The Reflectionary – Week of November 10, 2019

Text: Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

_______________________________

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
 

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Reflection

I was recently listening to NPR when they were doing a story on how the wildfires in California were impacting vineyards and the production of wine. Naturally, wildfires are a huge threat to productivity, when they can completely wipe out a vineyard. But as I listened, I also learned a little bit more about the care and management of vineyards. Cultivating healthy grape vines is actually quite a fine art that takes a lot of care, patience, wisdom, and, of course, cooperative weather/soil/environment, etc. There are many things that can go wrong in the process that can lead to a failure to produce good, healthy, and flavorful grapes. I imagine that it must be highly stressful work to be a vintner. You have to work hard to manage the “just right” conditions, and even if you do everything according to plan, wildfires (among other things) can still come along and mess everything up.

In the Isaiah 5, the prophet begins to sing a song about a vineyard and a vintner. This vintner loved his vineyard and put everything he had into it. He managed to get the “just right” conditions. He built a watchtower so he could see and protect the vineyard from anything that threatened to come in a wipe it out. The vintner did everything according to plan. And then… and then… the time came for the crop. The grapes should have been perfect. But the grapevines yielded only bad fruit. It was all sour grapes.

In v. 3, the text shifts from the prophet singing a song about a vineyard and a vintner to God speaking in the first person. We realize that the vintner is God, and God is angry about the failed crop of the vineyard that he so carefully and attentively cultivated. God is ready to destroy the vineyard. He’s ready to let the proverbial wildfires come in and make it a wasteland where only briars and thorns can be found. In v. 7, we find out that the vineyard is representative of the southern kingdom of Judah (which is where Isaiah did his prophetic work).

But what exactly was the “bad fruit” of Judah? What was it that made God so angry with his people? The prophets in both the northern and southern kingdoms tended to have two main criticisms that they articulated over and over again: the people needed to stop worshipping idols and the people needed to stop inflicting injustices upon the vulnerable. In this instance, the accusation against the people of Judah falls in line with the second of the two criticisms: where there should justice (mishpat), there is bloodshed (mispakh), and where there should be righteousness (tsedaqah), there are cries of distress (tse’aqah).

Justice here does not simply mean appropriate punishment for wrongdoings. Justice, in the biblical sense, has a much greater breadth of meaning. Justice is about the world being as it should. It is about wrongs being made right. It is about a vision of a society where the vulnerable are no longer vulnerable, and rather than exploitation, there is equity. Justice is about a social order where all of God’s people flourish.

Similarly, righteousness also has a social component. While the word “righteousness” for us often connotes a sort of personal purity and piety, in the biblical sense, righteousness is also relational. It has a connotation of “doing right” by one another.

If justice is about creating a right order where all people can flourish, righteousness is about each person looking out for their neighbors. That sounds like the kind of world I want to be a part of. That is certainly the kind of world God hoped his people would work to create. But instead of finding justice and righteousness, God finds bloodshed and cries of distress. He finds manipulation, exploitation, and everyone only looking out for number one. Let the vineyard be destroyed, God declares.

But then, a few chapters later, we shift metaphors, but we see that God does not leave God’s people to be destroyed, after all. Instead, we find God proclaiming anew the vision of justice and righteousness that God has for God’s people. God has not given up hope!

Some days, when I look at the world around me, I become overwhelmed. On those days, I become pessimistic at best, and nihilistic at worst. I get angry at all of the ways in which we, as human beings hurt one another. I feel rage at the evil we commit. I feel like I understand Isaiah’s vineyard song.

But God doesn’t leave us with the vineyard song. God leaves us with the image of the shoot that comes out of the stump of Jesse. God leaves us with new life coming out of that which appears to be dead. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which is good news to the poor and needy. It’s good news to those who are crushed beneath the wheels of injustice. It’s good news to those who are trampled by unrighteousness. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – one that comes into existence through the gift of the Spirit. As you meditate today upon these words of Scripture, may God instill in you the vision of the kingdom and courage of the Spirit to work toward its reality.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where, in our world, do you see injustice and unrighteousness?
o   Where do you catch glimpses of God’s kingdom being made a reality? What can you do to be a part of that?

Challenge

Enjoy some grapes, or fruit, or other type of food that comes from the ground. As you eat and taste the sweetness of the food, meditate on this passage again. As you think on it while engaging your senses in this different way, pay attention to what new insights or thoughts God might be showing you.

