Friday, June 27, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 22:1-14

Read the text here: Genesis 22:1-18

Hineni = Here I Am!

In many respects this story of the Sacrifice of Isaac (or, as it is known in Jewish Tradition – “The Binding of Isaac”) is one of the most difficult stories in the bible to interpret and for 21st century believers to even hear.  The principal objection centers around the issue of human sacrifice, or even worse, child sacrifice and the suggestion that God not only approves, but that God is the one who commands it.  Even the fact that Isaac is not sacrificed in the end does little to compensate for the sense of revulsion we feel towards both Abraham and God in this story. So we reject and perhaps ignore the story.  Or we come up with a couple favorite explanations that we use to explain it away.  Perhaps the most prevalent of these explanations is that we want see the story as a story of beginnings and a transition from uncivilized cultures that practiced human sacrifice to the more humane animal sacrifice.  But the problem with this explanation is that it is simply not true.  By the time this story was actually written down from the oral tradition human sacrifice had been abandoned and condemned not only in Israel but among Israel’s pagan neighbors as well.  So if this is not the point of the story, what is the point of this story?
The point of the story in a word is contained in one word – testing.  Well, now, that opens a whole other set of objections.  And these hit even closer to home.  We 21st century Christians do not like the idea of a God who tests our faith, especially in such a dramatic way. But even so, we do have some idea that perhaps our faith is tested from time to time.  This is how we explain away suffering, loss and challenge.  “God must be testing us” we say when we have suffered some kind of loss or other difficulty.  Well, no.  God doesn’t send those kinds of test.  The bible is clear about that.  When we experience hardship or loss this is not the kind of test that God is in the business of sending.  And this is not the kind of test that Abraham faces in this story.  So, who exactly is being tested and how?
Go… leave your land… wander... settle in the place I will show you…  With these words God begins this adventure and Abraham obeys.  And in this act Abraham gives up his past.  Go… take the Son whom you love… to the place I will show you… offer him there as a burnt sacrifice…  With this command Abraham faces the loss of the future.  The child of promise, Isaac, the one who would father a great nation who would be a blessing to the nations is now to be destroyed? What then was the point of chapters 12 though 21?  What about the promise?  Would God so easily destroy the promise?  If the sacrifice is Isaac is carried out the promise is nullified and God’s objective of reaching out to the creation through the people of the promise is destroyed as well.  Maybe Abraham is not the only one being tested here.  Maybe God’s own commitment and love is also on the line.  Maybe God is also being tested!
Jesus, God incarnate, born in Bethlehem, emerges from the wilderness and begins a life of embodying the in-breaking into the present of the Kingdom of God.  In the words and actions of Jesus the Kingdom of God has come into our midst, God’s love and grace is showered upon us and through Jesus God is bringing the world into relationship with God.  But it comes to an abrupt end.  “Let this cup pass from me…” Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.  What is going on?  Will God really allow his son to be destroyed by crucifixion?  Will the promise that is embodied in Jesus be destroyed that simply?  Will crucifixion put an end to God’s involvement with the creation once and for all?
God will provide the ram for the sacrifice my son…  And there caught in the thicket is a ram.  On the first day of the week at early dawn, the women went to the tomb… And there the tomb is empty.  Jesus is risen! Resurrection is God’s response to crucifixion! The ram in the thicket is God’s response to the threatened loss of the promise.  God’s commitment to the promise – God’s commitment to the creation – God’s commitment to you and me and all of us is unwavering.  A bound Isaac on the altar waiting to be butchered; a crucified Jesus hanging on the cross seem to suggest that in fact God is not committed, and that ultimately death and the powers of death are stronger than the powers of life and love and grace.  But then there is resurrection!  And resurrection concerns the keeping of a promise where there is no ground for it.  Faith is nothing other than trust in the power of resurrection against every deadly circumstance.  Abraham knows beyond understanding that God will find a way to bring life even into the midst of this scenario of death.  That is the faith of Abraham.  That is (also) the faith of the listening community.(1)
This story is also a story of demands.  God demonstrates God’s complete and total commitment to the creation and to us in Jesus, and we see this in this story as well.  God demands from Abraham everything, his total unwavering commitment. But God also demands the same from us: our complete and total commitment.  God gave up his only son; Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his future and all that he had – what about you?  We don’t like to think about a demanding God.  We like to think of a giving God that showers blessings without expecting much if anything in return.  But this story shows us that God does expect something from us – God demands our very life.  Jesus makes the same point in the Gospel text – pick up your cross… those who would loose their life for the sake of the Gospel will find it…
Abraham is called three times in this story – 1st by God; 2nd by Isaac; 3rd and finally by God.  Each time Abraham responds with this word = Hineni.  This is a Hebrew word that is translated = Here I am.  There are no great protestations of faith by Abraham; there are no speeches or sermons.  Just a simple word – Hineni!  Perhaps here we can learn something about responding to God.  The ideas of this story – the idea of God’s demands upon us can be very overwhelming, not to mention confusing.  What are we to do?  How do we respond?  Perhaps we simply open ourselves up to God and say what Abraham says, Hineni – Here I am – and to that we might even add Jesus’ words from the Garden – not my will but your will be done.  God provides from Abraham, God’s response to crucifixion is resurrection.  Do we trust God to provide for us?  Hineni – Here I am….
(1) Quote from The Interpretation Commentary on Genesis by Walter Bruggemann, page 197

