Cain and Abel

Creation stories begin the Narrative Lectionary each fall. I’m beginning instead with the next story – one that we don’t hear in church, yet is known in popular culture. See Genesis, chapter 4.

This is a creation story in a sense. It plays out the genesis of sin. Just as there are two creation accounts back to back, so we are presented with two depictions of the nature and origin of sin. The first was Adam and Eve’s debacle with the fruit tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent’s temptation and the woman’s lack of moral fiber are typically (falsely) blamed for that one. Adam knew what was going on, he knew what God had told him. But the lure of temptation seems to be mixed into the mud from which we came: they ate of the fruit. God both judged and provided for this couple (and the snake) before sending Adam and Eve into the world outside the garden’s hedges and guarded gate.

Cain, the first child of earth, embodies this dangerous, conflicted knowledge of good and evil. It is a conflict we are well acquainted with. Paul wrote about it in the book of Romans: 7:15″I do not understand my own actions,” he writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it…. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”  

God tells Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? [of course you will] And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 

You must master it. We must learn to master unruly dogs, classrooms of first graders and unruly middle schoolers. We must master addictions, our emotions, our desires. If we fail to master them, they will rule over us. “Sin is lurking at the door, its desire is for you.” I appreciate that sin is given this ‘poised to pounce’ quality, this sense of animation. The authors of this story were good observers of human nature. Cain had a clear choice. He had a conversation with God. He had time to think this over. He could have mastered his anger, his hurt, his acute disappointment. He could have asked God for an explanation (we would all appreciate hearing it). He could have learned to live with his brother despite his jealousy, in spite of feeling victimized by God who – for some inexplicable reason – chose his brother’s offering over his own.

He could have mastered it. But he didn’t. Instead, we can picture him fuming, spiraling down into rage and justification and vengeance, violence rising. He invites Abel out into the field.

This is a troubling tale on many fronts. It’s of some interest to realize that it’s often taught in Sunday school, but not included in any lectionary. Children understand the sibling rivalry bit; adults perhaps don’t want to look that closely within. We are faced both with temptation from things outside (forbidden fruit) and things within (jealousy, rage, greed). This is the mixed origin and nature of sin.

But what about God’s role here? First and last is the question about God choosing to favor one offering over another. Why was that necessary? We aren’t happy about the capricious, inscrutable nature of God who does things like this without a word of explanation. Is it a set-up, a test like that of Job? Did God not know the outcome, the consequences of his action? And if so, then is Abel simply collateral damage in a test of Cain’s will, of the knowledge of good and evil?   I’ll come back to this.

The second bothersome point is that Cain, who killed his own brother and then asks God the most snarky question in the Bible, “What? Am I my bother’s keeper?” seems quite concerned about his own life. That ‘anyone’ who meets him might kill him as he wanders in his banishment. Point one, that would be a form of justice for him, some might think he’s got it coming.

Point two, he was one of four people in the newly created world and now there were three. What people is he concerned about and where did he find a wife? How does he build a city in the land of Nod? Our storyteller seems to have nodded off and skipped a page!

But maybe not.

By now you know my prejudiced perspective that these are highly edited, mythic tales which tell ancient, perennial truths about humanity and our relationship with one another and with God. They are not historically accurate, but they tell the truth nevertheless. I don’t intend to disabuse you of your opinion if it’s different than that, but this is where I’m coming from. 

So therefore, I’m not concerned about the civilization that lies to the east of Eden. Adam and Eve were set down in the fertile crescent valley to tend and till and bear children with pain. That is the storyline we follow for the truth it tells. The pain for Eve of mothering continues past birth. She must now bear the pain of the death of one son and the banishment of the other who murdered his brother. So much for family bliss. This is the first family. It’s been a steep learning curve.

Adam was given the mixed vocation of farmers to tend and till. In time his sons divided that labor – Cain became the tiller, Abel tended to the flocks. It seems like a good idea. It also seems that shepherds are preferred in the Bible. Farmers hoard into barns, mistreat their workers, don’t leave enough for the gleaners who follow the harvest looking for sustenance. Kings are chosen from the shepherds. Shepherds were the first to follow the star. Jesus is a good shepherd. So God does seem to choose.

The Frugal Gourmet* offers the explanation that shepherding is isolated and yet communal. What is the word for a single sheep (sheep), for a flock(sheep)? They are plural, communal even by name. Shepherds clumped together relying on each other for help and protection. They offered hospitality to strangers and angels and sojourners. Farming, though, is about private ownership and private gain. Food is shared when it’s paid for. 

