Days 29-35 Editorial comment

Exodus Chapters 25 -29 have concerned the correct ordering of the Tent of Meeting and its furnishings, including the correct attire for Aaron and the priests, and the way the Israelites were to conduct their religious rituals. Yet following on from the 10 commandments in Chapter 20 we have extended sections that can loosely be categorized as the laws of justice and mercy. These laws amount to a high ethical code regulating the rights of slaves, women, the stranger. The code covers the Sabbath year – the seventh year- when the land is to be left fallow so that the landless and poor can take from what is left after the last harvest. We are often quick to judge the primitive tribal view of God and yet in the midst of a great deal of war and bloodletting the laws of justice and mercy extending from Chapter 20 – through 24 are among the highest and most exacting recipes for social justice of any society since.

Some key points to note in the story of the Golden Calf:

  • God summons the Israelites to the foot of Mt Sinai where he issues strict instructions that no one must approach the foot of the mountain on fear of death. Only Moses and Joshua are allowed to go up onto the mountain.
  • Moses and Joshua are gone 40 days and the people begin to fear they are lost. They feel abandoned by God.
  • So they ask Aaron to make them a God they can worship and who will be present with them. Aaron fashions them a Golden Calf and the people begin to exuberantly worship the idol.
  • God who has been inscribing the Ten Commandments with M and J hears the noise of the people’s celebration of this and is mightily pissed-off. He sends Moses back to put things right.
  • Moses is so angry he smashes the ten tablets and confronts Aaron who refuses responsibility saying – all I did was throw some gold into the fire as they asked me to do, and low a calf came out. It’s nothing to do with me, Moses.
  • Moses summons all who have not participated in the idol worship and the sons of Levy seem to have kept themselves aloof. Moses posts the Levites with swords at the gates of the camp and they slaughter brothers and neighbors – some 3000 men. Think about this story being written down at a later time as a justification for the origins of the Levitical priesthood.
  • The uncomfortable aspect here is that like a brutal dictator Moses binds the sons of Levy to him through their participation in acts of violence.
  • Moses then returns to the mountain for a further encounter with God in which he offers himself as an atonement for the sin of the people. God refuses and blesses Moses with a very intimate encounter with God’s presence in the only form that will not kill Moses; he hides Moses in the cleft of a rock with his hand as he passes by – a very intimate and touching gesture.
  • After further punishment of the people, but not their obliteration as God had intended before Moses’ intercession, God and the people move on to the next place.
  • But God remembers the people’s complaint and gives them his abiding presence going forward in the form of a cloud that takes up a position at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. God seems to learn from experience!

We see the human struggle with God who is distant and comes to them only through the mediation of Moses. In a way, I AM is Moses’ God, not theirs, and so they fashion one of their own.

 

Matthew

Over these days we have also journeyed with Jesus into the events of his Passion and his resurrection bringing Matthew to a close with the Great Commission.  Matthew’s overview is this:

  • God keeps his promises to Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of a new Moses who brings the new Law.
  • Matthew communicates Jesus ministry through five long speeches equivalent to the five books of Moses in the Torah.
  • Jesus inaugurates a new Exodus, beginning with a twist to the Passover meal before giving his life for the world.
  • At the beginning of Matthew Jesus is given the name Immanuel – God is with us. He closes the Gospel with Jesus promising to be with them to the end of the age.
  • Note how Matthew’s resurrection is a majestic event communicated by an angel. The resurrected Jesus appears briefly to the women before the disciples gather on a mountain in Galilee. Note there is only the hint but not an account of the ascension and coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s as if Matthew sets the scene for Luke to fill in the details.

