Saturday, August 16, 2014

Crumbs

Crumbs - Matthew 15:21-28
Crumbs. How many of us are satisfied with crumbs? Yet, here is a woman in great need, great distress, and deeply desperate to find help for her daughter, who seemingly needs greater things than we might ever hope for, willing to settle for crumbs. How many of us are satisfied with crumbs?

It is interesting to note that this fifteenth chapter of Matthew begins with a dispute over “the tradition of the elders.” Specifically, it is a dispute that occurs in households throughout modern America every day: washing one’s hands before meals. Evidently Jesus’ disciples were not washing their hands before every meal. It is equally interesting to note that Jesus does not defend the disciples, but rather attacks back at his questioners pointing to traditions they regularly ignore or find clever ways to get around and brands them hypocrites.

After some more back and forth with them about the traditions of the community of faith, Jesus decides to get away from it all and heads up the coast into Gentile territory. Surely no one will hassle him there. Wrong. Along comes this woman. She has no name in our text. That could be a result of male dominated discrimination on the part of those who managed the texts. Or, it could be the story intends  for any one of us to be this woman, give her our own name, encouraging us to come to Jesus on our knees with our real needs: healing, salvation, and to be fed. We all, like her, seek to be fed, healed and saved.

The woman’s need is in fact on her daughter’s behalf, not so much her own. But then again, what mother, what parent, does not want their child to be made well and whole and safe? The daughter has a demon. We know about demons. We know how they can drive everyone crazy.  She cries out, “Lord, have mercy on me and my daughter.”

The Lord of infinite mercy and compassion, the God of Love, ignores her. There is no getting around this.  Perhaps if I don’t respond, he thinks, she will go away. We have all tried this strategy before. It rarely works. And, no doubt, we have all gone to the Lord with a plea and have felt ignored. We know what that feels like. It can make us sad, and it can make us angry with God. And that sadness and anger can spill over into everything else we do and say.

Then the disciples, that always means us, demand that Jesus send her away. She is interrupting their time alone with Jesus.  So Jesus answers their plea, hoping I guess that she will hear his response to them, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” Translated that sounds to her something like, “People outside our community and outside our tradition need not apply. Unless you are just like us, bug off!” Which is a bit odd. He has specifically gone off to Gentile territory and is now complaining of being hassled by Gentiles. Now he adheres to tradition.

Her response is instructive. She gets on her knees and simply pleads, “Lord, help me.”  She is on her knees. How often do we forget to get down on our knees? Only when all other solutions are found wanting and ineffective, when there is nowhere else to go, only then do we remember our knees. And that our Lord is the one Lord who gets on his knees and washes feet.

This woman is persistent. She will not take “no” for an answer. She has taken assertiveness training and learned the “broken record” strategy, and now has fallen on her knees on behalf of her poor demon possessed daughter. Being ignored and put down does not faze her. Her heart is undivided. She is, in a word, amazing! Awesome! A model for us all.

She does not allow her own hurt feelings to get in the way of her daughter’s need for healing. Yet, how does Jesus respond to her humble and persistent gesture: Jesus insults her further. He calls her a dog. He calls all her people, all Gentiles, dogs. Whenever people read this story, really really read this story, they cannot believe Jesus could be so cruel. There it is. “I cannot take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” That has to hurt. But our woman’s heart remains undivided. When your heart is turned radically to the needs of others, there is no time to feel sorry for yourself.

And suddenly she has vision. For a single moment she has greater vision than Jesus himself. She can see crumbs under the table. She has seen children eat. There are always crumbs under the table. Crumbs are just tiny bits of something larger. Crumbs are insignificant. We often sweep them away. Crumbs are what most of us overlook, especially in the spiritual life. We are so busy looking for ways to grab the whole loaf.

She seems to be the only one in the room who has the vision to see that those crumbs are enough. She says, “OK, you can save the loaves for your family, your people, your children, and I’ll settle for just the crumbs. Even dogs like me get the crumbs that fall off the table.”

Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade! Wow! She is perhaps the most amazing person in the whole Bible. Maybe even the most important person in all of history!

