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Friday, February 5, 2016

Kingdom Shalom: Preparation for Sunday School

A brief review for Sunday School:
The ministry of Jesus consisted of salvation manifest in Gospel Proclamation (Good News: the Kingdom of God is close), teaching (torah means instruction, Jesus is the Teacher of Truth), healing (mostly physical healing of humans , sometimes the earth--like storms), deliverance/exorcisms (from the demonic activities of the Enemy), and reconciliation (re-establishing right relationship through God's forgiveness and human repentance). Jesus is the Lamb (the sin offering for reconciliation) and the Great High Priest (morning prayer readings from Hebrews and John are important Biblical texts for understanding this). Jesus is (also in John) the One Sent (apostolos) by God; Jesus accomplishes His earthly mission now through us, His contemporary apostles sent in His Name, filled with His Holy Spirit.

God can clearly do what God wants--He is all powerful. God has done what He wanted, and as He is all wise, it seems fair to say that the creation in which we live is the best possible creation. God can do anything, but He has chosen to do this thing. We live in the world as created with a specific set of rules and we must figure out what that means. God is Trinity, three persons yet only one God. Humans have a trinitarian aspect as well. We are body, soul and spirit. One might say we can be viewed in terms of biology, psychology or spirituality. A human is a body. A human is a soul. A human is a spirit. Each realm occupies space and time in a unique way. Our biological self is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. Our psychological self includes reason, feeling, desiring and choosing. Our spiritual self is open to God, but at risk of the darkness of the demonic. We have lots going on!  So our ministry is best when it addresses all three. A good rule of thumb is salvation addresses the need in the appropriate manner for the totality of the human person. [Vitamins don't address sin, but they can help with physical and psychological problems! Being told "I love you" may make you feel good, but if you're bleeding a bandage may be more effective!]

We believe the world is "fallen" and so the original intent of creation has been modified dramatically. We were created to live in a more conducive environment; the Bible says we are aliens (alienated) in the world. Yet God has not deserted us. He continues to reveal Himself and save us. The role of human reason is to reflect on our experience and decipher what God speaks to us in and through our lived reality. This is called Natural Theology and is done (poorly or well) by anyone who thinks. From the vantage point of our "beliefs" we then engage the Scripture. We interpret what we read through the lenses of our beliefs, assumptions, expectations and it is influenced by our emotions. Our culture provides a framework which limits and contains us as well.  We are all involved in the process of interpreting the Revelation. What is God's intent for us?

The Jewish word, Shalom, is often translated as peace, but it's meaning is deeper

Shalom means much more than peace. Here is a short list to give you a fuller meaning of this wonderful Hebrew word: peace, wholeness, wellness, well-being, safe, happy, friendly, favor, completeness, to cause to be at peace, to make peace, peace offering, secure, to prosper, to be whole, to be victorious, contentment, tranquility, quiet, and rest. This word is also used is a general greeting or farewell. [http://poseysplace.com/shalom-hebrew-word-study/]

Jesus announces God's Kingdom is breaking into the (fallen) world. When God rules we will have shalom. God's Kingdom is breaking into the world primarily through the church. Shalom Peace includes freedom from the Kingdom of Darkness and its manifestation in body, soul and spirit as well as the world. Physical illness is not of God. However, mental/emotional issues may be even more devastating. We know that doubt, fear, unforgiveness, sin and Satan are all barriers to complete and speedy healing. We addressed this by beginning with our beliefs. Our minds, how we understand God, are the open door to the spiritual realm. Our theology dictates our response. This is why Jesus teaches so much. It is why we need to be good students. Our source, Revelation, may be limited to "Scripture" (and further limited by our designation of what that includes). It may be broader to include Tradition and Reason. Whatever it is, one must then engage it, praying for the Holy Spirit's guidance. If you believe God wants to inform you and you are open to the information, then you will probably receive. It's not infallible, you may misunderstand here and there, but life is a struggle! 

