Monday, June 30, 2008
- I've made an initial stab (or poke) at the next sermon in my queue: Matt 10:1-7. Go do good stuff and preach and share the good news, but go the the Jews, not those heathen Gentiles. Should be fun. Only two more sermons for my time here at Saint Diverse. Only three more weeks here...the time has gone so quickly.
- Lunch plans today with my rector from my home parish - that should be fascinating, as he is just back from a trip to Africa as part of our diocesan work on the complicity of the church in the slave trade. All that and Indian food...it will be a feeding of body and soul.
- Blue Saabie is in the shop with a flukey ABS controller. The instrument lights on the dashboard panel - all those little warning lights that usually come on when I turn the car on in the morning and they do the self-test - stay on all the time. The car runs fine, but my mechanic says the braking system may punk out if I don't get it fixed. If I took it to the dealership, they'd make me get the whole board replaced, to the tune of $3K. My trusty Swedish Motors guys send the board to someone who rebuilds it...only $700. Of course, it's $700 I don't really have, but we will figure it out. I'm just hoping Saabie will last until I'm through with seminary. Then I can get something tiny and green, with all-wheel drive for when I get middle-of-the-night pastoral calls. I always wondered why clergy all seemed to have Subaru Outbacks. Now I understand.
- StrongOpinions is having a blast at the writer's conference where she's spending the summer months. She's been invited to read some of her work publicly, and she'll be interviewed on local radio about the nexus of poetry and political activism. Can you tell this is happening in a radically liberal college in a radically liberal mountain community in the Rockies?
- StoneMason is coming down here for a visit. in a few weeks. We're trying to figure out the cheapest way to get him down from the Green Mountain State without spending megabucks. It may be possible to coordinate his visit with StrongOpinions'...it would be great to have them both here at the same time.
- PH is having that test on Wednesday that all of us have to have when we turn fifty. For a surgeon's son, he has little stomach for things medical. He will start the prep meds tonight. We may move the television and his laptop into our tiny WC for the duration. Poor baby! Say a prayer it all goes well. We expect no problems, since there is no family history of such stuff.
- Summer months are quiet at little churches, and I have moments of feeling guilty that I'm not more busy here at Saint Diverse. The convener of my peer colloquy group says that this is one of the things we as soon-to-be-priests need to learn - to be at peace with the lull times as well as to be ready to dig in during the busy times. Frankly, I'm happier when I've got my hands full.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
A couple of years ago, Volkswagen introduced a series of television ads for their cars that focused on their safety features. You may remember them. Four young people are riding down the street in conversation. They’re talking about the everyday things, the inside jokes, the little disagreements, that people who know each other well can share. In mid-sentence, suddenly there is a crash. Another car has smashed into them. Time shifts. Reality shifts. The people in the Volkswagen stand outside the vehicle, shocked. They say an expletive. I doubt they remember the conversation they were so engrossed in during the seconds before the crash. Now they are standing at the side of the road, wondering what happened, how they got to this place, and what to do next.
Those of us who have had serious medical diagnoses know this feeling as well. We are going along in our normal life, doing all the familiar and comfortable things. We feel an odd ache that won’t go away. We go to the doctor’s. She says, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but…” and suddenly everything in the room, every word, every sensory perception, slows down, and we are taken out of our lives into some other reality, some strange place where the old rules don’t apply, where time stretches and contracts and the things that were important no longer seem paramount.
When these horrific moments happen, we are taken out of our normal frame of reference. We are shocked into a different kind of perception. We are only able to utter a few words, an expletive, a prayer. We struggle to understand something which, on the face of it, seems incomprehensible.
So it is, too, this story of Abraham and God’s outrageous request.
It’s a horrific story. We cringe at it.
God speaks to Abraham. “I want you to do something.” “Okay, I’m here.” – in the Hebrew, Abraham says: “Hineni.”
As we’ve heard of the journey that is Abraham’s life over the past several weeks, we’ve learned that Abraham has been given many wonderful things from God – sons in his old age, riches from Pharaoh. Although he may have had questions about God’s promises before, and behaved accordingly, he no longer seems to have any doubts. God has delivered. God has heard. But we now hear of one more test, an inconceivable one (here’s that word we’ve used over the past three weeks). Suddenly, our frame of reference – indeed, Abraham’s frame of reference – is shifted. This makes no sense.
