Living the Blessing Trajectory

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2012

Gen. 1:26-31

26 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.” 

27 So God created humankind in his image,

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in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them. 

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.  31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Gal. 3:6-9, 13-14

6 Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,”  7 so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.  8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.”  9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—  14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

One of my Facebook friends posted a picture of a glass of water, half full, or half empty, depending on your perspective.  There was some writing on the

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photo too.  To the side of the glass of water someone one had written a bracket indicating the water, with the comment “half water” and another bracket indicating the empty part with the comment “half air,” and the concluding comment: technically, the glass is  always full.

When it comes to reading the bible, the problem is that some people read it and see only wrath and anger, blood and violence, curses and punishment, while others read it and see love and mercy, forgiveness and restoration, justice and blessing.

The truth is that there is plenty of both; technically the glass is always full.  But the problem still remains that many are so put-off by the ugliness of the one that they are simply unable to find joy in the other.  A few flowers don’t make a garbage dump a lovely smelling, pretty place.

I want to offer a way to see the Old Testament in a new light so that we can indeed find joy in its message, while acknowledging that a difficult dark side remains.

Imagining the real world setting

I want us to start thinking about this issue in this way.  Suppose there was no Old Testament.  Look around at the world.  Watch the TV news.  The world out there looks a lot like the Old Testament: full of wars, famine, disease, oppression, slavery, poverty and injustice of all sorts.

It’s not hard to imagine a Jewish person in ancient times looking around and wondering: how does God think of this?  Surely he loves this world he made – in the same way Stradivarius must have loved the violins he so carefully crafted.  And surely God must love the people he fashioned in his own image as much as mother loves the baby she brought into the world.

And yet God must be appalled at what humans do on this precious earth – they way they cause so much suffering and harm, division and degradation.  He must hate evil and all its destructive effects.

So I imagine this ancient Jewish person writing a story.  He plans his story to have two creation moments.   Actually the first is the real creation, the second is the re-creation.  He plans it this way because, it appears to him that if God wants a good world with good people he has really only two options for starting points.

Two Possible Stories: Plans A and B

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God can start from scratch, from the beginning, and make a perfect world with people who have never seen nor known anything about evil.  Or God can take a world full of evil people behaving badly, find one family of good guys, wipe out all the rest and start over  with people who have learned the lesson.

The first creation story begins in Genesis one; Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  The second creation, or rather, the re-creation story starts in Genesis six.  We think of it as the flood story, but the writer thought of it as a do-over; a second round in the same project: the alternative way to try to have a good world with good people.

We know that’s how the writer thought of it because he (back then they didn’t let the girls go to school – so the writer was almost certainly a man – another aspect of that ancient world that we are glad is different today) intentionally repeated the crucial details that show what God was up to.  Listen to these two verses:

First, about Adam and Eve, Gen. 1:28 “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it

Second, after the flood, Gen. 9:1 “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.

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God’s intention was to bless.  He blessed the first couple who knew no evil in plan A.  And he blessed the good family of Noah after the re-start, that is, after the flood   killed all the bad guys in plan B.  The same language of blessing is used, “be fruitful.”  Today, we would speak of blessing in terms of “human flourishing” or “eudaemonia.”

But both attempts ended up with the exact same result: a world full of people behaving badly in every possible way.

What now?

So what then is the rest of the story?  God could simply abandon the world to its fate – but how could Stradivarius leave a violin to rot in the rain?  How could a mother forsake her nursing child?

What then?  If he doesn’t walk away, does he stay around simply to punish?  Or is there something else keeping this story going?  Could it be that God’s original desire to bless has never stopped?  Could it be that his original will to provide for human fruitfulness is still his aim?

Reasserting Blessing, in spite of it all

Yes!  Over and over we hear God re-asserting his aim of blessing the people he made in his own image, even in spite of their evilness.  He does hate the evil – like a husband, whose wife is unfaithful, he is full of pain at every case of our betrayal and infidelity – this is how the prophet Hosea tells the story – but God’s intense love and wish to bless never diminishes.

So it is that after Adam and Eve sin and feel shame God intervenes, providing clothing for them.  After Cain is guilty of killing his own brother, Abel, God marks him so that he will not be killed by others.

