Sometimes a Golden Calf is Just a Golden Calf

How the Book of Exodus begins seems strangely contemporary. An ethnic group which had migrated to Egypt became so numerous that some Egyptians worried that should war break out with one of their neighbors these aliens would become a fifth column which could join with their enemies to take over their country. Believing that the immigrants had grown too many and too strong, Egyptian leaders took steps to stop their growth and limit their influence. They were declared slaves and task masters were set over them to oppress them with forced labor. In the face of this treatment the immigrant group grew even stronger and the locals came to fear and loathe them. And that’s just the first 12 verses.

By the time you get to the fifth chapter, after Moses confronts Pharaoh about his ill treatment of the Israelites, the treatment becomes more intense and the people hate Moses, their champion. God voiced a great promise which Moses shared with the people about emancipation and a land of promise. His own people wouldn’t listen to him. That’s when we hear Moses say: “Why did you send me to these people?”

What follows, as you recall, is a series of plagues during which Pharaoh remains obdurate. The story gets confusing because somewhere in those passages, without explanation, Moses gains stature with Pharaoh’s court and the Egyptians become well disposed toward the Israelites. But still Pharaoh wouldn’t let them leave, even to go worship. The last straw was God telling Moses that God would make a distinction between Israel and Egypt by taking the life of every first born Egyptian. We covered that story a couple of weeks ago when we talked about the Passover which resulted in the Egyptians demanding that the Israelites leave.

Once in the desert, things didn’t go well. Several times the people threaten to string Moses up for making them leave Egypt. When they got to Sinai God spoke directly to them – delivering the first recitation of the Ten Commandments. After that the people pleaded with Moses to talk with God on their behalf because they were too fearful to have God speak to them directly.

Respecting to the people’s request, Moses goes to be alone with God. The text of the report of that meeting is littered with the phrases “Do not” and “You must” like pepper on mash potatoes. Then we read the detailed regulations for the Priesthood. It took a long time for Moses to get all this information. By the time we get to the 32nd chapter, which is our focus for today, and Moses still hadn’t come back down from the mountain the anxiety among the people went off the charts. The people started making demands on Moses’ right hand man, Aaron. Almost everyone calls this passage ‘the Golden Calf incident”. It may be time to give it a new name.

So the text begins:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, … as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Somehow the people hadn’t gotten the memo. To the people’s mind it was the man Moses who brought them up out of the land of Egypt. God made it happen – not Moses. It made we wonder whether we get anxious and impatient when nothing seems to be happening, when our connection to God seems to be off line? And then are we guilty of crediting, or blaming another for something that God has done?

Anyway, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; I’m told that the Hebrew text uses the singular ‘god’ in reporting the people’s request of Aaron. Aaron’s response is worthy of our attention: Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. Back in the twelfth chapter, before the Hebrew children left Egypt, we were told that they plundered their neighbors, so they had gold. The gold that Aaron called for were the earrings of the wives, daughters and the sons. Again, the Hebrew text says that the earrings were torn off ears making it clear that the gold wasn’t given up freely.

How much gold do you imagine Aaron was dealing with? Finding that answer gets us into a huge matter of contention. It’s the question of how many Israelites followed Moses out of Egypt into the desert. Exodus 12:37 gives us the answer but according to Jewish scholarship we’ve mistranslated the text. If you accept the NIV interpretation the number of Jewish emigrees is between two and a half and three million. Scholars who have studied the impact of the immigrating Hebrew children on the promised land say that such a number is impossible. Others who have studied Egypt before and after the Exodus agree that that figure is unrealistic. By defining that illusive word Hebrew word to mean the number of foot soldiers that a tribal unit could muster the result is between 30 and 35 thousand Hebrew children. Now that’s still a good size entourage but certainly not counted in the millions. That equates to twenty to twenty-five thousand women, daughters and sons from whose ears gold earrings were torn. Melted down we are talking about the equivalent of ten bars of gold, clearly enough to mold a nice sized golden calf.

4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; It’s important to remember that the words we next read were not Aaron’s. and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” The image that Aaron crafted was single and therefore it would be imputing to the Israelites a far greater sin than that of which they were guilty, that of worshiping other gods. 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. Aaron builds an altar to facilitate a festival – not to the Golden Calf, not to other gods, but to the Lord. Some suggests that the golden calf was a reminder of God not a replacement. Others scholars suggest something quite different saying that the golden calf wasn’t made to be an idol, rather it was a pedestal upon which the Lord could be perceived as standing.

Waiting on this passage I came to wonder what god’s we might have standing on the pedestal of our religion?

If we listen to the text where we come out is that, despite what it might have looked like, the partying is a festival to the Lord, those are Aaron’s words; not a worship of other gods or a golden idol. Now that’s a much different picture than we’ve gotten from the sixty year old Cecil B. DeMille movie. But that’s what was going on in the valley. Meantime up on the mountain things are seen quite differently:

7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they 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, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!

These verses are problematic. The Lord makes the same mistake as the people. “Your people, whom you brought of the land of Egypt” It’s like one parent avoiding responsibility by telling the other that is was ‘your child’ that broke the rules. Moses didn’t bring Israel up out of the land of Egypt. God knows who brought them out of captivity. Secondly, as we just explored, the people hadn’t sacrificed to the calf or other gods but had a festival to the Lord. What are we to make of this? What we do know is God is angry. Instead of seeing the people turn their anxiety about Moses’ delay into a festival to the Lord God accuses them of being stiff necked and worshiping other gods. God tells Moses to go down and deal with them and leave God alone in God’s anger. The text continues:

9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now 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.” The offer may have sounded pretty good, but Moses doesn’t bite. This is quite a change – it’s like God going back on God’s promise to Abram. The Lord tells Moses to leave him alone in his anger. He intends that his hot anger will consume them. But Moses doesn’t leave God alone in God’s anger. Moses does the unthinkable. He challenges God.

11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember 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.’“

What audacity. That’s called reciting the salvation history of the people. Typically it is to the people that their salvation history of God’s promise is repeated. But Moses repeats it to God reminding God of the commitments made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And here is the good news:

14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. It’s called intercession and it challenges our idea that God’s intentions are written in stone. It tells us something we might not want to hear about God’s character. Moses doesn’t leave God alone in God’s anger but reminds God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and by extension these same people. Pretty gutsy if you ask me.

Do you think there are lessons for us in this? If God can misinterpret the intent of a people who have risked their lives and livelihood to follow God’s chosen leader into the wilderness – maybe, just maybe we might misinterpret the actions of others? And what of the work of Moses? Staying in God’s company despite God’s anger and confronting God, challenging God, and reminding God of the heart of God’s own character? I want to change the name of this passage from the “Golden Calf incident” to the “Moses changes God’s mind” incident.

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Lessons from Passover

Lessons from Passover

When it comes to the time of Passover we Christians naturally focus on the events of Holy Week and as a result miss much of the important lessons that are embedded in the story of Passover itself. Passover is a time of recalling Israel’s emancipation from Egyptian bondage. Thanks to Hollywood there is a lot of things we are certain about in the Exodus story and the reality is that some of it isn’t there. On the other hand there’s a great deal within the narrative that we’ve passed over as unimportant. This little story is a primer on what today we call Christian Social Ethics.

Let’s hear the story of Passover from Exodus Chapter 12.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

That Pharaoh was violent in his oppression goes without question, but why does God have to respond with violence? It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The Midrash teaches that initially when God sought to bring the plagues on Egypt, he intended to begin witht he plague of the first born. One argument for that is Egypt operated on a strick policy of primogeniture, just like Israel. The loss of the first born would completely disrupt Egyptian social structure.

The slaughter of the firstborn has always troubled us. It isn’t an an anonymous angel of death that executes judgment on firstborn in the Passover, it is God. There is a passage in the Talmud which recounts God rebuking the angels in heaven because they wanted to sing hymns of praise while the Egyptians, who are also God’s creatures, perish in the sea. Old Testament professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Seminary, and an Egyptian himself, Safwat Marzouk, has shown in his work on Ezekiel, that the way ancient Israel thinks about Egypt is powerfully shaped by Israel’s own identity struggles. In a way, Israel sees itself in Egypt, and sees in Egypt the possibility of its own assimilation to surrounding cultures. In order to put distance between itself and a nation that seems disturbingly similar, Israel turns Egypt into a monster, a monstrous “Other” that must be demonized.