Why? Because she changes Jesus’ mind. Jesus was moved to a new place. He let her in. He forgot about tradition for a moment and opened the door and gave her a place at the table. Suddenly he could see only her love for her daughter and the daughter’s need. He could not allow the law or the tradition to get in the way of love and need. He saw her faith. The daughter was healed. So was Jesus. Jesus was healed of being enslaved to the tradition, of bigotry and of blindness to the needs of all people.

Because of her perseverance, her undivided heart, her love and her daughter’s need, Jesus was moved, his mission was changed, and the world has never been the same. Because of the radical turning of her thoughts for others, Jesus radically turned his attention to the needs of others, all others. Because she could see great promise in just the crumbs, her daughter was healed, Jesus was moved to a new place. Gentiles were allowed to sit at the table. All because of the crumbs.

What a wonderful story! And it can be our story! It can be the church’s story, and it can be your story. It all begins with crumbs. When we are hungry enough the crumbs will do. And we will be fed, healed and saved.

Remember this woman in your prayers each day. Remember her heart. Remember her faith. Remember her vision. Remember her persistence. Remember your knees. Remember that when we radically turn our thoughts to the needs of others we have little time to feel sorry for

ourselves. Remember that little bits of grace will be more than enough to sustain us this day and every day. It all begins with crumbs. Amen.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Be Still

Be Still
I want you to think for a moment. Just let go of all that is happening here and go deep into yourself and remember. Remember a time when you heard that still small voice Elijah heard so long long ago. There may have been wind and rain and fire swirling all around. You may have been frightened. Or, perhaps it was very very quiet – gazing at the sunset or sunrise when suddenly you heard that voice call you by name.

Or, maybe you never have heard that still small voice, but can remember a time when you really needed to, really wanted to, hear it calling you by name. You felt that just hearing that voice would make all the difference. And perhaps just wanting and needing to hear it was enough.

Elijah was fleeing for his life. The people did not want to hear what the prophet has to say. The king does not want to hear what the prophet needs to say. Elijah is hiding, not knowing where to turn next when suddenly he becomes aware – aware of a Presence. The Presence.

Or, the disciples are instructed to get in the boat and head over to the other side of the sea – that is to Gentile territory, enemy territory, unclean territory. Notice how diligently they are on their way, and despite the rough seas they persevere. They are rowing against the wind. How often do we feel like that? We know these guys. We are these guys!

Out of nowhere – previously, we are told, he is off alone, praying alone, getting some alone time with Abba, Father, YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus – suddenly someone approaches the boat walking on the water – the stormy water, the wind driven rough waters. It is dawn - recalling the dawn of creation when Abba-Father-YHWH’s Spirit blew across the face of the deep, dark, chaotic waters – now it seems to be a ghost. But that will come later – afterwards, after the cross and the tomb they will again suppose him to be a ghost. But it is Jesus out for a morning stroll to check in on the lads. He is there. He is with them in the midst of the storm on rough waters. They stop rowing against the wind and see that He is there.

 “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter walks toward him on the water. Only modern liberals ask, How can this be? As if it is a miracle. The miracle is coming to know He is there, He is here – He is with us. He is never not with us. With such knowledge we can hear His voice, we can see His presence, we can walk towards him wherever we are.

I used to have these dreams in which I was flying. I would wake up in the morning fully convinced that I had been flying, that I could, if you will, swim the breast stroke through the air with the greatest of ease. And there was the time I was sitting in the sanctuary at St. Peter’s, others were distributing communion at the rail, the rest of us were singing a communion hymn, I was sitting quietly listening to the music because one afternoon Bob Duggan had encouraged me to find ways to worship with the congregation, not just lead worship. So I was sitting there experiencing worship when all of a sudden I could hear only one small voice – it was as if someone had turned down the volume knob on the entire congregation and all I could hear was the lone voice of our youngest daughter Cerny who was sitting across from me as one of the acolytes – just her and her alone, a still, small, voice. The next day I mentioned this to my Senior Warden who stopped and said, “That’s funny, I heard that too.”

Elijah stopped running. I stopped leading worship. The disciples stopped rowing against the wind. It is not that God suddenly shows up. Meister Eckhart says, God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk.

