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Obedience to Whom? A Lectionary reflection for Easter 2C (Acts 5)

Acts 5:27-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

 

27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

 

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                I woke up Easter morning to news that churches and hotels in Sri Lanka had been bombed with hundreds reported dead or injured. It wasn’t the kind of news I wanted to hear as I prepared to help lead the congregation in worship on Easter Sunday. My sermon offered hope of a new creation emerging from the resurrection. It was a good plan, but how do you celebrate life when the news reports suggest that death has once again claimed victory? Then again, Easter is rooted in a prior act of violence, the crucifixion of Jesus. It is with these competing images of violent death and God’s victory over death in the resurrection that we began our Easter season. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we respond?  

 

The Gospel reading from John 20 invites us to receive the Holy Spirit and believe the good news even if, like Thomas, we don’t have physical evidence. The first reading for the week, as laid out by the Revised Common Lectionary, points us to the Book of Acts, rather than the Hebrew Bible, which is the case through most of the year. Since my focus in this cycle of lectionary reflections is on these first readings, during the Easter season I will be taking up the witness of the Book of Acts. So, we find ourselves in Acts 5. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, in Year C, comes from Acts 5.

This reading from Acts 5 begins in the middle of a story. The Apostles have been arrested and imprisoned, but somehow, they have escaped, though the doors were locked, and the guards were at their post. To the surprise of the authorities, the apostles had gone back to the Temple and had started up preaching once again, just like before their arrest. Having been sent to look for the Apostles, the Temple guards took the apostles back into custody (without violence) and brought them before the council to be questioned (Acts 5:17-26). This is where the lectionary selection picks up the story.

The goal here, at least in the minds of the religious authorities, is to put an end to this nascent movement of Jesus followers, before it led to trouble with the Roman government. If the death of Jesus failed to suppress the movement, what would do the trick? Thus, we have before us what you might call a power encounter. Two forces are on a collision course. On the one hand there is the religious establishment and on the other there is this emergent religious sect that is flouting the rules and undermining the status quo.  The religious authorities demand that the apostles give up their preaching, while Peter and Apostles insist on preaching. As Peter puts it: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” It’s one of those “Here I stand, I can do no other” moments. Something has to give, and Peter shows no signs he’s ready to give in.

                Peter and the apostles turn this appearance before the religious authorities into an opportunity to share their basic message, as if the authorities hadn’t already heard it!  To begin with, the religious authorities were frustrated that the Apostles were placing the blood of Jesus on them. That is, the Apostles were blaming the authorities for the death of Jesus, and they didn’t appreciate it. Afterall, they were just doing their job of keeping the peace when they tried to shut down Jesus. They figured that if they dealt a deadly blow to the leader of the group, it would dissipate. So far, that tactic hadn’t worked, but they still didn’t want to be blamed.  

 

When Peter and his cohorts get up to offer their defense, they reaffirm this charge. Yes, the authorities were responsible for Jesus’ death, but they had failed in their mission to deal a deadly blow on the movement, because God had raised Jesus from the dead. Not only had God raised Jesus from the dead, but God exalted him to his right hand, making him “Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” They stood before the community as witnesses to this message and did so through the power of the Holy Spirit given by God to those who obey God. Remember the question—who should we obey?

If we read between the lines, we will understand why the religious leaders were concerned about the activities of this upstart sect. The religious leaders were essentially in the employ of the Roman authorities, who charged them with keeping the peace. They were supposed to be the buffer between the empire and the people (who weren’t all that keen on being part of the empire). As for the Apostles, they were doing anything but keeping the peace. They were stirring up trouble with their preaching and their miracles, all of which occurred in the Temple precincts. This was an area of the city under the control of the religious authorities, and they didn’t appreciate the activity that cast them in a bad light.  

When we read a passage like this, we must be cognizant of the danger posed by a passage like this, which has been used to target Jews. We can criticize the religious leaders without blaming the Jews as a people. It is important that we remember that the Apostles were themselves Jews. This was in reality a contest for the hearts of the people—the institutionalists or the outsiders. As an institutionalist by profession, I find myself uncomfortable at this point in the story. Where would I be in this story?   

Peter stakes out the grounds for debate with the declaration that they must obey God rather than human authority. The opposition position is given voice by the chief priest, who in this story is representative of alliances made for political expediency. So, what we see here is a common occurrence through history, especially in the age of Christendom that extended from the time of Constantine to the present. It may seem like we’re in a post-Christendom era, but not everyone has gotten the message. Thus, we continue to see such corrupting alliances emerge to this day, with religious leaders lining up to support the reigning political authorities. In the current context, we’ve seen religious leaders bow before the President, embracing his immoral behavior, all in the name of gaining access to power. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Billy Graham discovered to his chagrin that he had been compromised by his friendship with Richard Nixon. And, consider how the religious authorities in Germany got into bed with Adolph Hitler, and in doing so compromised their beliefs and abetted Hitler’s demonic program.

You don’t need a Hitler to be corrupted. We entangle ourselves because we may believe it will benefit us or we might even believe we can steer the authorities in the right direction. As one who is engaged with political leaders, at least on the local and state level, I have to be watchful about my loyalties. It is easy to get corrupted, and it’s good to remember that whatever benefits we accrue from these alliances are often short term in nature. If we look at the history of first century Palestine, the alliance between the religious authorities and the Romans did not prevent the destruction of the Temple. It pays, then to be watchful, no matter what the politics of the governing authorities might be.

So, we come back the declaration of Peter: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” This is not a call for disengagement. It is a call to be wary of corrupting alliances. The Apostles rejected the demands of the authorities, and as the verses follow note, the authorities exacting some pain and suffering on them, having them flogged. They might have done more, but Gamaliel suggested that they might want to wait and see if this movement fell apart now that its leader was gone, as had been true with earlier movements. On the other hand, if its from God, you can’t defeat it. My sense is that Gamaliel figured that the movement would eventually collapse under its own weight. Why create more martyrs?  Of course, the movement did survive, so does that mean it is of God? What then will our witness be?

               

                 

 

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Easter and the New Creation – Lectionary Reflection for Easter Sunday (Isaiah 65)

The Peaceable Kingdom (Edward Hicks)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
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                “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!” When “up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes, he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign.” [Chalice Hymnal, 224]. Yes, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and with his resurrection is born the new creation. The old is past and needs to be forgotten. The past no longer holds sway over our lives. The journey to the cross and then to the tomb has led to this point when something new is born, for out of death comes life, like an acorn that falls from the tree and is reborn as another oak tree.
                The reading from Isaiah speaks not of resurrection but new creation. At first glance it doesn’t read as an Easter text, and yet it serves to deepen our understanding of resurrection. It speaks to the implications of the resurrection, but not directly.
It’s likely that few will preach from this text on Easter morning (I am of those who will place it at the center of my sermon), and yet it might have something important to say to us, even as it spoke to the original recipients. Authorship is attributed to the post-exilic prophet whose words of encouragement and guidance are found in the book called Isaiah. The author is often designated as Third Isaiah, and he speaks to a people living with shattered dreams. Once a nation that at least thought of itself as being independent, the nation of Judah was scattered and sent into exile. The Temple was destroyed, along with the city of Jerusalem. The people of Judah had heard words of promise from the one we call Second Isaiah while still in Babylon. Now, with the exile ended, and the people (a new generation that was born in Babylon) having returned to Judah, they still aren’t complete free. They live not in the form of a nation, but as a province of the Persian Empire. They may have come home with high hopes of seeing their nation restored, but things aren’t turning out as expected. This new generation has heard stories of what once was, and what became of their people, as well as prophetic visions of a new beginning, but it still doesn’t feel right. The hoped-for transformation of their lives is not happening, at least not in the way they expected. That new beginning has yet to emerge. So, the prophet tells them to forget the former things. Forget the past. Instead take hold of a new vision. Consider the promise of a new creation. This new vision takes us back to the beginning of creation, to the garden, where all of creation lived in harmony. This is the vision of the new creation that will come upon the people. It is a vision that deepens our understanding of the resurrection.
                To get to the new creation, we need to return to the first day of the week, when in Luke’s account, women came to the tomb to finish preparing the body that was hastily laid in the tomb. Resurrection is a sign of new creation, but they’re not yet ready to experience it. When the women reach the tomb, they find the stone rolled away and the body missing. It does appear they expected to find Jesus still lying in the grave. Instead, they encounter two men in dazzling clothes (angels?) who tell the women Jesus has been raised from the dead and will speak to the community soon. When they arrive back at the place where the church is gathered, their report is received with disbelief. Jesus may have spoken of resurrection, but this message hadn’t sunk in yet. But Jesus had risen from the dead (Lk 24:1-12). The old had passed away, and the new had emerged in the resurrected Jesus. In his resurrection he embodies the vision of a new creation.  
 
                The Gospel accounts in Luke and John give us the story of Jesus’ resurrection. They remind us that death could hold him. Death had staked its claim, but God proved too powerful, and Jesus, whom the world discarded, was vindicated. Resurrection wasn’t and isn’t a singular event. It’s not just about overcoming death and moving on to the heavenly realm. Resurrection is about new creation, a new vision for the people of God. The word we hear in Isaiah is that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth. There will be a new Jerusalem where joy will be abundant. Weeping will be absent. People won’t labor in vain. The “wolf and lion shall feed together, while the lion shall eat straw like an ox.” It’s a vision that strikes us as one of peace. Now, I understand the biology of wolves and lions. They’re carnivores, not herbivores. Nevertheless, the image is striking enough to get our attention. It is the vision of a return to the Garden, where life is lived in harmony. 
 
                For those who gather on Easter morning, this vision offers comfort and perhaps a balm for the soul. It might offer a word of encouragement and empowerment. These are words that seem in short supply these days. For a moment the Easter gathering offers us an opportunity to dwell in the new creation. Our realities might change in an instant. We still must go out on Monday morning to face what is often an unfriendly world, but we go forth with this vision of a new creation as a light to the pathway we take.
                When we gather on Easter Morning, having traveled a path that led through Golgotha, we will have acknowledged that Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. Now that it is the third day, we gather to celebrate the news that Jesus is risen from the dead. With his resurrection, the old has passed and the new has emerged from the tomb. This news has cosmic implications. As Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not only a witness to the promise of life after death. It is also a testament to the promise of resurrection grounded in a life given to others against all manifestations of evil.” In this new cosmic order that is initiated by Jesus’ resurrection, “relationships embody the joy of God’s creative power” [Feasting on the Word, p. 358]. These relationships are the ones represented by the Wolf and the Lamb, both are God’s creatures, and in the new creation that live together in harmony. Perhaps the word we hear as we gather to celebrate Easter is that in Christ, God is transforming our relationships with one another and with creation itself into something new.
                Too often Easter becomes little more than an opportunity to show off new clothes and share an Easter basket. There’s nothing wrong with such things, but they are not at the heart of Easter. What is at the heart of Easter, it is the triumph of “the steadfast love of the Lord,” which “endures forever” and evidenced by the new creation in Christ’s resurrection. We may not see it fully revealed at this moment, but as Paul reminds us, the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of that new realm of God (1 Cor. 15:23).   

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earthy many days has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been; Love is come again like wheat arising green. [John M. C. Crum, Chalice Hymnal, 230].

 

The Vindicator Is Near – Lectionary Reflection for Passion Sunday (Isaiah 50)

The Master on the Way to Calvary – 15th Century – Huntington Library
 
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
    he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
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                Preachers and congregations who follow the lectionary and the liturgical calendar have a choice to make for the Sunday prior to Easter. On one hand there is the possibility of celebrating the Triumphal Entry. Palm Sunday can be a glorious celebration in itself. We can wave palm fronds and shout praises to the king of kings. On the other there is Passion Sunday, which allows congregations—many of which will not have a Good Friday service (congregational or community service)—to consider the crucifixion of Jesus before gathering for the great celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Skipping from triumph to triumph neglects the reality of suffering, both that endured by Jesus and that endured by humanity and even creation itself. Somewhere in Holy Week we need to lift up the cross and ask what the cross has to say to us about the nature of our faith.
Since I am focusing my lectionary reflections on the First Reading, which is generally taken from the Hebrew Bible, I am left with the reading for Passion Sunday, as there isn’t a Palm Sunday reading from the Hebrew Bible other than the reading from the Psalms. So, with Passion Sunday being the only choice I have, I will focus my attention on this third Servant song of Second Isaiah. While there is no consensus as to the identity of the servant who is referenced here, it is appropriate that we consider the prophet himself to be the servant (the traditional alternative is Judah, but I think the prophet makes more sense, at least in this particular song).  
 
If we begin with the premise that the servant present in this song is the prophet, then how might we interpret this passage in light of Passion Sunday? How might the cross emerge here? The Servant Songs of Isaiah have traditionally been applied to Jesus, to give theological meaning to his sufferings on the cross. This is appropriate as long as we do not discount its original reference point. It is not as if this passage lay unfulfilled until Jesus arrived.
Isaiah begins by identifying the servant as teacher, and Jesus is understood to be, first of all, a teacher. He is addressed on multiple occasions in the Gospels as Teacher or Rabbi. We know him in his teaching role, sharing the news of God’s realm through parables (synoptics) and through sermons (John). As a teacher, Jesus offers a word that sustains and uplifts the weary. Not only does he teach, but Jesus faces opposition and oppression.
The servant, whether Second Isaiah, Jesus, or some other entity has the “tongue of a teacher,” so that he can sustain the weary. This teacher is wakened by God morning by morning, so that he can listen “to those who are taught.” As we meditate on this word, thinking first of the prophet and then of Jesus, might we also think of those called to the teaching/preaching ministry? The “tongue of a teacher” might be seen as a spiritual gift. To be effective, we who are called to such ministry would be well served by listening to those who are taught. That is, if a word is to be shared that will sustain the weary. But, while it is necessary to listen to those who are being taught, let us remember that it is the LORD who opens his ear. Thus, we listen not only to the people, we also listen for the voice of God, for that is where the word will derive. As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out:

Those who speak need to be excellent listeners, to God and to those to whom they speak. We need an open ear when we listen to God in our prayers, in our studies, and in our attempts to live out in word and deed the faith that is ours. Too often in prayer all we do is talk. There is a Jewish saying that study is a higher form of worship than prayer, because in studying we listen to God while in prayer, the only thing about us that is open is our mouths. [Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Old Testament, p. 39].

As this is Passion Sunday, the teacher in question is Jesus. He is the one with the open ear, listening to the people and to God, bringing to us a word that sustains the weary. That those called to the preaching/teaching ministry are given the same task, requires of us that we look to Jesus for guidance and as an exemplar.
The teacher (the prophet) listens to the people and to God. He does not turn his back on God, and yet not everyone is ready and willing to hear his teaching. He commits himself to bringing a word that sustains, but instead of this word being received, he is humiliated. His back is struck and his beard his pulled out. It’s understandable, in light of the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, why this passage would be chosen for Passion Sunday. Jesus is, after all, a teacher, who listened to the voice of God and shared God’s word with the world, not all of whom were willing to receive it. He was flogged and beaten and humiliated.
The word that is often necessary isn’t a word easily received. Words of judgment and words that call us to account for our actions are difficult to hear. We might resist. Prophets are often rejected and even killed. Elijah fled the authorities and Jeremiah was kidnapped, just to name a couple of possibilities. David Garber invites us to consider what it means to be “woke.” 

To borrow a phrase from the African American community that refers to someone who has become aware of our society’s injustices, the prophet was literally “woke.” If the church is to have the mind of Christ and the spirit of the Servant, it must also awaken to contemporary social injustices, while equipping itself to speak the truth about these injustices effectively. [Green, et al, Connections: 2 (Kindle Locations 3866-3869). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition].