And/or 

Consider an injustice that is occurring in your own community. It might be related to food security, access to medical care, or any number of things. Identify one thing that you can immediately do about it, and then do it. It may be as simple as taking food to a neighbor who sometimes goes without or driving a friend to a doctor’s appointment. It could be volunteering with an organization that directly addresses social needs. It might even be working to change or create laws that care for the most vulnerable.

Prayer

God, you are the great vintner and you continue to nurture your vineyard. You want your vineyard to be a place where all vines can flourish. You want your vineyard to be a place where all may find the sweetest of fruit. Cultivate me, that I might be a vine rooted in Jesus Christ. Prune me, that I might bear the good fruit of justice and righteousness. Through your Spirit, may I work with you, as you give me a vision of your world. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

 

The Reflectionary – Week of October 27, 2019

Text: 1 Kings 18:17-39

When he [King Ahab] saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”

“I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.

Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”

Then all the people said, “What you say is good.” 

Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it. 

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. 

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” 

Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. 

When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

Reflection

One chapter prior to this one, the prophet Elijah mysteriously makes his entrance onto the stage of the northern kingdom of Israel, while Ahab is king. From the get-go, Elijah positions himself as one who stands against king and royal household. He makes it known that he (and God) want nothing to do with the ways of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel, and the worship of Baal and the other Canaanite gods and goddesses that Ahab has allowed to permeate his kingdom.

For Elijah, the problem of Baal worship was not simply that it was worshipping a false god. The problem of Baal worship was its social implications as well. As the scholar Walter Brueggemann writes in his commentary of 1 and 2 Kings (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 2000),

The caricature that dominates Israel’s imagination is that Baalism is a socioreligious system rooted in the capacity to secure life for self by the manipulation and control of the gifts of the creator, by self-centered management that inevitably leads to an antineighbor ethic… it is a rather deep and costly conflict between two contrasting perspectives on reality that are deeply rooted theologically and highly visible in the life and social practice of the community (219).

In other words, the conflict was about more than just paying lip service to false gods. It was about the ways in which that falsehood becomes embodied in concrete ways in the life of the people of Israel. For Elijah, the people of Israel cannot have things both ways. They cannot worship God and worship Baal.  The two loyalties are mutually exclusive. It is time for Israel to make their choice.

The contest itself begins. The prophets of Baal do their best. They work themselves into a frenzy, shouting, cutting, dancing zealously, waiting for their god to answer with fire. They get nothing. Only silence. Elijah, on the other hand, goes out of his way to make it clear that when God answers, it is God and God alone. He douses the altar not once, not twice, but three times until it is saturated with water. When the fire comes from heaven, there can be absolutely no confusion. The God of Israel is the one who decisively answers. Fire comes down and consumes the wood, the stones, the soil, and even the water.

The people of Israel are reminded of God’s power. They had been seduced and subdued by the myth of Baal – that by calling upon the false god, people could control and manipulate the world for their own benefit. In this decisive act, they are called back to the affirmation and proclamation that the world is not actually theirs for the taking and bending to their own will – the world belongs to God, and God alone.

We live in a different time and place today, but in many ways, we struggle with the same temptations of Israel in Elijah’s day. We want to profess faith in God, while at the same time, we seek to lay hold of God’s creation, manipulating it and exploiting it for our own benefit. I share this further commentary from Walter Brueggemann because he articulates it so well:

…We may see that a sense of the world as a mystery from God marked by a neighborly ethic is in deep dispute, in our own day, with the reduction of life to a manipulation of technical knowledge… I should imagine that medical research, the potential of military devastation shamelessly embraced, the industrial destruction of the ecosystem, the cheapening of the life of those who are not productive, all suggest that this profound contest is replicated and reenacted often among us in policy disputes as well as in more daily decisions about neighbors (229).

For Elijah, there is no middle ground. Phew. What a challenging passage and what difficult ideas to ponder! I invite you to wrestle with them along with me.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where do you see this contest played out in our society today? How are you personally challenged?
o   How do you hear God calling you to care for your neighbor today?

Challenge

Consider the ways in which our society constantly seeks to manipulate and exploit creation for our own benefit. What is one issue that you want to learn more about? Perhaps it is about water security and safety. Perhaps it is about energy resources. Perhaps it is about carbon footprint. Take some time this week to begin learning more, and what steps you might be able to take to move away from destructive practices that affect that particular part creation.