Jeff Smith writes this: page 21 “In order to teach Cain about His intentions for men and women as children of God, Cain is condemned to wander forever. In that wandering he would finally come to see that the values of the Bible stem from our understanding that we are really nomads, wanderers, and we are to care for and protect one another, not just our property.” 

As to the question of God’s intent, and foreknowledge, and Abel’s death… I’d like to say, “I don’t know,” because that would be true. 

But, given my perspective that this is a teaching story, the lesson centers on Cain and his actions. Names – particularly in Genesis and in the prophets – are intentionally given or significant (like Isaak, which means laughter because Sarah laughed). In Hebrew folklore, Cain means ‘production’ or ‘acquisition’ – a farmer. Eve said, “I have produced a man…” A play on his name. Abel means ’emptiness’ or ‘futility’ – the perfect counterpart of Acquisition. With his life blood that spills out into the land, Abel is an empty character. Like the murder victims in Miss Marple whom we never care about, we are not to spend time grieving Abel. Cain is the protagonist in this drama of good and evil. God’s initial action of choosing is necessary to produce the action of the story. Because it’s not in accepting Abel’s offering, but in accepting Cain, in providing him with a protective mark to shield him, in allowing him to wander away from God’s righteous presence, in providing him with life and a wife and son and future – it is in this choosing – without a word of explanation – that God’s inscrutable and loving nature is taught.

The gospel comes to us through the cross. The good news of God’s over-riding, unexpected love and provision – for even the Cains of this world – is taught through death. This should be no surprise to us – that God chooses life over judgment even for those who cannot (do not) master sin pouncing at the door, those who get yanked around on the wrong end of a leash. The next chapter is a genealogy, and when chapter six picks up the narrative, people have begun to populate the world. And this: 5 “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” 

The consequences of eating forbidden fruit rippled out generation after generation spreading the hubris of thinking we are like God, when there is nothing further from the truth. And still, in spite of this continued grief, God does not change his nature or intentions for human life. There is a strange justice in this kind of love – justice even for Abel, I believe – for everyone.  God alone does not receive justice. He who desires intimacy with his creatures sees them wander away, turn away in disregard generation after generation.

The parable of the prodigal son, I think, completes/retells the story of Cain. He who has wandered away, finally hits bottom and realizes that he has squandered the greatest gift, and hesitantly, but resolutely, makes a return, practicing his apology in begging for forgiveness along the way. The father, however, sees him coming a long way off. And in a manner most undignified runs all out, arms flung akimbo to embrace this wayward child, kisses his cheeks, puts the family ring on his son’s finger and proclaims a feast.

I realize that that is not the ending of the story we’re given, nor the ending of the parable, but I believe it could be. We are given the possibility to master ourselves if nothing else. And that might be enough. 

* ‘The Frugal Gourmet Keeps the Feast’, by Jeff Smith

artwork by Mircea Doinaru

Come, celebrate the mystery

Easter Morning Worship ~ 8:00am

 

Breakfast follows at the Parish Hall

(HINT: breakfast is not the mystery)

 

Study the faces of these women, the three Marys, who went at dawn to Jesus’ tomb, hoping to anoint his body. They found the tomb empty and a messenger of the divine saying he had been raised.

Wonder, fear, incredulity: These are the emotions of mystery.

What is the look on your face when you consider the existence of God; the motivation of an almighty power toward human and creaturely life?

One of the Medieval women mystics noted that God is in all things, and all things in God. If this is the case, is it possible that God’s powerful presence can open – not only cold, closed tombs, but closed minds, wounded hearts – and find life there, too?

The mystery of faith begins in doubt (wonder, fear, incredulity) and is ‘proven’ only in your own experience or insight – a life transformed. It is then that mystery becomes deep joy and not a problem to be solved.

Study these women’s faces. Imagine what comes next. For them. For you.

Peace to you along that path.

Pastor Linda

 

Fastelavns ~ Sunday, 3 March

Imagine…

You could be one of this year’s smiling royalty!

S/he who, with heavy oaken bat, dislodges the cat from the stave barrel filled with straw, peanuts, coins, candy (and the cat) proves their worthiness, strength, humility, honor and the distinction of ruling over the farms and folk of the West Denmark Realm until the crown is won away by the mightiest batter of 2020!

