Humanity is Desperate for Hope

Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors of the human experience while genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor.   Addressing fear and anxiety is a question of learning hope. Hope is superior to fear but it isn’t passive. Hope is an emotion that goes outside itself and broadens people, emancipates people and provides a direction in which to move. Hopeful people throw themselves into the pursuit of what can help this world.

John 10: 7-10 Romans 4:13 ff

Humanity is desperate for hope.

It is no new thing. George Fox, in an epistle of 1666 wrote:

“O Friends, let Righteousness flow amongst you all, Truth and equity, uprightness and holiness, which becomes the house of God. Live in the holy order of the Life, Spirit and Power of the everlasting God.   Keep in the Faith that works by Love, that purifies your hearts, the mystery of which is held in a pure conscience…. O live in the pure Hope, which purifies you as he his pure, which Hope is Christ, who was before the hypocrites hope…(that is) impure. So, feel Christ your hope, which anchors your immortal souls … in all waves, storms and tempests … and sure and safe in all weathers…. “

I was loaned the August National Geographic magazine because it included a revealing article on hunger in America. It addressed issues of the availability of grocery stores to urban households. It highlighted hunger among rural families who live surrounded by corn and bean fields. It examined how Federal dollars are distributed to producers and how they impact diet. It contrasted $10.00 spent on fast food versus healthy food and illuminated how hunger and obesity are two sides of a coin with people buy cheap food that is filling, obesity being the unintended collateral damage of a poor diet. According to the article America has 48 million people categorized as ‘food insecure’ – more than half are white and more than half live outside cities. I guess that the fact that someone cared to research hunger in America and report on it says that we may be able to point to some hope.

In the same magazine the lead article was about what was called “The First Stonehenge,” a village built five thousand years ago off what is today the northern tip of Scotland. The temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar stood for longer than Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral have existed. Some suggest that one particular large tomb, being aligned to capture the rays of the setting sun on the eve of the winter solstice, is a key to understanding stone age religion. It is about hope.

I guess the point is that human beings throughout time have known anxiety, and that anxiety, when fixed and more definite becomes fear. Earliest humans would feel the earth shake, or the sun disappear or days grow extraordinarily short and not know why. And they would become anxious. Hopelessness is a most insupportable thing, its intolerable to human needs. Even deception, if it is to be effective, must work with flatteringly and corruptly aroused hope, offering either mere emptiness or empty other world promises. The Latin is: ”Corruptio optimi pessima” it is roughly translated “the corruption of what is best is the worst tragedy.”   Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors of the human experience while genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor.   Addressing fear and anxiety is a question of learning hope. Hope is superior to fear but it isn’t passive. Hope is an emotion that goes outside itself and broadens people, emancipates people and provides a direction in which to move. Hopeful people throw themselves into the pursuit of what can help this world.

Everyone’s life is pervaded by daydreams: one part of this is just simple minded escapism – it’s what the lottery depends on. But the other part is provocative, is never content to simply accept the bad. It has hoping at its core and is trainable. It can be lifted from unregulated, empty, daydreaming. It is a question of learning hope.

Paul Tillich preached his The Right To Hope sermon at Harvard’s Memorial Church in March l965. He began by pointing to how Ernst Bloch acknowledged hope as a permanent, driving force in every person. He points to how little we speak of hope’s roots, its justifications, what creates it and maintains it, sometimes against enormous odds. Instead, he says we tend to devalue hope, calling it wishful thinking or utopian fantasy.

But nobody can live without hope, even if it were only for the smallest things which give some satisfaction even under the worst of conditions, even in failure, poverty or illness. Tillich wrote that “Without hope, the tension of our life toward the future would vanish, and with it, life itself. We would end in despair, a word that originally meant “without hope,” or in deadly indifference.” The Apostle Paul referred to Abraham’s faith in the divine promise that he would become the father of a large nation although he had no son in his and his wife’s old age “In hope he believed against hope”. Old Testament authors struggled to maintain the hope for Israel within the many catastrophes of its history. And later on, they struggled as individuals for their personal hope, and finally there grew a hope in them for the rebirth of the present world and a new state of all things. This double hope, for the universe and for the single person, became the faith of the early Christians. It is the hope of the church for “the new heaven and the new earth” and of the individual to enter this new earth and new heaven.

Interpreting first century Judaism through reactionary sixteenth century Protestant binoculars is fruitless and misleading. First century Judaism was not a religion of meritorious works; rather it was a religion of grace and mercy from which good works flow. But these hopes, in both Testaments, have to struggle with continuous attacks of hopelessness. There are outcries of despair about life. There is the despair of Job when he says, “For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease” — but as “the waters wear away the stones [and] the torrents wash away the soil of the earth, so thou [God] destroyest the hope of man” (Job 14:7, 19).

There is a tremendous struggle about hope in the New Testament that went on during the whole lifetime of Jesus. It reached its height when, after his arrest, the disciples fled to Galilee. Hopelessly they said to themselves, like the two in the beautiful story of the walk to Emmaus, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They had hoped, but he was crucified. In order to regain hope; they had, as is said in I Peter, “to be born anew to a living hope,” namely, by the spiritual appearances of Jesus which many of them experienced.

Later on, the church had to fight with hopelessness, because the expectations of the Christians for the early return of the Christ remained unfulfilled. Paul writes to his congregations, (Rom. 8:24_25), “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” We wait. That means it is not yet in our possession; but in some way we have it, and this having gives us the power to wait. The Christians learned to wait for the end. But slowly they ceased to wait. The expectation for a new state of things on earth became weak though it was one prayed for it in every Lord’s Prayer — Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven! The result was to concretize systems of beliefs to bolster a waning hope.  

So also was the hope of the individual for participation in eternal life undercut by science and philosophy. Imaginations of a heavenly place above and a hell below became symbols for the state of our inner life. The expectation of a simple continuation of life after death vanished in view of a sober acceptance of the seriousness of death and a deeper understanding by theology of the difference between eternity and endless time. In view of all this, most people today, including many Christians, have experienced the attacks of hopelessness and struggle for hope against hope. We have learned how hard it is to preserve genuine hope. We know that we must either go ever again through the narrows of a painful and courageous “in-spite-of” or we formalize doctrine in which we hide our doubt. For hope cannot be verified by sense experience or rational proof.

            Everybody can lose themselves in foolish hopes, but genuine hope is something rare and great. How then can we distinguish genuine from foolish hope?

Where there is genuine hope, there that for which we hope already has some presence. In some way, the hoped for is at the same time here and not here. It is not yet fulfilled, and it may remain unfulfilled. But it is here, in the situation and in ourselves, as a power which drives those who hope into the future.

 

 

 

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O.K., If you say so…

(Prepared for Sunday August 10)

Matthew 14:28

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

I found that strange? “Lord, if it is you, command me to risk my life, to tempt death, to walk out across a lake of dark, swirling, threatening sea.”

First it seemed strange that Peter was uncertain that the voice calling him from the waves was the voice of Jesus. Trying to hear in a raging storm, which Matthew tells us is the context for this favorite bible story, is something with which we can identify. Driving wind, white caps and rough seas, lightening and thunder… “What?” “I can’t hear you!” “You want me to do what?” It reminds us of that great old hymn - Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea, day by day his clear voice soundeth, saying, “Christian, follow me;”Peter doesn’t question the tumult of his life or ours, the wild restless sea. It’s Peter’s contention that Jesus voice wasn’t all that clear.

And Peter calls out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to walk on the waves.” Peter has the audacity to give Jesus an order and amazingly Jesus complies. This might be an important warning about being careful what you ask for. Maybe we should pay more attention to our prayerful petitions. One important aspect of this interchange is that Peter doesn’t walk on water on his own it is a matter of obedience. Running ahead of the Spirit’s leading – in an act of prophetic ministry or vocal ministry can be misdirected. In all humility Quakers have to fess up to coming up with the penitential practice of solitary confinement, a practice declared cruel and inhumane.

“Lord, if it is you….?” If Peter wasn’t sure, how can we know when it is Jesus calling us to step out on faith? With Quakerism’s orientation toward immediate revelation we’ve sometimes had to deal with the embarrassment of a Friend doing something stupid and the whole society suffers. We’ve had to find a way to support the individual who feels led to prophetic ministry and yet be ready to help someone pull in their wings, maybe for this story, water wings when it is thought that the call to service has been misconstrued. The process begins with one not keeping their leadings to themselves, trusting the community of faith to listen with respect to what they feel has put on their heart. That involves the whole community in the process of discernment, a process of discernment that is grounded in worship and Scripture. I love the story of Philadelphia Friends debating whether to invest in the Erie Canal. Some argued that had God wanted a watercourse in that location God would have created it so. After a time of worshipful stillness one older Friend rose and from his experience of being familiar with the Scriptures simply quoted Genesis 26:21. He said “and Jacob digged a well.” We aren’t Peter in this regard – we are in a wholly different dispensation, that of the Holy Spirit who with the Scriptures and the experience of a faith community we are better able to resolve the question that Peter knew was very important – important to his very survival.

There maybe another clue to how you will know that the voice that calls is that of Jesus. Jesus is the one who extravagantly, recklessly, commands us to leave the safety of the boat, to step boldly into the sea. There was no testing the waters, sticking in a toe to see whether it was too cold, no testing to see whether it would actually hold him up. No, what was being tested was what his faith was made of. That’s Jesus. It is far removed from another old favorite hymn that went “Far away in the depths of my spirit tonight
 Rolls a melody sweeter than psalm; In celestial strains it unceasingly falls O’er my soul like an infinite calm. Peace, peace, wonderful peace, coming down from the Father of above! Sweep over my spirit forever, I pray in fathomless billows of love.” That may be the kind of faith many of us would prefer but not here, not in this passage. 
 Jesus calls you to risk your life, to throw caution to the wind, to step out the boat and defy death. In Matthew’s story Jesus doesn’t simply call Peter over the tumult. Jesus doesn’t call us out of the tumult. No, in today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Peter into the tumult. Jesus calls Peter out of the boat and on to the waves.

 

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From Loss to Love, From Bitterness to Joy

Ruth is a much loved domestic tale of God’s faithfulness lived out in the lives of everyday, ordinary human beings. It is a drama of human love reflecting and enacting divine love in which famine turns to abundance, loss turns to love, bitterness turns to joy, barrenness gives way to new birth and new life.   And the catalyst for all this is not a patriarchal king, prophet or judge, but a childless widow and foreigner named Ruth.

The story starts “Along time ago…” That’s equivalent to saying “Once upon a time…” That’s a pretty good sign that this is a story that is meant to both transmit a moral and to entertain. When the Hebrew text was translated into Greek, because of the Book of Ruth’s opening claim to be from the time of the Judges, the Book of Ruth was moved from among the writings to where we find it now, between the historic scrolls of Judges and 1st Samuel. The Hebrew canon placed it before Ezra and Nehemiah, the two books which recounted the restoration of Israel after the exile. One of the demands made in the restoration was that Jews were to divorce their foreign wives. The story of Ruth blatantly challenges idea.

In this story Mahlon’s next of kin, Boaz, marries Mahlon’s widow, the foreigner Ruth. They have a son named Obed. Obed has a son, Jesse, who has a son, David, who becomes King of Israel. By becoming the great-grandmother of Israel’s heroic king the Book of Ruth points out how petty and short-sighted was such a policy of racial purity. It is one of the first calls for universality over endogamy. Ruth shows that outsiders who profess faith in Israel’s God can be fully assimilated into Jewish society. Ruth demonstrates that not only could a foreigner be completely assimilated, but he or she might be God’s instrument for some higher good.

Israel’s refusal to follow God’s law has, ironically, caused a famine in the House of Bread, that is Bethlehem. To escape the hardship Elimelech (whose name means My God is King), moves his wife, Naomi (whose name means Pleasant), and his sons Mahlon (whose name means Invalid) and Chilion (whose name could be translated Withering on the Vine) to Moad, a land east of the Dead Sea. According to Genesis 18 Moab was populated by the immoral descendents of one of the children born as a result of the incestuous drug rape of Lot by one of his two daughters. Other sources tell us that the Moabites were peaceful and prosperous traders who welcomed refugees from natural disasters. They shared the Mosaic Law, a common language and many other customs with the Israelites.

Both of Elimelech and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women, Chilion married Orpha (whose name means nape of the neck) and Mahlon married Ruth (whose name means friend). Naomi’s husband and sons died. It left her a bitter, landless vagrant with two dependent daughters-in-law in a foreign land. Despite Naomi rejecting her three times, Ruth chooses to go with Naomi to Bethlehem.

The second act of this story tells of the industriousness and fidelity of Ruth and how she caught the attention of a powerful man of integrity named Boaz. Boaz uses the exact same phrase found in Proverbs 31:10 to describe the ideal woman/wife to voice the community’s opinion of Ruth, a woman of integrity, a worthy woman.

In the third act of the play Naomi takes the matter of security for her daughter-in-law into her own hands. She evidently researched the implications of the redemption of property by a next of kin. It would provide for her security but were something to happen to her it would leave the young widow Ruth vulnerable. She also knows where Boaz was to be working, threshing the grain that has been harvested. The harvest that was beginning when they returned to Bethlehem was now over.

She tells Ruth to take a bath, put on some perfume, get herself dress up and then go to where Boaz was working.   Here’s the language: “Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do”.