God asks Abraham to take the most precious thing God has given him, Isaac, that gift of laughter and life, and says, “Take Isaac to the place I will tell you, over beyond the hills, in the land of Moriah, and offer him there to me as a burnt offering.”
We hear this message and time shifts. This makes no sense. We say, “What kind of God would ask this of Abraham? What kind of father would not scream back to the heavens, and say ‘No! I will not!’”
But Abraham is silent.
Suddenly, the story seems to go into slow-motion, much like the young people in the aftermath of the car crash. Details stick out: the bitter, angry energy with which Abraham chops the wood, the two servant boys, Abraham slowly tying the bundle of wood for the offering on Isaac’s shoulder. And yet whole swaths of the story line that we would expect are missing. What did Abraham tell Sarah about this trip? Does Abraham say anything at all to God in response? What do the father and his son and the two servants say to each other on their three day journey? ; No words are spoken until the third day, when Abraham and Isaac prepare to go up the mountain and Abraham gives directions to the servants who will wait below. Is Abraham wondering what he will say to the servants when he comes back down the mountain without his son? Is he wondering what Sarah will do?
Is there a moment in your life when you are faced with the horror, and words fail you? This is that moment for Abraham. And yet he follows God’s directions, this tenth test of Abraham’s faith to the one true God.
It is the moment, too, for Isaac, as his father ; binds him with rope, as one would an animal for slaughter. It is no mistake that in the Jewish tradition, this story is called The Akedah (עקדה), the binding of Isaac, because in some ways it is the most chilling moment in the story. This young man – some scholars estimate Isaac’s age somewhere between 25 and 37 - sees his father building an altar. He sees the wood for the fire. He sees his father with the knife, more likely something like a cleaver or a butcher’s knife. He sees no sheep. He asks where it is, and Abraham says something surprising:” God will provide.”
And yet, there is no sheep. Is God providing one?
And then his father begins to wrap the rope around his hands and feet, as they would have done to the sacrificial sheep. Is this precious son, this gift from God to Abraham and Sarah, the sheep that God has provided? Isaac can see now what is happening, but he doesn’t say another word. He knows in this moment that he is the sacrificial offering, that his father will lift up that cleaver and slam it down with great force, and Isaac’s nephesh, his spirit, contained in his life blood, will drain out of him. He will die. And Isaac says nothing, even as his father Abraham said nothing when God demanded this sacrifice.
Abraham’s hard, calloused hand raises up, slowly, slowly. The action slows down to a quarter speed again. The cleaver is in his hand, poised above that gift, that son, now a sacrifice. The promise of the future generations, that covenant promise that God made, seems to be a stroke away from destruction. How can there be future generations if the child is killed?
But suddenly, there is a voice.
“Abraham, wait a minute. Stop.” “Okay, I’m here. I hear you.” Hineni.
We’ve been holding our breath, waiting for the cleaver to fall, to cleave the neck, to cleave the covenant…and now it is stopped. We breathe again. Abraham’s hand drops. The angel says, “You’ve passed the test of faithfulness. Don’t hurt your son. God asked for the ultimate sacrifice, of the thing you loved most, and you were willing to give it.”
We breathe again, and Abraham breathes again. As Hagar suddenly looked up and saw the well, so now Abraham looks up and sees ; the ram in the thicket, a sacrifice that we and he can tolerate. The story speeds up – the ram is sacrificed. The angel restates God’s covenant, that promise of future generations as plenteous as the stars in the heaven or the sands on the shore of the ocean. The generations will roll forth through the centuries.
But we are left with confusion and anger. What just happened here? Those same questions we started with: why would God ask this of Abraham? why would Abraham assent to it? they’re still there with the taste of ashes in our mouths. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis has said, “I’m glad I don’t worship the God of Abraham” if this is what that God is like. We’re with her on that one.