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 21

Read the text here: Genesis 21:1-21

Sarah & Hagar – Exile & Hope
You will be a great nation… Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars… This promise from God to Abraham and Sarah must have seemed rather outrageous to this aging couple.  Well past childbearing years, how in the world could this promise be fulfilled?  So, never one to just sit on the sidelines and wait, Abraham and Sarah take things into their own hands.  Sarah gives Abraham her slave Hagar and from them is born a son – Ishmael.  There! Problem solved! 
Well… not exactly.  The Lord visits Abraham and Sarah in the form of 3 visitors and tells them that Sarah will have a child and that Ishmael is afterall not the child of promise.  Sarah, for her part finds the whole thing ridiculous and she laughs – and the Hebrew word here does not indicate a kind of joyous laughter, but rather Sarah laughs a cynical, mocking laughter.  But (as Falstaff says in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”) “He who laughs last, laughs best.”  God has the last laugh, and it is a joyous laughter as Isaac (which means child of laughter) is born, is circumcised, is weaned and begins to grow.
But it is not all laughter, for there is a problem – Ishmael.  The slave girl Hagar and her son by Abraham are still around and their presence inflames Sarah’s jealousy.  Finally she can stand it no longer and tells Abraham to send them away (remember we are on the edge of the desert here).  Abraham doesn’t like the idea but is eventually convinced that it is best to do as Sarah desires and that God approves – so he gives them a little water and sends them into the desert!  To die!
But does God really approve of this?  How can the God of Jesus – the God of love and grace approve of what Abraham and Sarah do here?  A couple thoughts on this:  First, the overall story of the book of Genesis is a story of how God wants to be involved in a relationship with the creation and the humans whom God has created.  God is the main character of the book of Genesis and is also the most tragic character in the book of Genesis.  For no matter what God does human selfishness is always messing things up.  And Abraham and Sarah are the first in a long line of biblical characters whose selfishness continues to get in the way and make a mess of things.
2nd – Luther famously commented that one should always read the bible through the eyes of the Gospel – through grace-colored glasses.  When confronted with a passage that contradicts the God of grace, you go with the God who we have come to know through Jesus.  Genesis 21:12 is an instance.  Did God approve of the cruel attempted murder of Hagar and Ishmael? This is out of character with the God who we experience in the Gospel, so, for me, the answer is a resounding no – this is not what God wanted or intended!  It is not God’s will that Hagar and Ishmael be sent to die in the desert.  In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that what I see in this story is a rather arrogant Abraham and Sarah who have come to think of themselves as having this unique and exclusive relationship with God, and from that they begin to assume that they can speak for God.  So, when they decide (like when they decided to take Hagar in the first place) that this mother and child should be destroyed they are assuming that they are speaking for God.  What I think is what God thinks!  This, of course, is a major problem with otherwise sincere and pious religious persons of all times.  We see it all the time in our own society.  My opinions, my prejudices, my actions, my pronouncements they are God’s, because I have a special relationship with God and know what God really thinks – that is God thinks like me!  Well, no!  There is great danger in this as it leads to horrible consequences. And when we do take a stand on something that we believe is a faithful stance we need to do this with great humility.
And this then leads us to point number #3 – God’s own reaction to the decision and actions of Abraham and Sarah: God visits Hagar and Ishmael.  God saves them.  And not only that – the most amazing thing is this: God extends the covenant to them!  God widens the tent.  Move over Abraham and Sarah, this foreign woman and her son, this nothing, this slave, this untouchable is also loved and has been brought into the covenant to share in God’s promises.  We see the same thing in Jesus.  Jesus is always reaching out to “those” people that good religious people don’t want anything to do with.  God is always inviting everyone to the party that we thought would be an exclusive affair: Hagar, Ishmael, Zacheaus, Mary Magdalene – tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees; those who are hungry are fed, those who are thirsty are given drink, those who are sick are healed, those with demons are exorcized – those who need to be loved are loved!  This is the gift of the promise and it is extended to all.
In this then is hope.  In this story from Genesis we see that even in the midst of barrenness, arrogance, unfaithfulness, rejection, loneliness, hunger, thirst and violence – through it all hope never dies.  And what is hope?  We in our 21st century society tend to confuse hope and optimism.  But hope is not optimism. For, “while optimism involves the expectation that things are eventually going to get better, hope asserts that no matter what may come, no matter how bad things may get, yet God’s word and promise will prevail.”(1) This story is a story of hope in the midst of horrible adversity.  And we continue to hold on to this hope that we base on Jesus, crucified and risen again.  For no matter how dark things seem and how dark things get, God, through Christ will prevail! God, through Christ, will be present with us every step of the way!
(1) Quote taken from “Preaching at the Crossroads” by David Lose; © 2013 Augsburg-Fortress Press.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Reflections – Holy Trinity

