Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Apple in the Garden - Genesis 3

I encourage you to read Genesis 3:1-18 along with your reading of this blog.  Find the NRSV translation of this passage here!
We have begun our study with the pre-history in the book of Genesis.  We have looked at and heard the first creation account in chapter 1 – God is the creator of the universe; and the 2nd creation account in which God creates humanity – man and woman together – and gives them community, environment which brings with it permission to use the garden to sustain life, a prohibition to avoid the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as the consequence will be the ending of life; and it brings with it the vocation of caring for the creation, of being co-creators, of taking responsibility.
Today we focus on Chapter 3.  The cunning serpent suggests to Eve that there would be no consequences for disobeying God and that if she and Adam eat of the fruit then there will be no more need of God, for they can be like God themselves.  In other words, they could stage a coup and take on the power of the creator for themselves.  The temptation is too great.  Both Eve and Adam eat of the fruit.  But there are consequences.  Life is threatened.  But again God, the creator steps in protects the humanity.  Life is saved, but there are consequences.  Humanity is banished from the garden, there is work and toil and child-birth – and blessing even in the midst of this fall.  As we learned in creation #1 God is always at work creating – bringing good from evil and life from death.
The Sin of Adam and Eve is not disobedience (that is only a small part) – it is placing themselves in the center of the universe – it is in wanting to be God and to replace God with themselves.  We are still guilty of this.  This is the human condition, it is this that we confess each week at the beginning of our liturgy.  We want to be in charge and this is manifest by our abuse of the creation, our re-making God in our own image, our arrogance in assuming that God’s priorities are our priorities, our exclusion and rejection of those who are different from us, despite the fact that we are all God’s beloved children.  Like Adam and Eve we find that we are not prepared to accept the consequences which always come from our Sin.
Finally, there is a tradition which goes back to the middle ages of understanding the Sin of Adam as a blessing.  From the Easter Vigil Exultet:  “O necessary Sin of Adam that is wiped away by the death of Christ.”  And the text for the Medieval Advent Carol Adam Lay Ybounden concludes with these words: “Had not the apple taken been, never had our Lady been heaven’s queen.  Blessed be the time the apple taken was.  Therefore may we sing: Deo Gracias  (Thanks be to God!).  Here in these ancient texts is one of the great proclamations about God creator: God is the best improviser ever; God can bring good from evil, light from darkness and life from death!  The Sin of Adam and Eve is the sin of us all – we want to be God – we want to be in control.  The result is pain and suffering and death – but from this God brings life through the resurrection of Jesus.  God brings forth a New Creation from the dust and ashes of our Sin because of Christ.  “Therefore may we all sing: Deo Gracias – THANKS BE TO GOD!”

Bibliography - "Genesis - Translation and Commentary" by Robert Alter.  This is a wonderful translation.  This is the translation I am using at Peace.
Also see Walter Bruggemann's Interpretation commentary on Genesis; Bill Moyer's conversations about Genesis and Gary Rendsburg's lectures on Genesis (available through "The Teaching Company")

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Reflecting the Image of God – Genesis 2-3

I encourage you to read through chapter 2 of Genesis along with your reading of this blog.  Find the NRSV translation of this passge HERE

Last week we began our look at the pre-history in Genesis with Chapter 1 – the 1st creation account. The focus of this beautiful poem is on God, who is the creator of the universe; God, who speaks and the world comes into being. Not only that, but we also see that this amazing God, who is the creator of all, is still involved with the creation. God has not moved on to other things, watching impassively from afar. Rather, God loves the creation so much that God continues to interact with it, to be present with it and to continue to actively create. God, creator is not a remote God who watches from a distance but rather a God who takes so much delight in the creation that He remains intimately involved with every aspect of creation.

This week we focus on the 2nd creation story. These two stories of creation complement each other, like looking at a crystal from two different directions. Whereas the opening poem in chapter 1 focused on God’s creation of the universe, creation #2 focuses on the creation and gift of and responsibility which is given to the human; whereas in creation #1 God creates with the Word – God speaks and it IS – in creation #2 God gets down and dirty fashioning the human from the earth, working and creating much in the same way a potter would work. This is an amazing proclamation: God, the creator of the universe creating humans with His hands; God, seeing that the human needs a special environment in which to live, physically plants a garden. And finally recognizing that humanity is incomplete with the male only, creates woman and together they are complete, they are humanity.

