Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lectionary Notes 2/24 2 Lent C

Genesis 15:1-12; 17-18

This entire episode takes place during a dream or vision. God promises Abram a great reward, and Abram kind of grumps like Han Solo in Star Wars: “What good’s a reward if you ain’t around to spend it?” Instead, Abram’s spin is “What good’s a reward if it will go to people outside my family?”

We can forgive him for being grumpy. Every other time that God has told Abram to do something, Abram has done it without a single question. Get up and pack everything and go to Canaan, a land you’ve never seen? Sure, God. Ten years before, in Genesis 12, God had promised that Abram would be made a great nation, and a lot has happened since then: famine and a trip to Egypt; his nephew Lot captured, forcing Abram to go to war (Genesis 13). Abram is rich, yes, but he has no direct descendants, and a slave from Damascus is his heir. Abram is a very old man; he moved to Canaan at age 75, and had been living there 10 years when this promise was made to him. He had been married for a very long time, and his wife was considered to be barren— and yet, when God tells him that his blood descendants will outnumber the stars, for the first time, instead of just doing whatever he is told, he asks for clarification.

Here’s what was omitted—a dream in which God tells Abram that his descendants will be slaves, will eventually triumph: ‘13Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”’ I think this omission is actually important and changes the story considerably—it adds a darker note, and shows that there will be suffering even in the midst of all the good things. That’s real life.

As it is, in the version we have, Abram receives the promise, he sacrifices as God commanded him to do, and he falls asleep into “a deep and terrifying darkness,” then suddenly there is a smoking fire pot and torch going in between the pieces of the offerings. Supposedly, it is God passing between the pieces, thus binding himself and assenting to follow through with giving the land between the Nile and Euphrates to Abram’s descendants and giving Abram children.

What is described here is called a “covenant ceremony.” This was described in Jeremiah 34:18-20: 18 Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals. An animal would be sacrificed and split into halves; the parties would walk between the halves in a figure 8 pattern, and then would stand in the midst of the blood between the two halves (remember, blood is a symbol of power and life) and pronounce blessings and curses based upon fulfilling the terms of the covenant as is described in the Jeremiah passage.

Why was Abram so favored by God? He wasn’t from any special family, nor was he particularly wise. It was because he had faith—he was righteous. He was so righteous he could intercede with God on behalf of Sodom. This is later going to be a very important theme in the Pauline writings: membership in God’s people is through faith, not works or ancestry.

Psalm 27

This psalm is an exercise in building up one’s courage when feeling fearful and oppressed. It begins and ends with the author advising himself what to do to enable him to face the things that terrorize him. He starts with reminding himself that God is his “light and salvation,” God will provide guidance and protection. He ends with reminding himself to be patient and trust that God will come through.  This God has a personal, intimate relationship with the author—“MY light,” “MY salvation,” “the strength of MY life,” “MY helper.” Indeed this relationship is even more important than human kinship, since father and mother have forsaken the author (verse 10).

There are three sections to this psalm. Verses 1-6 talk about being strong and filled with faith. Verses 7-12 are in the form of a lament, not as confident as the beginning of the section, wavering and almost getting overwhelmed with the dangers that the author faces. Verses 13-14 are moving back toward confidence and trust, with verse 14 once again more sure that, eventually, God will “comfort your heart” in God’s own time.

Philippians 3:17-4:1

The biggest question confronting the early church in regards to proselytization was whether Gentile converts had to live according to Jewish law in order to be Christian. Early on the original apostles said yes; Paul (and later Peter) are going to be convinced that this is not necessary. It is this dispute that Paul is referring to. Those who disagree with him are condemned in some pretty strong terms here. Instead, the Christians at Philippi are asked to be like Paul and not try to be a member of the nation of Israel but a citizen of the heavenly kingdom. Outward signs, such as circumcision or Jewish dietary laws (“their god is the belly”), are unnecessary. The Pharisaic focus on strict adherence to hundreds of rules is a fixation upon earthly things, in Paul’s opinion, and he is speaking as a former Pharisee. This reminder about being citizens of the kingdom of God applied to the Philippians in another way, since residents of Philippi were given the privilege of being Roman citizens as well.