Healing troubled minds and hearts is a multi-layered work. Bringing Kingdom peace is never ended and accomplished this side of eternity. Today's peace can disintegrate into tomorrow's chaos and confusion. Some of us are more volatile than others, but all of us are a work in progress. The effort to create our own peace is a worthy endeavor, but there are times when it closes us off to God. Jesus upsets the apple cart, He draws us into a greater vision. Our temptation is to ask Him to bless what we are doing (or thinking, or feeling, or 'not') rather than conform our lives and do what He is blessing. This is the result of a fallen world and Original Sin. We have general principles (trust, love) but the particular application is not always clear (what is the faithfilled response here, what is the loving action there) or easy (know what to do but can't do it). The gap between what is and what we think 'should be' creates agitation. Biblical "chaos" dismembers the structuring we do to survive and thrive. Chaos is part of the Kingdom of Darkness. Order is part of God's creative and saving work. Peace is a fruit of godly order.

 One way to achieve peace of a sort is to stop caring. Apathy breeds a calm life. If nothing matters then whatever happens won't matter. It may be the apathy of a quitter, or the apathy of avoidance. Some philosophical systems (to some extent, Stoicism, Buddhism) are based on the goal of disaffection. It is "peace as an absence."  Another "peace of absence" is by embracing childish ways. The absence of responsibility frees one of worry and concern. It puts the stress on someone else. A "peace of absence" is better than turmoil, but its not the Kingdom peace of Jesus and the Bible, and it is not the peace of the Healing/Salvation ministry of God's holy church. In the Gospel of John (14:27) Jesus says, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." The absence peace is what the world offers.

In Christianity, there is a "peace of presence"--The Lord is in your life. The human condition (derived and dependent) is ultimately dismal if not grounded in the Creator/Savior. This is a goal of the healing ministry, to tap people into the life of God as poured out in Jesus and through Jesus' Body the church.

Biological peace is a function of healthy living. Obviously, good choices create a beneficial and supportive environment. Education is helpful here. Safety, nutrition, sleep, exercise, these are other practices enhance our physical abundance. Discipline is important. Healing is a corrective, but certainly the decision to respect the body and live in accord with optimal health is a good idea and pray for blessing is a recommended practice.

Psychological peace is multi-dimensional. 
1. Mind. God saves and heals the mind. Our thoughts and beliefs are incredibly significant. Positive, optimistic thinking is tied to longevity. Hope and trust bring life. Mercy brings health. Kindness brings joy. Pagan philosophers know that the good life is a fruit of being good. As the Bible says, "You reap what you sow." Lies and falsehood are of the Evil One. Bad theology destroys life. Heresy kills. Truth seeking and study are healthful. Beliefs are the seed. The Nazi death camps started with discussions. Minds are to be nurtured and filled with good ideas and holy thoughts. Teaching informally is a Christian role in salvation. Listening to people talk is as well. Listening (shema in Hebrew) is a learned skill. The therapeutic value of listening is it allows people to hear what they think, talking has a curative value intellectually and emotionally.
2. Heart. We use heart here to speak of the feeling person. As we said, speaking imparts stress relief to the soul. "I feel better" is a common refrain heard from people to counselors. Even if the problem looms just as large there is a healing from talking and being cared for. Paying someone to listen to you is a widespread practice, people must need it badly. The Christian vocation of Good News and salvation includes merely being a non-anxious presence for others, caring and listening. God heals the emotions, usually through simple acts of listening.
3. Desires and Will. Our wills are weakened by sin and our desires are disordered. We are born with disordered appetites. Will power (and "won't power") is rarely enough and most people desperately want things that are not good for them (broccoli or doughnut?). Wounded hearts and minds contribute to the problem. Abused children want the abusive parent! As we get older that insanity merely becomes more subtle. The motivation for the right things is a function of healthy self-love and the power to do the right things increases with that motivation. It also helps to be shaped by a positive peer environment. Hence the importance of church community. Shared values produce common desires, and teamwork sustains us. What I won't do for myself I may do for my brother or sister.
  
Spiritual Dimension
Prayers of healing and deliverance may be needed in each of the four realms. Minds trapped, emotions uncontrollable, addictive desires and sickened wills are not able on their own to find abundance. Literally, the Christian can and must, in faith and gratitude, pray for release. If the satanic infiltrates through the psychological so does the divine. The power of word and touch can be overlooked. The apostle's authority and power can and must be manifest in the physical and psychological realm. However, the spiritual is not an alternative therapy. If someone is thirsty you get them a glass of water. If their thirst is for human contact you sit with them. Rebuking thirst or loneliness and binding it up in Jesus' Name is more like witchcraft than faith. On the other hand, when the appropriate biological or psychological intervention is fruitless, then certainly we need to cast out evil and call down good. But the work of prayer is not meant to be in place of ordinary life. When people were hungry Jesus multiplied the loaves and fed them. He didn't exorcise.

