Dec
2018

A Blessing for the New Year

Appropriately enough, the Hebrew Bible lectionary reading for January 1 is the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26.  Like many of you, I first learned these words as the Methodist Youth Fellowship Benediction:

The LORD bless you and keep you:
The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Others may know Peter C. Lutkin’s familiar musical setting with its sevenfold Amen, or perhaps John Rutter’s version, famously used at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle.

The priestly blessing has, of course, deep roots in Jewish worship.  Still today, it is pronounced in Conservative and Orthodox congregations by the kohanim: members of the Jewish community who trace their lineage back to Aaron.  The distinctive hand gesture accompanying the blessing is meant to represent the Hebrew letter shin, first letter in Shaddai: an ancient name of God commonly translated “Almighty.”  But it will be more familiar to many (particularly to my fellow Trekkies) from Spock’s Vulcan greeting:

The late Leonard Nimoy shared that the Vulcan salute came from his childhood memories of experiencing this blessing, pronounced numinously and potently in the synagogue.  Of course, Spock’s Vulcan greeting caught fire in popular culture:

It’s been that way to this day: almost fifty years later, people are still doing it. . . .  It just touched a magic chord! Most people to this day still don’t know what it’s all about.  People don’t realize they’re blessing each other with this!

The ancient significance of the priestly blessing is confirmed by archaeology, as well as liturgy.  This passage of Scripture is engraved in miniature on tiny silver scrolls found at Ketef Hinnom, and dating to the eighth to sixth century BCE–making it the oldest written text of Scripture yet found.

In keeping with ancient sacred tradition, friends, let us bless one another at the turning of the year with these words, claiming the biblical promise:

So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them (Num 6:27).

A merry Christmastide, happy New Year, and blessed life journey to you and yours.

Dec
2018

You Can’t Always Get What You Want!

Micah prophesied in the middle of the eighth century, in a tiny village about 25 miles southwest of the big city of Jerusalem called Morasheth-Gath.  It was a long way from Jerusalem to Morasheth-gath: a distance not so much geographical as social.  As its name implies, Morasheth-gath was a border town, located in contested territory right on the edge of Jewish Judah and Philistine Gath.  Its people were a hard-scrabble lot: rural, not urban; poor, not rich; decidedly lower, not upper class

Perhaps it was this distant perspective that enabled Micah to see so clearly through the arrogance of Jerusalem’s leaders:

who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight,
         who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice!
 Her officials give justice for a bribe,
        and her priests teach for hire.
Her prophets offer divination for silver,
        yet they rely on the Lord, saying,
            “Isn’t the Lord in our midst?
                Evil won’t come upon us!” (Micah 3:9-11).

Such blithe, naive arrogance was dangerous, Micah knew, for the mid-eighth century was a dangerous time, when the cruel military power of Assyria was on the rise.  This crisis called for just, wise, decisive leadership.

In Micah 5:2-5, the prophet recalls the humble birth of David, Israel’s greatest king, in Bethlehem: a little Judean village not unlike Micah’s own.  If Judah is to survive the onslaught of Assyria, what will be needed is a return to those humble beginnings and values.  The last thing Judah needs in this crisis is another Jerusalemite dandy, born to the purple and raised with the assumption of power and privilege!  Instead, speaking for the LORD, Micah says,

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5).

Such a leader would have been the last thing that Jerusalem’s elites wanted.  But Micah is convinced that this is precisely what Judah needs!

The heading I’ve given to this blog post was shamelessly stolen from a Rolling Stones song–chances are, you’ve been playing it in the back of your head ever since you read the title!  Like Micah, Mick Jagger declares, “You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need!”

Micah’s words are quoted in Matthew 2:5-6.  When the foreign sages come to Judah following a star, looking for a new-born king, they come to the big city of Jerusalem, and to Herod’s palace–because where else would you look for a king?  Herod consults the scribes, who then read to him, and to his guests from the east, Micah’s ancient prophecy.  Sure enough, Jesus, like David, would be born humbly, in the little village of Bethlehem–the child of a peasant girl and her itinerant laborer husband.

We need to hear just how unlikely this sounds!  Because sometimes, in this season, we Christians wonder how Jesus’ own people could’ve missed him–implying, of course, that we would have done a better job.  But an old African American spiritual, with far more wisdom, recognizes the truth:

Sweet little Jesus Boy, we made you be born in a manger.

Sweet little Holy Child, we didn’t know who You were.

Didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord; to take our sins away.

Our eyes were blind, we couldn’t see, we didn’t know it was you.

Herod’s scribes, who gave the wise men their directions from Scripture, did not go with them to the manger—I wonder why?  Likely it was because they couldn’t believe that Micah really meant it! Surely Messiah would not actually come in such a way!

Jesus was not recognized as the Messiah for the very good reason that he was born among the poor– not the wealthy, powerful, or influential.  As he grew, he surrounded himself with the least, the lost, and the outcast–not the best and the brightest.  No one ever expected that Messiah would come like this! No one looked for, dreamed of, or wanted such a Messiah! But as Micah, and Mick, remind us “You can’t always get what you want. . . You get what you need.”

Jesus is still an astonishment, friends. He still shows up in the most unlikely places, among the most unlikely people—the least, the lost, the lowly. So if we would find him, that is where we too must go. And when we are lonely, when we have lost our way, we need only turn our heads to find him right there, beside us.  Because that is who he is.  That is what he does.