 

Mark

Mark opens with a fully grown Jesus coming for baptism at the hand of John and by the end of the first Chapter Jesus has been tempted, called his disciples and is well on his way. In Mark there is no time to waste. Note:

  • Jesus becomes God’s son through adoption, not birth.
  • Mark’s fast moving plot – he uses the continuous present form of verbs in Greek giving the impression that we are watching him in the moment of action.
  • Mark’s midpoint is when Peter confesses him as the Messiah – all of the first part has been leading up to this point.
  • The second half of Mark is about the journey to Jerusalem, his teaching on the way, the open conflict with the religious authorities, the seeming victory of the forces of the status quo before the reversal and upturning of expectations in the events of the resurrection – which Mark does not describe at all. His narrative ends with the empty tomb although a later writer has added a resurrection. Resurrection in Mark is an experience of triumph over suffering for Jesus’ followers.
  • We must pay special attention to the events and Jesus teaching along the road to Jerusalem for Mark most of all clearly identifies the nature of discipleship along this way.
  • Mark’s message is about courage and endurance in the face of suffering because God continues to upturn the existing orders and establish a new way of life in Jesus.

Psalms

Note how the Psalms echoes the beauty of the souls longing for God in the midst of the struggles of life. Note 27 and 28 in particular.

 

 

A how-to guide to meditating

Think of the process as three stages each taking us deeper. Begin with a sound of a bell or alarm, and set an alarm to signal the end of the practice. 
Bring your attention to the experience of sitting in your chair. Notice how those parts of your body feel when they engage the back of the chair – the seat of the chair. Think of the force of gravity acting on your body so that you are no longer trying to hold your body up but letting the weight of the body be supported through your sitting bones, the base of your spine, and the soles of your feet – a kind of sitting down rather than sitting up. 
 
Hold your hands on your lap, keep your head evenly positioned, and notice when your head falls forward or the chin lifts too high. Let your shoulders relax but try to keep the chest open so that the breath is not constricted.
 
Let a few moments elapse before moving to the next level.
 
Bring your attention to your breath – we breathe every moment of our lives but except when we are out of breath we hardly notice our breath. So notice it now, the slow movement of breath -in and out, in and out, in and out, in and out. 
 
Take the breath down into the belly or the area around your diaphragm. You will notice that the movement of the breath here is more in and out rather than up and down, it’s deep rather than shallow, it’s slow rather than quick. Let your diaphragm expand with the in-breath and contract with the out-breath. Take a few moments to simply watch yourself breathe.
 
Pause for a longer time before going to the third level of awareness.
Being aware of our body you are now also aware of your breath in relation to our body. Body and spirit are now aware of each other.  Body and spirit sitting in a harmony of awareness. You will notice that your thoughts are less easy to manage, that despite sitting and breathing your thoughts continue to distract you. You need to offer the mind a way of focussing attention rather than thinking. As you breathe in and out you might want to count your breaths from one to 10 and then from 10 back to 1. Hearing yourself silently count gives the mind a focus of awareness with the body and spirit. When we become distracted and loose count, on realizing this has happened we start the count again. Counting is a form of mantra, a silent word that sounds within us, connecting mind to body awareness through the movement of spirit. 
 
A mantra is a word that does not stimulate imagination or thinking. In meditation, we want to calm imagination not stimulate it. A common word recommended is maranatha – a word that divides evenly into four sounds with the first two ma – ra on the in-breath, the second two na –  tha on the out-breath – a word that does not distract us with its meaning. Try connecting this mantra with the rhythm of your breath.
 
When you find our mind has taken you to some other place, other than the place you are in – sitting, breathing, living in this moment of time – when you notice how the mind has done this, you simply bring it back to attending to watching the rising and falling of our breath. Again and again,  just come back to watching the breath. The breath is like an anchor, focusing – holding awareness deep in the body. The mantra is the chain that holds you to the anchor of the breath – preventing you from floating away on the currents of your thoughts.
 
We sit, we breathe, we count or say our word. We let a gentle awareness of watching ourselves sit, breathe, and say our word settle and calm us.  
Breathe in – breath out – breathe in – breathe out – in – out – in – out.
Wait for the sound of the gong or your alarm to signal the end of your sitting practice.
 

Days 22-28 editorial comment

The passages about the Exodus from Egypt raise some puzzling questions. Why did God harden Pharaoh’s, heart?  Why should we celebrate the slaughter of the Egyptian army? Viewed from our post-Jesus perspective these are the acts of a barbarous tribal God. So this is perhaps the point.

