Saturday, August 19, 2017

Reconciliation: Two Tales and a Confession

Reconciliation: Two Tales and a Confession
A brother and a mother. Joseph and an un-named Canaanite woman. What can their stories tell us? Can they help us here and now?

Jacob’s youngest son, at the time, Joseph, was sold into slavery by his eleven brothers. He ended up in Egypt where through a series of events he became something like the Secretary of the Interior/ Secretary of State and de facto ruler on behalf of Pharaoh. A shrewd business man, he had accumulated enough agricultural product to get through a long period of famine.

Enter, his brothers. Canaan is hard hit with famine. Some brothers are sent to Egypt by father Jacob to beg for assistance. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not know he is their brother they sold into slavery. Through a series of negotiations, and some trickery on Joseph’s part, no doubt inherited from his father Jacob The Trickster, food is provided over several years and his family is saved from the famine. In Genesis chapter 45 we are told he can no longer play the charade – he makes himself known to his brothers. He weeps so loudly, we are told, “That the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” He identifies himself, and his brothers are silent in abject fear.

Yet, something has happened to Joseph. Instead of becoming proud of himself in the kind of power and influence he has amassed; instead of being bitter and revengeful against the very brothers who first conspired to kill him and later sold him into slavery. Joseph has come to understand that there is a greater purpose at work in his life and the life of his family: the God of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he says, “sent me before you to preserve life; sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God…. God has made me lord of all Egypt.”

“’Hurry and bring my father down here,’ he says. Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” This is an extraordinary tale of reconciliation wrought through the mercy of God. Joseph has every right to be angry; every right for revenge; every right to allow his brothers and their families and flocks and herds to be devastated by the famine. But he has been infected with the mercy of YHWH, the God of his forefathers and mothers, the God of the promise, the God of the commandments that instruct on how others are to be treated with God’s mercy. Success like Joseph’s is not a license to do what you want. Joseph understands that God’s mercy spared him and God’s mercy must be evident in how he in turn treats others. It is a story for our time.

Then, in Matthew chapter 15 we find the story of a remarkable woman – a Canaanite woman we are told. A confession: In the past I have taught that a) it was unusual and forbidden for a male to be seen talking to a woman not his wife in that time, b) that Jews at the time of Jesus would have nothing to do with Gentiles, ie non-Jews, and c) that therefore Jesus moves from a place of particularism, addressing his mission only to “the lost sheep of Israel,” to a place of universalism, addressing his mission to all people. A chance meeting, like that between this woman and Jesus, with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt University, has removed the scales from my eyes to reveal the kind of hidden anti-Semitism I was unaware that I was sowing. Unfortunately, unlike the seed that falls on rocky soil, implying that Jesus was in some way charting a path against and beyond the Judaism of his time does not shrivel up – and we can see the results of such incorrect teaching in the events of the past week.

A glance at the whole of the Gospel witness and proclamation, one not only sees Jesus frequently speaking with women, we know there were women traveling with him and his disciples supporting the mission. And in chapter 8 of Matthew we have already seen Jesus heal another Gentile child. Dr. Levine also observes that the Genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew includes the names of at least five gentiles among his ancestors: Abraham, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah the Hittite – and three of them are Gentile women. Israel has a long history of honoring righteous gentiles. Perhaps most interesting for us is Rahab, “the harlot.” Rahab had hidden Israelite spies on the promise that when Jericho fell they would rescue her and her family; not unlike our Canaanite woman who will do anything to rescue her daughter from “a demon.”

Just what does she do? Evidently, she walks out the door to meet him along the way. Then she recognizes Jesus as a son of David and begs for mercy for her daughter. Jesus ignores her plea. The disciples want her sent away. Jesus appears to concur in stating, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This hesitation on Jesus’ part strikes many of us as odd. Perhaps it is a matter of resource allocation – as Paul puts it, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” For Matthew, the launching of the Gentile mission begins at the very end of the gospel with proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.

Then the Canaanite woman kneels before him and pleads for help once again. Dr. Levine suggests that rather than worship, she subordinates herself to him, but also blocks his way forward. She confronts him head-on. She is determined to have her case heard. Then, he calls her and her people dogs: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This was not some special epithet of the Jews for non-Jews. In fact, in the Sermon On The Mount Jesus uses it against other Jews who will not accept his message. It was a common Mediterranean insult as far back as Aristotle and others. This is utterly unlike what we heard last weekend in Charlottesville: all the chanting of the “unite the right” folks were anti-Semitic – “blood and soil,” an old Nazi slogan, and morphing “you will not replace us” with “Jews will not replace us. No doubt many of these marchers were raised in churches hearing sermons that cleanse Jesus of his Jewishness and set up “the Jews” as the enemy of Christianity. Sermons filled with the very misconceptions I had been taught in seminary and commentaries. Indeed, it was not until Vatican II and Nostra aetate that the church began to admit its errors in this regard.

Then it happens. She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Levine sees this woman as perhaps the only person to get the better of Jesus! And her response puts her in the good company of Abraham, Moses, Job and others in the Biblical tradition who argue with the God of the Covenant! Yet, even in her retort she subordinates herself to him. Jesus says it is because of her “faith.” Yet, she is not required to convert. We don’t know if her faith is in God? In Jesus? In the power of prayer? I will suggest it is a faith like Rahab’s: her willingness to put her body and her life on-the-line, and even risk insulting the man standing before her with her retort to deliver her daughter from her distress. Faith is not necessarily a belief, but a way of acting in hope that positive change can and will come.

As to universalism, the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, can be seen as one long argument of the particular vs the universal. Yet, the covenant from the outset is to lead to blessings for all people, all nations. Jesus already stands squarely in the long standing Jewish tradition of reaching out to all people. Not to mention the risk it took for the Canaanite woman to risk approaching someone outside the safety of her own people. She too demonstrates an understanding of the universal need to reach out to others – Jesus the Israelite is “other” to her.

Really, this is her story more than Jesus’ story. We have seen such faith in action. I recall meeting a girl of fifteen from Afghanistan who was willing to blog about women’s education and empowerment in the face of retribution from the Taliban. And we all saw Heather Heyer step out in faith to confront hate, bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism. Her final internet posting said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Hearing thunderous shouts of “blood and soil,” and “Jews will not replace us” tells us what the “unite the right” folks are all about. Heather is right – we ought to be outraged. Heather, like the Canaanite woman took to the streets to confront this wrong

Joseph and his brothers were reconciled by the grace of God: those of us who share in God’s mercy need to reflect that mercy in all that we say and do. The Canaanite woman and Jesus were reconciled by her willingness to risk it all for her daughter. Sadly, our nation seeks and desperately needs reconciliation in so many areas of our common life. Our demons are on display. Heather Heyer, like the Canaanite woman, walked out the door and took to the streets to seek justice. To silence the voices of evil. We see what acting in faith looks like. The time has come to act in faith, not talk about it.  

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Unseen Hand of YHWH

Genesis chapter 37 begins the story of Joseph, a story rich with twists and turns and surprising reversals. It is yet another story in which the last becomes first, the outsider becomes the saving agent for people who are in distress. It is a tale that concerns God’s unseen providential care that has the power to transform human circumstance and human prospects. It is a story, as Psalm 105 later reflects upon it, that lays out the hidden ways in which God works through our trials and temptations that largely go unnoticed. Like Israel, and like Peter as he steps out of the boat onto the raging sea in Matthew 14:22-33, the Joseph story invites us to look back upon past events to offer assurances in present circumstances that there is an unseen presence, an unseen hand, shaping the end of the story in ways we can never imagine.

At the time, Joseph is the youngest of Jacob/Israel’s sons, and the first son of the dearest of his four wives, Rachel. Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph after a similar and long period of barrenness like her ancestors Sarah and Rebekah had also experienced. Among the other eleven of Joseph’s brothers it was perceived that he was his father’s favorite. To make matters even worse there are those insufferable dreams of his – and not only his dreams, but Joseph’s insistence on sharing them with his brothers. For these dreams ended with not only his brothers, but even the sun, the moon and the stars bowing down before him. And although Jacob warns him not to share these dreams, it is his father who outfits him with a fine coat, a coat of long sleeves (not many colors!), the kind worn by those who are to be honored and revered.

So, it is understandable that as Joseph heads out to join his brothers who are tending Israel’s herds that they plot to be done with him and toss him into a pit with no water. With no water, life in the Judean wilderness does not last long. Yet, first Reuben, and then Judah, come up with the quasi-moral decision not to leave him to die, but rather to make a profit off of ridding themselves of their arrogant and obnoxious little brother by selling him to a traveling caravan for twenty pieces of silver. The more mercantilist among us might note that by the time Judas conspires to get rid of Jesus inflation had increased the price to thirty pieces of silver. The caravan takes Joseph to Egypt as a slave in fetters.

Were the story to end here one would be hard pressed to imagine that the unseen hand of YHWH, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob is in anyway involved. In fact, there is no mention of God or even an angel to say to Joseph, “Do not be afraid.” The history of our country is ripe with examples of how Joseph must have felt to be betrayed by his brothers and led away in chains to a foreign country to work as a slave. We know this story all too well. Such feelings are unresolved to this day, and daily we are plagued with young girls, boys and women being kidnapped, sold, and transported throughout the United States and around the world to be kept in sexual servitude – nearly two million children alone each year. While still others are being prescribed into opioid addiction. The Baltimore Sun just reported on two doctors who have sold, sold, hundreds of prescriptions from their Mercedes Benzes in Baltimore and Bel Air. And for two days now in Charlottesville, VA, demonstrations and violence by those enslaved to ideologies of White Supremacy. Slavery takes on many different guises, but is very much with us every day.

Joseph’s story continues to the end of Genesis – and as it turns out upon reflection, as Psalm 105 proclaims, it is believed to be the Unseen Hand of YHWH that sent Joseph ahead and raised him to prominence in Egypt placing him in a position to save his brothers and all his family from starvation in the land of Canaan. Remarkably, Joseph fulfills the dreams of his youth, and yet without requiring those who betrayed him to bow down in his presence. Joseph becomes an active participant in God’s saving mercy and grace.

Then there is Peter in Matthew 14. This is now the second time the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. This time they are alone as Jesus needs time by himself on a mountain top to be with God. They are far from the land, the wind is against them and the boat, once again is being battered by the waves. In the morning, he walks out upon the water and approaches the boat. The disciples are terrified thinking it is a ghost! “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid,” says Jesus. Peter asks Jesus to command him to step out of the boat and onto the water. Jesus says, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, came toward Jesus, but when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink. He cries out, “Lord, save me!” For a moment, his fear must be like that of Joseph being led away in fetters. The power of a roiled sea is fearsome indeed.

At this moment, the unseen hand of YHWH is made visible and reaches out. Jesus takes Peter by the hand and leads him back to the boat. The wind ceases. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  That’s a question for all of us. Yet, Peter does not ask for a miracle so much as he knows that what Jesus and YHWH command, Jesus and YHWH make possible. When Jesus says “Come,” a reservoir of resources opens up without which unusual things often do not happen. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic analysis of Peter’s response is worth citing:

“Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”

Bonhoeffer goes on to draw the theological paradox that emerges from this scene: only the one who believes is obedient, and only the one who is obedient believes. “Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience” (The Cost of Discipleship; New York: Macmillan Co., 1960, pp. 53–60). Had Peter remained in the boat and not taken the first step, his faith would have been worthless.

Every day we face our own fears. Every day we hear of terrifying situations like sex trafficking, opioid addiction, possible nuclear conflict, White Supremacist demonstrations and more. Often times it is a fearful heart struggling to make it to tomorrow in peace – fearful for ourselves, fearful for those we love. If these stories have anything to teach us, it is, like Peter, to call out for help, to reach out to the unseen hand, and to “come” when called. The command “to come” is an invitation to obey YHWH’s commands to welcome the stranger and to help those in need. YHWH cares for the widow, the orphan, the resident aliens, those who are enslaved, those who are addicted, those who are sick, those who are hungry tonight – all those, in short, who need a helping hand. The question at the end of the day would be, Are we willing to let the Unseen Hand lead us, take us by the hand, to help those in deepest need? Peter did. Joseph did. Faith is acting and doing, not believing.  

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Feast of the Transfiguration Revisited

Transfiguration: n. 1.Radical transformation of figure or appearance: metamorphosis. 2. The sudden emanation of radiance from Jesus’ person that occurred on the mountain. Jesus is glowing whiter and brighter than anything ever seen (Luke 9:28-36). There’s Peter acting like a little kid: “Oh boy, you are all here together, Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Let’s build some booths!” Observes the text, “…not knowing what he had said.” Suddenly a cloud. Terror as they enter the cloud. Then the same off-stage voice heard all the way back at his baptism in the River Jordan: This is my Son, the Chosen – Listen to him!

We read this twice every year in the Episcopal Church: the last Sunday after the Epiphany and today, August 6, The Feast of the Transfiguration observed at least since the 9th century, codified on this date by Pope Callixtus III recalling the Raising of the Seige of Belgrade (1456). Little did Callixtus know that warfare would be inextricably linked to this feast and this date, for almost 500 years later the 393d Bombardment Squadron B-29 Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets would drop Little Boy, the first Atomic bomb, on the city of Hiroshima in Japan.

