What do we expect to see?

A sermon for Proper 24

Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

At lunch the other day, I was at table with Susan Inman a candidate for Secretary of State. I did not know who she was, until we were breaking up. Only then did I realize the depth of her earlier comment “I’m so ready for election season to be over.” I gather she was talking about the frenetic pace of running for state wide elected office. I’m also ready for the election season to be over, though it’s because I’m oh so tired of commercials. Angie and I’ve seen them so often we recognize them before they really get started and rush for the mute button. As tired as I am, I decided to go to last Tuesday evening’s candidate forum. There were no surprises. Plenty of avoid the question answers. Plenty of implications about something else answers. A couple of clear to the point concise answers. And one that hit the spot; although I don’t recall who; the question was something like “What one thing do citizens need?” After a bit of rambling around, the candidate said “Hope.”

The answer is spot on. In troubled times, and these are complicated times, and there are troubles aplenty to be dealt with, all of us, as individuals and as a community, need hope. To lose hope, is to begin the journey to fanaticism.  Karoline Lewis writes:

We know well the triad, “faith, hope, and love” that gloriously rounds out Paul’s chapter on Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13.  …  [note] the order in 1 Thessalonians — faith, love, and hope. The Corinthians need some lovin’.  … the Thessalonians? Their loved ones are dying and Paul said, that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Now what? What happens to those who have died? The Thessalonians need hope. Big time. (Lewis)

They aren’t the first people in the bible to need hope.

Last week, we left Israel in what seems like an okay place. Moses had talked God out of “consuming them.” However, when Moses gets off the mountain and sees what they are up to Moses’ blood boils over. He angrily confronts Aaron who simply says “Well yeah, they gave me gold, I threw it in the fire, and this calf popped out!” Then Moses sees the people running wild, he calls for all those on God’s side to assemble. The sons of Levi do, and before the day is over 3000 people are dead, slaughtered for their transgressions in the affair of the golden calf. The next morning Moses goes to see God, to see if he can make atonement, if he can restore Israel’s fellowship with God. (Holman Bible Dictionary) It doesn’t go all that well.  In short, God tells Moses to begin the journey to the Promised Land, an angel will be with them, but God will not, in part because his presence would consume them.

This morning we pick up the conversation. Like last week, Moses argues with God; he asks hard pressed questions, boarding on demands. He wants to be certain (Brueggemann 5818) God will be with Israel; because he knows that it is God and God alone who makes Israel – Israel.  (Fretheim 3031)

Where God is absent, particular forms of art, literature and social relationships cannot exist. In both eastern European communism and western capitalism we see the effects, though in different ways. In communist countries where the holy dimension of covenant was denied, social relationships became increasingly brutal and empty. Western free-market systems where God’s presence is constrained by consumer economic forces, human dignity fails and life becomes paralyzing and empty. A market society devalues persons who have no productive capacity and relates rapaciously to the environment. (Brueggemann 5839) Its only when God is truly present that any social system provide homes for individuals. And when we fear we are losing God’s presence, we resort to fear mongering. (Mathis) And we see this not only in church or religious settings but also political settings. I suspect it is part of the rising ideological purity that precludes any kind of conversation with any one who is not ideologically pure, as we define it. I worry such fear based ideological fanaticism is finding its way into science, which further addles our ability to see what happening in and to the world around us.

After getting assurances God will be with him and Israel, Moses asks one more question. He wants to see God’s glory? He gets a divinely complicated answer and partial granting of his request. But having been assured, there is life after the golden calf, (Brueggemann 5834) I wonder what Moses expects to see? (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner)

All of us have reveled after one form of the golden calf or another. And we all know it did not just “pop out;” we are fully aware of our own duplicity in trying to manage the devices and desires of our own hearts. The morning after, as we seek to atone, as we try to put our relationship with God back together, when we go looking for God, when we seek to see God’s glory, to see God’s face, to assure us that life will go on, what is it we expect to see?

As for me; I don’t know! I cannot imagine size, nor shape, nor color, nor density, nor any other characteristic; except that whatever we see will convey the knowledge and experience of faith, love and hope.


