Monday, August 4, 2014

The Hatred of God

Sunday, Jennifer and I worshiped at First Immanuel Lutheran, a historic African American Lutheran church located at the corner of Roosevelt and Ashland here in Chicago. It was great worship experience, especially since Pastor John Nunes preached and led worship. Given the events of the last few days, I wasn't sure I was going to be up to worship this Sunday. But it was good to be there.

(It was less African American than Bethel Evangelical, in West Garfield Park, where Jennifer and I have worshiped regularly for the last few years. Worship there is a lot more gospel, and last more than two hours!)

At any rate, First Immanuel is Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation. Jennifer grew up in the LCMS, and it is a more conservative church body theologically and socially. (I'm not so sure the LCMS is all that more culturally conservative than the ELCA, and at some point, I will explain why I think that.) But they didn't appear, at least based on what I've been able to dig-up online, to follow the LCMS lectionary. Rather, they were using the revised common lectionary readings that the ELCA (and a number of churches use).

So they were using the same Romans reading from last week, from Romans 9. But they didn't stop at the fifth verse, as the RCL does, but went all the way through to end of verse 13. It's a passage that speaks of election, and it struck me when Pastor Nunes read it. I'll post the last seven verses here:
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." (Romans 9:6-13 ESV)
"Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated." (Τὸν Ἰακὼβ ἠγάπησα, τὸν δὲ Ἠσαῦ ἐμίσησα.) Strong words. Here, Paul is quoting from Malachai, who says the following at the beginning of his very short book (the last one of the Christian Bible, but not in the Tanakh):
2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob's brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert. (Malachi 1:2-3 ESV)
Or, possibly better:
2 I have shown you love, said the Lord. But you ask, "How have You shown us love?" After all--declares the Lord--Esau is Jacob's brother; yet I have accepted Jacob 3 and have rejected Esau. I have made his hills a desolation, his territory [a home for beasts]* of the desert. (Malachai 1:2-3 JPS Tanakh) 
I wish my Theological Dictionaries weren't packed away in boxes, so I could spend some time looking at Greek and Hebrew phrases here when the LXX says καὶ ἠγάπησα τὸν Ιακωβ, 3τὸν δὲ Ησαυ ἐμίσησα and the Tanakh says וָאֹהַב אֶת–יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת–עֵשָׁו שָנֵאתִי. They key words here are שׁנא in Hebrew and μισω in Greek, and I'd love to spend some time exploring what they mean. Some other day, I think.

Instead, I'll just have to look what "hate" might mean in the context of scripture.

First, there is the context of Malachai, where God originally speaks the phrase. It is spoken to Edom, a nearby people who are descendants of Isaac from Esau, Isaac's oldest son. Thus, they are Israel's close cousins. Through verse five, the vision condemns Edom, and God tells Malachai:
4 If Edom thinks, "Though crushed, we can build the ruins again," thus says the Lord of Hosts: They may build, but I will tear down. And so they shall be known as the region of wickedness, the people damned [זָעַם] forever by the Lord. 5 Your eyes shall behold it, and you shall declare, "Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel!" (JPS Tanakh)
Before going any farther, according to the notes for the ESV Study Bible, Malachai is generally believed to be a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah. That puts the oracle of verses 4-5 into a context. Ezra and Nehemiah are all about the return of the exiled leadership of Judah from Babylon following Babylon's conquest by Persia, the rebuilding of the temple and the re-establishment of regular worship in an Israelite polity that was a part of the Persian empire. This means that Israel is rebuilding too, and quite possibly Edom has suffered just as mightily from war (maybe at the hands of the Persians). So, both peoples are dealing with wreckage, carnage and destruction. Both are struggling to rebuild.

The difference here, apparently, is Edom is not rebuilding either with the help or the permission of God. The Tanakh ends with Chronicles, and the final words of Chronicles are the proclamation of King Cyrus of Persia: "The Lord God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you all of His people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up" (2 Chronicles 36:23 JPS Tanakh). The Book of Ezra begins with a nearly identical (though expanded) proclamation. So, God is using the power of the Persian Empire to judge Babylon (as promised by God through the prophets) and fulfill the promise of redemption, regathering God's people and restoring them to their patrimony.

But the returned remnant, measuring walls for new stones and gates for new doors, ought not to get complacent. Because the rest of Malachai is an indictment of sloppy, even thoughtless, worship. Of the failure, or even refusal, to off the best to God as a sacrifice. To take sacrifice seriously, to honor God in worship that matters. And God threatens another curse on Israel -- remember, God ALWAYS saves the worst of God's judgement for God's people:
1 And now, O priests, this charge is for you: 2 Unless you obey and unless you lay it to heart, and do honor to My name--said the Lord of Hosts--I will send a curse and turn your blessings into curses. (Indeed, I have turned them into curses, because you do not lay it to heart.) I will [put your seed under a ban]* and will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festal sacrifices, and shall be carried out to its [heap] (Malachai 2:1-3, JPS Tanakh, last set of brackets in the text)
Consider for a minute. God loves Jacob. God loves Israel. And that love did not stop God from judging Israel with war and pestilence, with suffering and with exile. And here God is promising more, to cast Israel into a giant shitpile, for its corruption of and failure to keep the covenant, even after Israel has been restored from exile, a time when the temple is being rebuilt and worship being renewed.

There is the promise of "My messenger" (מַלְאָכִי) at the beginning of chapter 3, an allusion to the coming of Jesus who "shall come to His Temple suddenly." And Malachai ends much the same way, with God promising to send "the prophet Elijah before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord" (Malachai 3:23 JPS Tanakh) with a promise of reconciliation. But first, God will judge Israel, and judge Israel harshly.

Remember, this is all God's love in action.

Paul quotes the phrase about loving Jacob and hating Esau in the context of election, and what it means to be an heir to the promise of God to Abraham. "Not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, 'Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.'" (Romans 9:7 ESV) Again, Paul is pulling from Genesis. Not all physical of children are "children of Abraham" for purposes of the promise. A point I will return to later.

So, God hates Esau. What does that mean in scripture where Esau actually appears? Apparently, Isaac's wife Rebekah had a difficult pregnancy, and so she asked God what was happening in her womb, and was told:
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
 the one shall be stronger than the other,
 the older shall serve the younger." (Genesis 25:23 ESV)
Esau (also called Edom, according to Gen. 25:30) was born first, and was thus the oldest son. "When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob." (Genesis 25:27-28 ESV) Esau was strong, athletic, a hunter, while Jacob (whose name means "he grabs by the heel" or "he cheats," which describes how Jacob gets ahead for much of his life) is something of a quite young man who spends his time indoors. (Much of Genesis can be described as the triumph of the nerds or the sissies, depending on how you want to look at it.) Jacob convinced Esau to "sell his birthright," his rights as the firstborn son, for a pot of lentils, and then arranges (with the help of his mother -- another interesting family dynamic in a book full of really awful families) to steal his dying father's blessing (which includes a repeat of the Genesis 12 formula, "Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you").

