Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Back in the Saddle

The fall break ends officially tomorrow morning, but I spent today in the library, working on the thesis. I got another five pages done. Slow work.

It's cold and gray here and I feel like I'm fighting a cold, but I'm ready to dig back in to things. I've got several weeks until my next preaching date, and I'm torn between preaching on Isaiah 61 or on Psalm 126, since I still haven't turned out an OT sermon that I think is good enough for the fancy-pants preaching competition. I'm leaning toward the psalm, since it would be an unconventional choice and it would work as my last sermon before my wonderful Field Ed supervisor departs for southern climes. I've also been looking at the incomparable Robert Alter's re-translation and lit-crit analysis of the Psalms, and he's gotten me thinking. In any case, I should start exegeting it if I'm going to preach on it. Thank goodness the NT sermon is done - I just have to record it in chapel.

The second quarter will be a bit busier than the first was. One more class, Medical Ethics. A ramp-up of work on the springtime research project. Another itty-bitty research project for another professor that I'm hoping stays manageable. Serving as a mentor to Middlers who are just starting Field Ed. More time, I suspect, at St Middle School as said supervisor prepares to leave and the parish prepares to find and call someone new. And then there's the thesis, which will be both blessing and bane as I try to focus it more and make a more cogent argument. Exciting but intimidating. I'm glad things are shaping up the way they are - I'll be too busy to worry about things like my investment account and job possibilities come next year in an economic environment where pledge income will be down.

I'm so very tired of the election ads. Having already voted, I guess it all seems superfluous to me. At the very least, I really want my guy to win, and every time I hear something from the other guy, it annoys me unduly.

Time for chocolate.


Tip of the hat to Peter Carey for sharing this one. It comes from the heartland of Indiana.

Amen, amen.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Gray Monday

This morning I drove two visiting professors from India out to the big international airport. They had been teaching this past quarter, and had mucho baggage. Four giant suitcases, two rollaboards, and a laptop briefcase. Fortunately, I took PH's little Volvo wagon, and we fit most of it in the back, plus one big suitcase bungee-corded to the roof. My thesis advisor, a friend of theirs, rode along for the ride. Thank goodness, there wasn't much traffic.

Then Thesis Advisor and I rode back to work on the latest section of the thesis. Good things to say, some wise suggestions on style and methodology, a plan for next steps. I am so blessed to have her as my thesis advisor. She thinks I may actually be on to something very interesting and new (or not; time and further research will tell). It's gratifying to hear that I'm making good progess and that she likes my work. She seemed worried that I would be discouraged by her critical suggestions. No, heck, no! I'm glad to hear what will make this thing better.

I'm feeling a bit like a cold is coming on. I hope not - it wouldn't be a good way to start the second quarter, and I have a boatload of writing to do in the next two weeks. Perhaps it's just change of seasons, a very gray and chilly day (44 degrees right now - this time yesrday it was 68), being tired with the political ads.

It's great having PH home again from his conference - the house always feels so empty when he's away, even though I got to do some "chick" stuff, liking going to the movies with my friend L and watching some Netflix stuff that PH wouldn't have enjoyed. Also managed to do some housecleaning/organizing to make it look a little less like the library the tornado ripped through.

I think it's time to take a nap.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Today's Sermon: Matt 22:34-46

Sermon for Oct 26, 2008 – Matt 22:34-46

It’s more than a little ironic that I’m preaching today on the Great Commandment. After all, it was just a few weeks ago that I preached on the Ten Commandments, and talked about how important they were as guidelines that would keep us safely in relationship with God and with each other during perilous times.

And now I’m going to tell you how the Great Commandment, those words we just heard in the gospel, are what we need to focus on, to love God and to love each other.

So am I confused or what?

