and The Possibility Opens

Sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 51: 11-3 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. (49)

Introduction

I was diagnosed with Dyslexia as a young girl. I didn’t read “right”. From what I recall, letters jumped places, words flipped about, the sentences moved to their own beat—every written page was a gymnastics competition and those words were gold medalists. The diagnosis strapped me with insecurities about my intelligence and a disdain for reading. According to the diagnosis, I didn’t have the potential to read well because I was a “bad” reader. I lived into the idea that I wasn’t a “reader. My act of reading exposed I didn’t have the potential to read well. In our performance and production driven economy, it’s the actuality of the act that is esteemed. I wasn’t a reader because my actions demonstrated that I wasn’t.

Referring to Aristotle’s Metaphysics: this is what is known as actuality having priority over possibility. Aristotle’s ontological priority of actuality over possibility equates to the simple equation: yet v. not-yet. “Yet” being more important than “not-yet”; “not yet” means nothing if it is never actualized into “Yet”. Even though the actual is derived from the possible (the “yet” from the “not yet”), the possible strives toward the actual (like a seed striving to become actualized as a plant). [1] For Aristotle, actuality is both origin and goal of the possible, thus the possible serves and is subordinate to that actual.[2]

In that possibility serves actuality, actuality has primary position over possibility. Actuality is preferred and determines what the possibility was. So, we can say: one wasted their potential by not realizing it into actuality. Oh, she had so much potential! we say of people who have made “bad choices.” (As if potential can be “wasted” away if it’s not acted on.) The smart student who gets Ds also gets the obligatory look of disappointment. There was potential but it was never actualized as act; thus the potential is inferior in value to the actual and rendered as pointless apart from action.

But what if Aristotle was wrong?

Jeremiah 31-34

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Jeremiah 31: 31, 33

Jeremiah prophesies about a new covenant God will make between God and God’s people. This new covenant will, according to Jeremiah, “…not be like the covenant that I [God] made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke…” (Jer 31). According to Jeremiah, it is not the fault of the content of the previous covenant, but the fault of the people: [3] they are unable to perform according to the covenant established on the far side of the Red Sea as they stood in the shadow of Mt. Sinai receiving the revelation of the law, Torah.[4] Leaving the Torah outside of the people as words carved in stone—as a thing to be actualized out of human possibility—was failing. The command to love God imparted to the stones, needed to be imparted to the hearts of the people.[5] The people needed the actual to manifest the possible.

In Deuteronomy the great Shema of chapter 6 is the heart of Jewish liturgy. The word shema means: to hear so deeply that you do.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

While Israel promised that they would obey this and other commands they received from God, they didn’t. This didn’t render the Torah, the revelation of the Law, in error or wrong; rather, it exposed a deeper and bigger issue: a human inability to hear so well and so deeply that love comes forth. (The possibility of doings wasn’t manifesting into act.) In Dt 10,[6] God commands Israel to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts so that they obey God’s commands. But then, in Dt 30, Moses prophesies God’s promise that God will circumcise their hearts so that they will love God as they should.[7] The people needed the actual to manifest the possible.

Jeremiah is picking up on that promise. God is going to act on the inner life of Israel so that the love of God and of God’s people is written on their hearts of flesh rather than on tablets of stone. Relying on manifested human potential as act wasn’t working. Jeremiah stands in solidarity with God in God’s passionate zeal for God’s beloved people and creation.[8] He is filled with the divine pathos hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s love and heralds to the people this new promise: God will act not only on behalf of but also in God’s people. God will act on and in the people in a way that will create possibility for obedience to love; God will manipulate actuality, parting space like water and stopping time like the rains of the heavens and create room for the possible. Jeremiah exhorts and encourages, Shema, O Israel!

No longer will Israel have to wrestle with the inner failure of potential failing to become actual, with hearts that listen but do not truly hear. Rather, they will be caught in the divine activity that is oriented toward possibility. When God sweeps in and moves God’s people, in that actuality there is possibility. Thus, we say with confidence: with God all things are possible. God acts in our time and space, in our material realm and makes room for things that were not but now can be. In God’s economy it is not that possibility serves actuality, that potential serves act, but the opposite: actuality serves possibility, act serves potential, and the possible has primacy over what is actual.

Conclusion

It was in high school, during the later half of Junior year, where I wanted to receive untimed testing for the SATs. I was, as the test concluded in elementary school, dyslexic. My guidance councilor thought it was a good idea, but I had to be tested first before I’d be granted untimed testing. So, I sat for a test. A week later I sat with the examiner as she gave me my results. She explained before she went over my test that the test answers are scored on a scale of 1-14, 14 being the highest number and 1 being the lowest. The higher the score, the less a need for untimed testing. She opened my results and showed me a list of 14s and 12s with a 10 here and there. She laughed kindly, I’m sorry, there’s no way I can recommend an untimed test with these high scores. I was baffled. Where did my dyslexia go? I asked. Apparently, your brain fixed it, she replied. Becoming a good reader had nothing to do with “potential” made “actual” but about actuality making space and time for the possibility of being a good reader.

We take the actual and make it the final because we are taken with our deeds and actions as the final verdict of who we are as human beings on this planet; we’ve believed the lie that actuality has priority over possibility. We put too much stock in actions as determinant of who and what a person is. And this means we are focused on the past that we miss the divine activity of the future right in front of us for us.[1] We get wrapped up in what is, we miss what could be. What is isn’t all there is. And what is allows us the creativity and imagination to dream of what isn’t yet. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, we are people of possibility rather than only actuality. Here in lies our hope. A pandemic has disrupted what is; so, what could be? Where can we go from here? Can we dare to be people who face the anti-Asian racism plaguing this land, that eight lives were taken for no other reason than hate? Can our society meet the survival needs of people who find themselves stuck between two choices, work or don’t work, where both end in death? Can our society fight for the lives of Black, Indigenous people of color? Can our society become a safe place for people to be who they are, what they are, and love those whom they love freely?

What we have now doesn’t have to be what we have tomorrow; what we’re accustomed to isn’t all there is. Possibility has priority over actuality. There’s more than what the eye can see. Because sometimes the man on the donkey is a divine king in disguise and a state sanctioned instrument of death becomes a tool for the victory of life. For the beloved, what is isn’t ever all there is.


[1] Heschel Prophets 211 “Here, knowledge is not the same as thought, comprehension, gnosis or mystical participation in the ultimate essence. Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action. Inner identification with God’s will and concern is the goal of the new covenant…”


[1]   The quotation is from Aristotle’s Metaphysics “(2) In time it is prior in this sense: the actual which is identical in species though not in number with a potentially existing thing is prior to it. I mean that to this particular man who now exists actually and to the corn and to the seeing subject the matter and the seed and that which is capable of seeing, which are potentially a man and corn and seeing, but not yet actually, so are prior in time; but prior in time to these are other actually existing things, from which they were produced. For from the potentially existant the actually existing is always produced by an actually existant thing, e.g. man from man, musician by musician; there is always a first mover, and the mover already exists actually. We have said in our account of substance that everything that is produced is something produced from something and by something, and that the same in species as it” 1049b 19-28.

[2]   Eberhard Jüngel “Possibility”. 99-100. Referring to Aristotle: “So actuality is the origin and goal of all that comes into being, and possibility exists for the sake of actuality. Possibility stands in teleological relation to actuality.”

[3] JPS Study Bible Marvin A. Sweeney “Jeremiah” Eds Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler Jeremiah 31:31 New York, NY: OUP 2004 “The new covenant has been interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of the new covenant though Jesus (New Testament means new covenant), but here it refers to the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile and the reconstruction of the Temple. According to this passage, it is not the content of the new covenant which will be different, but how it is learned.”

[4] Exodus 19:1ff

[5] JPS Study Bible Jeremiah 31:33-34 “God places the Teaching, i.e., the Torah, in the inmost being or heart of the people so that the covenant cannot be broken again. This idea is developed in later Lurianic kabbalah, which maintains that all persons have a divine spark within. Since it is so inscribed, there will be no need for the Torah to be taught.”

[6] Deuteronomy 10:12-22, “12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God[c] and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. 22 Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.”

[7] Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you. Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, 10 when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

[8] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 25 “The prophet is not a mouthpiece, but a person; not an instrument, but a partner, an associate of God. Emotional detachment would be understandable only if there were a command which required the suppression of emotion, forbidding one to serve God ‘with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.’ God, we are told, asks not only for ‘works,’ for action, but above all for love, awe, and fear. We are called upon to ‘wash’ our hearts (Jer. 4:14), to remove ‘the foreskin’ of the heart (Jer. 4:4), to return with the whole heart (Jer. 3:10). ‘You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart’ (Jer. 29:13). The new covenant which the Lord will make with the house of Israel will be written upon their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34).”

[9] Heschel Prophets 211 “Here, knowledge is not the same as thought, comprehension, gnosis or mystical participation in the ultimate essence. Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action. Inner identification with God’s will and concern is the goal of the new covenant…”

Are You Free?

