Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Genesis 39:1-23 (Joseph in prison)

Summary:  This snippet from Joseph is rather interesting because we'd probably be more likely to focus on the powerful scenes of reconciliation at the end of the story.  This particular chapter gives one large room to preach "social justice" sermons (injustice toward minorities) or "prosperity gospel" (work hard, endure and God will bless you and those around you).   I am still wrestling with the idea of a God who causes us to prosper.  I wonder if my generally liberal protestant background, which is so nervous about prosperity Gospel, undercuts a healthy understanding of God's blessings in our lives.

סלח ("saleakh", "thrive", 39:2, 3, 23)  Last week in the narrative lectionary we focused on blessing.  This week we come upon the word "thrive."  What does it mean to thrive?  Once again, we cannot deny the "worldly" aspect of God's presence in this world.  Joseph (and his masters) gain health and wealth through his work. 

Two wrinkles:  Perhaps this idea of thriving is an Old Testament way of saying bear fruit.  This verb also appears in
Psalm 1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
Whenever their is fruit, there is service to the neighbor because fruit doesn't do the tree itself any good.

Second, life isn't so simple that those who believe in God, only good comes to them.  In fact, the story of Joseph indicates the opposite -- that a life in God, even a thriving life, includes set backs!Psalm 37:7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
Proverbs 28:13 No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.

עבד ("ayved", "servant, slave", 39:17, 19)  This word of slave will take on huge importance in the book of Exodus.  For now, I wanted to point out that Joseph is never called a "slave" until he is punished.  Everyone benefits from him and then he is showed no mercy.  I think this may be a more common feeling/experience of people outside the dominant social group.  A moral minority is uplifted, promoted and praised...one might even think that one has achieved a modicum of acceptance.  Then there is trouble; then there is name calling, no due process, imprisonment.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Genesis 12 (Matthew 18:21-35)

If you are working with the RCL, here is a post on this week's text (Matthew 18:21-35)

Summary:  Abraham was asked to do a lot.  The English gets you here ('to a land I will show you' isn't very much to go on); the Hebrew intensifies this.  As I continue to read this story, I am also reflecting a lot on what "bless" means.  I do not think one can walk away, in this or other stories, from the material nature of blessings in the Bible.  However, the Bible already shows the direction of God's blessing, namely, our neighbor.  Perhaps if we wanted to be most Lutheran, we would argue that the true blessing is the promise that allows one to live by faith.

Key words
לך-לך  ("lake - la - kah", "go immediately," vs 1)  This is often translated simply as "go."  It literally means "go-go" or "get up and go."  In Hebrew, when you have two verbs in a row, the first verb is often adverbial, as in "in a 'getting up' kind of way, go."  Or, more poetically:  "Immediatedly go."  The whole section in the Hebrew Bible is called "Lake-la-kah."  (The Hebrew Bible didn't use chapters; instead it divided up scrolls into sections, naming them after a key word near the beginning of the section)   Also, Abraham will be given this same command in Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac.

One wonders if the angel's commands to Paul (then Saul) in chapter 9 of Acts are the same -- "Get up and go" in the sense of "go immediately."

Grammatically:  Keep an eye out for dual verb commands in the Bible; they may reflect a Hebrew way of speaking whereby one verb functions as an adverb. 

Theologically:  God isn't about discernment in this passage, but about decision.  There is a sense of immediacy!

בת-אב  ("bet av", "father's house," vs 1)  This term means way more than simply "dad's house."  It was the fundamental social unit and reality of a person's life.  Here is a website with pictures: 
I think for us in the West today, it is impossible to understand the impact of traditional and family on a person's psyche and worldview, and thus the significance of God's command.

ברך ("baruch", "bless", vs 2,3)  The first point I want to address is the meaning of the word baruch.  In Genesis, blessing can often be assoicated with material prosperity:
*  Genesis 39:5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field.
*  Genesis 26:3 Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.
*  See also Genesis 30:27

It also refers to children and descendents:
*  Genesis 1:22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas,   and let birds multiply on the earth."
*  Genesis 17:16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."
*Genesis 22:17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies,
I would argue though, if you press the Bible harder, you discover that blessing means something more than a big house and big family. 
It also means fundamental human relationships based on complentary differences (yes family, but not necessarily size!)
*Genesis 5:2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them "Humankind" when they were created
*Genesis 2:3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
God's peace and presence
*Numbers 6:23-27   23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,  24 The LORD bless you and keep you;  25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;  26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.  27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Ultimately though, I do not think one can de-materialize the nature of blessings.  I think what good pastors and theologians can do is direct this blessing back to the neighbor:
*Deuteronomy 14:28-29 28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
Or simply as God says here in Genesis 12 -- the whole world is to be blessed by Abraham!

Lastly, there is a rather technical point here about the translation here having to do with verb forms in Hebrew.  The question is whether to treat the verb bless as a passive (the nations will be blessed by Abraham) or reflexive, "in Abraham (or his name) all the nations will bless themselves."  The Greek goes with the passive here and that is how this passage is traditionally translated.  That seems fair and good, but perhaps it is also worth asking:  How do we actively bless ourselves through Abraham and his legacy?

NET Bible notes:
Theoretically the Niphal can be translated either as passive or reflexive/reciprocal. (The Niphal of "bless" is only used in formulations of the Abrahamic covenant. See Gen 12:2; 18:18; 28:14.) Traditionally the verb is taken as passive here, as if Abram were going to be a channel or source of blessing. But in later formulations of the Abrahamic covenant (see Gen 22:18; 26:4) the Hitpael replaces this Niphal form, suggesting a translation "will bless [i.e., "pronounce blessings on"] themselves [or "one another"]." The Hitpael of "bless" is used with a reflexive/reciprocal sense in Deut 29:18; Ps 72:17; Isa 65:16; Jer 4:2. Gen 12:2 predicts that Abram will be held up as a paradigm of divine blessing and that people will use his name in their blessing formulae. For examples of blessing formulae utilizing an individual as an example of blessing see Gen 48:20 and Ruth 4:11.
קלל and אאר  ("qalal" and "arar", "curse", vs 2) These words, although both translated similarly in English as "curse", are different.  The first, qalal, means "treat lightly" in the sense of "disrespect" or "disgrace."  The second, arar, means remove from blessing.  Rather than think of this verse than as those who swear mean things at Abraham will have bad things happen to them, its probably better to think of it this way:  Because Abraham is a blessing, and an agent of blessing, from God, to disregard Abraham is to remove oneself from God's potential blessings.  The question is whether the Bible (God really) means all the blessings in the world, or the blessings from Abraham.  I'd be inclined to the latter.  In short, the Bible does not seem to be indicating quite as harsh as a sentence as "curse those who curse you" suggests, but it does offer a warning.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15

Summary:   This is a story that many "modern" people have trouble accessing.  It is a hard text for us as a pastors too.  I think the first connection point is found before this NL pericope begins, in vss 5-11, where God declares the world filled with violence.  No one living in 2014 should find it hard to imagine God's anger over the violence plaguing the world.  I don't think we need to walk away from God's fierce disappointment within this story.  This is the human condition.  Surprisingly God's wrath is absent, at least in words, from this story.  That is because God's wrath is connected with his abandonment.  This story is not about an angry God who leaves people to their own devices, but intervenes by destroying in order to bring about life.

What I wrestle with in this story is not simply the violence done by God, but the question of how eschatological to go with my sermon.  The story can be seen in light of Christ's ministry (teaching us the way of non-violence), Christ's death and resurrection (he creates a new non-violent humanity), but ultimately, Christ's next coming (he brings about a non-violent world.

I also wonder if a more personal appraoch is helpful, in that God is willing to kill us -- that within us which is hostile to him -- to make us alive.

Lastly, I would recommend reading the other flood narratives, especially the Epic of Gilgamesh.  It becomes quite clear our God is very different from other deities.

באה ("bo" meaning 'Go in':  6:17,18, 19):  The word, like many Hebrew words, can have a variety of meanings, ranging from "go in" to "come in" to even "bring in."  God "goes into"/"brings" the water; humans and the animals, "Go into" and are "brought into" the ark.  This is an interesting way of thinking about God's activity in Baptism, the ark of salvation (1 Peter); God destroys us in the water, but brings us home in the ark!

כל ("col" meaning 'all', repeatedly):  This word means all.  It is used throughout this section.  God's care is for ALL of creation, and one could argue, for ALL of humanity, in that we need to learn how be reborn to be less violent.

אות ("ot" meaning 'sign', 9:12)  God knows we need a sign, not just a covenant.  As the song said, "I need a sign!"