We tend to live our lives, writes Evelyn Underhill, out of three verbs: To Want, To Have and To Do. “Craving, clutching and fussing, on the material, political, 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.”
(Underhill, The Spiritual Life, p.20)

The most important thing I learned in seminary, the most important thing I teach at St. Tim’s every day in every class, is how to Be. Jim Fenhagen would have us begin with the Psalm that says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Then we would sit for several minutes of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer. Stopping. Listening.

We have lost the capacity to be still. Whereby, we have lost the capacity to be aware of God’s eternal Presence – that still small voice within. Every now and then it manages to pierce our busyness. When all along we simply need to be still to hear that voice and feel that presence. Stop running, stop doing, stop wanting, stop clutching, craving and fussing. Be still, and know that I am God. Listen and  hear the voice which lives within of the God who lives within, the God with whom we are One. The God who is always here.

A week or so ago I was sitting on a dock on Lake Sunapee, NH. This is what I saw and learned:

Let us sit still. Let us say, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We will be quiet for a few minutes. Then we will sing our way back.


Have faith and have no fear
Be still and know that I Am God
You are mine, I am always here

Tho wind and rain will rock your boat
And you feel so all alone
Reach out your hand and I’ll be there
To lead you safely home


God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. It’s time to go home. Amen. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Where Is Your Mind?



A Pearl of Great Price
Matthew 13: 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

One day I was attending a Quiet Day at the Episcopal Cathedral in Hartford, CT. The Reverend William Rich was leading the reflection periods. In between the sessions we had 45 minutes to be silent anywhere we chose.

I would go outside and take a “monastic walk” through the downtown, not stopping to talk with anyone.

I happened upon a small independent jewelry store. I had just read a book by Frederick Beuchner, Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (Harper, New York: 1977). It is a series of lectures, the Beecher Lectures, he delivered at Yale one year. In it he begins with some reflections on Henry Ward Beecher, the abolitionist preacher of the 19th century and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher was fascinated by small, beautiful things. He carried a small pouch of jewels in his pocket so that he might hold them in his hand from time to time in dark moments, not unfamiliar to him, to remind him of the intricate beauty of all creation and humankind.

I stepped into the jewelry shop and silently viewed diamonds, rubies, pearls – and was drawn into the firery, internal colors of the opals. I remember standing and peering into that interior universe that seems to blaze within an opal – a sort of microcosmos of all of creation. I stood there entranced by the opals for a few moments that seemed to stretch on for eons. It was all there – everything God had created somehow represented in the opal’s bright and colorful interior.

Upon returning to the cathedral I sat in a pew to listen to what Bill had to share with us next. It was this tiny jewel of a parable of Jesus about one pearl of great value – a pearl that the merchant divests   himself “of all that he had and bought it.”

I can only remember one thing that Bill Rich said that morning. But that one thing was a life changing moment. Bill encouraged, exhorted us really, to understand that you are the pearl of great value. You are the pearl of great value, and God is the merchant, the very God who creates you in God’s image – imago Dei. God in Christ gives away all, everything, the entire unfolding of the universe as vast as the heavens and yet able to be contained and displayed within the blazing inner world of an opal. God values you more than anything.

God values you more than anything, more than everything. How often we find that so hard to believe. Not because of God’s judgment, but because of how severely we judge ourselves.

You are the pearl of great value. We all need some sort of pouch of jewels to carry in our pockets that we can reach for, touch and be reminded – we are the pearl of great value, we are imago Dei, we are God’s Beloved.

Just before tragedy struck my two closest colleagues in my church office two years ago, I had given the girls in my World Religion’s class an assignment: to take one verse from a surah in the Qu’ran and illustrate it, doing so in the style of Islamic art. One girl fashioned an origami prayer bubble, and decorated the outside of it with geometric designs. It looks like a flat piece of folded paper. You blow in a hole at one end, and voila! It opens up into a “bubble.” When I looked inside the hole at the end I could see these words from the Qu’ran, “The Lord loves those who put their trust in Him. (3:159)” I was as mesmerized looking into that origami bubble as Beecher with his jewels, as a scientist searching the heavens with the Hubble Telescope or examining a single cell through a microscope.