Blessing Plan C

After the vain attempt to build a tower to God, God takes one family – not because they are the good guys, as in Noah’s case, and not along with a plan to destroy everybody else.  Rather, this time, he take one family, Abraham and Sarah, and decides on plan C.  A third attempt to bring blessing to the world.  How? Listen again:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Gen. 12:1-3

God’s plan is to bring blessing to all the families of the earth through this family.  They are blessed in order to be a blessing that will spread to “all the families of the earth.”

If we had time we could look at the way this blessing is repeated again and again for each generation.  God blesses Isaac (and Ishmael too) and Jacob.  God blesses Jacob’s youngest son Joseph.

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God used that evil for good.  Joseph is able to bring the clan to Egypt where it says (listen to the blessing language again) they not only survived the famine:

“the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” Exodus 1:7

Years go by, and a later Pharaoh enslaves the people, but God redeems them  through Moses and leads them across the Red Sea to Mt. Sinai (also called

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Horeb) where he gives them his instructions, his guidance, his Torah (which in English – unfortunately, we translate it “law”).

This “law” tells them how to organize their community so that it can be a blessed, fruitful, flourishing covenanted community.  Listen to the blessing language in the instructions given to the priests:

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, 

24 The LORD bless you and keep you; 

25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 

26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. 

27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” Num. 6:22-27

How does it go?  Well plan C looks as doomed as plans A and B were.  The blessed people of Israel never get it right.  They go from bad to worse and end up being destroyed.

But God’s will to bless his people is not thwarted by the Babylonians even if they did burn down the temple and force the surviving Judeans into exile.

Jesus: Definitive Plan D

This is exactly why Jesus came.   This is what he said,

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 

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That is exactly how Paul summed up Jesus’ mission:

8 “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.”  9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. 

 13 Christ redeemed us…  14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

The blessing of Abraham is still God’s intention, and that blessing comes to us Gentiles not through the blood lines of Abraham, but by the trust-lines of Abraham.  The blessing that God never stopped willing for his people comes to us through Messiah, translated as Christ: through Jesus.

And that is why, when Jesus was teaching us God’s will for his people, he said,

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  – Matthew 5

Look around; the world today that you see on the news still looks like the world of the Old Testament.  But God’s will is to bless the good earth that he made and the people he made in his image to live on it.

Yes there is evil, and yes God hates what it does to people.  But he has acted with the ultimate plan.  I guess we could call it plan D for for Definitive.  Jesus is God’s definitive means to bless his people.

Through Jesus we come to know and understand God’s love for each of us, individually.  Though Jesus we come to experience God’s redemption and forgiveness of our evil.  And through Jesus we come to understand God’s way of bringing the blessing he intends to “all the families of the earth” as he promised to Abraham.

How?  We are that means.  We are the instruments by which God’s blessing is accomplished.  We are the conduits his blessing to the world flows through.  We are the ones who, like Abraham, have been blessed – not so that the blessing stops with us, but  we are blessed in order to be a blessing.

We are in mission to continue Christ’s mission.  Just as Jesus was sent from the Father, so we too are sent into an Old-Testament-ish kind of world as bearers and transmitters of the blessing.

Hope?

Do we have a hope that this time the plan will work?  Yes.  Jesus is the definitive plan that was put in motion at just the right time.

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All over the world, the church has built hospitals and clinics.  The church has brought literacy and education to millions.  The church has fed the hungry, responded with help after disasters, helped restore addicted people, abused people, grieving people, damaged people, and given all of them hope in the Living God.

Listen to how the story ends, according to John’s vision of that day in the book of Revelation.  Listen for language of fruitfulness and flourishing, in other words blessing language, and notice how far the blessing is extended:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Rev. 22:1-2

The bible begins with the tree of life in the garden of Eden and ends with the tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations – the whole world.  It begins with blessing and ends with blessing.

Yes, the bible contains a lot of violence and gore.  But that is the back story.  The main plot is God’s uncanny will to bless the good world that he made and the people he created to live in it.  That’s us.  Blessed, to be a blessing.