Three barrels, three categories, three crowns, one fellowship…

Fellowship time follows with refreshments and pot luck snacks.

Wait: the message of Advent 1 ~ Habakkuk 

Like Jeremiah, whom we heard of last week, Habakkuk is a prophet to Judah, thought to be active after the Assyrian conquest and into the aftermath of the Babylonian captivity. It was a time of intense national calamity. There are internal troubles – wrong-doing, strife, contention – and very big external troubles looming in the form of the Chaldeans of Babylonia.

Habakkuk opens with lament.  “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the judgment becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous — therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” 1:1-4

And then God answers the lament – “I am doing things you won’t believe. The response to your prayer for justice will be brought to you by the Chaldeans, they will be the tool of my judgment against you.” 

Within the span of a few generations, the Assyrian army marched through the land formerly known as Israel, and then Judah, destroying one city after another, brutally killing as they went (701 BCE), followed by the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar, who attacked Jerusalem three times – first taking the leaders and skilled citizens into exile, and then in 587 BCE, destroying the city and the temple. Violence was everything, everywhere. We can imagine the cultural, social, spiritual chaos as their nation was deconstructed and depopulated.

Naturally, Habakkuk is dismayed by this response. “Are you not from of old, O Lord my God, my Holy One? … Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?”  And so, as chapter 1 closes, God has become the problem.

What happens when you pray to God and God doesn’t seem to get it?  Doesn’t hear? Doesn’t respond? 

This is familiar ground for many of us. Why does God tarry in responding to urgent prayers? Habakkuk says in effect, “You’re not listening, God! I trusted in you, but your solution prospers my foe while we perish.” 

In Israel’s history, this prophet’s message will be followed by many more years of violence, suffering and injustice. This divine response for the people God has chosen and loves challenges all the easy answers or quick fixes that we actually pray for in our own lives. Deliverance will come, but / and – you can do nothing to hasten it or understand it. You must wait.

This first Sunday of Advent finds most of us waiting for something – looking forward to it or dreading it, but waiting… Sometimes waiting becomes our life: not only in lines at the store and in traffic – or the lifetime it seems to take waiting for the results from a lab test or word from a loved one. Waiting seems to become life itself, a perennial looking forward to something better, for this current stasis to end. The waiting life  can be one of chronic discontent or disregard for the moment. We wait in fear or worry or disquiet for the future, for endings, for death. We wait eagerly for the next stage of childhood, for the completion of a huge project, for retirement. Many of us wait for some future time when everything we have worked for and daydreamed about will come into being and life will be perfect. Right? Hand’s up for those who’ve gotten there! 

That’s what I thought. 

I can’t tell you how many versions of this wonderful-daydreaming-wait I’ve constructed for life at our little farm in Washburn. Then the house is done, the tractor starts, the fields are intentionally managed, the garden is a miniature copy of the kitchen gardens and orchard at West Dean College in England. In my imagined life, Mike and I are waiting for the sauna to get hot and that’s about it – everything else is good. The main problem with my waiting life is that in my plans I’m still 38. Time passes. What am I doing in the meantime?

Our response to “Wait for it” might be to sit and let it come, or to fuss and pine about the way it tarries, or to scurry around being busy – waiting and denial being one and the same.

But here’s something. The word for “waiting” in Hebrew is the root of the word “hope.”

The word of God that comes to Habakkuk is a terrifying word – that the Chaldeans will crush them and take them and destroy everything his people hold dear, ravaging even the land so that no crop or fig or olive will come to harvest, no flock will make it to the fold. But deliverance will come… eventually….. in the fullness of time…. Wait for it.  

“Then the Lord answered me and said: ‘ There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.  Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.’ 2:2-4 

Centuries later, Paul will say that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

That’s not what Habakkuk is saying, though. It’s more remarkable than that.

It’s not simply that Habakkuk can’t see anything to be hopeful about – he is claiming faith in the nature of God that flies in the face of everything he does see – faith in what is completely contradictory to what he sees. Despair seems the only plausible response in his world view. 

Maybe that seems to be about right for you, too. Everything your eyes see tells you to despair, to give up, that no good will come of it. But Habakkuk has another word to say… he says, yet. “Yet, I will rejoice. Yet, I will exult in the God of my salvation. Even so, just so.”