A few days later I was confronted with the tragedy of the Gospel in the most human terms.  As I began to sort through the tsunami of feelings threatening to demolish my faith, I began to take the prayer bubble wherever I went. It was in my shirt pocket every day-over my heart. From time to time I would take it out, blow it up, look inside and be reminded that I am a pearl of great value, I am God’s beloved, I am the object of the Lord’s love. It became an important talisman for my healing and my faith.

Beuchner’s notion of the Gospel as comedy lies in those unexpected moments when we find ourselves in the most unlikely of places being touched by God – reminded of the utterly absurd notion that a God who with the utterance of one word, “Light,” can set in motion the unfolding mysteries and beauties of an entire universe is also attentive to you and me, giving away everything for my sake and your sake.

“You are the pearl of great price,” said Bill Rich that morning in Hartford, CT, home to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and to a fine little jewelry store around the corner from the Episcopal Cathedral. We all need to be reminded of those words.

Bill’s aunt Sally was for a couple of years my yoga instructor and mentor. She would always have us lie on our mats at the end of a session to rest and meditate. Sally Rich would say the words, “Where is your mind?” We all need to be reminded of these words as well. For where our mind is is where we are.

We all need a talisman of some kind we can carry around so that whenever we reach into our pockets we might remember that the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel says, “You are the pearl of great value – you are God’s beloved.” That this same Jesus, flesh and blood like every one of us, gives it all away for you and for me. This is where our minds need to be – constantly reminding ourselves that we are made in the image of God, as are all other people around the world. We are each and every one of us pearls of great price. Remember this and all that it means and implies. It really is as simple as this. If our minds are set on our being pearls of great value, our hearts will be set on fire with the brilliance of an opal sparkling in the light. Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

We Are Climbing Jacob's Ziggurat

Jacob’s Dream, Our Dream - Genesis 28:10-19
Jacob lays his head on a stone to sleep. He is on the lam. Under the advice of his mother Rebekah he flees the wrath of his brother Esau. Here the story is somewhat complicated. Sometime before Esau, the older of the twins by virtue of being first out of the womb, gave up his birthright for a pot of stew. Now, more recently in the saga, Jacob connives with his mother to secure that same birthright through a ruse – tricking his aging and now blind father Isaac  - “he who laughs,” he who saw the knife in his father Abraham’s hand about to come down on him save for the grace of God and a ram caught in a nearby thicket – by impersonating Esau with an animal skin to make him seem like “an hairy man.”

Esau is angry – angry enough to kill his brother. It’s another Cain and Abel story of sorts. Except that Jacob survives and eventually reconciles with his brother – a parable for our time, no?

So as he lays his head down on a stone to get some rest one could say that Jacob is in a hard place – literally. We can imagine all that is running through his heart and head: deceiving his father, a father who has no doubt carried the burden of his own challenging childhood; stealing from his brother; plotting with his mother; meanwhile, Esau marries Ishmael’s daughter – Ishmael being father Abraham’s first son by Hagar, banished by orders of Sarah, and one day the patriarch of Islam. A parable for our time, no?

Jacob is on the run. He is in a hard place. We have all been there before.

So he has a dream. The Hebrew word pronounced khay-lem means to dream, but originates from a root word meaning to bind or to make dumb i.e. unable to speak. The word is also derived from a word that means “swirling” as with sand. Jacob whose heart and head are swirling is suddenly struck dumb, he is bound in a dream. It is a vision really – one might even call it a mystical experience. He sees what we have come to call a ladder, but it seems more likely it was a kind of ziggurat – a stairway – the original stairway to heaven! Angels are ascending and descending between heaven and earth. Perhaps this is always happening and only now when Jacob is in a hard place – between rejection and acceptance – can he see this. Angels are always coming and going.

Angels carry messages from heaven – from God. In this moment, his head on a stone, his heart and head swirling with all that has transpired in his family life. It is in this moment that he sees – “The Lord stood beside him.” When we are in such hard places it is necessary to see and remember that The Lord stands beside us.

