Romans “13″ In Context

Steven Kurtz:

context is everything. Many thanks to Michael Snow for this!

Originally posted on TextsInContext:

A brief look at Romans “13″ in its historical and textual context:

586 BC Solomon’s Temple destroyed

[Second Temple Consecrated, 516 BC]

After the Babylonian captivity ended, Judea survived under the succeeding Empires.

323 BC Death of Alexander the Great. Kingdom divided among the generals.

Judea comes under the Ptolemies, who also rule Eygpt

198 BC Judea annexed by the Seleucids, under Antiochus III, who rules Syria

During this period, Jews were under no government edicts to change customs [though many fell under the spell of the Hellenistic spirit of the times]. Antiochus strengthened the High Priesthood, made Torah official law for Jews and exempted Jews from taxes.

Judea was still a theocratic/Temple State.

Internal strife precipitated a crisis under the next king, Antiochus IV, Epiphanes. High Priestly faction, the House of Zaddock, was pro-Ptolemaic.

Another artistocratic family, the Tobiads, was pro-Seleucid.

Complaints against High Priest Onias III led to…

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God in the Weeds

Sermon on Gen 28:10-19a for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost A, July 20, 2014

Gen 28:10-19a

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the

Jacob's Dream by Marc Chagall

Jacob’s Dream by Marc Chagall

top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

Here’s a little question to start with:

What is going on in this world, and where is God in it?

Or, we could ask it personally:

What is going on in my life (or my family), and where is God in it?”

I read a quote this week that bears repeating here:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is ‘neat, plausible, and wrong.’” (attributed to H. L. Mencken in Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, vol. 1)broken road

To give an account of life that is neat and plausible is certainly to get it wrong.  I experience life as complicated, and mine isn’t half as complicated as the lives of  many whom I have observed.  I am quite sure you experience life as complicated.

Things go wrong.  Plans sometimes fail.  Illness happens.  Accidents happen – sometimes tragically.  Loss happens.  And there is evil.

We understand a bit about evil.  We all know what temptation is, and we have all done things we wish we had not done.   We have all indulged our impulses and believed our own excuses, pretended to be special cases, and acted selfishly.  So, we understand the impulse to evil.

And yet, there is another kind of evil – or a dimension, or a level (what should we call it?) that is so much worse.  There are people who seem to have been given over to evil – business people who will do just about anything to the unsuspecting or to the environment if it makes them money.  I have been cheated and sold garbage more than once.

There are people who exploit and abuse women, children, or the elderly; people who abuse others verbally or psychologically,  and there are criminals of all kinds.

So, we ask, “what is going on, and where is God in it?” because the answer is not at all neat nor obvious.

“Never mind” – God clock face

One serious answer that has been given is the one people like Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin offered.  It was called Deism.  In this account, God just simply does not interfere with the world.  He made it, but lets it run like an expertly crafted Swiss Clock all by itself.  (So then, this is the “best of all possible worlds” – Leibniz?  Read Candid once and that notion goes away.)

I guess Deism lets God off the hook for not jumping in and stopping evil – since intervening is simply not what God would do – but I find it unsatisfying.  That kind of  account of “what’s going on in the world” simply overlooks an experience that is common to the vast majority of people who have ever lived.   We experience God.  Nearly all of us do.  Certainly all groups of us do.  We know of no human culture that is or was not religious.

This universal feeling does not prove anything, of course, but it leaves us needing to give an account of what is going on in the world that at least leaves the door open.

Stories of the Hidden Presence

This is one of the reasons I am so happy to have inherited from the Jewish tradition the stories of the Hebrew bible.  They can be read on the surface like quaint, ancient attempts at history, but they are not that.

Rather these stories of people like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and dear old Jacob and clan are much deeper.  They are narrative struggles to understand what is going on in the world and where God is in it.  In other words, theology – in its most practical, even visceral sense.  And they are complicated stories – not at all neat and tidy.Jacob's Dream

We read a bit of the Jacob story.  Jacob is the poster child for moral ambiguity.  He is a trickster, a deceiver and a manipulator – remember the story from last week of him stealing his older brother Esau’s birthright?  Jacob gets himself in all kinds of morally ambiguous situations.

But at an even deeper level, Jacob’s story keeps shoving a problem in our faces as we read it: what is going on and where is God in it?  Especially when it comes to the question of causes.  Who or what is behind the things we experience in life?  Is God doing things, or are we left to our own devices and to chance?

Jacob has stolen his older brother’s birthright, but then, at his mother’s instigation, also connives to steal his father’s final blessing (remember the trick about putting on hairy skins on his arms so his nearly blind father would feel them and think it was his hairy older brother, Esau?).

But readers already know that when Rebekah was pregnant with the two boys, the Lord himself told her that the older would serve the younger.  So was it God, or was it human manipulation that won the birthright-blessing for the younger Jacob?

After he steals the birthright-blessing, Jacob has to run away from home to keep Esau from killing him.  Our story takes place in the middle of his flight.  He comes to a certain place – no place special to him – and spends the night.

“Some Place” – !

Before we look at what happened as he slept, we need to realize that this place that he just thinks of as any-old-place is anything but!   It happens to be Bethel, which for centuries has been a Canaanite shrine location where the God El was worshipped.  Could he not have noticed?

And, to make it even more important, Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had been there years earlier.  In fact God, we are told, had appeared to him, and he built an altar there.  God did not just appear to him, God also re-affirmed the promise there, to give to his offspring the land.  (see Gen 12-13)  That was a pretty big deal.  But to Jacob, it’s just “someplace.”  Is this chance that Jacob stops here?  Coincidence?  How should we read it?

So in this place, Jacob arranges some rocks “around” or “under” his head (translations differ) – for what reason, no one really knows.  Are the rocks under his head for a pillow?  That seems bizarre to me.  Are they arranged “around” his head for “protection” as some suggest – without in any way saying how that would work(!).  Why mention rocks at all?

But could it be that the author’s suggestion that Jacob did some odd things with rocks, in relation to his head, may be a way of giving us readers a possible explanation for why he had such a weird dream.  So, again, what’s going on?  Did the rocks cause the bad night’s sleep and weird dream, or was God doing something?