In the history of Christianity this passage has often been taken out of context and misinterpreted to enforce a hierarchy which places women in a subordinate role to men. This is not what this text is saying. Adam, the man, is incomplete alone. None of the animals or birds or fish fit the bill. They are totally “other.” When God creates woman, Adam immediately recognizes that Eve is a part of him and that humanity is now complete. Man and Woman together reflect the image of God.

We are often tempted to focus on the prohibition which God gives to the humans in regard to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But lets look again at the text: God gives permission to utilize everything else. "The garden is given for your use," God tells them. But there is one tree you are to avoid because the consequence of eating its fruit will be death. But everything else is FOR YOU. There is a broad permission given, an amazing gift to humanity; there is a specific prohibition and finally God gives the humans a vocation: “you are to be co-creators, you are to take responsibility, you are to care for this gift.”

We are created in the image of God. This amazing gift: creation, our world, our community, our relationships with the creation and with each other bring with them permission, prohibition and vocation. We are to utilize this gift to sustain life and community; but we are not to abuse it. We must care for this gift for if we abuse it there will be consequences and life as we know it is risked. Just as God remains involved as creator, constantly creating, we too must understand that we have a vocation to be co-creators with God – to care for, protect and cherish this gift.  In this way we reflect the image of God.

Bibliography - "Genesis - Translation and Commentary" by Robert Alter.  This is a wonderful translation.  This is the translation I am using at Peace.
Also see Walter Bruggemann's Interpretation commentary on Genesis; Bill Moyer's conversations about Genesis and Gary Rendsburg's lectures on Genesis (available through "The Teaching Company")

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Great Stories of the Bible: Genesis

Bringing Light from Darkness – Genesis 1
This weekend we begin our summer long look at the opening stories in the book of Genesis.  The book of Genesis is divided into two main sections: The Pre-History that is contained in chapters 1 through 11; and the Patriarchal/Matriarchal cycles from 12 through 50.  The Pre-History includes the two creation accounts; the story of the Fall; Cain and Abel; Noah and the Flood and the Tower of Babel.  The Patriarchal/Matriarchal cycles include the three primary cycles of stories: Abraham and Sarah (with Isaac and Rebecca); Jacob and Rachel; and Joseph.  We will probably not get through all of these this summer. 
We begin with the Pre-History.  The book of Genesis was written during the Exile in Babylon and was based on centuries of oral tradition which purports to go all the way back to Moses.  The exile was a time when the faith and culture of Israel was at risk and it seemed as though the covenant with Yahweh was dead and that the gods of the Babylonians had been victorious.  It was a time of bitter anguish and loss.  In the midst of this situation, these ancient stories proclaimed clearly that the God of Israel was the God of creation.  Yahweh still stood by the covenant he had made with Abraham and that no matter what God would never abandon His chosen and beloved people.  The book of Genesis invites the readers (and hearers) to look at all of the problems – Adam and Eve’s betrayal, The Jealousy of Cain, The Flood, the Arrogance of the Tower, the unfaithfulness and disobedience of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Rachel and Joseph’s brothers – and to see that despite all of these setbacks God nevertheless remained faithful to the covenant; and God continues to remain faithful.
So how do we approach the book of Genesis.  There are two things that are very important:
1.     The Book of Genesis is NOT a history or science textbook.  It never claims to be this.  It reflects the cosmology of its day.  The advances in science (including the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin) do not contradict the proclamation that is contained in Genesis.  Those who would turn Genesis into a science textbook, I believe, are missing the point.  And the point is – Genesis is proclamation!  God is the creator.  We do not know how God did it – but this is an amazing universe and somehow God created it.  And not only that, but God loves His creation so much that He is intimately involved in it.  God is at work, constantly and forever creating and loving and being present with His creation.  This is an amazing proclamation! This is a proclamation of grace!
2.     Luther says that as Christians we must always read the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular with the eyes of Christ.  There are things that we do not understand in Genesis.  There are things that happen that seem inconsistent with the God of the New Testament.  Luther says, when in doubt the God of Jesus is a God of Grace and we always err on the side of grace!
Finally the book of Genesis is a book of praise.  Our God has created the universe, has created us, not abandoned us, remained involved with us, loves us, showers us with grace and love and continues to reach out and create.  This is amazing.  What other response is appropriate besides praise!  Praise the Lord and Thanks be to God!  Amen!
"God creates the World" by Virgil Solis (1514-1562)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Reflections on the St. Matthew Passion - by J.S. Bach

