Isaiah 25 – An All Saints Day Primer

What we do (or don’t do) to celebrate known and unknown saints.

Lord, you are my God;
    I will exalt you and praise your name,
for in perfect faithfulness
    you have done wonderful things,
    things planned long ago.
You have made the city a heap of rubble,
    the fortified town a ruin,
the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more;
    it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will honor you;
    cities of ruthless nations will revere you.
You have been a refuge for the poor,
    a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
    and a shade from the heat.
For the breath of the ruthless
    is like a storm driving against a wall
    and like the heat of the desert.
You silence the uproar of foreigners;
    as heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud,
    so the song of the ruthless is stilled.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

10 The hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain;
    but Moab will be trampled in their land
    as straw is trampled down in the manure.
11 They will stretch out their hands in it,
    as swimmers stretch out their hands to swim.
God will bring down their pride
    despite the cleverness[a] of their hands.
12 He will bring down your high fortified walls
    and lay them low;
he will bring them down to the ground,
    to the very dust.

 

I’m probably not ready to start posting two entries (and definitely not three!) every week – I still have several more chicken processing days on the farm to go. But I didn’t want to let All Saint’s Day pass without recognition.

For those who don’t celebrate it – and that includes a lot of Protestant traditions – All Saints Day celebrates (you guessed it!) all the Saints, known or unknown, who are in heaven.  This includes more common household names, like Saint Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of animals whose statue you may have seen in gardens), and anyone else who has brought people to Jesus.  All Souls Day is November 2, and celebrates all who are in heaven, sainted or not.  Some places also celebrate the Day of the Innocents, which recognizes children who have passed. So, depending where you are and what church you go to, some, all, or none of these themes may be touched upon in a church service sometime between this Friday and Sunday.

All Saints Day has been well overshadowed by it’s secular neighbor, Halloween, but it is still observed.  It’s an interesting holiday because it is somewhere between solemn and festive.  In New Orleans, for example, there are often family picnics in cemeteries, where the living visit their departed loved ones, sometimes cleaning up the tombstones or crypts, sometimes pouring out a libation in the deceased’s honor.  The closely related Dia de los Muertos (an ongoing mash-up of Catholic and pre-Hispanic customs and beliefs), includes parades and special food and drink, with public and private celebrations galore.

Also, I think it is important to note that (almost no) Episcopalians pray to saints, and neither do Methodists or really any Protestant traditions that I can think of.  Instead, they see the saints as examples to be looked up to when we seek inspiration in our own religious lives.  Catholics and many Eastern traditions do pray to the saints for intercession, which essentially means asking the saint to speak to God on the behalf of the one doing the praying.

So, to get to the actual Bible verses above, why is this particular passage one that is read on All Saints Day?  The specific reading is actually just vv. 6-9, which describes a Holy Feast prepared by God and the destruction of death.  This feast marks a time when suffering is no more, and God’s Kingdom returns to earth – in other words, a time when all the faithful will be saints.

Taken in the context of All Saints Day, the rest of the chapter frames the day’s reading nicely. (Unlike my reading from Isaiah 09 last Advent, which starts out all warm and fuzzy and full of Christmas spirit and took a hard left into crazy cannibalism.)  “Strong peoples will honor you,” verse three says.  Reading that, the first person I think of is another saint, Joan of Arc.  Talk about a strong person.  “You have been a refuge for the poor,” follows in verse four.  I think of all the work Mother Theresa, another female saint (beatified in 2003, if you weren’t up on your recent saints), did on behalf of the poor.  These verses illustrate that God is for everyone, for all nations. Sure, verse ten talks about Moab being trampled into the ground, no stronger than straw in manure (there’s a visual I can relate to!), but that should be seen symbolically more than anything.  Moab is one of the prophet’s favorite “bad guys,” is you will, and came to represent everything that was un-Godly.  The destruction of Moab is a metaphor for the destruction of anything that might stand in our way of a full relationship with God.  And let me be clear, I do not think Moab is a metaphor for another country.  Turkey, China, Russia or any other country we may have current tensions with is not Moab.  What stands in the way of our full relationship with God is more abstract – greed, fear, anger, hate.  That, while harder to villianize, is what we need to combat in ourselves and in the world in order to join in the procession of All Saints.

