A New King

We’re going to start with a bit of a history lesson which is important for understanding the context of early Israel. The history is long and complicated. This video gives a synopsis of what was happening before David came to power.

The passage from 2 Samuel comes in two chunks. Following Saul’s death and the civil war, there was a void in leadership. David was able to step in as king of Judah. In between these two pieces of scripture we find the story about the capture of Jerusalem and then David returns the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant was where the tablets with the Ten Commandments were stored. This Ark travelled many miles before it came to Jerusalem with David. It symbolized God’s presence on earth and was central to the worship life of ancient Israel. It was carried around while the people wandered in the wilderness. It was captured by the Philistines and eventually brought to Jerusalem by David and eventually found its way into the temple of Solomon many years later. When Jerusalem fell in 587 (about 400 years after David) the Ark disappeared with only rumours of where it might have ended up.

So that’s the history lesson out of the way. What does this story and this history have to do with us so many millennia later?

David was portrayed in the scripture in a very human way. He had lots of blood on his hands from the various battles and he ordered many deaths. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband, Uriah, killed in order to cover his tracks and claim her. He wasn’t a nice king. But David was also known for writing many of our psalms and for praising God. In this passage we see David praising God with music and dancing as the Ark of the Covenant is returned to Jerusalem. It is his sense of worship, his commitment to God and his ability to unify Israel for the first time which identify him as an ideal king within Ancient Israel.

With David returning the Ark of the Covenant there is a sense that the Israelites have finally made it. They have a king. They have a capital city in Jerusalem. Their sacred objects have been returned in the Ark. They are a real country and their God has finally come through for them.

The people remember wandering in the wilderness, all the battles and conquests that brought them into Canaan – the promised land, the difficulty and pressures from other countries around them, and a civil war. And yet all that is snatched away again as history unfolds and Israel is conquered and many of the people are exiled.

There is a longing for the glory days under David. How often do we find ourselves looking back and longing for what was? How often do we find ourselves looking for a central object or practice on which to focus our worship? How often do we seek to find a perfect moment where it feels like “we made it?”

This story of history suggests that we can never return to the past. As much as the people wanted another king like David, once he was dead and buried, that part of history was over. People have continued to seek another king who would follow in David’s tradition. We see in the stories of Jesus a direct connection to David through the genealogies which trace Jesus’ descendants back to David and also in how Jesus is referred to as Son of David. But Jesus was a different kind of king. Jesus was a king who didn’t rely on his military might. He didn’t have his hands covered in other people’s blood. Jesus relied on the power of God’s spirit working through him to heal and to transform systems of injustice.

As Christians we identify Jesus as a king. Most of us would not want to go back and live in Jesus’ time and yet Jesus—as king—is alive and present with us. What qualities or values does Jesus have to pass on to us? What is it about the kingdom that Jesus was creating that we want to embody in our own time and place?

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God Works in Us and Others

Today we are looking at the story of Ruth. Ruth is a short book—only four chapters. The gist of the story is this:

Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave their home in Bethlehem and move to Moab because there is a famine in Bethlehem. They live there for several years with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Elimelech dies. Mahlon and Chillion marry Moabite women. Both Mahlon and Chillion die. Now there are three destitute widows: Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.

In the land of Moab, Naomi is a foreigner with no rights and no man to protect and provide for her. There was an animosity between the Israelites and Moabites and Naomi would be faced with the additional challenges of racism and hatred. Naomi has some choices to make. She feels she is too old to remarry. So she can stay where she is as a widow and with her daughters-in-law. She can stay where she is and send her daughters-in-law home to their families. She could return to Bethlehem and her family with or without her daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to her home and her family. She urges her daughters-in-law to return home and Orpah leaves Naomi and Ruth. They head off to Bethlehem and Ruth becomes the foreigner.