Though Egypt is the quintessential enemy through out the Hebrew Bible there are other depictions of Egypt that serve to balance this negative image. One example is the story of Hagar. She is an Egyptian, enslaved by Hebrews (Abraham and Sarah). God aids her escape from slavery just like the Israelites are freed from Pharaoh. God makes promises to this Egyptian woman, promises that parallel those made to Abraham. This story, in which the roles are reversed, and in which God is the deliverer of the Egyptian Hagar and her progeny, tells us a great deal about God and God’s never ceasing concern for the oppression of others. In our text for today we learn that should a family be unable to afford a lamb for the Passover, it is the responsibility of a better-off neighbor family to share what they have. The idea that “households join together” and that the lamb shall be divided equally among the persons partaking reflects the deep biblical conviction that the good of the the whole community must and should be intentionally cultivated. The ethical emphasis in the Bible is on the responsibilities of members to the community’s welfare, not, in general, on the rights of an individual.

When in college one of the campus jobs I had to help with tuition was in the library stacks which primarily consisted of piles of old magazines that had been collected or contributed long before I was born. From those old magazines I learned how we, as a nation, dehumanized the Japanese. It still bothers me. It is worth asking whether we turn those with whom we share certain characteristics into an “Other” in order to put distance between us and them. Another example of that is how similar are the views of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists about the role of women and issues of gender. Both believe they are right and everyone else will surely burn in hell. They both want to force their views on others and each of these groups, if they had their way, would have theocratic governments based on their religions. And yet they demonize each other.

The biggest challenge faced by Moses and Aaron was human inertia. The majority of the Israelites, living in Egyptian bondage had no interest in following Moses off into the desert. They embraced the proverbial maxim “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” If you remember the story, even after they were in the wilderness, when things got rough, they were all too eager to return to Egypt, if they would receive them back. The plagues suffered by Egyptians fell equally on them. The fish die off when the river turned to blood effected them; the plague of frogs which while the Israelites found abhorrent – was more a plague on them than their oppressors. For the Egyptians frog legs were a delicacy. They weren’t immune from the stinging insects and wild animals. The illness in the livestock impacted them directly as did boils and fiery hail. Locust consumed their food and they too had to live in darkness. And that last plague visited on the Egyptians, the slaughter of the first born, wasn’t just for the Egyptians, it was for all the residents of Egypt including them. A good question is why the Egyptians didn’t take precautions prescribed by Moses? The only protection for the first born was blood painted on lentil and doorposts, but not just any blood. It had to be the blood of a year old ram or goat.

Like the cow is considered sacred in India so the lamb was in ancient Egypt. Recall from the text we just read that the Israelites were to select a lamb on the tenth of the month to be slaughtered on the evening of the 14th. If you’ve ever thought about the zodiac, Aries, the ram, was the astrological sign for the month in which the Passover occurred and the 15th day is the apex of a lunar month. On the evening of the full-moon of its very own month and at the heights of its presumed powers the Israelites slaughtered the ram-god of the Egyptians enmass and the Egyptians were powerless to prevent it. By selecting the sheep or ram four days in advance the Jews flaunted their intentions. It was so blatant that some of the Jews expressed concern that they might be stoned for committing such an abomination. And then, while the smell of roast lamb permeated the air they smeared the life blood of this animal sacred to their neighbors on their door posts and lintel. After that, staying in Egypt was no longer a choice for the Hebrew children.

The role played by the blood of innumerable slain lambs on the door posts and lintels was a sign to the Lord to “pass over” the house and in so doing safe guard the first born who resided there. There is no accusation of guilt, no sin attached to being a first born that needed to be covered by sacrificial blood. The voice of those who see in the Passover Lamb a likeness to Jesus, bolstered by John the Baptist’s declaration “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” have to admit that it just doesn’t fit. It might come as a shock but in this story God treats goats and sheep alike. Despite sacred writings repeatedly telling us that God does not want our sacrifices we human beings can’t get it through our heads. The blood on the door post and lintel was a sign that those in the household had forsworn the gods of Egypt. It wasn’t a sacrificial animal, it was supper, a last supper in Egypt for sure.

They were to eat their roasted lamb while being fully dressed, loins girded, sandals on feet with staff in hand and they were eat quickly and there were to be no leftovers. And whatever was left the next morning was to be burned which meant no sack lunches for the journey. Duke’s Old Testament scholar, Ellen Davis, says that Egypt’s economy was based on a trickle down theory, what she described as hierarchical oppression. An abundance of food is produced on the backs of the poor but is enjoyed almost exclusively by the very rich. The economy of the wilderness which they would soon experience in the wilderness required that Israel had to trust God as deliverer and provider. This can’t be disconnected from the need to trust God as the Israelites slaughtered and roasted sacred lambs in the land of Pharaoh. As a practice and as a mentality they would be required to abandon the practices of hoarding and scarcity that had marked their lives in captivity and learn to embrace faith in this God of abundance.

Our passage ends with this: This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. That gets reinforced in the next chapter. There it says “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” It continues to be a central task for those who trust in God to re-tell this story in every generation — God delivers those who suffer from oppression, that God works for the flourishing of the whole of creation — The testimony of those who have experienced the benefits of God’s saving power is vital and necessary for God’s work to go forward in the world.

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Abram and God

The stage on which God’s action takes place in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is the whole world. In the beginning all of creation is declared good but wickedness and violence raise their ugly heads and God determines to have a “do over” in the form of a great flood intended to wipe away all the wickedness and violence.

However Noah, and all who survived the deluge, held tenaciously to the past. God realizes that the wickedness and violence of human beings was not going away and instead of providing blessing for individuals in the world by working through humanity in general, God adopts a new approach: working through a particular individual to bless all the families of the earth. That’s when we meet Abram, aka Abraham.

Without any introduction to Abraham’s native abilities, personality or his previous connection with God Genesis 12:1-3 reads: “Now the Lord had said to Abram: Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Maimonides, (my mon a dees), the preeminent medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher, scholar, astronomer and physician wrestled with the same question that still bugs us today. Why did God choose Abram? The scholar’s conclusion is paraphrased in the famous exchange between the British anti-Semite William Norman Ewer who wrote, “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” and the response of American poet Ogden Nash who wrote, “It wasn’t odd; the Jews chose God.” Maimonides maintained that even as a child Abraham entertained new ideas with a willingness to explore and think until, as a result of his own correct understanding, he reached the truth. His conclusion: Abraham chose God.

He figured out that there must be one Power above all powers, one Lord above all lords who is the Master of the Universe and therefore he traded in his native paganism for monotheism. He realized that this Unity behind the apparent diversity that fills the world is an ethical and moral force that insists on righteousness and compassion. But he also came to realize that it is not sufficient to be just a monotheist. It is necessary to be an ethical monotheist. In Genesis 18 the Bible says God chose Abraham “Because … he commands his children and his household after him to observe the way of the Lord to do compassionate righteousness and moral justice.”

This reality became the driving force in Abraham’s life. He built altars and called people to accept his ethical God. Rather than offer sacrifices on any of the altars Abraham calls out to others to join him in his faith and ethical actions. It’s like reading a prologue to the views of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and even the Psalmist. The binding of Isaac, which occurs much later in Abraham’s life, is a testimony to how unthinkable human sacrifice is to God. Maimonides continues in his description of Abraham’s mission: “Once Abraham recognized and understood the ethical God, he began to tell the idolaters that they were not pursuing the true path; he broke their idols and informed the people that it is only proper to serve the one God in the entire universe and it is only Him that they must serve. Reading this is like jumping ahead in the story to Exodus and the Ten Commandments. Maimonides asserted that the commandment to love God includes “making God beloved to all the people of the earth.” According to Maimonides, our primary call is to convert the world to ethical monotheism.

In the 12th chapter of Genesis God makes three sweeping promises to Abram: land, descendants and that through him all the families of the earth will be blessed. In response, Abram builds altars at Shechem, Bethel and Ai and invokes the name of the LORD.

God had a great deal at stake in all this; with this new approach God has taken blessing of the whole world rides on this one fellow and his family. So what Abram did next must have seemed like having a monkey wrench thrown into God’s plan. A famine having driven the family to Egypt, in order to protect his own skin Abram shoves Sarai, his wife, into the arms of Pharaoh: “Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you…” So much for ethical monotheism. The Bible repeatedly scorns those who abuse their power by shoving the vulnerable, here women, into danger. In the Christian tradition Abraham becomes known for his great faithfulness, but at this point you have to admit he’s not off to an auspicious start.