Esau is angry enough to kill his brother, but Rebekah sends Jacob away before Esau can act on his urges. Esau, seeing how much his father hates Canaanite woman, eventually goes to Ishmael (remember him?) and marries one of his daughters. (Yay! Cousin marriage!) And then we don't hear of Esau for a while. The story focuses on Jacob's adventures.

Esau never actually serves his brother in scripture. Edom is eventually conquered and ruled by Israel, and that may explain "serving," but the Edomites are no more enslaved that the Israelites are themselves by the time of Solomon's empire.

And it appears at the Jabbok, where Jacob wrestles with the mysterious stranger and gets a new name, that his life -- all that cheating -- finally catches up with Jacob. It's been a long time since he's seen Esau, but they are preparing to meet, and Jacob is scared. He fears the worst. He is ready to beg Esau for mercy, and he prays to God, "[p]lease deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come to attack me, the mothers with the children." (Gen. 32:11 ESV)

Instead, it's a magnanimous and even loving meeting. "But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept." (Gen. 33:4 ESV) Esau is no longer angry, and he initially refuses the peace offering Jacob had prepared. Whatever anger Esau may have had, he has made a life for himself in which he has enough. Whatever blessing might mean here, Esau is content with his life. He has material goods in abundance, and he takes the offerings from Jacob only after the younger brother insisted. And they part, and at least in the text, they never see each other again.

Edom -- that other name for Esau -- appears occasionally in scripture after that, but as a bit player. Coming back to Malachai, we have a devastated Edom, and Edom struggling to rebuild after some kind of calamity, but struggling to rebuild without God. At least that seems to be the assumption.

So, what then exactly might it mean when God says, Jacob I love, but Esau I have hated.

Because we have Edom as long as we have Israel. Edom does not disappear off the face of the earth. God does not smite Edom with plagues, pestilence, war, death, and destruction -- at least no more than God smites Israel, and certainly not much in scripture (if at all). God does not command the earth to open up and swallow Edom. While Israel's history has not been pleasant. The love God shows for Jacob doesn't prevent much death, destruction, war, pestilence, death, and whatnot. It doesn't prevent the conquest and exile. It does not prevent judgement.

So, what might love and hate mean here?

Well, let's go back to Paul and his understanding of election. God's promises to Abraham are specific -- children, patrimony, blessing. But they are given to a very specific people, and not the entire world. Israel is a very specific people, and they are recipients of this very specific promise. Ishmael and his descendants are not the recipients of that promise. Nor is Esau. The hatred of God here means, then, that Esau is simply not the person God "chose" to receive and convey the promise. And that's all it means.

To be hated by God, then, doesn't mean Hell, or damnation, or exclusion, or anything even remotely resembling that.

And we might want to consider what love means while we're at it. To be beloved of God here means to belong to the people who have received the promise of God to Abraham and who convey that promise to the next generation. And that's all that means too. It's not a grant of land, or permission to do as one pleases to one's unchosen or unbeloved neighbors. If anything, to be beloved of God means you get all the extra-special attention from God that those God doesn't much care about don't get.

Because God saves God's harshest judgements for God's people. And for God's people alone.

Now, to further confuse things, all of the promises made to Abraham, repeated to Isaac, made to Israel through David and the prophets, are resolved in Jesus Christ, who becomes faithful Israel (he is both north and south, lost Ephraim and conquered Judah). He is promise and fulfillment. This is what it means that Jesus fulfills the law. He becomes Israel. All of Israel. As all of Israel, he is the keeper of the covenant we cannot keep, and in being baptized into his life, death, and resurrection, we who are gentiles inherit the promises of God to Abraham -- promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham -- and become part of that promise.

What this means is that you can no more earn the hatred of God through actions -- or inaction -- then you can earn the love of God. God chooses. But in Jesus Christ, who fulfill the law in faithfulness, we are all invited to become part of the redeeming and reconciling love of God. To be inheritors of the promise to Abraham. And to convey that promise to the whole world, to another generation, to those who come after us.

All are welcome. Even Esau.

* * *

*According to the JPS Tanakh, the meaning of the bracketed phrase is uncertain in the Hebrew.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Lectionary This Week -- Feeding the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-20

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21 ESV)
"And they ate and were satisfied." (καὶ ἔφαγον πάντες καὶ ἐχορτάσθησαν.) Jesus has wandered out to the wilderness, to the desolate place where he could be alone, after hearing the news that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod. John was a long-time critic of Herod, who desired to marry his brother Philip's wife Herodias (in Matthew, we learn little of this, save that John said -- probably often and probably very loudly -- that it was unlawful for Herod to have her). Herod wanted John dead, likely because he was both enraged and embarrassed by John's preaching. But he was bound by his fear of the people he nominally ruled (thanks largely to Roman backing; the Romans were in Palestine to begin with because they were asked to intervene on behalf of one group of Hasmoneans during a civil war), because the people believed in John as a Prophet.

An annoying character, John, who lost his head to an oath sworn to a little girl.

But more importantly, at the start of Chapter 9, we learn that Herod was convinced Jesus was this same beheaded John -- meaning that John the Baptist, John the Annoying, John the Maddening, John the Moralist ("No, you cannot marry your brother's wife!"), would not stay dead. "This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him." (Matthew 14:2 ESV) Such power, such miracles, Herod says, could only be done by someone risen from the dead.

Jesus is not John, of course. And he is not dead. Not yet. And hearing of John's death, Jesus escapes, wanders out to a desert place, possibly to be far away from the very same crowds that had seen him restore life to a dead girl, heal the blind, the mute, and the wounded. He has calmed a storm, cured leprosy, cast out demons, and sent out his twelve disciples to heal and cleanse and cast-out and proclaim "the kingdom of heaven." This is not a Jesus the crowds can leave alone. They -- we -- want, hunger for the work of God that he brings us, brings to the lost, brings to the world.

We follow him into the wilderness, into the desolate place. In Exodus, God's people were driven into the wilderness by an act of horrific redemption, dragged kicking and screaming by God. Here, the people of God willingly follow God into the wilderness. God cannot get away from them.