“With-ness, Goodness, and Compassion: The Words of the Revolution

Sermon for 20th Ordinary, Pentecost +12 lectionary year B, August 19, 2012

Deuteronomy 4:5-8  

5 See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy.  6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!”  7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?  8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

John 1:1-5, 14   

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2 He was in the beginning with God.  3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

14   And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of 

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

grace and truth

“With-ness, Goodness, and Compassion: The Words of the Revolution”

Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; that was the three word slogan of the French Revolution, and many revolutions since that time.

I think there are three words that sum up a far greater revolution (though I’m not sure one of them is a real word): “With-ness, Goodness, and Compassion”.  (Is “with-ness” a word?).

With-ness

You have heard me say that the most important word in the bible, more important than the word love, is the word “with.”  One of the biggest ideas in the bible is that God seeks to be with his people, with us.  Of course love is the reason, but “with” is how “love” looks in action.  This is what we are going to be seeing over and over as we read the bible in 90 days.  From the creation of the world, in Genesis, to the end of time in Revelation, God’s purpose to be with his people is a hugely thematic goal.

It’s also a huge problem to solve.  God created a perfect world and topped it off with humans, made in his own image.  As the story tells it,

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God meets the original pair of humans in the garden at the time of the evening breeze; God is present with them. Everything is as it should be.  But once they assert their autonomy and reject God’s will, they are no longer fit to stay in his presence.  They cannot be with God directly any more.  They must leave his presence; they must leave the garden.

Goodness

Why?  This brings up the second revolutionary word: Goodness.  God is good.   Most of the gods of the pagan world were not good and did not care about goodness. If you think it’s odd to say that, it’s because you are living after the revolution.  The gods of the pagan world, sun gods, storm gods, fertility gods, never cared about human goodness.  According to pagan religions, these gods did not care who you lied to, stole from, slept with or even killed.  They didn’t care if you helped the poor or watched out for orphans and widows.

What the pagan gods wanted was that you feed them.  They mainly liked meat, prepared in exactly one way: burned up.  When you put the

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meat on the sacrificial altar and burn it, you turn it into smoke.  The smoke goes up, the gods take a deep breath and ingest your offering.  Then they are nice to you, for a while, until they get hungry again, and so it goes.  In the pagan world, they did not care about your goodness, as long as they were fed.  (I’m being slightly facetious, but only slightly).

Israel’s God, named YHWH, translated in our English bibles as “the Lord,” is radically different.  Israel’s God both is  good, and cares that humans be good.

This one word, goodness, changes the entire religious landscape.  Now, for the first time, the whole religious project has shifted.  Now God cares deeply how we live.  Our behavior is not just a matter of concern between ourselves (I don’t want you to hit me), it has ascended to the level of a divine concern (God doesn’t want you to hit me, or the reverse).   So now, it matters to God who we lie to, steal from, sleep with or kill.  In fact, it’s not a slight concern, it is at the heart of God’s will whether or not we care for the poor, the orphans and widows.

This was the massive revolution that Moses proclaimed.  Unlike all the other pagan gods, the Lord is best loved, not just by the religious ritual of sacrifice, but the Lord is Loved when his people are good; which of course includes being good to each other.  For the first time, morality is a religious issue.

From now on, sacrifices are not meal-bribes to get a hungry God on your side.  Rather, sacrifices are gifts that honor God.  Notice, in the story, how God responds to Noah’s sacrifice after the flood subsides: it is a pleasant aroma to him – he is duly honored.

But this is the heart of the “with” problem.  Humans are not good.  Humans, when given a choice, do just what the story of Adam and Eve predicts: we assert our own autonomy.  We think that we know better than God about how to get our needs met, and so we reach for the forbidden fruit and take a nice bite.  We humans in fact do lie, cheat, steal, kill and commit adultery.  We duck out of our responsibilities to the poor, the orphans and the widows.  We are not good.  How can God be with us as he wants to be when we are like this?

Purity

This brings up the critical issue of purity.  In the ancient world, people had a deep sense that being in the presence of a god was

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dangerous.  Gods were powerful in ways that made humans tremble in awe.  So, temples were typically designed concentrically, to have rooms inside of rooms.  In the center was the statue or shrine of the god.  Only the high priest could go into that room, and only on special days and only after elaborate preparations.  Those preparations ordinarily included special clothing worn after ritual bathing and sacrifices.  The inner sanctum was a holy space that required holiness to ward off its danger.  Clearly Israel embraced these concepts.

