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Special agents? Yes, but what’s with Abraham?

Signpost for Sunday 29 June 2014: Gen 22:1-14; Ps 13; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42

How many times have you read or heard “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt 10: 40)? I’ve heard it many times but it struck me this week that once again my twenty-first century ears might not be hearing what first century ears heard. So I looked it up. I discovered that in ancient Jewish custom, whenever a superior commissioned someone to act on his behalf, that person was regarded as if he was the same person as the superior who sent him. It meant, for example, that people thought of a king’s emissary as if he were the actual king.

This is called the concept of shaliah, or the Jewish law of agency and knowing that, it seems to me that Matt10:40 casts some light on the concept of who Jesus is and was. The author of Matthew knew all about shaliah, so did the disciples, so did every Jew around in AD 80-85. All of them are hearing more than Jesus commissioning his disciples, they are regarding Jesus as God because God has commissioned him. For them it’s not all about incarnation.

And then I saw that shaliah has a bearing on the story of Abraham too. Especially (Gen 19:13) when the angels tell Lot they are about to destroy Sodom. Angels who have been commissioned by YHWH so we know very well it is YHWH himself who is going to destroy Sodom. That’s certainly the way Abraham sees it in Gen 19:23 when he begins arguing with YHWH until it is agreed that Sodom won’t be destroyed if YHWH can find just ten righteous people in the city.

Hang on a minute. Is this Abraham the same man as the one in our reading this week? I only ask because when you hear YHWH’s words in Gen 22: 2, wouldn’t you expect Abraham to say something? But he doesn’t pipe up, doesn’t even squeak. I leave you to make of that what you will because all that came to my mind was this poetic version of the story, which I love:

The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision
And you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold.

Well, the trees they got much smaller,
The lake a lady’s mirror,
We stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over.
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
He looked once behind his shoulder,
He knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.

And if you call me brother now,
Forgive me if I inquire,
“just according to whose plan?”
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.

For those who don’t recognize it, it’s The Story of Isaac by Leonard Cohen

Paul

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Don’t tell me the old, old story.

Signpost for Sunday 2nd July 2017: Gen 22:1-14; Ps 13; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42.

Three years ago I wrote a Signpost on these very same verses. I was perturbed then and all I could really do was recommend Leonard Cohen’s song The Story of Isaac to you.

This time round I remain perturbed, and I’m not the only one. John C. Holbert, the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas has this to say about Genesis 22: “Let me make something very clear from the outset of this piece: I deeply dislike and thoroughly distrust this morsel of the sacred text.”

It’s worth reading the rest of his thoughts especially as he now refuses to preach on this text ever again.

Fortunately, I don’t have to preach on anything but I do have to write this Signpost. Which is why I’m glad that I happen to be reading a book by Brian D. McLaren at the moment. The title hooked me straight away: ‘Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.’ As a book that makes you think about things you may not have questioned, that many people just don’t question, I can thoroughly recommend it.

And what it has to do with the Abraham and Isaac story is that it suggests another way to look at the First and Second Testaments.

McLaren writes: ‘For most of us, I suspect, our concept of Christianity, follows a similar pattern to this: What is true of God is true of Jesus; Jesus is equal to God. Also, we would say that Jesus is the revelation of God to us, or that if we want to understand God, Jesus is the ‘human’ version of God.’

I think he’s right about that and it’s probably what I would have said before reading his book. But, he points out, there is another way of looking at things, one that McLaren suggests actually makes more sense of the notion of ‘New’ Testament and ‘Gospel’, and even the whole point of Jesus’ ministry on earth.

It’s not something new; the alternative concept of Christianity is in fact how Franciscans, the Celts and Quakers see things: First seek to understand or know Christ. Then apply this understanding to God. Enrich, challenge, adjust, affirm or correct all previous understandings of God in the light of Christ.

Personally, I’d never thought about Christianity in exactly those terms. And then I thought, if I take this approach, the story of Abraham and Isaac is less of a problem for me. Or to put it another way – this is not a story about the God I believe in, because Jesus shows me a different understanding of who God is.

Paul

It’s not that simple, and it’s not that easy.

Signpost for Sunday 6th July 2014: Gen 24:34-38,42-49, 58-67; Ps 45:10-17 or Song of Sol 2:8-13; Rom 7:15-25a; Matt 11:16-19,25-30

If you were to just read the Old Testament texts this week you’d be reading love stories, and they’re stories about the love between two people as much as the love of God. I was enjoying reading them that way when I noticed a couple of things that aren’t quite so straightforwardly storybook.