 

If the word that is required will make people uncomfortable it’s no wonder that this calling is accompanied by suffering. While the cross isn’t mentioned here, we can infer it in the case of Jesus. It comes about after Jesus is fully humiliated, due to his teachings of the kingdom, a teaching that did not sit well with those in power.
This suffering is not endured for the sake of suffering. It isn’t sought out. The servant doesn’t have a martyr’s complex, but he is willing to endure the suffering because he believes he will be vindicated. Because the LORD helps him, he won’t be “put to shame.” The servant asks: “who will contend with me?” Where are the prophet’s enemies? The prophet invites them to confront him. He’s not afraid, because God helps him. God will vindicate him. So, who can declare him guilty?
As we approach the passion of Jesus, we will hear the story of Jesus’ humiliation, along with his suffering and his death. This is a central piece of the story that defines our faith. When they lay him in the tomb, all will seem lost. Or is it?  If we would turn to the words of Paul in his Philippian letter, a passage that is designated for the day, we will hear a word about Jesus emptying himself of his prerogatives of being equal with God, taking on the form of a slave, and being obedient to the point of death on the cross. That is the first word, but it is not the final word. Paul on to declare that “God so highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:5-11). Or, as Isaiah proclaims, “it is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (Is. 50:9a). With the promise that  “Vindicator is Near” let us begin the journey that is Holy Week.

 

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

Underground Railroad Monument – Windsor Ontario
 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

               

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Reflecting God’s Glory — Lectionary Reflection for Transfiguration Sunday (Exodus 34)

Exodus 34:29-35 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
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                It is Transfiguration Sunday, which is a day that calls us to reflect on Jesus’ ascent to the top of the mountain, taking with him Peter, James, and John. When the group arrives on the mountain top, Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah, whom many assume represent the Law and the Prophets. As the conversation continues, Jesus begins to glow, the divine radiance shining forth. As they watch this scene unfold, Jesus’ companions are overwhelmed by what they see. You might say that they are in awe of what they see. Not knowing what else to do, they ask Jesus for permission to erect tents for the three figures. As they ask this question, Moses and Elijah disappear from the scene, leaving Jesus alone with his disciples. At that moment a voice from the heavens rings out declaring, much like at his baptism: ““This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Lk. 9:28-36).
                The first reading from the Scriptures takes us to Exodus 34. Here again we go to the mountain top, and when we do, we see another divine encounter. In this scene Moses has gone up to the top of Mount Sinai to speak with YHWH. This is the second time he has done this. When we pick up the story, Moses is descending the mountain, carrying with him the two tablets that define the covenant God desires to make with Israel.  This is the second set of tablets, since Moses broke the first set after discovering that Aaron and the people had created a golden calf while he was on the mountain speaking with God (Ex. 32). This is the second opportunity for Israel to make covenant with YHWH, which occurs after Moses intercedes with God (Ex. 33:12-23). Once again Moses spends forty days and forty nights on the mountain, neither eating nor drinking. Communion with God, apparently, was sufficient (Ex.34:27-28). Having been on the mountain for forty days and nights, it’s time for Moses to return to where Israel camped out in Sinai.
When he arrives with the tablets in hand, his face shone with the glory of God, only he did not know this. That is, until he realized that Aaron and Israel were afraid to approach him because his face shone so brightly. In time he was able to convince them to come and hear his words, words given to him by God on the mountain. When he was finished, he put a veil over his face, until his next visit with YHWH. The fact that his face reflected the glory of God’s presence was a sign to the people that God was with them, and that God was guiding them through the auspices of Moses. The moment of transfiguration described in the Gospels, is an unveiling of God’s presence in the person of Jesus. The three disciples were drawn into the divine presence and saw how Jesus radiated with that presence. As for Moses, he reflected the divine presence by his countenance. It was a bit off-putting to the people, who didn’t know what to make of it. Thus, because the radiance of his face was so great, he covered his face with a veil, so as not to overwhelm his fellow Israelites.
The reading from the epistle, which comes from 2 Corinthians, has a bit of a different take on the situation. Paul saw the veil as a means by which Moses hid the fact that the glow was fading with time. He saw this as symbolic of the inability of Israel to discern the identity of Jesus as its Messiah. Only in Christ, Paul believes, is the veil set aside so we can see the glory of God present in Jesus so that we might be transformed (2 Cor. 3:12-18). Paul and Luke have this Mosaic encounter in mind. We have to be careful here not to read this story in a supersessionist mode, so that this becomes a word about God’s rejection of Israel. Instead, may we read this as an invitation to perceive the glory of God present in Jesus, a glory that Moses encountered as well. He experienced that transformation that Paul spoke of, but as a human being, he like us, must continually return to God’s presence lest the glory that is God fade. It’s not a one-time occurrence. For Luke, the presence is found within Jesus, and it is revealed through a momentary unveiling. For us, like Moses, we must continually return to God’s presence so we might increase in our reflecting of God’s glory. As Paul reminds us, we may have veils over our faces, which not only hide the fact that the glory of our encounters with God are fading, but these veils may prevent us from seeing what is true and what is right. So, maybe what was designed to protect is now a hindrance.
                How should we read and respond to this story? In both the Exodus encounter with the Divine and the transfiguration of Jesus, we learn something about the central figure. Moses had been dealing with a rather recalcitrant community, that questioned his authority. Having this sign of his encounter with God reflected in his face reinforced his claim to leadership in the community. As for Jesus, the unveiling, together with the heavenly voice, confirmed in the three disciples that Jesus was one to be listened to, even if they didn’t share the news broadly. But there is also a sense here of wonder or awe at being in the presence of God, even if you must hide in the cleft of the rock (Ex 33:17-23).
                There are many times and places where we can gain a sense of God’s presence. Being in nature can create within us a sense of wonder or awe, and if we’re attentive we will recognize in nature a reflection of God’s creative presence. Although our experiences of worship don’t always create within us a sense of awe at the presence of God, there are times when such occurs. We might even glow with the love and glory of God reflecting off our faces, while we sing something like “Shine Jesus Shine.”

