Remember not the former things

File:Dülmen, Börnste, Waldweg -- 2015 -- 4649.jpg

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
April 15, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
as the risen Lord Jesus opened the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures,
open our hearts and minds
that, hearing your voice, we might be called into newness of life.
(Prayer for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, year B)

This was preached on the third Sunday after Easter in 2018. It is rooted in the texts for that day, particularly the Gospel reading that relates that the risen Jesus opened the minds of his followers to understand the scriptures.

When I was in college and the seminary, Biblical scholarship was predominantly occupied with dismantling the Bible as a book. This was a process that had begun years earlier, and was not without controversy, because many of the scholars who began to make these observations about the different authors and historical contexts of the various Biblical materials were perceived as dismantling the faith. There were just criticisms to be made. Some didn’t give enough care to the faith and piety of the church. We talked about the theology of John or the theology of Mark, but few wanted to talk about the book as a whole and its relationship to the faith of the church.

What happened in this country, in reaction to that scholarship, was the development of fundamentalism and a Biblical literalism that sought to hold on to the notion of the Bible as a single book, given by God, that it was true in all its parts. So a single verse about homosexuality, for example, is the end of all conversation. Each part is divinely authored and authoritative and final.

And while I agree with the statement that this book as a whole and in its parts is divinely inspired and authoritative, those words, “divinely authored and authoritative,” don’t mean for me – and shouldn’t mean for any of us – that the book dropped out of heaven as a whole. Even those who profess to take the Bible literally don’t really take it literally. They don’t imagine when David says, The Lord is my rock,” that God is literally a rock.

There are deep and real problems with literalism and fundamentalism. And it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the Bible or Islam or economic theory, the second amendment to the constitution on the right to bear arms, Confederate monuments, or global warming. Fundamentalism says, in effect, that all that needs to be known is known and we can and should stop thinking and stop listening.

Such fundamentalism is inherently dangerous and – more importantly – it contradicts the Bible itself. The Bible is full of struggle and questioning. What is the book of Job, but 35 chapters of theological argument and struggle ending with Job bowing in silence before a God he cannot comprehend? There is a whole category in scripture of works we call “wisdom literature” – including Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – that struggles to understand the way God has fashioned the world.

The God who encounters us in the Bible is a god who leads us into a new and unexpected future. Through the prophet Isaiah God says,

18 Do not remember the former things,
….or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
….now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19)

The New International Version translates this as “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” The Tanach translation says, “Do not recall what happened of old, Or ponder what happened of yore!”

The Biblical narrative is built around promises concerning the future. It is about what God is doing, where God is leading. It speaks of the human journey from the lost Garden of Eden to the promised City of God. Its foundational blocks tell of the journey of Abraham out from Haran towards the promise of God, of the journey of Israel out from bondage into freedom, of the journey into exile and home again. For the Christian community, the New Testament adds to these narratives the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, the cross and the empty tomb, and the journey of Jesus’ followers to the ends of the earth. In the Book of Acts, on the day the risen Jesus ascends into the heavens, he says to his disciples: you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The rest of the book will tell the stories of the missionary journeys not only of Paul, but the whole Christian community.

And I need to say this: even the legal code in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, is not designed, at its core, to impose a category of right and wrong on the people, but to lead them towards a just society. There are things in there that certainly trouble us, but when we listen to them in their context, we see a profoundly different vision for human society than what was operative in the world around them. What we heard last week about the early Christians holding all things in common has its roots in the vision of the world reflected in the Law and the Prophets. As you have heard many times, Jesus gets the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself from the book of Leviticus. In the legal codes of the Old Testament, God is not trying to repristinate the past, but to call Israel into a radically new future.

So we betray the scripture wherever we cling to the past rather than walking with God faithfully towards God’s future. There are things to preserve, things to carry with us into the future, there is wisdom in the hymns and liturgy and insights of the past, but the focus of Christian faith is forward into a greater justice, a deeper compassion, a more faithful human community.

When Anna was first learning to walk, Deb would stand behind her helping to hold her up, and I would kneel down a little ways in front of her with arms open, inviting her to walk towards me. If you want a picture of God and the world, this is it. God stands behind us and before us. God helps us stand and go forward and God calls us to himself. God launches us and catches us. God calls us into God’s future, God’s reign, God’s kingdom. God calls us into the fullness of grace and the life of the Spirit.

The criticism of the gods of the ancient world that we find in scripture is that they couldn’t speak. They couldn’t call to us. They couldn’t change the world. They couldn’t save. They were gods of wood and stone, of gold and silver. They were powerless.

