Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Lectionary Says There's No Place for Racism

Isaiah 56:1,6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28


White supremacy has no place on this earth. Anti-semitism has no place on this earth. Nazism has no place on this earth.

For the Bible tells us so--especially in this week's lectionary passages, which are so perfect for a response to the burst pustule that is the shame of this country. We cannot let shame win. We have let it win in this country -- and in my country of birth (Australia) -- for far too long.

I knew, early on, that I didn't want to be racist, bigoted or a misogynist, but I lacked the bravery to speak out against it and for that I am deeply sorry. In recent anti-immigrant conversations, I shone a light on the inherent racism of it, telling people that I am an immigrant, I have been through the system, but is it okay that I am an immigrant because I'm a safe white lady?

Can someone be racist and not at the exact same time?

I wonder now at how many times I unconsciously responded in a racist way, remembering the many times I consciously chose to transcend it. 

There is no place for white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and Nazism in this world. The Bible tells us so. Through the words of Isaiah, Paul, and the unnamed Caananite woman, we are shown what God wants for this world and reading those words gave me hope. May you find the same hope there also.

The prophet Isaiah is clear in showing how such sins don't belong in God's vision of the world. Read Isaiah 56:1, 6-8: "Thus says the Lord: maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. ... And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant--these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered."

God is welcoming of all who do what is right, they don't even have to make their sacrifices in the same way as the Israelites, so long as they do not profane the sabbath and keep God's covenant. That's a pretty broad welcome from a time when tribalism and kingdoms were the norm.

In Romans, Paul is explicit that there is no place for anti-Semitism among followers of Christ, not then, not now. His "By no means!" is emphatic. The lectionary skips the sweep of his final argument but the crux is this: the "gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable". (Romans 11:29) God doesn't take back his love or faithfulness to the Israelites. Not ever. The people of Israel are still in God's belovedness. That they don't follow Jesus Christ does not change this one tiny small iota. By no means!

Paul and the New Testament has been used to fan the flames of anti-Semitism but it's past time that this should stop. There are problematic passages throughout. The Gospel of John in particular, as beautiful as it is in other sections, can be read as condemning Jews. If you look at the context of the gospel, it's a Christian community trying to differentiate itself from the Jewish community and such things are never easy or kind. And there is no excuse for such vilification to happen. Paul is very clear on that.

Even in the gospel, Jesus defiles another by his own words right after telling the disciples that one defiles by mouth that comes from the heart. Yet the persistent Canaanite woman shows that what has come out of Jesus' mouth by calling her "a dog" does not mean she is exempt from God's all encompassing love and mercy. Jesus realizes it and her daughter is healed. The Canaanite woman's faith in God changes her daughter's life.

This hope, this faith, in God's promises to bring all nations together to live in a just world where we respect the dignity of each other and do not hold power over another is the dream we can hold onto in these dark times, and it's the dream we can work toward because we are an active part of making this a reality.

The first verse in Isaiah 51 tells us to guard justice (one of the meanings of the Hebrew word translated in the NRSV as "maintain" is to guard, protect), and as Karoline Lewis put it in the Working Preacher podcast: maintaining takes work. Creating a world of loving-kindness is going to take work and it will be hard work. 

It will be hard work as we reform the law and practices of this country and eventually, even harder work as we move toward reconciliation, something that has never happened in this country, not after the Civil War and not after the successes of the Civil Rights movement. We can't heal until we make things right. This is not the time for reconciliation, but it is ahead of us if we wish to avoid making the same mistakes again and again. 

First, we have to make white supremacy, anti-Semitism and Nazism totally unacceptable to all. As they should be.

We are not in this alone. God is with us. At the "Stand Up to Hate" ADL (Anti-Defamation League) rally I attended on Tuesday, one of the rabbis shared how one of the most radical and audacious prayers in the siddur (Jewish prayerbook) had helped her process the events in Charlottesville and the responses to it. Oseh shalom bimromav ... "May the One who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us, for all Israel and all who inhabit the earth. Amen." She said: "The prayer cries out and demands of God that God create abundant peace and that God do so NOW. Not because we deserve it, not because we've earned it but simply because God is capable and the world needs it, so it must be done."

