Third Sunday of Lent 2019: The Old Testament Passage – Provisions and teachings during Lent

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1-2)

In our household we use a lot of milk. Not very much wine – hardly any! But we use a lot of milk. We try to keep at least one full gallon of milk in the refrigerator because an open gallon of milk is usually an empty gallon of milk. We go through a lot of bread too. It seems like each member of the family likes a different type of bread; not just brown or white. But country white and 100% grain brown, and the more mundane as well. That does not count the rolls and buns we also use. Yes, milk and bread are frequent purchases; a purchase means someone has to have “labored” for it. We are no different, in that respect, than the writer of Isaiah’s audience.

The writer of Isaiah (using the voice of the Lord) goes on to talk about food items more rich and tasty than just bread and milk. And at no price! Well, sign us up! Of course, bread and milk, and other delicious food are just metaphors for living a contented and well-provided life. Still the question remains – what do we need to do (if not labor) to acquire this life?

Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.” (Verses 3 – 4)

If we just listen to the Lord, we will be the recipients of the same sort of covenant that the Divine made with King David?! We that sounds pretty good! However . . . . if one stops to think about all that King David went through, maybe it is not as simple and straightforward as it first appears.

Listening to the Lord and living for the Lord comes with its own set of priorities and statutes. It is not a life that is lived out quietly and unobtrusively as it first sounds.

“See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.” (Verses 5)

King David lived a life that was constantly on public display. When he did things correctly, his people demanded more of him. And when he did not live correctly all of his mistakes were on display. The writer of Isaiah does not disclose the “price” of the Divine’s bread, milk, and wine. The price is not dollars and cents but living a life that confirms to the Divine, and not to our human frail will. The writer of Isaiah is correct though – our human frail will does not “satisfy”. We labor and pine after things that are not good for us, or more precisely not good for our human spirit and soul.

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Verses 6 – 7)

And it is these last two verses the outline the difference between our thinking and the Divine’s thinking.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Verses 8 – 9)

As I remembered and anticipated these last two verses I could not help but think they explain so much about the difference I see in the Almighty that strides through the story of the Israelites and Judahites. Did the writers (the ones that wrote the history of the Israelites and Judahites) assume they knew the “ways of the Lord”? Did Isaiah, then, have a more accurate and attuned perception of the Divine?

Wondering about this, I went back to check in on the biblical commentators. And discovered I differ from them entirely on the meaning of these last two verses. The biblical commentators (actually I only looked up Albert Barnes, but I am sure the others come from the same perspective) take these last two verses as referring to forgiveness and pardon, and that the Divine forgives, pardons, and is merciful in ways that humanity is not. But that does not really connect with how this passage starts – seeking the wrong types of things, listening to the Lord and entering into a covenant like the one David had with God, and having attention brought to you because of the way you live.

What do you think beloved reader? I am not sure that anyone can, or should, say that one interpretation is more correct than another. The ways of the Divine encompass more than just forgiveness and pardon. If that were the case, the only case, we would be free to do whatever we want and still be assured of a pardon. No, it is more complex than that.

Lent is a complex season; recognition of sin and the way we have erred. The example set down by Jesus Christ. The expectations that the Lord God the Divine has. The gnarled and tangled road of the called and chosen people of the Old Testament. The new revelations and teachings in the New Testament. All of it seems to come together during Lent. And we are had pressed to discern it all.

I guess for me, I have to go back to the beginning of the passage. Listen carefully to the Divine. Chose the best way to live according to the example of Jesus Christ. And delight one’s self in living a Godly life. Selah!

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Second Sunday of Lent 2019: The Old Testament Passage – Doubts during Lent

After these things 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? And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 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.” (Genesis 15:1 – 4)

The season of Lent is rife with tests, trials, and challenges. Some minor consisting of abstaining from small things. Other challenges are major tests of our faith and beliefs. We have talked about such challenges in days past. Abram was challenged to believe that the Divine would be able to fulfill the promises made that Abram was the start of a long lineage. Especially since his family line, at that point, ended with him.

It reminds me somewhat of the assurances I was given during my radiation treatment. Now there were challenges – challenges to my body and my faith! But all those promises have come to pass – Praise the Lord!

“He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”
But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” (Verses 5 – 12)

Abram sort of has a pattern going here – hearing the promise of the Divine and taking it into his heart. But then starting to doubt it. I found myself having the same pattern when I was going through the last days of treatment and the week or so after. So many people told me it would get better; but all I could see was how bad it was at the moment. I have an idea of how that “deep and terrifying darkness” might have felt.

“When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….” (Verses 17 – 18)

Imagine, if you will beloved reader, the dark of a desert night; the sounds of “birds of prey” that have been denied food; other noises beyond sight but within hearing. A man alone with only dead carcasses to keep him company. And in the darkness light coming and consuming the offerings. Suddenly the smell of burnt meat fills the air, and the sizzle of the meat consumes the senses. It is not the sweet incense of worship that we are accustomed to. But burnt acrid smells that remind us of how pale and frail life is that it can be so consumed.

It is those earthy scents reminding us of the precarious balance between life and death. We can cling to our doubts, and consign ourselves to a life that ends with our own demise. Or we can take a leap of faith that there is more beyond this life and that extends into the life to come. Shalom!

Ash Wednesday 2019: The Old Testament, New Testament and Psalm Passages – A combined reflection

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1 – 2)

Ash Wednesday. I remember them from my days at seminary. One of the few places where it was quite natural for everyone to wear a gray smudge on their forehead on this day. I miss living in that type of community where so many things were done according to the lectionary and liturgy. At the time I did not appreciate the framework of living in a liturgical community. Somehow I had the idea that it would just continue once I got to the “outside world.” I was mistaken in that.

“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?” (Verses 12 – 14)

Other things have taken the place of that liturgical framework. One large part has been doing these blog posts for . . . . over ten years now. It shapes my days and weeks. It reminds me to turn my heart inward and listen to the Divine. It shapes me!

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'” (Verses 15 – 17)

When I am in the “outside world” I need to be my own “priest” and “minister” as opposed to seminary where we ministered to each other. Encountering scripture on a daily basis has prepared me to both minister to myself and extend ministry to others.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1 – 6)

When I first started writing commentaries – before I started having a blog – one series I did was for a church newsletter. Actually it was more of a monthly reflection. I called “From my Prayer Closet” and it was in part inspired by this passage from Matthew.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Verses 16 – 18)

Thinking about it, one of the drawbacks of living in a lectionary liturgical community was that was easy to know what another person’s faith life was like; or at least the broad sketches because when you worship with someone just about every day, talk to them during and outside of classes, and know their back story – you get to know them quite well. It is interesting then that Jesus exhorts his disciples, followers, and believers to partly shield their faith practices from other’s eyes.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Verses 19 – 21)

My true treasure is my faith life. It has supported me and under girded me. It has trained me to handle everything that life has thrown at me. And helped me make sense of the events in my life. The coming of the seasons of the church year – the familiar cycles both yearly and in the lectionary every three years – remind me of the tasks that need to be done for me to grow in the Lord. And finally, it leads me to prayer.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” ( Psalm 51:1-17)

 

First Sunday of Lent 2019: The Old Testament Passage – Coming to the “land” of Lent

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” (Deuteronomy 26:1 – 2)

In the midst of the current political climate, these verses bother me. It has always bothered me when/if one person does well it means that another person has lost what they had. While the Hebrews might have been the inheritors of the land that the Lord God “gave” them, it meant the people native to that land lost something – either the land, their lives, or both!

“You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” (Verse 3)

I understand that these verses are meant to be reminders to the Hebrews/Israelites to respond to God’s promise and generosity. The Old Testament was written from the perspective that the only people who benefited from the monotheistic Divine were those who were called and chosen through the line of Abraham. But it still feels unsettling.

“When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” (Verses 4 – 5)

At some point in the bible (probably the New Testament) believers are prompted to be kind to the strangers in the land because they too were strangers in the land at one point. I guess that exhortation did not extend to taking over Canaan.

“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Verses 6 – 9)

It is very possible that those who came to the shores of North America might have said the same thing. And yet, and yet . . . . . we also hear the voices of those who were native to those shores, and the violence that was done to them. In fact from many, many shores around the world those native to those lands have stories of great harm done to them.

“So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.” (Verses 10 – 11)

The Israelites had become the prime residents of the land. Those who resided there but were not descendants of the twelve tribes were considered to be “outsiders.” Why, you might ask, does this bother me so much? One of the reasons, among several, is that we are entering the season of Lent where all of us are found to be lacking in some aspect of correct Christian living. Who are we, regardless of birthright and heritage, to call another not part of the “correct” group or people? Shalom!

Transfiguration Sunday 2019: The Old Testament Passage – Questioning the text

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29)

I needed to pause here, beloved reader, to make sure I understood the direction and/or cause of Moses’s shining face – that it shone because he had been practically face to face with the Divine; or he was not aware of the shine because he was so busy being in the Presence of the Divine. And actually, it was probably both – although biblical commentators adhere to the first explanation.

“When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.” (Verses 30 – 31)

I also have to stop and wonder why Aaron and the Israelites thought when they saw Moses face, and why were they afraid. What might have Moses said to calm their fears? And did the Divine cause Moses’ face to glow in order to instill proper respect for Moses and the Divine? We know that Moses had been having a hard time keeping the Israelites focused on obeying the commandments that the Divine had set down. And keeping them focused to be the called and chosen people.

“Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.” (Verses 32 – 35)

Moses, in a sense, continued to remind the Israelites that he had been talking to the Divine. While residing with them in every day life, he kept his face covered. But after communing with the Divine, he showed them the evidence of his interactions with the Lord. And I have to wonder why. What was he trying to prove? Or was he not trying to prove anything? Did he not fully appreciate the effect it had on the Israelites?

I guess concerning this passage, I have more questions than answers. What I do know for certain, however, is that it is a very good passage for Transfiguration Sunday. And maybe by the time we get to the Gospel passage I will have some answers to my questions. Shalom!

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany 2019: The Old Testament Passage – The unfathomable ways of the Divine

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.” (Genesis 45:3)

We jump into the last part of the story of Joseph. From a boy with a multi-colored coat to the Pharaoh’s chief steward – it was quite a leap. No wonder his brothers are stunned beyond speech.

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Verses 4 – 8)

I can’t help but see the irony that the Hebrews – what little cluster of them that there were – grew to such a large group that the Egyptians generations after Joseph became fearful of them and enslaved them. Is this how the Lord God planned on preserving this “remnant”? Did Joseph see down the generations to this outcome? And yet under the protections of the Egyptians the Hebrews did grow and multiply. But at what cost?

“Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there–since there are five more years of famine to come–so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ “(Verses 9 – 11)

And yet who are we to question the ways of the Divine. A small group of Hebrews, properly not much more than Israel’s sons and what wives they have taken, eking out an existence in the middle of a famine. Maybe Joseph was right to over protection to them. Maybe he knew they would not survive where they were. Many things are done under the eyes and with the approval of the Divine that we do not understand. That is true of many things in the Old Testament; why should the story of Joseph be any different?

“And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” (Verse 15)

What we do need to remember that all things that the Divine does are done out of love. Now, discerning between what are the intentional acts of the Divine, and what things have been attributed to the will of the Divine by humanity is a complete different story, and one far too large to be discussed in just one posting! Shalom!!

 

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany 2019: The Old Testament Passage – Preacher and Seeker consider their skills and talents

Preacher: “Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.”
Seeker: When I was young, I looked up to people who had physical strength, who played sports, who had glamorous careers, who held the spotlight of media attention. But I learned when I came to faith that these things are fleeting and not worthy of pursuit. The famous, the wealthy, the glamorous rise and fall – here today and gone tomorrow.
Preacher: “They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”

Seeker: What is fame and fortune that I might seek it? Each person is gifted with talents and abilities. They can be used to build and create a legacy worth remembering; or they can be turned into futile efforts to garner attention. Blessed are they who find satisfaction in the doing and not in the praise of others.
Then I asked myself, with my skills and talents do I seek the accolades of others, or do I hone my skills for giving glory to God?
Preacher: “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Seeker:
When I seek to honor the Lord with my talents and skills, I am like a tree that stretches out its roots, find nurture and sustenance in grounded faith in the Lord. The winds of change that rise up one person, and bring another – I will never have to fear them.
Preacher: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?”

Seeker: It is tempting to measure my self worth in the eyes of the public and the media. To judge my efforts by the approval of others. It is only when I measure myself against the example and the teachings of the Lord God Jesus Christ that I can know how well I have succeeded or failed.
Preacher: “I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.” ( Jeremiah 17:5-10)

Seeker: May the Lord search me, and discern what good I have done and what evil I have committed. Then I will seek forgiveness and mercy from the Lord for my wrongdoings, and praise the Lord for the blessings the Divine has given. Then I will use my talents and skills to further the mission of the Lord! Selah!