The following sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho to a group of pastor colleagues in the midst of a three day gathering that focused the crossroad of different people coming together from their particular heritage and learning to live together.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
It is certainly not true that God does not want us to work together.
And it seems unlikely that the God who says, ‘Go forth and multiply,’ employs being scattered and different as a punishment.
But both of these ideas can easily flow out from this text. And yet…
The people do not say: let us become God. The people do not say they wish to lay siege to heaven. What the people do say is: let us build this thing… otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
The scattering was already happening. The differentiation in the sons of Noah enumerated in the previous chapter tell us it was already a reality. The languages that result from the text are, perhaps, less a thing that was done to cause a new reality… than a sign that emerged to put word to what had already come to be. The people were moving out from the Garden in ever more diverse and differentiated ways. And then we got scared.
I’m sure you have seen the comments that arise with alarming regularity that racism had ceased to be a problem until Barack Obama was elected president. He caused the revival of racism. Even now we see the same things playing out in Hillary’s nomination and candidacy and the we shudder at the prospect that a woman would become the most powerful man in the world.
For a moment in time through the lenses of these stories we see the possibility that the American dream could be real. Anyone can become anything. And suddenly, the equality we give lip service to became real. More real than is comfortable for those who have had the power and the control. And so we say no. We will not be scattered. No we will not let our control and power in the world slip out of our grasp.
We double down on building an unchanging monument to keep ourselves from becoming scattered… and just as we learned yesterday in the history of the Basque peoples, which is not their unique history but a way that we learn of ourselves and all our stories, that when a person or persons wishes to control and make an edifice to their own name for their own security they find enemies to name in order to convince the masses to join them in their quest.
Our sin is not that we come together to achieve great things: our sin is that we so often we come together to build monuments to our fear.
Brent A. Strawn, a professor of Old Testament at Candler School of theology posits that an iconic text the Tower of Babel perhaps exists as a way to set up the story of Abram. Abram who is invited by God to go. To go on a journey of discovery that will leave him forever changed – even to the fabric of his name. And in a world in which we are building monuments to sameness and control… there can be no Abram.
Our diversity is a gift that emerges from our calling… a calling to steward creation, a calling to explore the world, to be scattered in it, and to celebrate rather than fear that story. And in the celebration of life that results we are called – as one our colleagues quoted yesterday – to be guests not hosts. Or as the Basque people say: ‘we do not own our homes, but our homes own us.’
We are guests in the world, granted stewardship of that which does not belong to us, and yet it is gifted to us by the One to whom heaven and earth belongs. This means in every moment we are called to live in the tension of being BOTH guest and host. Those who are gathered and those who are scattered in the world. Whose gift of the steadfast love of the Lord is meant to empower us to overcome our fear and concerns of ultimate security that we might feed our curiosity and seek to discover the world around us… and within us.
Yesterday Amy turned to me at dinner after a comment I made and asked, “Are you a people pleaser?” I responded that I’m a middle child. I was born to try to make peace in the world and do so not wanting to be a burden to anyone… so my peace is dysfunctional. My first instinct is pleasing people, covering over that which is upsetting, and creating an absence of conflict. Making a peace that is really nothing more than absence of conflict propped up by really good blinders. You see, I want to build towers. I am good at building towers to keep us from becoming scattered.
But another thing that strikes me about the Tower of Babel story is that in a world where we do not have to explain ourselves, we forget ourselves.
The people had a type of unity of mind… but it wasn’t so much unity as a likeness of mind, and they prized this likeness of mind and so would do anything to protect it, at all costs. And security and safety at all costs is too high a cost. Our life becomes our idol. And we know the consequences of that way of being. It makes helicopter parents, and elders who are tortured by the medical community to squeeze out one more moment in time. It legitimizes terrorism against the other… and it ultimately makes it seem sane and ration to talk about a world in which we hold all creation hostage to our ability to kill ourselves many times over seems… and call that peace.
