Last week, on the run from trouble he himself had instigated, Jacob slept rough with only a stone for a pillow and he had a dream, and in it received this blessing: “The Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you … Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”
Jacob left his stone pillow, turning it upright into an altar in the sand, and made his way through the desert to his uncle’s home. In time, he married both of his uncle’s daughters, had relations with both of the daughter’s handmaids, and between them had 12 sons and one daughter. (And we think family life is messy.) Out of the 13 kids, Joseph is the one the biblical storyline follows through his obnoxious youth and as he is sold by his jealous brothers and taken into Egypt on a slave caravan. He suffers various calamities there, but, because Joseph can interpret dreams, he eventually rises to power in the Pharaoh’s household. Years pass, and he is reunited with his family. He is able to rescue them at a time of severe famine in their homeland. So they leave Canaan to settle near him in Egypt along the Nile where, even as foreigners, they thrive….
Generations pass. Joseph is no longer remembered. The family ‘begat’ by Abraham and Sarah long ago now comprises a vast, but enslaved, people. A new pharaoh comes to power in Egypt who is wary of these prolific Hebrews, conscripts them into labor camps, and tries to have their numbers decreased by decreeing that their midwives kill the newborn boys. They sneakily refuse.
In the midst of this, Moses is born. By a twist of fate (or divine intervention), he is taken into the Pharaoh’s own household and raised as an adopted grandson. However, his cushy life comes to an abrupt end.
One day Moses sees a guard beating a Hebrew slave. He intervenes and kills the guard, buries him in the sand and hopes that no one saw him do it. They did. And in a repetition from last week, Moses, now fearing for his life, flees to the desert. He, too, finds his way to a shepherd, who, also, in time, becomes his father-in-law. (This repeated storyline between Jacob and Moses fleeing to the desert and becoming a shepherd for their fathers-in-law probably has less to do with a mystical foreshadowing of their chosen status, than it does with the lifestyle options available to them. In the 13th century BCE, people of the mid-east were tribal, nomadic shepherds – you could be a keeper of sheep, or camels or goats – or some combination thereof.… but the apprenticeship career options were limited.)
Anyway, this is where we catch up to the story. One fine, hot, sunny day Moses was out in the wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep. He comes to the mountain at Horeb, known to Bible readers but probably not to Moses, as the mountain of God, or Mount Sinai; and he happens to see a burning bush. Fire is a common sign in the Bible of God’s presence but, again, Moses wouldn’t have reason to know that – this is his first meeting with God.
This bush burns and burns… and burns, and burns… and he is curious. He might actually have seen it a long way off, a flickering light glinting across the Sinai’s barren wilderness. He might have been steering the sheep toward it all along, like the magi following their star. However it happened, Moses came up close to see this odd thing.
Exodus, chapter 3:4-6
“When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! But remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”
Hymn #490 Let all mortal flesh keep silence.
“Don’t think of it as dust. Just think of it as the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling on “Pig-Pen!” It staggers the imagination! He may be carrying the soil that was trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!, said Charlie Brown.…”
Last week, I noticed that when God spoke the promises to Jacob, God did not say, “Your offspring shall be as plenteous as the dust.” Back in the day, when God made similar covenantal promises to his grandfather Abraham, God did say, “I will make of you a great nation, you shall be exceedingly fruitful, numerous… Look to the heavens and count the stars if you are able, so shall your descendants be.” The promise to Abraham was about numbers. To Jacob, God said, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth and you shall spread from west to east, from north to south and all people shall be blessed through you and your offspring…”
My imagination has been playing with this difference. God is no longer concerned with quantity, it seems, but with activity.
What is it about dust?
This week, God tells Moses to take off his shoes, to stand barefoot in that dust because it is holy ground.
The argument can be made that all ground is sacred. As any farmer will be happy to tell you, soil is the essential element of life….both living and life-giving – soil is a blessing. We can’t have a Harvest Fest without it. Dirt is essential, and it shares the chemical essence of our being. Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, magnesium – our bodies hold these things is common with the crust of the earth.
In the first story of creation, God forms the earth, separates the dry land from the water – and, in the second story of creation, forms some of the dust into a human being, breathes into his lungs, and the dustling comes becomes a man. At the end of that story, the man and woman are sent out of the Garden of Eden and the ground is cursed. “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;” God tells Adam, “by the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread.” Any farmer will also tell you the truth of that curse. (In full disclosure, God should have made mention of rocks.)
But standing in his bare feet in the dust, Moses is back on holy ground.
The Sinai peninsula, where Moses stands, is not the Garden of Eden. Here is a description from the Encyclopædia Britannica:
“The Sinai falls within the great arid belt crossing northern Africa and southwestern Asia, manifested by a degraded soil structure, sand-dune expanses, salinization, and wadis (seasonal watercourses). Vegetation is mostly ephemeral, but perennial scrub survives on the steep southern slopes (the burning bush). The region is essentially composed of igneous rocks and is sharply incised by deep, canyonlike wadis. This gaunt mountain mass is separated from the Gulf of Suez to the west by a narrow coastal plain, and on its eastern side, rises precipitately from the Gulf of Aqaba.”
Vacation-land it’s not. But there Moses stands, sandals in his hands.
So a word about sandals. God said, “Take them off. This is holy ground.”
Removing one’s sandals is an ancient spiritual practice. It’s one still honored today – especially by Buddhist and our sibling Muslim worshippers. When entering a holy place, one takes off one’s shoes. More than for the sake of silence or purity or cleanliness, it is a deeply humbling act recognizing our humanity; it’s a sign and symbol of our vulnerability, or our ‘otherness’ from God. We remove the artificial boundary, the pretense, the defense between us and the ground of our being.
Typically made of animal skin or plant fibers, sandals in Moses’ day not only protected the tender underbelly of the foot but could also symbolize property, purity, social contracts, and status. Actually, they still do today. In Egypt a pair of sandals could be purchased for the price of a sack of grain: not exactly a luxury, still an investment. Sandals of the upper class were more artfully made, sometimes adorned with bling of precious stones and metal work and other decorations. Sandals discovered in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amon were inscribed with the image of foreign captives on his insole, proclaiming with the every step he took, the Pharaoh’s power over the people and nations his armies subdued.
In Deuteronomy, we learn that removing one’s sandals – or having them removed by another – nullified previously binding legal and social ties, creating the conditions for new claims, new relationships, and new responsibility. (1)
Removing one’s sandals is also a sign that we’re home. The first thing many of us do when we get in our front door is to kick off our shoes. The ground of our being might be the linoleum or oak of our kitchen floor. We feel it and know we belong.
God said, “Moses, take off your sandals.”
So, is the significance of Moses standing barefoot in the dust of creation his vulnerability – the awe of standing before his creator, humbled in the humus? Is it the new relationship, the new claim, new responsibility God is placing on his life to release the captives under Pharaoh’s feet? Is it a sign of assurance, that this nomadic wanderer stuck between two cultures, at home in neither one, has found his true home, wiggling bare toes in the dust of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God?
