Religious Grounds

Java for the journey.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Mid-week Sermon on Genesis 22:1-18

A few words about why the text was chosen are in order.
I have chosen to preach this Lent on Biblical texts
which I have never preached upon before –
not because I wanted to avoid them,
but because they have been avoided for me.
For whatever reason,
they either do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary,
the three-year schedule of Biblical readings which we use,
or they are included in the lectionary at such points
that we usually miss them entirely.

This story about Abraham, Isaac, and God is one such story.
The only times it appears in our lectionary is at the Easter Vigil
and as an option for a Sunday after Pentecost.
Up until about twelve years ago,
this story was prescribed for the first Sunday in Lent every third year.
But when the Revised Common Lectionary was published,
it was replaced by the story of the rainbow and God’s promise to Noah.
I have no idea why this was done.
Perhaps there is an excellent reason for it.
Perhaps it is because sermons are shorter, and one needs a long time
to be able to do full justice to this story.
Perhaps it is because this text can do great harm if mishandled too badly.
But it does not seem accidental that in our time,
when concern for victims is of high importance,
the story about Abraham, Isaac, and God has fallen on hard times.
Indeed, in the Bill Moyers PBS documentary on the book of Genesis,
there were some theologians who flatly stated
that God comes out of this story looking pretty bad.
What kind of God would demand such a sacrifice, they say?
What kind of man would obey?

The story about Abraham, Isaac, and God
begins long before this particular part of the story.
God promises Abraham that his descendants
will be born of his own child, Isaac,
and that through his descendants God will bless the world.
And so just when Isaac, his only son, is at the time of manhood,
God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a whole burnt-offering to him.

Our natural reasoning recoils at such a demand.
It seems utterly out of character
for the God we grow up hearing is a God of love.
After all, is not this God the same God
who commanded his people not to sacrifice their children to him,
when all the nations around Israel were participating in child sacrifice?
Is not this God the same God who promised that through Isaac
he would fulfill the promise to Abraham?
Is not this God the same God who declares, “You shall not murder?”
and commands that the parent love the child?

And so we quickly make this trial of Abraham’s
into a trial of God.
God himself is on trial here,
if we are calling his past statements into account
and weighing his actions and intentions in the balance.
And yet it is Abraham’s gift to do
what Adam and Eve could not do in the Garden,
what Peter could not do at Caesarea Philippi
or in the courtyard of the high priest,
what we cannot do from our vantage point.
It is faith that is Abraham’s gift,
faith and trust that God does not let one of his words fall to the ground.

In his lectures on the first three chapters of Genesis,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the conversation
between Eve and the serpent in the Garden
as “the first theological conversation.”
That is, it was a conversation “about” God rather than “with” God.
When Eve allows herself to consider the question,
“Did God really say?”
she is sitting in judgment upon God’s Word
rather than simply listening to it and doing it.
Bonhoeffer goes on to say,
“Where human beings use a principle, an idea of God,
as a weapon to fight against the concrete word of God…
at that point they have become God’s master,
they have left the path of obedience,
they have withdrawn from being addressed by God.”

Abraham knew that this was no demon masquerading,
suggesting to him a course of action that the real God would never hear of.
Abraham knew that the voice that called him was the voice of God himself.
He had heard that voice too many times to be mistaken.
And so he knows that there is an instant choice to be made.
He may put God’s word on trial, judge it upon its merits,
and accept or reject it accordingly,
or he may obey.
There is no third way.
And so early in the morning,
Abraham gets up and makes ready for the journey to Mt. Moriah.
At every opportunity to turn back from the way of following God’s command,
Abraham goes forward.

There are at least two things we need to be careful to remember.
One is that Abraham never would have chosen this course of action
without an explicit command from God.
Those who justify abuse or neglect of children based upon this text
are justifying their own hatred,
for we have no command from God except to love and nurture our children.
The burden is not laid upon us; it is laid upon Abraham,
who continued loving his son
even while he obeyed God’s command.

But the second thing we need to remember is this:
Abraham continued to believe and trust
the God who had not only demanded the sacrifice of Isaac,
but also who had promised the descendants through Isaac.
In other words, Abraham’s trust was based upon the premise
that God does not lie, even though his ways be inscrutable.
Abraham trusted in God to accomplish his purpose,
and Abraham’s only role was to be faithful.
Hadn’t that been how it happened before with God?
God had been the active agent, God had beyond all hope and imagination
given him the land and the son,
and all Abraham had done is believed and obeyed.

Other than “Here I am,” Abraham only speaks once in this drama,
and his words are the key to his outlook..
On the way to the mountain, Isaac notices that there is no lamb for the sacrifice,
and Abraham says,
“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
“God himself will provide.”
On one level, it can be seen as subterfuge,
Abraham’s deliberate deception of his innocent victim, his son.
On one level, it can be seen as hope,
that God will provide the way forward
from a seemingly impossible situation.
“God will provide.”
Has this not been Abraham’s watchword from day one
of his whole impossible adventure with God?
Is not his entire life staked upon this paradoxical hope,
that though God commands the offering,
yet he has also promised the blessing?
Is not his only hope that the same God who brings down raises up,
and that the God who kills makes alive?

This is where Peter falls short at Caesarea Philippi.
When Jesus tells the disciples that the road
he must travel leads to the cross,
the man who has just confessed Jesus to be God’s Son
begins to argue fiercely with God’s Son.
He bases his objection upon what he knows to be true,
that through the Messiah God will bring restoration to the world.
And yet Peter cannot see how God can do this through death,
and cannot put more trust in God than in himself.
He has not yet the faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus,
that God can make a way where there is no way,
that if Isaac can be bound, he can be set free,
that for God the Red Sea is no obstacle,
that water can come from the rock and manna from heaven,
and that on the third day the stone will be rolled away.

When we ask ourselves “Did God really say?”
is it not a testimony that we do not live by faith in God whom we cannot see
but instead trust in what we can control, what we can understand?
Did God really say, “Love your enemies?”
They have hurt us, it is natural to hate them.
Did God really say, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths?”
But we must vent, we must get sympathy.
Does God really want us to hold ourselves back from what feels right to us
simply because of some nonsensical utterance of Paul?
Did he wish the death of the martyrs?

These are questions which bring God to judgment
and make ourselves the measure of all things.
But we ask for the faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus,
which says, “God will provide,”
which trusts that God’s Word is God’s Word,
all of it, the commands and the promises,
and that God will, despite everything,
bring light from darkness, life from death,
speech from silence.

Jeremiah 2:12-13

Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Digital Destiny by Jeff Chester

Summary: Thanks to the gutless FCC, Comcast, etc., will soon own your souls, unless we can organize.
Chief Heroes: mostly anonymous, brave souls
Chief Villains: Newt Gingrich, Michael Powell, Rupert Murdoch, lawyers, politicians, lobbyists
Most frightening idea: that the owners of the cable lines will be able to streamline their own broadband content while everyone else waits in line
Idea that speaks against author's point of view: Chester seems to believe that if we had had a more diverse, free press, everyone in the Muslim world would love us and 9/11 would never have happened.
Best chapters: "Showdown at the FCC," telling the story of the aforementioned Powell's attempt to gut the prohibition on multiple-channel ownership in local areas by media companies, and the response; "The Brandwashing of America," prophesying the future of interactive advertising.
Response: I've always hated my Comcast home page and my AIM Today. They bring me the best of the grocery store checkout celeb mags right to my screen. This book could inspire alliances of the "Crunchy Con" type.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Bible Stories for the Forty Days

Here is the book we are reading as a family for Lent, from Liturgy Training Publications.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

We'll see how this goes...

All right, I have an urge to resume blogging. For today. We'll see how this goes.

But I have nothing to contribute right now - except a sermon. If you like to read sermons, read on. If not, then you are free to check back later.

