Change in Administration

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”  Anxiety from the top levels of government about immigrant labor foments fear and results in oppression and ethnic  about undocumented workers

We recall how the sons of Jacob and Rachel migrated to Egypt.  Their eleventh son, Joseph, was sold to some Arab traders and wound up in an important administrative post in Egypt. When climate change caused famine in the land of promise Jacob and his sons migrated to  Egypt.  After an initial challenge they were received with honor but then, when the administration changed the text says the King: said to his people “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.  As it began, the policy was apartheid, plain and simple.

I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty contemporary. Fear, from the very top. Identifying an oppressed people as the enemy – well, how can you be sure they won’t side with our enemies and their homes are scattered through out all our neighborhoods and they have a different language and a different religion.

But it got even more difficult.  The Pharoah announced a practice of eliminating male children. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

We don’t know anything about Moses’ parents other than the text says a man from the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman and their male child was born at this time when Pharaoh required that all Hebrew male newborn were to drowned in the Nile. That Moses’ mother hide her son for as long as possible testifies to the first act of civil disobedience recorded in scripture. The midwives refused to carry out the kings orders and Hebrew sons continued to be added to the number of the feared immigrants.

The infant was put in a water proofed basket and floated in the Nile. When the king’s daughter came to bathe in the river she found the basket.  She surmised that the child was of the race of slaves but saved him from the water anyway and despite the policy of the king chose to raise him as her child.  When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” 

Being adopted by Pharoah’s daughter changed the life of one insignificant immigrant boy.  In the first part of his life he was raised by his own family, protected by wages from the king’s daughter.  But then, coming of age in the family of Egyptian aristocracy endowed him with a real sense of ambiguity and mixed loyalty. At what point did he really understand his unique position and the opportunities that it presented?  Yet the text seems clear that he wasn’t at all confused about who were ‘his’ people. Time and again what gets Moses in hot water is his low tolerance for injustice.

11One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. 12He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

In these couple of  verses we have a story of abuse by someone in authority – I mean the Egyptian who beat one of Moses’ kin.  Moses reacts to violence with violence and stealth, kills the Egyptian and buries his body.  And then there is an example of how being oppressed and struggling to survive divides rather than unites people.  I guess we could call it Hebrew on Hebrew violence. In interceding in the fight Moses learns how vulnerable he is. So –

Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. That would be some where in the wilderness of the northwestern Arabian peninsula and out of Pharoah’s jurisdiction.

16The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. Another example of Moses standing up against injustice.

The daughters returned with the story of how this Egyptian had come to their aid against the ruffians and how he had watered their livestock. . So Jethro invited him to come to supper and he ended up marrying one of the man’s daughters.  Moses says of himself:  “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”

After what is called ‘a long time’ the Pharoah from whom Moses’ fled died.  With the change of administration the burden of slavery increased and God heard the people’s groanings.

3Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11But Moses said to God,  “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?12He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” 13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Did you notice, the Lord, in the text, doesn’t answer Moses’ question “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  Who am I? He was the child of immigrant stock who suffered under policies of apartheid and we enslaved and oppressed.  He was an adopted son of the Egyptian royal family. And now he was the son-in-law of a nomadic Arabian herdsman, taking care of his flock and raising a family.  Who am I?  Moses asks.  And what God tells  him is important.  God simply says “I will be with you…”  And the sign of God’s presence with him wouldn’t be known until “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” 

Why does God tell Moses “I am who I am”? It seems like a riddle.  They tell me that in Hebrew it’s a play on words. To speak “I am” is very close to pronouncing the name God has been given “Yahweh”.  I’m not a Hebrew scholar but those who are say that God is saying to Moses “I know you are anxious, but do not fear, I am with you.” Living into the reality of God’s real presence brought Moses peace, a solid confidence which enabled him to move forward and brought liberation and an end to oppression and injustice to his people.  And as God called Moses to service, to what is God calling you?  If you think about it, it might upset  your whole life.  For Moses it called him from a beggarly existence, then from living the life of a one percenter and then from the life of a shepherd.  That’s what happened when he took the time to turn aside and explore that strangely burning bush.  So, what is God calling you to be about.  It might cause a panic attack, not only for you but also for those who depend on you but the good news in our story today is that God still is and says “I know you’re anxious, but do not fear, I am with you.”

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Wrestling Match

No longer the supplanter, the heel grabber, reborn with a new sense of being and a new name to go with it, Israel…  He is the one who struggles with God and prevails, the father a great nation.  Imagine, struggling with God and not letting go.  That is faithfulness.


Wrestling with “The Man”


Caleb, a sixteen year old, recently, for the first time, beat his father in tennis.  I think it was something of a rite of passage. It was a crossing.


Our text today is Genesis’ story of Jacob leaving his father-in-law with his two wives, 11 children, concubines, slaves, flocks and herds and now approaching the ford on the river Jabbok.  Twenty years before he had fled his home and crossed the Jabbok to find sanctuary with the family of his mother. We all remember that story.  Having more than enough his brother, Esau, from whom he had stolen his birthright and parental blessing, threatened to kill him. Over those two decades he served his father in law Laben he finally gained the love of his life and during the time with his family he amassed enormous holdings despite being badly treated. Now under threat from the family of his wives, in a dream God told Jacob to leave his adopted country and return to the land of his birth and with the support of Laben’s two daughters he began the migration.


But he hadn’t forgotten his brother’s threat.  He sent a message to  Esau that he was coming home and said that he hoped to find favor in his brother’s sight.  The messengers returned to tell Jacob that his brother was coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men.  Being afraid, he divided his party so that were Esau and company to destroy or capture one the other could be saved.    Intent on softening up his brother he then sent major gifts across the ford on the river Jabbok: goats, sheep, cattle, camels and donkeys. Later that night, under the shield of darkness, he took the members of his household and everything he owned across the river.  The text doesn’t tell us but it has to be presumed that Jacob returned across the Jabbok because he spent the night alone on the banks of the river  It was a place of darkness.  He will have to face his brother and deal with his guilt over stolen blessings. This is our text: Genesis 32:24-30

24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.


He limped across the river ford.


But what a night. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Peaks our interest doesn’t it?  A man, the text says.  And the man doesn’t prevail against Jacob.


Who was this masked man – well, this anonymous man with whom Jacob wrestled? In his imagination was it Esau, knowing he would soon be facing him.  Was it his father-in-law Laben who felt that Jacob had defrauded him and was leaving with with daughters and grand children? Was it Jacob himself? His past? His future? His identity? His faith? Yes.  And what did Jacob conclude.  He was wrestling with God. He puts Jacob’s hip out of place but Jacob held on until the man begged him to let go because day was dawning. Not with out a blessing Jacob demanded. And this would be a real blessing, not a stolen one.  In the moment Jacob stopped being Jacob and became Israel. In this ‘dark night of the soul” night time wrestling match Jacob was wounded and blessed.  What is it that makes that so normal, being wounded and being blessed going hand in hand?


The final line of our text is truly a life restoring one.  It reads: The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. No longer the supplanter, the heel grabber, reborn with a new sense of being and a new name to go with it, Israel.  He is the one who struggles with God and prevails, the father a great nation.  Imagine, struggling with God and not letting go.  That is faithfulness.


In the locker room of my high school Coach Burns put up a sign that read “Quiters never win and Winners never quit.” I’d question the use of this in a competitive sense but Jacob didn’t let go until sunrise threatened the man or, as Jacob declared, God.  I’ve wrestled with the idea of prevailing with God.  The wrestling match ended in a draw and the gift of a blessing and a crippling.  Do you imagine that with ever step Israel took for the rest of his life he was reminded of the blessing and with every celebration of enjoying the outcome of the blessing his limp reminded him of how God had blessed him.


The big issue that the story brought up for me is how we understand prevailing with God.  When Maggie, our eleven year old Boston Terrier was a pup a veterinarian told me that when we played tug if I didn’t let her win sometimes it would break her spirit.  I wonder about Jacob’s prevailing with God. To think that a human being could be in a contest with God and actually win, or prevail, challenges our notion of God being all powerful. To think that God let Jacob prevail suggests that God just plays with us. But can you imagine God being wrestled to a draw by faithfulness?  Can you imagine that going on in your life or mine.  It suggests that God isn’t static but spontaneous and is open to doing things in ways that encourage our faithfulness.


How do we connect with that?  Is it struggling with addiction or getting up each morning to face grief or loss that seems unbearable?  You know what it’s like to toss and turn all night not knowing what to do next.  That is the experience of crossing the Jabbok and it’s our experience in many different ways.   It’s a nightmare scenario.  It occurs in a place of wounding.  But it is also a place of rebirth and renaming and the place becomes a holy place. Jacob renames it Peniel, the place where he saw the face of God.


And what is your Jabbok experience?  We all have at least one. Most of us can identify where and how we’ve been wounded. And that wounding can cause us to limp through life, each step reminding us of our struggle. That makes it hard to see or trust the presence of the blessing. In the moment things are still too dark, we will need to wait for day break. But faithfulness, in the middle of the dark night struggle, is not letting go.  What’s in the future isn’t necessarily a rose garden situation.  It doesn’t mean that we can return to life the way it once was or as we’d prefer it to be.  It doesn’t mean that good relationships will magically be restored.  It means that God is faithful and we can move forward.  Blessed and renamed we can, like Jacob, cross the Jabbok and look  ahead.

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Something about that story intrigues me.  The ranks of the available personnel was whittled away. Twenty-two thousand warriors are released from duty leaving only a relatively small remnant.  And interestingly enough that was God’s will.   Ferreting out what God has in mind is always fraught with frustration and misunderstanding.  The fearful were released first taking the numbers down to ten thousand – still too many.  And then it was down to a  piddling three hundred.  I can only imagine what was going through the minds of that small battalion.

Having read the twenty four chapters of the Book of Joshua­ you’d think that Canaan had been conquered by the Israelites.  But then when you continuing reading Judges which describes the tribes settling the Promised Land you become aware that much of the territory hadn’t been subjugated.  Midianites and Amalekites, in great numbers, were a continual threat to the security of the tribal settlements.   There is an important truth underlying the reality described in these two books.  Yes, you can make a conscious decision to dedicate one’s life to obedient service to the Spirit of Christ, that’s the Joshua conquest but you will forever have to deal with the settlement realities of having to deal with conflicts within our selves.                                                           

Those of us of a more pacificist leaning tend to struggle with the God of the Old Testament.  The period of Israel’s conquest and settlement of the Promised Land filled with much violence.  For forty of those years Gideon served as God’s Judge over Israel. We remember him for his having put out the fleece of sheep to have his call verified by God.  And we also remember him for his victory over the Amalekites and the Midianites.  What we’ve too often overlooked is how that great victory was actually won.  God didn’t want Israel’s military to take credit.  God wanted Israel to know that they were indebted to God.

Judges 7: Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the troops that were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod; and the camp of Midian was north of them, below the hill of Moreh, in the valley. 2The Lord said to Gideon, “The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me.’ 3Now therefore proclaim this in the hearing of the troops, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.’” Thus Gideon sifted them out; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained. 4Then the Lord said to Gideon, “The troops are still too many; take them down to the water and I will sift them out for you there. When I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go with you; and when I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” 5So he brought the troops down to the water; and the Lord said to Gideon, “All those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, you shall put to one side; all those who kneel down to drink, putting their hands to their mouths, you shall put to the other side.” 6The number of those that lapped was three hundred; but all the rest of the troops knelt down to drink water. 7Then the Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hand. Let all the others go to their homes.” 8So he took the jars of the troops from their hands, and their trumpets; and he sent all the rest of Israel back to their own tents, but retained the three hundred. The camp of Midian was below him in the valley.

Something about that story intrigues me.  The ranks of the available personnel was whittled away. Twenty-two thousand warriors are released from duty leaving only a relatively small remnant.  And interestingly enough that was God’s will.   Ferreting out what God has in mind is always fraught with frustration and misunderstanding.  The fearful were released first taking the numbers down to ten thousand – still too many.  And then it was down to a  piddling three hundred.  I can only imagine what was going through the minds of that small battalion.

9That same night the Lord said to him, “Get up, attack the camp; for I have given it into your hand. 10But if you fear to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah; 11and you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to attack the camp.” Then he went down with his servant Purah to the outposts of the armed men that were in the camp. 12The Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the East lay along the valley as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore.

It calls to mind a song from my younger days;  It went something like this

(that famous day in history the men of the 7th cavalry went riding on) (and from the rear a voice was heard) (a brave young man with a trembling word rang loud and clear) What am I doin’ here? Please Mr. Custer, I don’t want to go Hey, Mr. Custer, please don’t make me go I had a dream last night about the comin’ fight Somebody yelled “attack!” And there I stood with a arrow in my back.

13When Gideon arrived, there was a man telling a dream to his comrade; and he said, “I had a dream, and in it a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and came to the tent, and struck it so that it fell; it turned upside down, and the tent collapsed.” 14And his comrade answered, “This is no other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, a man of Israel; into his hand God has given Midian and all the army.” 15When Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped; and he returned to the camp of Israel, and said, “Get up; for the Lord has given the army of Midian into your hand.”