Actually, this whole series of sermons that we’ve had over the past several weeks, about our purposes as people of faith, have been all about stripping away that which isn’t essential and focusing on that which is. When we talked about anger and forgiveness, we talked about how anger gets in the way, and how we can learn to deal with each other over difficult things in a way that doesn’t turn us into a doormat, but helps us get to a healthy solution. When we talked about worship, we talked about how the things we do and say and sing in worship reinforce our understanding of the kingdom of God – it’s not about fancy ritual, it’s about modeling what Jesus Himself did. And now we’re back talking about commandments. Rules. Guidelines.

On the face of it, it may seem that Jesus is replacing the Ten Commandments with two. Sounds a lot easier, doesn’t it? If we have to think of keeping track of ten commandments every day, that’s a lot of work. So Jesus is reducing them to two: love God and love your neighbor.

I like that kind of math. Seems simple enough. I can manage two commandments.

Well, wait a minute. Maybe it’s not quite so easy.

First of all, we need to remember, earlier on in the Gospel of Matthew, way back in chapter five, Jesus told everyone “ I haven’t come to abolish the law – including those ten commandments – but to fulfill it…Therefore, whoever breaks one of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
Gee whiz. Now it seems like I’ve got TWELVE commandments to worry about!

Sometimes it seems like we’re surrounded by rules and restrictions and guidelines, and it’s easy to forget one or two, or to think that by fulfilling one, we’re getting crosswise on another one.

If I’m supposed to be honoring my father and my mother, and I’m supposed to go to church on Sunday, but my mother is very ill so I stay home from church to take care of her, am I doing a good thing or a bad thing?

If I’m with my children in a war zone and we are attacked, and I kill the attacker to save my children’s lives, am I doing a good thing or a bad thing?

If I tell a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, am I doing a good thing or a bad thing?
Commandments are challenging . And now here we are hearing this story of the Great Commandment, and we wonder what it means.

It sounds simple enough. "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

It’s a boiling down of the ten commandments to just two. But, oh, what a two they are! We are supposed to love God utterly and completely. Okay, I can do that. God has given me everything – life, the world, his love, all creation. I know I’m supposed to love God, and I can do that.

But then comes the hard part: “the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The second is like it. That love of neighbor is supposed to be like our love for God. That’s a lot harder. We find it easy to love God, because God is different from our neighbor. God loves us no matter what. God loves us even though He knows exactly how messed up we can be. God loves us enough to forgive us when we make a mistake. God is always there for us, even at three in the morning when we can’t sleep because we’re worried.

My neighbor probably wouldn’t be too happy about me calling him at three in the morning because I can’t sleep because I’m worried. My neighbor might get angry with me when I make a mistake that causes her some grief. My neighbor doesn’t know me all that well, doesn’t understand that when I mess up, it isn’t because I want to cause pain, it’s because I was trying to do something good and guessed wrong. My neighbor gets ticked off at me for what seems like stupid reasons, and to top it all off, he’s got a yard sign for the political candidate I’m against!

And I’m supposed to love that neighbor just like I love God? I don’t think so!

But Jesus says it, and I trust and love Jesus. So what do I do?

The heart of ministry, the heart of being a follower of Jesus Christ, is that love. And it’s a radical kind of love and commitment. It’s not the easy kind of love. It’s not about sitting around with those who think the same way that we do, it’s about engaging with those who think differently, and listening thoughtfully and offering our view respectfully, and caring for them in the midst of it all.

At the end of our service of Holy Eucharist, Pastor Jeunee will offer a blessing drawn from the words of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Do not repay evil for evil. The passage continues: If your enemy is hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Paul reinforces Jesus’ message throughout the Gospel. Jesus says it over and over again, both in words and in His actions: Love one another.

The message of this difficult command to love one another no matter what is made more poignant if we take a closer look at when the Gospel of Matthew was written. It is believed by most scholars that Matthew’s account was written shortly after the fall of the Temple, after the year 70. There had been many battles between the various groups in the Jewish community; there were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and then this cult of Jesus, originally viewed as just another Jewish splinter group. The Jews were under the thumb of Rome. Everything was gone, especially the temple that had been the center of their worship life. By this time, Jesus’ followers were no longer considered Jews, they were a separate group. So Jesus’ followers in the Matthean community had less than nothing – they were attacked by both Romans and the Jewish groups. They had less than nothing. If they followed the practices of the world around them, they would have gone silent, gone into hidden communities and had not attempted to continue to spread the Word. But the fact is that they did continue to preach Jesus’ Gospel, even though it put them at great risk.

