Category: narrative lectionary

Solomon the Wise: Pentecost 23

Solomon the Wise: Pentecost 23

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 28, 2018

Read 1 Kings 3:1-28 (CEB)

Introduction 

“The Wisdom of Solomon.”

That phrase has been used in our culture as a way of saying that someone needs to have the smarts that Solomon had in order to solve a problem.

Solomon was wise.  But his wisdom was not something that was innate, it was something that came from God.

Solomon is the son of David and succeeds David as king.  Solomon’s rule is a time when the kingdom of Israel was at the height of its power.  Israel was a miniempire.  Solomon started a massive building program which included the building of the temple.  A fleet of ships was sent to far-flung places around the known world to bring back riches.  Solomon met many of the leaders of the day, including the Queen of Sheba.  Solomon brought a sense of cosmopolitan flair to Jerusalem.  Solomon, like President John Kennedy in the US, ushered in a Jewish version of Camelot. Things were good in Israel.

Or were they? As we read the text for today you have to look more closely to see that things are not perfect.  Just like President Kennedy’s time as President wasn’t the Camelot that we tend to think it was, Solomon’s actions carry within them the seeds of destruction not only for Solomon but for the entire nation of Israel as well.  Today, we learn the Wisdom of Solomon, an imperfect king trying to follow God.

Engaging the Text

Now Solomon loved the Lord by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines.

-1 Kings 3:3

When people think of Solomon, they think of him in two different stages.  The first stage is when he is young and asks for wisdom.  A later version of Solomon is a man who has forgotten who he is.  He has become unfaithful to God, worshipping other gods instead of the God of Israel.  In real life, people are not all good or all bad and they are not all faithful or all not faithful.  As we learn today, Solomon was already making mistakes that would have severe consequences.

Chapter 3 opens with Solomon entering into a “marriage alliance” with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He marries not out of love, but out of politics. Marrying the Pharaoh’s daughter meant an alliance with the regional superpower which made Solomon a player on the world stage.

While aligning Israel to the Egyptian superpower through marriage had its advantages, there were also problems. For one, marrying someone who was not an Israelite was troublesome. Deuteronomy 7:3 notes that Israelites were told to not intermarry.  Why? The reason for this prohibition was that it could lead the Israelites away from God and worshipping foreign gods- which is exactly what happened to Solomon. His Egyptian bride was just the beginning. As he married other women from other nations, he would end up worshipping the gods of his wives.

Starting with verse two, we see that the people are still sacrificing in the high places. These high places were named not because they were in the mountains. In many writings, high places were not portrayed in a good light. Some saw them as a sign of their lack of loyalty to God. There are hints that the high places sometimes were places where people could worship other gods. A future king, Hezekiah, destroyed many of the high places as a way to get back to worshipping God alone. The talk about the high places could also be a foreshadowing of what will happen to Solomon: his worshipping the foreign gods of his wives.

It was at a high place that God came to Solomon in a dream. God’s first words to the king are to make a request. Solomon doesn’t take time to think about this. Instead, he blurts out that he wants wisdom. He asks for a “listening heart” or “understanding mind” to rule the people. The word wisdom in Hebrew is associated with legality and justice. In this time, the King was also the final arbiter of justice, in essence, Solomon was the Supreme Court as well as the President. God is pleased that Solomon chose…well, wisely. The king gets his wish; he has an understanding mind far beyond anyone else.

Solomon paints a portrait of a human faith.  He loves God and seeks to be faithful, and yet he is marrying foreign wives- he’ going against what God had commanded. This is not an excuse to sin, but it is a reminder that when we come to God, we bring all of ourselves, both good and bad.  Solomon wanted to be wise, to be faithful to God, but he is also doing things that will bring him trouble.

We get to see Solomon’s new found wisdom in action when two prostitutes came forward. It is telling that the king of Israel adjudicates a problem between two women on the lowest rungs of society. Both women had children. One mother rolled over during her sleep smothering the child. A mother decides to take her dead baby and switch it with the other baby. The case was about deciding who was the real mother. Solomon offers a shocking judgment: slice the living child in half and give both halves to the mothers. Was this a callous response to the women? We don’t really know. What we do know is that the judge allowed the two women to respond which revealed who was the real mother. The baby’s life is spared and Solomon gets a reputation for a wisdom that comes from God.

King Solomon was obsessed with women. Pharaoh’s daughter was only the first of the many foreign women he loved—Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite. He took them from the surrounding pagan nations of which God had clearly warned Israel, “You must not marry them; they’ll seduce you into infatuations with their gods.” Solomon fell in love with them anyway, refusing to give them up. He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines—a thousand women in all! And they did seduce him away from God. As Solomon grew older, his wives beguiled him with their alien gods and he became unfaithful—he didn’t stay true to his God as his father David had done. Solomon took up with Ashtoreth, the whore goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the horrible god of the Ammonites.

-1 Kings 11:1-5

1 Kings 3 is not a simple story of Solomon getting wisdom. There are hints of a downfall, one that is revealed in chapter 11. “King Solomon was obsessed with women,” says the Scripture. He started worshipping the gods of his wives and he built altars to these foreign gods.

Solomon’s choice to worship these foreign gods had consequences. 1 Kings 11 notes that like his father, God would judge him for his sins:

God said to Solomon, “Since this is the way it is with you, that you have no intention of keeping faith with me and doing what I have commanded, I’m going to rip the kingdom from you and hand it over to someone else. But out of respect for your father David I won’t do it in your lifetime. It’s your son who will pay—I’ll rip it right out of his grasp. Even then I won’t take it all; I’ll leave him one tribe in honor of my servant David and out of respect for my chosen city Jerusalem.”

Looking at chapter 11, chapter 3 is cast in a more tragic light. Chapter 3 shows a king that wanted to follow God and sought God for help. If we could stay just at chapter 3 this would be a wonderful story of someone seeking to follow and rely on God. Instead, it becomes a harbinger of things to come.
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Conclusion

Solomon was an imperfect leader.  He sought to follow God, but he also did things that harmed his faith in God.  Not so different from those of us who aren’t leaders.

Solomon asked for wisdom.  In the wider culture, we tend to think wisdom is something we can earn.  Wisdom is something that comes with time, from learning life’s lessons and so on.  But in Solomon’s time, wisdom is something that came from God.  Only God could make someone wise, not us.

What does it mean in our day and age to seek wisdom from God?  We won’t be asked to settle complaints like Solomon, but wisdom can be used as we live our lives in our churches, jobs, and neighborhoods.  What does wisdom look like to you?

But Solomon’s wisdom did not last.  Solomon’s story is truly a tragedy. Solomon took Israel to the apex of its power, but that all ended because of his choices.  He was the last king of a unified Israel. After his death, the kingdom would be split in two.

In Solomon’s dream, he was offered riches, but forsook them for wisdom from God.  This was odd, since there are examples in the Bible where material wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus picks up this theme of forgoing wealth in the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 6:25-34 has Jesus telling the people to not worry about eating or drinking because God would care for them.  Jesus even references Solomon in his talk:

27 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. 29 But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 30 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith?

-Matthew 6:27-30

 

Solomon is both a model to follow and a model of how not to do something. King Solomon has feet of clay.  But if there is any gospel to be drawn from this it’s that God used Solomon even though he was imperfect.  If God can use flawed Solomon, then God can use us.  We can have the wisdom of Solomon if we rely on God.

 

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

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One Thing Leads to Another: Pentecost 22

One Thing Leads to Another: Pentecost 22

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 21, 2018

Introduction 

The news is about a congressman or senator or maybe a governor.  This elected official is expected to go far, maybe even to the White House. We hear about an affair with a woman.  The elected official goes before the cameras with their wives in hand wearing a plastered smile that hides the fury she is feeling.  The hope the official had in running for president is gone.  The official resigns their office, wondering that maybe someday he could run again- this time with a chastened heart.

Today, we move from Joshua to David, Israel’s most famous king.  He considered a man after God’s own heart, but even someone as faithful as David could fall into a scandal which is what happens in today’s text.

Today, we look at David, Bathsheba and a king’s attempt to cover up a grave sin.

Engaging the Text

David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lordlives, the one who did this is demonic![g] He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over[h] because he did this and because he had no compassion.”

“You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power.

-Joshua 12:5-7

The story opens with David in Jerusalem.  The text notes that it’s springtime.  War usually did not take place during the winter, so spring indicates that wars are starting up again. The text notes that kings go off to war during the spring and yet David remains in Jerusalem.

Why did David stay behind?  The text doesn’t say.  What we do know is that the primary function of a king during this period was to be a military leader. Saul was made king because of the threat from the Philistines.  Since David had assumed the role of king he was expected to go to battle, but he didn’t.  Staying behind communicated that David wasn’t acting like a king.

He sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof.  Why is she doing this?  Verse 4 seems to say she was bathing for ritual purification purposes.

David is captivated by her beauty.  He learns that this is Bathsheba the wife of Uriah.   So, David knew he was fooling with a married woman. He sends for her and she arrives at the palace.  Verse 4 in chapter 11 say that David “took” her.  What does took mean.? Was David forcibly taking Bathsheba?  The text doesn’t really say. We know that David wanted he and if we look at the verbs being used: it is apparent that David was the actor, while Bathsheba was being acted upon. 

One other, sometimes David and Bathsheba have been considered a passionate love affair, but in reality, it was at the very least one-night stand.

Sometime after the encounter, Bathsheba sends word to David that she is pregnant.  This is the only time in the passage that Bathsheba speaks.  David is in trouble and this leads to the next part of this passage.

It is important to note that Uriah was not a Jew, but a Hittite. So Uriah was an immigrant as was Bathsheba.  Did David’s actions with Bathsheba and his attempts to kill Uriah happen because they were immigrants?  We don’t know, but it is interesting that the Scripture highlights Uriah’s ethnicity.

David now has to cover up his dalliances with Bathsheba.  He recalls Uriah in the hope that he would have sex with his wife and obscure the fact that David is the father of Bathsheba’s child, not Uriah. David might have forgotten that warriors took an oath to abstain from sexual relations while in battle.  Uriah, the Hittite, was faithful to his oath.  David, the Jewish king was not faithful.

David ordered Joab, his commander-in-chief, to put Uriah at on the front lines. This action took Uriah’s life, as well as the life of several other soldiers.  The coverup was as worse as the crime.

The death of Uriah by David allowed him to marry Bathsheba and no one would know who the child’s father was. David probably thought that was the end of Uriah and the end of his problems.  

Then we read verse 27 where it says, “But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes.”  David might have thought he had gotten away with literally murder, but it didn’t escape God.

Nathan was one of the court prophets.  He was one of the few people who had the authority to speak out against the king.

Nathan doesn’t directly accuse David.  Instead, he tells the parable of a man and his lamb. 

Why did Nathan use a parable?  Why didn’t Nathan accuse David directly?

The Intervarsity Commentary explains it this way:

The purpose of the parable was not only to induce David to condemn himself, but also to portray vividly the realities of the situation. Kings, if they were greedy, had the power to grab anything they wanted, and ordinary citizens were helpless. Nathan went on to point [p. 327] out how greedy David had been. In addition to his wives, he had apparently taken Saul’s concubines (8) as a symbol that he had taken over royal control from Saul. 1

David’s indiscretion and murder will have consequences for him and his family. Verse 9 notes“You have put Uriah the Hittite to death with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife; you have put him to death with the sword of the children of Ammon.” Bloodshed within his family would follow in the coming years and it would cause David grief.

David repents and Psalm 51 is the result of Nathan’s accusation. Nathan also says the child that was born would die, which is what happens.

While David had sinned and had to face the consequences, God did not forget Israel or David. David and Bathsheba have another child, named Solomon who would later succeed his father as king. God was able to bring good out of a bad situation.
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Conclusion

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” is what Romans 3:23 says describing humanity’s common lot.  David was considered a man after God’s own heart. He was considered faithful to God. Because of his faithfulness, Israel prospered.  And yet, this man sinned. Big time.

The story of David and Bathsheba is important to us for at least two reasons.  The first is that this story reminds us that we are people who sin, who sometimes wander off, that we fall short of the goal again and again.  That’s not something we like to hear, but we can’t understand God’s grace unless we understand that we are not okay.  Nathan’s parable is a story that shines a bright light on David’s sins. He has to face the music, he has to realize that he isn’t all that and a bag of chips.  He has sinned. Maybe our sin isn’t adultery, but we have all sinned and will sin in the future. A church is a meeting place of sinners, or at least it should be.  We come to church to join with other sinners to experience grace and healing. A church should be a hospital for sinners, a place where we can be made whole.

The second thing to remember is that God still uses us for God’s work in the world.  We feel God’s grace, the love that won’t let you go even when we fall short. None this means we should go and sin, but it is nice to know that we are loved even when we mess up which at least in my life is rather often.

I can’t say that I would never sin.  Neither can you. I’m human. None of us are above sin. We are capable of doing terrible things. But God has not given up on us.  There is judgment, but there is also grace.

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

You Gotta Serve Somebody: Pentecost 21

You Gotta Serve Somebody: Pentecost 21

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 14, 2018

Read Joshua 24:1-25 (CEB)

Introduction 

Joshua was the successor to Moses.  He had led the people across the Jordan River to begin taking the land.  Now, the land was theirs and Joshua, now an old man, wants the people to recommit to God again.

God had defeated the Egyptians, allowing for their escape. God was with them as the warred with the people living on the land promised for them.  But now as the land has been subdued, the people are being challenged.  Meeting other cultures, meant meeting other gods.  As Joshua is getting ready to pass from the scene, he wants the people to take stock of their lives and choose who they would worship or serve: the gods of their neighbors or the God that led them out of slavery? 

Today we study the farewell speech Joshua and the people of Israel’s response.

Engaging the Text

 I sent the hornetb]”>[b] before you. It drove them out before you and did the same to the two kings of the Amorites. It wasn’t your sword or bow that did this. 13 I gave you land on which you hadn’t toiled and cities that you hadn’t built. You settled in them and are enjoying produce from vineyards and olive groves that you didn’t plant.

-Joshua 24:12-13

Joshua 24 includes some of the last words of Joshua.  He was a protégé of Moses, and when Moses died, Joshua took over.  He is speaking to the people after they wandered in the desert for 40 years, after they crossed the Jordan into the Promised land, after the people had battled the inhabitants of Canaan, and after they had set up the beginnings of a nation.  It took decades, but the Israelites had arrived in more ways than one.

Instead of kicking back and enjoying their new life, God is calling them to enter into covenant with God.  Joshua gives a final speech that is in three parts: recalling God’s mighty acts, discussion the covenant and then solemnizing the covenant.  When he speaks it is in the first person, meaning that it was not simply him speaking, he was speaking with divine authority.

It’s important to note that when the Israelites conquered the different nations, that meant coming into contact with foreign gods. Joshua’s talk is a reminder to make a choice to follow God, and sometimes that choice has to made daily.

Joshua starts by recounts the story of the Israelites, showing what God had done for them; the calling of Abraham and giving he and Sarah a son named Issac.  Issac had Jacob and Esau. Leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the destruction of Pharoah’s Army, and God being with them as they battled differing nations.  God even reminds them that they were given land they didn’t toil  and living in homes they didn’t build, reminding them they didn’t do this on their own. 

Everything that the Israelites had done; winning battles against the different nations, the vineyards they planted, the cities they lived in, the fields they farmed were not done by them alone.  Joshua reminds the people that all the good things they had at this moment, came from God. It was God that brought them to this moment. And because God got them to this point, they should give thanks to God.  Joshua wasn’t saying that they should just say thanks and move on, no, they were to give thanks to God’s goodness by serving God.

This concept that God is the one who is at work in our lives is something that is hard for our modern society to understand.  For good or for ill, modern society is focused on the self. It doesn’t matter what your political orientation is, we all tend to look at our achievements as solely the result of our hard work.  In Joshua’s speech, God is continually saying that it was Yahweh that did so much for the people.  Yahweh brought Israel into being and then led them out of Egypt. It was Yahweh that defeated all the enemies of the Israelites.  Joshua tells the people they are free to worship other gods. In verse 15 God says that a choice has to be made: “then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.”

This is a call to choosing to follow God and it is also a call to live a life of gratitude. One of my Old Testament professors at Seminary shared his view on how people take communion and how that has changed over time.  In the past, the congregants would come to the communion table in fear and trembling. They didn’t even take the bread, but opened their mouths and the pastor would place it on their tongues like a mother bird to her chicks.  In modern times, people come joyfully to the table, take the bread and wine and had back to their seats almost skipping.

In the future, the professor envisioned church members stomping down the aisle to the communion table.  The pastor shakes in fear. These members grab their bread and wine and then stomp back to their pew.

His little tale brought a few laughs in the room, but there was some seriousness about it.  It showed how one can go from having a grateful and humble heart to thinking that they don’t really need God and in fact, God should be honored they are doing this. We can go from gratitude to a sense of entitlement, thinking God didn’t do anything for us.

