Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reflections on the text – Lent II – Genesis 15:1-11, 17-18

Read the text here: Genesis 15:1-18

Don’t you hate to wait? Someone promises they will do something, or take you somewhere and you have to wait for it to happen. For most of us waiting is synonymous with impatience.  We don’t want to wait – we want whatever it is right now! Thank you very much!
Bear this in mind as you read through chapter 15 of our Old Testament lesson for this morning, for Abraham is a model of impatient waiting.  Back in Chapter 12 God called Abraham and his wife Sarah to uproot themselves and begin a journey to a far off land that God promises to give to him.  So far, so good!  Abraham and Sarah do come into the land and settle.  But it is the other part of the promise that is the problem.  God promises that Abraham and Sarah will be a great nation and that the children of Israel will be their heirs for both the promise and the land.  But there is a problem – Abraham and Sarah are barren, they have not been able to have any children and not only that but they are getting up in years so that they are no longer able to have children.  So this text begins a series of attempts on the part of Abraham and Sarah to take matters into their own hands in order to secure their legacy.  They simply can’t wait any longer!  It is now or never!  So what about Eliezer of Damascus, asks Abraham in our text for today.  God rejects the suggestion and Abraham and Sarah will go on to attempt several other options – most importantly Abraham will have a son, Ishmael, with Sarah’s maid Hagar.
God’s response to Abraham is to restate the promise over and over again.  “Look at the stars,” says God, “that is how many descendants you will have.”  But Abraham keeps pressing the issue – “when, when, when!  We can’t wait forever, God! Let’s get on with it already!”  So God commands Abraham to sacrifice several animals by splitting them down the center.  What does this mean? In making a legal agreement people in ancient times often included a ceremony of sacrifice and one text from the 8th century BCE has these words that were spoken by the one making the sacrifice: “Just as I am tearing the shoulder off this sheep, may my own shoulder be torn from its socket if I violate this agreement.”
Dr. Ralph Klein writes, “Abraham and Sarah had a hard time believing the promise of the land (and descendants). Would it help God says if I would invoke upon myself a curse? That is, may I be cut in pieces like these animals if I don’t fulfill this promise? At other times in the Old Testament God reinforces his promises by “swearing by himself” or “by raising his hand to heaven.” When a promise is hard to believe, God reinforces the promise by putting himself at risk. Now can you believe?”
God is going to extreme measures to confirm that His promises to Abraham and Sarah are secure and unalterable.  God says He will give you the land as an inheritance – and He will fulfill the promise; God says that your descendants will be like the stars – and they will; God says He will be present with you no matter what and never abandon you – and God will fulfill the promise!  It might not happen on your timetable – it might require you to learn patience and waiting – it might not happen the way you think it should.  But God will fulfill God’s promises and you can count on it and God is even willing to go to extreme measures to prove it!
Our Gospel text continues our journey towards the cross.  The incarnate God will be crucified in Jerusalem.  Talk about extreme measures! The Old Testament states “cursed be anyone who hangs upon a tree.”  God takes on a curse for us – for you and me.  Why?  “For God so loved the world…” That’s why.  God’s promises to us – to you and to me are secure; God will accomplish them; God will never turn his back on us no matter what.  But we too need to learn patience; we need to learn to wait; we need to accept that we are on God’s timetable and God will fulfill God’s promises often in ways that we cannot imagine.
“Genesis 15 recognizes that it is sometimes hard to believe when we are in bad situations.”  When we are confronted with difficulties and trials, those times when the darkness seems like it will overpower us. “But God addresses our difficult situations with promises that ring true to our needs, just as God doubled down on the promises to Abraham and Sarah. God lives up to his relationship with us by demonstrating that his news for us is indeed good, that he is willing to risk his very self so that we might believe” and follow.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Book of Job

The Book of Job
The Book and the Man
The adult bible study at Peace has begun a Lenten study of the book of Job.  I have led this study before at St. Matthew’s in Bloomington and during that time I had written a series of blog entries to reflect on this important and beautiful book.  This is the first of those articles edited and republished.  For this study, as for the study in 2009, we are using Carol M. Bechtel’s Kerygma materials entitled “Job and the Life of Faith.”

Why do bad things happen to good people?  This is at the heart of the entire book of Job.  This is a question that is asked in culture after culture, from the dawn of time.  We noted that there are pre-Job stories which come from the ancient Sumarians, Babylonians, Egyptians and on and on.  Samuel Balentine notes in his comprehensive commentary: “For as long as men and women have walked this earth, they have shared the journey with someone, somewhere, named Job.” (pg. 5).  Frost notes that “this is my story, your story, every person’s story.”
There have been a variety of ways to explain this.  One very common explanation – which we find throughout the bible – is what we would call “Retributive Justice.”  As one of us noted – this is the “Santa Claus” theology of “if you are good you will get good things; if you are bad you will be punished.”  Unfortunately life doesn’t seem to work like that.  Retributive Justice is well represented in the Book of Job by the three friends, but ultimately the book of Job rejects this understanding.
It is a very common understanding however.  In my own life and ministry, especially during my time as a hospital chaplain, I was often confronted with this understanding.  I shared that when I was about 13/14 I was working in a lumber yard and the foreman (and my boss) told me a story about a young man who was killed in a horrific car accident.  This young man had become a “born-again” Christian a few months earlier but this had not changed his life-style.  Johnny suggested that God did this to him as punishment.  This terrified me at the time, but now almost 50 years later I look back in disgust at the way this story was told to a child.  It was manipulative and it is also simply untrue.  I do not believe that God causes horrific things to happen on purpose in order to punish.  I do not believe in retributive justice.
Retributive justice is well represented in the book of Job.  The bulk of the body of the text consists of the three dialogues (and there is the Elihu speech as well) during which the three friends strongly and uncompromisingly maintain their belief in this theology.  “You must have done something wrong, Job!”  Job maintains his innocence and the dialog becomes more heated and rather nasty by the end.  Ultimately the book of Job rejects retributive justice.  We will examine this and what other alternatives (if any) are presented.
We also talked about authorship.  The book of Job is a parable.  It is not a historical event.  It emerged from a long oral history of like stories and was most probably assembled by a variety of writers over a long period of time.  Below is a list of the possible versions of the story and how it came to be formed in its final form.   

The Many Possible Editions of the Book of Job
By Carol M. Bechtel

       1st edition: The oral tradition of a righteous man who suffered much
        2nd edition:  The prose introduction (Job 1:1-2:13)
       3rd edition: The poetic dialogues only (Job 3-27; 29-31; 38-42:6) (minus the wisdom hymn in     Job 28 and the Elihu speeches in Job 32-37)
       4th edition:  Prose introduction plus the poetic dialogues (minus 23, 32-37)
       5th edition: Prose introduction, poetic dialogues (minus 28, 32-37) plus the prose conclusion        (ch. 42:7-12)
       6th edition: Entire book (wisdom hymn in 28 plus Elihu’s speeches in 32-37 added here)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday – 2013 – “Facing the Cross”