These are the actions of God filtered through early and early  Hebrew tribal and a later nationalist vision. When reading from this perspective the needless suffering God seems to inflict on the Egyptians is the device for the main point of the text. This is a text to remind the Israelites that God has heard us, God has freed us. Ours is a God who has taken the events of our captivity and freedom as occasions to show us his glory. We are now in no doubt that it is this God we must now love and worship.

It’s important to note our need to judge the text when it horrifies us. Yet, we need to move beyond this reaction and look behind the presentation to ask the question: what might this text mean to those for whom it was initially recorded? The subtext running at the heart of the Hebrew epic is that God has heard us, God has free us, God continues to preserve with us despite our trying of his patience in every conceivable way.

This subtext carries over into the Gospels. Throughout his ministry, and more so in the days leading to his death, Jesus is guided to act or not act by his mission that God will be fully revealed through him.

Matthew is my least favorite gospel because I experience Jesus at his most didactic and somehow detached. This, of course, is in keeping with Matthew’s view of Jesus filtered through the prototype of the greatest teacher of all, Moses. Am I able to get behind my personal reaction to Matthew to experience the words of Jesus as invitations for metanoia,i.e. the turning inside out or upside down of my heart. Jesus teaches through parables. Parables are stories drawn from everyday life in which everyday events are presented in order to challenge our default worldview. The parable of the workers in the vineyard in Chapter 20 is a case in point. Jesus conclusion is counter-intuitive to the way we normally understand just deserts. God’s sense of fairness confronts our notion of who is deserving and undeserving. Those who are important must behave as if they are the least in importance. This is a principle, whether we observe it or not in our living, that is deeply ingrained in us and so we can’t easily appreciate the radical challenge of this idea in a hierarchical world where power always went unchallenged and powerlessness was always exploited and despised. There is the simple story of the two sons, one who says yes but does not follow through and the other who says no, but then acts out his yes. How easily I see myself in this challenging story. This story then becomes the lens through which Jesus identifies through hypocrisy- appearing one way but in reality being its opposite, and all kinds of transactional thinking- acting in self-interest, or splitting hairs so as to absolve oneself of responsibility which in Chapter 23’s seven woes, so named because each begins with ‘Woe to you -‘. Here Jesus identifies the scribes and Pharisees as prototypes for these temptations in all of us.

Psalm 16 is perhaps my favorite psalm because of the lines because during what I look back on as a difficult time of life I was able to affirm the lines: The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. In the psalms, we find the myriad echoes of our own thought and feelings.

Days 15-22 editorial comment

Alasdair Macintyre in After Virtue notes:

I can only answer the question what am I to do?, if I can answer the prior question, of what story or stories do I find myself a part?

Day 19 has brought us to end of reading Genesis. We have encountered some rip-roaring yarns that put a lie to the assertion that the Bible is a book of cozy family values. The Genesis stories provoke a range of emotional responses in us from delight through incredulity, to horror and disgust. It’s important that we note the personal impact as we engage with these mythological stories. Remember that myth is an expansive story that transcends the dimensions of time and space. A myth is a once-upon-a-time story and is, in this case, the product of later editors recording in written form much earlier oral memories. I call them editors because they edit and arrange the stories to convey a contemporary message.

  1. The complex recital of genealogies has the purpose of creating continuity for later readers and the authority for later political and national aspirations.
  2. The descriptions of which sons’ fared well and which were rejected by God carries the message for later readers that explains how the Israelites are the descendants of those Genesis figures favored by God.
  3. We read into this a justification for the confiscation of other people’s lands. We also find a treasure trove of anthropological material concerning the tensions between farming and herding societies in the Bronze Age.
  4. Stories and events are given a theological meaning as we find over and over again God favors shepherds over farmers, a favoritism that resulted in the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. The message for a later time is that God favored the herding nomadic Hebrew tribes over the agricultural Canaanite farmers on the plain.
  5. In the stories of the Joseph cycle, we catch the echoes of famine induced migrations. We have hints about the arrival of new groups of economic migrants and refugees and how existing peoples struggled with their assimilation. We read how Joseph during the years of famine not only saves his own tribal group but engineers the gradual loss by the Egyptians of their individual land ownership to the overall control of Pharaoh. We can see a familiar process of feudalisation taking place, whereby small farmers are reduced to servitude and serfdom on large landed estates – representing the triumph of the elite 1% of the day at the expense of the 99%.