Can we get some distance from the horror if we say that it is just Abraham’s bad dream or overactive imagination, as did the medieval rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi? There are some scholars, such as those who wrote the midrash Genesis Rabbah, who think that Abraham knows all along that Isaac won’t die, because God has already promised the future generations. There are some such as Martin Luther, who feel very clearly that the story is as it was: that this was a test, and Abraham’s faith was so great that he did what God asked without question even if it would mean that Isaac would die. Luther is said to have refused to preach on this story, saying that Abraham’s faith was so great that Luther was in awe of it, and could add no more words to the subject. Maybe we can finally understand this story if we turn to the New Testament. The Apostle Paul, writing on faith in his Letter to the Hebrews, draws the parallel to the death and resurrection of Christ, and implies that Abraham would go ahead and sacrifice his son (as God’s own son Jesus was sacrificed for us) because he would know that Isaac would be raised from the dead. We are not alone in struggling with this hard lesson.
But perhaps we can finally come to a difficult peace with this story by imagining the inconceivable moments in our own lives, when it seems that God has asked us to participate in; a journey that we know will end badly. Do we question God at those times? Perhaps. Perhaps time slows down as we see how these things will play out, and we wonder what good can come of them. Can we imagine the possibility of stepping back from argument with God, to say ; “Hineni. Here I am. I trust you. Tell me what to do next.”
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
But a funny thing happened on the way to baby Isaac, and we find out a little more about that story today.
This is the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Ishmael, in case you’ve forgotten, is Abraham’s first child.
Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian slave. Sarah, despairing that she would ever have a child, did something that was very common in that time, when having a child was of paramount importance – she gave Abraham her slave and said, “Since I’m not having any luck giving you a child, take Hagar and sleep with her. Maybe then you’ll have a son.”
Now, it’s important to remember that God had already promised Abraham, way back in chapter 15, that he would have children. But we get to chapter 16, and Sarah is still without children – no surprise there, since she’s older than she was in chapter 15 – and the two of them are getting nervous. Abraham is a wealthy man in goods and he wants an heir so he doesn’t have to leave all those goods to a servant.
And Abraham and Sarah get a little impatient. Surprising, since before God had told Abraham he would be father of a great nation, they had seemed resigned to being childless. Sarah gives Abraham her maid, the Egyptian girl Hagar – note that there is no mention of how Hagar feels about all this – and Hagar becomes pregnant by Abraham.
You’d think that Abraham would be happy. You’d think Sarah would be happy, because this was what the plan was. But it turns into a soap opera of the first order. Although this was the common practice of the time – servants being surrogates for infertile rich women – Hagar doesn’t follow the plan. She starts to look down on Sarah, essentially saying “Look what I could do and you couldn’t.” Not surprisingly, this makes Sarah pretty angry. She complains to her husband. And he shrugs and said, “She’s your servant; do what you want with her.” Not the most sensitive response, is it? So Sarah treats her badly, and Hagar runs away into the desert – not knowing how she would get bck to Egypt, not knowing how she would even survive - what was she thinking? – There, an angel tells her to go back. The angel says she will bear a son, and he will be named Ishmael, meaning “the Lord has listened to your distress.” Hagar should submit to Sarah, and Ishmael will grow up to father his own nation, and will be quite the feisty guy.
So Hagar goes back, gives birth, and everything settles down for a while. Then the baby Isaac, the miracle child, is born to Sarah. This is where we ended last week, and we begin this week with that child, Isaac, being weaned – something that would make him about three years old in that culture. Weaning was a big event back then, because it also marked the successful survival of a baby through the period when he was most likely to die. So Abraham throws a party. And Sarah sees the little one playing with that stepbrother of his, Ishmael, who is a teenager by this time, and it suggests in the text that Ishmael – whom the angel had warned would not be the most agreeable sort – is teasing him – it’s unclear in the Hebrew whether Ishmael is merely playing with Isaac, or mocking him. Sarah , though, clearly sees it as a problematic relationship. She is like a mother bear defending her cub. Ishmael is also a threat to her son’s legacy as the next in the line of generations that would be a great nation, as God had promised. So she demands that Abraham throw out “this slave woman” and Ishmael, out into the desert just as when Hagar was pregnant with the boy.
But this time, unlike the last time, Abraham doesn’t simply acquiesce; he is greatly troubled. He loves Ishmael. But God says to go ahead and do what Sarah asks, because she is Isaac’s mother, and Isaac is the one who would be part of the covenant people. Ishmael will have his own rich legacy, the father of his own people, but God tells Abraham that this next step is necessary. So Abraham fills a wineskin with water and takes a loaf of bread, giving it to Hagar, and sends them out into the desert. Not very much in the way of supplies for someone who is expected to wander through the desert to who knows where. Does Abraham really think this will sustain Hagar and Ishmael?
Remember this part of the story. God tells Abraham to do something that on the face of it is inconceivable – that word again – to listen to Sarah, to send his firstborn and the child’s mother out into the desert. God says he will make the child the father of his own people, thus saying he will protect him – how he will do that isn’t specified – because Abraham has fathered this boy. And Abraham trusts God and does as he is told, without complaint or argument. There seems to be no doubt in Abraham’s mind as he fills that meager wineskin full of water and hands it to Hagar with the loaf of bread.
So Hagar trudges out into the desert with her obstreperous teenage boy in tow. It doesn’t take long before the water and bread are gone. She knows they are going to die. She tells her son to sit down under a bush, hoping to provide him at least a little shade, and then walks a good distance away. She doesn’t want to watch her son die of dehydration and heatstroke under the relentless desert sun. She sits, and she weeps, as any mother would.
And suddenly Hagar hears a voice of an angel, saying that God has heard her son’s cries. God has plans for this boy – the same plans that God told Abraham about. They are not going to die. The boy will become a leader of a great nation. And Hagar looks up and sees a well – can you picture her rubbing her eyes in disbelief? – and she fills up the wineskin…and that’s the beginning of good things for Hagar and Ishmael, although they don’t share the covenant with God that Abraham has.
So we’ve got a pattern here. God promises. God demands something that makes no sense. If the people obey, God delivers, even though the people can’t imagine how it will happen.
Remember this: we will see this again.
But even as we ponder this relationship between God and his people, I’m also fascinated by the role of the two women, Sarah and Hagar. There are some biblical scholars who believe that these stories were written by a woman, because the female characters are so much more richly described than the men. These are certainly flesh and blood women. They are engaged in a power struggle, and that’s particularly interesting because they have limited power as women. Sarah is a woman who is essentially the property of her husband. He lends her a certain status, because he is a rich man, but she is still a woman. She has to do what he wants. Hagar is even lower in status. She is one of the servants that Pharaoh gave Abraham to get him out of Egypt. She not only is a servant, but she is a servant to the woman of the house. She has no rights.
But these two strong women challenge their traditional roles. Sarah makes it very clear that she as the wife of a wealthy man is set over her maid. She dispatches Hagar to have a child by Abraham. Hagar says not a word against this, at least as far as we know, because this is a common practice in this era. Once she gets pregnant, though, Hagar uses her pregnancy to try to diminish the position of Sarah. And Sarah drives her out by being mean to her. If this was a boxing match, the referee would intervene between the two fighters. But Abraham does not, and God only speaks through an angel. He seems to step back from all this powerful emotion, and intervenes only when someone might die. God has a plan, and he will do what is necessary to make sure the plan is carried out, but he doesn’t really get deeply involved in the day-to-day human conflicts. Suddenly it seems that God isn’t in people’s faces so much any more, as we talked about in last week’s sermon. He seems to step back and let the people try to work it out themselves.
If anyone thinks the bible is full of sweetness and light, this story doesn’t fit that mold. This is a messy story, full of human emotion and conflict.
Have you ever had the experience of being in a difficult conflict situation and wondered why you felt so alone? Have you wondered where God was in those painful, lonely moments where what was happening seemed to make no sense? That’s precisely where Sarah and Hagar, these two strong women, were, as they battled for what they thought was right for their sons. God was with them, and God was watching, but God didn’t step in to set things right until it was absolutely necessary. The Plan would be fulfilled. God would see to that. But God wasn’t – and isn’t - simply a universal Fix-It Man who mediates every argument, ends every battle. No, humankind has to struggle with the conflicts. There is no guarantee that God will step in, because we don’t know how this situation is part of a larger plan. That’s the heart of this story, and it’s also part of the message we hear in the Gospel today.