I am currently in Peoria performing the solo oboe / English Horn parts for the Peoria Bach Festival's performance (this Thursday and Friday) of The St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach.  This may very well be my last professional engagement as an oboist and what a way to go out.  This piece is HARD and very taxing.  But it is also very rewarding.  As a Lutheran Christian, who also happens to be a Pastor, there is no work that has the kind of beauty of both text and music as this work.  It is deeply moving and Bach's ability of weaving multiple layers together along with his mastery of word painting makes this piece a captivating piece indeed.  Below is a reflection I wrote on this piece back in April of 2008.  I had just attended a week long intensive study/discussion of this work in Houston and I arrived back on home on Maundy Thursday and was scheduled to preach on Good Friday.  The sermon was written in Houston in between sessions.  This reflection is based on that sermon.
In March (of 2008) I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Houston entitled "Redemption and Human Freedom in Bach's St. Matthew's Passion."  It was a wonderful 3 days of exploring what is one of the great musical masterpieces in the history of western music.  But more than that it was the first time I had really studied the text to this work.  I have performed this work on several occasions over the course of my 30+ years as a professional oboist.  But, I had never done more than quickly read through the text.  What I discovered this past week in Houston is that the text is a rich and beautiful work of poetry which focuses the work on the cross of Christ, but nevertheless has a very distinctive theological foundation.  The text is by the 18th century Lutheran Pietist and Pastor Christian Friedrich Henrici sometimes known as Picander.  The Passion setting was composed for performance on Good Friday during the liturgy of the day.  It tells the story of the passion using the scriptural text from the Gospel of St. Matthew, and this is sung by the Evangelist, who serves as narrator.  Interspersed between the sections of scriptural narrative are a series of arias which comment on the text, choruses and chorales or hymns for the congregation to sing.  It is in the arias primarily and some of the choruses where the theological heart of the work is found.In my Good Friday sermon I quoted the first chorus and it is here that we find the 1st theological point - namely that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes the sin of humanity onto himself.  "See!  "Where?" (responds the 2nd chorus) - there... look as Christ goes forth carrying his cross.  2. And who is responsible for this?  We are!  It is our Sin that Christ has taken on and it is because of us that He goes to the cross.  3. And why - for one reason: Love.  From aria #49: "Out of love, my savior is willing to die, although He is not guilty of a single sin..."  It is this amazing love, this wondrous love which lay at the heart of the Passion account itself and of this work.  4. And because of God's overwhelming love for us he has taken the consequence of our sin onto himself and enables and empowers us to follow him; to carry our cross.  From aria #57: "Come, sweet cross, I wish to say, my Jesus, give it to me always!  Should my suffering ever prove too great you will help me carry it."  And, 5, finally, we apprehend his love and grace and this incredible gift through our trust and faith (final chorus).

There is nothing new here - this is the core of our faith - but it is a core which is focused on the cross!  In our society the prevailing religiosity and what passes for Christianity is all too often focused on glory and power; focused on Easter at the exclusion of Good Friday.  How many churches in our own community don't even hold Good Friday services?  During his sermon on Palm Sunday, 2008 Bishop Peter Beckwith (now retired Episcopal Bishop of the Springfield Diocese) stated unequivocally that "without Good Friday, Easter becomes trite and irrelevant."  The power of Easter comes when we both experience and acknowledge the centrality of the crucifixion.  Christ redeems us on the cross; God's great love is revealed on the cross; our faith must be focused on the cross.  Only then, only when we have entered into and experienced the darkness of Good Friday can we with joy and conviction cry the words of the Easter proclamation.

As we continue our pilgrimage during this season of Easter (and throughout the church year) may it be informed and given meaning by the cross of Christ.  In the words of the boy's choir in the first chorus: "O lamb of God, innocent, sacrificed on the wood of the cross, always patient and meek, even when you were forsaken!  Had you not taken on our sins we would have perished.  Have mercy on us, O Jesus!"  Amen!  He is risen! He is risen indeed!