The gods of this world are gods of stability and order, who defend and justify the way of the world. The gods of this world defend the status quo. They are gods who support segregated schools and hospitals and bathrooms because that’s the way it’s always been. They are gods who support the wealth and power of kings and the poverty of peasants because that’s the way it’s always been. But the God who meets the world through the scriptures is a God who changes the world. He overturns unjust rule. He sets prisoners free. He forgives unpayable debts. He opens blind eyes and heals paralyzed limbs. He opens the grave. He leads us into newness of life.

In the Biblical story, when humanity rebels against God and loses the Garden of Eden, God posts a flaming sword that bars the way back to the garden. We cannot go back to Eden; we must go forward to the New Jerusalem. There is no refuge in the past – but there is hope in the future: the grave is empty.

The grave is empty. Christ is in our midst. He meets us in the supper. He opens our minds and hearts to the word. He gives us his Spirit. He sends us out with a commission and a promise to live and witness to the kingdom that is dawning.

There are deep and troubling problems with literalism and fundamentalism. And please understand, I am not just talking about religious fundamentalism. We are talking about a way of being in the world. Our political realm right now is shot through with rigid and absolutist ideas that are not open to any new facts or ideas. There’s no conversation. There’s no change. There’s no willingness to question or explore. What I disagree with or don’t like I reject as “fake news”.

This is not Biblical faith. And where the name of God is used to defend it, the commandment forbidding the misuse of God’s name is violated. When we say “God bless America” at the end of a sentence full of venom and falsehoods, we are asking God to destroy the country as God destroyed Israel when they did the same thing – when they betrayed God’s call and commission to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

Christianity doesn’t work with hearts that are closed. It doesn’t work with closed doors and high walls. Christianity isn’t a castle to hold out the world; it is a journey in the world to the world’s new birth. It is a journey in the human heart to the heart’s new birth.

There is a reason Jesus talks to us about being the salt that makes the fire of love burn more brightly. There is a reason Jesus talks to us about a city set on a hill, a beacon for all to see. There is a reason Jesus gives to his followers the fundamental task of testifying to the reign of God and assigns us the work of healing and casting out dark and demonic spirits.

A faith that wants to defend the injustices of the world is not a Christian faith. A faith that will not walk alongside a changing world is not the Christian faith. A faith that does not walk in hope and joy is not the Christian faith.

Since the school shooting in Florida, Ken has been after me to condemn the NRA. Well, Ken, here it is. I’m not going to condemn it from a liberal perspective, I’m going to condemn it because it speaks and behaves as fundamentalists. There is no engagement of the world. There is no listening to the voices of others. It reduces complex realities to simple absolutes. It takes refuge in slogans and chants. It builds walls not bridges.

Should Christians belong to fundamentalist organizations? I don’t think there’s a simple, black and white answer. There is some truth in the argument that we need to be a part of such things in order to help change them. But there is also a danger that we get led astray by them.

And please understand, there are fundamentalisms of all kinds, on the left and the right and in the center. I understand fear and why fear makes us want to look backwards. Fear and anxiety born of change makes us want to put on the brakes and turn back and nail things down   But the way back is barred; we can only go forward. And we as Christians uniquely confess that the work of God is to raise the dead, to open the barren life, to heal the broken heart, to protect the vulnerable, to free the bound, to transform the world.

We need to recognize that this Biblical faith is not an American optimism. There are people who believe in the future because of the promises of politicians or science or the idea of human progress. These have been notoriously unreliable because they have little control over the future.

We don’t “believe in the future” we believe in the God who holds the future. We believe there is a power, a truth, a reality at the heart of all things that brought forth the world in love and calls it forth into love.

We put our hope, trust and allegiance in the one who calls us to himself.

Those scholars who began to take apart the Bible were correct. The Bible is not a single book. I have said to you that it is a library. It is a collection of books. The way Mark talks about Jesus is different than the way John talks about Jesus. Those two are different than the way the apostle Paul talks about Jesus. And all of those are different from the way the book of Revelation talks about Jesus.

It’s important for us to see this. The way Genesis talks about God and the journey of faith is different from Joshua. The book of Ruth is different from Ezra and Nehemiah. But scholarship got so preoccupied about looking at all the pieces it often forgot to pay attention to the whole. All these books add up to something. They don’t all say the same thing, but together they say something profoundly important. Together they are “divinely authored and authoritative.”

One of the other metaphors for the scripture I have used is to say that the Bible is a choir. It is made up of multiple voices. When the St. Olaf Choir sings F. Melius Christiansen’s exquisite arrangement of Beautiful Savior, some of the sopranos are soaring up here and some other sopranos are soaring over there, and some of the basses are traveling way down here and others are over here. They are not all singing the same note or the same words or at the same time, but together their voices exalt you up to the heavens.