The message is clear: we will live in the midst of conflict. As Christians, we are not exempt from them. In point of fact, being Christian means we may be at the center of conflicts. We may stand accused by those who don’t know or understand this Christ whom we serve. And Matthew says that the Lord tells us “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Living as a Christian is a high-risk proposition, just as trying to follow God in the Old Testament was an endless series of battles. You know that old saying, “you may win the battle, but lose the war.”? Some of the battles we as Christians engage in may end in victory. Some may end in failure.
The point, though, is not the battle. It is the one whom we serve. The victory is found in living fully into that ancient covenant, despite the conflict, despite the fact that this life on earth is hard. The joy awaits, the covenant is fulfilled, if we are willing to take that risk.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Saturday, June 21, 2008
The first of several loads of wash are in the washing machine. Pretty ripe!
PH woke up in the middle of the night and thought he was still in the RV, and that it was stopped because it was time for another cyclist exchange, and where was his stuff? When his brother woke up this morning, he said he had the same experience.
I think it will take a few days for PH to decompress. He's still pretty emotional about his team-member's accident, and feels somewhat responsible. As for me, I'm super happy to have him home, but also a little unused to having someone else in the house.
So, too, are the cats, who are snubbing him for abandoning them to my harsh care (not really) for two weeks.
Second sermon in the Abraham series tomorrow, on Sarah and Hagar, the power struggles between people who have no power, and what happens when you get impatient with God delivering on God's promises. It's tolerable, but not one of my best. I'm hoping the spirit will descend for the Akedah sermon for next week. We shall see.
Time to put in the next load of laundry...
Friday, June 20, 2008
Thanks be to God that they're here, and they're safe. The one rider on the team who was injured is home as well, visiting the orthopedist to see if he has dodged the need for shoulder surgery.
It was an amazing accomplishment, and many thanks to all those who prayed for their safety!
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Go Team 2600!
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
We had a good meeting (despite a monster storm that knocked out the power) earlier this week on the research project for 2nd semester. My prof, our dean of academic affairs, me, and another prof who is a nationally recognized expert in congregational analysis through the lens of sociology of religion, all working through methodology of the project. It's going to be a great learning experience. My prof will get a good book out of this work, and I may be able to use elements of our research in my thesis (which I'd like to publish either as a monograph or expand into a book). We shall see.
PH and his team are pedaling across Ohio at this time. One of the riders was injured and is out of the race, so there are three left on the team. This translates from each rider doing 100 miles per day to doing between 120 and 150 a day. I can't even imagine.
They have less than 600 miles to go and should reach Annapolis in the wee hours of Friday morning. Can't wait to see them!
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Every family is a journey of sorts. Every family has a story about its beginnings. My mother met my father in France in World War II. They were both in the US Army there, my father in Paris, my mother in Alsace. They had grown up a mere five miles apart, in Jersey City, New Jersey. But they courted, and became engaged, in the fields of sweet peas in France. It took a journey of almost four thousand miles from west to east, and another four thousand miles back again, for them to become the family that would adopt me, and raise me, back home in Jersey City.
Sometimes the journeys are metaphorical. We recently heard of the death of Mildred Jeter Loving, a woman of color whose marriage to a white man violated Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, beginning a battle that rose all the way to the Supreme Court. It caused the end of laws that prohibited interracial marriage. For two average persons, one white, one black, who simply wanted to love each other, their journey toward legalization of their union was not measured in miles. It was measured in tears, in jail time, in threats against their lives, in loneliness.
If ever there was a situation where the word “inconceivable” would be more apropos, I can’t think of one.
And yet, when Sarah laughs, the Lord is aggravated with her, and calls her on it: “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Sarah, frightened, says “I didn’t say that.” And the Lord comes right back at her, “Oh yes you did!”
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh : says this of families: "If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. all of them are alive in this moment. each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."