16After he divided the three hundred men into three companies, and put trumpets into the hands of all of them, and empty jars, with torches inside the jars, 17he said to them, “Look at me, and do the same; when I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. 18When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then you also blow the trumpets around the whole camp, and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon!’” 19So Gideon and the hundred who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch; and they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. 20So the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars, holding in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow; and they cried, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” 21Every man stood in his place all around the camp, and all the men in camp ran; they cried out and fled.

Did you catch that line “I had a dream, and in it a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian,…”  It’s a great story.  Barley bread is humble and crumbly.  It is the main stay of those who can’t afford the good stuff.  The Midianites considered the Israelites to be like barley bread, of poor quality yet the dream describes God uses that which is considered the lesser to overturn what is considered to be superior.  Hearing the dream related gave Gideon the confidence to move forward with his effort.  The dream, being reported through out the ememy camp was sufficient to demoralize the Midians.

And of what did Gideon’s plan consist?   Three hundred men surrounding the invaders camp with torches in jars and trumpets; not a sword among them.  The sound of smashing earthen ware jars with the flare of three hundred torches augmented by three hundred trumpets was enough, in God’s hands, to rout the enemy.

In Ephesians 3:14-21Paul wrote this:  My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.


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Genesis Two

God gets dirty hands from forming humanity.  Go figure.  God communicates with what God created.  Plants a garden and offers companionship and sustenance. Later we hear of God enjoying the evening breezes walking in the garden.  How thoughtful; our scriptures give us different understandings of God. In the two versions of creation’s story I prefer this more ‘humaney’  God.  It gives me hope.

Genesis Two

Each year, about this time, the Narrative Lectionary restarts telling the story of God’s relationship to humanity.  It’s not hard to guess where that starts Biblically.  This year starts with the story of Creation but with the second creation story in Genesis.  The first story, Genesis 1:1-2:4a has been described as the great liturgy of the seven days of creation.  In broad, sweeping strokes, beginning with light, then heaven and earth and then all else that was created – God is the one who like a breeze speaks creation into existence from the darkness of before anything.

But Genesis 2:4b is quite different. It’s focus, after an agonizingly long context setting preface, is on the creation of humanity.  And I say that to be quite clear.  The first human creature is not gendered.  The Hebrew described the person as “earth creature” literally consisting of “dust from the ground”. And one more step, the creator doesn’t speak the human into existence, it says the creator formed  the creature like a potter would form a bowl. James Weldon Johnson in his classic funeral meditation, Go Down Death, describes God as kneeling down in the mud and creating the first person. This is a hands on God.  Into this lifeless dust bunny God breathes his own breath of life and creature becomes  a living being, with nephesh – a living soul.

Now before you get too taken with your place in creation’s pecking order you might need to know that animals have nephesh as well.  To know this should make the animal lovers among us happy.

Unlike the previous creation version God creates a garden after humanity as a place to put this now living and breathing dust bunny.  Everything there is for human consumption – everything except one special tree in the center of the garden – before we get to the end of the story is will take center stage.  We are told that death would be the result should the creature eat from it.  And when they did eat, they didn’t die. There are abundant theories but we really don’t understand the existence and function of this tree in an otherwise good creation. Some would say it eludes to separation between the creature and the Creator.


In describing the garden the narrator speaks of four rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates which we all know about from taking world history and then Gihon and the Pishon about neither of which do we have a clue.  But for our narrator it was a detail in masterpiece of our world.  Small water sources are as essential to human community as are large rivers for human commerce.

Next on the agenda, God creates a helper for the earth creature, an ‘ezer’  to be partner and companion.

During the summers when I was in college I worked in a oil refinery on the Houston ship channel.  It was a big place with several large distillation units.  In each of them crude oil was pumped through a series of heat exchangers and once at the top it flowed into large chamber  where the molecules broke apart in a free fall and an extraordinary thing happened, at different levels on the still petroleum products from the lightest petrochemicals used for making plastics to the heaviest residuals used for making highways were drawn off.  For each of this large distillation units there was a large control room full of tell tale devices that informed the Stillman of what was happening.   By controlling the heat at various places and controlling when and which products were pulled off he could manage the still in a way to produce more of what ever product was in greatest need.  Winter he could increase the amount of heating oil. Summer more gasoline or diesel or JP4, which is used by jet engines. In control room there were people watching the gauges and reporting to the Stillman but outside was a person called the ‘outside helper’.  The Stillman needed someone to go out and verify what all the gauges were telling him.  One job was a doing a boil away. Butane, one of the products, would be dawn off into a measured tube and a thermometer would be place into the still liquid and the simple result was how long it took and at what final temperature when all the butane had evaporated.  How simple, an outside helper.

That’s how we usually think of a helper and it has been particularly destructive in constructing gender roles in society and the church. President Carter said that this notion has led to the number one human rights abuse in the world, that of how women are mistreated.  Someone who does things of lesser consequence.  Just a helper.  So our narrator throws us a curve. Psalm 54:4 actually calls God ‘our helper’.  “God is my helper, the Lord is the upholder of my life“.  Now that doesn’t sound insigificant to me.  The first earth person has a helper.  Wonderful.  That doesn’t make the person formed from the rib of the first any less important.  One person pointed out that it wasn’t from the head that God took the piece of the first created or from the foot but from the side to insure equality. Dignity not inferiority characterizes the second earth person.

When you stop and think about it, we are of the same stuff of which the earth consists.  As God took the rib of the person made first, so God formed us from the dirt.  I guess you could say that we are “well grounded” but more importantly this earth we talk about is us.  Creation care is simply living responsibly and enjoying that with which God has gifted us.

But, of course, as the story continues, a snake enters the picture and plants seeds of distrust and, as wedges do, it splits things.  Never before were human beings ashamed but now they hide from God.  Never before were they embarrassed by their nakedness, but now they are.  Once the people spoke of each other as ‘bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh’ and now they turn on each other with accusation and blame.  The relationship with other human beings is broken.  And they learn that their relationship with nature is broken too.

From a Christian perspective we look to Jesus as the one sent by God to bring reconciliation to a world of broken relationships. We treated him as an alien.  He brought to mind the ancient stories of gardens and seeds, birds of the air, lilies and harvests. Yet, ironically as it seems, we arrested him in a garden and buried his lifeless body in a garden.  Our hope is for a new creation.  A new garden with a new tree that bears different fruit for each season.  A tree whose leaves bring healing.  That’s hard for us to imagine. We bury guns in our gardens. We bulldoze ancient orchards.  Ice caps melt.  Honey bees die. We think that without cost we can ignore, abuse, oppress and kill one another.

Is it too late for earth?  Is it too late for us?

God gets dirty hands from forming humanity.  Go figure.  God communicates with what God created.  Plants a garden and offers companionship and sustenance. Later we hear of God enjoying the evening breezes walking in the garden.  How thoughtful; our scriptures give us different understandings of God. In the two versions of creation’s story I prefer this more ‘humaney’  God.  It gives me hope.  I hope you can enjoy this hands on God, our world and our place in it.

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Jesus’ Late Summer Get-a-way

“… faith” is hardly about getting Jesus’ name or titles right, nailing the right confession, or articulating proper doctrine. It’s about clinging to Jesus and expecting him to heal, to restore, to save.


This time of year, with the end of summer and people taking ‘get away’ trips the story of Jesus attempt to travel incognito to Tyre comes to mind.  It was futile.  His own compassion continued to get in his way. Today due to ethnic and religious warfare this trip would require a circuitous route of over three thousand miles and take over forty hours. Then, it was 35 miles Tyre is in southern Lebanon and is located on a piece of land that juts out into the Mediterranean. It was an island until Alexander the Great build a causeway in his attempt to sack it.  The Romans loved it and built a Hippodrome.  As it is today, for almost five thousand years, it has been a tourist Mecca and a sea port town.

Commercially it has been known for the production of an extraordinarily expensive purple dye reserved exclusively for the rich and famous made from its shell fish.  It has been besieged more times than can be counted from mythological pre-history up until it was emancipated by the crusaders only to be lost again to the Turks.  Today it is principally a Shi’a Muslim city with a large Palestinian Sunni  refugee population.

It had been a very difficult and exhausting time for Jesus.  First, he had gone to his home town and had been rejected.  He challenged his followers to take on some of the work that he was doing, casting out demons and curing the ill – and learned that, in fact, they could. Then he learned that his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, had been beheaded.  In the 31st verse of the preceding chapter Mark tells us that he sent his followers away to a deserted place to get some rest “for many were coming and going” and they hadn’t time to even eat without interruption. That didn’t work. On coming ashore they were met with a crowd of people, like sheep without a shepherd he called them and having compassion on them he taught them and then fed them.

He put his disciples on a boat and once they were gone he went up into a mountain to pray. What’s next is interesting, “48When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. I love this line where Mark speaks of Jesus’ intention. He intended to pass them by. 49But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50for they all saw him and were terrified. Jesus can’t help himself.  He had compassion and addressed their fears. When they got to land again people recognized him and the text says: wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Just before our lesson the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus ran into  a bunch of holier than thou Bible students who held to their very strict interpretation of the rules one should live by.  These were Elders who came out from Jerusalem to where he was casting out demons and curing the sick, feeding hungry and teaching them.  Instead of seeing the good he was doing they were disturbed by the fact that Jesus’ followers ate without washing their hands.  Here is how the text reads: 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me;7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” I think I can understand.

It’s five chapters later before Jesus spells out his take on what he meant when he told his adversaries that they abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.  It’s a verse, actually two verses we all have memorized “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”  His answer is a compilation of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with Leviticus 19:18b.

Since the time of the Exodus this was a perennial debate, “which was the greatest commandment?”  Some would have the law of circumcision be the greatest, others the law of the Sabbath, still others argued for the law of sacrifices, each according to how it impacted their own lives and on which they spent their time and energy.  The Pharisees figured that how ever Jesus answered their question it would incense some of the people against him because were he to chose one over the others it would serve to magnify one and thus he could be accused of vilifying the rest. Something like that seems to be happening today as we debate one law over another, one passage in our beloved ‘Faith and Practice” over another and in the meantime become so distracted by the debate that we forget what we as followers of Christ are all about.

Having enough of it, Jesus leaves.  I don’t mean he just walked away.  He went AWOL. He went to the vacation spot of the western Mediterranean.  From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

The text mentions no one of his followers having gone with him.  That fact that the trip is recorded at all argues that Jesus didn’t go alone.  It leaves a lot of room for the imagination.

Try his best, he was still recognized.  A gentile mother with a sick child heard of his being nearby.  Bowing at Jesus’ feet she begged him to help her daughter.  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  What accounts for Jesus’ response? Why the palpable rudeness? Nowhere else does he refuse a direct request to heal someone. Nowhere else does he respond to a suppliant with a bald insult like this, calling her and her afflicted daughter “dogs.” Is he categorizing these people as unclean gentiles? Are they “dogs” because they are wealthy? Because the Syrians and Phoenicians had historically not been Israel’s nicest neighbors? Is he lumping the mother and daughter together with other Tyrians who had recently oppressed the local Jewish population?  Although Jesus’ motives aren’t clear the thrust of his refusal is.  This behavior is entirely out of character with our usual image of a generously compassionate savior.  Is he giving the woman a chance to express the faith he knows dwells within her before he gladly heals her daughter. This would make the story rather unique within Mark, and the woman the only person who has to endure and own a derogatory slur before receiving Jesus’ mercy.

Maybe Jesus means exactly what he says.  He has no intention of expelling a demon from the this woman’s child.  And it might not even be about this particular woman or child or even the fact of her ethnicity.  He traveled to Tyre to get away.  He tried to avoid, actually the Greek could be interpreted that he wanted to elude people.

Actually the text doesn’t say he won’t do as she asks, the children are to be fed first – but not the only ones to be fed.  Does that imply that he is saying that the time isn’t right.  Blessings are yet to come to the gentiles, just not right now.

This interpretation seems more in line with the spirit of the Gospel of Mark. It accounts for Jesus’ apparent lack of compassion or imagination.  But there is another possibility. Imagine telling a distraught mother in an emergency room that in time her child might be cared for, just not right now.

In the 29th verse Jesus expels the demon ‘because of her reasoning’, because of her words.  The text reads But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.  Could it be that the mother argues Jesus into doing otherwise. Her words.  Her logic.

It’s not simply that she cleverly reconfigures Jesus’ metaphors of crumbs and canines to fit her desires. Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility. It appears she recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to.  Is it hard to believe that a divine Jesus might be persuaded to change his mind about something?

It’s as if the anonymous woman inexplicably understands implications of what Jesus announced in Mark 7:14-23. Aren’t Jews and gentiles in the same boat, in terms of what makes all of them defiled? Then why should gentiles have to wait to participate in the blessings made possible through the reign of Israel’s God?

