Tag Archives: Old Testament

A Scoundrel’s Dream: Jacob’s Ladder

 

jacobs-ladderThe full readings for today can be found here.

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Well good evening, good evening. It’s a great pleasure to be with you here at St. Stephen’s, and I want to thank you for your warm hospitality and your rector for the invitation to preach, especially on Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael and all angels.

You know, I love the story of Jacob. I love it for a lot of reasons, including that I’m his namesake and I’m so much like that rascal. I mean, he swindles his brother out of his birthright for a bowl of stew, and then he lies and cheats his way into his father’s blessing. And when he brother figures out what’s happened to him, he does the only thing he can do: he skeedaddles out of there and goes to a foreign land.

And we find these stories time and again. Moses was a murderer with a speech impediment; Rahab was a prostitute; King David was an adulterer and a terrible father; St. Paul was a harsh, judgmental and cruel man who tortured and probably killed the early Christians. And Jacob, well, he’s a certified mess. These men and women were frail and broken and troubled—you know, like you and me.

And yet we call this book that talks about them holy; we call their stories sacred—not because they were such delightful and upright people, but because of the surprising and inconceivable ways that God used them. God takes this weak clay, these broken vessels, and says, “I can do something with that.” He does it in the same way that he looked at the cross, an instrument of shame and torture and humiliation, and said, “I can do something with that.”

So, let’s get back to the story of Jacob. Jacob is on the run from his brother Essau, who intends to kill him. And he’s travelling at night, back to his mother’s homeland. So he’s left his home, and he’s in the wilderness. And there’s no place quite so alone when you’re away from home as a wilderness landscape at night. As Barbara Brown Taylor observed, “Jacob “is on no vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry. He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making.”

Funny things happen in unexpected places. God is born in a cow barn. God speaks from a burning bush. On the road to Damascus, the Church’s greatest enemy becomes its greatest advocate. And here in this wilderness, in this nowhere, this scoundrel Jacob has a dream. Dreams are funny things: they occur outside the boundaries of time and place. But in that “unplace” Jacob the refugee dreams of heaven and earth. And God, the God of his forefather Abraham, comes looking for Jacob in that dream.

Jacob sees the angels, God’s messengers, as they travel up and down that ladder between heaven and earth. This is Jacob’s dream: a constant traffic between this life and the divine life. And in this place of limbo, where Jacob is cutoff from both his past and his future, in this wilderness, it is YHWH who speaks to Jacob.

Scripture tells us., And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” So, the Lord does three things there: the Living God traces his presence back through Jacob’s family tree, promises Jacob the land and God’s blessing, and assures this rascal of the divine presence in his life.

And when he wakes up, Jacob announces one of the most profound statements in the whole of Scripture: “Surely the Lord was in this place— and I did not know it.”  It is a remarkable observation, but I think Jacob was only half-right. You see, the point of the story isn’t exactly that God was in Beer-sheba, or Haran, or Bethel, or Jerusalem. All those things are true, but the point of the story is that God was in Jacob, with Jacob.  And he didn’t even know it.

Now, if that were true of only Jacob, it would be an interesting biblical fact, but not especially important. But through the incarnation, through God becoming flesh and walking among us, and through our baptism and the bread and wine we take into our lives, God is with us, too. God is in us and with us, and like Jacob, most of the time we don’t even know it.

In the late 1700s, there was a very famous rabbi named Levi Yitzchok, who lived in Berditchev (in the modern country of Ukraine). In trying to interpret this passage of Scripture, he wrote that the ladder represents all of humanity. Our feet are firmly planted on the earth, but we are forever reaching toward heaven, toward the divine. I like that idea. We are called to be instruments of the traffic between heaven and earth; we are called to be the conduit of the divine recreation, heralds of the incarnation, and called to make a pathway for messages to and from the God of Abraham, of Sarah, of Isaac and  Rebecca, and the God of Jacob.

Soon, our brother Wesley will make his vows as a Dominican novice. I can’t speak for him, but one of the startling things that took place as I began to live into those vows was the recognition that God was with me, that God was in this place, and I didn’t even know it.