I love holidays because they invite us to pause and reflect.  We have so few opportunities to do so in our ever-busy lives.  Maybe All Saints Day isn’t a church-going day for you, or one you’ve ever really recognized except as a day for candy-hangovers.  But I hope this year, this All Saints Day, you are able to take even just a moment to pause and reflect.  Thank God, if that feels right for you, or give thanks for someone saintly in your life, living or deceased.  Taking a moment out of your day to connect to something spiritual, to give thanks for something or someone good, helps us all re-center on what is important, and we could all use a little more of that.  Happy All Saints Day.

Ezekiel 37 – God’s Redemptive Love

He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’ 17 Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.

18 “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ 19 say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’ 20 Hold before their eyes the sticks you have written on 21 and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

If this isn’t the perfect Bible story for the Sunday before Halloween I don’t know what is. A spooky valley full of dead bones gets turned into zombies – okay, maybe not brain-eating zombies but basically, for a minute there, these bone are un-dead: living but not breathing flesh.  Then a supernatural force comes through the winds and turns these zombies into a living army.  Yikes.

But that’s just the surface of the story, and it ignores the whole second half of this chapter.  Really, this is one of the most hopeful, redemptive chapters I’ve read in a while.  In it, God restores the dead, joins the scattered and squabbling tribes of Israel, and establishes a holy, everlasting covenant of peace.

Is this chapter to be taken literally, though?  Will God literally open our graves and raise up our bones?  Will God literally rejoin the houses of Ephraim and Judah?  Will David come back from the dead, too, to rule over this new kingdom and will God literally dwell there?

I see God as capable of all things, so yes, certainly it is possible to take this chapter literally.  But if we’re just sitting around waiting for that day, I think we kind of miss the point.  Let’s start from a historical perspective.  This passage was most likely written after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  So a lot of Ezekiel’s prophecy was looking towards the rebuilding of the temple in a more immediate sense, not an eschatological sense.  The temple was rebuilt around 516 BC., seventy years after it was destroyed.  Followers of Ezekiel could point to this as the fulfillment of his prophecy, and the promise of this chapter has been fulfilled and is not just another illustration of God’s good work, but nothing we’re waiting upon.  Now, let’s look at this chapter from a religious perspective. It can be argued that much of this-and the rest of Ezekiel’s prophecy-was fulfilled through the arrival of Jesus.  Jesus, a descendant of David, came to take on our sins, redeem us from the grave, and will return to rule over us in an eternal covenant of peace, as foretold by Ezekiel. So again, perhaps it has already been fulfilled and we’re waiting upon nothing.

While all of this fulfilled prophecy-whether it is a rebuilt temple or the coming of Christ- is awe-inspiring, I think it misses the larger point, which is the redemptive power of God’s love.  God can redeem us even from beyond the grave.  God can heal not only our own souls, but the souls of nations.  God wants to restore our hope, restore our peace.  It is not something that’s only going to happen at the end of the world.  This is something we are offered not only on a monumental scale, on a daily basis.

I was listening to The Liturgists Podcast the other day, and they were interviewing Father Richard Rohr, who published his latest book, Universal Christ, earlier this year.  (I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m eager to do so, and have it on hold from my library.)  During the interview, he talked about the difference between retributive justice and redemptive justice – I believe those were his two terms.  Rohr says Jesus offers redemptive justice: a justice that heals instead of punishes.  Many of the prophets, Rohr pointed out, start with preaching a retributive justice: the justice based on God’s wrath, hellfire-and-brimstone, death-and-destruction sort of justice.  But almost all of them arrive at a place of redemptive justice.  We can see that difference happening between the chapter we studied last week, which basically promised destruction for all people, and this week, which promises peace for all people.

What is it about God that makes these prophets arrive at a place of redemptive justice?  Love.  God’s holy love is undeniable in the long run.  It is my firm belief that the longer you sit with God, the more that becomes apparent.  I know, there are lots of religious people with hate in their hearts that could be used to disprove my point, but I don’t think they are truly sitting with God.  What they are doing is scouring the Bible for passages they can bend to their own wishes, or following the biases of a small-minded leader, anything to prop up their own world-view.

But even that narrow mindset cannot withstand God’s love.  There are plenty of stories of people who recognized how God’s message was being warped, and left whatever toxic religious climate was preaching it.  Exvangelical is a podcast, hashtag, and movement that deconstructs the more harmful elements of Evangelical societies.  I’m sad to say that many exvangelicals fully leave Christianity, but many also examine their beliefs and find a God that is loving and kind.  Thought leaders like Richard Rohr, Pete Enns, and the late Rachel Held Evans, among others, are helping shape the idea of a loving and inclusive God for those who may have doubts about Christianity at large.  Yes, there are many so-called Christians that still cling to their hate like a security blanket, but God’s love is wearing them down.

The most beautiful thing about God’s redemptive love is that we can be agents of it.  We have the power to forgive, to heal, to teach.  We can be living, breathing examples of God’s love, reborn just as Ezekiel’s army was.  How you, personally, might manifest this may be different than how I or someone else manifests it, but it remains true. We can be agents of God’s redemptive love through speaking out against the injustices of the world, by helping our neighbors and community, by teaching our kids what it means to be kind and inclusive.  If you’re not sure where to start, may I suggest just sitting with God.  Offer up a simple prayer, such as “God, how can I be an agent of change in this world?”  And then just be open to it.  The answer might be immediate or it might be revealed over time.  But it will come, and you will be doing your part to spread God’s love.

Ezekiel 25 – Pulp Fiction and the Bible

This is possibly the most famous Bible quote in cinematic history.

The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, set your face against the Ammonites and prophesy against them. 3 Say to them, ‘Hear the word of the Sovereign Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Because you said “Aha!” over my sanctuary when it was desecrated and over the land of Israel when it was laid waste and over the people of Judah when they went into exile, 4 therefore I am going to give you to the people of the East as a possession. They will set up their camps and pitch their tents among you; they will eat your fruit and drink your milk. 5 I will turn Rabbah into a pasture for camels and Ammon into a resting place for sheep. Then you will know that I am the Lord. 6 For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Because you have clapped your hands and stamped your feet, rejoicing with all the malice of your heart against the land of Israel, 7 therefore I will stretch out my hand against you and give you as plunder to the nations. I will wipe you out from among the nations and exterminate you from the countries. I will destroy you, and you will know that I am the Lord.’”

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because Moab and Seir said, “Look, Judah has become like all the other nations,” therefore I will expose the flank of Moab, beginning at its frontier towns—Beth Jeshimoth, Baal Meon and Kiriathaim—the glory of that land. 10 I will give Moab along with the Ammonites to the people of the East as a possession, so that the Ammonites will not be remembered among the nations; 11 and I will inflict punishment on Moab. Then they will know that I am the Lord.’”

12 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because Edom took revenge on Judah and became very guilty by doing so, 13 therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will stretch out my hand against Edom and kill both man and beast. I will lay it waste, and from Teman to Dedan they will fall by the sword. 14 I will take vengeance on Edom by the hand of my people Israel, and they will deal with Edom in accordance with my anger and my wrath; they will know my vengeance, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”

15 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because the Philistines acted in vengeance and took revenge with malice in their hearts, and with ancient hostility sought to destroy Judah, 16 therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to stretch out my hand against the Philistines, and I will wipe out the Kerethites and destroy those remaining along the coast. 17 I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.’”