We read this story forward from Abraham, to Isaac, to all the generations that are to come. But can we read the story backward? Can we trace back on the palms of our hands all those generations that preceded us? Can we look back through generation before generation, a genealogy called a toledot in the ancient scriptures, and link ourselves back to that moment when the Lord said to Abraham, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”
If God can use people like this, perhaps he can even use us for his purposes.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
It will be milder for me, just going to a friends's ordination, then icon writing. Glad to be doing something mellow. It is a beautiful morning, so I think it's time for a walk.
Friday, June 13, 2008
PH and the team just made it across Arizona, and are now in Utah. 650 miles down, 2365 to go. Wild and crazy guys! They had a breakdown with the RV in Arizona (the charge for which - $4K - is sitting on my American Express card right now) - but it seems to be resolved for now.
Things are quieter here at Casa Mibi on my day off. The carpet cleaners came at 7:30 this morning. Supposedly, it was supposed to dry within two hours. We're at 5 hours now, and it isn't dry. Oh well. at least it looks clean. I'm glad I got it done. Now I just want it to finish drying so I can move the smaller furniture back into the room and out of the kitchen.
I think it's time to escape the house and wander around the mall...
Update: The team is now in Colorado. Three states in one day. Wow!
Thursday, June 12, 2008
- Alone in the church office, since rector and wife (the church admin) are away today. An odd sensation!
- PH and the team are into Arizona, having finished the California leg of the race. They aren't going very quickly, but that was strategic on their part - slow and steady gets you to the end of the race. Going too fast at the beginning burns you out. Three Time Stations down, only 51 to go!
- Sermon and powerpoint slides are done for this Sunday. Time to start on Wednesday's homily and the sermon for next Sunday. I am telling myself what good experience this is for me.
- Spent yesterday lunchtime with the other priests of the region and our Bishop Coadjutor, who is a very cool guy. I think he will enliven this diocese, which (although the largest in the US and the oldest) has gotten rather worn down by the legal battles over who stays and who leaves TEC, and whether they relinquish their property as church canons state or keep it. Oh, I will be happy when the lawsuits are decided!
- Still no paperwork back from last semester's schoolwork. I actually got a call from one of my profs yesterday who couldn't find the grade for my final paper (delivered in early March) and wanted to know if I had a copy of it. Sigh...I shouldn't be surprised. There is - believe it or not - one class that ended in March 2007 for which I have not received a final grade.
- I'm fantasizing about a week of vacation with PH after this internship ends, and my three day interim ministry class which immediately follows it. It will have to be close, given the gasoline prices, but even a long weekend somewhere in the Shenandoah would revive me.
- I will be going to meet with the Standing Committee of the Diocese on July 17th for the interview for candidacy for ordination. The Commission on Ministry recommended enthusiastically in favor, but in moments of paranoia, I fear the Standing Committee will start all over again with the questions from ground zero. Maybe not. My friend L will be meeting with them in June, so we shall see what her experience is. Since she and I are alike in many ways (with the exception of my kids being more or less grown and her still being pretty young), our interviews have been quite similar.
- And as my Commission on Ministry Liaison was on sabbatical, and thus not there to support me, for the COM interview, my Standing Committee Liaison will also be gone for my meeting with them. Ah well, what doesn't kill makes me me strong.
- Temperatures right now are a balmy 79 degrees. Humidity is low. Thanks be to God! Another few days of heat indexes of 110 and high humidity, and I wouldn have melted into a puddle on the floor.
- Carpet cleaners come to our little townhouse tomorrow. A good thing, since between the cats puking and PH running his bike into the house, that neutral beige carpet is looking pretty grungy. It should stay clean for, oh, about three days.
- PH (along with his father and brother) will be on the ride for Father's Day. So do you think I should get him a massage for when he comes home as his FD present?
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
PH is out in CA. His race across America will start tomorrow. I cannot imagine cycling across the desert. Then again, I can't imagine cycling any sort of long distance. Just sayin'.
Stay cool and peaceful.
Friday, June 06, 2008
- an early-morning walk
- relatively pain-free Physical Therapy
- new Croc sandals
- pedicure (couldn't have one without the other)
- a little fun housewares shopping
- food shopping
- late light lunch
- reading fun stuff
- phone call from PH as he was heading into Iowa
Life is good.
