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Welcome to the Wilderness

“Welcome to the wilderness,” said the soon to be departing Dean of students at Colgate Rochester Divinity School to all the new seminary students gathered for worship in the Chapel during our first day of seminary.

Little did we know how appropriate that welcome would be, since the wilderness is the place a person enters leaving behind all that came before on the way to a journey to a new place with new relationships and new understandings of who a person or community is and how they are to live.

The wilderness is where the journey through transition takes place, but it can be a scary place and a place where survival is the first priority. That was true for the Hebrews and the other peoples who left Egypt with Moses. Egypt had been the Hebrews settled homeland for centuries where they had lived and thrived as a people, until Pharaoh got scared because they were more numerous than the Egyptians and he thought they might try a regime change by overthrowing him. So, Pharaoh did what every leader who is afraid does, he seeks to destroy his enemies. First, he enslaves the Hebrews, forcing them to work 24/7/365 building pyramids and other public works. Second, he orders Egyptian midwives to kill Hebrew male children, so the Hebrews are forced to intermarry  and have children with Egyptians.

This, of course, prompts the Hebrews to cry out to God, who hears them and answers their prayers by sending them Moses, who battles with pharaoh until pharaoh relents following the death of the first born child of every human and animal, except the Hebrews and those whose doorways were painted with the lamb’s blood, and allows the Hebrews to leave.

Of course, it all seemed wonderful to be leaving behind the life of slavery, oppression and death for a sojourn to the land of promise and abundance and the Hebrews celebrated because being a sojourner, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph meant you were on your way somewhere, on your way to the fulfillment of a promised place and a new life. Sort of like the way every seminary student and every college and high school students feels on the first day of their new adventure. Sort of the way I felt as a child every time my family moved to a new town, new city, new neighborhood, new home, and new school, well not so much the new school.

Unfortunately, the Hebrews joyfulness and positive attitude didn’t last long because they realized this wilderness trek made them less sojourner,  less a resident alien, and more wanderers as they began coping with the stress of not having resources at their disposal like food and water, being out in the heat or the cold, subject to drought or famine and warring peoples, who were suspicious of large tribes of wandering peoples, not to mention not really having the sense of being on a journey toward a destination, but mostly just being out there. Even the word wanderer, according to Walter Brueggemann, suggests precariousness where survival is the key question of each and every day. “Will we survive today? Will we have water and will we have food? Where will it come from?  Israel, Brueggemann writes, experiences the bitterness of being landless, being exposed and helpless, victimized by anything that happened to be threatening them at any given moment. The people may have been on the way somewhere, but it was a dim comprehension of where they were going.

In the wilderness, faith is not easy. Anger and unrest are plentiful and reading Exodus and Numbers give ample voice to the whole menagerie of emotions the Hebrews were experiencing. Their wilderness experience is not really unlike that of our European ancestors, who came to this continent feeling they were on an Exodus journey to a new land God seemed to be promising to them, except upon arrival their fears of the wilderness became real, as they too experienced being in a precarious, frightening situation without resources, being victimized by everything, helpless, vulnerable, exposed and struggling for survival. Our ancestors had no actual experience of wilderness because they came from settled lands and in many cases from large urban centers, so they projected their anxieties about wilderness onto the new land they journeyed to get to. Thus, for our ancestors the wilderness was a place where the devil came to get you, it was unsafe and needed to be tamed and civilized so it might resemble the European culture and society they had left behind, a real re-creation of the good old days. Even the indigenous peoples who lived on the land needed to be conquered, enslaved, tamed or annihilated. Reading colonial era poetry, diaries of early colonial settlers or even Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” bears this out.

Curiously enough, congregations in transition feel the same way the Hebrews and our European ancestors felt as they, like the Hebrews, experience wilderness and romanticize the “good old days” while anger, resentments, fear, focusing on survival;  perhaps thinking they are short on resources, and feeling vulnerable, uncertain about where they are going and if they are really going anywhere at all. They feel more like wanderers than sojourners and faith is not easy.

Except, the Israelites were not alone and were not without resources for life because God was with them, leading them, feeding them, giving them water and protecting them, and teaching them how to be a people of compassion, wholeness and well-being. What God was trying to do of course was to mold and shape them into being a particular kind of people. That is, also, what the wilderness experience is about as the desert mothers and fathers called the wilderness the furnace of transformation. The place where all the business and confusion of our lives is burned away, so we might see more clearly how truly important are the choices set before us, choices of life and choices of death. So, we might meet God and gain clarity about what it means to be in a relationship with the divine based on trusting the promises of life God makes with humanity and creation and be transformed by the experience.

This is, also, the lesson Jesus teaches us by his journey into the wilderness furnace of transformation, the first place Jesus goes after his baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted by the devil with what Henri Nouwen calls, “the three compulsions of this world: to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be spectacular (throw yourself down), and to be powerful (I will give these kingdoms). It was in this furnace of transformation that Jesus was tempted to turn away from God the way the first generation Hebrew wanderers did, the way our European ancestors did, the way congregations in transition do, but that isn’t what Jesus did. He affirmed God is the only source of life and identity (you must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone by serving those whom God loves, which is everyone, especially the least and the lost.) and if one trusts God, then there is no need seeking guarantees that the promises of an abundant life are real, nor is there a need to test God to see if God is really listening and paying attention to us. All a person, a community or a congregation need do is to learn the lessons God is teaching through the stories of the Hebrew wanderers, the story of God’s presence with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and the Israelites before, during and after exile as well as the stories of Jesus’ life and the life of the early church, being aware as George Herbert wrote in his poem about the Israelites’ struggles to enter the land God promised them, “their story pens and sets us down” which is to say their story claims those who remember it and retell it, marking and shaping all who do so by the same faithfulness of God, which elicits the same response of trust in God as the person, the community or the congregation live authentically their why, their identity as the reason God created them to serve God’s agenda.

I pray it may be so for us claiming to be a compassionate Christian community, fostering a personal connection with God for people of ages and expressing God’s love through worship, education, mission, music and fellowship living in a time of confusion and chaos where the old techniques and ways of doing church no longer work and we feel more like wanderers than sojourning pilgrims.

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All Land is Sacred

Where, O God, can I flee from you?

Where, O God, can I go hide from you?

These are the psalmist’s questions in Psalm 139 reflecting a radical monotheism that is relational. This is a song of a relationship between psalmist and God that covers the entire breadth of human existence in terms of God’s presence, knowledge and power, the giving and nurturing of an awareness of the Lord as the total environment of life as well as the teaching and confessing that “my times, O God, are in your hands,” according to James Mays’ commentary. This intensely personal devotional song portrays the human self in the light of the work of God as well as God’s work and person as the foundation for the human person’s life. This is not an abstract or systematic writing about who God is and what God does, rather it is the intimate relationship where the psalmist is completely known by God. The Hebrew word translated as “know” indicates this knowledge of God is intimate and deep from the moment of being formed in the womb through birth and into the long daily routines of awakening and sleeping, going out from home and coming back home, working and resting and eating. Nothing is hidden from God and there is nowhere to go to get away from God. The psalmist is never free of God; however neither is he a prisoner of God. Rather he is free to live for and with God, as Mays describes this relationship.

Reading this personal psalm of God being the totality of a person’s life and the encompassing environment for all life contrasts and highlights the foolishness of Jonah, who goes to great lengths to hide from God because he refuses to be the prophet to Nineveh that God has called him to be. Instead, he runs in the opposite direction, tries to hide from God aboard a boat, then in the middle of storm convinces the crew that they can calm the storm by throwing him overboard into the sea, which they do. Then, in the sea he is swallowed by a great fish, as described in Hebrew. It is while he is in the great fish that Jonah prayers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for saving his life, which is humorous because he has been trying to hide from God, trying to hide from the Creator of the Universe. Of course, Jonah’s prayer is answered and the great fish vomits him up onto shore where he begins walking to Nineveh to be the prophet God has called him to be, although he complains to God throughout his time of ministry in Nineveh.

So, when Jesus couples Jonah’s story with Jesus’ death and resurrection it is a sign that God’s transformative love is a call to remember how near we are to God’s love and remember the power of God to transform life as well as remembering the unconditional nature of God’s love to forgive and embrace those who change the direction of their life even if it means God seeking us in the depth of our sorrows and our desire to hide ourselves away from everything and everyone, including God, to lift us up out of our miry bog to place us on a dry, level plain to continue to live for and with God in a greater awareness of God’s encompassing presence and trusting God to sustain life now and for eternity.

What the psalmist is also calling us to realize with the focus on geography, the focus on God being the total environment of life and the focus on God’s participation in our own personal creation is that all life is sacred and connected to each other in relationships of interdependence where what happens to one member of creation impacts and influences other members of creation.

This is profoundly true in our relationship with the land that we are tasked by God to till, tend, and protect and to care for, so it remains able to nurture life and sustain life and which various passages of scripture point out is often a mirror of our relationships within families and within whole communities.

Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel is, but one example of this mirroring effect. Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain is the oldest and is a farmer while his younger brother Abel is a keeper of sheep. They both bring to God offerings from their respective vocations. Abel’s is accepted by God while Cain’s is rejected by God. Cain is angry, dejected and is warned by God that “sin is prowling like a wild animal waiting to overcome you, but you must master it.” Thus, Cain has a choice either master sin or be mastered by sin. Still feeling the rage of his anger, Cain invites his brother into a field and kills him, then walks away. However, the voice of the dirt that absorbed Abel’s blood cries out to God with its own sorrow and grief for the blood spilled in violence because anger, resentment, and rejection had all grown to such overwhelming proportions that Cain could not master sin, but instead sin mastered him. It mastered even his response to God’s question, “where is your brother?” and his retort, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Keeper, the word has more meanings than one who keeps. It means “to exercise loving care for, to watch over, to guard, to preserve, to protect, to tend to the needs of another, to save a life, to sustain life.”

This was the same word “shamar,” in the Hebrew, used in Genesis earlier to describe God’s expectations for the man and woman and their descendants to keep the garden, keeping it able to be fruitful by their serving the land and all creation as they tend to the land’s needs and protecting the land from those elements that might destroy it, making the land unable to be productive and unable to sustain life.

Now, as the land that absorbed the Abel’s blood cries out in sorrow and grief, the fractured and broken relationship of the brothers was, also, given voice as the land’s pollution from violence mirrored the pollution of sin Cain experienced. In the same way that the mark on Cain signified his identity as one who ended life, the infertility of the sacred land, scarred by the blood seeping into it, identifies it as land unable to nurture life or sustain life.

Similarly, Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and theologian, makes this same point about land mirroring the broken and fractured relationships within families and within the community in his work “The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith” using the themes of contamination of the land, of excluding people from the land and possessing land to fulfill selfish economic actions without regard to the community, and of the defilement of the land. He begins, of course, with Moses’ farewell speech about faithfully living God’s teachings and God’s way of life as the foundation for staying long in the land promised and given to the Hebrews while being unfaithful to God’s way is the basis for the Israelites being exiled from the land and losing the land. Thus, the way the community lives its daily life in all their various relationships impacts what happens with the land.

I doubt that we are strangers to this conversation if we consider how brown field industrial sites have physically divided communities and economically divided communities into those who have more than they need for life and those who do not even have the basic necessities needed to sustain life, not to mention making the contaminated land unable to be used for the nurturing of life and sustaining of life and then reflect about how this violates the command to love your neighbor as yourself and violates God’s call to keep the land. Or, perhaps we might consider the way “mountaintop removal and the accompanying filling up of valleys with the debris from mountain top  is the most destructive way to mine coal, creating unhealthy living conditions for people in nearby communities, eliminating not only  forests and streams but altering a whole ecosystem that can never be restored and forever changing the communities where people live,” according to Kentuckians for Commonwealth. How does this action comport with loving our neighbors or keeping, tending, or lovingly caring for creation as God has called humankind to do?

How do any of the environmental disasters we have witnessed whether from the BP oil spill, the Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, the Chernobyl or the Three Mile Island disasters, or the pollution of rivers by coal mining companies, to name just a few, square with an understanding of our responsibility for the keeping and caring and protecting of the land given to us by God, not to mention the psalmist’s declaration that God is the total environment for life?

As the Seasons of the Spirit commentary reminds us, our choices have consequences for the land. Sacred ground can become scarred ground, whether by shedding blood or by poisoning the soil. So the question for Christians today in light of climate change, Arctic permafrost melting and rising ocean levels is, will we hear the voice of the land crying out to us or will we keep pouring the blood of human violence, contamination, defilement and greed into its mouth, so that we do not have to hear the land’s voice crying out to us or hear God teaching us the way for life to be nurtured and sustained?

How we answer that question will have consequences for how much longer the land will nurture and sustain life for us, our children and all future generations.

To God Alone is the Glory

Moses stands high on the rocks above the assembled Hebrews, who are eagerly waiting for the signal to cross the Jordan River and possess the land God promised to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, a promise passed down from father to son and mother to daughter.

After 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness, they are ready to go home and ready to leave the wilderness behind them, letting go of the nomadic way of living. These were a wilderness people because most of them were born and lived all their lives in the wilderness. They are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those Hebrews Moses had led away from slavery and death in Egypt to the freedom of a life-giving relationship with God, who gave them a way of living together filled with rich, intimate relationships of authenticity and integrity; a way of life where every person would be living from the center of their being.

That was, of course, exactly what their mothers and fathers had failed to do. A fact Moses points out in the beginning of this last teachable moment. You see, Moses won’t be crossing the Jordon with them. His ministry, the vocation God called him to live, was nearly finished. All he had to do was teach this last lesson then his ministry would be complete. So, he begins this moment by calling the people to remember how they came to be here by reciting the history of their long trek through the wilderness, the good times and the bad times, but especially those times when their parents had failed to choose life by hearing, obeying God and trusting God completely and had, instead, chosen death.

Now, Moses isn’t doing this because he wants to beat up on their parents for abandoning God and God’s way, rather he does it because he is teaching them about the two choices they will have to make, either choosing life or choosing death. There is no middle ground.

And, I will tell you Moses will exhort them to choose life because that is what God wants them to choose, since to choose life is to live within God, within the very heart of God, who is not only the creator of existence, the creator of living substance, but is life itself, which is the meaning of the name Yahweh, the name he told Moses at the burning bush.

Moses will exhort the people to choose life by telling them, “This commandment that I’m giving you today is not too much for you. It is not out of your reach. It is not on a high mountain,-you do not need to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level. It is not across the ocean,-you do not have to send sailors out to get it and bring back then explain it to you before you can live it. This word is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. It is an easy choice, so just do it, choose life!”

Moses passionately challenges them to make this choice because by choosing life they will choose to live fully their new identity as God’s people from the inside out. You see, the commandments and the instructions Moses gives this people, the same ones he has been giving them for more than forty years, are not simply a set of rules or laws to be obeyed under penalty of punishment or eternal damnation, rather they are teachings to be lived every moment as if breathing air or eating food until each person has fully taken all of them into the very center of their being as part of their being just as surely are their hearts beat within them, sending the image and likeness of God hidden deep within them rising up to the surface and out from them like living water bursting out of rocks and soaking the world around them with God’s love in the concreteness of daily living, making God visible to every person and every nation surrounding them.

They are to be the visible expression of God’s presence in the midst of humanity”on earth, in time, in all the concreteness of the visible, perceptible, tangible world” as theologian Alexander Schmemann has written, so every person and every nation will be blessed with the comprehension of a new, radically different way of being fully human that actually works for the well being and wholeness of every person and nation, united together in the tranquility of God’s peace.

So every person and every nation will come to them and say we want to join your community, but not because the Israelites are so wonderful and perfect, rather because all nations and people will recognize that it is God, who has created this way of life and who has claimed these people as Isaiah says, “This is what the Lord says, he who created you, O Jacob; he who formed you Israel, fear not for I am have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine.”

What Moses was teaching them is that they will make God visible to the whole world by the way they live and people will be drawn to God because of their lives. It is what Jesus told his disciples during his farewell discourse in the Gospel of John, “You have seen the Father because you have seen me.  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”  So that God may be glorified.

This is what is affirmed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism in the very first question, “What is the chief end of humankind?” Followed by the answer, “Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

What the people who wrote the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were trying to say is that all human beings are, at every moment of our lives, in a relationship to the living God because God has formed us and shaped us in God’s image and likeness, so we might live the way God intends for us to live in wholeness and peace within the boundaries God has set in place for us.

“The image of God in humanity”, theologian Jack Rogers writes, “is not some particular quality or attribute such as reason or free will or the ability to dominate nature. Jesus Christ is the image of God and what set him apart from his contemporaries is that Jesus was totally obedient to God, who had sent him. The image of God, and the meaning of our humanity, is that we are created in relationship to God, so that when we obey God, as Jesus did, we “image” God by our lives. The thrust of Reformed theology is that we glorify God by living lives of obedient activity.”

You see, Reformed theology is clear that we are not created or summoned by God to a life of self-centeredness interested only in our salvation, agenda, power, or celebrity. It is not my agenda, your agenda, Donald Trump’s agenda or anyone else’s agenda.  We are saved by grace and summoned to serve God’s agenda for sustaining life, ours and creation. We are supposed to seek the glory of God and be pointing people to God by working toward the goals of God’s kingdom. This is what means to live that part of our identity statement, “we will foster a personal connection with God for people of all ages.”

God provides all we need for life and is with us, even when we wade through the deep water, walk through fire or need a lift up out of a miry bog and be set down a dry, level plain. All we need to do to show our gratitude for all God does for us is act on God’s agenda for this world by choosing life, choosing God’s way of peace, so all will see how wonderful it is to live God’s way of life. May it be so for you and for me.

Scripture Alone

The Bible will not help you conjugate French verbs. It will not teach you why we fought the Civil War, nor will it help you build a sandbox for your next DIY project. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a self-help book.

What the Bible can be for you is the rule for a life of faith and practice founded upon the Reformed tradition of sola scriptura or scripture alone. This tradition has been a hallmark of Protestant Christian communities as the Westminster Confession of 1647 declares, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for God’s own glory, humanity’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of humanity. Some contemporary theologians give authority to Scripture because it reveals God’s Word, that is Christ, while others declare Scripture is the witness without parallel to God’s long, winding relationship journey with humankind and humanity’s long, winding on again-off again relationship journey with God.

As Paul wrote to Timothy, “how from infancy you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scriptures are God-breathed and are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

Scripture is, also, the authority for the way we have organized the polity of the Presbyterian Church because Calvin and other Swiss Reformers went back to Scripture to identify the structure of the early church as one way to reform the Western Christian Church. Indeed, as Jack Rodgers, a former Moderator of the PCUSA and theologian has described it, “Calvin’s way of reforming the church was akin to grabbing a bureau drawer, yanking it out of the bureau, dumping its contents on the bed, then putting the empty drawer back in bureau and only putting those things back in drawer you were absolutely certain you were going to use and had the biblical warrants for using them.” This why we call Elders Presbyters and why we have Deacons because both of those positions existed in the early church based on Scripture.

This more thorough going reform was because the hierarchy of the western Christian Church from the fourth century to the 14th century had begun to give equal weight to papal authority, traditions, and doctrines devised by various theologians and philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato, as they did to Scripture. This, of course, happened during the time that widespread corruption had infiltrated the whole of the Western Christian Church whether from power and greed, the sales of indulgences, the sale of offices of clergy, bishops, cardinals, abbots and abbesses or the many other failings of the church in the Middle Ages. In addition, worship was in Latin and the Latin translation of the Bible was the only one used in worship, which effectively only spoke to the educated elites and left out everybody else, who were also illiterate. It was the illiteracy of the common people and the desire to connect them to Scripture and a life of faith that for decades prior to Martin Luther and John Calvin there had been a movement to translate Scripture in the language of the people, so each person could read it in their own language. Of course, this would have made more people literate and would have taken away the power of the local priest to be the only authority for what Scripture said, which was certainly two aims of the reformers, particularly John Calvin and the Swiss Reformers who created public schools open to every child in the Geneva community and who advocated for every Christian to read and study Scripture. BY the way, this is one reason pastors are Teaching Elders as well as worship leaders of Word and Sacrament.

Scripture is also a community forming narrative as Rev. William Willimon insists, “A congregation is Christian to the degree that it is confronted by and attempts to form its life in response to the Word of God.” Each week as Scripture is read and used as the basis for the entire worship we are confronted by God’s Word and invited, sometimes explicitly and other times not as explicitly, to form our personal identity and our community identity in response to what we have heard, read, prayed and sung in worship. Over the course of a life time of such experiences and our incorporating all of our life experiences into the story of our lives, our personal identity and the community’s identity as followers of Christ are formed and shaped.

Integral to this forming and shaping is discovering where our personal life stories and our community life stories are connected to Scripture. What biblical stories, psalms, history, epistles contain our life story, individually and as a congregation. What lessons can we learn from this connection? How does this connection help us create or re-write and tell our life story as a coherent whole with a beginning, middle and a present?

Clearly for Scripture to be the rule of our faith and our life, as way for teaching, correcting, training and, yes, even rebuking us towards God way, to be forming and shaping our identity and connecting us within Scripture, we are going to have read Scripture because as Professor George Stroup has pointed out, “if the community no longer turns to biblical narratives and their depiction of reality as the basis for the interpretation of personal and communal identity, then Scripture can no longer be described as ‘authoritative’ for that community. At the same time, if Christian identity is as dependent on biblical narrative as we have argued, then it is not clear how a community which no longer listens to or uses Scripture can be said to be ‘Christian.”

So we read Scripture, but how do we read it and study it when often we find ourselves confused or frustrated with it, especially if we read Leviticus.

Well, first, read Scripture daily or weekly as a devotional and allow Scripture to sink deeply into us through meditation and allowing the questions arising from our reading to bubble up to the surface, and then gather together with other people in a group study of Scripture paying careful attention to its context and form. You see, each of the Bible’s books was written in a particular genre by a particular person inspired by the Holy Spirit at a particular time for particular readers that addresses a particular concern. Discerning what all of these particulars are becomes important, especially genre because Scripture is written as histories, poetry, sermons, or letters. Some include parables and healing stories, but all need to be read differently in the same way a newspaper’s editorial page is read differently than the sports page or the comics.

Second, understand the culture and the way different cultures think about history, geography and time. John Calvin has noted, The Gospels “were not written in such a manner as to preserve on all occasions, the exact order of time, nor do they detail minutely everything Jesus said or did.” This is where a good study bible comes in handy because of the notes included on each page as well as the maps and definitions of ancient measurements.

Third, interpret one passage of Scripture using other passages that seem to talk about the same subject while never isolating one sentence or passage of scripture as though it contains the whole truth because often what we think it says or wish it said isn’t what it says at all. This why when someone quotes a verse of Scripture at me as though proving their point, I am very willing to suggest we read the entire book, then read other passages referenced by that one book to get at the real meaning. The other thing to remember is that nobody reads Scripture literally. Everyone interprets it in one or another. Also, we need to stop using Scripture as clubs to beat each other up with as though my Scripture is bigger than yours. Also, we need to be willing to let Scripture read out its meaning to us, rather than trying to make Scripture say what we want it to say, since very often we discover something new we hadn’t thought about before or maybe we just become transformed by the Holy Spirit in the act of reading and study.

Finally, read Scripture mindful of the rule of love-Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself-because as one rabbi taught, those two commands are the whole of Scripture and “everything else is commentary.”

Scripture alone is our rule for faith and practice, identity and life, so happy reading.

Christ Alone

In many fragments and in many fashions in former times, God’s Word goes out, arguing, pleading, wooing, commanding, telling stories, conversing, spinning words across the lines between heaven and earth. God’s Word is an active interruption of silence creating life as a disturbance of the stillness of swirling waters in a deep dark void incapable of creating life. God’s Word intrudes into life, moving trees and shaking the powers that be, causing the sun to rise, shaking foundations whether of volcanoes, temple or churches, and breaking chains of oppression and molecular structure.[i] Everything in creation reveals the character of God, one theologian writes, and is gathered up in God’s life giving Word.

A Word making holy summons, calling humanity to an awareness of God’s presence that as theologian Tom Long writes, we would not know on our own and that flowers, stars, clouds, indeed the whole universe as well as the entire history of humans are telling a story of God’s glory beyond our imagining. God’s Word is not speaking of a grand design concealed in the complex patterns of nature awaiting, a science sophisticated enough to find it, rather it is a shout in the street crying news we could not have anticipated news that God is at work in creation, providing, saving, reconciling, teaching, nurturing and healing. This Word God speaks is the one Abraham and Sarah heard, the one Samuel heard in the temple as child sleeping, the one Moses heard in a burning bush, the one the Canaanite woman heard when she was pleading for Jesus to heal her daughter. This Word God speaks is the one heard in a vision as a flash of insight, in pillars of fire, in a waterfall, in a still small voice, and in powerful moments of insight at a church committee meeting, in the voice of hungry and homeless, the voice of the sick crying for for healing “ and in the hope of those bent over by oppression, hatred and bigotry.

This Word God speaks is the one who was in the beginning with God, and is God through whom all creation was given life, a life that is the light of God breaking through and breaking down all the darkness humanity creates whether through ignorance or the violence of racial hatred, bigotry of any kind, or oppression or exclusions seeking to divide people into those who are superior and those who are inferior, those who are truly human and those considered to be only 3/5 human, those who are in and those who are out, those who have more than enough for life and those who don’t.

This Word is one who comes in the flesh and bone of Jesus the Christ to be the last plank in a long rope and wood bridge stretching across the chasm separating humanity from God and God’s life of joy, hope and peace; completing the bridge begun by Abraham and Sarah leaving their ancestral home, then the Egyptian midwives Shiphrah and Puah refusing to kill newborn Hebrew babies by acts of civil disobedience, then Moses is summoned to liberating leadership, then Isaiah called in the midst of worship, then Jeremiah a boy opening his mouth to speak to adults he fears won’t listen, then in many other divine actions forging saving planks in the long bridge of redemption until coming at last to final plank, which is the ultimate plank completing and making the bridge fit for humanity to cross over into the new life God intends and has intended for all humanity.[ii] Christ alone is that last and ultimate plank. Christ is the ultimate Word that was with God, whom is God.

Christ alone is the Word becoming flesh and blood coming to live with humanity in the fullness of everyday life knowing all of our joys, all of our wonder at the mysteries of creation, knowing how we often cannot see what is right in front of us, knowing love in the giving and receiving, knowing rejection and the violence of a hometown crowd wanting to throw him off a cliff preaching a word from God they didn’t like, knowing the suffering of disease, wounds, betrayals, oppression whether political or institutional, and all the suffering human beings are subject to because we are part of the earth, sky and waters of creation-and what happens to the earth, sky and waters also happens to us. Christ alone brought all of this-all humanity’s life with him to the cross, bearing it in his body broken by nails, spears in the side, beatings, and carrying his cross until, finally at his death he brings all humanity’s life into God’s very being where it is healed and made new in the grace laden resurrection witnessed by the men and women he gathered together, then sent out to be his body-hands, feet, mouth, mind, and witnesses to his pioneering teaching, healing and radical love for all peoples.

Christ alone is head of the church because he alone is the one who gathers all people together to create the church not as an institution to be saved, not as a commodity to be consumed, but as a community of followers living their lives following the model for being truly human that Jesus created with his life, his teaching, his story telling and his acts of kindness, empathy, and his self-offering love for neighbor serving not himself, seeking no reward or celebrity, but willingly obeying God’s love. Christ alone is the head of the church and we claiming to be his followers are his hands, feet, mind, mouth and heart called by Christ to live as he lived and by doing so-teaching others that a life of health, joy, hope, and peace is possible. A life where every person has all they need for life and need not fear their neighbor, but can live in mutuality with all their neighbors, knowing all humanity is created in the image and likeness of God and all humanity is God’s children and are to be treated just that way.

Christ alone is the one Word of life encouraging us to persevere and run the journey of faith as a marathon not a sprint.  Christ alone is praying for us, reassuring us we are not alone, but as the great preacher and theologian Howard Thurman writes, “God is present with me this day. God is present with me in the midst of my anxieties. I affirm in my own heart and mind the reality of his presence. He makes immediately available to me the strength of his goodness, the reassurance of his wisdom and the heartiness of his courage. My anxieties are real; they are the result of a wide variety of experiences, some of which I understand, some of which I do not understand. One thing I know concerning my anxieties: they are real to me. Sometimes they seem more real than the presence of God. When this happens, they dominate my mood and possess my thoughts. The presence of God does not always deliver me from anxiety but it always delivers me from anxieties. Little by little, I am beginning to understand that deliverance from anxiety means fundamental growth in spiritual character and awareness. It becomes a quality of being, emerging from deep within, giving to all the dimensions of experience a vast immunity against being anxious. A ground of calm underlies experiences whatever may be the tempestuous character of events. This calm is the manifestation in life of the active, dynamic Presence of God. God is present with me this day.”

Christ alone is present with us this day and all days, which makes the words we heard this morning from the letter to the Hebrews, “good news.”  For it affirms that the relationship we have with God in Christ is a living reality. It is a renewing and empowering relationship that we depend on in good times and in bad. We know that we can draw from God’s deep waters of mercy and grace[iii] as the psalmist sings “O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”

For Christ alone is the Word of life we must hear and obey in the beginning with God, in the end with God, bringing us into God’s very being today, tomorrow and eternity because Christ is God, who is with us always. Christ is God who loves us all. Amen.

[i] Thomas G. Long, Hebrews in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching pp 4-8

[ii] ibid

[iii] Gloria J. Tate, Presbyterian Church of Teaneck, NJ. In the African American Lectionary, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Thomas G. Long, Hebrews in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching pp 4-8

[ii] ibid

[iii] Gloria J. Tate, Presbyterian Church of Teaneck, NJ. In the African American Lectionary, 2008

Faith Alone

“You all have an A for this course,” said Barbara Brown Taylor at the beginning of our doctorate course ‘Practical Mysticism.’ Now, as I think about what she said, it is in a small way like grace.  You see, no one had done any work for the course, no papers or projects or presentations had been done for the course at all. We had done nothing to merit or deserve such a grade. We had just shown up. And, I think that is one small way to think about grace.

We just show up as a living being and God’s love is given to us. No questions asked. No tests to see if we measure up to receive this love. No creeds to recite or perfect behaviors to track. God’s love is simply given to us, reaching out to welcome us home, telling us we belong. Telling us we are valuable, that we are wanted. God’s love is ours from the moment we show up through the entirety of our lives into eternity, calling us to live within God’s being. This is, also, why I think infant baptism is such a joyful experience of grace because in that sacrament we affirm God’s unconditional, unbreakable, unfathomable love is for us, with us and encompassing us always, long before we have done anything to earn, merit, deserve or can respond to such a love.

But, there was more to that moment of grace when Barbara Brown Taylor said we all had “A’s” that was, also, important and truly wonderful, which was when she said, “Now, let’s focus on the work.”  Focus on the substance of why we were in that course. Focus on the readings and the presentations. Focus on learning new ideas, concepts, history and stories, so we might learn something about Christian mystics and comprehend why they are important for us to know about, but more importantly discover the practical and usefulness of the mystics’ teachings for Christian daily living. We were liberated from worry about passing the course, so we might focus on living as followers of Christ.

That is what faith is. It is the liberated, grateful response to a grace that frees us from having to worry about whether we are loved, accepted, valuable, wanted or belong, so we are free to do the work of living the way God teaches us to live through the creation stories, the man and woman in the garden story, the ten commandments, the prophets calling the people Israel to change the direction they are going in their lives, the sermon on the mount, all the healing stories and feeding stories, Lazarus rising from the dead, the walk toward Jerusalem, the prayer in Gethsemane, the cross, the resurrection, the post resurrection stories and the stories of the apostles and early Christian communities.