Sermon on 1 Cor 8:1-13

Psalm 111:1-3 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures for ever.

Introduction

I was taken with the idea that love never participated with law. I was deeply invested in pursuing what seemed a clear and eternal divergence between divine command and promise, following closely to a specific reading of Martin Luther’s theology—the distinction between law and gospel. In this scheme, to be in a loving relationship with someone else means never making any demands on them. Here, Love is about creating space for that person to be as they are wherever they are whenever they are; this was the liberty of God’s grace, the freedom in Christ: true rest from the demands to “perform” and “people please” and “earn righteousness through work” and thus “true life”. While some of these ideas find some grounding (albeit with intentional nuancing), the underbelly of this theology wasn’t rest, freedom, and life but increased suffering, burden, and death. Well, it was rest for one group and toil for everyone else not in that group.

Then one day as I stood in a large church auditorium like sanctuary, watching a video of people talking about the liberative experience of this specific interpretation of God’s love and grace, I saw it. It was the last video. A married couple was sharing their story. The husband spoke about how wonderful this conception of grace was because now he comes home from work and there is no expectation on him to help with the kids or other events, he can rest if he wants to—fall back on the couch, kick shoes off, grab a beer, and watch some tv. Then the camera turned to the wife. “Yeah…,” she said half-heartedly. “It’s great because now when he helps, he wants to.” While her words affirmed her husband’s experience, her face and her eyes told me everything I needed to know. She was not free. She was not rested. She was exhausted, burdened, and suffering by being stripped of any ability to ask for help and to confess pain and discomfort because it would be “law” to him and thus “condemnation.” She was dead. When you see death, you can never unsee death.

That image—her face, her desperate eyes—fuels my academic and pastoral pursuits now as I’ve walked away from that destructive theology.[1] Liberty and freedom in Christ brings liberty and freedom to all and not at the expense of another’s body, mind, soul, and spirit. A relationship is only loving and free where both people in the relationship are mutually engaged in each other’s thriving not in turning a blind eye to things. Where both step into the exposing light of love calling a thing what it is and are willing to do self-reckoning work.

1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Now, “food of any kind will not prove us to God.” Neither if we do not eat are we lacking, nor if we eat are we over and above. But discern carefully this power to act of yours does not become a stumbling block for the weak.

1 Corinthians 8:8-9, translation mine

Paul proclaimed that the believer is justified by faith in Christ (ευαγελλιον) apart from works of the law. She need only faith in Christ, and this becomes the sole foundation of her justification and righteousness with God—there are no works of the law that can justify or make righteous as completely as faith does. Thus, the believer is liberated from the threat of condemnation and death that leads to death and is now free to love God and neighbor. There is nothing that can or will separate her from the love (presence) of God—not even hell. This is the freedom Paul proclaims to his fledgling churches: freedom inherent in the event of encounter with God in faith liberating into life and living. God in Christ comes to the believer, calls her, and rescues her from death into new life in the Spirit. This is grace.

In chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, Paul pumps the freedom brakes. He details guidelines for the Corinthian believers finding themselves in a conundrum. Some believers are fine eating meat “associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[2] They are whom Paul refers to as “the strong”—a phrase referring to both those confident in their faith and who were wealthy and had access the occasions to eat such meat.[3] Paul writes, while it is true that neither eating nor abstaining from this meat has an impact on their presence before God, it may have an impact on those “weaker” brothers and sisters—those who were both insecure in their faith (unsure about what is okay and not okay) and lower in social status.

Paul challenges the knowledge (γνωσις) of “the strong” resulting in their liberty to eat what they want and do what they please. Paul declares that knowledge (alone) puffs up and inflates and lures toward being an imposter; but paired with love it builds up authentically edifying both the beloved and the lover (vv. 1-2).[4] In other words, “the strong” should keep γνωσις yoked to αγαπη (love): even if they are free to eat, they should care more for their “weak” brother or sister who didn’t have the same access to such food and security in the liberty of their actions.[5]

Paul makes it clear that this love isn’t self-generated but imparted in the encounter with God in the event of faith (v.3). To love God is to be loved by God and known by God; this becomes the foundation for the love fractal. As we are loved by God, we love that which and those whom God loves seeing and knowing those whom God loves by seeing and knowing them, too.[6]

Paul’s point isn’t to side with the “strong” Corinthians or the “weak”, but to say: the composition of the conscience (secure or insecure) can lean toward a miscalculation about what is right to do and what is wrong.[7] Operating out of fear is as problematic as operating out of abundance of confidence. Paul warns “the strong” that their supposed liberty isn’t a reason for autonomous activity without considering the effect on others. [8] It’s not strictly about intent for Paul, these Christians may truly believe they’re free. Impact must also factor in here. For Paul, this is done with freedom wedded to love. Just because you can, says Paul, doesn’t mean you should because it may cause others to be polluted by being tripped up by your actions. [9] For Paul, a future forward ethic keeping in mind the potential impact of one’s actions/words on other brothers and sisters is the definition of freedom

Conclusion

For those who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan and for those who have ears pricked and heads turned hearing Christ call them by name, what is freedom for you? To follow Jesus as disciples means that freedom is going to take on an orientation toward the other. A cruciform freedom puts “weak” brothers and sisters before us. This is not to the loss of our freedom as if we lose ourselves, but in that we have received ourselves in the love of God in the encounter with God in faith, we enter into the plight with our brothers and sisters. True freedom for me is actualized only in freedom for you; if you are not free, am I free? [10] It becomes about mutuality. Mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz explains,

“Commitment to mutuality is not a light or easy matter. It involves all aspects of one’s life and demands a lifelong permanency. The way in which the commitment is lived out may change. From time to time one maybe less passionate about carrying out the implications of mutuality, but somehow to go back and place oneself in a position of control and domination over others is to betray others and oneself. Such a betrayal, which most of the time occurs by failing to engage in liberative praxis rather than by formal denunciation, results in the ‘friends’ becoming oppressors once again and in the oppressed losing their vision of liberation.”[11]

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology p. 100

If I in my strength cannot tame my liberty and walk with you so you can have your liberty, then I’m not free. If I cannot deem the liberties and freedoms of others as important as mine, then I have not freedom but bondage. If I am threatened by you having as much liberty and freedom as I do, I’m not free. If my autonomy must eclipse and ignore your need; I’m not free but captive.[12]

To be free, to be truly free isn’t to claim your rights as absolutes and acting on them no matter what. To be free, to be truly free is to say with Christ: into this I can enter with you. (This is solidarity.) Freedom can both break the law and obey it because it knows when to do which. If we’re free, then we are free–free to share in the burden of existence while trying to alleviate the yoke of suffering without losing our freedom. If stepping into the anxiety, fears, and concerns of our neighbor means we’ve lost our freedom then we didn’t have freedom to begin with. If we are unable to hear the cries of the weak, to listen to their stories of suffering, and affirm their lived experience, we’re not strong. So, beloved of God, you who are sought and called and loved by God: Are you strong? Are you free?


[1] I give credit for the start of this journey to two colleagues: Dr. Dan Siedell and Dr. W. Travis McMaken.

[2] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 620

[3] Thiselton “ε`ιδωλο’θυτα And the Scope of the Corinthian Catchprhases” 617  “…if Theissen and the majority of specialist writers are correct in their sociological analysis of the identities of ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak,’ the issue of eating meat, together with its scarcity for the poor and the variety of social occasions for the rich, has a decisive bearing on Paul’s discussion.”

[4] Thiselton 622 In re γνωσις Gardner “[compares] the contrast between ‘knowledge’ and love in this verse with the parallel contrast between 13:1-1 and the two chapters on ‘spiritual gifts’ which provide its frame. He sis that γνωσις is practical; but its nature and its relation to love can profoundly determine what kind of practical effects it set in motion.” And, “Love, by contrast, builds solidly, and does not pretend to be what it is not. If it gives stature to a person or to community, that enlargement remains solid and genuine.” “knowledge inflates” “φυσιοω suggests the self-importance of the frog in Aesop’s Fables, or something pretentiously enlarged by virtue of being pumped full of air or wind.”

[5] Thiselton 622-3 “Rather than seeking to demonstrate some individualist assertion of freedom or even victory, love seeks the welfare of the other. Hence if ‘the strong’ express love, they will show active concern that ‘the weak’ are not precipitated into situations of bad conscience, remorse, unease, or stumbling. Rather, the one who loves the other will consider the effect of his or her own attitudes and actions upon ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.”

[6] Thiselton 626  “The kind of ‘knowledge which ‘the strong’ use manipulatively to assert their ‘rights’ about meat associated idols differs form an unauthentic Christian process of knowing which is inextricably bound up with loving.” And, “…it is part of the concept of authentic Christian knowing and being known that love constitutes a dimension of this process.”