God bless.

First Sunday in Lent - February 25, 2007

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

In the early centuries of the Christian Church,

men and women,

alone and in small groups,

fled the great cities of Northern Egypt

for the desert areas surrounding them.

Often the small groups would form religious communities,

but the most intrepid of them would try to live alone in the desert,

to undertake a radical existence of simplicity and solitude.

We know them today as “the Desert Fathers” and “the Desert Mothers.”

They had an enormous impact on the Church’s history.

They fled the cities at first because of persecution,

but then because of persecution of a different kind.

When the Christian faith was first tolerated, then privileged, in the Roman Empire,

the result was good in some ways, and bad in others.

Good because there was no longer the ultimate price to pay for being a Christian.

and bad for the very same reason.

Pretty soon there was no difference between being a Christian and being a normal citizen.

And that led some people to wonder, shouldn’t there be a difference?

So some people voluntarily chose a life of simplicity and solitude in the desert

in order to follow Jesus more closely.

Perhaps they thought that their temptations to backslide,

to live a life no different than everyone around them,

would disappear once they had left civilization behind,

and were finally alone with God.

What they found was something quite different.

God indeed was in the desert,

but the devil was as well.

They found that temptation was not something that could be left behind so easily,

that it was in fact as close to them in solitude as it was in civilization.

They discovered what Jesus discovered on his forty-day stay in the wilderness.

When Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit “into the wilderness,”

he finds more trouble there then anyone could have expected.

The devil shadows him, closer than his own shadow,

always at his side and in his ear.

Through his forty-day fast, he has nothing to distract him from the insistent crying-out

of his very human, very mortal body.

There is no dissenting voice to shield him from the vision taking shape

of a lonely road that he must walk,

where few will understand him

and few listen to him

and at the end, all will abandon him.

God seems to be silent.

The only voice speaking is the devil’s,

who invites him to a different reality,

a reality in which he is master of his own fate,

captain of his own ship,

in which he need not be hungry,

need not be lonely,

need not be a failure.

All he needs to do is reach out his hand and take what he wants for himself.

Of course, the devil is lying.

“He is a liar and the father of lies” Jesus said at another time,

perhaps remembering his experience in the desert.

No one dances to one’s own tune,

Jesus knows,

but follows a leader – either God or the devil.

And so Jesus rebuffs the advances of the devil,

and listens to God’s voice –

for God has not been silent,

not with the voice of Scripture speaking in Jesus’ heart,

sounding clearly and strongly even above our devil’s attempts

to twist God’s Word in the desert

as once he did in the garden.

Jesus experiences what all human beings experience,

the stark utter choice between dancing to God’s or the devil’s tune,

and alone of all humanity he remains faithful to his Father,

and makes it possible for us to be God’s as well.

For if even one human being resists the satanic call,

then Satan is not Lord of this world, but God is.

And they are saved from the lies of the devil

who, trusting in Christ, confessing his Name,

put faith in what he has done for us in the desert and on the cross

and turn away from trust in their own works, their own righteousness.

Why, then, if Jesus has gone to the desert for us, must we go to the desert,

literally, or metaphorically?

What did the Desert Fathers learn in the desert?

What did Martin Luther learn in the monastery?

What do youth who fast for thirty hours

or adults who give up chocolate for Lent gain from the experience?

Lately there has been a movement I’ve been less than thrilled with.

Rather than “give up” something for Lent,

some say,

it’s much better to “add on” something.

Add on a good deed a day,

or a sponsorship of a child

who needs food and medicine and education,

or a habit you’ve been meaning to acquire, like Bible reading or healthy eating,

instead of giving up something which isn’t going to do anyone any good anyhow.

Now there’s nothing wrong with adding something to your life.

After all, the discipline of Lent is not only fasting,

but fasting, prayer, study, and works of love.

The implication I’m not comfortable with is that this should be done instead of fasting.

And to me this is simply a mistake.