One added dimension, the Believer can invoke sacramentality to every ordinary event. Jesus was thirsty at a well and used it as an opportunity to speak of the Living Waters. He used the multiplication of the loaves to teach on the Bread of Life. He used ordinary events like fishing, planting, harvesting and doing business to illustrate the Kingdom and provide insights into God's ways. The work of salvation comes from taking the ordinary (mother bird) and using it to proclaim God (love of Jesus for His children). However, to do this one must have a heart open all day to see God in and through the world around us, an ear open to hear the revelation in Word and Spirit. The one who finds God everywhere (not projects God but finds God) encounters the source of Peace. Peace flows from the relationship of creature and Creator. Peace is a fruit of the life in Christ. Not the world's peace, but Jesus Peace. At least the start! The healing/saving ministry of each of us is not usually going to be miraculous or extraordinary. It will be the mundane life of a human being filled with God's love and life, going about the daily tasks, filling them (or being filled in them) with the Holy Spirit. It happens because you want it to, and God wants it to more!
 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Beatitudes

Praying with a dear friend the other day over Scripture. We prayed over Scripture and the verse was from Matthew. Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God.

We talked about how we used to think the Beatitudes were like new rules. The human need for order and structure is a healthy thing. Out world can be chaotic, both the outer world and inner world of our thoughts and desires. Genesis 1 seems to imply that ordering was a primary work of the Creator. However, like all good things, ordering and structure for safety can become an obsession. "Rules for the Road" so we can navigate the journey of life are helpful instructions and insights. "Hard and Fast Laws on the Way" are not. The "Law obsession" impulse was something Jesus was not a friend of. Law, He knew, can as easily crush us as build us.

The Beatitudes make lousy laws. Meek, Poor, Persecuted--how does one legally embrace such a role? Looking for the proverbial "passing grade" we decide how to meet the minimum criteria to be counted as one of the saved. And because we don't always pay close enough attention to what we read in the Bible, we don't notice just how many beatitudes it contains. I found 13 in the Psalms alone.

"Blessed" or "Happy" are the typical translation of esher.
Psalm and verse
1:1 "Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked"
2:13 "Happy are they all who take refuge in Him"
32:1,2 "Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes not guilt"
33:12 "Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord
34:8 "Taste and see the Lord is good...happy are they that trust in Him"
40:4 "Happy are they who trust in the Lord (they do not resort to evil spirits or turn to false gods)
65:4 "Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there"
84:3-4 "Happy are they who dwell in your house they will always be praising you. Happy are the people whose strength is in you"
89:15 "Happy are the people who know the festal shout! they walk, Oh Lord, in your presence."
94:12 "Happy are they whom you instruct, Oh Lord"
112:1 "Happy are they who fear the Lord and have great delight in his commandments"
119:1 "Happy are they who fear the Lord"

It gives us a better feel for what a beatitude really is. If you trust God you are happy/blessed because God is faithful. Not a law as much as a declaration of fact. Those who trust God are in His care. When Jesus says the beatitudes in Matthew, it is likely a collection of things He said in various places. Matthew's sermon on the mount is more like a model of His teaching than an actual transcript from a particular day. In fact, many of the Beatitudes are found in the Jewish Bible.

So what of poor in spirit? I think it means, a great deal of deep and amazing things. From a bloggers short version of writing, I think it means that those who know their poverty, those who face the truth of their limits and needs, those who turn to God are blessed. The poor are blessed because they need God and know it. The poor in spirit are blessed because they need God and know it. Those who know they need God and trust themselves to Him are blessed, because He is faithful. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, is being very Jewish in His teaching here. It is not a new law or rule--it is just a declaration of how things are. People in right relationship are in a good place. They are blessed and happy. Even in the midst of unhappy circumstances.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Jacob Israel

I was struck today as I prepared this lesson on Jacob and Israel, that the title of this blog is "Journey in Faith." Journey is certainly what "Exodus" is all about, but the entire story of this people is a travel narrative.  The Abraham epic is a 'New Beginning' (third creation: 1st Adam/Eve, 2nd Noah, 3rd Abraham and his descendants) centered on "Promise." Most of the various stories circled around the Promise of God--which included children (like the stars) and land. The simple, ancient narratives return to the theme over and again, with different explanations for the name Isaac (laughter). It provided numerous examples of threats on the promise but God's ability to make it all work out.

Isaac, an exception, is a brief transition figure---there is little action or movement in his life which is briefly described. The rabbinic traditions are interesting. Recall, the oral tradition was considered part of God's revelation on Sinai! (Friedman thinks that because Isaac was laid on the altar his life was consecrated.) Isaac has two sons, who come out of the womb struggling. Esau (Edom- red clay, the nation) the ruddy hair one and Jacob the tent dweller and trickster (Gen 27:12). Immediately after their births they are grown men and Jacob asks for famished Esau's birthright in exchange for a bowl of "red stuff" (a stew). In a famine, Isaac is commanded to stay in the land and he is promised, as Abraham was prior, that his seed with be multiplied and be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. The Jews, today, are the most persecuted people on earth. Their history is constant persecution. The "Blessing People" seem to be cursed, it seems. One is reminded of the mystery of the cross when one sees Jesus, when one sees Israel, and it gives pause.

The great deceit, old blind Isaac blessing the wrong son, is instigated, aided and abetted by Rebekah. Jacob verbalizes his fear that his father find out and curse, not bless him, and Jacob's mother utters the words, "Let your curse be on me, my son." We moderns often overlook the reality of blessings and curses, the spiritual power in reality. Isaac gives the blessing but upon learning the truth he "trembles, a very big trembling" and Esau "cried, a very big and bitter cry" (27:33,34) The blessing and birthright procured, Jacob is at risk from his brother, so Rebekah induces Isaac to send him away to find a suitable wife.

Jacob leaves and in a desert place dreams of a ladder to heaven with ascending and descending angels. This is his theophany, and God promises him (and his seed) the land. "I am with you and I'll watch over you," declares the YHWH. Jacob wakens in terror and realizes God had been there, undetected, in the place. In response he makes a conditional covenant: IF God is with me, gives me what I need, and brings me back in peace, THEN YHWH will be his God. And of everything God gives him he promises a tithe. He calls the place Beth-el. We see the character of the man in his approach, more about striking a deal than gratitude.

God's presence is manifest quickly as Jacob encounters his kinswoman Rachel who takes him to Laban (his mother's brother). Jacob loves Rachel and works for the right to marry her and is deceived by Laban and given Leah instead. The text does not say it, but one is inclined to think that Jacob is reaping what he sows: deception. The two girls are rivals and each provides Jacob with sons. Their servant girls do as well. Ironically, Leah, the unfavored wife, provides Levi (and the priesthood) and Judah (the monarchy). In the ensuing narrative Joseph, Rebekah's son, has pride of place, but later, in the books of Samuel and Kings, Judah emerges as key. In Genesis 30 Jacob is bartered away by Rachel to Leah for some mandrakes. It seems fair to think this echoes Esau and his 'red stuff - stew' and the master manipulator is now a bargaining chip for his wives. In addition, his father in law continues to seek to undermine him in the breeding of flocks. We see God blessing Jacob who (based on "ancient genetics"-what sheep see when breeding impacts what offspring looks like). Then the time comes to leave and return home. God tells Jacob to go and God warns Laban not to harm him when the angry father comes in search of his daughters and his idol.

Jacob's return is riddled with anxiety. What response from Esau? As he sleeps at night he is visited by "a man" with whom he wrestles. Jacob proves a match and demands a blessing. From the womb he has wrangled and it is always about blessings. As in the beginning of his sojourn, so here as he stands prepared to return home Jacob's night time experience is a revelation; "I have seen God face to face and lived." However, Jacob is wounded as well, on the inside of the thigh. Soon after Esau arrives, full of generous hospitality. Jacob tells him that seeing Esau is like seeing God's face (note repetition of the theme) and Esau responds "Take my blessing that's been brought to you because God has been gracious to me." The untold stories of the Bible include the hand of God on the "other" seed of Abraham. If the story focuses on Israel, God was able to extend His hand of love and care beyond that nation. The untold stories are for God to know and us to ponder.

The travails of the favored son, Joseph, are perhaps the most noteworthy turn about for the Trickster. Joseph is the dreamer (and interpreter) who has the temerity to share his visions with his siblings. The prophetic quality of the dream--it reveals God's plan--makes it no less offensive. Perhaps Joseph is arrogant or maybe it is jealousy on his brothers' part. At any rate, another display of the "Biblical Model of the family"! Joseph has a special coat (the Hebrew word pas is from the root pasas which means to disappear. some think it means a long sleeve. It is noteworthy that Tamar, the daughter of David raped by her half brother Amnon, is the only other person with such a tunic in the Bible. Like Joseph her cloak is torn and she is ill treated by her brother). The brothers plan to kill him is thwarted by Reuben and Judah, and instead he is sold to a Ishmaelite caravan and to Midianite people (tribes descended from Abraham! Hagar and Keturah are the mothers). Chapters 38&39 contrast Judah (went down) and Joseph (was brought down). Tamar (his daughter-in-law) lays the evidence before him (same verb as used of brothers' laying Joseph's coat before Jacob) and gives birth by him to Perez and Zerah, who have a strange birthing. The following chapters trace the roller coaster ride of Joseph in Egypt. He is faithful in his master's home when his mistress would seduce him (note the language in 39:12 is the same as the young man in the Garden with Jesus at His arrest). Jailed for a time, he rises to a role of leadership again, and interprets dreams, only to be forgotten. When the Pharaoh has a dream no one can discern, Joseph is summoned and supplies the interpretation. In reward he is put "over my house" by Pharaoh. seven years of plenty are stored and in seven years of lack the Egyptian Ruler becomes very rich under Joseph's mastery--or as we know better, the guidance of God.


The long, drawn out interactions with the sons of Israel and their brother do allude to their guilt (42:21). Joseph weeps several times and the negotiations over Benjamin and Jacob create much tension. The trial they endure seems to balance out the trials of Joseph, there is a sense of retribution in all this. God speaks to Jacob in a vision at Beer-sheba (46:3-4) where He promises to make Israel a great nation and to take His people out of Egypt. And Israel is fruitful and multiplies (see beginning of Genesis) and the old man, blessing the sons of Joseph, crosses his arms. Once again, the "wrong" son is the one who receives the blessing, the younger to serve the older. The book ends with Jacob's blessing of each son and his death. The funeral of Jacob concludes and at the book's end Joseph himself dies at 110. The ages of the Patriarchs are reflective of reality.

One thing to note as we conclude Genesis, unlike the literature of their neighbors, the Jews have heroes with human frailties and foibles. The Bible portraits paint a picture warts and all.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Homily 4 Epiphany

Jeremiah 4:1-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Psalm 71:1-6

Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet. The first reading may be helpful for us in our reluctance to be faithful in our vocation.
1. Jeremiah is called and consecrated. To be consecrated is to be set apart by God and made holy. It is what God did with the Sabbath at creation, what He did with Israel (first people, then priests). It is also what the Lord did with you at your baptism. We were called by Jesus and set apart from the world as disciples who follow and apostles who are sent out! Yet we feel ordinary, not up to the challenge. Do you trust God--believe He set you apart, sanctified you and made you holy?
2. Jeremiah's excuse was that he was too young. Perhaps we feel too unprepared? Moses said he couldn't talk well. We all have reasons why we are not up to the task. Some of us have lots of reasons! The problem with excuses, however, is it focuses in the wrong direction. It looks in the mirror at "Me." "I can't, " we say. God answers, "I am with you to deliver you, don't be afraid." We need to stop looking in the mirror and turn and look to the Lord. Your choice: will I trust God, or will I walk away and center on myself?

But trust is only part of the equation. Love is what matters most. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is not about marriage, its about church. These are prophetic words. Love, he says, must be at the center of our religious practice. Miracles and revelations, spiritual gifts and even self-sacrifice are empty without love. Paul has taken the Corinthians to task throughout the letter; now he reiterates those things (puffed up, combative, self centered, uncaring) as unloving. Like Jeremiah, Paul says, "It is time to grow up and become spiritual adults." Like Jeremiah Paul tears down and builds up.

The Jesus we encounter is an adult. He is welcomed home to His childhood synagogue. He reads from Isaiah and announces that the day of fulfillment is at hand! But the enthusiasm of the people quickly turns to hostility when they learn that God's Kingdom is intended to include outcasts and foreigners. Jesus too will tear down mistaken expectations and destroy selfish concerns. Yet He promises to build up the poor and needy. The Kingdom of God brings judgment. It rescues those who love and trust God, but it is harsh for those who reject His ways.