Joshua was trying to remind his people that their lives are not simply their own.  The Israelites were part of something bigger than themselves. They were part of God’s salvation story, God’s attempt to redeem creation from the bondage of sin.  

At the end of the passage, the people recommit to following Yahweh. Of course, the Israelites would forget what God had done in their lives.  Joshua knew this. But at that moment, the Israelites get it. They will strive to live the life of a servant.

In some ways, this reminds us that we say “yes” to God day after day.  It isn’t just a “one and done” debate. People in recovery usually say that the road to sobriety is one day at a time.

Conclusion

I heard a phrase a lot when I was growing up.  It’s phrase you hear a lot in the black church.  “God woke me up this morning and started me on my way.”  When I was a kid, I had a hard time understanding this. Was God sitting next to my bed and maybe nudging me to wake up?  

As I got older, I began to understand what that meant; it means that our lives are not are own.  God has done wonderous things for us and our response is a life of service to God and to our sisters and brothers.  It’s to enter into God’s continuing salvation story and see how we can model and show what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Do we see that the God that demanded allegiance to the Israelites long ago, also demands our allegiance?  We are being asked who we will serve.  We can choose the ways of the world that leads to “death” or will we choose the one who brought us salvation through Jesus Christ.

Choose this day who you will serve. Who will you serve? As singer  Bob Dylan says, “you gotta serve somebody.”

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

Ten Words from God: Pentecost 20

Ten Words from God: Pentecost 20

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 30, 2018

Introduction 

In the waning days of the Roman Empire, a monk named Benedict wrote a document that would direct how his fellow monks would live.  Used by Benedictine monks for 15 centuries, the Rule of St. Benedict laidout how monks were to live in a communal environment.  The rule provides order as well as helping the monks foster a sense of the relational nature of humans.

The Israelites crossed the sea and are now  “safe” on the other side.  Pharaoh and his army are gone. No more Egyptians to worry about.  But now they were out in the wilderness where they faced many unexpected challenges. In Egypt,  they followed Egyptian laws, but they weren’t in Egypt anymore.  They were now out in the wilderness. Rules were needed to help everyone get along outside the structure of Egyptian society and law. Common expectations and community norms were needed. The needed a rule, like the the Rule of St. Benedict.

As the people journey together, Moses presents them with a new Law from God.   The core of God’s Law for the Israelites is the Ten Commandments. Received by Moses and delivered to God’s people, these laws became important not only among the Israelites but also to many cultures and governments around the world.  In our own nation today, the Ten Commandments are widely accepted as social and spiritual norms.

It is important to note that the Ten Commandments were given to the Jews (actually the male Jewish head of households) and were not intended for universal use.  That said, we they can help us understand how we should live as Christians, what God expects from us and how following rules can be seen as an act of grace.

Engaging the Text

The Lord called to him from the mountain, “This is what you should say to Jacob’s household and declare to the Israelites: You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me.

-Exodus 19:3-5

It’s easy to see the Ten Commandments as rules to be on God’s good side.  But that’s not really what they are about.  In fact that aren’t really about us at all.  Theologian Rolf Jacobson notes that there are two things the Ten Commandments don’t do; they aren’t a pathway to salvation and they aren’t there to make you a better you.  Jacobson says the following:

The first is that God does not give the law as a means to salvation. To use the law to earn salvation, to win your soul’s way into heaven, is like trying to build a faster-than-the-speed-of-light spaceship or a time-travel machine out of plywood. It’s not possible. And neither is it possible to earn salvation through the law. God does not give the law as a way to establish relationship with the people. God establishes the relationship and then gives the law.

That leads to the second point about the law. It isn’t about “us,”per se. God does not give you and me the law in order to perfect us or even to make us a better “you”or a better “me.”The law is not about us — it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.1

The Ten Commandments are for our neighbor and for God.  How do we relate to our neighbors?  How do we relate to God?  We aren’t blessed when we do good, but when we do good to the other and the other does good to us.

The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God.  The next four deal with our relationship to others and the last two deals with the desires of the heart.

We will look briefly at each commandment starting with the first one.

You shall have no other God’s before me. Don’t put anything or anyone ahead of God.  We are to pledge sole alligence to God. When we fail to love God, our neighbor is affected. As Jacobson notes, “When we center our lives around things other than God — whether it be money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty, even religion, or anything else — our neighbors will pay.”

 Don’t make yourself an idol. God is supposed to come first over everything.  It is easy to think we could love God and something else, but God commands that there are to be no idols.

 Don’t use the name of God wrongly.We call upon God to forgive us when we sin, to offer praise, to seek healing. God’s name is powerful so we should use it with care.

Take the Sabbath off.    The Sabbath is a day to worship God, but more importantly, it is usually about rest and fairness. This commandment gives the poor a day of rest. It is also a reminder that in Egypt, the Israelites had to work without a day off. Now they are free from having to work all the time, so take the time to rest.

Relating to Others.The next four focus on who we take care of our neighbors.  That includes are parents. The first one of these commandments, honoring your parents is about loving the other, our neighbors.  In a more modern tone, we are to care for the elderly in our midst.  We are also not to take the life of another (again, to murder is to not care for the other), not stealing and not having sex with a person’s spouse.  Again, we don’t do these things to get on God’s good side, but we do it for the benefit of the neighbor.

State of the Heart. The last two commandments deal with the heart.  Don’t bear false witness against a neighbor and don’t covet anything of the neighbor.

An aside about how Jews might see the Ten Commandments. Protestant Christians tend to look at law and gospel or grace differently than Jews.  Starting with Martin Luther, we emphasize grace and sometimes see the law as something that is archaic and has nothing to do with our faith.

Jews, however, see this differently.  They see the law as a response to God’s goodness.  Theologian Geoff McElroy explains: 

At first glance the Decalogue seems to be a list of regulations, and that’s what we assume they are, a list of do nots.  But maybe they are more like a framework through which life, specifically life with God, is interpreted.

Jewish tradition about the Decalogue gets this in a way that post-Pauline Christianity has seemed to have lost.  For many Christians, the Ten Words are “law” vis-à-vis the gospel or good news of God revealed in Jesus and even though we’ll still think following them is a good thing, they are seen as something distinct from the concept of God’s grace, as things that we as humans have failed to live up to and thus we need saving.

But in Jewish tradition, the Ten Words are a response to grace.  The Jews traditionally order their commandments differently; what the Jews regard as the first commandment or word, many Christians just dismiss as a prologue or introduction to the commandments.  But in Jewish tradition, the first commandment is not to have “no other gods before me,” but is instead: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the  land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”  (Exo 20:2).

In other words, the first word of life with God is to, “Remember what God has done for you!” 2

Conclusion

As Christians, especially  Protestants, it’s easy to look at the Ten Commandments as rules to follow or rules that weigh us down, take away our fun.  Because we are all children of the Reformation, Protestants tend to believe in grace over law.  That we are saved by grace is the central message that reformers like Luther and Calvin.

However, these passages were originally written by and for Jews,  so we need to see how Jews responded to these Commandments.  Jews tend to see the Ten Commandments or Ten Words as a response to grace.  The Ten Commandments are a response to grace.   The law is the vehicle for grace.  

It’s important to realize that the first commandment in the Jewish tradition is not You should haven’t other gods before God.  Instead, the first commandment is “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the  land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

It’s these sentences that the rest of the commandment flows from.  The rules that follow are not God keeping tabs as it is a response to what God has done.  If God has shown mercy to you, then you are to not make idols to other Gods.  If God has led you out of Egypt, then you are to care for the elderly.  If God has loosed the bonds of slavery, then you are to not steal or covet anything your neighbor has.

Theologian Thomas Long has likened following the Ten Commandments to a dance.  He writes:

The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results. If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.3

Like the Ten Commandments,  Communion reminds us of God’s wondrous acts of freedom through Jesus Christ.  How will we respond?  If God has freed us, then we should take the bread and wine with great joy, learning to follow God’s ways in joyous response.  We will fail at times, but God forgives us and we are reminded again of God’s love.  

  1. Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher, June 15, 2014.
  2. Geoff McElroy, Desert Scribblings, 2008 (http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/)
  3. Thomas G. Long, Christian Century, March 7, 2006, p.17.

 

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

The Final Showdown: Pentecost 19

The Final Showdown: Pentecost 19

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 30, 2018

Introduction 

In our last lesson, we talked about Joseph the great-grandson of Abraham who was sold in slavery in Egypt.  He becomes the head caretaker in the house of Potiphar, only to be pestered by Potiphar’s wife and her advances.  He is then falsely accused when he rejects her temptations and is placed in jail.

But all is not lost for Joseph.  We are told over and over in this story that God was with Joseph and indeed, God was present in both good times and in times that were challenging.  He is released from prison becomes the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh, and saves his family from a local famine.  Pharaoh invites all of Joseph’s kin come and live in Egypt, a happy ending. But of course, it wasn’t a happy ending.  Today we talk about Joseph’s descendents as they leave the place that was one a refuge and became of place of hardship.

Engaging the Text

13 But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you. You just keep still.”

-Exodus 14:13-14

As the book of Exodus starts, we find things are not so good for the descendants of Joseph and his brothers. The book opens us by telling us that a new pharaoh rules the land and he “did not know Joseph.” Between the time of Joseph and the current period, the Hebrews grew in size from a handful of people to a vast group within Egypt.   The new Pharaoh did not have the same generous attitude as the first Pharaoh. He feared the Hebrews because of their large numbers. In order to keep the Hebrews from being a threat due to their vast numbers, he set them to work doing hard labor on his building projects.  A people who were once guests were now slaves.

Enter Moses.  He was saved from a terror campaign initiated by the Pharaoh which killed every Hebrew male child.  Ironically, Moses grows up in the Pharaoh’s household taken care of by Pharaoh’s daughter.  God calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.  Pharaoh refuses to let the people leave and it become a match between Pharaoh and God.  A series of plagues strike the Egyptians until after a final plague kills all the firstborn Egyptians, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go.

But then Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he sends the army after the Hebrews.  This is where the story beings for us.

Pharaoh sends his army on chariots to catch the Hebrews who are stopped at the seashore.  Word gets to the Hebrews of the advancing Egyptian army who naturally, freak out.

Moses tells the people to calm down.  See God’s work of salvation at hand.  God was going to save the Hebrews once and for all in spectacular fashion.

It seems that God is working long before the showdown at the sea.  Jewish commentaries note that God had the Hebrews take a circuitous route to the promised land instead the more direct route- which would make a great escape route back to Egypt if things got dicey.  This wandering would make it seem like the Israelites were lost, which then prompted the Egyptians to attack. (Beshalach Aliyah Summary, Chabad.org.)

It’s important to note that the two pillars that led the Hebrews, a cloud and fire are examples of God’s presence.

While the common story is that the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea, some biblical scholars think they crossed the Reed Sea, which is shallow and surrounded by marshy land.  East winds can push the water away. The Egyptian army gets bogged down in the soggy soil.

Did all of this happen at the Red Sea or the Reed Sea?  If it’s the Reed Sea, how could the Egyptian army be drowned in shallow water? Who knows.  The story was handed down orally and there  is a possibility the story became “bigger” with each telling. Whether it happened at the Red See or the Reed Sea; whether it was winds that pushed away the shallow water or a huge wall of water is not the main point of the passage.  The point is that God saves the Hebrews from oppression.  The people see the power of God and place their trust in God.

 

 

Conclusion

This text is a well-known one not simply because the story has been told over and over, but because of movies that have dramatized the event.  In Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments the most memorable scene is when Moses (played by Charleston Heston) lifts up his rod and the mighty waters are swept away for provide a corridor for escape. 

While we know Hollywood’s telling of this story, what does this story have to do with our own story?  How do we see ourselves in this larger story?

The story of the Israelites in Egypt has been a story that resonated with African Americans.  Bogged down by slavery and then official segregation, Blacks in the United States looked to these passages as assurance that God was on the side of the oppressed and that someday, Pharaoh would be toppled.

Beyond this application, what does this story mean to you?  What does the liberation of a people thousands of years ago by God have anything to do with us today?

 

 

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

The Young and the Restless: Pentecost 18

The Young and the Restless: Pentecost 18

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 23, 2018

Read Genesis 39:1-23 (CEB)

Introduction 

Americans love a good “rags to riches” story. We love hearing about the poor man (it is usually a man in these stories) who works hard and becomes a rich person.  The person who helped plant these stories in the American imagination was Horatio Alger.  His books, written in the 19th century, focused on you teenage boys who either worked hard or committed some act of bravery that brings the boy wealth and riches. The story basically says that if you work hard, then good things will happen to you.   A religious version of this has taken hold in modern times. Called the Prosperity Gospel it says that if you follow God, you will be blessed financially.

On its surface, the story of Joseph seems like a Horatio Alger story.  He was the youngest son in a large family that was sold by his brothers to Egypt.  He is now a slave.  But then fortuned steps in and he ends up in a place of honor.  But the story here is not about Joseph working hard as it was about God being with Joseph in the good times and the bad.  So, let’s look at Jospeh as he works in Potiphar’s house.

Engaging the Text

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 4So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.

-Genesis 39:1-4

Before we go into today’s text, some backstory.  In our last lesson, we see God speaking to Abraham about being the father of a great nation.  After a long wait, God’s promise came true in the form of Issac.  Issac later had two sons, Jacob and Essau. Joseph was the son of Jacob who happened to be the grandson of Abraham.  God had kept God’s promise- a nation is being built through the family of Abraham.

Joseph was the youngest of Jacob’s sons. We start to see a textbook case of sibling rivalry. Jacob doted on his youngest, keeping him from doing the really hard work. He even gave him a fancy robe, something his brothers didn’t get.

Of course, his older brothers hated their little brother.  But they didn’t react by whining.  Instead, they wanted to kill Joseph.  Ruben, one of the brothers was able to disuade his brothers from offing Joseph.  Instead, Joseph was sold into slavery and was soon on his way to Egypt.

So now Joseph is in Egypt.  He is far from home, far from his family.  But even when things might seem dark for Joe the passage notes that “the Lord was with Joseph.” That phrase is used 4 times in this passage and it is the phrase on which this whole story hangs on. Theologian Walter Brueggemann that this phrase is not that with God, everything will work out.  He notes that three times the word is used when Joseph finds success. But the fourth time it is used is when Joseph is not successful.  In essence this phrase goes against prevailing wisdom of the culture.  God was not the good luck charm, but something very different.

Verse 2 notes that Joseph was “successful” meaning that he was making progress and indeed he was.  He ended up as the personal attendant of Potiphar and the guy in charge of the day-to-day handling of Potiphar’s house.

Throughout these early verses of chapter 39, we find that God is continually looking out for Joseph and even bless those who treat him kindly.  It seems like things were going well for Joseph and one could just end the story here, with Joseph in a nice job in an exotic locale and away from his jealous brothers.

his is where the story veers from local-boy-does-good to something out of a soap opera.  The wife of Potiphar is attracted to Joseph and more than once begs, pleads for Joseph to take part in some hanky panky.

By this point, Joseph might be in his mid 20s and according to some scholars the outfit he wore what could be considered shorts and a t-shirt.  Which means that in the eyes of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is a hottie.

Joseph was in a pickle.  He had to obey the wife of Potiphar, but he knew he was entrusted to look after Potiphar’s household and he also knew of his covenant with God. “How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” he says.

Potiphar’s wife is anything if not persistent.  She keeps trying to tempt Joseph until one day she grabs Joseph and seems to jump right out of his clothes to get away from her.

There is a lot that can be unpacked from this encounter.  One way to think about this is that Joseph was tempted. Jewish midrash suggests that Joseph was a sexual being that was tempted to have a fling with Potiphar’s wife.  But the midrash goes on to say that just a the moment he gives in he remembers his relatives. Jewish theologian Louis Ginzberg explains:

[Zuleika] stood before him suddenly in all her beauty of person and magnificence of raiment, and repeated the desire of her heart. It was the first and the last time that Joseph’s steadfastness deserted him, but only for an instant. When he was on the point of complying with the wish of his mistress, the image of his mother Rachel appeared before him, and that of his aunt Leah, and the image of his father Jacob.… The vision of the dead, and especially the image of his father, brought Joseph to his senses.1

The midrash shows Joseph was a human being who was tempted, but remembers who he is and comes to his senses. 

Bruggeman sees this as a set up between God and empire, with Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as stand-ins for each. Her desire to take advantage of Joseph is an example of the powerful seeing themselves beyond the reach of the Torah and ultimately God.  But Joseph saw this as a road to ruin. ” How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?” he says.

Joseph’s story is not unlike the temptation that so many politicians face. You could see this story play itself out in our hall of power, our state capitals, Congress and the White House.  He could have said yes to the temptations of what Brueggeman calls “empire” or what some say the ways of the world, but he had to say “no.”  This was not God’s way.2

Realizing that she was never going to get her man, Potiphar’s wife then runs to her husband and makes up a story of Joseph trying to take advantage of her.  His days at the House of Potiphar were over.

But God was with Joseph. The common punishment for rape in that time as death, not imprisonment. Why didn’t Potiphar have Joseph executed? Is this an example of God being with Joseph? Potiphar might have known what his wife was doing and opted for the least bad option.  

But Joseph is now back at square one.  He went from running the house of one of the most powerful men in Egypt to now being a common criminal.  But then there’s that phrase again: the Lord was with Jospeh. Joseph ended up being the person in charge of all the other prisoners.  He was still a prisoner, but something good came out of this injustice.

This is where the story ends.  We learn later that Joseph is released from prison and becomes second in command to the Pharaoh. He saves Egypt from famine as well as his family who come to live with him. Through the good times and the bad, the Lord was with Joseph.

 

 

Conclusion

What does it mean to be blessed?  There is a common understand among some people that God means for us to be happy and wealthy. The Prosperity Gospel mentioned earlier that God intends for good things and when those good things happen, God is blessing us.

But is blessing only about good things?  Joseph was good person, maybe even blessed, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming sold by his brothers or getting falsely accused or ending up in prison.  

The Lord was with Joseph.  That phrase tells us a lot.  No matter what was going on in Joseph’s life, God was with him.  God was with him as he rose to favored position in Potiphar’s house and was there when Joseph was in prison.

We all need to be blessed.  But that blessing is not about having it all.  God blessed Joseph by being present in Joseph’s life and Joseph responded by following God, even if it meant losing it all.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says in chapter 8 verse 28 that “all things work together for good[a] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The point of this verse isn’t that good can come out of some horrible experience as it has sometimes been interpreted as. No, it is that God remembers us in the good times and the bad.

 

There is a saying that I’ve heard many times over the years.  It’s goes like this, “God is good. All the time. All the time, God is good.”  God is good. Sometimes we have a hard time believing this. We might wonder where was God during certain points of our lives.  We may wonder if God is good when we are diagnosed with cancer. Was God good when a child dies? How about when your job is eliminated and you are left wondering how in the world you are going to make it financially.  

But the reality is, God is good, not because God is a spiritual Superman that comes in and saves the day.  God is good because we are not forgotten by God. God didn’t forget Joseph.

The rest of the story of Joseph is that he is freed from prison and again rises in power to become the second most powerful person in the land of Egypt.  He reunites with his brothers whom he forgives. His whole family moves to Egypt and after Jacob dies, his brothers wonder if he will bear a grudge. Joseph responds, “ Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”

All of us who call ourselves Christ followers are blessed by God.  We are blessed in the good days, when we have a good job and good health and we are blessed when we are laid off and dealing with a chronic disease. God is there working for the good of all, working to remind us we are loved by God and that God is always with us.

 

  1. Ginzburg, Louis. The Legend of the Jews. The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2003.
  2. Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 313). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Louisville, 1986.

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

Retirement is Over: Pentecost 17

Retirement is Over: Pentecost 17

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 16, 2018

Read Genesis 12:1-9 (CEB)

Introduction 

Most of us (hopefully) are saving for retirement.  Little by little we set aside a portion of our income for that future time when we decide to stop working or work less.

Or maybe we are already retired and starting a new life traveling or volunteering, things you wanted to do in your working years but couldn’t.

What many of us don’t do or don’t plan to do is start something new.  We don’t expect the elderly to start something entirely new like a new business.  A small number do, but most don’t.

This week we continue with the running theme of covenant.  In the previous reflection, we talked about Noah and the covenant God makes with him and with all creation; to never again destroy the earth with water.  God creates a rainbow to remind God of the promise and to find other ways to redeem creation.

One of those ways is to make a covenant with a people, a nation that will be the light to the rest of the world.  Today, we see God call Abram a man of 75 years who is called on a new journey to found a new nation.

Engaging the Text

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

-Genesis 12:1-2

The story begins with Abram and Sarai, whose names are later changed to Abraham and Sarah. This lesson covers their entire journey and so, for sake of consistency, “Abraham” and “Sarah” are used throughout. At the core of their journey is the establishment of a covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham. It is important to remember that the covenant is with the descendants of Abraham, and not exclusive to Abraham and Sarah.

Chapter 12 of Genesis is a turning point in this first book of the Bible.  Chapters 1-11 are full of foundational stories like the creation, the fall and the flood.  Starting with Chapter 12 until the end of the book, we start focusing on one particular family and it all begins with Abraham.

In verse one of chapter 12 we are introduced to Abraham.  The story tells us he’s 75 years old (we don’t know if the ancients counted in the same 12 month year as we do or not, but the age indicates he was getting on in years).  So Abe wasn’t a spring chicken.  To put it in modern terms, you could imagine an elderly man living with his wife in some retirement community in Florida or Arizona.  We have no idea what he did before in his life (and the writer of Genesis doesn’t seem to care), but we do know he is old and just living his life.

It’s then that Abraham gets a call from God to leave everything he has known to become the father of a great nation.  God says that Abraham will be blessed and that all nations will be blessed through him.

Now, you have to imagine the absurdity of this.  Abe is 75.  His wife Sarah has never bore him a child and yet God is talking about Abraham becoming the father of a great nation.  What’s even more amazing is that Abraham just packs up and does what God says.  He takes his wife as well as his nephew Lot and heads for the land of Cannan. When it means Abraham left he really left.  In fact, the Hebrew states the word go means go-immediately!

Let’s go back to our modern interpretation.  A retired man all of the sudden feels the need to sell his house in the retirement community and packs up his wife to head to Silicon Valley to start a new software company.  This is how odd God’s call is.  It’s just not something that is done.

Abraham’s leaving his country was in a way abandoning his identity.  God called Abraham to leave his “kindred” to leave the web of familial relationships, to even leave his father, meaning severing of the nuclear family and even his nationality.  This God that is unknown to Abraham tells him to leave it all behind and trust God.

Abram’s response comes down to a matter of trust.  He believed God, even though God didn’t do a good job at explaining how somethings would take place, like that whole you-gotta-have-a-baby-to-have-descendents part.  This story is an example of God calling a person to do something.  When a person decides that they might want to become a pastor, that person might be asked if they felt “called by God.”  Like Abraham,  the potential pastor was contacted by God to start on a new journey, with all the details filled out later.

This account is one of the first accounts where God calls someone.  Throughout the Bible, there are stories where a person is just doing his or her thing and is called by God.  The call of God is not something that is limited to just Bible characters or pastors.  Everyone is called by God to do something to further God’s kingdom.  Abraham was called to step out of the life he had set up for he and Sarai and trust God.

Theologians and pastors love to show Abraham as a model of what it means to hear the call of God and place total trust in him.  But don’t we wonder if Abraham doubted?  Did he wonder what in the world he was doing?  Did he sometimes think that maybe it was last night’s pizza and not God calling him?

The Bible never tells us what Abraham was thinking- all we know is that he followed God and left all that was familiar, all that brought him comfort.  What we do know is that Abraham believed- even when the facts told him this made no sense.  Alexander Campbell (one of the founders of the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ) had this to say about the faith of Abraham:

There was nothing more extraordinary ever believed by any man, than that he, an old man, ninety-nine years old, and his wife ninety, who had in her youth, and through all the years of parturition, been barren; should, by this woman, became the father of many nations, and have a progeny as innumerable as the countless myriads of the host of heaven. This was contrary to nature. When Abraham considered his own body as good as dead to these matters, and when he looked at the poor, wrinkled, shrivelled, and drooping old Sarah, and thought that they two, old and faded as they were, should become the parents of immense nations, it transcended all the powersof reason to believe it upon any otherpremises than the omnipotence and inviolate truth and faithfulness of God. To these he gave glory and rested assured that God would make good his promise.

The distinguishing peculiarity of Abraham’s belief was, that contrary to all evidence from the reason and nature of things, he embraced, with undoubting confidence, the promise: obviating all the arguments against his confidence, arising from nature and the common lot of men, by the power and faithfulness of God.2

One of the words used to describe Abraham is “pioneer.” He was taking a big risk to leap into the unknown, to stake out new territory.  This is the opposite of what culture expects of us.  We are told to go into the world as young people to make a name for ourselves.  They make a name for themselves, become popular and then are forgotten.  Abraham is risking everything to go into the unknown and will be made known through his ancestors.  Because of his faith he is regarded a hero of sorts, being willing to risk and trust even when nothing is clear.

There is one more hero here: God.   We like to talk about choosing God, but in effect, God always chooses us.  Abraham didn’t go to the Promised Land all by himself, but he was chosen by God.  Time and again, God chooses, calls us.  When God calls, how will we respond?

What is God calling you to do?  What journey is God asking you to partake?  Are we willing to leave all that is familiar and take a step in faith?

 

 

Conclusion

In Luke 9:57-62, Jesus calls several people and time and time again, the people who get the call come up with excuses.  One says they need to bury their father.  Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Another person was called and they wanted to say goodbye to those in their house.  Again, Jesus brushes away what he sees as an excuse: “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

God seems to call people immediately, even if it mean to leave behind what you know.  But that passage also shows how hard it is to live by faith in God.  It is not natural to us, we prefer the known to the unknown.

Theologian Dan Clendenin has this to say about the call of Abraham and how it relates to us today:

Abraham left Haran in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why except that God had commanded him. He acted whole-heartedly without absolute certainty.1 In so doing he defied both the inner propensities of human nature and the outer pressures of cultural conformity to cling to the familiar, the self-serving, and the broad and easy road. Abraham journeyed from what he knew to what he did not know, from what he had to what he did not have, from the the comfortable to the strange and the unpredictable. He journeyed “like a stranger in a foreign country” (Hebrews 11:8–9). Today, most everything in our culture, education and employment encourages us to journey in the opposite direction: from the unknown to the known, from what we do not have to what we think we want and need, making every effort to remove the strange and unpredictable in order to guarantee the safe and the secure. We demand certainty and act timidly.1

God chooses. We follow.  Easier said than done, but as Abraham shows, it has been done.

  1. Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net, February 2005.
  2. Alexander Campbell, The Christian Baptist, 1828.

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

Reset or Renewal: Pentecost 16

Reset or Renewal: Pentecost 16

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 9, 2018

Introduction 

The winter of 1996-97 was quite harsh and long in the Upper Midwest.  There was snow, and freezing temps well below zero for months.  The record amounts of snow meant floods come spring.  The spring of 1997 brought record floods throughout Minnesota and North Dakota wreaking havoc in various communities. One of those communities affected by the flood of ’97 happened to be Grand Forks, the state’s 3rd largest city.  Despite a noble effort by citizens and volunteers, the rising flood waters of the Red River could not be held back.  Fifty thousand people had to flee their houses as a result.  Houses and businesses were now filled with the waters of the Red. As the waters filled the city, another tragedy hit the downtown area.  A fire started in one of the buildings downtown.  Water everywhere and now a fire.  The Grand Forks firefighters tried to deal with the fire using boats.  The situation looked hopeless.

A photographer for the Grand Forks Herald snapped a photo that became iconic.  In the midst of flood and fire, there was a rainbow.  The rainbow became a sign of hope to a beleagured community, a promise that things would be better. Things were bad and you couldn’t ignore that, but the rainbow said that there was hope.

The flood story found in Genesis is one that many know all about.  But maybe the correct thing to say is that we think we know the story.  Go into a Sunday School room at a church and you will see a drawing of the flood with animals smiling and a bearded Noah that looks like Santa Claus.  It is a happy story.

But the thing is, it isn’t a happy story.  This story has more in common with apocalyptic tales like the nuclear war drama the Day After than it does with any children’s cartoon.  

However, like the picture of the rainbow amidst the fire and flood, the Flood story is one about hope, the hope of salvation for all of creation.

Engaging the Text

“I am now bringing the floodwaters over the earth to destroy everything under the sky that breathes. Everything on earth is about to take its last breath.”

-Genesis 6:17

God isn’t happy.  God looks on all of creation and sees a creation steeped in sin. It’s not included in today’s passages, but earlier in Genesis 6 we hear God express regret. in verses 5-6 we hear God’s anger and anguish. “ The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.” The passage opens with God giving Noah instructions on how to build the ark and get ready for the coming deluge.

What God is doing here is undoing creation.  The waters that were separated in Genesis 1 are brought back together again. God is winding down the world and that means getting rid of all life on earth save Noah, his family and the animals in the ark.

Even though the people who perished in the flood were considered sinful people who deserved to be punished, this story should bother us.  We have to wrestle with the fact that God is not the merciful, loving, God that we think God is.  Instead, we see a darker God, one that is so upset and sad, that God is willing to start over and rebuild the earth.

The flood story shows us two sides of God.  Chapter 6 shows us the God who believes in justice.  When we see in Exodus that God has heard the cries of the Israelites dealing with the misery of slavery, we are seeing a God that is a just God.  God sees what is going on and God sees that there was injustice in the land. What we learn here is that God believes in justice. The sinfulness of creation breaks God’s heart. It’s easy to understand that, but where things get worrisome is that God’s justice meant destroying all of creation, including every man, woman and child in the world.

But the flood, God as judge is only half of the story. Yes, God is a just God, but God is also a God that loves mercy.   God is also a loving God and we learn that even in the midst of destruction, God brings salvation and promises to relate to creation in a new way.

God tells Noah and his family that God will set a “bow in the clouds.”  This rainbow will grace the heavens as a reminder that God would never again destroy creation. This is not a promise to humans, instead it is a reminder to God.  In modern parlance God is placing a giant post-it note in the heaven to remind God to not unleash such violence on creation ever again.

When God makes this promise, it doesn’t mean that creation will never break God’s heart.  All you have to do is keep reading the Bible to see how again and again creation disappoints God.  At some point people would start being evil again and God would become angry at the injustice going on.  God might want to send judgement, but God made a promise.  No more hitting the reset button. From here on out in scripture, we see God trying to reconcile with God’s creation in a different ways.  God will use a specific people, starting with the Israelites as an example to the world to return to God.  Finally, God uses God’s chosen people to bring forth God incarnate, namely Jesus who would bring salvation to all of creation.

 

 

Conclusion

If you remember the Far Side comic, there is one where God is watching a man walking down the street on a computer screen.  When you look at the keyboard, you can see that God is contemplating if now is the time to hit the “smite” button.

The creator of Far Side was on to something there, because that is how many of us see God.  God is sitting there, waiting for us to slip up. 

But what we learn from today’s study that God is more pained than God is angry at creation.  God is angry to be sure, but we are so focused on God’s actions through the flood that we forget how all of this sin breaks God’s heart.  As Geoff McElroy notes:

Too often, however, I think we focus on the wrong aspect of the flood narrative.  Too often we hone in on humanity’s corruption and God’s wrathful judgment, either reveling in or being repulsed by it.  In that regard, we are often like we are when we pass a bad car wreck on the highway, not being able to look away, either because of our horror at what has happened or our fascination to know just a little bit more about what had taken place.  Either way, our eyes are glued to the scene.

But in doing so, in focusing on the theme of judgment, we miss the deep pain expressed in the story.  That pain, of course, being the pain at the very heart of God.  The flood narrative is not one that is about a vengeful God, watching and waiting for a screw up so that God might smote the evil-doer, which is the image a lot of people when we speak about the judgment of God.  If that is the understanding of judgment that you bring to the flood narrative, then you’ll quickly miss the point.

Judgment is not something God revels in, takes pleasure in, especially according to the flood narrative.  God does not chuckle gleefully as God throws lightning bolts at random sinners.  Instead, the reality of evil and God’s judgment of it is something that breaks God’s very heart.  “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).

The story of the flood and the promise of a rainbow tells us of a God that is heartbroken and longs for a day when all creation will be made whole.

 

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.

When the Spirit Moves, Pentecost

When the Spirit Moves, Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 20, 2018

Introduction 

We are living the middle of times that are troubling.  Our society has become a little less nicer and a whole lot more meaner.  We are less tolerant of people who have views different than our own. A woman is hit in the head with a glass by another woman after speaking to a friend in Swahili. Angry people carry tiki torches and march through a college town. Anger towards immigrants and refugees.  Looking down at people from the working class. Men abusing women. It goes on and on.

What can be done? Who can stand up?

The church has a role to play in our world.  The church has a public mission in the world.  Now sometimes we confuse a partisan mission as the church’s mission.  But that’s not what the church is supposed to do. The public mission is that as we are guided by the Spirit, we should start acting differently.  If we are a community led by the Spirit, we want to see each other as a child of God, as a person of worth and value. I am not saying we are trying to be better, but that we allow the Spirit to change us.

The world needs a witness of a community that’s  united. They need an example of people who work together, who learn to love each other in spite of our differences.  This is the public mission of this church. It isn’t to adopt a progressive political agenda or a conservative one. Instead we are called to model a different way of being, where divisions are healed.  We are called to leave the walls of this church and model that love wherever we go.

But we also live in a time when it seems like the church and religion in general seem less and less relevant to the current context. Churches are losing members, facing shrinking budgets and divisive social issues. How in the world can the church be a witness when it seems like its in such bad shape?

Today is a big day in the life of the church. This is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church. It is also the day that we focus on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:1-21 we see the Holy Spirit as the prime mover, the One that transforms the timid disciples into fearless apostles, a community huddled in a room is sent out by the power of the Spirit into the world.

I’m guessing that the disciples didn’t understand what was going to happen.  It was already hard enough to understand Jesus dying, rising again and then floating away. What was the Spirit? What was its importance?   

Today, we talk about the Spirit and the church.

Engaging the Text

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

-Acts 2:4

Our text from Acts opens with the disciples holed up in a room in Jerusalem. These were the same bunch of people who never seemed to understand what Jesus was all about. And when the going got rough for Jesus, they abandoned him. This group was hardly the group that was going to lead the church.

And then, a wind comes through and envelopes the room. And then fire descends on each of them and they began to speak in other languages, which was quite a feat for these simple small-town men from Galilee. Peter addresses the crowd with wisdom we have never seen before. He tells them that in the last days, God would pour out the Spirit and sons and daughters would prophesy, young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams and even the slaves would prophesy.

Methodist minister William Willomon says that the only way to talk about this is through narrative.  Paul’s letters which we thick with theology couldn’t do it justice.  This event,, was so mysterious that it could never be told straight.  There are always interpretations that are not so obvious and there is more than one way to look at it. So no matter who you are, a pastor with degrees in Biblical Studies or a lay member that learned the faith from his Sunday School teacher when he was seven, this is a story that is meant to experience than a lesson to be learned. Take it as the story that it is.

When the tounges of fire settled on the disciples, they couldn’t just stay in that room.  They had to get out, they had to get out and make their praises known to God publicly.  So they did just that. It just so happens a religious festival is taking place with Jews from around the known world.  They were amazed as they heard these uneducated country hicks from Galilee praise God in their mother tounges. Well, some were amazed of what was happening.  Others scoffed thinking the disciples were drunk.

That cynical take on the event, that the disciples were really drunk, is a way to show how people don’t always understand the spirit. The don’t understand it because it doesn’t make sense. So, they have to find some way to explain what is going on.  William Willmon notes, that this is how some try to understand the un-unstandableness of the Holy Spirit:

That power the church proclaims as gift of God the world explains as inebriation. The inbreaking of the Spirit is profoundly unsettling and deeply threatening to the crowd in the street, and so it must devise some explanation, some rationalization for such irrationality.1

It’s also important to note that this is not the first coming of the Holy Spirit.  The writer of Luke and Acts, shows other times when the Spirit comes to one person like when Mary sings the Magnificat (Luke1:46-55). But Pentecost is more of a “democratic” coming of the Spirit to everyone.

Many of us, especially in Mainline Protestant churches,  don’t really know what to do about the Spirit. We know what to do with God. We are pretty sure what to do with Jesus. God is our Father and Mother, Jesus is the Son, the Lamb of God, but who is this Holy Spirit? We don’t know what to do with this third person. And, well, the word spirit brings up thoughts of ghosts and goblins…things that are rather creepy.

When most of us think of the Holy Spirit, if we ever do, we tend to think of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. They are the ones that will sometimes dance up and down the isles and speak in something that sounds like complete gibberish. But “sophisticated” mainline Protestants look at such things with fear, because we most definitely don’t want to be like that. So, mainline Protestants tend to ignore the Spirit. If rolling around is what makes one “filled with the Spirit,” we will stick to our more sedate and sensible brand of worship, thank you very much.

But in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we tend to miss seeing the world through God’s eyes and in the end, we end up missing God.

One of the few things this writer remembers from his seminary days is that the word for wind and spirit in Greek is the word pnuema. For the more mature people in the congregation, this is where we get the word pneumatic tires from- tires filled with air. I think it’s interesting that this word mean both spirit and wind, because it give us some insight into what the Holy Spirit is all about. The wind is something that can’t be contained; it goes where it wants to go. God’s Spirit is not contained in churches, but is alive beyond these walls in the world. Our job is not to bring the Spirit to people but to find out where God is already at work and join God in that work.

The Hebrew word for spirit is even more fasicinating. That name is ruach, which also means breath. Think back to the creation story when God creates humans. God fashions the bodies, but they were still dead- until God breathes into their bodies and then they come to life. Spirit here means life, because to breathe means you live, you aspire. To not breathe is to expire, to die.

It’s easy to believe that the Spirit is something interior, that it has to uderstanding outside our own thoughts. But the coming of the Spirit is not an interiour event.  It is like breath, it has to come out.  When Luke describes the Spirit, he talks about wind, fire, confusion.  Sometimes the Spirit makes one seek salvation.  When Peter preaches his sermon based on the prophet Joel, the answer of many in the crowd was, “brothers what must we do?”  When Jesus spoke to his neighbors at the synogogue in Nazareth, he said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. His neighbors responded, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?” The Spirit doesn’t always lead people to God, but it always gets a reaction.

Pentecost is about the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Church.  The spirit is here and present with us. It doesn’t matter if we are a church of 1000 or a church of 10, the Spirit is present here now and if we pay attention to the Spirit, God just might kick us out of this building and into the world. Pentecost is about a church on the move, the car on the journey.  The church isn’t a destination, but it is the means with which we travel.

Give Thanks

Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.

-Philippians 4:6

And now a brief word on the text from Philippians.  We finish Paul’s letter with chapter 4. Paul opens up the text by saying the church needs to rejoice in the Lord all the time.  What that means is that joy comes taking part in God’s redemption story. But taking part in the redemption of creation includes suffering.  So Paul is telling the church not to just believe in Jesus, but also be willing to suffer for Jesus.  When Paul talks about that joy, it doesn’t come from achievment, but simply being with God in the good times and the bad times.

When Paul calls for the Philippians to show gentleness to others, it is a call for the church to reach out to their neighbor with compassion.  Again, we do it not to spread the gospel or as a mission tactic, but simply because this is what a Christian does.

Every Sunday we come to church and pray prayers for the church and the wider world.  Why?  What is the point of sharing our prayer concerns? Paul responds that we pray to recieve the Peace of God. While we imitate the love of Christ, the peace of God is something that God gives.

Conclusion

Last year, a commentary appeared in the Dallas Morning News with the provocative title, “For the sake of our democracy, go back to church (or synagogue, or mosque).”  The writer, Joshua Whitfield reminds people how going to a place of worship can bring the domstic tranqulity that politics fails to produce. He writes:

Aside from various theologies, going to church or to the synagogue or to the mosque is good for us individually as healthy social beings and collectively as diverse citizens. And that’s because in faith communities we learn about the goods and virtues of belonging, and especially belonging among some people we wouldn’t normally have chosen to belong to.

And that’s what all local faith communities do in some form, gathering relatively diverse people together to practice virtues of commitment. They offer what the poet and farmer Wendell Berry simply calls “membership,” the sort of belonging that is accepted rather than purchased. It’s the sort of unbought, unsubscribed belonging that makes demands upon us but also nourishes us. It’s the sort of belonging that comes from loving and serving people you may have otherwise never thought to love or serve, discovering thereby deeper human solidarity. It’s the sort of belonging that teaches us how to love people simply because they’re there.

The church started because a group of people who were seated in a room, was touched by the Spirit and changed.

A pastor I knew used to ask  how we knew how God is at work in our lives. So, have you seen God at work? Were you paying attention?

Pentecost is in many ways a question.  We are asked to look back to see all the mighty deeds that God has done for God’s people, to see how Jesus showed us God’s love in his life, death and resurrection and to see the Holy Spirit descend in wind and flame.  We are asked to see all of this and ask, “So what are you going to do about it?”

As we worship in our churches this weekend, as preachers prepare to preach yet another sermon on the Acts text, we might want to ask our congregations the same question.  “So, what are you going to do about it?”

The “so what” for the disciples was that they started telling the story of Jesus all over the known world.  They didn’t go back to their old lives, but forged ahead, being empowered and led by the Spirit to some new territory.

The wind, fire and the speaking of different languages is a pointed question to us.  What does all of this mean to you?  Does it affect you?  Does it change your life?

As Christians our lives are shaped by a calling; a calling from God, exemplified by Jesus and sent by the Holy Spirit. It is when we serve others, teaching children about God or befriending a person battling addiction that is when we begin to answer the question that is Pentecost, it when we do something about life in response to all the amazing acts God has done for us. For all of us.

So, what are you going to do about it? I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Can you see the wind? Can you breathe in the Spirit? That’s a question only you can answer.

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.

It’s Hard to Be Humble!, Easter 7

It’s Hard to Be Humble!, Easter 7

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 13, 2018

Read Philippians 2:1-13 (CEB)

Introduction 

About a number of years ago, I was driving down Interstate 35W  from the suburb of Edina, Minnesota to Minneapolis. All of the sudden, the traffic just stopped. Now usually if there is a traffic jam, the traffic slows down, but it rarely just stops. I looked at the other lane and it was devoid of any traffic…at all. It was strange to see a freeway not have any cars on it at all, especially at the middle of the day.

Just then, a caravan of black cars made its way down the empty lane. One of those cars was a limousine with flags donning the hood. It was the that I realized what had just passed me by: a presidential motorcade. Then-President Bush was in town to make a speech in a western suburb and as is the case whenever the president is in town, all roads leading from the airport to the location where the president will be are shut down totally to offer he or she protection.

Frankly, I think it’s kinda cool that as president you don’t have to worry about traffic jams. Ever.

It makes sense why roads would be  shut down in order to make sure that the leader of our nation is protected from threats. But it was also a reminder of the power of the Presidency.  When the President walks into a room, please stand up. Sometimes it’s even followed by music, “Hail to the Chief.”

Even in a democracy, there are trappings of power. It just comes with the territory.

In his letter to the Phillipians, Paul writes a concise understanding of who Jesus was and what his life, death and ressurrection meant.  Paul talks about how Christ emptied himself, giving up his status in the Trinity to become “a slave,” to become a fragile human. He lived as a servant, healing people spiritually and physically.  Jesus never claimed any special privileges that he was definitely worthy of. Instead he was obedient in life and obedient in death, even in the most shameful way of dying- by crucifixion.

In the gospels, this Jesus is arrested, beaten, forced to carry a wooden cross and then was nailed on that cross to die.  All the while the guards and religious leaders made fun of him being the king of the Jews. Some king.  He couldn’t even save himself.

The cross is an embarassment.  Why would a king, why would any leader humiliate himself this way?

Engaging the Text

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.

-Philippians 2:3-4

Paul writes these words to the Christians in Philippi and they are in a jam. They are facing persecution, worried about Paul who is inprisioned, and to leaders in the congregation are bickering with each other. In the midst of all this turmoil is these words about how Christ being equal to God, but knowing gave up his status and position to become a servant even to the point of death. And then he talks about how all of this made a difference in our lives and to top it off Paul calls us to imitate Christ and learn to lead lives of service towards others.

There are two themes we want to focus on here.  The first is humility and the second will be unity.  But first, humility.

Humility is a major theme in Philippians, especially in chapter 2:3 and 8. In modern culture, we consider humility a virtue. But in Greco-Roman culture, humility was not a virtue, but was at odds with its ethical system. A humble person was someone who is low, insignificant, weak and servile. Humble people were viewed not with admiration, but with pity.

Jewish and later Christian culture saw humility in a positive light; indeed, it shows how to properly respond to God through service and obedience.

In this clash of cultures, it is important to look at where people are placing their focus. In Greco-Roman culture, the focus was on those of high position, who look down at those considered subservient, and humble. But in the Hebrew (Old Testament) God is focused on the downtrodden. In short, it is a “solidarity of the humiliated.”

An example of this humility is in verse 7 where we see the Christ “emptied himself.” In Greek it means to make void to become nothing. It means that Christ set aside the position and power that he had to become a servant, and he willingly became a suffering servant for the sake of others. Now, none of this should be used as a excuse for someone to do violence towards another, but it is a reminder that as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to set aside our standing and status to serve others. This is what it means to be humble.

Kara Root, who is pastor of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis recounted a story in the early history of the church that is a wonderful example of being emptied for others. Two major plagues hit the Roman Empire in the years after the church began. It was during these times that Roman doctors literally headed for the hills. Basically, anyone that was not sick, took off and let the sick and dying fend for themselves. Everyone did this; except the Christians. They were the ones who took care of the ill. Why did they do this? Why did they put themselves in harm’s way when they could have ran off as well? Kara notes that they did this because they saw those sick and dying as the sisters and brothers and decided to be in service to them.

Another way to see humility or self-emptying is in it’s Greek word, kenosis. What does it mean to be humble when you might belong to a group that has had to be “humble?”  Pastor Melissa Tidwell explains what it means to be humble even if you are of low estate:

 

The self-emptying Paul describes can be a difficult idea to embrace. Doesn’t exalting servanthood exalt a distorted view of human worth? Some of us never had the choice about servitude. Many of us—women, LGBT people who have had to fight for the right to even have a self—are wary of the idea of emptying our hard-won individuation.

But Christ did not erase the self he possessed, he offered it. I sometimes hear lonely people say they have a lot of love to give, and it seems they might be imagining their love in a vessel, filled to brimming, with no right place in which to pour out the devotion that is waiting inside them. The giving of the divine Christ, entering into human life as he loved the disciples, the sick who came to him for healing, the crowds who flocked to his stories, was that pouring out of the love he had to give, extended as a gift, a libation. And perhaps it was for Jesus and for us that in the pouring out the gift, we find it, like the waters of abundant life, welling up to regenerate the love freely offered.

Now to unity. In chapter two, Paul seems to put more weight on the unity of the church over its witness.  This runs counter to American culture, where churches tend to focus more on activity; investing in local and national issues.  Very little is placed on community building.  It might be because so much of 21st century American society is based on sorting into like-minded communities. But the community that Paul talks about goes against the spirit of rights, choices and self-expression. It is easier to focus on a social issue probably because it allows us to sort into those like-minded communities and Paul is calling us to do something that can’t be completed in an afternoon.

The community-building Paul talks about is challenging.  It means putting the needs of the other, which you sometimes can’t stand, above the your own needs. So for example, in Paul’s world, it would mean the owner had to cater to the needs of the slave. For Americans, it means crossing racial/ethinic/socioeconomical lines, which even for someone who likes “diversity” is a challenge.

Paul reminds the American church that we have things backwards. We think the public witness of the church is found in social action. But its public witness has to come from the internal unity and strength.

In Paul’s time, Roman society was a stratified by class and social rank.  Even Paul was a Roman citizen, a step above most other people. Unity meant treating people the same regardless of their standing. That was unsettling to people back then.  Think about it; Paul was saying that a slave and the owner were the same.  A Jewish immigrant would be equal to a Roman citizen and so on.  Sameness and equality is something the bothers us today as well. When Paul talks of unity it means God is no respecter of persons as Ephesians 6:9 notes:

because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do,whether they are slave or free.

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

The unity Paul speaks of was costly for the first century church and it is costly for us in the 21st century.  What does it mean to cross boundaries in our own day for the unity of the church?  It might mean talking to someone who voted for Donald Trump. It might mean that a white pastor steps down from their post, allowing for a person of color to be the Senior Pastor. Instead of serving the poor, it might mean welcoming the poor to the church, to be full members.

In our humility and unity,  calls us to servanthood. The act of servanthood by Jesus was something that set us free from the powers of sin and death as my Lutheran friends like to say. Our own servanthood is not only a way to pay homage to what God did in Jesus Christ, but it can also free people. Helping an immigrant, or feeding someone at a soup kitchen or giving someone a shelter who doesn’t have one, being a servant to these folks can give someone life.

 

Conclusion

If you were watching the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, you might have caught a commercial that has gone viral.  It was an ad for Cadillac and features a well-dressed man comparing hard-working, some might say overworked Americans to Europeans that take a large amount of time off.  At the end of the commercial, the name walks up to the subject of the commercial, the ELR, Cadillac’s plugin hybrid.

If Cadillac wanted to get some attention, it got it in spades.  The general feeling from people was that it was too focused on gaining things over having a life.  Ford did a “parody” of the commercial with a woman from Detroit who has started a business making dirt to give to the urban farms springing up in the city.  While there are advantages to working hard over and against the more European attitude, there was something about the Cadillac commercial that leaves one  feeling uneasy.  The commercial is a tale of success. If you work hard, good things will happen. But what happens when one works hard and bad things happen?

You can’t totally fault the guy in the Cadillac ad.  People like having a nice house, and a nice car.  But as followers of Jesus life is more than things and more than living the good life. We are called to enter into the crosses of suffering in this world and do the work of healing and justice in the same way that Jesus did.

2. Craddock, F. B. (1985). Philippians (p. 12). Atlanta, Ga.: J. Knox Press.
3. Cohick, L. H. (2013). Philippians. (T. Longman III & S. McKnight, Eds.) (p. 31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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.