The end of the day has come, and the people who followed are hungry. They have been touched, they have been healed, their ills and infirmities undone. The disciples see a logistics problem, and wonder -- where and how are all these people going to be fed? Send them away, they say, to the nearest villages to buy food for themselves. It's the "smart" answer, the one born of experience and wisdom and observation. This is the wilderness, and there is nothing here for anyone to eat.

But what is a matter of logistics and organization for the disciples is an opportunity for the miraculous kingdom of God. "They need not go away; you give them something to eat," Jesus commands. I'm fairly certain the disciples were stunned. After all, we are in the middle howling nowhere, and we have so little -- five loaves of bread and two fish. "That might feed six of us, but not all of these people" I imagine someone saying.

I'm reminded of the Exodus with this passage:
1 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." (Exodus 16:1-3 ESV)
What does God then say to Moses? "Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you (plural, לָכֶ֛ם)" (Exodus 16:4) Israel, the people God has just redeemed from slavery in Egypt, the people who have grumbled because in their servitude, in the well-stocked cities of Egypt where they served -- worshiped -- Pharaoh, their puts were full. And they ate their fill.

They were able to cook their meals, fill their pots, bake their bread, through the work of their own hands. They earned their keep, supported themselves, even as they labored for ends not their own. And now, here in the wilderness, Israel had gone maybe a a day or two, eating away at whatever rations they were able to take with themselves from Egypt, growing hungry. As only the once-comfortable can. "Would that we had died safe and warm and well-fed in Egypt!"

Instead, God rains bread from heaven. For the next 40 years, for the entire length of its wilderness wandering, God will feed Israel. A meal Israel will not earn, cannot earn, a meal that will fall from the sky every day -- save on the sabbath; double would fall the day before -- and provide enough for each Israelite as they wander.

In both instances, there is an objection. "We have only two small fish and five loaves!" "Would that we had died well fed in Egypt!" In the desert, God rains bread from heaven. Here, in this wilderness, Jesus takes what the disciples have, and blesses them. He then takes these five little loaves and two little fishes (to quote a song I wrote on the subject) and gives them to the disciples, and they distribute. This is communion. Jesus uses simple things at hand, blesses them, and offers them up to be signs of the kingdom of heaven.

Like at Exodus, this is a miraculous feeding in the wilderness, where there is no food.

Unlike at the Exodus, the hands of man are all over this. Jesus takes the bread and fish and blesses it. He then hands both over to his disciples, who "then gave them to the crowds."

This is still an unearned meal, still the miraculous work of God, but this time, instead of each gathering enough for themselves, human hands pass this bread and fish onto other human hands. This is a shared meal in the way the manna was not.

There are also leftovers, which was apparently not true of the manna (though some was kept in the ark of the covenant). There was enough manna for everyone. There was more than enough for the five thousand men (plus women and children), enough left over to fill up twelve baskets.

This is not just subsistence. This is abundance. This is the kingdom of heaven, the economy of God, the miraculous provision. In the wilderness, when all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish, there is more than enough for many thousands.

Paired with this gospel reading is a passage from Isaiah 55, promising a banquet for all those who hunger, and rich food for all those too poor to afford such a thing. This passage comes in a series of prophetic messages of the coming redemption or Israel and of those "foreigners" (בֶּן־הַנֵּכָ֗ר, literally "the sons of the stranger") who have joined themselves to Israel.

But I'm not going to say much more about this passage, except to note, I wrote a song about it -- one I really, really like.

1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
 come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
 hear, that your soul may live;
 and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
 my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
 a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
 for he has glorified you
(Isaiah 55:1-5 ESV)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Kingdom of Heaven is a Verb

From the Revised Common Lectionary reading for Sunday, 27 July, 2014:
31 [Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 
51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 ESV)
"The kingdom of heaven is like..." Jesus does a lot of speaking in parables. A lot of comparing. A string of similies hung together, each bearing witness to some aspect of God's coming kingdom. (As a general rule, Jesus uses the term "Kingdom of Heaven" in Matthew, and "Kingdom of God" elsewhere, though Heaven is found only in Matthew and God is used heavily in Luke to describe the same oncoming reality.)

Note what's going on here. The kingdom of heaven is not a noun. It is not like a seed, or leaven, it is like a very tiny seed that a man takes and plants, a seed buried in the ground which then grows tall enough to provide shade, and a home for the birds. And again, this kingdom is like leaven -- a packet of yeast -- mixed through a mess of flour and water so that the leaven itself is lost but allows this mess of flour and water to rise. It is this whole process, from beginning to end.

For people is Jesus' time (and for much of human history), this leavening, this germinating and sprouting, was a mystery. You could do the work, prepare the ground, mix the flour and the water, and then take that tiny seed and put it in the ground, but there was a whole that the planter, the baker, simply had no control over. There was a lot of waiting, and watching, and hoping. Under the right conditions, the seed would sprout and grow, the leaven would mix and make the flour and water into proper bread dough.

Like with last week's readings, there's a lot of work that is simply done all by itself. I won't call it magic, but there's a lot of labor we simply cannot do. We can prepare ground and plant seed, we can mix flour and water and work leavening through it, but in the end, the real work of this kingdom -- the growing, the rising -- is beyond us. It's a mystery we cannot control.

UPDATE -- This also suggests there is something deeply hidden about the working of this kingdom. Leaven, in this context, is like sourdough starter. Worked through, the leaven itself disappears into the dough so there is no distinction. The mustard seed is tiny, and is destroyed as the plant grows. Again, in both instances, the central thing working or being worked on in these parables disappears, and does its work mysteriously, ceasing to exist independently as it does so. Not sure quite what that means, but it is something to contemplate.

So far, so good. But what about the rest of these parables? "The kingdom of heaven is like" a treasure hidden in a field, which a man finds and then hides again. He then goes out and buys the whole field. Or it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who sells all he has to buy one pearl of great price. Or it is like net thrown into the sea that brings up all sorts of fish, some of which will be kept and some tossed back (or thrown away, τὰ δὲ σαπρὰ ἔξω ἔβαλον). Again, in these short parables, we have action. In the case of the treasure and the pearl, we have the discovery of something hidden, something so worthwhile that twice, finders sell all they have to acquire them.

In the case of the treasure, this boggles the imagination. If I found a treasure in a field, I'd find some way to take it right then and there, lest someone else find it. Sure, it's clever to sell all I have and then buy the field (this assumes there is a willing seller, but then too much reasoning and logic ruins these). What is clear in these first two is that what is sought is of such value that all is sold to acquire them.