The first is that maybe Isaac and Rebekah aren’t quite the young lovers I usually see in my mind’s eye. Because when you read on a bit you find Genesis 25:20 and that tells us that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah. A bit of an old bachelor then – which would have been pretty unusual in those days to say the least. It also makes Gen 24:37 seem less clear-cut. There’s Abraham making sure his son doesn’t get hitched to one of the local girls, who surely he must have been eyeing up for at least 20 years. Just makes me wonder about Isaac really.

But there’s something even more unusual in the story. Rebekah’s mother and brother try to delay her departure (Gen 22:55) while Abraham’s servant is insisting that they leave sooner. Then, guess what. They call in Rebekah and ask her what she wants to do (57-58). Pardon? Surely that’s unheard of in the fiercely patriarchal society of the time, let alone the male dominated context of biblical scripture. Bethuel and Milcah were very enlightened parents. Shame Rebekah and Isaac didn’t quite live happily ever after.

Speaking of happy endings, like many people I’m particularly fond of the last two verses of this week’s reading from Matthew (11:29-30). These comforting words appear nowhere else. So I was intrigued to find the very helpful John Petty saying this:

“Most of our translations over-spiritualize this passage, in my humble opinion. Jesus is specifically addressing those who are over-worked and carrying a heavy load. In first century Israel, that group consisted of poor people in a condition of political and religious oppression.”

But then he goes onto say that the yoke Jesus asks people to take up isn’t a literal device for carrying something. Apparently “Yoke” was a common metaphor for Torah and the Mosaic Law. So Jesus is offering those who follow him a new version of law.

This new way of doing things is literally doing things Jesus’s way – and Matthew’s audiences would indeed be followers of The Way. Jesus’s way involves meals eaten at an open table and extending fellowship to all. That’s the point of Matthew 11:19 perhaps.

Then my Bible, like many, translates Matthew 11:30 as “My yoke is easy.” I don’t read Greek but John Petty does and he says, “‘Easy’ is too superficial, given the richness and importance of the word in this context. The Greek word is xrestos—‘goodness, benevolence, pleasant, worthy, loving, kind,’ or, even better, ‘active benevolence in spite of ingratitude.’”

My own little epiphany this week was to wonder about the very last phrase, “and my burden is light.” As I say, I don’t read ancient Greek (or modern for that matter) but I wonder if those words could have another meaning other than how heavy the burden is. It struck me that Jesus is literally carrying the light, and it’s the light that helps us see things for what they really are.

Paul

Three tongues speaking.

Signpost for Sunday May 20, 2018 (Pentecost): Ezek 37:1-14; Rom 8: 22-27; Acts 2:1-21.

All of us who have written a few Signposts face the prospect of writing on the same readings more than once over the years. Pentecost is such a day, and I think all of us find writing about very famous passages and festivals a challenge. I wrote last year’s Pentecost Signpost for 1 June 2017, so this year I thought it might be interesting to look back a bit further at what a few of us have written about today’s readings over the years.

Sheila, as always, sets the scene so well: Seven weeks from Passover, celebrating the Exodus, to Shavu’ot, celebrating the giving of the Torah, by some considered to be the day on which Judaism was born. Seven weeks from the Resurrection to the giving of the Holy Spirit, the day on which the Christian Church was born. Our faith is overflowing with symbolism, and Pentecost is the most striking of them all.

Andrew has given us this striking picture of the early Church as being made up of: earnest students of the word. By the word I mean the scriptures that we call the Old Testament. By early I do not mean the years immediately after the crucifixion, but those times when things were beginning to be written down. There is a gap here because the first generation mostly believed that the times were so short that there was no point in writing things down. Then Paul and others began writing letters; and experience of being scattered throughout the Roman world meant that some gathered up sayings of Jesus and other little lists. And being driven out of Jerusalem by the Roman invasion and destruction was the last straw.

So they looked back on what they could remember, and they also looked back on the scriptures; and they interpreted their memory of events to fit their understanding of the sacred writings, sometimes regarding them as predictions about their own times.

For them the later portions of Isaiah were there in order to make sense of the Cross. Ezekiel’s skeletons were there to show how the dead church after the shock of Jesus’ death could come alive and spread to the whole Roman world.