Jesus is still not the King we thought that we wanted—but he is the one that we need: the one who “shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD”. . . the “one of peace.”

AFTERWORD:  Thank you to John Magnuson and Todd Leach of Shadyside Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, who invited me to preach in their Advent Vespers series–this blog is taken from that sermon.  Merry Christmas and the happiest of New Years to all and sundry, friends!

Nov
2018

A Bigger Table

 

I have a confession to make: I talk to things.  I talk at home to our cat Mocha, which I guess isn’t too odd, but I also talk to cats and dogs that I meet on the street, and to the birds and squirrels in our neighborhood.  I talk to my computer when it is running too slowly.  I talk to my keys, or my phone, or my reading glasses when they have run off and are hiding from me.

So I am right at home with Joel 2:21-27, the Old Testament lesson for this Thanksgiving Day, which begins by addressing the natural world: not only the living things, the animals and trees and green plants, but even the dirt itself:

Don’t fear, fertile land [the NRSV reads, “O soil”!];
    rejoice and be glad,
    for the Lord is about to do great things! (Joel 2:21).

The setting for this remarkable passage is the aftermath of a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  The locusts are described by God as

the cutting locust, the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust . . .  my great army[!], which I sent against you (Joel 2:25).

But that is over now, and after the swarm has passed, when the locusts all are gone, reassurance is offered to the community, the “children of Zion” (Joel 2:23), who twice are promised, “my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27).

Yet the people also learn that they are part of a larger community than they had known.  Just after our reading in Joel comes the most famous passage from this book, quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon:

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
 In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves. (Joel 2:28-29).

The “children of Zion”—“my people”—includes not just the adult men of the worshipping congregation, but women, children, the aged–even slaves.

Nature itself is also caught up in that community: the animals, the trees, the green plants—yes, even the dirt!

Don’t fear, fertile land;
    rejoice and be glad,
    for the Lord is about to do great things!
Don’t be afraid, animals of the field,
        for the meadows of the wilderness will turn green;
    the tree will bear its fruit;
        the fig tree and grapevine will give their full yield. (Joel 2:21-22)

All are told not to fear. All are promised life, from God and by God. All are caught up in God’s promises of deliverance, vindication, and freedom from shame. Today, reading these words of Scripture, we too hear God’s promises of deliverance, vindication, and freedom from shame. But we cannot experience those blessings separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. We will find them together—all of us–or we will not find them at all.

Community is who we are, but it is also what we do.  This past week in Denver, I heard Jim Wallis share a profound statement of faith and call to action, coming from an extraordinary gathering of Christian leaders.  Called Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis,  this statement says in part,

WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.

If we would be free, brothers and sisters, then we must work to free one another, for until we all are free, none of us are free.  We must be willing to draw the circle wide–to find ourselves a part of a larger community than we had known, embracing sisters and brothers we had not known we had.

We must also extend our circle to include all of God’s world, for Joel reminds us that there can be no good for any of us if that good does not include our suffering earth.  This truth was brought brutally home by the devastating Camp Fire in California, which has left 81 dead and 699 still missing.  While natural disasters such as the Camp Fire are commonly called “acts of God,” eschewing human responsibility, there can be little doubt that we are responsible for this one, through climate change brought on by our own careless greed.  We must do better, remembering to treat the earth with responsibility and care.

On this Thanksgiving Day, sisters and brothers, we are going to need a bigger table, for Scripture reminds us that our family is larger than we had known. Thanks be to God for all our community!

 

 

Oct
2018

Laughing at the Devil

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

This (allegedly) traditional Scottish prayer, collected by folklorist D. L. Ashliman, reminds us of the grim folklore back of Hallowe’en.  The night before November 1 was once called Samhain, an old Celtic festival of the quarter-year (falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice). In Celtic culture, it was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over into this world and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by Jack o’lanterns) could be set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

We call October 31 not Samhain, but Halloween (that is, Hallow E’en), because October 31 is of course the night before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve.  All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast of their own (and by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.  The feast was shifted from May to November 1 in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (El Dia de Los Muertos in Spain).

When the Celts became Christians, this night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared.  Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms,

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!  And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death.

Because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors to receive our offerings of food–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

This saying of Martin Luther was used as an epigraph to C. S. Lewis’ famous Christian satire The Screwtape Letters: Letters From a Senior to a Junior Devil–letters of advice from the senior devil Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, on how Wormwood can tempt his “patient” into hell (an appropriately “Halloweeny” read, to be sure!).  The book is dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien, the Roman Catholic friend who led Lewis into the Christian faith. That connection is particularly interesting, as some of the same Christians who condemn Hallowe’en as a pagan holiday also mistrust the fantasies of both Lewis and Tolkien, fearful of their alleged “occult” influences–despite the explicitly Christian worldview evident in both the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.

These waning days of October prompt anticipation, not only of Hallowe’en and All -Saints Day, but also of Election Day on November 6.  The continuing popularity of The Screwtape Letters has prompted the following item, posted on numerous Facebook pages:

I can understand the frustration with our own current political season that prompted this posting.  However, not only is this not a quote from The Screwtape Letters, or from anything else by C. S. Lewis, it is also a position that Lewis was unlikely to espouse.  To be sure, in The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape does advise Wormwood to get his client thinking obsessively about politics–whether conservative or liberal (“Patriotism or Pacifism”, in Lewis’ World War II English context) doesn’t matter:

Let him begin by treating Patriotism or Pacifism as a part of his religion.  Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part,  Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “cause” (The Screwtape Letters, letter 7).

However, this does not mean that Lewis believed we should be concerned simply for the salvation of our own souls.  First, while Lewis would certainly agree that sin and salvation are personal, he would certainly not agree that either sin or salvation is private. In fact, so important is the Church that Screwtape advises Wormwood to prevent his patient from attending worship by disillusioning him:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.        . . . When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous (The Screwtape Letters, letter 2).

Second, Lewis would certainly not agree either that concern for a “broken system” is misplaced, or that trying to fix what is wrong in our world is futile.  The Screwtape Letters was published in book form in 1943, but began as a wartime serial in The Guardian between May and November of 1941–just after the Blitz, a terrible period during which England was under almost continual attack from Nazi Germany.   Indeed, Wormwood’s “patient” is killed by a German bomb:

One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching; next moment all this was gone, gone like a bad dream. . . Did you mark how naturally–as if he’d been born for it–the earth-born vermin entered the new life? (The Screwtape Letters, letter 31).

Lewis was well aware of the dangers posed by systemic, political evil, and of the responsibility owed by citizens to work for the common good.  Christian faith does not call us to quietism–indeed, loving what God loves will engage us positively and passionately with what God is doing in the world.  If you decide not to vote in this election, or that your involvement cannot make a difference in the world, don’t think to justify your cynicism by appeal to Lewis–though, come to think of it, Screwtape and his ilk likely are involved.  But our Christian faith also reminds us that we, together with all the saints who have gone before us, are part of something larger than this current political season: the Church of Jesus Christ, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”  Happy Hallowe’en, sisters and brothers!

AFTERWORD:

This is a slightly revised version of a blog first posted in 2016.  The false quotation attributed to C. S. Lewis is once more making the rounds, however, as it probably will every election year–hence this repeat post.

That’s my Dad, Bernard Tuell, sitting next to me in this photo.  I got my laugh and my hairline from my Dad–but also, my love for the Bible and for the Lord.  Hallowe’en is also Dad’s birthday.  So–happy, happy birthday, Daddy.  God bless you, as God has blessed so many through you.

Sep
2018

Opening Lines

 

Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene. . .

Call me Ishmael.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Beginnings matter.  Certainly Shakespeare, and Melville, and Tolkien (not to mention Snoopy) knew this well!  The opening lines of a work can pull us in and compel us to keep reading, or leave us cold, and turn us away.

All the more interesting, then, that the Psalm for this past Sunday was the first Psalm.  Indeed, in Codex Leningradensis, one of the oldest and certainly most complete texts of the Hebrew Bible we have, this psalm is unnumbered, set apart as the heading to the numbered psalms that follow.  Many interpreters have proposed that Psalm 1 was composed for this very place and purpose: to open the book of Psalms.

So, how does the Psalter begin?

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night (Ps 1:1-2).

As James Luther Mays observed, “The Book of Psalms begins with a beatitude. Not a prayer or a hymn, but a statement about human existence” (Psalms, Interpretation [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], p. 40).

St. Athanasius famously observed that while the rest of Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us.  He wrote:

Within [the Psalter] are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. . . . In the Psalter you learn about yourself (from “To Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms”).

So, what do we learn from this Psalm about ourselves, as we are and as we might become? On its face, Psalm 1 contrasts two groups: the wicked (Hebrew resha’im) and the righteous (tsadiqim). But the Psalm is actually not interested in the wicked, who are defined only negatively: by their opposition to the righteous, who do not follow their way, or sit in their councils (1:1), just as the wicked themselves “will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (1:5).

The righteous, by contrast, are positively defined by their immersion in Torah (the Hebrew word translated “law” in Psalm 1:1-2), which in Jewish tradition can refer to the first five books of the Bible, also called the Five Books of Moses.  Psalm 1 affirms that God’s Torah is the source and ground of blessing. This emphasis on Torah reflects the structure of the Psalter, which is divided by four doxologies (Pss 41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; and 106:48) into five books, reminiscent of the Torah.

The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms

Jerome Creach proposes that in Psalm 1, Torah refers not only to the written Torah of Moses, but also to the Psalter itself: “The Psalms are a part of the pluriform expression of divine instruction by which the righteous find a secure destiny, hope for their living” (Jerome Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms [St. Louis: Chalice, 2008], p. 139).

Certainly, the language of Psalm 1 does not permit a legalistic understanding either of righteousness or of Torah. In Deuteronomy 15:5, by comparison, Israel is enjoined to “obey [Hebrew shama’ beqol; literally, “hear the voice of”] the LORD your God by diligently observing [Hebrew shamar] this entire commandment [Hebrew mitswah] that I command you today” (cf. also Lev 26:14). None of this legal vocabulary appears in Psalm 1.

Image result for study of Torah painting

Instead, the righteous are here said to “delight” in the LORD’s Torah (Hebrew chapets, perhaps better rendered “desire”).  They “meditate” upon God’s Torah day and night (Ps 1:2). Here, the verb hagah actually means “murmur,” implying constant, repetitive study and recitation–something particularly appropriate to my own setting here at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Despite the traditional translation of the Hebrew word torah as “law,” the word actually means “teaching.”  Here in Psalm 1, certainly, Torah is not about legalism, but about living, fully and well!  Focus on divine instruction yields for the righteous happiness (Ps 1:1) and stability:

They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper (Ps 1:3).

This arboreal imagery emphasizes both the stability and fruitfulness of the righteous. To shun this divine instruction is to be “like chaff that the wind drives away” (1:4): empty husks, dry, lifeless, fruitless, and rootless.

In contrast, the righteous are defined concretely, by their relentless pursuit of Torah. Therefore, “the LORD watches over the way of the righteous” (Ps 1:6). The verb translated “watches over” in the NRSV of Psalm 1:6 is yada’, that is, “know.” In Hebrew, “knowing” has to do not simply with intellectual grasp, but with relationship. Those who desire to know God, who seek out and meditate upon God’s instruction, are in turn known by God.

In the first Psalm, the destiny of the righteous is to know, and be known, by God—to enter into a relationship with the Divine; to become like trees in God’s garden, drawing life from God and bearing fruit for God. As I and my students begin this new year in this place of study, I pray that we will immerse ourselves in the pursuit of God’s Torah–God’s instruction, God’s way of life. Scripture assures us that such seekers will not seek in vain; as Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt 7:7).

Sep
2018

Beginning Again–Again

This is a season of new beginnings.  Last week classes began at my school, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and after a year’s sabbatical, I resumed my teaching role.  So it seems especially right to me that today is Rosh Hashanah: the Jewish New Year!

In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the ten Days of Awe that climax in the penitence of Yom Kippur (September 19)–the Day of Atonement. The sorrow and repentance of Yom Kippur also find expression this Friday, when many Christian churches observe the feast of the Holy Cross of Jesus.  And tomorrow, of course, is September 11.

Like many of you, I find myself returning in my mind today to the days following September 11, 2001.  On Thursday of that week, the little college town where we were living, Ashland, Virginia, held a memorial service on our town square.  I was among those asked to speak.  As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to Habakkuk 3.16-19.  Habakkuk saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  He knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt then, and may feel again in the wake of fresh tragedies, Habakkuk knew well.

I am, once more, reprinting below the sermon I preached then.  It seems sadly appropriate today, when (as so many of us feared then) the hearts of so many have turned to hatred of the other, claiming legitimation in the tragic events of that day 17 years ago. It is my prayer that Habakkuk’s ancient words, which spoke to me so powerfully then, will speak to you today, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.  May we join our Jewish sisters and brothers in their resolve to begin this year anew.  And may the cross of Jesus remind us that we follow the crucified Lord, who sided with the oppressed and outcast to the point of sharing their fate, unmasking our hatred and violence and putting to death, once and for all, our sin and rebellion.

 

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack.  But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed.  He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village.  He saw homes in flames.  He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon.  Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One?  We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12)  Surely, surely, you will not let us die.  “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13)  Habakkuk is in shock.  He can’t accept what he sees and hears.  “I hear, and I tremble within.  My lips quiver at the sound.  Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16)  We know how that feels, don’t we?  Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels.  Who could believe it?  Who can believe it now?

From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger.  “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17)  We know how that feels too, don’t we?  Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land.  We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger.  But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we.  If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal.  We will never move on to wholeness and new life.

Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are!  We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man.  If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won.  They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.

A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees.  He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place.  Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened.  Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this.  Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this.  In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.

So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”(Hab 3:17-18)  Oh God, this is as bad as it gets!  How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).

The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright.  Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here.  We were wrong.  But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling.  Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19)  A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain.  It can mount up impossible precipices.  The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this!  But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.”  May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times!  God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.

We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord.  We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service.  God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world.  But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands.  No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Jul
2018

“Right Where We Belong”

The Hebrew Bible text for Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary is Amos 7:7-15, which begins with a vision report:

This is what the Lord showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall, with a plumb line in his hand.  The Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”

“A plumb line,” I said.
Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
    in the middle of my people Israel.
        I will never again forgive them.
The shrines of Isaac will be made desolate,
            and the holy places of Israel will be laid waste,
            and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:7-9).

It is a famous prophetic image, beautifully reflected in a prayer for the day from the Lectionary’s editors:

Steadfast God,

your prophets set the plumb line
of your righteousness and truth
in the midst of your people.
Grant us the courage to judge ourselves against it.
Straighten all that is crooked or warped within us
until our hearts and souls stretch upright,
blameless and holy,
to meet the glory of Christ. Amen.

The trouble is that this translation of the passage is suspect.  The word rendered “plumb line” is ‘anak, which means “tin.” In Amos’ vision, the LORD is standing  al-khomath ‘anak (“beside a wall of tin”), holding ‘anak (“a piece of tin”) in God’s hand.  The ancient versions all attempt to come to terms with this.  The Greek Septuagint reads teichous adamantinou (an impenetrable, that is metal-sheathed, wall), and in the LORD’s hand is a piece of metal (adamas).  The Latin Vulgate, understanding the piece of metal in God’s hand to be a trowel (trullu cementarii), has the LORD standing on a plastered wall (murum litum).  The Aramaic Targum, as it generally does, eschews metaphor for what its translators thought the metaphor actually meant–here, the wall is a place of judgment (Aramaic din), and a judgment against Israel is in the LORD’s hand.

The reading “plumb line” is relatively recent, going back only to the medieval Jewish interpreter Ibn Ezra.  However, it was popularized by Martin Luther in his translation of Amos, and today is found in nearly every English translation, even the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanak.  Although footnotes in the JPS translation suggest that the LORD holds a pickaxe, and that the wall is “destined for a pickaxe,” they also say that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.

However, as we have seen, the Hebrew is not at all uncertain: in Amos’ vision, the LORD stands by a wall sheathed in tin, holding a piece of tin, and says that he is placing tin “in the middle of my people Israel; I will never again forgive them” (7:8).  What the text says is plain–the question is, what does it mean?

Ibn Ezra and Luther apparently understood the metal in this vision to be the weight on a plumbline, and the wall to have been built with a plumbline.  The point of the vision therefore is that God is holding Israel to account, testing that they are true to the LORD as a mason uses a plumb to test whether a wall is truly vertical.  However, plumb bobs were made of stone, or lead–not tin.  The ancient versions seem similarly to interpret based on the metal.  But comparison with Amos’ other visions suggests another possibility.

In Amos 8:1-2, the prophet is shown a basket of summer fruit (Hebrew qayits) and told, “The end [qets] has come upon my people Israel; I will never again forgive them” (compare 7:8, where that same expression is found).  His vision is not about qayits (“summer fruit”) at all, but about the word “qayits”—a punning reference to Israel’s end (qets). So too, Jeremiah sees the branch of an almond tree (Hebrew shaqed), and is told, “I am watching [shoqed] over my word to perform it” (Jer 1:11-12).  So what if Amos 7:7-9 is also a pun?  What if the point of Amos’ vision is not ‘anak (“tin”), but something that sounds like ‘anak?

As S. Dean McBride, Jr. notes, the second person pronoun in Hebrew has a complex history.  The free-standing pronoun is ‘atta (contracted from an original ‘anta) or ‘at; however, the pronoun may be appended to a noun as ka or ak (meaning “your”).  The first-person pronoun may offer a clue to this complexity.  While later Hebrew texts prefer the shortened form ‘ani, the older form ‘anoki is also common.  Some Semiticists propose that the older form of the second person pronoun may have similarly been something like ‘anak.  McBride proposes that Amos’ vision of ‘anak, “tin,” in 7:7-9 is a pun on an archaic ‘anak, “you” (like qayits/qets in 8:1), so that God is telling Amos, “I am placing you in the middle of my people Israel” (7:8).  This vision is Amos’ call to prophesy.

Sure enough, the narrative in Amos 7:10-15 shows us Amos snatched from southern Judah and placed by God in northern Israel–smack dab in the midst of controversy.  Amos’ message of justice places him in opposition to the high priest Amaziah and the king Jeroboam–which is not comfortable for the high priest or the king.  However, it is not comfortable for Amos, either!  He protests to Amaziah (and to us!) that this life was not his choice:

I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son; but I am a shepherd, and a trimmer of sycamore trees. But the Lord took me from shepherding the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:14-15)

I am reminded of Michelangelo, who throughout the years he spent painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the Pope’s command stubbornly signed his letters “Michelangelo, Sculptor.”  Amos saw himself as a shepherd, not a prophet.  Had he had his own way, he would never have left home.  But there is no doubt in Amos’ mind that he is in the right place, whether it is the place he would have chosen or not.  He is where he is because God put him there: “the LORD took me from shepherding the flock” (7:15).  Amos was not comfortable, or successful.  But he was faithful.

The Gospel for this Sunday is Mark 6:14-29: the death of John the Baptist. Did John the Baptist waste his life?  Surely the world would say so: he offended the powers that be, wound up in prison, and in the end was executed so that his head could be given as a tip to a dancing girl. But, no—John was faithful in his ministry.  He went where he was placed by God.  And so, friends, must we.

If we believed that following Christ’s call would save us from conflict and discomfort, we were laboring under a major misapprehension!  It is not hard to see how we could have gotten there: knowing that God is love, we concluded thereby that God is nice, and wants us to have a nice life: peaceful and conflict-free.

But it was not so for Amos, or for John, or for Jesus, and it will not be so for us!  God is love–but love wills the good, not the nice; justice, not expedience.  Elsewhere in his prophecy, Amos makes this plain: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion!” (Amos 6:1, KJV).  We too, I am persuaded, have been placed in the midst of God’s people, called and empowered for such a time as this.  God grant that we will be faithful.

 

 

May
2018

Ghost Story

FORWARD: I am reposting this blog from May 2013 for Pentecost.  May I also share this prayer (from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, copyright © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts):

Creator Spirit and Giver of life,
make the dry, bleached bones of our lives
live and breathe and grow again
as you did of old.
Pour out your Spirit upon the whole creation.
Come in rushing wind and flashing fire
to turn the sin and sorrow within us
into faith, power, and delight. Amen.

Want to hear a good ghost story?  Read Ezekiel 37:1-14.  If you have never heard this one before, you are likely to wonder, “What is this doing in the Bible?”  It is a scene out of a horror movie, or a Stephen King novel.

First, the prophet is taken in a vision by the hand of the Lord to a valley, filled with dry, dusty, disjointed bones.