And/or

Spend time out in God’s creation. Simply rest and appreciate that which God has made in whatever way feels best to you.

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the one true God. You were present at the creation of the world, and all things have come into being through you. Help me to care for all that you have created, recognizing that it belongs to you and not to me. Show me the places in my life where I am following “two opinions.” Speak decisively into my heart, that I may be transformed by you and for you. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of October 20, 2019

Text: 1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29

Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had gone there to make him king. When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard this (he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), he returned from Egypt. So they sent for Jeroboam, and he and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”

Rehoboam answered, “Go away for three days and then come back to me.” So the people went away.

Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon during his lifetime. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked.

They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” 

But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him. He asked them, “What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, ‘Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?”

The young men who had grown up with him replied, “These people have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter.’ Now tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’”

Three days later Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam, as the king had said, “Come back to me in three days.” The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the Lord, to fulfill the word the Lord had spoken to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah the Shilonite. 

When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king:

 “What share do we have in David,
what part in Jesse’s son?
To your tents, Israel!
Look after your own house, David!”
 

So the Israelites went home. But as for the Israelites who were living in the towns of Judah, Rehoboam still ruled over them.

_______________

Then Jeroboam fortified Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. From there he went out and built up Peniel.

Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”

After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan.

Reflection

I was a big fan of the show Game of Thrones while it had its run on HBO. I love the genre of fantasy, and if you throw in some dragons, I am definitely a fan. I had been a fan of the book series long before it became a TV show as well. What made me such a fan of the books and the show, however, was not that it was just another epic fantasy series – what made me a fan was the character development and its nitty-gritty realpolitik. The series did not shy away from playing out the often-horrifying consequences of a Machiavellian politics – a politics not based upon any kind of moral ideal or social good, but based upon pragmatically amassing and asserting power.

Today’s text reads a little bit like a scene from Game of Thrones. In it, we see how the divided monarchy arose, barely one generation after King David. For a brief recap of what happens prior to this passage: when David dies, his son, Solomon, becomes the king. Solomon continued to amass and consolidate power through political alliances (often contracted through marriage – Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines), through trade, and through major construction projects, including the Temple. Solomon was simultaneously seen as being both wise, but also as a one who was easily swayed and distracted by foreign gods.

When King Solomon dies, his son, Rehoboam succeeds him. Rehoboam, who has grown up wealthy and in a place of power, now wants to assert his power in his own right. The seeds of discontent have long been sowing in Solomon’s kingdom, and now they are brought to fruition. Jeroboam, who had previously served Solomon, but had deserted him and fled to Egypt, harboring a desire to become king over the ten northern kingdoms of Israel, at least in part because he saw Solomon’s sin of abandoning God to worship foreign gods. Once Solomon is dead, Jeroboam returns from Egypt to confront Rehoboam. Jeroboam gives Rehoboam a chance – if he will lighten the yoke placed upon the ten northern tribes of Israel, they will not rebel and they will serve Rehoboam.

Rehoboam sends Jeroboam away so he can consult with the elders from his father’s day. They advise him to lighten the yoke for the sake of peace in the kingdom. But Rehoboam is not satisfied with this advice. So instead, he consults his friends, who advise him not only to not lighten the yoke, but to make it heavier – to assert his dominance – to show them who’s boss. So this is what Rehoboam foolishly does.

And with that, the final nail is hammered into the coffin of the united monarchy. Jeroboam heads north where he is crowned as king of the ten northern tribes of Israel, while Rehoboam remains king over only the two southern tribes. Never again will the twelve tribes be united. Rehoboam continues to control Jerusalem and worship in the Temple, while Jeroboam sets up two sites for worship up north so those who belong to the northern kingdom do not have to travel down to Jerusalem to worship, thereby avoiding the temptation to worship the foreign gods that Solomon under his laxity had allowed to become a part of society.

Phew. Quite the history lesson, but perhaps also a theology lesson. Remember, that just a few generations prior to this moment, Israel had not had a king. It was not God’s desire that Israel have one. And yet, Israel demanded that God give them a king to be like the other nations. God warned them that it would not be good for them. They demanded anyway. What we see just a few short generations later is what happens when a people put their trust and hope in an earthly ruler. We see what happens to those who are put in positions of worldly power. It becomes a big old mess – full of corruption, entitlement, and power games.

