All posts by Kyle Harris

Book of Numbers

If you are using a Study Bible or a Bible that give you an introduction to the Book, I would encourage you to take time to read the introduction to the chapter provided in your Bible to bring new insight. I use The New Oxford Annotated Bible as my study Bible. There are a few nuggets of helpful insight that it conveys that I want to pass along to you.

First, the English title “Numbers” is based primarily on the numbering or census of the people related in chapter 1-4 and again in chapter 26. The census and the organization of the tribes reminds me of my own family origins—what sets us apart or makes us unique and what keeps us all connected? How do we stay connected and how do we relate to one another? These are important questions for families but also communities as we grow and change and journey through the wilderness with one another.

Second, while five of the 36 chapters of Numbers outline the censuses of the people, the other chapters are filled with stories and narratives that portray a people who found that, in the strange providence of God, the journey from promise to fulfillment led them through the wilderness. In the Hebrew Bible, the book is appropriately called “In the Wilderness,” referring to the long period, traditionally forty years, the people of Israel spent in the wilderness. So, don’t let the name fool you or cause you to skip through this book.

Third, again, the introduction of my study Bible implores that the narrative in Numbers do not idealize the wilderness period. Again and again the people complained, sensing the contrast between the relative security of slavery in Egypt and the precarious insecurity of freedom in the wilderness. You will see the power struggles among the leaders. You will see the crises that threatened faith in God’s presence in the midst and God’s guidance into the future. Ultimately, you will see that God is faithful to God’s promises made to Israel’s ancestors.

The less than idyllic depiction of Israel’s time in the wilderness exposes several questions you may have struggled with in relation to the Bible and issues of power, violence and God. The passage from Numbers 31:25-54 draws specific attention to the issue of how to treat the “other.” The Israelites have captured a land and claimed “all persons, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and goats” as part of the war-time spoils dividing them up and offering a portion as sacrifice. This is not the first and especially not the last time we will read about God ordaining the destruction of another people. What are the dangers of relating God and violence so closely? How is God used in this story and in our own cultural story to make meaning out of violence?

When reading texts such as these in the Old Testament we sometimes run the danger of two extremes. On the one end we are tempted to dismiss such writing as distant to us, thinking “oh, that was then” or “that’s an ancient practice, we don’t do that.” Placing distance on the text keeps these uncomfortable moments at bay and the questions that come along with it like: where is God in violent situations? On the other end of the spectrum, we can identify too closely with such violent text, projecting our current situations onto them. This is dangerous because we can often lose the voice of the text to hear what we want the text to say. Between these two poles of reading is a third reading of the text that recognizes the context of the Israelite people, but also recognizes that it is a human story about human people, thus we may at times be able to see ourselves in the text. Reflecting on the text also involves reflecting on what you bring to the text and how it influences your reading.

Letter to the Hebrews

OK, it’s been a few weeks since I posted. I am behind in my posts. I will be catching up soon, but no promises…

I’ll continue to be honest and straightforward… the blog post for the Letter to the Hebrews has been a difficult one for me to write. Here’s why:
The timing of when reading Hebrews fell in our schedule (October 29 through November 2) was personally a busy time with a lot of kids’ activities. Something had to give in my schedule. It was the blog.
The fever pitch of the election cycle was deafening and I have been trying to make sense of what is going on in our wider culture. What is obvious to some is not obvious to all. Our divisions in how we, as Christians and as Americans, see the world run deep. A pastoral word is needed. Written words tend to last longer than spoken ones, so I wanted the written word to be healing and hopeful.
Once my momentum for getting with words on the screen has slowed, it has been difficult to get moving again. Playing “catch up” is often harder than it seems. It would be easy to give up and move on to something else, but that’s not what I want to do or model.
I have written and re-written the blog for The Letter to the Hebrews several times — and I mean several. I have become extremely proficient at using the “Copy All + Delete” process. I hope this one lasts to be posted.

