I Will Be There

IamMoses meeting God in the burning bush, asks, Who am I to tell them you are?

God replies, “I AM THAT I AM”. Another translation has it: “I AM HE WHO IS”

In Hebrew, the words are “EHYEH ASHER EHYEH” which translates as “I WILL BE THERE HOWSOEVER I WILL BE THERE”.

Nothing is more enigmatic I think than this phrase. According to the great Hebrew scholar Everett Fox, there is and probably will forever be much debate about this statement.

In Egyptian magic, to name a thing gives one the power to control it; thus Moses envisions the slaves of Egypt being able to summon this God and call upon his power. In some sense it always gives the holder a coercive ability, or at the least as Fox says, an ability to understand the true essence of the named one.

Surely that has been the goal of untold billions of believers down through the ages. We both want to grasp this God, and make him do our bidding. We don’t take kindly always to having our prayers ignored (or so we imagine).

Yet there is more. In Hebrew, the phrase is alliterative, making it in Fox’s words both important and mysterious. It both teases us with its symmetry and its illusive quality. Some suggest that the best understand is “he who causes things to be.”

Martin Buber, a great Jewish philosopher famous for his existential I-Thou, I-It dichotomy, took things in a different direction. He suggests that God is rendered as the “one who is there”, and this is the one Fox himself adopts. The verb is hayoh, being there, which coincides Fox argues with the later back and forth as Moses brings up reason after reason why he is not up to the task God directs him to. In all but one response, God answers with the hayoh verb, that he will “be there”.

It may well be as Fox points out, that God simply meant to be purposefully vague in order to show his lack of “magical”ness. It becomes the YHWH or Yehweh which we commonly understand today as the “He who creates” or “he who is”.

Buber’s argument for the “He who is there” is from a pastoral point of view, much the preferred. We long to not just recognize that our God is the Creator, but more than he is “there” for us. We seek and feel his presence in our daily lives, always available to guide and nudge us in the right direction, or conversely to raise the pangs of nagging conscience when we have strayed from the path.

We don’t of course know how Moses viewed it, but we know that he responded to the call and put all on the line to serve this God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And his voice was, with the “God-who-is-there” strong enough to convince the people to follow him in the desert as they made their way slowly and arduously to the promised land.

We of course are in our own desert during this Lenten period, and we seek the promised land as well. Our way is sometimes slow, we have lost our way many a time. We have stumbled and fallen and feared that we did not have what it takes to finish the journey. But we are comforted by the knowledge that our God is not some far-off deity who demands our worship and remains aloof to our needs and desires.

Our God, is with us during all our struggles and long dark nights of the soul. He nourishes us and shares our burdens, and often, if we allow, takes them upon himself while we rest and refresh our spirits. His words are food for us, his love embraces us, holding us tight when we are afraid.

This is the God whom Moses brought to us. This is the God who endures, who ever was, ever is, ever will be. He is as close as your breath, and as dear as your closest human companion. She is as tender as a loving mother, as loving as them most proud father, and that cannot be changed. You have only to reach out your hand, and you will find the steady rock that you have so longed for.

God is there. He has said it. He will be there.

Amen.

** The Five Books of Moses (The Schocken Bible Vol 1), Translation, Commentary, Notes by Everett Fox. ( do yourself a great favor and get a copy of this–the poetry in this translation is simply breathtaking.)

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Touching the Transcendent

TransfigurationToday we celebrate the second Sunday in Lent, and we read a familiar text, Luke’s version of the Transfiguration.

Jesus brings James and John to Mt. Tabor and there is transfigured before their eyes, his face being changed and his clothing as well. In addition, Moses and Elijah join him.

It is a difficult story for me, difficult because transcendent experiences are well within the realm of all of us human beings. Thus I am astounded at how obtuse the apostles remain through the balance of the gospels after this point.

In other words, was the event not earth shattering? After all, they see Jesus physically changed, they see dead men appearing with Jesus and he speaks to them, and then to top it all off, they hear what can only be the voice of God speaking to them!

What else do they need to know that they should from this moment forward do everything as the Master suggests and be sure that he is in fact the Lord?

Of course one may say the same of many other instances that they witnessed. Jesus brings the dead back to life, he walks on water, calms the seas, orders the nets to be lowered one more time. These are all transcendent moments in time, yet the apostles remain clueless again and again, or at least soon forget.

It is interesting to me that major events occur on mountains or near the sea. The Hebrew Scriptures tell a similar story. God gets people’s attention ofttimes on mountains as with Abraham or water as with Noah and Moses. Jesus, as I mentioned goes up on Mt. Tabor, and teaches from boats, walks on water, calms storms, and orders a grand catch of fish. Add in the events that occur in deserts, Jesus’ fasting, the wandering of the people for 40 years, and we can see that landscape plays a huge part in helping us to recognize the mysterious and other worldliness of faith.

It got me to thinking about how we are today, we humans.

Do we not still seek out these places?

And even the non-believer finds something magnificent happening to her spirit when confronted with vistas of mountains, or the expanse of desert or sea. We go to these places to “find ourselves”, to “unwind”, to “reconnect”, to get back to basics.” We have a hundred phrases for why we seek out such venues.