Maybe yes – all; but this story isn’t primarily about Moses’ encounter with God. I hope you are running through flashbacks of places and times and people that have brought you near to God. Personal, life-changing engagement with what is sacred, holy, divine is where we have to begin… The life of faith begins with some authentic encounter in loving God, in knowing God, trusting God through the world and through the Word…
But… the thrust of the story, the thrust of God, is for Moses to go – to go back into the land of Egypt, back to the place of his fear, back into danger, back to the need of his people. This is not a story of Moses’ holiness or righteousness… or of peace. It is a story of justice and salvation. It is a story of God working through someone who has many good reasons not to be that someone – and who lists them boldly before God, finally pleading not to be that someone, not to be sent as the agent of divine change. “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently!” And God adjusts the plan. “Your brother will go with you.”
This is a story that shepherds Moses – that calls him – and courageous people of all times – to rise out of the dust and get on with the holy, hard work of speaking out, calling out the captives, standing up to arrogance and fear and greed – the powers that enslave us. “You are dust…you are my Dust, beloved and holy and ordinary and often inept….. and as dust you shall go to be a blessing to all people…. and to dust you shall return.”
In this scripture, with Moses the shepherd standing barefoot, wiggling his toes, halfway up the mountain of God, with his father-in-law’s sheep no doubt straying back down the mountain, this is an empowering call to action. “You are my dust!” We, the people of God are dust motes: everywhere, ubiquitous, a fine covering, dust that works its way into every crevice and cranny and every situation; created stuff that is seen and not seen; an agent of irritation and change. Dust has a way of working itself in-between your toes even when when you’ve got socks and work boots on out in the garden or out in the woods or out with your sheep. Desert dust covered up entire pyramids and the Sphinx and cities. Dust has power. Dust has presence – just ask Moses as he backs away from the bush – not quite able to turn his back on God – and returns his sandals to his feet.
Dust has a calling, a claim on us – to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly, dustily, with our God. It staggers the imagination.
(1) Anathea Portier-Young, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC
God’s Work, Our Hands (and Voices and Dancing Feet and Steaming Pots of Chili)
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 24 from 6-9 pm (post-Packer’s game if that matters to you)
Come to West Denmark’s Parish Hall for some groovy Dance Music, and also, of no lesser importance, Food! We have a great dance floor for your flying feet, and great cooks for that food to eat!
Chili, golden cornbread and delicious desserts – all to benefit the World Hunger Appeal of the ELCA!
The band is “35 North” – Jay Stackhouse, Web Macomb, Nate, and Sam Stackhouse… (and possibly others.)
What a great way to help our world’s “neighbors in need” by raising money, having fun, and sharing a meal!
100% of the funds raised goes to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal – and 100% of that goes directly to aid. The ELCA has people on the ground in aid programs around the world – so we’re already there to help.
Come dance and enjoy the music! Come eat and visit! Come help!
Last week we looked at the creation story from Genesis 1, and I suggested that Chaos is an integral – perhaps necessary – part of Creation. That, rather than keeping chaos at bay outside the snow globe of creation, God actually ‘fashioned and formed’ it – mixed the power and mystery and unpredictability of chaos in along with sunlight and water and stardust to make stuff, to design life, to raise us up out of the primordial mud.
Chaos, by its very nature cannot be controlled. Maybe that accounts for the burgeoning life force, for the diversity seen even within ‘like things’, genetically similar creatures – (twins, for example) who are not perfectly identical. It’s recognized in quantum physics – as the theory of indeterminacy – the apparent necessary incompleteness and randomness of a physical system – the inability to predict the effect one known, determined system will have on another. There is randomness, variation that can’t be accounted for.
I think chaos may be the origin of original sin – that twist in our human nature, that bit of ‘co-creative ability gone rogue’ that allows us to be like God, and prevents us from being like God – we can’t seem to be imitators of God in grace and love.
Last week I asked if the chaos prevalent in our lives, if the power of the forces that defy God’s desire for harmony with all things living, is an indicator that God has failed.
So, holding those things in mind, we come to today’s reading: here is a summary of the “Binding of Isaac” from Genesis 22.
And it came to pass that God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham.”
“Here I am,” Abraham responded.
God said, “Take your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him on one of the mountains.”
So Abraham did as he was told, journeying with his wood for the offering and with his son and his servants to the place that God had told him. On the third day, Abraham and Isaac left the servants and took the wood for the offering, some fire and a knife. So they went, both of them, together.
Isaac spoke: “My father!”
Abraham said, “Here I am, my son.”
“Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” asked Isaac.
“God will provide a lamb for the offering, my son.”
They came to the place of which God had spoken, and Abraham built the altar and arranged the wood and bound Isaac, his son, and placed him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. And an angel of God called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am!” said Abraham. And God said, “Do not stretch your hand toward the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are God-fearing and did not withhold from me.”
Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and lo! There was a ram caught in the hedge. Abraham took the ram and offered it up as offering in place of his son. Abraham named this place, “God sees.”
Hymn response: Great God, your love has called us – #358
Human relationship to God is not a certainty. We have the capacity – the inclination – to doubt, to question, to separate ourselves, to create our own destinies apart from God’s guidance and grace. A reading like this one makes that distance seem like a very good alternative. The connection to chaos is palpable in this story.
I’ve read a lot this week, looking for a path through the thistles.
I’ve been very interested in what the Jewish commentaries have to say. Christian commentaries (not surprisingly) jump to Christ – there are so many similarities in the language and imagery to God’s beloved, innocent son who travelled three day’s journey through the wilderness to death, who carried his own wooden cross, who became the sacrificial lamb God would provide, a ram caught in the thickets, discovered as a substitute for our death. It’s all there in this ancient story. And it’s fine and beautiful in prefiguring the Christian faith – except that in this reading and others throughout the Old Testament, God rebukes human sacrifice – here, staying the hand of Abraham (food for thought for another day). And, for those of us who love Hebrew scripture in its own integrity, reading ahead 2000 years is not a very satisfying response to a troubling text.
These Genesis stories are old, told for thousands of years, around millions of campfires and candle flames. They come out of the late Bronze or early Iron Age – and reflect within their language at least three redactions – three different authors and editors who amend the story and its intent based on their audience and their situation. The Bible places Abraham – actually a composite figure of this collection of stories – some 2000 years before Christ, over 4000 years from us.
There are no archeological traces of Abraham, but the stories are believed to have been recorded in this form during the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC. Jews in exile were left wondering what in the world had happened. How can the Israelites be God’s chosen people if they are repeatedly raped and pillaged by more powerful neighbors? Has Chaos won? Are the gods of Babylonian more powerful? And so they went back to the oral stories of the beginning of all things, back to their formative tales, and renewed their faith through the power of God who was present even in disaster, powerful even in the midst of chaos, the redeemer even of what appeared to be the broken promises of God to the people of God.