At the same rally, we sang this beautiful song "olam chesed yibaneh", a world (olam) built (yibaneh) with loving-kindness (chesed, which can also be translated as steadfast love).

The English lyrics are:
I will build this world from love ...
You must build this world from love ...
And if we build this world from love...
Then God will build this world from love...
It takes all of us, you see, each doing our bit.

The song is beautiful and heart-breaking, but I have hope and faith that we will build this world from the ground of love, and that love is ultimately going to get us through.




Sunday, August 13, 2017

The words I needed to hear this week...

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

It has been a bit of a week, to put it mildly, with two so-called world leaders engaging in a nuclear-themed pissing contest and with unashamed racists marching in the streets and driving through peaceful counter-protesters. 

While reading through the lectionary choices for today, my eyes settled on the following words, and in a form of lectio divina, kept returning to them again and again. 

from Psalm 85:10: 
Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
and Romans 10:8 (also Deuteronomy 30:14): 
“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart” 
But the way to these words was not easy. At the end of the first reading into today’s lectionary section, Elijah is told by God that 7,000 faithful Israelites will be spared, but the rest destroyed. 

It’s the kind of comment by God that would give an End-Timer a hard-on. 

(Sidebar: OK, this story is one of my husband’s favorites because God is found not in the earthquake or the fire, but in sheer silence (or still, small voice) — and I wanted to go there, but it was not to be this week.)

This is followed by selected verses from Psalm 85, which is all about Godly sunshine and light, and you have to wonder what crack the lectionary committee was smoking. Or do they assume they’ll be among the 7,000 saved?

One should probably read the whole psalm.  It is not all sweetness and light for the psalmist. The writer is calling out to be saved. Or giving thanks for being saved. Apparently, the Hebrew verb tense is not at all clear.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

could be present:

Mercy and truth are meeting together; *
righteousness and peace are kissing each other.

or future:

Mercy and truth will meet together; *
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

And it is there I rested. Not knowing if I will be one of those spared the literal fallout of this latest international brouhaha, but wanting, needing, mercy, truth, righteousness and peace.

And where to find it? In the midst of Paul’s paraphrase of Deuteronomy:

“The word is near you, 
on your lips and in your heart”

God is not so far away, not distant, but within us. No matter what fire and fury rains down on us, or not, or with the next political/social catastrophe (which is already upon us), God is within us, to give us peace. 

But God/Moses/Paul is not calling for passivity or silence. For the word is also on our lips. This is an action, a prophetic action. As we head toward deeper relationship with God, we speak truth (and do other life-sustaining actions) so that those who are hurt and oppressed can find their freedom, and those who have turned away from God’s will and seek to oppress and hate instead of love will cease their oppression and turn back to God.

Resting with God in our heart and behaving like prophets (aka speaking God’s word) won’t make our suffering any less, but perhaps it will ease our souls and hearts, knowing God is in this mess right along with us.

Mercy and truth have met
Righteousness and peace will kiss
Mercy and truth are meeting

God is within us.

I was going to end it there, but I came across this incredible prayer written by a seminarian who was in Charlottesville yesterday. Pray it with me.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Transfiguration: The kingdom of heaven is revealed



In last week's reading, the kingdom of heaven was hidden: a mustard seed invisible in a field, a speck of yeast, a buried pearl.

This week, the kingdom of heaven is in plain sight: and it's too much for mere mortals. 

In our Exodus reading, the Israelites and Moses' own brother run away at the sight of his radiant face after he comes down the mountain from his chat with God. They are only able to look upon Moses' bare face for short periods of time when he shares with them messages from God. The rest of the time, Moses is veiled, his face concealed, hidden, for it is too much for the people to live with. "It" being the reflection of God's glory, or, as I like to think of it, overwhelming divine love.

In Luke's gospel, Peter, John and James witness Jesus' face change and his clothes become dazzling white. Radiant. That and the descending cloud of God and God's voice sends them tumbling down the mountain. Well, that's how it is pictured in iconography -- these otherwise serious apostles upside down, and one even loses a sandal.