Why? Because that was an expression of what Jesus had told them to do. If you’ve got Good News, even if it’s not necessarily the news that others around you may want to hear, you preach it.

Why? Because that’s an act of love, and if Jesus tells you to love your neighbor, you want to share it with them. It’s what Paul tells the followers in Thessalonika in today’s reading: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” That’s love.

How, then, do we, here in 2008, share the Gospel? St Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” This is our ministry: it is a ministry of love. We preach when we show love in our attention, in our care, in our actions. We show that love not only to those we have no trouble loving. We show love to those who make us angry, to those who are cruel to us, to those who view us as stupid or misguided.

It looks something like this: a teenager goes with her mother and her mother’s church group to rebuild in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She claims she is an agnostic, but she feels the need to do something to help those who have lost so much. Some of the people whom the group help are difficult, angry, exhausted people. One old woman in particular is hostile to the group. Are they there to steal her things? The group becomes a little angry; after all, they’ve spent their time and money to come down to Mississippi to help these people. Can’t she be a little grateful? But the teenager starts to play with the woman’s little dog, and to talk to her about the dog and how this elderly woman cared for the dog and her ailing son in the aftermath of the storm. She accepts the woman as she is. She sits with her and talks with her. Slowly, the woman begins to trust the group. Not because of anything the Christians, the grown-ups who were members of the group did. Because of the agnostic teenager who modeled Christ’s love better than any of us did. She preached the Good News. She expected nothing in return. She showed the love that Christ expects from us to each other, even to those who are the least lovable.

The reduction of the commandments from ten into two is not a mere division problem. It’s a call to a radical redefinition of what our lives must be, if we want to call ourselves Christian. We no longer have a discrete list of “do’s” and “do-nots,” we have a carving away of all that is superfluous, so that we know exactly what we have to do. We love, pure and simple. We love God, and we love our neighbor. Every word, every action, every thought must be tested against those few words: is this something that expresses my love of God? Is this something that shows my love of my neighbor?

Simple and hard. Simple, because it is nothing more than two phrases. Hard, because is it a call to live the glory that is Christ in all we do. But we can do it, not alone, but with Christ at our side.

The Psalm reminds us:
May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; *prosper the work of our hands;prosper our handiwork.

May it be so.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

St Paul is Finished and Sophia is Begun

The colors are not quite as bright in this picture as they are in the real icon, but that's the way it is with photos on the web. This Paul is a copy of of famous icon by Andrei Rublev, one of the greatest of all iconographers. This copy was finished last week and was varnished ...the icon is still not as dry as I'd like, but another week or so of drying will solve that. Normally it takes me about six months to do an icon, but this one just took three - not sure why, but I'm glad.

I am now working on a Sophia - the Wisdom of God. I tranferred the image onto the board last week, and gilded the halo today (a nerve-wracking process with no margin for error). I've begun to paint the black lines that are the skeleton of the picture. I may get that completed before next week's class, so I can start adding color. Here's what Sophia looks like at this stage. Again, not the greatest photo, but it gives you an idea of where I start from.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Shouldn't Have Looked

The mistake of the evening? Looking at our investment accounts. We sold our abode when I started seminary. Made a nice little nest egg that was intended to fund a purchase of a new place once I graduated. It's down almost 40% from where it was when we put the money in.

Don't get me wrong - I'm grateful that it's not completely wiped out, and we have no consumer debt or student loans so we can deal with this. I also know that many others are in much worse shape than we are. Still, it makes me sad that our fiscal discipline has been trumped by Wall Street's lack of discipline and belief in the derivatives tooth fairy.

Oh, well. It's only money. And maybe the markets will come back up again when the skinny black guy with the funny name is elected (I hope). If not, we'll figure it out. My fear is that there are many other folks who won't be able to do that.

