Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017 || Epiphany 4A || Matthew 5:1-12

I thought I hit record this week, but I didn’t, and with only one service because of St. Mark’s Annual Meeting, I failed to capture the audio for this sermon. Apologies.

Three weeks ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

We began with Belovedness. God sees and names us and each person we meet as God’s Beloved. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Next we talked about God befriending us. God calls us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own. Love leads to friendship, which leads us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Here we claim our giftedness, not to make ourselves feel special, but to use our gifts to make others feel so. We claim our giftedness, which helps us be blessings in the world.

With this word – “blessing” – we return for a fourth time to God’s point of view. God sees, names, and celebrates us as blessed. There are two parts to blessing: sustenance and mission, and neither is particularly well understood. Continue reading “Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)”

God and Not-God: A Short History

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15

GodandNotGodThere’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”

So with that humorous word of caution in my mind, I turned my attention to Trinity Sunday, traditionally one of the thornier preaching days of the year. Continue reading “God and Not-God: A Short History”

Walk on Together

Sermon for Sunday, June 29, 2014 || Proper 8A || Genesis 22:1-14

(I forgot to hit the button on my recording device this week, so it’s just text this time around.)

walkontogetherAs I contemplate my impending fatherhood, the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read a few minutes ago, has taken on new meaning for me. I’ve always struggled with this story, and, if you’ve ever read or heard it, I’m sure you have, too. This reading from the Hebrew Scripture brings up so many questions: why would God ever test someone in such a barbaric way? How could God be so apparently abusive? How could Abraham even think about going through with it? If the angel hadn’t stopped him, would Abraham actually have killed his son? What would that prove?

We could spend this and many more sermons attempting to explain (and only succeeding in explaining away) such difficult questions. We could say that people experienced God differently back then, but that wouldn’t satisfy us. We could say that this story simply narrates the move from human to animal sacrifice, which, in future generations, distinguished the Israelites from many of their neighbors. This is a little better, but such academic aloofness doesn’t account for the tenderness of the relationship displayed between Abraham and Isaac. We could say so many things in order to feel okay about this story, but, despite the happy ending, something will still not sit right. Indeed, the Jewish rabbis have been struggling with the binding of Isaac for millennia; one sermon from me isn’t going to put a dent in that effort.

But I have to say something, so here goes. Often, when a story in the Bible makes us feel uncomfortable, we have a tendency to dismiss it: to flip the page, wipe the offending verses from our memory banks, and move on as if they never existed. However, if we take the time, like the Jewish rabbis, to struggle with the difficult passages instead of ignoring them, we can hear the Holy Spirit whispering good news to us, even in the midst of the struggle. I heard such a whisper of good news this week when I read the binding of Isaac over and over again in preparation for this sermon.

The whisper of good news started when, as I said, I began reading the story through the lens of my impending fatherhood. I expected to be horrified by Abraham’s action as I have been in the past; by the “I was only following orders” defense Abraham would have had to give Sarah when he got home, had he gone through with it. Strangely, this time around, the first time I’ve ever read this story after having spent hours staring at the ultrasound picture of my son’s face, I was not horrified.

I wasn’t. Instead of seeing the brutality of the test, I saw the tenderness of the relationship between father and son in a pair of verses that I’ve never noticed before. On the third day, Abraham and his son Isaac leave their servants and pack animals and continue on alone. Here the narrator tells us, “So the two of them walked on together.” As they make their way up the mountain, Isaac stops and questions his father. Abraham answers, and then again the narrator tells us, “So the two of the walked on together.” Father and son, together: Keeping each other from stumbling as they hike up the mountain; feeling each other’s warmth; walking hand in hand, perhaps.

Of course, the sad irony of this walking up the mountain together is that Abraham is preparing to walk down alone. Or is he? And this is where a new question arises, a question that links Abraham’s deep relationship with Isaac to Abraham’s deep relationship with God. The question is this: Is Abraham lying?

In between those two tender bits of narration (“So the two of them walked on together”) Isaac asks the whereabouts of the lamb for the burnt offering. And Abraham responds: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

So, is Abraham lying to Isaac here? Is Abraham just telling Isaac what the boy needs to hear to keep him going, to keep him pliant? Or does Abraham actually believe what he is saying to his son? Does Abraham believe that God will, indeed, provide a way out of this mess?

I think the answer falls somewhere in between. A cynical person would call his response a lie. But I think Abraham is speaking out of his hope, out of the deepest conviction of his heart that he will not need to go through with it, that the promise God made to him years earlier will continue to hold, the promise that countless generations will spring from his son Isaac. No, Abraham isn’t lying: he’s speaking the only truth he’s ever known. From the day Abraham stepped out into the desert all those years ago, God has provided, even when Abraham’s impatience or fear kept him from seeing God’s provision.

But for us the phrase, “God will provide,” has, sadly, reached sound byte status. We hear the words and say, “Yeah, sure,” and then go about our business. And we fail to attribute to God’s provision both the miniscule and the monumental blessings in our lives. For all the struggle our story today causes, the binding of Isaac also invites us to hear again the good news that God does, indeed, provide, and God gives us the eyes to notice God’s provision.

It all starts with the word “provide”: in Hebrew this is literally the word “see” or “perceive.” So when Abraham says to Isaac, “God will provide,” we can loosely translate it as, “We shall see what God is up to.” This understanding of God’s provision presupposes that God is already active wherever we are going, that God has already shown up when we arrive. We enter a story already in progress, so to speak.

Notice what Abraham says three times in our passage today: “Here I am.” With these words, Abraham makes himself available, opens himself up, orients himself towards the stimulus of his response. “Here I am,” is the verbal equivalent of a posture of openness and reception. By saying, “Here I am,” Abraham signals his desire to see what God is up to, to see how God is providing in the current situation.

We believe that a piece of God’s very nature is that of provider. And we have the opportunity to participate in God’s provision by training ourselves to see the many and varied ways God is moving in our lives. When Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide, Abraham is reminding himself what he believes, what he has relied on his whole life. God’s provision has not always fit Abraham’s timetable, and Abraham has not always done the best job trusting, but, one way or another, God has provided.

When we look back at the trajectories of our lives, we often see coincidences that cannot be explained; or relationships that have stood the test of time; or burdens we didn’t think we could bear, but did. This is evidence of God providing. But so are the deep, calming breath when the baby is screaming her head off; and your mother’s embrace after a hard day at school; and the desire to help someone in need; and all of the little things that never make headlines, that we won’t remember when we look back at the trajectories of our lives.

Since we won’t remember the small blessings once they’ve sunk down into the depths of memory, God invites us to appreciate today’s provision today. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” for the same reason Abraham told Isaac that God will provide: so that our eyes will be open to the blessings of this life, so that a day never goes by when we don’t notice God’s presence in something, no matter how small.

I know the story of the binding of Isaac is hard to hear and uncomfortable to process. Even so, through it the Holy Spirit has good news to whisper into our hearts. Today, the good news is that God provides and we participate in that provision when we say, “Here I am.” As we move through our daily journeys, sustained by our daily bread, each of us has the opportunity to walk hand in hand with God, to go forth and see what God is up to. So take joy in trusting that when our stories are written in the book of life, the narrator will say, “So the two of them walked on together.”

*Art: Detail from “Abraham and Isaac” by Rembrandt (1645)
*Thanks to Kathryn Schifferdecker’s article on Workingpreacher.org for the Hebrew relationship between seeing and providing.

Pocketing the Sunglasses

During the summer, I am preaching without notes or a text; as such, what follows is the unraveling of my thought processes for a sermon, not the actual words I spoke.

I was riding the T on my way to Mass General when I noticed a young fellow across from me pick up a pair of sunglasses that had fallen out of the pocket of the man sitting next to him. The man was reading a crumpled edition of the free newspaper that seems to germinate in subway stations and hadn’t noticed his glasses fall. The fellow looked at the sunglasses for half a minute and then spent the rest of the minute attempting to get the attention of the man with the free paper. Finally, he poked the man in the knee with the glasses, and the man pocketed them with a grateful smile to the young fellow.

The fellow could have easily put the sunglasses into his own pocket, the complimentary bounty of the inattentive man. Rather, he confirmed my sometimes flagging faith in the human race and handed the glasses back. Of course, there is a clear right and clear wrong in this situation, and to his credit, the fellow chose the right.

Now (and this is for posterity, so be honest) how many of you would have taken the glasses for yourself? How many of you would have seen the (perhaps expensive) shades and decided that the man with the paper didn’t really need them anymore? Finders Keepers, right?

Owing to what were (I am sure) fine upbringings, I hope none of you raised your hands. We spend a goodly amount of time teaching our children the difference between right and wrong. “Emily, I’m glad you’re sharing your jelly beans with your brother. That’s the right thing to do.” “Jimmy, stop hitting your sister. That’s wrong!” Distinguishing between right and wrong is easy. If you have to keep your action a secret – say, for example, you cut the hair off all of your sister’s Barbie dolls – then you’ve probably chosen the wrong thing to do. From an early age, we learn right from wrong, and we hopefully also learn to choose the right, although the actions of recent Wall Street executives disprove the unanimity of this childhood lesson.

While we spend a good deal of time on this lesson, we spend much less time teaching our children the much trickier ability of choosing between right and right. How do we decide when the choice is not between a good and a bad, but between a good and another good?

Let’s look at an example. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. It’s only 35 seconds after all. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law should override the good of you arriving at your destination a few seconds sooner.

Now let’s add a few more variables. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. Your wife is in the backseat; her contractions are only a few minutes apart. The baby is coming any minute now! You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Respect for the law tells you to wait, but the biological instinct to protect your wife and unborn child by getting to the hospital as soon as humanly possible tells you to go Go GO. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law falls short of the good of getting your wife to a medical professional.

Choosing between right and right is a tricky business because both choices are good. So, how do we followers of Jesus make these choices? This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson provides some clarity. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and then goes about her tasks. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him speak. When Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part.

Does this mean that Martha has chosen the wrong thing? Has she done something bad? Of course she hasn’t. This isn’t a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. Martha has done the same thing that Abraham does in the accompanying reading from Genesis. Abraham bustled around preparing a meal for the three men, who tell him that he and Sarah are finally going to have a child of their own. This bustling isn’t right in the Hebrew scripture and wrong in the Gospel. Martha does the right thing: she provides hospitality for the gathering, which is arguably the highest good in the Hebrew law.

But Jesus says that Mary does a better right thing. She listens to Jesus when she is in his presence. She is not distracted or worried, but attentive to his words. This is the better good, which does not erase Martha’s attempt to do the right thing. Rather, Mary displays the fundamental action, of which Martha’s welcome and hospitality are secondary outcomes.

When I am worried and distracted by many things, how often do I actually stop, take a deep breath, and listen? Not often enough, I’ll tell you. Even when I am engaged in good things, my busyness often drowns out that voice, for which I should be listening. Choosing between right and wrong is easy, but choosing between right and right is difficult. When I have so many good things clamoring for my attention, I first must sit down at the feet of Jesus Christ and listen.

The Word Happens

(Sermon for February 28, 2010 || Lent 2, Year C, RCL || Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18)

Something happens during our worship service that I would bet you’ve never really noticed before. Actually, this something happens twice during our worship. In fact, this something has already happened twice during this very service. The readers finished both the story about Abram and the piece of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, and then they said, “The Word of the Lord.” And you responded, “Thanks be to God.”

Have you ever wondered why we say, “Thanks be to God” at that particular moment at the conclusion of a scriptural reading? If you haven’t, don’t worry: I didn’t wonder why until I started writing this sermon. Saying “Thanks be to God” seems rather strange at first. For what are we really thanking God? Honestly, this thanksgiving would make much more sense if the reader herself were the one offering it. I can imagine the reader thanking God for the lack of unpronounceable names in the lesson; or for the ability to pronounce Melchizedek and Nebuchadnezzar on the first try; or for the opportunity to serve God in the capacity of reading the Bible aloud. But the question remains: why do we respond with thanks to God when the reader says, “The Word of the Lord”?

This morning’s lesson from Genesis provides an answer. But first, here’s a quick recap of the first few episodes of Abram’s story. God tells Abram to leave his country and set out for a new place, which only God knows about. So Abram, his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and their household set out on a journey. They wander through Canaan and down into Egypt, where Abram gives his wife to Pharaoh to save his own skin. But when a great plague hits Egypt, Pharaoh realizes Sarai’s already married, and he sends her back to her husband. Abram and Lot part ways because their herds have grown too great to share the same land. Finally, Abram settles by the oaks of Mamre. Soon after, he takes part in a battle among the local kingdoms. And on three separate occasions during these adventures, God tells Abram that God will give him offspring and make of him a great nation.

But Abram worries because he remains childless. He’s getting on in years. Sarai is barren. He’s rich and powerful and secure, but the one blessing he desires above all else has eluded him. He has no descendants to inherit his land. A slave born in his house will have to be his heir. Eliezer of Damascus is going to get everything. How does this fulfill your promise, God?

In this way, Abram questions God when the word of the Lord comes to him in a vision. Half in accusation, half in resignation, Abram states the situation bluntly: “You have given me no offspring.” And during this moment – during Abram’s most anxious, most doubtful, most defeated moment – the “word of the Lord” comes to him. The Word of the Lord comes to him and says, “No one but your very own issue will be your heir. Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” The Word of the Lord comes to him and gives Abram the strength to believe that God will fulfill God’s promise. This is the same “Word of the Lord” for which we twice give thanks on Sunday morning.

You may ask: “How can mere words give Abram such strength? What if the promises are empty? Where’s the action to back up the talk?” Okay, I’m about to say the “H”-word and I need you to stay with me for just a minute here. Genesis was originally written in Hebrew. Translators do the best they can to render the original language into English, but sometimes a Hebrew word is just too deep and complex for a single English word to suffice. In these cases, the English is like looking at a picture of a cake. The Hebrew is like taking a big bite of the cake itself.

Such is the case with the word “Word.” In Hebrew, the “Word” is not simply speech or writing on a page. The “Word” happens to people. The “Word” is an event, an encounter, an action that calls for further action. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, God spoke creation into being: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” The Word of the Lord happened, and, as a result, creation came into existence. When the Word of the Lord happens to Abram, he finds the strength to go on trusting God in spite of all the reasons why God’s promise seems preposterous.

And when we hear a reading from Holy Scripture on Sunday morning, we respond “Thanks be to God” because the Word of the Lord has just happened to us. In that encounter with the Word, we are aware that God continues to speak us into existence. And from existence into service. And from service into love. And from love into the transformation that happens when we follow Jesus Christ our Lord.

You see, when the Word happens to us, we are changed. We may be changed minutely or momentously, but we are changed. We may be changed slowly or suddenly, but we are changed. We are changed into better lovers of God, better servants of other human beings, and better human beings ourselves.

In the film Life as a House, George talks about change, a subject about which he knows a great deal. George has been diagnosed with cancer, and he is using his final months to repair his relationship with his estranged son. By tearing down his house and rebuilding the home he always wanted, he and his son work through the messy process of reconnecting. At one point, George says: “You know the great thing, though, is that change can be so constant you don’t even feel the difference until there is one. It can be so slow that you don’t even notice that your life is better or worse, until it is. Or it can just blow you away, make you something different in an instant. It happened to me.”

In Abram’s case, the Word happens to him, and the change comes slowly. The Word gives him trust in God’s faithfulness, but at first Abram fails to understand the expanse of God’s miraculous promise. Abram doesn’t realize that God desires not just Abram’s own offspring, but Sarai’s, as well. So Abram bears a son with Hagar, his wife’s slave-girl. But the Word isn’t finished happening to Abram yet. Years later, Abram stumbles into God’s presence again, and God renews his promise a final time. In the pivotal sign of the change, which the Word has on Abram’s life, God changes his name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah. Soon after, Sarah bears Abraham a son named Isaac, and the countless generations that follow rival the number of stars in the heavens.

I invite you to reflect on how the Word is even now happening to you. Is the change, which the Word is causing in your life, so constant that you don’t feel the difference until there is one? Or is the Word blowing you away and making you into something different, something new, in an instant? Either way, know that our Creator continues to speak creation into existence. Our Creator writes the Word on our hearts. Our Creator puts the Word on our lips so we may speak love and welcome to all we encounter.

The reader says “The Word of the Lord” to make us aware that the Word is happening to us even now this morning while we sit in our pews. We respond “Thanks be to God” to show our gratitude for God’s movement in our lives. But the Word isn’t through happening to us yet either. The Word happens to us to enable us to serve and to love. The Word impels us to go out into the world and invite others to notice the Word happening to them. As followers of Christ, we live with the joyful expectation that the Word will happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

And when the Word happens to us, we will be changed.

Speaking of cake, the day I preached this sermon was my first at the church to which I was recently called to be the Assistant Rector (Assistant to the Rector, Dwight!). They got me this cake, which is awesome.

Then, the kids ate it.

Eternity happens

The following post appeared Saturday, September 19th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am now a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

‘Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” ’ (John 8:58)

You can always tell when Jesus says something truly sensational and scandalous because people respond by searching for rocks to fling at his head. The eighth chapter of the Gospel According to John contains four instances of Jesus saying, “I am,” which is one way Jesus imparts his divine identity to his listeners. Out of the four, only the final one elicits such a stony reaction, while the first three build to the climactic iteration. The escalation begins slowly when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). Next, Jesus says, “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am” (8:24). Then, a few verses later, he says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am” (8:28). Each of these statements of his divine identity flies right over the heads of his opponents. But then the conversation intensifies. Jesus says they are from their father the devil. They think he may have a demon. He says no one will see death if they keep his word. They are sure he has a demon. He says Abraham rejoiced to see his day. Now they know that he’s crazy—he’s not even fifty! How can he have seen Abraham?

YHWHThen Jesus knocks their socks off with his most dangerous statement in the whole Gospel: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” This time, no one mistakes his meaning. No one asks him to clarify his words. They understand the full significance of saying, “I AM.” They know God said the same thing to Moses when Moses was brash enough to ask God for God’s name (Exodus 3). But underneath the shocking nature of Jesus’ statement is a subtler point (ultimately missed in the search for stones) about how our eternal God interacts with a finite creation.

Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel According to John are revelations of God’s very being. Because of the simplicity of the sentence (just a subject and a verb), “I am” is as close as language can get to universality and eternity. Since we live in a temporal world, eternity is an impossible concept for us to wrap our heads around. Eternity is not “endless” time; nor is it the framework in which time finds a snug fit. In eternity, before and after are undefined and the only when is now. (The previous sentence makes no sense, of course.)

When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he uses our language to express the eternal nature of God. He does not say, “I was before Abraham was,” which is the grammatically correct way to articulate the thought. Instead, his  “I am” (while functioning in our world as a present tense construction) is really a representation of the eternal tense. In eternity, I AM is the only sentence that makes any sense at all. In other words, eternity happens. It didn’t start and it won’t stop because the notions of beginning and ending are thoroughly temporal. And eternity happens because God is.

We run into trouble when we expect God to exist in the same way we do. Our minutes tick by one after another. For every one of our actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. Objects fall at a rate of 9.8 m/s2. But those are our minutes, our reactions, our gravity, and they all rely on linear experience. When Jesus says, “I AM,” he reminds us that God created linear experience, and thus is not beholden to it.

When we stumble into God’s presence, we encounter eternity making utter nonsense of time. Time ceases to matter because eternity overrides the rules of linear experience. That’s why it’s so hard to say how long we feel the presence of God. We feel that presence in moments, not minutes. When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he pushes us to relinquish our need to order events when God is concerned. God exists in eternity, which just happens.

Footnote

* If you read my last contribution to EpiscopalCafé in conjunction with this one, you might deduce two things: (1) I like to use Holy Scripture to discuss spirituality and (2) I seem partial to the Gospel According to John. These deductions are both entirely correct. As a member of the Millennial generation, I am attracted to the Fourth Gospel’s combination of mystery and revelation. If you have a group of Millennials in your church (right now, that would be your middle schoolers through your college students, give or take) who huff and sigh and roll their eyes every time you pull out the Bible, try some passages from the Gospel According to John. You might encounter fewer glazed looks and drool-flecked chins.

For the sake of ten (part 3 of 3)

This relationship which God has extravagantly blessed us with challenges the understanding of God’s immutability. Indeed, in the story, it seems (at first glance at least) that Abraham is swaying God’s mind. Many, if not most, ancient and medieval Christian thinkers assert that a facet of the divine is changelessness. This makes sense because the perfect cannot be changed; if it could, it would not be perfect. However, I think that assigning platonic categories of perfection to God is a silly exercise because God is beyond our concept of perfection.* God is more than perfect because God subsumes the category of perfection into God’s being. That is why God can send a son to earth against all the rules of fashionable Greek philosophical discourse of the time. God is other, but God is present at the same time. What we call Providence, as theologian Paul Tillich says, is the intermingling of our actions and inactions with God’s directing creativity. Part of this directing creativity is responsiveness to prayer. Tillich says that “every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation”  When Abraham says “Far be it from you to do such a thing” (which might more expressively be translated: “How dare you!”), he is engaging in this kind of prayer. The relationship he has with God, more than the words, is the important factor in the exchange.

While it might seem that Abraham is using his close connection with God to sway God’s mind, God seems to let the exercise go on to expand Abraham’s mind concerning justice, righteousness, and sin. Abraham’s thought experiment is flawed to begin with because there is no way to separate the righteous and sinful.  Even in generations to come when it was possible to be “righteous under the law,” people kept the temple in business by sacrificing to restore their righteousness. Later, Paul reflects this reality when he says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). But Abraham’s seems to say, “For argument’s sake, let’s say there’s a clear distinction between the righteous and the sinful.” God humors him thus far.

Next, Abraham makes an outrageous claim that would make any level-headed person cry foul. He says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Abraham is outraged that the righteous would be swept away with the wicked. However, he is perfectly content with the wicked remaining unpunished if even ten righteous people are found in the city. Surely, this is not justice—the wicked go unpunished for the sake of the righteous, the wicked don’t get what they deserve! Now, we all know the end of the story—Sodom gets utterly destroyed. But leaving that aside for a moment, let us pause and reflect on God’s mercy as this story elucidates it. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. It seems that as Abraham lessens the number of righteous needed to save the city, the mercy (rather than the justice) of God expands to greater and greater levels. If only ten are found, you won’t destroy the city? Heck, what about one? We never get that far, but it is not unimaginable. By the end of the story, it seems that the ten righteous are on vacation, and the city is destroyed anyway. But the extravagant claim about God’s mercy still stands, though Abraham can’t see it because of his preoccupation with justice.

This story is finally about two things that relate to each other. The first is the human inability to comprehend God and God’s action in the world. The second is the realization that humans are always in the presence of God, participating in that same action. C.S. Lewis says: “The freedom of God consists of the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them—that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence the air in which they all flower”  Our incomprehension stems from the actions of God having God’s freedom as their basis and warrant. We are in God’s presence because of God’s goodness. We participate in God’s freedom even when (or especially when) we question God as Abraham does. We participate in God’s goodness when our actions bring about the justice, mercy, and grace of God. And we participate in God’s omnipotence when we are blessed with those briefest of glimpses of God’s directing creativity, which spur us to greater action and greater love.

Footnotes

* A fair number of 20th century theologians say something similar, though I doubt they use the word “silly.”

For the sake of ten (part 2 of 3)

Thinking we understand the ways of the world, and of God, for that matter, is a major cause of all kinds of unrest. I have been a student for nineteen years and one piece of learning that has quietly crept up on me as the years rolled by is this: there sure is a heck of a lot I don’t know. Most of my personal failings come from me thinking I know things that I don’t know. Recognizing that I do not know something is, I believe, one of God’s repetitious lessons in humility. I know so little about the world that I can see and feel and touch. If I know so little about what is actually knowable, how could I ever presume to know anything about God? About why God does what God does? And for that matter, whether or not why is even an appropriate question when God is involved?

These musings stray into the territory of an apophatic* understanding of God, but I assure you, I will not quite get there. One needs only to look at the story this reflection concerns to know that God, while supremely unknowable from our end, makes God known to us in both ordinary and mysterious ways. Indeed, Abraham talks to God!  The simple fact that there are two characters in the scene—Abraham and God—illustrates the immanence of God in our midst. It is when we turn this around and realize that it is really we who are in God’s midst that the transcendence of God smacks us square in the forehead. God is beyond our knowledge, but because of God’s grace we are not beyond glimpses of the recognition that we think, move, act, love, live in the presence of God. This is revelation, of which Jesus Christ is the most perfect example.

We live in the presence of God whether we recognize it or not. However, as our eyes adjust to the holiness around us, the injustice of the world becomes more apparent and more intolerable. Questions such as why do we suffer? and why are the good punished and the evil rewarded? and why does the world seem to be in inexorable decline socially and environmentally? abound when we link our experience of our Creator with our moral compasses. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, begins with a discussion of religion in general. He says that the roots of religion are two-fold: the universal, uncanny, dreadful, unexplainable something that he calls experiencing the “numinous”; and the emergence of morality. The Jewish people, he continues, were the first to combine these two things when they discerned that their God both prompted them to live a life of good morals and helped them along the way. As the understanding of God as a necessarily “good” being grew, the aforementioned questions became more prevalent. Indeed, if we were without our understanding of God as a beneficent Creator, then there would be no problem associated with injustice or pain. They would simply be neutral facts, as indistinguishable from their natural counterparts as colors in the dark. However, we are blessed with the revelation that our God is good. This is both a comforting and a vexing thought. Abraham takes the vexation head on. In doing so, he accuses God of premeditated capriciousness and also shows just how poorly he, Abraham, understands the concept of justice.

“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” says Abraham. Here Abraham wrestles with what might be termed “Divine inscrutability.”** What looks like capriciousness to humans, goes one interpretation, is God fulfilling God’s inscrutable plan. This quickly becomes the “It’s God’s will” argument. However, this progression is inherently flawed. There is obviously a paradox happening somewhere when inscrutability and knowledge of God’s will are mentioned in the same breath. These two approaches seek to answer the “why” question (why did God let this happen? etc). Inscrutability says, “I don’t know why.” The God’s will argument says just that—“It’s God’s will,” no matter what happens. The latter is a very limited understanding of our relationship with God. While the “will” of God certainly exists, it is not the organizing principle by which we live. That is, instead, reserved for the “Word” of God, which is both the foundation of existence and the incarnate being of Jesus Christ. Affirming this premise does not answer the “why” question, but supersedes it with the person of Christ, who is present with us in our pain and suffering. The inscrutability of God is maintained because we can never fully know God, but our questions are answered by a relationship with Jesus Christ (rather than an explanation).

to be concluded.

Footnotes

* This is a five dollar seminary word that means something like: “You can never know anything about God, so quit asking.”

** Inscrutability is a funny word. You can be inscrutable, but can you just be scrutable? In think you can in Europe.

For the sake of ten (part 1 of 3)

Abraham stares after them as they make their dusty way down into the valley. They are men to his eyes, and yet, in the shadow-stretched twilight they appear indistinct, almost shadows themselves. But not shadows; for these beings shine. They shine with the borrowed light of the one who remains with Abraham on the hilltop overlooking the candlelit city of Sodom. Abraham watches them until their shadows mingle with those of the scrub and gorse bushes. He stands there, mystified—for they have just predicted that Sarah (his Sarah!) would get pregnant. Ha. She’s far too old, her joints too arthritic, her bones too brittle to stand the strains of pregnancy. And yet. And yet they had seemed so certain. She had laughed, but it was no joke. I thought I understood the ways of the world, ponders Abraham, as the shining beings melt into the candlelight of the city.

I thought I understood the ways of the world. Perhaps not, if it is true that Sarah can still bear children. Confusion. Abraham shakes his head, as if this act would jostle loose such a silly, irrational thought as Sarah becoming pregnant. He looks down at Sodom again. And here’s another example of irrationality, he thinks. Anger kindles in his chest as he remembers the abuses that have reached his ears, the abuses committed by the people of that city. But yet—how could God destroy that place if there were righteous people there. Surely God could not be that unjust.

Abraham shakes his head again, this time with suppressed incredulity, and lifts his eyes from the twinkling lights below. He turns and approaches the third being, the one who has remained with him on the hill when the others ventured down to the city. Seen peripherally, the being is generally man-shaped. But as Abraham moves near, he perceives how inadequate a container the man-shaped body is for such an abundance of light, harmony, and awe. Abraham suppresses a shudder. He opens his mouth, but closes it again, unsure whether he wants to question or accuse. The being knows the confusion in Abraham’s mind, knows that such cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of revelation.

All at once, Abraham finds his words: question and accusation combine into indictment tinged with desperate plea for understanding. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” He presses on, not waiting for the LORD (for, of course, this is who the luminous being on the hilltop is) to respond. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!” Abraham points a quivering, accusatory finger, and his pitch rises as the cause of his mental distress tumbles from him: “Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” Tears form at the corners of his eyes; he slumps over, chest heaving with the exertion of voicing the thoughts that have been building ever since the three men approached his tent.

The LORD waits for Abraham to recover and then responds quietly, certainly: “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham hears these words and is mollified—almost. What about 45? 40? 30? 20? What about—and here Abraham raises both hands, fingers splayed—ten? “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it,” says the LORD. And then the LORD leaves Abraham with his thoughts. Abraham returns to his place to find Sarah, her deep eyes reflecting dancing firelight, lost in the same thought: I thought I understood the ways of the world.*

to be continued.

Footnotes

* This and the upcoming two posts are pieces of a reflection on Genesis 18.