3 Visitors - The Holy Trinity - By Rublev (14th C.)
Genesis 18

Beginning with worship this weekend I will be focusing on a series of lessons taken from the book of Genesis which tells the story of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Israel: Abraham & Sarah; Isaac & Rebekah; Jacob & Rachel (and Leah and Laban and Esau); and Joseph and his brothers. These are terrific stories and have much to say to us today, but there is one verse in particular which lay at the foundation of each and every one of those stories – in fact, it might be argued that this verse really lay at the foundation of both the Old and New Testament – here is the verse:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  Genesis 12:1-2
Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity; the one church festival that is given over entirely to celebrate a church doctrine. And as central and important as this doctrine is, it is at the same time a particularly difficult doctrine to understand and one over which there has been a lot of conflict over the years.  I am not going to try to explain it, because it is as much a mystery to me as it is to anyone else.  And, I do not have all the right answers here.  But I can share a few illustrations and thoughts.  All of which are not the whole story and have their limitations, but perhaps they might help us to think about the Trinity in a new way.
First, a story from St. Augustine: One day St. Augustine was walking on the beach when he encountered a little boy trying to pour the whole ocean into a hole he had dug. When Augustine told him what he was trying to do was impossible the little boy said "neither can you fit the Holy Trinity into your tiny mind."  From there St. Augustine offers this illustration of the Holy Trinity (and it is one of my favorite images): When you think of the Trinity, think of love – God the Father is the lover, the Son is the beloved and the love shared between the two is the Holy Spirit.
Here’s another, from the Desert Fathers: Think of the Holy Trinity as Light – The source of Light is the Father, the light itself which provides the illumination is the Son and the warmth one feels from the light is the Holy Spirit. And one more, from Meister Eckhardt: When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasures gives joy, that joy gives love, and the love is the Holy Spirit.
Finally, allow me to share that for me the Holy Trinity is primarily about relationship.  The Trinity is a relationship within God’s self of Father, Son and Spirit, but it is also how God has chosen to relate to us and how we experience God.  The Father, Son and Spirit define our relationship with God.  It is so easy for us to fall into a focus on one person of the Trinity over the others.  Some Christians relate to Father, some focus on Jesus, some on the Spirit.  But to do this is like getting a bike for Christmas and instead of putting it together so you can ride it, you pull out the seat or the frame or the wheels and play with that part and ignore the rest of the bike.  You aren’t going very far on that bike if you do that.  Similarly, we limit our own experience of God when we focus on one person of the Trinity and exclude the others.  This is one reason we regularly remember our Baptism and Luther encourages us to make the sign of the cross – this keeps us grounded in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit.
And lastly, in Baptism we are brought into this relationship that God has within God’s self, and we become a part of the relationship within God and this should define our relationship with others.  The images above lift up joy and laughter, light and love.  This is the gift the Trinity offers to us and the gift we are called to allow God to reflect to others through us – in other words: We are called to be a blessing!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Reflections on Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21

Read the text here: Acts 2:1-11

Unpredictable & Dangerous
For the last few weeks we have been considering the Holy Spirit.  In the Gospel of John the Spirit of God is referred to as the Paraclete.  The literal meaning of Paraclete is “one that comes up beside someone.”  The image I offered was of a small child in a swimming pool learning to swim, with the parent holding on to the child.  There are other English words that are used to describe the Holy Spirit – “Advocate” is the word that is most often used to translate Paraclete.   John also uses a word that is translated as “comforter.” In the Gospels the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus at his Baptism in the form of a dove.  And this is the image that has perhaps caught on the most.  Look at the cover of this bulletin for example – there you will see a typical drawing depicting the Holy Spirit: a sweet dove.
But in the original languages the word “Spirit” is a little more nuanced.  The Hebrew word is RUACH  (roo-ack) and the Greek word is Pneuma (nooma), and these words can mean “Spirit” or “Breath” or “Wind.”  In Genesis 1:1 we read that the “Spirit of God moved over the waters.”  This could also be translated as “the Breath of God moved over the waters,” or “the wind of God moved over the waters.”  And while in our mind we might imagine the “wind of God” as a gentle breeze, let’s face it the winds sometimes are much less than gentle.  In fact, the wind can be downright violent, dangerous and unpredictable. 
One more image: in Mark 1:12 we read that following Jesus’ Baptism and the descent upon him of the Holy Spirit as a dove this dove/Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness.  Mathew and Luke changed the word “drove” to “led” but in Mark the word is “drove” which is a violent word.  It gives us the image of the Holy Spirit as a wild bird that is swooping down with its talons extended chasing Jesus into the wilderness.  Maybe our image of the Holy Spirit as the sweet benign dove, or the gentle breeze is not a complete picture and maybe there is more to this Holy Spirit than we want to admit!
In the Acts text – the 11 disciples (and others) had watched Jesus ascend to the Father.  Before he left them he gave them a very specific calling – you are to be my witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  Time to get to work Jesus is telling them.  Then the angels come as they stand gazing into the sky – time to get to work, they say!  So the disciples go back to their room and they do – nothing!  They hang out there together afraid and confused.  If they are concerned about anything it is self-preservation.  They have the door locked, which means not only do they have themselves locked in, but others are locked out.  They are safe in that place (they think).  I suppose they think that they can just continue like this forever.  Is this what Jesus had in mind when he gave them his last pre-Ascension instructions?
But then the room is invaded.  The gentle breeze of the Spirit is no longer a gentle breeze!  It is a “rushing wind” which means it is like a tornado!  It is not stopped by the locked doors, which it rips open and then the text tells us that these disciples find themselves in the streets.  How did they get there?  They were driven there by the Spirit! Just like Jesus being driven into the wilderness, the disciples are driven into the streets and there they begin to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, crucified and risen.  And not only that but the “tongues of fire” which appear simply means that this wild, crazy, unpredictable and dangerous Spirit has lit a fire in their hearts that cannot be contained. 
So maybe this Spirit that we receive at our Baptisms and for which we will again pray for each of these confirmands is not such a gentle Spirit.  Our prayers for the Spirit will expose all of these young people to the Holy Spirit, and this Spirit is unpredictable and dangerous!  It can and will drive and lead us into places we might not want to go; it can and will call into question all of our comfortable assumptions and priorities!  This Spirit pushes us into being confronted with the truth of the Gospel that all of those people who we are afraid of and who are different from us and who we want to lock out of our lives are actually our brothers and sisters for whom we have responsibility!  This wild bird of a Spirit is pushing us to engage with all kinds of other people, take responsibility for the needs and problems of the world; to reach out in care, and love and kindness to those who need to hear a word of kindness and need to experience care and love!  For when the Holy Spirit gets loose there is no telling what will happen next!  This was certainly true with the disciples – and it is true for us as well!