Picture Attribution: St. Vitale – Moses Receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=32149 [retrieved February 25, 2019]. Original source: Images donated by Patout Burns, Vanderbilt University.

 

God Provides, Reconciles, and Redeems – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 7C (Genesis 45)

bourgeois_joseph_recognized_by_his_brothers

Genesis 45:3-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

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If you grew up learning the stories of the Bible you will have heard the stories of Joseph and his brothers. You would know that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, for he was the first-born child of Jacob’s favorite wife (Rachel). You may know that Joseph was a bit arrogant, especially after his father gave him a coat of many colors. In his arrogance he told his brothers that they would bow down to him and serve him. This arrogance on Joseph’s part so angered his older brothers, that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Once in Egypt he made his mark and rose in stature, but then ended up in prison after Potiphar’s wife tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce him, and subsequently crying attempted rape. Joseph was arrogant, but not a rapist. His ability to interpret dreams got him freed from prison and eventually brought to the attention of Pharaoh, who had a dream he couldn’t understand. Joseph interpreted the dream, telling Pharaoh that a famine was coming, and that Pharaoh should plan for that eventuality. Pharaoh decided that it would be wise to give responsibility for this project to the one who interpreted the dream. Thus, Joseph moved from slavery to prison to chief minister. Not bad for an arrogant brat! Then again, his father was something of a trickster who always seemed to come out on top!

Joseph fulfilled his responsibilities, and provision was made for the time when famine arrived, not only in Egypt but as far away as Canaan, the land of his father and mother. When Jacob heard that there was food to be had in Egypt, he sent his sons to purchase supplies. This they did, not knowing that the one who would provide for them was their long-lost brother. They may not have recognized him, but he recognized them. So he played a trick on them, to test them. He had a silver cup he used for divination (yes Joseph practiced divination) placed in Benjamin’s belongings, and then sent his guards after them. That episode, leads to the reading for the seventh Sunday of Epiphany. It’s rare to make it seven Sundays in Epiphany, but here we are with this encounter between estranged brothers, which serves as another manifestation of God’s presence.

In the chapter prior, Joseph sets up a test (trap) to see, apparently, where the heart of their brothers was? Had they changed over the many years of separation. And, what would they do about their brother Benjamin? Would they ransom him or not? Judah does so. He pleads for his brother’s life. This leads to the moment of revelation.

When Joseph could no longer keep up the act, having been satisfied that his brothers had changed, and wanting to provide for his long-lost father, he identifies himself as their brother. Now, you can just imagine the first thoughts of his older brothers. Here was the brother they first tried to kill, then sold into slavery. They figured he was dead by now. Instead, he had risen to be the second most important person in the land. He could easily have them killed. So, what would he do to them?

Joseph, who desired to be reconciled, quickly let them know they had nothing to fear. They may have meant him harm many years before, but things sometimes have a way of working out for the benefit of all, even when they are entered into with the wrong motives. There is a bit of a theological challenge here. Joseph, in trying to allay their fears, tells them that while they meant him harm, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” This episode raises a question that is worth exploring. Does God cause bad things to happen, so good can come of it? Or, does God work with us to bring good out of bad situations? In other words, did God orchestrate all of this, or did God partner with Joseph to bring a blessing out of a difficult situation? As for me, I affirm the second position.

Tom Oord takes up this episode in his book God Can’t. He suggests that “God took what God didn’t want and squeezed good from it. God brought good from bad, positive from negative, health from hate. God redeemed.” God did this in Joseph’s situation. The brothers may have intended harm for Joseph, but God didn’t. Nevertheless, God did bring good out of bad. [God’ Can’t, p. 115].

Having revealed himself to his brothers and suggesting that God had brought good out of bad, he invited his brothers to bring their father to Egypt so they could settle in Goshen and enjoy the bounty that was God’s provision. They do so. They gather their father and settle in Goshen. And all is good, or so it seems.

It’s interesting that the brothers remain suspicious of Joseph’s motives. Once their father has passed from the scene, they begin to worry. Maybe Joseph hasn’t really forgiven but didn’t want to his father. Now that the father is dead, well Joseph might decide to exact revenge. Joseph, who was good at reading things, realized his brothers were worried, so he reassured them. He told them, “Do not be afraid!” He assured them that “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. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (Genesis 50:15-21).

What we see in this final episode of Genesis is a reminder that God is committed to the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. God will continue to be with them, even when a time will come when there will arise in Egypt a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. (Exodus 1:8). This new Pharaoh grew frightened of this “foreign presence” in the land. But that’s another story, except that it too is part of the covenant story. God will not forget God’s people. God is always on the lookout for partners, whether Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, or Moses.

As for the relationship of estranged brothers, Joseph’s actions presaged the words of Jesus as recorded in Luke regarding loving one’ enemies:

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38 NIV).

And the covenant people kissed, wept, and made up—though it took more than once before everyone was truly convinced! This is a good reminder that forgiveness is not easy. Sure, Jesus tells us not to judge or condemn. Forgive, and we’ll be forgiven. Yet, we know the difficulties involved. Joseph learned some important lessons during his sojourn in Egypt. It took some time for him to come to the point of forgiveness. It took longer for his brothers to believe him. Reconciliation is not easy. But it is possible, when we join with God in the act of redemption. This act of reconciliation that took place here is one small part of a larger story or redemption, which we are invited to share in. Thanks be to God!

Picture Attribution: Bourgeois, Leon Pierre Urbain. Joseph recognized by his brothers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55355 [retrieved February 17, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothers.jpg.

Trust in the Lord and Live Abundantly – A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 6C (Jeremiah 17)

Jeremiah 17:5-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
10 I the Lord test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.
**************
 
                Having encountered the calls of first Jeremiah and then Isaiah to their respective prophetic ministries, we now turn to the word of the Lord, given to us through the prophet Jeremiah. He calls on us to our trust in God and not in our own strength. Trust is the key word. In whom or in what do you put your trust? Is it God? Or is it someone or something else? By trust we do not mean belief but commitment. To whom will you commit yourself? There are consequences attached to our choices.
Jeremiah’s message was one the kings of Judah found difficult to hear and abide. The same was true of the general populace. As for the kings, perhaps it takes a bit of hubris to be a leader, especially a national leader. As such, there is a human tendency to trust in one’s own strength. However, this can prove disastrous, as the kings of Judah discovered. The invitation is to put our trust in God, but you don’t have to be a king to find this to be difficult. It can be difficult even for devout people of faith. I will admit this being true for me, as a pastor of a church. Don’t worry, I’ve got this!  But remember, choices have consequences.
Putting your trust in God sounds good, but is it practical?  In answer to that question, we raise armies and build walls. We do this, hoping to protect ourselves, because how can really trust a God whom you cannot see? As it turned out, when it came to Judah, Jeremiah was correct. Disaster would come Judah’s way. Jerusalem would be destroyed and with it the Temple. The leading citizens would be carted off to Babylon, where they would live in exile for a couple of generations. Yes, the heart is devious, but what takes place in the mind and the heart can’t be hidden from the Lord. Maybe we know this (I think we do), but we ignore the fact!
 So, “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” Their fate will be difficult. They will be like a shrub in the desert. I’ve watched enough nature programs to know that there is life in the desert, but it is not an easy life. You have to be hardy to survive. This past summer, my son and I drove across a couple of deserts in our trek west. This wasn’t my first desert crossing, but it’s the most recent. The vision of small shrubs and scrub brush covering the desert floor is fresh in my mind. These bushes hug the ground hoping to find sufficient moisture in the ground to survive. In Jeremiah’s vision those who trust in human strength are like that desert shrub, which holds for dear life.  
 
Jeremiah offers a contrasting vision to the desert shrub. This second simile speaks of a tree planted by the waters. The tree has a steady source of nourishment, so it doesn’t fear the possibility of drought. When a drought comes, it has the ability to draw moisture through its deep root structure. The result isn’t just survival, but the ability to continue producing fruit. Again, I’ve watched plenty of nature programs, so I know that when trees have access to water they flourish. Water is the essence of life. It is the key to abundant life.
Such is the case for us when we put our trust in God.  That is, when we put our roots down into soil that is able to draw from the waters. When I hear these words of Jeremiah concerning to tree planted by the water, I think of Jesus offering living water to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:10-16). If we draw upon this water, we will never thirst again. Now, we needn’t wait for Jesus to offer us living water. Jeremiah also speaks of living water. All we need to do is move down a few verses in chapter 17. Then we will hear Jeremiah declare on behalf of God: “O hope of Israel! O Lord! All who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the underworld, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water, the Lord” (Jer. 17:13). With that declaration concerning the fountain of living water, Jeremiah prays: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for you are my praise” (Jer. 17:14).
This is the good news. Put your trust in God. Put down roots so you can tap into the living water. Then, as Jesus reminds the woman at the well, you will never thirst again. It is the reason why, people came to Jesus seeking healing (Luke 6:17-19). 
 
Unfortunately, the heart is devious, or as James Howell translates it, the heart is “fickle” [Feasting on the Word, p. 341]. Yes, we are a fickle lot, and so we find it difficult to stay true to the path set before us. We think we know the way to the water, and yet we find ourselves wandering in the desert, with no water in sight. If only we would put our trust in the Lord and sink our roots down by the riverside, so that we might find nourishment, then we will thrive. That is, we will bear fruit, even when drought comes our way. But we have to let go, and that’s not easy.  
 
The passage seems to hold out a vision of divine retribution – curses are pronounced – but perhaps it would better to understand this as a recognition that choices have consequences. When we put our trust in ourselves, we find ourselves in the desert, with no nourishment available to us. One of the consequences that emerges with this choice is fear. Yes, is given a chance to take hold of our lives. We see this in this time of our lives. As a result, we find ourselves putting up walls—some of which are literal in nature, but many more are metaphorical. It’s the latter that we need to recognize, and tear down, because there is no safety to be found in these walls. So, allow yourself to be planted by the waters, so you can flourish and bear fruit.
The question then is: in whom will we put our trust? Living as we do in an increasingly secular age, where traditional understandings of reality are set aside, this is not an easy question to answer. Yet, it is the one that Jeremiah poses to us. With the question posed, may we put our trust in the Lord, so that we might drink of the living water, and thus live abundantly and bear much fruit.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.