The Ziggurat Tower DreamZiggurat Ur

Anyway, he dreams he sees angels going up and down on something.  Our English translations say it’s a ladder – giving rise to the image in the song “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.”  But it is not a ladder at all.  It is more like a stair, or a ramp.

Maybe you have seen artistic representations of those tall, multi-level monuments, built by the Egyptians and Babylonians as religious shrines, like in the story of the tower of Babel.  They called them ziggurats.  They were supposed to be a place where heaven and earth could meet.

And that is exactly what Jacob dreamed about.  Angels going up and down meant that he was in a place where heaven and earth touch each other.    The Irish call places like that “thin” places – where you feel as though the border between you and God is thin as paper, and you can almost touch.

So, in his dream, Jacob sees the Lord!  And the Lord does what he did in Abraham’s dream – he states the promise in great detail.

“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Let’s just pause right here.  How is God going to accomplish this?  We are going to read that Jacob finally makes it to his uncle Laban’s home.  There, he falls in love with his first cousin, and marries her.  Only, on the day after the wedding night, it is not her, but her sister he wed.  Uncle Laban tricked Jacob to get him to stay and work for him longer.

So, long story short, later Jacob marries the other sister also.  The two women, Rachel and Leah, start having babies, and eventually the twelve sons, who will become the twelve tribes of Israel, are born.   Again the story forces us to wonder, who or what was the cause of all this fruitfulness?  Was it the God who promised Jacob in the dream, or was it uncle Laban who tricked him into polygamy?  The story itself gives two possible explanations.  Which do we believe?

The Faith Conclusionthin place woods

Anyway, after the dream, in the morning Jacob awakens and says one of the classic lines of all times:

“Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”

What is going on, and where is God in it?

God is always in it.

Only most of the time we do not know it.

We cannot be faulted for not knowing it.  It is not at all obvious.  In fact, some of the time it is the opposite of obvious that God is in it.  Bad things happen.  Lots of them.

It would be neat, plausible and wrong to say that God is either the cause of everything that happens, including the evil, or that he causes nothing, as the Deists believed.   It is way more complicated than that.

And so I love the fact that these texts purposely demand us to see the problem for what it is: we go through our daily lives, not with miracles happening and angels flying around, but as normal humans do.  There are plausible explanations for the cause of everything.  And as we do, looking back, we can see God was at work, and we did not know it.

Sometimes we do have those moments of encounter.  We sometimes experience a “thin place” where heaven and earth seem to touch.  Thank God for those moments of wonder or awe – but they are the uncommon, not the common.

But a person of faith does not demand certainty, and certainty is not what we ever get.  We get glimpses.  We get “hints and guesses,” as TS Elliot called them.  But we choose to believe what Jacob learned: God is present, even when we do not know it.

God’s promise to be with us is what we rely on.  And thankfully, we have the advantage over Jacob that we have seen more of the promise fulfilled.  We known that Emmanuel, God with us, is true.  We have the advantage of being able to look at Jesus and see God with us.   We have had a glimpse of one who lived present to God’s presence in a powerful, life-giving way.

Things do go wrong; that much is true.  Life is like a field with weeds in it, as in Jesus’ parable.  But sometimes, God is in the weeds.  God is present even in the pain and sorrow.   Some of the events we would have done anything to avoid, at the time, turn out to be the very ones that shaped our lives for the better.

So, whatever is going on in your life that makes you ask, “What is going on and where is God in it?”  we are invited to live with the ambiguity as people of faith in the promise.

As we said last week, we are called to be the good soil people who simply take the risk that the message of the kingdom’s real presence is true, because God is in this place, even when we don’t know it, and God will never leave us.

 

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What are the Weeds in Matt 13:24-30, 36-43?  A Case of Jesus’ Pacifism?

In Matt 13:24-30, 36-43, Jesus tells a parable in which weeds are sown by an enemy in a field which the owner has sown good seed.  The servants notice the problem and suggest they pull out the weeds, but the owner  of the field rejects the suggestion on the basis that doing so would also harm the wheat.  The
disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable, so he does:weeds & wheat

37“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;  38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,  39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 

So, the weeds are the “children of the evil one.”  They will be collected when the Son of Man comes, and thrown into the furnace of fire.

So how do modern interpreters identify the weeds?

The “Jesus Seminar” scholars call this the parable of the “Sabotage of the Weeds” and give it a rating of next to certain that it is not authentically from Jesus on the basis that it

“reflects the concern of a young Christian community attempting to define itself over get against an evil world, a concern not characteristic of Jesus.”  (The five Gospels: what did Jesus really say?” p. 194)

On this reading, the weeds are people, and the people are those “in an evil world” but it is quite hard to know how a young Christian community would have struggled with the temptation to “gather them” in the sense of “uprooting,” that is, eliminating those people.

Hagner (Matthew, Word Biblical Commentary [vol. 33A, p. 395]) identifies the weeds as

“those [people] guilty of lawlessness—the people who belong to the evil one—coexist with the righteous…”

- but again, how could the kingdom people be tempted to uproot them?

Harrington (The Gospel of Matthew, in Sacra Pagina vol. 1, p. 208) says that the setting is the time of Jesus in which some Jews accepted but others rejected Jesus’ message of the kingdom.  The answer for believers is patience in the light of final judgment.  But again, the question is, what were the believers tempted to do with about the rejectors?  In what sense was there a temptation, or even an opportunity to uproot them prior to the eschaton?  Patience is hardly needed advice for people who have no other option.

Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, p. 156) ends his discussion taking the weeds as metaphors for

“whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God…”

which, the parable says, God will eventually deal with.  But on this reading, how could the original question in the parable: “should we uproot them?” with the answer “let them grow” makes any sense as moral advice.

This is a key problem.  If the “weed” people are doing evil things, how is the advice to “let them be as they are” appropriate?  Does this apply to the times of slavery?  If so, the abolitionists were wrong.   The American Civil rights movement?  If so, black people should have just been patient.  Apartheid?  Same.

Similarly, Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins, p 294) identifies the evil weeds as “all causes of sin” saying,

“these causes include anything that diverts or destroys disciples.”

So all of these evils, the parable teaches, should be ignored in the light of future judgment.

