Marking Covenant

Genesis 17 focuses on the covenant between God, Abram and Sarai. This is the point where their names are changed to Abraham and Sarah. It is here that the covenant gets put into physical form. God again speaks to Abraham and affirms that there will be many descendants—not just Ishmael but a child that Sarah will bear.

What the lectionaries leave out is the way in which the covenant is marked—circumcision. Abraham is commanded to circumcise all the men of the household. It is a way of marking the covenant with an outward sign. Circumcision was not limited to Abraham’s household but here it takes on theological significance as a sign of the relationships between a particular group of humans and God.

Imagine what happens after God tells Abraham to circumcise all the men in his household. Abraham is the only one who had a conversation with God. Abraham goes out and gathers all the men and boys together in a group and tells them that they are all going to be circumcised. I can’t imagine anyone else being enthusiastic, but they are given a choice: be circumcised or you are no longer a part of this household and no longer a part of God’s people. In a culture where familial connections were so important, it may have felt like there wasn’t a choice. There was probably muttering and head scratching. How did Abraham get so many people to participate in this scheme? Was it enough to say, “God told me to” or did it become a bit of a mob with Abraham and few others performing the circumcision using force? Was there screaming and violence and rage? Did some people leave the household rather than submit? I imagine the blood flowing and colouring the earth. I imagine a scene of horror as the circumcisions happen.

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Scripture is full of stories where it seems blood (sometimes human, sometimes animal) is required in order to maintain the God/human relationship. In chapter 22, Abraham will set out to sacrifice his son, Isaac. There are chapters and chapters dedicated to the details of what sacrifices should be made and how. Many of the atonement theologies surrounding Jesus continue in this vein where blood shed by violence is necessary for healing and relationship with God.

But if we believe in a God of wholeness and healing, why do humans insist on grounding that wholeness and healing in a theology of violence and blood? Covenant and relationship with God are necessary for wholeness and marking the covenant is important. It reminds us who we belong to and our commitments to the one who created us. I can’t believe in a God of violence and I can’t believe that God wants us to mark covenant using violence. We need to let go of the belief that God requires someone’s blood in order to be in relationship with us. This belief isn’t God’s command but a human construction which we can choose to keep or not.

Whether we mark covenant with circumcision or baptism or some other ritual, the point is to embody the relationship with God through action. Whatever the ritual, it needs to be meaningful for the people involved and reflect God’s on-going action in our lives and our commitment to live faithfully.

 

 

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Forgiveness

The first part of this reflection was preached at St. Andrew’s United Church on March 10. I’m including a second part which I wrote but didn’t share in worship.

Matthew 18 has three different parts. The first part suggests a model for dealing with conflict. In the second part, Peter tries to quantify forgiveness with Jesus telling him that we need a generosity of forgiveness. The third part uses a parable to illustrate how forgiveness works.

We’ve all made mistakes from time to time. We’ve said or done something that has been hurtful. Often these hurts are not intentional. When we realize someone has been hurt by our actions we might go and apologize or try to fix whatever the hurt was. When we’ve been hurt by someone else, we might approach them to have a conversation about how their actions impact on us. This might work for things like whose turn it is to clean the bathroom and who didn’t take their turn. Hopefully, it is easily resolved. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to have the conversation alone so we might invite another person we trust to be present. Sometimes there’s on-going conflict in a relationship or community of faith and having an outside person present to help listen and mediate the conflict allows for a resolution.

If none of these work, then Jesus then says tell it to the church. This can be an uncomfortable process because we don’t want to judge someone without having all the information. Public accusations can be messy and cause more hurt. Sometimes it is easier to remain silent. Sometimes the accusations then turn towards the person who has been hurt. At first glance, it seems as if the passage suggests that the outcome would be the offender be asked to leave the community. Often it is the person making the accusation who ends up leaving because people take sides. Sometimes the offender is in a position of power. Sometimes we don’t want to believe things about people that we know and trust. We read this passage as the offender leaving because that makes us comfortable and feels like there are consequences. But if we’ve learned anything from Jesus it is that the boundaries of community are expansive. It isn’t always clear who is in and out. Jesus compares the offender to a tax-collector or a gentile, but Jesus didn’t exclude these groups from the community. In fact, he went out of his way to go to their homes and offer them the same ministry that he offered to people of his own community. This is a difficult tension—to hold people who have been hurt by each other in the same community. I know from my own experience how difficult it can be to remain in a community where you have been hurt.