זכר ("zocar" meaning 'remember', 9:15)  The question here is -- why does God need to remember?  Perhaps linguistically we can get around this.  This verb is in the qal perfect, which means it is to be read as as imperfect, meaning incomplete action.  This can refer to future action or present on-going action.  This actually makes sense because the God of the whole heavens and earth is always shining clouds on the earth -- there is always a rainbow from God's perspective!  God is always remembering his covenant with us.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Matthew 16:21-28

Summary:  Whatever one does, we shouldn't water down this passage.  It is harsh.  As I reflect on it this year, I am really struck by the tenses of the verbs, that "deny" and "pick up" are aorist or one-time events, yet follow is a present, or on-going event.  This suggests to me, with a Lutheran understanding of Baptism and vocation, of a life-long cross that we inherit in our Baptisms, the cross of service to our neighbor.  We are always following Jesus, discovering what this cross entails.  It looks different, but it is always the same -- care of our neighbor.   Lastly, I think the good news for me is actually found in the next story, the transfiguration.  We get overwhelmed by the cross but then Jesus opens our eyes to his glory -- and we can carry on.

οπισω ("behind", 16:23,24)  This word appears twice:  Get behind me Satan and then if you want to come behind me.  In life, we are never truly our own free agents, but either following the forces of evil or Christ.  Hmm...too dramatic.  Don't water down this passage.

απαρνησασθω ("deny", 16:24) and αρατω ("pick up", 16:24)  What I have always struggled with here is that these verbs are in the aorist tense, which suggests a one-time event.  Does this mean we should move toward a decision/one-time event understanding of faith?  Keep reading...

ακουλουθειτω ("follow", 16:24) this is in the present tense.  We are to pick up the cross one time, but then continue to follow Jesus are whole lives?  Rather than understand this to mean that we make a one-time decision to follow Jesus, I argue we need to re-think what Jesus means by cross here.  When I think of picking up my cross, I think of my baptism.  The cross given to me in a my baptism confers on me the life orientation of living a disciple.  In my life, this same cross -- living as a disciple -- unfolds in different ways, always through service to the neighbor.   It is always the same cross-  dying to myself and to the world, but it looks different -- patiently bearing the criticism of others, apologizing to my colleages when I am wrong, listening to my neighbor whine, potty training my daughter and so forth.  In life, we don't get one particular cross, one challenge to bear, but the whole weight of our neighbor's needs is ever upon us.
To put it another way, the cross of life should weigh upon us so heavy that we call out to Jesus for mercy and forgiveness.  And he then can carry the cross for us.

σταυρον ("cross" 16:24)  Just a quick reminder that before we get to sentimental about cross, this was an ancient capital punishment device.  We need to make the cross abstract to make sense of it (ie, we don't need to nail wood planks and walk around with them); but we need to not make it too abstract that we lose the challenge of it.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Why I will not preside at same-sex weddings

Why I do not discern Scriptural permission to bless same-sex marriages
Note:  This post is not part of my regular blog posting, but host to a longer essay supplementing a recent church newsletter article. 

As a Lutheran pastor, I look at Scripture through the lens of two questions:  What has God commanded?  What has God promised?

When it comes to marriage, the creation stories in the Bible shape my sense of what God has commanded and promised in regards to marriage.  The first chapter of Genesis reveals that "God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, (Genesis 1:27-28)."  The story of Adam and Eve gets at this another way, showing how God created Eve for companionship, intimacy and creation of family with Adam (Genesis 2:18-25).  

Jesus himself quotes the Genesis accounts saying, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,'  and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." (Matthew 19:4-7)  These passages indicate that God has commandments toward marriage, but also a promise, that a man and a woman become one.  While no eternal salvation comes from marriage, God's intention is that it would bless people while on earth. 

The creation stories are essential for understanding all of the Bible, but God's commandments, promises and blessings in regards to marriage show up elsewhere in Scripture.  In fact, when it comes to commandments, three of the ten commandments involve it (honor mother and father; do not commit adultery; do not covet your neighbor's wife; Exodus 20).  The New Testament compares Christ's relationship to the church to a husband and wife (Revelation 19; also Ephesians 5).  Finally, Christ's first miracle takes place at a wedding (John 2).  To put it another way, you could say that the Bible begins and ends with marriage; one of its primary legal concerns is marriage.

It is clear to me that marriage in the Bible is designed to be a life-long, monogamous, heterosexual covenant.  God has designed it to bless human society and individuals.  There is no sense of this covenant being for people of the same gender, especially when one employs the lens of commandment (law) and promise (gospel). 

Furthermore, the view that marriage is a life-long, monogamous, heterosexual covenant, has been held by Christians for nearly two millennia and still held by most Christian churches around the world.  I see an incredibly high bar set in overturning this consensus interpretation, which I have not seen.

This does not mean that all families in the Bible looked alike.  The Bible is full of real people, who end up in bad and broken relationships.  What is constant is not the quality of families in the Bible, but rather the quality of God's love and faithfulness.  God's love is bigger than marriage and sex; God's faithfulness does not depend on our own.