While the simple definition of faith is trust, faith as defined throughout scripture is also confidence in God, steadfastness, unswerving loyalty to God even in face of what appears insurmountable obstacles, perseverance, patience, holding God’s promises to be true and reliable, holding  fast to a promised hope, endurance, being firmly set on God, fidelity to God and God’s way of life, believing that is deeply connected to doing or living a way of life consistent with the claims of God upon the community based upon the remembrance of what God has done to create life and sustain life and a response of gratitude for all God has done and promises to do. Taking all of these definitions as a whole we discover faith is not mere intellectual assent to a set of propositions, but is much richer and deeper allowing us to change the translation of Hebrews 11:1 to “faith is the substance of these hoped for and the proving of things not seen” because God is the substance of our hope and Christ has revealed God and God’s love for us in visible and tangible acts of healing and teaching, which lead us to thanksgiving.

You see, gratitude is at the heart of faith, especially in the song of psalmist in psalm 145, “I will exalt you, my God and King, I will praise your name forever and ever,” since praise cannot be given without some reason and the psalmist cites those reasons as compassion, patience, forgiveness, love as well as trustworthiness, able to be counted upon to do what God has promised to do and to be near and loving in giving life and sustaining life. These reasons are acts of remembrance by the psalmist, who calls the community to sing the praises of God. Engaging in this gratitude engendered praise, the community as a whole recalls these events and other events in their own lives where God has invited them to be co-creators of life, reached out to change their situation, or let them know they have been heard and are not alone.

In many ways, the psalmist is telling a narrative in much the same way that the gospels, the prophets and the epistle writers are telling stories, which is why the biblical stories are vitally important for Christian communities. “We are a storied people, “writes theologian and professor Stanley Hauerwas, “because the God that sustains us is a ‘storied God.”

Through the biblical stories we learn how God both has saved God’s people by grace across time and geography, but we also learn the consistent way God desires people to live in response to God’s grace, so the people’s life may be full, healthy and life sustaining through relationships of mutuality and loving kindness, then using what we have learned from those stories, we live our lives as a grateful and free response to grace.

What is particularly freeing is that we do not need to be focused on the myths the culture tells us should be our stories, should be our values and ethical norms, or should be our way of living in the world because they are meaningless, telling us nothing about who we are as followers of Christ. The same can be said for those Christians who want to make Christian living about duty or guilt trips because in some way we failed to measure up to some particular theology of works righteousness. This is also why lists of the “five things to do to be a better Christian” or “the ten ways to pray for a more fulfilled life” are a waste of time. It may feel good to have an assignment for the week or a list to check off each day or week, but they are the very things Jesus preached and taught weren’t useful in living God’s way. Neither is the flipside to closet legalism that is a “moral therapeutic deism” that professor Scott Hoezee describes as, “the idea is not that we have to please God by living moral lives, but rather that God  is pleased with us even if we don’t do very well in the moral arena,” because “God isn’t paying that close of attention to us anyway and is mostly interested in seeing if we are a pretty okay people who stay slightly ahead of the moral curve vis-à-vis” those other” immoral people down the street.

Faith liberates followers of Christ to focus our energy, imagination, gratitude and love on living God’s way as we become part of the biblical stories of grace, gratitude, praise and faith and they become part of who we are as followers of Christ. Amen.

The summer after I graduated from high school, a friend of mine told me about a trail off Highway one that led to an awesome beach and some of the best surfing around. He asked if I was interested in seeing it. Of course, I said. When we got to Highway 1 along the coast just north of Santa Cruz, he began slowing down then pulling off the side of the road, but never stopping. After a half hour of this I finally asked him, “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Well, sort of,” he said, “Rachel said it was next to a big rock.”  Just for the record, along the northern California coast there are lots of big rocks.

“What else did she say?” I asked.

“She said there was a big sign before the rock that said, “Danninger’s Rest.”

“How big?” I asked. He shrugged. “Where on the highway is it? I mean this Highway goes the entire length of the coast.” He looked at me, smiled and shrugged again.  He had no idea where sign, the rock or the trail was. “Now, what?” I asked him. He shrugged.

He had directions in his hands, but he didn’t know what do to do them or how to use them.

Similarly, Saul, also, had what he had been given in his hands, but he did not know what to do with them or how to use them. He just thought he did. Standing on the sidelines watching the enraged crowd throwing stones at Stephen, Saul thought he knew what he was doing was right. He is firm in knowing exactly who he is and knowing what he believes and trusts and he was just as firm in defending his faith. Saul tells anyone who will listen, “I was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee.”  Saul is an Israelite who traces his ancestry back to the tribe of Benjamin, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. His parents were honorable and observant members of the house Israel circumcising him on the right day and socializing him in the customs of his family, clan, and people. He was firmly educated in the strict tradition of Pharisaic study of the law, both written and oral as well as the tradition of rabbinic interpretation of Scripture. He will also tell you he is blameless under the law. That his loyalty is to God and he strictly adheres to his duties to God. Saul is so supremely confident in what he is doing that he doesn’t question or express any concern that what the enraged mob is doing by stoning Stephen might be wrong. He watches the mob pick up their stones and rocks in their hands, seeing in their rocks and stones the marker showing him what do with what has in his hands.

