Category: Lent

Settling in the Promised Land – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4C (Joshua 5)

Underground Railroad Monument – Windsor Ontario
 

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. 11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

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                On the day the people of Israel left Egypt for the freedom that would come when they reached the Promised Land, they observed Passover (Exodus 12). It is revealed to Moses, that “you shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a day of perpetual ordinance” (Ex. 12:17). After the many years of wandering in the wilderness, and a passing of the baton of leadership from Moses to Joshua, Israel finally arrives in the Promised Land. Moses led them through the sea, across Sinai, and on to the river. That is where Moses’ season of leadership ended. Moses wouldn’t cross the river, for he represented the old. In his place, Joshua led the people across the Jordan and into a new future. The promise YHWH made to Joshua was: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1: 9). With that command preparations began for the move into the Promised Land.   
 
                The book of Joshua presents us with many problems, with the idea of conquest standing at the very center. Israel might be a wandering people, just like their ancestor Abraham, looking for a place to put down roots, but the land which they were about to enter was already inhabited. It should not surprise us that the inhabitants of the land wouldn’t be thrilled about welcoming this new people into their land. Such has been the feeling down the ages as people migrate from one place to another, often pushing the original inhabitants off their land, even as they a place to settle in and make a home.  Migration often means displacement for those who dwell in the land. It has happened before and continues to happen. Such is the narrative here. The people of Israel fled slavery only to invade the lands inhabited by others. Their invasion seems to be blessed by God, but you can understand that not everyone viewed this invasion in the same way.
Joshua rarely makes an appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary, this reading from Joshua 5, as brief as it is, is one of those appearances. The problematic nature of the Conquest makes Joshua a book easily omitted, and yet here in this passage we see the culmination of the exodus from Egypt. At the same time, we must not forget that this invasion led to displacement and death for those who resided in the land God is said to give to the people of Israel.  Again, we are reminded that Scripture, though Sacred and normative for our faith journey, requires careful discernment so that we might a word from God from its pages.
Keeping in mind the challenges posed by the Book of Joshua, we can attend to this brief excerpt from the story concerning the arrival of the people in a land where they could finally stop wandering and put down roots. I think we can understand why this might be desirable. Consider the refugees of our age. The Palestinian people for one, but they are not alone. Those who have been migrating north from the violence of Central America also come hoping to find a place to put down their roots.
In the verses we read just prior to this passage, we’re reminded that a new generation has arisen, the people who left Egypt forty years earlier having now passed on, along with Moses and Aaron and Miriam. Those who left Egypt had been circumcised before their departure, but according to the text, no circumcisions occurred during the journey. Joshua rectified that situation, marking the people (men) as members of the covenant people through circumcision. With this act, we’re told, the “disgrace of Egypt” was removed. As a result, Joshua named this place where the men of Israel were circumcised was called was Gilgal (Josh 5:2-9). While the reference to the disgrace of Egypt, which has been rolled away by God, is somewhat ambiguous. It is possible that with the crossing of the river into the Promised Land and the act of circumcision, the last vestiges of slavery were removed. Now, having arrived in the Land, they could finally breathe easily. The time of wandering was over. They could settle in and plant themselves.
Egypt was removed, sets the stage for the next act in the story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Even as the journey out of Egypt began with the celebration of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so the celebration of arrival in the Promised Land involves the celebration of Passover, which was to be kept in perpetuity. So, while encamped at Gilgal, before the conquest of Jericho, the people celebrated Passover (on the fourteenth day of the month). It is said that the day after Passover, “they ate the produce of the land.” Now it doesn’t say that they planted crops and then harvested them. They hadn’t been in the Land long enough to plant crops and grow them, so they must have taken them from their new neighbors. The meal apparently involved unleavened bread and parched grain. Nothing is said of lambs or any other meat. When we think of Passover, we should probably not think in terms of the modern form that some of us have experienced. That form came much later, though it is rooted in ancient practices. With the celebration of Passover, however, the story comes full circle. The people have experienced deliverance and liberation and are free to make a new life in a new land.   
 
There is another important element in this story, which reminds us that the time of wandering has ended. Now that they have crossed the river, they can now begin to provide for themselves. So, God brings an end to the provision of manna, the bread of heaven. As John Wesley puts it:

The manna ceased – Which God now withheld, to shew that Manna was not an ordinary production of nature, but an extraordinary and special gift of God to supply their necessity. And because God would not be prodigal of his favours, by working miracles where ordinary means were sufficient. The morrow – That is, on the seventeenth day.  [Wesley’s Notes].

Now that they were in the Land, a reality marked by the celebration of Passover, the extraordinary gave way to the ordinary.  Such is the way in which we live, with the ordinary being sufficient. With this provision of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, we can give thanks to God.
                With Fred Pratt Green, we can sing
In the just reward of labor, God’s will is done;
in the help we give our neighbor, God’s will is done;
in our worldwide task of caring for the hungry and despairing,
in the harvests we are sharing, God’s will is done.   
[“For the Fruit of All Creation,” Chalice Hymnal, 714].
Amen

 

Come to the Waters of the Lord – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3C (Isaiah 55)

Isaiah 55:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
55 Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
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                The prophet whom the majority of scholars call Second Isaiah spoke words of hope to a people living in exile. The words of Second Isaiah are found in chapters 40 to 55, which means this reading for the Third Sunday of Lent comes from the closing chapter of that “book” (in the remainder of this reflection I will simply refer to the prophet as Isaiah). To live in exile is to live a life of uncertainty. You don’t have full control over your lives. The land on which you live is not your own. It can be taken from you in a moment’s time, along with sources of food, shelter, and employment. Though not mentioned here, Isaiah’s audience may remember that Jacob went down to Egypt with the promise of refuge from famine, but in the end the people were enslaved. At the same time, exile can be a time of soul-searching and self-discovery. Such is the case with the nation of Judah. In many ways the exile was a moment of refining the nation’s identity and its relationship with its God.
For a people who defined their relationship with God in terms of a covenant, exile proved to be a reminder that YHWH is not a geographically bound deity. God was with them in the land to which they longed to return, but God was also with them in exile. It is this God who calls out to them, inviting all who thirst to come to the waters and be refreshed.  Indeed, the invitation goes out to those who lack resources, inviting them to come and share in God’s abundance. Come and drink and eat and be filled. Indeed, come and drink even if you don’t realize you’re thirsty.  
 
                Lent is usually understood as a season of fasting not feasting, but Isaiah invites us to share in God’s abundance. This bounty Isaiah speaks of is both material and spiritual in nature. In both Jewish and Christian theology, the spiritual and the material are not separate realities. There is a temptation to embrace a spiritualized version of the faith, but the message of the Gospel is that God became incarnate. That is, the Word of God took on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The early Christians resisted attempts to spiritualize the faith. They wanted to keep the two together.  
 
Asceticism is often product of an overly spiritualized faith. The body, the material, is considered a hindrance to the spiritual. So we should suppress it. Or course it is not inappropriate to fast. Moses fasted and so did Jesus. But Jesus was also known for sharing table, which means he wasn’t an ascetic. We may choose to spend Lent as a season of fasting, as a way of reflecting more clearly on our relationship with the living God, but as we do so we hear an invitation to join in the feast. Come and drink and eat and enjoy rich food, even if you do not have the means to pay for the meal. Come and join the feast. While you partake of this feast, lend your ear to hear the word of the Lord. Ultimately, it is this word that will be truly filling.
                The word given by the prophet is that God is faithful to God’s covenant. In this case the covenant partner is David, which hearkens back to the monarchy, when Israel dwelt secure in the land. By reflecting on David, we see the hope that exile will give way to the security that the Land provides. But the return to the security that the Land provides, the security that David symbolized, will come only terms set by God. Indeed, any glory that shall come to the nation will come from God. But before we get there, we need to acknowledge that we are thirsty people. Once we do this, we’ll be in a position to seek the LORD while the LORD can be found.
It is also important to remember, as Isaiah reminds us, that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. In other words, we are not God. We cannot control God. We cannot even define God in God’s full nature. We see and hear and experience only what God has revealed. The good news is that God has not left us without a witness. Indeed, Israel itself, even in exile, was a witness to God’s faithfulness.
The message of Isaiah 55 during this Lenten season, with its invitation to come to the waters and drink, is call to find refreshment, in the presence of God. We are physical beings, who require physical sustenance. But as Jesus reminds us, we do not live by bread alone (Lk. 4:4). There is more than one form of thirst, as Jesus reminded the Samaritan woman, with whom he spoke of the living water, that if one drank of, would never thirst. This is the water of eternal life (Jn. 4:7-15). Such things are, of course, beyond our full comprehension. To receive the abundance that is God’s there is need of faith, and faith involves trust. Trust requires a certain level of knowledge. We don’t just trust anyone. We trust those who have demonstrated reason to be trusted. Such is the case for Judah. It is the reason the story of the ancestors continued to be told. Such is true for us. We put our faith in God who is revealed in the person of Jesus, who by his life, death, and resurrection offers us a word off assurance that God is faithful.  So, come to the waters, and drink freely of living water.    
               

 

Standing On the Promises – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2C (Genesis 15)

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night
Genesis 15:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. 

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.

 

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                A popular hymn of the church, at least in days gone by, invites to sing boldly:

Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my savior; standing, standing. I’m standing on the promises of God.  [R. Kelso Carter, 1891].

Scripture declares that Abraham stood on the promises of God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Whether it is Paul in Romans 4 or the author of Hebrews 11, Abraham is lifted up as an example of a person who stood strong in his faith despite the lack of evidence to support that trust. Abraham simply stands on the promises of God, and in time his faith, his trust, bears fruit.

                The reading from Genesis 15 marks another conversation about covenant. At this point in the story, Abram’s name has yet to be changed. The promise is made, again, that Abram will have many descendants, beyond the ability to count. This is a challenging proposition, as to this point Abram’s only heir is a slave. He has no children of his own, and God makes it clear that the promise will go through Abram’s descendants. God is intending to work through Abram’s biological descendants, who will be as uncountable as the stars in the sky. Despite everything, we’re told that Abram believed God, and this was credited to him as righteousness.

 

Abram will stand on the promises of God, but not without a word of lament. In fact, the chapter begins with God telling Abram not to be afraid, because God has his back. Abram responds, well that’s great, but what have you done for me lately? (my paraphrase). Abram is, after all, still childless and has as his heir a slave (regarding slavery, we should always remember that while widespread in the ancient world and not racially rooted, references to slaves in the Bible were used to defend modern slavery). He’d followed God’s lead from his homeland and still nothing.

 

I appreciated what Rolf Jacobson writes concerning the power of lament that’s present in this passage and in the rest of Scripture.

In the Bible, God does not desire followers who are meek and mild, compliant and quiet—at least not in relationship to God. God wants sufferers who fight back. God invites us to own and be in touch with the deepest hurts and brightest hopes in our souls. For Abram, this hope was to have a child.  And after all, the Lord has promised.  