The word “feet’ is used in the Bible as a euphemism for a man’s private parts. Though there are no explicit mention of sexual relations here as is in chapter four you would have to be blind to miss the obvious sexual overtones. Freshly bathed and perfumed Ruth comes by night to the threshing floor where Boaz sleeps. She uncovers some part of his body, lies down beside him, spends the night and then leaves before dawn.   This is pretty bold of her… actually a little bolder than you might expect.

The passage ends with Naomi telling Ruth, ‘he will tell you what to do…”   But what we read is that when Boaz awakens to find himself uncovered and surprised to find Ruth next to him, it is she who tells him what to do. Listen: “I am Ruth, your servant;” she says, “spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” To “spread one’s cloak” over a woman was to marry her. Ruth proposes to Boaz! And she calls him to fulfill his duty as the close male relative who is obligated in Israelite law to redeem his kin who have fallen onto hard times. For some the story of Ruth is understood in terms of a Levirate Marriage in which it is the duty of a man to marry his brother’s widow. What we have described in the Book of Ruth is not levirate marriage, it is rather about a different custom having to do with the next of kin, the Go’el.

The significance of the role of the Go’el is that of a redeemer. In ancient Israel any duty which a man could not perform by himself had to be taken up by his next of kin. Any rights possessed by a man which lapsed through his inability to perform the duties attached to such rights, could be and should be resumed by the next of kin. This applied to relatives who had fallen into slavery and especially to parcels of land which any Israelite found it necessary to sell. In the Book of Ruth the next of kin was called upon to purchase a parcel of land formerly belonging to Naomi’s husband, Elimelech. But the story becomes more complicated when the interests of Elimelech’s heir Mahlon is considered.

The river of true love always seems to have rapids to negotiate. The last act of the play opens at the city gate where legal proceedings are underway. It is intended to be humorous. You see, there is a fly in the ointment. There is an unnamed ‘next of kin’ nearer in line than Boaz and he is enthusiastic about acquiring Elimelech’s land.   His claim on the property is primary and must be abandoned if Boaz is to be the man in Ruth’s future. So the plot twist is that the unnamed primary next of kin is informed that redeeming Elimelech’s land was a package deal that included taking responsibility for Mahlon’s widow and producing an heir who would ultimately claim ownership of the strip of land that was in question. Here is where customs related to leverite marriage become an issue. In response he pulls off his own sandal since he refuses to carry on the name of Mahlon. There’s yet another custom at work here, the “halizah” ceremony. Traditionally, in a situation in which the widow of a brother who has died childless wants to marry someone else, by removing the brother-in-law’s shoe he is released from the obligation of marrying her, and she becomes free to marry whomever she desires. The ceremony is very simple. The widow loosens the shoe of the brother-in-law in the presence of the elders of the town and spits on the ground in front of him. By the way, if the man’s private part is referred to as a foot, the shoe denied takes on a whole new significance.

In our story the nearest next of kin suddenly remembers a previous appointment and removes his own sandal. So, having fulfilled all righteousness, Boaz receives the community’s blessing on his marriage to Ruth. He promises that he will do all that Ruth asks. Her faithfulness to her mother-in-law is matched by Boaz’s own faithfulness. And, it is worth noting, this foreign widow mirrors God’s own faithful love. Boaz says, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.” Ruth has chosen Boaz and they find new life in each other.

Love and faithfulness abound, like the piles of grain on the threshing floor, and blessings overflow into the lives of those who once were empty. Ruth conceives and bears a son. Where there was barrenness in her marriage to Mahlon, now there is birth. Where there was famine, now there is a plentiful harvest. The women of the village interpret this blessing for Naomi: “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Ruth is Naomi’s greatest blessing.

Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness — all of it is made possible through the faithfulnessof God, embodied by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.

 

The story of Ruth leaves us with the promise of God’s faithful love, overflowing not just into the ordinary, everyday lives of two widows and a farmer, but into the lives of all Israel, and into our lives as well. Blessing upon blessing, heaped up and overflowing.

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A Migrant Family Finds Hope Amid Despair

The first chapter of Ruth sets up the story that follows. “In the days when the judges ruled” (1:1) refers back to the time of the judges, a time of chaos and disobedience in Israel. In fact the last verse of the book of Judges, the verse just previous to this one reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Doing what is right in your own eyes is never a good thing in the Bible; and, indeed, the book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel.

The famine in the proverbial ‘house of bread’, the literal meaning of the name of the town of Bethlehem, thought to be the consequence of disobedience to God caused the family of Elimelech, Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to migrate to Moab. Moab was east of the Dead Sea, a land that was evidently willing to accept displaced refugees. Set against this backdrop of natural disaster a more personal calamity adds insult to injury to this nuclear family. First Naomi’s husband died and then not long thereafter both her sons died, leaving her with no way to support herself, much less the Moabite wives taken by her sons. Some of us can relate to Naomi’s loss and disappointment, her grief and bitterness.

Naomi is bereft. She decides to return to Bethlehem and her family. As she and her two daughters-in-law are on the way it occurs to her that, similar to her own situation in Moab, should Orpha and Ruth stay with her they both would be aliens and widows in a foreign land. She advises them to return to their own families where things might not be good but certainly a place more likely to find a future than staying with her. Orpha saw the wisdom in that. Naomi, as a widow in Bethlehem would have a hard enough time meeting her own needs much less trying to care for two women of foreign birth. She returned to her mother in the hopes of finding a future. It was a mature choice and too often we fail to acknowledge her wisdom.

It’s in this chapter where we find the most famous passage in Ruth: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16). The bitterness of Naomi is not the whole of the story. Ruth’s loyalty, Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law holds the promise of something more.

I’ve wondered about how Naomi was received by those who had stayed behind in Bethlehem and endured the famine.  9So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; It can be hard for a community to fully embrace someone who withdrew from the community.  The other piece of that is that her old neighbors hardly recognized her.     

The text says that “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22). Naomi feels old and empty and not up to the physical challenges of working the fields. And though her presence reminds Naomi of her son’s death Ruth is with her, and the harvest is coming.

God does not speak from burning bushes in this book; nor does God divide the sea. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s faithfulness is embodied in human action. One example is Ruth asking permission of Naomi to go out to glean barley to sustain them. In answer to Boaz’ question of the identity of this foreigner gleaning in his field the servant reported “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

As the old adage goes, “A coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous” and the text reads: “as it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” When Boaz is introduced in the narrative he is described as a powerful man of integrity. He is a pillar of the community who also just happens to be related to Naomi’s dead husband. He is impressed with her stamina and commitment.  8Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.”

So Ruth asks “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 11But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”

Again, God does not speak from burning bushes in this book. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s faithfulness is embodied in human action.