In situations of sexual abuse, the United Church has a policy in place to help this process happen in a way that is confidential and hopefully provides support to both complainant and accused. In this community of faith, there are two people who have committed to walking with people through this process. They’ll be able to support people as they work to resolve a situation of sexual abuse in this community of faith. Hopefully, we will never need their skills in this area.

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Hopefully, conflict can be resolved but what about the lingering effects? Sometimes even after a resolution, after a situation has changed, we continue to hold a grudge. This is where forgiveness comes in. Forgiveness isn’t about forgetting that something bad happened. It doesn’t mean that you will necessarily like or trust the other person. What it does mean is that you will be able to release the pain or anger so that the other person or the event no longer has control over your life. Forgiveness may need to happen again and again. Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves.

The parable tells the story of a slave whose debt was forgiven but then chose not to forgive someone else’s debt. When the king who had forgiven then first debt heard this, he decreed that the slave would be tortured. It ends by saying that God will torture us if we do not forgive. I think we often torture ourselves with regret, anger, fear. God doesn’t have to do this for us. Forgiveness is the moment where we can stop torturing ourselves and be open to abundant living.

Conflict and forgiveness have a personal component, but they also have a corporate or social component. What happens to one person impacts on others. We see this played out in the parable. In the ancient world, the economy was structured like a pyramid. There was a king at the top and then various agents descending the pyramid—soldiers, farmers, tax collectors. The goal was to have a constant flow of wealth and power flowing up the pyramid. People along the way could take a bit for themselves.

The king is at the top of this pyramid and has a slave. We might think of the slave as the chief financial officer. This slave got a bit greedy, kept too much for himself and now owes the king 10,000 talents. The king demands repayment. The CFO can’t pay up and begs that the debt be erased. The king is generous and compassionate and forgives the debt. There’s a culture shift happening within the pyramid. The person at the top found their compassion and ability to forgive and expected that by modelling that, everyone lower down the pyramid would also follow. Other people in the pyramid see this and think, “It’s a new day!” But that’s not what happens.

The CFO is forgiven and goes merrily on his way. He bumps into one of his managers who owes him 100 talents and demands repayment. This person, in turn, begs that the debt be erased but the CFO refuses and has the manager thrown in jail.

Word gets back to the king about what happened, and the king is furious because the CFO didn’t show the same forgiveness, compassion and generosity that had been shown to him. The king can’t just let this go because it is unjust that someone whose debts are forgiven does not forgive someone else’s debts. So, the king has the CFO tortured and generosity, compassion and forgiveness are out the window.

Structures and patterns of behaviour are difficult to change. Most of us would agree that there are multiple challenges to the environment and that climate change is happening around us. There are movements toward solar and wind energy, electric cars but right now the technology is too expensive for many of us to access and we need to heat our homes and travel, so we end up using the oil and gas which contribute to climate change because alternatives are not convenient or affordable. We know that the petroleum industry employs many people across our country, and we want people to have jobs. All of these things make it difficult for us to imagine and create a world where we can care effectively for our environment and yet we know it is a good and necessary thing to do.

The king in the story could see that forgiveness, generosity and compassion were good and necessary for the individuals and for the society but the people under him had no structure that allowed them to be forgiving, generous, and compassionate. They had no structure for dealing with repayment of debt beyond putting people in jail. In Jesus time, this story was about the forgiveness of debt. Our understanding of forgiveness has shifted over time to one that is more concerned with relationships than with debt.

Whether we think of forgiveness in terms of debt or in terms of relationships, forgiveness allows restoration of abundant life. When we cannot find forgiveness for ourselves or others, we find ourselves with a tormented and broken spirit.