I can't help but see an allusion to crucifixion here, to the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are the treasure for which God gives of God's-self, which God pays "all that he had" to buy. If this is an appropriate way of reading this passage of scripture, and of looking at the "kingdom of heaven," then what is described in these second two parables is the process by which God redeems Israel -- redeems us. Israel, the called-out people of God, is the treasure hidden in a field, is the pearl of great price, that must be redeemed by selling "all that he had" to buy it. Note, not buy it back, but simply buy it.

Finally, we have a parable of the end, very similar to the way Jesus described the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Fish are hauled in, and then separated into those worth keeping and those not worth keeping. Again, this is done by Angels "at the close of the age," and not by the fish themselves, while evoking Jesus' calling of the first disciples in Matthew 4:18-22. (There are no sleeping slaves in this parable.) Again, this sorting will result in a burning (ick!) and a "weeping and gnashing of teeth." The coming judgment is a harsh and terrible thing, in which God's angels will separate weeds from wheat, bad fish from good.

But I'm honestly not sure what to do with the last bit. "Therefore let every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." There is something of a prefiguring of the Great Commission here, I think, at least that's what I hear in this short passage. But it is also the last of "the kingdom of heaven is like" parables as well. Which means we who have been told these things, we scribes who have been trained for the kingdom, are also masters of sorts. And we have treasure. It's the new and old here that throw me, that I am uncertain about. Perhaps this saying is a command to keep Jesus' teaching fully grounded in the teaching of the prophets to Israel, in the story of Israel and Israel's encounter with God. That this new thing Jesus is doing is not a departure from Israel's story, but a continuation.

That's just my musing on it. Clearly, I'm going to just have to sit with this for a bit, and see what sense it continues to make.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Who Is God Really Talking To?

The folks at CUFI, Christians United for Israel, are at it again:
“I’ll bless those that bless you and I’ll curse those that curse you,” said Hagee, quoting from the book of Genesis. “That’s God’s foreign policy statement, and it has not changed.”
Hagee, of course, is not alone in taking these handful of words from Genesis (chapter 12, verse 3, to be exact) as a reason for its unquestioning supporting the State of Israel. Bill Clinton did too, in a speech I remember him giving sometime in the mid-1990s, and I suppose if most American Christians gave a biblical reason for supporting Israel, this would be it.

It does seem to be the go-to passage in scripture for the matter.

So, what exactly is being said here? And, more importantly, who is it being said to?

Well, as I noted in a previous blog entry, Genesis 12 is where the action -- and more importantly, the real story -- of the Bible begins. Abram is minding his own business when God calls him:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from qHaran.  And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:1-6, ESV)
So, Abraham is called to leave his home in Haran -- not Ur, as the last few verses of Genesis 11 note that Terah, Abram's father, had already packed up the family and left Ur. Abram gets the call of God while already on the road, a sojourner in another land. (A land named, oddly enough, after Abram's dead brother, Haran, Lot's dead father.)

God makes Abram three promises here -- God tells Abram to leave to a "land that I will show you," that "I will make of you a great nation," and that God "will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing."

וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה

All of the uses of "you" here are singular, not plural. When God says "I will show you," God is speaking directly to Abram. So, when God says to Abram, "I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you" (Gen. 12:3, JPS Tannish), God continues to use the singular form of "you." God is speaking directly, and specifically, to Abram.

Now, along the way, Abram wanders around. He seeks refuge with Pharaoh, passing his wife Sarai off as his sister (and profiting hugely from the matter). Going to rescue his nephew Lot, who had the misfortune of getting himself captured during a war in the Dead Sea Valley, Abram is blessed by Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who presents Abram with wine and bread, and to whom Abram gives a portion of the spoils. (But the King of Sodom, who Abram is avenging in his campaign to recapture Lot, gets none.) Abram later entertains three mysterious strangers who forecast Isaac's birth, gets another name, argues with God to rescue Sodom, and pawns Sarah off as his sister to Abimelech (she apparently really is his half-sister), tries to solve the heir problem with a mistress (at the wife's urging), throws the mistress and her son out (again at the wife's urging), make and alliance and settles a dispute with Abimelech, and then is commanded to sacrifice Isaac. At which point, the story passes from Abraham. The next we hear of him, he has taken another wife (and concubines, though it doesn't say how many), has had a whole mess of children, and then, after 175 years of life, Abraham breathes his last, with Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury their father.

I recapitulate the events of the story because I'm looking for evidence of the blessing and curse of Genesis 12:3 in action. I don't see either. Melchizedek the priest of God Most High at Salem blesses Abram, and what exactly he gets out of it is not stated. It's not clear what or where Salem is, and we never hear from or of Melchizedek again. (Well, until the author of Hebrews decided he really mattered a lot.) If anyone ought to be cursed, it's Pharaoh and Abimelech, who fancy Sarai for their very own. Abimelech is warned in a dream, while Pharaoh is afflicted with great plagues. THAT could be a curse, according to Genesis 12:3, and it seems to end when Pharaoh gets what's going on, and sends Abram and Sarai on their way. But it also suggests that Abram is something a grifter playing Pharaoh, selling his wife to him as a bride until God pours out God's wrath, at which point, Pharaoh gets wise. According to scripture, it was very profitable for Abram.

And that's it. There's not much in scripture in the blessing and curse department if God is speaking only to Abraham.

Now, a larger argument could be that God is speaking to all Israel, the decedents of Abraham by way of the covenant. We speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God of Abraham, Ishmael and Nebaioth, or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Esau, or the God of Abraham, Jokshan and Sheba. (Look it all up.) There is a school of theology,a fairly modern one (17th century, I think, coming out of Calvinism) which examines history and sees that God judges the "nations" (the people who are not Israel) on the basis of how they treat Israel. Nations that oppress or wage war on Israel are eventually destroyed (as polities) and suffer conquest and destruction themselves. The goal, then, is to be the nation that is on the right side of history -- the side of Israel.

And to be honest, it is no stretch to read scripture this way. Especially given the fates of Assyria and Babylonia -- the two great empires that were God's earthly judgement on God's faithless people both themselves were judged, and eventually perished, even as they were God's tools. But any reader of scripture must remember that God reserves his harshest judgment for God's people, and not the enemies of God's people.

This is where Hagee is coming from, I think. (This view has been common for a long time, and was in fundamentalist circles when I wandered around in them briefly in high school.) He reads this passage as spoken to Israel through Abraham. One can only be born to Israel. It is scripture spoken about everyone who isn't Israel. And that includes the church. We aren't Israel.

