27 January 2018

Taste and See

Reading just the snippets of text provided by the Lectionary or the Daily Office gives me the chance to focus my attention on a small part of the bible. This frees up my mind to look closely at the text instead of skimming over entire sections.

However it can also be confusing or remove important context from my view. In the readings for Friday, 26 January about half of Genesis 17 is used for the reading.

The first part starts out clearly enough-- we see God telling Abraham about God's plan to give Sarah a son and Abraham's reaction (verses 15-22).

In the second half of the reading we have Abraham suddenly deciding to circumcise all the males in his household including his 13-year-old son Ishmael and all of the slaves in his house.

The reading as presented gives no context for Abraham's actions. The text says that God had said for him to do this, but that instruction is not included in this section so it seems to come out of the blue.

I ended up skipping back to the beginning of chapter 17 in order to find out what was going on.

This is not a bad side-effect of reading a small portion of the text. For me, the bible can be a bit mind-numbing to read. If I try to approach it like a modern book my eyes start to glaze over. Reading a small snippet and then expanding my reading to text on either side helps me engage with that text. I go in search of answers questions the original text has raised instead of passively absorbing the words as I go.

In the text for Friday reading just the text provided encouraged me to read further and to really think about what I was reading.

I ended up wondering about the choice the writer of this section of Genesis (and all the editors who came after) made to focus on the idea that the child-to-come would be first and foremost Sarah's child. Several times in this short passage the wording points out that the child that God will make a covenant with is the child that Sarah will bear, Abraham is almost an afterthought. If anything, Abraham spends his time in this passage pleading that Ishmael, his son by Hagar, not be forgotten.

And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!”
~Genesis 17:18

Ishmael was Abraham and Sarah's idea and solution to the problem of their barrenness. God does not accept their solution. I find it interesting that the child God wants to make a covenant with must be the child of both Abraham and Sarah. Sarah must be included as far as God is concerned. God is willing to listen to Abraham's plea and to make a place of Ishmael but God's focus is on the coming child by Sarah.

I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’
~Genesis 17:16

If I had read through all of Genesis in one go, I might have skimmed over this passage. I would have missed the opportunity to think about the exact words used and to come up with my own interpretation.

A year or three from now, I might re-read this section of text and come up with a new interpretation, a new understanding of the words presented for that day's reading.

Like a rich dessert, I find it helpful to take the Old and New Testament in small bites.

The interest, the joy even, of reading a short passage and really thinking about my own thoughts and feelings about that passage and seeing how they change over time as I learn and grow.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

06 January 2018

Hero of the Moment

In the readings for Friday's Daily Office three of the major figures of the bible are mentioned. First, in the Old Testament reading we have the introduction of Noah. Then, in the New Testament, we have a mention of Moses. Finally in the Gospel we have Jesus himself in doing his first official miracle-- changing water into wine.

All three of them share, not only mythic status, but a life of ups and downs in their relationships to their followers. They are heroes one moment and goats the next.

Noah listens to God, builds the ark and saves a selection of birds, animals, and humans. He demonstrates his faith. However, once the boat is empty and the vineyard is planted he drinks to excess and ends up at odds with his youngest son, who has seen him at his worst and gossiped about it with his brothers. He divides his own family into slaves (Ham's son Canaan), masters (Shem), and people to 'make space for' (Japheth). A fine dysfunctional ending to a story of a man who saved his family from a flood, only to wind up dividing them after giving into his own weakness.

In the New Testament reading Moses and the disobedient people who followed him are referenced. I was reminded that Moses, as a result of his own disobedience, was not allowed to enter the promised land. It was his successor Josuha who lead the people across the Jordan, leaving Moses buried in Moab.

Finally we have Jesus who initially refuses his mother's request that he help out, but who changes his mind. However, he uses the stone water jars that are intended to hold water for the Jewish rites of purification. I wonder what the owner of the jars though when he found them full of wine? Was he grateful for the wine or dismayed that the jars were used. Would they have to be cleaned after such a use? Would Jesus go from hero of the hour to someone who made a lot of work for other people? As he goes on in his ministry we see him struggle, like Moses, with recalcitrant disciples and women who call on him to be even more than he intended.

This past summer I saw the movie Dunkirkin the theater. One of the things I kept noticing throughout were moments of heroism that went unnoticed by those around the hero. It occurred to me that being a hero is not a permanent state, it is the action of a moment and after that moment has past the next decision needs to be made.

This is much like Moses and the people who followed him into the Exodus: one day they affirm their relationship to God and their determination to make it through the desert, the next they are dancing around a golden calf because they think they have been deserted by both God and Moses.

After seeing the 'Dunkirk', I stumbled upon the saying: Failure isn't fatal and success isn't final. Which seemed to encapsulate the feeling that the movie had evoked.

For some of Moses's followers failure to follow God was fatal. But in most cases in our lives failure isn't fatal, failure gives us a chance to change and make new decisions in the future.

The other half of the saying: 'success isn't final.' is a reminder that a moment of success is not permanent, we can fall just as easily as we rose. We see that in Noah-- he succeeded in bringing his family and the animals he was charged with saving safely through the flood-- only to experience disgrace and loss while rebuilding his world.

Jesus has several failures, both of his own faith in his ability to carry through his work and in his ability to communicate his vision of God's Kingdom to his own followers. However, he persists through those failures to redeem us all at the end through his sacrifice. He finds success and resurrection through his choice to persist and hold to God's plan for him.

All three of these figures had tough rows to hoe and none of them made it through their complicated relationships with God, their followers, and their own understanding of their lives without falling and failing. They had their moments of being the hero and doing the right thing at the right time. Then that moment passed and they had to make their next choice.

So it is with all of us. Hero or Failure is not a permanent status while we live. We will have moments when we rise to the occasion and moments when we fall on our face.

There may be times when we, like Jesus, are tempted to say that our hour has not yet come. It is work to take action, to find the jars and fill them with water. It would be easier to put things off to another day. Heroes become so by choosing to act, by making a choice to do. They may still fail but failing to act guarantees failure.

Noah, Moses, and Jesus, in their most heroic moments choose to act, to accept the job God had given them to do in the moment. They may have failed to be heroes in every moment but they got the bulk of their jobs done. Noah saved his family and the animals that God asked him to. Moses got his people out of Egypt and to the banks of the promised land. Jesus consented to death on the cross and brought God's grace to us all through his death and resurrection.

Our own role in God's creation is likely much less grand but no less important. Our own doubts and fears link us to these great ones who failed at times to be all they could be in the eyes of God. When we fall we can follow their example and try again to find our relationship with God and the right choice to make in the next moment.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf