Archive for the ‘Covenant’ Category

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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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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… 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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Our journey through the desert becomes one of new birth, the discovery of new life where no life existed before, the hope that comes from putting the past behind us so that we are free to enter into a new life of water and the spirit.

No matter how bleak things may look, the Lord promises that a new beginning is possible. We must remember the covenant and all the things that Lord has done for us in the past, but we must also remember that our relationship with God is dynamic. We must be open to the ever-changing ways of salvation the Lord may have planned for our future.

Isaiah tells the people of Israel: “Remember not the events of the past, / the things of long ago consider not; / see, I am doing something new.” Newness is always both exciting and a bit frightening. Much depends on how invested we are in the status quo.

In the Gospel, Jesus’ opponents base their accusation on the Law of Moses. They have codified the way people relate to each other and the way they relate to God. Misinterpreted and misused, the lifegiving Law had become a limited and limiting desert of impersonal regulations. They don’t see a woman before them, only a broken law.

We are told that Jesus comes to this confrontation after spending the night at the Mount of Olives, perhaps grappling with his own human weakness in the face of his inevitable suffering and death. Out of the most basic core of his humanity, coupled with his identity as God’s son, he suggests a radical new law of compassion.

I like to think that Jesus’ tracing in the sand may have reminded the people of the deserts where they themselves have wandered and strayed from the Lord. The crowd has gathered as a solid group, secure in the rigid institutionalism of their interpretation of the Law. But they drift away one by one as they confront the weaknesses in their own lives from which no institution can protect them. What they miss by leaving Jesus, however, is the forgiveness and compassion he offers to the woman.

Such a radical change compels us to be open to the possibility of new starts, of putting the past behind us and accepting forgiveness for ourselves and others. The woman stays because she knows that Jesus and the refreshing changes he brings are her only hope for something better. She has nothing to lose. Those who left in their guilt, those who believed they had everything to lose, ultimately killed Jesus and rejected his law of compassion. But death could not confine the life force that would make everything new.

Today’s Gospel asks us to choose where we will stand: with the woman, open to the new life Jesus has to offer; or with her accusers, confused and frustrated by Jesus’ openness. The challenge of the Gospel is always to be willing to be open to Jesus as God’s Word.

As we approach the final week of Lent, that spiritual stakes are high. We journey through Lent as a community of faith, but at some point in the journey, we each are called to spend time alone with Jesus, hearing him speak to us the words he spoke to the woman in today’s Gospel: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin anymore.”

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My friend Carol and her sister used to refer to their cantankerous mother as YM or “your mother.” I thought of this today when I was reading the passage from Exodus (32:7-14) where God and Moses are discussing the Israelites and both refer to them as your people. God wants Moses to take responsibility for the people’s behavior, reminding them of the covenant. Later he offers to do away with this recalcitrant people and make for Moses a new people (presumably better behaved and more faithful). But Moses rightly reminds God that the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob still holds and that ultimately these are God’s people.

Some ties in our lives are too strong to break, no matter how much we might want to. We stretch them, we try to ignore them, but they’re always there. Family ties are a good example. Physically, psychologically and emotionally we are the product of our families of origin. This is always a mixed blessing. Many people are blessed with strong families and deeply loving relationships with their parents, children and siblings. But many of the deepest tensions in our lives can rise out of those same relationships. Interesting, then, that our ties to God and to one another in faith are portrayed within family metaphors. I’ve been particularly struck by this in the Sunday readings this Lent, especially the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures.

On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard the command to the Israelites to begin their annual recitation of their faith story with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Those words always seem to echo in my head until they sound like “My father was a recovering alcoholic” and I become aware of how my own story can echo in the story of the Scriptures. On the second Sunday, we hear God reminding Abraham of how he was led from the land of Ur, the land of his fathers, to become the father of a new people, a people of God in a new land. And on the third Sunday, Moses is called away from his father-in-law’s flocks to lead the Hebrew people–his own people, though he had been raised as an Egyptian–to freedom. I found myself thinking of the times I’ve moved away from family and friends to follow a career path. One of the things that made that possible was knowing that God would be with me no matter where I was, and that I would find a new parish home.

God works within our lives and within our experiences of family to shape our faith and our experience of covenant. We’re the sum of our genetic makeup, our experience, our choices, but we’re also more than that through God’s grace. In that grace, we find ourselves making choices for the future that can carry us far beyond the limitations of our past.

Lent, I think, calls us to embrace our place in God’s family. We bring our loved ones, our families and friends, with us if they’re willing to come along on the journey. And we find others who share our faith, even if they don’t share our blood. Strong ties, indeed.

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The cry of God’s people

Moses is fleeing from his past in Egypt when he finds himself not only in the desert but near the mountain of God and there he discovers his future. His flock will no longer be his father-in-law’s sheep but the people of the God of his fathers. He is called from security into the unknown.

Once he encounters the Lord, first curious about the burning bush, then awed by the presence of the Lord, he comes close enough to hear the call and respond, though he knows not where it will lead him.