“O Lord, I have heard of your renown, I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy.” 3-2   “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” 3:17-19

“Despair cannot have me – and though God tarries, though the turn of fortunes may come too late for me, or certainly too late to suit me, yet… there is a God who is my strength… a God who makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. A God who claims me.” 

For this incredible prophet, faith is the ultimate act of defiance. “Despair cannot claim me because God has claimed me, and so I can trust that there is a future contrary to the future I can see, because I belong to God.”

 

I worked in Montana one summer when I was in college. I was a backcountry forest ranger intern. And at the end of the summer my roommate and I took two weeks to hike and camp and bike ride through Glacier National Park. I will say without hesitation that riding a bike is not the way to see Glacier – the uphills never end and the downhills are terrifying …. but I digress.

My point is that we watched mountain goats and big horn sheep up in the heights where we couldn’t dream of being. Up above tree line, up where it’s just rock and boulder fields and chasms and snow and wisps of clouds – there were baby mountain goats learning to jump. 

Watching them, I couldn’t imagine how they found footing, how they could find food, how they could survive the winds and harsh conditions. Why didn’t they go somewhere else lower down the mountain to greener pastures, beside still waters, on wider trails?


“…yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”

Those young mountain goats didn’t seem to be picking their way, carefully, safely along the trails up there. They weren’t waiting to grow up, or for more favorable conditions, or for the grass to grow at their feet.

Their mommas didn’t seem to be giving them instructions in personal safety. The young ones didn’t tread on the heights, they trounced and bounced and careened and pranced … The Lord God gave them remarkable feet, and remarkable instinctual trust. They were a terrifying and joyful sight. 

I don’t suppose that’s quite the image Habakkuk had in mind, but it gives me an idea for how he felt, for how he trusted. If you’ve ever tried rock hopping you know that feeling. To successfully rock hop a stream or hillside, you turn off the rational part of your brain, the part that thinks about sprained ankles and cracked skulls. You release ‘rational’ and let the intuitive, spacial, leaping, instinctual side take over. It’s a rush. 

Rock hopping might seem to be the opposite of waiting – and might make waiting sound pretty good – but it gets to the active, radical root of the Hebrew word –  God’s word to Habakkuk. Active waiting grounded in hope, letting God guide your life and your future  – not knowing where you’ll put your foot down next. In rock hopping, if you think about it it’s too late. Mountain goats calculate on the fly. Waiting in radical hope is trusting that your foot will land, fleetingly supporting, launching you into the next boulder and then the next. 

It’s an anxious life to imagine for those of us who are pretty well grounded in safety and satisfaction and denial. Radical trust is faith in a God who is active and present, whose deliverance has come and also is not yet here. This first Sunday in Advent, we open the church year waiting…. believing beyond our fears.

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, …yet…. I will rejoice in the Lord; I will trust in the God who formed me.”

  Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart.

Pastor Linda

 

 

 

 

 

Woman Wisdom

The-Creation-of-Adam-Michelangelo-631

I’ve been reading about, thinking about Woman Wisdom.

I’ve always liked her as a biblical character even though she’s not embodied. She clearly has power.

 

She is with God at the beginning, bringing forth creation and delighting in it.

Michelangelo paints her at the very center of heaven’s womb, supporting God in the divine enterprise of creation. With her right arm around God’s waist, her left grasping his forearm, the kinetic force of this moment shows Wisdom as the counterweight allowing God to extend his reach toward the dustling. Without her, the ineffectual little cherubim would go tumbling out after God like birdies from their nest. 

 

In Proverbs, Woman Wisdom stands in the public places where prophets stand, and sounds very much like a prophet in this opening narrative. She calls to those who would attain wisdom and rebukes those who ignore her. Her warning is reminiscent of Isaiah, almost a direct quote. The main difference is her agenda. Justice isn’t her agenda, nor compassion – those are attributes of God. In Proverbs, her target audience is quite narrow. Woman Wisdom’s agenda is for the sake of the institution; her aim, the faith formation of sons of the religious elite.

“Does not wisdom call,  and does not understanding raise her voice?  On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.  Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right … Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.

‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? …  Because I have called and you refused, I have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,  and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,  I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.  Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.  Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof,  therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.

 But those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.’ … if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures— then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.  For the Lord gives wisdom; knowledge and understanding;… guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones.” ~ from Proverbs 8;1;2

Job and Ecclesiastes are also books of the Wisdom genre. They offer arguments that run counter to this mechanistic view. Bad things do happen to the innocent, to the righteous, dutiful, faithful ones.  Wisdom’s speech highlights Job’s distress as a righteous one who never-the-less receives calamity as a whirlwind. What is the Woman up to?