Hagar’s Pregnancy–God’s Promise Fulfilled?

The story of Abram and Sarai continues as a bit of a soap opera. In Genesis 16, we are introduced to a new character—Hagar—an Egyptian slave to Sarai. The midrash (writings by ancient Jewish rabbis that fill in the blanks left by scripture) have several different ideas about how Hagar came to be part of Sarai and Abram’s household. One speculation is that she was a princess in Egypt and was given to Sarai by Pharaoh as they were leaving Egypt. Another possibility is that when Sarai was married to Pharaoh, she was given Hagar as part of the marriage contract. Hagar may have been Sarai’s servant before she married Abram. For details about these ideas and the midrash behind them check out Jewish Women’s Archive.

Regardless of how Hagar became attached to Sarai and Abram, her life with them was as a slave. Women’s status was tied directly to their ability to produce children so Sarai’s inability to conceive lowers her status within her family and community. It was a common practice for a slave to have a child on behalf of her mistress and the mistress to adopt the child as her own. That seems to be Sarai’s intent here—except that it backfires.

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The slave girl is now pregnant which raises her status and creates conflict between Hagar and Sarai. Abram refuses to get involved in the conflict and lets the women sort it out.

The upshot of the conflict is that Hagar runs away. While she is in the wilderness and an angel appears to her. The angel tells Hagar to return to Sarai and promises that the child she is carrying will become a multitude. Abram already has a promise that his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky and this promise, made to Hagar, seems to fulfil Abram’s promise.

The child is named Ismael. The Islamic faith traces its roots to Ismael—a child of Abram. This could be the end of the Abram story—child produced, promise fulfilled, the possibility of countless descendants. But God isn’t finished with Hagar, Sarai or Abram yet. There’s still more drama to come. Stay tuned!

You Give Them Something to Eat

This reflection is based on Matthew 14:13-33 and was offered at St. Andrew’s on February 24. The first part is a re-telling of the story from Peter’s perspective. The second part is my own reflection on the reading.

I’ve been following Jesus around for months now and he continues to surprise me. Like yesterday I knew he was tired. We’d been travelling a lot and teaching and healing people. He went off by himself to rest and I could tell the strain was getting to him. I thought he would finally get a break but the crowds followed him. I don’t know how he continues to care for people when he is so run down himself. I thought for sure he would send the crowds away but instead, he just kept healing people and more people kept coming and bringing sick people to him and he helped as many as he could.

The crowd kept growing and growing. It got late in the day and the sun was getting ready to set. I went to him and told him he should shut it down for the night. I told him that he should send everyone away because they would be getting hungry and there was nowhere nearby for them to buy food.

I thought for sure he would agree with me. Not just because they would be hungry but because he would be tired. I thought he might be looking for a way out. Instead, he said: You give them something to eat.

How was I supposed to respond to that? I had only enough for his followers—just five loaves and a couple of fish. There was no way that amount of food was going to feed thousands of people. I scoffed. I will admit I was skeptical and I even told him it wouldn’t work. I was afraid there would be a riot. That little bit of food and so many people. I was scared we would be trampled as people tried to get enough for themselves.

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But Jesus, always the optimist called for calm. He invited people to sit down on the ground. He blessed the bread as we had been taught since we were children. He gave us the loaves and told us to pass the food around. I still wasn’t convinced. I’m all for hospitality and feeding a big crowd of people but I knew it wouldn’t stretch that far. And yet we kept passing the food and the baskets didn’t seem to get any emptier. There was more than enough. When all 5000 men plus their families were full, we gathered up the leftovers and there were still twelve baskets full.

I don’t know how he did that. It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, and I can’t quite explain it. Maybe Jesus has some magic powers that allowed the food to multiply. Maybe, there was other food already in the crowd that people shared. Maybe we’ll never know but somehow there was enough.

And then the story gets even stranger… Jesus sent us away so he could finally get a break. We decided to cross the lake in the boat. We started rowing and got to the middle of the lake and there was a massive storm come out of nowhere. We didn’t see it or sense it coming. The wind came up and the waves were crashing over the side. There was water everywhere and we were soaked to the skin.  Then in the darkness and water and wind, there was a shape. I couldn’t make it out very well but it looked vaguely human.