It was odd to be alone in the house yesterday. I worked from home, and did some house work as well as office work. I ate some food that I shouldn't have, and watched two movies on Netflix Instant-View. It felt like a day when I just wanted to cocoon a bit.
Today will be busier. It's my official day off from work, so I'll go to Physical Therapy, do some food shopping, make some gazpacho, go to L's house to help her pack up for moving, try to start organizing some of my books...or maybe not. I did walk for 45 minutes this a.m. - it's going to be in the 90s today and I don't do well in the heat, so I like to get the exercising done in the early hours while it's still around 70 degrees.
Weeks of Summer Internship Left: 6
Days Until PH Comes Home: 13
Months Until Graduation: 12
Sunday, June 01, 2008
Gen 6: 9-22; 7:24; 8: 14-19 (Noah and the Flood)
Romans 1: 16-17; 3:22b-31
You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you that our Old Testament story, that of Noah and the ark, is really a love story.
For most of us, who have heard it so many times, it feels like a children’s story. Noah, building the great big boat in his back yard. Happy animals, lined up two by two, walking up the gangplank. Great rains, with the boat floating around in the water. Then the rain abates, the sun comes out, the dove brings back a branch with leaves on it – that bit of new growth that the writer Frederick Buechner calls “a sprig of hope”- and the boat settles on top of a mountain. It’s not quite like what the movie “Evan Almighty” portrayed, with the ark settling at the edge of the US Capitol, but seems like a happy story. We read it as a story of great charm…but is it really?
Let’s go back to the words of the text. How does the story begin? “And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.”
God is so angry with the way humanity is behaving that he is going to destroy them all. He is going to abolish everything he created, all those beautiful things that were part of the act of Creation we heard about a few weeks ago. God is deeply unhappy.
Have you ever been that angry?
You’ve seen children act this way – when my daughter was little, if she didn’t like what she had crayoned, she’d sometimes just scribble the whole sheet with the black crayon in frustration.
God sounds like he’s frustrated in the same way. Here he made this wonderful earth and all its creatures, and the pinnacle of his work was the creation of humanity…and humanity disappointed him.
Now remember, God had laid out the ground rules. If you don’t believe me, go home and read Leviticus and Deuteronomy in your bibles – long lists of what to do and how to do it.
Rules…not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules.
Now, the thing about rules is that they imply that something happens when you don’t obey them. It’s like a conversation I had last year with my friend Jack’s little girl Ella. Ella was three at the time, and the whole family was awaiting the birth of a new baby, a little sister for Ella.
When I saw Jack and Ella, I said “Ella, are you excited about the new baby?” “Oh yes, but you know the baby isn’t here yet.” “I know, honey, but you’re going to be a big sister soon! That must be exciting!” “Yes, but Daddy says I have to help. I have to be a good girl.” “Well, gee, Ella, I know you’re a good girl, that shouldn’t be too hard.” “I’m a good girl, but sometimes I misbehave. I don’t like it when I misbehave because when I don’t behave Daddy says there are CONSEQUENCES!”
Yes, there are consequences. That’s certainly the case in the story of Noah and the Flood.
The people misbehave, and there are consequences. God tells Noah what those consequences are: He is going to destroy everything.
Now, when people tell me they don’t like the Old Testament, because the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful God, this is the kind of thing they talk about. The people don’t follow the rules. God punishes them. It happens a lot in the Old Testament, because the people of Israel are, as the Scripture says, a stiff-necked people.
They’re a little like my son S, who’s 22 now, but when he was a teen and first got his driver’s license, he was convinced that he knew it all and didn’t have to follow my rules. One night he asked to borrow the car so he could go to a friend’s house. Frankly, I was happy when he began to drive, because that saved me from having to drive him everywhere, but there were upsides and downsides to letting him drive. He wasn’t always good about getting back in time. This particular night, I reminded him he had to be back by 11 pm, because our city had a curfew for teen drivers. I liked the curfew, because I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep until he got home safely. I reminded him “You know, driving is a privilege. If you want to use the car, you’ve got to follow the rules. Be sure you’re back by 11. Call me if you think you’re going to be late.”
