Reflection for August 21, 2016

Isaiah 58:9b-14, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

      Isaiah is interesting today. These chapters come in a time of national recovery. We are in the 58th chapter, and what we have might be the four cornerstones for how to live, how to construct a good life, following a disaster. All ethics are situational and the situation in chapter 58 is building a new life after the old life has fallen apart. As we come out of the dark days, how should we proceed? What matters in our lives now? How do we rebuild?

Now you may not be coming through a dark chapter in your life. You may not be shopping for a post disaster ethic. We go through long stretches of stability when we count our blessings. That’s true. But disasters have a way of creeping up on us. Sometimes the problems looming on the horizon may be more public than private.

This week I was up in the Fox River Valley, an area more conservative than Madison. I saw one of those new fancy electronic bill boards on the highway. It was for a real estate firm. There were two pictures side by side: one of Hillary Clinton, one of Donald Trump. Both looked pretty grumpy. The line of the ad was simply the word Canada? Then at the bottom the billboard were the words: We can help you sell your home. And a phone number.

Probably no matter who wins, at least 20 percent of Americans will feel like the election is a national disaster. Canada may be considered by people of all political stripes. But after you get to Canada, then what? What would be the principles for living in your post-disaster world? On a day to day basis?

In Isaiah 58 there are four simple principles for recovery. First, quit pointing the finger at others. Stop blaming other people. Look into your own heart to understand the reasons things do not go well. Just stop blaming others. Take the responsibility.

Second, stop whining and start to speak well of yourself and others. It’s not complicated. Shape or mold your mind and words around the positive dimensions of your life and world.

Three, care for those in need, especially the most vulnerable, the sick, the poor, the widow and orphan. They need your help. Just do it.

And fourth, honor the sacred. In Isaiah this is the Sabbath. But in our post Christian age of the radically secular, hyper critical, deeply cynical, demythologizing reduction of everything to the empty materialism which marks our march to the banal; recovering at least a little respect for the sacred is not a bad thing. Show some respect not only for your own beliefs and traditions but for the sacred beliefs and traditions of others.

So that’s it. Stop pointing the finger. Speak well of yourself and others. Help those in need. And respect the beliefs which have sustained us all. And whether you decide after the election to head to Canada or to stay here, those four principles will serve all of us well.

Now Jesus is doing some meta-ethics in the final reading on these four basic principles. He’s not really changing the basic four, but he is considering their relative importance and the decisions that sometimes must be made. It is clear that in the Christian community of Luke, the most important of the four principles is to care for those in need. It’s more important than the sacred Sabbath thing, or how we speak. It’s more important than what we think, or our personal political persuasion. When we need to make choices we are to care for those in need. In Canada, in Madison, in our lives whether things are somewhat stable or we are in deep recovery.

Now what should we do with that reading from Hebrews. We read it because our second readings at this time of the year slowly work their way through the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is reshaping belief in Jesus at a time of intense change in the religious habits of the first century. Whatever the gods, Greek, Roman, Hebrew; sacrifice and temple worship is suddenly dying. It’s a big cultural shift. Sacrifice, temples, and priests are out no longer attractive. Nobody is coming to church anymore with a goat to kill to appease their god. Instead, people are gathering in small groups to share in intimate and mystical rituals of community, to talk about God, and to build an ethic in their troubled times.

And Hebrews portrays Christianity as part of this new cultural shift. Jesus is the final sacrifice, making continued sacrifice of animals unnecessary. Jesus fulfills the sacrificial requirement. So what we need to do now is build a new faith. Faith, the faith of the person and the intimate group becomes the important thing. And all through Hebrews the new virtue is faith or trust in God’s presence with us through Jesus.

Although the words and issues of Hebrews may seem strange to us; we are also in the midst of a great cultural shift in religion. As we look at the book, we may gain some insights for navigating our own way through transitions, cultural shifts, and deep personal changes.

In transitions things get compounded. Hebrews is really good at compounding the point, adding phrase upon phrase, example upon example, to make the point. In times of transition things get compounded. Now that can be bad, when we are in the negative stream and we just keep piling on. But it can also be good, like compound interest, when we are headed in the right direction. Think about how things become compounded in your transitions. How when it rains it pours. And when the sun shines, all seems good.

In transitions things get compounded. And in transitions the old is not discarded, but reshaped. Hebrews is built on a reinterpretation or renewal of the old sacrificial system and the old Hebrew ways. They are all reinterpreted rather than discarded. Abraham, the catalog of saints, mountains, blood all take on different, deeper, and more intimate meanings. Think about how the past is used to give meaning to the future. We need the past to shape the future in times of change.

And also in Hebrews in transitions, sometimes the old is used to pivot. We have one of those pivots this morning in this reading. The God of Mount Sinai, who was too overwhelming to approach, has become the God of Mount Zion, the God of your intimate future. The sense of God’s awe inspiring presence is used as a pivot to speak of a God who inspires through Jesus. This inspiring God desires nothing more than for us to stop pointing fingers, to speak well of others, to care for those in need and to honor the sacred: all in the name of Jesus. In times of transition and change, Hebrews lifts up the importance of living this simple life of faith, and sharing that faith with others, using our past to understand our future, using our past to pivot as needed, and compounding the goodness God intended for all creatures.



