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Friday, January 31, 2014

One Way

I am burying another dear friend today. He died and has now entered into whatever comes next. Speculation aside, we don't know. We trust it to God.

The Gospel is controversial. It is John 14:1-6, which is probably one of the more popular texts. I know it is controversial because it centers on Jesus being the way. When President Ford died he was buried with an Episcopal. This was the Gospel that was used. Well, sort of... At the reading of the Gospel it ended one verse early. No one heard Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except Me.'

No one? Surely there are lots of good people who have never heard of Jesus who are worthy of heaven, right? That sort of thinking do doubt motivated the decision to cut out the verse. (I assume) It is in the lectionary so it should be read.

Is Jesus the only way? Certainly that is a key theme of the New Testament. And certainly there are specific statements that make it seem undeniable. Of course, a close reading of the entire Book provides us with some reason to think that the net may be wider (when Jesus talks about the Judgement of the Gentiles/Nations in Matthew, for example, He indicates that how they treated the poor, thirsty, hungry, etc. is the criteria). My opinion is that God does not need our input on who is in and who is out. I do grow weary of the "I-am-saved-because-I-know-Jesus-and-you-are-going-to-hell" crowd. There are times when I think that they need to hear the incongruity of constantly harping on Jesus' love and Jesus' willingness to burn people eternally who never heard of Him.

However, the universalist who ignores Jesus (especially Bishops and priests!) also frustrate me. Those who say "Jesus is my way" and ignore His words are phonies. They pretend that Jesus is a personal magic charm and not The Lord.... But no sense going on a rampage, I will leave it at that.

SO what do I think the words mean?
Jesus IS God incarnate, the Word made flesh.
Jesus is the Anointed King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Jesus is the creator, redeemer and purpose of all things, because Jesus is the Image of the Invisible God.

None of that is my own creative thought, it all comes from the Scriptures.
Now the Scriptures may not be true. If so Jesus is not Who I believe He is. But the Scriptures make it clear Who Jesus is. So I believe.

Because Jesus is God, because He is One with the Father it is logical to say "no one can come to the Father without Jesus." How could they? He is the only bridge over the gap between Creator and created, Heaven and Earth.

What about all those people with different religions? Well, the Creator/Creative Word permeates all creation. Jesus comes anonymously in some quarters. This is an ancient idea, dating back to the church father Justin Martyr (guess why he died?) Justin was one of the earliest apologists and a man of philosophical training who came to Christ in the time span of 100-150. He said Jesus is everywhere. He said Jesus is finding a way to save all He can. (God's will is that all be saved after all)

So, I know already what others will find out. I know now what the non-Christian will discover after life ends. Jesus is The Way, The Truth and the Life. But I think they will realize that when they see Him. I think they will have an "ah ha" moment where everything comes clear. "O, it was YOU after all," they will say to Him, as they ponder their own journey of faith.

And to those who say if you do not know Jesus then you cannot go to heaven; a word of caution; no one really knows Jesus. We all, even devout followers, tend to recreate Him according to our own desires. All of us have much to learn about Jesus (even if we already know much). So be careful about drawing lines, you may be on the wrong side.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


In Genesis 16-17 we continue the Abraham story. It picks up where yesterday left off. Abram's second "wife" (Hagar) gives birth to a son (Ishmael: God hears). What has God heard? Abram is the one who names he boy, perhaps he thinks God has heard Abram/Sarai's cry for a child. God will hear Hagar pray (in a later story, perhaps another version of this one, she calls out as she is dying of thirst). God has heard the noise of the earth and its inhabitants. God will hear Israel, so He tells Moses. The core of the naming is the God who hears, even when we feel/think that we are screaming into the darkness. [note the same root is present in Samu-el which is also a play on God hears, in that case a weeping, barren mother] Of course the atheist mocks such a thing, there is no God and if there is He does not hear. It is weird, he says, to pray, it is little more than talking to yourself. Yet here is the testimony: God hears!