It is my prayer for him as he begins this new vocation that he have a vision of angels bearing messages to and from the Living God. And today, it’s my prayer for Father Wesley, and it’s my prayer for you and me as well, that we come to realize that God is in this place.
Amen.
© 2016 James R. Dennis

Oh My Son Absalom

absalom

The readings for this morning can be found here:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

In the name of the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

          It was 49 years ago, almost to the day, back in my hometown of Odessa. It was my birthday, and my parents had given me a Gilbert chemistry set. (To this day, I still don’t know what they were thinking about.) And in that chemistry set was the formula for a certain explosive. But the chemicals were in little tiny plastic vials, and I knew I couldn’t do much with that. So I strolled down to the drugstore with my birthday money and I bought a pound of each of the ingredients of this compound.

          Then I walked into our kitchen and asked my mother if I could borrow one of her pots. When she asked what for, I answered: “a science experiment.” She beamed with pride as she handed me a copper-bottomed Revere ware pot. The effort to further my education was working. And I mixed the three chemicals together, and made a long fuse, and placed the pot underneath my tree house and sought shelter behind our home.

          Later that afternoon, after the fire trucks left, my father asked me, “Son, I just want to know what was on your mind?” And I tried to keep from crying as I told him that I didn’t know that it would work. Now, my father was a man with a great capacity for wrath. And he visibly shook as he tried to control himself and gave me a bit of advice, advice that he would repeat several times during my life. He said, “James, the process of elimination is no way to live your life.”

          Now, I was not in open revolt against my father…not yet. That would come years later, during the years my parents would refer to as “the intifada.” But I’m sure my father understood how David felt when his son took up arms against him.

          You know, sometimes, I hear people say that what’s wrong with this country, or this time, or this world is that we need to return to old-fashioned biblical family values. And I wonder whether they’re thinking about King David, and about his family, or exactly what they have on their minds.

But before we get to the text for this morning, it’s worth thinking about the back-story concerning King David. David was a young man when God called him out to succeed Saul, the first king of Israel. He was a shepherd, a good looking boy. He was a poet and a musician, and a fierce warrior who killed a giant named Goliath. He was the pride of the land and a just king who united the people of Israel. And when things were good, they were very good until….until they weren’t good anymore.

          You may recall that later on David committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, and then a whole bunch of trouble began. Bathsheba’s husband was a man named Uriah, one of David’s soldiers. And when Bathsheba got pregnant, you’ll remember that David sent Uriah into battle to be sure that he’d be killed so David could take Bathsheba for his wife.

I think one of the things we learn from this story is that sin works a little like the science of forensics, particularly bullet wounds. As the bullet enters the body, the wound is often small and sometimes almost imperceptible. But as it travels through our lives, it tears through bone and tissue and flattens, and the exit wound is often much, much larger. Sin works like that: we cannot imagine the consequences for ourselves or for those we love. It was like that with David.

          So God sent his prophet Nathan to have a chat with David. And Nathan told him the consequences of what he’d done. Nathan said, “the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house….”

          Now that doesn’t end the family troubles for David. Not by a long shot. You see, his oldest son was a boy named Amnon.  Amnon raped his half-sister, a girl named Tamar. Her brother, Absalom, was David’s favorite son. But when David did nothing to punish Amnon, Absalom took matters into his own hands. He apparently believed in that old proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold, and he brooded and waited two years before setting a trap and having his servants kill Amnon at a feast.

          And after a few years in exile, and a few more years of a cold silence, Absalom lead a revolt against his father, against the King, against God’s chosen servant. So, as far as family values go, neither Paris Hilton, the Kennedys, the Jackson family, nor the Kardashians had anything on King David. Or, as Elvis Costello said, “There’s no such thing as an original sin.”

          The text this morning begins as David’s armies are prepared to smash the armies of his son, Absalom. And we hear tenderness in David’s voice as he asks his generals to deal gently with the man, Absalom. Now, notice that at this point, David calls him “the man” rather than “my son.” I suspect David felt a little conflict between his competing roles as king and father. I suspect that some of us here may have felt that conflict between our roles as father and salesman, or mother and doctor, or mother and priest. My friend Rabbi David Wolpe has observed that many times during this story of David and his son, we find not so much a lack of love as a refusal to love. Often David seems frozen, monstrous in his distance from his sons and daughters. He has riven an icy separation between himself and his children.

          And as the battle progresses, we find Absalom in a wooded area, in a forest, riding on a mule. And his head gets caught in the trees, and the text tells us that he was left hanging between heaven and earth. Hanging between heaven and earth. And every time I read that passage, I think of another son (this time, an obedient son) who also hung between heaven and earth. That son, our Lord Jesus, hung there not because of his rebellion, but because of ours.