[7] Thiselton 640, “Paul sides neither entirely with ‘the weak’ nor entirely with ‘the strong’ in all respects and in relation to every context or occasion. For the self-awareness or conscience of specific persons (συνεδησις αυτων) does not constitute an infallible guide to moral conduct in Pauls’ view….someone’s self-awareness or conscience may be insufficiently sensitive to register negative judgment or appropriate discomfort in some context…and oversensitive to the point of causing mistaken judgment or unnecessary discomfort in others.”

[8] Thiselton 644, “Paul is not advocating the kind of ‘autonomy’ mistakenly regarded widely today as ‘liberty of conscience.’ Rather, he is arguing for the reverse. Freedom and ‘rights’….must be restrained by self-discipline for the sake of love for the insecure or the vulnerable, for whom ‘my freedom’ might be ‘their ruin.’ This ‘freedom’ may become ‘sin against Christ (8:12).”

[9] Thiselton 654 “By projecting the ‘weak’ into this ‘medium” of γνωσις, the ‘strong’ bring such a person face-to-face with utter destruction. What a way to ‘build’ them!”

[10] Thiselton 650-1, “For in the first case, ‘the weak’ or less secure are tripped up and damaged by the self-assertive behavior of the overconfident; while in the second place it is putting the other before the self, manifest in the transformative effect of the cross, which causes the self-sufficient to turn away….True ‘wisdom’ is seen in Christ’s concern for the ‘weak” and the less secure, to the point of renouncing his own rights, even to he death of the cross.”

[11] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 100.

[12] Thiselton 657-8, “Chrysostom comments, ‘It is foolish in the extreme that we should esteem as so entirely beneath our notice those that Christ so greatly cared for that he should have even chosen to die for them, as not even to abstain from meat on their account.’ This comment captures very well the key contrast through this chapter between asserting one’s own ‘right to choose’ and reflecting with the motivation of love for the other what consequences might be entailed for fellow Christians if self-centered ‘autonomy’ rules patters of Christian attitudes and conduct. It has little or nothing to do with whether actions ’offend’ other Christians in the modern sense of causing psychological irritation annoyance, or displeasure at a purely subjective level. It has everything to do with whether such attitudes and actions cause damage, or whether they genuinely build not just ‘knowledge’ but Christian character and Christian community.”

In the Lap of Mary

Galatians 3:23-29 (Homily)

Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And, the worst part is there’s no-one else to blame

Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, enfold me
I am small and needy
Warm me up and breathe me

Ouch I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe…Sia “Breathe Me”

This is one of my favorite songs to turn to when I’ve had one of those days. The days defined as terrifically terrible, where everything I touched seemed to turn to dirt, my words fell like stones destroying rather than bricks building. One of those days where I was clearly the one in the wrong, where I failed badly, did that thing I swore I’d never do again…Those days where I wish water could truly wash me clean inside and out.

The feelings that surround me are those that are products of an internal monologue that is in dialogue with the law. There are two sides to the law. It can be both positive and negative. The positive side of the law is the side that creates structure and order in our school, in our town, state and even in our nation. Laws create order out of chaos. To follow the law in this way can bring comfort: I know what is expected and what to expect.

But the negative side of the law is the side of the law that exposes something about me I’d rather have hidden. That side of the law that brings to light what I’m desperately eager to keep cloaked in darkness. That I’m not kind. That I’m not good enough. That I’m a failure because I’ve failed once again. That I’m not who I like to think I am and not whom I’ve lead you to believe I am. The negative side of the law exposes the imposter and drags her into the light. This part of the law doesn’t strengthen me and highlight my talents and capabilities, reminding me how powerful I am; rather it draws to the surface my guilt and shame, that I’m lost and fragile, small and needy. “Be my friend, hold me/Wrap me up, enfold me…”

The book of Galatians does well highlighting both aspects of the law. Paul refers to the law as working with and not against the promises of God but that the law also functions as a disciplinarian in the life and mind of the person. To deny both aspects of the law is foolishness; it is even more foolishness to think that by the law one can avoid the negative aspect of the law. That is the relentless hamster wheel of perpetual performing and existential self-denial of mass proportions. Everything is not fine. We are not peachy-keen and better than ever, or “too blessed to be stressed” and certain no Christian colloquialism will alleviate the tumult under the surface.

The reality is we’re all pressed in on every side. And now more than ever as we slide full-speed into the end of the semester. Grades hanging in the balance: will you fail or will you succeed?  College acceptances and rejections? The yays and nays depend on whether or not you’ve done enough on paper. Have you done enough and in the right time? Family pressures; friendships under strain; anxiety and stress rising; mind, body, and soul longing for a moment, a breath, a safe place.