Naomi sees the astonishing amount of barley that Ruth has gleaned and finds out that it is Boaz who has helped Ruth. And it is only then that Naomi begins to move from despair to hope. She recognizes in this turn of events the hand of God and she is quick to name God as the source of blessing: “Blessed be he [Boaz] by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” (Ruth 2:20). The tide is turning. Emptiness is being filled. Hope is born. And it is an old widow (one who has seen more than her share of sorrow) who recognizes the hand of God in these seemingly happenstance circumstances. Perhaps it is often thus: Those who have had long experience of seeing God at work can recognize and name those times in our own lives when miracles begin to happen.

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1st John – Epistle of Schism

It’s truly a fascination to see that nearly half of the 105 verses in 1st John are listed among the most favorite Bible verses. It is truly an orchard from which many verses have been cherry picked. It was a walk down memory lane as I read through it several times, getting caught on verses I had memorized.  

9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

9Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.10Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.1

1But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him23

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;

 19We love because he first loved us. 2 You could almost call this little book an Epistle of Love.

But that’s what makes it so confusing. It’s context is one of a nasty quarrel between people who were supposed to love each other. It raises questions like: Was it was written before or after the Gospel of John? Was it ‘assembled’ from many sources over time with new elements being added? Either of these being true would certainly help explain the essential incoherence of the book which many biblical scholars have reluctantly admitted. J. H. Houlden referred to 1st John “a puzzling work” and suggests that “to find a single logical thread … is liable to lead to infinite complexity or to despair.” I’ve got to say that man speaks my mind.

Not a single Gospel detail is included in 1st John. No teachings are attributed to any human Jesus and there is no specific reference to the cross and nothing at all about the resurrection. The fundamental doctrines of the Gospel are simply not there.

In the Gospel of John Jesus promises to send an advocate to “be with you forever, the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). This is pretty essential to Quaker faith and practice because the promise by Jesus is that this Spirit will be our comforter and guide. This is the Christ who has come to teach his people himself. 1st John shows no knowledge of such an advocate.   The mention in 1st John of an advocate is not an abiding spirit among us but Jesus himself interceding with God in heaven.

The expectation that the church faced a long-term future as the first century passed into the second accounts for the Gospel of John abandoning the expectation of an immediate end of the world. Yet the Epistle speaks of living in “the last hour” (2:18). So then how do we account for this regression to a more primitive eschatology?

And just as unsettling is its’ Theo-centricity in contrast with the Gospel’s Christo-centricity. Believers are “God’s children.” The text says that it is God who is light with no word of Jesus’ own declaration that “I am the light of the world…” The Gospel centers on Christ Jesus but in 1st John God holds center stage with Jesus in a supporting role. It is God “who dwells within us” (3:24). Keeping Jesus’ commands is of major importance in the Gospel. In 1st John knowing and keeping the commands of God is one of the central issues.On multiple occasions the epistle tells the reader to ‘love one another’ and this admonition comes from God, ignoring the many times the Gospel puts those words in Jesus’ mouth. The concept of Jesus as a teacher is nowhere in evidence in the epistle, even amid references to the idea of Christian teaching.

The picture of Christ presented in 1st John is remarkably more primitive than what we find in the Gospel. How could the author simply rid his mind of the Jesus presented by the Gospel of John?

Scholars who argue that the Gospel was composed before 1st John acknowledge that the opening of 1st John is “a poor imitation” of the Gospel’s Prologue. In “recasting” the mighty Prologue the writer discards the Word and its incarnation. He drops any references to pre-existence and creation; and the figure of John the Baptist disappears altogether. Does he now disagree that Jesus is the Logos or Word of God, or that this Word was made flesh? The obvious explanation is that the opening passage of the epistle is an earlier formulation of Christian orthodoxy focusing on the “message” about eternal life that the community has received by revelation, and the Gospel is of a later period which adopts Jesus as the proclaimer of the message and an incarnation of the Word itself.

The occasion for the composition of 1st John was a nasty, name calling church split between those who adhered to the initial Jewish outlook held by the community from its beginnings, a faith based entirely on God, and those who embraced a new development in their faith, the existence of the intermediary Son. This group became convinced that the Son is the avenue to the Father; to be without him is to be without the Father. Both groups claim to be legitimate representatives of their tradition but the group holding to the traditional views, we are told, have “gone out,” since they cannot accept the new doctrine.

            Were the progressives pushing a view which was not part of the original “knowledge” bestowed by the rite of anointing? That this new perspective it did not go back to the beginning is suggested by the very fact that the writer does not specifically make such a claim. 2:24 reads “If you keep in your hearts that which you heard at the beginning . . . (then) you will dwell in the Son and also in the Father.”

Aside from the fact that what was heard is not spelled out, the point is not presented as an argument to prove the group’s position against their opponents. 3:11 actually states the message which was heard at the beginning is: “that we should love one another.” The writer does not state that the doctrine of the Son was part of the original message. The phrase in 1:3c linking the “Son Jesus Christ” to the Father is a new addition to the initial version of the group’s self understanding by someone who subsequently chose to see the Son as implied in the sect’s original revelation.

           If the doctrine of the Son is relatively new, at least in its acceptance by the community, how can the writer speak as though the antichrist (meaning the one destined to be against the Messiah) was a traditional part of the congregation’s expectations? Because the idea of a “man of lawlessness,” an agent of Satan (or Satan himself), was well established in Jewish apocalyptic expectation, a figure who would oppose God’s work and that of his Messiah at the End-time establishment of the Kingdom. There is no record of the term “antichrist” before 1 John, and scholarship generally regards the term as invented by the writer of this epistle. And in 1st John it is applied, not to some bigger than life power but to the conservatives who felt they needed to part company from the progressives over this shift in understanding the faith.

Walter Bauer said that, not unlike all ancient history, early Christian history was written to show Constantinian triumph and Catholic orthodoxy as provided for by God. The Christianity of second-century Ephesus did not meet the standards of an emerging Catholic Orthodoxy. Some blamed Paul who had planted the church in Ephesus. They sought replace him as patron saint with John. F.C. Baur wrote that “Paul had laid the foundation in Ephesus and built up a church through several years of labor. If Romans 16 represents a letter to the Ephesians, then, on the basis of verses 17-20, we must conclude that already during the lifetime of the apostle, certain people were there whose teaching caused offense and threatened division in the community. 1st Corinthians 16:9 tells us of ‘many adversaries’ in Ephesus. In any event, the book of Acts has Paul warning the Ephesians … that from their own midst there will arise men speaking perverse things to draw away the Christians for themselves (20:30). In Revelation the recollection of a Pauline establishment of the church of Ephesus was suppressed…On the foundations of the new Jerusalem (21:4) only the names of the twelve apostles are there. There is no room for Paul. And at the very least, it will be but a short time before the Apostle to the Gentiles will have been totally displaced in the consciousness of the church of Ephesus in favor of John.

The earliest Christians in Ephesus were Jewish Christians who believed that the Christian faith was continuous with the Jewish faith and who were content to live within the context of a Jewish community. Their view of Jesus was that he was the Messiah who had come and then promised to return to fulfill the hopes of the Jews as well as the Christians. The expulsion of the Christian community from the Jewish synagogue had a mighty effect on the Christian community, producing a trauma of faith of major proportions. It was amid this crisis the author of the Gospel of John gathered the traditions of the community and interpreted them to address the needs of the newly isolated community.

The community became an independent Christian body though there were some internal conflicts over the interpretation of the original gospel and proper belief and practice in particular. The author of 1st John says that a group had gone out from the ranks of the community. Both parties knew the proclamation of Christianity but they interpreted it differently. Each of the disputing parties were making the claim that its interpretation of the Gospel was correct. The secessionists so stressed the divine principle in Jesus that his earthly career was neglected. They apparently believed that the human existence of Jesus, while real, was not significant for one’s salvation. The only important thing for them was that eternal life had been brought down to men and women through a divine Son who passed through this world. The author faults the secessionists on three grounds. First, they claimed an intimacy with God to the point of being perfect or sinless. Second, they placed an inadequate emphasis on keeping the commandments. Third, they were vulnerable on the subject of neighborly love.

So what did I learn from all this? From the very beginning people within the community of faith have held contradictory beliefs. The reason the Gospel of John is so different from the synoptics is simply because people remember things differently. They use different words to describe their spirituality. That’s nothing new. But the lesson that I find beneath the nasty battle for orthodoxy in Ephesus is that despite the differences in our describing our faith experiences we are called to love each other. In the fourth chapter we read this: 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Evidently the two sides to this church squabble couldn’t see how this injunction was applicable to them. Were it not for those lovely cherry picked verses I have no doubt that 1st John would have been excluded from the canon of scripture.

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A Small Tract

1st John 1:1-2:18

I think Quakers should be able to understand the religious tract named 1st John better than most. It is the declaration of a common experience, something experience by a ‘we’ not an “I. ”  The author isn’t an “I.” And for that if for no other reason 1st John is anonymous. There has been a lot of ink spilled arguing over its authorship but it really isn’t that important. It seems to come from a collective – a writers group – who felt drawn to share their experience and what it means to be a community of faith.

“It was there all the time, from the beginning.” What an interesting way to start. It’s like saying ‘how could we have missed it?” It’s like Oracle Jones in the movie Hallelujah Trail “I see it.  I see it now!” But now we see, we hear, we feel and we testify to that experience. “The Word of Life.” While the Gospel of John begins by proclaiming Jesus as the Word, here the connection is sketchier and broader than the historic Jesus. The Word of Life isn’t limited to an individual it is about a life shared with the “Father and his Son Jesus Christ” and with us.

What’s the message? Well, despite Jesus saying “I am the Light of the World” the tract says “:…that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” No darkness – you can’t be in the light and yet for some things be out of the light. Your walk, your life much more than your voice declares whether you are in the light.  The role  1st John plays  for us is setting up for us a set of queries – a challenge to evaluate our lives and our relationship with God and the faith community.

1st John isn’t a letter like the Epistles in the New Testament. And it certainly isn’t a Gospel. What it is is a religious tract and as such it is a testimony of a faith community.   And it is written to a vastly different world than the Jewish world to which most of the New Testament is directed. There’s a section on knowing God. Now the Jewish understanding of how we know God is through revelation. God is the initiator. Not so for the Hellenist. The text reads: “Here is the test by which we can make sure that we know him: do we keep his commands?” A bit later the text reads: “Here is the test by which we can make sure that we are in him: whoever claims to be dwelling in him binds himself to live as Christ himself lived.”   These are questions about knowing God and being in God. These are not new categories of thought for the Greek mind. Hundreds of years before this time the Classical Greek person was convinced that they could arrive at God by the sheer process of intellectual reasoning and argument. This philosophic mind examined everything – all the world is the proper study of man; no question is wrong to ask; God must explain God’s self for did he not make man so?” The way to know God was intellectually. But an intellectual approach isn’t necessarily ethical. If your religion is a series of calculations to be solved and God is the solution it may give you intellectually stimulation and satisfaction but it does not necessarily result in moral action.

Later Greeks, in the period of the New Testament, sought to find God in emotional experience. These were the mystery religions whose goal was union with the divine.  They were played out in passion plays about some god who lived and suffered terribly and died a cruel death and rose again. The candidate would be prepared by a long course of instruction, ascetic disciplines to practice and would be worked up into a pitch of expectation and emotional sensitivity and then invited to witness in a passion play the suffering, dying and rising god. The whole event was carefully staged with lighting effects, sensuous music; incense and a marvelous liturgy. Being worked up into such an emotional frenzy the candidate would cry out “I am thou and thou art I” and he shared in the god’s suffering and shared in his victory and immortality. This accounts for the sacrificial language and the identification of some as having been “initiated.” Feeling God in this way was a way of escaping life and its ethical challenges.

As a tract 1st John doesn’t intend to provide a complete theology, and regardless of the theology of the reader it challenges expressions of faith that lack an ethical element.

When this tract was in circulation in Christian circles those of whom the faith in the resurrected Messiah consisted were second and third generation followers. Christianity had become habitual for many, traditional and nominal. There were many for whom living ‘like Christ’ had become burdensome. They didn’t want to be ‘saints’ in any New Testament sense. It’s a big concept at work in the Greek word hagios. It meant set apart – like the Temple; it meant being of a different character like the Sabbath. The expectations of being part of the faith community set people apart from the values of the world. There was a new standard of personal behavior that was to take over one’s life, a new kindness the permeated relationships, a new call to service, a new forgiveness and all of that was difficult to live out in the culture of the day. People didn’t want to stand out, be different. They didn’t want to refuse to conform to the generally accepted standards and practices of the age.

You see, the challenge being faced by the faith community didn’t come from without – it came from within. Actually those to whom it is addressed sincerely thought they were making the church more accessible to the general population. Couldn’t it be more intellectually respectable and more socially amenable?

            And wouldn’t it be great if it all didn’t seem so contemporary.  

1 John 1:1 – 2:5

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

3Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. 4Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; 5but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him:

6whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

7Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. 9Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. 10Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. 11But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

12I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. 13I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one. 14I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. 15Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

 

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Desires of the Heart

Exodus 20:17; accompanying text: Matthew 22:34-40

The Desires of the Heart — Do Not Covet

Did you notice that when we read the second tablet commandments one was repeated? “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse.”   Normally when we repeat something we are either revealing our level of dementia or we are trying to make a point. I’m thinking that God was making a point! There’s a fruitless debate between one tradition which counts “You shall not covet” though mentioned twice, as one commandment. Those traditions which count, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse” as separate commandments are making a spiritually significant point. I think they are telling us that the so called “big sins” start when our gaze falls on something that belongs to someone else.