The disciples aren’t so sure. They have question upon question. Jesus tells them he is going to a place where they cannot go, but it is a place they know and they know the way to the place where Jesus is going. Thomas asks his question first, “We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?

Thomas asks the question, but he is expressing all the disciples’ confusion and bewilderment that Thursday evening when they ate the Passover meal. Jesus was speaking of leaving them. They wanted directions. They needed answers. Some specific ones. Jesus spoke about where he was going. And that they would know the way. However, all the disciples knew were their questions. They simply don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Yes, he spent three years teaching them through sermons and parables, even stopping to explain the meaning of the parables in clear and concise language, and he taught them by his actions, so they might put two and two together and come up with the answer. But, they didn’t understand. He even told them exactly why they were going to Jerusalem and what was going to happen to him. But they when they look at what as in their hands they simply didn’t understand what to do with it.

In seminary, we often jokingly referred to the disciples, “as the twelve guys who just don’t get it.” Yet, we are just like them. We, too, look at what we have in or hands, what we have been given and we want directions about how to use all we have received. Perhaps, a map laid out in black and white or better yet, in living color. A map, which can be read and studied and understood. Thomas’ question is a good one not just for the disciples, but for us, too. We are in the same boat they are in. The stormy sea of questions threatening to swamp them is the same stormy sea threatening to swamp us. Our questions cause us to worry about what we are supposed to be doing. This is the reason there is so much spiritual emptiness in the world today and why so many people seek answers anywhere they can get them.

However, too often we fail to ask the most significant and simplest question of all, “What is in your hand?”

For the mob of people enraged at Stephen and afraid of what Stephen has said, they have rocks in their hands to use as weapons of intolerance. Now, if you asked them why they were doing what they were doing they could give an answer, the answer that would reveal their worldview. The same could be said of Saul. Every answer he would give would define his worldview. Even Stephen and the rest of Christ’s followers’ answers would define their worldview because everybody has a worldview. “Everybody,” to quote Rick Warren,” is betting on something.” And, he is right. Everybody is betting on something. You and I, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, liberals, conservatives, supply side economists, Keynesian economists, free market economists or mercantile economists, doctors. Lawyers, accountants, adherents of non-violence and those who think violence is answer to every problem, white-supremacists, democrats, republicans, Neo-Paganists, and neo-Nazis are all betting our lives on something. That something is our world view which influences all our decisions, our relationships, our behaviors, our level of confidence and everything that becomes our life that we reveal in telling the stories of our life. And, the real test of whether our worldview gives us peace is not how we act in the good times, but how we act at the funeral because you can’t fake it at the end of your life.

This is the reason the critical question I think we ought to ask ourselves is, “what do we have in our hands?” The reason this is, I believe, the critical question is because it is God’s question as Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback Church mentioned during a 2009 talk. Going back to the Exodus story and Moses’ conversation with God at the burning bush, God asks Moses what he has in his hands. Moses says, “A staff.” God tells Moses to throw his staff down, so Moses does that and the staff becomes a snake, then God tells Moses to pick up the snake and Moses does and the snake becomes his staff again. This staff will be the vehicle for every one of miracles or plagues to happen in Egypt. What is important about the staff is that it contains Moses’ identity. Moses is a shepherd and the staff is a symbol of his identity. The staff is also a symbol of his wealth, which are the flock of sheep he and his family depends upon for food and clothing. Finally, the staff is a symbol of his influence because he uses to move the sheep either by pulling or poking. So, what Moses has in his hands- his identity, his wealth and his influence-God will use what Moses has in his hands to benefit the Hebrews by sending Moses and his staff to Egypt to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and genocide.

That is what God intends for us to do and that message becomes clear in reading Psalm 72, a prayer of Solomon, who asks for wealth, wisdom, power, prestige, for nations to bow down to him, which sounds pretty self-involved, but Solomon asks for these gifts to be given to him so he can care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, the migrant or immigrant, the prisoner because none of these folks have the wealth, the prestige or influence or power to speak up or care for themselves and make the community a better place for everyone. They need the king to stand up and speak for them because no one else will listen if Solomon doesn’t.  They need Solomon to provide justice and well-being for them because they cannot do it for themselves. This is what leadership is by the way.

Leadership is about serving others and the stewardship of resources to be used for the benefit of the well-being of the entire community, not to benefit a few folks at the top at the expense of everyone else. Leaders, like Solomon, are to act as God’s representatives by treating people the way God treats people with loving kindness, restorative and equal justice, persuasion, patience so the community will be whole. Leaders, like Solomon, are to look at what they have been given into their hands-their identity, background, family, income, abilities, influence, network, creativity, opportunities, education, intelligence, then they need to decide how they will use them? Will they use them like rocks to destroy life? Will they use them to watch passively as life is destroyed? Will they use them to make the world a better place?

But, it’s not just leaders who need to answer that question because we all are holding what we have been given in our hands, so we might be use all of them to make the world a better place either as an engineer, a doctor, lawyer, accountant, teacher or whatever we have been created to be. We just need to look at what we have in our hands, then decide to use what we have been given to make the community and world a better place for everyone. I pray, we choose well according to God’s way.

(Rick Warren’s talk in 2009 provided some direction for this post and I think his suggestions about what we have received and how we use those gifts is important as is an understanding that followers of Christ are to be both good stewards as well as servant leaders whose aim is the well being of the entire creation.)

 

 

 

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