In Exodus, Moses is terrifying. In the canonical gospels' story of the Transfiguration, God's voice is terrifying. Hmm, where else have we seen someone being counseled: "Do not be afraid"? (Which Jesus says in the Matthew version of this story, 17:7) 

Oh yeah. Angels. Angels always begin their pronouncements with "Do not be afraid." These messengers of God are not just bringing the divine word, but like Moses, have been in the presence of God. And if you read some of the other books in the Hebrew bible (and Revelation), angels are pretty scary to look upon.

One theologian, William Propp, thought that the Hebrew word to describe Moses’ radiant face actually meant it had been disfigured. Luke doesn’t use the Greek for “transfigured” (like the other two synoptic gospels) but the Greek word meaning “became other”. Was his intention to show Jesus in that moment as wholly divine? Can the presence of God re-create us?

Why would the kingdom of heaven, the sight of God, be so terrifying, so overwhelming?

Is it because for that moment our encounter with God is completely out of our control? (but honestly has it ever been in our control, how we deal with God?)

Is it because of what we see in God's reflected glory? What we, made God's image, have to change in ourselves to bring this new kingdom to being? What we have to say yes to? *Who* we have to say yes to?

In 2 Peter, the letter's author talks of the day when the morning star rises in our hearts. The day when God comes to us and transfigures us.

Such a faint light, compared to God's radiance -- but still a response, a response to the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gift of God's love.

The disciples in this portion of the Gospel take this revealed glory, this moment of unadulterated God-glory, this hint of the promised new heaven and new earth .... and say nothing.

Once more, the kingdom of heaven is hidden. The three disciples say nothing about this until after Jesus' death and resurrection.

I wonder if, in those days between transfiguration and crucifixion, that they, like Mary, treasured these things in their hearts, as if what they had seen was the wondrous morning star?


Sources:
Commentary on the Torah by Richard E. Friedman
"Who Is Jesus to Us?, The Transfiguration (A, B, C) -- 2014" by Rev. Anjel Scarborough, Sermons that Work, The Episcopal Digital Network

Sunday, July 23, 2017

What are we waiting for?

Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Earlier this week, I was complaining how impenetrable this week's lectionary readings are. At first glance, Genesis is a bridging passage between two important stories (and doesn't tell the whole story of Jacob's encounter with God); who can tell what the hell Paul is talking about except that we're hoping for something we can't see because if we could see it wouldn't be hope -- which is more indicative perhaps of either Paul not being imaginative enough or drunk or a deeper wisdom (hmmm....); and the parable in the Gospel is all about judgement and casting into flames all the evil doers of this world ... or is it?


In last Sunday's Grantchester, Sidney Chambers is asked why God can't simply answer a question and he says "but then it wouldn't be faith". He ends up having a crisis of faith himself. 

So what ARE we waiting for? What is this hope?

Let's start with Genesis. Have you ever had a God experience? Some movement of the Holy Spirit? Or you sensed the presence of God, that let you know that not only is God real, but you belong to God. Perhaps it was an inarticulate covenant, or even a whisper of what lies beyond. If you have, then you have experienced what Jacob did in this passage, with angels ascending and descending and God speaking to him. Paul has clearly also experienced this holy moment but lacks the vocabulary to describe it, as we all do. That "looking through a glass darkly" at God's promise to us.

The thing about God experiences is that they have the potential to transform us, and for us to become part of God's in-breaking of a new earth and a new heaven. Paul's road to Damascus is the most dramatic and obvious example, but Jacob's story is also one of transformation. Gods's promise is "I am always with you" in addition to the promise he gave to his grandfather Abraham of promising him land and becoming a father to the nations.

Jacob's awareness of this promise is transformative, because even as Jacob himself is tricked, and in turn continues his trickery, Jacob grows to trust God and so his yetzer-hara for always getting the best bargain (an admirable Middle Eastern trait) can at last be kept in check for him to pray to God for help in reconciling with his brother Esau. 

In the gospel, the parable of the weeds is Jesus telling us a most loving story, although at first glance it looks nothing like. 

It's not about smoking weed either.

On the face of it, Matthew's explanation of this parable brings to mind good people vs evil people, or chosen vs denied, not to mention hell and damnation. Maybe Jesus did tell this parable but the interpretation was something other than what Matthew chooses.

Maybe this parable is not about the body of Christ (as in those who make up the people of Christianity) or the "true" followers of Jesus, but about our own body in Christ. Is this what Paul is also trying to get at with the Holy Spirit bringing our desires out of evil and into moderation?

For as the last verse into today's beautiful psalm says:
"Look well whether there be any wickedness in me *
and lead me in the way that is everlasting."
The entire psalm speaks of God knowing us inside and out, before we were even conceived, of knowing our strengths and our weaknesses. Jesus too, as the Son of God, knows each of us inside and out: the potential for fruitfulness (wheat) and the potential for destruction (weeds).

Breaking a bad habit is difficult, improving ourselves is hard. There can be much wailing and gnashing of teeth before the new habit, the new way of being becomes a part of us.

If God took away all the weeds the minute we received the Holy Spirit, that would also take away our free will that we were created with. If God had taken Jacob's trickster-self away, how would Jacob have ever been able to leave Laban and return home? Further, as the farmer in the parable says, what is good about us would be badly damaged and we'd be unable to fully grow into God's kingdom; and so new life grows alongside old ways of living, transforming us into new beings.

We cannot change on our own. We need the awareness of God with us but not even with the Spirit of God in us can we tame our out-of-control desires, although with God's help, we can get closer to that fruition.

I believe that each time we fall away from God and let the yetzer-hara get out of control again, the crop tended by God doesn't fail but God waits for us to return. 

So this is what we are waiting for: it's not judgement, it's rescue, it's transformation, reconciliation and restoration.

And with receiving the Spirit of God, we have the potential to transform, to become Sowers of God's kingdom. (See last week's blogging the lectionary.)

God longs for us to turn and return to God again and again and each time we do, the good wheat grows a little more and a little bit of the kingdom of heaven peeks into earth.


Maybe, just maybe that is what this parable means and that is what we wait, we hope and long for.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Can we be the Sower?

It has been a while since I blogged the lectionary. When I decided this past week that it was the time to get back to it, I discovered that I'd started doing this in Year A in 2014. And we're back in Year A again.


Today's lectionary readings:

This could be subtitled, "Wherein I get caught up in Paul but thankfully remember what it's all about. (Hint: God's love.)

In Judaism, there is no original sin. God created humanity in God's likeness, with free will, and so as Rabbinic Judaism describes it, humans have yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination, and yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, the latter being "a drive toward pleasure, property or security, which left unlimited, can lead to evil" (per myjewishlearning.com) However, this is not all that humanity is made of, so this is not a simplistic dualism. There is also the mind, the heart (equivalent to the gut in the ancient world, for example, a gut feeling), and the soul.  The two yetzers are what Paul is talking about when he speaks of the flesh and the spirit. Remember yetzer ha-tov (good) and yetzer ha-ra (evil, sort of). We'll get to Paul and today's gospel parable in a sec.

Let's start at the first of today's readings. Both Esau and Jacob exhibit these two natures. Esau has both good (we know because Isaac, who was consecrated to God, loves him) and evil: his desire for food is so great, he gives up his birthright. Same for Jacob, the yetzer ha-tov of living simply and wrestling toward God (as we'll see later) versus the yetzer ha-ra of coveting his brother's birthright -- and giving into that desire. Nobody in the Bible is perfect.

This idea of two natures or inclinations dates to rabbinic Judaism, which yes is after Paul, but Augustine's concept of original sin is also after Paul and has been read back into it. When Paul speaks of flesh it is yetzer ha-ra, spirit is yetzer ha-tov. Capital-S Spirit is the Spirit of God. Note also, that Paul uses different Greek words for flesh (sarx) versus body (soma). It's not Augustine's neo-Platonism of flesh/body vs. spirit/soul (or shadow vs reality). But two different parts out of many of being human.

It turns out I am not the only person who was thought of this: both W.D. Davies and his student E.P. Sanders say that Paul's word choices are consistent with a developing theology that led to (and was further expounded upon) by rabbis after the Second Temple's destruction.

Try re-reading Paul in this way: "But you are not in yetzer ha-ra; you are in yetzer ha-tov, since the Spirit of God dwells in you." (Romans 8:9)

Yet even with the gift of God's Spirit, we are still mortal and we still struggle between these two inclinations. Paul ranted about this in last week's lectionary passage: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:19) And he's one who has the Spirit of God with him! You've probably thought to yourself by now, what does it really mean to be in Christ Jesus if we still struggle with yetzer ha-ra? The things we shouldn't do, but do? Remember Jacob and how he wasn't perfect either? We are none of us expected to achieve perfection. It is God's mercy and loving-kindness that sees us through the mess of human life.