Suddenly the sky was brighter than “a thousand suns,” according to one pilot. A cloud that threatened to engulf the plane came over that city of 350,000 some people, mostly civilian. Terror overcame the population instantly, or at least for those who were not immediately incinerated in the first few moments. It is estimated that some 90,000 died that day, with the total five months later being some 200,000 altogether from the effects of radiation sickness, burns, and other injuries, not to mention the psychic and psychological damage done to those few who did survive. Contrast this with only 2 civilian casualties in the three days Battle of Gettysburg, a battle pitting approximately 200,000 soldiers that resulted in 46,000-51,000 deaths. I recall a quiet, early morning visit to Gettsyburg in 1975, the parks closed, no one else around, pondering only two civilian casualties in all that carnage while considering Hiroshima, Nagasaki and what we euphemistically call “modern” warfare with its “collateral damage.” I still weep at the very thought of it all.

To say the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were transfigured, to say Japan was transfigured, to say modern warfare was transfigured does not go far enough. Humanity was transfigured in ways that directly contrast with the events the feast day of August 6 means for us to recall: the glory and holiness of God to be reflected in the lives of people – all people, human beings. Since August 6, 1945, humanity has lived under the cloud and specter of Mutual Assured Destruction should these weapons ever be used again.

Strangely, some good has tried to emerge from what August 6 represents to many people around this fragile Earth, our island home in the vast reaches of the cosmos. A devastating World War was brought to an end; out of a deep human desire for world peace the United Nations was born; many people abandoned a view of security based in military might for a view of security based in peaceful co-existence; and the Right Reverend Bennett Sims, the late Bishop of Atlanta and former rector of Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, developed a theology of Servanthood. This theology might be summed up by saying that our future depends on how we take care of the Earth and how we take care of one another – all others. Mutually Assured Servanthood.

Bishop Sims visited Nagasaki eleven weeks after our military instantly incinerated that city’s 39,000 civilian non-combatants, a death toll that eventually reached 64,000. After viewing the nuclear wasteland, Bishop Sims was returning to his naval destroyer by way of coal-fired steam train across Japan. A young man of fifteen was the conductor, cheerfully roaming the aisle, punching tickets in his badly worn and patched conductors jacket and cap. He sat down opposite Bennett and in sign language asked for a cigarette. Bennett offered up one of his Old Golds. Then the lad gestured for a light. Writes Sims,

“The act of lighting another’s cigarette, with wind blowing through the open windows of a moving train, brings people’s faces very close. His eyes and mine met only scant inches apart. Unbidden in that moment tears welled up, for both of us. Until a few minutes before we were total strangers. Until a few weeks before, we were sworn enemies, separated by war, propaganda, language differences, and distant geography. But in one swift removal of all barriers, two human beings drew close in a meeting of souls. On August 14th of that fateful year the war ended.
Better still, on October 25th peace came to two of us.” Servanthood (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA:1997), p.170.

From this experience, Bennett Sims drew several conclusions that would shape his life and ministry until his death in 2011: 1) humanity is created to be a community of kinship in peace, 2) the best things in life come by surprise, 3) the planet will support the human enterprise only as the human enterprise supports the planet, and 4) new life arises from the death of the old. “The human odyssey cannot continue without a quantum advance in consciousness that will build new structures of care for the earth and for one another across all boundaries.” Ibid, p.168

Bennett Sims and the young Japanese man on the train were transformed and transfigured in the blink of an eye. Just as Peter, James and John were transfigured before Jesus on the mountain top, their lives changed forever. The voice from the cloud implores us to listen to Jesus. This Feast Day of August 6th means to ask us, have we listened? We are meant to stop everything we are doing and reflect on such questions as: What will it take to transfigure our church? Our nation? The World? Where do the cycles of violence end? In what can National Security truly be based?

On another mountain top, on another day, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Bennett Sims concludes that the Transfiguration of Christ and the World is based in a kind of servanthood in which “great power functions as an exchange of power, never as coercion by superior forces. The universe is built this way. As the revealer of the Power that blew the cosmos into being and keeps it evolving, Jesus never coerces. Instead, it is his concise insistence by word and deed that greatness lies in giving – that superiority is embodied in serving. Persuasion is the posture of God.” Ibid, p. 173

The history of the past few generations on Earth has given us ample images of Transfiguration, both tragic and good. Jesus stands up on the mountain issuing the invitation to be transfigured for the good of the world into his servant people – to care for our planet and one another across all boundaries. To recall the last verse of one still sadly relevant song, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn….” (Where have all the flowers gone? Pete Seeger, Joe Hickerson – Fall River Music, Inc.)  Amen. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Perseverance Furthers

Faith and Belief: Perseverance Furthers
Thursday evening, for the fifth consecutive year, it was my privilege to join my fellow musicians in On The Bus to provide the musical support for Senator Patrick Leahy’s Annual Ice Cream Social. We were on the eleventh-floor rooftop of a building on Ninth Street NW with a view of the Capitol Dome in the not too far distance. Only Vermont based products are served: Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Top Hat beer! We played for about an hour when the Senator arrived and indicated he was ready to address the crowd of staff, supporters, family and friends.

