Hand on Bible

“Rivers into Desert” – This Week’s Lectionary Texts

This week’s Lectionary texts include a Psalm that celebrates a God who rescues humanity from distress, turning rivers into desert. The Revised Common Lectionary skips over several verses, but the entire Psalm – which is a celebration of divine grace and mercy for those who are in distress – is well worth reading.

The texts also include a passage from Joshua in which Israel is assured that God will “drive out” rival clans from their new homeland. This text introduces a series of stories that hold to a disturbing theological perspective – one which suggests that God can and does mandate violent conflict to advance divine purposes, even to the point of genocide!

Regardless of how you interpret the brutal military campaign that is described in Joshua, it is important to understand the context in which it was written. The storytellers who, over generations, told and re-told the accounts that are now recorded in the Old Testament, lived in an world in which competing tribal claims to land were an ever-present  reality – one that often resulted in bloodshed. Stories about how the current division of land came to be were often told to justify the claims of each tribe. The book of Joshua is largely an effort to explain why – in spite of the fact that they are latecomers – Israel has a valid claim to land that was formerly inhabited by rival clans.

If you are reading with the Extended Lectionary, then read the following:

Prayer

Faith, Hope, Love – This Week’s Prayer

Lord, give us passion for your ways and confidence in your promise that a new world is coming. Let faith, hope, and love, flow abundantly from our hearts. Amen.

Traditional:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Hand on Bible

“My Presence Will Go With You and You Will Rest” – This Week’s Texts

This week’s Lectionary texts are:

  • Psalm 99
  • Exodus 33:12-23
  • I Thessalonians 1:1-10
  • Matthew 22:15-22

If you are reading with the Extended Lectionary, you should also read the following:

  • All of Exodus 33
  • All of I Thessalonians 1
  • Matthew 22:15-33

In Exodus, the conversation between Moses and God centers on the question of how Moses will know that God is with him during the trials ahead. God assures Moses not only of Presence, but ultimately of rest. Does this question also characterize your own spiritual journey?

The text from Matthew presents a trick question – whose image is on the coin? The answer is not as obvious as you might think. Yes, the image is that of Caesar, but humanity itself is made in the image of God! This text is teaching us to see the world with deep contemplation – how you “see” the world is even more important than what you see in the world.

Hand on Bible

Texts for Fall/Summer 2014

(Note: text in parenthesis is the scheduled lectionary text)

Week Psalm OT NT Gospel
June 9(Trinity Sunday) 6-8 (8) (1:1-2:4a) Gen 1:1-2:4a, 4-12 (2 Cor 13:11-13) (Matt 28:16-20)
June 16(Proper 7) 86 (86:1-10, 16-17) Gen 13-21 (21:8-21) Romans 1:1-6:11 (6:1b-11) Matt 7:1 -10:39 (10:24-39)
June 23(Proper 8) 10-13 (13) Gen 22 (22:1-14) (Romans 6:12-23) Matt 10:40-11:15 (10:40-42)
June 30(Proper 9) 44-45 (45:10-17) Gen 23-24 (24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67) Romans 7(Romans 7:1-25a) Matt 11-12(11:16-19, 25-30)
July 7(Proper 10) (119:105-112) Gen 25 -26 (25:19-34) (Romans 8:1-11) Matt 13:1-23 (13:1-9, 18-23)
July 14(Proper 11) 139 (139:1-12, 23-24) Gen 27-28 (28:10-19a) (Romans 8:12-25) Matt 13:24-43 (13:24-30, 36-43)
July 21(Proper 12) 105 (105:1-11, 45b) Gen 29-30 (29:15-28) (Romans 8:26-39) Matt 13:31-58 (13:31-33, 41-52)
July 28(Proper 13) 17 (17:1-7, 15) Gen 31-33 (32:22-31) Romans 9(Romans 9:1-5) Matt 14:1-21 (14:13-21)
August 4(Proper 14) 105(105:1-6,16-22,45b) Gen 34-42 (37:1-4, 12-28) Romans 10(10:5-15) Matt 14:22-36 (14:22-33)
August 11(Proper 15) 133 (133) Gen 43-50 (45:1-15) Romans 11(11:1-2a, 29-32) Matt 15 (15:10-20, 21-28)
August 18(Proper 16) (124) Exodus 1-2 (1:8-2:10) (Romans 12:1-8) Matthew 16:1-20 (16:13-20)
August 25(Proper 17) 105 (105:1-6, 23-26, 45b) Exodus 3-11 (3:1-15) (Romans 12:9-21) (Matt 16:21-28)
September 1(Proper 18) 149 (149) Exodus 12-13 (12:1-14) Romans 13(13:8-14) Matt 17:1-18:20 (18:15-20)
September 8(Proper 19) 114 (114) Exodus 14-15 (14:19-31) Romans 14-16(14:1-12) Matt 17-18 (18:21-35)
September 15(Proper 20) 105 (105:1-6, 37-45) Exodus 16 (16:2-15) Philippians 1(1:21-30) Matt 19-20 (20:1-16)
September 22(Proper 21) 78 (78:1-4, 12-16) Exodus 17-19 (17:1-7) Philippians 2(2:1-13) Matt 21:1-32 (21:23-32)
September 29(Proper 22) 18-19 (19) Exodus 20-26 (20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20) Philippians 3(3:4b-14) (Matt 21:33-46)
October 6(Proper 23) 106 (106:1-6, 19-23) Exodus 27-32 (32:1-14) Philippians 4(4:1-9) (Matt 22:1-14)
October 13(Proper 24) 99 (99) Exodus 33 (33:12-23) I Thess 1(1:1-10) Matt 22:15-33 (22:15-22)
October 20(Proper 25) 90 (90:1-6, 13-17) Exodus 34-40 (34:1-12) (I Thess 2:1-8) (Matt 22:34-46)
October 27(Proper 26) 107 (107:1-7, 33-37) Joshua 1-12 (3:7-17) I Thess 2:9-20(2:9-13) Matt 23-24 (23:1-12)
November 3(Proper 27) 78 (78:1-7) Joshua 13-24 (24:1-3a, 14-25) I Thess 3-4(4:13-18) (Matt 25:1-13)
November 10(Proper 28) 123 (123) (Judges 4:1-7) I Thess 5(5:1-11) (Matt 25:14-30)
November 17(Reign of Christ) 100 (100) (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24) (Eph 1:15-23) Matt 25:31-28:20 (25:31-46)