"Be good to God's people or else God will get you!" In this scheme, Israel is a kind-of magic lamp you rub for a wish, a machine into which you drop a coin and out comes a wonderful surprise. And I suspect the nature of that blessing has to be seen in terms of the covenantal relationship many American Christians view the United States of America as having with God. Again, God "blesses" America because it acts correctly, and fails to "bless" America because it acts sinfully. (For as long as I can remember, allowing abortion and homosexuality mean that America is in breach of the covenant, and is open to judgement at any point because of this.) I suspect unconditional support for the State of Israel is also part of this "national covenant," this desire to seek a blessing and avoid the curse, the judgment of God.

If this is the case, Hagee is just seeking the country's well-being. Who knows what God will do to us if we stop sending Israel money, weapons, and our constant well-wishes.

But I take issue with this understanding of the promises of Genesis 12:3. What does St. Paul say about the matter? Because he actually spills a lot of ink on the subject of Abraham in his letter to the Galatians and his letter to the Romans.
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.  8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:7-9, ESV)
And later
16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16, ESV)
Christ is the one to whom the promise is made, and in whom the promise fulfilled. That promise -- land, descendants, blessing -- are made to and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

But Paul goes on:
26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26-29, ESV)
In Romans, Paul refers to Abraham as "the father of us all." The promise to Abraham "that he would heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith" (Romans 4:13, ESV). Abraham's faith in the promise of God -- faith in things he did not see, and never would, faith in the promise that he would have a place to live, have many descendants, and would be a blessing to the entire world -- is our faith too. "And he believed the Lord," the writer of Genesis says in chapter 15, "and he counted it to him as righteousness." (Genesis 15:6, ESV)

(The JPS Tanakh renders that passage as, "And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.")

These words are very important to Paul. For if Abraham is righteous in his faith, in his trust in the unseen promise of God, so are we who are not Israel become part of Israel as we come to trust the same promise made in and through Jesus Christ.
20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
There is no distinction here between Israel and the church. They are not two different peoples, or two different communities, with two different sets of promises. There is one people -- the called out people of God -- who are inheritors of the promise.

The promises God made to God's people through Abraham, through David, and through the prophets, are all brought together in and through Jesus Christ. They are realized and fulfilled in him. There are no promises left over, flopping around unrealized, no one set of fulfillments given to those who accepted Jesus as Son of God and Israel's messiah and another to those who rejected him.

(I am still working on a theology of the State of Israel. But I will say the nation-state of Israel is NOT the fulfillment of anything resembling Biblical prophesy.)

Where Hagee, and many Christians who read Genesis 12:3 this way ignore, is that passage isn't about us -- it's spoken to us. We, the church, are part of that fulfillment, and so we can read the passage not hoping to rub the lamp that is the modern state of Israel, make a wish and hope God gives us a toy surprise (or doesn't smite us with hurricane, earthquake or pestilence), but knowing that we the church are the very means that God uses to bless (and yes, curse) the world. How does the world treat the church, especially a powerless, vulnerable, suffering body of Christ in the world? (Well, how did it treat Christ?) I think Matthew 25 can easily be read as describing a day of judgement in which how the world treated the followers of Jesus -- "the least of these" -- determines just how the "nations" (the peoples who are not Israel-church) of world might be judged by God. The kindness of the world toward the church, toward Israel, toward the people of God matters.

The people of God, in our weakness, matter far more than in our strength and righteousness.

It may be a stretch to read Matthew 25 that way, but I gotta tell you, a cup of water for the thirsty or a stitch of clothing to the naked beat bombs, tanks, and fighter jets any day.

* * *

NOTE: We have our own problems in reading Matthew 25, and my reading depends on the church as seeing itself as powerless in a way it hasn't been (and doesn't want to be). The reading from power -- that we who follow Jesus are to do all these things -- is good, and prompts much charity and kindness. But I think a reading from powerlessness, in which we are to welcome these things when they come to us, is valid too.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The OTHER Genesis Creation Account -or- Why The Creation Doesn't Really Matter

It's generally accepted there are two creation accounts in Genesis, the beautiful poetry of Genesis 1 and then the very earthy expulsion from the Garden that is Genesis 2 and 3. I think there are a couple of "re-creation" accounts -- Genesis 6-9 comes to mind -- but the creation is central to a lot of theologies because they come at the front of the book, so they are what people tend to read first (and focus on, to the exclusion of a lot of the rest of the narrative).

And our theological thinking tends to be geared toward beginning with creation. It makes logical sense to us. After all, God created everything, and if God started there, than we probably ought to as well.

I believe such an approach, however, gives undue attention to God's act creation. It puts the act of creating central and our human place in creation -- our participation in creating, organizing and arranging the world. A place I'm not sure Israel gave it. In fact, I suspect creation was something of an afterthought for Israel.

The third creation account supports this, I think. It's a short account, the first two verses of Genesis 5, and they go like this:
(1) This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.  (2) Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man [אדם] when they were created. (ESV)
(1) This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made He him;  (2) male and female created He them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. (JPS Tanakh, which is a much more literal rendering of the Hebrew)
or, if you must have the Hebrew (from the JPS Tanakh)
זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ ׃  זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א אֶת ־שְׁמָם֙ אָדָ֔ם בְּי֖וֹם הִבָּֽרְאָֽם ׃ ס
After that, the chapter launches into a lengthy genealogy of the generations from Adam, through Seth, to Noah. Along the way, we meet the longest-lived characters in scripture, most of whom are just names. There's Methuselah, who lives nearly 1,000 years, and his father Enoch, who apparently never died (since everyone else named in this genealogy is noted to have died). He just disappeared after living a paltry 365 years (that itself is an interesting number). "Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him." (Gen. 5:24, ESV)

Now, this could simply be a reiteration of Genesis 1-3, as it hits the most important details. But this feels like the start of the book to me, possibly the original start of another document or set of tales. So, instead of repeating the essential details of the first three chapters of Genesis, these two short verses could be the original "creation" text upon which the first three chapters of Genesis expand.

In fact, as I read through Genesis 5 and the first part of Genesis 6, Genesis 6:1-8 feels like an insert (or two, since they mix God אלהים and Lord יהוה in an awkward way, and in this portion of the Bible (the Noah story especially), the switching between God and Lord seems to be indicative of edits. At any rate, the story feels like it ought to naturally flow from 5:32 straight to 6:9. Whoever might have been the original authors/editors of this material was not so much concerned with detailed causes of things. It is enough that God created Adam male and female in his image, blessed them and named them, just as it is enough that "the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence." (Gen. 6:11) This explanation is expanded upon at the beginning of Genesis 6, which adds lust to the picture -- the lust of the mysterious "sons of God" (בני–אלהים), and a race of giants, "the men of renown" whose names we never actually learn (because they don't matter, as the world is about to be flooded an all life on it annihilated).

Where was I? Right, creation. The short creation account of Genesis 5 -- if it is the start of an account -- suggests how unimportant the act of creation was. It can be dealt with quickly, in a few words, and merits no real explanation. It doesn't need it. The creation is a given, something that can be assumed, an fairly unimportant theologically. The narrative of the first 11 chapters of Genesis goes in fits and starts anyway, and is not particularly complete, focused, or comprehensive until Genesis 12, where the real action -- the call of Abraham -- begins.

It is at Genesis 12 that this story evolves from an account of why things are the way they are (a series of fall stories, from the fall of humanity -- Genesis 2-4 -- to the judgement on universal empire -- Genesis 11 -- to the toleration of evil in the world, as I have written about before) to an actual narrative about a specific people. The Bible moves from being a universal account, and one that appears to be cobbled together in places (pay close attention to the Noah story), to a specific account of a people -- us -- in the call of God to Abraham.

This call, this very specific revelation of God to Abraham, is what's really important theologically. This, and not the creation of the world, is where the story of Israel -- and the church -- really starts. Because we aren't a people created, but a people called.

I suspect this troublesome for us, because our theologies are all so creation centered. Even our confessions of faith -- "I believe in God the father, creator of heaven and earth" -- begin with creation. But what matters is not the created order of the world -- which has been corrupted by sin anyway -- but the call to be a very specific people in the world. What matters are the promises of God to the people God has called. And later God's redemption of the people God has called.

This may seem like hair-splitting, but we worship not the God of all creation, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The former is a serene majesty, an almost abstract one, who says "be" and it is, who divides the waters and the land and sees that it is all "good" (טוב). The latter gets down and dirty in the mess of the world, in the mess that is the called-out people.

We tell the story not of a created world, but of a redeemed world.

As I consider it, while our trinitarian creeds begin with creation, they spend very little time there. We affirm a creator God, but we really need to explain the second person -- Christ, the anointed one, the redeemer. Mostly because we argued over who Jesus was and exactly how he was all those things. But this also focuses our theological thinking, or at least it should, on the redemption, rather than the creation. On our specific calling and encounter with God, the things that make us a particular people, rather than some set of general principles we think God built into the world.

There are probably other implications for a theology that focuses on redemption rather than creation, but I'm going to let this sit for a bit and percolate. And see what happens with it.

Sometimes, The Work of God Means Doing Nothing

Here is my sermon for Sunday, 20 July. The Gospel reading, according to the revised common lectionary, was Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43:
(24) [Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, (25) but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. (26) So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. (27) And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ (28) He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ (29) But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. (30) Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
(36) Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” (37) He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. (38) The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, (39) and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. (40) Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. (41) The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, (42) and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (43) Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

* * *

There are days when, as a preacher, you find yourself looking at scripture and going -- well, this one's easy for me. Jesus does all of the hard work of interpretation here. There's nothing to do. Really, there isn't. I'm not exactly sure why you are all paying me for this. I'd dismiss you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, except that would make for a short worship service.

And there's the matter of the Lord's Supper, which we still have to share. So, sit tight. No one goes home early today. Sorry.

So, I have to come up with something. On the face of this, Jesus explains just about everything you might need explained in this parable, and does so in some amazing language. We have the field that is the whole, wide world, we have the seed -- the seed which only a few verses earlier in this chapter was the Word preached to an eager world -- which is now "the children of the kingdom," sown widely in soil that will allow them to grow and bear much fruit! But in the midst of all this, as the good seed grows to bear good fruit, the evil one plants his own seed, scatters his own children, amidst the good seed. A harvest is coming, when the angels of the Lord will gather it all together, the wheat and weeds, the children on the kingdom and the children of the evil one, and the weeds will be set aside and cast into the fire!

In fact, all of the causes of sin, all those who break the law of God, will be gathered together and cast into the fire, into the furnace. Sin is done for! This is good news! He who has ears, let him hear!

It seems so easy, so clear, on the face of it, this parable. Truly. Jesus does such a good job of explaining the gospel passage I'm not sure what's left.

Well, actually, there's something. Maybe you noticed it.

My grandfather owned a large farm and ranch in Eastern Washington, about 3,500 acres, most of it scrubland pasture where he and his brother grazed beef cattle. Grampie had about 800 acres under cultivation, wheat and barley. And some alfalfa. Up until I graduated from high school, my family would visit the ranch every other year, and some years, I'd go and visit by myself. When I was teenager, I actually got to work. At harvest time. My first harvest season, my job was to grease the combine every morning. Grampie was incredibly patient and kind as he showed me every little point -- every little zerk, to be technical about it -- I had to hit with the grease gun each morning before Grampie, or Uncle Mike, or one of Mike's sons would hop on the combine and cut a swath across the rolling hills that made up most of Grampie's fields of grain.

The second summer, I got to actually drive a grain truck, a big blue International Harvester from 1952. Which was something I will never forget.

Grampie and Grammie, however, never let me work much. They were insistent that I never acquire a taste for farm work. I was always too good to be a farmer, Grammie was insistent about that. So, my work was just a taste, a sip, a bare touch. It wasn't real work.

But they had hired hands, and they worked hard. In fact, the one summer I remember there being lots of hired hands, I only recall really seeing them at meal time. They were so busy, and always out in the fields. Working.

Have you caught it yet? There's a man, the owner of a farm, who sows seeds. He has men who work for him, servants, slaves -- and what do they do? They sleep when at least some of them should be watching. They tattle to their master, and are somewhat clueless when they do -- "Didn't you plant good seed? Don't you know your field is full of weeds too? How come?" And as the master assures them this was done on purpose, while they slept, they offer to go rip the growing weeds out, only to be told, "no, let's wait until the harvest."

"Let's wait ... until the harvest."

So, when it comes to that private moment when Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, he hits every point and person in the parable ... except for the slaves. They aren't there. The very people who do most of the talking in his parable, who sleep and wonder and demand to do some work aren't actually there.

These servants, these slaves, they do not sow, they do not reap, they sleep when they should watch.

I know if Grampie had such hired men, he wouldn't have kept them on long.

Note that the kingdom of heaven here is, like it is in most of Matthew's parables, not a thing, but a process. It is not a noun, but it is a verb. Here, it is sowing, sleeping, questioning, wanting, waiting, and eventually, reaping, threshing, burning and storing. This whole process is the kingdom, which means the evil one coming on sowing the weeds isn't somehow contrary to the kingdom of heaven, it is an intricate part of the kingdom. You don't have the kingdom without it.