In the 13th chapter God elaborates on the promises of land and descendants and asserts that Abraham’s children will be like the dust of the earth: that is his offspring will be innumerable, a great nation. If God has concerns about Abraham due to the unsavory my-wife-is-my-sister maneuver, then we might conclude that Abraham has some serious concerns about God, too. Everyone knows that Sarai and Abraham have no children and that there is no prospect of any children that promise of innumerable progeny is starting to sound pretty empty. Abraham’s response to God’s promises is not recorded–no assent or disbelief, or anything else. How do you imagine Abraham processed these seemingly ridiculous promises of land, progeny and a blessing to all people?

The narrative tells us that Abraham and Lot go their separate ways although Abraham rescues Lot from the big battles raging throughout chapter 14. At the very end of the chapter, Abram refuses the spoils of war from the king of Sodom. Abraham does not take wealth from the king of Sodom or anyone else because God will reward him (literally, “your wages will be very great”).

To this point in the narrative we’ve not been privy to the thoughts of either Abraham or God on how this fledgling relationship is going. God has made grand promises, but we have not known until now what Abraham thinks of those promises or of the promise-giver. Given that the story itself gives us a mixed picture of Abraham’s moral character, God has some reason to wonder whether choosing Abraham was such a good idea, whether he is really able to be the bearer of the promise to the nations. This is in keeping with all other significant Old Testament characters–the “heroes” of the faith were all flawed and broken in one way or another, just like us. So our text for today, Genesis 15:1-6, is a significant moment in the narrative when we are told that God and Abraham are developing a level of trust, and that each is encouraged by the promises or actions of the other.

Gen. 15:After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

Then Abram takes this as an occasion to finally burst out with the question that must have surely been weighing on him since chapter 12: what about those kids you promised me? 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Responding to Abram’s statement “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” God offers significant additional information, more information than has been previously revealed: it will not be through the adopted slave Eliezer of Damascus that God will make a great nation of Abraham it will be through a biological child of Abraham’s. While not quite full disclosure Abraham is reassured that his offspring will be numbered like the stars in the sky.

The Jewish Study Bible points out “the pointlessness of all Abram’s recent financial and military success in the absence of a son from whom the promised “great nation” can descend”. What is success if you have no successor? Finally, after three chapters, we are told how Abraham responds to the divine promise of descendants: “And he believed (or trusted) the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This got me to thinking about our malaise and our lack of a sense of promise as a Meeting. Like Abraham we are getting older. We’ve had no children for several years. As a Meeting and a denomination, and as a faith community we are declining in numbers in worship as folks drift away, age out or die. It got me to thinking about my constant struggle to remain positive… and hopeful about a future for us.

Like a childless Abram and Sarai we have no one to whom to bequeath our faith. God told Abraham “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” But in our generation we are suffering from light pollution and are unable to contemplate the magnitude of the innumerable stars in the heavens. I’m told that the majority of children in the United States may never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. Tonight eighty percent of U.S. residents and a third of our global neighbors can’t see the celestial landscape of which we are apart. What is the promise – for us? For Spokane Friends? Are there too many other attractive lights which block out our being able to see the promise? Are the street lights which give us a sense of security in a world we perceive as dark and dangerous actually just more light pollution? Sharing the predicament with Abraham we find ourselves stewing about God’s promise. Not being able to see the stars we forget that it is God who will provide the heirs in our old age even if in this moment it seems unbelievable.








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Nine Eleven Fifteen Years Later

We remain resolved to reject extreme ideologies that perversely misuse religion to justify indefensible attacks on innocent people and to embrace persons of all religions, including our Muslim neighbors, and to welcome refugees seeking safety.


Before 9/11 the average American knew little about Ramadan or sharia law. If asked about Islam most of us would have responded with a blank stare. But not anymore. Not only does every T.V. network have its Muslim expert, books on Islam have become best sellers, and of course pronouncements  from candidates, intended to inflame audiences, have become common place.


It may come as a surprise but with this expanding interest in Islam one lesson we’ve learned in the years since 2001 is that religious prejudice is not always rooted in raw ignorance. Some of the most vocal anti-Muslim critics know a great deal about Muslim beliefs. They also have a tendency to portray Islam in the worst possible way. Embarrassingly for many of us, among the loudest such voices are perceived by the general public to be leaders within the Christian community, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson to name two. Charles Kammer of Ohio’s College of Wooster says that Graham and Robertson have helped to fuel the rise of what he calls “Christo-Americanism” a distorted mixture of  nationalism, conservative paranoia and Christian rhetoric. They have stirred a general climate of hatred and distrust toward Muslims.


In recent weeks an American Muslim shop keeper was shot three times as he opened his grocery store in Miami, Florida while in Meridan, Connecticut an Islamic center is riddled with bullets. A Muslim student at Wichita State University and his Hispanic male friend were told a man using racial slurs to “go home” and then he beat them. bullet holes were found in the front sign of the Islamic Society of North America headquarters and mosque in Plainfield, Indiana. After being vandalized with Nazi symbols on the exterior a Somali restaurant was set ablaze in Grand Forks, North Dakota. In Fort Bend, Texas a man posted images on social networks with an assault rifle and ammunition threatening to ‘shoot up a mosque’ and while supposedly speaking in Arabic a teenager who was walking with his brother in law outside of a gymnasium in Huntington Beach, California was stabbed by a police officer.


Here in the northwest the Islamic Center of Twin Falls, Idaho was vandalized. In Oregon an elderly Muslim man was killed after being attacked with a shovel, and a Buddhist monk was attacked by someone who apparently thought he was Muslim based on his clothing. In Lynwood, Washington a swastika and the word “ISIS” was scratched into the finish of a woman’s car. Redmond police received several calls threatening worshipers at a large Puget Sound mosque. After posting threats online against a mosque in North Seattle, and claiming to have an assault rifle and extra ammunition, a man was arrested at his home following a brief standoff with police.  And here, in Spokane, the Sikh temple was vandalized by a man who officials say thought the temple was a mosque and that it was affiliated with terrorists and the Bosnia Herzegovina Heritage Association were threatened by graffiti on the walls where they celebrated Ramadan.


Religious intolerance is not a new feature of the American landscape. Quakers experienced it first hand as have Mormons, Roman Catholics and Native Americans. Despite our treasured First Amendment  protection of religious liberty, we as a nation and as citizens have failed to live up to those ideals. The nine/eleven commission’s report said “At 8:46 on the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States became a nation transformed.” In the attempt to restore a sense of security we have traded off an extraordinary level of civil liberties for measures to protect us from attacks by indiscriminate terrorists. In the resulting war in Iraq over 4,400 of our people were killed and over 22,000 were maimed. Another ten thousand allied soldiers were wounded and over 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives in the conflict. According to the Congressional Joint Economic Cmte. the cost of the Iraq war to the U.S. treasury was $3.5 billion not including the ongoing interest we are still paying fifteen years later. And along with a great deal of inconvenience we are well past spending an additional $750 billion of Federal tax money on homeland security.


On this fifteenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center it couldn’t be more timely that our Education committee has invited us to consider Lloyd Lee Wilson’s pamphlet Radical Hospitality.


Our secular culture paints the world in which we live as dangerous and threatening and advises us that the whole purpose of the spiritual life is to escape. Popular religious culture tells us that we are engaged in a spiritual struggle with evil. When we ask how to be happy and secure in such a dangerous world we are told that that can be found in the acquisition of power, possessions and privileges. In his Pendle Hill Pamphlet Lloyd Lee Wilson reminds us that, at least for Quakers, we firmly believe that God’s intention for creation is inherently good and harmonious, as pronounced by God at the moment of creation. Such a view is quite contradictory to what the world and orthodox Christianity tells us.  Lloyd Lee Wilson says that, for Quakers, the real question is “How are we to live in God’s creation, broken and troubled as it is?


He reiterates that as Friends we understand that the universe is, at heart, profoundly good and that the places where it appears evil are places of brokenness and distortion, places to which we are called to heal. Our faith isn’t an other worldly escapist religion.
What a challenge. How do we strengthen the capacity of the Church to engage in peace building and healing? Have we, as the Church, adopted peace making, healing and reconciliation as a major focus and goal? Have we decided to devote resources and energy to the peace building effort?


Our prevailing culture sees creation as inherently conflictual, dangerous, and zero sum: there is only so much of any good thing, so more for you means less for me. In this view the stranger is always a threat, an adversary and a competitor. Our faith says that in this inherently good and harmonious world the stranger is our friend, actually the incarnation of Christ and should be offered hospitality.

