Saturday, February 28, 2009

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Deuteronomy 7:17-26
v. 22 The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little...

One doesn't have to read much of the Old Testament before one is face to face with a serious problem: the violence that seems sanctioned, if not demanded, by God. This mostly has to do with Israel's conquest of the promised land, a conquest that dispossessed, if not completely destroyed, those already present there.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests three "popular" ways to deal with this violence. First, you can simply ignore it, pretend it isn't there. Second, you can say that the Israelites were simply wrong and that it was not God who commanded the violence at all. Later on they come to acknowledge this as their understanding of God grows. Third, you can say that it is God himself who develops over time, eventually controlling the violence within himself, giving it up as a way to be in relationship with his people. All three have their advantages and disadvantages.

Brueggemann himself comes down on the side of letting the texts be the texts and the struggle be the struggle. We have to wrestle "that deep in God's history and deep in God's character are powerful residues of violence that are not readily overcome" (Reverberations of Faith, p. 226). Perhaps the Christian story is that they are finally overcome in the cross. I think there are advantages and disadvantages to this approach as well.

So I don't really know what to do with the violence of the Bible and God's implication in it. I do firmly believe that God now calls us to be people of peace, that those days of using violence to work out our relationships with other people are over. I believe the roots of this stance are in the biblical prophets and in Jesus of Nazareth.

And I do know that we all must look at our own violent sides. We live in a society saturated by violence. I'm not just talking about violence on our streets, but in our entertainment. One has to try hard not to be entertained by violence in our world. Somehow we need to come to grips with that and make conscious decisions for peace in all aspects of our lives. This too is part of the Lenten journey.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Deuteronomy 7:12-16
v. 12 If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the LORD your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors

"Covenant" is one of the most important words in the Bible. It denotes the kind of relationship we have with God. It is a covenant relationship. This means that both sides of the relationship make promises that come with responsibilities. The promise is of loyalty one to another, a loyalty that is practiced in a particular way of life.

We have what we call "the Baptismal Covenant' (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305) which is composed of the Apostles' Creed (the basic outline of our faith) and five practical questions that outline what we promise to do to keep our side of the covenant.

Christians talk about Jesus establishing a "New Covenant." What is "new" about it? Personally, I believe that it erases the great "if" of the opening verse of today's reading from Deuteronomy. The nature of the covenant we have with God through Jesus Christ is that God promises relationship with us unconditionally. There is no "if you do this, then I will do this." Instead there are the beautiful words of our baptismal service, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own for ever."

Our Covenant with God is such that we can trust God's "covenant loyalty" absolutely. The promises we make are very real, however. Our Baptismal Covenant comes with real promises, marking real responsibilities. They are not, however, the ways we make God love us. They are our joyful response to that love.

For you reflection here are the promises in the question form in which they are found in the Prayer Book:

Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Deuteronomy 7:6-11
v. 6 You are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

For the first week and a half of Lent we read from the book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, which is composed largely of three long speeches by Moses to the people prior to their entrance to the promised land (an entrance that he did not make with them). The section that this series of readings comes from reads something like a sermon urging the Israelites to adhere to the commandments in the light of the goodness and generosity which God has shown to them.

A primal part of Israel's faith was its believe in its own "chosenness." Out of all the nations God has chosen them to follow him and bear witness to him. The Bible also gives witness to a struggle in Israel whether or not this chosenness also meant that God loved only Israel and that Israel's needs (for instance, for land) trumped the needs of all other peoples. To put it a bit too simplistically, the historical books of the Old Testament argue for this latter understanding and the prophetic books argue against it.

Part of living more deeply into our baptism (Lent's principal project) is coming to grips with the astounding good news of our own chosenness by God, not as a matter of our own deserving but simply of God's will. Each one of us, in our understanding, is God's treasured possession. This is what we mean by the word "grace," by which alone, St. Paul teaches us, we are saved.

Like the Israeites before us, we can struggle with whether or not this is meant for us exclusively or not. We can do this on an individual level or a corporate one (i.e., Christians are better than everyone else). But the Bible is clear in the end that this exclusiveness is a sin. Even when Jesus seems to sound exclusive ("I am the way, the truth and the life"), he also says "I have other sheep."

Spend some time to day reflecting on and rejoicing in your chosenness. But then take it a step further and reflect on and rejoice in your neighbor's as well.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Joel 3:1--4:11
v. 2b For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

As we begin Lent, we are reminded of the nature of the God we seek to know more deeply. It is an image that runs counter to our gut instinct, i.e., the God who is angry with us.

The Bible knows this angry God and witnesses that we are quite deserving of this anger. But the Bible also witnesses to the God who "relents," who is capable of changing his mind (see Jonah 3:10). This is good news indeed, except that it applies not only to us, but to those who have done us wrong as well. Jonah is an unhappy prophet because God has changed his mind about one of Israel's great enemies and threats, the Assyrian Empire, among whose great cities was Ninevah.

We think of Lent as a time of repentance, and surely it is that. It is not, however, just about our repentance. To make a relationship it takes two. Part of our Lenten journey is to go more deeply into relationship with the God who himself repents. We turn to God and God turns to us and the result is the new life we will celebrate at Easter.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Greetings from Episcopal Urban Caucus

Greetings from the Annual Assembly of the Episcopal Urban Caucus being held in Mobile, Alabama this week. I have attended this annual event for five of the last six years. The Assembly brings people together from all over the country to network about common interests related to urban and justice ministries. Today I attended two interesting workshops. The first was on race relations in Mobile, centered on the still segregated Mardi Gras celebrations here. A film has recently been made of this phenomenon called "the Order of Myths." The second workshop was put on by people of the Diocese of New York who have put together a new resource for conversation about "Reparations, Repair, and Reconciliation." It's very well done and might be a good follow-up to our anti-racism dialogue. The 2006 General Convention asked dioceses to hold conversations about the notion of reparations for slavery, as well as an exploration of the diocese's complicity in slavery in its history.

Tonight we actually get to see a Mardi Gras parade in addition to attending the banquet for the Assembly. Tomorrow the Assembly closes with a business meeting. I will be one of the nominees for the Board of Directors of the Caucus.

Looking forward to Absalom Jones Sunday this weekend!


Monday, February 2, 2009