How could a person who is not good and a holy God co-exist under these circumstances?  The solution which the Old Testament presents is an elaborate system that structures all of the life of people, as individuals and as a community, in such a way as to promote purity and to remove impurity.  Purity was a core value.

So every meal a person ate had to be Kosher.  Everything edible in the world was divided up into pure and impure categories.  People too, could be pure or impure (non-Jews were automatically impure).  Touching anything related to death like corpses and carcasses made a person impure.  Even bodily fluids related to reproduction were included, since the loss of them implied the loss of life-force; closeness to death.  Elaborate rituals were necessary to

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remove impurity, including ritual washing and a complex system of sacrificial offerings.

Purity is about Access

Purity is all about access to God.  We are back to the word “with.”  How can people who are unholy be with a holy God?  Only by elaborate methods to deal with the problem of impurity.   And if God is good, then moral concerns are important here too.  It’s a sin to break the sabbath or touch a dead dog, and it is also a sin to lie, cheat and steal, and it all creates impurity which requires ritual sacrifice to undo.

This is where the revolution comes to a climax.  Hints at a developing revolution can be seen within the Old Testament, especially in the prophets.  A trajectory was forming in which the concept of purity begins to focus on moral behavior, rather than ritual preparations and solutions.

Micah famously asks the question,

“With what shall I come before the LORD,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old? 

The answer should be “yes of course.  These are exactly what impure people need to bring as offerings if they want access to God – to be with God who is good and who demands goodness and purity of them.”  But Micah reflects on this issue deeply and considers the ritual sacrifices insufficient.  Even if they were offered in exaggerated quantities they would not solve the problem at its root.  He continues,

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 

No, he is saying, not even the ultimate ritual of human sacrifice would not be enough to solve the problem.  A good God requires a life of moral goodness of his people, that includes all aspects of their lives.

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love mercy,

and to walk humbly with your God?

This prophetic counter-point to the ritual actions of the temple, reflected a deeper concept of purity, summed up by justice, mercy and humility.  What was it that made people impure, Micah asks?

Was it not the lack of moral goodness which bears the bitter fruit of injustice in the community?

Is it not the merciless exclusion of human beings whom God has made in his image?

Is it not the arrogant me-ism, the selfish neglect of the weak and vulnerable?

Micah saw that compassion was a deeper core value than purity.  Rather than bringing another ritual sacrifice, instead, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

What we see here in Micah is not a repudiation of the ritual conducted at the temple, but an understanding of its meaning at a far deeper level.

Following the Trajectory to Jesus

Trajectory

This is exactly the same trajectory that the Lord Jesus himself followed.  Jesus finally brought the whole program of purity as a core value and world-organizing principle to a grinding halt.  For Jesus, purity, as the means by which a person is able to be with God is finally replaced by compassion.

Following Micah’s trajectory to its end, Jesus said:

“There is nothing outside a person which by going in can defile; but the things which come out of a person are what defile” (Mark 7:15)   [things that “come out” here was specifically referring to words that come out, revealing what is really going on in the heart of the person]

Who gets to “come before the Lord?”  Who gets to be with God?  Isn’t purity, which has been so important for so long valid anymore?  Yes, Jesus says, but now it is not external ritual purity, but rather:

  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matt. 5:8)

This is the final revolution. Compassion replaces purity as a core value; compassion becomes the organizing principle for life.

God wants desperately to be with his people.  He made us.  He loves us.  And he wants to be our God and we to be his people. This is desire is what the 23rd Psalm is all about, and this is also why God makes covenants with his people.  God is morally good,  unlike the gods of the pagan world.  And because we humans are not good, there is a problem about being with God.

The solution that the Old Testament worked out was the purity solution.  Even so, the prophets (at least) knew that the real issues were deeper.  Following the prophetic trajectory, Jesus finally breaks through the fog, proclaiming compassion as the means by which we are able to find access to God’s presence.  He famously summed up the whole law and all of its purity regulations saying:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  38 This is the

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greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40)

We, who will be reading the bible in 90 days, will have front row seats for this amazing revolutionary drama of with-ness, goodness, and finally compassion.

