John the Baptist

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John." But they answered her, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name." So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, "What, then, will this child be?" For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Luke 1:57-66,80

I heard a remarkable exegesis on John the Baptist this morning. John is the only saint whose feast day (today) celebrates his nativity -  his birth - rather than his death.  His solemnity falls roughly around the summer solstice, as the hours of daylight begin to decrease (June 21). Of course, we celebrate Jesus’s nativity at Christmas – around the time of the winter solstice, as the hours of daylight begin to increase (December 21).  John, famously said of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease so that he may increase.”

It is interesting to reflect on how different John and Jesus were. John was ascetic, living on locusts and honey and wearing a camelhair robe.  Jesus was criticized for feasting and drinking so much he was considered a drunkard.  (Of the two of them, I’m glad Jesus, rather than John, is the ultimate Christian example!)  Yet they were cousins, both were given their names before their birth by angels (although only John's stuck), both were radical itinerant teachers with a band of disciples, and both would eventually be executed by the state.

Herodias, by Juan de Flandes

Bread of Life

Jesus said to the Jewish crowds:
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world."

John 6:51

Bread appears as a prominent symbol throughout Scripture.  God provides, on a daily basis, manna to the Israelites as they journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Elisha used twenty loaves of barley bread to feed one hundred men (2 Kings 4:42). Jesus would feed five thousand men (and an indeterminate number of women and children) with just five loaves* and produce twelve baskets of left overs (John 6:1; Luke 9:10; Matt 14:13; Mark 6:34).  In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus performs the miracle a second time, multiplying seven loaves to feed four thousand with seven baskets of left overs.  In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as bread, and it echoes Jesus’s breaking of the bread at the Last Supper in the other three Gospels.

Bread falling from heaven to satisfy all; bread multiplied to feed an improbable multitude with more left over than the original amount; the Incarnation of God referring to himself as bread that dissipates hunger and even death.  These are all symbols of immense divine abundance.   

The human economy treats everything of value as scarce and requiring fair and equitable distribution - the first in good behavior will be the first in line.  The overarching message of Scripture is that God’s economy is different.  That which is most valuable is available to all with even more left over.  There is no need to judge amongst ourselves who is deserving or not deserving, because we will all get more than we need - the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.   But like the vineyard workers, the prodigal son’s brother, even Jonah – we don’t immediately understand God’s economy and actively dislike it.       

* In John, the bread is made of barley.

Grace and the Ten Commandments - Part Two

Early in the morning Moses went up Mount Sinai as the LORD had commanded him, taking along the two stone tablets.

Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with Moses there and proclaimed his name, "LORD." Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out, "The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity." Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. Then he said, "If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own."

Exodus 34:4-9

So, if the transmission of the Ten Commandments was not divine legislation imposed on us by God; if Torah is not what we must do to receive reward and avoid punishment, then what is the over-arching point of all this back-and-forth among God, Moses and the people?

God does not treat the Israelites as an invader would: arriving on the scene, imposing His will, and demanding tribute.  The relationship between God and the people is consensual.  God offers the people a all-encompassing relationship to the divine.  They are free to refuse but eagerly accept this wildly generous gift.  God is not imposing commands, He is offering a deal; a Covenant.  And it is essentially a deal in which one side, the people, receive all the benefits and the other side experiences nothing but frustration and disappointment.

This was an extraordinary innovation.  Prior to the Jewish narrative of God as inviting a relationship (“I will be your God and you will by My people”), the divine imposed itself violently on the people and demanded, in the case of the Canaanite god, Ba’al, child sacrifice, just to be permitted to continue to exist.   

In this Sunday's reading, after God expresses His mercy, Moses bows to God and asks Him to travel with them. This is not a relationship built on law.  We have lost this sense of the consensual relationship to God.  We see God as demanding belief, demanding compliance and if we fail, imposing punishment.  The Exodus story suggests an entirely different relationship.

Image: Mount Sinai  

Grace and the Ten Commandments

Early in the morning Moses went up Mount Sinai as the LORD had commanded him, taking along the two stone tablets.

Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with Moses there and proclaimed his name, "LORD." Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out, "The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity." Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. Then he said, "If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own."

Exodus 34:4-9

Martin Buber was a committed and devout Jew.  The story of the Ten Commandments and Torah is the central narrative in the Jewish faith story.  And yet Buber asserted that encounter with God never includes the conveyance of legislation – laws for everyone to follow. More than anything else, it was Buber’s enigmatic and seemingly contradictory position on divine command that inspired me to write my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation: Free Will, Morality, and the God of Abraham.

This Sunday’s first reading is an exchange between Moses and God during the story of the Ten Commandments.  A close reading of the entire story reveals that it is not nearly as simple and straightforward as we might recall.

Moses goes up and down Mount Sinai numerous times in the lead-up to the issuance of the Ten Commandments.  Each time he prepares the people to receive the divine law and each time they declare that they will keep the Covenant. (Exodus 19:8, 24:3, 24:7).  But by the time Moses returns with the stone tablets in hand, they have already broken the prohibition against idols, having built for themselves a golden calf.  Moses famously smashes the stone tablets.  The Covenant that the people insisted they would keep has been broken before the ink dries.

What is remarkable about the following passages is that God asserts He will keep His part of the
Covenant anyway.  When Moses arrives with the replacement tablets, the people don’t promise to do better. They simply head off to the Promised Land to collect on God’s promise.

Buber’s enigmatic position reflects that the Covenant and all of Torah is not the law we must keep to earn God’s love.  It is the law God knows we are incapable of keeping.   We assert that we have free will and that we use our free will to obey God and earn His love.  What Exodus and, indeed, many Biblical narratives suggest is that we don’t have free will, cannot obey, but receive God’s love anyway.  Grace.

Image: Mount Sakurajima, Japan (Exodus 19:16)


June 3, 2017 - Creation

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep and God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw the light, and saw that it was good. God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light “day”, and the darkness he called “night”. There was evening and there was morning, the first day.

God said, “Let there be an expanse in the middle of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” God made the expanse, and divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse “sky”. There was evening and there was morning, a second day.

God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear;” and it was so. God called the dry land “earth”, and the gathering together of the waters he called “seas”. God saw that it was good. God said, “Let the earth yield grass, herbs yielding seeds, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with their seeds in it, on the earth;” and it was so. The earth yielded grass, herbs yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with their seeds in it, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a third day.

God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs to mark seasons, days, and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth;” and it was so. God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light to the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. God saw that it was good.  There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

God said, “Let the waters abound with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky.” God created the large sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind. God saw that it was good.  God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures after their kind, livestock, creeping things, and animals of the earth after their kind;” and it was so.  God made the animals of the earth after their kind, and the livestock after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind. God saw that it was good.

God said, “Let’s make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them.  God blessed them. God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 

God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree, which bears fruit yielding seed. It will be your food.  To every animal of the earth, and to every bird of the sky, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food;” and it was so.

God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. There was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

The heavens, the earth, and all their vast array were finished.  On the seventh day God finished his work which he had done; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.  God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy, because he rested in it from all his work of creation which he had done.

Genesis 1;2:1-3

Some extraordinary themes reveal themselves in the first Creation story:

God brings order from Chaos, represented by the distinguishing of things from one another and, even more evocatively, the watery Deep.  In a few chapters, God will teach Noah how to survive the return of Chaos when floodwaters engulf the world, and carefully lock the door of the ark behind him. Moses will command the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape the Egyptians, pursuing them to return them to slavery.  Elijah will divide the Jordan river as he faces the chaos of the end of his earthly life and his apprentice, Elisha, will divide it again to begin his own ministry.  Jesus will calm turbulent waters, walk on them, and teach Peter that he can walk on them too.  

The earth and everything that emerges from it is Good, and God blesses it.

God is ancient and sovereign.  He created an abundant, nurturing universe heartrending in its beauty, mystery and majesty.  

God made us in His image.  From the very beginning, He intended us to be His children – a message he would underline with earthquakes, thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai and again in Bethlehem and on Calvary.

And He must rest, as we must, to reflect on the enormous Beauty of it all with purposeful purposelessness

Image: Tropical Scenery, Frederic Edwin Church (1873)

May 26, 2017 - Ramadan Mubarak

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bare him no children: and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.  And Sarai said unto Abram, “Behold now, God hath restrained me from bearing; go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived.

Genesis 16:1-4

The son of Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham by God) and Hagar was named Ishmael.  Ishmael’s half-brother would be Isaac, whose son would be called Jacob and renamed Israel by God.  While Israel’s bloodline would go on to include David and Jesus, Ishmael’s decedents would include the Prophet Muhammed.  So all of us - Jews, Christians and Muslims – are the sons and daughters of Abraham.  There are nearly four billion adherents of the Abrahamic faiths.  In all our beautiful, empowering diversity, we represent over half the global population.   

Ramadan began this evening.  I wish any Muslim who may find him- or herself reading this blog, and every child of Abraham, a Ramadan Mubarak.

Photo: Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

June 4, 2017 - Pentacost

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Acts 2:1-11

Setting aside the pyrotechnics, what is it that happened here?

It has most of the classic hallmarks of an I/Thou experience in the tradition of Martin Buber: (i)  it was non-verbal, (ii) it was unexpected and the participants did nothing to prepare for it – no contemplative prayer, no charitable works, nothing, (iii) it was an encounter with the divine – Abraham Heschel would say it was characterized by “radical amazement”; Rudolph Otto might call it “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, (iv) It did not make the participants more moral, necessarily, but radically changed them nonetheless, and (vi) the participants were made radiant in the splendor of the encounter and realized their most essential, existential selves – what Kierkegaard would call a “Single One”.

I argue in my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation, that all revelation looks like this: Moses’s receipt of the Ten Utterances and Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree (both take place under the first new moon of the Spring), St. Paul’s Damascus Road encounter, The Transfiguration, Jesus’s Baptism, etc., etc., etc…  

For a Scriptural faith, we rarely think about the process by which our Scripture is transferred from the divine to the human.  We reflexively think of it as a dictation. This leads to literalism.  More likely, each was a non-verbal encounter leaving the human recipient the task of reducing it to words.  

Image: Martin Buber