Friday Five: Location, Location, Location

Singing Owl brought us the Friday Five today and asks: tell us about the five favorite places you have lived in your lifetime. What did you like? What kind of place was it? Anything special happen there?

1) First home: I came to live there on Dec 22nd, a little more than four months after my birth. I had lived in an orphanage prior to that. At four months, I was just seven pounds - "failure to thrive" - was what they said. It didn't take long in the loving arms of my adoptive parents for me to grow into a chubby, happy baby.

2) The Big Apple: lived there while having one of my favorite jobs, as an international consultant in software design. I got to go to all sorts of cool places on someone else's dime. Played Scrabble in Bryant Park at lunchtime with some of my colleagues. A great German deli around the corner, with an equally awesome bakery down the block.

3) Craftsman House in Arlington: recovering from a difficult divorce (yes, that's redundant) and met PH while I was living there. Space that was my own after a long time living in someone else's shadow. Good neighbors of all kinds, with houses that were just small enoug, just big enough.

4) Dutch Colonial in Arlington: PH and I bought that house after we were married for a year and a half. Decorated it in the way that we liked. He built a beautiful fish pond and waterfall. Raised Strong Opinions and, for a time, StoneMason, there. We made it a haven for us and for some wandering teens at various points who needed a place to live. And the kitchen was awesome.

5) Seminary townhouse: not so beautiful, definitely not spacious, a mediocre kitchen, but a good place to study and write and pray. And PH there with me - what more do I need?

Bonus: Persian Gulf, the Dean's House. Lived here for a month with BIL and SIL while doing a research project with the Anglican church there. Wonderful people with wonderful faith. I never expected to fall in love with such a diffeent place, but it was mostly about the people. And the food at Turkey Central, which doesn't serve turkey and is not all that Central. And the souk, where I spent a goodly amount of money.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dot Update

  • The advisor wasn't there because she forgot. She had gotten in late the night before and woke up with the flu and didn't remember we had an appointment. She was majorly apologetic. I'm glad we didn't meet - I can't afford to get sick this year. We'll meet on Monday. I left 11 pages in her box, and I should have another five or so by Monday. I'd like to finish this section of the paper and start on the next.

  • The Field Ed situation is still not resolved, but I was at a meeting with another of the diocesan bigwigs last night and she said they were talking about it in the office and were going to come up with a resolution I'd be happy with. Whatever that means. Heaven only knows when I'll hear about it, but at least they are saying nice things and not rude things about me, according to my source.

  • Still no word on the outside reader, since I didn't meet with the advisor. Trying not to be concerned, but time is marching on.

  • Got invited to do some research work for another professor for a paper he is giving on jubilee and debt relief. A very focused piece of work with a reasonably limited amount of hours (50) , so I think I'll go ahead with it. I'm feeling very honored to be asked, since the paper will be presented to a very high-level ecumenical group, and also glad I'm being paid nicely for it.

January Suddenly Seems a Lot Closer

The Canons of the Episcopal Church require that before ordination a candidate for Holy Orders must be examined and show proficiency in:

1. The Holy Scriptures;

2. Church History, including the Ecumenical Movement;

3. Christian Theology, including Missionary Theology and Missiology;

4. Christian Ethics and Moral Theology;

5. Studies in Contemporary Society, including racial and minority groups;

6. Liturgics and Church Music;

7. Theory and Practice of Ministry.

(Title III, Canon 8, Section 5.g)