I watched it come toward us and I thought it must have something to do with the storm—that I was seeing things. Slowly it glided toward us—completely oblivious to the storm. The storm on its own was scary but this was another whole league of scary. We clung to each other in the boat, convinced that we were all going to die.

And then there was a voice, a voice I knew. A voice of calm: Take heart, do not be afraid, it is I.

That voice, those words, had an instant impact on my fear. I felt calm and strength come into my body and spirit with those words. I knew at that moment that I could do anything that God required of me.

Tell me to come to you and I will come.

Come.

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I stepped out of the boat. No fear. I was certain I could walk across the water without sinking, I trusted that the same spirit that kept Jesus on the water would keep me on the water. I took several steps. I looked down and saw that I was walking on the water and realized how impossible it was. People don’t walk on water.

In a matter of seconds, I found myself floundering and knew I was going to drown. Jesus reaches out. Took my hand and helped me into the boat.

These stories really speak to me personally. I had a time not so long ago, where someone needed help. There were all sorts of reasons to send the person away. It wasn’t safe. Their presence would be disruptive to my routine and personal space. I looked for other options. I asked other people to help and nothing worked out.

And then I heard these words in my head. “You give them something to eat.” It wasn’t quite the same as feeding 5000 people, but my inclination was to send someone away when they needed help that I had the resources to give. As I heard Jesus’ voice speak to me, I knew I could not turn this person away—even though there were lots of reasons I could use to justify doing that.

I have a sense of how the disciples might have been feeling as they saw the crowds and heard Jesus tell them to feed the crowds. It’s easier and simpler to send people away than to become personally involved. As help was initially offered, I was nervous and anxious about how this would all work out and I knew it could end badly. But those words would not leave my head.

There are moments in my life and in ministry where I feel like I can do anything. I have gifts and skills and I feel competent and able. So, we do ministry together and it feels good. Then I will have a moment where I look around, maybe it’s on a more difficult day and ask myself: What did you get me into God? I should be the one to lead this community of faith. I don’t know enough about…. It feels like everything might fall apart if I can’t hold it together. I feel like Peter stepping out of the boat. Sometimes, life and ministry feel solid and strong and I feel supported by the spirit. And sometimes I feel like I might be sinking.

The commentary we used at Bible study this week focussed on the role of imagination. The disciples couldn’t imagine five loaves and two fish feeding the crowds, but Jesus could. Jesus calls us to dream big and use our imaginations to change the world. “Who am I to end poverty? Who am I to bring peace? I’m one person, I can’t do it.” When we say these types of things to ourselves, we limit our imagination and we won’t be able to do any of it. When we use our imagination, we can help even one person and the possibilities become limitless.

When we forget to use our imagination, we flounder. Our imagination is what gives us hope and allows us to see possibilities. Our imagination gives us the courage to risk doing what seems impossible. Peter didn’t step out of the boat alone. When he forgot his imagination, God was there to pick him up, dry him off and send him into the world again with renewed faith and hope.

The Weeds and the Wheat

This reflection is based on Matthew 13:24-43 and focuses on the parable of the weeds and wheat.

Jesus tells a story and it goes like this: there was a farmer who planted a crop with good seed. An enemy came and put weed seeds into the field. The wheat and the weeds came up together. The field workers saw what was happening and went to the farmer to tell him. The farmer declared that an enemy had put the weeds in the field. The workers offered to go and pull all the weeds, but the farmer told them to wait until harvest so that none of the wheat was pulled up. At harvest, the weeds could be pulled up and burned and the wheat saved in the barn.

Imagine this from three of Jesus’ listeners.