The Lord speaks. “…all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. ..Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Message delivered. Message heard. Jacob cannot speak until he has heard the message – he is bound, khay-lem. Mystical experiences are like this. There is nothing to say in those moments when the ineffable opens itself to us. Or, do we open ourselves to the ineffable? Or, does being in a hard place open us to see and hear what is there beside us all along?

As he awakens from this moment of mystical vision, Jacob speaks. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

There are so many distractions -so many that we do not know that the Lord is in this place – this place where we find ourselves right now. Even when we are in a hard place. Most especially when we are in a hard place – when we cannot tell a pillow from a stone.

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

That is where we are – this is where we stand. Day and night, night and day – we are in the house of God standing at the gate of heaven. The Greek word is oikos – now a popular brand of yogurt. Oikos means household. From this word we get oiko-nomos, the laws of the household, or in English, economy. And there is oiko-logia, or study of the household, or in English ecology. In Hebrew it is, of course, Beyit, which in its construct form is Beth – household of – the household of God. We sometimes call this the universe.

Jacob places a stone and anoints it with oil to remember the place….and calls it Bethel
“the Household of God”

Jacob’s vision- here we are in God’s household, our “fragile island home,” the Earth. You would not know this by the way we behave in it, nor in the way in which we treat it. How we behave with one another and how we treat this Earth, our home for we know not how long, lies at the very heart of this ancient saga of a young man on the run.

How might we understand ourselves, how might we treat others if we were to remember we are in God’s household, the Lord stands beside us, God’s messengers are forever in our midst to bring us words of comfort, challenge and inspiration? How might we treat the Earth if we were to remember it is God’s house, not ours?

If you ever feel sad
And the whole world is driving you mad
Remember, Remember Today
-John Lennon

May we remember Jacob and his dream. One day we too shall be climbing Jacob’s ziggurat. This stairway to heaven is right in front of us day and night here where we are – God’s own household. Beth-el.
Amen.




Saturday, July 12, 2014

Vincent van Gogh and David Mallet Meet in The Gospel...

Proper 10 – Romans 8:1-11/Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Timothy's School for Girls

“…You are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
                                                                                    - Romans 8: 9

We don’t often think of it, but of all the New Testament literature, Saint Paul’s letters are the oldest sources we have about Jesus – pre-dating the Gospels by a couple of decades. And Paul writes that for those who are “in Christ,” and “Christ is in them,” “the Spirit of God dwells in you.” This ought to strike us as an astonishing assertion. Not something we should take for granted. And we might ask, just how does this “Spirit of God, this Christ, come to dwell in us?

And “us” is the operant word here, since Saint Paul writes in the plural (something the English translation cannot indicate) – Paul rarely speaks of an individual’s relationship to Christ. He speaks almost exclusively of the individual in the context of the faith community – the community of Christ’s Body, the priesthood of all believers. How does Christ and the Spirit of God come to “dwell in us?”

Along comes the Parable of the Sower rich with varied depths of meanings to help us to see just what things, as our collect for the day urges, we “ought to do,” and just how we might find ourselves equipped with the “grace and power to accomplish them,” which things very well may prepare ourselves as a community to receive Christ and the Spirit of God into our midst – so that God’s spirit might “dwell” among us, a technical word in the Greek for pitching a tent, setting up shop, move into our neighborhood.

And the first thing we might notice is the repetition, “A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed…” That is, this is no random person scattering seed hoping gravity and good luck will take care of the rest. This sower is sowing, which points to a practiced skill. This seed goes where it is supposed to go. No soil is left bare. No soil is overplanted. Yet, even with such a sower, some seed lands on the road, or on stones, or among thorns.

Vincent Van Gogh, the 19th Century Dutch artist understood this. He understood that the seeds were God’s Word of the Kingdom – and Gogh knew as we all know that Christ is God’s Word of the Kingdom. Christ, the Word of God’s Kingdom, came to proclaim a message: I will set you free, I won’t let you be anything but holy, good and free.

Now what most people do not know is that the young Gogh set off to follow in his Protestant Pastor father’s footsteps – and spent some years evangelizing, bring this good news of God’s Word, to the poor, beginning with mine workers in Borinage. During this time he was able to identify with the miners, their families, and their lifestyles. His religious beliefs made him want to alleviate spiritual and physical suffering.

Only later did he turn to painting as another way to express his desire to bring people closer to God, closer to each other and closer to themselves. In 1888 he painted The Sower, a pivotal work in the history of art, and surely a scene related to our story here in Matthew. One sees the sower, practiced in the art of sowing, deliberately planting the seed in the soil. For Gogh the color yellow symbolized faith, triumph and love. The color blue represented the Divine – and so he combines these colors so they seem to move together showing the relationship of all living things. And there is something holy, good and free in the figure of The Sower – who in the parable of course is God in Christ planting the Good News of God’s kingdom in the soil of our hearts.

And the very thought that this seed, the Word of God, could yield a hundredfold would be heard by the farmers and fishermen Jesus addresses as simply fantastic! No seed known yields such bounty! Maybe ten, twenty or even thirty fold, but sixty or one hundred is unprecedented, unknown, simply unimaginable! We are meant to respond with awe that God’s Word possesses such grace and power – we are meant to want this Word planted in the soil of our own hearts, where we can tend to it, hear it, and be transformed a hundred fold ourselves. What a truly awesome gift from an awesome God.

Of course, the dangers of not tending to it are outlined. It is a parable of self-analysis: Are we fertile, well tilled, deeply mulched soil? Or, are we rocky ground? Do we welcome and make opportunities to tend to God’s word every day? Or, do we spend more time tending to the thorns of wealth and the cares of the world, such that the Word yields nothing?

Many who first heard Jesus tell this story figured out its meaning: we are the soil, the seed of God’s Word comes to rest in us, and for those who till and water and mulch and care for God’s word, we become sowers of the Word ourselves – like the young Vincent Van Gogh, like Saint Paul, like the fishermen, tenant farmers, soldiers and others who first heard this story.

In Maine lives a truly wonderful singer/songwriter by the name of David Mallet who wrote Garden Song, a song that speaks to what Jesus is calling us to do and be, and at the same time addresses the ecological crisis we face on the Earth, this fragile, island home of ours. As one sings it, or listens to it, perhaps it will move us to become more disciplined disciples of Christ – like the skilled Sower may we become more practiced in letting the Word take root in our lives so we might begin to feel and to know that what Saint Paul says is true: we are in the Spirit, God’s Spirit dwells in us. God’s son Jesus desires to pitch his tent and plant his Word in our hearts and minds and souls so that we might truly become holy, good and free!





Garden Song
by David Mallett
 
CHORUS:
Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
Gonna mulch it deep and low
Gonna make it fertile ground
 
Inch by inch, row by row
Please bless these seeds I sow
Please keep them safe below
'Till the rain comes tumbling down
 
Pullin' weeds and pickin' stones
We are made of dreams and bones
Need a place to call my own
'Cause the time is close at hand
 
 
Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature's chain
Till my body and my brain
Tell the music of the land
 
CHORUS
Plant your rows straight and long
Season with a prayer and song
Mother Earth will make you strong
If you give her loving care
 
An old crow watching hungrily
From his perch in yonder tree,
In my garden I'm as free
As that feathered thief up there.
 
CHORUS
 
©Cherry Lane Music Co (ASCAP)



Monday, July 7, 2014

Some Food for Thought on Things "Biblical"



Some Food for Thought on Things “Biblical”

The US Supreme Court ruled recently on the contraception-abortion-healthcare issue citing that a person’s biblical understanding of when life begins can be the measure of whether or not that person, or a corporation defined as a person, must provide contraception devices and medication as part of a health-care “package.” Somewhere buried in their decision the justices who so found sided with a notion that the Bible defines human life as beginning at conception. While such a notion may be scientific, it does not appear to be biblical.