Polygamy in the Bible is a great example of this.  There were polygamous families in the Bible (one man, multiple wives), especially in the earliest parts of the Bible or in noble families.   At first, this might seem to show that God intends for such relationships.  Not the case.  In fact, nearly every polygamous relationship is filled with bitterness and jealousy, as the mothers fight for affection through the children.  In the case of kings, the extra wives lead the kings away from worship of God.  In these cases, God is still a god of justice and mercy.  All the sons of Jacob, regardless of the polygamy, receive love and protection by God.  But this does not mean the Bible endorses polygamy.  Polygamy shows how family structures can deviate from the ideal of Genesis 1 and 2, yet still serve as locations for God's justice, mercy and presence to exist. 

The past fifty years have seen tremendous change in regards to core human relationships.  Medical advances in terms of birth-control, birth safety and life-expectancy as well as legal permissibility of no-fault divorces and same-sex marriage have drastically altered the cultural landscape.   Many people are exhibiting faithfulness outside of the traditional Biblical definition of marriage:  gay couples; elderly couples whose earlier spouses died/divorced and do not want to legally get married; people who just left a marriage and seek commitment, but not marriage; young adults who are not ready to make a life-long commitment; or even polygamous families. 

How we engage these situations remains an open question, one that will probably take a good century or more to work out.  In the mean time, I propose to keep marriage as a heterosexual arrangement, but also to keep it in its place:  as something designed for this world, and not for heavenly salvation.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Matthew 16:13-20

Summary:  This passage of Peter's confession has a number of familiar theological words that I try to unpack a bit.  This year I want to unpack for my congregation the setting, Caesarea Philippi, home to all sorts of crazy, pagan, awful stuff.  It can be easy to look at our world, even our country, even our community, and feel overwhelmed and disgusted.  Even at those times our job as a church is to confess Christ, in and out of season, whether it is popular or not.  What is our confession?  It is that he is the Christ, the anointed savior, son of the living God.

Idea for a children's sermon:  the whole fish i-ch-th-u-s thing (Jesus Christ God's Son Savior) as the most basic confession.

καισαρειας φιλιππι (Caesarea Philippi, 16:13):  This town is not a coincidental mention.  It was a trading hub, located along some major land routes and in possession of a great harbor.  It had been associated, in the past, with Baal (OT Canaanite god) and Pan (Greek god).  In Jesus day, it was one of the Roman capitals in the area, with immense building projects undertaken by Herod, including the construction of a temple in honor of Augustus.  In fact, one of the temples was believed to be located at the gates of hades, a direct connection to the underworld.  Philippi epitomized the Greco-Roman religious mileau of the day: a pantheistic cult that continuued to give more space to emperor worship; above all, a worship of beauty, sex, power and money. 

One can go even further though and think about the extent to which these are all not simply dead gods, but gods of death.  At the main temple in Caesarea Philippi, which was a temple believed to be the gates of Hades, people would offer dead animal sacrifices  (http://www.generationword.com/Israel/caesarea_philippi.htm good pictures!).  Hence the importance in Peter's confession that God is a living God! 

If you want to go even further, you can study more about what worship of Pan actually entailed, but now we have an adult only sermon.

υιος του ανθροπος  (Son of Man 16:13).  As Christians we instantly recognize this title to refer to Jesus.  In fact, we often look at this title as one that uplifts Jesus as the pinnacle of humanity.  That he was a pinnacle is not arguable; but what the pinnacle entails is up for debate!  In the Old Testament, this particular title for an individual or humanity seems to suggest humanities weakness:
- What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:4; See also Psalm 144:3)
If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less man, who is but a maggot-- a son of man, who is only a worm!" (Job 25:5-6)
God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (Numbers 23:19)
God also calls Ezekiel the Son of Man a number (80?) times; it is a way of reminding Ezekiel he is not divine.  In short, to Bible calling Jesus the Son of Man ascribes both majesty but also humilty to Christ. 