Jewish use and understanding of stories such as the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, provide a wonderful sounding into the depth of God. In rabbinic thought, scripture is a reflection of the Divine, and so therefore is infinite in meaning. It is idolatrous to assign a single meaning, a single truth to God’s infinite word. (We could learn something from that, too.) As a result, holy scripture for the ancient rabbis and their communities was always filled with possibility. Every reading, every encounter with the Torah was a new opportunity to encounter and understand God’s being and God’s work in a new way, spoken into their life’s new situations and needs.
This story isn’t told as history, or as a reporter’s news, or as a novel that might develop sympathy for a character – it has a different purpose. This story isn’t told about Isaac, actually – and maybe not even about Abraham as a person so much as it is told about God, and about Abraham as the forerunner of people of faith. It’s a bigger story than our indignation or horror at putting ourselves in Abraham’s shoes. It’s a terrible, beautiful – beautifully formed story.
In Hebrew it’s called the Binding, the Akedah, and that’s our first clue into its meaning. There are four characters who are bound. Isaac, of course is tied with the cords of death. We don’t hear much from him on this journey, other than his wondering about the lamb for the sacrifice as he carries the wood on the way up the mountain. The lamb, Abraham assures him, God will provide.
Abraham is in quite a bind. He has followed the guiding hand of God for decades believing in the promise of heirs and descendants. Finally, at a very old age, when his wife Sarah was beyond the way women, they are given this beloved son whose name means delight and laughter. And God, who has promised progeny as numerous as the stars, as plenteous as the sands of the shore, now says offer this child of promise as a sacrifice, as a test. How can God be asking this? For Abraham to disobey the command of God is wrong, and to obey this command of God is wrong. Abraham is stuck between the love of a father for his son and the love of God with whom he has a history and who asks – who demands – to be trusted. It is a terrible, fraught-ful, exquisitely binding place to be. We’ll come back to Abraham.
Sarah is not part of the story. She is not mentioned either biblically nor rabbinically. However, we have affinity for Sarah. She is bound by silence, by gender, by the cloak of invisibility. She is an unseen, unrecognized victim of this word of God. In Sarah, we find a person to embody our agent-less suffering, our inability to understand, the taken-for-grantedness of those occupying the background of life… Sarah is us, in our human condition, bound by indeterminacy, the necessary incompleteness of God’s plan, the effect of decisions and indecisions that fan out beyond the predictable, expected conclusions.
But God, too, is bound.
God is bound to our limited understandings, our misunderstandings of God’s will and way, our misunderstandings of God’s voice. The layers of editing are significant in this story. The name of God in Hebrew leads us into the depths of Jewish thought and our own faith in God.
Elohim is the name the biblical writer called the “Elohist” always uses for God. This is the name used by the Northern tribes of Israel for God. It is the oldest, cultic, tribal name for God. Yahweh is the name of God always used by the author called J, or the “Yahwist”, who wrote from within the tradition of the southern kingdom of Judah. There is another author, distinct in the theme and language, called P – the “Priestly” writer – who edited and and merged the two traditions during and after the people’s exile in Babylon. This explains, for example, why there are two different creation stories – the one we heard last week of the magnificent 7 days, and the one in chapter 2 of Adam and Eve.
And that’s why there seem to be multiple Abrahams – the one who follows without question and the one who argues with God for the sake of the righteous people in Sodom, but who – a few chapters later – does not argue for the sake of his own son. Abraham hears Elohim tell him to take his son to the land of Moriah, to the heights which God will show him. Abraham has followed Elohim before without question. He took his wife Sarah and left his homeland and family in Ur to go to the land which Elohim would show him. Abraham goes out into the night to gaze at the stars that Elohim will show him to receive the promise of children. The Elohist story perhaps did have Isaac’s death as a story of faith consistent with the sacrifice common among the neighboring religions of the time.
But the Yahwist author who received this story had a very different view of God that overrode the calling of Abraham’s blind faith. Yahweh, the God who created Adam and Eve, who walked with them in the Garden of Eden, who provided for them even as he banished them, would not ask this of a human creature.
This story is the perfect example of Binding. There is on the one hand, the expectation of human obedience, human will bound by Elohim(God’)s performative word spoken into our lives, and, on the other hand, God(Yahweh), bound by love, bound by promises to provide for these stiff-necked and wayward dustlings of his creation.
As it stands, this story is a polemic against the sacrifice of human lives for the mistaken understanding of God’s will. God’s love overrides God’s law. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” God says through Hosea. “A broken and contrite heart, a humble spirit are acceptable offerings,” the psalmist says for God.
God is bound to faithfulness, bound to the mundane details of earthly life, bound to keep trying, to keep creating new ways forward for these stiff-necked and inventive human creatures. God is bound by his word… which is a word of life.
So perhaps this is the test for Abraham and for us. “Are my human creations capable of trust,” wonders God. “Are they capable of belief, capable of listening for my voice, of discerning the way of life in the midst of Chaos and death?”
Perhaps it speaks to the binding of our lives — choices we have to make when it seems no right choice can be made, or those times when we are carried along, swept up within a powerful force without choice, or when our voice isn’t heard, times when we seem to occupy the acted upon background. The rabbis did not shy away from questions and open endings because they knew their God was immense, a God for whom questions indicate genuine engagement, a real relationship.
How do we hear God’s word when it contradicts our will? How do we discern a sacrifice of what we hold dear? Do we listen beyond our fear, or follow, or trust, or open our minds to the possibility of a ram stuck in the thicket behind us? Do we have the nerve to answer, “Here I am. Speak, Lord, and I will listen?” Jesus complained of those who have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear. The life of faith is not one to undertake without our whole hearts and intellect and strength. It demands no less than the best, most flexible, adaptable, creative spirit we have to offer.
In the early rabbinic period, the Akedah found it way into the people’s public prayers of intercession – and it sings today for you: “May the God who answered Abraham our father on Mount Moriah answer you – hearken to the voice of your crying this day, and loose the cords of your binding.”
Peace be yours this day.
September and “back to school” cause me to be nostalgic. I loved that first month when I was a kid. When September begins, my thoughts still turn to school. One of the things I remember from middle school is transparency biology books. Mrs. Marshall’s media center had a special display table for them. There was one on pond life, and a tree book – maybe others – but my favorite was that of the human body. The opening page showed a person bundled up in a winter jacket, hat and scarf, boots and gloves – eyes were the only visible body parts. Under that first transparency, the person appeared in clothing. The second transparency must have revealed skin, but I don’t remember it. I was probably embarrassed and turned the page. That’s when it got interesting. As each successive transparency was lifted, a new bodily system presented itself – the veins and arteries and heart; lungs and airways; then the brain and nervous system; muscles, tendons, fascia, and ligaments; different pages of internal organs; and, finally, the back cover of the book was just bones. To this day I have a hard time envisioning the human body other than as flat layers that can be lifted off revealing the next flat layer.
Transparencies provided mystery and revelation all in one book.
In high school, I read Antione de St. Exupery’s, The Little Prince, for the first of many times and was caught by the mystery of what we cannot see – (“that which is essential is invisible to the eye.”) So the book of transparencies might not have enough pages: it might not be delicate enough, agile enough, to show what is really inside us. What is the essential you, the core you? What reveals or defines your ultimate worth? Is it your body – its beauty, capabilities, strength – its flaws, disfigurement, or disease? Is it your job, your vocation, your daily work, what you produce or create? Is it the relationships you are invested in – the long term ones or those that have failed? Is it your intelligence, your mind and thoughts, your memories, your spirit? Is it your past or present self? What image is on the back page of your personal transparency book upon which all the others are laid? Do the layers of transparencies function to reveal or conceal you?
I’ve been wondering similar questions about God.
Here is my problem – and it may be one you can relate to. Over the years, I’ve constructed a transparency book of the divine. For whatever reason, my childhood image of God – that back page picture – is one of fear: power, judgment, anger, disapproval, separation – and for eternity. It’s not a pretty picture.
On top of it I’ve laid transparencies, layer upon layer upon layer as I’ve learned and lived, and thought and taught, prayed and preached about this triune divinity we call God. The top page now is a beautiful view of God’s suffering love and gentle kindness toward us – a God of creation, goodness, and peace whose essential nature is to gather in and redeem. There is challenge and critique and urging there, but not wrath. The top image is a God I can love and serve and converse with. It is Christ Jesus and sacred Spirit and kenotic Love – a self- emptying divinity who divested divine power and sovereignty for our sake – who adapts to our human ‘will and ways’ rather than expecting or demanding that we align ourselves to the divine will and way. This is a God who offers us new life, a new start, evolving grace, mercy, and belonging. This is a God whose power is in forgiveness, who is almighty in forbearance and love, whose right arm is not a sword arm, but a mothering arm – outstretched to draw us in.
But what about the image at the bottom of the book? What do we do with the violence and wrath and judgment and condemnation in scripture – in both Old and New Testament scriptures? Many of the Psalms, histories, and prophets report God’s power (and intention) to destroy and to condemn. Jesus died not by his own will, but by his Father’s, the gospels imply. The early church often insisted on Jesus’ death as a ransom, a human sacrifice necessary because of human sin. A substitutionary necessity. And Jesus, the visible face of an invisible God – to whom we ascribe compassion and love and hospitality and grace – speaks some awful, violent, and exclusionary things in the gospel mix.
I am embarrassed by this, and still somewhat afraid of the back page view. I’m uncertain what to say about the God of scripture who is out of touch with our cultural belief in a loving, nurturing divinity, and so I quickly flip the pages of transparencies to cover the harsh words and judgment.
But in doing so, am I revealing or concealing the true nature of God? What do we do with the discrepancy of these disparate scriptural images? Is it right to simply ignore and deny what we don’t like or can’t relate to?
I’m coming to think, yes – sort of.
The mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-1282), saw all things in God and God in all things. If this is true – really true – then the anger and judgment and exclusion are just as true of God’s essential nature as loving kindness and mercy. All of it is of God, must be of God. It’s okay to know that and still to cover one view with images of another. It’s okay to ignore some of it – sort of – because God is also the God of all times, places, and people. And the Bible’s purpose is to draw us toward God, not drive us away in fear.
We are at a point in the pendulum swing of culture and history that is very far from the avenging, people-purging, battle-waging tribal God who sometimes shows up in the Old Testament and from the Roman occupied, persecuted church of the New Testament launching itself into a new orbit from the mother-ship of Judaism. There were reasons those faith communities and prophets looked for divine power in vengeance, reasons they believed Jesus was invested in separating sheep from goats and hurling people into the outer darkness, wailing and gnashing their teeth.
Current American culture is relational, extroverted, permissive, pluralistic, driven by the quest for self- esteem and documented by selfies. The image of God we are drawn to, the Christ we love and trust and find comfort in, is going to reflect our societal mores and values just as the inspired authors of scripture reflected theirs. God is not confined or defined by either one, but surely encompasses both and much more. And, although we are insulated from much of it, we do still live in a world where terrorism, war, hunger, oppression, violence, neglect, and poverty destroy – and so for the victims, these dark images of divine wrath and vindication perhaps bring consolation and justice; they form an image of the underside of mercy. God is not a fairytale happy ending or a TED talk of inspiration, nor limited by our understanding or cultural or personal needs. God died on the cross as/in Jesus – a victim of greed and jealousy and fear. God walks the valley of the shadow of death alongside us, and understands our desire for justice even when we confuse it with vengeance. God, after-all, knows the difference.
Transparencies provide mystery and revelation all in one book. The thing those biology books of middle school lacked was depth. Bodies aren’t made of flat layers laminated together that can be neatly peeled back or re-stacked. It’s neither the back page nor the front cover image that defines us. It is the interwoven depths of the whole in which we must claim our being. The flaw with my envisioning of God is that I want a single view to trust and believe in when, in fact, we need an imagination for the whole. God is thick. There is a sacramental complexity weaving through all layers and images and truths that both reveals and conceals. God is not simply for us, but for all situations and all people. Love, justice, holy compassion will look different depending on one’s perspective and circumstances. There may be a single truth about God, but our best chance of discovering it is in developing an imagination and openness, a ‘sounding,’ into the depths – a consideration of all images and actions written and witnessed throughout time – biblical and otherwise. We are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,” and then, because of that, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
So, find an image of God you love – passionately, wholeheartedly, ‘withoutdoubtedly’, and then cling to it, and let God find you and fill you… and be glad. You/we, don’t need the whole – it’s too hard for us to grasp. What we need is God-with-us (Immanuel) to love and to be loved by and through, and then to accept the risk of offering that image – and that love – to others outside our box of inclusion. Go outside of that and you will find that God is already there – transparent in love – revealed and concealed in other’s lives – and thick. God’s being is thick, being filled with all things. ☩ Pastor Linda
Can you picture a snow globe? My grandmother had a big one when I was a little girl. The size of a mellon. (well maybe a softball) It was big. It had a magical world inside – an old-fashioned village with itty bitty buildings, Christmas garlands strung on tiny picket fences, a little church in the center of the town, and a dark green forest all around the edges. I liked to hold it still so I could see the details of this miniature world. But my grandma must have thought I didn’t know how snow globes worked. She’d take it out of my hands, roll it around and shake it until the scene was completely obliterated by a blizzard and then give it back to me, smiling. Chaos! I’d go back to holding it very still until the snow settled and the town came slowly back to life.
The story of creation is just like that snow globe, but the other way around. At creation, chaos was everything, everywhere, swirling around – dark energy filling an expanding void.… And into this disarray, God blew a shining bubble. Can you picture it? I know the reading doesn’t say that God blew a bubble, but that’s because we can’t read ancient Hebrew. Actually, it doesn’t say it in Hebrew either, but some words that are difficult to translate, and that difficulty allows for interesting options and possibilities… The Hebrew word is rakia.
It’s translated as “dome” or “firmament” or “vault”. All three translations refer to something solid, an impermeable barrier whose function is to separate creation from the swirling chaotic watery void outside, to provide structure and space and order for the inside. I’ve always pictured a kitchen colander. God set an upside-down colander in place to separate the waters above from the waters below. The rain and snow come down through the little holes that God would open and close. That was the imagination of ancient biblical cosmology. God allowed the waters from above to rain down and the waters from below to swell up creating the conditions for life on earth. Or, God would close the colander holes, withholding water, and the earth and its creatures would suffer, praying for mercy.
I just read an article, though, in which rakia was described, not as a dome or firmament, but a bubble – like God blowing a bubble into the midst of the dark, watery void and I got a very different idea about chaos and God and creation.
Once the bubble is in place, life develops in an orderly and systematic way, just as it would under the colander. As the passage proceeds, God connects growth and abundance to order, finally commanding creation “to be fruitful and multiply,” to become co-creators. “Do as I have done for you,” God says. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
The thing I like about the bubble as an image is that it’s organic; a bubble is not a solid and static fixture; a bubble is elastic, it’s a porous boundary between the earth and the murkiness beyond. It’s more fragile, more in need of stewarding, perhaps… and more able to reveal what is out there and all around. A colander, with its little holes, is not.
Well, does it make a difference, really, how these words are translated? Does it matter whether or not we picture this rakia as a flexible and semi-permeable bubble film or a firm and solid colander or the gorgeous intricate mosaic tiling of Byzantine domes – the vault of heaven? Does it change the meaning of the creation story?
I think it might – or at least it might help us understand something different about God. Most of what we have learned or heard about of this passage focuses on what is going on inside the bubble as creation unfolds, rather than what exists outside or beyond it – or our relationship to what is outside or beyond it. We hear that God set the dome in place and called it good, and then we turn our attention to the trees and seeds and grasses and birds and critters and creatures and sea monsters filling the scene…waiting for our moment to appear.
But thinking about the bubble dome might help us consider the connections between creation and chaos in some important and useful ways.
For most of us, chaos has negative associations. We look for ways, both individually and communally, nationally, economically, to avoid it – to manage it, fight against it, or escape from it. We think of chaos as the problem for which solutions must be found – like containment, separating ourselves from it, or imposing some kind of control. Translating rakia as dome or vault supports this view. The firmament is firm, God is our rock, immovable, all powerful, unchangeable. God and God’s firm-ament will protect us from the chaos floating around “out there” that we don’t like.
But. Does an image of God’s good creation in which chaos is held at bay serve us, or serve our faith? Does it reflect our lived experience as human beings? Does it reflect God’s intention for us, or seem to be what God is about? Does God shield, protect, and keep you from all harm? Does God prevent hurricanes – quickly using up the alphabet – from crashing into continents? Does our faith protect us from random acts of terrorism, or from disease, or loss? Is God offering some kind of buffer or shield? Is that what we expect – that chaos will bounce off the colander as we live hidden and protected within it? Is that how you’d describe your life or the world around us?
If you’ve tried to answer any of these questions, I think you’ll agree that we have a problem. If God fashioned the world so that Chaos swirls around on the outside of the snow globe and life within is untouched, then it seems pretty obvious that God isn’t doing a very good job of containment.
When I think about my own life and worries, I realize that chaos, confusion, and fear are much closer than I would like to admit. I am willing to bet that if you were to turn to your neighbor and ask a few pointed questions you would find chaos seeping into the conversation within 3 ½ minutes. The boundary is quite permeable. The bubble not only reveals the murky mess that is out there, but lets an uncomfortable amount of it in here, into our daily lives and experiences and heads and hearts. Crazy political news, malevolent missile technology, epidemics, too much rain, not enough rain and raging fires; financial markets fluctuating on a whim that affect our lives and livelihoods; violence, ignorance, racism, anger – these things flare up like magna released through fissures in the earth’s core – we are not sure where or when the next hot spot will blow…but we fear it. Chaos is close. Startlingly close.
Much of our energy as people, as nations – even as churches – is aimed at managing our exposure, setting up barriers (artificial barriers) of protection from those “out there” – to keep our loved ones and ourselves safe. Maybe it works some of the time. Other times it certainly doesn’t. People we love get sick or injured, people we love lose their jobs or their ability to work, people we love have marriages fall apart, have a child born with a disability, people we love serve their country and come back lost, wounded, damaged by their encounter with chaos. It’s pretty close, really. Chaos is swirling around inside our snow globe of existence. Has God failed?
This is the first week of the narrative as we again begin to read the Bible from the beginning following a thread into the biblical tapestry. Week after week we will hear about this problem, the power of the forces that defy God’s desire for abundant life in harmony with all things living. And we will have to consider this question: Has God failed? Has Chaos won? What is the role of faith in lives that seem out of control much of the time?
I imagined little people living in the snow globe village
. And I pictured them bouncing around inside their homes, toppling out through doors suddenly flung open when my grandmother began to shake their world, I imagined them hanging onto the fence. I was a steadying force in their lives, but I couldn’t prevent chaos from coming around the corner out of the kitchen and shaking them up again.
Into the dark, formless void God blew a bubble and formed the conditions for life. God created life out of chaos (not separate from it); God created life using, harnessing chaos, God created life in the midst of chaos, the creative energy and mystery and mayhem of formlessness. Doesn’t this sound better? truer? Doesn’t this more closely reflect our lives, and our relationship to God? Life is a mess more often than not. God is with us in the midst of it all, present with us through it all, guiding, shaping, supporting us – messy, mixed up lives and all. The waters were separated so that rain falls and streams flow above and below – but chaos was the matrix of creation. Birth is not painless.
What if the rakia creates a porous space in the midst of chaos in which humans live in relationship with that which we cannot control? The question then is not one regarding God’s failure in preventing bad things from happening or in somehow allowing sin to enter the perfection of Eden when his back was turned. The question then becomes one about relationship – what kind of relationship will we entertain pertaining to God and chaos and our fellow human beings and the world and the incredible complexity and diversity and symbiotic necessity of creaturely life on this planet?
Perhaps it will be one of humility knowing we are not in control – and of forgiveness recognizing that we can do only what we can do – and one of trust that God will be with us somehow – often unseen and unfelt, but present and promised. Perhaps God created a world – intentionally – in which there is both life and need. Chaos, too, may serve God’s purpose to create relationships and interdependence, and to stir the pot of change.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
3But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. 4Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. 5Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
6Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. 7Therefore do not be associated with them.
8For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly;
13but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” 15Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Hymn response: 657 Rise, O Sun of Righteousness
There is a lot in these paragraphs that I would take issue with or edit out – this is one of those bits of holy writ where I’d like to see what Jesus might offer as counsel and grace and corrective. Still, it stands as scripture, and I try to attend to the parts that speak to me.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us… 8For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light… Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Those are the key verses that stand out as I read it, that make connections to my life and faith and recent events in our nation and world.
The occasion for the letter to the Ephesians is thought to have been as a baptismal sermon or a teaching document for adult educational forums for those newly baptized, to new converts, to seekers checking out the Christian faith in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. Although it made the rounds to church communities throughout the region, it is addressed to the Ephesians.
Ephesus was a large, important city, with a racially, ethnically, religiously diverse population. It was filled with shrines and statues and deities, most notably the great temple of Artemis – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus was also home to perhaps the largest open air theater of the ancient world with an seating capacity estimated at 25,000 people. Originally for theater, it was used in this era for gladiator fights and spectacles pitting slaves and prisoners against lions.
In this powerful and pluralistic city, Christians would have been an un-noteworthy minority. This letter calls them out of obscurity. You are not a ragtag, bumbling collection of individuals, invisible, shrinking into the background hubbub of your bustling city out of fear – you are children of God, invited and expected to embody God’s good plan for the fullness of time, according to the mystery of his will, according to God’s good pleasure to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. “For we are what he has made us,” it says in chapter 2, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” To be our way of life despite the way of the world.
The diversity of their lives and experiences are gathered up within God. These Ephesian Christians are – perhaps unwittingly – instruments of grace in the plan for all things – flashlights as children of light revealing the love of God on all they illuminate and, as beacons, beckoning, drawing, attracting all things, all people into the way of that love.
I wonder how they did. In the darkness of those days, how successful, how transformed and transformative, how noticeable was their footprint of faith in Ephesian culture…
I walk at night. There is actually quite a bit of light in the dark. Huge burning suns and spinning galaxies in their orbits shine through the Milky Way millions of light years away and show up as pin pricks of twinkling stars in the gap between tree tops. The stars, the moon – even clouds appear as light compared to the trees and ground. A few nights ago I was walking north on 170th under heavy cloud cover, and I saw a small greenish glow up ahead of me. 50 feet ahead of me. The first time I saw this I thought it was a downed firefly but this time I knew I was seeing a glowworm – the firefly larvae. Tiny little things – maybe half an inch long, a 16th of an inch thick. Just part of it lights up, but I saw it from 50 feet away. And then I started seeing more – lots of them – more glow worms than I’ve ever seen on a walk. I don’t know enough about their love lives and livelihoods to know what they were doing or why there were so many of them spaced out and lighting up the edge of the road that particular night, but they made of runway of 170th street for half a mile.
A glow worm is invisible in daylight, unknown and unseen and insignificant in any larger scheme of things one might consider important or meaningful. Like a Christian in Ephesus, or like you and I might feel about our calling in daily life…insignificant in the scheme of God’s plan for the fullness of things. Unable to influence or change the political, cultural ethos of hate and violence and bigotry that seem to be on the ascendance. A little glow worm on the edge of the road.
But never-the-less, this light-bearing presence has always been the role or calling or function of people attentive to God. From the Garden of Eden throughout the messy history of the Hebrew people and through the New Testament writings, God’s hope for us was/is to share the love with which the world and all its creatures were made.
I was struck by the first line of today’s reading. I expected it to say, “be imitators of Christ” because that’s the phrase we typically hear. But that’s not what it says. “Be imitators of God”… did you catch that? “Be imitators of God ….. and live in love.”
Well! I mean, living in imitation of Christ, following in the way of Jesus – paying attention to justice, hospitality, inclusion – all of that is daunting enough as a calling, but imitating God? That’s big.
The author of Ephesians spends much of this letter counseling the churches on the ethics that flow from our adoption into the family of God and that invitation to imitate love. Contrary to much of Lutheran history which has favored quietism and individualized faith, and contrary to many of our natures that share those tendencies, the way of living in imitation of God does not accommodate itself to our fear, does not offer allowances for crouching in safe places, or keeping things hidden and quiet. The way that children of light are called to live involves being out, being awake, being seen.
“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For everything exposed by light becomes visible…. everything that becomes visible is light. … Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Back in Ephesians 1, the author prays that all the community might receive a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” in order to recognize “what is the hope to which [God] has called you.” They have been given to one another as “citizens with the saints” and “members of the household of God, adopted as equal in inheritance.” Their reality has been re-cast.
The letter presents a fairly clear duality between this life, the ethos of culture – whose days are darkness and evil – and the life a Christian is called to live. Instead of being wooed back into darkness, the author of Ephesians highlights boundaries and behavior for life together as a community of faith, that call the community to pursue kindness, justice and truth. As children of light, they are expected to care for one another as the family called church. Only in this way do we mature into the body of Christ that we have the potential to become. We are to pay attention, listen to one another, seek one another’s well-being even when it goes against our better judgment or our self-interest. It is a call to character and conscience. Events like the overt racism of Charlottsville and the quietism of our own prejudices and fears are called out into the light.
Peter W. Marty is publisher of the Christian Century periodical and senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. In a recent editorial he writes:
“The New York Times obituary for former defense secretary Robert McNamara (1916–2009) included these sad lines about his later life: “He wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington—stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind—walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.”
It took nearly three decades for McNamara to begin to publicly acknowledge the futility of the Vietnam War and his role in it. Although his 1995 memoir directly challenged his own conduct during the war, calling it “terribly wrong,” McNamara still bore the scorn of critics angered by his slow-to-awaken conscience. He died a tormented man, one who never fully convinced historians or the public that he had come to terms with the moral burden of his actions.
Robert McNamara is a case study in conscience. His moral wrestling prompts the question: Where does the inner compass of conscience …come from? The word conscience, from the Latin conscientia, is formed of two words, meaning “knowing together.” That’s a clue that it is best to think of conscience not as an inner voice but as the ability to think and act with outside help. Parents, teachers, and coaches all contribute to the shape of our conscience. So do formative events. So does God. God in Christ Jesus helps form followers into particular kinds of human beings.
I’m pretty sure that one of the benefits of weekly worship is the recalibration of our moral compass not as a self-performing exercise but as something we do with the help of others,” he continues. “Honest engagement with the world begins with acknowledging that the world is a complicated, broken place, and that we are complicit in that brokenness. Only when we’ve come to terms with our complicity can we truly begin the difficult yet spiritually edifying task of working toward justice. Fellow believers and the Holy Spirit help repair damaged consciences by renewing hearts and minds in Christ. Awakening our conscience is critical to mending a broken world.”
~ (Peter W. Marty with Jeremy Sabella)
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” called the church to repent not only for the actions of those with evil intentions but for the “appalling silence of the good people.”
Let no one deceive you with empty words… Live as children of light— 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
A glow worm in the grass on the side of 170th street is not much. A little glow worm on the edge of the road is not a star emitting it’s fiery light through light years of space and time, but its point of light is about the same size at my feet as the stars above my head. A glow worm is not a high calling in the animal kingdom, one might wonder why such a creature was invented or how it has evolved, and we might wonder the same thing about ourselves some days… but it’s little light is enough to keep someone who is in the dark from straying into the ditch. As little spots of light in the dark, the glowworm is living as a creature of light, and therefore, in it’s own minuscule way, is an imitator of God. And that is all it can do. Living out it’s calling in the grass along the edge of 170th street. It is enough.
In your small way, in your unique place, that is all that is asked of you, too….be imitators of God, as beloved children, living in love, striving for justice, mindful of the calling of conscience. It is difficult work even in our small scale… but it is place to begin, and perhaps it is enough.
Yes, it’s a Wednesday, the first week after Labor Day and no one is ready for Fall or school (except parents!), church events are starting up….we know that. But come! Enjoy a concert, reconnect with friends you’ve lost track of during the busy summer, tap your foot, dance in your seat. It’s Danish dance music! Who can resist?
Christ is our Peace – What difference does that make, really?
The reading for today comes from this letter to the early Christian community gathered at Ephesus toward the end of the first century, written by an unknown author in the school of Paul’s thought. From chapter 2:11-22:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near [to God] by the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Hymn #704 When pain of the world surrounds us
I’m going to take us through that reading more slowly, streamlining it a bit, taking out some of the clauses, adding side bars here and there, because this is really important-mainly-ignored Christian theology. It is important for us to hear it clearly.
Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, (being non-Jewish)(at that time without Christ) were aliens and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near.
Jesus is our peace.
Like saying, God is love, this sounds really bland and generic, but it is, in fact, empire shaking news. Caesar was their peace, and Caesar allowed no rivals. “In his body, Jesus has made both Jews and Gentiles into one and has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility between us,” the letter goes on. “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances,” so that the law cannot be used to divide or give a false sense of righteousness or create imagined but untrue distance through purity from God, but, rather, in himself, in his own broken body, Christ creates one new whole humanity in place of the two and reconciles both to God. “Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him all have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
It’s difficult to make the significance of this claim clear. Through him, All have equal access to God through one spirit – through the Spirit of God, the will of God. How can this be? Do you believe it? All people… not meaning all people who are just like us or who are really pretty close to being like us, but even those who have some very different firmly held beliefs, even those wastrels and wanderers who have no belief or we’re pretty sure might be our enemies. They too, have equal access to God because of Christ. Are you picturing “yes, but” groups of people to whom this must not be referring?
At the time scripture was written, Jew and Gentile were the only choices. Those were the two categories of people. If you weren’t Jewish, then you were Gentile – and it didn’t matter which flavor of “gentility” you were – Christian or Zororaster, or if Baal or Zeus or Ashera or Caesar was your god… it didn’t matter, you were Gentile, pagan, condemned by your lack of belonging within the covenantal people of Israel, as far as scripture was concerned.
The historical context of this letter is the ancient Roman world, 70 years perhaps, after Jesus died on a Roman (Gentile) cross, by Jewish insistence, precisely because he broke down the walls of these two groups, abolishing the laws and ordinances of Sabbath and purity and challenging the exclusionary status of righteous Jews. He was killed because he did the things that make for peace. The temple leadership of his time couldn’t tolerate his ‘views and news of God’ nor his power with the people. They feared the crowds that flocked to Jesus, for fear of arousing the notice and the repressive power of Pax Romana. Jesus can’t be their peace, he can only be trouble. Caesar was their peace – and it was an oppressive peace. Much like today, it was peace enforced by ‘fire and fury’ reigned down on the heads of rebels and those who would claim that moral authority lay beyond the whims and rants and tweets of Caesar. Jewish leadership feared this Word of God both for it’s voice and it’s content.
The gospels were written in the time between the original Jewish audience of Jesus’ teachings and this letter to the early church in Ephesus. There was a timespan in there of about 70 years. Each time period made enemies of the religious groups who rejected them. How can all of the people that made up their world – all those hateful enemies, all those ignorant, unspiritual, uncircumcised Gentiles, have equal access to God?
Christ is our peace, required both the Jews of Jesus’ audience, and the newly forming Christian audience of the gospel and epistle writers to rethink the categories of their enemies – the good Samaritan for example, or the Syrophoenician woman who reminded Jesus that even the dogs under the table got to lick up crumbs the family dropped and so weren’t there crumbs of God’s grace for her Gentile daughter’s healing, or like the day laborer who came to the fields at the last hour yet received the same full day’s wage as those who worked all day in the blazing sun.
If Christ is our peace, if all have access to God because of God’s grace shown through the manger and the cross, where does it end? Who’s left on the outside? Where will we find firm ground upon which to take a defensive stance against the others?
Well, that is exactly the point. There is no firm ground. No defense of faith is needed… because there is only God’s unreasonable, expansive, unwieldy grace.
This conceptual difficulty is why Christianity hasn’t (and isn’t) handling the theology of this letter any better than did the ancient world. We prefer tribes. We want to belong, and therefore, by logical necessity, have others who do not.
In his flesh he has made both groups into one… the two existing groups of all people – are made into one body in God, the writer of Ephesians claims. And this is true even though Jews didn’t believe in Jesus as the messiah. Do you get that? Do you see that there’s been a switch and Jews became the outsiders through their lack of belief in Christ? Yet even though the Jews of the Ephesians worldview don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, never-the-less the Christ has taken them into his body through the cross. Not because of their belief or lack of it, or because of their faithfulness to the old covenants (because they were never very faithful to the old covenants as the Old Testament documents fairly convincingly) but because that’s what God devised as the plan, as the economy of mercy. Because it’s God’s choice. It’s the cross that accomplishes it, and the manger. It’s not us, not our goodness, not our belief or doctrines, but God in Jesus.
And as good Lutherans we would agree, saying that it isn’t our belief or our good works that render our salvation, but it is by Faith Alone, in God’s incarnational Word Alone, and that we hold that faith only through the outright gift of God’s Grace Alone. We are out of the equation, we say as good Lutherans, our good intentions and good deeds and inherited faith and mild mannered Nordic natures have nothing to do with it. We are simply grateful, joyful vessels receiving the grace poured into us, and our cup overfloweth. We say that, but secretly probably still believe that it’s not true, that God couldn’t love the Jews as much as Christians and certainly Muslims must worship a false view of God and therefore are out of God’s grace, and what about Buddhists and animists and Zen practitioners and all the others who don’t have faith the way we do….what about them? Right? isn’t that in the back of your mind someplace?… that without faith in Christ you can’t really be saved – or at least not into the same heaven or the same proximity to God, or something. Scripture does say that, too. There needs to be more clarity, a single message on this topic. Right? There really ought to be some distinction, some reward for our faith.
We have a hard time believing in the complete random nature of nature and birth and location and lineage and the work of God’s Spirit. We really do want some firm foundation, some blessed assurance, some bit of righteousness, some separation of sheep and goats. It’s in our nature. It just isn’t, apparently, in God’s nature.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,” the writer of Ephesians goes on, “you are not tolerated guests, or migrant workers in the kingdom of God, or sojourners trailing behind, gleaning the harvested field for a meager meal of mercy. You are citizens with the saints. You are members of the household of God, you are expected at the table of bounty. Because of Christ, to quote Paul from Galatians, there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile – all are one. All have the same status, no one is left out – there is no longer privilege or oppression to be overcome. In the body of Christ, in the household of God, everybody’s welcome. Everybody belongs. Jesus is our peace.
At the turn of the first century, the understanding and writing about the nature of Christ expanded in wonderful ways that they church has struggled to catch up with ever since.
So, what difference does it make?
Peace to you who were far off and peace to those who are near. What difference does that make? We can’t actually do much to bring or influence peace – we can’t reign in the inciting, embarrassing, brash rhetoric of our president, for example; or do much to help stem the violence of racism and the white supremacist movements in Charlottesville. Our peaceful lives and unity of spirit don’t reach very far outside our own doors some days. Sometimes we need that peace within ourselves to still the storms of emotion or anger or outrage. From people on the opposite side of culture wars, to the nemesis at work or the bully at school, most of us have an enemy who is not entirely an abstraction. And we are likely “the enemy” to someone. How does, how can, Christ being our peace make any difference?
In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God,” this section concludes.
What kind of dwelling place for God are we – collectively and individually? How can we reflect/ embody that peace in our lives, extend the table of equal access and privilege, open up the dwelling place of God? How might we/ you live into this legacy of peace in ways that show that you’ve noticed?
~ Pastor Linda
“It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity” – it still is.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (this is all one sentence in Greek)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that anyone may boast, for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Hymn #659 Will you let me be your servant
Ephesians is believed to have been written at the end of the first century – in roughly the same time zone as the gospel of John and the book of Revelations, for example, and one can see the connections between them in imagery and theology. I’m a bit of a Bible nerd, so this interests me. I apologize for my fascination with the grammar, and allusions and connections, but I will try to bring you along, because, as I see it, this is like reading our life and times through the lens of the ancient Roman world. We have a lot in common with those forgotten, unknown people; and a lot of water has passed beneath the bridge. Both things are true. I like that. I like that there is no way to say, “This is right, this is absolute,” because truth and absolute aren’t the way God seems to work. Adaptation, evolution, allowance, grace seem to be God’s way. You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us … made us alive – by grace you have been saved.
Life… existence, to the writer of Ephesians was a matter of bondage to malevolent powers, which this passage describes as “the world,” “the ruler of the power of the air,” and “flesh.” How would you label the malevolent powers ruling your life, your flesh, or running willy-nilly through our world? Addictions? Jealousy? Poverty? Illness? Cancer? Isolation? Being overwhelmed with work or family troubles? Mental illness? Greed? Ego?
In the cosmology of Ephesians, “this world” referred to enmity with God – to the unwillingness to live the life God wills for us – of compassion, unity, earthliness, humanity, and humility.
I love the image of the “ruler of the power of the air.” For these people of long ago, air was understood to be the zone between earth and the heavens inhabited and ruled by malevolent forces who exercised control over the world below. This was not the stratosphere or heaven. It was not the bright, cloudless glimmer of a summer day, or the rays of light beaming down out of a sunset cloud. Instead, think of a dark winter’s night – shrieking in a blizzard. Think of the feeling you get in a cold, gray week of April drizzle that seems to never end, when the “mean reds” creep in. Think of the fear of straight line wind, the havoc it can wreak. Think of the evening onslaught of mosquitoes and their whine from the woods. The sky, the air, was not evil – but it wasn’t neutral, either. It was inhabited by powers, and they weren’t on our side. The earth was also like that: mythic, alive – with beauty and dangers, with mystery and terrors.
The term “flesh” in this, and most Pauline literature, describes the human condition so turned in on itself that one’s passions, cravings, and will are in total disrepute and disobedience to God – thus marking us as children of wrath. Altogether, it’s not a pretty picture. Christ came into all of that with God’s intention of redemption.
The writer of Ephesians says we were/are like this, that this can be true of your heart, of your life, of our culture, our political climate, our world today. Though we are children of wrath, God acted out of the abundance of divine mercy and the miracle of divine love. Never-minding what we are like, never-minding our very long history as sour grapes, never-minding our rejection of Jesus as he embodied God’s other way, God’s embrace, God’s inclusion.
This reshaping, reconfiguring of our fortunes in Christ had nothing to do with how loveable or clever or handsome we are, but rather with how loving God is. God made us alive with Christ, raised us with Christ, sees us in Christ, places us In Christ, who now rules over all of these powers and dominions and desperations and desires… rules in the way that Jesus lived – balking at the rigidity of the law, welcoming without regard to social class or status, loving the betrayer, listening to the logic of the outsider’s plea.
“You have been saved by grace,” we are told. Here’s the cool Greek grammar. The use of a passive, perfect periphrastic participle tells us that God’s grace has already accomplished our new reality. It happened “once and for all” as the saying goes – done in the past, continues as our reality, and carries on into the future for ages yet to come. A passive, perfect periphrastic participle says it all: Jesus was born, lived, died, and was raised once and for all in God, by God, for God, because that’s the will of God. Grace is an ongoing demonstration of the riches of God’s love for the world of creation and incarnation.
God, who is the great verb of being – giving his name to Moses as I am, or I am what I shall be or I am all that is, now acts in passive perfect – once, already, done for you with ongoing benefits and consequences for the rest of time. The Greeks would have understood the grammar, but the consequences confused them.
Paul’s encouragement to his beloved church in Philippi was “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). When Paul was writing, they expected the return of Jesus any day. He had promised to return and bring in the new age, and they were getting a bit tired of waiting.
If Jesus had not appeared by now, fully a generation after his death, then either he was mistaken about his role or there was some misunderstanding about his teaching. The second option was the obvious choice for a new and growing church. So the emphasis shifted toward affirming the realized Kingdom of God, one already begun, but in hiding, a special inner communion of believers in the world over which Jesus ruled in his heavenly lordship at the right hand of God. This resulted in a cosmic dualism that appealed to many. Whereas Paul spoke of a creation waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God – any day now (Romans 8:19), and hoped for the day in which the world itself would be renewed, the author of Ephesians emphasizes the believer’s distrust of the world.
Their hope now lay in ages that are yet to come. This world — ruled as it was by “the power of the air” and populated by “children of wrath” driven by the “desires of flesh and senses” — held no hope for those who had been baptized into a new reality. Their eyes were focused on another realm. The best they could do was to endure this present age and separate themselves from its deathly foundations.
From this time at the end of the first century onward, the church has struggled to understand its relationship to a world that was created “very good” by God, but is corrupted by the ongoing consequences of human action and inaction, greed and injustice – the stuff called sin. Where is God in the midst of life’s turmoil and troubles? Are we to live into this life and celebrate it and work for its redemption, or are we to remain passive and apart, keeping our eyes on the horizon and hope in the life to come? The dualism has lived on in every age. This was the dynamic of the Inner Mission pietists of Denmark over-against which Grundtvig claimed the goodness of life and this world. It is a dynamic of faith that is still very alive – and divisive – today.
I doubt that the author of Ephesians had any idea that the choice of grammar – the passive, perfect periphrastic participle – would spin the Christian church around between these two poles of world-view. Perhaps the only intent was to extend a word of hope.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that anyone may boast, 10for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
~ Pastor Linda