References

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 33:12-23. 19 10 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

“Holman Bible Dictionary.” WORD – QuickVerse , n.d.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 19 10 2014.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher. 19 10 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mathis, Eric. Working Preacher Exodus 33:12-23. 19 10 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

The commitment of Isaac as hope for today future

A sermon for Proper 8, 3rd after Pentecost

Genesis 2, 2:1-14, Psalm 12, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

Focus: The commitment of Isaac as hope for today future

May 18, 1980 after many hours VGT came into the world and changed our lives forever. Thursday afternoon after many hours LPF came into the world and will change our lives as only grand children can, a new venture I’m looking forward to. I can’t wait to spoil LPF rotten.
LPF’s birth with its remembrance of VGT’s birth brings a poignancy to the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. It brings home in unexpected ways if not the horror, then at least the fear of child sacrifice. However, to get stuck here is to miss-read scripture; it’s a failure to honor its context; the story’s connection to Ishmael and it’s origins in Israel’s captivity in Babylon. Most importantly it is a disservice to our children and grandchildren.

I want to explore four aspects of Isaac’s sacrifice:  the opening conversation, burnt offerings, Ishmael, and the Babylonian context and see how this sacrifice provides hope for today’s children and grandchildren.

We don’t know how long is has been since Ishmael and Hagar left, or since God has spoken to Abraham. But God does call and with a little imagination the conversation goes like this:
Abraham
Here I am
Take your son.
I have two sons.
Your only son.
Each is the only son of his mother.
The one whom you love.
Is there any limit to a father’s love?
[Take] Isaac ~ (Schifferdecker)
[and] go to the land of Moriah,
and offer him there
as a burnt offering
on one of the mountains
that I shall show you.
Imaging the opening verses as a conversation allows us to hear that Abraham remembers his older son, that God told him to let Ishmael go, and that he does not want to lose Isaac. Two other notes: Abraham is directed to go to Moriah but to yet another unknown location; when he and Isaac leave the attendants Abraham tells them:
… the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.
Abraham knows what God is asking, yet here is says we will come back not I. It seems there is more that Abraham is aware of than we are aware of.

Burnt Offerings are one type of sacrifice in the Temple Cultic sacrificial system. That system hasn’t been established yet (more about this later); however, the idea of brunt offerings is well established in the story’s time line. The Hebrew ʿōlâ is most frequently translated burnt offering; it is also translated to ascent or to go up. It’s root ʿālâ means to come up, to ascend.  (Strong’s Talking Greek and Hebrew Dictionary)
Easton’s Dictionary notes burnt offerings were regarded as ascending to God while being consumed (Easton). It is at least conceivable that Abraham has a notion that he is shepherding Isaac into God’s presence, and perhaps to commit him to God’s service, as all first born will be after the Passover, or as Nasserites will be (Samuel, 1 Samuel 1:11).

I was surprised the connection between Ishmael’s story and the story of Isaac’s sacrifice was mentioned only once, and there was no commentary. A quick review of Ishmael’s story. Sarah decides Ishmael is a threat to Isaac and tells Abraham to take Hagar and Ishmael into the dessert. God tells him to do as Sarah says, lso that Ishmael and Hagar will be okay, that God will make a nation of him. (Genesis 21:13).
He does as God tells him. Genesis tells us Ishmael does well.

We do not know how long it is between Ishmael’s and Hagar’s dismissal and Isaac’s journey to sacrifice. It must be some years, because Isaac walks the distance, carries the wood for the sacrifice, and engages his father in knowledgeable conversation about the sacrifice, so he would be at least in his early teens. Time enough for Abraham to know of Ishmael’s life. He knows God keeps God’s word. So here’s the logic. Abraham knows God’s logic is incomprehensible. Abraham knows God keeps God’s promise. Abraham knows God promised him an heir, knows Isaac is that heir: it is through Isaac that offspring will be named for you. (Genesis 21:12 b) so even though this journey to sacrifice Isaac makes no sense Abraham makes the journey in faith that God will do as God always has, keep his promise, Isaac will be his heir.

Finally Babylon. You may remember from a couple of weeks ago that Genesis was written when Israel was in captivity in Babylon, over against competing creation myths. Isaac’s sacrifice may well be oral tradition; however, it too is written over against the oppressive and corrupting conditions in exile. Terence Fretheim’s writes: Exilic Israel may have seen itself in both Abraham and Isaac … (Fretheim 494)
Fretheim continues:
God has put Israel to a test in which many children died, has called forth its continuing faith, has delivered it through the fires of
judgment and renewed the promises. (Fretheim 494)

Visualizing Israel as Abraham assure leaders of a captive people that God is faithful and has not abandoned them. Visualizing Israel as Isaac assures the future. Both encourage Israel to keep the faith, to remain obedient to God, which will not speak to sacrificial rites, but rather keeping their allegiance to one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I mentioned earlier the cultic sacrificial system was not established in the story’s time line. But, as it was written in Babylon exile, the sacrifices, though not available are part Israel’s lore. They know what burnt offerings are. They know about: the Passover commitment of all first born to God, and Nasserite commitment.

There are all kinds of gleanings in the story of Isaac’s sacrifice. Is Isaac the heir God promises? God does not know what Abraham will do.
Will Abraham be faithful? They are all about relationships:
God and Abraham (and Sarah),
Abraham and Isaac,
Isaac and God,
God and Israel,
God and us.
For VGT now VGF and LPF and PF the story of Isaac’s sacrifice is not about brutal sacrifice. We must move beyond that fear to gleanings worth sharing:
Always engage God in conversation, it will lead you to insight.
Never be afraid to shepherd your beloved into God’s presence.
God is frequently inscrutable, but always faithful.
Life is full of trials and desperate times, that may separate you from all you believed crucial; Paul say it best:
38  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV))
Amen

Works Cited
Easton, Matthew George. Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Wordsearch, 2008.
Fretheim, Terence E. The New Intrepreter’s Bible, Genesis. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. 1. 2003. 12 vols.
Schifferdecker, Kathryn. “Genesis 22:1-14 Commentary by Kathryn Schifferdecker – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL).” 24 6 2014. Working Preacher. web. 24 6 2014. .
Strong’s Talking Greek and Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.

Dry or Wet Still Dead?

Dry Bones is one of my favorite scripture readings. I suspect because long ago I heard it read by a skilled Lector who brought the story amazing alive. I can still sense the evocation of winds, rattling bones, and emerging layers of flesh, and rush of breath.

Rush forward some decades and I drew a connection between the valley of dry bones, and the dead marshes in Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers.  It is the site of the Battle of Dagorlad at the end of the Second Age. Only here the bodies of the dead are preserved by the cold waters of encroaching swamps. As they traverse the dismal place Frodo and Samwise are warned not to touch the bodies else they risk falling to their own death.

The landscapes could not be more different: one dessert, arid, and desiccating, the other swap, cold, and sullen waters. Neither could they be more alike: both the scenes of long forgotten battles, where myriads fell and lie forgotten, given over to the ravages of time.

It is the stories that capture the imagination. The bodies forsake in the dead marshes are forever forsaken. There is no hope. While the bones of the valley, are not. There is hope for them for I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

That ruah (breath, wind, spirit) came and desiccated, detached bones ḥāyâ (revive) is improbable in its day. Today it is all the more improbable. But no more improbable than Creator God expending inconceivable force of love by which dust assembles and ruah brings ḥāyâ (life) for the first time. Therein lies hope beyond all understanding, for I, the Lord, have spoken and will act – actually has and continues to act.

5th in Lent, Dry Bones, Lord of Rings, death, life, hope, ruah,

A sermon for Christmas 2 & Epiphany

Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a, Matthew 2:1-15,19-23, Psalm 84 or 84:1-8

 

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again. 

I expect you know that nursery rhyme. I cannot remember not knowing it. It first appeared in the mid 1800’s, makes an appearance in Through the Looking-Glass, and though often presented as an egg, egg is never mentioned. As interesting, as all this is, is the rhyme’s political history. For ears I have known, though I can’t cite the source,it is a critique of the King’s army and Calvary in a day when such critique could cost you your head. It may originally refer to Richard II or English Civil War. [i] In the interest of full disclosure, both those predate the earliest printed version, so who knows. Those connections bring up the reality that in literature there is often meaning behind what we read, especially when it’s an old text, whose cultural assumptions are lost to the ravages of time. This is often the case in scripture, and is certainly true in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel story.

 You know the story of the wise men, who: follow a star to Jerusalem, ask Herod Where is the new born King of the Jews? follow the advice  of Herod’s advisors, and continue to  Bethlehem where they offer baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then rather than returning to Herod, as agreed, they follow advice,  that comes in a dream, and head home by another way. The same dream giver warns Joseph, who gathers up Mary, baby Jesus and flees to Egypt. Denied his opportunity to kill off the rival claimant to the throne, Herod kills all the boys in Bethlehem Jesus’ age. After Herod dies, Joseph, in another dream is told to return home. He does, until he learns that Herod’s son Archelaus is King, and he settles in Nazareth.

 I am sure you heard the cited references to scripture:

           from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd  my people Israel.

          ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ 

          A voice was heard in Ramah,
             wailing and loud lamentation,
          Rachel weeping for her children;

          He will be called a Nazorean.

The first is from Micah, anticipates God’s reign, which will end imperial ambitions [ii] and that gets any King’s attention. It also emphasizes Jesus’ connection to David, Israel’s iconic King [iii] strike two. The appearance of foreign dignitaries bringing treasures to Israel’s King fits Isaiah’s prophecy and references in Numbers, and the Psalms. [iv] Moreover to pay homage, also means worship, and implies submission to a political power. Strike three, four and … on the imperial attention scale. [v]

The out of Egypt bit evokes all sorts of historical imagery. From Genesis, the story of Joseph and the Hebrews going to Egypt to escape death from famine [vi] comes to mind. This connects Jesus to the last of Israel’s three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Joseph, who are at the heart of Israel’s relationship to God.

The third scripture citing, is associated with the murder of lots of innocent children. It quotes Jeremiah expressing lament for the tragedies of defeat by Assyria, and exile in Babylon; both defining events in Israel’s history. The lament also evokes the memory of slavery in Egypt, which includes Pharaoh’s effort to subdue the Hebrews by ordering the mid wives to allow all the Hebrew all boys to die at birth. The mid wives defer to their awe of God. The murder and attempted murder of the innocent, whoever they may be, is a common response of powerful elite who feel threatened. It is not God’s will for the innocent to die, or to be oppressed or dispossessed; unfortunately it has been and will be a reality until the Kingdom fully arrives. But we should note, neither murderous efforts of Pharaoh or Herod displace God’s purposes. In lament, there is hope. [vii]

The final bit of scripture He will be called a Nazorean. Jesus living in Nazareth, is a pun with Nazirite; one who vows to be set aside for God,under terms established in Numbers. The vow can be temporary, or lifelong. We are familiar with Sampson; others who took lifelong vows are Samuel, John the Baptist, and, while in  in Corinth, Paul. [viii] The critical ideal is absolute dedication to serving God.

 When we re read Matthew’s story of the wise men, from a Humpty Dumpty perspective there are a couple of gleanings. From the beginning the coming of Christ encounters hostility; [ix] empire, in whatever form, and modern empire looks very different than ancient empire, strikes back; and the insignificant people welcome God’s initiative. [x] Secondly, from the outset, Matthew wants readers to see Israel’s story in Jesus’ story. [xi] For us, Matthew wants us to see our story in Jesus’ story.

We are at the very end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when we, by celebrating Jesus’ birth, remind ourselves, that the incarnation touches every corner of creation, touches you ,touches your neighbor, the environment, the very stars, so far – far away. That means everything is of God, is literally touched by God, and that defines our relationship with: the stars, our environment, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Monday is Epiphany, when we celebrate those infamous wise men, who traveled two years to pay homage, to worship Jesus, the light of the world. They tell us Jesus is sovereign over all, including governments, even elected governments. That does not mean we throw out our Constitution, and its provision that prohibits the state from establishing a religion. It does mean we should expect our elected leaders to begin every deliberation, to make every decision from the moral foundation of the incarnation.

It also means that we, as a church community as individuals begin every effort from that same moral foundation. The wise men’s story also tells us honoring God, serving God takes time; sometimes it takes years just to get to the place to begin.  

As we a new year; as we begin inviting people     to join us at our new worship time, as we begin – inviting our neighbors to Friday Families; as we begin to discern, plan and launch: Brewing Faith, and Stephen’s house we do so from the perspective of everyone’s incarnate being; knowing it will take us time just to get started; knowing that there will be push back, from the beginning from those who perceive it all as threat; knowing that amidst murderous intent there is divine hope; knowing that Jesus is in our story, that Jesus is our story, and that enlightens our lives even to far-end of the stars.

  


[ii] New Interpreters’ Study Bible, Matthew 2:1

[iii] ibid

[iv] New Interpreters’ One Volume Commentary, Matthew 3;

                Isaiah 60:1-7; Numbers 24:17, Psalm 72:10-11,15

[v] NISB, NI1VOL 

[vi] ibid

[vii] ibid

[viii] Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton; Holman Bible Dictionary General Editor, Trent C. Butler, Ph.D; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia., James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor

[ix] NI1VOL

[x] NISB

[xi] NI1VOL

Others’ sight

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hosting a member of the Army medical team, serving through Operation Healthy Delta, at our Rotary meeting. He was impressed with our facilities, the breadth and quality of our lunch options, the skills and talents of our members, our club assembly, and that we had a former District Governor as a member. Also, in our conversation to and from lunch (and other short chats) he expressed his delight (and surprise) with the hospitality, generosity, and appreciation of the people he has meet. He is also rather jealous of our more genteel pace of life. His impression stands in contrast to the way we tend to hear folks here talk about our selves (which is not necessarily as surprise). It reminds me of the value there is in listening to how others see us, so that we may better see ourselves.

Isaiah 1:10ff and Psalm 50 are intriguingly similar. Both blatantly expose the truth of Israel’s notorious behavior that exceedingly displeases God. Both acknowledge Israel follows ritual custom with respect to Temple sacrifices, and the truth that any effect they have on behavior stops at the walls of the Temple, that there is abundant evidence Israel is morally and ethically bankrupt. Isaiah declares all Israel’s worship is a burdensome abomination. Psalm 50 is the setting of a cosmic court in which all the cosmos will testify against Israel. We glibly leave these reading in sole relationship to Israel; and try to ignore the truth they reveal about ourselves, we do not like this other’s view, but deep in our souls we know its truth.

At the same time, both readings present another view of ourselves. Isaiah offers hope; our scarlet sins shall be like snow, our crimson unrighteousness shall become like wool. Psalm 50: 24 reads …those who keep in my way will I show the salvation of God. The hope offered here reveals the other way Israel, we, are seen by God. We are worth offering hope to. We have the potential to change. We are beloved by God.

Both the others’ visions of systemic unrighteousness and the divine love inspired offer of hope are inexorably linked. We can not bear to acknowledge the truth of our behavior with the possibility of hope, and we can not see the need for hope with out acknowledging our unrighteousness. We need both visions.

Thanks to the soldiers serving the needs of people in the delta, and sharing a fuller vision of our selves. Thanks for prophetic voices bluntly speaking truth, thanks be to God for love inspired hope, revealing the divine sight of what is, and what is to be.

unseen and unexpected

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen… (Hebrews (11:1ff)

… be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Luke 12:32-40)

This is the third day of Operation Healthy Delta; a collaboration of US Armed services, The Delta Regional Commission, local and state governments, and in our area, local churches, and businesses. Medical exams, dental exams, fillings and extractions, eye exams, and some glasses, and wellness/mental health care are provide free of change to any one who walks in the door. It has been and will be an awesome, inspiring experience. The soldiers and volunteers are enthusiastic. The patients are appreciative. And the community at large is generously responsive.

It came to me, most certainly a gift of the divine muse, that this experience is a refection of this week’s appointed scriptures. The first is Paul’s defination of faith as the conviction of things not seen. I know the theological point. But this week I am witnessing a ministry point. 40 soldiers from points beyond arrive and will work 9 straight 10 hour days providing care to people they have never seen before, and will (most likely) never seen again. Many of the services offered include a reference to other health care providers (unknown to the soldiers) at some future time. These medical professionals have no assurance of anything in the future. They have no idea what the future of their hard caring professional labor will yield, and yet they labor on in the conviction that their labors will yield good fruit.  In a world of short term accountability, even in the Church, we can learn.

The Gospel reading concludes with the eschatological line: “… the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  I have heard it preached, I have preached and taught these words as pointing to the end of time return of Jesus and the restoration of the Kingdom. And yet, there is a right here right now gleaning. No one knows when nor how the messiah will return. We’ve no way of knowing which patient, or volunteer, or soldier is a manifestation of the  returning of our incarnate God. It is my observation that everyone is treating everyone as if they may be unexpected coming of Jesus, if even for just a fleeting moment. In our world of “I anything” we can learn.

Light and hope

In the last few days soldiers from US Armed Forces have begun to arrive in preparation for Operation Healthy Delta (part of the reserve training program) which kicks off Monday at 9:00 am. The soldiers will be providing medical assessments and screenings, dental extractions and fillings, eye exams and glasses, and wellness screenings. It is a cooperative effort of the Department of Defense, The Delta Regional Commission, city government and police, the community college, the local hospital, the Charitable Clinic, local church’s and numerous volunteers. Similar cooperation is seen in the other 3 location of this operation. In nine days the soldiers goal is to provide services to 1,800 people from Mississippi county and nearby.

It is a pleasure to be a part of a collaborative effort of so many diverse organizations and people. It reveals just what can be done, when dedicated people come together to serve others. Before the first patient is seen it is already a source to hope and inspiration.

I suppose what I am getting at is in a culture full of instant news, which tends to be dark, dangerous and gloomy, there is light and hope. From families gathering in support of the marriage of two delightful ladies, to medical services provided to all who care to walk in the door. Look for, listen for it, join in, proclaim it; it will change the lives of those around you, it will change your life.