Monday Jan, 5, 2009 - 9 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. Holy Scripture, Limited Resources
Monday Jan 5, 2009 - 1:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Christian Theology, Open Resources
Tuesday Jan 6, 2009 – 9 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Contemporary Society, Open Resources
Tuesday Jan 6, 2009 – 1:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Liturgy & Church Music, Limited Resources
Wednesday Jan 7, 2009 No Exams
Thursday Jan 8, 2009 – 9 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Christian Ethics & Moral Theology, Open Resources
Thursday Jan 8, 2009 – 1:30 p.m.-5:00 p.m. Theory & Practice of Ministry, No External Resources
The Scripture exam will probably allow for a clean study bible and the Book of Common Prayer. The Liturgy and Church Music exam will probably allow the BCP, Enriching our Worship, the Hymnal and the various supplements to it. Theory and Practice of Ministry (the infamous "coffee Hour" question) is usually something strange - in recent years, there was a question about whether you'd anoint a dying dog of a grieving parishioner...
This exam is as much a test of physical endurance as anything else. The open resources exams are about knowing your books and which ones to reach for to answer which questions. GOEs are virtually impossible to study for - you organize your books and you pray and you try to get a good night's sleep.
Frankly, I'll be glad to have them done, since there is nothing between now and then that will prepare me any more for the exams than I already am. Come Holy Spirit, come!
Friday Jan 9, 2009 - 9 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Church History, Open Resources

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Random Dots of Tuesday

It's fall break time, but there is no break for Mibi. Waiting is the order of the day:

  • I was supposed to meet with my thesis advisor and sat with eleven more pages of thesis for her to go over in front of her office for an hour. She never showed, which means I screwed up the date and time or she screwed up the date and time or something happened to which I am not privy. So I sat on the floor and wrote the first draft of Sunday's sermon. And I tried really hard not to use the waiting as a sermon illustration, since it wouldn't have fit the theme very well anyway.

  • I am still waiting for an answer from the diocese on Plan B for my final semester of Field Ed. The potential new supervisor would like to do something unconventional, which requires diocesan approval. I am trying really hard not to use the lack of flexibility of the diocesan office and the lack of cooperation by the potential supervisor as a sermon illustration, since it wouldn't fit the theme very well anyway.

  • I don't know yet if I've got an outside reader for the thesis. Said thesis advisor was supposed to make the first contact to Big-Name-European-Matthew-Scholar. She was supposed to do this three months ago, and then two months ago, and then last month. I may go ahead and reach out myself, although she didn't think this was a good idea when we first talked about it. I am trying really hard not to use the advisor's seeming distractedness (is that a word?) as a sermon illustration, since it wouldn't fit the theme very well anyway.

  • I am waiting to go to lunch with another priest friend, who is a dear and calming presence. I SHOULD use her as a sermon illustration, since it will fit the theme very well!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled

I'm trying to extricate myself from being in the middle of a situation that I have no control over, but which will affect me. I know it will resolve itself, perhaps even in an excellent way. but I wish some elephants wouldn't be so wedded to being right that they trample this little blade of grass.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

About that small business loan, Joe...

There was much talk about Joe the Plumber last night, and his desire to buy out his boss's plumbing business. John McCain looked straight into the camera and said "I'll get you that loan, Joe."

The check may not be in the mail.

The name I'd like us all to focus on is not Joe, not John, not Barack, not Bill (as in Ayers).

It's Tom.

Tom the Senator. Tom Coburn (R-OK).

Earlier in this campaign, Senator McCain cited his good friend Tom Coburn when talking about reducing spending on pork-barrel projects. Tom Coburn, who has never met a government program he likes. Tom Coburn, whose own party finds him extreme and impossible to deal with. Tom Coburn has endorsed John McCain.

One of Senator Coburn's pet hates? Government guaranteed small business loans. He's been holding hearings on them for years. He'd like the SBA loan programs, which provide financing for a hundred thousand small businesses per year, to end.
In the current economic meltdown, small businesses CANNOT get conventional loans. The ONLY chance of getting financing for a business acquisition is through an SBA loan.
Tom Coburn wants the SBA loan programs gone.
Tom Coburn endorsed John McCain.
McCain says he wants to clean up wasteful programs, like his great friend Tom Coburn.
No, Joe, John McCain is not going to get you your financing to acquire that small business, unless he personally writes the check.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Another hurdle completed

I just got my letter from my bishop saying I am now a Candidate for Holy Orders. I had met with the Commission on Ministry in May, and with the Standing Committee in July, but what with Lambeth and all that, it took this long to get the actual official letter. Of course, it's back-dated to the May meeting.

A friend just sent pictures from the diocesan clergy retreat. This time next year, I'll be there as clergy. That's a shocker!

It seems God really wants me to do this.

Monday, October 13, 2008

So Not In the Mood

...for Anglican Thought class this evening. I tried to get all the reading done (some 300 pages worth of sermons from the early 1700s) but it just wasn't happening. I was on a roll doing writing for the thesis and that really is the more important work. The AT class is one that I'm auditing.

I shouldn't feel guilty, but I do.

Just call me Felix Unger. Excuse me while I dust.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Happy Anniversary to Us

It was a lovely anniversary, with dinner at Farrah Olivia , a marvelous restaurant in Old Town. Thanks be to God, it had a delicious prix fixe menu, otherwise we couldn't have afforded it. PH gave me a CD by Malcolm Dalglish and I gave him Robert Alter's new retranslation and lit-crit commentary on the Book of Psalms (see the New Yorker review here, but ignore the R-rated cartoon in the middle - what were they thinking?).

All in all, a perfect evening with the perfect companion, for dinner and for life. I am blessed.

Friday, October 10, 2008

My Life in Pictures

more animals

Friday Five: Business Travel

This meme from the RevGalsBlogPals brings up lots of memories!

1. Does your job ever call for travel? Is this a joy or a burden?

Back in the day when I worked for the bank, I traveled a great deal, mostly to national HQ down south or divisional HQ out west. It was okay, because I liked the people with whom I worked. The actual traveling part was tedious, certainly nothing like the international travel I had done a zillion years ago as a consultant. Since I went to seminary, my professional travel has been limited to offsite training (most recently last week, 100 miles south of here).

Can't say that I really miss it. Planes are like cattle cars, the food is abysmal, and the hotel rooms have a bleak sameness whether one is in Tupelo, MS or Troy, NY.

That recent training event took place in a diocesan conference center which is quite nice, though. The drive down was like being in a NASCAR race going down on Rt 95 - a bit nerve-wracking - but the place was lovely and the people were lovely and I didn't miss the TV news.

2. How about that of your spouse or partner?

Also back in the day, PH stayed home while I traveled. Now, as a leader of a national organization in his profession, he travels quite a bit more. Seems fair, although I do miss him when he's away.

3. What was the best business trip you ever took?

When Laker Air was still flying (you've got to be really ancient to remember those days) I went to London to teach a seminar. I stayed in a lovely hotel, and met friends for a couple of meals, enjoyed my class tremendously, and got the distinct pleasure of schadenfreude when a colleague who was a bit of an @ss made a complete and utter fool of himself in an Indian restaurant by insisting on spicy-hot food...and then got blisters in his mouth from it. Not enough lassi in the world to cool down that guy's mouth! Plus I spent an afternoon in the British Museum before I left for home.

Interestingly, the "bonus" trips to the fancy resorts weren't nearly as much fun.

4. ...and the worst, of course?

Being sent to do a consulting job at a military Munitions Depot deep in the nation's heartland, certainly not where you would expect to find one. I had a miserable case of the flu and laryngitis, the client was a troll and kept hitting on me, and there was not a good meal to be found in a forty mile radius. Even the Officer's Mess on the base had awful food, and that is a rarity. Plus the clients wouldn't listen to a thing I had to say, not that I looked like a credible consultant with my red nose and eyes and squeaky voice.

5. What would make your next business trip perfect?

Time to explore the place where it is held, PH or a good friend to share it with, access to some nice food and wine.

Of course, I suspect in my new profession, my traveling will be limited. That's okay. I've had my time of doing that. Home is better.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

I'm Not Dead Yet (spoken in Monty Pythonesque British Accent)

So last week I was away all week at Interim Ministry class. Great class, delightful colleagues, drinking games while watching the VP debate. What could be better?

Back on campus, academic convocation, writing several pages worth of thesis, doing a lot of convocation-related musical stuff, writing two papers, doing a few hours of preliminary project design on the big research project, reading vast quantities of Anglican theologians and even vaster quantities of Matthean scholarship.
Remind me again why I'm doing a thesis when it's not required.
Remind me again why I'm doing a Scriptural thesis with one of the toughest, most brilliant teachers on this campus.
Remind me again why I'm doing a New Testament thesis when I studied Greek only in a passing way, and while here at Big Old Seminary I studied Hebrew deeply.
Must be the medications...

At home, trying to ignore how messy it looks, actually getting a little exercise in every morning, despairing over the weight-loss plateau, praying for a certain tall man to win the election.

Help. I'm only writing in participial phrases. Where have all my grammatical scruples gone?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, October 5, 2009: Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20

I have a confession to make.

I have a terrible fear of heights.

It was bad enough when I was a child, but it became much more intense a decade ago when my son C broke through a raining on a second floor balcony and fell 25 feet to the ground, badly fracturing both arms.

It’s important for you to know this, because that fear is central to a dream that I have been having for more years than I care to count.

In the dream, I am in the jungle, and have walked through the dense foliage until I come to a cliff. Below me is a raging river, Class V rapids, a good fifty feet down. The jungle trail continues on the other side of the chasm, but to get there, I must cross a rickety rope bridge, just a bunch of old wooden slats tied together with questionable hemp ropes. It sways in the breeze over the rushing water. On the other side is a loved one – in the past dozen years, it’s always been my husband PH, and I know I want to be with him.

But to get to him, I have to cross that bridge, that looks like it would barely hold a small dog, much less me. And the water is still rushing and roiling underneath the bridge, and the wood looks splintery, and the rope looks frayed in spots. And PH is on the other side waiting for me.
Tentatively, shaking, I reach out to grab the ropes. The whole bridge shakes even more at my touch. I can’t seem to take my eyes off the turbulent brown water fifty feet down.

“Mibi! Look at me!” I hear his voice and I look up into his calm blue eyes.

“Don’t look down. Put both hands on the ropes. Step slowly, steadily. No, don’t look down, just look at me. You can do this. Breathe! One foot in front of the other. Don’t stop. Keep moving. Stay in the middle. Come on. Just a few more steps. You’re almost here. Reach out for my hand.”

And with the final few steps, I am across and safely in his arms.

On a dangerous journey, you sometimes need someone to call out some rules to you that will get you safely across the bridge.

Now, rules are something we often see as a burden. There’s someone more powerful than us who says what we must do, and it chafes to not be in control. It bothers us that someone else is telling us what to do. Whether we’re teenagers complaining about mom’s curfew, or adults who don’t like to keep to the speed limit, we’re not too happy about rules.

But the rules may be what we need to keep us alive while we look ahead at our final goal.

Diane Ackerman tells such a story in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Jan and Antonina Zabinski were the husband and wife who managed the Warsaw Zoo in the years running up to World War II. They viewed themselves as scientists as well as nurturers of the animals under their care. They had a particular interest in native species such as Pryzwalski’s horse, a wild breed unique to one primeval forest in a tiny corner of Poland. As the war began, and the Nazis overran Poland, Hitler’s underlings also had an interest in the animals in that Polish zoo. They took some back to Germany to try and breed back to kinds of war-horses and great wild bulls that were mentioned in ancient texts. It was not only a desire to purify the human race that drove their dark plan, they wanted to do something similar to animal species as well. They allowed the zookeeper and his wife to keep running the zoo with the remaining animals. The zookeeper, a Christian, had reason to go into the Warsaw ghetto, the part of the city that the Jews were kept in – it had been walled in when Poland was overrun by the Nazis – and he had friends there, professionals whose services were required to keep the animals healthy. He went in and out of the ghetto, sneaking in supplies, bringing out messages. And when the Jews began to be taken away to the work camps that were really death camps, he began to smuggle out Jews from the ghetto, and to hide them in the empty animal enclosures on the zoo grounds. The Jews were hidden by day, but at night, they came into the zookeeper’s house, where the zookeeper’s wife would feed them with what little food they had to share, and there would be music and conversation. These hideaway Jews were referred to in the house as “guests.” The zookeeper’s house was always a place where many zoologists and biologists came to visit, so having guests in the evening would appear normal. There were rules, though, rules to keep them all safe. The guests could only come to the house via the underground passageways after dark, and only after they were told it was safe. The zookeeper’s young son was told over and over never to speak of the guests to his classmates at school, for fear that someone would get suspicious and betray them in hopes of currying favor with the Nazis. There were rules, rules that sometimes seemed harsh, but these were rules that kept them safe on a perilous journey from oppression to freedom.