The historical setting is helpful. While the two line sayings – the proverbs – of Proverbs are very old, the narratives about Woman Wisdom, Woman Folly, and Wonder Wife in the last chapter are the newest sections of the book. Scholars believe these date to post-exilic Judah. During this Persian period, the people have been allowed to come home, but the structures of life – the governmental, social, religious fundamentals are all gone. There is no temple, there is no king. Their homes and olive groves, vineyards and villages have either been razed or taken over by others who have now lived there for a generation. How do you start again? How do you teach your young their identity, their inheritance of faith? 

You go back to the beginning – to creation and the proper ordering of things – in Proverbs, with wisdom as the guiding principle – and back to the law. But their world view has changed during exile. Israelite thinking has unwittingly taken on the dualism of mind and body of their captor’s culture.  Purity, righteousness, obedience  – those head things – become the hallmarks of ‘fear of the Lord’ and the good life. One attains this Wisdom through instruction. Beginning with the parents at home and then with the sages, the traditionalist’s position is that righteous living will be rewarded with wealth and plenty; foolish living will undercut their society and end badly.

When culture is under stress, people find comfort in law, in ‘insider-outsider’ distinctions, in clear-cut, easy to discern wisdom. Stress is not a time for nuance and creative ambiguity. In times of tension, there is comfort in being told what to do, in having clear instructions and choices so simple that even fools don’t go astray. (Isaiah 35:8)

  Happy are those who keep my ways,” she says. “Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.” (8:32 ff)

“Whoever finds me finds life; all who hate me love death. Choose life!  Live the good life!”

Woman Folly, then, is clearly the siren of the dark side.  She is Stranger Danger, who feigns wisdom, but her way leads to shame and death.

The foolish woman is loud; she is ignorant and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the high places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, ‘You who are simple, turn in here!’ And to those without sense she says, ‘Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ But they do not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.” 

This Wanton woman is woven throughout the proverbs variously described as an adulteress, a prostitute, a foreigner who would woo away vulnerable youth and seduce them into following false gods. She is competing religious traditions; she is frightening female otherness. Her name is Folly because it is folly for a young man to follow her, to give in to his desire for the Strange Woman – the women of these other people who now live among them with foreign gods and foreign rituals who would dilute and weaken Israelite identity and social structure.

Why is this pertinent?

Bring this forward to Jesus’ time – 500 to 600 years later.

Who were the law keepers, gatekeepers, instruction givers, the sages? Who carried on the black and white world view of good and bad, insider and stranger?

They were the priests, the scribes and Pharisees.

Whom did Jesus contend with? The priests, the scribes and Pharisees. 

Hmm, so, what happened? How did the Wisdom of God twist around?

The 10 commandments were a divine gift to the people – ten things that could easily be memorized that would aid ancient Israel in keeping their lives in proper order. Love God first, provide for the vulnerable in society – older parents, servants and strangers are the exemplars, and treat your neighbors with respect and integrity. Follow these laws, this wisdom, “so that it will go well for you, and you will live long in the land.” Israel was not chosen because they were an example of purity or wisdom or righteousness. They failed miserably at those things. The histories, the prophets, the gospels, Pauls writings – all give ample evidence of the failure of Israel (and all people) to live according to the 10 basic commandments.

They weren’t chosen because they were a good example, Israel was chosen to be a living example, a community incarnation of God’s will and way and wonder and wisdom – to embody divine abundance in a desert land.

But by Jesus’ day, the laws were oppressive requirements not used to help but to oppress. The Law no longer functioned as a tool of compassion and justice, but a power tool for the elite to wield. Sabbath, instead of a gift of rest, became a day when the hungry could not eat, the sick could not be healed. Over time, the good law had become rigid, fear based, insular, abusive.

Jesus keeps going back to that list. Love God, love your neighbor. He finds remarkable faith in a Roman Centurion, their enemy occupier, saying, “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel!” 