God tells Moses that he is being sent by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This title summarizes the whole history of the Hebrew covenant to that point. Moses, though raised in the Egyptian court, is one of the chosen people, the people of the covenant. This fact defines who he is and determines his destiny. In the same way, our lives are shaped by the fact that we are baptized into the life of Christ.

Because of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Lord heard the cry of his people, held in bondage and oppressed by the Egyptians. He still hears the cry of his people, held in bondage and oppressed by any of those things that keep us from living freely—fear, addiction, depression, illness, sin.

God wants to reach out but he can only do so through other people—Moses, Jesus, all those who accept the challenge to live the gospel. At times we are the Israelites, languishing in bondage and crying out for deliverance. At other times, we’re the ones called to deliver others from their chains.

We can ask why we have been called, we can ask for proof of the Lord’s integrity, we can find reasons why other people come to bad ends, we can hesitate for a time, but when all the questions have been asked, we are challenged to respond yes or no.

Recall that one of the temptations of the desert is to demand proof of the covenant. When he was tempted in the desert, Jesus responded, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” If we forget everything else in our relationship with God, we need to remember that we are called into an unbreakable covenant with the Divine.

Whatever our destiny, we must respond to the Lord’s call. If we fail to fulfill the task he has created us for, we will be as useless as the fig tree in today’s Gospel. Yet, like the gardener, God is willing to give us a little more time to prove our usefulness.

God will give us more time, but only as long as we are resolved and even eager to change and cultivate our lives. We have to take responsibility for beginning the conversion process. We are fortunate if we have people who both nurture and challenge us.

The journey of Lent can seem like a trackless wasteland at times, but the people of God have always found their most direct encounters with God in those times and places when everything seemed bleak and barren, when all the creature comforts are stripped away. The demand of the desert is to stand before the burning insistence of God and believe that he has heard our cry. In that belief, we will come to the Promised Land.

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Here in the Ohio Valley, spring starts to tease a winter-weary people around the beginning of March–days in the 50s, sunshine, daffodils up a few inches in the garden. We had some days like that last week and then the winds began to blow, the temperatures plummeted into the 20s again and we’re back to winter for a bit longer. I especially notice this seasonal flirting because I grew up in Wisconsin, where there can still be snow on the ground in April. I’m easily seduced by the promise of an early spring. But even though it’s turned cold again, I’ve had a whiff of spring breezes and it strengthens my belief in the inevitable turning of the seasons.

The transfiguration gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent always always seems to hold the same sort of promise. The event gave the disciples a foreshadowing of Jesus’ glorious destiny, even though they were unable to comprehend it fully at the time. For us, this narrative reminds us that the goal of Lent is resurrection and the renewal of our baptismal vows. A penitential season such as Lent can cause us to focus overmuch on the suffering and death of our crucified savior. The transfiguration reminds us that at the end of the suffering is unimaginable life with the resurrected Christ. This is the paradox and the tension that Christians hold as an essential part of our belief: Only through the cross do we find life.

Today’s first reading from Genesis recounts the covenant God made with Abraham. In a ceremony that seems bizarre to us, God and Abraham pass between a series of sacrificial carcasses that have been cut in half. In the symbolism of ancient treaties, they were declaring that the same destruction would happen to them if they broke the covenant. In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, God is reminding Abraham of the promise he has made and will continue to make with his peope: I am your God, who brought you up from Ur of the Chaldeans. I gave you a home and made you my people.

In the Gospel, Peter, James and John awake from sleep to witness the vision of the transfiguration. Like the covenant with Abraham, this one is sealed with an expression of God’s willingness to die to ensure that the covenant does not fail. The presence of Moses and Elijah tells us that Jesus’ new covenant is a fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with Moses at Sinai. Again and again the prophets—Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel— reminded the people to keep faith with this covenant. And now Moses and Elijah are present with Jesus as he prepares for the ultimate exodus in Jerusalem.

The apostles are speechless after this event, perhaps because they still can-not grasp the full implications of this covenant—what it will mean in Jesus’ life and what it will mean in their own lives. Yet they know that it is good that they have witnessed such glorious proof of God’s favor. They have been graced with a vision of the resurrection we profess.

When we are baptized we become sons and daughters of God and anytime we are reminded of this we should shine with renewed and transfigured light. This is what we are called to, and this vision should strengthen our willingness to undergo conversion and reconciliation in our Lenten journey. This Sunday’s Scriptures can give a deeper meaning to our Lenten disciplines. It’s not about what we’re doing for God, it’s about what God has done and is doing for us.

Our covenant with God is so magnificent that it can only be described with images that dazzle our imaginations. When the realization of what God will do for his people dawns on us, we cannot remain asleep, caught in our dim, stumbling routines. Especially for lifelong Christians, it’s easy to become complacent about our spiritual lives.

The Scriptures continually remind us that the glorious vision of life with Christ raises even our ordinary lives to a new level. Our calling is to take some of that glorious light to all those we meet.

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