In today’s Old Testament reading, we hear the ultimate list of rules, the Ten Commandments. This list of rules, all the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”, seems to confirm the impression we may have of the God of the Old Testament as a fearsome judge, all about laws and smiting and battles.

But perhaps these rules are something more than a demand for loyalty and a requirement for certain kinds of behavior.

Think about it: at God’s command, Moses has led the Jews out of Egypt. Once they got over the shock of escape from Pharaoh’s army, they’ve been an unruly lot. They seem to spend an awful lot of the time complaining. They have no food. They get so testy about it, they complain that they should have just stayed in Egypt, where there was lots of good food. God hears them and sends them manna and quails. They are thirsty. God instructs Moses to strike the rock and water gushes forth. And now they come to Mount Sinai. God meets with Moses on the mountain and says

(Exodus 19:4-6) " 4 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.'

It’s a love song: God took them out of Egypt, helped them along the way, and will make them His own special treasure among all the peoples on the earth. All they have to do is to love him and honor their relationship with him. You can hear the love, the commitment in his offer. God explains what the people must do to prepare for the next step in the journey, because it is still a long way to the Promised Land. He wants them to get there. He knows it will be a hard journey. So He lays out some rules.

Ten of them, to be exact. The first three are about the people’s relationship with God. The Fourth is about keeping a day of rest, not only to honor God, but to care for themselves. The fifth through the tenth are about building healthy relationships with each other. God’s rule are not simply about obeying and honoring Him, they are the survival strategy to keep them alive, to keep them together, to keep them focused on the difficult journey ahead.

God loves them so much, and wants to see them succeed so much, that He gives them rules that will help them survive the challenge of the journey ahead by binding them closer to Him and to each other. The rules will help them stay focused on the final goal, the Promised Land, and the One who is the reason and the endpoint of the journey.

They are rules borne out of love, out of a desire to keep those unruly Israelites safe on the journey and safely in relationship with the one true God. That relationship with God might well be called one of discipleship, following God, learning from God, carrying out God’s work and passing His teachings along to others. It’s one of the purposes of being part of a faith community such as this one. We not only follow the Lord, we follow the rules he has given us to keep us on the path in the midst of a difficult journey to our own Promised Land.

It is no coincidence that the words “disciple” and “discipline” come from the same root, the Latin word discipulus, or pupil, and before that from the Latin word discere, to learn. Disciples are pupils as much as they are followers. They need discipline, the ability to follow the rules, to be effective. They need rules to guide them as they follow their master. Following the rules means you honor the teacher. Following the rules means you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, and in many contexts, following the rules will keep you safe. Just as important, the rules keep you focused on the One whom you follow…that’s what being a disciple is all about.

The Apostle Paul certainly understands the challenge of the journey of discipleship in the passage from Philippians : “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
And it’s consistent with the message that Jesus gives as he explains the parable of the landowner: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Those of us who seek to be disciples, to follow Christ, have been given a great gift in the form of Scripture. These words hold within them a kind of discipline to keep us safely in relationship with Christ. They also keep us safely in relationship with one another. We stay focused on the path that lead us to our own Promised Land by following the divine guidance we’ve received and by keeping our eyes on the Lord. The journey in this troubled world is difficult. There are cliffs that drop off to terrible raging waters. The voice of one who loves us calls us, guides us, over the bridge to the next road on the way to Him.