Hobby Lobby: Some Initial Notes

Just a few notes I have made as I have worked through the opinion tonight. In short, I think this is a big swing-and-miss for the Court. I am with Ginsburg’s dissent. Here’s why:

1. On Religious Liberty and Corporations. The Court disagrees with the Third Circuit’s observation that corporations don’t exercise religion because they don’t “pray, worship, observe sacraments, or take other religiously motivated actions…” 573 U.S. ___, slip op. at 18 (quoting 724 F.3d at 385). It dismisses the observation by asserting that corporations do nothing apart from the people that run them. But that only begs the question – what, exactly, is it that a corporation can do that is itself religious?  It can exercise rights of speech and economic rights, but in what sense can we say that a corporation can “exercise” religion at all? This is the troubling issue at the heart of the opinion.

2. On the Sincerity of Hobby Lobby. “…the Hahns and Greens have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception. They therefore object on religious grounds to providing health insurance that covers methods of birth control that…may result in the destruction of an embryo.” (my emphasis) Slip op. at 32. I was disappointed that the government conceded the facts on this point so readily. It is far from clear that at least two of the birth control methods at issue were abortifacients. And it is hard to be “sincere” about a fact which one knows cannot be proven as true.

But my bigger problem here is that there is no effort to distinguish the sincerity of (a) the belief that life begins at conception (which is well and good enough) and the sincerity of (b) the objection “to providing health insurance that covers” possibly abortifacient birth control. Just because you sincerely believe in (a) doesn’t mean you pass the sincerity test for (b). Making dangerous implements available to people for responsible use (i.e., guns, cars, other drugs, etc.) doesn’t create a moral hazard just because they might be abused or misused for other purposes. And the fact that Hobby Lobby has admitted before the Court that it extended coverage for some of these methods of birth control before the ACA took effect would seemingly make it impossible for Hobby Lobby to establish that it is in the least bit sincere about (b) as a deeply held religious belief.

The problem, then, is that Hobby Lobby – to the extent it can hold a religious conviction at all – doesn’t and can’t possibly believe that that it is immoral to pay for insurance that might or might not be used to purchase a method of contraception that probably isn’t abortifacient, and which in turn might or might not cause a very early-term pregnancy to abort. Heck, they probably take bigger risks that someone will get killed when they send an employee to run an errand to another store across town.

I wish the government had argued what everyone already knows is the truth: this is a politically motivated move to discredit the ACA as a whole by asserting a trumped-up religious belief that buying insurance for an employee is somehow immoral.

(To be clear, my problem is with whether the facts support the sincerity of the stated belief, not whether it is objectively reasonable – the issue which the Court focuses on pp. 36-38.)

3. On Whether the ACA is the Least Restrictive Means to Accomplish the End. Here, Angels begin to perform brilliant versions of swan lake on the heads of pins. The Government, the Court says, can “assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue…” Slip op. at 41. It is hard for me to imagine how the alternative method suggested by the Court is in any way less morally reprehensible or attenuated than the first scenario.

