empire of the Caesars, Herods and Pilates is also an endless nightmare of violence and death.

Then there is Jesus who paints a picture of a sower who goes out to sow seed, and sows. That is, this is someone who knows what she is doing. It is a skill and a ritual to sow seed. You scatter it far and wide and evenly so as to cover all the ground possible with an economy of seed. Inevitably, some falls in places that are not productive, but the seeds that land on good soil, watch out! Let anyone with ears, listen! Sowing: anyone who has followed Jesus this far will know is code for the work of God – to care for one another, especially widows, orphans and resident aliens, ie those without resources! And seed is the Word of the gospel, the Good News, the Kingdom of God. There is, once again, an alternative to the kingdom of the Empire that only exists to suck you dry.

Then Jesus teases with them. For those who hear the Word of the New Kingdom and do the work of God as laid out in our covenant with God so many generations ago, the yield is one hundred-fold! The farmers are laughing themselves silly! They know that is just impossible. So, Jesus says, alright, how about sixty-fold! Now everyone is laughing cause anyone in the region knows seven to ten-fold is about average. But Jesus has their attention now, so all right, thirty-fold! Now people are thinking, this is possible, but we’re no long talking about wheat are we?

They are hearing echoes of Isaiah:
 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Isaiah and Jesus are both sowers who go out to sow the Word of God that “shall not return to me empty,” saith the Lord. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” Rogers and Hammerstein are right after all, “The hills are alive with the sound of music!” The music of escape and return, the music of love, the music of Miriam and the women getting their tambourines and singing their way out of Egypt, out of slavery out of Exile, out of being held hostage in your own land! There will be new growth, a new bread supply, and a new people for those who have ears and listen. For those who sustain hope in the wilderness, joyfulness in days of deep sadness, and for those who refuse to be tenured to systems of oppression that will always fail to satisfy, there is an alternative. Some seven hundred years apart, Isaiah and Jesus still offer words that will sustain us, and if we listen, if we really incline our ears toward their visions, we will find our way out of our many idolatries, our many exiles, and return us to the Household of God’s Eternal Love. Amen.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Fourth of July 2020

On this Fourth of July we pray: “Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.” Because on July 4, 1776, the thirteen “United States” unanimously declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

Among the earliest colonists, men like John Cotton and John Winthrop, more than 100 years before Thomas Jefferson penned this Declaration, provided a vision before even reaching these shores this the New World would also be “the New Israel.” It is only natural, then, that we revisit some of the underlying constitution of what it means to be like the people who became Israel in the Wilderness Sojourn in our reading from Deuteronomy.

At the heart of this understanding Moses, speaking on behalf of the God of the Exodus and Passover, says we must remember who we are and whose we are: we were sojourners, strangers, aliens, in the land of Egypt as slaves 24/7; deprived of Life, Liberty and Happiness. Therefore, we are always to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – and as well we should, like God, execute justice for the widow and the orphan. [Deuteronomy 10:17-21] Widows, orphans and resident aliens, strangers, are to be a protected class in Israel – and therefore ought to receive the same kind of love and care in our “New Israel.”

In 1982, as I entered my final year at The General Theological Seminary in New York City, we were engaged in a racial audit – an examination of what kinds of institutional racism and bias might exist systemically in the life of the seminary community. Needless to say, people were on edge during this process. In the midst of this, I had to deliver my Senior Sermon in our weekly Community Eucharist in the Seminary Chapel. I was nervous. The seating was what we all choir seating – pews facing each other across the center aisle – we could all see one another. We came from all kinds of backgrounds – Anglo-Catholic, Low Church Protestant, Evangelical, Historic Black Churches, Egyptian Churches, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, and the Congregational Church as I had. You would notice that people on the other side would cross themselves at different points in the liturgy, bow their heads, and all sorts of manual acts as they are called. People on both sides would begin to mimic those on the other side – a sort of ongoing metaphor for the kinds of assimilation that goes on in our united melting pot made up of all kinds of different people similar to the crowd who left Egypt that fateful day in Exodus.

As I got going in my sermon, having been told to calm my nerves I should imagine everyone sitting there in their underwear (which frankly was even more unnerving!) – I suggested we all  take a look across the aisle. We are all strangers here. We all come from different churches, different dioceses and even different countries – just like the 650,000 who left Pharaoh’s Empire of Oppression. “Remember, you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,” I said. “Let’s sit here quietly, looking across the aisle at one another and ponder this as we try to reconcile our racial biases. We are all strangers in this new world of seminary.” I will never forget the power of that silence as we remembered who we were and whose we were – all of us believed we had received a call from the Almighty God of the Passover and Exodus to be in the seminary.