The peasant:

I know what Jesus is saying. I work in a field. I know that you don’t want to leave the weeds to grow. They choke out the crop until there’s nothing left. I know what’s that feels like. I often feel like I’m being choked out by the rich ones. Just like the weeds, they take everything and there’s nothing left at all for the rest of us to survive on. Why wait to get rid of the rich ones? If we got rid of them now there would be enough for everyone and we’d all be better off. Those rich ones will get what’s coming to them. They’ll burn just like the weeds at the harvest and good riddance to them. Jesus is saving heaven for people like me where we can find comfort after a hard life.

The rich one:

I know what Jesus is saying. All those poor people and lepers and widows who clutter up our streets. They are like the weeds—taking over our fine city. We’d be better off without them. They just suck the rest of us dry. They are no good to anyone and they certainly don’t contribute anything to the city. Maybe the city needs a good cleansing to get rid of the riffraff so the good people are protected and safe from harm. A good fire would help destroy all the insects and disease those people have. I don’t know why the landowner would wait until harvest. Do it now and be done with it so the rest of us can live long and healthy lives without interference from those who always try to take from us. I know that I will have a place of privilege in Jesus’ kingdom for people like me.

The Sadducee

I know what Jesus is saying. As long as we have people in our city who are not focussed on God and God’s word, we are all in danger. As a Sadducee, I know the risks of disobeying and we have such a faithless city. If everyone would turn back to God, and all the foreigners would leave, this city could be great. There is no room for the unfaithful in God’s kingdom. Just like in the past, God will destroy God’s enemies with fire but because we are contaminated by those who are against God, we are all at risk of being burned in the fire. I trust that God will rescue the faithful from the fire so that God’s kingdom will thrive.

Which one of these characters has the correct interpretation?

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When we read scripture, we have a tendency to read it in a way that puts ourselves, and people like us, in the best light. We see ourselves as the one that God loves most, the one that God will save, the one that God will protect. We see people that we think are different from ourselves as needing correction, perhaps being outside God’s love or God’s kingdom. Each of these characters heard the story in a way that suited them and supported their view of the world.

They all thought that they were the good seeds- the wheat. They all thought that someone else was the weeds, put there to destroy them or harm them. This parable is only in Matthew and was added at a time when there was conflict between the Jewish Christians and the temple authorities. The early church was trying to make sense of who belonged in God’s kingdom and who did not. The tension between who is in and who is out continues to be a challenge for many communities. It is easier to be a community if everyone has a similar view of God and God’s kingdom.

What would happen if the peasant, the rich one, and the Sadducee were all trying to live and worship in the same community? They all see the others as the enemy—the ones that God will burn up in the end. It would certainly make life complicated.

How would you maintain a community of faith where all members see someone else in the community as the problem? Communities of faith hold both saints and sinners and we all take on these roles at different times in our lives. Sometimes we do well with living faithfully, sometimes someone else is better at it than we are. Sometimes we are the wheat—good, wholesome, growing strong. Sometimes we are the weeds—causing grief for someone else, not understanding sharing the resources. Sometimes, we are the ones lighting the fire to burn out those that we deem less valuable than ourselves. While the writer of Matthew wanted to offer a clear interpretation of the parable, I don’t think its as straightforward as the author claims.

Where do you see yourself in this parable today?

 

Judging Ourselves and Others

This is a reflection based on Matthew 7:1-14 and was offered at St. Andrew’s United Church on February 10.

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I want to think about what it means to judge. If we take this passage at face value, the passage seems to be telling us not to judge anyone or anything and yet we are always making judgements. We need to make judgements in order to be safe and in order to choose what type of path we want to travel in life. Judging is what allows us to make choices.

When we see someone in a particular situation, we don’t know how they got there. For example, we might see someone come and access the food and clothing shelf. Maybe we know that they’ve been at the casino and spent their money. We might say, going to the casino (or buying smokes or alcohol or whatever) was a stupid thing to do when someone is short of money. If they would just get their act together, they wouldn’t need handouts. We might make a judgment that they are lazy or incompetent.

If most of us looked at our own financial habits we might find there are things that we could do better or differently. Maybe we could afford to be more generous with charities or with a person in need. Maybe we could choose fair-trade or eco-friendly products even though they might be more expensive. Maybe we could buy less junk, eat out less, travel less. Someone else might judge us as greedy for our habits.

Judgement looks different depending on where you stand. But judgment from someone else—and sometimes ourselves—can be uncomfortable. Part of what the scripture says to us is that we need to look at ourselves and judge ourselves before we can judge someone else. Judging ourselves isn’t about self-loathing or being hard on ourselves. I don’t want anyone to go away thinking they are a terrible person. Judging has to do with repentance—recognizing the moments when we don’t live up to God’s expectations of us. Judging ourselves has to do with creating space and being open to God at work in us. When we believe that we have our lives together and everything is in place, we are often closed to what it is that God would have us do and be.

When we are open to God at work in ourselves, we are more likely to find compassion for others. We are less likely to judge harshly because we have judged ourselves and recognize that life is complicated. The choices we make in our own lives are complex and it isn’t always easy to do what we know is right. If we have that compassion for ourselves, we are more likely to share that compassion with others.

Jesus calls us to offer compassion to each other and be gentle with each other. There’s a funny verse in this passage: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” Warren Carter of Brite Divinity school suggests that this verse continues the theme of judging. When we offer advice to help someone improve their lives that advice might not always be well received—especially when the advice is unsolicited. Most of us have probably received advice that was meant to help but which we found offensive or intrusive. Most of us have probably given unsolicited advice which was not well received. In this verse we see holy and pearls (advice) being contrasted with (dogs and swine).

Jesus calls us back to basics: follow the law and the prophets. Jesus didn’t set out to start a new religion. He wanted to reform Judaism into what it was meant to be—religion grounded in God’s spirit which took seriously the relationships that people have with each other—personally and communally. Jesus wanted people to look out for each other and have compassion. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” In order to have compassion for others, we need to have compassion for ourselves. In order to love others, we need to love ourselves.

This work of loving ourselves and others can be very challenging. We live in a world that often tells us we aren’t good enough, but the message of the gospel is that God is always at work in us if we are open to the spirit and that is enough. Our openness is enough.

But we need to have something in our lives as a source of strength. Someone who refuses to make any judgments has no ability to discern what is good and right. You may have heard the proverb: “stand for something or you will fall for anything.” Our judgement helps to give us a sense of where our priorities lie. Sometimes judging a situation helps keep us safe and keeps us from taking unnecessary risk. This passage uses the image of building a house on sand or on rock. A house on sand is like someone who has no convictions about anything. A house on rock is like someone who is grounded in God’s love and compassion for themselves and able to extend that love and compassion to others.

I invite you into some self-reflection about the things in your life that God might be calling you to judge so that you can find greater compassion for yourself.

Temptation

What does it mean to be tempted? There are three different versions of Jesus being tempted in the Bible. The basic story goes like this: Jesus is baptized and then he goes off by himself to prepare for ministry and to reflect on what it is God is calling him to do. We might think of this as a vision quest. He goes by himself for the purpose of seeking God. Many cultures have a practice where people go into the wilderness alone to learn more about themselves, to seek the spirit world and to strengthen their own spirit.

This is the journey that Jesus has embarked on. Once he is in the wilderness he has a sacred experience.

I don’t know exactly what happened to Jesus in that wilderness experience. The thing about many sacred experiences is that we can’t always explain them clearly to other people and we don’t always need to because they are our own experiences. Something happened to Jesus while he was on this fast in the wilderness. I don’t believe that there is an actual being out there lurking around corners and waiting for opportunities to trip us up. But I do think that we find ourselves in situations where we lose sight of what’s really important. Jesus is in the wilderness to focus on God and he is tempted to be distracted.

First, he is distracted by his physical body—by his need for sustenance. He realizes he is hungry. He has been fasting—intentionally going without food so that he can put his focus on God and not on his physical needs. But it’s hard and he’s hungry. Jesus uses scripture as a way to refocus his mind on his spiritual quest. The words from the book of Deuteronomy remind him that “one does not live  by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

I imagine Jesus in the wilderness, alone. He might be feeling tired. He’s definitely hungry. He might be questioning what he’s doing out there in the first place. He might be wondering why he committed to living faithfully. He wonders if God is going to protect him out there in the wilderness. He wonders if God really is going to be with him in the ministry he is embarking on. And then in his mind, he hears the scripture that he knows and loves tempting his down a destructive path. The path that he is tempted to is one that is all about him. It isn’t about the people that he has come to love and serve. It isn’t about being faithful to God. This is a path that would serve no purpose other than to have people worship him—not because of God but because he threw himself off the temple and survived. This path distorts the ministry that Jesus offers and it distorts the scripture. Jesus again hears words from Deuteronomy in his mind which reorient him to God and God’s ministry.

Jesus continues to wait in the wilderness to hear God’s will for his life and ministry. Again he is tempted to be distracted by the power of authority. He could take over the world—at the expense of his ministry and his faithfulness to God. Again, it would be all about him and not about God at work in him or in the world. Jesus could create the world he wants. It would be so much easier than trying to change hearts and minds. He could just become dictator of the world but at what cost? The loss of his soul? The loss of his faith? Jesus finds yet another quote from Deuteronomy with which to counter his temptation: Worship God and serve only him.

This story uses scripture in two ways: it uses scripture in a way that distracts Jesus from God’s path and it uses scripture to bring Jesus back to God’s path. Our own relationship with scripture is complicated. The Song of Faith, our most recent statement of faith in the United Church says this about scripture:

Scripture is our song for the journey, the living word
passed on from generation to generation
to guide and inspire,
that we might wrestle a holy revelation for our time and place
from the human experiences
and cultural assumptions of another era.
God calls us to be doers of the word and not hearers only.

The Spirit breathes revelatory power into scripture,
bestowing upon it a unique and normative place
in the life of the community.
The Spirit judges us critically when we abuse scripture
by interpreting it narrow-mindedly,
using it as a tool of oppression, exclusion, or hatred.

The wholeness of scripture testifies
to the oneness and faithfulness of God.
The multiplicity of scripture testifies to its depth:
two testaments, four gospels,
contrasting points of view held in tension—
all a faithful witness to the One and Triune God,
the Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.

It is always tempting to read scripture in ways that normalize and support what we already believe or what we think we know. For example, in 1988 when the church was talking about sexual orientation and ministry, I was shocked as a thirteen-year-old, to hear the Bible being used to justify hatred. I was shocked hear the Bible being used to support killing anyone who was gay.

How did Jesus sort out in his mind what was just a distraction and what was faithful? A friend of mine often says that the way to know whether a belief (Christian or otherwise) is faithful is to ask yourself this question: Does this belief or practice support you in creating a more loving and compassionate world? If it does then it is probably faithful. If it doesn’t then you might need to rethink it.

Scripture gives us many viewpoints—some of which lead us to love and compassion and some which might lead to hatred and violence. Sometimes it is easy to be distracted by our physical needs, our need for safety, our need for power and control. We need to pay a certain amount of attention to these things in order to survive but when they become the sole focus of our lives and when we use scripture to justify our focus we are no longer being faithful.

Scripture helps to bring our lives back into focus. It helps us to be faithful and discern what it is God is calling us to do and be in our personal lives and in our community of faith. But scripture is only useful to us if we really engage with it and commit to learning and understanding what it means for us. I encourage you to commit to the regular study of scripture.

I find that the more I learn about scripture, the more questions I have. Even with all the questions, I continue to ask, I know that it is a core component of my faith—not because I believe every word of it as it is printed but because it challenges me to question and struggle with my faith. Our faith becomes stronger as we ask questions, as we learn and as we struggle with it. Scripture forces us into that struggle and it encourages us when the struggle becomes difficult.

Jesus wrestled with his faith. It wasn’t something that he always got right. He was challenged in this story and in other places in the gospels. If we are going to be faithful, we also need to be open to challenge. It is tempting to simply accept the faith that is passed to us but what is passed to us is incomplete. I encourage each of us to wrestle with what it is that we believe and what it is that God is calling us to do and be as individuals and as a community of faith.