You don't have the kingdom of heaven without the devil. Consider that!

This kingdom, where wheat and weed grow together, still waits for the harvest, to be set free, to see the glory of the sons of God.

And that means we don't get to stand here in the midst of the field, as servants of the master, and demand to pull weeds. That's not ours to do. Not our calling. Not our work. If we are the wheat, then our job is solely to grow and bear fruit, and toe wait for the harvest. Which is not a hard job, if you think about it, since a kernel of wheat or barley is programmed to grow. If the soil is good, if there's enough rain and ample sunshine, that little seed cannot help but grow tall and bear fruit.

Bearing fruit is easy in this parable. Think about that for a minute. Watered at the baptismal font, tended at the Lord's table, we almost have to work at not bearing fruit.

Now, if we consider ourselves the servants, well, our job is even easier. We do nothing. We sleep. We question. But it feels harder because like good slaves, we want to earn our keep. We want to work. We have hands that itch to dig and grasp and pull, souls that ache to do useful work and be satisfied with that work. That's what we were created for! After all, God created the man and placed him in the Garden in order to tend and care for it.

So this job as servants requires we actually fight our natures -- our desire to do something, to pull weeds, to do that work which has been reserved for someone else at a later date. And I know it offends us, seeing weeds among the wheat, when we know that good, straight rows of grain ripening in the warm sun are so much nicer looking. We so much ache to make this kingdom of heaven ours, something we have shaped and tended and played some part in bringing into being. To have it be a kingdom without the evil one.

Instead, we are to do nothing.

Because none of this work -- none of the planting, none of the growing, none of the watching, none of the reaping, none of the threshing -- none of it is ours. It is not our work to do. Our hands, which are many and which fidget at the very possibility of doing God's work, are to remain clean, unstained with dirt and the green of weeds -- and whatever wheat we may pull out as well.

Sometimes faithfulness to God means we do nothing. We just sit. And wait. It's hard, isn't it?

Remember God's great saving acts in scripture. When God saves Israel from Slavery in Egypt, all God asks of Israel is to prepare, to get ready. And to wait. When Israel faced the deep blue sea in front of it and a charging Egyptian army coming fast behind it, an army bent on murder, God speak through Moses and tells Israel: "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent."

It's the same saving work God does for God's people at Jericho, when the walls of the city fell to the blast of a trumpet, or when God delivered the Canaanites to Deborah and Barak, or whittled Gideon's huge army of of more than 30,000 down to a mere 300 lest Israel boast that its own hands have saved them. It's the same saving work God does for Judah during the time of King Jehoshaphat, when God tells the people, "Do not be afraid, and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God's."

Stand firm, God says, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.

It's exactly what happens on Good Friday, that terrible day in which Jesus was crucified, in which sin and death at put to flight, routed, defeated. At best, we are spectators, merely watching as Jesus is humiliated, tortured, compelled to carry the very cross he is nailed to, raised up and then run through with a spear. At worst, we have betrayed him, taken joy in his humiliation, mocked him upon that cross, even taken whip and hammer in hand to draw blood and pound nails. Or the following Sunday, when all we can do is gawk at an empty tomb and wonder what it means, even when we meet the risen Jesus face to face. Remember, Jesus came to redeem, to call as followers, we who betrayed him, who abandoned him, who murdered him.

Do not be afraid. Do not be dismayed. See the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.

We didn't do that work. We cannot do that work. Because remember, if we cannot pull the weeds and consign them to the fire, we also are not commanded to harvest the good grain. That all belongs to the angels. We don't do anything in this relationship. We are the slaves who sleep. Who notice. But we have no actual role. It happens without us.

But we know the work of salvation is done. Sisters and brothers, we know that it is done! Jesus does it! I cannot honestly tell you what that really means -- because we still suffer, we still grow old, get sick, we die -- but somehow I know that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of the suffering we experience, all of it is worthless, and death, which looms so darkly as the final word which answers all questions and solves all problems, is overcome and has no power. I don't know what it means, I cannot explain it, but I know it's true, I have lived in it, and so I wait in patience, trusting in God.

That's us, brothers and sisters, the people who wait patiently while others do the work. Knowing that the world is in the process of being remade, not by us, not by our hands, but by the Grace and mercy of God. The Grace and mercy of God.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Who the Strong Become When They Act Without Mercy

I don't talk much about Israel and Palestine anymore. My sympathies are largely with the Palestinians, though I have made an effort to get to know a few Israelis, and I'm not sure the world needs me adding to the hot air on the subject.

But there's something missing about the current discussion (which really isn't, as it's more awn argument in which each side tries to justify itself and demonize the other). The Israelis and their sympathizers speak a great deal about the care and precision with which strikes are made against Gaza, and technically I suppose this is true (just as it likely is when American forces drop bombs somewhere), but I'm more interested in a moral dimension of the discussion: who do the powerful and wealthy become when they war they wage is done against a poor, badly armed and largely captive population?

Who do the strong become when just about all the war they wage is done against people who cannot effectively fight back?

This isn't a criticism aimed entirely at Israel either -- Americans largely wage war against peoples and nations incapable of effectively resisting, much less fighting back. I'm thinking Iraq, which by the 2003 Anglo-American invasion had pretty well been beaten and starved into submission. (That said, the Iraqis later more-or-less defeated the United States in the only war they could effectively fight.) But the Israelis have become masters at this, and the term "mowing the grass" was coined for these brutal and incredibly destructive, but brief and largely pointless, forays into Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon -- as if they were simply onerous chores that got one sweaty and dirty, and not the cause of significant death and suffering.

It's part of a larger language, a set of ideas, in which the powerful no longer have responsibilities and obligations to the weak. In which captors have no obligations to their captives. With Israel and Palestine, the "peace process" has helped foster the illusion -- and it is an illusion -- that there is no occupation in the West Bank, that Israel has cordoned off Gaza and turned it into a giant, open-air prison camp. But it's bigger than that. It's in the revolt of aggrieved billionaires, of Republicans who complain about the "47 percent of takers," when Secretary of State Madeline Albright disgustingly noted that the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children "was worth it" when it came to containing the post-Kuwait War Iraqi state.

In this world, a kind-of junk Randianism* pervades -- the powerful and rich have no obligations to the weak and poor. No responsibilities. In fact, if anything, the powerful and rich are constant victims of the weak and poor, and are entitled to defend themselves using every murderous tool at their disposal.  The weak and the poor have all the responsibilities here, to stop being a burden, to stop "taking," to cease their resistance, stop being an annoyance, possibly even to die, because their very existence is a problem in need of a solution. (And one in which they will have no role nor even be asked.) They are an eyesore, an annoyance, human beings whose well-being is of no concern, whose suffering only has amusement value.