Does something about this passage ring a vague bell to you? How about if we read v. 17 as written in the King James Bible: “And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”

It’s the basis for the Jules Winnfield quote in Pulp Fiction, which turns 25 years old this week. I just so happened to stumble across that fact last week when we watched the movie with both our farm employees. I thought, Oh, I can totally do a blog post about that passage and have it be pop-culture relevant, so here we go!

Tarantino added a lot of extra stuff to the Jules Winnfield Bible verse that isn’t actually in the real Bible verse.  In fact, the whole first half is made up.  But the second half is more or less correct.  I can see why this verse would appeal to Tarantino. Pulp Fiction is a nihilistic, violent, technicolor carnival ride of a movie, and you could say the same thing about Ezekiel’s time in ministry.

Ezekiel’s prophetic calling started seven years before the destruction of the first temple of Jerusalem, and continued for about fifteen years after its destruction.  (I read the NIV study notes.)  In the twenty-ish years preceding the 586 BC destruction of the temple, Jerusalem had had five regents, seen the rise of Nebuchadnezzar – who had laid siege to the city once before coming back and completely destroying it, and had also watched other great cities, including the Assyrian’s Nineveh, fall.  Nihilistic and violent, indeed.  On top of that, Ezekiel’s prophecies and visions were often wild and sometimes even performative.  In the chapter preceding the one we’re studying today, God literally smote Ezekiel’s wife and directed how Ezekiel should mourn as a living analogy for how the Jewish people would mourn for their lost temple. In this chapter, Ezekiel basically promises death and destruction for everyone: the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Edomites, and the Philistines.  And next week, we’ll study the Bible story that always freaked me out as a kid: Ezekiel being sent to raise an army from dry bones. All of that is pretty technicolor wild, and sounds like it could be right out a fast-paced Tarantino flick.

But besides being an awesome place to pull hard-core movie quotes, what can we learn from this chapter?  As indicated in by-line, and as I’ll mention again:  this blog is all about finding Biblical evidence for the radical, inclusive love of God in an effort to fight hypocrisy, injustice and all this -isms and -phobias of the world: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia.  I’ll be honest, I don’t know if this is the best chapter to find radical love.  But you know what I did see?  The omnipotence of God.  The sixth century Sinai Peninsula (and surrounding areas) was a crazy place full of regime changes, violence, and ruined cities.  But even then, God was there, showing the future to Ezekiel so he could warn the Israelites. His people were embattled and broken – in punishment for their sins, according to Ezekiel and other prophets – but even in their punishment, God never fully abandoned them.  It kind of reminds me of a cosmic version of when I stand outside the door listening to my two year old in time-out, timing the best moment to bring her out.  She may feel temporarily abandoned, and angry at me, but I’m still there, even if she can’t see me.

God was angry with all of Israel’s neighbors for rejoicing in its defeat and plundering the land; and God was angry with Israel for doubting Xyr love and protection.  We do essentially the same thing when we smugly dismiss someone’s troubles – such as the persistent institutional racism that people of color have to face on a daily basis. We do the same thing when we exploit the earth through strip mining, over-fishing, or unsustainable agricultural practices. We do the same thing when we turn a blind eye to the exploitation of garment-workers, migrant farmers, and victims of sex trafficking.  This world is God’s creation and we are all God’s children, and if we ignore that, we are no better than the proud and doomed Edomites or other peoples of this chapter.

Let’s learn from the fallen Israel of the Old Testament: let us not be rebellious against God.  Because God is always here with us, and will know our mistakes. Fortunately we have a different relationship now with God through Jesus Christ – one of forgiveness and redemption.  But we shouldn’t treat it as a “get out of jail free” card. Instead, let’s give thanks that our God is a kind and generous God, and work to extend that kindness and generosity to all who might not feel it in their lives.  As this passage makes clear, vengeance only begets more vengeance.  While that makes for a great movie, it’s not a life I want to live.  As Jules Winnfield says, “Blessed is he who, in the name of the charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.” Amen, Jules, amen.