What follows then is a repetitive declaration by God that he will make Abraham (the name change happens here) a father of many nations. The word covenant occurs ten times, twice with the addition of everlasting. The covenant is between God and Abraham, and by extension, God and Abraham's descendents. There is a demand "walk with Me" and "be spotless" to initiate the covenant.
The Hebrew tamem literally means complete, whole. entire, sound, innocent. It is frequently translated as without blemish. It occurs some 90 times in the Bible (almost half in Leviticus and Numbers where it modifies the sacrifice of lamb or ox). It is first used of Noah, then here of Abraham. Often translated as perfect, if we keep in mind the idea of complete and entire, we are less likely to overemphasize the idea of moral perfection. The idea that what is given to God in sacrifice is "perfect" finds its parallel in our own "perfection." The sacrificial life is given to God, wholly (and holy!).
[you can see more at this site: ]

 The covenant is sealed with circumcision. I can see where this is also weird to some folks. Why cut off the foreskin? In fact West Semitic people and Egyptian priests also followed this practice. Perhaps it is associated with fertility? Certainly it is an intimate act and something which one carries in his own flesh. The ritual cutting of animals may be in the background here as well. Obviously, the Jewish practice of circumcision is a co-opting of a previous pagan ritual. [something for those who denigrate the church doing it to keep in mind] God promises, again and again, to be the God of this people. Concluding with a clever pun that those who are not circumcised will be cut off from the people. The Hebrew Bible delights in such turn of phrase!

The concreteness of religious practice reflects the concreteness of life. Some find it strange that we do whatever we do. The critique "it is weird" seems at first blush to be fair. But in reality, what isn't weird? What cannot be mocked? What cannot be described semi-accurately in a way to make it sound silly?

For Abraham these words of God were trustworthy. He did, in fact, father many nations. And to this day his descendents populate the earth and name themselves as his children (Muslim and Christian as well as Jews). We can learn from his example and from his failures. He was not perfect, but he seems to have been a complete man of God. In the end, that is our call as well!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On Getting Your Own Way and Hagar

Genesis 16 came up at Morning Prayer today. It is the famous story of Sarai and Abram (before the name change) trying to take things into their own hands. God's promise in Genesis 12 (I will make of you a great nation) has been under constant assault in the narrative. Abram and Sarai go to Egypt where the 75 year and his wife (she was ten years younger) encounter Pharaoh whose 'desire' for the beautiful Sarai leads him to ask Abram for her. Abram is afraid so he tells Pharaoh "yes" saying Sarai is his sister (technically she is a close relative and the term 'sister' was applied to woman relatives; also in ancient Hurrian culture a wife could be "adopted" as a sister and raised to the higher status of the level  of sister. [this would be one of those historical CONTEXT things that we would never know without commentaries] When Paraoh takes her as a wife all manner of good things happen to Abram but sever plagues strike Pharaoh. Eventually, Pharaoh summons Abram and asks, "How could you have done this to me?" He sends the enriched Abram on his way.

God continues to promise Abram progeny. The birth of Ishmael appears to be the means. Sarai says to Abram that God has kept her barren, so she offers her slave girl (Hagar from Egypt). Abram does what his wife asks and impregnates the young woman. The result is the slave views the wife "lightly" (heavy and light are related to respect. The glory of God is a heaviness--it is substantial) and Sarai turns on Abram and blames him. The humanity of the text provides a poignant reminder that people ask for something then get mad when they get it. It happens all the time, and sometimes the more energetically we ask the more wretched we feel when we get it. Abram turns the slave girl over to his wife, who maltreats the girl. Interestingly, the term used is the same term used to describe Pharaoh abusing the Israelites in Egypt. Like Hagar, Israel flees, and like Hagar, they flee into the wilderness. There can be little doubt that the stories of Abraham are echoing (typologically) the Exodus story. Perhaps one is to see a causal relationship?

Hagar appears to be headed home to Egypt when the Lord's angel visits her and asks her where she is gong. He promises her descendents will be too many to count and that she should return to endure her mistress' mistreatment. In our age, where we pride ourselves on not putting up with abuse, it is hard to reckon how this makes sense. And in our age where children are considered a burden and large families are frowned upon the promise of a multitude of descendents may be unappealing. To me it is interesting theologically because we have an Egyptian woman receiving a promise with features in common with Abraham. I am no universalist, but I do think the Bible frequently leaves hints that God is at work, and He is at work far more broadly then some of us are inclined to think.