The scripture is rich and wonderful and diverse. It is strange and foreign and yet deeply familiar. It has terrible stories and fearful images and soaring visions and profoundly sweet and comforting words. The various voices in the Bible are not all singing the same note or the same words or at the same time, but together their voices lift us up to the heavens – or, more accurately, together their voices bring heaven down to us.

Together their voices touch us with grace. Together their voices heal and renew. Together their voices call us into new paths of faithfulness and love. Together they call us into God’s tomorrow.

Amen

+   +   +

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:D%C3%BClmen,_B%C3%B6rnste,_Waldweg_–_2015_–_4649.jpg Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Dülmen, Börnste, Waldweg — 2015 — 4649” / CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Into the darkness

Saturday

Acts 17

Aurlandsfjord, photo by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho, creative commons

29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

I know that Paul is talking about the various idols of the ancient world. This is pretty standard Biblical critique of the polytheistic cultures of the Mediterranean world. There are famous passages in the prophets that mock the stone and wood blocks carved and covered in gold and silver.

But if we leave it there, if this critique is only about images, we will miss something important. We not only create physical images; we create mental ones. And when we confuse the images formed by our imagination with the one who formed us, when we confuse our images with the truth to which they point, we tread on dangerous ground – ground that usually ends up with tears if not with killings.

Is the god that Boko Haram celebrates a product of eternity or of their own imagination? For that matter is the god invoked by most of us the holy and transcendent one, or a god of our imaginations?

It is not possible for us to think about God without thinking in images. We are creatures of time and space. We cannot imagine quarks. We picture atoms like little planets though we know they are not. We imagine molecules with images of tinker toys. We imagine foreign nations from the pictures on television or in National Geographic. We need images. We see faces in toast, for goodness sake. It is the way we are wired.

And the scripture is full of wondrous images: God as a great king surrounded by his royal court and an angelic army. God as a hovering eagle, a mother hen gathering her chicks, a father carrying a son. God as a husband rescuing a newborn abandoned to the wolves, raising her to be a beautiful young woman. God as a good shepherd, a rock, a fountain of living water. There are an endless variety of rich images – none of which are to be taken literally. God is not a chicken. We seem to understand that, but sometimes forget he is not a literal father. I love the book of Job, for Job is silenced by the majesty of a God he cannot comprehend.

We stand before the eternal, silenced by mystery and majesty, humbled by our inability to see beyond that horizon. Moses is said to have spoken with God “face to face”, but is the word ‘face’ to be taken literally? When Moses asks to see God’s face he is allowed only to see from behind as God goes ahead of him. We are watchers of the flame. Shadows on the wall. Hints and images.

But there are words and there are deeds of this eternal source of life. Deeds that rescue and deliver. Words that protect the poor and the orphan. Words and deeds that cast down the mighty and raise up the broken. Words of fierce anger that call for justice to roll down like waters. Words that forgive and point forward to an end to tears.

The God we preach is too often the god of our imaginations. Jesus the feminist. Jesus the revolutionary. Jesus the defender of the status quo (God and country Jesus). Jesus the source of prosperity and success. God the law-giver and a god who frees us from all law. God who forgives all and a god who will come in wrath to purge the world of the wicked.  These gods of our imaginations were invoked not only in defense of crusades and inquisitions and an imperial papacy, but in defense of abusive homes and churches and bigotries great and small – and endless self-righteousness.

“We ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”

Sometimes this god of our imagination is what we want God to be, sometimes what we fear God to be, and sometimes a silly caricature that excuses our rejection of any transcendent claim on our lives, any accountability to a truth beyond us.

To a human creature perpetually wanting to fashion God in our image, God presents himself ever illusive, “I will be who I will be,” yet ever summoning us to hear, to see, to trust, to follow. He – this word, too, is a metaphor and trick of language – He summons us into the dark cloud of the holy mountain. He speaks from the whirlwind. And in the greatest mystery of all, he summons us to the cradle and the cross. This child of Bethlehem, son of Mary, a construction worker from Galilee of all ungodly places, this man from Nazareth is the true icon of God. Healing. Forgiving. Gathering. Suffering. Teaching. Summoning. Serving. Sending. Dying. Rising.

The gods of our imaginations are not worthy of our allegiance. We must dare to stand before the mystery. We must have courage to let God be God. We must acknowledge God will not fit in any of our boxes. And in humility, but with daring and discipleship, hold to the promise: “He who has seen me has seen the father.”

You show me the path of life

Thursday

Psalm 16

Lord lovelace bridge

Lord lovelace bridge (Photo credit: wimbledonian)

2 I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

The word LORD in capital letters always represents the name of God, those four Hebrew letters YHWH whose vowels were not recorded when they were added to the ancient text, for the Jewish community never said the name out loud.  Whenever they came to the word while reading the scripture in public they spoke the word for lord/master.