When life is easy to relate to everyone around ourselves because we are all alike we begin to forget ourselves. We no longer question our own assumptions. We make ourselves into God… not out of radical disobedience. But because no other alternative can present itself. And that comfortable place – this is my first instinct to create – becomes worth holding on to.. entrenching in… and even building a wall to protect.
This is not the unity to which we are called.
This is not creation making a grand tapestry that celebrates life, or setting a table that always has room for another guest. Its about pinning us down to a moment of time, ceasing to grow and learn and explore… it isn’t a celebration of life… its about becoming the undead.
So yes, I’m a people pleaser. And people pleasers build great towers. So I could, I imagine, fill football stadiums of worshipers who will join me in that tower building. And yet….
And yet I too feel called to a journey like Abram – another great people pleaser. Abram never met a person he didn’t try please. But I was called to a journey of self-discovery and of dislocation to discover the other. I continue to spend my life getting to know who I am so I can both honor and overcome it. And I am called – we are called – to spend (that is risk and give away) our lives getting to know each other that we can honor each other as well. We do the hard work, that we don’t have time for, of building bridges and relationships across a diversity of differentiated peoples. To be both guests and hosts to each other.
How then do we tred on this earth as those called to be both guests, and hosts?
I read a great article recently on marriage. The main premise was this: Marriage is the fight we agree to have the rest of our life. Between two people, the author says, there will always be different views and opinions. And marriages that work don’t seek to force the other to become obedient to your answers and world view. Two becoming one? Does mean like-mindedness either.
But rather, marriages that work are between two people who agree to fight about the same things over and over again because they cannot imagine someone else they’d rather spend the rest of their life fighting with. Its not our likeness of mind that creates our unity… it is commitment to the beauty and blessedness we see in the others’ self-differentiation that makes us fight for a shared life together.
The gift, not punishment, of our languages that give name to our identity and unique flavor of life, is the gift of constant translation. No word – beyond the divine logos – can capture God. No image captures the breadth and depth of life. But in the constant dynamic play of words and the dance of matching them to their meaning we are drawn together by the task of knowing one another. And here we find that we do not do great things from our shared ideas and like-minded approaches to the world… but in the sharing of our differentiation from each other we find a unity of purpose in knowing and being known by the world that owns us.
We are all guests. We are all hosts. We are called to curate a life of translation in the tension of those dual roles and to risk losing ourselves to each other, for each other. Nothing we build matters other than the human connections in which the love of God abides.
Thanks be to God.
So crazy things happen in politics. Crazier things seem to happen in Idaho politics, did you see the GOP Gubernatorial debate last May? It went viral around the country thanks mostly to the participation of Harley Barnes and Walt Bayes who are summed up by Washington Post:
With his bushy white beard and khaki shirt, Walt Bayes looked like a slender Santa Claus on spring break as he thundered Bible verses from the podium. And then there was Harley Brown. Clad in a black leather vest, hat and gloves, the engineer biker with a more manicured white beard and missing teeth looked like a bad Santa. And he sounded like one, too. “I’ve got a master’s degree in raising hell” was one of the many gasp-worthy things uttered during the hour-long debate.
So after two years of living here I no longer get surprised with the antics of our legislature and politicians. Not surprised, but still frustrated and saddened. It struck again this week. House Bill 1 was being heard by the House State Affairs Committee. This bill was attempting to have the Idaho giant salamander named as the state amphibian. 8th grader Ilah Hickman was even on hand to present why she thought this was important, and she had the backing of several voices on the committee who tried to move the legislation to be sent to the House floor… but, no. This is Idaho. The legislation lost – again. And then in words I will not soon forget I read the words Representative Ken Andrus said to her:
When I grew up, when I was a young boy, in our swimming hole, there were salamanders, and we called them water dogs… and I learned to despise them. To me, and to my fellow youth, they were ugly, they were slimy, and they were creepy. And I’ve not gotten over that. And, so, to elevate them to a state symbol and status of being the state amphibian, I’m not there yet.