Reflection for August 14, 2016

Jeremiah 23:23-29, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

Last Saturday morning, the topic in the Bible study materials for our women’s summer gathering at Oakwood Prairie Ridge was reconciliation in the face of conflict. We talked about the difficulties we have with conflict and forgiveness. Forgiveness for many of us is not an easy thing. It is a goal rather than an accomplishment.

The study materials on reconciliation began with the theme of conflict. The material focused on conflict in our lives and in our congregations. Conflict was not seen as a bad thing. Conflict can clarify what is important. Through conflict we learn about what matters to others. Different points of view are lifted to the surface, and we are often able to craft a new direction or course of action as a result of conflict. Conflict is often constructive.

But it can be destructive. It has a tendency to spiral downward, out of control. All of us laughed at one of the author’s illustrations of congregational conflict in the study materials:

Once upon a time there was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. So Somebody got angry because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized Everybody wouldn’t do it. So Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done. (Gather, Volume 29, No 6, p. 33)

In the end, boundaries, mutual respect for the opinions of others, openness to different perspectives, and a sense of our common purpose despite our differences are all needed to keep conflict constructive. This is true in our families, our congregations, our cities, and nations. We are talking about that illusive thing called good will that allows men and women of different perspectives to assemble something called the common good.

Conflict is a theme in these three readings from Jeremiah, Hebrews, and Luke. In Luke, the material regarding the end of the world speaks to the conflict Christians felt with the politics and economics of their times. We know not when, but God will initiate a time of struggle that will bring the fullness of time.

There is a similar sense of conflict in the Jeremiah passage this morning. Jeremiah is marked by conflict between the political, religious and social powers that molds and shapes Israel, conflict with foreign powers, and struggles for the soul of the nation. Somehow the nation has lost its way and Jeremiah’s God is initiating the conflict necessary for change.

There is also another type of conflict, a more intimate conflict, felt by first Christians in Luke this morning. First Christians in Luke would have been leaving their families to join the Christian economic cooperatives that were being formed by congregations. Roman parents would not have been too happy about their children going off and becoming Christian and joining some commune. The faith in its first decades faced a great deal of family tension.

And Hebrews speaks to the conflict inflicted on the faithful by forces beyond one’s control, forces that call for courage in the face of opposition, confidence in the face of terror. Conflict in its various forms within and beyond us, present and future, with those we know and complete strangers is found in these readings.

And as we look at conflict today, we know that it is valuable and necessary for us to find our way through conflict. We understand the constructive value of conflict and yet we pray for its limits, its resolution, and the end of the hatred, violence, and deep fear into which any conflict can slide. We know that conflict is important for society and God to clarify what needs to be done. And yet we know that conflict is only constructive when we strive to maintain boundaries, mutual regard for the opinion of others, openness to different perspectives, and a sense of our common purpose despite our differences. This is true in our families, our congregations, our city, and nation. Eventually Everybody, Anybody, Somebody and Nobody will all need to get our heads together because there are issues to face together, problems to solve together, and a church, city, and nation to build.

Reflection for August 7, 2016

Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40

The collected stories of Abraham are found in Genesis, chapters twelve through twenty-five. He is presented as the founding father of the Hebrew people. He is a somewhat mysterious figure and we are not sure whether he actually existed. His story was the legend or mythic memory of one of the confederating tribes which came together to form the larger nation. The tribe of Abraham probably was the most significant group in the merger, since he is seen as the founding father, and his story is the longest of all the stories gathered into one national history.

In the second reading, the book of Hebrews speaks of Abraham as a person of faith. According to Hebrews, and probably most Christians, the defining characteristic of Abraham was his faith. We are called to be faithful as Abraham was faithful.

But as we mold Abraham into an illustration of faithfulness, we miss most of his story. I’ve done many funerals at St. Johns over the years: about 200. When someone dies, it is important to lift up the faith that sustained that person and us. But in the funeral it is also important to lift up the full life of the person (to capture all of the chapters if you will) and the various ways God was active in this particular life. For our God and the God of Abraham is not only a God involved with broad, general theological principles like faith and grace, but a God active in the details of human life, even those which do not make sense. And in chapter twenty-five of Genesis, when Abraham dies at the age of 175, at his memorial service there would have been many things to remember, as he was laid to rest by his two sons, next to his beloved wife Sarah, in a field he bought long ago from some Hittites.

Abraham’s full remembrance would recall the great shift in his life when he decided at the young age of seventy-five to leave his home town of Haran, in Mesopotamia, in Ur, and to follow the Fertile Crescent trade route north and west, along the northern edge of the great desert and west toward the land known as Canaan near the sea. He may have farmed along the way, but in this story; he is mostly on the move, following herds, grazing his animals in the foothills. And he is probably buying, selling, and transporting merchandise along what was one of the most important trade routes of the ancient world.

His was a family business. The household, if you could call it that, probably numbered in the hundreds. There were several relatives including Lot and his wife involved in this venture based on raising livestock both for themselves and others along the trade route as they traded with merchants moving goods through the corridor. Eventually they settle more permanently on the western end of the route, near the sea. At one point, because of drought and famine, the business almost collapses, but they move temporarily to Egypt where there is food and pasture. Then they regroup before returning to their western grazing areas.

Land is important to Abraham’s storyteller, and in the area by the sea, in Canaan, Abraham buys or acquires control over several large fields, or base camps, or we might say ranches. After his death, his sons and grandchildren expand on these holdings so that an actual territory emerges.

Once, when Lot was in trouble, Abraham formed a small army, or we might say Special Forces unit, to rescue Lot who had been captured and probably held for ransom by a warlord. But by and large what marks the dealings of Abraham is that he had few enemies. He was gifted at getting along. He had a great capacity to work well with the economic, military, and political powers in the region. Abraham is a strong negotiator, who could be shrewd and at times even deceitful.

And there was one way of doing business that worked very well for Abraham. This was what we know as making covenants. A covenant was an agreement between two parties. It may be that the origin of covenants, or mutually binding contracts between parties, is found in the new way of doing business in the Bronze Age as trade flourished. And Abraham made effective and long lasting agreements with all who crossed his path. You might say he was especially good at contract law, and made sure that the covenants made benefited all the parties involved.

Essentially he was a man of means who learned to trade well and prospered by not seeking conflict with those around him. And in these chapters of Genesis he is remembered for this capacity to shrewdly negotiate with a sense of good will in order to strike a good agreement. Eventually the idea of covenants is used to shape our understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. God offers us a covenant with very gracious terms.

In his relationships, business dealings, and interactions with others, Abraham often showed two character traits that contributed to his success. He was highly adaptive, adjusting his perspective and understanding according to the circumstances. Even his vision of God involved several adjustments or changes along the way. Sometimes his moral agility got him into trouble, but by and large his capacity to adapt gave him the capacity to succeed.

The second character trait was a sense of hospitality and magnanimity. In dealing with war lords, petty kings, various emperors, family, servants, and business partners, his dealings were marked by a full measure of that desert hospitality that was so important to life in the ancient Middle East. And as we reflect on Abraham today, we could do no better than to simply understand that throughout life we will need to always build good agreements with those around us. Let us carefully attend to the details of the agreements we make with our neighbors, friends, family, at work and at school, in our communities, nation, and world. As we do that we also will need to be adaptable and gracious. And let us do what we can to engage more and more people in the broader social contracts or covenants needed to make our own fertile crescent or these days we might say our blue marble safe and productive for all.

One of the most important thing to Abraham was what we would call legacy. The question of his legacy comes up again and again in this story. What will he leave behind after his death? Because he and Sarah are childless so late in life, legacy becomes especially important. When most of us think of our legacy we think of family. But in these stories, legacy becomes more than having an heir. There is something about legacy that expands as we grow older. It involves more than our children. We want to leave something behind that makes a difference. We want to be remembered. We hope that what we stood for and what we did will grow and prosper. We want to see the good things of life continue and grow. Eventually, Abraham’s and Sarah’s legacy is the founding of a nation, this new tribal confederation that blends the patriarchal stories of several tribes into one. But then this national legacy is broadened to include all people who seek a relationship or covenant with God. When we think of Abraham’s life we think about our own legacy and what we will leave behind. And that is a good thing.

And then finally, as we recall Abraham, this great negotiator and deal maker, high adaptable and gracious, focused on legacy, we also discover in these chapters that Abraham had a rather strange Bronze Age religion. Somewhere in his desert wandering, he gave up on the worship of the many Mesopotamian gods, and began to hear the voice of one god, one spirit in the wind of the desert blowing over the sand. There was one god, one spirit, one voice that spoke to Abraham as he listened. This voice called to Abraham. There was an intimate relationship between Abraham and the god of the desert wind. The voice became the source of his strength and courage. It helped him adapt. It helped him be gracious. And this faith became part of his legacy. This faith was not a static thing but is molded and then reshaped several times along the way: moving Abraham beyond malice to enemies, beyond the commonly practiced sacrifice of children, beyond family feuding, and beyond superstition. And each time God deepened Abraham’s faith, a new agreement or covenant was forged between this desert trader and his God.

Today we remember Abraham. Let us craft the agreements we need. Let us adjust in the changing times. Let our dealings with those around us be marked by graceful hospitality. Let us tend to our legacy. And let us trust in this God whose voice still blows in our own lives. In Abraham and many since we find the inspirations we need to, as Jesus says this morning, move beyond our fears and to lean into the possibilities we have been given on our own journeys through life.