God asks Ezekiel, “Human one, can these bones live again?” (37:3).  The obvious answer is no—there is no life, and no possibility of life, in this place!  The bodies strewn across the valley are not only dead, they are long dead (37:2)–there is no point in calling 911!  But since his call, Ezekiel has seen (see 1—3 and 8—11) and done (see 4—5; 12:1-20; 24:15-27; as well as 37:15-28) some very odd things in the Lord’s service.  So he answers, simply “Lord God, only you know” (37:3).

Now, God commands the prophet, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word!” (37:4).  As Ezekiel delivers God’s promise of life to the dead bones, he hears “a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (37:7, NRSV).  He watches as, in accordance with the word he had proclaimed (37:5), the bones are joined by tendons and covered over with flesh.  Now, instead of a valley full of dry bones, the prophet is standing in a valley filled with corpses.

Again God speaks: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live” (37:9).

Hebrew writers love puns.  A pun on the different meanings of the Hebrew word ruakh (“breath” in the 37:8-9) runs through this story.  First, this word can mean “breath:” so, to say that there was no ruakh in the bodies (37:8) simply means that they were not breathing.  Related to this meaning is the use of ruakh for “wind” (37:9).  In keeping with the invisible force of the wind and the life-giving power of the breath is a third meaning. Ruakh can be rendered as “spirit”—that is, the empowering, enlivening agency of people, and in particular, of God (more on that one shortly).   So, as Ezekiel prophesied to the wind (ruakh), breath (ruakh) entered the bodies, and “they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company” (37:10)–not, please note, this

but this:

What does this vision mean?  In 37:11-14, God explains.  The dry bones are Ezekiel’s community, the house of Israel: exiled, and in despair.  They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.” (37:11)–and they are right!  Jerusalem is destroyed, the king is in chains, the temple is gone, and the people are scattered, in hiding or in exile.

But, deliverance is promised–a resurrection for dead Israel.  The Lord declares, “I will put my breath [there’s that third meaning of ruakh–God’s spirit, God’s very life]  in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says” (37:14).  Hope for the future, Ezekiel was convinced, would come from God and God alone, through the gift of God’s life-giving Spirit.

Another ghost story will be told in churches around the world on Sunday.  It comes from Acts 2 in the New Testament, but it builds on the same ideas and images Ezekiel used.  Jesus had told his followers, “Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power” (Lk 24:49).  So they had remained in Jerusalem; as our story begins, they have been there, waiting and praying, ever since Jesus’ resurrection.  It is now Pentecost, the Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover.

Suddenly, the room where they are praying is filled with wind and flame, and each person gathered in that room is filled with an overpowering urge to speak!  They pour out into the street, praising God, and discover to their astonishment and delight that everyone in that crowd, Pentecost pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from across the Roman world, understand perfectly what they are saying: “we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:11).

Ezekiel’s ghost story reminds us of the beginning–of how God had created the first human from the ground, breathing into him life.

Luke’s ghost story in Acts also takes us back to Genesis–this time, to the tower of Babel where human languages were confused and the human community was divided.

Just as in Ezekiel, God’s Spirit undoes the curse of exile, and brings those who had thought themselves as good as dead back to their homeland, so on Pentecost God’s Spirit undoes the confusion of Babel, and restores all humanity to oneness.

Perhaps, like Ezekiel’s community, we have experienced abandonment and despair.  Certainly, the curse of Babel has stricken deeply into our community, even into our families, bringing division and confusion.  The solution, for us as for them, is God’s Spirit, the Holy Ghost!

That may be hard for us to hear.  Ghosts are scary, after all; why should we let go of what seems so solid and real?  Why exchange the visible and tangible for the invisible, mysterious world of God’s spirit?  Quite simply, because we must.  We need God’s spirit because we do not have the answers we seek, and we cannot find them.  We need the gift of God’s spirit to empower and enliven us, to renew and reunite us.

W. Sibley Towner puts it this way: “We need all the energy and effort we can muster to concentrate on the whisperings of the only ghost that matters, whose name is Holy.  This spirit who proceeds from God doesn’t rock in chairs or frighten dogs, but plants winsome words in the human heart that yield great fruit if the heart is supple and ready.”

So may it be for you and yours this day.  God bless you–and Happy Pentecost!

May
2018

Happy Mother’s Day!

FORWARD:  I am reposting this Bible Guy blog from May 11, 2013.  This is now the third Mother’s Day since my own mother, Mary Louise Tuell, entered glory.  Today I am joyfully remembering my Mom.  I am also deeply thankful to God today for Wendy, mother to our three sons.  Happy Mother’s Day to you–and to all mothers reading these words!

 

 

Sunday is Mother’s Day.  For me, it is a day of joyous celebration–an opportunity to honor my own mother, Mary, for the love and blessing she has poured into my life (that’s my father Bernard on the right),

1

as well as my wife Wendy, mother to our three wonderful sons.  Thank you, thank you, thank you–I do not know who I would be today without your love and wisdom.

familyathebeach

But sadly, Scripture is not kind to women.  To take an example particularly relevant to Mother’s Day, childbirth was regarded by the priests as a defiling act, for mother and child alike (see Leviticus 12:2-8).  This is not surprising: in the priests’ world view, the life of any being was contained in the blood, so that blood belonged exclusively to God.  Childbirth being a bloody process, it is little wonder that the priests regarded it as defiling.  Still, the period of uncleanness is not the same with every birth, but depends upon the sex of the child: 7 days of impurity for a male child, 2 weeks of uncleanness if the baby is female!