So, flow — from reading Leviticus to Hebrews is where I last left you…

The Letter to the Hebrews stands in sharp contrast to the Book of Leviticus. While Leviticus seeks to establish paths humans can follow to encounter the holiness of God, Hebrews proclaims that a) Christ is superior to the prophets, angels, and Moses, b) Christ’s priesthood is superior to the levitical priesthood and c) Christ’s sacrifice is superior to the animal sacrifices offered on earth. In these sermons within the larger sermon/exhortation that is the whole letter, the unknown author of Hebrews proclaims that Christ is all you need to gain access to God.

All you need is Christ to gain access to God is an amazing and simple message that is at the heart of Hebrews. The Letter is addressed to people who were likely steeped in Christian thought and belief, maybe young adult children whose parents were the earliest Christians. The first generation blazes the trail. The second generation seeks to find their own identity in the mission and sometimes they get lost, slow down, get distracted. They need a little encouragement to keep going.

Also a part of the underlying message in Hebrews is discovering what part of the Jewish tradition to maintain or reject. For the early church — throughout Acts and many of Paul’s letters — this was a critical issue: do you need to become Jewish in order to become a Christian? Why or why not? Continuing today, in order to be a Christian, what traditions must you follow to be faithful or accepted? What doctrines or other Church teachings must you believe?

Long established faith groups (aka denominations and others) have their sets of doctrine, creeds, and other statements of faith that must be agreed to and followed in order to maintain good standing in those traditions. As many are discovering, many of those doctrines stand in direct contrast to the encouragement of Hebrews — all you need is Christ to gain access to God — because in the eyes of the tradition, these creeds, doctrines, and faith statements are how we (they) are to gain access to God, God’s grace, and redemptive love, not Christ alone.

As a life-long member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I love, respect, find meaning and inspiration from folks who are a part of those faith groups. They offer perspective and history of thought that we Disciples — who profess “No Creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” — don’t often share. Yet, we work side by side and walk hand in hand with our brothers and sisters in Christian love.

Above, I said that what is obvious to some is not to all. Hebrews central message is that all we need is Christ to gain access to God. True, but we will still have our traditions and “this is the way we do things here” mentality. Sometimes, they will become barriers for people to access our community. We need to encourage one another to embody the idea our faith proclaims that all you need is Christ. We will fall short of meeting that expectation. We will miss the mark for which we aim. But we are not to give up.

Toward the end of Hebrews, the author lists the great “cloud of witnesses” of the faith who have embodied and exemplified a living faith we now know through Jesus who is the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith in God. Let us encourage one another on this faith journey, for we, too, need encouragement and inspiration and exhortation to run the race so that those who follow will find us faithful and they will find the strength and courage to be faithful too.

Leviticus 12-28 (finally)

Leviticus roots itself in the Priestly tradition that craves order, structure, and ritual in experiencing God’s presence by humans. Leviticus seeks to create a process by which unholy humans can gain access to the Holy we know in God. This book of the Bible is focused on holiness. It seeks to say that if humans can follow these steps, we prepare our hearts, minds, and lives, to encounter the holiness of God and we can experience holiness too. However, this order, structure, and ritual gets passed along as rules, regulations, and laws that inhibit humans from being free to develop the relationship with God we crave even more.

It seems that all of us have a love/hate relationship with rules. Rules maintain order and structure in society; they keep us safe, so rules are good. Rules restrict us from things we think we should be able to do, but others should not; because we are restricted, rules are bad. Leviticus is filled with rules we love to ignore — don’t eat pig (11:7), eat anything from the water, but only if it has fins and scales (11:9), don’t trim the edges of your beard (19:27), don’t get a tattoo (19:28), stand up when someone older enters the room (19:32) — to name a few.

The purity rituals found in Leviticus 11-15 may seem absurd to us today.  I was in a conversation with a colleague when she mentioned that many authors, including Anita Diamant, author of the Red Tent, have explored these ancient rituals. The purity of the community, especially in relationship to performing religious rituals was of utmost importance because the ancient Israelites viewed the body and its relationship to the community much differently than we do today. We see ourselves as individuals first and members of a community as secondary. In many ancient cultures, however, there was no distinct self apart from the community, so that when one person was “impure” they were putting not just their own relationship with God in jeopardy but the whole community’s relationship with God at risk. In this way the body was seen as a very important part of the religious life and ritual. In our tradition today the most obvious way we express the importance of the body in religious ritual is through baptism and communion.