In any case, immediately after leaving Tyre, Jesus’ work goes a new way. He cures a man who cannot hear and can barely speak, then feeds 4,000 people. Those events occur in a region populated chiefly by gentiles. Although Mark doesn’t call attention to the ethnic identity of these people, it seems Jesus takes the Syrophoenician mother’s wisdom to heart. The timeline has been accelerated; gentiles receive blessings, too, even now. The woman’s persistence benefits more than just one little girl.  Thanks be to God for this tenacious Syrophoenician theologian. But don’t lose track of the simplicity of her achievement. Her theology doesn’t originate in books and study; it’s an expression of painfully experienced need and fierce motherly love.  Who says things like desperation and tenacity aren’t the same thing as faith, when that desperation and tenacity are brought to Jesus?  And in this case by a woman who is impatient for her at risk child. In Mark, “faith” is hardly about getting Jesus’ name or titles right, nailing the right confession, or articulating proper doctrine. It’s about clinging to Jesus and expecting him to heal, to restore, to save. It’s about demanding he do what he says he came to do.

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The Letter to the Hebrews

The author reshapes our perspectives through his images. One is of Jesus as pioneer, a first century Daniel Boone, but instead of blazing a path through the American forests, Jesus’ life experiences, his ministry, denial, suffering and torturous death, resurrection and ultimate ascension is able to help those who are meeting their test now. The idea is that a pioneer goes where others have not yet traveled for the purpose of opening a way through a spiritual Cumberland gap through which others might follow. …

I have always wondered how The Letter to the Hebrews was ever accepted into the New Testament Canon of scriptures.  Its name suggests that it’s a letter.  It isn’t.   Some have described it as a tract.  Its name also suggests that it was written to ‘the Hebrews.’ We don’t exactly who that is.  We don’t know who wrote it. Attribution to Paul has long since been denied.  While it is an exhortation to keep the faith it isn’t very encouraging to ‘backsliders’ for whom there is no second chance for salvation.  I’ve gotten sidetracked by some of the imagery the author uses and found myself arguing with the metaphor rather than trying to understand what the author was trying to communicate.  Matter of fact, initial impressions of Hebrews might suggest that the writer is detached from any context.

The opening chapter takes us into the heavenly realm of the angels. Then the author seems to live in the world of the Old Testament rather than the Hellenism of his Roman culture. He quotes passage after passage from the Psalms, ponders the relationship of Jesus to Aaron, then takes us on a tour of the tabernacle that is described in Exodus. One might wonder: What’s the point?

The fact is that the writer is addressing issues facing his congregation. He gives us glimpses into three moments in the congregation’s life.  First, his readers began their faith journey on a high point. They had a vivid sense of the goodness of the gospel and the power of God’s Spirit working in the people’s (2:2-4). It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, 4while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

Second, their newfound faith created tension with others who did not share their beliefs. They found others marginalizing them and acting with hostility. 32But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting.  Suffering for the faith made community of the faithful all the more important, and the congregation pulled together (10:32-34).

But third, over time that sense of community faded. The gospel initially seemed glorious, but congregational life fell far short of the kingdom of God. The biggest challenge the congregation faced was that of indifference. Things grew “dull” (5:11) and “sluggish” (6:12). The congregation was declining — not because of a major crisis but out of neglect. So he urges the congregation to come to life: 10:24-25 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another. 6:12 And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, 12so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. The challenge he gives is to reinvigorate a congregation that is faltering and discouraged. And the writer does this through writing that rekindles the imagination.  The congregation began with a vivid sense of the goodness of the Word. If it is to have a future, the Word must rekindle their faith.

The author tells of the many ways in which God has communicated with his people. He speaks of Israel’s prophets, but then says that God communicated through an embodied Word: the Son. The writer will not let the readers’ imaginations remain impoverished with a Christ who is too small. The opening lines encompass the Son’s inheritance of all things and his activity at the very moment of creation. The writer uses words like “radiance” to evoke a sense of divine light entering human sight.

He then sketches out a journey.  He follows Jesus from death to glorious life. For a moment readers are taken out of the ordinariness of their situation, as they follow Christ into the presence of God. As readers then and now are drawn into the presence of God in worship, we too go on a journey. It reorients our perception of the situation in which life is lived.

The author reshapes our perspectives through his images. One is of Jesus as pioneer, a first century Daniel Boone, but instead of blazing a path through the American forests, Jesus’ life experiences, his ministry, denial, suffering and torturous death, resurrection and ultimate ascension is able to help those who are meeting their test now. The idea is that a pioneer goes where others have not yet traveled for the purpose of opening a way through a spiritual Cumberland gap through which others might follow. This is the way Hebrews portrays Jesus’ way. Jesus enters fully into the reality of human suffering, in order to open a way to life.

The writer employs images of family life, portraying Jesus as the readers’ brother. He touches on a theme that is all too real in family life: being ashamed. When growing up, one might experience momentary embarrassment when we are trying to impress others, and would rather not be associated with a particular brother or sister.  But there are also the deeper senses of shame that reflect perceptions of failure in relationships. Here the author claims that Jesus is “not ashamed” to call others his brothers and sisters. In positive terms that means being valued by Jesus, who himself felt the shame of crucifixion (cf. 12:2). And to those who feel a sense of shame, being valued is a powerfully transformative moment.

Then Hebrews portrays Jesus as liberator. He uses language reminiscent of the exodus, but transforms it from the deliverance out of slavery in Egypt to liberation from slavery to fear of death. The imagery recognizes that people are held captive by fears that can close off the future. The exodus is replayed on a personal level when fear is overcome so people can more fully embrace life.

In 4:14-5:10 the writer uses an odd pair of words: sympathy and boldness. To use the term “sympathy” to describe Christ’s role as a priest can seem superficial. When someone says “I’m sympathetic” in casual conversation, it can mean that the person is more or less inclined to see things your way, but is not ready to go beyond that. In Hebrews, however, sympathy conveys Jesus’ depth of feeling for those who are weak. He enters into the struggle.

The writer recognizes that weakness can include moral failing. People in ministry are flawed human beings. They understand human sin because they share in it, and being honest about that is important for ministry. It allows people to minister as one flawed human being attending to another. But the writer explains that when he speaks of Jesus’ sympathizing with weakness, it is about the weakness involved in suffering. He portrays Jesus’ anguished prayer in the face of death. He can sympathize or “feel with” people who suffer, because he has suffered, and that experience empowers his ministry.  I’m still moved when I recall visiting in a hospital room with a cancer patient who was is serious pain and having her point to the crucifix on the wall across from her bed and saying ‘he understands’.

What is odd is that we might assume that sympathy encourages passivity.  According the  author of Hebrews, the human response to Jesus is boldness” (4:16). If we are objects of sympathy, we might assume that everyone agrees that things are unfortunate but nothing can change. Yet Jesus’ sympathy is designed to awaken a sense of boldness to approach him in prayer. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  He enters into suffering in order to empower people to move through the suffering to renewed life in grace.