It is good to remember that what we want is not always what we want (like Sarai)
It is good to remember that when we do what people ask us to do it may make them mad (like Abraham)
It is good to remember that God has a plan and sometimes it requires that we suffer (like Hagar)
It is good to remember that the stories of God are interwoven and connected and we need to open our eyes to see His hand at work in the myriad subtle ways He works among us.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

We Are All in This Together

Revised Common lectionary text for the third Sunday after Epiphany can be found here:
“A people in darkness has seen a great light!”
With these thunderous words Isaiah announces a hopeful message of deliverance. Set in a time of threat, the reference appears to be the birth of a prince or the coronation ceremony. The geopolitical reference to Galilee is clearer; this was where the Assyrian invasion stalled; consuming Israel, but sparing, by God’s grace, Judah.
However, the contemporary promise of Messianic deliverance included a reference to the last days. It is probable that both dimension, near and distant future are woven into the prophet’s message.
The first Christians recognized Jesus as Messiah. So Mt reports that when Jesus walked the dusty roads of Nazareth, this was Isaiah’s light shining on the people of Galilee. (Thanks be to God!)
Jesus, however, turns out to be a different kind of king. He was not a Davidic warrior come to deliver His nation with sword and spear. God knows that “the darkness and gloom” of geopolitics is not the biggest problem. The horror of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Rome; of Nazi and Communist yesterday, or radical Islam today are a manifestation of the spiritual darkness which encompasses us all.
Jesus is the Light of the World, the true light which fills our darkness. This darkness permeates every human, good and bad. In Jesus God reaches to humanity. Jesus is God’s promise, delivered and fulfilled, that no one is forgotten or abandoned.
In Matthew we learn that salvation has an ecclesiastical dimension. The disciple is called to be with Jesus. Discipleship is companionship. It is also school. Disciples are students who learn about God from Jesus. But it is head and heart knowledge—information and skill. Disciples become like the Master through the difficult formation process of life together in the church.
The curriculum is God Himself. He conveys His very Divine self in word and sacrament to be with His people and to act through His people.  The Bible is our text book, but the learning process includes lectures (Tradition) which explain and practicums which apply the word to life.
Paul is concerned about the church which began the day that Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John. The church had expanded to Corinth and its divisions are the same we see today. Self-important individuals intoxicated by our beliefs, like Assyria or Babylon, we, too, would oppress the people of God and conform them to our way of thinking.
It seems easy to assign Peter to the “Catholic” (institutional and hierarchical), Paul to the “Protestant” (“Letter to the Romans”) and, more of a stretch, Apollos, the philosopher,” to the Liberal/Modernist church of the Rationalist. And in every age you have those who claim they have Jesus (“the only ones who got it right, ever.”)
No doubt our strongly held beliefs are important and worth debating, but Paul reminds us that it is the heart and mind of Christ which is central. All of us, whether, Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Non-denominational must follow Jesus. IF I am coming to Jesus and if you are coming to Jesus THEN we all end up together (with Jesus).
That is the scandal of church division, schism in Greek. The Body of Christ is ONE. Our divisions contradict our witness. Christ is not carved up into pieces like a dismembered corpse!
So how does one acquire the heart and mind of Christ? It is a gift, graciously given: we are too dark to be our own light. We must ask the Father, however, we know that the gift is received by those who commune with Jesus. The mind of Christ comes from hearing Him speak in Bible and in the church. The heart of Christ comes from loving others more than self. It comes from CROSS SHAPED service to the poor and needy (however those terms are defined in particular situations).
One cannot be in community alone. Jesus called discipleS (plural) to be with Him. It is neither a private nor individual adventure. It encompasses every Christian in the whole world. In this local parish, for whatever reason, you and I are yoked together in this process. To walk as one in the light who is Jesus; and to be light to those in darkness. It is a gift, it is a vocation