Is this really what God desires for God’s people? Now take a few moments to think about our reality today. Is this really what God desires for God’s people?

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   How does this story speak to you today? What warnings or challenges might you take away from this text?
o   Who do you know who currently suffers under a heavy yoke?

Challenge

We are in the thick of gearing up for election season in our country. We probably each have a political party or stance that we tend to default to. It can be incredibly difficult to see the bigger picture or to see the way faith calls us beyond political party or candidate. Take some time today to pray, asking God to show you a third way of being in the world, apart from our embedded two-party system.

and/or 

Jeroboam asks Rehoboam to lighten the yoke of the people. Consider someone you know who would be considered to be living on the margins in our society – someone living below the poverty line, an immigrant, a person of color, a child who is currently in the foster system, etc. What can you do to lighten their load? Is there a task you can help them accomplish? Is there legislation you can lobby for? Do they have a story you can amplify?

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, I know that you are the one true King. You are the one true Savior. Help me to put my trust in you, and not in any other systems or powers or rulers. Help me to see those who suffer under a heavy yoke, and to take action to lighten that yoke as a builder of your kingdom. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

– Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of October 13, 2019

Text: 2 Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5

All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “We are your own flesh and blood. In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’” 

When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.

David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

_______________

David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

Reflection

These short passages are snapshots of King David’s life, marking two significant moments – when he became King over all of Israel, and when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem to give it a permanent resting place. David, as king, certainly did much for the people of Israel, in the name of God. David, of course, is seen as the greatest king of Israel. It is significant that Jesus comes from the line of David. He’s a pretty big deal.

We know, however, that David was also a flawed human being who at times, made absolutely terrible decisions (ie. taking Bathsheba for himself and having her husband killed). How could a king who is elevated to the extent that David is also do something so vile? We often hear of David as a man after God’s own heart. At times, that may, in fact be true. But in other moments, David’s heart is anything but. So what do we do with these conflicting ideas about David? Is he a great king, or a sinner of the worst kind? Is he generous and faithful, or a murderous and selfish lecher?

It is tempting to want to place David in one category or the other, writing the other off. But when we truly pause to think about who David was, what we actually see is ourselves. We, like David, have moments where our hearts are like God’s own heart – where we are merciful, where we are loving, where we are seeking justice. But then, there are other moments, where we are not bearing the heart of God. There are moments where we take what we want, when we want it, no matter who it hurts. There are moments where we act with hatred, or sometimes even violence.

Not one of us is totally good. Not one of us is totally evil. In our polarized world, it is a great temptation to write people off as one or the other. David did great things for Israel, to be sure. He worshipped God, and gave the Ark of the Covenant a permanent home. He enabled to people of Israel to find security and to flourish for a time. When David kept the kingship of God at the forefront of his life, he lived as a man after God’s own heart. It was when he became focused on his own power and desires that he strayed.

The same is true for us. When we recognize the kingship of God in our lives, above all powers, above all governments, above all nations, above the desires of self, then our hearts are able to be in alignment with God’s. But when we become focused on other powers above God’s reign, then our hearts and our desires become distorted. You may recall when Israel first began asking for a king to rule over them, the prophet Samuel reminded them that they would regret it – that God was their king, and that if they wanted to have kings like the other nations, then they would, in fact, become like other nations where the rich oppress to poor, where the rulers consolidate power and their subjects cry out for relief. Eventually, this did happen.

There is no king but Christ. There is no one who is above him. Worship of the wrong things (idolatry) is the continual struggle of God’s people from the very beginning, up until today. Consider how you may personally be experiencing this struggle.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   In what areas of your life might you be struggling to allow Christ to reign?
o   In whom do you struggle to see any good? What do you think is preventing that ability?

Challenge

Think of that person in whom you struggle to see any good. Pray for them, and pray that you might be able to see glimpses of goodness in them.

and/or

What are the most important things in your life? How might they be in alignment with Christ’s kingship, or how might they be in conflict? Take some time to reflect and to journal about your current priorities.

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the one true King. You are greater than any power, than any leader, than any nation. Help me to live as a citizen of your kingdom, and to be able to discern what that looks like. Give me a heart that is like yours – one that loves like yours. Allow me to catch glimpses of your image in others, even in those whom I would deem my enemy. At the same time, allow me to see the sin and the evil that exists within my own heart. Lead me, transform me, make me new. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of September 22, 2019

Text: Jeremiah 18:1-6

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. 

Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”

Reflection

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn how to throw pottery, so for Christmas that year, I was gifted with the opportunity to take a six-week pottery class at a local studio. It quickly turned into an enjoyable hobby as I ventured out from making simple bowls, plates, and mugs to things like Communion sets, teapots, and casserole dishes. There is something quite pleasant, even meditative, about running your hands over the clay as it spins on the wheel.

But in those first few weeks of learning, one of the things that caught me by surprise was how much force I needed to use to get the clay centered on the wheel. You can’t begin shaping your vessel until the clay is centered. And in order to get it centered, you have to use lots of pressure. You have to use the strength of your whole body. You have to have a steady hand.

Sometimes, it was easy for me to get a lump of clay centered. But sometimes it was hard. Sometimes it took me longer, for reasons unknown to me. Maybe it was just me, maybe it was the clay. Some days were just that way.

In this segment of Jeremiah, the prophet goes down to the potter’s house, who is at work on his wheel, creating vessels of all kinds. As Jeremiah watches, he sees the potter push down and reshape a pot he is working on. Potters do this all the time. Sometimes a vessel just doesn’t get shaped the way the potter intends. In my pottery class, we would often laugh together that the clay has a mind of its own some days. I’ve had mugs that have decided they actually wanted to be bowls, bowls that have become plates, and sometimes even teapots that decided they are best turned back into a slab of clay to be reused at another time. As I do not have the skill of a master potter, I would simply let the clay become whatever it wanted to be.

In this passage, God calls Israel clay in his hands. Israel can be re-shaped, re-fashioned. The story of Israel, in fact, is the story of a shaping of a people – a people called by God to be a part of a covenant. It is a story of a continual re-shaping, as the clay attempts to become something other than the Master Potter’s desired intentions. God, the potter, continually re-works the vessel. But notice that the potter never throws the lump of clay away. He doesn’t toss it aside in anger or frustration. He just keeps on re-working it, helping it take the desired shape.

There are at least two things I hope you can hear clearly in this text.

First – this is a story about the people of Israel – the people of the covenant. That covenant is never revoked by God. The Church does not replace or supersede the people of Israel. Our Jewish brothers and sisters continue to be a people of the covenant, clay in the potter’s hands.

Second – this is also a story about us – the people of the new covenant through Christ. God continually shapes us. God never tosses us aside in anger or frustration. He just keeps tossing water on us, and with the gentle pressure of his hands, he keeps re-working us, helping us to take the desired shape – as individuals and as a community.

Being a potter is a messy business. You get covered in clay, in water. They clay gets under your nails and all over your clothes. It can stain your hands. God is our Master Potter. He gets down in our mess and continually reshapes us – sometimes patiently and gently, sometimes more forcefully, but always with care and skill. The Master Potter never throws us aside or declares us to be useless lumps of clay (which I have, in fact, declared of some of my own particular failed pottery attempts).

Like clay in the potter’s hands, so are we in God’s hands.

Ponder

o  What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o  Where in your life do you sense God working right now?
o  Where have you resisted the work of the Master Potter in your life? I wonder what might be at the root of that resistance?

Challenge

Consider an area of your life that God may be trying to transform. What can you do to become more malleable clay? What habits or disciplines might you need to take on? What might you need to let go of? Spend time journaling, praying, or talking to God about these things, asking for direction.

and/or

Find an opportunity to create, whether it is playing with clay, or play-doh, whether it is painting, crocheting, working in the garden, or any other number of things. Imagine God creating or working in you as you yourself create.

Prayer

God, you are the Master Potter, and I am clay in your hands. Mold me, make me, move me. Through the waters of my baptism, make me malleable. Through the sometimes dizzying spinning of life’s wheel, shape me. Keep on working on me until all the lumps and bumps are smoothed away. Turn me into a vessel that carries your love and grace to others. Fill me, use me. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of September 15, 2019

Text: Exodus 3:1-15

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I Am who I Am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

“This is my name forever,the name you shall call mefrom generation to generation.”

Reflection

This moment where Moses comes upon the burning bush is one of the most pivotal moments in all of the Bible. While God had appeared and made a covenant with others before now, here is where God reveals God’s own name.

Moses has already been through much. He’d already been sent by his mother down the river in an effort to save him. He’d already been brought into Pharaoh’s household and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. He’d already fled after killing an Egyptian task-master. He’d already married and was living as a shepherd in the land of Midian, watching the oppression from his people, the Israelites, from afar.

