Deliver Us from Evil

Deliver Us from Evil

Leviticus 25:8-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 November 2019

 

 

            We are nearing the end of our autumn worship series on the Lord’s Prayer.  Today we come to the line “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” 

            The earlier scripture reading from Habakkuk was a prophetic cry for deliverance.  Our reading from the New Testament is a passage from the Letter of James about temptation.  Hear now the word of the Lord.

           

James 1:12-18

 

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation.  Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love God.

 

No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and God tempts no one.  But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.  Do not be deceived, my beloved.  Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Parent of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  In fulfillment of God’s own purpose she gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of her creatures.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Back in 2017 Pope Francis caused a kerfuffle in some quarters when he said that the wording of the Lord’s Prayer should be altered.

 

[Lead us not into temptation] is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation.  I am the one who falls.  It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen.  A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately.  It’s Satan who leads us into temptation – that’s his department.

 

            Pope Francis’ point is a fair one.  “Lead us not into temptation” does seem to imply that God tempts us.  Do we really think that God could be leading us into wrongdoing?  I would call that bad theology.  One reason I think it is bad theology is because James rejects the idea in his letter we just read.  James stresses that God doesn’t tempt us; we are tempted by our own desires. 

Various biblical scholars have noted that “lead us not into temptation” is the best translation of the actual Greek words of the Lord’s Prayer as we find it in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Even if the theology makes us uncomfortable. 

Earlier this year the Catholic bishopes of Italy did change the Italian translation of the Lord’s Prayer to read “do not let us fall into temptation.”  Other national bodies in the Roman Catholic Church are considering whether to make changes to the prayer.

Let’s agree that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we aren’t worried that God is going to compel our wrongdoing.  What, then, is the general idea?

             In this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we admit that we humans are weak, that we can and do fall to temptation and sin.  And the prayer is asking for God’s help to avoid this situation.  In fact, we are asking God to go further and to deliver us from evil.  We might summarize the petition this way: “God please help us to avoid the worst parts of ourselves and our fellow humans.”

 

            The second part of the petition--“Deliver us from evil”—has a couple of different shades of meaning.  One is what I just mentioned—save us from the evils we are capable of ourselves. 

“Deliver us from evil” also means something similar to the cry of the prophet Habakkuk—save us from the evil that others do to us.  Or the evils run rampant in the world.  The great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of Habakkuk that he was a “tormented man” “distressed at the fact that violence prevails” who was “agonized by the thought that God tolerates evil.”  In that context, the prayer is a plea for God to act decisively in response to evil.

 

What then is evil?  Why do we do it?  Why do we personally do bad things, and why do we humans do bad things to one another?  And how do we fix it?  How do we become better people?  How does God deliver us?  These questions take us beyond the particulars of the prayer into the wider field of moral development.

So this week I looked back at a delightful book I read last year entitled Wickedness.   The book was written by the English philosopher Mary Midgley.  Midgley died in October 2018 at the age of 99.  In her obituary the Guardian described her as a “philosopher who brought a sharp critical intelligence and a gift for vivid metaphor to her writing on human behavior.” 

In Wickedness Midgley addresses the reality that “people often do treat each other abominably,” and she wants to know how and why this happens.  Wickedness appears to be a part of our human nature, but our human nature also contains many wonderful and good things.  Why do we do the bad things, when we are capable of great things?

            Midgley writes that we need to think of “wickedness not primarily as a positive, definite tendency like aggression. . . but rather as negative, as a general kind of failure to live as we are capable of living.”  Evil, she argues, arises from our failures to manifest our amazing positive capabilities as human beings.     

How, then, are we to be delivered from evil?  We must first learn not to deceive ourselves about our actual nature.  We need to acknowledge our failures.  She writes, “To deny one’s shadow is to lose solidity, to become something of a phantom.  Self-deception about it may increase our confidence, but it surely threatens our wholeness.”

            Even the author of James emphasizes this point.  In verse 16 he writes, “Do not be deceived, my beloved.”  We Christians try to avoid self-deception by making confession of sins an important part of our spiritual practice and our worship life.  Every week in our liturgy we draw attention to and acknowledge that we are weak, that we do bad things, that we are responsible for our actions.  Rarely does the confession receive the emphasis in a worship service, but its presence helps us to avoid the self-deception that Midgely believes can get us into trouble.

Once we have avoided self-deception, the next step in avoiding evil is to better understand our motives.  James emphasizes that we are tempted by our own desires, not by some outside force.  What, then, are the desires that entice us to bad behavior?  Other questions about our motives are also important.  What are our hidden biases?  How do anger, fear, and aggression lead us astray?  What role does resentment play in our actions?  Introspection and self-examination are critical.

In order to better understand our motives, Mary Midgely writes that we must strengthen our ability to think and reason well.  For Midgely this is an important point.  She stresses that our wickedness, our evil, is intelligible.  And if intelligible, then we can work to address the problem.  Evil is not some mysterious force that overpowers us.

Developing our moral judgement, according to Midgely, is a matter of developing our inner lives and creating “a map by which we can orient ourselves and plot our own course when we have to make decisions.”  Which means we need to have thought through various possibilities ahead of time.  But even the best conceptual schemes encounter unexpected possibilities.  We are fallible creatures. 

For Midgely, what explains most of our inexcusable actions is negligence.  She writes, “The general recipe for inexcusable acts is . . . a steady refusal to attend both to the consequences of one’s actions and to the principles involved.”  To put it simply, we must learn to think well in order to avoid wickedness.  She worried that technology has the tendency to keep us distracted from what we are doing, which over time will make us worse.

Overcoming self-deception, understanding our motives, and improving our thinking all lead to the next concern, which is handling our fear, anger, and aggression.  Midgely writes that these are natural emotions that do function for good purposes.  In fact, their function is to point out for us when something is wrong.  These emotions themselves can alert us to the presence of evil.

But these emotions also have the tendency to lead us into wickedness.  Later in the Letter of James, he writes, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”  If we are to be delivered from our evil, then we must learn how to effectively handle these emotions.  James writes, “you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  Endurance through trials makes us more resilient, more complete.

Mary Midgely also emphasizes that life is full of conflict, and that we must develop the skills to handle this.  We must learn self-control and deliberation and the development of good habits.

Lest that moral project sound daunting, one thing I appreciate about Mary Midgely’s analysis is her emphasis that the best way to avoid evil is to strengthen our good capacities.  For wickedness seems to arise out of an emptiness in the individual.  Individuals with rich and varied interests and full lives are not empty and, thus, evil doesn’t really have much room to grow.

James seems to make a similar point—“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Parent of lights.”  Earlier in the letter he wrote, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously.”  The good gifts of God are abundant and freely given.  Let us learn to enjoy the blessings of God, enjoy the good life we have.  The focus on the good helps us to endure temptation and is one of the ways God delivers us from evil.

 

To review then: avoid self-deception, better understand your motives, improve your thinking, develop the skills to better handle your fear, anger, & aggression, and lead a rich, full life that focuses on your strengths.  Do that, and you will be equipped to avoid temptation and will be less likely to contribute to the evils of the world.

 

            When we pray this prayer, we are asking “God please help us to avoid the worst parts of ourselves and other humans.”  And God has promised to help us.  The prayer is a starting point that should launch us down the path of developing moral character.

            When we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” let those words also be a commitment to do the good, joyful work of becoming our best selves.


Forgive Us Our Debts

Forgive Us Our Debts

Leviticus 25:8-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

10 November 2019

 

 

            In our worship this autumn, we have been exploring the Lord’s Prayer, taking it line by line and considering the various meanings and applications of its words and phrases.  Today we arrive at the petition “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” 

            As background for understanding what Jesus was talking about when he referred to debts, I’ve chosen for our scripture lesson today a passage from the Book of Leviticus.  Hear now the Word of the Lord.

           

Leviticus 25:8-13

 

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years.  Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land.  And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.  That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines.  For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.  In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Back in July of 2010 on my second Sunday as your pastor, I made a mistake in worship.  As I was leading the Lord’s Prayer I said “trespasses” instead of “debts.”  Afterwards Val Himes asked me, “Are we going to be saying ‘trespasses’ now?”  I assured her we weren’t, and fortuitously the lectionary provided the Lord’s Prayer as the Gospel text a few weeks after that, so I got to discuss my mistake.

            The Lord’s Prayer is familiar to any of us who grew up in a Christian church, but it is likely that we memorized slightly different versions. There are even two different versions in the Gospels, one in Matthew and one in Luke.  But various denominations also have their preferred translations.  Some folks don’t say the final lines at all, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”  While others make the ending even longer with “forever and ever.” 

These variations are rarely matters that affect the basic substance of the prayer, except for the line that is our focus for today.  Depending on which translation you read or which church you attend, you will be praying for forgiveness from sins, trespasses, or debts.  And while there are clear overlaps of meaning in the use of those words, there are also distinct differences of substance, particularly when we come to debts.

 

Our liturgist earlier read the parable of Jesus about the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The one arrogant and the other contrite and penitent.  The theologian Timothy Bradshaw points out how this story “powerfully exemplifies the call for wholehearted and honest repentance in the eyes of God.”  The story suggest that God desires our “honesty and genuineness of heart” in prayer in order to cultivate a personal relationship. 

So, when we come to this line of the prayer, we are being honest with ourselves and with God about our human condition and about our own failings.  We take responsibility, and we seek to restore broken and damaged relationships.  This petition affirms that personal relationships are at the heart of human life.