Winthrop, Cotton, Jefferson and all the others also believed they were sent by God, and penned the unforgettable words, “all men are created equal…endowed with certain unalienable rights.” And then proceeded to define Africans as only 3/5ths of a person in the Constitution. And as I write these words Friday evening, the Lakota First Nation People are attempting to protect their Sacred Land, their Holy Ground, from being used as a political stage for the resident aliens who had long ago agreed by treaty that this was Sacred Native land. We still forget who we are and whose we are. We are the new strangers in an Old World that had sustained significant civilizations for thousands of years before we arrived. It’s no wonder that we need to ponder the words of Moses and God in Deuteronomy this July 4th more than ever: “we are always to love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land” once upon a time.

Then there is the business about loving our enemies and being perfect as “your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus in Matthew always has a way with words, but this tops it all. We may as well admit right now that we have utterly failed in these two categories of Christian virtues: we find it difficult to love our neighbors let alone our enemies; as to being perfect like God, well no analysis needed here. This, of course, comes from what we lovingly call The Sermon on the Mount, a sort of Christian Magna Carta or Constitution. We recall, surely, that prior to all this talk about loving enemies and being perfect in chapter 5, our Lord utters words about the need for us to be reconciled “with those who have something against us” before ever thinking to come before the altar of the Lord – before even stepping into church. [Mt 5:21-24] We might do well silently to ponder these words of Jesus before going back to see how we might take Thomas Jefferson and the representatives of thirteen colonies seriously and finally accept that all men are created equal; that race is a biological fiction; that science, of all things, has confirmed we are all one – all notions of so-called “race” we just made up to divide and demean one another.

My friend and mentor, the Reverend Bob Bonner, used to tell the story about his son Bruce who grew up in Texas and loved to play football. In high school the football players were required to be on the track team in the spring to stay in shape. After all the events had been handed out to the football team, there was one event left: the High Jump. Bruce was rather short and stout, but he volunteered to High Jump. Even after practice at school, Bruce would set up a broom stick across two standards in the backyard and jump and jump until dinner time. He worked really hard at it. Bob would say, “How high can you jump?” And Bruce would point to just above his waist with a big smile and say, “Up to here!” When he came home from the first track meet, Bob asked Bruce how it had gone. “Well, I told you I could jump up to here,” he said pointing to just above his waist. “The problem is they started with the bar up to here,” as he pointed to his upper chest. Bob would say, “That’s OK, son. You tried your best. God will forgive you the rest.”

Bob would tell us that’s what Jesus is talking about when he urges us to be perfect as God is perfect. Give it your best, and God will forgive the rest. I guess what I am thinking is that the Fourth of July is a time to ask ourselves, “Have we really tried our best? Have we really found ways to show that we believe all men, women and children are created equal? Have we really treated strangers, all strangers, with love and respect and dignity? Have we tried to reconcile our differences before coming before the altar of the Lord week after week after week?”

One day I was about to leave my office when the phone rang. It was Bob Bonner who was dying of a brain tumor. He said on good days when he could talk, he called his friends and did I want to know the rest of the story of Bruce? Of course, I did. Bruce had learning disabilities and was a five-year student at high school. Every day he practiced with the football team even though he was ineligible to play in games. Bob asked him why he did that. “Well,” said Bruce, “I do it for myself because I know I would get in trouble if I didn’t have something to do after school. And now that I’m bigger and stronger, I do it for the team so they get to practice harder and play better.” I do it for myself, and for the team. This July Fourth seems like as good a time as ever in my lifetime to see how we might practice harder at being perfect as God is perfect: welcoming strangers in the land, loving our neighbors and enemies, and reconcile things with those who have something against us. We know the ‘team’ needs us to do this, and it will be better for each of us at the end of the day as well. Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace. It’ worth trying harder at this, and if we do, perhaps God will forgive the difference. Amen.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Fear of the Lord

The sudden harsh beeping of the Emergency Broadcasting System interrupts our day and is followed with the words, “This is just a test…” The story of the Binding of Isaac [Genesis 22:1-14], the long promised and awaited son of Sarah and Abraham, begins with the words, “After these things came to pass, God tested Abraham.” And to modern ears it all sounds terribly harrowing: asking the aging patriarch of all monotheistic religion, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to sacrifice the son he thought he would never see. But this is not “just a test.” This is Elohim, the title for the Bible’s God of Justice, setting the stage for all that is to come after – all of which depends on Abraham, who so far has not been 100% dependable. Looking to the end of the story, what appears to be at stake is what the Bible repeatedly calls “fear of the Lord.”

“Now I know that you are one-who-fears-God, since you did not withhold your son, your one-and-only, from me” [v 12]. It helps to know that there is no equivalent Hebrew word in the Bible for ‘religion,’ so that “fear of the Lord” serves that purpose. ‘Fear of the Lord’ is about having a relationship with the One ineffable and transcendent God who has chosen you, Abraham in this instance, to be the one person God can trust to be a blessing to all the peoples of the world – which is God’s stated promise and desire to and for Abraham. “Fear of the Lord” is the core religious virtue in the Bible; “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7). To fear God is to live in humble recognition of the incalculable difference between God and humans. This story is the first time we see anyone practicing this virtue. So, this is not just a test. This sets the table for everything that eventually winds up with God coming to us himself as flesh and blood in Jesus, who descends from this first family of the biblical narrative. All this leaves the morally alert reader with two questions: How could a virtuous person be willing to kill a child? And, How could a good God demand that Abraham kill his son?