Our purpose is to be spiritual adults. Children sit around generating excuses based on limitations. Adults trust that God is with us. Our faith is active and obedient. It is also, at its core, filled with love. Real love, godly love, is a love which extends to those outside the borders of our petty politics and personal ambition. Real love, prophetic love, speaks the truth, boldly and honestly. Prophetic love tears down and destroys what is not of God, and it builds up and plants the Kingdom. Too long we have been satisfied with excuses which allow others to take care of the mission of the church. Today, God calls you. He calls you to be holy. He calls you to trust He is with you. He calls you to the ministry of Jesus. As a parish, each day we can Jesus and do the work He has authorized and empowered us to do: proclaim the Kingdom with heal, cast out demons, teach and reconcile. That is what grown ups do. That is the life we are called to live.

prior to preaching this morning I sort of had an image bubble up in my mind. I saw a picture of the responders (cops, fireman, warriors)--the people who go "in the wrong direction". When there is trouble and we flee, they go toward the trouble. I just feel that the "adult" apostolic ministry Jesus calls us to is like that. When evil is at its worst we are called to take a stand, to march into battle not run away. Jesus calls us to bring Gospel deliverance. I think it is the Life in the Spirit! 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Genesis 12, Exodus, Old Age

The preferred approach to Scripture for most people I know is "history as gossip." The idea of history as gossip is not my own, I read it in an article in college almost forty years ago. However, the concept is difficult to grasp. Gossip is interesting details about other people's lives. Some people are addicted to it. We like to get the inside scoop. It is apparently widespread and the practitioners include some of the sweetest people you know. Gossip is not always vicious. It is just based on curiosity and, like trivia, is not something which matters to our personal lives. Gossip is "the inside scoop" but it is not wisdom, it does not address the heart, and so it is not life-changing.

Reading the Bible in English means we are already locked out of much that the Hebrew text intends to convey. Reading it today means that we are at a distance of time and culture. God speaks to us through the word, but sometimes His speech is not heard because we have the wrong set of assumptions. We do not hear what He is saying, we hear what we decide to hear.

In class we looked at Genesis 12:1
YHWH said to Abram "Go, from your land, and from your birth place and from your father's house to the land that I will show you."

The ancient Jews who wrote this text (which had a long life in oral tradition prior) were probably in the courts of the King. It is such a setting where the materials for extensive writing was available. The audience of these words (or very soon there after) were those in exile following the fall of Jerusalem. we can surmise this because the book of Kings ends with the Exile! So if we think of that group, what would the stories of Abram (and God's promises to Abram) sound like?

They were people who had seen the destruction of the Temple and lost their land. They were bereft, so how would the words sound in their ears. I suggest one possibility. In exile, they were a people who taken to another place ("from your land"). They were far removed  from home ("from your birthplace") and the Temple ("from your Father's house"). The lost promise land was felt by them as the greatest tragedy ever. Americans move around. Not a single one of the 25 people in my class was born in this city. We are used to moving. Most of us cannot understand how "place" and "identity" are so strongly connected in the ancient mind and heart. Yet, how would they see and feel when they ponder this word to Abram, can it open new venues for understanding their experience? What was God's Word to people in exile who saw their own experience echoed in these words of promise? What did "a land that I will show you" mean to them then?

Another thing to keep in mind is the interpenetration of the Biblical narratives. Abraham is the father of Israel, therefore, like other patriarchs, his life is informative of the nation's life. The Hebrew slaves had been in Egypt for some time. It was the place of their birth, their fathers and their homes. They also were called by God (through Moses) to leave and go to an unknown place. However, they murmur and do not trust God. They perish. Abraham trusts God and obeys. Therein lies the difference. We see obedience is the better option. The ancient Jew has a model of obedience to contrast with the nation's covenant infidelity and the resultant exile. God's word speak of His promise fulfilled for those who keep in His ways. It opens a door of hope for the exiled Jew, that if Israel returns to the Lord (as Jeremiah and other prophets proclaimed) then God will bless His people. That then is the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, latter Isaiah and others.