In the 23rd chapter of Leviticus the author makes a shift. As the note in the commentary explains, the shift to festivals emphasizes natural and agricultural information. With the precise number of weeks and days mapped out between and during festivals, it’s almost as though the religious community was creating their own kind of Farmer’s Almanac—interfacing the ordinary tasks of an agrarian culture with the mystery of God. How do we celebrate the extraordinary presence of God in the ordinary?

Pay special note to chapter 25, where the author of Leviticus ascribes a system for balancing economic disparities. Redistributing land and setting free slaves every seven years was one way that the Israelites were called to remember their own landlessness in Egypt, keeping the story of captivity and liberation alive in their culture. I believe that captivity and liberation are relevant themes today. In the middle of this presidential election cycle, how are the candidates talking about balancing the disparities we have today in this country? Are these positions consistent with Leviticus or other aspects of the Jewish/Christian tradition? Other than economic disparities, what imbalances shape our world “order” and what suggestions might arise from Leviticus to balance our communities and bring them closer to holiness?

Leviticus 1-12

I’ll be honest. Moving from the familiarity in the Old Testament of Exodus to Leviticus (we read through the Book of Acts in between) in this week’s reading scared the “ebi-jibies” out of me. I read the first few chapters in Leviticus and had to stop — not because I wasn’t comprehending it or that it was boring and tedious. I had to stop because I could not shake the scene with the “Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch” from the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” out of my head. It’s the scene where a scribe of the priest of the village is reading the instructions from the “Book of Armaments” on how to detonate the “Holy Hand Grenade”. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m sorry. For those that do know the scene, I’m sorry for the memory. YouTube has the scene if you’re inclined to understand what’s going through my brain.

It’s a funny scene that hearkens back to the basics of what to do with something that is supposed to be completely self-explanatory. The priest reads from the scroll: “You shall count to ‘three’ and pull the pin from the hand grenade. ‘Three’ shall be the number, the one that succeeds ‘two’ and comes before ‘four’. ‘Three’ shall be the designated number to pull the pin. You shall count thusly, ‘One, two, three’ and pull the pin. You shall count to ‘three’ in succession, without skipping a number. You shall start with ‘one’ and end with ‘three’. You are not allowed to start with three and count backwards to one. That would be a violation…” (I got carried away.) This scene goes on for a few minutes with great repetition and humor.

Here’s another moment of straight honesty — I haven’t spent much time in my life reading Leviticus. I’ve read it. I just don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on it. In order to provide some serious insight to this week’s reading (I’m not sure Monty Python counts as serious or as insight), I consulted The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary. The introduction to Leviticus provided me with some initial fruits for understanding what we will be reading this week and next.

First, the name “Leviticus” comes from the Greek Leuitikon (meaning, “the Levitical book”). All Israelite priests were members of the tribe of Levi. In the Hebrew Bible, the name translated from Hebrew to English is “instruction for the priests” — rules and regulations by which priests will conduct their services — and “instruction of (or by) the priests” — teaching and guidance offered to the people by the priests. The double dimension of the rabbinic title allows us to understand the dual focus of Leviticus: the priesthood is instructed in proper rules for officiating, observing purification, and administering at the sanctuary; but the priests also teach the people what God requires of all Israelites.

According to the introduction to Leviticus from The New Oxford Annotated Bible, the simple structure of Leviticus as a “Priests’ Manual” falls into six parts:
1) laws dealing with sacrifices (chapters 1-7)
2) the consecration of the priests to their offices (chaps. 8-10)
3) laws setting forth the distinction between clean and unclean (chaps 11-15)
4) the ceremony for the annual day of atonement (chap 16)
5) laws to govern Israel’s life as a holy people — called “The Holiness Code” (chaps 17-26)
6) an appendix on religious vows (chap 27)

The New Oxford Annotated Bible’s introduction to Leviticus continues, “Through the various rituals and laws there breathes the conviction that the holy God ‘tabernacles’ in the midst of the people during their historical pilgrimage (Ex. 40:34-38). The nearness of God not only accentuates the people’s sense of sin but prompts them to seek God in sacrificial services of worship. For, according to the priestly witness, God has provided the means of grace whereby the people, forgiven and restored, may live in the presence of the holy God, avoiding those things that contaminate their health and well-being, and doing those things that make them a holy people, separated for a divine service in the world.”

