Sarah laughs

Abraham and Sarah populate one of the longest narratives of the Bible.  I’m skipping a lot of the story in order to get you out by noon. I’m not even telling the best parts. The red thread I’m following today is the promise God made to Sarah.  Our story begins at the end of Genesis chapter 11 as the list of Noah’s descendants winds up.

11:27   “Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai. Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.    Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, son of Haran who had died, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

12:1 The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired, and flocks and herds; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

15:1 The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to inherit this reward.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said, ‘So shall your descendants be.’

16:1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.

But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, and said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.  Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son Ishmael.  Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared and said to him, ‘I am El Shaddai, the God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram (exalted ancestor), but your name shall be Abraham (ancestor of a multitude). I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, … to be God to you and to your seed. And I will give to you the land where you are now an alien for a perpetual holding; and I will be the God of you.’

God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her… and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’ But Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’  God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. (which means ‘he laughs’)

18:1 One day, the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’   Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’

21:1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’

 

I’ve included this long list of occasions in which the promise was made for a couple of reasons.

One is that it shows the span of years that Sarah and Abraham waited. She knew she was barren all along, so we might wonder how much stock she actually put in the word of Abraham the first three times when he told her the Lord had spoken to him about being the father of nations. She might have looked for his hip flask to see how he’d had.  At any rate, these two old people are accustomed to hopelessness in this regard. Given their ages, the length of their marriage, I imagine they might even be sleeping in different tents…. under different trees… with sheep in between them.         

Anticipation has surely flagged in the 24 years between the first time the promise was given to a 75 year old Abram and this latest iteration. There wasn’t much point in checking the thermometer. The time was past. And she was barren, still was. 

The only difference this time is that Sarah hears the promise, too.

And she can’t help but laugh. She laughed to herself, and then denied it out of fear. These words interest me. In email or texting, one can’t read the inflection to aid interpretation; one can’t see facial expressions – all we have is the words that can be – and usually are – misinterpreted. And the stupid little smiley faces – emojis. 

So, what kind of laughter do you imagine Sarah laughed? The Oxford Collegiate dictionary says this about laughter: “to make the explosive sounds of the voice, and characteristic movements of the features and body, that express mirth, amusement, or ridicule.” Synonyms are listed. I’ve chosen the ones I think might be true of Sarah. You have one in your hand, and your assignment is to produce those explosive sounds characteristic of the type of laughter when I announce your word.  Ready?  I’ve always pictured Sarah, hiding behind the tent flap, leaning in, overhearing every word, suddenly bursting out with a loud, impulsive guffaw. (participatory guffaws) She can’t help it. I mean look at her. Look at Abraham, ten years her senior. “Shall I indeed have pleasure,” she says? There is a healthy dose of skepticism in that laugh.

Perhaps, though, it is complete mirth: a girly, incongruous, joyous giggle. (giggles)  She is looking forward to it – to the whole prospect, the whole promise, the rounded belly, breasts no longer wrinkled and saggy. And the funny, transformed self image makes her titter. (titters)

Or, perhaps, Sarah has had a bit too much of Abraham – his noteworthy attempt to pass her off as his sister, giving her to the pharaoh to bed and please himself with.  It was a selfish act on Abraham’s part to save his own life at the expense of Sarah because he knows she’s barren. Coming on the back of that, this might sound like a bit too much, “You gotta be kidding me,” she laughs with derision. (derisive laughter)  “Not a chance in the moon that I’m going to have pleasure with that old fool.”

Or, maybe Sarah is thinking of Hagar and Ishmael, and of regaining her stature, her place in the hierarchy of women in the camp. And she laughs as one who’s been given the last laugh. (last laugh laughter)

Or maybe she was telling the truth. Maybe Sarah didn’t laugh at all, but was expressing complete non-sensical ridicule and scorn. (snort)  “Who the heck does this stranger think he is. We’ve had enough of this nonsense. I’m 89 years old! Take your full stomach and get on your way; leave us in peace.” 

The thing is we don’t know what she thought of this news except that she laughed to herself and was overheard and was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’ Maybe Sarah was afraid that God doesn’t have a sense of humor when one is certainly needed. Most likely she is embarrassed and afraid of being called out by these three very odd guests who can read minds and knew her name and promise her, at last, the child long promised to Abraham. For a postmenopausal woman to bear a child and give birth… there’s a lot to be afraid of.

The second reason I added all those readings to establish the sense of prolonged waiting for the promise is that the final form of Genesis is believed to have been compiled by editors during or shortly after their return from exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. These were people needing desperately to hear a word of promise that there is new life possible born out of the barrenness of their exile experience. Returning home was almost worse than being captive because there was nothing left of their homes, their villages, cities, temple. Foreign people were living on their land, calling it home. 

What did God’s promise mean to them now? What good was it? They had been gone for a full generation. Isaiah had spoken of the desert bursting into bloom, springs gushing up, a highway appearing to usher them home. What kind of laughter do you imagine they produced faced with the reality of their barrenness, their hopelessness and insecurity and lack of a future. They were Sarah, displaced by her handmaid. And it had been a long time since the promise was made of land flowing with milk and honey. It was a long time since they heard God speak their name. Was the promise still true for them, or had God given up this chosen people – Worse yet, was God not able to transform their desert, deserted experience into a life-giving reality? Was it not possible for God to fulfill those old promises? Sarah’s laughter was perhaps close to despair.

Except she says something that I think is not by chance, we just can’t hear it. She says it to herself, and in Hebrew. “After I have grown old, and my husband has grown old, shall I have pleasure?”

The term in Hebrew for the word pleasure is a cognate for Eden. It implies sexual moistness, fecundity, fertility, creation. These messengers of God are not promising a return to Eden, but Sarah is now promised the pleasure of this creative possibility of Eden located within her barren womb. I can imagine that would have been a powerful word to the exiles. Shall I indeed have pleasure? Is it possible for God to create life? 

If this is a story for ancient Israel struggling with self-doubt and an existential crisis of faith, what does this have to do with us? Have you never cleaned yourself into a corner? Left a floor swept, washed and spotless, but left yourself nowhere to go? I and my desk were sent to a corner in third grade once and I still remember the shame, that sense of fear, the closed in, no option view of a corner: the sense of being called out and caught. Some people live there.

Have you ever suffered from doubt about your worth or value or ability? Have you ever wondered if you are on God’s radar, are of any consequence? These are the questions of the story. They are Sarah’s questions from behind the tent flap as she hears the promise that is for her. If you can believe that God’s desire is for creative, jubilant, abundant pleasure and that it is intended for you, would you be willing to make changes that get you out of your familiar, but miserable corner? Can you imagine a world-view governed by promise and gift rather than judgment and law? Can you turn Sarah’s laughter of disbelief and derision into joy? 

Promise and hope are important words of faith and difficult to get a handle on. Maybe we should try.

And maybe we should laugh more.

 

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?