Genesis ends with the death of Jacob and the flourishing of Joseph. Exodus begins with the death of Joseph and the social upheaval in Egypt that resulted in the enslavement of the Hebrews, who over time had grown from a privileged ethnic clan to a national group that threatened the stability of Egyptian political society. With Exodus, we move from myth to epic stories. Epic is a story written across historical time, growing and changing, developing within the events of historical time. With the Moses cycle, we are now introduced to a series of events out of which the Hebrew Epic is born. Here the Israelites begin to identify as a nation who enter into a turbulent relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Hebrew Epic begins with a God who hears the cries of his enslaved people and comes to their aid as a liberator. So starts the great central motif of the Judao-Christian Epic – God is one who hears the cries of the oppressed and frees them from captivity. Everything after this is history, as they say.

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, in particular, is set against the backdrop of the Jewish Law. Matthew is the most Jewish of the Evangelists, writing for a Jewish Christian community still smarting from their expulsion from the synagogues as a newly emerging Rabbinical Judaism seeks to establish its boundaries. His anger with the Pharisees and Rabbis makes us uncomfortable as we read him following centuries of antisemitism in the Church and within living memory of the Holocaust. So it is important to understand that Matthew’s anger is a reflection of internal family conflict, as synagogue and church face one another from opposite sides of the street.

Reading Matthew these last three weeks has felt to me like running a breathless race, as he moves without letup from one difficult teaching to the next. I say difficult teaching because Jesus is opening up the inner meaning of the external regulations of the Law. External regulations are easy to fulfill in the sense you know when you have met the standard and when you fall short. Jesus’ teaching is more challenging because he is rooting behavior in the inner disposition of the heart. We can fulfill the external requirement, but where is our heart? Is it in alignment with the deeper spirit of Gods desire for us?

We have now read 19 Psalms. Have you begun to notice that many follow a three-fold structure? In part I, the psalmist will open with a line of praise before making his complaint to God. In part II he launches into an unabashed condemnation of his enemies. In part III he moves into a new tone of praise. For despite all his difficulties, God is there with him and for him.

In the Psalms, we find the mirror for every human condition and experience. No emotion of ours is alien to God. We need not hold back with our voice of complaint. After the catharsis of letting rip, we calm down enough to begin to experience the balm of God’s love for us.

 

Days 1-7 editorial comment

 

Why read the Bible in 21st Century America?

Alasdair Macintyre in After Virtue notes:

I can only answer the question what am I to do?, if I can answer the prior question, of what story or stories do I find myself a part?

Paul D Hanson in A Political History of the Bible in America has commented:

To gain a solid footing for understanding the mixed legacy of American political history, it is necessary to turn to the more ancient epic from which the leaders of our nation, from colonial times to the present, and for better or for worse, derived justification for their actions. That epic is the Bible.

So a further question is Why read the Bible at St Martin’s? Walter Bruggemann in his reflection for Day 6 of The Bible Challenge says this:

In our society where we imagine we may be or must be on our own, prayer is the core acknowledgment that in fact our lives are referred beyond ourselves.

We are a society that must reclaim a civic conversation that is both communitarian and inclusive. Personal and public attitudes and actions result from identity shaping stories. Small stories dominated by bigotry and violence have a harm upon our civic conversation. Stories of healing and liberation shape ideas of virtue and civility. Sharing such stories strengthens the moral capital of a society. I return to Bruggeman’s concept of prayer referring us beyond ourselves. Reading it, we can experience the Bible as an anchor point for an experience that cumulatively builds up in us, the more we read. This experience refers us beyond the circularity of our own small conscious stories of God or other, expanding around us the richness and texture of a larger story against the backdrop of which we become aware of our lives being lived.

Daily Bible reading is not transactional. We cannot predict the effect as if we could produce a predetermined outcome. An analogy here might be the build up of minerals in the bloodstream as the result of daily intake.