And five years ago I had my first go at Pentecost: Acts 2:3 describes tongues of fire, and who knows if tongue-shaped flames actually flew in and came to rest on each disciple’s shoulder or what really happened. The image makes a great painting, though, (El Greco, Giotto, Reubens) but is that the point? Tongues of fire seem to me to represent a burning desire to speak about Jesus and his message. Pentecost makes this an absolutely immediate impetus for Peter and the rest of them. Then Acts:8 is supposed to be a miracle. Again I don’t think so. You can waste a lot of time arguing about what happened that day. But surely the real point is not that each disciple was magically able to speak 15 languages at the same time (Acts 2:9-11) or that that they were ‘speaking in tongues’ that miraculously translated in the ear of each listener. You could say it’s simply pointing to the fact that the Gospel was intended for everyone, not just the Jewish people. Or you could put it this way: Jesus’ message can be understood by everyone in the world, no matter what language they speak or in which country they are born. Love your neighbour as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Those are universal concepts. Most people just seem to have trouble living up to them. That’s usually where the trouble starts.

Paul

P.S. Don’t forget to wear something pink or red to church this week. I always forget.

 

The vine, the Minister of Finance and the naughty Christians.

Signpost for Sunday, 29th April 2018: Acts 8:26-40 Ps 22:25-31 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8.

It’s interesting to compare and contrast John’s viticultural analogy in today’s Gospel with Paul’s anatomical analogy t 1 Cor. 12 12-30.  Both are based on a living organism, one plant and onChristianse animal.  One argumentative and one passive, one culled for failing to produce results, and the other potentially disrupting the performance of the whole organism by envying the function of another part.  The vine picture is important in stressing our need to be attached to the True Vine if we are to deliver the goods. But I find that the picture of the body is more useful, as it lays stress on the many different special functions that have to co-operate to make up a productive entity.

If you read both passages, I’m sure you’ll find some other similarities and contrasts between the two pictures.

The story of the Ethiopian Minister of Finance is also full of interest (Acts 8:26-40). The part of the world he came from was what we would call the Sudan, and it was ruled by female monarchs in those days. Women’s Lib can claim an ancient and honourable history!  We tend to think of the inclusion of Gentiles in the Church as having been started with Peter’s vision of the sheet (or sail) descending with forbidden animas, and his subsequent preaching to Cornelius, and the missions of Paul, later on still.   But this total foreigner became a baptised Christian on an impulse before either of those mainstream events.

It’s a great pity that Luke wasn’t able to follow up on that story (Lk 1. 1-4 & Acts 1.1) because we do know that a Christian Church was established in that part of the world and that it subsequently became totally separated from the mainline Churches of the Mediterranean Seaboard. The Coptic1 Church and its close relative in what we now call Ethiopia preserve customs, ceremonies. And doctrines much closer to those of the infant Church that Philip knew than anything that survives in the Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant Churches.

They also preserved a translation in their own language of a Hebrew text known as the Book of Jubilees, which consists of a re-write of many of the early stories in the Hebrew Bible. Among its curiosities is a different version of the story of Abraham and Isaac, which puts a totally different spin on it from that in Genesis. For centuries Jewish scholars insisted that it was heretical, and a dirty trick perpetuated by naughty Christians. They had to change their story when fragments of it written in Hebrew turned up among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

 

From the collected Signposts of the late Brye Blackhall

 

1 Coptic Christian pig-farmers in Egypt in 2009 were very upset when the government used the swine flu as an excuse to put them out of business.

 

Doctor doesn’t always know best.

Signpost for Sunday 18 March, 2018 (Fifth Sunday in Lent): Jer 31. 31-34; Ps 51. 1-12; (or Ps 119. 1-16); Heb 5. 5-10; Jn 12. 20-23.

The passage from Jeremiah is full of hope for the future, even as the prophet’s country is sliding into chaos. The ‘new covenant’ will replace the old one of law with an internal understanding of the will of God. We looked at “Covenant “a few weeks ago.

Psalm 51 is sub-titled “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” It reminds us that the Law has much to do with sin and repentance. It also shows, in the part we do not read this Sunday, that restoration of the sinner to God is primarily a ritual matter, so that there might be worthy worship.

Psalm 119 features a type of poetry; each group consists of eight lines beginning with one letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Verses 1 – 8 begin with aleph, verses 9 – 16 begin with beth; and so on to section 22  –  tau  –  at the end of the Psalm. Evidence of this is completely missing in my NRSV; fortunately I have kept an old AV out of antiquarian interest.