Moses was one who had been continually driven away from home. He was driven away first from his mother, then from his adoptive family, then from his people. When Moses comes across the burning bush, the concept of “home” was probably one that was blurry at best for him.

And then Moses hears the voice: “Moses! Moses! Take off your sandals!”

God tells him to do so because he is standing on holy ground. Taking off the sandals, is, after all, a sign of respect. But God is communicating something else as well in this command. Taking off the shoes is also a sign of being welcomed home.

Many people have a “no shoes in the house” rule. When you enter their home, you take your shoes off and you leave them by the door. While for some, this might be about keeping the carpet clean, for some, it is also a way of saying, “make yourself at home!”

When God tells Moses to take off his shoes, God is saying to him, “Welcome home! Kick off your shoes! This is where you are supposed to be!”

YHWH is the revelation of the Divine Name. It means something akin to “I Am who I Am” or “I Will Be who I Will Be.” In the revelation of God’s own name to Moses, God says, “I Am with you.” God shows Moses that the God who was, and is, and will be is the one in whom he can find his true understanding of home.

And yet, even as God calls Moses to the comfort of knowing to whom he truly belonged, he also called Moses to the task of his lifetime – leading his people out of Egypt and the bonds of slavery and oppression. Moses was given his home, but he was also given his life’s mission. Belonging to God didn’t mean a life of ease or comfort. It meant a life of fighting against injustice. It meant a life of constantly being threatened by the powers that be. It meant a life of wilderness wanderings, deep frustration, and hardship.

Home with God doesn’t always mean rainbows and unicorns. It doesn’t always mean comfort and prosperity. If Moses’ life shows us anything, it is that the opposite is more likely true. And yet… when God reveals God’s self to us and invites us home, nothing else can compare.

Moses could not have anticipated what would happen that day as he was tending his father-in-law’s sheep. He could not have known what God would show him. He could not have known what God would give him, in the revelation of the Divine Name.

When God reveals the Divine Name to Moses, God also reveals Moses’ true identity, his true purpose, his true home. It is in God and among God’s people. May God reveal the same to us.

Ponder

o  What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o  What is “home” to you? What qualities does it have?
o  When have you experienced true belonging? How can you help others experience that, especially within your community of faith?

Challenge

Consider someone who is a part of your family, whether it is by blood, by love, or by faith. Think of something you can do to help them feel a deeper sense of belonging this week, and then do it.

and/or

Maybe you know someone who isn’t living at home right now. It could be a college student, it could be someone in the hospital, it could be someone who has moved to assisted living. Call, visit, or send them something to help make their space feel a little bit more like home.

Prayer

Holy God, you call me to remove my shoes – to make myself at home in you and among your people. You are the God who IS. You will always be with me. Through the peace of knowing that I will always belong to you, lead me out to do your work. Give me clarity in your mission and purpose for me, and give me the strength and courage to live it. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

Sarah – A Survivor Story

Below is both the audio and the text of a monologue I delivered on September 8, 2019 at St. Paul and Brown United Methodist Churches. Inspired by my reading of Womanist Midrash by Wilda C. Gafney, I imagined how the matriarch Sarah might have described her life in her own words. The manuscript varies slightly from my actual delivery.

Text:

My days are almost gone. They are fading fast like the setting sun. I’ve lived for 127 years. It has been a long 127 years. When I look back on my life, I ask myself, would I have done it differently? Could I have done it differently?

When people remember me, what will they remember? A matriarch, full of blessing, full of faith? Or will they see what I see, a woman who has been hurt and in her anger and desperation has hurt others terribly?

Most people know me because of my husband, Abraham. What a great man of faith, they say. And in many ways, he was. But in many ways, he, like the rest of us, had moments where he did not trust the Almighty and took matters into his own hands. There were times where his fear seemed to strip him of his faith.

Most people think of us like two peas in a pod. Where there is one, there is always the other. And that is true. There has never been a time in my life where Abraham has not been a part of it. He was, after all, my older brother first, before he was my husband – we share the same father, Terah. He had already been in the world for 10 years when I came into it. For most of my childhood, I knew that I would have to marry him. Our father said that it was the best way to carry on his family line. I never really questioned it. It was just going to be what it was going to be.