But all of us can rejoice that Jesus has come and has shown us so clearly how God’s ultimate purpose of being with the people he made can be fulfilled.

Now we, as people whom Jesus has redeemed, are charged with the mandate of being instruments God’s compassion: in our homes, in our community, and especially to people who are weak, vulnerable, and suffering.

Spiritual Nutrition

Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, 19th Ordinary, B, August 12, 2012

 John 6:35, 41-51

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were

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saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Spiritual Nutrition

Scientists tell us that if we eat food which contains just the right combination of salt, fat, and sugar, we will enjoy it, and never feel satiated.  We will always want more.  Many junk foods contain just that combination.  Once we start eating them, it’s hard to stop.

But of course if there is little or no nutritional value in that junk food: eating more does not help us at all. Sometimes, after eating junk food, we sense a craving for other food; healthy food; food with real nutritional value, like protein.

Here for Spirit-food

One of the reasons we are here today, one of the reasons we get up and get out of the house on Sunday morning to gather together for worship is a sense of spiritual hunger.  We all feel it.   Watching the Olympics is great, going out to eat is nice, recreation is wonderful, but still we have a hunger for food that fills the spirit.

We feel this hunger for spiritual-nutrition both in the broad sense, of needing beautiful music, beautiful places and shared ritual, which we find here, and in the more narrow sense of Spirituality: connection with God, whom we worship, as Jesus said, “in spirit and in truth.”

The text we read from the Gospel of John is all about the subject of spiritual nutrition.  Where do we get the bread that satisfies that hunger in our spirits?

Reading the Bible in 90 Days

We are about to embark on the journey of reading the entire bible in 90 days.  We believe this project, though not an easy one, will be spiritually nutritious for us.  This is a perfect time to think about spiritual nutrition.  We all want to have healthy spirits, not diseased ones.  We want to be spiritually deep, not shallow; enriched, not impoverished in our deepest souls, so this is an important topic to all of us.

Some of us are going to start reading the bible with the expectation that we will feel blessed right away, but we will, early on, get frustrated with what we are reading.  We will read about the creation of the world which is wonderful, but almost as soon as humans appear, things start going downhill.  Humans bring into the story pride, envy, anger, deception, fratricide, and vengeance within the first few chapters.

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Besides the ugly violent parts, we will read long, boring parts that detail lists of ancestors and unfamiliar place-names that don’t seem relevant.  There are some good stories about recognizable characters like: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and his two wives Lea and Rachel, but it’s not all straightforwardly blessing-giving material.  The Abraham and Sarah story is complicated by Hagar and Ishmael, the family dynamics issues that lead to expulsion.

There’s the issue of seemingly repeated stories – “she’s not my wife, she’s my sister” – in succeeding generations that strikes us as odd.  There is the issue of marital arrangements – this is hardly the place to go to prove that “the biblical marriage” is about “one man an one woman.”  There is polygamy and the use of baby-making concubines.  The 12 tribes, that came from Joseph’s 12 sons, took four women to produce, only two of whom were wives in the full sense.

Spiritually Nourishing?

In what sense is any of this spiritually nourishing?  I predict that many of us are going to be asking that question repeatedly as we read the whole bible.  We certainly do not have a book of great examples to imitate – even the main characters do things we find inappropriate.

Bible story books made for children often make these characters out to be models for imitation, but they are only able to achieve that result by cutting out many paragraphs along the way.

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And that brings us to a crucially important point.  The bible is not a children’s story book.  It is an adult book, written by adult writers for adult readers.  When we read about people lying, cheating, deceiving and being vengeful, we are meant to be alarmed, even horrified, even without a narrator jumping into the story and saying, “and he should not have done that!”  Adults are meant to get it.

Adults Should “get it”

A huge portion of the Old Testament tells one long story about the history of the people who descended from Abraham, became slaves in Egypt, and eventually became the nation of Israel.  Much of that story is told with bitter irony, sometimes even sarcasm.   We adult readers are meant to get that.

For example, Solomon, we read,  “loved the Lord with all his heart, like his father David had done,” only he sacrificed at the “high places” and built shrines for all of the pagan gods of his 300 wives.  Only children would miss the bitter irony of that description of his supposed “love for the Lord.”

Another example: King Ahab’s wife Jezebel helped him to expropriated the ancestral inheritance of  poor Naboth.  If this story was read by an Israelite who was raised with the values and standards of the Torah, the law of Moses in mind, she would be outraged and horrified by what happened, even if Naboth had survived.

The Key 

In what sense is any of this spiritually nourishing?  There are many things that could be said here, but the one, single most important idea to keep in mind as you read the Old Testament is that this is the story of the problem that leads us to Jesus as the solution.  And it

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only makes sense in that context.  Jesus makes little sense outside the context of Israel’s story, and when Jesus is taken out of the context of this story, he is distorted, often beyond recognition.

When Jesus spoke of his “Father” in heaven, everyone knew whom he meant, and no one thought he meant Marduk nor Zeus.  When he spoke of words written in the prophets, he was speaking to people who could quote from the prophets and should have known better.

When he spoke to the people of his day about their ancestors eating bread from heaven, he knew that they would be thinking of the story of the exodus from Egypt and the manna from heaven the Israelites ate during their years in the wilderness.

And when he spoke of himself as “the living bread that came down from heaven” he was saying that he was the solution to the problem that all those stories, laws and prophecies did such a thorough job of presenting.

And when he said:

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”

– he was inviting all of them, and all of us, to find the solution to our spiritual hunger in him.

Why?  Because Jesus is the one who can bring us to the source: to God himself.  As he said to them,

“the one who is from God; he has seen the Father”

Jesus, the one who “has seen the Father,” has the vocation, the calling, to be God’s way of solving the problem that the whole Old Testament shows us: the problem   of our alienation from God and from each other and from the good world God made, which was caused by evil and its many destructive effects.  There is the evil that is present in the world around us, the evil that exists in the systems we are born into, and the evil we participate in by our own choice.

Jesus, who was sent from our Heavenly Father to us, is the one who can most clearly show us the Father.  In Jesus, we see the rescuing, restoring, gracious love of God at work, mercifully drawing back to God people, like us, who have gone astray.  In Jesus we see God.

The Old Testament will show us many versions of a picture of God.  These portraits of God and of God’s will that the Old Testament shows us are meant to prepare us for the final, clearest, most adequate view of God; the one we see in Jesus.  Jesus is the measure we will use to evaluate all the other perspectives.  He is, as the New Testament says, “the image of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:15)

Advice: thank God for Jesus!

Some advice:  as you read the Old Testament, when you come to parts that horrify you or parts that bore you or confuse you, say to yourself: “thank God for Jesus!”

Now that Jesus has come, many issues that were crucial in the Old Testament have been solved.  The issue of land, the “promised land” has been solved because the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus proclaimed is not a physical space.  It has no territorial borders.  People of every nation, every race, every language will be together, as John pictures it in the book of Revelation, gathered around the throne on which God himself sits as King.

The issue of purity, or in other words, being cleansed and forgiven, has now been solved.  No longer do we need a temple where priests offer animal sacrifices on our behalf.  Jesus has come as the great High Priest.  He has come as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Through Jesus we have direct access to God the Father, without a curtain between us, as the temple had, without a priestly mediator, and without fear of ritual impurity.

Jesus is, then, our ultimate source.  He is the ultimate source of our understanding of God the Father.  He is the ultimate source of our relationship with God the Father.  He is the ultimate source of our understanding of what God the Father wants from us.  He is the ultimate source of our spiritual nutrition.  As Jesus said,

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever”

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Our world serves up a lot of junk food for the spirit.  Just by living normal days we are exposed to cynical politicians, biased news stories, voices of all kinds, dispensing non-nutritious advice based on everything from fear and disgust to arrogant selfishness and self-sufficient apathy.  Like junk food, a steady diet of this only leaves us diseased and unhealthy.

But there is a better way.  The bread of life has come.  Jesus offers us a rich feast of himself if we are willing to sit at his table and allow him to host the banquet.  We will read the bible in 90 days: let it whet our appetites for the main course, the true spiritual nutrition, the one who has seen and who shows us the Father: the Lord Jesus.