The contemporary readers, aware of the original audience's experience, can then begin to integrate the text as a current day message to the church and to the individual. What then does God say to "me" in Abraham's story? Many in my church are at a point in life of loss. They have buried many family and friends. Robust bodies and sharp minds are losing strength, stamina and function. The person "I was" is more a distant memory and the person "I am" seems to be a foreigner, or an unwelcome prison of sorts. It is easy to see old age as exile. Cut off from family and homeland. Cut off. Cut off emotionally. Can the "bad news" of this existential "exile" be seen with a different lense? I think the words still ring true.

"Leave behind your young self, your power and energy and place. Leave behind your identity. Leave it behind and go to a place where I will show you." That place--God's Kingdom--is the promise. It is the eternal promised land. The place where abundance and blessing will be the daily fare. The place where God has promised to take us. But, like Abraham, we may find the journey long and arduous, filled with missteps and threats. Like Israel, we may find our infidelities and sins, our bad choices, cut us off from the Promise Maker and Promise Keeper. However, like Abraham and repentant Israel we can trust. We can say, "I believe in the unseen land, because I know God's word is true and God is faithful." We can hear this word, whatever our circumstance, as an ancient word and a word to our hearts. Not gossip, but Gospel!

 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Abraham

Had a retreat Tuesday led by a rabbi. She did a good job. She used Numbers and the desert as the model for the spiritual life. I loved the Hebrew... She said the root word for desert and word are the same (mebar and dabar). Only in Hebrew does this happen. SO the desert/wilderness in its emptiness is the place where Israel hears God speak and also where they learn to speak in response. Americans do not see language the way the ancient Jews do. Our Bible is a translation, devoid of the most important part of the communication! We are kept out of more deeply hearing revelation because we cannot hear it as spoken. I have shared before that commentaries constantly speak of the puns and connected roots of the Jewish Scriptures. The letters are sacred to them. The words are holy to them. The assumption that there is a deeper meaning in the words goes far beyond the idea of imagery or symbol or metaphor (we have that in English). Instead, because the Hebrew text is just a series of consonants, the words have (literally) more potential within them. Sadly, I cannot read Hebrew, I'm not good at language and at my age and with my schedule, such study is beyond me. So I must peer over the shoulders of others and listen in on their conversations to catch a glimpse of the wealth that is there. The Bible is more awesome to me, because the digging to find deeper meanings is not simply an act of creativity on the readers part. It is the power of Hebrew and no doubt connected to God's purpose in revelation.

So? What this means is the importance of the text is less about what happened than it is with what is being said. In other words, it is literature, and the message, in this case a message with many layers of meaning, is the point. Does "what happened" matter? Yes, but only a fool thinks the meaning of an event is found in data and facts. The meaning of any communication is always always always more than that!

So the stories of Abraham contain so many deeper meanings that we need the help of a Hebrew scholar to find. And a brief overview of the texts cannot supply such a thing. As much as the individual words and letters (micro level) are full to fullness with God's self revelation, we cannot go there here. However, at the macro level (story) there is still much to be gleaned. We notice that the chapters read more like a collection of stories about the same sorts of thing. The main theme is God's promises to Abram. In ancient literature, the people saw themselves in "the father" (Jacob is called 'Israel', Essau is 'Edom', other tribes/nations are derived from a single person) and it is common for the literature to reflect the children's experience in the father's story.

Abram is told to go to a place unknown, leaving all behind. This is a type of the Exodus. Abram goes and never complain, his faith/trust are secure. His nation is less inclined to trust and like to murmur! So Abram is a model of right response! He also goes to Egypt where Pharaoh causes him trouble, but God intervenes and Abram leaves a wealthy man. Mention of the plagues and Abram leaving with great wealth provide another foreshadowing of coming events. One foil of Abraham is his nephew Lot. In parallel stories about "hospitality" divine guests arrive to see both men. Abraham prepares a huge feast while Lot is less generous. In the first case Abraham argues to spare the city, while in the second case the gross behavior of the inhabitants brings down that judgment. Once again, there are bridge words and parallel images which imply the stories are meant to be read together (to compare and contrast). Abraham's intimacy with God is certainly offered as a model as well. Threats to the promise include the story of Isaac's near-sacrifice. The parallels in language to the Jesus story are an entire lesson in itself, and the location of the event is of surprise significance!

While Isaac is a patriarch, his truncated story is a reminder that the Biblical Author (Divine and human) are not providing us an in-depth history. The stories serve another purpose, so pay close attention. The quick transition to Jacob, the trickster, introduces an more involved and broader narrative which concludes with Joseph. Echoed in the text we hear an ancient voice which leads us to think that in some times and places Joseph was viewed much like David will come to be viewed.