We are supposed to recognize that when the poet says, “the LORD is my Lord,” he is declaring his allegiance to and service of the God who led Israel out of Egypt.  There are always other gods to be served.  We know some of them from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament): Ba’al, Ashtoreth, Asherah, Moloch, gods who promised power or prosperity or fertility, gods we still worship today without their ancient names.

2 I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

The poet looks over the landscape of his life and acknowledges that all good things come from that power that is beyond our understanding, who formed the sun and waters the earth and blesses the crops and cattle.  The breath of life, the joy of kinship, the pleasures of life are all given from the LORD not the gods of war and sea and sky.  All that is good, not just in the created world but in the social world, is rooted in the god who rescued and gathered a people, formed the nation and provided laws to sustain peace.  The guiding hand of the LORD is the source of all good.

4 Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows.

Those who chase after wealth or power, who put their hope in sexual fulfillment, who trust possessions to bring life’s goodness “multiply their sorrows.”  Sometimes those sorrows are obvious to all; sometimes they are carried in secret; sometimes they are simply the sadness of a withered spiritual life – those who wake up at the end of a long pursuit and wonder what it has gotten them.  “There must be something more.”

There is a kind of buzz that comes from buying a new possession, but it is a quickly fading joy.  It’s promise of fulfillment it never keeps.  There is a thrill from fame, but it is a fickle mistress, casting down as quickly as it has raised up.  There is a heady illusion of security and importance to wealth and power, but they can be knocked down with a simple word like cancer.  What cannot be taken away is the joy of kindness and generosity and faithfulness.  A good deed never vanishes.  Kindness is never forgotten.  The love of God that prompts love of neighbor is not undone even by death.

For you do not give me up to Sheol [the realm of the dead],
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

Because “The LORD is my chosen portion,” the poet can say “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”  His eyes are drawn to the good.  No matter what trials or troubles come, the poet sees himself surrounded and sustained by the faithfulness of God.  “I have a goodly heritage.”

And so the poet declares anew his allegiance to and service of the LORD who opens prison doors, who frees from slavery, who leads through the wilderness to a new life in a new land, whose way of justice and mercy is the path of life: “You are my Lord.”

11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy.

Here I am! Here I am!

Thursday

Isaiah 65:1-9

with open arms 両手を広げて

with open arms 両手を広げて (Photo credit: jessleecuizon)

1I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
      to be found by those who did not seek me
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
      to a nation that did not call on my name.

The prophet’s poetry is exquisite; the cry of God plaintive.  A God eager to be found.  A God of fabulous promises and great mercy.  A God who brought the people back from exile in Babylon, home again to the land once promised to their ancestor Abraham.  A God with outstretched arms, both here and on the cross.  “Here I am!  Here I am!”  But we do not call on his name.

2I held out my hands all day long
      to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
      following their own devices;
3a people who provoke me
     to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
      and offering incense on bricks;
4who sit inside tombs,
     and spend the night in secret places;
who eat swine’s flesh,
     with broth of abominable things in their vessels;
5who say, “Keep to yourself,
      do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
      a fire that burns all day long.

Fabulous, brutal poetry, speaking the truth of a people who look everywhere for prosperity and goodness except to the one who has already given it, the one who holds out his hands and cries “Here I am!”

Our constant worship of the gods of security and profit, the sacrifices offered in the bodies of the poor for the clothing we covet at bargain prices, the sacrifices offered in the lives of our children who are sexualized before their time, the sacrifices we offer of family life to the gods of work and wealth.  “Here I am!  Here I am!” cries the one who is the bread of life, the living water, the light of all creation.

We think we are special, elite, ‘holy’, when our honoring of such gods is an acrid scent before heaven: a face full of diesel exhaust on an urban street, the inescapable smoke in the eyes that follows you round a campfire.

I will measure into their laps
      full payment for their actions.

There will be consequences.  We suffered some with the greed that led to our last economic near collapse – and many suffer still.  We have laid many in the ground for our trust in violence to bring peace.  Sexual diseases repay our worship of sex.  But God is not done with us or the world.

8Thus says the Lord: As the wine is found in the cluster,
      and they say, “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,”
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
      and not destroy them all.
9I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
      and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
      and my servants shall settle there.

Português: Igreja da Misericordia, Pernes,Portugal

Português: Igreja da Misericordia, Pernes,Portugal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The God who gathers, the God who blesses, the God who redeems the earth, the God who loves without limit, who remains faithful despite all human faithlessness, will bring joy from sorrow, goodness from evil, life from death.

Here I am!  Here I am!  Waiting to be found.