But let’s try to apply this to our situation. We may not have people in the Church attempting to force us to live according to the Law--- or do we? There certainly is a split in Christendom as well as in our own Anglican Communion between those who attempt to apply Levitical precepts to modern Christians.

Many people emphasize the self-denial part of Lent over the self-reflection part, and that line “their god is the belly” certainly strikes some of us, myself included, pretty vividly. Our society suffers from an emphasis on the material aspects of culture to the detriment of spiritual aspects. Our minds are usually set on earthly things. That’s the measure of success. But we are not called to be willing to settle for such a small life. We are called, as part of the Body of Christ, to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. Salvation is not something that is an individual concern, salvation is setting the values of the world right, establishing a new creation that all partake in. Paul is asking the Philippians to be not just fans, but disciples-- to not just talk but walk the path that the cross of Christ sets out before us. We can’t be guided by our own desires, but be transformed into helping to bring about God’s kingdom in the world—and that means denying ourselves.

Luke 13:35-41

Jesus has been going through Galilee, healing and casting out demons in the face of opposition. He has also been answering questions about the nature of the kingdom of God. But he’s also been doing something else in almost all of these activities as well: he’s been criticizing the Pharisees. Just before this pericope, Jesus had told the parable of the narrow door (Luke 13:22-30), which implies that those who have resisted Jesus’ teaching will not be able to enter the Lord’s house. The verse just before this (Luke 13:30) repeats the adage that “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’ 

So it does seem a bit strange that it is Pharisees who come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. Remember Herod the Great, the one who was king when Jesus was born, who wanted to kill the baby Jesus when told about him by the Magi, and later slaughtered all the baby boys under the age of two (the Holy Innocents)? That Herod is not THIS Herod. This Herod is one of the original Herod’s sons: Herod Antipas, who has been given a fourth of Herod the Great’s kingdom to rule—the part that includes Galilee. And yet he is still pretty ruthless himself. It is this Herod who has imprisoned John the Baptist (Luke 3:20) and then later killed him (Luke 9:7). Jesus is warned by Pharisees of Herod’s intent to kill him, too. Why? It’s unclear, but we need to remember that most of Jesus’ ministry has been in Galilee thus far, and Jesus was a well-known former disciple (it is thought) of his cousin John.

So why do the Pharisees warn Jesus of impending danger? If we know the context, it could be that they are trying to silence Jesus and get him to abandon his ministry, which would certainly suit their purposes—lately Jesus’s ministry has been focused on attacking the Pharisees. Then there’s another thing implied by Jesus’s response: “Go and tell that fox….” Jesus knows the Pharisees have been in league with Herod, and Jesus implies that they still are. Perhaps this is all a ploy by Herod AND the Pharisees to drive Jesus out, somewhere else where he will be someone else’s problem.

Jesus sneers at the idea that he has anything to fear from this “fox.” This is an insult, since foxes are unclean, and they are attributed with the characteristics of being sneaky, slinking, cunning, and manipulative, living through stealth rather than through honest labor. He has important business—business that reinforces the difference between God’s kingdom, where healing and mercy, repentance and faith are the order of the day, and Herod’s family’s rule, full of malice and threatened murder of innocents. Jesus knows that he faces death, and he has embraced this and is at peace with it-- but it will not be at the hands of Herod. This section of the story, or pericope, only appears in Luke.

Jesus is clear, and he is resolute. He will not be shaken. He will go to Jerusalem, and in doing so he is fully aware that then his work will be done, and he knows what happens to prophets who go to Jerusalem. Zechariah was killed in Jerusalem by King Joash (2 Chronicles 24:20-22), and the prophet Uriah was murdered there too by King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 26:20-23). Isaiah was from Jerusalem and ended up being sawed in two at Menasseh. 