From the beginning in Genesis chapter 2, the second of two creation stories in the Bible (the first being Genesis chapter 1), the first human is given life, or a soul (Hebrew: nefesh) with God breathing into a handful of moist dust (clay?):  Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

Both the Bible and its earliest commentaries, the Talmud, have asserted that the life or ensoulment of the fetus begins when one draw’s one’s first breath outside the womb.  The act of birth changes the status of fetus from non-person to person.  Indeed, throughout the Bible the association of breath with life persists. In Job 33:4 we read, “The spirit of God has made me, the breath of the Almighty has given me life.”  Similarly the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Thus says God the LORD, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it And spirit to those who walk in it…”

It is fair to say that the Bible knows nothing of modern medical notions of fertilization, implantation, viability and so forth. To argue a legal position supporting a “religious” held view based on the Bible, the justices might have done well to research what the Biblical view of life and when it begins. I have no illusions that this will convince anyone to change their point of view, but rather to point out the difficulties that prevail when one declares, “The Bible says….” Surely counter arguments will be made from texts such as Psalm 139 (“…you knit me together in my mother’s womb…”), although it is equally unclear whether it is an individual or the people Israel that is being knit together in such texts.

Further complicating a biblical view is the undeniable fact that although the Bible does not appear to have a view on contraception at all, it does offer conditions under which inducing a miscarriage (abortion)  is prescribed (Numbers chapter 5), and in Exodus 21 suggests that if a pregnant woman gets entangled in a fight between two men and accidentally miscarries the fetus, it is the life of the mother that is at stake, not that of the fetus.

All of which is to say that perhaps it is inconvenient at best to rely on there being “a biblical view” on either abortion or contraception.  Having wrestled with the texts for decades, the view that life begins with breath outside the womb appears to be what the Bible knows as when “life begins.”

Then there is immigration. It is undeniable that throughout most of the Bible the majority of people addressed by and discussed by the biblical texts are migratory people – Bedouin people who move with their flocks and herds from place to place seeking water and food in a region of the world that offers little of either. It appears that throughout most of human history people have been inherently migratory until relatively recently.

In fact, the people of the Bible are so often on the move that the language of the Hebrew texts is derived almost entirely from verb forms – that is, biblical Hebrew seems to reflect the constant movement of the people who become Israel – those who strive with God.

Further, looking at the current US crisis in immigration, remembering a little US history may be instructive. Under President James Polk, who was entranced by visions of “manifest destiny”, the US-Mexico war was provoked,  as we now know, as an intentional land-grab – the US simply provoked a conflict and occupied, stole, forced a settlement to take away much of the constitutional territory of Mexico including present day Texas (annexed before the war, but with no agreement with Mexico), Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, Nevada, parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming!
All previously Spanish held territories that had been liberated from the European colonizers and made an independent Mexico. Like all of North America, the indigenous peoples had been pushed aside with notions of Manifest Destiny and Progress while an independent Mexico represented an attempt at reclaiming what had been natural migratory lands for peoples who had roamed and lived on these lands for tens of thousands of years.

It seems not to occur to the parties debating “immigration policy” that those of “us” determining who should be let across the borders were all either a) immigrants ourselves, or b) enslaved people forced to come to this continent against their will. And that the ancestors of those crossing the borders illegally or otherwise roamed these lands for tens of thousands of years before “we” even considered the idea that the Earth is round?

There is to be no question that the drug cartels manipulate the situation in an attempt to distract the US from interdiction of illegal drugs – which “business” is no-doubt threatened by the expanding legalization and propagation efforts growing (literally) throughout the US.

But does any of this justify the kind of populist xenophobia that is seeking to deny attempts to process and care for children, teens and women who are being squeezed from both sides, and who, for all we know, have some sort of DNA coding that hearkens back to a time, historically not so long ago, when their people freely roamed what we call the southwest in search of water and food for their herds and flocks?

The biblical view on such questions is clear and unequivocal: like Abraham hosting the three visitors by the oaks at Mamre (Genesis 18): you are to provide food, comfort and hospitality to the strangers in the land who have no resources. Resident aliens are a specific class of people who are to be welcomed and protected. Indeed, that is the original meaning of the Levitical command to love your neighbor – a command expanded to include people utterly unlike ourselves by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10).

So, to sell more chicken or more hobby supplies and increase the profit margin, we find persons (disguised as corporations!) hiding behind a supposed “biblical view” of things to get away with providing the least amount of health care possible to their employees, while at the same time we seek to deny safe passage to people whose ancestors never believed that they “possessed” the land, but that the land provided for them in direct proportion to the degree to which they took care of the land, so that we can continue to exploit the land’s natural resources to produce more widgets to sell to the very people we seek to expel from our country. All in the name of being “biblical” Christians!