χριστος  (Christos, Messiah, 16:16)  Christos is Greek for anointed.  In Hebrew, the word for anointed is Messiah.  Peter is calling Jesus the Messiah.  The Old Testament strongly associates Messiah with a king, in the line of David, one who leads and protects the people.  The idea seems to be that a Messiah is a divine talisman, in that he has special protection (1 Sam 26:23; Psalm 20:6).  Interestingly, in Leviticus (4:6 eg) the High Priest is also referred to as the "annointed" or "Messiah."  Furthermore, Isaiah in chapter 61, declares himself annointed for his vision, hence prophet could also be understood as the role of the annointed (Psalm 105:15 connects this as well).  As Messiah then could be understood to capture three offices:  king, priest and prophet, which matches up with Calvin's understanding of Christ and his offices.  The question for me, beyond the blog post, is whethere there is really a developed understanding as the Messiah as one who will suffer in the Old Testament.  While Kings, priets and especially prophets may suffer, there seems a much stronger note of victory, even theology of glory, surrounding this term.  This would explain why Peter so soon afterwards does not want Jesus to suffer!  (In short, Peter knew his Old Testament!).  It also shows a great contrast with the term son of Man!

πετρος /πετρα Petros Petra:  We've all heard that Peter's name means Rock, because he was the Rock on which the church would be built.  Both words clearly have a the same first few letters (Petr), but I am not sure if we must necessarily infer that Peter the person is what the church will be built on.  Beyond some linguistic oddities (Petra is a feminine noun and ends in an a, nothing like Peter's name's ending), the far more logical thing is that the church will be built on the confession, which comes from heaven.  I think the Bible really underscores this by showing Peter's misunderstanding just a few sentences later.

αδης hades:  See my blog post on words for hell in the Bible.  http://lectionarygreek.blogspot.com/2012/09/mark-938-50.html

Grammar note:  In the infinitive phrase "Who do you say that I am" the word "I" is in the accusative (me).  Why?  Because in the subject of an infinitive clause is in the accusative, not the nominative.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

1 John 1:5-2:2

Summary:  This verse has a great verse (1 John 1:9) within some much more difficult verses about blood and sacrifice.  One could try to unpack the atonement theories of 1 John based on OT metaphors.  I think an easier and more helpful way is to think less about how the cross/blood/death actually accomplish this end and more what they actually accomplish.  I say this not simply because this is easier, but because I think 1 John is a study, not in the mechanics of justification, but in what forgiveness in Jesus offers us:  light, fellowship, and love.  These are juxtaposted, not with hell and wrath, but with darkness, isolation and fear, something that the people in my congregation experience all the time.

κοινωνια ("fellowship", 1.6)  This word has an intense meaning in the New Testament.  It ranges from
-  sharings of money (2 Cor 9:13; Romans 15:26; Hebrews 13:16)
-  sharings of a common spirit (2 Cor 13:13 original Trinitarian formula; Philippians 2:1)
-  sharings of Christ and his suffering (Philippians 3:10; 1 Cor 10:16)

It is a reminder that fellowship is not a diluted term in this passage or anywhere in the New Testament.  A look at the related noun κοινωνος (partner) reveals something similar.

αιμα ("blood"; think "hema" like "hematology"; 1.7)  The blood cleanses us from sin.  This is a tough one to wrap our minds around because we think of blood as very "dirty", certain not sterile and definitely not cleansing.  Is there a way to recover this ancient way of thinking of blood?

ινα ("so that", 1:9)  I remember back in Seminary one of my professors made a very, very big deal about how to translate this word.  The basic argument in this verse is that ινα cannot be translated, "with the result" and must be translated, "for the purpose of."  I do not think that argument is instructive here because there isn't a difference in God's purposes and God's results when it comes to forgiveness of the sinner.

In verses 2:1-2, Jesus is called three titles:
δικαινος ("righteous one", 2.1)  This is simply a good title for Jesus.  The question is, what does Jesus righteousness mean for you and for me?

παρακλετος ("advocate", 2.1) How Jesus and the Spirit are both called "advocates" are tough.  Interestingly, in the Gospel of John, when Jesus promises the advocate, John 14:16, he promises ANOTHER advocate, suggesting that he already was an advocate for us.

In the Gospel of John, the advocate seems more like a prayer partner, counseling us through sufferings.  In this case, the idea almost seems more legalistic, like one who is defending us before God's judgment.  Interestingly though, God's wrath is never mentioned in 1 John.  Judgment exists, but there isn't necessary a hell.  Simply darkness, isolation and fear.  Jesus seems to be reconciling us, in spite of our sins, back to the Father, back to light, back to fellowship and back to love.

ιλασμος ("atonement", 2:2) Discussing the entire meaning of atonement is well, well beyond the meaning of this passage here.  But I want to point out that this word here is the one connected to Leviticus, Romans.  Furthermore, as BDAG says about this word, "The unique feature relative to Gr-Rom usage is the inaitiative taken by God to effect removal of impedeiments to arelationshp with God's self." ιλαστηριον definition.