Abram will stand on this promise, but not before making clear that God understood what is involved in a truly covenant relationship.

 

                Having heard Abram’s lament, God says to Abram: “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” In response to Abram’s question as to how he will know this to be true, God proposes a ritual to seal the deal. The directions are simple. Abram is told by God: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram does as he’s told, cutting each of the sacrifices in half, with the exception of the two birds. He lays them out as instructed and waits for God to act.

 

                The Revised Common Lectionary omits verses 13 to 16, though it retains verse 12, which seems to introduce verses 13 to 16. In verses 12 to 16, Abram falls asleep and has a bad dream. Though he is told he will die peacefully and have many descendants, he’s also told that his descendants will be forced to live in exile and experience slavery for four hundred years, though in the end, they will be blessed with an abundance of gifts. If verses 13-16 are omitted, it would be probably be best to omit verse 12, as there is some discontinuity between verses 12 and 17. On the other hand, there is a message here that is worth remembering—the covenant will be fulfilled, but not without times of trouble.

               If we choose to omit verses 12-16, we can move from the ritual in verse 11 to the culmination of the conversation about covenant in verse 17, we watch as the sun sets and a torch passes between the sacrificed animals, as a sign of divine acceptance of this offering of Abram. With that God makes the covenant with Abram, promising: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” It is worth noting that God requires nothing of Abram at this point. Normally, covenants involve mutual declarations and actions, but nothing is required of Abram. Abram does do anything to obligate himself. It is YHWH who self-obligates. It’s YHWH who makes the promises.

               Of course, this is not the end of the story. The author of Genesis will revisit this issue. As the story continues, Abram and Sarai will try to fulfill this promise through a surrogate. An heir is produced—Ishmael—and then rejected. Finally, Sarai will give birth in old age to a son, Isaac, who will be the accepted heir (at least in the biblical story, the Quran will hold on to Ishmael). While the promise of an expansive realm is made, Israel’s boundaries never reached the extent promised. Nonetheless, the descendants of Abram can claim that they are the fruit of God’s promise to Abram. They are the covenant people, though the promise isn’t repeated here, Abram’s descendants are to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). What this covenant promise means will be a subject of ongoing interpretation, as we see in the way in which the New Testament writers make use of God’s covenant with Abraham. The covenant made in Jesus is clearly rooted in the covenant made with Abraham.

 

              The question for us has to do with the nature of our faith. Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect on the nature of our faith journey. In what ways do we resist the promises of God, and in what ways do we cooperate. As the Psalmist implies, there is the possibility of living in fear, especially when enemies assail us. As with the promise made to Abram, we can take comfort in the presence of the Lord. After all, as the Psalmist declares: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1). With that old hymn, which I took note of at the beginning, we can stand with Abram on the promises of God. 

               

Picture Attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Starry Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55396 [retrieved March 11, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

First Fruits of Liberation – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1C (Deuteronomy 26)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

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          We have begun the Lenten journey. In the reading from the Gospel, Jesus has begun his sojourn in the Wilderness, where he will be tested (Luke 4:1-11). The people of Israel had been a wandering people and they two were tested.
          The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. That is the scriptural message, whether we take it literally or not. As the people of Israel draw near the river that separates them from the Promised Land, they are given instructions by God through Moses. The word we hear in Deuteronomy 26 envisions the people settling in, putting down roots, planting crops, and then harvesting the crops. With this assumption in mind, the call for first fruits is given. When the time comes to beginning harvesting the crops, the people are to take the first fruits of that harvest, put it in a basket and then bring it to the designated place where the priest will receive it. In doing this the people honor the God who liberated them from bondage, the God who was with them throughout the years of wandering and is now with them as they settle into life in the Land.
As we begin the Lenten journey, might we hear this word that comes to us from the Hebrew Bible as a call to worship and a call to stewardship? There is a liturgy involved, which reminds us that stewardship is an act of worship and not merely the means of paying bills. While it is a call to stewardship, it is also a call to share the proceeds of the harvest with others, most specifically the Levites (priestly class) and the “aliens who reside among you,” the bounty that God provides. Stewardship, it seems has something to do with sharing. It’s a concept we were supposed to learn in kindergarten, if not before, but a concept that is easily forgotten. Thus, instructions must be given.
As the offerings are brought to the altar, the people make a declaration of faith. They are called upon to remember from whence they came. Who am I? That is a question that continue to get asked. It’s a question that leads us to do genealogical work and check our DNA. In this confession, the people acknowledge that “A wandering Aramean is my ancestor.” The people of Israel, having finally found a place to settle in, are reminded by this confession that they have been a nomadic people. Their DNA is rooted in the tribes and people of Aram, which is the land of Syria and Southeastern Turkey.
So, who is this ancestor? Is it Abraham and Sarah? Yes. Is it Isaac and Rebecca? Yes. Is it Jacob and his family? Yes. In fact, it’s Jacob and his family who went down to Egypt and settled, only to discover that there was to be no security in that land. The initial benefits of living in Egypt proved fleeting. In time the wandering Aramean and family, though small in number, became a great nation. That led the Egyptians to feel threatened. They feared that a time would come when this tribe could gain enough strength to change the nature of Egyptian society. Does that sound familiar? Could it be a reason why some wish to build walls to keep “those people” from adding to their numbers? Is it a reason why there is a growing resistance to welcoming refugees to our shores? One scholar has even translated the opening declaration as “A wandering Syrian refugee is my ancestor.” So, as we contemplate this reading, could there be something of Egypt in our souls?
The confession remembers that Jacob’s descendants were treated harshly. They were sentenced to hard labor. When the descendants of this wandering Aramean cried out to God, their voices were heard. God saw the people being oppressed, and so God acted to liberate the people, bringing them into the Promised Land. Now, it is time to honor that God by bringing offerings to God as a sign of gratitude.
This reading from Deuteronomy speaks of a land that will be filled with milk and honey, a land of abundance. The confession serves as a reminder that the people of Israel are themselves immigrants and descendants of immigrants. They may have found a home, where they can settle in, put down roots, plant crops, but it is not a land to be possessed. It is a land to be received as a gift of God, to be shared. William Greenway writes of this concern: “by anchoring Israelite identity in an immigrant, a ‘wandering Aramean’; by reminding the Israelites that they were themselves poor, marginalized, oppressed strangers in a strange land; and by urging them to share their bounty ‘together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you’ (so, no ritual or ethnic sectarianism; all attend to the basic needs of and break bread with all).” [Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery & Cynthia L. Rigby. Connections:A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 1143-1146)].  Do we remember from whence we came? Do we come to the altar bearing expressions of first fruits, or what is left over from our abundance? Are willing to share, and what does that mean?
As you read this confession, you may notice that the person is to speak this confession as if experiencing the whole. This is a community confession that identifies the person with the community, and not just the present community, but the historical community. One’s current identity is rooted in one’s ancestry. What happened to Jacob and his descendants matters. We who are part of the family of Jesus, by adoption, have been brought in to this ancient tribe. We too are called to bring first fruits and acknowledge that our ancestors are wanderers, and thus we too should tread lightly on the land that is not ours but belongs to God. With this reminder that we are in many ways, spiritually, on journeys that involve a lot of wandering. We may have settled in and put down roots, but it is important that we continue to honor the one who liberated us, and we do this by being good stewards of God’s abundance.
                 