Fundamentally, what brings us together this week, like any other Sunday, is our faith in Jesus Christ and the service of God’s kingdom. We Quakers join with Pope Benedict XVI in saying “Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself and in Jesus we find God.”  At the heart of our gathering is the essential biblical links between love of God and neighbor. This is a “formation of the heart” to unite in loving care for all our neighbors. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment but a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus.

As we embrace and teach peace building, unfortunately, we must humbly confess that all to often there is a gap between the ideals we profess and how we conduct ourselves. The divisions and conflicts within our community and the wider society do find their way into the life of the church, with sometimes terrible human, moral, pastoral; and spiritual consequences. Without truth there is no reconciliation, and without reconciliation our world is trapped in endless cycles of revenge and retribution.

We understand that peace doesn’t consist simply in the absence of war or violence. The underlying causes of conflicts must be addressed. Peace can only be built on justice. People of faith must help and encourage one another to articulate, share and apply such teachings on peace building and its links to justice and human rights in our own communities and together. Another component of our peace building capacity is advocacy. U.S. foreign policy has a profound impact on the prospects for peace and reconciliation. It is critical that our corporate voices be heard in the halls of Congress. We also have to learn to collaborate with others who share this vision if we are to fulfill the declaration of Jesus to the multitudes gathered on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God.” By our work here to become better healers and peacemakers we become more fully God’s children.


On the tenth Anniversary of the events of September eleventh Fr. Timothy Dolan then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops  voiced this : “we remain resolved to reject extreme ideologies that perversely misuse religion to justify indefensible attacks on innocent civilians, to embrace persons of all religions, including our Muslim neighbors, and to welcome refugees seeking safety. We steadfastly refrain from blaming the many for the actions of a few and insist that security needs can be reconciled with our immigrant heritage without compromising either one.


Approved July 22, 2011 was this statement: New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends urges everyone to recognize this anniversary as an occasion to remember that there are always alternatives to violence and that there is a Spirit in every human being which responds with gratitude to these alternatives. The Religious Society of Friends has always upheld the way exemplified by Jesus, who taught us never to return evil for evil, but to love our enemies and pray for them, forgiving them every offense. We confess that we, being human, do not always fulfill this high standard. Nevertheless, we continually strive to discern the guidance of the living God who loves unconditionally, and extends unlimited compassion, comfort, mercy, guidance, grace and revelation to all who ask. We testify to the world that we disown all wars and fighting with outward weapons for any cause whatsoever. These are never necessary. There are no “just wars.” Among the weapons we renounce are the tongue and the pen, when these are used to provoke prejudice and hatred. Neither will we be silenced by fear when we are called to witness against evil masquerading as good. We seek to build a world in which a just peace is possible. We seek the strength to support and keep faith with those who suffer for nonviolent acts of conscience. We live by the gospel of God’s love for all. Join us.


Jesus taught us to never return evil for evil but to love our enemies and pray for them. We also remain resolved to reject extreme ideologies that perversely misuse religion to justify indefensible attacks on innocent people and to embrace persons of all religions, including our Muslim neighbors, and to welcome refugees seeking safety. That’s a tall order, living in a zero sum environment that prefers revenge to reconciliation and forgiveness. But, it is to that our faith calls us.

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A Slave Named Profitable

A Slave Named Profitable

Tradition has it that the Apostle Paul wrote this personal letter to Philemon, a slave holder and leader the church in Colossae in the year 61. At the time when Paul was living under house arrest in Rome. Most of the letters of the Apostle Paul were composed with an eye to their being publicly read – although Philemon is considered a private letter about a specific matter I think that it too was written to be read aloud in a setting of worship. Paul is not primarily concerned with articulating a right Christological formulation or the correct theological or eschatological perspective. First there is an introduction.

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

Now we find what it is exactly that Paul is asking of Philemon?

8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Reading between the lines we think we can see a back story emerging. One of Philemon’s slaves, named Onesimus, after defrauding his master, fled to Rome. It is conjectured that Onesimus had come in contact with Paul when he had traveled with his master Philemon to Ephesus but for what ever reason once in Rome he found his way to where Paul was incarcerated. We are left to imagine how that relationship developed. Onesimus became useful to Paul given that he was under house arrest. Ultimately Paul writes that Onesimus had become his spiritual son and except for the fact that his friend and supporter Philemon had a prior claim on the slave he would have kept him in his service. Adding to that, Onesimus, being a convert to Christianity, was obliged to return and make restitution to his master. According to the law, the master of a runaway slave might treat him exactly as he pleased. When retaken, a slave was usually branded on the forehead, maimed, or forced to fight with wild beasts. With a rare tact and utmost delicacy Paul asks that Philemon to not only pardon Onesimus but to receive him as Philemon would receive Paul himself. The outcome of Paul’s request is lost to history but according to ecclesiastical tradition Onesimus lives to become the Bishop of Beraea.

The principals in this story are: a slave; a thief, a run away, a servant, a convert, a disciple, a son, a repentant, a spiritual leader and Bishop… an Apostle, although imprisoned, a catcher in the rye, a spiritual tutor, mentor and father, a beneficiary and an advocate for unmerited favor and for forgiveness of debts, and the third a slave holder, who is asked to acknowledge one who had stolen from him and then become a runaway as a brother in Christ.

As I’ve read the letter and become aware that a literal translation of the name Onesimus, is “profitable” and how in the eleventh verse the text makes a play on words pointing how Onesimus was useless to Philemon in Colessea while quite useful to Paul in Rome.  I couldn’t help wonder whether it really is an elaborate metaphor for what the church is to be about. I felt a bit better about that when I learned that because the subject matter of the letter is “so very singular” F. C. Baur, a nineteenth century German Biblical scholar, concluded that it is likely that the letter is a “Christian romance serving to convey a genuine Christian idea.” Another scholar suggests that Onesimus’ status of slave was first mentioned in a sermon by Origen in the early days of the church. It is only in the 16th verse that the question of Onesimus’ encumbered status is raised and that could well be interpreted as being a situation of indebtedness to Philemon. Yet another theory is that Philemon and Onesimus are brothers both by blood and by faith but who had become estranged and for Paul love meant going out on a limb and advocating for reconciliation.

One crucial level of our interpretation of Philemon requires us to deal with our recent, collective past; a past in which biblical sanction of slavery and segregation and rancid racism was simply taken for granted by most of our predecessors in the faith and bolstered by how this letter was read. After all, if Paul seems adamant about returning a runaway slave to his owner, shouldn’t we?

Re-visiting Philemon should remind us that we too are heirs of such historical disasters, remind us that our past is not just our past but our present and our future. It is not enough to preach what Paul might have meant in Philemon all that time ago. We must confront how Philemon was actually preached from pulpits not that long ago. And in reminding us about this text’s past misinterpretation, well could be instructive to us in our need to be a bit humble in how we read and interpret Scripture today. Yes, God is certainly present in our reading of these texts, but we know well that our own sinfulness all too often have driven us to read a text in a way that affirms our prejudices and assumptions, even the cruelest ones we hold. We are no more immune to this tendency than those who have come before us. How does how we interpret the Gospel change not just our minds but how we relate to one another? Love might mean going out on a limb and advocating for people who are powerless in systems which inherently resist and resent their values being subverted.

Again, we have to ask ourselves what exactly is it that Paul is asking Philemon to do? And, why it is important in the life of the church? Paul is not primarily concerned with theology or eschatology. First and foremost he cares for these communities of faith because they are seeds of the resurrection, sites where the resurrected life can already flourish, places of resistance to an empire that would place us in rank according to social status. Is the supposed slavery of Onesimus, the status of being a doulos, a slave, in the Greek, a metaphor for someone who is captive to an addiction or an emotional loss or to an ethnic prejudice, someone who needs to hear the good news of absolution and spiritual emancipation? Were you Philemon how would you have received Paul’s request to offer such grace to one from whom you are estranged or with whom you have issues? And imagine Paul writing such a letter and making such a request of another. Such intercession wasn’t without cost. Paul writes: “if he owes you anything, charge it to my account.”

In this story, who are you – Onesimus, a runaway indebted and out of relationship to one important in his life? Or maybe you are Philemon who sees himself as the victim, the one defrauded, being asked to offer grace instead of justice? Or maybe you are Paul who is in the position of making such a request of another, prevailing on them to offer reconciliation instead of perpetuating a grudge? Can you imagine what such transformations of relationships and status might look like in our own community of faith? Can you imagine how the generosity and grace of this letter could change our world?