To address these questions I am grateful to a long-time friend and colleague, Ellen Davis, and her analysis of this important narrative found online at Bible Odyssey. Davis allows that although the story is often cast as being about obedience, we all know there is no virtue in absolute obedience to tyrannical demands. The opening words, “After these things…,” however, suggest that there is more to this request. God’s plan for the entire human family is at stake in this one man, and so far, he has not been particularly virtuous or trustworthy. For instance, he has given up his wife Sarah twice to the harem of a foreign king to save his own skin, not trusting God to find a way forward. Mutual Trust is the issue at stake in this episode. Mutual Trust is necessary to bring blessing and good to the all the peoples of the world. The point of the test is to see if Abraham trusts God even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his son whom he loves. Abraham’s Fear of the Lord is the human condition upon which the entire future of the covenant, and human kind, rests. We’re not talking about Abraham’s obedience, but rather his trust in the Lord, aka his ‘fear of the Lord,’ so that the Lord knows he can trust Abraham.

Davis goes on to say that there are only two grounds upon which God can be exonerated from charges of sadism or tyranny. First, this is a real test. The book of Genesis offers no evidence whatsoever to “support the common theological notion that God knows everything before it happens, every human response before it is offered. Thus, when Abraham passes the test, God’s own relief is palpable: ‘Now I know,’ says the Lord. (Gen 22:12). [Ibid, Bible Odyssey] God asks everything of us and has no idea how we might respond. This is Free Will.

God asks everything of Abraham so that Abraham will realize who is ultimately in charge of the covenant: Elohim, the God of Justice. When Abraham submits to the request to sacrifice Isaac, he behaves very differently than when he interceded for the innocent people of Sodom back in Genesis 18, where he aggressively, and rather presumptuously, challenges God’s judgment: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25). As a result of the power of his intercessory prayer, Abraham is the first person in the Bible called a prophet by God. In the worldview of Genesis, a true and trusting relationship with God entails a balance between such boldness on behalf of humanity and submission to God. Both are necessary for Jews, Christians and Muslims to remain in covenantal relationship with God. “Thus,” concludes Davis, “with this most important ancestor, the Bible begins to show what it is to serve ‘prophetically’ in the covenantal context: negotiating dual commitments to humanity and to God, from moment to moment, discerning when to challenge God on behalf of a weak and sinful humanity and when to submit in “fear” to the sometimes inscrutable divine demand.” [Ibid]

The tenth chapter of Matthew winds up a long discussion of what is required of all who would be disciples of Jesus. Jesus himself pushes both boldness and submission a bit further when he says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” [Mt 10:40-42] Those who will be welcomed not only by Jesus but by God his Father, “the one who sent me,’ are those who welcome Prophets like Abraham who embody these core biblical values of boldness on behalf of humanity and submission to God. The same pertains to those “righteous ones” who strive to honor all aspects of the covenant which demands love of God and love of neighbor.

This is a call to radical hospitality as Jesus pushes commitments to humankind one step further it seems – those who offer “a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” will not lose their reward! Little ones can refer to children, who in the culture of the first century middle eastern world were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy – along with slaves, foreigners and the poor of the land. It is easy to welcome prophets and those who carefully observe Torah and the covenant. Further, marriage and creating families is not primarily about happiness, but about sustaining trust and our hope that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth and light despite the fact that the world rarely provides much evidence that such hope is justified. Like Abraham, we are setting the table for all that is to come after us!

Later, Jesus indeed extends the notion of “these little ones” to all those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, in need of healing, and strangers [Matthew 25:31-46]. These are not only to be welcomed but to be served. On our knees. Like the one who gets down on his knees to wash our feet. He says that in serving them we are serving him- Jesus. And in serving Jesus we serve God. To show ourselves as those who truly wish to be disciples and those, who like father Abraham, ‘fear the Lord,’ we have a whole lot of welcoming and serving to do. To live a life of ‘fear of the Lord’ is not easy work, as Abraham learned on top of Mount Moriah. But the rewards at the end of the day are worth every difficulty and demand made – eternal life with the Lord of Life, Justice and Love.

Every day, after all else we do, we are being tested. Every day we are sent to the top of Mount Moriah to sacrifice things we hold dear, things that we love, so that God’s promises for humankind are sustained. Every day God seeks evidence that we are those people who truly can be trusted to be people capable of both boldness on behalf of humanity and submission to God’s covenant promises. Every day God looks to us to be a people who are a blessing to all others, to all the peoples of the Earth. Not some, not many, but all – all the peoples of the Earth. Amen.