Jesus commends the despised Samaritans in the parable of the good Samaritan who shows mercy to his foreign neighbor after all the law abiding, righteous, ‘pure’ Israelites had walked by, and in the Samaritan woman at the well who listened, asked questions, was openminded enough to consider the view of this “totally other than herself” Jew. And then she invited her people to come listen. And they changed their minds about long held cultural grievances and prejudices – something even Jesus’ disciples couldn’t do. And there was the Syrophonaecian woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus said. She said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus said, “Woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” 

It seems that Jesus prefers the stranger, the other, the foreigner, the Samaritans with their mixed race and worship at Mt Gerizim. Maybe ‘prefer’ is the wrong word, but he treats them equally to the Jews. Jesus breaks down the “us and them,” raises the lowest of society to status of Friend – unmarried women, tax collectors, sojourners and leaves the religious elite to “eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.”

Why is this pertinent?

Bring it forward to our day.

Who are the law keepers, gatekeepers, instruction givers? Who carries on the black and white world view of good and bad, insider and stranger?

How do we use Law, and for whose benefit? Are our laws intended to control and oppress the vulnerable while insulating the elite? (as in Jesus’ day) Or are they gracious and fair, meant to protect and promote all life, all creatures? (as intended) Do we uphold the letter of the law at the cost of children’s welfare, for example? At the cost of habitats and species being extinguished for industrial gain and the GDP? At the cost of our own species’ future life on the planet for political maneuvering and basic everyday laziness and greed? Are we again afraid of these other people who now live among us with foreign gods and foreign rituals who will dilute and weaken our identity and social structure. (remember that we were once those people, too)

Would you say our individual and communal ethics would put us in contention with Jesus, with God’s way and will and wonder and wisdom? Do they serve God?

It’s complicated, isn’t it?

Woman Wisdom and Woman Stranger embody the duality of mind and body, spirit and earth. In the beginning Wisdom delighted in all creation and creatures, but after the disaster of Babylon, Israel’s need for Wisdom changed; she spoke dispassionate, motherly instruction and she taught through fear and insider’s loyalty. She kept the young men safe.  

God didn’t come as a dispassionate, divine thought, however – or as an un-embodied or disinterested righteous one who would keep you safe. I like that about Michelangelo’s image: God is about to fall out of heaven in his reach to touch the human. God came among us (individual to family to clan to nation, through creation and words and prophets and finally in Jesus), to teach Wisdom as a human body that felt things, a human body who loved, who touched healthy bodies and wounded ones and dead ones. Jesus broke the purity codes and Sabbath laws and taught that the actual needs of people came first – hunger, suffering, thirst; their bodies came before rules and religion.

God said through the prophets – I don’t want your sacrifices or your solemn assemblies. I want a humble heart, a wise people to attract the nations, show hospitality to the sojourners in your midst. I want my people to be irresistible envoys of grace, and forgiveness and steadfast kindness. I don’t want to set you apart, but I set you right there in the thick of it where you belong.

How is this pertinent?

Fast forward to your life, your choices, your actions…. 

…how pertinent is it? 

Intro to Wisdom – holy obedience to the ordinary

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We’re starting a new preaching/teaching series today.

If you were here for the Trinity and Creeds sermons, you heard me whining about Wisdom being left out of the divine Being’s three-in-one body. Wisdom should be the Son’s sister, Chokhma in Hebrew, or Sophia in Greek. But that wasn’t the way the patristic world saw things. And since it wasn’t, I am perhaps making the divine siblinghood up. But nevertheless, there is a strong Wisdom tradition throughout both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and we’re going to spend a little time there. 

A couple years ago we worked through the book of Job. I’m not ready to return to him yet, but Job is one of the wisdom books. The wisdom tradition is strong in much of the gospel of John and in many of the sayings of Jesus in Matthew and the other the gospels of the New Testament. 

The three books we will be highlighting in the next four weeks are ancient: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.

All three books are in the Writings, the part of the Hebrew Bible that is ordered after the Torah and Prophets, that includes, in general, the latest and last-canonized books of the Bible. The actual authors and writing dates are unknown. The language of Ecclesiastes dates (at least this form of it) to between 300 and 200 BCE. Scholars date Proverbs’ various parts from Solomon’s time in the 900’s BCE to its final editing in the 500’s BCE. But the Song of Songs wins. It dates anywhere from the early 13th century BCE in Mesopotamia to its final form in the 300’s BCE. Solomon may very well have contributed to any or all of these writings 3000 years ago. 

Besides not knowing the authors or dates, Wisdom is old advice – really old! – and yet she speaks with a surprisingly modern inflection. We will hang with her for a few weeks.