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Preferring Our Delusions


These stories are sign posts that have immediate, obvious relevance, and provide a deep well of possibility of resonance, if not for comprehension now, then for later, and for generations to come. They testify to a continuous presence of the divine in our lives. Their central and ever recurring theme is the need for us, people and leaders alike, to take responsibility for our beliefs and actions.

Preferring Our Delusions

Jeremiah 2:4Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? 6They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” 7I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. 8The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.

9Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. 10Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. 11Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. 12Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, 13for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

What would it mean if we spent this time in communal self-reflection and contemplate the message of Jeremiah 2 focusing on self-evaluation regarding the legal, economic, social, moral, and religious issues of our own day?

Here is Israel’s lament: “I once was a slave in the narrow straits of Egypt. I stood at Sinai and received Revelation in a moment of glorious quiet. I entered the Promised Land with Joshua to build a nation. I lived in Jerusalem when King Solomon built the richly hued Temple. I heard the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah preach. (And alas! I didn’t believe a word they said!) I witnessed the destruction of the First Temple, and then the Second Temple. I knew the desolation borne of disobedience.”

Extended into the Christian era wouldn’t include leaning over a stable railing to witness the birth of Jesus. Being present as he was dedicated and later astounding the priests with his wisdom as a youth. Would the lamentor not have witnessed the Spirit anointing Jesus as he came up from the river. I ate fish and bread and heard him tell us how to care for one another (And alas! I only memorized those beatitudes and never thought to live by them) I stood silent as I witnessed his trial and crucifixion and ran with Mary to tell the disciples the wondrous news of his resurrection. I was there when he departed this world with a promise which half heartedly I have taken for granted.”

In every generation these stories have pumped through the arteries of our faith, infused our spiritual lungs with freshness. It is as though through them I have lived each moment of our religious history.  These stories are sign posts that have immediate, obvious relevance, and provide a deep well of possibility of resonance, if not for comprehension now, then for later, and for generations to come. They testify to a continuous presence of the divine in our lives. Their central and ever recurring theme is the need for us, people and leaders alike, to take responsibility for our beliefs and actions.

This story, one of the first voiced by the Prophet Jeremiah, relates us how we, forgetful of God’s beneficence and despite warnings of dire consequences, abandoned God’s ways. Recalling the blackest historical moments which our religious tradition endured stirs us to return from wrongdoing toward responsibility to others and God, with a redemptive promise inherent in such a return. The good news, established in the grace of God, is that after darkness—there is light. Following the preface to tragedy, and catastrophe itself, there is consolation. But not yet.

Ancient Israel selected this text to represent prophetic visions of the sins of the Hebrews that led to captivity and the destruction of the Temple.  It deals with every aspect of religious disloyalty and the incapacity of the people to hear, understand, and accept responsibility. Put another way: God cannot comprehend why the people would follow other gods. God knows what God has done for the people; why do they not understand, appreciate, and turn only to God?

This idea is expressed in God’s inquiry: What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they abandoned Me and went after delusion and were deluded?

The prophet makes a list of what the people never asked themselves, a series of questions that should have reminded them of all the saving acts God performed. The list begins with the redemption from Egypt and concludes with God bringing the people to a “country of farm land to enjoy its fruit and bounty”. It’s a “rebuke” detailing the defilement of the land, the failings of priests, guardians of the essential ethic by the rulers, and prophets—in short, all who disappointed God by turning away from their relationship with God. Only at the end does the prophet offer “consolation,” that if the people truly repent and swear, in sincerity, justice, and righteousness,” the nations will bless themselves through Israel. But not yet.

Next the prophet makes the accusation that the people have simply forgotten that God was present leading them out of Egypt, through their time in the wilderness described as a place of drought and darkness, a land where no one ever passes through or lives, and then into the Promised Land. And in forgetting that they defiled the land once they got there. Verse 8 is a scathing condemnation of empty, fraudulent leadership–priests who fail to call on God, judges making judgments from the law without knowing the spirit of the Law’s author. This verse comes close to home for those who, from time to time, sense that we are just “going through the motions.”

God levels these several layered and interlocking accusations against a people who have not found it easy–or possible–to sustain faith in the mundane day-to-day world. The heart of the prosecution’s case is idolatry; God comes at the subject in three ways: the people have chased after worthless things (and in the process become worthless themselves); have “changed gods” (forsaking the one who made them what they are today); and have tried to draw strength from worthless sources (cracked cisterns).


No farmer or shepherd would abandon “living water” in favor of a cistern.  A cistern is a last-choice rather than a first-choice option.  Digging a cistern in rocky ground is a terrible chore––as is cleaning the cistern––as is using a bucket to draw water from the cistern.  A farmer whose property includes “living water” might dig a cistern as insurance against drought, but would hope never to have to use it. But Jeremiah’s charge is that we have not only exchanged the Lord’s “living water” for cisterns, but embraced “broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”  We have forsaken the living God for pieces of wood and stone carved into idols––idols that have no power––idols that cannot help. “Would anyone today be so foolish as to trade an artesian well for a cistern, much less a cistern that can’t hold water?  Unfortunately, Jeremiah asserts, we have and do.  Can you imagine what some of today’s ‘broken cisterns’ are? Our pursuits for wealth, power, fame, and pleasure.


We know that we take God and God’s providence and faithfulness for granted. We know that we put our time and energy into fruitless pursuits–looking for love in all the wrong places. We know that we are more zealous in spreading the word about our preferred candidate or professional football team than sharing God’s action in our lives. We know that in putting our lives together we draw on the dry wells of human wisdom even as in worship we are reminded of our spiritual inheritance. We know all of that. But here is the greater perplexing mystery: God knows all of that also; God knew about it when God called the Hebrew people, and God knows it when God calls us.

So help me understand why God’s people have to struggle so hard to stay faithful, thankful, and zealous. Help God understand why? We go after worthless things because their “worthlessness” is deferred; their immediate payoff is so satisfying. Yes, we love our god-given land, but as the hymn “This Is My Song” which we recently sang reminds us, “…other lands have sunlight, too, and clover…” Yes, God’s acts of deliverance were amazing! But the thrill of walking between the walls of water in the Red Sea or of watching the Ark of the Covenant being danced into Jerusalem or seeing the Holy Spirit come with power on a people, belonged to people long since dead; to us those are now just stories. We want our own vivid experience, our own memories, and (God help us) the stories being told on our little screens feel more real to us.

God asks the people: What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they abandoned Me and went after delusion and were deluded?  The question is rhetorical. In fact the fathers found no wrong in God! In Jewish literature there is a parable regarding the theme “acceptance of responsibility”.  It starts: “With whom may Adam be compared? With a sick man whom a physician was attending. The physician said: “Such-and-such you may eat and such-and-such you are not to eat.” But the sick man disregarded the physician’s instructions and so found himself on his deathbed. When his kin came in to him and asked him: “Would you say that the physician used bad judgment in this treatment of you?” he replied: “Certainly not. The physician gave me specific instructions . . . but when I disregarded his instructions I brought death upon myself.” God shows us how to fashion a living, a vibrant faith, even over the long haul, when mountaintop experiences are rare.

Israel is guilty of two evils. The first is that “they have forsaken me”––Yahweh––the Lord––the one who brought them out of Egypt into the Promised Land––the one who provided for them miraculously in the wilderness so that they did not perish there––the one who has been there for them through thick and thin––the one who has time and again chastened them for their sins but has not destroyed them––the one who, in spite of everything, still calls them “my people.”

In verse 13 Jeremiah speaks of “the spring of living waters”.  It is Yahweh who is “the spring of living waters.”  Israel would have understood this phrase, “living water,” to mean flowing water, such as a stream or an artesian well.

In an arid land, water equals life.  Every form of life, vegetable, animal, and human, requires water to survive.  In an arid land, such as Israel, people would be especially aware of this reality.  The farmer or shepherd who has a dependable stream or artesian well on his/her property is fortunate indeed. And from our perspective “the spring of living waters” refers to Christ’s ever-present care for us.  Yahweh has been a dependable source of sustenance and life.

Jesus uses this phrase, “living water,” when speaking to the Samaritan woman.  He will speak of “living water… a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14).  In that context, as here, “living water” is a metaphor for spiritual life.