Broadly speaking, in the patriarchal (that is, male-centered) societies out of which both our Old and New Testaments emerged, a woman was regarded as the property of a man: first her father, later her husband.  In the priestly version of the Ten Commandments,  Exodus 20:17 states, “Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”  Here, the wife, like the household servants, domestic animals, and everything else included in a man’s “house,” is regarded as property.

In the New Testament, then, it is no surprise to find passages restricting women’s role in the church.  1 Timothy 2:8-15 denies women the right to preach or lead, an argument made on the basis of the creation story: “Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived” (1 Tim 2:14; a rather biased reading of Genesis 3, where the man and the woman alike are held accountable).

Still, this is just what we would expect to find in a text that comes, as the Bible does, out of a patriarchal culture.   In biblical studies, what we do not find can prove as interesting and significant as what we do; surprises and exceptions take on a particular significance.

First of all, let’s consider the very beginning of the Bible.  While the traditional reading of Genesis 1:26 has God say, “Let us make man” (see the King James Version), the Common English Bible has “Let us make humanity” (Gen 1:26).   This is not, as some might think, political correctness.  It is a matter of accurate translation. In Hebrew, the word for “man” is ‘ish. But the word used here is ‘adam, which means “humanity.”  Human being is set apart from everything else in creation by something not mentioned.  There are “kinds” of plants, birds, fish, and animals (see Genesis 1:11-12, 21, 24-25).  However, there are no “kinds” of people. This is not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations, African and Asian; Jews regularly encountered people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations.  Instead, there is just ‘adam: one single human family. It is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism.

It is particularly important that we translate ‘adam correctly, because Genesis 1:27 goes on very plainly to state:

God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.

Both masculinity and femininity, both maleness and femaleness, are reflections of God in this text. There is no basis here for placing women under men. To be sure, Israel’s traditions were not always equal to this insight!  Yet here it is, at the very beginning of the Bible.  Sexism, like racism, is denied any place in God’s rightly ordered world.

Another surprise comes in the second version of the Ten Commandments, in the book of Deuteronomy (which in Greek means “second law”).  Deuteronomy 5:21 reads:

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife.

Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

Both the break in the middle of this verse, and the different words used with regard to the neighbor’s wife and the neighbor’s property, are features of the Hebrew text of Deuteronomony.  While in the Exodus 20 version, women are included in the neighbors “house” as property, the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy make a clear distinction between the wife and the house: women are not property, here!

The Old Testament is filled with surprising stories about strong women taking the lead.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, was a prophet (see Micah 6:4, which describes Miriam alongside Moses and Aaron as leading the Israelites to freedom). The prophet Deborah (Judges 4-5) unites the tribes of Israel against their enemies. Ruth, a poor Moabite widow, takes the first step in proclaiming her love to Boaz, and becomes the ancestress of King David.  Esther risks her position and her life to stand up for her persecuted people.

In the Gospels, Jesus continually demonstrates concern for women (see the discussion of Jesus’ position on divorce in my earlier blog, “HWJR?“).  John’s gospel describes the remarkable story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well, talks with him, and becomes the first missionary! Jesus’ movement was supported by women (Luke 8:2-3).  At the end, even when his disciples had forsaken him, the women remained, at the cross and at the tomb, so that it was women who were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

In the letters of Paul, everywhere that the apostle offers personal greetings, he mentions women, by name.  Romans 16 provides several fascinating examples: Paul greets Phoebe, who he calls a deacon (the CEB reads “servant,” but notice that this is the same Greek title given in Acts to male leaders like Philip and Stephen), Prisca and Aquila (a husband and wife ministry team; here as elsewhere, Paul breaks convention by mentioning the wife, Prisca, first), Mary, and most remarkably, Andronicus and Junia, another husband and wife team who are “prominent among the apostles”–Paul refers to Junia here as an apostle!

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul insists that Corinthian women follow custom by wearing a head covering while prophesying: emphasizing a distinction between women and men.  Still, this passage presupposes that women were speaking in the churches–Paul just wants them to do so respectfully!

Most remarkable of all is Paul’s bold proclamation in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Since, for Paul, all of us have access to God through Jesus and Jesus alone, every earthly hierarchy has been overthrown.  All of us approach God on an equal footing, women and men alike.

Viewed in the context of the whole of Scripture, then, we can understand the attitudes expressed in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 without feeling bound by them. In my tradition, for nearly as long as the Methodist movement has been in existence, women have been preaching.  In 1787, John Wesley himself gave permission for Sarah Mallet to preach, holding her to standards no different than those expected of all Methodist lay preachers.  However, it was a move severely criticized.

Many regarded women preachers as little more than a novelty; Samuel Johnson, upon hearing of women preaching in the Quaker movement, said, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

The powerful preaching of women evangelists such as Jarena Lee

and Phoebe Palmer

gave the lie to such condescending nonsense.  But still, though women were recognized as evangelists or local pastors, they were mostly barred from ordination in the various denominations that would form the United Methodist Church (the former United Brethren being an occasional exception).  Not until 1956, the year I was born, were women ordained in the former Methodist Church, a right expressly continued in 1968 when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches joined to form the United Methodist Church.