Friday, January 24, 2014


I will continue to look at Genesis 11.
The Tower of Babel is interesting to me on many levels. It seems that the ‘Babel’ is connected to Babylon. The Babylonians were famous for building ziggurats (from the Akkadian word zaqaru which means “to build high”). In ancient religions, mountains were seen as places to encounter gods. The Jews were no different (think of Moses and Elijah for two examples). I remember being on a mountain in Spain and sitting on the side overlooking a city below. I recall how “loud” the silence was in my ears (I was 26 and my ears were sharper then). It was a spiritual high, literally and figuratively, as I prayed there. The expressions “mountain top experience” is named for a reason.
The Baylonians created their own “mountains” by constructing the ziggurat. So earth reaches heaven in this human construction. The most famous was in Babylon and it was called “The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth” (Sound like Genesis?) Babylon is a biblical code word for wickedness (Zechariah, later in Book of Revelation) and it was the place of exile for the Jews. [Remember, when the Bible books were being composed and edited/redacted.] The building is done in Genesis so people can make a name for themselves and not be scattered. It is a human centered activity which is “seeking our own hearts and will” (something condemned regularly in the Jewish Bible).
The great culture of Babylon is under scrutiny here. It is, in part, a veiled attack on (pagan) human hubris, and a focused attack on one of Israel’s greatest enemies at that. Man cannot make a name for himself--as we will see soon, God gives that honor to Abram (I will make your name great) and God blesses those who obey Him (Abraham, contrasted to sinful human endeavors which seek to self glory and not God's glory)

In the New Covenant, we see this story echoed in Acts 2. There God comes down from heaven on the apostles (like a WIND- creation again!) and they begin to “speak in other languages” (just like Babel).  “Every nation…under heaven” is present, and in Genesis five times we read ‘the whole world’ is present at Babel. The people in Genesis are scattered over the face of the earth, even as the apostles receive a commission to take the Gospel to the whole earth. So, the typology at work is easy to see.

God is at work among us. Wrath on sinful humanity. Grace and blessing on those who trust Him and love, serve and obey Him. That, to me, is the much more interesting part of the Babel story.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Some Thoughts on Genesis Readings in Morning Prayer

The book of Genesis is interesting and unique’. It has a different tone then the rest of the Bible in that there are more “mythological” elements. This is, in part, because it was composed (humanly speaking) to contrast ancient Jewish beliefs about “beginnings” with their ancient neighbors’ stories. The competitive explanations of reality and the competitive cults of worship were all contemporary to those people. That is the context for reading and understanding the writings. Genesis serves as a partial account for “where things come from.” The stories are often self-contained vignettes without explanation for the elements that do not fit in. This is why in the story of Cain, for example, which is about sibling rivalry, sin and punishment the sudden appearance of a wife begs the question: where did Cain get a wife? Who are the people Cain fears will kill him? And how does Cain build a city when the world consists of his mom and pop and a baby brother (Seth) and his wife. [The Bible does not say.]  Probably the best answer to such questions is that the story is “about” something else. It is not about explaining other things which interest us.
A more openly ‘mythological’ story is Genesis 6:1-4 which seems to come out of nowhere. Suddenly sons of god and human women are procreating Nephilim (who are mighty men, maybe giants). Sounds so much like Hercules that one feels an impulse to say there might be a common link. In other ancient cultures stories of divine beings interacting with human females exist. The pre-Abrahamic roots of Israel means those stories were part of the literature with which Israel had to engage.
Most of us are most familiar with American Indian tales of ‘beginnings’ and the Greek myths. The Bible is human language, which means, although DIVINELY INSPIRED, it is also human and shares characteristics of other human writings.
 In the beginning of the Lord of the Rings the narrator recounts the “history” of the inhabitants of Middle Earth with a focus on the Ring of Power. The author, Tolkien, was a devout Catholic and energetic and intellectual Christian. His grand opus was intended to communicate Truth (and his Christian faith shaped what he wrote). “Middle Earth” the fictional setting of this fictional story is literary what Mediterranean means. Europe is somehow encountered in the story of hobbits, elves, and talking trees. Tolkien’s experiences as a soldier in WWI and a citizen of England in WWII also impacted his writing, and those experiences are veiled within his creation. All this to say that Truth in any narrative is always in dialogue with myth as well as analytical, positivist history.  This description of the process is most helpful: And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge. We have only a whisper here and there of the ancient roots of all things.
The Genesis stories are composed of very ancient narratives (written and oral), but they are written in a new context with its own set of threats to faith. In our own time we need to ask, “What is God saying here?” Knowing what it meant and understanding literary types is a great tool for understanding. Such a question is different from trying to defend the text as modern history. I know why people feel compelled to do it, I have such a desire within me, but at times letting God be God means letting go of my preconceived notions about history and realizing that modern history did not exist in ancient times…
So I read the story and understand its meaning; in the midst of all things a divine purpose is being realized.