I came across Psalm 119 in peculiar circumstances recently. At my daughter’s graduation ceremony, one of the other people graduating was a Ph.D. and her thesis was summarised in the programme with the other Ph.D.’s. “A Christian reading of Psalm 119.  An exploration of Torah as God’s self-revelation using a Trinitarian hermeneutic.”  I don’t know anything about the circumstances of the origin of the Psalm, though I am confident that it was not written by David, but it was not a Christian document, and it was penned long before the church thought about what was meant by Trinitarian. For me this is false exegesis and does despite to the original intention of the Psalmist.

Melchizedek seems to be important to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, whoever that was. He (she?) refers to Melchizedek by name eight times and discusses him extensively in chapters 5 to 7. The origin of this name is found in Genesis 14:18.

Surely the Gospel will be the reading on which most sermons will be preached this Sunday. (I am assuming that preaching is still mostly done on the basis of lections, even if exegesis is a dying art) I did preach on Jeremiah once in my first parish, but even then it could just as easily been on John. This Sunday is also called Passion Sunday, as John goes to the heart of the Gospel in speaking of the coming death of Jesus, and the way disciples are destined to follow him. But more on this subject in Holy Week.

Andrew

‘Come Together’ is not really a Beatles song

Signpost for 25 February, 2018, 2nd Sunday in Lent: Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps 22:23-31; Rom 4:13-25; Mark 8: 31-38.

We sometimes speak of the new relationship that we have with God through Jesus as the New Covenant. This reflects the Old Covenant* that is a feature in our Old Testament reading today, the Covenant between God and Abraham.

The idea of a covenant has been important in a number of periods in the history of the Church.  Some of my ancestors in the Kirkudbright district of Scotland in the eighteenth century were “Covenanters”. When the reformation came to Scotland, thousands of the reformed believers signed the Solemn League and Covenant. They wanted to set up a nation under God where, in effect, the State would be secondary to the Church.

When the new Government was set up in Scotland, as it was in England, the reverse happened. The Church always had influence on the State, but the State always had a degree of control over the Church, as it has to this day in England, but no longer in Scotland.   The Covenanter Church continued quite strongly for a long time, the first dissenters from Presbyterian Orthodoxy.

During the Nineteenth Century revival in England, the Evangelical wing of the Church of England held firmly to the idea of covenant, and they were often very influential in the government of the day. They were in control when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, and the support of the missionaries for the Treaty was often expressed in covenant terms. So we cannot do justice to our own history without some awareness of the importance of covenant ideas. It still echoes in discussions of the Treaty today.

Returning to our readings; while we speak of a New Covenant in Jesus, it would be better to see his actions in the Gospel for today as an expression of the first Covenant.

In the Old Testament story, Abram and Sarai were surprised when they were told they would have a child, but they rejoiced and became faithful when that actually happened to them.  Paul comments on this in the Epistle. He is rather idealistic; he ignores Abraham and Sarah’s times of failure to be faithful. He also gives more importance to Abraham than to Sarah, though the covenant is to them as a couple, rather than to the man and then to the woman as subsidiary to her.

Jesus is faithful to the Covenant in a way that would have surprised many of his co-religionists. He expresses it through his willingness to brave danger for the sake of the message he bears. And it is in the suffering that follows that we believe we see the New Covenant.

What has this to say about Lent; perhaps Lent is about giving up the risk-free life rather than minor indulgences. I hope our worship on Sunday features the hymn “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?”  by John L Bell and Graham Maule, to the traditional Scottish tune, “Kelvingrove”, and that we sing it at a reckless speed!

Andrew

*the word covenant comes from the Latin ‘con venir’ – coming together.

Just add water.

Signpost For Sunday 18th. February, 2018 (First Sunday in Lent): Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15.

There is in inter-generational story in my family which may provide a little amusement, so I will start off with it. My grandfather was a deputy mine manager of a large coal mine in the West Midlands of England. He told me that one day the mine manager gave instructions that there should be “only a few men down the mine”. Later, when he asked how many men were actually underground my grandfather’s answer was that there were two hundred men in the mine, which was significantly less than the usual number. The manager said, “You should know better than that. It’s in the Scriptures: first Peter.” This was a reference to a phrase in our reading from the epistle reading: few, that is eight.

There is no doubt in my mind that my grandfather was perfectly aware of the biblical reference, and also that he would never have used it himself in that particularly literal manner, especially since it comes from a passage dealing with symbols. In his typical fashion he told this story about himself in order to make me think.

But why would Peter be writing about Noah in the context of a discussion of suffering, both of Christ himself and, earlier, of Christians? He was describing baptism as being a statement that the person baptised was publicly making an appeal to God for a clear conscience. The baptism itself was also a symbol of death and resurrection, with a new start. Noah was in the position that a catastrophe, in which he lost his home, his friends, but not the family which accompanied him, were given a new beginning, a new covenant with God. They were given the new start as a consequence both of faith and of loss, but the new start obviously involved a new life, in a changed environment.

If we use this idea as a symbol of baptism we can see that commitment to Christ does not allow us to avoid suffering and loss, but it does allow us to ride it out, with a new covenant and a new way of life.

George

 

A change of government.

Signpost for Sunday 29 October, 2017: Deut 34:1-12; Ps 90:1-6,13-17; 1 Thess 2:1-8; Matt 22:34-46.

Sometimes the Lectionary really does go hand in hand with real life. Three years ago almost to the day, Andrew wrote the Signpost for these same readings. At the time, he noted how the death and burial of Moses led to Joshua and his leadership. He also pointed out that the transition, the change of government, as it were, was very smooth. All of which he said was very interesting in the shadow of the 2014 New Zealand General Election.

Now, here we are in the shadow of another New Zealand General Election, and the transition, the change of government has been much more interesting than it was last time, and some would say far from very smooth.

So much so that it’s not the Deuteronomy verses that seem so appropriate this time, but it’s Matthew 22:34-46 which seem to echo our current circumstances.

Here’s Jesus at the end of a right old grilling by the Sadducees and now the Pharisees gang up on him. But Jesus handles himself brilliantly, turning the tables on them, and remaining quietly calm as he cleverly changes the conversation about the greatest commandment to a question about the superiority of the Messiah to David.

That question, “Whose son is the Messiah?” is the big one. If the Messiah was the son of David, then his job would be to restore the throne of David. Which is probably what lots of first century Jews were convinced it should be. Or as we say in New Zealand, same old, same old.

But as Jesus points out, if the Messiah is greater than David, as the scriptures indicate when David calls him “my lord” – then his job would be much more than to simply restore or prop up an old throne of David’s.

And that is the point surely. Jesus wasn’t at all interested in returning to some ancient status quo. No, it was well and truly time to move on. Time to abandon the laws that had come to favour some much more than others in society. Time to recognise that radical love for all, was the only way forward.

Verse 46 tells us that the Pharisees were gobsmacked by this. No doubt they hated Jesus’ every word and positive outlook.

So here we are three years after our last general election, and finally after nine long years we are not facing the same old, same old. We have a charismatic new Prime Minister with a relentlessly positive outlook. Many people here really do feel as if this is a new beginning for New Zealand. Let’s pray that every member of our new government will be guided by radical love for all.

Paul

 

Now is the hour.

Signpost for Sunday 7 August 2016: Isaiah 1:1,10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40.

I had a bit of trouble with this week’s gospel reading. It starts off all very reassuringly telling us not to be afraid, then after a couple of verses it’s warning us to be ready and waiting with our loins girded. It ends up telling us we’ll get a good hiding if we eat, drink and get more than merry. On top of all that, half way through Peter, who may well have been as confused as I was, asks, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?” (verse 41). Although verse 42 begins, ‘The Lord answered’ I’m not sure he does at all, strictly speaking.

In the end, as usual, I looked at the things that struck me on first reading to see if could make any sense of why they had struck me at all.

There’s something interesting about the very first verse here, for a start: it states that God has already given us the kingdom.  Surely that means that the kingdom of God is something that is present right now. It’s not something that only kicks in after we die, or after global warming has done its worst.

Then the historical context around the giving of a gift. Whenever someone gave you a gift in the first century CE, it was not just polite, it was obligatory to give them a gift of similar value in the future.  Here’s the author of Luke seems to suggest there’s no gift you could possibly give God that literally comes anywhere near the generosity of his gift of the kingdom. Of course, God knows that, so instead “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” But what’s also interesting here is that Jesus’s injunction for his hearers to give alms doesn’t focus on the needs of the poor. There’s no talk of how much better off the poor will be with the alms we give them. Instead, we will be better off.

A final thought I discovered on reading an article by Maryann-McKibben-Dana the other day: There are two or three thousand verses on wealth and poverty in the Bible — as opposed to homosexuality, which is mentioned in just six verses of scripture  (http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-scripture-luke-1232-40-maryann-mckibben-dana/). Ask yourself which subject the church is expanding so much of its time on in heated debate? It ain’t the issue of wealth inequality.

Paul