But wait, there's more.

This is also where today's gospel parable comes in. Because receiving the Spirit of God isn't a passive act. It's a get-up-and-go active response. "Let anyone with ears, listen!" (Matthew 13:9) Listening is not a passive reception but active. We need to want to hear the word of the kingdom first. How and why we don't listen are the reasons behind the lack of fruitfulness of the first three soils, various yetzer ha-ra motivations. If we can hear and understand, then we become fruitful in the sense of becoming a sower ourselves, bringing in a new creation, "pursuing what is right for everyone" (Jewish Annotated New Testament, my emphasis). 

The important thing is the Sower doesn't give up. The sower can be God, Jesus, the disciples, or those who have the Spirit of God through Christ Jesus as Paul does, that is, us, our active response. Again and again, the word of the kingdom is sown, the Holy Spirit is sent, without discrimination, without judgement, without despair because a seed fails.

All types of ground, all types of people, are are loved enough by God for the Beloved to sow the word of the kingdom. And God does not give up on us and will sow the word again and again, hoping, always hoping, that this time there is understanding, that this time a heart will be open, and the word will take root.

Sources:
Commentary on the Torah by Richard E. Friedman
"Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra" by Mark Wauck on his blog meaning in history which quotes W. D. Davies' Paul and Rabbinic Judaism
The Jewish Annotated New Testament (NRSV), Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Butler, editors
Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors
Sermon Brainwave podcast by The Working Preacher "SB549 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 15)"

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Praying to the One Who Blesses

In the last weeks of Dad's life, I wanted to go and sing him a prayer I had learned in the synagogue, a healing prayer called the Misheberach.

Unfortunately, he passed away before I could get to him and the news that he was hours from death wiped out the idea of singing it to him over the phone, whether or not he could hear me. 

It became a prayer that I prayed for my dad as I tried to keep vigil halfway around the world. It became a prayer for me as I grieved. I had a notion of singing it at Dad's funeral as a healing prayer for others, but there were already so many sticking their oar in and I also knew myself well enough that it would not be a day that I could sing anything.

The first word of the prayer means "the One who blesses". The tune I learned was by Debbie Friedman and it is a mix of Hebrew and English.

You may be wondering why I didn't cling to the Lord's Prayer or some other Christian mantra. The words have been a source of comfort and an expression of grief. That it comes from another tradition are completely irrelevant. The words in English had a great deal to do with it too:
May the Source of strength, who blessed the ones before us Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing And let us say: Amen.
Bless all in need of healing, with r'fuah shleimah**:
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit,
And let us say: Amen.
The celebrant at Dad's funeral talked about how coming together as a community to mourn someone can be a life-changing experience. For him, it ultimately meant a move from Scotland to Australia. Similarly, I find the words "help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing" a similar impetus to re-center my life. Something to gnaw on and discern in the days ahead.

** r'fuah shleimah means complete recovery (from a page that I read about this song)

Debbie Friedman sings the song below:







Friday, June 2, 2017

What I Learned This Spring

Here are a few things I learned:

Talk to your loved ones, even if they annoy the crap out of you. You may never get the chance to.

My dad passed away this week. We are two terrible communicators and not all the calendar reminders in the world were sufficient for me to send an email. (We are separated by an ocean.) And then, after a visit and a promise to talk more, the cancer metastasized. We started talking weekly. The cancer took him quicker than we all thought. I thought I had time to get home. I didn't.

Kindness is an incredible gift. I wrote about the kindnesses exchanged when a group of us went to support the local Islamic Center. You can read about this incredibly moving experience here

Are you creative? (And don’t mind the occasional four-letter word dropped?) The Pug Party Podcast might be for you. It’s Roxanne Cable, mixed media artist, and her husband James, comedy writer, talking about the creative process, their careers, the nerdy things they are into, and of course, their two pugs. The link goes to Roxanne's blog, but you can also subscribe on iTunes.

What did you learn this spring?