You can guess what happened. He didn’t get back by 11. I had dozed off – my first indicator that something was wrong was when the phone rang at midnight. It was a police officer: “Mrs. T? Did you know your son S was out driving past curfew? We’re down on Military Road. Do you want to come get him and the car?” So my husband and I got up, drove down to retrieve the car and a very nervous 17 year old.
He was worried about what my reaction was, and he had good reason to be.
“What were you thinking! How come you didn’t come home on time? You know there’s a curfew.”
“Gee, Mom, I lost track of the time.”
“That’s no excuse. You broke the rules. You can’t use the car for a month!”
Suffice to say, I was pretty angry.
And in my anger, I imposed consequences on S for breaking the rules. But then, my husband PH, my wonderfully calm husband, quietly said, “Mibi, I’m wondering if S might come up with another punishment instead of being denied the use of the car for a whole month.”
PH knew that the consequences that I spoke of would be as much a punishment for us as for S, since we’d be the ones driving him to work and to other activities. He also wanted S to take some responsibility for his actions.
S proposed an alternative that meant that he couldn’t use the car for two weeks, but he would do some additional chores and errands. He knew he had done something wrong, he was required to pay for it in his actions, but he also knew that the punishment could have been a lot worse.
It was a moment of saving grace. A bit of mercy, while still recognizing S’s responsibility for his actions.
And it’s that saving grace that is God’s gift in the story of Noah and the Flood. Even in the midst of God’s towering anger, even as God was planning the destruction of the earth and everything in it, he stops. He sees one righteous man, Noah. He sees a shaft of light amidst the storm clouds of a deeply dysfunctional world. And he holds back, out of love for the possibilities of humankind. Instead of killing everybody and everything on the earth because of humankind’s misdeeds, he says, “I’m going to give them a chance to start over, and I’m going to use this human being to make that happen.”
Here’s a God who is not simply a vengeful judge, this is a God who so loves what He has created that even when his creation is misused, he still wants to give them another chance. It’s a moment of hopefulness, a moment of saving grace. He says, “Yes, I have to clean house here – these people have broken my rules in a deep and disturbing way - but I will give humanity a second chance.” And so he instructs Noah to build the ark, to bring his family and the animals aboard, and he allows that shaft of light to shine through the forty days of rainfall…a new beginning for humanity, a new beginning for the earth.
This is God’s great love story, to be willing to give a second chance when it seems we don’t deserve one. It didn’t just happen in Noah’s time. It happens to us every day.
Jesus talks about this in an oblique way in the Gospel today. He warns us that we will fall short of following the rules. He says if we only go through the motions of following him, we’ve missed the mark. If we don’t follow the will of his Father in heaven, even if we go through the motions by saying we’re Christians, we’re out the door. We haven’t built our house on rock, as Jesus says. He warns us that there are consequences for our actions. In the New Covenant, the focus is a little different: it’s not about the kinds of rules that are outlined in the Torah, in the Old Testament, where it’s about not mixing wool and linen and not eating pigs or shrimp. It’s about who we honor in our life. If we honor God, and let that be the guiding principle in our life, we’re on the right track, and we are welcome.
But that’s hard. We forget, we misstep, every day, often in little ways. Each time we make a rude gesture to the guy who cut us off in traffic, each time we contemplate the extra dollar because the cashier miscounted our change, each time we think unkindly of the relative who bores us with her endlessly repetitive stories, we forget who is the guiding principle in our life.
And that is frightening, because Jesus has told us in the gospel that if we don’t live in a way that honors His father, he will declare that he never knew us…he will deny us. And that’s the last thing we want, even though we fail and will most likely continue to fail.
And that’s where the words of Paul in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans give us an insight on how God’s saving grace works in our lives today. Paul knows who we are, in all our weakness: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” but he shows us that shaft of light, he reminds us of that saving grace: because we believe in Christ, and because of Christ’s redemption of us by dying on the Cross, we are saved. We have broken the rules, and there are consequences. But the great gift of God’s love for us is that we are saved, in spite of our failures, because we have God’s son to redeem us. That is love, even when we don’t feel we deserve it. That is grace. And that is the promise that will hold us up when we most need it, now and forever.