Tragically, still today, women in ministry face resistance and rejection.  Rather like the eleven in Luke 24:11, who considered the women’s testimony about Jesus’ resurrection “nonsense,” too many of us refuse to hear the good news when proclaimed by a woman.  But by refusing to hear God’s word proclaimed in a female voice, we close ourselves off from God.  May the Lord open our minds and hearts and ears, to receive with joy the witness to our Lord’s death and resurrection that faithful women continue to bring.

AFTERWORD:

Even as I praise God today for all faithful women pursuing Christ’s call to proclaim God’s Word, I am deeply sad for my United Methodist Church, which failed to approve two amendments to our constitution affirming the full equality of women.  Here are the two rejected amendments, in full:

Proposed Constitutional Amendment – I

On May 16, 2016, at a session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church held in Portland, Oregon, the following Constitutional Amendment was adopted by a recorded vote of 746 Yes, 56 No (Calendar Item 121, DCA p. 2106).

In the 2012 Book of Discipline, Division One, add a new paragraph between current ¶¶ 5 and 6: As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girl’s equality and well-being. If voted and so declared by the Council of Bishops, this would become the new ¶6, and the current ¶¶ 6-61 would be renumbered as ¶¶ 7-62.

Proposed Constitutional Amendment – II

On May 20, 2016, at a session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church held in Portland, Oregon, the following Constitutional Amendment was adopted by a recorded vote of 509 Yes, 242 No (Calendar Item 429, DCA p. 2212).

In the 2012 Book of Discipline, Division One, ¶4, Article IV, amend by deletion and addition as follows: After “all persons” delete “without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition”. After “because of race, color, national origin,” delete “status,” and add “ability”. At the end of the paragraph, add “nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.” Page 2 of 4 If voted and so declared by the Council of Bishops, ¶ 4 would read: The United Methodist Church is part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist church, no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, ability, or economic condition, nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.

We have, as it happens, a second chance on the first amendment, as one sentence that should not have been included in the amendment (removed by a vote of 746-56) was inadvertently included in the version that was distributed:

The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine.

Actually, I like that sentence!   But I understand that some may have misconstrued it.  Without it, I fail to see any reason that anyone would oppose this amendment. While I still mourn the failure of amendment 2, I welcome this opportunity for our church to get this right as regards amendment 1.

Mar
2018

Standing at this tomb of water. . .

FOREWORD: I am reposting this blog from 2013, in recognition of this Holy Saturday, and in eager anticipation of tomorrow’s Day of Resurrection!  God bless you, my friends–Christ is risen indeed!

It is Holy Saturday—a day of waiting and expectancy, poised between the anguish of Good Friday and the exultant, full-throated joy of Easter.  As part of my Lenten discipline, I have been learning to pray the Rosary.  On Friday, then, I was meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of Jesus’ suffering and death—a meditation driven home powerfully and poignantly by the readings and music of Good Friday worship.

The meditations set for Saturdays are the Joyful Mysteries—Gabriel announcing Jesus’ birth to Mary, her visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, his presentation at the temple as a baby, and Mary and Joseph finding Jesus, now a young boy, in the temple asking questions (see Luke 1:26—2:52).  As I was praying, it suddenly hit me: the womb and the tomb and Jesus coming forth, from each, to new life!

When you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you discover that the spot traditionally recognized as Jesus’ birthplace is in a cave.

The limestone hills of the region are honeycombed with caves, which were used in Jesus’ day for storage, as stables, and as homes, so it may well be that this is indeed the spot.  Startling to think on that today, reflecting on the broken, abused body of Jesus, taken from the cross and laid in another cave: the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-56).

The womb and tomb connections were driven home particularly by a song that has been in my head since Wednesday.  In chapel that day, remembering Jesus’ tomb, we gathered around the baptismal font and heard, beautifully played and sung, this contemporary setting of an old hymn (I have given the original words below).  The line “Standing at this tomb of water” has stayed with me, and meditating on the waters of Mary’s womb has given them a new resonance.  Water of life, water of death; beginning and ending and beginning again.

The power of this image, its depth and richness, are that it is not just a story about long ago and far away.  Jesus defeated death, not just for himself, but for us all.  His triumph over sin, death, hell, and the grave is our triumph, too!  Remember this, friends, when this day of waiting is over, and Easter morning dawns.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And so are we.

Hast thou said, exalted Jesus,

Take thy cross and follow Me?

Shall the word with terror seize us?

Shall we from the burden flee?

Lord, I’ll take it, Lord, I’ll take it,

And rejoicing, follow Thee.

 

Sweet the sign that thus reminds me,

Savior, of Thy love to me;

Sweeter still the love that binds me

In its deathless bond to Thee.

Oh, what pleasure, oh, what pleasure,

Buried with my Lord to be!

 

While this liquid tomb surveying,

Shall I shun its brink, betraying

Feelings worthy of a slave?

Can I run from mercy’s wave?

No! I’ll enter, No! I’ll enter;

Jesus enter’d Jordan’s wave.

 

Should it rend some fond connection,

Should I suffer shame or loss,

Yet the fragrant, blest reflection:

I have been where Jesus was,

Will revive me, will revive me,

When I faint beneath the cross.

 

Then baptized in love and glory,

Lamb of God, Thy praise I’ll sing,

Loudly with the immortal story

All the harps of heaven shall ring.

Saints and seraphs, Saints and seraphs

Love and worship then will bring!

 

John Eustace Giles (1805-1875)