As I got older though, I started to attract the attention of the village boys. There was one in particular that I liked, with long, dark hair, and intense eyes. He picked a flower for me one day and tucked it behind my ear. I hoped that maybe I could talk my father into letting me marry him instead. Do you know that I can’t even remember his name now? But he was from a good family, and I didn’t see that there could be anything bad about that arrangement. But my father said, absolutely not – he had plans for me and he wasn’t about to change them.

And so, as soon as I bled for the first time, my father said that it was time for me to be married. I knew there was no changing his mind, so Abraham (or Abram as he was known back then) and I were married, and I assumed the duties of a young wife, with the expectation that we would soon further the family line. A few months came and went, and no sign of a child. And then a few more months. We didn’t worry too much at first. I was, after all, still so young, and my bleeding was not yet regular. There was still plenty of time to have children, we told ourselves.

But then the months became years, and then the years became decades. There were a couple of times where I hoped – where the bleeding stopped for a month or two and I began to feel the sickness of early pregnancy. But as soon as I began started to let that hope take root, the bleeding would start. I never even told Abraham about those times. They have been my secret sadness for all of these years, and even now, even after all that has happened, I grieve for what might have been. But even as I held my own sadness close to me, I heard the whispers and murmurs around me – accusations that I’d taken something to prevent pregnancy, wonderings about why God had cursed me, calling me the worst of all words to a woman, “barren.” It was never Abraham’s fault, of course. Only mine.

That was me. Barren but beautiful. Desirable, but scorned. In a world where a woman’s worth was measured by her fertility, I was a cast off. Well, at least in that way. But Abraham found another way that I could be useful to him. I still tremble in rage when I stop and think about what he did. I can barely speak about it.

We had left our home because of famine. Our best chance was to go south to Egypt, so we did. But as we went, Abraham said to me, “We need to make a plan, going into Egypt. Sarah, you know you are a beautiful woman, and your beauty is much too tempting to men. When the Egyptians see you, they are going to be jealous of me if they know I am your husband. They might even try to kill me. So here’s what I need you to do for me. Do not let them know that I am your husband. As far as they are concerned, we are only brother and sister.”

I said to him, “But what about me? How will that help me?” Abraham said back to me, “As long as I am safe, it will be good for you. What will happen to you if I get killed?”

It seemed like he didn’t really answer my question, but I didn’t know what else to say, so I said nothing.

When we arrived in Egypt, as Abraham predicted, I immediately caught the eye of Egyptian men – and not just any Egyptian men, but the ones who served Pharaoh. They decided that I looked exactly like the kind of woman Pharaoh liked, and so, they approached Abraham and said, “We’d like to take your sister to the Pharaoh. Trust us, this will be a good arrangement for you.” I half-hoped that Abraham would find a way to prevent this from happening, but I knew in my heart that he would not.

I was taken into the Pharaoh’s harem, and into his bed that very night. I kept my face calm, but inside I was raging, and wondering how this could really be happening to me.

The next day, Pharaoh started sending over gifts to Abraham. At first it was a flock of sheep, but over the coming weeks, Pharaoh continued to lavish more upon him. My role in all of this was to keep my mouth shut and please Pharaoh. He was never cruel, but I was never more than a beautiful object in his eyes.

One day, Pharaoh fell ill – and then his first wife, and then his servants, and then his children. He tossed and turned in his bed, filled with anguish and fever. He sent for me, and demanded me to tell him what I had done to him. I was shocked at why he thought I had anything to do with this and I was very afraid. I didn’t know what to do, so I started sobbing and rambling, and I broke down and told him that I wasn’t free like he thought I was, and that Abraham wasn’t just my brother, he was also my husband. If Pharaoh could have gotten up out of bed, I believe he would have gotten up and flung me to the ground, he was so angry. He sent me away from him immediately and called in Abraham to confront him. I don’t know the details of that meeting, but I know that Abraham left in a hurry, and gathered me and the whole household he had acquired from Pharaoh’s gifts, and we left in the dead of night.

We were on the move for a time until we settled in Hebron. Abraham and I never talked about what happened in Egypt. I was too numb and too scared to even think about what had happened, even though I was reminded of it every single day as I looked around at our newly acquired wealth that had come through the giving of my body.

We settled into something of a rhythm of life. I managed the household and oversaw the work of our new servants. I poured myself into those tasks to help me forget about the days in Egypt and to help me forget about the fact that I still had no child. I was almost able to settle into an uneasy peace with my situation.