By the time we get to the ninth chapter, where the author describes the sanctuary of ancient Israel with its outer court, the curtain that marked its limit, and the place of God’s presence beyond it we need to be thinking spatially. Jesus is characterized by movement from the outer court to the inner one. The point is to open the way into the presence of God.

The physical barrier reflects a relational barrier. In human experience a graphic example is an argument in which someone walks out and slams the door behind them. The question is how the relationship can continue when the door is closed. To bring change, a mediator might be needed. One might ask a friend to seek access through the closed door in order to speak with the other person, to open up possibilities for relationship.

That notion of opening the door is vividly depicted here in a surprising way. It is God who wants the door to be opened to us. It is God who sends Christ as the mediator, who conveys the divine love that overcomes the barrier.  This is about God’s action to restore relationships, which we have closed off. The imagery of the sanctuary and liturgical movement in the text demonstrates God’s action in transforming relationships.

The final section is about the power of the Word of God to evoke faith. The Word is unseen, but its power is palpable in its peculiar effects on people.  The idea is that if there is to be faith, something beyond our senses must pull it into being.

Examples from the past include Noah, who ordinarily would have seen no good reason to build an ark. Why expend the effort if it is not raining? The Word evoked Noah’s willingness to trust and act faithfully for the sake of an unseen future. Abraham and Sarah were called from their home toward a land they could not see. It was the promise of God that moved them to do this.

Nothing the readers of this Letter to the Hebrews can see warrants hope.  Yet the author seeks to draw them and us into the race by fixing our eyes on Jesus, who summons us to engagement.  We are being called from despair to hope. There is no reason for this congregation to persevere without the Word. But they continue to be called into Christ’s future, which they may not see but only know through the living and present Word.

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Paul Tillich wrote:  “I think of the theologian who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed within a doctrine.  I think of the Biblical student who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed in a book. I think of the churchman who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed in an institution.  I think of the believer who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed within his own experience.”


Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.

Sixty years ago in chapter eighteen of his book The Shaking the Foundations Paul Tillich declared that: “Both the Old and the New Testaments describe our existence in relation to God as one of waiting.”  He went on to say that “In the psalmist there is an anxious waiting; in the apostle there is a patient waiting. “Waiting” he said  “means not having … for we have not what we wait for; or, as the apostle says, if we hope for what we do not see, we then wait for it.”

He said that “our relationship to God is, first of all, one of not having, not seeing, not knowing, and not grasping.  When a religion forgets that, no matter how ecstatic or active or reasonable, it replaces God by its own creation, an image of God.

            He said: “I think of the theologian who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed within a doctrine.  I think of the Biblical student who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed in a book. I think of the churchman who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed in an institution.  I think of the believer who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed within his own experience.”

It is not easy to endure this not having God, this waiting for God.  It is not easy to stand behind a pulpit Sunday after Sunday without convincing ourselves and others that somehow we have God….  It is not easy to proclaim God to children and pagans, to skeptics and secularists, and at the same time make clear to them that we ourselves do not possess God, that we too wait for God.  Way before our time Paul Tillich contended that much of the rebellion against Christianity is due to the  claim of Christians that they possess God.  John Kapsalis wrote that we are not a people ready or willing to wait for things to happen.  We make them happen.  And we take this attitude with us to Church.

The prophets and the apostles speak of waiting. They did not possess God; they waited for God. For how can God be possessed? Is God a thing that can be grasped and known among other things? Is God less than a human person? Even in the most intimate communion among human beings, there is an element of not having and not knowing, and of waiting. Therefore, since God is infinitely hidden, free, and incalculable, we must wait for God in the most absolute and radical way.

The psalmist says that his whole being waits for the Lord, indicating that waiting for God is not merely a part of our relation to God, but rather the condition of that relation as a whole.  Although waiting is not having,  yet, in a way, it is also having. Waiting anticipates that which is not yet real. If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. He who waits in absolute seriousness is already grasped by that for which he waits. He who waits in patience has already received the power of that for which he waits. He who waits passionately is already an active power himself, the greatest power of transformation in personal and historical life. We are stronger when we wait than when we possess.

When we possess God, we reduce God to that small thing we knew and grasped and we make that into an idol. Only in idol worship can you believe in the possession of God. There is much of this idolatry among Christians. But if we know that we do not know God, and if we wait for God to make God’s self known to us, we then really know something of God, we then are grasped and known and possessed by God. It is then that we are believers in our unbelief, and that we are accepted by God in spite of our separation.

Waiting precludes all complacency about having nothing… waiting precludes our indifference or cynical contempt towards those who have something, and waiting stifles our pitiful indulgence in doubt and despair.  Our time is a time of waiting; waiting is its special destiny. And every time is a time of waiting, waiting for the breaking in of eternity.

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Mose’s Do Over

A picture recently posted on Facebook was a proverbial thousand word illustration that only included three words – twice the word true was used and once the word truth.  It was a picture of a cylinder suspended between two bright lights both of which produced shadows on screens opposite the lights.  One screen clearly displays a round image while the other displays a rectangular image.  Both are true.  The truth is the item creating the shadow.


Though the Documentary Hypothesis has run out of favor with contemporary Old Testament scholars, it is helpful as an illustration.   In studying the first five books of the Bible the theory suggests that instead of Moses being the author of those books, four strands of material are seen as being weaved together to build the early history of Israel. One voice is identified as the Yahwehist or J.  This author was thought to  have lived about 900–850 BC in the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the divided Kingdom.  It is a collection of myths and legends of the Ancient Near East such as the Creation, Flood and Babel stories.  It is the basis for most of Genesis. It is characterized by it’s attention to  humankind and earth and with God as YHWH who directly interacts with humanity.


Then there is Elohist or E.  He was thought to have done his work about 750–700 BC in Israel’s Northern Kingdom.  He wrote some of Genesis and most of Exodus and Numbers. This source is characterized by God as Elohim, and is most interested in the affairs of Northern Israel and  speaks of Horeb instead of  Sinai. This is a more transcendent, more remote,  understanding of God.


Source D is the Deuteronomist.  He wrote most of Deuteronomy around 650-625 BC. It is speculated that his was the book found by King Josiah in the Temple in Jerusalem in 621 BC (2 Kings 22:8). This source is characterized by God as Elohim (until Exodus 3), but unlike E is more concerned about the affairs of  Judah and holds to a cultic approach to God and through genealogies and lists sets up a rather exclusive view of who is ‘in’  and who isn’t.

It is thought that the material identified as P was written by a priest who lived during the Babylonian Exile. This source provides chronology, genealogy, the book of Leviticus, and the code for the priesthood and worship. This source is characterized by an emphasis on the Temple and obedience to the law.