But this does not shake his resolve. He mourns the fact that the people of Jerusalem are so recalcitrant, and reject his attempts to love and brood over them as a hen broods over her chicks. Jesus foretells the destruction of Jerusalem (“Your house will be left to you [desolate]”). Jerusalem will be left desolate because it has refused to obey God and rejected God’s son and prophet. The last line echoes what will be shouted when Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Luke 19:37-38): “Blessed is the King who comes in the Name of the Lord!” which is a quote of Psalm 118:26.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Temptations and humility

Meditations on the Lectionary, 1st Sunday of Lent

One of the things that struck me was an underlying theme of humility. The Deuteronomy reading was reminding the people that, even before they enter the promised land, they should never forget that times have not always been good. They should show gratitude and humility to God for making the good times possible. God is going to bless them. There have been difficult times in their past. Never forget that God has been with them, even when they themselves have tried to shake off God and tried to make their own wants and concerns the center of their attention.

That's a tough thing to keep in our minds, especially here in America. We are the land of "rugged individualism." We like to think that anything we get, we get because WE as individuals have earned it. We didn't succeed through anything but our own hard work and effort. Now, true, there is a corollary to this: we succeeded because God blessed us over others, and that is a real temptation, too. You know what I mean: athletes claiming that God gave them their victories, which implies that God gave the other team its defeat. This idea is a temptation, too-- one we must be vigilant not to let creep into our thinking. You hear this when you hear some televangelist claim that God has blessed us or cursed us every time the next natural disaster or man-made tragedy hits. Being blessed by God doesn't divide us into "winners" and "losers."

The Gospel reading also talks about this temptation to exalt the self. The devil tempts Jesus with all the trappings that would make him appear to be a "winner:" plenty of food, political power, reducing God's relationship with Jesus into something in which Jesus manipulated God and gains the upper hand. Any of these temptations would lead to wonderful things-- the hungry would be fed, Jesus would be a true King, God's existence would be proven! Jesus just needs to make HIMSELF the main show.  Jesus just needs to be willing to take a few shortcuts, to make this "kingdom of God" thing match OUR expectations.

So why were each of these things so tempting? Fred Craddock and NT Wright have both made the important point that we are only tempted to do that which is within our power, and we justify giving into temptation because we judge the thing we are being tempted to do as good. Jesus had not yet engaged in his public ministry—this incident takes place before the reading of the Isaiah passage in the synagogue which was the subject three weeks ago during the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany. The devil is going to present Jesus with three alternative paths, paths which would appear to be capable of being used to achieve great good. Feeding the hungry by making loaves of bread pop up out of the stones scattered about? Having God’s son exercise political power and drive out all oppressors with their false gods? Having God prove himself? Wouldn’t all of these things be amazing?

But these are not what God has planned. God’s kingdom on earth will be established through different means—not according to what WE would want, but by establishing that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus turns aside each temptation with scripture, including from today’s psalm, and even the devil quotes scripture in a great game of Biblical one-upmanship. Jesus’s source is Deuteronomy. In response to the temptation of bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3—“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

In response to the temptation of political power in exchange for worshipping the devil, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13—“The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.
In response to the temptation to test God, the devil quotes todays psalm, 91:11-12—“For he will command his angels concerning you
 to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up,
 so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16—“Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”  This refers to the incident in Exodus 17 where God, through Moses, made water flow from a stone.

The devil gives up temporarily here, but not for good. Temptation is always there. Always being humble and examining our motives helps us to overcome this temptation. Until an hour from now, when we will be tempted all over again.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

no great cathedral...

i am a little church (no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor
of hurrying cities - i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april
my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are the prayers of earth's own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying) children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness
around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope, and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains
I am a little church (far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish) at peace with nature
- i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing
winter by spring, I lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)
--- e. e. cummings

Friday, February 1, 2013

A prayer for fathers

Loving God, we thank you for fathers. 

We thank you for biological fathers, adopted fathers, and fathers in spirit. 

We thank you for fathers who work hard every day to help fulfill the needs of their families, who fix broken things and teach us how to do it ourselves, who embrace us and guide us, who love us even when they don't understand us. 

We know they reflect and embody your love for us as our heavenly Father. 

Comfort those of us who miss our fathers this day, and strengthen and bless those fathers who work so hard to love, protect, and nurture their families this day and every day. Amen.