Really? You grew up thinking they were ugly, and 60-70 years later you aren’t over how ugly those salamanders were so you can’t allow this species of salamander, mostly unique to Idaho, to become our state amphibian???
This makes me almost unbearably sad. I read this the next day and sat dumbfounded and dismayed. This is where I live? We are so governed by our fears and dislikes that can’t put aside a childhood impression of a salamander? How are we supposed to address more engrained problems like systemic racism, gender discrimination, the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors, and religious intolerance? When I was a child I had irrational fears – it’s part of being a child. I grew up in an old Midwestern farmhouse with a large unfinished basement. Like so many kids I was convinced that unspeakable things lived under the stairs to our basement. We also had playroom in the basement that required me to traverse those stairs daily. And you know what? I ran. Every day I went down those stairs as if the devil was on my heels… because I was CONVINCED that was exactly the kind of plight I was in.
But guess what? The place under the stairs in our basement? It was not a den of inequity. It was not a place of horrible monsters or great evil – I know it, and you know it. But little Andy didn’t. I grew up. I saw the world different. I learned to confront my fears to gain new understanding and appreciation for that which was outside my comfort zone. In fact that process took me to mission work in the Philippines and chaplaincy in large public (and very urban) hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Experiences that became formative, if not fun for this introverted shy boy who grew up in a sheltered suburban community, because they challenged me and helped me grow. They made me see the world differently and with much more perspective than an eight year old version of myself was ever capable of. In fact, they made me see the world with more perspective than 38 year old me is capable of, and with more perspective than 78 year old Andrew will be able to manage. That is why we need community and diversity to help us understand things we aren’t naturally going to know anything about. This is how we grow, change, and become wiser versions of ourselves. We confront the other, and become known and we come to know it or them, and our sense of neighbor grows bigger. Our world becomes bigger.
And we all have such stories. At least I hope so. But maybe not. Maybe we all have some things we can’t, or won’t, change our mind about. Maybe we all have our “salamander.” Maybe we all have something or someone that we refuse to get to know. We refuse to let go of our presupposed opinions and allow ourselves to be changed by them. Maybe Ken Andrus’ statement is the most apocalyptic and helpful words that have come to me in a long time. Because, you see, he was willing to be unveiled about a “thing” in a way he would never be about a person. He was able to be honest, because he didn’t have to care about a salamander. But most of our salamanders are people. People whose faith we have judged as ugly or destructive. People who we have decided don’t work hard or well and therefore deserve their lot. People whose priorities are different than ours and we decide they are dysfunctional or irrational or wrong or… an abomination. I have heard those words used recently, by a law-maker… of a person. Talk about your “salamander!”
If there is to be hope in this world, we have got to let go of our unchecked and unconfronted biases and fears. We have got to sit down with our “salamanders” and learn about them and let them learn about us and find a way forward together. Most of those biases are not our fault. They were handed on to us by instinct, by friends or family, by society as whole. They were kneaded into the dough we are made with and they are a part of us. They are so ingrained into our being that we react out of those fears and biases without knowledge: as one wired to feel and believe certain things without thought. We should not feel guilty because we have bias toward or against something or someone.
And yet. Setting that guilty and shame aside, we cannot stop there.
It is when we stop there that we incur responsibility. When we refuse to confront and learn and do the disciplined hard work of rewiring our biases? That is on us. I have never met a person, nor do I ever expect to, who didn’t have some fears, who didn’t have some jaded understanding of someone else, who didn’t have bias. But I also hope never to meet people who aren’t working to address them. Walk down the stairs, maybe get a friend and go under the stairs – have a picnic there! Meet people outside your normal network and learn how to care for them as a neighbor. Make your world bigger, more informed, and more understood by being willing to sit down with “others” and make them companions. Learn to appreciate salamanders!
Because fear of “salamanders” is leading us down dark roads toward a scary future. And I don’t want to live in that future! We all owe it to each other to work toward something better: more caring, more understanding, more whole.
What and who and where are your salamanders, and what are you prepared to do about it?
From today’s sermon on Genesis 29’s story of Jacob’s brides (you got that right, more than one and double it again if we are talking mothers of his children) but really its a sermon on the repetitive story of Genesis:
Robert Frost defines home as the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.
The family systems sickness that is passed through the generations starting with Adam and Eve (I was told later I created a new notion of original sin) and working through the generations of Abraham’s children is the belief that we are in a competition to earn God’s love. We keep defining “home” smaller and smaller so we have to let fewer people in to the circle of God’s love out of fear that there isn’t enough or that we will be out earned by the other.
The Kingdom of God, Heaven, Chosen Land, Chosen people, New Jerusalem… etc, etc are all just different words for home. And God’s home is to the ends of the earth and there is room and love enough for all. We all have a home in God’s heart. The question isn’t how do we earn it, or be worthy of it. The questions we have to answer is how do accept that we really are loved by God without need to earn it, and how are we making that same love palpable for all we meet?
You are loved; we are loved; we all are loved. Open your heart to call the world home, and let everyone in.
A collision of three occurrences over the last three days:
- On Saturday in a conversation of Presbyterian colleagues some offered a need to have a clear and coherent theological identity. The most extreme version that got offered was a call to have a core belief that made it easy to say who belonged among us and who did not based on their agreement with that common core belief statement.
- A coke commercial that I originally found a bit banal (and then realized was still prophetic) offering America the Beautiful in many of the diverse languages (and images) you will find spoken in our country – and then a reaction of some strongly against that notion because “people should speak English here.”
- Two blocks from my church office this morning a group of advocates gathered (and I am sad that I was not with them this morning) in silent protest on the steps (and inside, many of whom were arrested, updating my post already here is an article on this mornings protest) of the State Capital building to “Add the Words, Idaho” asking the legislature to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act thereby protecting our LGBT neighbors from discrimination and the insecurity of knowing that who they are at the core of their being could be held against them in livelihood and liberty.
(This picture is from a few weeks ago when I joined friend and collegue Marci Glass as part of the “Add the Words, Idaho” Rally also on the steps of the Capital. Here is a sermon I preached the next day that reflected on this experience among others.)
All three of these cause the same reaction to me. Whether we are talking about the church or the country I love, we are not the Borg (sorry folks – Star Trek reference, a race of aliens that forced all civilizations to become a part of their collective consciousness). We do not – or should not – seek to assimilate the world. We are at our best when we celebrate diversity. We have admirable ambition when we seek to protect the minority and their right to be a part of us without having to become “like us.”
There is a particular insidious narcissism that we can name as either Exceptionalism or Zionism that seems to think who we are is the best, and the best we can offer is to convert – assimilate – the other into the exceptional reality we already have. (This narcisissim is made worse because we also add fear – we fear those not like us, the twin emotions of fear and superiority create a very dangerous blend) Whether it be our brand of Spiritual Truth or the particular expression of our national identity, we are sure the best one can be is what we have to offer.
What I love about my understandings of both the United States and the Presbyterian Church is that I believe it is central to who we are that we DO NOT have a cookie cutter look of what is central to who we are. We do not seek to melt away differences to become uniform, but we seek to bring connection to very diverse perspectives, cultures, and expressions of liberty, truth, goodness… whatever. We are in the business of building bridges across divides and not in removing those divides.
Is this harder than assimilation? Absolutely. It is easier to sell a clear product. It is easier to offer an existence in a group of people who think, look, and act similarly along similar goals. It is easier to have a common language, currency, and worldview. Life without the need for translation is easy…
But I also think that is a sad reality – and ultimately rather boring. I am reminded again that in the first creation story of Genesis God did not say let “me” make “Adam”. God said, “Let us make humankind in our imagine.” Singularly we do not reflect God. Together we do. Even God wasn’t singular in the story. Creation was meant to reflect a rich diversity of goodness. I am similarly reminded that our nation is not a democracy where the tyranny of the majority rules, but a Republic whose role is as much to protect the minority from the majority as anything else.
We are not Borg. We do not assimilate otherness – we celebrate it. And this does take work. Work at overcoming fear, and expanding our boundaries, and finding common bridges across differences that are their own blessings.
I do not want to think I can only gather in God’s name around a single sentence of clear Truth – what a small God that world is. I love that my kids go to school with kids whose first language isn’t English because the realize the world they live in every day is VERY VERY SMALL compared to the rich diversity of all creation. And forcing other people to live in fear of their safety because we don’t like who they are or because we think who they are somehow threatens our way of life? That is terrorism.
We are not Borg – we do not assimilate – we celebrate. Thanks be to God, and thanks be that we live in a country that aspires (in its better moments) to let us.
My annual MLK day tradition is to read the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It was an open letter written on scraps of newspaper in response to 8 clergy from Birmingham who denounced Martin Luther King Jr’s non-violent protests there. It is a power-packed letter of prophetic voice and simply put: a great read. Not a comfortable read – a great read. Honestly it could be a weekly devotional for me – every week. I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety. You can read it here: http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html
However, I realize that time is what it is for all of us so for those less inclined here are just a few of the great lines I wrestle with in own reticence to be an advocate for the victims of injustice. There is no mistaking why I have my congregation recite part of the Brief State of Faith every week rather than the Apostle’s Creed. Its because I love this section, and I struggle to live it and I need to keep that struggle ever before me:
In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
So without further ado some selections that afflict me in gospel ways:
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns… so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this ‘hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
…I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, ham and all over the nation, because the goal of America k freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.
- Snake handling. Yes thank you longer ending to Mark, because of you we get this, “And he said to them, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:16-18)
- Too many genealogy nuts! You know how every family has one of those people who tracks down all your great-great-grandfathers and mothers? Well Jesus had two of those. Matthew and Luke. Too bad they got different results. I mean they are good up to David but after that it all goes awry and they can’t even agree with who Joseph’s father was. (compare Matthew 1 with Luke 3)
- Speaking of family issues exactly what came first the chicken or the egg? I mean, Adam or Eve? You see we make a lot of Adam being created first but that is actually in the second creation story (Genesis 2) while in the more well-known creation story in Genesis 1, the one with the days of the week, Adam and Eve are actually created at the same time. So which is it? Do we actually know how all this happened, is the Bible just guessing, is this a multiple choice test?
- Pretty much everyone commits adultery! We spend a lot of time on sexuality but we are usually careful in our application of such standards (making sure to apply them to others not ourselves). Jesus isn’t. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 and following) he is quite clear. Anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery. Then something about plucking out our eye. Really? They will know we are Christian by our eye-patches. (Keep reading if you really want Jesus to speak to you on divorce as well… yes more adultery – we have quite the theme going here.)
- Lions, and Tigers, and Bears – Oh My! Okay more like Levitical Codes, mythical beasts, and murderous happenings. I mostly steered clear of this one because it’s the stuff that populates other such lists. But yah – no eating shellfish, or playing with pig skin, and watch out for Leviathan and unicorns, and don’t forget not to mock adults after reading the story of the 42 children slaughtered by two she-bears for mocking Elisha (2 Kings 2:24). We read all this… and there is a lot of it, and then we say, “This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” Whatever we mean when we say that after reading things we mostly or completely ignore.
- God forgets God’s own rules. Peter has a vision that reprimands him about not eating “unclean” food. God’s rebuke: “The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15) The challenge? It was in Leviticus 11 that God forbid Jews from eating these things. So Peter didn’t call them profane, God did. Only apparently God has forgotten that – or changed it and neglected to tell poor Peter until making a public display of it.