In Exodus 6, we see elements of three of the voices: ” And Elohim said to Moses, “I (am*) Yhwh.” “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shadday, but by my name Yhwh I did not make myself known to them.”  This text is presumed to be from a Priestly source.  As the Priestly voice does, we need not to argue over which is true.  Both are true, neither are all the truth.  Coming from different times and places and under different circumstances each speak as best they can, with all the integrity they can muster.  Why would we want to take a razor and expunge the parts that seem to contradict our own belief or experience?  All the intertwined pieces are valuable.  None can be tossed out on a whim.  Holding all their perspectives together gives us a much clearer picture of Israel’s history and by extension what God expects from creation and us.


The reality is that all of us, at times, can fall victim to not wanting to accept as valid what others through their own processes of discernment have concluded.  And we all can make errors in judgment and need to redo our homework.  It takes a great deal of courage to see that we’ve missed the mark, even when we have felt justified in our action.


In Exodus 31: we learn of Moses being given two stone tablets engraved by the finger of God. In the middle of the next chapter we read: Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets.  The narrative shifts to how when Moses was detained on the mountain the people got anxious and melted down their ill gotten gold and made an idol and began dancing.  But it angered Moses.  Here’s how the text reads:  As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.


The narrative is broken again telling  how the Israelites, if obedient, could to be successful in the promised land.  Chapter 33 concludes with Moses making intercession for the people.  So Chapter 34 begins this way: The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke.  (O.K. Here’s the question: Who was the first to break the ten commandments? Moses.) Sorry, the text continues:  Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.” So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone.


Later in the Chapter we read:  He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.


The good news in all this is that God gave Moses and the children of Israel a second chance.  A do over.  They could repent of their actions done spontaneously and in fear.  That was true for both the idol builders and the tablet tosser.  God exudes grace.  Over and over again.  Grace sometimes has a difficult time overcoming human pride and human celebration.


Moses got a do over.  But he had to go stand before God a second time.  But it suggests that maybe actions taken by people in leadership positions that are motivated by anxiety and expediency need not to be the final word.  I wonder what it was that motivated Moses to acknowledge that what had occurred needed correction.  Were there those who understood the gravity of the broken stone tablets thrown down in anger, those who recognized the intemperate behavior of the people and urged Moses, on their behalf , to ask for a second chance to do the right thing?


It takes a bit of back tracking but if we go into the narrative where God tells Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it…  The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”


Moses demonstrates real integrity here.  He is promised to be made a great nation instead of the tribes on the plain below. But Moses implored the Lord … Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.


The Lord changed his mind.  What an interesting notion.  Why is it so hard for us?  Again we learn that  one characteristic of God is grace. Abundant grace that makes do overs possible.







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Certain Individuals

I find it fascinating that the translation of Luke’s words into English identifies those who made up the group to check out the rumor were ‘certain individuals’.  Certainty seems to have the effect of closing the door to consideration of all other perspectives.


Acts 15 tells an important story in the life of the church.   Serious efforts among non-Jews were being made to make known the way of life that flowed from the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the coming of his Spirit to comfort, and guide those who chose to follow the way.

A rumor had spread that Gentiles in Antioch were being joined to the church without having first become Jews.  So a contingent of ‘certain individuals’ (that’s how Luke characterized them, certain individuals) went to where Paul and Barnabas were working intent on getting to the bottom of the rumor.

These certain individuals began telling the people there that they weren’t part of the church unless they submitted to first becoming Jews.  For the men involved that required circumcision, no little consideration for an adult male.  A literal translation of the Greek is that these brothers had to be “cut to the custom of Moses” in order to be saved.

Luke tells us that it became quite contentious. Paul and Barnabas literally debated this group of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem.  It finally got so heated that Paul and Barnabas and a small contingent of the new followers of the way went to Jerusalem to get the matter clarified.

This gathering was the first Church Council.  The nascent church had to deal with a truly troublesome matter, an issue that threatened to break it apart.  It takes Luke twenty-nine verses to tell the story. It is worth the time to read it.

A small contingent of certain people took it upon themselves to set things right.  They went to Antioch and speaking for the church said: “Unless you accept the law, Christ will not accept you!”  Can it happen that one small group with a particular ax to grind can leave the impression that they speak for the whole body of believers?

And think about what it meant if what this group was saying was true.  It would mean that the grace of God in Christ is not adequate for inclusion. They were contending that you have to add to it the Law of Moses. Peter, on the other hand, wisely frames the theology of the early church in verse 11. “We believe,” says Peter, “that we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Period. Martin Luther didn’t make that up 15 hundred years later.

The party of the Pharisees must have believed in grace. They had accepted God’s grace in Christ. What could have made them so blind to the situation of others? They were confusing non-essentials with essentials. And they were making life more difficult not only for the Gentile Christians, but for the Holy Spirit!

The Antioch church doesn’t go rogue; they don’t wash their hands of the Jerusalem church. They respect the apostolic community. They understand that they would have never even heard the Gospel had it not been for them.

So they didn’t give into the temptation to say, “Forget Jerusalem, we’ll do our own thing!” The Antioch church sends a delegation to Jerusalem. They send key leaders, Paul and Barnabas, among others. And notice the response when they arrive. They are welcomed by the apostles and the elders. There’s a mutual respect. The mother church doesn’t say, “Oh brother! Here comes trouble!” They welcomed them.

Apparently, in this community everyone mattered. Everyone had a voice. And the church took time to listen. Luke tells us that some who were of the ‘certain ones’ who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees made their case saying “it is  necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” 

Simon Peter said “Friends, you know that from early on God made it plain that he wanted the pagans to hear the message of the Gospel and embrace it. And God, who cannot be fooled by pretense on our part, but always knows a person’s thoughts, gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as he did to us. He treated the outsiders exactly as he treated us, beginning at the very center of who they were and working from that center outward, cleaning up their lives as they trusted and believed Him. ‘So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and crushed us, too? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those from beyond our nation? What are we fussing about?'” (The Message)

It’s a difficult thing, isn’t it, to let God be God? It can be so hard to trust grace! Paul and Barnabas witnessed to the signs and wonders that God was doing among the Gentiles. And then everyone got quiet. And God spoke in the silence.

James was evidently clerk of the meeting. This is not James the apostle, the brother of John. This is not James, son of Alphaeus, another of the original twelve, sometimes called James the Less or James the Just. No, this is James, the brother of Jesus.  And after listening, he speaks. He places all that they have heard in the context of Scripture. It is clear that the experience of the Gentiles is actually a fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12. And then, notice they don’t take a vote. Spiritual leadership doesn’t decide God’s will through opinion polls and secret ballots. They waited to be led by Christ’s Spirit.

And after holy conferencing, James, as Clerk of the Meeting, announced what he believed to be the sense of the Meeting. “We will not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,” he says. For grace is enough!

Later James will write up the decision in verse 28: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to impose this burden on you.” Notice the order of priority. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. There was a high trust level in James. Tradition says that they had a nickname for him. They called him “Old Camel Knees.” Apparently, his knees were so hard from constant intercession that they looked like those of a camel. I’ll trust a leader like that.

Speaking for the church, James wrote to Antioch, saying, “God’s Grace is enough!”  Here’s the text: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”  In other words, please respect the scruples of our tradition. Don’t abuse your freedom by intentionally offending others.

I’ve wondered what an expanded interpretation of those four requests would look like.  I’m thinking about what people do sacrifice to their idols, what the Jerusalem church meant about abstaining from blood? I couldn’t help but wonder about what and who gets strangled in our society today.  Fornication speaks of infidelity and extramarital  sexual behavior.

They sent the letter and with it representatives from Jerusalem to encourage the gentile believers in Antioch.  And there was unity and there was joy! In Antioch and in Jerusalem.

Great line “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden…”

In 1656 Richard Farnworth and William Dewsbury, two leading lights of what would become Quakerism,  were signers of an important set of guidelines promulgated by the Elders of Balby which suggested how local Friends should conduct their Meetings, deal with problems, meet the needs of the indigent and other things as well.  Actually some of us today would find following all their advice as difficult to accept as Paul and Barnabas found the words of their ‘certain’ advisors.  But what is most important in the whole document is the post script.  It reads: “Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

Acts 15: 1-29 Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

6The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.’ 19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”

22Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”


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The Fear of the Lord

There’s a fascinating concept in traditional Quaker lore that described the work of the Holy Spirit.  It speaks of the Spirits ‘Terror and Power’.  When, as Jesus promised, Christ’s Spirit invades a person’s life the first thing to happen is the Spirit, like it has a white glove and a flashlight, begins to search our interior life and showing us the filth and trash we’ve collected there.  It’s clearly a fearful time because we already know that God requires more of us than we are ready to offer.  The good news is that it is not in our own power but that of the Spirit that enables us to make the changes necessary.


The Fear of the Lord:

There’s really no disputing the fact that fear drives a lot of things that impact our lives. We are already into a Presidential election and what we hear from candidates is primarily designed to stir fear.  We actually hear some of that in our city election.  Global economic markets are fearful about decisions being made about Greece.  People fear rogue Police officers and Police officers are fearful for their own lives. We are told to fear immigrants from Mexico. We are told to fear home grown terrorists every bit as much as those from abroad.  And many live in fear of government.

Proverbs are pretty easy to overlook.  They aren’t all that exciting. But in the first one, Proverbs 1:1-7 this is what we read: The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young—let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. And then it says:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

I’ve been guilty of explaining “the fear of the Lord”  as something a kin to respect or reverence. It’s a pretty common perspective among the ‘nice’ churches where the notion is that God is love and why would you fear love?  What I’ve read recently abused me of that notion.  The Hebrew won’t let me get away with that. In direct reference to God the Bible uses the word fear at least 300 times and believe me it’s not about simple respect. We can’t get away with downplaying it.

The Bible is full of examples of how fearing God is a positive rather than a negative thing. For example  Joseph wins his brothers’ trust when he declares that he is a God-fearing man. Moses survived because the midwives feared God that they obeyed him instead of the authorities by sparing the Hebrew babies . Pharaoh brought disaster on his own nation because he did not fear God.  Moses chose leaders to help him on the basis that they feared God and wouldn’t take bribes (maybe we could use leaders like that!) Moses told the people that God met with them in a terrifying display of his power so that they wouldn’t sin. The Mosaic Law cites fear of God as a reason to treat the disabled and elderly well. And this is not just an Old Testament idea.  Jesus states this stronger than anyone when he says, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. And Paul advises us to work toward complete holiness because we fear God.

So it’s clear from these passages, that fearing God is a good thing because it saves us from caving into the wrong thing.

That’s why learning that someone is God-fearing actually makes us trust that person more. If they fear God, they are more likely to keep their word and treat others with kindness. In Romans 3 we learn that our chief sin is that we “have no fear of God at all”. The subject becomes even more mysterious when we read 1John 4:18 that says that “perfect love expels all fear.” So how do we marry this contradiction? How can we fear God while God expels all fear?

When you read the Prophets the idea of fearing the Lord has teeth.  The Prophets are instructed to tell the leaders of Israel and Judah that failure to keep the humane elements of the covenant that treats everyone in the family equally destruction will surely follow.

Amos 5:6 Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground! The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress. They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.

Their leaders said – ‘naw, God loves us. We are special.  He let’s us get away with murder’ .  After ignoring warning after warning nations less righteous and more evil than Israel and Judah came and destroyed everything they had built and carried away those with wealth, education or power into captivity. They did not fear God enough to fulfill their obligations stated in their covenants.

William D. Eisenhower put it this way in his article ‘Fearing God” in Christianity Today: “Unfortunately, many of us presume that the world is the ultimate threat and that God’s function is to offset it. How different this is from the biblical position that God is far scarier than the world …. When we assume that the world is the ultimate threat, we give it unwarranted power, for in truth, the world’s threats are temporary. When we expect God to balance the stress of the world, we reduce him to the world’s equal …. As I walk with the Lord, I discover that God poses an ominous threat to my ego, but not to me. He rescues me from my delusions, so he may reveal the truth that sets me free. He casts me down, only to lift me up again. He sits in judgment of my sin, but forgives me nevertheless. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but love from the Lord is its completion.”

It’s a standard plot line in action movies when a good guy is holding a gun on a criminal and demanding that the bad guy reveal the person he’s working for .  “No, I can’t tell  you. He’ll kill me”  There it is.  Fearing the wrong party. Fearing the wrong thing.

There’s a fascinating concept in traditional Quaker lore that described the work of the Holy Spirit.  It speaks of the Spirits ‘Terror and Power’.  When, as Jesus promised, Christ’s Spirit invades a person’s life the first thing to happen is the Spirit, like it has a white glove and a flashlight, begins to search our interior life and showing us the filth and trash we’ve collected there.  It’s clearly a fearful time because we already know that God requires more of us than we are ready to offer.  The good news is that it is not in our own power but that of the Spirit that enables us to make the changes necessary.

And, of course, the ultimate example of fear and perfect love working together is Jesus Christ. He warned us at every turn to fear God, not men—and he confirmed that in everything about his life and death. He spoke lovingly but frankly to all and didn’t mince words when people needed to face their brokenness and find new directions for their life. But he also demonstrated love beyond human understanding when he lived out his words, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” With love like that, what is left to fear but God?






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