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Archive for July, 2007

The lectionary selection from the Hebrew Scriptures for the 17th week of the year is one of my favorites. Listening to Abraham haggling with God like a trader in the bazaar reminds us that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have always seen God in relationship with the Chosen People. That relationship, of course, reached it purest manifestation in the incarnation. But from the beginning of Genesis, when God walks in the garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, the inspired writers show us a God who is both immanent and transcendent, near to us as we are to one another, but nevertheless the unbounded Creator.

When I think of bargaining with God, I usually have in mind a rather self-centered approach where I make all sorts of promises to God if he’ll get me out of some bind that I’ve gotten myself into or grant some deep-seated desire. On a more serious note, we know that bargaining is the third of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages that follow catastrophic news. It comes between anger and depression.

What I noticed this time through the Abraham story is that Abraham is not bargaining with what he will do or what the people will do. His bargaining chip is set squarely on who God is. He’s staked everything on God’s merciful love. And quite possibly on his sense of humor. The lectionary selection stops before the end of the story. As it turns out, not even ten innocent people were found in Sodom and Gomorrah, but God did save Abraham and Sarah and Abraham’s nephew Lot and his wife, thus remaining true to the covenant and true to the divine nature.

Abraham’s story, despite appearances, is one of coming to complete trust in the God who called him. And so is ours. In the Gospel, before Jesus tells the story of the man who woke his neighbor for three loaves of bread, he teaches us the way to rely on God for all that we need, beginning with the words, “Our Father.”  It reminds us of who God is and of who God is for us. And all it asks in return is that we accept the gifts he offers and offer those gifts to one another. One heck of a bargain when you think about it.

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It’s easy to take a high-minded theoretical approach to today’s Gospel story of Mary and Martha. It’s certainly a passage that women find apt, but also controversial. I could go into the active/contemplative split in Christianity. I could go into the questions of first-century discipleship and Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus as an equal to his male followers. But this morning, all I can think about is water heaters. And how mine has suddenly stopped working. And how difficult it is to put myself into the right frame of mind as I get ready for church.

I had a lovely relaxing day yesterday sitting on the porch reading The Book That Need Not Be Named. A spectacular conclusion to the series and once again filled with hints of faith and trust, death and resurrection. I had planned to spend today doing much of the same, trading a book for my knitting needles and a new shawl pattern. We’re having an unseasonable spell of cool, clear weather in Cincinnati and I’ve lived here long enough to know that such days are few and far between in the summer. Then I filled the tub for a long, hot bath that wasn’t—not hot, so not long.

But I decided I’m going to take today’s Gospel to heart. It’s far too nice outside (and I do consider the weather an act of God!) to spend time either at Home Depot or in a dark, damp basement troubleshooting thermocouples and burner assemblies. It’s natural to fuss and let little details throw off my plans and dampen my mood. But maybe it really is just a choice to listen for the voice of God. Maybe it really is that easy. So I’m off to church and then a relaxing sabbath outside. Hot water is a luxury, not a necessity, and it’s good to remind myself of that.

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The way the Sunday readings strike me often depends on what else I’m thinking about, and this week is no different. After spending some time Saturday reading around the blogosphere on the Motu Proprio, Paul’s letter to the Galatians made me think not of the circumcision controversy of his day, but of the liturgical issues of our own.  To paraphrase, does it matter whether the Mass is celebrated in Latin or in English as long as it’s celebrated well, prayerfully and faithfully? I’ve said in com boxes elsewhere, the Mass can be well or poorly celebrated in any language with any rubrics. The TLM isn’t magic. Nor are all progressives in favor of clown masses or pagan rituals.

I have nothing against Latin. I’ve belonged to several parishes that incorporate Latin and Greek on a seasonal basis. I love the Latin hymns and Gregorian chants. But as I listened to the opening prayer, I realized that I would miss so much of the English translation. I would hate having to follow along in a missal to get the translation. Yet, I can appreciate that for some, the awe and mystery of the TLM carries great weight. I’m glad that Pope Benedict is encouraging a peaceful coexistence. Because too often issues like this divide those who should be focused on our common belief. Paul spent most of his ministry fighting this problem in his communities.

