Monday, November 24, 2014

Waiting In Longing And Hope

This Sunday begins the season of Advent.  Advent, for those who don't know, is the four Sundays prior to Christmas Eve.  It is a season of preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  This includes not only celebrating Jesus' birth at Christmas, but receiving the risen Christ and awaiting Christ's coming again in final victory.

This may give you a sense why it is so much easier to ignore this particular season; or to pass over it lightly.  If we think too hard about it it makes us focus on three things that we often, as 21st century Christians, don't want to deal with:  1) Jesus' resurrection; 2) the idea of a Coming Kingdom; and (where I want to focus today...don't worry, we'll get to the other two soon enough) the depth of our own need and longing for a Savior.

Two things I need to make really, really clear: the first is that by "Savior" I do not just mean someone who washes away my sins and snatches my soul to heaven when I die.  While I do need my sins washed away (on a almost daily basis), and I do believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come; when this is the singular focus of the Christian message, Jesus' message is corrupted and much we are called to do in His name is blunted and treated like an "add on," like sprinkles or other toppings on an ice cream cone.....available if we want them, but not essential.  I, on the other hand, believe that the real "ice cream cone" of what it means to follow Jesus is contained in His teachings about justice for the marginalized, mercy for those who don't deserve it, and welcoming the stranger who is broken, alone,and dying.

That being said, it seems to me that the third thing in my list above is an essential ingredient if I'm to truly celebrate Advent; and that is the depth of my need and my longing.  As a human being, my life is broken.  The world around me is in shambles.  There is nothing I can do to fix that.  My best efforts are, finally, minimal band-aids to a bleeding open wound.



So Advent is a time of incredible longing.  It is the time when we admit the deep needs of our lives and how desperately we need for God to “tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1).   It is the first time in the liturgical year when we admit to the great gulf that separates us from God and from what we were created to be.....and our absolute inability to do anything about it on our own.

Much of western culture wants nothing to do with that realization; not does it want us to have anything to do with it.  If we had such a realization, it would upset the apple cart of all that our society has been built on. For example, the commercialism of the holidays teaches us to stifle that longing with ‘retail therapy.’  It wants us to believe that if we buy the right gift (or better yet, if the right gift is bought for us) that all will be well....we'll have a 'hallmark moment' Christmas and we won't have to deal with anything painful or difficult.  So we swallow our longing, deny our need, and bravely steer toward the mall.

But what if there was a place where you didn’t have to stifle it? What if there was a place where people voiced, and celebrated their need and waited in hopeful longing for it to be met? It is in the Christian community of faith that we find a place at Advent to let the voice of our anguish and our longing be heard.  To voice the Hope that One is coming who will, finally, put life to rights and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth.

Advent is a Big Deal because here we claim all of that....not just for a couple of days between the eggnog and the fruitcake....but for four weeks while we voice the deepest cry of our hearts.

Shalom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Remarkable Moses

As we've been working our way through the study of the Exodus journey I continue to be amazed by the relationship that God and Moses have with one another.  It is intimate, scrappy, often contentious, tender, difficult, confusing.....to be honest, it reminds me of two lovers-a long time married couple; which, in fact, I guess it is.

Regardless of which of the accounts contained in books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy you read, the deep intimacy between God and Moses comes through.  It is an intimacy marked by how vulnerable God makes God's self to Moses (Moses frequently argues with God and God sometimes alters plans or changes God's mind); but also by the limitations that God puts on the relationship (see below).

Moses is an unlikely person for God to call by all of our standards.  .  He's part of an underclass of forced laborers who'd been adopted by one of the daughters of a Pharaoh. He's a fugitive who killed a man in a fit of rage.  He may have had a speech impediment.  And on it goes.

Though God and Moses are described in Exodus 33:11 as speaking "face to face as one speaks to a friend," when Moses asks God to "show me your glory," God refuses, saying, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live."  The indication in the Hebrew is that Moses wanted to know more about God and what God was doing, where things were going, than was permissible (the word can mean 'be out in front of').

Finally, on Mount Pisgah, Moses is shown the Promised Land but denied entry.  Yet, in a moment that can be read as incredibly tender, God shows Moses all this and then kisses him (Moses is said to die "by the mouth of the Lord") and he dies.  God then carries Moses down into the glen and buries God's friend there in a place no one knows so that no one can build a 'Cult of Moses' around him.

We're told in Deuteronomy 34:10 that "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face."

God gave Moses intimacy, friendship, the ability to affect God's decisions....all of these things. It was only when Moses wanted control (the whole 'tell me your name discussion at the burning bush), advanced knowledge, power of his own (the story of Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it) rather than commanding on God's behalf, or a final certainty (entering the Promised Land with the Hebrews) that God drew a line.

When I look at this I have to ask myself 'how often do I ask for these things: power, certainty, control....when what God offers me is intimacy, friendship, and the privilege to affect, through prayer, what God does?'  God's answer to my request for power, certainty, etc. is the same as the one God gave to Moses.....it is a resounding 'No."  And every time I reach for it, I fall into sin.

Yet God continues to hold out to each of us a relationship of tender, intimate, friendship.  A relationship so scary, so risky, so dangerous that most of us (myself included) can only grasp it in very small doses. One could even make the case that what God offers us in Christ is a relationship like Moses'; while we in our focus on 'prosperity gospels' and what happens after we die protects us from the dangerous intimacy of those who are "given the power to become children of God."