There are two pretty clear Old Testament examples:

Let’s start with King David? The Bible says that one evening he got up off his couch and was walking around the roof of his palace and his eyes fell on his neighbor Uriah’s wife, while she was bathing.   David wasn’t deprived of female companionship, he had a wife and access to other women who lived in the palace. But he decided he couldn’t live without having Bathsheba. And he had her. And when she came up pregnant he arranged for her husband Uriah and the entire company who was fighting David’s war to be slaughtered. And it all started with a little lustful coveting (II Samuel 11-12).

Then there was King Ahab and Jezebel. Right near their palace, a faithful fellow named Naboth had his household and vineyard. The king offered to buy the vineyard or swap the land for a better stretch of land. Naboth wasn’t interested as so refused. Jezebel brought false charges against Naboth and paid two men to perjure themselves by testifying falsely against Naboth. In the end Naboth was dead and Ahab and Jezebel got the vineyard. And it all started with a little coveting (See 1 Kings 21).

The prohibition of “You shall not covet” is, in one way, a fence or boundary keeping us at a safe distance from the very serious sins that may result from it and that may cause very serious harm to others: theft, adultery, and – most serious of all – murder.
Were that all at work in this verse it simply results in one of the Ten Commandments being an auxiliary to the commandments that precede it – “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal.” That could cause the prohibition of coveting to lose its own independent significance.

These prohibitions against coveting teaches us that a person may harm a neighbor even through mere thought. Your desire for “whatever belongs to your neighbor” represents a spiritual “encroachment” and although the damage is not visible, it can be even more serious.   It may not be measurable in financial terms, nor can the coveter be sued in a court, but on a very basic level it can destroy what are potentially positive relationships among people and families.

The limitation that it places on a person’s internal, emotional world – gives rise to another possible explanation: this prohibition is meant to bring the person who finds themselves coveting to a higher level of spiritual purity, free of forbidden desires. It is not the “neighbor” that the Torah means to protect here. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated concept, especially since there are those who purposely dress, act or conduct themselves to arouse the envy of their neighbor.

There is another way of considering the implication of this commandment. It comes down to trusting God. When we are satisfied with our portion of the things of this life which God has entrusted to our use and care our heart does not covet what God did not wish for us to have. We cannot take it by force or by thoughts or schemes. We have faith in our Creator, that God will provide for us and do what is good in God eyes.

Trusting God to provide disarms the attraction of coveteousness to the point where we can look at anything that is pleasant to our eyes without such things arousing in us the desire to attain them. It is a religious prohibition. God has forbidden to us our neighbors spouse or house. Here’s a re-formulation of the commandment: “Do not covet that which God has forbidden to you or does not wish to give you. Rather, be satisfied with what you have, with the knowledge that this is the lot that God has assigned you.”

This law is meant to protect us from the harm of desiring and coveting something that is outside of our reach, and that the object of the prohibition is “all that belongs to your neighbor” – because it is the very ownership of the object by someone else that makes the desire for it a desire for the unattainable. It is an illegitimate, prohibited desire.

Philo of Alexandria declared that “You shall not covet” is a central pillar of moral instruction. There is the individual aspect of this command which intends the spiritual education and elevation of an individual, but ultimately concludes that that significance of violation of this command on the family, the land and all of mankind can ultimately be destroyed as a result of unbridled desire. The command “You shall not covet” therefore has the potential to save the world.

On a map of the Middle East drawn before 1917 you won’t see Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan or Palestine. The British and French created those political entities to maintain their own rule over what had been the Ottoman Empire, lands that had economic or strategic significance to them. France claimed the lands from the Lebanese border to Mosul; Britain got part of Palestine and Jordan and Southern Iran from Baghdad to Basra. France gave up northern Iraq in exchange for 25 percent of the oil revenues and took greater Syria which they divided up into Lebanon and Syria. Today’s winds of change are erasing those lines drawn a century ago in the Middle Eastern sands. The was growing interest in Great Britain at this time on using Palestine instead of Uganda as a Jewish state.

 

Environmental implications: selling our abundant coal which will pollute China’s air, indiscriminant drilling practices that destroy water sources; desecration of creation and fouling natural resources that belong to future generations for our own interests.

And think about the economic implications – what is slavery but the taking not merely the house or spouse but the whole life of another for our own self aggrandizement. And what of the use of our vast military establishment when it is used to secure for us access to oil for instance? God said: “You shall not covet…”

 

 

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Second Tablet – Neighbors…

The Second Table — Turned Toward the Neighbor

Exodus 20:12-17

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Matthew 22:34-40 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

Summer got here. We just passed the summer solstice which happened just before noon last Saturday. Next came the feast day of John the Baptist on June 24, which undoubtably everyone commemorated….You understand the significance? In John 3:30 John wrote: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” So as days start to grow shorter we celebrate John the Baptist. Of course, come the winter solstice, right after December 21 we celebrate Jesus. Like the feast day for John the Baptist the Roman Catholics call it Christ Mass. It’s surprising how many people actually think Jesus was born on December 25. It’s just another way that over the centuries our faith tradition has found it possible to use the events of nature to declare the good news. And now, in its proper order comes the Fourth of July. It is our National Holiday.

What answer do you think you’d get from most people were you to ask them “What are we commemorating on the Fourth of July. Do you think you’d get more than a blank stare? In Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was signed. It changed the world forever. Some men stood up and signed their names to a document that branded them as traitors. There was courage among them but also fear. They joked to help break the tension. Plantation owner Benjamin Harrison of Virginia was a huge man and he turned and to Elbridge Gerry, a prosperous Massachusetts merchant he said “I will have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry when we are all hung for what we are doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” I guess you could call that gallows humor. When later Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania wrote John Adams of Massachusetts he recalled what he referred to in his letter as ‘the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up one after another, to the table of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at the time to be our own death warrants… Why were these people willing to risk their lives? What did they want? They wanted to be free. They were determined to be free…free to run their own country and write their own laws. In their day, that just wasn’t the way the world worked.

As we’ve been looking at the Ten Commandments we’ve seen how a liberated people are to live. Remember the words in the preamble, I guess I can call it a preamble as well as an introduction. In Exodus 19 the Lord called to him (Moses) from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. .

Then God spoke all these words: in Exodus 20: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Again, it’s past tense. I brought you out, out of Egypt and out of slavery. It is the story of freedom but God already dealt with the “freedom from” part. Now he tells them what “freedom to…” looks like.