Ann Landers and Dear Abby frequently used the acronym MYOB or “mind your own business.” As good as that advice is, perhaps it’s better if we recall that as Christians we are to be minding God’s business. In the Gospel,  Jesus reminds his followers to keep their focus where it belongs. It seems easier sometimes to complain about those who do things we don’t agree with, or those who we believe are wrong. Like the disciples rejoicing that the demons were subject to their words, we have a tendency to dance in triumph on the graves of our enemies. When we do that, we lose our center.

Isaiah speaks to the exiles of their return to Jerusalem and the temple, encouraging them in their rejoicing, but always reminding them that the Lord is the source of their prosperity. We need to remember that through all the changes the church has undergone in the millennia since Jesus and his disciples walked this earth, it’s still God’s church and his harvest is as abundant as ever. What are we doing to gather in that harvest for a spiritually hungry world?

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All week in the lectionary we’ve been hearing the story of Abraham. His choice to enter into a covenant with God set the course for the Chosen People. His story is their story—and ours. We are heirs to the promise made to Abraham and the greater promise fulfilled in Christ. The Akedah (the binding of Isaac) has often been read as the story of the Jewish people. And Christian exegetes from the earliest days have seen it as  a type for the passion of Jesus, beginning with the Letter to the Hebrews (11:17-19).  The writers of our Scriptures had a long time to shape the story to reveal the divine truth of complete faith and total trust in God’s promise and plan. But it can also be read on a much more personal level, without detracting from its deeply symbolic significance.

In Wednesday’s reading from Genesis, we saw Abraham struggle to let go of Ishmael when Sarah insisted on banishing Hagar. Having let go of his firstborn, it must have been beyond excruciating to face the test of losing  Isaac as well. The years of waiting for this son, the joy at his birth, the fulfillment of all that God had promised, looked as though it was about to come crashing to an end. And one of the reasons this story resonates so deeply is that parents around the world face this unimaginable pain every day. Losing children to disease, accidents, war, starvation has been a fact of life from the beginning of time. Most parents would  willingly give their own lives for their children, and many have. To ask a parent to sacrifice a child—”take your son, your only son, the one whom you love”—is almost incomprehensible. The story of Abraham and Isaac—like the story of Jesus’ crucifixion—might ultimately be bearable only because we know the end of the story. We know that God’s love wins out over death. We believe that in the end, the promise is fulfilled and good does triumph. Without that, we have nothing but despair.

Let’s bring this idea  a little closer to home.  The big stories give us hope in our darkest hours. But the big stories can teach us something about our  everyday lives as well. Clinging to the people, even the things, that we love is a common human inclination. Learning to let go can take a lifetime. We may never be asked to face the death of a child. But all parents need to let their children live their own lives at some point. And that can be painful in its own way. Later in Genesis, we see Isaac struggle with his own sons, Jacob and Esau. And Jacob will in turn face the tragic loss of his best-loved son Joseph, perhaps because of his own favoritism. The patriarchs are remembered for God’s covenant with them, but even in the midst of their faith, their humanity is never  glossed over.

The Scriptures remind us again and again that others have faced the same struggles we face. And in the end, whether it’s the big letting go of someone we love deeply, a lesser letting go of a long-cherished dream, or something as trivial letting go of our plans for the day because of a change in the weather, what makes it possible is being willing to place ourselves in God’s hands and believe that the divine promise is greater than any of our human desires. If we begin with small things, working our way up to the bigger things in time, we might be ready when it’s time to let go of this life.

While the binding of Isaac was the climactic point of this week’s Genesis stories, it was followed by Sarah’s death in the fullness of time and Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah, reminding us of the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth that is both our human and divine destiny. When we know that we’re part of this story, we can begin to learn its lessons.

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Biblical Heroines

Yesterday’s reading was the akedah (the binding of Isaac), and I have some thoughts on it, but they’re not in order yet. In the meantime, here’s a Beliefnet quiz. I wasn’t a bit surprised at my results. (HT to Brittany).

Quiz: Which Bible Heroine Are You?

You scored 52, on a scale of 0 to 100. Here’s how to interpret your score:
0 – 20
Like Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth or Mary, mother of Jesus, you are reflective, gentle, and devoted to your family.
21 – 50
Active and home-oriented, your personality recalls Sarah, Esther or Martha.
51 – 70
Strong and decisive, you’re a lot like the warrior Judith or the purposeful Mary Magdalene.
71 – 100
You’re asking for a smiting, girl! Like Delilah, you get what you want–no matter who you have to deceive.

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… or Wednesday of the 13th Week of the Year? This can be a tricky question for homilists and liturgists in the United States. I think people going to Mass in the typical parish today expect some acknowledgment of the civic holiday. The danger lies in using the Mass to praise America more than we’re praising God.
I’ll leave the discussion of patriotic hymns to the liturgist and musicians. The lectionary readings are more in my domain. The US Liturgical Conference calendar suggests that if Independence Day is being observed, the Ritual Mass for Peace and Justice or the Mass for Public Need can be used, Both offer a fine selection of readings from the prophets and the Gospels, all of which make quite clear that the word of God takes precedence over national loyalties if the two are in conflict.

But the readings of the day seem appropriate as well. I was reading the declaration of independence earlier and thinking about how July 4 was just the beginning of a long and difficult struggle to realize the ideals set forth in that document. And in fact much of it struck me as ideals we’re still falling short of. And the first reading from today’s liturgy continues the story of Abraham, in particular his struggle with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. God’s original promise to Abraham set forth a shining ideal: “You will be my people and I will be your God. I will make of you a great nation.” But again and again the flawed human beings on our side of that covenant struggled with the details. Today’s passage is the conclusion of what can happen when we try to take matters into our own hands, to think that we know better than God the when and the how of the promise. We end up with a painful and confused mess on our hands.

Today’s reading from Genesis also has a poignant significance for our world today. God renews his promise to Abraham, but reminds him that the promise will be fulfilled through Isaac. Abraham needs to be faithful to what God has told him.  But just as Abraham loves both his sons, so God will honor both Isaac’s children and Ishmael’s children. We need to remember that Abraham, chosen by God, is the father in faith of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And no matter how much confusion and bloodshed result from the human elements of these three great faiths, we need to trust that God will cut through the tangled mess and continue to bless not only our own country, but the entire world, no exceptions.

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The lectionary readings for this 13th Sunday of the year, at least the first and the third, are linked by the image of a plow. In the reading from Kings, Elijah calls Elisha to follow him by throwing his mantle over his shoulders. Elisha leaves his plow and tells the great prophet, “Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye and I will follow you.” Elijah ignores him. Elisha then slaughters and cooks the oxen, using the plowing equipment for fuel for the fire (the hyperbole here is not likely to escape the original listeners). He feeds his people and then follows Elijah.

For Elisha to simply say farewell to his family wasn’t enough in Elijah’s eyes. He was looking for a total commitment. Elijah never did anything by halves. He comes upon Elisha after the tumultuous rout of the 500 prophets of Baal, a time of near despair in the wilderness, and a theophany in the form of a still, small voice. The successor God has appointed for him better hang onto his hat. He’s in for a wild ride.

Similarly in the gospel, Jesus challenges—almost taunts—those who would follow him, reminding them that he hasn’t even a cave to call home. He has set his course. He’s on the road to Jerusalem, to his destiny. Many have commented on the somewhat enigmatic line, “Let the dead bury the dead” and how strong a command the burial of the dead and honoring of parents was in the Law. What struck me about this passage, though, was the relentless forward movement. Once he’s headed to Jerusalem, Jesus isn’t going to let anything get in his way. And he uses the image of the plow in a way that would also be familiar to his listeners. Something else might be pulling the plow, but it’s the responsibility of the person holding its handles to keep it straight and true.

The two readings together remind me of the better know fish story when Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets because he will make them fishers of men. Here, we see Elisha leaving his plowing equipment to follow Elijah in the prophet’s mission, one that Jesus will describe as a metaphorical furrow.

Maybe it’s where I find my life heading these days, but what I hear in these readings is that God finds a way to use our work to accomplish his work. The Spirit provides the energy, the fuel, the inspiration. Our job is to hold true to our course. And the only way we can do this is by facing forward. Looking back leads only to confusion. Whatever we’ve learned from our experiences, from our families, from our past has brought us to today. The important thing now is to move into the future. It takes a lot to pull us forward. Maybe it’s only the hand of God that can really keep up steady. And so this might be a time to burn our plow, our bridges, anything that holds us back from wholeheartedly embracing the future God has in store for us. And I suspect we’ll be surprised when we find ourselves doing much the same work in a different context with a new goal.

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