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.

Matthew 02 – The Refugee Child

Would you turn the Christ Child away?

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

I learned something about myself today.  For many years now, denying refugees entry to the country has really upset me.  And it is upsetting, but why did I feel it so personally when there are so many causes to which we can rally?  No one in my family has fled their country in over 300 years.  I do not have any close friends who arrived here as refugees.  I chalked it up to the tender heart that often comes with motherhood and seeing my babies in all babies.  That, for sure, is part of it, but I realized with this passage that what really gets under my skin is the enormous hypocrisy of it all.

In this chapter, Jesus, our Lord and Savior, flees persecution and ends up a refugee in Egypt.  People have often drawn this analogy before, and there’s even some pretty good art to illustrate this, just Google “Joseph and Mary refugees.” But really that is just another drop in the bucket of Biblical history.  There’s several examples in the Old Testament of people fleeing famine, including Abraham.  Lot was escaping social unrest when he fled Sodom and Gomorrah.  Moses led all his people out of Egypt as refugees.

Jump ahead to more recent Christian history and you see mass emigrations of Christians to avoid persecution at several points in history.  Lutherans were burned at the stake in England as heretics while others fled the country.  Cecilius Calvert, a founder of the Maryland colony, sought to establish it as a safe haven for Roman Catholics when favor swung back towards reformers. Coptic Christians in Egypt still face very real and deadly persecution.  Here we have just three of a myriad of examples of Christians becoming refugees.

Not to mention, Jesus himself tells us to welcome strangers.  I referenced this line from further on in Matthew in my first post, but it bears repeating: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25:35) There is some argument as to who that “stranger” is, some say it solely meant other Christians in need.  If someone wants to be that narrow in their interpretation, I don’t think I can change their mind.  But I still admonish those who believe such an interpretation for not letting in the many Christian refugees who come to our borders.

I wish there were the border equivalent of “innocent until proven guilty.”  Perhaps “asylum-seeker until proved otherwise.”  I don’t know the logistics that would go into this, at the very least it would require a lot of temporary housing, but I think it could work.  Shit, it might even be a nice little local economy boost. There have been many studies citing how immigrants actually improve the economy.  Forbes even published an article to that effect two years ago. Additionally, all that government spending on building projects, then the personnel requirements for all the actual work with immigrants would mean many more people shopping at the grocery stores, coffee shops, and Main Streets of these would-be immigrant reception towns. So there’s my economic justification along with my spiritual one.

The long and short of it is, I just do not see how someone can call themselves a Christian and also say we need to build a wall, or refuse the Syrians, or whoever comes knocking, quite frankly.  Would you turn the Christ Child away? If the Divine is in all of us, then you are, every time you say no.

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I’m going to spend some time with family in the next few days and will be sharing a post or two on Proverbs I saved for exactly this occasion.  Then I’ll be reading Genesis, because starting at the beginning again seems like a good idea for the New Year.  Peace and Joy to you and yours this Christmas and New Year!

Psalm 16 – Borders and Refugees

God has promised us our inheritance.  By sharing our country with others, that inheritance is not jeopardized.

Keep me safe, my God,
    for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.”
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
    “They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
    I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
    or take up their names on my lips.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
    even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

 

Happy Advent! I’m so excited to get started.  But where to start? “A Liberal Christian Reads the Bible” is all about finding the Biblical support  for radical love and acceptance. Psalms are kind of like hymns, and singing always lifts my spirits, so I decided to warm up with a psalm.  Googling “Psalms for Advent” gave me a whole list (actually a whole list of lists), and I started with the first one, Psalm 16. I feel like it was divinely inspired, no joke.  By the end of the first verse, I knew it would be a good opening.

Before we talk about the psalm though, let’s talk about Advent. In a nutshell, Advent is the start of the liturgical (church) calendar, and one of my favorite seasons.  It is a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ – both His birth and His return as Messiah.  It is a time of general reflection and contemplation, making it a good time to start this project of biblical reflection and contemplation.  I think of it as a mini and more joyous Lent. Now, let’s talk about the Psalm.

“Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.”  That word refuge struck me immediately, as the media is full of news of the caravan of refugees now waiting in Mexico to cross the US border.  Then, the last verse of the first part of Psalm 16 says “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, surely I have a delightful inheritance.”  So, the first section of the psalm starts with refuge, and ends with boundaries…refuge, boundaries…refugees, borders.

16:5 (the verse immediately preceding the one mentioning borders) says “you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.”  Here God is reminding us that there is enough for all.  There are LOTS of problems in this country.  Lots.  But even so, it is a place that people come from all over the world.  If we are faithful Christians, shouldn’t we believe in God’s ability to provide for all of us?  He has assigned us our portion, our lot is secure, our boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places.  Let us share our bounty with those who may not have such blessings.  It will not hurt us to do so.

Instead, we will be “saints who are in the land…the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.” (16:3).  The ones who are in this land (the United States) who welcome these refugees, and indeed, any person in need, will find favor in the eyes of God.

Even though the first section of the Psalm spoke to me strongest, I don’t want to ignore the second two sections of the Psalm, so let’s discuss its broad strokes really quick.  According to my NIV footnotes, it is a prayer for safekeeping or a song of trust.  The three stanzas have three individual themes: One, Refuge; Two, Counsel, and Three, Rejoicing.   We’ve discussed refuge at length.

Reading it in the context I have chosen, I see part two as a reminder to reflect upon my actions, making sure they are truly Godly.  Isn’t the author of this psalm describing all of us at night when he says “even at night, my heart instructs me.”? I know that I, for one, tend to go over the day’s events as I lay in bed.  If we have the Lord “always before [us],” or actively in our thoughts, then even this seemingly mundane act can become an act of faith.

In part three, the writer rejoices. The line that most struck a cord with me is “You have made known to me the path of life…” (16:11).  To bring things full circle, Advent is a time of preparing for Jesus’ arrival.  Arrivals signal the end (and beginning) of journeys, or paths.  The refugees are on a journey, or path.  Americans are preparing for their arrival.  Some with hate and fear in their heart, others with love.  Let me end with a plea, that we prepare for the refugees’ arrival the same as we would prepare for Jesus.  With rejoicing, with generosity, and with love.  God has promised us our inheritance.  By sharing our country with others, that inheritance is not jeopardized.  Not to get ahead of myself in this Bible study, but Jesus says to welcome a stranger is to welcome him. (Matthew 25:35)  Let us welcome the strangers, and become saints of the land, worthy of God’s delight.

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If you would like to do something to help the refugees both at the Mexican border and elsewhere, the International Rescue Committee is a great organization worthy of donations.  Located closer to the action, SIREN is helping refugees apply for asylum. Also, it never hurts to call your representatives to let them know you do not agree with actions being taken at the border, like tear-gas used on children.  While there probably won’t be any immediate effect, being vocal in your beliefs can help change policy in the future.  You can find out who your representatives are, and their phone numbers, here.

Wednesday I’ll start discussing the book of Malachi, if you want to read along.