 

God the Vindicator — Reflection for Passion Sunday (Isaiah 50)

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Isaiah 50:4-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9a It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
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We have reached the penultimate moment in the Lenten journey. Christians, at least in the West, will be observing Palm Sunday, or perhaps Passion Sunday. I have always approached Palm Sunday with a bit of unease. After all, the triumphal nature of the day is fleeting. So, perhaps focusing on the Passion is more appropriate, even if we might regather on Friday to hear again the passion story. The reading from Isaiah 50, which forms the third Servant Song, has been read by Christians, along with the other Servant Songs, down the centuries as descriptions of the suffering Jesus experienced as he went to the cross. While the fourth Servant Song is the most revelatory when it comes to the Servant’s suffering (Isa. 52:13-53:12), this Song offers insight into his experience as one who was struck and bruised, but vindicated. In this reading for Passion Sunday, we hear this promise of vindication, making clear that the attacks on the servant are not the last word.
The prophet declares that God has given him the “tongue of a teacher.” That is his calling, but he is also a teacher who listens to the one who wakens him. The one who speaks is a teachable teacher, and this is important because the audience is not always receptive to the message. Therefore, the prophet tells us: “I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (vs. 5b-6). You can understand why the church has applied this passage, and other similar texts from Isaiah’s servant songs to Jesus. He was a teacher whose message was not well received by everyone. His opponents struck him, pulled at his beard, and faced insult and spitting.”
As we hear this message to the church in preparation for Holy Week, we should go behind the text to the original audience. That audience was likely the Judean exiles. Sometimes Judah itself is the Suffering Servant. In this case, it could be the prophet. The question is, should we focus on the suffering or the vindication? Christopher Seitz notes, following Claus Westermann, that this poem, and it is a poem/song, should not be read as a lament, but rather as a “psalm of confidence.” There is no complaint offered. Suffering is acknowledged, but it leads to a statement of confidence in the God who vindicates [“Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon Press), 6:436].
The prophet declares with confidence in verse 7: “The Lord God helps me; therefore, I have not been disgraced; therefore, I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” The prophet, who has been called to teach the people, and has listened to the voice of God, has faced challenges, but because God is the helper, the prophet will not be disgraced or put to shame. Rather than be disgraced or shamed, the prophet is vindicated by God.
When read within the context of Passion Sunday, the reading from Isaiah is a reminder that despite the suffering that Jesus experienced, God vindicated him through the resurrection. For Israel, despite the suffering it had experienced in the Exile, it would be reconstituted. Israel would be resurrected. Taken together, Israel/Jesus are vindicated by God. Teresa Lockhart Stricklen notes that the while the Servant Community looks weak and defeated, “the power of the unseen God is at work to reconstitute that community and thereby reveal the power and purposes of the God of Israel.” Christians look to “Jesus on the cross, like Israel in exile, appeared to be weak and defeated, but God raised Jesus from the dead, thus again affirming God’s power and life-giving purposes” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, (WJK Press), p. 185]. The resurrection, like the reconstitution of Israel is God’s vindication. So, who can contend with those whom God vindicates and helps? If God helps, then who can declare Israel/the Prophet/Jesus guilty?
We can take this passage a step further. Rather than focus on the question of the identity of the Suffering Servant, we can ask the question of what it means for us to be servants of God, even in the face of resistance and persecution. How might we be the teachers who are awakened by God, so that we might share the God News, knowing that God helps and vindicates? Jon Berquist points us in that direction. He notes that when reading this in our Lenten context, we hear a word concerning our own calling.
Lent has emphasized confession, repentance, humility, submission to God’s will, and the desire to recommit one’s self to the work of God in the world. With these concerns framing our approach to the text, we understand Isaiah’s call to be servants and teachers, to sustain others while realizing that we are still learners ourselves, to live out our own vulnerabilities, to recognize that only God will save us from the persecutions and rejections of the world that will inevitably result from our commitment to God’s purposes, and to know that God’s salvation will come only through our persistence in the work of serving and teaching in the face mounting opposition. [Feasting on the Word, (WJK Press), p. 163].
Jesus faced his own tormenters, putting his face forward like flint. Israel did the same. Shall we follow their lead? The good news here is that we can go forth into Holy Week with confidence, knowing that God is our help. God is our vindicator. No one can stand against God, so let us stand together and move forward with boldness on the path set before us by Jesus.