And the rich have plenty of means to avenge their "victimhood," on account of being rich. If the Palestinians suffer, it is because they resist, because somehow, unguided, home-made rockets fueled by sugar-water are somehow the moral equivalent of fleets of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets armed with precision guided bombs. If the Iraqis suffered, well, it was because of their government. "Double war crimes," Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said. 

It's your fault I'm making you suffer. That's the morality at work here.

Now, it may be there never was a world in which obligations and responsibilities figured highly. But there was a time of noblesse oblige, in which at least the idea that those with much owed something to those with little. The welfare state, such as it is, dates from that time, and the post-WWII world was built by people deeply possessed of a sense of obligation and responsibility. The Israelis began their obligation of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai in 1967 with some sense that theirs would be a "humane occupation," one informed by several generations of Jewish humanism and the Jews' own experience as a dispossessed people. It didn't really work out that way, largely because there can never be a liberal, humane or humanitarian way to govern people against their will. 

In this, the powerful and wealthy become brutes, and slowly (but surely) become acclimated to imposing sacrifice and suffering upon others. To becoming mass murderers. To keeping people in cages, taunting them, beating them, starving them, and then wondering why they occasionally lash out. Americans, like Israelis, have become accustomed to seeing themselves as victims, or potential victims, and in the world in which we live, victims are no bound by any morality when they "defend themselves," when they seek to right a wrong or prevent a further wrong. There is no limit to the violence that can be inflicted, to the suffering that can be imposed, to the guilt that can be presumed. Victims owe their victimizers no mercy. It's as if the language of Frantz Fanon had been stood on its head and made to serve not revolutionaries seeking to throw off colonial masters but rather the most powerful states - and their armies - in the world

If anything, this is the ultimate identity politics. Race, gender, sexual orientation have nothing on the victimhood claimed by the frightened and aggrieved rulers of wealthy, powerful, and paranoid states.

Nor will this change any time soon. Democrats may talk the language of obligation, but they aren't actually very good at doing it, and the only obligations and responsibilities in the liberal/progressive lexicon that matter all get channeled through the centralized state. Because it's the only thing we have in common. (They also want to preserve the very state power that brutalizes and destroys.) There are intellectual conservatives in the Anglo-American world who talk seriously about obligations and responsibilities, but they are few (and not terribly influential right now), and the Republican party (and the conservative movement) are hopeless on the matter, talking an angry language of rights that denies any notion that we owe something to our neighbors merely for being our neighbors.

But this is the world we live in now. There is no way to restore a sense of obligation, not on those who govern, not on those with wealth, not on nations that keep others captive, that patrol the world with weapons ready to annihilate all who disturb their sense of good order. So, we shall see more of this. Not less.

# # #

* Not that Randianism isn't already junk to begin with.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On Laments, and the Bashing of Infants on Rocks

The folks over at the blog P.OST: AN EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY FOR THE AGE TO COME (it's a fascinating blog I read frequently, and it's sharpened my understanding of how I read scripture) have an interesting take on Psalm 137, which begins as a lament in exile and ends as, well, as a wish for mass murder...
(1) By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
(2) On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
(3) For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
(4) How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?
(5) If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
(6) Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
(7) Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”
(8) O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
(9) Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
That last line is troublesome to many. What to make of such an aspiration, such a desire? (I wrote a song based on this psalm, and wanted very much to incorporate that last line, but the song wouldn't let me, as much as I tried.) For the folks at P.OST, while the psalm is part of "our story" as Israel/church, we don't "have the right" to misinterpret this verse by somehow assuming it belongs specifically to us, or speaks to our time and our circumstances:
We don’t have to suppose that these are our sacred texts. There is nothing wrong with rejecting the psalm as a “lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel”. The Bible means what it meant and speaks to us on that basis. That is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.
Fine. I guess I can agree with this, so far as it goes. This particular psalm is the product of a time and place, and speaks to a circumstance -- life in exile along to Euphrates River, serving the very people who drug you into exile -- that is not ours. So, the sentiment at the end doesn't have to be ours either.

Except... There have been times in my life, like the circumstances surrounding the end of my first internship while at seminary, that left my feeling very angry, very alone, very abandoned. It was that very experience that gave me the ability to see in scripture something of the story of my life, and the story of the church (I have sketched an outline for a book that compares the fate of the church today in the face of modernity and enlightenment to conquest by Assyrians and Babylonians, and that we face another exile, on the banks of rivers of Babylon, serving and entertaining cruel masters who have destroyed our cities and carried us off). How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land, especially to people who demand we sing for their amusement?

These are human feelings, feelings that are no strangers to us even as God's people. As is the desire for vengeance, to see the pain and suffering of those who have inflicted such on us. And it's okay to have them. To speak them. To even give them up to God in prayer. Anger as well as sadness and despair is one of the marks of lament.

Note, however, what the psalm does not say or do. It proclaims a judgment upon Babylon, and calls down blessing upon those who will destroy it. Who will murder its children. It is confident in that judgement. The one making the lament does not seek God's approval to go and himself (I'm assuming here) inflict vengeance upon the Babylonians, and their descendants. It does not agitate, or organize, or demand. It does not call for war or liberation. It's not the call of the powerful with a state, an army, and an arsenal. It's not Genesis 34. This is the cry of the powerless, the conquered, the scattered, and it is assumed in the passage that the vengeance coming upon doomed Babylon and its daughters will be done by someone else.

It will be God's vengeance. Not Israel's. Not ours.

The vengeance of God, in this instance, is a thing to be trusted in and waited upon. It invokes the primal saving act of God, the rescue of God's people Israel from slavery in Egypt, from that horrible moment when Israel believed itself done, ready to be overrun, trapped between the sea and Pharaoh's rapidly advancing army:
Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.  The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.
This may not be pleasant thing to hear, and it may shock our modern (or post-axial) sensibilities to hear one of God's people invoking God's blessing upon horrific violence. But Psalm 137 gives us space, not just to lament in sorrow, but also in rage, and even to express our desire for murderous retribution. It is okay to want these things.

At the same time, the passage is coherent with the rest of God's saving action for Israel, and Israel's understanding of the ways its God has redeemed it time and again -- through miraculous acts that demand Israel's patience and it's inaction. This is still true, and because of that, we can read this psalm without simply or solely discarding it. However, it's not okay to do violence because our vindication, our vengeance, our redemption belongs to God and to God alone. Who will fight for us. We have only to be silent, and to wait.