The very first thing he said was that he had just come from a meeting with his long-time friend and colleague Senator John McCain as they were anticipating a late-night vote on yet another health-care proposal. They reminisced, said the Senator, about the days when it was common in the US Senate for senators to reach across the aisle to get things done on behalf of the American People. He recalled times when the very Conservative Senator Goldwater and the very liberal Senator Humphrey would sit down “and get things done.” He lamented it had been some time since this was business as usual, but that he still had faith that it can happen again.

The next morning on NPR, the WAMU based talk-show 1A, Joshua Johnson was hosting a conversation about CTE - chronic traumatic encephalopathy – resulting from repeated head trauma and concussions in full-contact sports. Dr. Bennet Omalu, among the first to diagnose this disease that has led to cognitive and degenerative symptoms and even suicide among retired NFL football players, was on the line. He made the comment that “Science and Faith both seek the truth. Science seeks facts, faith seeks meaning out of facts…. Both Science and Faith try to make “visible” that which heretofore remains or seems ‘unseen.’”

I used to consult the ancient Chinese wisdom text, the I Ching. It’s an ancient practice of using yarrow stalks or coins to build a series of solid and broken lines to form a hexagram – six lines one atop the other – a sort of pictogram. Once you have your hexagram you are ready to read the “judgment” or the “advice.” Not infrequently the answer would come back, “Perseverance furthers!”

That is certainly true in the ongoing saga of Jacob who, in the 29th chapter of Genesis is on the run to escape the wrath of his brother Esau whom he swindled out of his birthright, and tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that rightfully belonged to the older son. His mother Rebekah had suggested that while he was on the lam he might visit some kinfolk to obtain a wife. Visiting his great-uncle Laban, the Trickster is Tricked! He falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel. He is told that she will be his if he agrees to work seven years for her father. Deal! The evening of the wedding seven years later, the veiled bride is presented to Jacob, only to discover in the light of dawn the next morning it is Rachel’s older sister, Leah!

Oh, says Laban, I forgot to mention our custom that the older daughter must be married before the younger may be given to marriage. Another seven years, and Rachel will be yours. Jacob agrees. He is no hurry to get back home to face Esau, and after fourteen years labor he has two wives, Leah and Rachel. Over time he acquires two more wives, Zipah (Leah’s servant) and Hilpah (Rachel’s servant), and among the four wives he fathers thirteen sons. Overlooking what such a story might reveal about the Biblical concept of marriage, it appears that perseverance does further. We are meant to recall that the Lord God of Abraham has promised to be with Jacob and that it is his faith and belief that this is true that has given him the patience and perseverance to work fourteen years to finally marry the girl he loves. One might say it took Jacob fourteen years to uncover the Pearl of Great Price Jesus speaks of in Matthew 13. Or, that just a mustard seed’s worth of faith sustained him in his quest to marry.

In reading of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s work to find out what drove so many NFL players to display symptoms as broad as difficulty thinking, depression, impulsive behavior, short-term memory loss, difficulty planning, emotional instability, substance abuse and suicidal behavior, he required equal measures of faith and belief, not to mention perseverance and patience, to come up with his findings which have recently been substantiated in a recent study of 111 brains of former NFL players.  

In attempting to describe the universe we see, Einstein, Edwin Hubble and others have come to believe that fully 95% of the known universe remains unseen as some combination of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Their faith in things like relativity, quantum mechanics, mathematics and measurements of gravitational forces lead them to new discoveries about where we are and where we come from, but leave us far from reconciling so many inconsistencies in the various “explanations” their research suggests.

Yet, whether we ponder the sayings of Jesus, the life of Jacob, or Relativity and Dark Energy, perseverance furthers our understanding of who we are and why we are here. Whether you are a US Senator or a dedicated neuropathologist, perseverance furthers your attempts to make life better for more people than just yourself.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” wrote the author of a letter we call Hebrews in the New Testament. Senators Leahy and McCain, Dr. Omalu, Einstein, Hubble, Jacob and Jesus have all dedicated their lives to maintain a sense of hope in a world that often provides little evidence that such hope is justified. What the life of faith believes is that the falseness of this world is bounded by an even greater truth – a truth that ultimately depends upon the explorations of faith and science together.

Later in chapter 17 Jesus chides the disciples for having so little faith. And yet, he says, “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.”

As Edith Ann used to say, “And that’s the truth!” 

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.”