How do you conceive of freedom? Is it as an end in and of itself? Is it unimpeded access to any choice, as in always keeping your options open? Since 2006 we have endured thirty-three mass shootings. Of the 143 guns used more than three quarters were obtained legally. The arsenal included dozens of assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high capacity magazines. Jeffrey Weise used a .40-caliber Glock to slaughter students in Red Lake, Minnesota. James Holmes did to, along with an AR-15 assault rifle. Adam Lanza chose a Bushmaster semi-automatic to massacred 20 school children and six adults. Is intentionally intimidating people by brandishing your Glock in a public place and declaring your rights what freedom is about? Freedom is not when the powerful take whatever they want, but when we respect the property and space of others and when we do our best to help them maintain it and retain it. Freedom is not when the strong dominate the weak, but when the bodies and lives of all — from the impoverished, to the handicapped, the vulnerable, to the elderly — are protected and their rights are respected. Freedom is not the endless satisfaction of every impulse, but the commitment of people to each other.

These laws are not to make our lives into self-help projects, but rather to turn one neighbor towards the other in a shared spirit of community. The point of the law is not self-improvement, but neighbor-improvement. Jesus said that: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the second greatest commandment. Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18b.

The purpose of the law is not “your best life now,” but rather “your neighbor’s best life now.” God in God’s meddling grace unweaves all the fibers of hateful and fearful creation and then reweaves them into a renewed and repaired creation. God says to us, “For as long as you’re here you are to love your neighbor.”

We respond, “OK, God, we understand that love is the best way but…. But, how do I love my neighbor?”

God says, “OK, let me be a little more explicit. Make sure everyone gets time off each week, take care of the elderly (they may not be your parents but they are somebodies and they are your neighbor), don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t have sex with someone else’s spouse, don’t hurt your neighbor with your words, don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff. That’s how you love your neighbor.”

So is this just a revered antique that deserves being preserved on a plaque on the court house grounds? What’s this don’t kill thing – God certainly wouldn’t have included public executions of notorious felons? God certainly would make exceptions for military personnel engaged in protecting our national interests.

And who are we kidding about not stealing. Financial institutions do it all the time. So do corporations that use slave labor and child labor and steal income for undocumented workers. And what about corporations that intentionally defile the environment because they can do it legally? And we couldn’t be more complicit as we celebrate the Dow Jones report and cash our dividend checks.

And sex. My goodness, it seems to be open season on bed swapping, at least if you catch the life and times of persons in the entertainment world who, by the way, have a huge influence over the almost mature in our country. And hurting people with words…you can’t have missed the level of what masquerades as civil discourse today. Just turn on to AM radio stations or venture into the vast wisdom shared by talking heads on television intent on shaping the opinions.    

I said this two weeks ago, but it bears repeating. The law isn’t about you. It’s about your neighbor. And God loves your neighbor so much that God gives you the law. And God loves you so much, that God gives your neighbor the exact same law.

In other words, in the second table of the Decalogue we find good news. Good news for truly free people. Good news for us and for our neighbor.

 

 

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Ten Commandments – First Tablet

Lessons About the Lord for Gen Exers. Exodus 20:3-11 Matthew 22:34-40

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lordyour God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Today we are going to look at the first set of commandments, the so called first tablet, which describe our relationship with God. These words, were we to take them seriously instead of using them for political posturing, would dramatically change the landscape of our lives.  To do so would be extremely difficult, especially for we Americans.  They show us what is required for a life of faith attuned to God. They show us that in order to be attuned with God there are things from which we need to turn away,  things that we prefer instead of God. And they show us that we are to use some of our time and to use God’s name in order to tune into God. Did you catch the consequences of failure? for I the Lordyour God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me….

To start with, we Americans detest being ‘lorded over’.  What fueled our nation’s birth and continues to propel our political life is our unquenchable desire to be the king, to be the international super power that is able to exercise dominion over the people and resources of the whole globe.  Lord is the word used to describe one who has authority, control or power over others. Through one’s Lord one would have a livelihood and protection.  The word derives from a tribal chieftain who provides food for his followers.   In the Bible, where in the New Testament alone it is used over 700 times is refers to a person who exercises absolute ownership rights. We’ve decided that “we the people” can do that for ourselves. How can we tolerate the very idea of having a Lord?  For many law and order folks this part of the Ten Commandments has less meaning than any other bumper sticker. Thank you God, but we don’t want or need your Lordship.  Let me show you what happens were you to let God be Lord of your life.      

The first commandment is the ultimate one – nothing should be in our lives ahead of God. As Moses says in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Jesus says Matthew 22:34-40, this means we are to love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our might or mind. If we center our lives around things other than God — whether it be money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty, even religion, — others, and more specifically our progeny will suffer.  But isn’t that like the threat of global warming and environmental deterioration?  That can’t be considered in how we do business.  Future generations will get to find solutions to their own problems, like building ever higher levees to keep rising sea levels out of cities.  We can’t let future degradation get in the way of our bottom line, seeking money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty and religion is what it is all about.  

The second commandment means not having idols in our lives. We all know what an idol is.  It is a statue made of wood, stone or metal worshipped by pagan people or maybe an amulet that we hope will give us protection against evil, danger or disease.  Martin Luther said  “A god is anything upon which you set your heart and put your trust.” Anything!  An idol can be anything we love, worship, or center our lives around that isn’t God.

How about an economic system in which we put our faith​? How about a stock of precious metals just in case the economic system we say we trust fails?  How about weapons to protect your household from invasion, or on a much larger scale an enormous military ostensibly to protect our boarders but used to bully other nations into compliance wit our economic interests.  Not having our idols, not having anything substituting for God just doesn’t fit well into our way of life.  It is almost audacious of God –imagine, suggesting that as a person of faith I might have to say “no” to some things in order to say “yes” to God. Why can’t I just believe in God and other things, too? Why do I have to turn away from other gods? In Japan I can be both a Buddhist and a Shinto. Can’t I trust free market economics and trust God? Can we hold as a belief at the same moment that we were created, redeemed, and empowered to serve what God created and loved and at the same time believe that some other power has done these things. God demands we love God alone.

But we cannot do this — we cannot love God more than things or ourselves. Our lives are cluttered with other gods, many things that we love and trust more than God.

The third commandment is that the Lord has given us the divine name “The Lord” in order that we might call upon God for forgiveness, sing out in thanksgiving and praise, and cry out for deliverance and healing. God’s name is poured over and into us with the coming of Christ’s spirit. That’s what Pentecost is all about.  The life of faith consists of learning the implication of using God’s name. What does it mean for you to use someone else’s name?   Have you ever let someone use your credit card?  That’s sort of what this is like.  God let’s us use God’s name.  How we live then reflects on God.  I know of one person who insists that if you said grace in a restaurant you shouldn’t stiff the waitress. I wonder if that has implications on how you drive, especially if you have religious stickers on your bumper. Flying under the banner of God, we are expected to live up to certain expectations. You might have caught the less than veiled consequences for misusing the name.

Fourth, loving God means keeping the Sabbath. Of course it includes a time of worship among us as participants in a community of faith but it’s quite a bit more than that. Keeping the Sabbath isn’t about constraints we put on ourselves during a 24 hour period.  It is living in the awareness that every moment is sacred, every moment is an opportunity to serve our Lord. The broader meaning implied is more like the Day of the Lord.

Francis Howgill, an early Quaker trained as an Anglican priest, wrote this of the Day of the Lord. The appearance of God, who is eternal life, in his day, in his immeasurable Light, is a great joy, and source of rejoicing to the righteous. For he is to his people an everlasting light, and in his light they come to see light. He reveals the secret mysteries of his kingdom in those who see his day appear in their hearts, which makes all things manifest, even the secrets of the Lord, and his hidden treasure, and his durable riches which never canker or rust, but are fresh, and keep their pure image and impression. By this Light all the righteous, who have waited on God’s appearance, come to see Him. As it is written, “Lo! This is our God, we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” Does he indeed come that you have waited for? Yes, Come, “and his reward in with Him;” … What was the witness of his disciples? “the son of God has come and has given us an understanding.” Of what? Of God, of his day, of his appearance, of his power, of his wisdom, of his kingdom, of hope, of faith, of assurance, of peace, of joy, of comfort and consolation. What? In his life? Yes!

The reason we keep the Sabbath, according to Deuteronomy, is that our people used to know what life was like when we had a lord named Pharaoh who did not allow days off. Put yourselves in the feet of the Exodus generation. For years they served Pharaoh, a burdensome master who gave no days off and when complaints arose, who said, “Now make bricks without straw.” God graciously intruded into that reality and said to the people, “You will no longer serve Pharaoh, you will serve me. And to serve me means that once every seven days, you, your kids, your workers, even your animals get the day off.” Why? Because God’s gracious intrusion into human existence was not a one-time event, but a regular, ritualized reality.

On one very simple level “The Sabbath” was the first fair labor law. Not only were the heads of households to rest, but also the working poor, the undocumented workers, the slaves, and even the animals were to be given rest. Keeping the Sabbath, first and foremost, is about lives that are captured by a God who keeps faith with us and who keeps on intruding graciously into our lives. But again, every day, in relationship with God should be a day of peace and justice.

In the Old Testament laws God offers a series of other sabbatical laws. Once every seven years, the land is given a rest — “the seventh year you shall let it rest …so that the poor of your people may eat.”  God’s gracious intrusion now spreads over the course of years and it is for the sake of the poor. Once every seven years, all debts are to be forgiven God announced. Why? For the sake of charity and stewardship.  And it gets even stickier.  Every seven years slaves are to go free – it’s God’s gracious intrusion to free those in chains. God’s gracious intrusion ensures that the means of life are not monopolized by the few. How does that square with the gods of our world? How do we deal with thirty year mortgages? How do we in good conscience purchase goods manufactured by the economic slaves?  What about persons sentenced to make restitution for damages done to their victim and while they are incarcerated the interest on their indebtedness continues to grow. What about people sentenced to jail for indebtedness? Is there no forgiveness?

Keeping the Sabbath is about an entire way of living. A way of life that is in keeping with the One who keeps faith with us. 

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Ten Words

Ten Words

Exodus 19:1-6

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” 

Exodus 20: 

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….;

 

Matthew 22: 35 – 39

…one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

To prepare a message on The Ten Commandments is a tough challenge.  Depending on who is doing the looking they occur two or three times in the Old Testament.  They are found in Exodus 20, Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 5.

When you start looking closely at them you find interesting things like in Exodus 20 the motive for keeping the Sabbath is based on God’s blessing and will for creation:  “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” In Deuteronomy, however, the motive for keeping the Sabbath is based on Israel’s experience of being rescue from Egyptian bondage: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” The former emphasizes the Sabbath as blessing, the latter emphasizes the Sabbath as an institution of justice — the first fair labor law.

Jews, Protestant Christians and Catholics number the versions differently and if you do a careful review you will discover that under the banner of “The Ten Commandments” there are nineteen commands or prohibitions within which some identify 25 instructions.  When the question of what set of words should be placed in public places what is most widely chosen is the Protestant version of Exodus 20.

Two key things need to be established first.  The relationship God establishes with the chosen people always comes first – it is literally primary. The legal stipulations, with its ethical demands on our behavior, comes second – it is literally secondary. In Exodus 19 God says, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”(19:3b-6a).  I love the metaphor of being borne on eagles’ wings.  I sure it must our literalists friends heartburn.

The start of Exodus 20, verses 1-2 — what most Christians refer to as the “prologue” to the Ten Commandments, but which Jews consider the “First Word” — makes the same point: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

This is really important.  First God establishes a relationship with us. Only then does God make a claim on our behavior.

There are a couple of other things about the law that are good for us to know.

The first is that God did not give the law as a means to salvation. It’s not possible to use the law to earn salvation, to win one’s soul way into heaven.

The second is that God did not give the law as a way to establish a relationship with the people. God established the relationship and then gave the law.

Then there’s this big thing about the Law. It may come as a surprise.  It isn’t about “you,” per se.  God didn’t give us the law in order to make you a better you or me a better me.  The law is not about us — it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.

Think about it.  Notice how many times God made this point in the Ten Commandments: Do not bear false witness against your neighbor. Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse. When it is the day of rest, make sure that all of your neighbors — from yours sons and daughters right down to your sheep and oxen — get to rest just like you do. And, oh yes, the elderly — “your father and your mother” — are still your neighbors too.

Paul makes the same point in Galatians: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Paul isn’t saying that if you have warm fuzzy feelings about your neighbor, then you’ve done all that you have to do. Rather, the word that is translated here as “summed up” is similar to the modern economic metaphor of the bottom line, and that can help us understand Paul’s message. Paul is saying: The bottom line of the entire law is that it is about loving the neighbor.

And that’s good news. At least it’s good news for my neighbor. God loves them so much that God tells me not to kill, steal, commit adultery, and so on. And good news for me. God loves me so much that God tells my neighbor not to kill, steal, and so on.

One more thing.  The Ten Commandments are for free people, for people whom God has freed: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” “I bore you on eagles’wings.” These commandments are not meant to limit our freedom by telling us what things we are not free to do (although these laws do precisely that). These commandments are what lives freed in Christ look like. The law shows us what that free life looks like.

In Matthew 22:34-40. Jesus (consistent with first century Rabbinic teaching) declares that two commandments are the greatest: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

This reading has two points. The first point is that the first table of the law can be summarized: Love the Lord your God. And the second table of the law can be summarized: Love your neighbor as yourself. The second point is that the purpose of the commandments is love. We do not keep the commandments for our own pleasure or benefit. Rather, we keep them as a way to love God and our neighbor.

 

 

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