          And then, despite David’s plea to the contrary, his soldiers surround Absalom and kill him. And when David hears of his son’s death, a death he had no small part in, he cries, “Oh my son, Absalom. Would that I could have died in your place.” Now, David had a complicated relationship with his favorite son. He sort of vacillated between spoiling him rotten and raking him over the coals. And the Bible tells us that Absalom was a beautiful boy, that he was “without blemish.” If we read scripture carefully, we’ll note that great beauty is almost always a bellwether of great trouble.

          You see, in one sense, I think we’re all Absalom. We’re all ungrateful children, all rebellious children. And in another sense, we’re all David. We’re all paralyzed by the consequences of our sins, watching them uncoil like snakes before us. We’re all frozen and withholding forgiveness, all demanding retribution rather than rushing toward reconciliation. This isn’t just the story of David and Absalom: this is our story.

          And David cries that if could have suffered these consequences instead of his son, he would gladly have done so. And there’s something deeply heartbreaking about that moment, when David should be celebrating his victory as king but is instead forced to confront his failure as a father, and as a man. I suspect every parent has felt that heartache. But David is telling us that he would have done this boy’s dying for him. But we know that even David, even a King, can’t do that.

          Only the living God can do that, dying for us, his son dying in our place so that we would live and have abundant life. It is that God who shows us a way out of rebellion, who rushes toward us in reconciliation. It is that God who calls us to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” It is that God who calls to us, “Come to me.” It is that God who promises us that if we eat the bread of life, we will live forever. It is that God who invites us to this table. So take, and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

There Once Was a Man

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the LORD, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. Job 1:1; 2:1-10.

In the Old Testament reading, the Lectionary leads us to the Book of Job, a vastly rich and yet deeply challenging selection.  Virginia Woolf once famously said, “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” I have felt the same way on occasion, but we should remember a number of things as we reflect on this marvelous book.

First, the Book of Job offers us a parable, not a history.  Even the introductory line (“There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job”) sounds a bit like a child’s fairy tale. We also get a hint that this is a parable in the notion the next line, with the notion that Job was “perfectly upright.” Thus, we’re dealing with an archetype here.  Job represents the best of our humanity in a narrative told to teach us a lesson. The parable muses on the theme “Why do the righteous suffer?”

Many of us have wondered why the wicked or the godless prosper, while good people sometimes seem to carry insurmountable burdens.  The Book of Job reflects on the latter issue. Jesus also addressed this issue when He said, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  Matt: 5:44-45.

We should also remember that this book was written sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries before Christ.  By that time, the chosen people had already endured slavery under the Egyptians, the Assyrian exile and the Babylonian exile.  They had seen the destruction of the Temple, which for them constituted the intersection of heaven and earth.  Having suffered through slavery, famine, conquest and separation, they might rightly have wondered: chosen for what, exactly?

So, we have this text before us in which God appears to enter into a wager with Satan.  It’s also important to remember in Hebrew the word Satan isn’t a name; it’s a title or a function.  It meant something like the accuser, the prosecutor, or the adversary. If we read this work as a parable, rather than a history, it might have something to teach us about the kind of accusations that get tossed about when we (either as individuals or as a people) find ourselves engaged in spiritual warfare.  And we might take a little comfort from the idea that God seems to have a remarkable faith in Job’s (and perhaps our) ability to weather life’s storms.

When The Adversary strikes Job down with a hideous disease, and Job’s wife questions his “foolish” commitment to God, Job’s response resounds in our hearts.  He says “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” That question will echo throughout the rest of the book of Job. Job answers what some have called the Prosperity Gospel, the notion that “good things happen to good people” (and implicitly therefore, bad things happen to bad people).  We still hear the ruminations of that today in modern Christianity, and Job calls it what it is: balderdash.

I hope to come back to Job again soon.  I think the pearl is well worth the dive.  Despite it’s childlike opening, the Book of Job offers us anything but a fairy tale.  The book of Job sets out the struggle of faith, a struggle against faithlessness in the confrontation of pain and anguish. We find Jesus engaged in that same struggle on Golgotha as he cries out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me)? I think, at some time, most of us will find ourselves in that struggle, and we rightly pray to be saved from that time of trial.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Exit Wounds

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”  2 Samuel 11:1-15.

The story of David and Bathsheba offers us an insight into our nature and the abuse of power.  Moreover, it offers us an insight into the nature of sin and the things that separate us from the Living God.  It illustrates a theory I have about the nature of sin.