As a child I think my favorite fairy tale was the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”  You all remember the story don’t you?
Jack lives alone with his mother – this boy is a child and not terribly responsible and trades his families only possession – an old and sad cow for a handful of magic beans.   Jack’s mother is furious and takes the beans and throws them outside in anger, but over night the beans grow over night into a huge stalk that stretches to the heavens.  Jack climbs and there he comes face to face with a giant – actually two giants – a giant couple.  Ultimately Jack overcomes the giants and is able to ultimately provide for his mother. 
            I don’t want to ruin the story for you, and there are a variety of themes we can pull out of this story – but the one I want to focus on tonight is this:  What happens to Jack when he comes face to face with this giant couple? Being face to face with the giants forces Jack to realize and to finally accept the fact that he is no longer a child, he is now facing adulthood and he must take responsibility for himself, and for his mother. In short, he is face to face with the end of his childhood and the beginning of adulthood and all that brings with it.  By the end of the story he has left childhood behind and entered successfully into the world of adulthood.  This transition was not easy, and we could argue with some of Jack’s choices – but by the end of the story he is an adult, and no longer a child – that is the point.
The theme for Lent this year is “Facing the Cross” and today we focus on “Facing Our Sins.”  In the weeks to come we will come face to face with temptation, fear, worldliness, one another and suffering – but tonight we come face to face with the biggest giant of them all: human sinfulness, of which we are all guilty and which affects how we live our lives and how we are in relationships with God and others.
So what does that mean?  First, what does it mean to come face to face?  Well for Jack it meant, looking at himself honestly – determining who he was and the kind of man he had the potential to become.  Was he going to remain a selfish, irresponsible brat all his life that thought only of himself? Or would he overcome his fears, step up to the task at hand and take responsibility? All the while recognizing that there would be implications and consequences no matter which way he chose.  The theme then is coming face to face.  Coming face to face is a very important and popular literary theme – we can find it in a whole host of great literary masterpieces: Homer’s Odyessus, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Lewis Caroll’s Alice, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim or Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean in the very popular “Les Miserables.”  “Who am I” Valjean asks in one of his songs from the musical version of the novel.  Is he a man who can allow another to suffer unjustly in his place; Is he a man that will be ruled by anger and vengeance and fear and hatred?  Or will he respond to the incredible gift of God’s grace that he experienced through the unexpected act of kindness and compassion of the Bishop of Digne?  Will he turn his back on anger and hate and self-centeredness and “return to the Lord?”  Will he live a life of grace, even in a world where he is pursued by the power of judgment and law?
The bible also constantly confronts us with the same issues and questions.  “Return to the Lord” commands the prophet Joel in our Old Testament lesson and throughout the prophets we see Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others holding up the mirror to Israel, and to us, demanding that we look as see ourselves as we really are; demanding that we come face to face with our sinfulness and our self-centeredness that not only hurts others but ultimately will destroy us.  Jesus ministry follows right along with this – think of Jesus’ response to the Rich Young Ruler, or to the Tax Collector Zacheaus.  “Who are you” Jesus asks in those encounters. 
For me one of the most profound is the story of the Conversion of St. Paul from Acts 9.  “Who are you?”  Cries Paul when he is confronted and blinded – Jesus turns the question back on him – “No, who are you?”  Are you the man who is blinded by hate and rage and self-righteousness so that you would destroy those whom I have called to be vessels of my love and grace in this world?  Or… are you a man who can return to the Lord and live a life of unconditional grace?
Through all of these stories God confronts us lovingly as well.  “Who are you?”  Jesus lifts the mirror of the Gospel for us to see ourselves as we really are – The prophet calls for us to return to the way of the Lord and St. Paul encourages us to be reconciled with God in Christ Jesus.
What is it that stands in the way of our following Christ, of our living lives that reflect the grace and love of Christ?  The theological answer is “our sinfulness.”  Ok so, let’s talk a minute about what that is, for if there is a biblical/Christian word that has been and continues to be misunderstood it is the word “Sin.”  It is very easy for us, when we hear that word to immediately think of all the things we have done wrong.  The word has almost become synonymous with behavior and misconduct.  But that is not at all what is meant by the word “Sin” in the bible.  Human sinfulness – according to the bible – is our natural tendency to put ourselves in the center of our own universe – pushing out God and everyone else in the process.  In other words, the disease is “Sin” (with a capital “S”) – and this is putting me, myself and I along with my wants, my needs, my happiness, my priorities, my opinions my view of the world in the center of our world.  “Sin” is always asserting my own rightness and righteousness, over and against everyone else.  The symptoms of the disease are the acts of misconduct, the things we do to hurt others and those things that we do that break the 10 commandments.
Ash Wednesday brings us face to face with our self-centeredness – the self-dependence that will in time destroy us.  Ash Wednesday holds up a mirror before us and asks us the question “who are you?”  Are you to be defined by your own needs and wants, your greed, your fear, your self-righteousness, your anger, the need to get even, the attitude of give me mine – I don’t care about you?  Is that who you are?  Or does the cross on your forehead cause you to pause and recognize that while the pull of self-centeredness is strong – it is the cross of Christ that defines me – it is God’s unconditional grace and love that gives me strength and purpose and direction – it is the way of Christ leads us forward.
“Return to the Lord our God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love;”  “On behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”  “Who are you?”