- Speaking of unfortunate people just trying to help. Helpers shall be executed! At least in one case. 1 Chronicles 13 and 2 Samuel 6 tell the story of poor Uzzah who is killed for daring to touch the Ark of the Covenant. Must have come as a big surprise for him because he thought he was steading it so it wouldn’t fall over. Be careful about doing a favor for God apparently – at least that was David’s take-away that day.
Bonus Round for good measure:
- The worst recruiter ever. I have to add 8 because these are texts I spend a lot of time with in my journey. It doesn’t matter where you start looking; Jesus is horrible at the recruiting game. Give away everything you own and only then can you start following me? (Luke 18:22) Family too… and the dead… and pretty much everything (Luke 9:51-62). The rewards of this will be great in heaven… if you get past the part about being sent as lambs among wolves (Luke 10:3) with pretty much nothing to call possessions (a challenge to anyone who thinks prayer will get you material wealth). In fact Jesus takes all and offers a life filled with persecution and prohibitions seemingly (there are other voice of course – thankfully – but that the point really). Worst deal ever!
So what in the world is the point of this? Why start (and really this is just a flash in the pan, a first set of musings about the outrageous that exists in Holy Scripture) a list that seems to discredit the Bible? The point is that we live in an age (and probably every age shares this) that is very confused about the Bible. On average we aren’t very literate in what is in there, and we think a lot is there that actually isn’t thanks to good Christian storytellers like Dante and his contemporaries today. We are prone to leave much, if not all, the interpretation up to “experts” which further distance us from reading and knowing and exploring ourselves. We don’t realize how many different texts there are or the translational challenges that exist to create anything close to an “authentic” version. And we pick and choose which parts we really believe God said… because honestly DON’T handle poisonous snakes – just don’t do it.
But… but all this aside we then say things like: “Well the Bible says…” or “Its very clear the Book of Genesis/Mark/Revelation/Whatever tells us…” or, for that matter, “This is the word of the Lord.” As if that is all that there is to say, it’s that clear and that definitive and that final.
Please don’t get me wrong. I love scripture. The Bible is a unique and authoritative voice in my life. But not because “I said so” or its divine equivalent. It’s far more complex than that. It’s like Jacob wrestling with the angel. (Genesis 32) I’m as much put out of joint by it than I am given an identity, purpose, and direction. Abraham was instructed to kill his son, but that isn’t a warrant for you to do the same. The Bible says many many things. It contradicts itself. It corrects itself. It has fluid understanding of what it means – just look at almost any interpretation from Paul of the Old Testament and you will have to admit he does strange things with it.
The church has an ages old crisis of authority when it comes to scripture. It is all too common to claim someone is abandoning scripture when it’s just that they interpret it different from you. Peter abandons scripture… because God tells him too. The Bible is as much about the group of people listening to it as it is about the group of people speaking and the Holy Spirit dwells in both parts of that equation. The Bible isn’t simply true because it was dictated by God. It is true because it is the living testimony to the living God. Its truth comes in those moments when the community of faith – wrestling with direction and identity – is put out of joint by it and named by God through it. So tread carefully – sandals off for we are on holy ground – when you are discerning how the Bible speaks to you, to us, today. And be careful how you measure a verse to the chapter to the Book to the whole arc of Scripture before you say, “The Bible says…” because somehow this merry band of outrageous texts IS the Word of God, just as somehow this merry band of eclectic and crazy people IS the Body of Christ. We need to be treated with care – with respect for the whole voice and with caution that we don’t just pick who to listen to because that is the most convenient truth for our lives.
Thanks (most days at least, sometimes I’m far more put out of joint) be to God!
A week ago an idea was put forth by a seminary colleague of mine: the Gettysburg Address sermon. November 19th marks its 150th Anniversary. It is considered one of U.S. history’s greatest speeches, and its only 272 words long. If one of the greatest speeches ever was 272 words why do we need so many many more? So the challenge was put forth. What if on November 17th, in honor of this great moment in history, we preached sermons that were only 272 words long?
The challenge intrigued me. I want to do it. I’m not preaching this Sunday so I cannot now, but I imagine I will take the challenge at some point in the near future. It is amazing what happens when we begin to make sure every word counts in what we say. It’s the opposite of the way I preach now (I don’t write sermons out so I don’t know how many words I use). And maybe for this reason alone I consider it a good idea – we need to change it up now and then. After all God is always doing a new thing!
However, the subject of the remainder of this post isn’t the idea of a sermon of 272 words; it’s actually the Gettysburg Address as the sermon. What happens to these words when we preach them in our churches? What happens to these words when the battles which we reference are the wars of words and theology and scriptural authority that occur and split and mangle the Body of Christ today? When the grave yard in which we stand is our own empty pews?
About church splits there are many theories. The diversity is too great to hold our deep convictions about God together in unity. Questions about power, authority, and whether we are bound together by sets of laws or by a common vision that will not let us go. The role of tradition and how we honor the past without becoming its slaves. And how we pass on our convictions while also granting freedom of conscience?
These questions plagued our nation, and they haunt our understanding of church today. When I teach Presbyterian history I talk about the civil war. Whether we admit it the church has always been formed by the society around us and this was true of slavery. The church split even as the nation split. We could not, however, simply fight a war and establish unity again (yes I’m over simplifying). But it took the church over 100 years to end that rift, if we even did. And when I think on that I think – maybe the literal battle fought by blue and grey wasn’t any dirtier than the hundred year’s war the church fought.
Is there another way? Is unity worth the blood and tears? Apparently Lincoln thought so. But he also thought it gave us responsibility. Responsibility to make that sacrifice worth it. Responsibility to pass on the gift of freedom, the gift of shared experience in freedom, the gift of people invested in being freedom for the generations to come. Does this preach in our churches today? I don’t know yet… but I have a sense it does…. There shall be a new birth of freedom, indeed.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It should be noted that the post above is divided into three sections, each 272 words long. Not exactly the assignment but I still enjoyed the process.
I’m thinking about divisions, polarizing conflict… discord. This week we shared that a church in our presbytery is seeking to leave the denomination. Every week I engage in at least one conversation (every day?) where there are passionately held convictions that are in conflict. We fight (and I do mean fight) over laws and interpretations of laws both ecclesiastical and political (and social as well).
I do not wish to speak to any of those particular conversations. I do wish to think about how we exist as communities in conflict. There is something very ‘Holy Week’ about such a conversation. The community around Jesus in Holy Week is very much in conflict. Jesus becomes the lodestone to radical shifts in meaning. “You have heard it said… but I tell you…” There are various reactions to these shifts… from those in favor but clearly not understanding the shifts fully (like Peter) to those very much against the shifts who require the death of Jesus to end the conflict. In such weeks stability often becomes more important (of ultimate importance?) than wrestling with conversations that create ambiguity.
I like to call this the yellow brick road phenomenon. We wish to have a clear road before us to our destination. Anything that makes that “way” murky is tossed aside. Anything that clarifies it is embraced (sometimes without question). And I can see the allure of this… I feel the allure of this. And yes, I hear words like “the way is narrow” (Matthew 7) and know that there is some truth to clarifying the way we should go. I also hear words like “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9) I hear Daniel told to go his way because the words are to remain secret and sealed. (Daniel 12) Some knowledge is just beyond us. In fact it is knowledge of good and evil that the garden says we were not to receive. Much woe comes to the world when we require drawing lines around what is good and what is not.
It is enough for me to travel with people… knowing we shall differ in outlook and truth but also knowing that the love and care that unites us is stronger than all that.
Let us – from whatever conflict we are in, whatever truths we hold – join in that prayer at least. That love is indeed strong enough to hold us.