Sure enough, the biblical view on things is terribly inconvenient when one actually reads the Bible.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Sword of Faith



“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34

At the end of an online sermon on Matthew 10 which treats everything up to verse 34 a reader posts the following comment: “Yet again, another complete avoidance of Matthew 10: 34-39. I guarantee you the folks sitting in the pews are very curious about your views on these particular verses.”

There are several ways to go with this challenge. Given the current geopolitical-theological climate which tends to represent Islam as a religion of violence and warfare one might start here to say something like, “See, Jesus advocates violence just as the Quran does.” Not that such an argument is needed. Christianity has been as violent a religion as any in its nearly 2000 year history: the persecution of early heresies, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, the European Wars of Religion, complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, and complicity in the Holocaust to name just a few sad chapters of Christian history. This does not even take into consideration the ethical questions that remain after the only tactical use of nuclear weapons on a civilian population was ordered by President Harry Truman, a man otherwise described as a faithful Baptist.

Context is everything. Although it is true that the Quran has passages that discuss the rules of engagement in case the community of faith is attacked. These  revelations to Muhammad arrive in a historical period of intense tribal warfare in which the infant Muslim community in Mecca finds itself in the midst of daily persecution(the revelations are similar to Christian Just War theory – fighting only to defend, forbidding violence against women, children and non-combatants – a sign that groups like Al Queda, the Taliban, ISIS and others are not considered faithful or traditional Muslims if they are even Muslims at all).

Even after Muhammad and his followers flee Mecca for Yathrib (later Medina), the tribes of Mecca sought to wipe them out once and for all. Somehow the Muslims survive several years of attacks and eventually win a decisive battle. When they march into Mecca as conquerors the expectation is that the men of Mecca will be killed, the women and children enslaved. Muhammad surprises everyone – everyone is to be spared and allowed to continue life as they choose. Only the over 300 idols in the central worship space, the Kaba, are destroyed. Islam sets a new standard for peaceful resolution of tribal disputes. More to the point, as Islam expands and becomes the largest empire in world history, peoples from Spain in the west to the Indus River in the east are allowed to maintain not only their own religious traditions, but can maintain their governing practices as well. No one is required to convert to Islam. Whereas it would be Christianity that would baptize by the sword as it circumnavigates the world.

As for the context of Jesus in Matthew – it is sometime in the decade after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Roman Empire (70 ce). And it is some 40 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Not to mention a decade after the epistle called Hebrews wrote, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) Jesus’ use of the image of a sword precedes his description of what faith in him can and does precipitate: tribes and families divide. In the case of first century Israel, the family of faith did in fact divide and go two separate ways after the destruction of the Temple: one part of the family became rabbinic Judaism, the other part of the family became the emerging church. In the context of Matthew’s gospel, this division is well under way. Those going the way of the church began a long history of Christian Supercessionism and anti-Semitism which it has only begun to address in the years after the Holocaust.

As historic figures like Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others have shown – often to live one’s life out of the Word of God is to challenge the current dominant paradigm or world-view. This, says Jesus, has consequences. On the only recorded incident of one of his disciples using a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus ordered his disciples to put them away. Jesus himself chooses not to lead an army, not to fight back against Herod and Pilate, but rather to launch a revolution of faith and ethical behavior. He wrote no books, commanded no army, and yet, in less than 300 years the movement he began displaced the Imperial religion of Rome with the Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the edict of Milan. Considered a triumph of Christianity, it also shifts the young church from offering an alternative world-view to that of the empire’s to suddenly become the empire. Luther, Calvin and others would be on the leading edge of critiquing what a problem this became. Only in recent decades is the church as a whole beginning to see the downside of having been the empire and seek a way back to the kind of religious movement Jesus led in first century Israel.

What I hear Jesus saying in Matthew 10:34 is that we all need to allow the Word of God to judge the intentions and thoughts of our hearts so that we might turn our hearts and be the people Jesus calls us to be. Amen.