Walter Bruggemann in The Prophetic Imagination contrasts the power of prophetic imagination against that of the imagination of empire:

It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.

Reading history through a later lens

Much of the material in Genesis is technically myth material.  Myth is an expansive story that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Myth is a once-upon-a-time story, e.g. Genesis 1 – 3 and is frequently misunderstood in two ways:

  1. Taken literally –as concrete truth- and imposed upon contemporary context e.g. creationism
  2. Taken as fairy story – i.e. not true –and having no application in a contemporary context

What we read in Genesis is the later written recording of ancient oral tradition stories. The stories in Genesis can’t be read literally because we receive them through a reading of history through a later lens. The oral tradition stories date from around 2000 B.C. What we read is the recording of these stories beginning around 1000 B.C. for the purpose of creating a national history for David’s unified Kingdom of Israel so that it might be a nation like other nations around it. We see the same process in our own recording of our national history. We tell our history in order to challenge but more commonly justify our current status quo of national attitudes and worldviews shaped by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

The unified Kingdom of David was the end result of centuries of conquest and assimilation. Reading through the Davidic lens we read the story of Cain and Abel as a story about the conflict between herding and agrarian societies. The Israelites were a shepherding people, while the Canaanites were a farming people. Ergo, the story tells us that God favors herding activity over that of growing things. Noah curses his son Ham for beholding him while in naked, drunken stupor. Who are the children of Ham? Why none other than the Canaanites. In both stories, we see the later justification for the Israelite’s conquest of their neighbors and confiscation of their land.

In The Bible Challenge book, each day questions are posed following the daily commentary on the texts read. After the first week of The Bible Challenge here are some points we might focus on:

  • Gen 1-18 covers 4 creation stories: Gen 1 & 2, Gen 3-4 (The Fall and the fist murder) and Gen 6-8 (Noah). Gen 9-11 deals with the sorting out of the Canaanite nations as a preparation for the call of Abram in Chpt12 and the creation of the Israelite people. What’s the highlight or the nadir for you?
  • Note how Matt begins in true OT style with a genealogy – why?
  • Matt 5-8 has a particular name – what is it? How do you feel about Jesus’ teaching here?
  • How has the first week of The Bible Challenge affected you?

The Bible Challenge

Useful links:

The Bible Challenge as paperback or Kindle book  http://www.forwardmovement.org/Products/2114/the-bible-challenge.aspx

or https://smile.amazon.com/Bible-Challenge-Read-Year-ebook/dp/B008R0DRX2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1495031554&sr=8-1&keywords=the+bible+challenge+read+the+bible+in+a+year

Introductions

An introduction to The Bible Challenge http://www.ecfvp.org/vestry-papers/article/319/the-bible-challengeT

The Bible Challenge experience http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2012/03/26/the-bible-challenge-a-marathon-of-a-read/

Recommended Bible translations:

New King James NKJV, New International Version NIV, New Amercian Standard Bible NASB, New Revised Standard Version NRSV, New Jerusalem Bible NJB. We recommend an electronic version of the Bible which gives the option for listening as well as reading. Audio versions will be helpful if you want to listen to the daily readings while commuting or maybe before bed.  Recommended Bible App for smartphones and tablets https://www.bible.com/app  or Desktop Computer Bible access https://www.youversion.com/

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving 2016

This year St Martin’s will host the annual St Martin’s-Temple Beth-El Interfaith Thanksgiving Service on Tuesday, November 22nd at 7.00 pm. This year our speaker will be Kathy Cloutier, CE of Dorcas International of Rhode Island – a nonprofit dedicated to the resettlement of refugees. Thanksgiving highlights our collective experience, as a nation comprised of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, among whom a good number were refugees fleeing discrimination and violence.

Temple -Church Thanksgiving Message – also appeared as an Op-ed in The Providence Journal, Wednesday 22nd November.

On Thanksgiving Day, we will offer our usual Thanksgiving meal for those who don’t have anywhere more pressing to be. If you are coming to this and have not yet let the Office know please RSVP ASAP.

Community Carol Sing

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