“The Smell of Fresh Bread”

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, 18th Ordinary, Lectionary Year B, Aug. 5, 2012, John 6:24-35

Lev 19:9-18

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  

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You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

John 6:24-35

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”  Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”  Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

The Smell of Fresh Bread

I once saw a news item from Japan about a homeless person who sat, panhandling on a busy street, in Tokyo.  He died there.  Nobody even noticed for several days.  I thought to myself, “Could that happen in our country?”

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The Facts

This is homelessness awareness Sunday.  Homelessness is a huge problem in America.  How bad?  Here are a few of the facts:

“750,000 to 1 million people sleep on the streets every night.”

Who are these people: merely drunks, addicts and psycho’s?

“Many of these people are veterans, families with children, and youth and young adults. Record numbers of veterans of our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking housing assistance within months of leaving the military.

“In 2002, families comprised 41% of urban homelessness, and in rural areas, families, single mothers, and children make up the largest group of people who are homeless.

“Nationally, approximately 39% of persons experiencing homelessness are children.

“Youth are particularly vulnerable, with over 1 million experiencing homelessness each year. Many homeless youth have been kicked out or escaped their “homes” because of domestic violence, their sexual or gender identities, and mental illness.” (source: Justice Unbound)

Feeling Bad, but… what to do?

I know we all feel badly about this.  We don’t want to be the kind of people like the  ones in Tokyo who walk away, step over or simply ignore the homeless.

But we feel helpless in the face of such a large, complex problem.  And, to be honest, we feel a bit disgusted.  Homeless people don’t smell good.  They aren’t clean.  Often they look dangerous.

The sight of them apparently doesn’t help promote tourism; in Gulf Shores, it’s illegal to “sleep rough” – as the expression goes.  Is there not more of a compassionate response that a predominantly Christian community could offer?

The Breakfast Trip

What can we do?  Several of us went down to the Government St. Presbyterian Church to help serve a breakfast to the homeless people

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of Mobile which they do every morning, Monday through Friday, all year.

We were there once – just to see and learn something.  It was disturbing.  Their fellowship hall was filled with men and women, young and old, able and disabled, black and white.  They all received a hot meal, and coffee.  The church also provides bible study to those who are interested, and many of them regularly attend.

It’s All Over the Bible

It is remarkable to me how often the need for homes and meals comes up in the Bible.  Think of how much of the Old Testament is given to the time the Israelites were a homeless people in the wilderness, or homeless exiles in Babylon.

Think of Ruth and Naomi who became economic migrants; or Naboth who lost his ancestral inheritance to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.

Think of Jesus ministering to the man who lived homeless among the tombs.  For that matter, think of the way Jesus’ life on earth began with a birth, not in a home, but in a stable.

And think of all the attention the bible gives to stories concerning food.  The wandering Israelites are fed daily with manna from heaven.  Elijah is fed by the ravens.  The widow’s supply of grain and oil are kept from running out.  The prophets picture the great banquet table, set for all people with rich food, and plenty for everyone.

In the New Testament, Jesus feeds 5,000 and then again 4,000.  He is often seen at a supper table – sometimes in the home of a Pharisee, sometimes in a home with “tax collectors and sinners.”   Most of of the precious last few hours of his life before his arrest, he spent with his disciples in the upper room, gathered around a supper table, in a home.

The Quintessential Meal

It was there that he took bread, after supper, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them.  In those days, they made bread for the day,

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every day.  “Give us this day our daily bread” says the prayer Jesus taught us.  So, it was fresh bread that Jesus broke.  I wonder if it was still warm from the oven?  I wonder if it released some steam and that wonderful smell of freshly baked bread as he broke it for them?

He told us, “do this, remembering me.”  Think of it: the action that best captures the essence of our life together as a community of people of faith, the Lord’s Supper, began that night in the upper room as meal, shared around a supper table in a home.

The Bread of Life

In the gospel text we read today, the topic of discussion begins about physical bread.  A loaf of bread was the essence of a meal for the peasants of that time.  People on the margins are very conscious of their food-insecurity issues. They apparently hold out hope that Jesus might be like Moses, providing daily bread for the Israelites in the wilderness.  They said to Jesus:

“Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

The next thing that happens is so important.  Jesus does not spring into action with daily bread production.  That would have lasted as long as he was there to do it.  But no matter how long he lived, the bread supply would stop when his life on earth was over.