Because if we only add more to our lives, we run the risk of increasing our pride

while fasting reveals our brokenness.

It is to let go of our imagined needs,

to let go of our half-spoken wants and half-dreamed-of desires,

and in the letting go experience just how tied we are to them,

whether to comfort food or comfort media

or to habits long-engrained.

It is to attempt to give more glory to the Creator than to the creation,

and in doing so to know within ourselves how much we want it otherwise.

It is to give up our cherished control over our own existence,

to surrender it to the one who gave us our existence and who will take it back.

And thus the way through temptation

is to acknowledge our dependence, our temptation, our brokenness,

and to call upon the help of Jesus,

who endured temptation for our sake and who emerged victorious.

For when the Fathers emerged from the desert, and Luther from the monastery,

they came confessing their own failures, but Christ’s victories for them and in them.

It might have sounded something like this:

“No strength of ours can match his might;

we would be lost, rejected.

But now a champion comes to fight,

whom God himself elected...

Christ Jesus, mighty Lord,

God’s only Son, adored.

He holds the field victorious.”

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Why conspiracy theories?

I would suggest, then, that the post-Enlightenment pretense of hostility to authority, tradition, and common sense as such, and especially the extreme form of it represented by the likes of Marx and Nietzsche, is what really underlies the popularity of conspiracy theories, particularly those involving 9/11. The absurd idea that to be intelligent, scientific, and intellectually honest requires a distrust for all authority per se and a contempt for the opinions of the average person, has so deeply permeated the modern Western consciousness that conspiratorial thinking has for many people come to seem the rational default position.

Read it all.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Sermon Pentecost 4

I will be in San Antonio, TX from July 5-9 at the ELCA National Youth Gathering, with 12 kids and two other adults from my congregation. I'll post here about what I hear from Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and the Bible studies.

Following is a sermon I preached on Sunday. The texts I focused on were Lamentations 3:22-33 and Mark 5:21-43. It is helpful to know that I was ministering during the week before to a family with a three-year-old dying from an infection, whose immune system was weak due to chemotherapy for leukemia. She has since died (Requiescat in pace, Hannah).

There are two errors that we may make
when we think about today’s Gospel lesson.
The first is when we assume that it always happens this way.
The second is when we assume that it never happens this way.

For many, these stories of miraculous healings and resurrections
are painful –
for we may recall times
when we have prayed for ourselves or for others,
when we have longed for healing, relief from suffering,
salvation from death for a loved one,
and the prayed-for release did not come.
These might cause us to question our God,
or to question ourselves and our faith.

We have the story of two different encounters with Jesus,
both of which result in instantaneous healings.
But I’d like to remind you of two encounters with Jesus
that did not produce those instant healings
and which still bore the marks of genuine faith.

Both of them involve St. Paul,
one of them personally.
When the apostle Paul wrote in Second Corinthians, chapter 12,
about the visions and revelations he experienced in the Lord,
he also tells his readers about
the thorn in the flesh which followed upon them,
which he describes as “a messenger of Satan to torment me.”
He tells us that he prayed three times for it to be removed.
We don’t know what that thorn in the side was.
I have seen it described as an illness, a besetting sin,
even as a troubled relationship.
But whatever it was, Paul wanted it gone,
he wanted it healed,
and it was not healed, not removed.
Was such an occurrence a crisis in his faith?
No. Instead it strengthened his faith.
Paul heard God saying to him, “My strength is enough for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Instead of relying upon his perfect health or his sinlessness,
whichever was in question,
Paul had to rely upon God.
And so it was that he had to deal with a constant, nagging problem,
and yet did not lose hope.

The second has to do with one of Paul’s churches.
The church in Thessalonica
was concerned about those of their community
who had died before the Lord Jesus returned in glory,
which they were expecting any day.
Had they missed the great party
that God had planned for the return of the King?
No, Paul reassured them in chapter 4 of 1st Thessalonians.
Instead, he said, the dead in Christ rise first,
and we meet them with Christ in glory.
It was only twenty or so years
after the Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension,
even before the Gospels were written,
that Christian believers were grappling with the question
of untimely death and what that meant concerning faith.
And the universal witness of the Church
has been that death, even untimely death,
does not mean that God has turned his back upon you.