Given the things we know today about the health of the human body, it is conceivable that “Leviticus for Today” (LfT) might read something like a pamphlet or public health notice from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and/or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Given Americans’ penchant to become obese, LfT might encourage more exercise, less alcohol consumption and smoking, and a balance of the health foods God provides, and less McDonald’s prepares. If Leviticus is giving direction to the people of Israel about how to avoid those things that contaminate their health and well-being, LfT might give us direction in how to live our lives and help us understand at a deeper level that we are a holy people (collectively and individually) and that God has provided that means of grace by which we might live — forgiven and restored — our whole lives.

Book of Acts 1-18

This book of the Bible, The Acts of the Apostles, is commonly considered a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. In addition to historical evidence of this fact dating back to the latter part of the second century, Acts continues to embody the geographical model employed in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 3:23 – 19:27, from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem. (Luke 1:1-3:22 is Luke’s introduction of Jesus, his early years, and John the Baptizer’s prophecy regarding Jesus.) From Luke 19:28 – Acts 8:1, the writings are all about the events that take place in Jerusalem. Then, Acts 8:1b – 28:31 tell of the spread of the Good News beyond Jerusalem and into the rest of the world (more specifically at that time, the Roman Empire).

Many people throughout the generations of Christian history and thought, have considered Acts to be the first history book of Christianity. Major portions of the book chronicle the speeches and missionary discourses of the Apostles and present the stories of the men and women who helped build and shape the early church, including the travel diary details of lodging, entertainment, and the local ambiance of the places the Apostles went — hence the name, Acts of the Apostles.

However, the book could have easily been named Acts of the Holy Spirit. As much as Luke tells about the stories of the men and women who built and shaped the early church, their agreements, their arguments, their run-ins with the authorities, and the ways the church grew, these details serve as a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit to help spread the Good News throughout Jerusalem and the Mediterranean world. The dominating theme throughout the book is the power of the Holy Spirit manifested itself in and through the members of the early church.

In Acts 1:1, a first book is referenced and this account is addressed to “Theophilus”, meaning “God Lover” or “One Who Loves God,” which is not considered to be a particular person but the community of faithful people of all generations. The rest of Acts 1 picks up where the Gospel of Luke leaves off — with the risen Christ and the Ascension retold. It’s important to get the number of core leaders back to 12 (12 tribes of Israel), so two more were selected — setting the stage for the Day of Pentecost.

What a day!! If you can, spend a little extra time reflecting on what that day must have looked like as an insider to the faith and an outsider, thinking these people must be drunk. If you have a study Bible or one that has notes about where or when something is mentioned from another passage of scripture, take a moment to read those passages in their context. It might offer a little more insight into what those of the Jewish faith might have thought and experienced based on their expectations and history. Acts 2 (and most of the rest of the Book of Acts) talks very clearly and openly about how the early church spent its time and energy. If you can, identify those things. Then, think about the activities and ministries of First Christian, past and present. Where do these actions and activities line up with one another? Where are they different? Are there things that First Christian worries about or spends time on that aren’t mentioned in Acts? Are there things in Acts that First Christian is ignoring or omitting?

In the block of text that tells about the Jerusalem mission (3:1-8:3), Luke establishes a pattern for the reader that helps tell the story of the early church and our interpretation of what’s happening. There are four episodes ((a) healing of a lame man at the Beautiful Gate (3:1-4:4), (b) the Apostles before the Sanhedrin — Round 1 (4:5-31), (c) the Apostles before the Sanhedrin — Round 2 (5:17-42), and (d) the martyr Stephen (6:8-8:3) that shape the witness of the church in Jerusalem. The pattern is this:
1) God acts to compel faith — often powerfully in public
a 3:1-8
b 4:5-12
c 5:17-23
d 6:8-10