This safe place so longed for rests in the lap of Mary. After giving birth, Mary was ceremoniously unclean according to the laws of Leviticus. However, Mary gave birth not just to any child, but the son of God. Thus she was, after having given birth, holding and nursing the new born Christ, for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of Very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet there she was: with God because He was with her, physically, in her presence and she in His. From the moment of His birth, Jesus had begun to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment. This is God with the guilty and shameful, the lost and fragile, the small and needy; this is Emmanuel, God with us.

During Advent we recall the long awaited event of the fulfillment of the promise of God: I will be your God and you will be my people and you will love me with all your heart, mind, soul, and body. We are brought to the one to whom the law directs and guides. The law’s reign as disciplinarian began to crumble the moment Christ was born; its ability to render a verdict about who and what you are was revoked when Christ died and was raised. Thus, the whispers of condemnation ricocheting in your head have been silenced; that fear of failure: stilled. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

Christ has fulfilled the law relieving it from its role as disciplinarian; thus, we are not to remain in the condemnation of the law. Our guilt and shame, those terrifically terrible days and seasons in our lives don’t have the final word because Christ has taken our burdens and given us His light yoke. So, as we go toward the end here, be gentle with each other and be gentle with yourselves. We’re all battling our internal condemning monologues with the law. And remember: In Christ, you are the befriended, the held, the wrapped up, the enfolded. No matter how all those cookies crumble, you are the beloved and adored.

The Cedar Sprig and The Baby

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Homily)

*I don’t believe in Bible reading plans, but I do read my bible every day—a chapter on some days, a small passage on others. I take my time and meditate on what I’m reading as I go. One cold, winter morning, back in Colorado, my attention was particularly pricked as I was reading through a part of text from the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel of the Old Testament is full of mysterious imagery and prophecy of Israel’s exile and destruction. While there is a word of hope of restoration, the bulk of the book is rather troubling. But none of that caused me to stop and contemplate. It was a portion about a tree planted on a mountain that snapped me out of my early morning mental fog.

I lived in the high desert, so maybe the idea of a great big cedar providing shade and comfort from the burning sun of the summertime or the cold wind and snow of winter sounded good to me. Or, maybe the idea of anything green and verdant appealed to me considering it was the middle of a white Colorado winter. Whatever it was, this tree caught my eye.

In this portion of our passage, God is promising to plant a great and “noble cedar” from a sprig God is going to break off from another. And God will plant this sprig, this tender one on a high mountain, so that it will become a “noble cedar.”

You know what grows on the top of a high mountain? Nothing. Well, nothing substantial, nothing qualifying as “noble.” The top of a mountain is typically bald because the environment is too frigid and the conditions too treacherous for foliage to grow let alone allow for a transplanted cutting to take root and grow and become mighty. What caught my attention that morning was God promising to plant a “tender one” on the top of a mountain; certainly, this is sure death for a cedar sapling. What a precarious thing for God to do.

In the midst of a book that is primarily [1] comprised of prophetic utterances of judgment against the current, corrupt, oppressive, militaristic, and hopeless monarchy of Jerusalem and Israel, [2] why prophesy about a great cedar on a mountaintop planted and grown from a sprig?

Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

Because the tree is the word of hope in this passage—not for the leadership of Israel but for those who are suffering under the leadership.

The tree will be so mighty in stature that winged creatures of all kinds will be able to find shelter in its boughs. Cedars protect those creatures who find shelter in them from harsh and inclement weather—they are the perfect safe-haven from cold winds and bitter precipitation. This particular cedar planted and nourished by God will be a beacon of hope to all who look upon it, and they will know that God is still active, that God’s power is still magnificent, and that God hears the deep cries and intimately knows the suffering and oppression of God’s people (Exodus 2:25; Acts 9:4-5).[3]

This cedar will stand as the promise of an answer to the repeated cries of the troubled, downtrodden, and the broken hearted. But even more than being a static symbol of hope for the people of Israel and Jerusalem, it’s a dynamic word for the people: God is on the move. This great tree is on a collision course with God.

That God so loved the world he sent his son into it as a vulnerable baby: a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit was born of a virgin woman; the fully divine and fully human Christ would enter the world defenseless, naked, and tender. What a precarious thing for God to do.

And just as God promised that the sprig in Ezekiel would become a great and mighty cedar, so too will this baby grow to be great, becoming the Son of the Most-High God (Luke 1:32). Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the cosmos receives her loving messiah, her merciful king, her faithful high-priest.

The sprig of the high mountain top and the baby of Christmas have the same fate in Easter: to be the final answer to all of humanity’s pain and suffering, to bear the weight of sin and bear life into the world, to break down strongholds and redefine justice. For this great man, Jesus, who is God, will carry this great cedar to the top of a high mountain. He will climb upon this great cedar, and this great cedar will bear the entire weight of Christ as he bears the entire weight of our sin and the brokenness of the world succumbed to the powers of sin and death; and this cedar will holdfast those three nails.

Like the winged creatures mentioned by Ezekiel in our passage, in the boughs of the cross and the limbs of our crucified and resurrected Christ, we receive our comfort and the fulfillment of our hope, it’s in the safe and protective shade of the Cross where we hear the divine “it is finished” to our pain and suffering, to our grief and fear–where the rejected are accepted, counted as God’s own, children and heirs of the long awaited great king; where the captives are set free, the oppressed relieved, the hopeless are hopeful, the voiceless have a voice, and the refugee finds refuge.

 

 

1 “Ezekiel” The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler JPS Oxford: OUP, 2004. 

2 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament Vol. 1 Trans. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961. “Jeremiah and Ezekiel look from the monarchy of their own day, for which they can see no future, to a new order established by Yahweh himself, in which the ruler appointed by him will have become a theocractic official very different from the contemporary political and military king…This opinion on the part of the prophets was certainly strengthened by the fact that in despots like Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiakim they saw on the throne particularly blatant examples of human self-will in hostility to Yahweh” (Eichrodt 451) 

3 “The cedar, the grandest of trees, will tower over all the other trees, and all will see the power of God, who is responsible for the fall and rise of Judah” (Jewish Study Bible). 

 

*A longer version of this homily was given at The Cathedral Advent. Birmingham, AL, in 2017.

Why Sarah?

I’ve always read the story of Sarah and the casting out of Hagar as Sarah being nagging, and, sometimes, just down right mean. I saw it as petty. But then, last summer, I was given an opportunity to preach on Gen 21, and during research and writing the sermon, I saw something new. Sarah wasn’t being mean, she was defending the promise (this is what Luther tells us). Rather than, “just get that servant girl and her son out of here!”, I saw, “…it’s about the promise…the promise, dear husband!”  But then there was another question: why Sarah? Why would she care about the promise so much as to protect and defend it? Why would she be the one to remember?

Here’s my answer:*

God is the God of the Promise

In Gen. 21:1 we read, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised.” What was it that the Lord had promised both Sarah and Abraham? A Child—he would give them a child in their old age. We know this from Gen. 18:9-15,

“They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord 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 hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

One of my favorite verses is Gen 18:15. She flat out denies that she laughed…and Moses records it. Moses, inspired to record such an interaction, leaves one of our stately matriarchs completely human.

According to a webMD article, “‘Laughter isn’t under our conscious control…We don’t choose to laugh in the same way we choose to speak…” Sarah’s proof of this. Sarah’s laugh is an immediate and subconscious response to over-hearing the promise of a son the Lord makes to Abraham—and she uncontrollably scoffs…in disbelief. We’ve all done this. (scoffed in disbelief)

So Sarah laughs because she doesn’t believe what the Lord was promising. According to her, she is too old to have a child. Moses tells us that the way of woman had ceased. In her words, “I am worn out…” What a way to describe yourself. The word translated as “worn-out” in Gen 18:12 can also be rendered “used-up” or “exhausted.” Synonyms for “worn-out” are “spent,” “stale,” “deteriorated,” “destroyed,” “used,” and “useless.”

In Sarah’s eyes, she was—in her advanced age—“useless” because she could no longer bare children—because that possibility had ceased for her.  She had been created to bring forth children and she didn’t; in her opinion, this failure rendered her “useless.” Years of longing, years of praying, years of begging and yearning produced nothing. No child. Years of suffering through hope delayed in light of the physical possibility to produce a child give way to the concrete evidence that that possibility is now over.

For Sarah, there was no longer any reason or evidence or proof to hope for such a thing—it was over; it was impossible. So she laughs, because the words of the Lord being spoken contradict plain fact and promote the impossible. She laughs in disbelief. (no way! You’ve got to be kidding! What?!). Now, if the Lord appeared to Daniel and said, “this time next year Lauren will have a son” there would be NO laughter and most like wailing and gnashing of teeth (why?!!?), because it’s possible. It could happen. What could happen carries significantly far less comedic value than what flat-out could NOT happen. But the God Sarah worshipped, the one that was speaking with Abraham at that moment is the God of the promise. For, as I’ve said a million times before (at least!) with God, His promises are future facts. What He says, happens (Let there be….and there was!).

I’ve spent a lot of time in a passage of scripture that isn’t part of our reading because I need to set the scene for when we come back to chapter 21 (our passage). I want to paint with vibrant and bold colors where Sarah was prior holding the child in her arms, prior to nursing this child, prior to, how Luther referred to Isaac, “the promise [which has] now been made flesh” (4).

“The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Gen 21:1-7)

 

The promise has now been made flesh. The long awaited yearned for child is here.  The Lord, who questioned why she had laughed in chapter 18, has now fulfilled His promise and has given her a tangible reason to laugh but this time rather than laughing out of scoffing disbelief, she laughs because of hope and joy fulfilled. Because of God’s promise—and His faithfulness to that promise—Sarah is no longer the cursed one (barrenness would have been seen as a curse (Luther 11)) but as the blessed-one.

Now, finally, our passage:

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (Gen 21:8-13)

“But Sarah…” At some point Sarah notices and sees something. One day, Sarah looks upon the two boys her Isaac (the promise made flesh) and Ishmael (Abraham legitimate first born) and something dawns on her. And she speaks up. “Cast out this slave woman and her son” she says to Abraham. She continues, “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” While Ishmael had a promise made about him (Gen 17:20: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.”), it was not the promise, the promise of the established covenant; Sarah “makes a very fine distinction between her own son and Hagar’s” (Luther 20).

Luther writes about Sarah at this point, “It is her purpose to prevent Ishmael from coming into the inheritance together with Isaac” (20). Rather than allow both sons to be heirs, Sarah steps up and speaks out to protect the promise; Isaac would be the heir, and not Ishmael. According to Sarah, Hagar and her son, Ishmael had to go. Rather than being petty and possessive, Sarah is protecting the promise. And so is God, “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you…” “[Sarah] is compelled by God’s command to undertake something contrary to her husband’s will” (Luther 23) [Abraham was very distressed]. Luther writes, “Abraham had not given such careful consideration to the promise. Therefore God repeats it…” (24).

Why does Sarah give more consideration to the promise than Abraham does? Why does Sarah seem to remember it more vividly than her husband? Luther makes the point that Sarah was alert and keen to the promise and Abraham wasn’t. (“But Sarah has her way and accomplishes what she had undertaken, for she looked more closely at the promise and understood it more clearly than Abraham did” (36)).

I’ll fill in the gaps. Why Sarah and not Abraham? Because, the woman, who has suffered from deferred hope and years upon years of longing for a child, when she holds that child that has been given to her by the very word of God and with that child there is a spoken promise, she remembers. She remembers it every day she looks into his eyes. The woman who suffers barrenness (infertility and loss) suffers the one-two punch of a broken and fallen world. Every month she is reminded of what hasn’t happened or what was and is now no longer. A woman who suffers in this way cannot hold the living, fleshy baby—the baby promised by the very word of God–and not think: God is faithful.  The Heir is born.

I have three children, but I’ve also lost three pregnancies. After our last loss, four years ago, I kept hearing “Nehemiah” a name of an old-testament minor prophet, a name which means “No more tears.” I went three years with that word and with the feeling that we weren’t finished yet, we weren’t finished having children. But month after month proved that we were finished, and the tears came every month. And then in January of 2014, there was hope. I was pregnant. In October, we held our daughter, a near 10lb pile of screaming baby, and I heard it again, “No more tears.” 9 months later, rocking her before a nap or nursing her at 2AM I hear it again and again, “No more tears.” Every time I look at her, I hear it. God is faithful. No more tears.

So, if it is so with me, how much more with Sarah? I was still (barely) at child-bearing age; but Sarah was 90. Every time Sarah looked at Isaac she remembered the promise. God had promised the impossible and had made the impossible possible, and she couldn’t forget it so she reminds her husband. “The Promise, dear husband, is with Isaac.” It is by the promise that rescue and salvation come and not through the flesh and bone of birth right. True heirs are heirs of the promise. “‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named,’ not through Ishmael; that is, the people of God are not those who have the physical succession but those who have the promise and believe it” (Luther 33).

God is a God of the promise.

*this is the first part of the sermon that was not published yesterday (2.9.15) with the rest of the sermon that went up on http://www.mbird.com (read it here).