Genesis 22 – A Response to the UMC General Conference

Keep the faith.

 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lordcalled out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

20 Some time later Abraham was told, “Milkah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), 22 Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” 23 Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milkah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. 24 His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maakah.

I love the concentric story telling of the Bible, like a water drop rippling outwards in a pond, providing us a visual focus for meditation. I love how stories foreshadow other stories and narrative and theological themes emerge and merge.  This is a great – maybe even the best – example of this.  Obedience and willing surrender to God have already been established as tenets of good Faith, and that is what this story is all about.  It also foreshadows Christ: Isaac, Abraham’s only son (by Sarah at least), carries the wood for his own funeral pyre up the mountain to be sacrificed, much like Jesus, God’s only son, carries his own cross up the hill to be sacrificed. And once again we see if we trust in God, His mercy and goodness prevail.

I do want to point out the timing of this test Abraham underwent.  He is well over 100 years old now.  In my post on chapter 17 I discussed how perhaps there was a reason God waited until Abraham was 99 to establish the covenant of circumcision: basically, he was mellowed out enough to accept it.  Since then, God has literally appeared to Abraham and basically had a dinner party with him, Abraham has watched the wrath of God wipe two cities from the face of the Earth, seen his 90 year old wife miraculously give birth to Isaac, and God spoke to him once more regarding Hagar and Ishmael.  I’m not trying to make light of God’s request of Abraham, I’m sure he had at least some trepidation, but I also want to point out that Abraham, by this point, must have been as secure in his faith as humanly possible.  I say this to encourage everyone who may feel weak right now, and like they could never be as faithful as Abraham is.  Don’t worry, God isn’t asking you to be. Of course He wants you to be faithful and good and dedicated to Him, but He also isn’t asking us all to go around sacrificing our kids, right?  Working on trust is a good enough place to start.  When we’re ready, he’ll lead us to higher callings.

Which brings me to the UMC General Conference vote last week.  First, let me summarize: the United Methodist Church (like many denominations) is actively wrestling with issues pertaining to sexuality.  The General Conference that happened last week was convened to vote upon plans addressing these concerns.  Delegates representing UMC congregations from all over the world, in a surprise move, voted to stick with the Traditional Plan, which reinforced it’s commitment AGAINST ordaining LGBTQ clergy and NOT performing same-sex marriages.  (Most, including me, thought they would go with the One Church Plan, which allowed for individual congregations to make up their mind over whether they would accept a gay minister or perform same-sex marriage.) Most of the news reports made it sound like half the congregations that make up the UMC will no longer be in the UMC by the time this is published.  In truth, there’s still a lot of road ahead: First, the judicial body of the UMC has to review the decision to make sure none of it violates the church’s constitution, and then, for those churches that may still want to leave, decisions have to be made about assets, as the UMC as a whole, instead of individual congregations, own the physical churches/grounds/etc.  So long story short, nothing is settled yet, but it was still a blow to progressives and the LGBTQ community.

Dear friends, it is tempted to be discouraged by this. But it simply means we have more work to do.  Please, do not lose faith.  I understand if you want to leave the United Methodist Church, but I hope you don’t turn your back on Jesus.  There are lots of moderate and progressive UMC congregations that disagree with this decision.  There are also lots of open and affirming churches of other denominations, too.  If you are searching for one, I suggest trying out an Episcopal, Lutheran or United Church of Christ to see if those feel more like home.  Personally, I will still be attending my UMC church.  I think work needs to be done from within, and, I’ll be honest, even with this issue still in limbo it is the best fit for me and my family in our community.

But again, please do not lose faith.  What Christianity, and the world, needs now is more examples of faithful allies, not less.  If we can provide a loving and united voice in favor of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters (and non-binary siblings!), I believe we will win.  We will make the world a better place, where people’s humanity isn’t question, where people’s love for one another isn’t questioned, and where more people feel welcomed in the church.  And isn’t sharing the good news of Jesus one of Christianity’s major goals?  That everyone can come to know Christ and also God’s infinite love for us?  Like Abraham, God will work through us when we are fully ready, we just need to keep practicing our faith.

***

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent.  I’ll be opening Lent by contemplating Psalm 38, and then spend the rest of Lent upon the first 18 chapters of Job, if I counted correctly.

Genesis 18 – A Compassionate God

And the importance of being instruments of His compassion.

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

First off, let’s just talk about how much flour three seahs is.  My NIV text notes tell me that’s 36 pounds!  Abraham made a ton of food.  Also, let’s talk about how long this must have taken.  If Sarah and her household have to prepare bread (which takes a few hours to knead and rise and bake), as well as slaughter and dress an animal (by hand) as well as cook it?  Hours.  So I’m thinking, if these guys came in the heat of the day, in other words mid-afternoon, they must have stayed until well into the evening.  Basically, Abraham had a dinner party with God, which is kind of cool.

But what I want to talk about a little more today is yet another example of God’s compassion.  I was always taught that the God of the Old Testament was an angry and punitive God.  For sure, there is a fair amount of punishment that goes on in the Old Testament, but even more than that there is compassion.  Again, the punishment that happens is more that of a parent correcting a child than a spiteful king condemning an unfortunate subject: He cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, but made sure they were clothed and continued to check in on them and their descendants; He set a mark on Cain so no one could further persecute him; instead of completely obliterating mankind through the flood He saved us through Noah and his family; instead of striking mankind down completely at the Babel he simply confused their plans and redirected them.  See what I mean?