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Reflections on the text – Luke 2:22-40 - The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord

Read the text here: Luke 2:22-40

One of the most wonderful things about Christmas is the opportunity to sing carols and each year we look forward to hearing and singing our favorite Christmas carols.  It is not too surprising, after all, that the prologue in the Gospel of Luke (chapters 1 & 2 - from where comes the Christmas story) is just one song after another.  Here is a quick review of the songs from the opening two chapters of the Gospel of Luke.
1.     Mary’s song – The Magnificat (My soul magnifies the Lord) – Luke 1:46-55 (pew bibles NT pg. 44) – Sung by Mary after being greeted with celebration by her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s unborn baby John (the Baptist).
2.     Song of Zechariah – The Benedictus (Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…) – Luke 1:68-79 (pew bibles NT pg. 44) – Sung by the priest Zechariah, John’s father after the miraculous birth of his son, John and after he had been struck mute for his lack of faith.
3.     Song of the Angels – Gloria in excelsis (Glory to God in the highest) – Luke 2:14 (pew bibles NT pg. 45) – Sung by the “multitude of the heavenly host” in celebration and response to the announcement to the shepherds that the Messiah is born.
4.     Song of Simeon – Nunc dimittis (Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace) – Luke 2:29-32 (today’s lesson and pew bible NT pg. 45) – Sung by the old man Simeon as a reaction to seeing the infant Jesus and recognizing him as the Messiah.
These four beautiful songs have a couple things in common. The songs are all spontaneous.  In other words in all cases the singer bursts into song because he/she can find no other words to describe the wonder and awe and celebration of the moment.  The songs are sung by (or to) outcasts: Mary, a pregnant teenage girl; Zechariah, a disgraced priest; Simeon, a very elderly man (the elderly were outcasts in the first century).  The song of the angels is not sung by outcasts but a group of outcasts (shepherds) forms the audience for this performance.  We have an age span that covers an unborn infant through to the very elderly; we have men and women; we have those who are economically dispossessed (the shepherds) and those who are economically more stable (Zechariah the priest).  In this way Luke covers everyone.  These songs are sung to express the joy and the fulfilling of the promise that is to everyone – rich and poor, men and women, young and old.  Absolutely no one is excluded.
And if we look at the content of the 4 songs we see that all the songs share a major theme: The fulfillment of the promise which God made to Abraham and Sarah and which is now fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.  Mary and Zechariah are explicit in this, Simeon and the Angels imply it.  But there is no question that the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham.  And what is this promise? God has “scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry, sent the rich away empty,” “…given the knowledge of salvation, been merciful and forgiving, brought light into the darkness” and all of that adds up to the gift of Shalom – Peace – complete well-being.  “…guide our feet into the way of shalom;” “and on earth shalom among those who God favors,” “… you are dismissing your servant in shalom.”  The promise of the Messiah is that through him God brings to us all the gift of well-being, unity with God and with others – shalom / peace – and offers it to us with love and grace.
Simeon and Anna, in many respects, are the first disciples.  They see.  They recognize the Messiah and they are overwhelmed by the gift.  For Simeon, this experience allows him to accept his own death.  The songs and the prologue cover everything from birth to death.  All of human experience and existence is held within God’s promise, God’s love and God’s grace – including birth and death; including loss and fear and darkness.  Through the Messiah God enters into the raw reality of human life and brings life and redemption and grace and salvation.
The church has had a tradition of singing the Song of Simeon after Holy Communion, at the time of death, at funerals and for evening prayer. Why? In the words of Dr. David Lose: “For at this table, in this meal, we too, like Simeon, not only hear, but also see, touch, and feel the promise of life God makes to us. And after receiving this promise from God in the bread and wine, we too are propelled to confident and courageous lives even in a world so marked by death and loss. This explains, too, why we sing Simeon's Song in the evening and at funerals, for as darkness overtakes the world, be it the darkness of evening or death, we commend ourselves, all of our lives, and our loved ones to the God made known through the manger and cross, the God who has promised us life eternal in Holy Baptism. anchored by this promise we can go to our night's rest in confidence and entrust even our beloved to the God we know in Jesus.”1

1. Quote from essay "The Oddest Christmas Carol" by David Lose, Luther Seminary, Minneapolis, MN -