2) the crowds/people are ignorant and/or confused — needing more information in order to understand
a 3:9-11
b 4:13-18
c 5:24-28
d 6:11-7:1

3) the Gospel is proclaimed and explained
a 3:12-26
b 4:19-20
c 5:29-32
d 7:2-53

4) the crowds/people respond
a 4:1-4
b 4:21-31
c 5:33-42
d 7:54-8:3

In each of these episodes, it interesting to note the crowds initial reaction to their response at the end of the story — including the interludes to these episodes (Acts 4:32-5:16 and Acts 6:1-7). Sometimes the crowd gets on board, sometimes they get ugly with the Apostles or early church members. I wonder how these reactions and responses are similar or different to people’s reactions to the message of the Gospel today. In the end, the response to the Gospel in Jerusalem is too hostile for the Apostles to stay there. With new converts to the faith — Paul and Cornelius — the Gospel begins to spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Can you identify what things help the Apostles to be successful? Unsuccessful? How could these things be produced or avoided as we look to share the Gospel today?

Exodus 21-40

I am going to make a bold leap and an outrageous statement: reading the last half of the Book of Exodus (chapters 21-40) feels a little like living in the United States for the last 5-10 years — post 9/11. Here’s what I mean: a big dramatic event took place that completely shook the foundations of life as it has been known and lived by this and the last few generations. We are still coming to grips with what it means to live in a time when so many things are unknown and/or unstable. With this instability, new laws and rules for living are emerging and fluid. Relationships with others are strained and difficult to manage as expectations are unclear and there is an inherent lack of trust. Thus, many people feel anxiety today and fear the future because they don’t yet see a clear path to the future.

When the Israelites had been delivered from slavery in Egypt and escaped the oncoming army, they found themselves wandering in the wilderness — without a home, without the comfort of the usual routines life offers, and without the restrictions they once had. Now, they are free to live as a community without the old rules from the Egyptians. They were free to set up their own rules to live by and structures to govern themselves. God gave them the 10 Words, but there needed to be some detail in how those 10 overarching Words were to be lived. Thus, the Covenant Code of chapters 20-23 are given with a ceremony to ratify the Covenant between God and the Israelites (chapter 24).

Then chapters 25-31 establish the Tabernacle, its architecture and ceremonial significance to the people and to God. While it’s not the most exciting read in the Bible, establishing rules and rituals for worshiping God emphasizes the need for discipline and preparation before coming into the presence of God. For a moment, think about the rules and discipline needed to worship God in Exodus and our attitudes and preparations for worshiping God on Sunday mornings. What would be different in your Sunday morning experience if you maintained the discipline called for in Exodus? What would be the same? Also, what about the patterns for worship and the systems of the Church (not just First Christian or the Disciples, but all of Christianity) might be different if we paid closer attention to Tabernacle worship? What is still consistent?

After the people panic by building the golden calf and order is somewhat restored to the community in chapter 32, check out Exodus 33:12-25. After all God has done and shown Moses, he still has the audacity to ask God to give him more evidence to convince the people! What ensures gives a beautiful image of God’s mystery, “you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” How appropriate is the elusiveness of this image for our faith? How do you experience the closeness and the mystery of God?

In chapter 34, the tablets containing the 10 Commandments (34:28 refers to these as commandments instead of “Words” from 20:1) are rewritten (because in Moses’ anger in 32:19) and the covenant between God and the Israelites is renewed. Then, the Tabernacle is built in accordance with the instructions given previously. The people of Israel journey through the wilderness following God’s presence — the cloud by day and fire by night. Wherever they went, they carried the tabernacle — a portable sanctuary for the worship of God. Today, we have permanent buildings for the worship of God. There is not a cloud pillar or fire to follow on our journey. I wonder sometimes, have we lost our way? How will we know if we have found our way back to God’s presence?

So, back to that feeling of living today:  I believe we are still finding our way in a reality that is only 15 years old.  It will take time for us to shake out these new rules and ways of relating to each other.  The story of the ancient Israelites in this week’s readings tell us the story of how they followed God’s leading in those difficult times.  Again, I wonder, how will we find our way today, through this election cycle, and into the next phase of our living and being?  May you find some clues in Exodus for individual living and living in community with others.

October Reading Schedule

1 Exodus 18-20, Proverbs 2
2 Off
3 Exodus 21-24, Proverbs 3
4 Exodus 25-27, Proverbs 4
5 Exodus 28-31, Proverbs 5
6 Exodus 32-34, Proverbs 6
7 Exodus 35-37, Proverbs 7
8 Exodus 38-40, Proverbs 8
9 Off
10 Acts 1-3, Proverbs 9
11 Acts 4-6, Proverbs 10:1-16
12 Acts 7-9, Proverbs 10:17-32
13 Acts 10-12, Proverbs 11:1-15
14 Acts 13-15, Proverbs 11:16-31
15 Acts 16-18, Proverbs 12:1-14
16 Off
17 Acts 19-21, Proverbs 12:15-28
18 Acts 22-25, Proverbs 13:1-12
19 Acts 26-28, Proverbs 13:13-25
20 Leviticus 1-4, Proverbs 14:1-18
21 Leviticus 5-8, Proverbs 14:19-35
22 Leviticus 9-11, Proverbs 15:1-17
23 Off
24 Leviticus 12-14, Proverbs 15:18-33
25 Leviticus 15-18, Proverbs 16:1-16
26 Leviticus 19-21, Proverbs 16:17-33
27 Leviticus 22-24, Proverbs 17:1-14
28 Leviticus 25-27, Proverbs 17:15-28
29 Hebrews 1-3, Psalm 24
30 Off
31 Hebrews 4-6, Psalm 25

Exodus 1-20

I said on Sunday that these 20 chapters in Exodus provide the foundation of the Jewish faith and, therefore, the Christian faith. The themes in this week’s read help us understand the character and nature of God and how God will relate with God’s people. Companionship (divine and human), obedience and faith, and liberation/deliverance drive this week’s readings. I’ll elaborate on each of those below.

No one can deny that this is an exciting read. We have heard this story hundreds of times—from childhood Sunday School to various movies like the Ten Commandments to Prince of Egypt, but each time I read it, I catch something new that captivates and astonishes me.

As Exodus opens, we learn that life in Egypt has changed from the time of Joseph. There is a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph and is threatened by the sheer numbers of Israelites in Egypt. Pharaoh fears them and needs to control them to control his fear. We are introduced to Moses as a baby and then as young man flees Egypt to escape trouble. God finds him and calls him to a new task — confronting Pharaoh to free the Israelites from slavery.

Moses returns to Egypt and the formation of his partnership with Aaron. The pairing of Aaron and Moses (Ex. 4:27-30) draws attention to the theme of companionship. Aaron’s willingness to share Moses’ message is an answer to Moses’ object found in 4:10-17, that he could not share God’s message because he was a poor speaker. Instead of accepting Moses’ excuse, God provides him with a companion for his journey, one whose gifts and talents compliment Moses. From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Aaron we are reminded that no journey worth taking ought to be done in solitude. Instead God provides companions to balance our gifts. This is one of the reasons we send groups of people to do mission work, rather than individuals.

Another portion of the text this week that really stood out to me was the plagues upon the Egyptians. They are set up in groups of three with a climatic tenth, playing out incredible, unbelievable natural disasters. It leaves me wondering what it felt like, not to be the Israelites, but what it must have been like to be the Egyptians. Not the Egyptians that held court with the Pharaoh, but regular, ordinary Egyptians that didn’t have power or the ability to decide the fate of the Israelites, but none the less still suffered the consequences. The story of Israel’s deliverance from captivity is truly a testament of God’s power to liberate those who are stuck, trapped and otherwise oppressed. It has inspired many communities to identify with God in new ways, but I think it may be underestimating the Egyptians, if we do not recognize the ways in which everyone hurts when someone is oppressed. I mean how many times have we been able to identify with the Israelites—feeling trapped or oppressed by a situation? But likewise how often have we felt like the Egyptians—plagued by a decision or consequence?