 Observations:

1.   Any interpretation of the weeds that identifies them with evil itself or causes of evil suffers from the problem that this parable then teaches dubious morality.  If you see evil, ignore it, because God will judge it in the end.  This is a quietism that no one believes in.  We even want to stop people from being cruel to animals, and how much more motivated should we be to confront evil in every way we can?

2.  Any interpretation which makes the weeds non-human suffers from ignoring Jesus’ explanation.  The weeds are people.  Jesus says, “the weeds are the children of the evil one.”  Yes, Jesus then says that the angels, who uproot these people, will also “collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers” but the weeds are specifically people. But the “all causes of sin” is simply an addition to the people, the “children of the evil one.

3. To uproot them is to eliminate them.   Any interpretation has to say what it would mean for anyone to be tempted to do something to other people that would look like uprooting them.  How and when would either Jesus’ followers or the Christians in Matthew’s community be in a position to even consider such uprooting actions against others?

A Suggestion:

It all makes sense if this is a warning against joint the armed revolt against Rome.  The revolutionary option was alive and embraced by many before, during and after the generation Jesus lived in.   On this reading, the parable says do not join the armed resistance, because doing so would endanger everybody.  The householder says, “29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”  In other words Leave it to God to settle the score with the Romans.

N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) seems to support this in principle saying,

“Jesus’ warnings fit also quite naturally into the wider context of the first century, where Rome, provoked before,  remained a threatening brooding presence….Pilate’s administration was given to sporadic bloody repression; it did not take much political wisdom to extrapolate forwards and to suggest that, if Israel continue to provoke the giant, giant would eventually awake from slumber and smasher to pieces.” p. 324  And, “Jesus had offered the Galilean towns the way of peace. By following him, they would find the God– given golden thread to guide them through the dark labyrinth of the current political aspirations and machinations, and onto vindication is the true people of the Creator and covenant God. If they refused, they were choosing the way that led, inevitably to confrontation with Rome, and so too unavoidable ruin.” p. 330

Jesus was clearly quite concerned about what Wright calls Israel’s “idolatrous nationalism” and its potential to bring down Roman swords on everyone (p. 331).

“Jesus, knowing that Israel has now finally rejected the one road of peace, knows also that within the next generation she will find herself embroiled in  a war she cannot but lose, and lose horribly. It two lestai [criminals] crucified with him are simply a foretaste of the thousands of lestai – brigands, revolutionaries– who will suffer the same fate by the time the next generation is through. Israel’s noble the tragic story is fast becoming a nightmare.” p. 332

In Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 Wright specifically offers the possibility that the weed-pullers were the Jews of his day who wanted to fight the bad guys.

“Did Jesus, perhaps, have an eye here on the revolutionary groups of his day, only too ready to step into God’s field and pull up what looked like weeds? There were many groups, including some of the Pharisees, who were eager to fight against pagans on the one hand and against compromised Jews on the other.”

People may argue about whether or not Jesus was a complete pacifist, but it is certainly clear that he opposed the violent opposition to Rome that was brewing in his day.  He turned out to be right.  In the revolt of 66, estimates are that hundreds of thousands of Jews died.  Josephus claims that well over one million perished, including those who died of starvation during the siege of Jerusalem.  When they attempted to pull out the weeds,  a lot of wheat was lost.

 

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Born for This

Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 for Pentecost +5 A, July 13, 2014

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 11.27.28 AMthere, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Born for ThisArt Camp & Pope

This past week has been weirdly conflicted for me, emotionally.  Two very opposite feelings have been generated by events happening at the same time.  On the one hand, here at the church we have just had the pleasure of hosting the Gulf Coast Arts Alliance’s Summer Fine Arts Camp.  And on the other hand, at the same time, the world seems to be falling apart in many places.

So, I have had the joy of watching around 75 beautiful, eager, smart, creative kids diving into music, drama, painting, dance, and story-telling.  I have witnessed dedicated, talented, experienced adult teachers and leaders giving of themselves on behalf of these children, planting seeds in the fertile soil of these young lives.

And then, after a great day of Fine Arts Camp, I get in the car and turn on the news and hear about Hamas rockets fired into Israeli towns and cities, and air strikes by the hundreds into Gaza killing scores of people.  I hear about the ISIS army in Iraq  slaughtering people by the hundreds, taking over cities and refineries, banks, and now, acquiring uranium from Mosel University.  And, I hear still more about the unaccompanied minors, streaming into our country from Central America by the tens of thousands.

On a personal level I find similar emotional opposites at work in me as well.  I am thrilled and proud to watch my son growing up and getting ready for college in little more than a month, and  yet, I am deeply dreading the “empty nest” we will be left with.

Life is Complicated

Life is complicated.  I know you also woke up today with your own set of reasons for joy as well as your temptations to despair.  From your personal life and your family concerns, to your thoughts about the future for yourself and for the world, we all feel conflicted.

I have learned recently that listening to, or watching too much news media is not helpful.  NPR is doing a series of reports on stress.  It turns out that people who watched a lot of news about 9/11, in the days following the attacks, actually reported higher stress-levels than some of the people directly affected.   It is hard to  find solace or take pleasure in the beauty of a Mozart concerto or a blossoming Crepe Myrtle tree while our  attention is focused on  reports of suffering and death.

But this is the world as it is.  We do not get to live in the the peaceful, harmonious Garden of Eden. It has always been this way.  The world is and always has been complex and difficult.Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 10.28.38 AM

We just read one of the most familiar texts in the gospels.  Probably, if a person knows almost nothing else about Jesus, she at least knows that he sat in a boat just off shore, and taught parables to crowds of people.  One of the best known is the The Parable of the Sower.  It is probably right up there in popularity with the Parable of the Good Shepherd.

That picture of Jesus and his world seems relaxed and calm.  You have the impression of a well ordered, happy time.  It is as if Jesus was giving a seminar at an outdoor event, like the Wild Goose Festival.  There he sits, gently rocking in the boat on a sunny day, speaking about a quaint farmer, sowing seeds on the ground.  In the story, the sower gets off to a rocky start with lots of mis-spent seed, but it has a happy, hopeful ending: a bumper crop; 30, 60, even 100 fold increase.

What’s Wrong with the Peaceful Picture?

Two things are wrong with this peaceful picture.  First, in Jesus’ day, when he told the story, yes he may have sat in a boat teaching, but the scene was anything but peaceful.