4. On the “Limited” Nature of the Holding. “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests…” Slip op. at 46. Yeah. And good luck when that one comes along in a few months, guys.* You are going to find it is a nightmare trying to sort out where the ACA does and does not have a compelling interest. Ginsburg will get to this one later.

5. Ginsburg Dissent: “…commercial enterprises…can [now] opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Slip op. at 1. Exactly. Except she forgot to mention that the standard for sincerity is now ridiculously easy to satisfy (see # 2 above).

6. Ginsburg: “…the amendment in no way suggests that Congress meant to expand the class of entities qualified to mount religious accommodation claims…” Slip op. at 10.

7. Ginsburg: “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations.” Slip op. at 16.

8. Interesting from Ginsburg: “RFRA…distinguishes between ‘factual allegations that…beliefs are sincere’…and the ‘legal conclusion…that religious exercise substantially burdened.'” Slip op. at 22. In other words, the fact that you are sincere about your belief does not itself yield the legal result that are sufficiently burdened to justify applying the Act.

9. Ginsburg: “To recapitulate, the mandated…coverage enables women to avoid health problems unintended pregnancies may visit on them and their children. [citation omitted]. The coerage helps safeguard the health of women for whom pregnancy may be hazardous… [citation omitted]. And the mandate secures benefits wholly unrelated to pregnancy, preventing certain cancers, menstrual disorders, and pelvic pain.” Slip op. at 24.

10. And this, from Ginsburg: “…approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation [could violate] the “very risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.” Slip op. at 34. In other words, once the Court decides to start calling balls and strikes as to which mandates are applicable and which aren’t, they risk running afoul of the First Amendment. (And it will be interesting to see what happens when Muslims begin to make similar claims).

__________________

*Not being sexist. Tellingly, none of the women on the Court went with this one.

Ceremonial Knife

Abraham, Isaac, and Violence-Based Religion

Ceremonial KnifeToday, a brief reflection on one of today’s lectionary texts (Genesis 22):

Imagine that you are a priest in an ancient temple that ascribes to a one God/creator God theology. Imagine that your world is filled with other, pagan religious temples that, unlike your own faith, advocate the practice of human sacrifice. And imagine that – one day – someone comes up to you and asks: “Why doesn’t your faith practice human sacrifice? Don’t you know that the gods demand it?”

You know that your own faith shares a lot of stories with the other, pagan religions. There are all kinds of stories about humanity’s ancestors-in-faith that have been passed along orally from generation to generation. And you know that some of those stories have to do with a very ancient, very important Father who was named Abraham.

So, in response to that question about human sacrifice, you tell one of the stories of Abraham and his equally-well-known son, Isaac. This story begins with a god who demands a sacrifice, much like the pagan gods do (or so people are told). But the story ends with a twist. Instead of requiring Abraham to go through with the sacrifice, God commands him to stop and instead offer an animal sacrifice.

If you were to tell this story well, as it is told in the Bible, your story will contain a subtle shift in the way you use the name(s) of God. You start by regularly using a name for God that is sometimes more directly related to the pagan gods, but by the end of the story you are using a different name – one that is often associated with a different kind of God, perhaps one that is more concerned with justice and peace than with being appeased by sacrifice.

It turns out, you explain at the end of the story, that – even though God may have tested the loyalty of those in the past by asking for human sacrifice – this is not something that God truly desires. In reality, God does not require human blood as a show of loyalty or appeasement.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy!” the angel says at the end of the story.

Does this warning echo no further than the altar where Isaac was to be offered? Or is it intended to be heard through the centuries? Are we to understand that the creator/God is never one to require appeasement by violence? And if it is true that appeasement-by-violence is simply not the way of God, how might it change the way we think of the work of Jesus on the cross?

“All People” – A Reflection on Pentecost

Tomorrow, many churches – including mine – will be celebrating Pentecost, a day that I think is much too underrated/under celebrated within the Western church. To get a picture of why Pentecost is important, it helps to step back and look at the overall flow of the Christian calendar. It looks something like this:

Advent -> Christmas -> Lent -> Good Friday -> Easter -> Ascension Sunday -> Pentecost

Each of these observances point to an important marker in the development of the Christian faith. Advent begins with a longing for the presence of God among us. This leads to Christmas, in which the incarnation of God is observed, and then progressively “down” into Lent and Good Friday, where God suffers and dies among us.

At the point of Good Friday, we can say that God has fully entered into our humanity, having been born, having lived among us, and having died as a human being. He has, we can say, followed a path of descent – the way of suffering, death and decay – one which all of us know all too well.

But now the Christian story turns upwards, into an ascending pattern. That is to say, the story arc of Jesus ceases to be a story of descent and instead takes the shape of a redemptive arc. Unlike the rest of us, Jesus rises from the dead. He then ascends into heaven. But – even then – “ascension” doesn’t really complete the story.

The early Christian writings emphasize that, in ascending or “returning” to God, Jesus also became an integral part of the cosmos. Paul, for example, uses language that describes Jesus as in all things and through all things.

In other words, Jesus not only ascends, he transcends.

And it is only on Pentecost that the transcendence of Jesus is completed.

This aspect of the Christian faith is important because it marks the point in which the “story” of Advent/Christmas/Good Friday/Easter is passed on to us. Having paid us a short visit, Jesus does not, as he says in the Gospel of John, abandon us as orphans. Instead, he returns to us in the transcendent form of spirit.

This spirit, in turn, makes it possible for Jesus to be accessible to all people at all times.

On Pentecost Sunday, we remember this sermon that was preached by Peter. And in his sermon, Peter quotes from this passage that was written by a prophet named Joel. Here is what Peter says:

[T]his is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Notice the universal nature of the language in this poetry that Peter recites. God will pour out Holy spirit on all people. High and low. Male and female. Races and nations of all types.

Pentecost is important, because without it, we might end up concluding that – although the story of Jesus is very inspiring, and perhaps hopeful – there is nothing in the here and now for us, or for the rest of humanity.

I am always hesitant to talk about the problem of God in terms of accessibility. Some people like to use the theological language of “gulfs” and “gaps” and “separation.” But I don’t like that language.

God’s spirit is here and now among you, and me, and all people. That spirit simply needs to be recognized and embraced. As Paul would put it in his sermon to the philosophers in Athens, “He is not far from each of us.” Then, quoting a Greek poet, he says: “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

So I hope you will join me in the celebration of Pentecost tomorrow – recognizing the transcendent Christ and the nearness of the Spirit of God to all people.

On Spiritual Sight

The ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, on display at the Smithsonian (Photo by Chris Evans)

I had a chance today to speak at the weekly gathering of my faith community about the healing of a blind man in John 9. I talked about how some of the themes from The Wizard of Oz intersect with this story in interesting ways.

The Wizard of Oz is a story about Dorothy waking up – but not simply from an injury that she incurs as a result of a Kansas cyclone. She wakes up to the fact that her seemingly bland existence is filled with more than she originally believed. She becomes aware of the miracle of her own life and of the lives around her.

But The Wizard of Oz is also a story about a wizard who isn’t really a wizard. He is just a con man who relies on an elaborate system of steam and projectors and mirrors to create the illusion of power. He hides behind a curtain, hoping that he will never be found out.

This is also the story of John 9: a man who is blind in more ways than one comes to see the world differently, while a group of people trying to cling to the illusion of their own power refuse to see the same thing.

What does the blind man see? The same thing the writer of the story wants you to see: that God is present in Jesus making a new creation. This is the theme that drives the Gospel of John from the very first verse, which echos the theme of creation from Genesis 1. In John, Jesus’ miracles are signs that point to the work of God – present in the world – renewing and remaking everything that is fallen.

But the power brokers in this man’s community can’t tolerate this. They depend on a purity system, which labels some things as “holy” and some things as “impure” as a means of holding onto power. Jesus’ miracle disrupts their system because it dares to treat someone thought to be “sinful” (because he is blind) as clean and pure, and because he doesn’t need their blessing to do it.

Purity systems rely on the leaders’ assignment of shame and honor as a means of keeping people in line. The leaders will claim that they are merely assigning shame and honor as God would have them. But they aren’t. That is the illusion. That is also why the man’s parents – when they meet with the leaders – are afraid to say anything in their son’s support. But Jesus is creating shamelessness everywhere he goes – every time they turn around. (By the way, if you have been following the news this week, you have witnessed first hand the power of a purity/shaming system – which can cause large institutions to reverse their policies within a matter of hours).

The people who run the purity/shaming system can’t admit that God is working outside their system. So they institute a policy of denial. They keep calling meeting after meeting, hoping that they eventually get an outcome that supports their claim. They want to create an echo chamber where they can speak lies to each other and pretend those lies are true. (This, by the way, never happens in our day). They are going to refuse to see the thing that is perfectly obvious: God is here, at work, and not particularly concerned about who does and doesn’t fit in their purity systems.

Which brings us to the irony that is presented at the end of the story: the blind see and those who claim to see are blind. For those who refuse to see, “their sin remains.” It was true then. It is still true today.

In John, sin is not a category of moral behavior. It is a refusal to recognize and participate in something that God is doing. Those who “sin” and are therefore subjecting themsevles to judgment, are the ones who refuse to get on the Love Train.

Peace.

do justice. love kindness. live prudently.