Why then, do we have these Gospel stories at all?
The second great error is that we will not take these stories to heart.
For in these stories we see Jesus as not merely another movie-screen superhero,
but as God present among us.
In the Gospels, Jesus comes among us as the one who does the things that God does:
he tames nature, he forgives sins, and he heals disease and raises from death.
And he does so for those who seek him.

I called the healings “instantaneous” beforehand,
but that is really not true.
For the woman who was healed
had been suffering for twelve long years,
and, it is told us, “she had suffered much under many physicians
and had spent all that she had.”
The more things change, huh?
she had been seeking healing for many years.
There is something for us to hear about persistence, about patience,
but also about our active participation
in whatever healing we are seeking.
Too often we see God as a divine applicator of band-aids,
as if he might heal us magically, without our consent, without our willing it.
But is this how healing happens?
Ask anyone who’s gone through knee surgery –
the rehab is a little bit of effort, no?
It is God who heals, and he heals in and through us,
working in and through us to transform us from inside out,
so that we might be whole and healthy –
physically, mentally, and spiritually.

So when we seek healing and resurrection from God,
we seek it wholeheartedly.
We seek it wholeheartedly whether we are asking for physical healing
or the healing of a relationship with God or another person.
We seek it from God as wholeheartedly as the diseased woman
or the man in distress for his young daughter.
And we seek it believing that the balm we seek will be given –
whether we can see it as healing or not.

For God’s promise through Christ
is for the reconciliation of the world,
the Church, our lives.
We do not see this full reconciliation yet,
but we trust that in Jesus God has won the victory
which is yet working itself out in the universe.
Everywhere death seems to hold sway,
and yet with the author of Lamentations,
surrounded by the ruins of Jerusalem,
we cry to God, “great is your faithfulness.”
“The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
The cry of Christ from the cross was a lament,
when he cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
he did so knowing that the words of the Psalm he prayed
ended in praise to the God of redemption, not of forsakenness.

And so it is that we lament our thorns in the side,
we see the Church filled with strife
and the world in love with death
and yet we say,
“If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
We have not his clothes, but we have his name – Jesus, Jesus –
the one who came among us as God-with-us
and now is hidden in the presence of God,
his ear always listening for our prayers.
If it is that God, as he did in the pages of the Gospel of Mark,
shows us a sign in this age
of his great and unquenchable will for our healing and resurrection,
well and good.
But if not,
then we know, as the biblical writers knew, as Jesus knew,
that God’s strength can be made perfect in our weakness,
that the Lord does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone,
that the mercies of the Lord are new every morning,
that beyond death there is healing and resurrection.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Archbishop of Canterbury's letter

Read the Archbishop of Canterbury's letter to the Anglican faithful regarding the situation of the American church and its implications for global Anglican Communion.

His suggestion that perhaps a kind of schism is inevitable is tragic. He proposes that those unagreeable to a common statement of doctrine and practice on homosexuality would be "associate" members of the Anglican Communion.

But on the way to the messy stuff, he does some great summary stuff on the debate over homosexuality, and where it has been misunderstood. To wit:
It is possible – indeed, it is imperative – to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, to appreciate the role played in the life of the church by people of homosexual orientation, and still to believe that this doesn’t settle the question of whether the Christian Church has the freedom, on the basis of the Bible, and its historic teachings, to bless homosexual partnerships as a clear expression of God’s will. That is disputed among Christians, and, as a bare matter of fact, only a small minority would answer yes to the question.