Circumstances can change and reverse quickly depending on what happens in our lives. This story is one in which the circumstances of the characters, for good or bad, are often uncertain and temporary. Following Naomi and Ruth’s return to Bethlehem, Ruth works hard to help Naomi survive. She is brought under the protection of Boaz—a relative of the dead Elimelech. Naomi plots a bit with Ruth and the upshot is that Ruth ends up marrying Boaz. Boaz and Ruth have a child who becomes the ancestor of David. The genealogies that we find in the Christian scriptures trace Jesus’ heritage back to Ruth and Boaz – to an Israelite and a foreigner.

God works through us and in unexpected places. The New Creed reminds us that God works in us and others by the spirit. Sometimes we like to think God works in us and not in those people. For Naomi to be a foreigner and find food in a strange land reminds us of the kindness of strangers and the kindness of people who are not like us. And then Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem and it is Ruth who is dependent on strangers. She is welcomed and protected and even finds a husband. The outsider is welcomed and cared for. Our humanity is the connection to the sacred. As long as we see people as us and them, we will struggle to maintain strict boundaries and struggle against the spirit.

When I was in Israel and Palestine we had an opportunity to meet two men who were part of the Bereaved Families Circle. They started with an us and them mentality—God is on my side and on the side of my people. The Israeli man told how is daughter had been killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. The Palestinian man told how is son had been killed by an Israeli soldier. As they spoke to us that evening they told their stories they cried together and held each other and called each other brother. Now they, along with others, work for peace. They are the same in their grief and loss and purpose.

In our own community, we might talk about us and them. We might talk about ourselves and our group of people. Most of us identify as Christian and the New Creed affirms that God works through us. Does God working through us exclude God working through our Muslim, traditional Aboriginal or Hindu neighbours? Does God working through gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender people exclude God working through people who identify as straight?

God works through people. We are the hands and feet of Christ whoever and wherever we are. Ruth and Naomi found compassion even among strangers. Throughout history people have tried to identify themselves and others based on the group they seem to belong to. Being surrounded by people who seem to be like us helps us to feel safe and often gives a sense of security. It keeps people who are not like us at bay and prevents the discomfort of recognizing that the other is not so different after all. Ruth and Naomi needed to eat and survive. They needed companionship. The name Ruth means companion or friendship, reminding us that companionship crosses many boundaries. Ruth crossed a boundary by marrying one of Naomi’s sons. She crossed a boundary by returning with Naomi to Bethlehem. She crossed another boundary by marrying Boaz. In crossing these boundaries, Ruth became an ancestor to Jesus. God works in us and others. God works in the people who seem different from ourselves because we are not so different but drawn together in our humaneness and the spirit of God that is within each of us.

When we feel like we belong—that we are an insider in a family, in a church, in a culture—it is easy to become complacent and forget that not everyone has that experience. Many of us have moments in our lives when we feel like the outsider, the stranger. If you have had that experience, remember what it was like. In the moments when you feel like you might be the insider look for the outsider and intentionally welcome them. Dare to cross a boundary. You might find God working where you least expect.

Ruth speaks to Naomi and continues to break down the barriers between them:

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.

When we finally see God working in places we don’t expect we can be reconciled with one another and with God. We can be made anew in God’s image along with the people around us until there is no us and them but God’s people celebrating God’s presence together. In those moments we are reminded that we are not alone. Like Ruth and Naomi, we have companions on life’s journey. Like Ruth and Naomi, God travels with us whether we are in our own community and culture or whether we find ourselves the stranger.

Same Commandments for a New World

Moses goes off on the rescue mission and is able to bring the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The people who remember Egypt are starting to die off. The Hebrew people are getting close to the end of their time in the wilderness.

Deuteronomy is the last book in the Torah—the law books. The Ten Commandments appear in Exodus and again in Deuteronomy. You might think of Deuteronomy as the second edition. Deuteronomy expands and improves upon the laws found in Exodus and Numbers.

The passage begins by reminding the people that the covenant – the promise between God and the people was made not with the ancestors but with the current gathered community. As people of faith we reaffirm the covenant regularly. We reaffirm our commitment to the God of our ancestors in faith through worship, through the sacraments of baptism and communion. We reaffirm our commitments to God when we participate is covenants between people. We reaffirm our commitment to God when we share our faith with others.

At first glance we might see the Ten Commandments and our world and think that no one pays any attention to them anymore and perhaps that’s why the world is falling apart. I think it is helpful to note that some of the Ten Commandments have made it in to our law—the obvious ones about murder and stealing. I think that the commandments continue to speak to us but they need to be reinterpreted for a different time.

The commandments remind us about the importance of relationships: spouse and family, community, God. They give us direction about how to live in community with others. They encourage us in all our relationships to treat each other with respect and compassion.

Honouring father and mother has to do with the importance of family relationships. In the ancient world, survival depended on children looking after their parents in old age. So the commandment has to do with ensuring that parents are looked after. In our own culture, families come in many shapes and sizes. One of the interesting things about this commandment is that mother and father are written as equals. In ancient Hebrew culture the social order was organized with men at the top, followed by children and then women so to place women on an equal footing with a man was radical. This commandment would seem to lift up relationships where partners work together in all aspects of family life. This commandment also contains an instruction that could be troubling. Taken at face value this commandment seems to lift up the idea that children should unconditionally obey and defer to their parents. This commandment has been used to justify abuse and maintain control of children rather than encouraging children to become who they are called to be. We want family structures to be healthy, to be places of nurture, love and encouragement for all their members. Re-written for our time the commandment might be something like: “Respect and care for all members of your family throughout their lives.”

The commandment speaks of not committing adultery. We live in a world where there are many different kinds of relationships. Some people choose heterosexual marriage, some choose same sex marriage, some people choose to be in relationship but unmarried and some people—by choice or circumstance—remain unattached. Some people change relationships several times through their adult life. Relationships are much more fluid in our time than they have been in the past. When we enter relationships—regardless of the form they take—there is value in committing fully to those relationships. The commitment builds trust and allows those involved to become more fully themselves and deepen their relationship with the holy through knowing the other.

In our community, the commandments give a prohibition on murder, stealing, lying. They also remind us not to covet or desire our neighbour’s wife, slave, house, donkey, new car… There are several challenges to this commandment. We no longer live in a world where women are property or where slavery is supposed to occur. People choose their relationships freely. This commandment allows those with wealth to live contentedly. Those with less wealth are also encouraged to be content with their lot in life. This commandment encourages inequality. The intent might originally have been to discourage disagreements over property among a group of people who were relatively equal in their wealth. In our own culture there are huge discrepancies in wealth. What might be more helpful is for us to talk about and work for a good quality of life for all people. These are the commandments that help us create healthy families and communities.

Central to creating healthy community is another commandment which we hear Jesus quote later in scripture: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The Hebrew people are reminded—as we are—to “keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” The idea is that the commandments become central to our lives. By placing the commandments at the center of our lives God also becomes central.

We hear Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke remind people to love God with heart, with soul, with strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. One of the ways we love ourselves is through sabbath. There is a difference between how Exodus and Deuteronomy give the commandment about sabbath. Sabbath is the concept of rest from work. In the ancient Hebrew tradition there was no work done on the Sabbath – no cooking, no travel, no laundry, no farming – only minimal care for livestock. In the home I grew up in there was no homework on a Sunday, Dad never farmed on a Sunday – except to care for the livestock. There was no house work or laundry. The concept of Sabbath reminds us how important it is to rest. The difference between Exodus and Deuteronomy is in why we rest. Exodus ties sabbath to the first creation story which tells us that God created the earth in seven days and then rested. Deuteronomy ties Sabbath to remembering what it was like to be a slave in Egypt. It reminds the people that, collectively, they know what it is like not to rest. Everyone should be entitled to sabbath including slaves and livestock. This shift from focusing on God’s rest to the human need for rest is important because it tells us that the sabbath is not for God but for us. The sabbath is for the creation. Often we associate sabbath with a time of worship but in this instance the connection isn’t there. The focus is on the stoppage of work—on rest.

The first commandment begins by requiring that there be no other Gods. The second commandment is connected and has to do with prohibiting idols. In this instance the idols are concrete images from nature. In our own context the idols might be wealth, power, a new car, a perfect house, the great vacation. Idols are anything that take our focus away from God. These two commandments combine to remind us about the centrality of God in our lives. We sometimes want to separate God from certain aspects of our life. We might try to separate God from politics. We might try to separate God of money. We place money and politics off to one side and God to the other. When we do this the choices we make about money and our politics may or may not reflect God. By separating certain parts of our lives from our faith we are more likely to create idols. By reconnecting our money and politics to our faith, God becomes more central in all our decision making.

One of the troubling thing about both the Deuteronomy and Exodus versions of the Ten Commandments is the image of God punishing children for their parent’s sins. Perhaps punishment isn’t the right word. I think the Biblical authors understood that behavior and attitudes of parents are passed to the next generation but perhaps in language and translation the word punishment doesn’t quite fit what is meant. In ancient it times, as a way of making sense of the world, people understood that God rewarded good behavior and punished bad behavior. I wonder if what the passage is trying to get at is the idea that a parent’s life influences their child’s life. For example, a child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome lives with very real consequences of a parent’s behavior. Is it punishment? I wouldn’t say so, but it is a real consequence. In the ancient world this might have been seen as punishment. Other places in scripture push back against the idea that God punishes children. Both Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18 quote a proverb: “parents have eaten sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted” and go on to say that only the one who sins will be punished. These later authors also seem to be struggling with the concept that God would punish multiple generations and they speak out against the text.

Perhaps part of our work as a church is to reconnect ourselves with how the Ten Commandments might be speaking to us. They aren’t intended as a list of rules to be obeyed but as framework to shape community that places God at the centre, cares for others and allows us to care for ourselves. The Ten Commandments re-orient us and reshape us. We might see what looks like a world falling apart but when we are able to center ourselves in God, in relationship, in compassion for ourselves and others the world can be healed.

God calls Moses

Last week we I wrote about the story of Jacob wrestling with God and being reunited with his brother Esau. Jacob had twelve sons and you might remember their story from Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat. In this part of the Biblical story we hear how Jacob’s son Joseph was the favorite. His brothers were jealous so the beat him up and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph is able to interpret the pharaoh’s dream and lead the people of Egypt through a famine. Joseph becomes very powerful in Egypt and his family come to Egypt looking for food. The family is reunited and relocates to Egypt. Joseph’s family flourishes and multiplies. Several centuries pass and the story about Joseph and his family is lost to the Egyptian kings. That living memory disappears and no-one remembers how the Israelites came to be in Egypt.

And this is where our story picks up today. The Egyptian pharaoh recognized the numbers of Hebrew people living in the land and felt threatened so devised a plan to kill all the baby boys. Some midwives resisted the pharaoh’s edict and refused to kill the babies. Moses’ mother put him in a basket and hid it in the river to keep him safe. Moses is found by an Egyptian princess who adopts him and Moses is raised as a member of the royal family. As a young adult Moses knows that something isn’t right with the way the Hebrew people are being treated and in his anger at the injustice Moses kills one of the overseers. He flees for his life into the wilderness. He marries a Hebrew woman and creates a life with her family as a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks.

Imagine the experience for Moses. Imagine him seeing a bush burning but not burning up and hearing voices out of the bush. And this is not just any voice but God’s voice. This is the voice of a God that Moses had thought abandoned his people to slavery. This is the voice of a God that Moses had perhaps thought was complete fiction. And here is this non-existent God declaring to be the God of Moses’ long forgotten ancestors. You can imagine Moses’ skepticism.

And this God that might not exist tells Moses that the people have been suffering. This God has actually been paying attention and simply waiting for the right leader to come along and lead the people to freedom. And that leader is Moses.

God is telling Moses to do something crazy like go to Pharaoh—who has already put a price on Moses’ head. And Moses’ response to this crazy request is “who will listen to me anyway?” God is insistent that Moses is the one. Moses needs more clarification. He needs to know exactly who is making this request and so he asks “Who are you?” The response comes back. “I am who I am.” It isn’t exactly a clear response. It doesn’t really answer the question.

Who is this God that called to Moses? Who is this God that calls to each of us? This God will not be defined. This is a God of our ancestors in faith. This is a God who has been active throughout history. We might look around and wonder, like Moses, where God has disappeared to when see violence and tragedy in the world. We might wonder whether God is dead.

Like Moses we need moments of mystery that capture our attention. Moses couldn’t explain what he experienced but it was enough for him to know that the God of his ancestors was very much alive and real and had been paying attention. And not only that—this God that he had only just met was sending him off on a mission. It wasn’t an easy mission. There was no invitation to try some in easy first just to get some experience. Nope. God started with a big task that would last Moses a lifetime.

If we read a bit further in the story we hear how Moses continued to resist the call that God was giving him. Moses only ends up embarking on this outrageous journey because God is giving him some signs to perform that will give his story of God sending him some credibility and because his brother-in-law gets to come along as the spokesperson.

I love this story because it has some parallels with how I ended up in ministry. When I was a teenager we had a minister who was very justice oriented. She wanted the world to be a better place than it often is. She connected the justice that she wanted to see in the world with her faith and with God’s desire for love and compassion and healing in the world. This perspective influenced my own view of the world. Like Moses I am often angry at the injustice I seen the world. As a younger person I felt helpless to change anything or influence the world in any significant way. I just went on about life.

When I was in my late twenties, several things happened about the same time. I got a phone call from a friend who was chairing the Youth and Young Adult committee for Alberta and Northwest Conference. She suggested that I take over as chair and proceeded to list all the reasons why I would be good at it. I wasn’t sure she was talking about me. I certainly didn’t see those qualities in myself. I turned her down. A few weeks later I got a call from another friend. The gist was that she also had been approached to chair and had turned our mutual friend down. This mutual friend was persistent and suggested that we co-chair. Neither of us thought we had the skills for this work. As we talked we realized that what I couldn’t do was within her skill set and what she couldn’t do fell within my skill set and comfort zone. We still resisted taking on this work but after prayerful consideration realized that, perhaps, God was speaking through our friend and that we needed to respond. We chaired together for three years. During this time I discovered skills and passion for ministry. I continue to return again and again to that earlier call that requires me to work for justice in the world. That earlier call from my teen years is very much tied to he ministry that I do among you. Sometimes the work is hard and exhausting. Sometimes it does indeed feel like God has gone away and I question why I do what I do. And then I have a moment where something surprises me—like Moses seeing the burning bush—and I remember the God that simply exists in mystery. The “I am.” That God didn’t send Moses off all alone on the rescue mission. God sent Moses with all the tools and people he needed in order for the rescue mission to succeed.

As I talk with people in the congregation I serve, I get a sense that others experience a similar call to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil. I am witnessing this call being lived out on a daily basis as people bring food and warm clothing, as they visit people who are lonely or in hospital and food is shared. This is too much for one or two people to do alone. I am reminded daily that I don’t do this work alone. I am witness daily the covenant that was created when we began this ministry together. It is not my call alone but our call to serve the world together.

Each fall we take a few weeks to focus on stewardship. We do this—not because there is a financial crisis—but to remind ourselves who we are called to be and to reflect on how all of our gifts might best be used to serve God in the world. During this time you are invited to reflect on the type of faith community you want to be and what resources are needed to live into the call God has for us. These resources include our time and energy, our gifts and skills and passion, our physical and financial resources. We are often much more comfortable in talking about our time, our gifts and skills and less comfortable in talking about our financial support for the church.

As a way of breaking this silence, over the next five weeks we are inviting five different households talk about how and why they give to St. Andrew’s. There are many different perspectives and many different comfort levels in talking about finances. These stories are in no way intended to shame or embarrass anyone but will hopefully help to create a spiritual framework that allows us to reflect more deeply on how and why we support this congregation. Each household is invited to talk about and reflect on the choices we make in our gifts to the church.