In John 4 the Evangelist tells us how Jesus is carrying on conversation at the source of living water at the very place to which Jeremiah pointed, a place long established in the Jewish mind as the source of living water long before the fashioning of the first Temple and before the diaspora. “So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?

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Pictures of Radical Faithfulness

The God who shows up does not lead us out of our fellowship, but more deeply into it .. with others and with a Jesus who is committed with his very journey to the seemingly strange thing God deems as necessary.

In the thirteenth chapter of his Gospel Luke tells us a story about the last time Jesus is allowed to teach in a synagogue. It is a testimony to an internal struggle Jesus had between embracing his ancestry and his call to a prophetic ministry.

10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

From the birth narrative in his first two chapters; Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and circumcision right down to Luke’s pointing out the first time Jesus preached in his home-town synagogue Luke never lets us lose sight of Jesus’ Jewishness. And now he tells us about the last time of teaching in a synagogue. But never does he fail to remind us that Jesus’ relationship with his Jewish heritage was conflicted. Luke makes especially clear that when Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” at the conclusion of the ninth chapter Jesus was driven by the agenda of the Prophets that proceeded him. Jesus never backs away from either his pedigree and heritage nor his burning intent to save the Judaism of his day from itself. The leaders of the religious and secular establishments feared him as a revolutionary – certain to get them in trouble with their Roman overlords. Jesus is the quintessential illustration of radical faithfulness.

In a backhanded sort of way we can see reflections of how Donald Trump sets himself apart from the leadership of the party for which he is its standard bearer and the way the establishment leaders are fearful of wholeheartedly embracing him and his candidacy.  And there’s another parallel and that is to Islamists who want to replace civil law with laws reflecting their values, goals and standards, that is Sharia Law. I think it’s interesting that the word Sharia translates into English as “the way”.

Quakerism is indebted to Frederick B. Tolles for describing the very similar radical faithfulness of George Fox. He said that Fox, who persisted in calling himself ‘son of God’ and who later acknowledges that he had many brothers and sisters, was demanding nothing less than that the military ruler of all England should disavow all violence and all coercion, make Christ’s law of love the supreme law of the land, and substitute the mild dictates of the Sermon on the Mount for the Instrument of Government by which he ruled. Fox would have him make England a kind of pilot project for the Kingdom of Heaven. In that, Fox was a revolutionary. He had no patience with the relativities and compromises of political life. His testimony was an uncompromising testimony for the radical Christian ethic of love and non-violence, and he would apply it in the arena of politics as in every other sphere of life. It is not recorded that Cromwell took his advice. Neither is it recorded that Fox ever receded an inch from his radical perfectionism.

Luke gives us no clue as to where this story takes place. Since the earliest development of the Synagogue system there was an openness to itinerant teachers called ‘the freedom of the synagogue’. It was on a sabbath that in a local synagogue Jesus was teaching. Luke writes: 13:10  Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.

11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

Luke gives us a description not a diagnosis. I recall seeing a woman on the streets on a town in Japan who walked bent double. It’s easily understood how this woman in the synagogue stood out from the other women who were gathered there. Jesus stopped preaching and started meddling.

12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Given that earlier in this same chapter much is made for the need for repentance that this act of uncommon compassion and healing occurred without any discussion of the cause of the woman’s illness or of any need for confession of sin. Some people are upset by the way in which God’s love is extended, healing is offered and grace is received. It was a simple pronouncement that broke the chains of what held her captive: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

So here we have a question. Is the importance of this story that it is a miracle healing or is it a pronouncement story built on the conflict between Jesus and the shape of the Judaism of his day? This particular text gives evidence of both: it is a healing that leads to an important pronouncement. The purpose of understanding this, however, is that it might aid us in appreciating the uniqueness of the narrative itself: it is a miracle with something to say about God!

Some miracles stories go to great lengths to show the run up and then the payoff from the miraculous action. But here the miracle is hardly even described. At most Jesus is said to have laid his hands on her. Luke rushes past the graphic physical description of the miracle to get to the conflict. And, that by itself should have set off a storm of protest. The two things of importance is that with a word Jesus announces her freedom from the crippling spirit and when she is healed, the healing happens in the form of the divine passive (“she stood up straight” actually reads in the Greek as she “was straightened up” — assuming God as agent). God not only “set free”, but “straightened” her in the synagogue on the Sabbath. So in the moment in which we should see celebration of the woman’s being made whole,  while the woman is standing up straight and praising God we read:

14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

A synagogue leader in tries to shame Jesus with the congregation by pointing out that the healing was work — something that could be done on any of the six days set aside for labor instead of the holy Sabbath. Like his accuser Jesus responds to the crowd pointing out that any of them would take care of an animal needing help on the Sabbath — so how much more should they respond to a human being in need. In the Greek both the synagogue leader and Jesus are saying more here than our translations make clear. The synagogue leader uses the Greek verb dei to make his claim about the ought of work. Luke loves this verb in his narrative because it describes what it is necessary for Jesus to do as God’s Prophet. This is why Jesus’ response picks up on the synagogue leader’s claim. The ought here is not about a divine necessity to work on the other six days, but based on a divine necessity to have this woman be freed from bondage on the Sabbath. To make the point even clearer, Jesus calls her what she really is a “daughter of Abraham.” Jesus doesn’t supersede Jewishness with his claims about the Sabbath, but rather intensifies their theological grounding in the necessity of God and God’s purposes to heal, liberate, and unbind.

17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

When God is up to something, prepare to be unbound: whether from confining diseases, or social norms about persons with disabilities, or even our sacred cows. The fact that Jesus does this within the Jewish tradition and for a daughter of Abraham shows that God keeps showing up, drawing the circle just a little wider and unleashing a divine horizon that engenders rejoicing over the loosing of every human bondage. On one hand it’s a warning to those of us who see ourselves as protectors of what has been, conservators of the status quo. Sometimes despite ourselves, we get a glimpse of the great and glorious thing that God is doing, celebrate the expansion of grace that is there for all, and give God our thanks and praise. The God who shows up does not lead us out of our fellowship, but more deeply into it .. with others and with a Jesus who is committed with his very journey to the seemingly strange thing God deems as necessary.


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We have bought too heavily into the model of diagnosing moral failure and its consequences as disease rather than holding out healthy life choices and focusing on life affirming behavior. Maybe we have forgotten that human beings are moral agents and need to be held accountable even for their self inflicted wounds.


The 1928 Democratic Convention nominated a very popular progressive and four time governor of New York, Al Smith, as their presidential candidate. That same year Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover. Between the convention and the general election Democrats abandoned their nominee as it became known that Al Smith was a Roman Catholic. One columnists of his day wrote that he lost the election because of three things: Prohibition, which he opposed, Prosperity which soon evaporated and Prejudice. My grandfather, a newsman and a Catholic, considered himself to be an Al Smith Democrat until he died.

The question on my mind is whether we are witnessing something similar with the Republican party and Donald Trump. This week it was reported that in the interest of protecting down ballot races for seats in the House and Senate three well known Republican leaders were planning ‘an intervention’ with candidate Trump. The list of disaffected Republicans defecting to support the Democratic candidate has continued to grow. It was suggested that with his ties to Russian financial interests Trump was a real “Manchurian Candidate.” A story even surfaced that before the election season began Donald Trump met with Bill Clinton and the two plotted to destroy the Republican party. The candidate himself expressed the opinion that he might lose because a fix was already in on the election. Despite all the opposition, both within his party and without, Mr. Trump continues to enjoy tremendous popular support.

American Conservative magazine’s Rod Dreher’s interview with J. D. Vance, author of the book Hillbilly Elegy helps define why many people find Donald Trump such an attractive candidate. He began his interview saying that “a friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs”. By way of explanation Vance replied that “these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant. … And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

“The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues. … From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and praise for the noble businessman and economic growth.  … these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

He continued: “We’re no longer a country that believes in human agency.  To hear Trump or Clinton talk about the poor, one would draw the conclusion that they have no power to affect their own lives.  Things have been done to them, from bad trade deals to Chinese labor competition, and they need help.  And without that help, they’re doomed to lives of misery they didn’t choose. ‘Believing you have no control is incredibly destructive, and that may be especially true when you face unique barriers. The first time I encountered this idea was in my exposure to addiction subculture, which is quite supportive and admirable in its own way, but is full of literature that speaks about addiction as a disease.  If you spend a day in these circles, you’ll hear someone say something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so why judge an addict for drug use.”  This view is a perfect microcosm of the problem among poor Americans.  On the one hand, the research is clear that there are biological elements to addiction–in that way, it does mimic a disease.  On the other hand, the research is also clear that people who believe their addiction is a biologically mandated disease show less ability to resist it.  There’s this weird refusal to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.

Dreher asked Vance to expand on the importance of the US Marine Corps to develop discipline in his life and fundamentalist Christianity in his biological father’s life. Vance’s response was:Well, I think it’s important to point out that Christianity, in the quirky way I’ve experienced it, was really important to me, too.  For my dad, the way he tells it is that he was a hard partier, he drank a lot, and didn’t have a lot of direction.  His Christian faith gave him focus, forced him to think hard about his personal choices, and gave him a community of people who demanded, even if only implicitly, that he act a certain way.  I think we all understate the importance of moral pressure, but it helped my dad, and it has certainly helped me! If you believe as I do, you believe that the Holy Spirit works in people in a mysterious way. I’d make one important point: that not drinking, treating people well, working hard, and so forth, requires a lot of willpower when you didn’t grow up in privilege.  That feeling–whether it’s real or entirely fake–that there’s something divine helping you and directing your mind and body, is extraordinarily powerful.

In an interview this week Pat Boone, in responding to a question about his take on the race for Presidency, said “God has lifted his hand of protection from the United States.” One group, supporting the Republican candidate argued that it was an endorsement of Donald Trump. Groups on the left put their own spin on the interview. For me, it raised again this question of abandonment. The context of Boone’s comment is that at one time God had placed his hand of protection on the United States and has now, due to our many failures, lifted that hand of protection. Since the mid 1800’s America has seen itself in that light. John L. O’Sullivan, in an article on the annexation of Texas wrote that it is: ‘our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.’ This attitude helped to fuel western settlement of this continent, justified Native American removal and war with Mexico. In its inception did the United States displace Israel to become God’s preferred nation? And now because of our immorality, injustice, greed, violence, –all those things to which the Prophets pointed in their accusations of Israel– has God abandoned us?

Reasserting the words of Samuel 12:22, Psalm 9:10 and 94:14 tells us that God will not abandon his people. Jesus tells his followers that though he was leaving the earth they would not be left ‘comfortless.’ So what do we make of Israel’s experience of being taken into captivity, and ultimately having the Temple destroyed and, and of course, Jesus’ passionate plea from the cross. Isaiah 52 and 53 is all about recovery. The picture left in my mind is that of the parent whose child wanders off in a store after being told to stay close. And when the child becomes aware of its separateness it experiences the anxiety of being abandoned. And all the while the anxious parent, in the next isle over, allows a life giving message to be learned.

In the transcript of Pat Boone’s interview he refers to the Old Testament story of Balaam and his donkey and says: “If God can use an ass for His purpose … He can use a Donald Trump, for example.” He didn’t end there, he added: “Or, of course, a Hillary Clinton. The question: Which one, if either, will actually look to Him, seek His will and not “political correctness” in the crucial decisions that will determine our future?” I’d question whether either campaign would want to go beyond a sound bite on this one.

For seventy or so years our society, and especially the church, has stepped away from the Prophetic role of pointing to how a culture destroys the lives of people. For nearly two centuries the Church taught that human beings were guilty of sin and needed to repent. Then we found it enormously popular to put less emphasis on sin and the negatives of the Christian Faith and concentrate on the positives. A half century ago Karl Menninger raised the question with us in his book Whatever Became of Sin? In reaction many evangelical voices, continuing to stress the sinfulness of the human race and the need for repentance, have become cloisters of self righteousness, hypocrisy and exclusion.


The last six of the Ten commandments deal with how we treat one another, the sinfulness of violating them, and the need to repent if we do. Were we to follow them, can you imagine how different our world would be? Remember that “repent” is simply a military term that means “about face,” that is, turning around and going the other direction. And to speak of ‘sin’ isn’t a life sentence, it simply means missing the mark. Following Yearly Meeting there was quite a discussion on the pastor’s list serve about Jesus telling the woman at the well to “go and sin no more.” Beside the fact that the words are in the New Testament story of the woman taken in adultery some held out their responsibility to accuse and convict. And, of course, just saying “I’m sorry” is not enough! We need to change what we are doing. Turn around and have better aim. We need to hear more clearly the voice of Micah where we read: He has shown you, oh man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. We need to reflect on Jesus words when he said we were to: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:28-31)

We have bought too heavily into the model of diagnosing moral failure and its consequences as disease rather than holding out healthy life choices and focusing on life affirming behavior. Maybe we have forgotten that human beings are moral agents and need to be held accountable even for their self inflicted wounds. And, as important as is personal accountability, the good news is that we are not alone in our struggles with the challenges of life. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit to lead and to guide. But we’ve got to be willing to talk about that. We need a community of the faithful to encourage us and at times hold our feet to the fire. As contradictory as it may seem, does the Trump campaign, highlighted by the values of the man himself, actually point out our need to allow our Spiritual roots to influence our lives, our faith and even our politics?

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Treasures and Light

The question of why a woman would choose to abort a pregnancy is similar to why a person feels it necessary to arm themselves.


I’ve been a supporter of getting non-sporting weapons off the streets for decades. I still think Wyatt Earp had the right idea about open carry in urban settings. But I don’t think that outlawing guns will solve our addiction to violence. By the same token it’s my personal opinion that an abortion is a tragedy. Family planning resources are available to make an unwanted pregnancy an anachronism. Outside of situations of rape and incest, unwanted pregnancies are a symptom of being irresponsible with one’s sexuality. Still I don’t believe in outlawing abortions, harassing those who choose to have them or those who choose to perform them. Why? Because both these hot button issues are spiritual matters. As to abortions I believe, as a country, a state, a city, a community, a congregation – regardless of the choices around sexual intimacy people make we could accelerate the reduction of the numbers of abortions which we are now seeing by removing the social and financial obstacles and fears some women have about raising a child. That’s consistent with Isaiah’s assertion that the naked be clothed, the homeless housed, the hungry fed, the captives emancipated and get this, even the manacles on the wicked loosen. Only then, Isaiah insists, when you call on God, will God answer.

The question of why a woman would choose to abort a pregnancy is similar to why a person feels it necessary to arm themselves.

I think the answer may be found in Jesus’ admonition in the 19th through 21st verses of the 6th Chapter of Matthew: 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Underlying much of our national anxiety and unrest is the fear that many people feel of losing to others the treasure that they personally have accumulated or that had been amassed by a generation before them. Many who once identified themselves as middle class have lost much of their purchasing power and with it social status. Where as it was once possible for one person in a family to earn a livable wage for a traditional family now two or more are required to makes ends meet and a necessity if they want to educate their child. In our system of economics, business, industry, and government are charged with being as efficient as possible, producing goods and services at competitive prices. But the world expanded, markets have become international, people in developing countries are excited about receiving a living wage and business is pleased to enjoy lower costs per unit of production. Ocean going freighters bring more goods to our shores than we send away. And that results in ever fewer jobs for American workers, regardless of whether they are willing to do such work.

By the same token banks prefer that we use automatic teller machines, complex computers, instead of them having to hire human tellers to handle our financial transactions. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the impact artificial intelligence has had upon our lives. And the loss to middle income jobs increases our sense of vulnerability.

In our generation people of color have broken out of stereotypical roles as have women and more recently those who manifest atypical gender identities. The fact that people from south and central America live and work among us isn’t new – they were actually on this land before most or our ancestors arrived. Only recently has that reality begun to shift the lines of political power. And think about it, the Chief Executive of the United States is a person of color. I can remember when that was unthinkable. As for women, in the State of Washington both our U.S. Senators (a word that means ‘old men’) and the person who represents us in the House are all women. The majority of the County Council are women. Almost half of the City Council are women. We have a woman running for the highest office in our land. That’s a huge change. And more recently lawful marriage now makes space for people of the same gender to form a household. You might recall that just like the church fought the Copernicus revolution churches divided over the emancipation of slaves, woman’s suffrage, and now gender issues.

One of the first political issues I faced working in a bi-racial urban neighborhood was with the introduction of a Federal program called Community Action Against Poverty. We had worked to develop a neighborhood organization and it seemed that all CAAP did was to hire people. And then one day it struck me that hiring people was a good thing. Of course the other side of the economic fears of those who have is the experience of the havenots. Just as real is the sense of being held captive to the privilege enjoyed by others which deny opportunity.