But then one day, Abraham barged into the house and started telling me about this supposed conversation he had with the Almighty. He declared that God told him that he would have a son, and that not only would he have a son, but his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. I just laughed at him. But he was so convinced. He was obsessed. It was all that he wanted to talk about. There was no pushing my barrenness to the back of my mind now. Abraham just about drove me mad with his constant talk of this promise God had supposedly made to him. God never bothered to talk to me about it.

His obsession became my obsession. I HAD to find a way to give him a child. I tried using herbs that were said to increase fertility, I talked to the midwife about things I could do. Nothing worked. I had given up, when one night, my young slave girl, Hagar, was preparing my bed. And then it hit me. Maybe my body could not give Abraham a child, but I couldgive him a body that could.

I made my plan that very night. I would give my slave girl to Abraham as a surrogate – as a secondary wife (I would still be primary, of course). She could give him a legitimate child. It wouldn’t be as good as if I could give him a child, but it was the only alternative I could see. The next morning, as Hagar was serving me breakfast, I grabbed her arm and asked her to sit. I told her of my plans for her. Her eyes got wider and wider. I could see that she was afraid of what I was asking, but that perhaps she was even more afraid of what I might do if she begged me not to go through with it. I almost changed my mind, looking at her young face, but then I thought back to my days in Egypt, and I hardened my heart. Such is the lot of women.

Abraham was almost too willing to go along with my plan. He gave a hasty and insincere resistance at best. He took her to wife within a matter of days. He was attentive and doted on her, as she was the great hope of fulfilling this promise that God had made to him. I almost immediately regretted my plan, but it was too late. I could barely stand to look at the girl. And then, one day, she announced that she with child. I could not keep from lashing out at her. I struck her across the cheek and called her all kinds of names that I will not now repeat. In tears, she ran.

She was gone for a time. I did not know where she had gone, nor did I care. But then, one day, she came back. Her belly had grown greater. We settled into a cease-fire of sorts and mostly avoided one another. Once her baby was born, I seemed to fade into the background for a time. I was too tired, too done, too empty.

I thought this foolish obsession with a child would be over now that the slave girl had given Abraham a son. But then God spoke to Abraham again and clarified some things. God said I, Sarah, would be the one to bear Abraham a son. And then, not only God, but three visitors one day who said that not only would I have a son, but that I would have him within the year! Scornful laughter at their foolishness was all that I had left. I had long since stopped bleeding.

But then – then the miraculous happened. In spite of my scorn, in spite of my rage, in spite of what I’d done to my slave girl, I became pregnant. Even after I felt the baby kicking in my womb, I still couldn’t believe it. I held my breath for nine months, and then the day came when my water broke. I have never been as scared as I was then. What if there was something wrong? What if they baby was stillborn? What if I died from giving birth? Those hours were long and grueling, and yet now, I barely remember them.

But what I do remember clear as day was the moment that the midwife placed that tiny, wrinkled slip of a human on my chest and the piercing sound of his first loud cry. Would you believe that I laughed out loud at the sound of it? The absurdity, the joy, the overwhelming love. What else could I do?

My Isaac was the joy of my life. My everything. Things were perfect. Or, almost. She was still there, and so was her son – threatening to take my child’s promised inheritance. A mother will do anything for her child. And I finally exploded on her one day and commanded Abraham to send her and her child away for good. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was going to keep MY child from getting what his due. I have come to regret what I did, banishing Hagar and her son from my home, but the thing has long been done. I have no idea where they went, but I did have a dream one night not too long ago where I saw Hagar was sitting by a well of water, with her son next to her, a bow across his back, and a deer at his feet. May God forgive me for what I have done to that poor woman and her child. Her lot in life was not of her choosing and I only made it worse for her. I pray to this day that God blesses her and her child.

As my days grow short, I grow more and more tired. I know I will soon sleep. I have the joy of knowing my Isaac is a man grown, and will soon seek out a wife and start a family. I wish that I could see that day. As I think back over my life, I know that I have had wrong done to me and I have done wrong to others. I know I am a woman who has had little to no faith in God for most of her life. And yet…yet…  somehow, in spite of all that has happened, through all that has happened, the grace of the Almighty has still been visited upon me. I didn’t expect it, and I certainly haven’t deserved it, but it was given to me all the same. I have peace for the first time in my life. Such a gift. Such a God. I laugh at the mystery of it all.

-Cindy+