I think many of us find, as David found, that sin operates much like an exit wound in the forensic sciences.  Often, when one is shot with a firearm, the exit wounds are much larger than the entrance wounds.  That happens because as the round moves through the body of the victim it slows down and explodes within the tissue and surrounding muscle.  I think sin works much the same way.

The story begins with David remaining behind while his armies are at war.  He sees a beautiful woman, which leads to lust and envy, which this leads to an adulterous encounter, which leads to rape, which leads to an embarrassing pregnancy, which leads to deception and ultimately to the intent to have Uriah (Bathsheba’s husband) killed.  So, that one glance off from the rooftop spiralled out of control, tearing through the spiritual lives of three people and ultimately, a kingdom.

I think we miss the point if we simply conclude “David was a really bad guy” or “Look what a pickle he got himself into.” I don’t think sin operates any differently in your life, or mine, that it did in David’s.  Yes, David exploited and abused his power.  Yes, I have, too.  While we might for a moment get a chuckle at what a damn fool David was, it will fade quickly when we take a look at some of the foolish things we’ve done ourselves.

While we may not intend the consequences, or even foresee them, we can pretty much rest assured that sin will leave a much larger hole going out than it did on the way in. And although we’d like to think that the guilty, and only the guilty will suffer the consequences, we know that’s just not true.  In the story of David, as in many of our own stories, lots of innocent people get hurt, get their hearts broken, and are destroyed.

On occasion, Scripture doesn’t leave us any room for pretense, doesn’t leave us any room for the little self-justifying illusions to which we become so accustomed.  Sometimes, as in today’s Old Testament reading Scripture gives us a box of darkness.  It takes a good long while, sometimes a lifetime, to recognize that this, too, is a gift.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Building a House

When David, the king, was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.”

But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.  2 Samuel 7:1-14a.

Today’s Lectionary reading from the Old Testament provides us with a pivotal and grace-filled passage.  David has bested the Philistines, conquered Jerusalem, and established his royal court. Having overcome his enemies, David seems posed to work on his legacy.  He seeks to consolidate political power and religious authority in this new capital city. To further that goal, David wants to raise a temple, and within its Holy of Holies, to create a repository for the ark of the covenant.  He wants to ensure the availability of God and divine power in the midst of the people of Israel.

David turns for approval to the prophet Nathan, who initially agrees that this would be a grand idea.  (Nathan does so, however, without consulting the Almighty.)  That night, however, Nathan receives “the word of the Lord”:  God doesn’t think much of this idea.  Since the beginning of time, God has accompanied his people freely, without being subjected to a location of human choosing.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Mr. Tumnus tells Lucy that she will see Aslan again.  When she asks when, Mr. Tummus replies:  “In time.  One day he’ll be here and the next he won’t.  But you must not press him.  After all, he’s not a tame lion.”  Like Lucy, David would discover that God would not be domesticated.  Perhaps we, and our churches, should remember that lesson.

God’s refusal to be contained, however, does not suggest that He is abandoning David (nor us).  Rather, the Lord notes, “I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.”  I wonder if we can hear God saying that to us today?

Rather than David erecting a house for the Lord, God promises that He will build a house for David.  From David’s offspring, the Lord will raise up a kingdom.  And speaking of this offspring, God offers David a rich abundance of good news:  “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”  We Christians read this to speak of the one we call Savior, and boldly claim that we are His body.  While David was concerned with architecture, God was concerned with His people and raising up their Redeemer.  Holiness cannot and will not be contained; despite our efforts, we cannot tame the Spirit.

I think the message remains the same for us today.  Despite our reductionist impulses, God will not fit into the benign structures we create.  The more important question, is will we make room for God among His people?  Will we structure our lives so as to accommodate God’s immense capacity to create and recreate?  I pray we will.  And I also pray we may have the wisdom to recognize that God’s “No” usually contains a hidden blessing beyond our imagination.  We call that “grace.”

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Prophet Amos: Speaking Truth to Power

This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I  will  never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
      and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
      and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

`Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
      and Israel must go into exile
      away from his land.'”

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'”  Amos 7:7-15.

One of today’s Old Testament readings in the Lectionary comes from the Book of the Prophet Amos.  Amos came from the southern kingdom of Judah, and began his prophetic work  around 750 B.C.  (A few years later, the Northern Kingdom would fall to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.)

During this time, under the rule of Jeroboam II, the Northern Kingdom enjoyed great power and wealth.  As is so often the case during such times, they neglected the poor and the downtrodden. They divorced their religious observance divorced from their sense of social justice and ethics. Although Amos came from Judah, he directed most of his prophetic message at the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

In this passage, God tells Amos that He will measure the people of Israel according to a plumb line.  (The plumb line was an ancient engineering device, using a string, a weight and the force of gravity to determine whether a wall was straight.)  Never a popular strategy, Amos brought the message of God’s disapproval.  He announces the destruction of the Kingdom, the death of the king, and the desolation of their high places. In an apparent reference to the Passover (the meta-narrative of God’s salvation of the Jewish people), Amos reports that God will never pass by them again.

The priest Amaziah reports Amos’ dire warnings to the king.  Rejecting Amos’ message, Amaziah apparently assumes Amos is a professional prophet, and tells him to go back home.  The priest directs Amos to return to the southern kingdom and prophesy there, but Amos continues to proclaim his message of God’s disfavor with the king and the priestly caste.

Amos answers that he does not come from a line of prophets, rather, he makes his living as a shepherd and from agriculture.  Thus, as opposed to the sanctioned, professional prophets of his day (who suggested that Israel’s prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing), Amos claims prophetic authenticity.  Amos claims legitimacy through his status as an outsider.  His message comes from God, rather than from the recognized human authority.

I wonder sometimes how willing we are today to have God’s plumb line held up to our country, or our churches.  Would we be willing to listen to the prophetic voice, or like Amaziah would we tell him to go preach someplace else?  Are we so addicted to the smooth and pleasing words of blessing that we cannot listen to God’s call for things to change?

It’s worth considering the notion that today’s religious authorities may be too closely allied with power.  As Amaziah told Amos while shooing him away, “This is the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom.”  Those words should terrify us, as we look at the perhaps too easy alliance between empire and ecclesia.  I worry that too many of our churches have “Do Not Disturb” signs on their doors. Rather than cathedrals of conversion, have we erected sanctuaries of the status quo? Amos reminds us that God comes to comfort those who are disturbed, and to disturb those who are comfortable.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

In the Garden

The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The LORD God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
       cursed are you among all animals
       and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
       and dust you shall eat
       all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
       and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
       and you will strike his heel.”  Gen 3:8-15.

In today’s Lectionary reading, we encounter the third chapter of Genesis, taking us back to a time when God walked freely within His creation, a time before the separation of God and mankind, and before the separation of mankind and nature.  Yet through their disobedience, mankind has chosen to separate themselves.  I think that’s how it still works today.  We chose to move away from God, and find ourselves isolated and sometimes exiled.  

When God asks if they’ve eaten from the forbidden true, Adam’s response typifies our own response to being caught.  “It wasn’t my fault; you’re the one who made her, and she’s the one who gave the fruit to me.”  Eve joins in the fray, shifting the responsibility for these events to the serpent. 

The knowledge of good and evil leads, in a primordial sense, to our urge to compare ourselves to others.  Right from the outset, mankind is caught in a “worthiness trap”, in which we try to avoid the consequences of sin by comparing our tiny offenses to the far greater misdeeds of others.  Within this story, mankind discovers that it’s nakedness; we have learned shame.

I think the story also teaches us a bit about the nature of God.  God makes himself vulnerable to creation, endowing mankind with the free will to make choices, some of which are self-destructive.  This understanding of  God allowing Himself to be vulnerable to humanity will echo again in the story of Jesus, who suffers remarkable humiliation through His entry into human history.  It’s sometimes difficult for us to imagine an omicient, omnipotent God who somehow remains vulnerable to us, and yet, that seems to be exactly the sort of Father we have.

The third chapter of Genesis offers us an insightful examination into humanity’s instinctive habit of transgression, trespassing across the boundaries God has set for us.  Rather than depending upon God, mankind has sought its independence, we choose to discovery “good and evil” for ourselves.  The lynchpin upon which this story of the Fall turns is mankind’s refusal to trust God.  Our mistrust, not our sexuality and not our gender, places us on a path of separating ourselves from paradise and the Father.

For thousands of years, our stubborn insistence on our own ability to understand the nature of good and evil has resulted in a steady process of separation from the Source of our lives.  The story of Genesis teaches us about our remarkable ability to forget that this is God’s world, that we belong to His family, and our willingness to blind ourselves to the spiritual landscape that surrounds us. Genesis centers around a profound feeling of loss, the feeling that we have lost an intimacy with the Source of our lives.  The rest of the Bible examines the issue of how we might recover what we’ve lost.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis