Thursday, July 29, 2010

“And God remembers….. and the Rainbow Covenant! - Genesis - Chapters 8 and 9

I encourage you to read Genesis 4:1-16 along with your reading of this blog. Find the NRSV translation of this passage  HERE!
“And God remembers….. and the Rainbow Covenant! - Genesis - Chapters 8 and 9
In our survey of the opening 11 chapters of the book of Genesis we have seen that a couple important themes have emerged: 1. God created the good creation and set everything in balance – thereby establishing perfect well-being or Shalom; 2. This is broken because the humans displace God and place themselves in God’s place. This results in the consequence of wandering and ultimately death; 3. God grieves the brokenness of creation and longs to restore it to balance, to Shalom.
In the first half of the Noah story from last week we experienced God’s grief and resolve to set creation in balance by re-doing the act of creation.  This then leads to God’s opening the heavens and unleashing the forces of chaos to take over the earth again. All is destroyed, except Noah and his family, who have also (at God’s command) collected a pair of every animal and bird.  Last week’s passage ended with Noah, his family and the animals in the ark seemingly lost and forgotten as they float upon the waters.
But then God remembers Noah and all who are cooped up in the ark which is floating upon the waters.  And when God remembers things happen.  As is so often the case the Hebrew and Greek words which are rendered as “remember” are much more active than is connoted by the English word.  In English, “remember” usually refers to an act of cognition – it is a mental exercise.  We remember an appointment, we remember historical facts for our history test, we remember how to do certain tasks, and so on.  But in the Bible to remember is much more active than that.  “Do this is remembrance of me,” Jesus says at the Last Supper and by this he means that we are to not merely mentally recall that long ago Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples on the Thursday night before he was arrested.  Rather, we are to reenter into the events of that night – in fact we are to “remember,” the reenter, to re-experience, to make the events of the last supper and indeed the entire Passion a part of our personal experience.  We are to make these long ago events present now in our lives, in our time and in our place.  That is what it means to remember.  “Do this in remembrance of me” – and through Jesus, God is present NOW in our midst, and we experience his love and grace and forgiveness NOW and it renews us and strengthens us for our lives and our faith NOW.
When God “remembers” us God is profoundly present with us; God becomes active in our lives.  We live in a fractured world, a world and society which forgets, where human beings sometimes are just numbers and abstractions.  But not to God. God remembers each of us – by name - and is thus actively present and involved in our lives.  And so the Sacraments of the church (those acts through which we formally experience God’s presence) lead to a myriad of “Sacramental” experiences in our lives (experiences where we experience God’s presence through our interaction with others and through the events and encounters of our lives).
Finally, a word about the Sacrament of Baptism: Each time we celebrate a Baptism we “remember” Noah (see the “Thanksgiving” on ELW page #230).  Why, because God brought Noah and his family through the waters of the flood, God “remembered” Noah and his family and God promised to never again destroy creation in an effort to restore the balance of creation.  Rather, God will find a new way to bring about Shalom, to restore balance and this way is through God’s involvement in human history, through God’s calling of Abraham and the people of Israel and ultimately through the birth of a baby boy, born in a dark and lonely cave.  Through this baby, God Himself, enters into our world and brings us Sacramental experiences of Shalom as God works to restore the entire creation to perfect balance.  The rainbow is a reminder of this “covenant” or the promise.  And the “remembering” in Baptism of Noah and Moses through the Red Sea and the Baptism of Jesus all bring those events into our lives in the present.  As the child is baptized she experiences all of those events and as we remember them with her, we also reenter those events as well.
“God remembers…”  What a wonderful promise.  What an amazing God we have  who remembers each and everyone of God’s children and who is active with them throughout the ups and downs of their lives.

Art by HeQi

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Grief of God - Noah and the Flood – Genesis 6 and 7

I encourage you to read Genesis 4:1-16 along with your reading of this blog. Find the NRSV translation of this passage here!

The Grief of God
Noah and the Flood – Genesis 6 and 7
We have now come to the center of the Genesis Pre-History (Chapters 1 through 11): The story of Noah and the Flood – contained in Chapters 6,7,8 and 9.  There are perhaps few stories in the bible that are as well known as this story; there are also few stories in the bible that are as misunderstood and misinterpreted as this story. Some have expended much money and energy to search for the leftovers of the Ark on Mount Ararat.  None of these “expeditions” have been successful and several have proved to be frauds.  They have missed the point of the story. 
More common however are those who see in this story an angry and vengeful God ready to annihilate any who do break the rules.  This view is unfortunately very common and can be found in a variety of situations, including the pronouncements of those who see in natural disasters such as tornados or floods evidence of God’s vengeful anger: The Haitian earthquake; Hurricane Katrina; various accidents, and even (most despicably) the death of service personnel are misinterpreted by some as the workings of a wrathful and angry God who exacts vengeance on the guilty and the innocent alike.  If questioned the fingers start pointing towards the Flood story.  Such interpretations and pronouncements have caused so much pain and suffering for so many.
But they have missed the point and have not even read the text.  Consider verse 6 in chapter 6: And the Lord was very sorry… and it grieved Him to his heart.  There is no vengeful God in this story.  The destruction of the flood is not initiated as punishment or revenge or wrath.  This story is about the grief of God.  In chapter two God created a world in perfect balance – God/Creation/Humanity – all in balance;  God created Shalom.  But in Chapter 3 the humans stage an attempted coup d’├ętat.  They attempt to put themselves in the place of God and as a consequence Shalom is broken and they are driven from the place of Shalom – the Garden.  In the Flood story God is attempting once more to restore the balance; to restore the Shalom of creation.  And so the grief of God permeates this story.  God grieves that the humans that he loves have turned their back on Him; God grieves that the gift of Shalom is broken and cannot be easily restored.  And God grieves that he must undo the act of creation and start again – this time pinning his hopes on Noah.  (Note that as the description of the flood begins the acts of creation are undone – the firmament is withdrawn and the waters of chaos overwhelm creation [7:11 – compare with 1:6-8] and all is destroyed - 7:21 – compare with 1:24.)
But it doesn’t work.  Shalom is not restored in this attempted restoration and God recognizes this and commits to never, NEVER do this again.  God is still committed to restoring the Shalom of creation, but now God will find a new way.  And this new way will be the way of love and grace; this new way will be the way of Jesus!  It does not resolve the grief of God, in fact it only intensifies God’s grief as self-centered humans continue to place themselves in the center of their universe and do things to hurt creation and each other and God.  Jesus is crucified.  But God has the last word through the resurrection.  Shalom is restored through Jesus; the Kingdom of God is restored not fully but in part and we can experience God’s Shalom in many and various ways through the sacramental experiences of our lives.
Ultimately this story is about God’s incredible love and grace shown to God’s created children.  Like in so many other stories in the bible the story of Noah and the Flood turns our expectations and experiences upside down and replaces anger, wrath and vengeance with forgiveness, love and grace.  Thanks be to God!
Next week – Chapters 8 and 9 – “And God remembers….. and the Rainbow Covenant!


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Genesis 4:1-16 – A Tale of Two Brothers*

I encourage you to read Genesis 4:1-16 along with your reading of this blog. Find the NRSV translation of this passage here!
            Adam and Eve have been driven from the Garden as a consequence of their rebellion.  They are now wanderers on the earth and in our story for today we see a ripple effect which engulfs the descendents of Adam and Eve.  The story of the brothers Cain and Abel is a story of rejection, jealousy, envy, murder and alienation.  But it is also a story of grace, for in the end, even as Cain must bear the consequence of his rash act, God does not abandon him.  In fact, God promises to be accompany him even to the land of Nod, which is truly at the edge of the earth.  There is no place too far or too distant for God; there is no place too remote for God’s presence; there is no sin which will lead God to completely abandon us.
            It is easy to be distracted in this story by details that are not explained in the text.  Why does God choose Abel’s thank-offering over Cain’s?  There is nothing in the text to suggest that there was anything wrong with Cain’s.  Commentators through the years, including notably John Calvin, have invented all kinds of reasons why Cain’s offering was not acceptable.  But the fact is - this is not explained in the Genesis text.  We can only conclude that this is not an important point for the storyteller.  It is also important to recognize that this inequity mirrors the inequities we experience in our own lives.  Why are some born with certain skills and others not; why do the innocent suffer?  Life can be unfair.  This is the state of life after the fall.  There is no explanation, only a promise: God is present with us no matter what.
Also, other questions we can get sidetracked by: Where did Cain’s wife come from? And where did the people of Nod with whom Cain settles come from?  The text does not answer these questions either.  We need to accept the text as it is and not invent reasons, and also not dwell on these secondary issues, lest we miss the point of the story.
            And what is the point of this story? Working backwards I have mentioned one of the important points above – God is present with us in our wanderings no matter what.  The other main point of the story centers around Cain’s famous question to God: Am I my brother’s keeper?   The answer is – Yes!  We do have a responsibility for God’s wonderful creation, including and especially our brothers and sisters.  As long as we are in enmity with others we will never experience God’s Shalom (peace).  Shalom is a triangle: Brother*/Brother*/God!  Our calling is then to be open to the needs of others and to be willing to reach out of ourselves to give of ourselves for others.  The promise is God’s presence and that in so doing God will grant to us an experience of Shalom/Peace.  This vision of Shalom is beautifully described in our Psalm for today: Psalm #133: How very good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life for evermore.  
* Please note – the word “brothers” is interchangeable with “sisters.”

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") 

 This work is by Caspar Luiken, 1672-1708

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"God and Country" - July 4, 2010 - "Called to Freedom"

This is the sermon I preached at the Steeleville "God and Country" service.  The lessons were Luke 10:25-37 (The story of the Good Samaritan) and Galatians 5:1, 13-14:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

The date: May 7, 1788 – the place: the Vienna State Theater – the event: the Austrian premiere of Mozart’s new opera “Don Giovanni.”  Mozart had been the darling of Vienna, and the opera had been wildly successful at its 1st performances in Prague.  But Vienna was different.  For one thing, unlike in Prague, the State Theater in Vienna catered to the wealthy and the aristocracy; and for another Mozart’s collaborator – Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the words – was intensely disliked and mistrusted in Vienna.  It is not a major surprise then to learn that the Vienna premiere was less than successful.  While the failure of the production in Vienna though can be ascribed to a variety of reason, the reactions of the audience to one crucial scene insured its failure.  Near the end of the big party scene in Act II there is moment when the entire cast – all 8 of them – seem to break character, turn towards the audience and sing these words: Viva la libertad!  Viva, viva la libertad!  - “ Hurrah for liberty – Hurrah for freedom!”
Only a few months later the French revolution would break out and take the life of not only close friends and relatives of many in the audience for that 1st performance – but would also take the life in a humiliating and brutal way of France’s Queen, Marie Antoinette – the sister of Mozart’s patron, the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II.  Is it any wonder that these words struck fear into the hearts of the audience that night: Freedom / Liberty / Justice / Equality!  These words were the rallying cry of the French as they stormed the Bastille in July of 1789, only little over a year later.  And this movement, no, this hunger for freedom swept across the face of Europe as many took up the cry for Freedom and Liberty and Justice and Equality – for all!  But, inspiration soon turned to revulsion as the French Revolution quickly disintegrated into a lust for revenge and power and wealth.  “Is that what Freedom is all about?” some wondered.  “Is that where liberty leads us?”  The French experience threw a bucket of cold water on the flames of the spread of the liberty movement in places like Vienna and in England.  However, one place in the western world had begun its commitment to liberty and freedom before the French and this one place managed, sometimes with difficulty, to prevent the kind of disintegration that had occurred in France.
And, of course that one place was in the British colonies on the mainland of North America.  Chaffing under British rule the colonists began to advocate for self-determination and self-governance.  But, in the face of British intransigence this quickly grew to a hunger for liberty and complete freedom from foreign control.  Things came to a head in July of 1776 when the Continental Congress of the Colonies, meeting during a terribly hot summer in Philadelphia issued a written statement to King George III and the Parliament in London making it clear their patience was at the end.  This statement, the Declaration of Independence, contains one of the best know passages in the great history of our nation: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,[71] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Well, we know what happened next.  And the fact that close to 250 years later we are here in this place celebrating the anniversary of the signing of this Declaration is testimony to the importance, the enduring nature of, and the success of the struggle.  Why?  What is it about the American understanding of Liberty and Freedom sets it apart? 
To focus on this question – I would like to share another story from the 18th century – this one from Boston, 1770.  There was perhaps no place in the American colonies more hostile to British governance than Boston in the days leading up to the revolution.  In the early evening of March 5, 1770 a hostile crowd approached the sentry post of a Custom House on Bunker Hill, in the suburbs of the city.  In the confusion that followed the British opened fire and 3 were killed, 11 injured, of which 2 died later making the total mortality for this incident 5 dead.  The British Captain, Thomas Preston and his regiment were all arrested and tried for murder.  In this hostile environment, when many were looking for a chance to take revenge on these British troops for all the pent-up anger they had towards England, no legal counsel could be engaged to defend them; until a leading Patriot stepped forward and undertook the defense of these British soldiers.  The Patriot was none other than John Adams, who would one day be the 2nd President of the United States.  Adams taking of this case stunned many of his fellow patriots and contemporaries, and not only that, but Adams was such a brilliant attorney that he got 6 of the 8 soldiers, including Capt. Preston, acquitted and the other two received only a light.
Writing later about the trial Adams writes: It was… one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.  The point is this – liberty means that justice is for all – not just justice for people like us – people we like – people we agree with – justice for all - even for our enemies.  Liberty and Justice is for all.  For Adams – Freedom is not Freedom if it is not for all; Liberty is not Liberty if it is not for all; Justice is not Justice if it is not for all; Equality is not Equality if it is not for all! This is what set the American understanding and experience apart from the French.  The French revolution essentially exchanged one dictatorial system for another.  But not in America where democratic ideals took root – because these ideals were based on the principal that they are for all!
And so in this important episode in the life of one of the great leaders of the American Revolution we begin to see the emergence of a definition of Freedom. And it is not doing whatever I want, and has little to nothing to do with an individual’s narrow self-interest.  Freedom has to do with being in community and reaching out to others – even to the point of putting one’s life and livelihood at risk for the sake of others’ access to freedom and justice.  Let’s turn now to St. Paul.
St. Paul must have been in a bad mood when he wrote his letter to the Galatians.  It is obvious that he was angry and that he felt very strongly about the issues he addresses.  Apparently after he had established this church in the region of Galatia others had followed him who began teaching things that were in opposition to what Paul had taught.  Specifically the primary issue centered around the place of the law of Moses in the life of the Christian.  Do Christians need to become Jewish in order to be fully Christian?  Paul said a clear NO!  For Paul it came down to this: in Christ we are set free from the need to focus on finding our own way to God.  We are forgiven and saved through the Grace of God and thus we no longer need to keep the law of Moses in order to earn God’s favor and acceptance.  Rather, now, in Christ the law of Moses becomes a gift and a guide which frees us to serve others.  Paul writes – For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment – You are to Love Your Neighbor as yourself.  Paul knew as well as anyone that this does not come naturally to men and women; that our own self-interest gets in the way and that we need to be freed from our fears and worries and from the selfish task of achieving, or working our way into heaven, if we are ever to be able to move towards loving others.
And let us not forget that Jesus’ approach to the law of Moses was the same as Paul’s.  This seems to be one reason why the religious authorities of his time were so unhappy with him.  But again and again when presented with the choice of reaching out to care and love people or following the law, Jesus ALWAYS opted for reaching out and caring for people.  When we hear this story of the Good Samaritan read the emphasis is usually on the Good Samaritan himself.  But this morning I would like to lift up the Priest and the Levite. Those who passed by on the other side, because these are the ones I think that are most like us.  For we are the ones who are most inclined to pass by on the other side when we see others in need or others who are being excluded or others who are struggling.  Like the Priests and the Levites we are too often disabled by our fears and self-centered attitudes; we are too often disabled by our self-interest or our need to maintain our own view of the world, or our greed, or our fear of those who are different from us or any number of things.  And in our turning our backs on others – we threaten our own freedom, as Paul says we are submitting to the yoke of bondage.
In my lifetime I have never seen so much division and bitterness affecting public discourse as there is today.  It is true that we have some serious problems that we face in this country currently.  But I do not believe that anything that we face is worth turning our backs on our values, or giving up our foundation of liberty/freedom/justice and equality for all!  But yet, there are some who would seemingly trade liberty for political uniformity and (a false) security.  In the areas of both citizenship and in our lives of faith, freedom must be free of manipulation, of selfishness, of exclusivity and of exploitation – or it is not freedom. When we allow others to tell us how to think or vote – our freedom is threatened; when we reject another as being not a real American or a real Christian because they do not agree with us or our group – our freedom is threatened; when we exclude others because they are somehow different than us in any way – our freedom is threatened; when we allow others to tell us how and what we should believe – our freedom is threatened.
Our faith teaches us that freedom is found in reaching out and caring for others – the work of great Americans like John Adams teaches us that true freedom and liberty must be for all or none; Martin Luther writes concerning liberty that A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, and at the same time a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.
So how then do we define liberty?  The definition I believe is not to be found by looking inward at our own self-interest; or by giving in to our fears.  It is to be found by looking outward, to see ourselves as part of a broad and diverse community; It is to be found by looking outward to see the needs of others in places like Steeleville or Sparta or Chicago, or in Louisiana, Washington DC, Mexico, England, Afghanistan and many other places both far and near.  The answer to the question: what is freedom? - is found not by answering the question of what is in MY selfish best interest, what do I want, or what would best benefit me; it is found by seeking the best for my neighbor and the community.
I would like to conclude with one more story from America’s early history.  In 1814 – our nation was facing dark days indeed.  The nation’s capitol had been attacked and the White House and Capitol Building were burnt to the ground.  It seemed to many that the great experiment in liberty, as some called it, was a failure.  But on September 3, two men boarded a British Warship anchored outside of Baltimore in the Chesapeake Bay in order to negotiate an exchange of prisoners.  After a surprisingly gracious reception and a fine meal in the Captain’s cabin, Baltimore attorney Francis Scott Key and his companion, John Stuart Skinner were detained (not arrested) for the duration of the night.  From the vantage point of his cabin on board the HMS Minden, Francis Scott Key watched the British navy commence their bombardment of Fort McHenry in the port of Baltimore.  As part of the defense strategy all lights in the city had been extinguished.  Consequently, the bombs bursting in the sky above provided the only light that illuminated the Fort.  And with each blast Key noticed and then carefully watched the flag flying above the fort.  Throughout the bombardment the flag flew, never wavering.  Inspired by this sight, Key wrote a poem which begins: O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light…  each stanza of this 4 verse poem, later a song, now our national anthem, concludes with these words: O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave?  O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Land of the free!  We have many problems in our nation – but we will never solve them by compromising our commitment to freedom and liberty and justice and equality for all!  These form the rock and foundation upon which this great nation was built.  May God grant to us all the strength and wisdom and courage to reach out of ourselves and to commit ourselves as both citizens of this great land and as Christians to our call to freedom!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Journey Begins – Genesis 3:20-24