Although plagues and slavery are the driving force at the center of this week’s readings, as we read further we begin to discover it is the hope we have in God’s promise that ultimately brings joy. In chapter 16 God tells Moses that bread will be provided each day and on the sixth twice as much, so that the people might take Sabbath on the seventh day. Each day the Israelites follow instruction, but on the seventh day they go out to collect bread and are disappointed to find none. In verse 28 God speaks to Moses saying, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.”

This passage reminds me of two things: that God provides and we are stubborn! Even when God provided the Israelites with all that they needed to sustain, they still tried to take matters into their own hands! How often do we do the same—especially when it comes to resting! This story reminds me of a story from the life of author Henri Nouwen. After leaving the competitive life of teaching at Harvard to serve in a community for disabled adults in France he observes, “I have to keep an eye on the difference between urgent things and important things. If I allow the urgent things to dominate my day, I will never do what is truly important and will always feel dissatisfied.” This week I would challenge you to trust that God will provide, so that you may attend to what is important, rather than what appears to be urgent.

Finally, in chapters 19 and 20, God appears to the Israelites and speaks to them words of relationship and law. First, God claims the people of Israel as a holy nation and a people who are set apart from other peoples. Next, as a sign of the relationship God has with the Israelites, the words offered as a way to relate to God and each other are offered. It strikes me as important that God first establishes the relationship with the people, then offers a word of law to them. I wonder if we shouldn’t remember that more often — that relationships come before the law. I also wonder what our lives might look like if we started there instead of expecting consistent adherence of others to ideals we, ourselves, find it hard to achieve.

Gospel of Mark

I offered a suggestion on Sunday that you set aside a large enough block of time one day this week to sit down and read the whole Gospel of Mark in one sitting — even ignoring chapter and verse markings. To do this, you get a sense of the whole story Mark is trying to tell. In our Bible reading, sermons, and Bible study, we have a tendency to read blocks of text. While we can glean much meaning from these blocks, reading the whole offers a different perspective on the whole story of Jesus that Mark offers.

Mark is generally considered the first gospel written. It is the shortest of the four gospels in our New Testament. One of the key features of Mark is quick transitions between events. Mark’s favorite word, it seems, is “immediately.” Even when he doesn’t say it, your eyes want to see it in the text as you go from one episode to the next. There is very little “fluff” in the Gospel of Mark. He uses a very few words to tell us about Jesus and the people he encounters along the way. However, there is a constant play of Jesus revealing himself as the Messiah and concealing who he is. We know how the story ends. We know who Jesus is and can read this gospel knowing all of these things. Yet, we still get caught in the paradox being revealed/concealed in Mark.

According to biblical scholars David Rhoads and Donald Michie, the Gospel of Mark deals with the great issues — life and death, good and evil, human triumph and human failure. This is not a simple story in which virtue easily triumphs, evil easily fails, nor is it a collection of moralizations on life. If we give this gospel a cursory reading, we might miss the very difficult pronouncements that are fraught with irony and paradox: to be most important, one must be least; to enter the rule of God, one must become like a little child; nothing is hidden except to become known; whoever wants to save one’s life must lose it.

In addition, Rhoads and Michie continue to say that many characters think they have an understanding of their situations only to discover that what they had expected is suddenly overturned: the disciples follow Jesus expecting glory and recognition only to find servitude and death confronting them; the authorities kill Jesus in order to preserve their traditions and authority, but they doom themselves by their action; the women come to anoint the dead Jesus, but discover he is among the living.

Sometimes I think I have everything figured out and a clear path is set before me, but as I walk along that path the clarity blurs but a new reality emerges. I wonder, does that ever happen to you? How might looking at the same thing from a completely opposite point of view cause you to act differently, embrace different priorities, and/or see the whole thing in a different way. As Christians, we sometimes have it all worked out in our heads that we, the Church, will be glorified, celebrated, and everyone will want to be a part of our group. But, as the disciples of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark find out, we don’t understand at all what it means to follow Jesus.

I hope you find this week’s reading to be insightful as a way to help us understand who we are as Christians is consistent with and contradictory to being a disciple of Jesus. We live in the irony and the paradox every day. Are we willing to open our eyes to see it clearly — in its simplicity and complexity — and together discern a new way of living to closer resembles the rule of God on earth?