As we read through Genesis in preparing to study Exodus, the reader is invited to ask, "What did this story mean to the ancient Jews who told it?" "What did it mean to those in exile, their temple in ruins, their king throne-less and their land far away in the hands of others?" "How do these words shine meaning on the Savior Jesus?" "What am I called to be, to do, how am I to pray and believe, in light of all this?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Myth vs. Mythic

We continue, more slowly than I'd like, to review Genesis in preparation for the Exodus study. It is slow going because Genesis is worthy of extensive study and is full of so many wonderful stories. This week we actually covered more chapters, but a few questions came up which generated much discussion.

The first thing I have seen, over and again, is the reluctance of Christians who take the Bible seriously, to take the Bible seriously. It's no surprise when those who think that the sacred text is simply the production of ancient men give it little credence. After all, their "progressive" agendas are set so if the Bible doesn't agree, too bad for the Bible. However, more conservative folks, especially those who are Literalists, are equally likely to ignore the word as written because of their preconceptions and theologies. Most of us are unable to read the Bible because we "already know what it says." As a catholic, I firmly believe that my personal interpretation must be informed by the  Church. However, I do think there is value in actually reading a story to see what it says.

The inspired word of God is a work of God in and through human authors. The Jews believed that  revelation was buried deep within the text, often times in the particular letters and roots of the Hebrew words. In addition, the audience heard these stories (orally) for many years before they were set to writing. The stories were told in that context. So creation stories were NOT heard or read with modern earth science or biology books in mind. They were read with the prevalent myths of neighboring cultures (Egypt, Persia, Canaanite, etc.). The ancient Jews were ancient. However, their stories are not the mythologies we find in other cultures. There is a reluctance in Genesis (with few exceptions) to speak of heavenly realities or provide grandiose stories of gods at war. Yet, the absence of myth does not mean that we have Modern science or Modern history. (In all honesty, the fact that we can say "Modern History" should make this a non-discussion.)

Cain and Abel, for example, is a well known story about fratricide (ahhhh, Biblical Family values). Adam and eve have two sons. Abel, the Shepherd, pleases God with his offering. Cain, the farmer, does not. Cain kills his brother. We have no explanation for anything that happens. Most of what we know about the story comes from interpretations. "Why?" is not found in the story, it is found in us. That is the nature of mythic writing, it is open ended and taps into universal themes of humanity. Rejection, jealousy, anger, murder--these are all part of every person's story so when we find them here we readily make sense of them. However, the story itself is where God reveals Himself. What is the revelation? I would be less than honest if I didn't say there is so much more to the text, but one thing is clear. Cain, the murderer, is not only spared by God but he is marked and protected by God. Marked. Protected. A murderer. The revelation of amazing grace (similar to His treatment of the first parents) is arguably the point. That is what God says. How do we respond? well, we ask, "where did the other people Cain fears come from?" Here, the scoffer and the believer share the same error. The scoffer mocks the faith while the believer seeks to protect it. In both cases the story is missed.

My take on it? The Cain and Abel story is about sin, exile and redemption. It isn't an explanation of the population of the earth. The other people in the story are not explained because they aren't the point. Elaborate explanations generated by (well meaning) believers are off the point. God is not telling us how we got here, He is revealing Who He is. So listen to what He is saying (first) and spend more time with the message than you do making up theories to counteract the findings of science.

In the Noah story we here the stunning claim that God repented/regretted making man. This is a wonderful story, but it is theologically problematic. Most of us believe God knows the future. God knows everything. How can the God who knows everything regret anything? Once again, it is a mythic story. The Jewish Bible Flood is remarkably different from the myths of floods told by their neighbors. The story is more mundane and the reason (sin and corruption) more moral than the irritation of the gods. The point of the story? Based on language and themes, it is a do over. Noah is a second Adam. The story is taken up in the New Testament (1 Peter) as a type of baptism. I will end with that. The interpretation of the ark as salvation through baptism illustrates the the literal meaning is not always the most important. It is the nature of a mythic story to be bigger than itself. It is more true, not less true, than history. The quicker we embrace the Bible in its ancient form and free ourselves of the limitations of "The Modern" to faster we will hear our God speaking to us.