I encourage you to read Genesis 3:1-18 along with your reading of this blog. Find the NRSV translation of this passage here.

Herman Melville, in his short story Billy Budd, has Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, of the HMS Indomitable, reflect on the profound events that transpired on the ship under his command in the summer of 1797. “We were lost on the infinite sea,” says the Captain. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries this image of being lost at sea became a symbol for the journey of life. Like those lost at sea, in our life’s journey we too may feel as though we are at the mercy of the winds and waves of life, that we are being blown hither and yon with no way of controlling our direction. This, suggests Melville and others, is a part of the human condition.

How many of us also feel as though we are cast adrift in the ocean of life? The text from the conclusion of the Adam and Eve story suggests that this all began when they were cast from the Garden. The picture below is a famous depiction of Adam and Eve being forced to leave Eden with the Angel of God blocking their return. Where are they going? What now? One senses that they have no idea. They are castaways now on the ocean of life.

But yet God intercedes. For in His overwhelming love for these humans He created he cannot allow them to be destroyed. This is the consequence of the act of disobedience; this is the consequence for humans seeking to place themselves in the place of God. But, God protects His beloved creation and provides for their journey. Verse 21 tells us that it is God who clothes the human creatures. God provides. And God will continue to provide and be present as the humans continue on their journey of life. God is committed to His beloved creation and to people. God loves this creation and showers His grace upon us all.

Are we “lost on the infinite sea” of life then? In the Gospel of John, Thomas asks Jesus, how can we know the way? Jesus responds with these famous words: I am the way, the truth and the life. We are never alone – we are never “lost.” God is always with us. God loves us and is committed to us and continues to be present with us, especially when the storms and the winds and the waves would appear to overwhelm us.