Genesis 27-50

There are parts of this week’s readings that might make you stop reading and give up. Manipulation, subvergence, genocide, theft, rape, blackmail, and lying are just some of the things we read about in the last half of Genesis. Fortunately, reconciliation, forgiveness, restoration, and unification — things that lead to life — are included too. So, don’t give up on your reading. Remember, God’s faithfulness never ends.

We open this week’s readings with Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and ancestral blessing. When Isaac discovers what he has done, it can’t be fixed (kind of like the officials of the Oklahoma State vs. Central Michigan football game this weekend incorrectly giving Central Michigan an extra play to score the winning touchdown — it’s done, over and through and time to move on), Jacob understands there are serious consequences around Esau’s anger. So Jacob runs away and builds a family.

Twenty years later, it’s time to meet Esau. Both brothers have built families and wealth. While Jacob is emotionally troubled and works to regain Esau’s favor, Esau has moved on — has been the older, more mature brother — and discovers ways to reconcile and rebuild the relationship with his brother. I often wonder what else was going on so that Esau and Jacob understood their relationship so differently? Was it just a matter of it being easier to forgive or be forgiven? How does that manifest itself in our relationships today?

Some of these difficult passages, specifically the stories of Dinah, the Edomites, and Tamar, might lay some epistemological foundations for the people of Israel, but that doesn’t make them any easier to read. Reading about Dinah and Tamar, I can’t help but ponder the role of women in the society of ancient Israel and how (whether we like it or not) those foundations are still in play today. While many of us like to believe the evil subjectification of women doesn’t exist in America, we still have a serious domestic violence problem, human trafficking, women are still (on average) paid lower wages than men, and the exploitation of women for money is greater than it is for men. How do we stop rationalizing these issues and cut to the core of the issues? What is our role as people of faith to stop these practices? Are we more of the problem than we like to think?

Moving on to Joseph, everyone needs a sibling like Joseph (notice the tongue in my cheek) — clearly daddy’s favorite, gets a fancy coat, flaunts it in front of his brothers, then, to top it off, has these dreams that infuriate his brothers by saying they will bow down to him. At least when my parents might have favored me over my sister and brother, they we consistent to balance out the favoritism. Jacob created a monster in Joseph. You can’t really blame his brothers for acting like they did. Joseph had a gift to interpret dreams. His interpretations were accurate because God had given him the gift.

I suspect that I am like many of you when it comes to sharing dreams. I don’t do it. Whether these dreams put me in a favorable light in contrast to others (a la, Joseph and his brothers), the fear that they might come true (cupbearer and baker), or the need to change the way I live and plan more prudently for the future (Pharaoh), sharing your dreams with others is risky business. I know that I have had plenty of dreams that would make me look crazy if I shared it. I know that I have regretted not speaking up to share a dream — a vision — that would have enhanced the life of the community.

I have a three point dream for First Christian Church:

1. I have a dream that everyone who attends First Christian Church comes to worship the God of Scripture in both the Hebrew and Christian texts – and that they know who that God is.
2. I have a dream that everyone who attends First Christian Church does not view the Bible as a fine piece of literature, a dead document, a nice story book, or a grand historical artifact – but a living, breathing, life giving, transforming guide that informs every hour of everyday.
3. I have a dream that everyone who attends First Christian Church participates in at least one educational event each week in the life of the church in the daily quest for knowledge of God and formation of a deeper faith in Jesus Christ.

OK, I’ve said it. I have a dream of a stronger, more faithful church. I have a dream that what we do makes a difference in the life of the community. I have an innate distrust of Christians I don’t know — mainly out of a fear that I will be accused and convicted of things they see in me, but I don’t see in myself. I still have a fear of those faith groups that ruled my hometown — that if I wasn’t one of them, then I was not just less than them, I was damned and hopeless. I have a fear that someone has encountered me in that way and I deeply regret it.

Joseph’s dreams became a bridge to a path of reconciliation with his brothers. I hope that we can share our dreams with others as we build a bridge toward healing the human condition, a health that gives glory to God, and a wholeness of the body that endures far beyond the life we live.