Spoiler alert – Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed.  But Abraham doesn’t know this yet.  He is distressed that good people might pay the price of the wicked if God obliterates these cities.  Once again, my NIV footnotes put it beautifully: “Abraham’s questioning in vv. 23-32 did not arise from a spirit of haggling but of compassion for his relatives and of wanting to know God’s ways.  Perhaps Abraham stopped at ten because he had been counting while praying.”

And the amazing thing: God says yes to sparing the whole wicked land if there are just ten good people there.  What wonders a few good people can achieve without even realizing their impact!  Simply by existing, ten people would have saved two entire cities.

There may be some who counter this argument by saying “So where is God now in Syria? Or Yemen? Or Somalia? Aren’t there at least ten good people there?” And I unfortunately have nothing but the cold comfort of history to offer them.  Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed thousands of years ago: that story is finished and easy to be seen both historically and allegorically.  As to current or recently ended conflicts (and I’m including things like the Civil and Revolutionary Wars in recently ended conflicts), we are still in the middle of that unfolding story.  These stories are not finished:  We have people who can trace their lineage back to slaves in the 18th century (or earlier), veterans of World War II still living, refugees from Syria seeking asylum.  It is too raw, we are too invested, to gain any allegorical wisdom from these more current events. God’s plan is still unfolding.

That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and just say about every bad thing “it must be God’s plan.”  We should fight where we see injustices, and be living examples of God’s compassion.  This country has a lot of healing still left to do from it’s history of slavery and it’s historical exploitation of Native Americans. We can’t bring back the literally millions of people killed, but we can make space for their descendants at the table.  We can also welcome the asylum seekers who call for help at our borders. We can advocate for alternative energy, which would lessen our reliance on oil and stop adding fuel to the fire of oil-related conflicts in the Middle East but also in our own country.

What I’m saying is, we’re still living these stories.  My ardent hope is that in several hundred years we, too, can be an allegorical as well as historical story.  I hope future historians can say “The USA’s first three centuries were marred by social inequalities of almost every kind.  But the country has been a leader in global peace for just as long.”  Or perhaps they’ll say, “Global unrest was driven by a reliance upon fossil fuels in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Through the dedicated work of scientists and social activists, fossil fuels haven’t been used in over 100 years.”

One thing we can learn is from this is that I’m clearly not cut out to be a news writer.  But if you can get past my hokey headline-writing skills, just remember that these are the outcomes we are fighting for.  We are the instruments of God’s compassion.  Abraham was an advocate for the righteous in a wicked world.  Let us be the same, today.

Genesis 07-Greater Truths

Love and hope for our fellow man.

The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.

Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth.

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

13 On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark.14 They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind,everything with wings. 15 Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. 16 The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah. Then the Lord shut him in.

17 For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. 18 The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. 21 Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

24 The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

The flood story has fascinated me since sixth grade, where I distinctly remember learning in Mrs. Fowler’s 4th period Social Studies class that Sumerian culture also had a flood story.  And indeed, many, many cultures have a flood story – Wikipedia has a whole list of flood stories from around the world, beyond the famous Noah of the Bible and Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia. Here was hard proof that MY religion was based on historical facts, not just some nebulous mythology.  Perhaps other civilizations had missed the boat (ha, ha I know, I’m a total cornball) on recognizing the Abrahamic God as the true God, but that flood happened and they knew it was because some deity was angry.

It’s funny how as you get older you don’t know it all anymore.  I’m sure I’ll say the same thing about my current self in 20 years.  But anyway-I’m still excited about the pervasiveness of the flood myth, but less as a validation to my own religion and more as a validation to the greater truths of humanity.

What are the greater truths we share, beyond a more-or-less “historically accurate” flood story?  That’s what I’m reading the Bible to find out.  But my hypothesis lies in the subtitle of this blog: Radical Love.  Human history is filled with examples of radical love – stories of sacrifice, of miracles, and, yes, of epic romances.  This flood story is a story of God’s wrath, but also a story of His love for us.  God looked upon the Earth and humanity in despair.  But in his despair he found love for Noah and his family, enough to carry them through an earth-ending calamity.  If He can find the one good man out of an entire world of wickedness, don’t we owe it to Him to search for the good, for to common ground, in our fellow man?

I’m not saying to turn a blind eye to injustice in order to keep the peace.  But do recognize that your opponent, whoever that may be, is a person.  A living, breathing person who eats and sleeps and fears and feels.  Better yet, recognize that your opponent may not be a person at all, but a larger system of injustice, such as institutional racism, and that your opponent is a product of their environment.  Call out the wrongs in society, for sure, but also extend a hand of recognition, too.  It’s been a while since I’ve used a parenting analogy, so here we go:  Sometimes, when one of the kids is throwing a shit fit, the best way to calm things down is to drop everything and hug them, let them know that I am here and listening to them and that it’s going to be alright – no need to throw things and hit and yell. I recognize their human needs, and they calm down (usually, unless someone has the Leapfrog counting phone out of turn, then all bets are off).  Simply acknowledging the anger (fear) of another person can help to calm the storm.

Hope is another “greater truth” from this flood story.  Many (not all, but many) of these similar flood stories start with God (or whoever) being willing to save the flicker of good left in humanity, and ends with God (or whoever) making a promise to carry on the Earth after the flood.  That little flicker of a divine flame can literally save the world.  So again, I repeat: If God can place the hope of mankind into one flawed man, don’t we owe it to Him to search for the divine flicker good in our fellow man?  I think it’s a good place to start.