Covenant of the Heart – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B

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31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

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                Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that God will make with Israel and Judah. It won’t be a covenant written on stone. It will be a covenant written on the heart. Christians have embraced Jeremiah’s message of the New Covenant, believing that this promise was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Paul’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (the earliest version of that institution), we hear Jesus declare: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25; see Lk. 22:20).  In the Book of Hebrews, which interprets the ministry of Jesus in the light of Jewish precedent, we see several references to the New Covenant, with the emphasis being on the way in which this new covenant replaces the earlier covenant. So, consider this word: “For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.  Where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established” (Heb. 9:15-16). It is this reference in 1 Corinthians and the accompanying references in Hebrews that lead to the labeling of the Christian-specific portion of the Bible as the “New Testament.” It is within the pages of the Christian portion of the Bible, that Christians have seen themselves encountering the one who writes the new covenant on hearts rather than stone.

Continue reading “Covenant of the Heart – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B”

Patience—Or a Loss of It – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4B

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Numbers 21:4-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

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By the fourth week, the Lenten journey could be getting old, especially if you’re fasting (I’m not). Many churches try out things they don’t normally do during the season (we’re using a prayer of confession and words of assurance in worship), which means that some in the church might be ready to get back to the status quo or move on to the next thing. After all, by now the stores are filling up with Easter paraphernalia.

In the previous three Lenten readings from the Hebrew Bible, we have explored God’s covenants—first with Noah, then Abraham and Sarah, and finally with Moses and Israel at Sinai. Now we’re moving on from the initiation of covenants to living in the covenant. The reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent places us on the road toward the Promised Land. The people of Israel have arrived at Mount Hor, a mountain in the desert near the border of Edom, one of Israel’s traditional enemies. Although the journey from Egypt to the Promise Land should only take a few weeks at most, the people of Israel have been wandering in the desert for months and maybe years, making little progress. It is true that they have received the keys to the covenant and established the priesthood, with Aaron as the first chief priest, but they’re still wandering in the wilderness.

Having arrived at Mount Hor, change is setting in. When they arrive at this point in the journey, Aaron dies, and the priesthood passed on to his son Eleazar (Num. 20:22-29). Moses has lost his closest confidant, and a person whom the people gravitate toward. Aaron is a buffer, but he’s gone. The journey has been long. The people are tired. There is no end in sight. Do you ever feel that way? Do you feel like you are wandering in the desert with no end in sight?

Having buried Aaron at Mount Hor, the people of Israel head out again on their ever-lengthening journey. They again begin complaining about God’s provision and Moses’ leadership. They’re anxious and afraid. They fear dying in the desert of thirst and starvation. While there is manna, it is detestable. Now, they are told they will take another detour, even if it is a smart decision, so they can avoid traveling through Edom. More wandering. More time. More suffering. It’s no wonder that the people of Israel got anxious and impatient! In their frustration they challenged Moses’ authority, and even that of God. After all, hadn’t Moses promised them that Yahweh would liberate them. Instead of liberation, all they seemed to experience was death (symbolized by that of Aaron).

As we all know, either from our own childhood memories or as a parent, a long trip can wear on you. The longer the trip, the more likely that our patience grows thin and we begin to complain about everything. In this case it’s the lack of food and water, and the detestable nature of the food they have (I’m assuming we’re talking manna here). In other words, Israel is ungrateful. Of course, this is the first time we read of Israel murmuring. This is the fifth and final such episode. Now, we’re supposed to side with Moses and God in this matter, but I can sympathize with Israel. If I had been on a journey like this, one that was filled with obstacles and never seemed to end (did they know there was a shorter road to the Promised Land than the one they were taking?). Even Egypt might start looking good if they didn’t get to their destination soon.

This is all a backstory to God’s decision to punish Israel because their continued complaints. Perhaps in a fit of divine impatience, God sends poisonous snakes into the camp to kill off members of the community. Yes, many were bit, and many died. It sounds horrific, but apparently it got the people’s attention, because they went to Moses and confessed their sins against God and Moses. They asked Moses to intervene and ask God to get rid of the snakes. So, Moses prayed for them, and God provided a remedy. God told Moses to create a totem of sorts that featured a poisonous snake. So, Moses fashioned a bronze serpent and placed on a pole, and if a snake bit a person, Moses would have the person look at the bronze serpent and the person would live.

This is quite interesting. After all, images were prohibited in the commandments (though Numbers doesn’t have the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments. Still, this is odd. Of course, this passage might raise other questions in our minds. First, there is the question of whether this is magic. Then there is the picture of God it presents. Once again, we see God act somewhat petulantly. The people complain, and God sends snakes to kill them. What kind of God is this? Moses seems to have more patience with the people than Yahweh. But then God does seem at times to be short-tempered. Remember how Abraham had to talk God down from destroying Sodom with Lot still present? Is this the God we worship? We could try an age-old tactic and separate Jesus from the Old Testament God, but that leads in a dangerous direction. Yahweh becomes Marcion’s demiurge, the evil creator god who is overcome by the loving God of Jesus. We should stay away from such views, but this is a good reminder why we should not read Scripture flatly, as if everything is the same. Both testaments speak of God in ways that we likely will find problematic, at the very least.

A deeper question has to do with the message of this passage for our Lenten journey. The reading from the Gospel of John designated for this Sunday equates Moses’ serpent to Jesus on the cross: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believed in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-16). In John’s Gospel the serpent of Numbers 21 is a precursor to Jesus. By looking at the serpent, the people lived. They were healed. They were saved. By believing in Jesus, who was lifted up on the cross, we receive eternal life. It is not magic. The cross is not a totem, but both the bronze serpent and the cross of Jesus are signs of healing. Note that in both cases, life is the result. In one case it’s physical and the other is eternal, but both bring healing, wholeness, and life itself. So, we lift our eyes to the cross, and we see our salvation. In him, we are healed. In him, we find the source of patience in the midst of challenging times.

Robert D. Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, MI. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. The author of a number of books, his most recent books include Out of the Office: A Theology of Ministry (Energion Publications, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).  He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey. 

Freedom amid Divine Expectations – Reflection for Lent 3B

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Exodus 20:1-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

20 Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

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We serve a covenant-making God. In the reading from Exodus 20, we encounter the third covenant-making event in this our Lenten journey. In the reading from Genesis 9 for the for the First Sunday of Lent, we read of God’s covenant promise to Noah. Never again, will God cleanse the earth with water. In the reading for the Second Sunday of Lent from Genesis 17, we hear again God’s covenant promise to Abraham and Sarah. They’re promised a multitude of descendants, who will inhabit the Land as part of an everlasting covenant. Now, we come to the third covenant, the one God makes Israel through the mediation of Moses. God has called Moses up to the mountain top so Moses might receive a set of covenant stipulations that will define relationship between Israel and its God.

We call the covenant stipulations revealed to Moses in Sinai the Ten Commandments. They are, we’re told, inscribed by God on stone tablets (Exodus 31:18-19). It should be noted that when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets laying out the covenant and discovered that the people were dancing around the golden calf, he threw them on the ground, breaking them (Exod. 32:19). Now, God did provide a second copy, so the people would have guidelines. With this second set, God renewed the covenant in preparation from the move from Sinai into the Promised Land (Exod. 34).

These stipulations that were intended to mark God’s covenant with Israel, have entered the public domain. We treat them today as if they were a legal code for American cultural life. Attempts have been made to put them in schools and court houses. In other words, we have secularized them, forgetting that they define a relationship with God. To forget their origin and turn them into rules diminishes their power to engender true freedom as a gift of God.

It is easy to miss, but these ten words begin with God’s declaration: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is an important word, because it defines God and God’s relationship with God’s people. In Jewish tradition, this is the first command. The second command prohibits worship of other gods and of making images of those gods. Thus, the opening statement is not a self-introduction. It is a command or word from God. Regarding this self-revelation of God’s identity, Rabbi Barry Schwartz writes: “

Note that while God could have been introduced as the creator of the world, God is instead presented as liberator of the people. The Torah is surely reminding us that the demanding and commanding God is first and foremost the liberating God. Concurrently, the text is also teaching us that there cannot be revelation without liberation. [Barry Schwartz, Path of the Prophets, ( Jewish Publication Society, 2017), p. 33].

What might appear to be rules and regulations are the foundations of freedom. True freedom comes from being in relationship with the one God, of whom no image can be created, a God who invites us to rest from one’s labors. While Sabbath laws often became burdensome, consider their origins. A people was enslaved. They had no rest from their labors, but now, they were free, and so Sabbath rest was theirs as a gift of God. Where once they had been in servitude to Pharaoh (who considered himself a god), now they are servants of Yahweh, and in this service, they find freedom.

We tend to equate freedom with an absence of rules, but to live in relationship with the covenant-making God, who is also the liberating God, is to recognize that true freedom is not anarchy. Again, I turn to Rabbi Barry Schwartz, who writes that “freedom is not simply the opportunity to act with impunity—it requires responsibility. The Exodus, after all, is not an end in and of itself. The Exodus culminates in Sinai—liberation is capped by Revelation. The mission is predicated on a covenant, and covenant implies obligation.” In this view, “responsible freedom leads to blessing” [Schwartz, Path of the Prophets, p. 36]. If we look back from this covenant to the one God initiated with Abraham and Sarah, it’s purpose is one of blessing. That promise of blessing continues through this covenant relationship.

While it may be true that these Commands form a basis for Western legal traditions, and that these words hold value for human life, it is important that we first see them in the context of God’s covenant purposes. These are, after all, not just any laws, these are a gift of God.

The commands provide a foundation for the relationships within the community for relationships with God and with neighbor. The first Table speaks specifically to one’s relationship with God. That is, love God with your entire being (Deut. 6:4-5). So, don’t worship other gods, don’t create images, don’t take oaths, and observe sacred time (Sabbath). When it comes to the second command, to love one’s neighbor, the remaining statements come into view (Lev.  19:18). Words that address such basic principles of life as not killing and stealing, seem uncontroversial, though we can obfuscate on the meaning of such words. But what about bearing false witness and coveting. How often do we break these two commands, which can often lead to breaking the others? In many ways the final command about coveting stands at the foundation of the entire law concerning one’s neighbor. Stealing, lying, killing, they all start with coveting.

When we speak of the two commands to love God and neighbor, we speak of a calling more fully delineated in the Ten Words, and further delineated in the 613 Mitzvot that make up the Law. If we fulfill the two, we fulfill the 613. Thus, Jesus affirms and fulfills these covenant stipulations, in calling for his followers to love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:34-35).

We hear these words anew in the context of our Lenten journey find true freedom in service to God. Since this is a season of contemplation and reflection, may the Ten Teachings, as laid out in Exodus 17, help us discern our place in God’s covenant people. As we use these words to look at our lives and how we are living them, if there are some areas needing adjustment, may we take the opportunity to do just that. As we take time to repent, we get back in the groove, for it is followed by words of assurance of forgiveness.

Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, MI and author of several books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

Dry Bones and the Breath of Life – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5A (Ezekiel)

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Ezekiel 37:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

37 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

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   The Babylonian exile was a tragic, and yet fruitful event in the life of the people of Israel. It was tragic, because the nation was torn apart. Yet, the exile also gave Judah an opportunity to rediscover its identity as a people. Much of what we know as the Old Testament emerged in the context of the exile. While, it was a challenging time for the people of Judah, who found it difficult to live in hope of a new and better day.

 

Ezekiel was a prophet who arose in the context of the exile, and he spoke words that chided the people when they were unfaithful, but he also shared words that offed hope of a new day, when the people of Israel would experience restoration. One of the most powerful words of hope to be found in Ezekiel, if not all of scripture, is this passage from Ezekiel 37. Can dry bones live? That is the question of the hour. It is the question that YHWH asked of the prophet after delivering him to a plain covered with dry, lifeless bones. Can these bones live? All that Ezekiel can answer is: “you know.” That is, Ezekiel has no idea how dry, lifeless bones could ever be restored to life. Only God knows, and it’s possible that as the conversation started, Ezekiel had his doubts.

If Ezekiel has doubts, God has a plan. There’s a reason why God brought Ezekiel out to this plain covered with dry bones. God wanted Ezekiel to better understand his prophetic calling. God wanted him to preach, to share the word, so that Israel might once again live. This is the word given to Ezekiel: “say to the bones: “hear the word of the Lord.” I think we should let that phrase sink into our hearts and minds. “Hear the Word of the Lord.” Remember the message of John’s prologue, which declared that the Word (Logos) was in the beginning with God and was God, and that all things came into being through him, and “in him was life” (Jn. 1:1-4). The Word of the Lord is life, and if Ezekiel will preach to the bones, then God will breathe life into them, so that the bones will know who the LORD is.

Ezekiel does as God asks, and then witnesses God’s fulfillment of the promise made to Ezekiel. The bones begin to rattle and come together to form skeletons (we could use a bit of Disney animation here). On these skeletons flesh appears. But, the text of Ezekiel says that to this point “there was no breath in them.” It would be fitting to go back to Genesis 2, the second creation story, where God forms the first human from the dust of the earth. The basic building blocks are there, but life isn’t yet present. Life awaits the breath of God. As we read in Genesis, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). In Ezekiel, God tells the prophet to “prophesy to the breath, saying: “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Ez. 37:9). When Ezekiel complied, the winds came forth, and filled the lifeless bodies with breath. Of course, the Hebrew word, like the Greek word, for breath is also the word for Spirit (ruach/pneuma). In the biblical story, life isn’t separate from the presence of God’s spirit.

It is important that we recognize that Ezekiel isn’t speaking about individuals. He has in mind a people, the people of Israel, who have experienced the devastation of conquest and the humiliation of exile. Not everyone in the nation of Judah found themselves in Babylon, but whether in Babylon or in the land of Israel, the people of Judah had lost their sense of identity. It was as if they had died.  The Spirit of God seemed absent from the people. Now, it needs to be said that the Spirit of God wasn’t truly absent, but the people seemed disconnected from the life-giving Spirit of God. The presence of the Spirit can be seen in the work of the prophets, including Ezekiel.

This is a well-known passage of scripture. It’s vivid in its descriptiveness. The valley of dry bones coming back to life; it’s a powerful image. But what does it have to do with us? What word does God have for the church in the 21st century, a church that is beginning to see itself in terms of exile. We seem to be a collection of dry, lifeless bones scattered across the plain. I hear it all the time. I hear it from colleagues who bemoan what appears to be the prolonged death of the church. I hear it from church members, who remember the glory days, when Sunday was marked by church attendance. Churches were full. The congregation I now serve is relatively small, but once it was a grand and powerful congregation. Its pastor was nationally recognized (he served as President of the Federal Council of Churches). The church sat on Detroit’s “Piety Row.” Times changed, the church began a slow decline, and it eventually moved to the suburbs. For a long time, it clung to its former heritage, but the reality is that the congregation had gone into exile. This congregation isn’t alone in this, even if a congregation hasn’t moved from its original space. The promise here, of course, is that the exiles will return to the Land, to the soil, upon which the people had once been a nation of some importance. It’s not likely that our congregations will return to their original glory, but the spirit of exile can give way to a new spirit of hope and service. We can take root in our new realities, and be witnesses to God’s gracious presence. The dry bones can hear the Word of God and come to life, filled with the Spirit, so as to become signs of God’s presence in the world.

Perhaps the key to restoration is attending to the Word of God. I speak here to my more “progressive/liberal” colleagues, who often struggle with Scripture. Yes, Scripture can be difficult to navigate. It says things that we may find problematic. After all, it emerged in a very different world, and yet it does have something powerful to say, if we’re willing to listen. While critical scholarship is essential to getting the context straight, if we begin and end there, we may end up missing a Word from God. Walter Brueggemann suggests that we would be better of moving on from focusing our attention on questions of historicity, and focus more on the overarching narrative that is Scripture. He speaks of the Exodus story here, but I think it holds for other conversations. Of the biblical narrative, he writes that we might see it as “a script that is waiting to be performed; it is always being given new performance, even in our own time . . .” [Rebuilding the Foundations, p. 193]. With that in mind we can get a sense of the overarching message of this narrative. Kelton Cobb writes that “at the core of the biblical narrative is the story of displacement—of having wandered a long way from home, and longing to return. This is the underlying plot of being cast out of Eden, of being foreigners in Egypt, of the journey to the promised land, of the long of exiles in Babylon to return to the land of their fathers” [Feasting on the Word, 126].

It is this narrative of exile and return that defines our own realities, including as churches. When we feel as if we’re in exile, we long to return home. That might be why there is such interest in genealogies. We want to know where we belong, so we can return to our homeland. When I went to England, during my sabbatical, I had this feeling of connecting to my roots.  This was my homeland. When I went to Christ Church Cathedral and experienced Evensong, it was as if I had come home. So, I understand this longing for home. It is a longing that defines salvation. As Augustine wrote in The Confessions, the restless heart will not find rest until it rests in God. Is this not our own desire? Do we not want to find our homeland? For Judah, it was the Land, for us, it is the realm of God.

So, what do we make of this powerful story? What word does it have for us? At one level this might be a good word about the power of preaching, even if our culture doesn’t seem to value preaching in the same way it once did, there is her a call to bring the Word so that the Spirit might move. When we hear the word “prophesy,” a number images might come to mind, most of which don’t seem to apply to those of us who enter pulpits to preach. But, in many ways that is what we’re called to do. We’re asked to bring a Word from God to a community. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write that “preaching her is the means of restoration. Through preaching the breath of God enters the bones. An implication is that pastorally sensitive prophetic preaching can play a key role in revitalizing community” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 37].

 

This is the word given to Israel, and by extension to the Church: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.” The church in the West is experiencing a reality that it hasn’t faced in centuries. No longer supported by government or even cultural establishment, it must fend for itself, or depend on the Spirit of God. Many congregations feel as if their bones are “very dry.” They feel as life has been drained from them, but here is a word of hope. Say to the bones – Live. Call for the wind of the Spirit to breathe life into the bones of our congregations. We may be in exile, but the realm of God is there in front of us.
Picture attribution: Elkan, Benno, 1877-1960. Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55841 [retrieved March 27, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collantes,_Francisco_-_The_Vision_of_Ezekiel_-_1630.jpg.

bobcornwall

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

Zacchaeus and the Multiverse – Lent 5

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 2, 2017

Luke 18:31-19:10

If you read or watch enough science fiction or comic books, you will run into the multiverse.  It’s the belief or theory that there isn’t one universe, but hundreds or thousands of different universes all taking place at the same time.  There is the famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrodinger where he talks about a cat being placed in a box with a small amount of a radioactive substance, a hammer and cyanide.  Without going into the whole theory, as long as the box is closed, we don’t know if the cat is alive or was killed by the poison.  In theory, the cat could be both alive and dead at the same time. This experiment has been used to explain multiverses because you can be a famous singer in one universe or a serial killer in another one all at the same time. There is that famous episode in Star Trek where Kirk is transported to mirror universe where the peaceful Federation is now the Terran Empire.  Characters who were good in the main universe were sadistic in this new one.  And of course, there is Spock who in the mirror universe is sort of evil and you can tell because he now has a goatee.

I’ve thought about multiverses in thinking about a tension in today’s text.  There are two different understandings when it comes to the tax collector named Zacchaeus.

For years, Zacchaeus was the short guy who had dinner with Jesus and gave money to the poor.  It’s a classic story of redemption, of a “bad guy” who became good.  But in recent years, it has been revealed that there is some tension when it comes to the verb tense in verse 8.  Verse 8 reads:“Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

This passage in the original Greek is in a present tense.  It could mean that Zacchaeus was already giving his money to the poor.  But the present tense could also be indicating a future action meaning he will do this.  This is how pastor Dan Clendenin explains it:

Even though the verbs are in the present tense, the typical way of reading of this story follows scholars like Robert Stein and translations like the NRSV and NIV. They render the present tense verbs as a “futuristic present.” That is, Zacchaeus the sinner repents and vows that henceforth he’ll make restitution.

           The second option follows commentators like Joseph Fitzmyer and translations like the KJV and RSV. They render the verbs as a “progressive present tense.” In this reading, Zacchaeus is a hidden saint about whom people have made all sorts of false assumptions about his corruption. And so he defends himself: “Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution.”

So which one is it?  Is it the story of corrupt rich man that pledges to do right?  Or is it a story of affirmation, of Jesus blessing Zacchaeus for the work that he is doing?

I’m beginning to wonder if it is both; that like Schrodinger’s cat, Zacchaeus is in a superpositions state: both sinner and saint.

Having gone to a Lutheran seminary, I remember learning how Martin Luther believed that Christians are both sinner and saint.  In Luther’s mind a saint was a forgiven sinner, and we were always both forgiven and still imperfect on this side of heaven.

I don’t know if Zaccheus had already been making amends or would promise to do it.  What I do know if that he was both sinner and saint, one that was part of a corrupt system and trying to atone.  Jesus called this flawed man a “son of Abraham” one that belong in God’s kingdom.

The good news is that we aren’t that different from ol’ Zach.  We are sinners and we can’t hide that fact.  But in Christ we are forgiven, we are redeemed by Christ and sent to act with justice and grace toward others.

And you don’t need the multiverse to understand that.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.