Unless you think that social and legal considerations should be allowed to resolve religious disputes – which is a highly risky assumption if you also believe in real freedom of opinion in a diverse society – there has to be a recognition that religious bodies have to deal with the question in their own terms. Arguments have to be drawn up on the common basis of Bible and historic teaching. And, to make clear something that can get very much obscured in the rhetoric about ‘inclusion’, this is not and should never be a question about the contribution of gay and lesbian people as such to the Church of God and its ministry, about the dignity and value of gay and lesbian people. Instead it is a question, agonisingly difficult for many, as to what kinds of behaviour a Church that seeks to be loyal to the Bible can bless, and what kinds of behaviour it must warn against – and so it is a question about how we make decisions corporately with other Christians, looking together for the mind of Christ as we share the study of the Scriptures.

He points out why gay ordination and blessings is a different issue than women's ordination to either the presbytery or the episcopacy:
There are other fault lines of division, of course, including the legitimacy of ordaining women as priests and bishops. But (as has often been forgotten) the Lambeth Conference did resolve that for the time being those churches that did ordain women as priests and bishops and those that did not had an equal place within the Anglican spectrum. Women bishops attended the last Lambeth Conference. There is a fairly general (though not universal) recognition that differences about this can still be understood within the spectrum of manageable diversity about what the Bible and the tradition make possible. On the issue of practising gay bishops, there has been no such agreement, and it is not unreasonable to seek for a very much wider and deeper consensus before any change is in view, let alone foreclosing the debate by ordaining someone, whatever his personal merits, who was in a practising gay partnership.
And, amazingly enough, he manages to pull off an engaging appeal for being Anglican:
The different components in our heritage can, up to a point, flourish in isolation from each other. But any one of them pursued on its own would lead in a direction ultimately outside historic Anglicanism The reformed concern may lead towards a looser form of ministerial order and a stronger emphasis on the sole, unmediated authority of the Bible. The catholic concern may lead to a high doctrine of visible and structural unification of the ordained ministry around a focal point. The cultural and intellectual concern may lead to a style of Christian life aimed at giving spiritual depth to the general shape of the culture around and de-emphasising revelation and history. Pursued far enough in isolation, each of these would lead to a different place – to strict evangelical Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism, to religious liberalism. To accept that each of these has a place in the church’s life and that they need each other means that the enthusiasts for each aspect have to be prepared to live with certain tensions or even sacrifices – with a tradition of being positive about a responsible critical approach to Scripture, with the anomalies of a historic ministry not universally recognised in the Catholic world, with limits on the degree of adjustment to the culture and its habits that is thought possible or acceptable.

Time to consider other options?

I find this kind of stuff laugh-out-loud funny:

Driving the other night, we saw a business with a big yellow sign in front:

On top were letters spelling out: "In God We Trust"

Below, in bigger letters: "CLOSED"

I'll try and post a picture if I get around there anytime again soon.

How's the world look through your rose-colored glasses?

I rarely watch The Daily Show, but I couldn't sleep tonight and found a rerun of Stewart's interview with Helen Thomas, veteran White House reporter. After saying that her favorite President was JFK, and talking about the Moon landing and the Peace Corps and the Cuban Missle Crisis, Stewart asked what was the difference between JFK and GWB, seeing as how Bush also is high-minded in his rhetoric. Here's Thomas's answer:

"You don't export democracy from the barrel of a gun."


Ever heard of the Bay of Pigs, Helen? How's about the Vietnam War, which any historian will tell you started under Kennedy's watch, and the responsibility for which would have been laid at his feet had he not been assassinated and subsequently deified? How's that for gun-barrel democracy?

Stewart lapped up the applause. I turned off the TV - I should have waited to see if anything else developed, but I have a low tolerance for ignorance.

Disagree with the Iraq War if you want. That's fine. You may be right. But a lot of the opposition to Bush is so obviously ignorant self-serving posturing that it just makes me want to dig in my heels.

Helen - let's tell the truth: What's the difference between Bush and JFK?

The difference is I liked JFK - I don't like Bush. Plus, disliking Bush and liking JFK will make me look hip and cool.