We know, because the data is readily available, that some people have come out of these changes in our culture quite well off while others haven’t fared so well. We currently celebrate 536 U.S. Billionaires. That’s contrasted with 320 million individuals. The effective tax rate in 1954 was seventy percent. Today, for the top ten percent of tax payers the average rate is around twenty percent. The point isn’t what is fair or equitable – it’s that we all know that over the past three decades the very wealthy have gotten wealthier while the great majority has experienced a reduction in their standard of living. And that feeds the feeling of vulnerability and the sense of being held captive to a rigged system. So the idea of building a wall to keep persons from the southern climates out of our jobs, out of our hospitals, and off our welfare roles gains traction. Fearing that international trade agreements will move even more jobs to developing countries bring together groups who are normally estranged, the best example is the nominees for President of both the Republicans and Democrats have taken positions in opposition to the proposed Trans Pacific Trade agreement.

Now into that volatile mix add the fear of an environment gone haywire with threats of rising sea levels, changes in the distribution of rainfall across the continent, crops no longer feasible where they once were the staple. Add into that corporations and reservations with hydrocarbons buried in the ground meeting resistance to their being transported and sold on the world market. And what about fears of genetically modified plants and animals and an array of chemicals use to increase crop yields.

You could argue that the problem is that we know too much. Ignorance is bliss is similar to our wanting the world as it was. We know how many people were killed by a suicide bomber in a town the other side of the globe which only moments before we didn’t know existed. We know of every mistake made by those charged with keeping the peace at home – and abroad. We know the voting record and the moral behavior of every public figure – and the economic interests that have contributed to their campaigns for re-election. Seeing the world in this way can make us physically ill. In the face of all that we read Jesus’ words 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. He challenges our priorities, to the core. He goes on and says that our problem is how we see things. The few remaining lines of Matthew 6 which we have yet to explore are these:

22“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

And that’s the darkness in which we swim. And its antidote is the light within us. We need healthy eyes so we can be full of light. Now our eyes are filled with anxiety and fear. An astigmatism is distorting our vision of what is truly important. What is needed is a relationship with Christ, the light within, that enables us to see the world differently.

There is an approach to human behavior that suggests that how we think about something determines our mental health. It’s an interesting corollary to what Jesus is saying. Cecil Hinshaw in 1945 said: In describing his early ministry, George Fox wrote, “I was sent to turn people from the darkness to the Light.” The “children of Light” knew that they had been redeemed from sin and its power, and that conviction and experience was their message. They had experienced the moral tensions which were native to Puritanism, and they had found an answer to them. That answer is the keynote of early Quakerism. Fox expressed it in classic words, “I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” Without question, the Light within is, in early Quakerism, that which William Penn called “the first principle.” The cornerstone of their faith was the belief that Christ did lead and guide them out of darkness into the glorious light of God’s perfect love and power. Out of this experience of the redemptive power of the Light came their message of victory over the forces of all unrighteousness.

The Light within was equated by them with Christ. Instead of a vague, impersonal spirit, they believed that Light to be the eternal Christ who had been manifested perfectly in the historical Jesus and who continued to dwell in the hearts of his followers. “Christ is come and doth dwell and reign in the hearts of His people,” They genuinely believed that Christ, the same power and spirit which was in Jesus, had taken up his abode in them. If you are looking for a solid bit of Quaker Christology this is it: The Light is the eternal Christ who was manifested perfectly in the historical Jesus and who continues to dwell in the hearts of his followers.

We aren’t talking philosophy, we are talking rugged, naked Christian spirituality. Jesus calls us to pray, give, fast, get our priorities straight and open ourselves to Christ’s light illumining our inner world so that we see the outer world through the eyes of Christ. When Christ is come and dwells and reigns in the hearts of us, his people, Christ will lead and guide us out of darkness into the glorious light of God’s perfect love and power.


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In this middle section of Matthew 6 Jesus speaks a few lines about fasting. Starting with the 16th verse we read: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Jesus said ”And whenever you fast…” and a bit later says ‘But when you fast…'” That might hit you strange. The whole idea of fasting seems foreign to us today so probably the most important thing to grasp is that Jesus doesn’t say “if” you fast, the line is “whenever you fast.” Christians who identify with highly liturgical churches think this refers to Lenten fasts – forty days of giving up some one thing, like watermelon or watching professional basketball. That’s not what Jesus is talking about.

The origins of the ritual of fasting are lost in history. Several secular reasons has been suggested. One idea is that a person would fast before partaking a sacred meal, the opposite of eating something before going to a banquet so you won’t be scarfing down everything in sight. Another idea is that fasting makes one susceptible to visions. It’s also thought that a period of fasting provides new vitality in a time of infertility.

Reports of fasting are found in the oldest strata of biblical literature and there can be no doubt that spontaneous fasting was widespread from earliest times both among individuals and groups. Fasting, as recorded in the Bible, clearly emerged in response to spiritual needs. We are told that Daniel “afflicts himself” not only by abstaining from choice food, meat, and wine but also from anointing himself; David, who, in addition to fasting from food, sleeps on the ground, does not change his clothes, and refrains from anointing and washing. The most widely attested function of fasting in the Bible is to avert or terminate a calamity by eliciting God’s compassion. The purpose of fasts during wartime was to seek God’s direct intervention or advice. Thus, Israel observed fasts in its wars against Benjamin, the Philistines, and other enemies. Fasts were also reported in the hope of averting annihilation by the Babylonians and by the Persians.

Fasting was also used to avert the threat of divine punishment. God mitigates Ahab’s punishment because he fasted and humbled himself. David fasted in the hope that “the Lord will be gracious to me and the boy will live.” Fasting served as a means of supplicating God to end a famine caused by a plague of locusts and to alleviate the oppression of foreign rule. Passages in Psalms and Ezra tell us that people fasted to win divine forgiveness and implies that fasting is basically an act of penance, a ritual expression of remorse, submission, and supplication. When a calamity, human or natural, threatened or struck, a public fast would be proclaimed.

But fasting is not an end in itself rather it’s a way a person can humble their heart and repent for their sins and this repentance manifests itself in deeds. Isaiah makes the contrast between a fast which is not accompanied by sincere repentance, and which is therefore unacceptable to God, and the true fast which leads to God’s merciful forgiveness: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him… Then shalt thou call, and the Lord will answer.

If you see Jesus’ message in Matthew 6 as a whole, like prayer and one’s charitable giving, fasting is best kept private. I guess that posting on Facebook a selfie of how your fasting caused misery wouldn’t be a suitable witness to your faithfulness and righteousness.

Jesus said that no one should know that you are keeping a fast by your appearance. But, according to Isaiah, there are to be practical results: the naked are clothed, the homeless are housed, the hungry are fed, the captives are emancipated and get this, even the manacles on the wicked are loosen. Only then, Isaiah insists, when you call on God, will God answer.

As I look at the history of fasting one of the things what strikes me is that you’ve got to be convinced that things are about to get bad or they are already intolerable. Are things really that bad? Are we suffering a plague, is our way of life being challenged? I listened to as much of the most recent Political Convention as I could stand, aware that, like a hurricane, I’ll have to endure a similar destructive wind blowing in the opposite direction in this next week. What I heard was it’s all bad and we need a political savior to lead us out of the wilderness and build a fortress to provide protection from the invading hordes.

Were we ancient Israel we could expect the leaders of our sectarian state to declare a fast to secure God’s compassion to avert the threats. But our nation isn’t a sectarian state, despite what some would like to believe. Our nation is secular in nature and I expect there would be tremendous public outrage were our political leaders to declare a national fast. But what would be inappropriate for the Church to enter a time of prayer and fasting on behalf of our nation?

I’ve tried to imagine what such a fast would look like. We would have to give up our notion that people of faith worship different gods/God’s. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of all the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. If we take seriously our creation stories that proclaim one creator, there can’t be others, maybe just called by different names that opens us up to welcome any an all of creation to join in a great fast.

How David fasted is marked by changing behaviors: giving up delicacies, treating oneself with luxury, avoiding elevating oneself above others. And, with Isaiah as our mentor our fasting would focus on the needs of those who are captive to wickedness, who are oppressed, hungry, vulnerable, and homeless and this compassion even to extend to those who have been found guilty of crimes. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord will answer.

Maybe giving up watermelon or strawberry shortcake, or dark chocolate isn’t what’s called for. Jesus didn’t say, “if you fast” he said “whenever you fast.” Fasting to avert disaster is on the same level of Spiritual Discipline as prayer and charitable giving. When you pray, when you give, when you fast…

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