We'll talk more on Sunday.  Hope to see you then.

Shalom

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In Praise Of "Third Way" Congregations

We've heard a lot lately about "Third Way" congregations.  Most of it has centered around the issue of homosexuality and the decision by some churches to stay engaged with one another in spite of their disagreements about, and struggle with, the guidance of scripture about this issue. They have chosen to love one another even when they radically disagree.

It is obvious that I applaud such an approach.  I find it in keeping with both the teachings of Jesus and the guidance of Paul to the early churches to whom he wrote.  "No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit."(Paul) The disciples said, 'We saw a man casting out demons in Your name and we told him to stop because he wasn't one of us.' And Jesus replied, 'don't do that, for he who is not against us is for us.' (Mark)  These churches make the only 'litmus test' our desire to claim "Jesus is Lord," and refuse to claim the authority to deny that another's desire to follow Jesus is somehow false.

There is, however, more at stake in the "Third Way" congregation debate than the question of homosexuality. That is simply the newest question in a long historical debate.  A larger question is about who 'owns' scripture; and an even larger one about the requirements for faith and the nature of the church. 

Two place where we can see this lived out is in the Priesthood of All Believers and the experience of Base Communities in places like South America. Base communities (where the people read scripture together and sought to apply it to their own context) were often opposed by those in power because scripture, in the hands of the people, resulted in views of the meaning and demands of faith that ran counter to the narrative posed by the elite and the dominant. But this has always been the nature of the relationship between humankind, our God, and the 'text'-whether in the form of oral tradition or written text. The Word of the Lord always sets up a counter view of the way things are and how things should be.

The Priesthood of All Believers claims that it is both my right and my responsibility as a Christian to study scripture, wrestle with its meaning, pray for discernment, and arrive at my own understanding.  It also calls me to explore that understanding within the community of faith and to listen to those who might temper my understanding or call me to another view.  But nowhere is the final authority given to a group or individual to be able to tell me that I am wrong and that God is not speaking to me in my study and struggle.

Finally, it seems to me that each of us is on a journey that it both shared and deeply personal.  I can never totally know your journey.  Then how am I to 'read you out' of the community of faith because where you are makes you believe something different from me?


What is the picture that this approach paints of what Church looks like?  Might it be a place where people with wildly different views come together to praise Jesus as Lord and then sit down at the table together?  Could it be that it reflects that incredibly divergent group of people that Jesus chose for disciples?  Jesus started off calling people from all ends of the spectrum, both politically and theologically, male and female, rich and poor.  Maybe....just maybe....Jesus is still doing that.

Hope to see you Sunday,
Shalom

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Steadfast Faithful Lovng Kindness

There is a wonderful word in Hebrew that seems to defy definition.  There is no precise translation into our language.  That word is "Chesed."

It is a very important word because it is how God describes God's own Self in the encounter with Moses recorded in Exodus 34:1-10.  The power of this description is even greater because it is uttered by God after the event with the Golden Calf when the people in a moment of apostacy have abandoned their covenental relationship with the God that brought them out of Egypt and set up a fertility god, a Ba'al to worship.

This statement will occur multiple times in the OT in various forms.  It becomes creedal statement, a kind of "canon" according to Terence Fretheim about the nature of the God with Whom the Hebrew people are in relationship.  He also points to the fact that, in contrast to the first time the Covenant was given (the one Moses shattered when he approached the camp while the orgy of worship with the calf was going on), there is a shift in focus.  No longer is the focus on obedience earning God's favor as the conditional elements are removed; now the focus is on the divine mercy, forgiveness and patience.  It is as if God is saying, "you can't do this, you are incapable of meeting the conditions of our relationship; therefore I will take it upon myself."

Moses will echo this sentiment in verse 9 when he says that the people need God's intimate guiding presence exactly because they are such a "stiff-necked people."

This passage is careful not to have God saying, "there, there now, whatever you do is okay."  In fact verse 7 says that God does not "wholly acquite, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons and sons of sons, to the third generation and the fourth."  That is to say that behavior has consequences, even consequences that can be felt for generations afterward.  One example of this in human experience is the parent who forgives the dent in the car, but still takes the keys for a period of them.  Another, more powerful example would be reflected in the Peace and Reconciliation Hearings in South Africa.  Forgiveness is possible, but it is only possible through the admission of guilt, guilt that one is unable to rectify on one's own.

If we carry this understanding of God forward into the NT expression of God in Christ Jesus we see it coming to full bloom.  At one can find here a profound Atonement Theory that neither cheapens the gift of "steadfast faithful loving kindness," nor demands a "penalty" be paid to "satisfy God's rightous wrath."  It is an acknowledgement of the seriousness of sin and it's profound impact; our inability to deal by ourselves with our failure and sin; and God's faithful loving kindness that steadfastly forgives and redeems.

No wonder God says in verse 10, "Look, I am about to seal a covenant.  Before all your people I will do wonders that have not been created in all the earth an din all the nations, and all the people in whose midst you are shall see the Lord's doing, for fearsome is that which I do with you."

Such Chesed is, indeed, a fearsome and wonderful thing. 

Somehow we need to grasp, in our lives personally and congregationally; in our personal behaviors and our stewardship, that when we focus here, on this Chesed, this steadfast faithful loving kindness, this fearsome and wonderful God.....then everything else will fall into place.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Shalom,
Stephen