Lots of people in Galilee were gearing up for a war with Rome that they wanted sooner, rather than later.  War would be a desperate solution, but that’s how desperate their lives had become.

And Rome, for its part, had spies and soldiers all over the place to crush any budding opposition.  The very crowds that come to hear Jesus put him in danger of looking like he was starting an opposition movement.  Times were tense.  There were reasons to speak in cryptic parables.

Picturing Jesus in the boat as a peaceful scene is also  wrong because by the time “Matthew” wrote down this story in his gospel, many years later, there had indeed been a Jewish revolt.  It had been crushed by the Roman Empire.  The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the little community of Christians in Matthew’s church had no power or influence of any kind.

What did it mean to be a Jesus-follower after all of that? The Empire, was still in charge.  What had happened to Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God that was supposed to be like a sower sowing good seeds on good soil with an abundantly fruitful result?

So, for both the times of Jesus, who told the Parable of the Sower from the boat, and for the times of Matthew, who later wrote it down for the sake of his struggling community, this parable is for people in complex times.   For the people hearing this parable, times were hard.  Economically hard, politically polarized, and personally challenging.  In other words, this parable is for people in complex times, like ours.

So what was it saying to them?  What is it saying to us?Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 10.32.52 AM

The Big Picture: Fruitfulness

First, let us look at the big picture: it is about seeds that get scattered, take root and grow.  The hope and plan is that they become fruitful.   Even bountifully fruitful.  The purpose of a seed is to grow into a plant that produces abundance.

That is what you were made for: you were made to grow and be fruitful.  Jesus who tells this story was raised as a good Jewish boy who  heard the creation story read in the synagogue.  What did he learn?  It is a story of a good God who makes a good world and who blesses it from the outset saying, “be fruitful and multiply.”  The original plan, the original creation blessing is still in  effect.  God wants us to be fruitful.

It is simply tragic when that creation blessing of fruitfulness fails.  But it often does.  In this complex world, lots of things go wrong.  There really is evil – like the evil in the parable, pictured by the birds who do not even give the seed on the path a fighting chance.   Evil, like the greed of others, the systems that oppress people, violence, and the all evils we bring on ourselves, all have the capacity to be Round-Up on the creation blessing of fruitfulness.

Even when fruitfulness looks possible and starts well, things can still go wrong.    Thorns can grow up and choke the plants – “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” are the thorns Jesus is talking about.  In other words, a person has begun to define the fruitfulness that they are seeking differently than the original creation blessing of fruitfulness intended.Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 10.45.09 AM

The Harvest is for Others 

Look: here is the beauty of the whole metaphor of sowing.  Sowing good seed on good soil produces a crop of bounty. But consider this: the harvested wheat does no good simply for itself.  The harvest is there to become bread on the table.  The whole point of the seed’s fruitfulness is that it becomes nourishing for others.

This is what we were born for.  We are here to be fruitful for the sake of others; “blessed to be a blessing.”  We are here on this earth in order to be fruitful; in order to give back, to nourish, to be the bread, the life-force for others.

That’s why the thorns that choke the weeds are so tragic.  “The cares of the world and the lure of wealth” are only thorns to people who have tragically defined fruitfulness selfishly instead of communally.

The Message of the Kingdom: it’s Here

The seed is the message of the kingdom.   The message of the kingdom of God is that it is here, already, right now.  The Kingdom, Jesus said, is at hand; the kingdom is near.

The trouble is, it does not look like that could be true.  Look around – at the zealots, sharpening their swords or the Roman with theirs – it doesn’t look like the Kingdom of God has come.

Look at what Isis is doing in Iraq; look at the explosions in Palestine, look at the masses of minors at our borders; it does not look like the kingdom is here.  We are in no different situation in this respect than the people Jesus told this parable to or the people Matthew wrote it down for.  We all live in complex and difficult times.

The message is the same.  The good soil people are simply those who are willing to, as Jesus says, hear the word of the kingdom and understand it.  That’s all, and that makes all the difference.  The good soil people who produce the bumper crop of fruitfulness are the ones who do not let appearances deceive them.

They are the ones who say that in spite of the evil, in spite of the problems of these complex times, we will take the risk of living into the reality of the kingdom.  We will live, not for ourselves, but for others.  We will not circle the wagons and hunker down in to communities of fear and self-protection.Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 10.54.20 AM

Doing what Kingdom People Do

We will not simply hide behind walls that keep out others.  Rather we will live as though the kingdom has actually begun to unfold in front of us.  We will produce the fruit that can become food at the banquet.  This is what we were born for.  As St. Francis said, “for it is in giving that we receive.”

So we will be the ones who live fruitful lives for others.  We will spend the time and effort to nurture God’s gifts in children, such as we have done at the Fine Arts Camp this past week.  And we will be the ones who make sure all those children at the border are well-cared for.  We will be the ones whose prayers are for peace in Israel for the children on both sides of the wall.

And we will be the ones who care about every situation of suffering, knowing that God wills the fruitfulness of every child on this planet.  And we will push back against “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” so that our fruit is not choked off by despair, by apathy, nor by selfishness.

This is not the default path of the complex world.  We will have to be disciplined to live this way.  We will turn off the news when we have had enough.  We will daily set aside time to nurture our spiritual values by prayer and mediation, as Jesus did, so that we can look at the world and see God’s hand, even in the midst of the evil and suffering – and know that God has put us here as part of God’s  solution.

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The Jesus Invitation: Rest

Sermon for Pentecost +4 A, July 6, 2014,  on Matthew 11:28-30

Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The Jesus Invitation: RestScreen Shot 2014-07-05 at 9.36.14 AM

Friday was the 4th of July, which, for Americans, is our nation’s birthday. We saw an amazing fireworks display. But the best 4th of July I can remember was 1990.

We were living in Skokie, Illinois, near Chicago, where I was a youth pastor. The congregation I served had a long standing tradition of celebrating the 4th of July with a big picnic in the park, complete with softball, a water balloon toss, and the best hamburgers I have ever eaten.

But anyway, the reason why that picnic was so great in 1990 was that was the one I showed up at with the announcement that my first child, Benjamin, was born the night before. Ben’s birthday has always coincided with our country’s birthday, so it is a double celebration for us.

The 4th of July means a lot to that congregation in Skokie. The majority of them are ethnically Assyrian (not to be confused with Syrians). Many of their parents or grandparents came to this country as refugees.

I remember Miss Rose who had a needlepoint scene her mother had made, displayed in a frame on the wall. It showed a woman with a baby on her back running away from bullets. Miss Rose said that the woman was her mother, and she was the baby. Her parents were fleeing from the Assyrian genocide between 1914 and 1923 (same time as the Armenian genocide; and same Turks).

So, those Assyrians came to America literally to save their lives. They appreciate what this country means at a deep level. They celebrate the 4th of July with a special intensity.

When they came to America, many were poor, they could not speak the language; life was difficult. But to them, at least they could rest, knowing no one was shooting at them. They worked hard, as immigrant communities do in this country. They and their children learned our language, studied hard, and it paid off for them: most have “made it” in America. You can experience both rest from enemy attacks and the labor of hard work at the same time.

That is what the Israelites experienced in the early days according to the story we read in Joshua. They were at rest, because they had peace; no more fear of enemies, and they worked to build a new country.

You cannot rest as long as you are fighting. Rest requires peace.

Today, I want us to consider together a tragic truth and a possible way out. The tragic truth is that we humans seem to exhaust ourselves fighting all kinds of unnecessary and pointless battles against enemies of our own making. The possible way out is in Jesus’ invitation to come and find rest in him.

Perhaps we should begin by taking a personal inventory. Let us ask ourselves: what battles are we in right now? What or who are we fighting? Who are our enemies? How exhausted are we? And how badly do we need rest?Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 9.46.58 AM

Is God, the Enemy?

The deepest tragedy is to believe you are at war with God. There are people who think that God is not for them, but against them – at least potentially – ready to inflict pain and suffering as punishment. So, every rainy day, every frustrated purpose, every loss and grief, each illness and accident is, they believe, pay-back.

Friends, do not make an enemy out of God. God is not your enemy; we do not need to be saved from God, we are saved by God. If Jesus taught us anything at all he taught us to conceive of the mystery of God by the analogy of a loving Father.

God is not the impossible-to-please, perfectionist, control-freak father, and certainly not the abusive, violent anger-a-holic kind of father. God is rather the father who gives us this day our daily bread that we need to live on, and the father who forgives us our debts and our trespasses.

So, if you came here this morning with a heart exhausted by guilt or shame, thinking God was your enemy, hear the call: Jesus says, “Come to me” and find rest. Put down your defensive shield because no sword is swinging in your direction. God is here to welcome you into the family like a loving Father. You are his child. There is no war. Be at peace, and find rest.

Active Rest: Learning from Jesus

There are all kinds of battles which stop, all kinds of enemies which melt away like fog in sunshine when we respond to Jesus’ call. This is because the call to find rest is not passive, but active. Like the immigrant who finds rest from attack but who works hard in a land of opportunity, Jesus calls us to lay down the weapons and pick up the tools of discipleship.Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 9.48.58 AM

What tools? Jesus used an image all his listeners would know well: the image of the yoke. The large wooden device for keeping two oxen pulling the cart or the plow together. Like great wisdom teachers throughout history, Jesus found truth in paradoxes. Yokes are heavy. Very heavy. They must be, in order to be strong enough to convince oxen that they do not have a choice.

The yoke is a fitting image for people who are burdened; people who are exhausted; people who need rest. Jesus calls us to come to him as we are: in the condition of being “weary and are carrying heavy burdens” – maybe we can identify with that feeling .

The paradox is that Jesus has a yoke of his own, and yet he says, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” and with it comes “rest for your selves.” What could he mean?

The short answer is discipleship. A disciple is one who learns. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” Jesus says. So, this is quite active; learning is intentional, methodical, a daily discipline – and yet not burdensome.

If you have ever set out to learn something just for the sheer joy of learning, this makes great sense. Whether it is learning a new sport or how to play a musical instrument, or even a new knitting stitch or recipe – to learn can be a light labor of love, even when there is effort required. This is how I feel about learning new chords on the guitar, or new concepts from a challenging book.

And this is why the paradox works. Learning from Jesus has a predictable effect: lots of former enemies go away, lots of battles come to an end. Learning from Jesus, taking his yoke upon us, leaves us at rest.

The Basic Lessons of JesusScreen Shot 2014-07-05 at 9.51.09 AM

So, what do we learn from Jesus? What did he teach us? Let us begin at square one; the basics.

From Jesus we learn,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit”

- those who learn what it is to be poor in spirit know that the battles for prestige, for status, for power, for acclaim are only battles, as long as we keep fighting them. When we stop, they go away. When we learn to see ourselves as simply human, on the same level as all other humans, that is, as, poor in spirit, – the enemies vanish and we find rest.

From Jesus we learn,

“blessed are the meek”

- which means that we can stop fighting for control, fighting to have the last word, fighting to make sure that things go “my way.” So much exhausting anger, bitterness and resentment simply melts away for the meek; they are at rest from fighting pointless, self-made battles.

From Jesus we learn,

“blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice”

which means we stop fighting on the wrong side and for empty causes. When justice is our passion, the hunger and thirst we feel is for the good, the right, for the causes that promote human flourishing and bring down barriers of discrimination and oppression.

There is a satisfaction and a joy found in the quest for justice that the angry people who get all red-faced, yelling at the buses of immigrant children down in Arizona will never know.

From Jesus we learn,Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 9.24.01 AM

“blessed are the merciful,”

so the battle for retribution and vengeance can stop, and we can find rest.

We learn,

“blessed are the pure in heart”

so the battles that we fight with deceptions, lies, half-truths, denials and a host of tangled webs we have woven, can end, and we can find rest.

We learn,

“blessed are the peace makers”

- who know how to forgive, how to apologize, how to reconcile – and therefore how to be at rest.

We learn,

“blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness [or we could read it as] for doing the right thing”

- because there is honor in standing up for what is true, and honest, and beautiful, and good, even when there is a price to be paid as well.

Rest

All kinds of battles come to an end, all kinds of enemies vanish, and there is enormous rest to be found when we hear and respond to the call:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart

This is not an invitation to church once a week. It’s not even an invitation to church on Sunday plus bible study. This is an invitation to a learned lifestyle. This is an invitation to be a life-long learner in the school of Jesus. It is a call to be mindful of the Jesus-way every day, and every moment.

And with the invitation comes this promise: “and you will find rest for your souls.”

“Come,

…take,

…learn,

…rest”

 

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“You may feel a slight pinch”

Sermon for June 22, 1014, Pentecost +2 A, on Genesis 21:8-21 and Matthew 10:24-39

Genesis 21:8-21

Matthew 10:24-39
[Jesus said:]Bible Old for web
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

“You may feel a slight pinch”

I’ve never preached from either of these two texts. I have felt about both of them the way Barbara Brown Taylor did who says (about the Matthew text) that this is:

one of those passages I wish he had never written down.”  - “Learning to Hate Your Family,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering.

Jesus seems to not be himself here. The “prince of peace” speaks of his purpose of bringing a sword of division – even splitting apart families. Why would he say such a thing?

And the same can be said of my discomfort with our lectionary text from Genesis. Sarah comes off looking almost evil, and Abraham is passive at best; but the woman hitch hiker Dead Sea webtruth is that he is actually complicit. But like them or not, these texts are here, and must be here for a reason. Maybe even an important one. So, let’s start with Genesis and then finish up with Matthew.

Let’s be clear: if you allow yourself to mentally inhabit the story world of Genesis 21, you will see that Abraham and Sarah send Hagar out, with little Ishmael, into certain death. Ethically, it would be the same as driving your car across the desert in Arizona with a mother and child in the back, stopping in the middle of nowhere and kicking them out. Everyone knows what would happen. You could probably be prosecuted for murder for that.

Worse, God himself tells Abraham to listen to Sarah and do as she wanted, which makes God complicit in the double-murder plot as well. Except that God has the power to intervene, which he does, just in time. Anyway, it’s very upsetting.

Upsetting on Purpose

What do we make of texts like this? My conclusion is that these texts are meant to upset us. They get our attention. In fact, they sting – just like the nurse’s needle does, in flat contradiction to what she always says before she pokes you with it: “You may feel a slight pinch.” – A pinch indeed! There is a reason she comes prepared with a bandaid: she knows that it will hurt, and that there will be blood. Can we let the bible be that needle-wielding nurse for us here?

Our Jewish ancestors had to wrestle with complex issues. Who are we, as “God’s chosen people,” people of the Abrahamic promise, living in the context of neighbors who are born of foreign mothers? The question this story wrestles with is: Do we have obligations as well as rights vis a vis our neighbors?Nassar Palestinian - web

Rights and Obligations Together: Deal with it

It is fascinating to notice in the story, that the God of the promise – a promise which is beginning to be kept when Sarah gives birth to Isaac – affirms both the rights and the obligations of that chosen family. The God who intervened in the lives of old Abraham and barren Sarah to bring new life and fruitfulness also intervenes on the side of of the foreigners with mercy. God will not let the murder-plot stand.

In this story, God hears the cry of the suffering – even the suffering foreigner, and her son, and saves them. He goes beyond saving them. He provides for their future as well. God’s purpose to bless the whole earth is, as it turns out, not exclusive to the “chosen.” Ishmaelites are included. Is there a lesson in this?

This story may be a painful pin-prick, like the nurse’s needle, if it is allowed to speak.  Perhaps it should inform Israel’s ethical thinking about their Palestinian neighbors today. Rights and obligations go together, this story says.  And, God is watching, and God hears the cries of the suffering foreigners. Right now, what Israel is doing to Palestinians, demolishing vineyards, orchards, and family homes (with bulldozers they buy from us) so that they can seize land that they have no justified claim to, is causing great suffering.

The Orthodox, in Israel, who have such a public commitment to the study of Torah, might well turn to this passage about God’s intervention on behalf of foreign Hagar and Ishmael, and be ready to feel the sting of the needle and have bandaids ready.unaccompanied hispanic girl - web

Our Neighbors’ Children

But perhaps we Americans should also be rolling up a sleeve and letting the nurse approach us with the same syringe. We have our own issues with foreign neighbors. Does it sting to believe that we have not only our rights to consider, as legal citizens, but also obligations to fellow humans as well? It might.
Right now, news reports tell us:

“more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the southernmost border of the U.S. this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency estimates that number will grow to 90,000 by the end of September.”

(source – Hannah Fraser-Chanpong, 3 CBS NEWS, June 6, 2014 online)

As a parent, I cannot imagine living in conditions so horrible that I would have sent my young sons away to risk what these children risk to get here. But conditions really are that bad, that dangerous, that hopeless in places like El Salvador and Honduras. Horrific drug-gang violence, on top of the normal endlessly crushing poverty, push the parents to this kind of desperation.

What is our response?  It will not do, to simply to reply with conversations about constitutions and laws where human suffering is at stake.  Let’s let this sink in: so far, this year there are already over 47,000 little Ishmael’s at our doorstep, without so much as a Hagar to help them, and they are crying out to, and being heard by the God of Abraham.  Ouch.

For people of faith in the God of Abraham, immigration and border control issues are not simply issue of law and order. They involve real humans, and so include moral demands on us. I am fully aware that there are powerful people who want to turn this humanitarian crisis into a political football. Let’s be clear; we are talking about children.

Matthew’s “pinch”

So what about the other painful text we read, from Matthew? The one about Jesus breaking up families, bringing swords, and calling us to denial and crosses? Again, I think this upsetting text is meant as a wake-up call.

Of course there is exaggeration for effect here, but there is also a reason to use it. The issues are serious. I think that Richard Swanson got it right, saying:

“Just for the moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card.”

He argues that this text is meant to provoke us.

Why would Jesus say such things? This text is set in the context of Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom, and sending out his disciples to conduct the mission of kingdom-announcement in his name. His entire mission has a motive: it is compassion-based. At the start of it, Jesus noticed that the people were suffering: like “sheep without a shepherd.” His mission and the mission he sends the disciples on is a response of compassion.

But Jesus is not embarrassed about the fact that the call of the kingdom will make trouble. It always has made trouble, where the kingdom has been taken seriously, and it always will – even in families.  It is simply what happens when the message of the kingdom bumps up against vested interests.

Yes, we know

It is still true.  We Americans have experienced this. In our country, families were split apart during the Civil War over the issue of the abolition of slavery. Families were split in the Civil Rights movement too. The kingdom of God does not come without costs. The costs are often far more painful than the slight pinch of the nurse’s needle; and the quantity of blood that gets spilled is beyond bandaid-level management.

Try to stand with minorities or oppressed communities, or oppressive policies today and watch what happens.  Jesus, in Matthew’s telling of it, makes the point that his followers who take the Kingdom seriously should not expect to fare any better than their master, Jesus himself did. There was a lot of blood on the floor before it was over. Standing with the little people against the powers of empire entails crucifixions.Amish shooting grief - web

Not Greeting Card Faith

So let us draw back from the immediate verses and put them in a broader context. A life of faith, the kind of faith that Jesus practiced, did not mean a life without enemies; it meant an alternative response to enemies, namely, forgiveness. The enemies of kingdom values are real and can do damage up to and including spilling blood. The idea that forgiveness can be announced in this context is astounding. There is nothing greeting-card-ish about it.

The cycle of victimization, scapegoating and retaliation only stops when kingdom people do what Jesus did: absorb the impact and choose not to respond in kind.

It is true that retaliation feels good – it feels powerful, it feels self-righteous. It almost feels necessary. But is it right?

I recently spoke with a person who was in a traffic accident, caused by another, who sped off afterwards. The man said that it was a good thing he was not in a position to go catch the person who caused it, or else he would have “done something for which he might be in jail for today.”

In other words, revenge. I think he expected me to agree with him.

Well, I agree that the harm he suffered was real, and that the one who caused it should be held accountable.  That would be justice. But his quest went way beyond justice. He wanted vengeance.

Of course he did. This is how our primitive brains are wired: to bite back, to have the last sharp word, to return blow for blow, pain for pain.

It may not fell instinctive for us to do anything besides striking back.  In fact, it can feel as painful as taking up a cross to deny ourselves the vengeance we feel so entitled to, but to such a mission of forgiveness of enemies we are called.

Forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Take that away, and perhaps you have a Hallmark card faith, but it has no power to transform us or the world.

This can be personal. Consider how many families that have been split apart could be healed if we were the first to lay down the sword and absorb the pain, and offer forgiveness? Is not this what it means to lose your life in order to find it?

Complex Decisions

What have we learned?  These difficult and painful texts compel us to make complex decisions. On the one had, there are times which call for us to stand up for the Kingdom’s values even at the expense of divisions – even family divisions.

On the other hand, we do not relish conflict.  When our enemies come after us, we do not play their game; we do not fight evil with evil. We do not believe the self-serving lie that “two wrongs make a right.” We, followers of Jesus, forgive wrongs done to us, has he taught us, and we keep pressing the case for justice and mercy.reconciliation - web

A God-thing

We do this is because we have hope. We believe in the God of both Abraham and Sarah and the God of Hagar and Ishmael. We believe in the God who sees and the God who hears. We believe in the God Jesus believed in, and we trust him because we have been transformed by the message of the kingdom he proclaimed.

Ultimately having faith means understanding that it is not about me. It is about something much bigger. It is about living into God’s dream for the world. I can be a part of it if I am willing to answer the kingdom’s call.

And when I do, I will understand what is behind it, driving it, and motivating all of it: simply real love. The Love of a Father in Heaven who hears, and cares, and calls us to love with his kind of love – the love strong enough to deny oneself, to bleed, even on a cross.

The God who loved Abraham and Sarah and promised them a son, and who also loved the foreigner Hagar and her little son is the God who loves me and us also loves all the children of the world. How we work that out in practice is complex, but in the end, we understand that God is on the side of the suffering ones, and we accept the price it may require to stand with them.

 

 

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The Icon and the Bubble that Matters

Sermon Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014, Genesis 1:1–2:4a

Genesis 1 (excerpt)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

…Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

…Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.39.13 PM

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

The Icon and the Bubble that Matters

This Trinity Sunday is also father’s day here in America.  I am blessed to be among those who was raised by a great father who loves and provided for his family.  One of my favorite memories I have of my father from childhood was of climbing Mt. Garfield with him in my mother’s home state of Colorado.

Mt. Garfield is in the Rocky Mountains.  It juts out of a long rock face wall they call the book cliffs.  There are still donkey trails leading to old abandoned coal mines that make the climb possible for inexperienced young climbers like me.

There were some scary parts, but with my father’s strong hand and relaxed confidence, we would get to the summit safely. From there, we could look out over the vast Colorado plane, all divided into square farm fields by little narrow roads.

Vastness, like the view from a mountain, or of the ocean from the shoreline, or of the night sky, makes us feel small.  Even more so now, for us, who, in this generation, having seen how the earth looks from space: like a little blue ball in an ocean of blackness.Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.41.05 PM

Vastness and Presence

I used to listen to Joni Mitchell who captured this feeling in her song “Refuge of the Roads.”

In a highway service station,
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all.”

We feel something more profound than merely overwhelmed and small next to the vastness of nature; we also feel an odd and uncanny presence.

Another one of my old favorite singer songwriters, Joe Walsh said:

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the sky
As if someone is watching,
Someone hears every word.”  – “Song For Emma” by Joe Walsh

That is not far from the feeling of the Psalmist who, several thousand years before had felt both small and that there was a present “you” to address his creation psalm to; a “you” that even cared for him, in spite of his smallness:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
”  (Psalm 8)

Terrible Nature

It is fine to think about how awesome the world looks, on a clear day from a mountain summit, or on a starry night, by the sea shore, but the natural world can  also be a frightening place.  Here on the Alabama Gulf Coast, we are not strangers to loud thunderstorms that send our pets cowering under the furniture – let alone tornadoes and hurricanes that leave massive destruction in their wakes.  Nature can be literally terrible and terrifying.

Perhaps experiencing nature as vastly beautiful, and terrifying, and somehow watching and present made ancient people wonder how it could be all of those things at once.  The important question was always: whatever is going on up there and down here, how does it affect me?  What is my place in this world?Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.43.09 PM

Stories of Origins

There are many stories that explain it. One such story, that exists in many versions is this:

William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way down!”

— from Wilson, R.A. (1983, 1997) Prometheus Rising. Phoenix, AZ: New Falcon Publishers, 1983.

Humans have always told stories about how the world was made, where it came from, and how it all fits together.  They call these kinds of stories “cosmogonies.” We tell stories because that is how we come to understand our place in the world.

We just read our first creation story from Genesis.  It clearly describes the world as a bubble in between waters above and waters beneath.  Our biblical story shares many features in common with other iron-age cosmogonies, like sacred trees in special gardens, fruit with either dangerous or miraculous powers, and of course, devious talking snakes.  Our story also tells of the origins of the first humans, as others do as well.

Stories are the way ancient way people explained the world and our place in it, and for that reason are profound in their implications.Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.33.56 PM

The Babylonian Story

The Babylonians told a story of how the gods who lived “on high” got into a huge conflict.  Marduk, the hero of the story, killed another god, Tiamat, by driving a huge wind into her, filling her belly, then piercing it with a spear, like popping a balloon with a pin.  Having nothing better to do with the fragments of her body, the gods decide to make humans.  Humans’ could then make life easier for the hungry gods by supplying them with their daily food through sacrificial offerings.

So, if this is your story, what do you understand?  That humans are after thoughts; the products of violence.  They are servants of the brutal gods, whom they must constantly supply.

The Israelite’s Alternative Story

In this ancient context, the biblical writers told another story – a radically alternative story.  It does not begin with violence nor even with competition, but with one God who has no rivals.  This single God forms a good physical world, methodically and artfully, creating spaces and populating them.

He makes the bubble from the chaotic primordial waters, and then separates the  sky from the water, and the water from the land inside it.  He fills the water with fish and the sky with birds.  Above them in the heavens he hangs lights to mark out days and nights, seasons and years.  It is all good, we keep hearing repeatedly, as if to reinforce the difference between the world of this Israelite story and the Babylonian’s bloody battlefield.

When the good world is made, the bible tells of God’s intentional decision to make his crowning achievement: human beings.  He makes them, we are told, in his own image or “icon.”  Just as an ancient king would set up statures of himself in his kingdom to proclaim his authority, so every human, male and female, are walking icons of this good God, celebrating his creative genius by our very existence.

It would be silly, if not tragic, (and wildly anachronistic) to read iron-age cosmogonies as scientific descriptions of origins.  They are not that.  But what they are, are deep theological reflections on the nature of the world and of our place in it.Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.51.36 PM

Icons of God

Genesis tells us that every person on this planet is an icon of God.  There is no one who is not worthy of dignity and respect.  This is our essence.  It is not an achievement.  Icons of God are what we are in our beings.

It has nothing to do with how rich or poor we are, how clever or strong we are, how beautiful or skilled we are.  This essential sanctity of every breathing human does not have its origin in a constitution or a bill of rights, and cannot be negated for lack of either.  It is not the entitlement of one or two what we communally call “races” or “ethnicities” and not to others.  All of us are made in God’s image: icons of our Creator.

Responsible Stewards

As icons of God, we share with God the capacity to be responsible stewards.  The ancients looked around and saw that humans, unlike other animals, could domesticate wild beasts.  We had learned plant farming and fishing.  We had enormous abilities for exerting our will over plants and animals.

Therefore, understanding that God created this world and blessed it with fruitfulness, and that God put us in charge, we are responsible for its care.  Our job is to be managers that have the same goal and perspective as the owner – the flourishing of the good earth God made.

The First Words: Blessing

And we are supposed to hear the first words spoken by God, in our story, and take them to heart.  “Be fruitful” God said.  This is a blessing.  The first words God says to the humans he made in his image is a word of blessing, full of hope and promise.

So our story is about as opposite the Babylonian story as it could be in every meaningful way.  Our story tells us that we humans are part of a good world, made by a single, free and unchallenged God.  The good physical world is a blessed world, and we humans are blessed by its fruitfulness.

The vastness of it all may make us feel small and insignificant, but each one of us has incredible value: we bear the image of our Creator in our DNA.  We are here for a purpose.

The thunder and wind may make us feel threatened, but we need not fear.  God is good, not evil.  God is for us, not against us.  God has supplied our needs and is now at rest, not hungrily waiting for us to supply his needs.  We have the responsibility of stewardship, not the burden of slavery.

There is a reason we feel awe and wonder; a reason we feel a personal presence when we look up.  This is God’s world; we are God’s people.  We are not alone.

Our Story, and What to Do About It Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.55.25 PM

Personally, this makes us want to worship; to say “thank you.”  To feel loved and protected.  This life, here and now, is an amazing precious gift that we are alive to experience!

And the implications are huge.  They are both personal and public.  Every relationship with another human is a relationship with a person of worth and dignity.  There is no excuse for attempts at domination or abuse, whether physically nor even verbally or psychologically, whether in our personal relationships, nor publicly in our economic or political relationships.

Creation theology such as our story teaches makes it absurd to countenance the thought of starving cats, or making dogs fight, let alone subjecting fellow icons of God to torture.  Every human life is to be respected and protected from harm.

Creation theology makes human suffering of all kinds all of our urgent concern.  Hunger of any of us is unacceptable.  Refugees everywhere are our problem.  Victims of any kind of violence or abuse are our responsibility.  Homelessness, especially in our abundant nation, is our shame.

And this planet is not ours to spoil, but to protect.  Pollution is a theological problem.  God did not put us here in this fruitful garden in order to turn it into a toxic wast dump.  So therefore, wasting resources, endangering life forms, and even wildly risky activities are unacceptable.  There is one planet that sustains us: there is no second chance.

Live as Intended

But what a planet it is!  We are given one span of years to live this life.  Let us live them as intended.  Let us wake up to awe and wonder – this is an amazing world to live in.

Let us cultivate our own unique and complex capacities for appreciating beauty in all of its forms – music, the arts, dance and drama.  Let us stay in touch with each moment, taking time to breathe deeply and stay present to the present.

And then let us renew our zeal to fulfill our roles as wise stewards, protectors of human life and dignity, and protectors of the eco-systems we and our grandchildren depend on for life and health.

Let our words echo the Psalmist who was overwhelmed by the goodness of creation, saying,

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

 

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