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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121:1-8, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17 OR Matthew 17:1-8

My mind often makes leaps of connection that come out of nowhere.  I may not even know what the connection is.  That’s what happened on the way to this week’s lectionary blog.  I was thinking mostly about law and grace, faith and works, in Paul’s writings---and, of course, about the journeying and heritage of Abraham.  The latter is in two of the texts we have before us.  Suddenly my mind jumped to a new TV show called, “Believe.”  Believe is another word Paul uses in his arguments about the topics of law, grace, faith, and works.

I’ve never watched the show, except the commercials made me suspect it was a bit “weird” in a way that I wouldn’t appreciate.  I looked it up online and discovered that I was correct.  I probably won’t bother with this show about “levitation, telekinesis, the ability to control nature, see the future who and “has had gifts she could neither fully understand nor control.” Those “powers have become stronger and the threat from malevolent forces that would use her abilities to control the world has grown more dangerous,” putting “her life and future in jeopardy . . .”

Even if I don’t watch that show, belief and faith seem to be a good place to begin this week’s reflections.  The Greek word used frequently in the New Testament for these words with similar roots and overlapping meanings often emphasizes trust.  Belief is shown not in subscribing to creeds but in moving ahead in trust.

That’s what Abram (soon to be known as Abraham) did.  God called him to leave his homeland in what is present-day Iraq, where he was probably a wandering nomad, promising him a land many miles away in the land of Canaan.  So, off Abram and his family went.  What an amazing act of trust!  (Genesis 12:1-5)

Now Canaan included what today are Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, northwestern Jordan, and some western areas of Syria, and people were already living there.  Thus begins a story which has led to sibling rivalry and conflict which continues into the present day as Israel and Palestine and others wrangle over who claims what land.

In the tradition of biblical interpretation handed me when I was young, God promised this land to the Jews, and thus was born the nation of Israel.  The argument that God gave us this land is still used.

I was surprised to stumble this week upon the website of Al-Jazeerah Peace Information Center, run by Hassan Ali El-Najjar, PhD, who is Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Dalton State College in Georgia.  At first, I thought it was a website run by Al-Jazeera, the Arab news service and television channel based in Qatar.  That seems not to be the case.

In searching for comments on the story of Abraham, I was directed to the writings of Dr. Hassan Ali El-Najjar on the above site.  He was born in Gaza, Palestine, in 1950. In 1967, he moved to Jordan, then to Egypt, Libya, and the UAE, before emigrating to the USA, in 1986.  He began teaching sociology and anthropology courses at Dalton State College since 1991.

From that, perhaps you can assess his qualifications in writing about the “Promised Land.”  Beginning with the premise that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all look to Abraham as their spiritual father, he notes what many of us seem to have overlooked.  The promise, he says, pertained to all the descendants of Abraham, not to the followers of any specific religion. These descendants, today, are the Muslims, Christians, or Jews who have been associated with the Holy Land for thousands of years . . . The Holy Land has been inhabited uninterruptedly by Muslims for over1400 years, by Christians for over 2000 years, and by Jews for more than that. These are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that the promise was made to . . . The importance of this fact is to dispel the prevalent myth among Jewish and Christian fundamentalists that the Holy Land was promised by God to Jews per se, as followers of Judaism, which has never been the case. This myth has been used for more than a century to support the establishment of Israel on the expense of the Palestinian people, then to support the aggressive and oppressive policies of the Zionist Israeli government against Palestinians in particular, and against Arabs and Muslims in general.”  (If you wish to check it out for yourself, hit control and click to use the following link: http://aljazeerah.info/Documents/Promise%20Land.htm)

Such an interpretation doesn’t get us over the occupation of the land of the original Canaanites, and, of course, we’re dealing with a lot of iffy history here, with a lot that feels like mythic legends.  We simply don’t know the precise and detailed historical facts, but wouldn’t it be great if this land fought over by the descendants of Abraham through various lines could be seen as something belonging to all the family these many generations later?

Now back to the story of Abraham.  There’s a lot of potential in the story for thinking about what it means to be an immigrant, to be roused from one’s roots and move across the miles, perhaps as refugees, perhaps escaping oppression, perhaps looking for a better life—moving not knowing what lies ahead, believing there is promise, reason to hope, ahead.

Paul, in Romans, though, takes the story and uses it as an example of what belief and faith mean.  There have been arguments through the generations about the priority of faith and works, law and grace.  Is our salvation obtained by what we do, or is it a gift of grace in which God simple loves us?  Paul’s argument in this week’s epistle lesson is that the law hadn’t been given yet when Abram stepped out in faith.  He quotes from Genesis 15:6, saying “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  (Romans 4:3)

It is another way of saying that Abraham trusted.”  There are many nuances of argument that can’t be sorted out here.  It is simplistic to think that these centuries old debates can be settled into a clear either/or.

Paul’s point, though, is that our security is finally a matter of trust and faith and grace.  “ . . . it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share in the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’) . . .” (vss. 16-17)

Two of the other readings can be seen as supportive of this emphasis upon trust.  The Psalm seems perhaps to go overboard in its seeming promise of smooth sailing for all who seek help from God.  “He will not let your foot be moved . . . The sun shall not strike you by day . . . The Lord will keep you from all evil . . .”  (Psalm 121:3, 6-7)  Verse 8, however, seems to apply to situations like Abram’s.  “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”

Do we believe enough to step out in trust, assured that the path ahead is a gift of grace that will take us where we need to go?

The Gospel reading from John’s Gospel is a story about Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to Jesus under cover of darkness wanting to know how to enter into the presence of God.  He is told that it involves looking at life through new eyes (“being born from above”---translated by some as “born again”).  (John 3:2-3)  Could it be seeing life through the eyes of grace and trust?  There ensues a lengthy discussion before we come to the familiar words:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)  We often stop there, and certainly the assurance of God’s love is the grace that matters most, the most solid of all bases for trust.  But those who make religion a matter of judging various behaviors often fail to move into the next verse, which underlies the assuring intent of what Jesus has to say to this searching young man---and to us.  “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the word, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  (vs. 17)

(Note that the alternative Gospel reading is Matthew's account of the transfiguration which we dealt with two weeks ago.)

Too often this business of grace and law, works and faith, has been cast in terms of getting into heaven.  Margie and I have just watched the DVDs of the series, Pillars of the Earth, based on the book of the same name by Ken Follett.  It is the story of the building of a cathedral in Kingsbridge, England in the 12th century.  Throughout, one cannot help noticing the power the priests and bishops and archbishops have because they can dispense grace, without which most people believe they will not get into heaven.

What if, instead of talking about salvation and heaven and hell, we were to talk about the basis of our worth as human beings?  Some of us may believe that the worth of our lives is measured by how much we do.  We struggle to give our lives meaning and worth, forgetting that maybe it all starts with grace and trust.  It’s hard to believe, but that just may be the case.  Paul and Jesus, and the example of Abraham, certainly would point us in that direction.  Believe---and step out in faith and trust.  Your life is a gift of grace.  Do you believe?


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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