Jesus came to do something far greater than immediate bread production.  Here is his reply:

“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Believe, Trust, Rely: Act

As you know by now, the phrase “believes in me” literally means, “trusts me; has confidence in me; relies on me.”

Jesus was tipping his hand, showing his cards; this is his strategy.  Instead of going into bread production, Jesus was in the disciple-production business.   He knew that if he could teach people to believe him, to adopt the Jesus-perspective, the daily bread problem would take care of itself.

If Jesus could enable people to embrace his vision of the Kingdom of God, nobody would be sleeping on the streets and nobody would be without a supper table with fresh bread awaiting.

Disciples, people who embrace the Jesus-way, don’t need to live lives of anxiety-based nervous acquisition and self-preservationism.

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They are free.  They trust that their Father in heaven loves them and provides for them, so they open their hearts to the poor, the hungry.

They believe that each person alive is precious to God, and  so they consider it a scandal and a crisis that any of them would need to sleep on a park bench or under a bridge.  Their response, when seeing the homeless, instead of disgust or fear, is to immediately search for effective, compassionate solutions.

They find solutions to the immediate crisis: a bed for the night and food for the morning.  But they are never content with band-aid responses that merely kick the can of addressing the causes of homelessness down the road one more.    So they look at all the related issues.  Since homelessness is inextricably linked to poverty, they address all of the parts: employment, affordable housing, health care, education, day care, mentoring and tutoring, substance abuse, mental health care – the whole package.

How it Works

I wish the way it worked was that you could just pray hard about a problem and God would fix it; pray hard for the homeless, and: problem solved.  But for whatever reasons, known only to him, God has not set it up to work that way.

He has rather put us here as his agents.  He has given us everything we need in order to be his agents.  He has redeemed us from our sinful selfishness and pride through Jesus.  He has taught us – his words are there for us to read and study in the scriptures, so we know all about his agenda of love, mercy and redemption directed towards every example of suffering caused by evil.

He has empowered us with this Holy Spirit who lives in us and gives us gifts to enable our ministries.  He has given us each other in the church to help us organize for effective ministry and to encourage each other so that we can stay in it for the long haul.

And he has filled our hearts with compassion and empathy for all of the human beings on this planet.  We know that God is our common creator.  We know that we share a common humanity.  We understand our own suffering and therefore we are able to imagine the suffering of others.  We know how much “home” and “family” means to us, and we wish that same security and care for everyone.

Fearing Token Gestures

I have a great fear today, that we fall prey to the delusion that being rhetorically engaged in an issue like homelessness completes our

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response, as if having the correct opinion does something all by itself.  Of course opinions don’t get people off the streets; only concrete action does.

I also have the fear that the good and helpful gestures we make give us the impression that we have adequately dealt with the problem.  Like baskets of food at Thanksgiving and Christmas, small gestures are real and do good – I have nothing against them at all.  The danger lies in allowing the small gesture to stand in as substitute for the large concerted action that is required to address a problem.  Christmas baskets don’t end hunger; but they may end our urge to respond to hunger.

I believe in emergency aid to people in crisis.  We have to.  The man lying beside the Jericho road presents us with ethical and moral obligations – the obligations avoided by the priest and the Levite, but fulfilled by the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable.

Soup kitchens and homeless shelters, run by churches and non-profits, are responses to crises.  Like an emergency room in a hospital, these are necessary and important.  But they do not solve anything at all.

We are the Solution

Jesus came to raise up people who would believe in him; rely on him, trust him.  He is the “bread of life” that sustains us every day.  He is the one whose vision we embrace.  He is the one whose strength we draw upon.  He is the one whose love and compassion fills our

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hearts and compels us to imitate his life of direct action.

We cannot start a soup kitchen of our own much less a homeless shelter.  But inspired by the vision of a realm in which God’s “will is done on earth as it is in heaven” and energized by the nutrients of  “bread of life” we can be advocates of every single issue that contributes to the scandal of homelessness in our land.

We will not follow the crowd on the streets that steps over the bodies of the homeless or turns to look away.  We are God’s agents here; this is our watch.  We will speak up, we will vote, we will write, we will organize, and we will do some real practical good.  “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Isaiah summed it up, long ago:

“Is not this the fast that I choose… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?”  (Is. 58:6-7)