Now some think the petition works as a quid pro quo—you won’t be forgiven until you first forgive.  That transactional way of understanding it misses the broader perspective on authentic personhood and the value of relationships.  Rather, we are to cultivate an overall approach to the world that is gracious, merciful, and forgiving.  Oscar Cullman explains it this way, “We can ask for God’s forgiveness only if while praying we are ourselves in the realm of forgiveness that [God] wills.  We must know that God’s forgiveness is not some property, but belongs to [God’s] inmost being, [God’s] infinite love.” 

God forgives us out of a free act of grace—a gift—not something we earn by our own actions.  But if we expect to receive grace and never pass it along to other people, that’s not how grace works. 

Because we are secure in the belief that God extends grace toward us, we are then freed to extend grace to others.  We are secure in forgiving others, aware that our own value, worth, and integrity rests in our identity as God’s beloved children.

Timothy Bradshaw summarizes this attitude: “Praying for forgiveness in a positive sense is realigning our life with the generous outreaching movement of God into the darkness of the world.”  We are joining up with God’s generous, gracious love of the world in an attempt to heal its brokenness.

 

These sorts of spiritual ideas, then, are part of this petition, regardless of which word we use, though the word “sins” maybe best express these ideas.

“Trespasses” is an interesting and somewhat old-fashioned concept.  It contains a particular perspective on sin—that when we sin we have crossed a boundary that we should have respected.  The idea compels us to consider what rules we have broken, what limits and lines we have crossed, what standards we have violated, and particularly where we have disrespected the personhood of others.  How have our actions violated other’s dignity, integrity, and worth?

And then the return.  How have others disrespected us, violated our boundaries, harmed our personhood?

The focus is on setting right our personal violations and reinforcing our boundaries which others have crossed.  There are times in our lives when this perspective is a particularly valuable way of praying.

 

What about “debts?”  We in the Reformed Protestant tradition have generally preferred to pray the prayer with these words.  Now many people simply think of ‘debts’ as another old-fashioned way of talking about sins, similar to ‘trespasses’ in that regard.  But debts has a completely different layer of meaning and it ties back to the Leviticus passage I opened with.

In the Levitical law there is this provision for the year of Jubilee.  Every fifty years the Hebrews were supposed to celebrate this special, holy year, and during that year there were four actions that were to be taken by society: 1) the fields were to be left fallow, 2) all outstanding debts were to be forgiven, 3) slaves were to be set free, and 4) every family that had lost its land was to be restored to it. 

This is a radical, economic vision for society.  In essence it meant that every fifty years society would be reset and everyone would have a fresh start. 

Jesus seems to have been deeply influenced by this tradition of the Jubilee.  When he stood up to preach in the synagogue at Nazareth and proclaimed that “this is the year of the Lord’s favor,” he was probably proclaiming the Jubilee.  And throughout his teaching he emphasizes these social and economic principles. 

What seems to be the case for Jesus is that he wants to reorder human society so that these principles are more a part of every year of human life and not just a once in a generation fresh start.  He wants a society were people are set free, where they are not burdened by debt, where everyone has the opportunity to provide for themselves.

We know that first century Palestine suffered under the weight of great debt.  The taxes of Herod the Great and the Roman empire had become a burden upon the people.  Many of the peasantry had lost their own land and were now working and living as tenant farmers on the property of wealthier people.  Many were still weighed down by the burdens of the debts they had taken on and what they owed to the government.  This is the context for many of the parables of Jesus.

In the midst of this economic and social crisis, which led to banditry and ultimately insurrection, Jesus came preaching a more humane and egalitarian society developed along the great ideals of the Hebrew tradition. 

 

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” is not simply about setting right our personal failings, as good as that teaching might be.  The prayer is asking for a reordering of human society.  And we who pray it are committing ourselves to become part of this movement.  This is one of the practical ways in which “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is fulfilled.  God’s kingdom comes when human society is set right.  And that begins with forgiving our debts and starting fresh, as in the Jubilee.

Now, what can we make of that in 2019?  Our modern economy runs on credit and debt.  Jesus’ vision is an even more radical reordering of our economy than it was of the ancient one. 

At its simplest, we as Christians should work for an economy that is more humane and more egalitarian, because that’s the kind of society God wants.  That, at least, means opposing exploitation, conspicuous consumption, inequality, and environmental degradation.  That, at least, means living more simply, more sustainably, more generously.

But there’s more we can do.

If you’ve been following the United Church of Christ news, you probably were excited by what happened in Chicago at the end of October.  Trinity United Church of Christ, in coordination with the national setting of the UCC, this summer raised $38,000 and with that was able to buy $5.3 million dollars of medical debt.  Now, I don’t really understand how debt gets turned into securities that one can purchase for such small amounts, but that’s what happens.  They bought the debt of almost 6,000 families in only three zip codes.  And what did they do once they bought that debt?  Well, they didn’t hire a collection agency, they forgave it.

We aren’t the only Christians forgiving debts.  Earlier this year the Assemblies of God Grand Rapids First Church of Wyoming, Michigan was able, with only $15,000, to buy $1.8 million of debt, which they forgave, helping 2,000 families in western Michigan. 

This is now becoming a movement, and the United Church of Christ is going to make forgiving medical debt a major initiative of the denomination.  On this coming December 3 the UCC will raise money specifically for that purpose.  And they are inviting churches and other entities to partner in this effort.

The Rev. Patrick Duggan, Executive Director of the UCC Building and Loan Fund, wrote in a commentary this week that 52% of all debt is medical debt.  Unlike in the time of Jesus, when taxes were burdening people, in our time medical debt is one of the leading causes of poverty and inequality.  So, as followers of Jesus we are called to help solve that problem.  Rev. Duggan proclaimed: “Alleviating medical debt has the multiplier effect of improving many elements of basic living for millions of families that struggle to make a living.  It hits at the core of a major cause of poverty in the United States.  Ending poverty in all forms is the core mission of Jesus Christ and is the heart of the mission of the United Church of Christ, a just world for all.”

 

So, let’s join up with God’s generous, gracious love of the world in an attempt to heal its brokenness.  Let’s take responsibility for our own actions and seek to restore damaged relationships.  Let’s be a more humane and egalitarian society.

And we commit ourselves to such things, when we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.


Asymmetry

AsymmetryAsymmetry by Lisa Halliday
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Halliday has gifts as a storyteller, constructing interesting characters and narratives. I did find this book puzzling, and do no think I would call it a novel, though I'm not sure what it would be called. The first story explored a young woman having a relationship with a much older, famous man and the power imbalances involved. It was well told, but not enjoyable. The middle story I liked quite a bit, about an Iraqi-American stuck in customs questioning in Heathrow on his way from the US to Iraq. This section involved flashbacks as well. The final section is a Desert Island Discs radio interview with the famous (and rather loathable) older famous man from section one.

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The Colonial Mind

Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 1: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 1: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800 by Vernon Louis Parrington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I often walked the Parrington Oval while a student at the University of Oklahoma. And I remember the photo that hung in Dale Hall of OU's former head football coach who was a Pulitzer Prize winning historian. This is the book that won Vernon Parrington the prize in 1928.

Parrington has a strong position in favor of the Jeffersonian philosophy--agrarian, egalitarian, and democratic--and opposed to the Puritans, Tories, and Federalists. So it was interesting to read his takes on various thinkers. He was a big fan of Roger Williams and Benjamin Franklin and deeply critical of John Winthrop and the Mathers. He thought Jonathan Edwards had great ability which was squandered on his Calvinism. Hamilton he thought of great ability and very successful at achieving his goals of establishing the national economy, but he thought Hamilton completely wrong about what direction America should head and that we were still saddled with problems he had created. Strangely, he writes the only vigorous defense of Philip Freneau I've ever read.

Parrington has blind spots. He lauds Jefferson, though we now have a far more critical view of Jefferson, especially his hypocrisy.

But Parrington is a fun read. He is eloquent and witty with his descriptions of all these thinkers and movements. I enjoyed getting a perspective very different from my own.

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Our Daily Bread (& Butter)

Our Daily Bread (& Butter)

Luke 11:5-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 November 2019

 

 

            Today, in our series based upon The Lord’s Prayer, we reach the petition, “Give us this day, our daily bread.”  In the Gospel of the Luke, Jesus teaches his disciples the prayer and then tells a parable.  That is our lesson for today.  Hear, now, these teachings of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

           

Luke 11:5-13

 

And Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’  And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

 

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  

 

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Parent give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            In April of 2018, Katie Miller and I attended a denominational meeting in Cleveland focused on the current problems of theological formation in the life of the UCC.  While there, discussing these issues with various denominational leaders, a wonderful story of theological formation emerged back home.

 

The first night I was gone, Michael was carrying out the bedtime routine with Sebastian.  After reading a couple of books and beginning to rock, Sebastian said they needed to pray.  Now, this is usually something I do with Sebastian, so Michael was a little surprised, but went ahead.  They prayed for family and friends by name and then Michael, knowing my routine, ended with the Lord’s Prayer.

Just as Michael was about to say “Amen,” Sebastian (who was only two at the time) grabbed Michael’s face and said, “You forgot the bread.”

Michael then realized that he had, in fact, forgotten to say, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  So, he went back and added it.

Colleagues in Cleveland were thrilled with this story of theological formation that’s working.

Then I returned to Omaha.

My first night back I was doing the bedtime routine.  As I was about to finish the Lord’s Prayer, Sebastian grabbed my face and said, “You forgot the butter.”

“The butter?”  I asked.  Then I remembered that in the blessing his daycare uses before meals they mention bread and butter.  I told him, “The butter’s in the prayer you use at school.”

He said, “I want to use it at home.”

I then asked, “You think we should add butter with our bread in the Lord’s Prayer?”

“Yes,” he answered.

Then I ventured, “You think that would be an improvement?”

“Yes,” he answered again.

 

            Sebastian wasn’t wrong.  The bread would be better with butter.  When I’ve told that story I’ve had other people laugh and say we should add jam or honey as well.

            Nineteen months later, Sebastian is still praying the Lord’s Prayer asking for daily bread and butter. 

            This is, I believe, more than a humorous story.  Pastor’s do like telling cute stories about their kids and grandkids because they provide such good material.  But I also think Sebastian was onto something about the theology of the prayer.  According to the Polish scholar Anna Wierzbicka, “Bread is a metaphor that stands not only for food but also for all the other good and necessary things in life.”

            Sebastian, on some level, grasped this and wanted to add butter because butter is another good thing that blesses our lives.  When we ask, in the Lord’s Prayer, for our daily bread, we are praying for all the good things of God that sustain our lives.  We are asking those blessings for ourselves and everyone else as well.

 

            Bread is, of course, a potent symbol in the biblical story.  This fact is explained well in Walter Brueggemann’s little book The Bible Makes Sense, which I recommend for anyone wanting a handy introduction to how to read and interpret the Bible. 

            Brueggemann writes that when we read the Bible we enter into what he calls a “life-world,” which he describes as a “network of symbols, words, gestures, and images that give meaning and coherence to our experience.”  The biblical life-world nurtures our imagination and invites us to play with images from the biblical history.  Imagination is key here, as he explains that imagination is “the gift of vitality that enables the believing community to discern possibility and promise, to receive newness and healing where others only measure and count and analyze.”

            For Brueggemann the paradigm example of how the biblical life-world invites our imaginations to play with a symbol is the image of bread, particularly the idea of bread in the wilderness. 

            During the exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula and were running out of provisions for feeding themselves.  They prayed to God for deliverance, and God provided manna—this mysterious substance that appeared in the morning and could be baked into bread to feed the people. 

            Key to this story is the setting—the wilderness.  That too became a central biblical image.  Brueggemann describes it as “a place of precariousness without food, without defense or resource.”  He continues, “The center of this memory is in the wonder that in this place where death seemed certain, God is present, having also submitted to the conditions of the desert.” 

            Out of that amazement of God’s presence and deliverance in such a setting, the biblical tradition has developed a rich use of these images.  The Isaiah passage read earlier is one example.  That is a poem for despairing exiles to remind them that God is present with them in their distress and it draws upon the exodus memory for its images.  In the Gospels we have the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  Of those Brueggemann writes that Jesus transformed wilderness into a place of nourishment—“a place of abandonment into one of caring power, a place of death into a time of life.” 

            And the image of bread continues to spread through the tradition.  In the Gospel of John Jesus describes himself as the bread of life.  Bread becomes a central image of the Eucharist.  The Book of Revelation imagines a wedding feast that will be celebrated at the end of time, when food represents the abundance of God’s salvation and setting everything right.

            So it is no stretch for us to use the Exodus memory of bread in the wilderness and apply it to our lives.  Most of us are never going to be lost wandering in a wasteland looking for food.  But we do experience metaphorical wildernesses as we grieve, as we are anxious and afraid and depressed, when we are seriously ill, when our jobs and relationships suddenly end.

            “Give us this day, our daily bread” is our appeal for God to be present with us in these times, to provide for us, to bless us, to deliver us.  So, yes, it is more than just bread.

 

            But bread is also important not just because of the rich imagery of the biblical tradition.  Bread in the prayer is also literally bread.  The staple food that sustains us.  The common, ordinary aspect of our daily life.  You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in other cultures where another food is the staple, such as rice in East Asia, they adapt the language and metaphor.

            An essential aspect of the prayer is that we are praying for something very basic, very ordinary.  We are praying for God to give us what we need every day of our lives if we are to live and flourish.  The prayer expresses a shared human condition—that we need help.  We cannot do this on our own.  We rely on help from a higher power.  We rely upon each other. 

            “Do not worry,” is one implication of the prayer.  And especially of the parable that Jesus teaches right afterwards in the Gospel of Luke.  Do not be consumed by worry, anxiety, and fear, because God is going to provide for you.  God is a loving parent and will not turn away from God’s beloved children.  What you need will be there. 

            I know even in my own life there are times when it seems that what I need isn’t there.  And, yet, usually if I take the time to quiet my anxiety and pay attention, it is in fact there.  The thought that will turn a situation around.  The friend who can provide the support, care, or advice that I need.  The simple beauty in nature that lifts me momentarily out of myself.  The hilarious incident that makes me laugh when I didn’t think laughter was possible.

            We pray with the confidence that every day God is providing for us what we need.  And sometimes that is literally bread.

           

Which teaches us something about prayer.  Prayer is not some extra activity that we must make time for in our lives.  Oh, sure, there are types of prayer that might require some set aside quiet time, but not prayer at its most basic and ordinary, for we can pray in the midst of our work and play and commutes in traffic. 

My favorite writer on prayer is the Quaker Richard Foster who has a great book simply entitled Prayer.  In a chapter on “Praying the Ordinary” he writes, “Prayer is not another duty to add onto an already overcommitted schedule . . . our work becomes prayer.  It is prayer in action.”  Everything we do can be a form of prayer.  Our ordinary lives can be lived attuned to and in gratitude for God’s presence and blessing.

 

            Our daily bread, then, is a rich image that connects us to the biblical life-world.  It is a reminder that God provides every day our most basic needs.  It teaches us that we can pray every moment of our ordinary lives.  And there is still more we can say about this image. 

            It is a reaction to consumerism, by reminding us that what we need will be provided for us and comes to us from God, not the almighty dollar.  It teaches us to live more simply with what we truly need and not get lost in consuming all the luxuries that surround us.

            The petition also teaches us, as theologian Timothy Bradshaw writes, that time has meaning.  We should not overlook that we are praying for something “this day” and that thing is our “daily bread.”  Bradshaw points out that these words imply that God is present in time, working in time, giving meaning to our human time.  I can imagine a whole sermon developing just this idea.

 

            And, of course, there is the connection to communion.  When Jesus taught the prayer, he had not yet instituted the Lord’s Supper, but it is impossible for us Christians to pray these words and not be connected to the celebration of communion and all that this meal means to us as a matter of worship, fellowship, and spirituality. 

            Timothy Bradshaw writes, “Prayer for our daily bread is prayer to the one who desires communion with us.”  God wants to be in a daily, personal, ecstatic, loving relationship with us.  And God wants us to have that sort of meaningful relationship with one another, with all people, with all creation.  To comprehend the deep and intimate ways we are all connected to one another.

 

            On this Sunday we commemorate All Saints Day, when the Christian church remembers and celebrates its saints—all of those people who have preceded us in this life of faith.  In our congregation we name those who have died in the last year, a long list this year as you can see in your insert. 

            Our Christian faith teaches us that life is greater than death, hope is more powerful than despair, love and joy and beauty and adventure and peace—these are the things that ultimately matter. 

            And so the lives of these saints continue on in the presence of God and in the memories of those they loved and taught and cared for.  They remain a part of our communion, now and for all time.

            Even that is a part of this prayer.

 

            So, aware of all the rich meanings connected to these simple words, let us pray as Jesus taught us to pray.  And maybe, like Sebastian, add what will remind you of God’s presence and blessing every day of your life.

            Give us this day, our daily bread (& butter).

           


Grant

GrantGrant by Ron Chernow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite its heft, I read it quickly, for Chernow is such an engaging writer. I learned a lot about Grant, his time, and other figures he interacted with. I've gained a greater understanding of him, better appreciating his strengths and accomplishments and better recognizing his serious flaws.

One drawback of the book is that Chernow seems to feel the need to address every rumor of Grant's alcoholism, so, particularly during the chapters on the war, every few pages Chernow addresses a fresh rumor of alcohol abuse. I got to skipping over those paragraphs.

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Hermeneutics: Facts & Interpretation in the Age of Information

Hermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of InformationHermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information by John D. Caputo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There were two chapters I really enjoyed and learned from, one about Vattimo and Rorty and the other about how a group of Canadian health care workers applied Gadamerian hermeneutics to their work. Otherwise I didn't care much for the book. Too much of it was simply an introduction to Heidegger, Derrida, etc. But often with a tone that was too clever by half and therefore off-putting. I kept hoping that the book was going to break new ground and speak to our cultural (read Trumpian) moment as indicated in the subtitle, but it never really got there, so very disappointing. In fact the final chapter, on religion, was simply a rehash of the (I think) out-dated theology of Paul Tillich. Sigh.

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Your Will Be Done

This fall we are exploring the Lord’s Prayer, each week considering a different phrase.  Today we arrive at “Your will be done.”  For our Gospel lesson, I have selected another passage in scripture, where Jesus prays for God’s will to be done—it is the moment in the Garden of Gethsemane where he is awaiting his arrest.  Of this prayer, theologian Timothy Bradshaw writes, “Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane reveals an honest human turning to God for help in desperate danger.”  Hear, now the prayer of Jesus, from the Gospel of Matthew.

           

Matthew 26:36-39

 

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Harold Bloom, America’s best-selling literary critic, died this week.  The obituary in The Guardian proclaimed that “Bloom magisterially reaffirmed the centrality of the great works of literature in western culture.”  In doing so, he wrote best-selling books and generated controversy in academic and critical circles.

            I pulled Bloom’s books off my shelf and perused them again this week.  A few of what I have are poetry anthologies he edited, including one of my favorites The Best Poems of the English Language from Chaucer through Robert Frost.  The book is not just an anthology, Bloom introduces each poet with insightful essays.  That book sits on a shelf within easy reach of my desk, as I pull it down often when I am writing a worship service, looking for just the right poem to read, or even seeking a good turn of phrase.  It is no exaggeration to say that that one book of Bloom’s has been deeply influential in shaping not only my own understanding of poetry, but also our worship as a congregation.

            In the introduction to that anthology he wrote, “The work of great poetry is to aid us to become free artists of ourselves.”  Let’s return to that idea in a moment when we get to talking about the human and divine wills.

            Bloom was also a fascinating biblical critic.  He was Jewish, but with rather unconventional religious beliefs that were deeply influenced by Gnosticism.  In his best-selling Book of J, which is on my shelf but I haven’t yet read, he argued that one of the key writers of the Torah must have been a woman.  Bloom delighted in the character of Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.  In an essay he wrote on the Book of Exodus which I admire, he wrote that “Yahweh is an uncanny personality, and not at all a concept.”  He was critical of the monotheistic faiths for the ways in which they tried to tame God.  He wrote, “To see the God of Israel is to see as though the world had been turned upside down.”  He suggests a stance toward God that is “appreciative, wryly apprehensive, intensely interested, and above all attentive and alert.”  Also “perhaps a touch wary” and “prepared to be surprised.”

            On Facebook this week, I posted a few of my favorite quotes from his book How to Read and Why. 

 

"Why read? Because you will be haunted by great visions."

 

"Reread what is most worthy of rereading, and you will remember what strengthens your spirit."

 

"We read to find ourselves, more fully and more strange than otherwise we could hope to find."

 

            That’s one reason he enjoyed reading the Bible—because it is uncanny and strange and compels us to find ourselves such. 

            Of course, he was a great proponent of reading Shakespeare, arguing that Shakespeare invented our modern sense of the human self.  The most important text for that is Hamlet.  About the character Hamlet, Bloom wrote, “Hamlet primarily is brooding upon the will . . . .  Does one have a will to act, or does one only sicken unto action, and what are the limits of the will?”

            Hamlet is such a compelling story precisely because the Danish prince can’t decide what to do.  He is struggling over what is the correct course of action and what his duties are.  And in that way he is not dissimilar to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane also struggling in a desperate situation about what he should do.  Timothy Bradshaw writes, “His Gethsemane prayer was the point of agonizing conflict between human well-being, freedom from pain and evil, and trust in the divine will.”

            We modern humans are shaped by an understanding of the self in which we create ourselves through acts of our own wills.  By the choices and decisions we make and the actions we take.  We are autonomous and self-created.  Which means that we often struggle with exactly what we are supposed to do and be.  We wrestle with our choices in decisions both small and great.  Should I take the job?  Should I buy those boots?  Am I really in love with this person?  

            Sometimes the mere act of choosing makes us anxious and afraid.  Sometimes we wish the choices were made for us.  Sometimes we feel like a character in a Jean-Paul Sartre novel, burdened by our very freedom. 

            And, so, what does it mean for us to pray to God, “Your will be done.”  How does God’s will and our wills interact? 

 

 

            Growing up a Southern Baptist in the late eighties and early nineties, “What is God’s will for your life?” was a common question.  It seemed that we needed to really work at figuring out what God’s will is and in particular what God wanted for each of us. 

            And so a popular devotional study of the time was Experiencing God by the Canadian Baptist Henry Blackaby.  The subtitle to that was “How to live the full adventure of knowing and doing the will of God.” Blackaby and his partner Claude V. King turned the study guide into a published book.  My high school Sunday school teacher gave me a copy as a gift when I graduated college (Ironically at a point when I had become rather more liberal).  This week when I pulled that book off the shelf to re-examine it, I found this written by her in the front:

 

Congratulations on your recent graduation.  God is working in your life, remember, [And then she quoted the book of Jeremiah] “’For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not calamity to give you a future and a hope.’”

 

The note suggests that God has a plan for my life, and it is my job to discern what that is and then obey it. 

            Henry Blackaby was more sophisticated than that in his take.  For instance, he wrote, “’What is God’s will for my life?’ is not the best question to ask.  I think the right question is simply, ‘What is God’s will?’  Once I know God’s will, then I can adjust my life to Him and His purposes. . . . Once I know what God is doing, then I know what I need to do.”

            Also for Blackaby, God’s plan for our lives is about a personal, spiritual relationship.  He wrote, “[God] wants you to experience an intimate love relationship with Him that is real and personal.”  He elaborated on this:

 

Knowing God does not come through a program, a study, or a method.  Knowing God comes through a relationship with a Person.  This is an intimate love relationship with God.  Through this relationship, God reveals Himself, His purposes, and His ways; God accomplished through you something only He can do.  Then you come to know God in a more intimate way by experiencing God at work though you.

 

            I like the emphases on relationship, experience, and joining up with the work God is already about.  But even as a young man I grew uncomfortable with the idea that God has some firmly determined plan that I either fit in or not through my obedience.  That troubled me for a host of reasons.  One reason was that I observed some people who took these ideas to the extreme, praying for God’s will about what clothes to buy or what to eat for dinner.  And seeing God’s plan at work every time they got a good parking space.  There is a fatalism to such views that eliminate our human freedom and autonomy and makes the life of faith mechanical rather than creative.  Theologian Timothy Bradshaw writes that for people who feel the need to discern God’s will “from moment to moment can lead to a dehumanizing of the creaturely person.”  He even says that doing so risks a kind of insanity.

            In college I began to feel that surely we don’t have to discern God’s will in each and every moment for every little thing, but instead our lives our shaped by our faith in such a way that God trusts us to make the right decisions on our own.  Bradshaw articulates this as well, “We know the will of God sufficiently to conduct our lives with confidence—we tend to know when we are against the grain of divine intention.”

            We shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time trying to know the will of God, because God has already made that abundantly clear in scripture and the life of Jesus.  The passage from Isaiah read earlier today is one example.  Or think of Micah 6: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  We can absorb the teachings of Jesus and the scripture and let these guide us in the broad direction of our life.

 

            In an undergraduate philosophy course on Evil and Suffering, we read an essay by Lewis Ford on God’s persuasive power.  Ford was a Process Theologian, meaning his views were shaped by the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead that placed process not substance as the primary element in reality.  You may know that I wrote my dissertation on Whitehead.  Reading Ford’s essay was one of the lures that drew me into process philosophy.  Ford died earlier this year, and for his funeral they requested comments from those who had been influenced by his work.  In the short response I submitted, I included this statement, “I am grateful to his scholarship which freed me.”

            Ford argued that God’s power is never coercive.  God does not control or compel.  God only persuades.  He wrote,

 

Divine persuasive power maximizes creaturely freedom, respecting the integrity of each creature in the very act of guiding that creature's development toward greater freedom. The image of God as the craftsman, the cosmic watchmaker, must be abandoned. God is the husbandman in the vineyard of the world, fostering and nurturing its continuous evolutionary growth throughout all ages; he is the companion and friend who inspires us to achieve the very best that is within us. God creates by persuading the world to create itself.

 

            I once heard John Cobb, another Process theologian, put it succinctly, “God is not a jerk.”

            As my professor, Dr. Bob Clarke, explained it, yes God has a will for your life, which God presents as a lure that entices you to follow.  But, you are free to contribute to your life plan with your choices, then God’s persuasive lure and your choices work together.  So, it isn’t about obedience to one particular plan that you either follow or you are completely in the wrong. 

            As a young college student, figuring out my own beliefs, I found these ideas completely liberating.  And they’ve remained core aspects of my theology ever since. 

 

            So, let’s return to the Lord’s Prayer and what we mean when we pray “Your will be done.”  Timothy Bradshaw, whose book Praying as Believing, is my guide for this entire sermon series, is not a Process theologian, but on this particular point he is deeply influenced by that way of thinking.  He argues that God’s work is a “joint enterprise” with us: “God implements [God’s] will only through the will and activity of [God’s] faithful people.”

            He continues:

 

In praying ‘Your will be done,’ we share the very vision of God’s creative and re-creative purpose: the heavenly [Parent] has entrusted creation . . . to us: we acknowledge that and responsively offer ourselves for [the] kingdom.

 

            Bradshaw supports the idea that “the self is created by act[s] of will” and that we human beings are “creative centre[s] of activity and decision.”  It is just that our “human will is most fulfilled when we [identify] with the divine.”  We are, therefore, also praying for an “inner transformation of the heart.” 

            That doesn’t mean blind obedience to some fatalistic plan, but an act of solidarity and trust built upon a personal, loving relationship.  To pray “Your will be done,” is to freely commit ourselves to the goals of the creation—communion, peace, joy—and to therefore shape our own wills by those goals. 

Bradshaw writes, “When we pray for the will of God to be done, this takes our life forward into the future of God, something we cannot chart safely but must launch out into with the venture of faith.”  John Cobb names this the “call forward.”  We have been lured and persuaded and now we too desire the same ends as God, and therefore we move forward into a new future filled with possibilities, trusting the goodness of God to do its work on us and on the world. 

And so we conform our will to God’s will as an active of creative freedom, of adventure, of hope.  What of those times when we are deciding what to do?  There is no one path forward that is your destiny that you must discern.  There are endless possibilities that are open to you and remain within the persuasive lure of God.  What we choose and who we become is a joint project, fully of playfulness and novelty.

I began with Harold Bloom who wrote that “The work of great poetry is to aid us to become free artists of ourselves.”  That is also the work of prayer.  Particularly this prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer, and it’s petition “Your will be done.”

Let us, then, pray as Jesus taught us to pray.