These books don’t get a lot of preaching attention because they tend not to make much mention of God. Pastors like to preach about God. When Wisdom is in focus, the God of power and might and miracles is somewhere in the back 40, or has taken off his toga and slipped on his smoking jacket, sitting in an armchair by the fire with a pipe, giving sage advice, telling stories, sipping milk with honey. 

Wisdom is not unique to the Hebrew scripture-tellers. The literary forms are borrowed from Egyptian, Sumerian, and other Aramaic poetry and proverbs. Wisdom was a central idea in Greek philosophy, in Platonic thought, and Gnosticism – all dualistic traditions in which the head rules the heart. For them, Knowledge is the highest virtue; and Wisdom the purest knowledge. 

In a nuanced form of this, Orthodox Christianity, and my favorite, Christian mysticism, tended more to the poetic, embodied, experiential form of wisdom grown from different biblical root stock.

Especially from the late Middle Ages onward – with it’s mind over matter, rational-classification-system approach to all things – the Earth Mother goddess image of Wisdom was purified, leaving early biblical references and imagery of Wisdom as the consort to God on the cutting room floor – or at least at the back of the bookshelf and not brought out into polite society for Sunday sermons. She became Hagia Sophia – Christian’s Holy Wisdom. That’s not really the image the Bible paints. But we’ll hear from and about her next week.

In the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Solomon – and never got past chapter 3!

In Hebrew understanding, Wisdom is not found in the head as the Greeks would attest, but rather in the heart and the will and in daily life. Hebrew wisdom is not theoretical; it is practical, it’s based on common-sense principles of right and wrong, on beauty and humility and awe. Insights drawn from the natural world are a source of knowledge about human society and revelations encoded within creation. The one who lives with an eye on God’s word, who knows the commands in their heart, and keeps their feet in the earth – this one is considered wise.

Proverbs, as a book to read, is best taken in small doses. With the exception of a few longer narratives, Proverbs is made up of two-liners that, in our day, show up in unfortunate places like roadside church signs. But they cover many topics:  

“The poor are disliked even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” 14:20

“Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another.” 27:19  

“Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers.” 10:26 

“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.” 11:22 

“Better is a dinner of vegetables where there is love, than a fatted ox and hatred with it.” 15:17  

“Do not let her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; for a seductive woman’s fee is only a loaf of bread, but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life.” 6:25.

Solomon had problems with this last one even though his dad, King David, probably taught that lesson at length. A wanton woman or an adulterous man can bring down kingdoms – nothing much has changed in 3000 years.

The first verses of chapter 31 are unique in that the wise advice to King Lemuel is from his mother. She speaks of leadership qualities that, though ancient, many of us would wish for:

“No, my son! No, son of my womb! No, son of my vows! Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.  It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted. 

Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress;  let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” 

Proverbs is an interesting book when it’s read in short spurts, but it’s not gripping reading. Ecclesiastes – other than the “for everything there is a season” part, is known by its melancholy refrain, “All is vanity, a chasing after the wind, and there is nothing new under the sun.” The Song of Solomon or Song of Songs, is love poetry that one would say might be better suited to a steamy romance novel than to Holy Writ. If you want to get confirmation students to pay attention, I’m told,  give them a good battle scene from the book of Kings or have them read the love Song of Solomon. I haven’t tried it, but I think it would be flashlight reading once they caught on.

So, why in the world should we delve into this little backwater section of the Bible? 

Well, why not? It is my opinionated belief that the main thing wrong with American Christianity is a complete lack of imagination for God’s character, for the scope and diversity of biblical images for God, and a lack of humility for the mysterium – the holy wonder.  Too many people think they know what God is like because they have Jesus in their pocket and verses to quote for every situation. 

We might hear something new in these books… you might be tempted to read something you’ve never read before. And that can’t be bad.

Proverbs is not concerned with issues of salvation, but with issues of how to live life in this world of God’s design, to have the good life that God intends for all people. This kind of common-sense wisdom is based not on revelation (there are no burning bushes or heavenly visions) but on experience and everyday observation. 

Its task is character formation. Parents, Woman Wisdom … God … exhorts young people to do well by doing good; that is, to have “the good life” by exhibiting the virtues of honesty, hard work, self-control, and above all, the fear of the LORD. Every avenue of everyday life is fair game: economics, friends, family, work, sex, politics. As one commentator puts it, “The proverbs are spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”1    I really hope angels don’t knock on our door looking for lunch, but that’s my kind of spiritual guide. There is a problem with this innocent wisdom, though – bad things happen to good people. Israel had to deal with this after the Babylonian captivity. Job is the story of that and offers a counterpoint to the traditional view of action=consequence formula.

So, what is the good life? 

How do you define it and how close have you come to living it? How big is the gap between your description of the good life and the life you live day to day?  Can you bring to mind an image of you living the good life?

My mind immediately goes back to two summer images: One from my childhood of an ordinary summer day spent at our cottage on a small lake 20 miles from our “rest of the year” house. My dad couldn’t get coverage for vacations, so my parents built a summer cottage to help him pretend. I spent as much time as I could every summer reading on the screened porch and playing in and out of the lake. Until my first job, my summer wardrobe consisted of an always damp swimming suit and a sweatshirt. For an introvert at least, the cottage housed a perfect, peaceful, good life. 

The other image fast forwards to our first 4 or 5 summers here. I read aloud to the kids every summer night on the porch of the parsonage. The hum of mosquitos, the call of loons, June bugs bouncing off the screens, reading late into the night to the light of dragonfly twinkle lights, the kids snuggled on the floor on cushions from the couch and living room chairs. That was the good life for me.

So, what is it for you? European travel? A little red convertible? Mortgage paid off? Being known, acknowledged in your profession or in an ideal job? A return to something or someone you’ve lost? Someone to love? A big meal with your best friends at the table? The garden in and weeded and a cool one in your hand on the porch?

How big is the gap between your ideal and your day to day?  Has it changed in the past 5 years?

Would you say that your job or vocation is satisfying… that you’ve earned enough money to spend, save, and share without staying up too many nights wondering how the bills will get paid? Would you say you have enough possessions, enough food, enough financial security, enough toys, enough tools to succeed?

Would you say you have friends and relationships that you trust, that you take pleasure in, that you feel valued by and have value for?

Would you say you can get the care you need in an emergency or in illness? Would you say you have a sense of personal safety?

Would you say that life is good?

On a day to day basis in the beginning of summer I think most of us here would rate our life satisfaction as pretty high – crops and gardens are in (if never fully weeded), flowers are blooming, birds are singing, the woods smell exotic with honey locust and basswood and pine and fertile earth and the passing of the latest rain shower being drawn up into the sun. The lakes are alluring, golf courses are bright green… It’s hard to set foot outside and not feel a deep sense of contentment bordering on outright happiness.

Do you know how rare that is?

If this describes your feelings, do you know how rare you are?

I listened to On Point on NPR – Whatever Happened To Peace, Love And the American Summer Vacation? or How the US became the no-vacation nation. The program talked about our American workaholic culture where even those who can, don’t take vacations because of fear that someone who doesn’t will get ahead of them. Jobs go to, and stay with, the highest producing, highest pressurized employees who have no interests or time outside of their career. The program could also have looked at families who can’t afford to take a week off – to pay for the gas, the meals, the camping equipment or motel nights.  Europeans look at us and shake their heads. They are expected to take a minimum of three weeks off. Everyone knows how unhealthy our system is personally and corporately, and still we play the game, blaming the economy – as year by year we ramp up the costs in depression and anxiety. We are the most medicated, counseled, addicted, escapist generation – ever. 

Life is short. How close are you to your version of the good life?

Claire, Jay and I were at Synod Assembly last weekend and the thrust of the event was about growing the church young. Finding/creating new ways to be the church, paying attention to our context and the functional gifts and economics of fellowship and generosity, of reaching out to needs in the community, not just within our local church. Sounds like Wisdom, doesn’t it?

In national surveys, self-serving, narcissistic dissatisfaction seems to be the plight of those who have the means to enjoy the good life, and the the rest are working their fingers to the bone trying to catch up to this ideal. Simplicity and fellowship and transformative relationships may be our goals, but there always is too much to do before we can get there.

The good life is more than the easy cheerful life of nostalgic childhood, it is trust and hope and the observation of small joys and daily beauty even when the rest of your life feels like it’s falling apart. God may not be in the forefront in these stories or in the way we live and think about our lives, but wisdom begins with trusting that God is there, in all circumstances, for all circumstances.

How big is the gap between the life you live and the life you dream of? Whatever your circumstances, whatever your need, whatever your dream, it is perhaps a space God alone can fill. 

3:13Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.  Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold Wisdom fast are called happy.”

 

 

  1. Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), p. 12.