We know what happens when we visit or move to areas like this. We find peace and we find an ability to concentrate on the truly meaningful in life and not the superficial. There is nothing superficial about a mountain, ocean, or desert. They are raw and powerful. They sport unspeakable beauty but also much danger. We are awed. We are transformed.

We are  aware on some level that we are in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. We bow in our minds before such power. We acknowledge our limits as mere humans. We change within. We become something better than we were.

Now the non-believer may not put labels on these feelings of course, but I find it hard to see them as anything other than some innate, inborn recognition of our connectedness with the realms of the unseen. We can sense the majesty and holiness of such places because at least at the subconscious level we recognize them as the places where God and human meet.

No doubt Peter, James and John felt these same things and in a more powerful way, for most of us touch it in the beauty and power before us alone, and hear no voice from heaven placing an imprimatur upon one among us.

That is what I have never understood on a gut level. I’ve come to realize that it may have been more for literary device than actuality that these things occurred. Either the events themselves were not so amazing as depicted, or the apostles were not quite so lacking in true understanding. Probably it’s a little of both.

We may not all live near to mountains, deserts or oceans, yet the transcendent is always available to us. Think for a moment of the beauty of a newborn, the iridescence of the peacock, the perfection of the rose. Are not these moments in time when we stop in awe? When we catch our breaths, sigh in quiet joy, choke on words to describe, feel the moisture of sudden tears, we can be sure that we are in that moment where God and creature are meeting.

During this journey of Lent, we should look for these moments, for God is seeking us, and is all around us, offering us love and that connection we so crave. Stop, look and listen, and you will surely find it everywhere, much as did Peter, John and James did.

Let it transform you. Let it fill you. Let it become you.

Amen.

 

 

Let Us Cleanse

It is ironic in a sense that we find John’s version of the cleansing of the temple as our Lenten reading today. For John, written last, perhaps in the very late part of the first century, or into the second, moves the time of this event in Jesus’ life.

Instead of immediately preceding his arrest and trial and crucifixion, John places the event at the very start of his ministry. Let there be no doubt what Jesus came to do, John announces!

And John brings an added element of violence to the whole affair, introducing the whip to the story.

Jesus enters the temple and witnesses what were the normal goings on. The money changers were hard at work exchanging coin of the realm (Roman) for coin that was “legal” in the temple–coin that did not bear the idolatrous figures of Caesar on them. Animals, for purchase as sacrifice wander around in some disarray.

Jesus, sees that in some measure, what passes as worship has been reduced to financial transactions. Bonhoeffer would call it “cheap grace.” One buys one’s sacrifice, and presents it to the priest. Religious obligations fulfilled. No wonder Jesus was disgusted.

What Jesus is pointed to is that this building, this temple is not God, it is not even where God need by worshipped. He points to himself as the true temple, and prophetically indicates that he will be “raised up in three days.”

Of course, most of those who witnessed this event did not understand. John does, and he reminds his listeners that upon his death, his disciples remembered the words and fully understood at last that Jesus was the embodiment of God.

We are told too that we are “temples” of God.

We understand this since God is Spirit, and resides within us.

But we are not Jesus. We merely emulate him as best we can.

It thus stands to reason that our temple is prone to reflect that one in Jerusalem.

It is prone to contain all manner of extraneous stuff, adherence to rituals and practices that have become meaningless in their routine. We are prone to bringing into our temple those thoughts and beliefs not worthy of such a place. We bring our angers and our fears, our jealousies and house them in this holy place.

We allow our temple to be polluted with too much food and drink, and we fail to care for it in other ways. We lack the strength of will or physical ability to do the work we are called to do to welcome in the Kingdom.

Lent is a time of cleansing. It is a time of evaluating, of fasting, and reflection. It is a time of change, reordering, and prioritizing.

Are you cleansing your temple?

Isn’t it about time you did?

Amen.

Our Test of Faith

I really hate biblical texts that start off with telling me that God put so and so “to the test.” Such is the case with today’s first reading, Gen 22: 1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18.

“God put Abraham to the test.”

Untold numbers of fundamentalists have taken this text and used it to explain why the earth is not really as old as it “appears” to be, and evidence of “early hominids?”, just another test by God to see if we are faithful to the Book.

So, you see, I dislike these kinds of stories, although I know it is not the story but the erroneous interpretation that is the culprit. When we accept stories word for word as written as utterly literally true, we miss the point. We miss in fact what the author intended, which is the lesson to be learned from the story. For that was the point of stories in ancient times, they were convenient vehicles to convey truth, convenient in that they were easier to remember than the tenets. Frankly, no story is easier to remember than the one filled with danger, mystery, and shocking turns.

The story of Abraham and the offering of Isaac delivers dramatically.

At first blush it is easy to dismiss the story as grandiose and hyperbole simply because God being omniscient, or so we all believe and contend, has not need to test anyone. God knows us, as we also say, down to having counted every hair on our head.

But it is just as simplistic to dismiss the story as one of “proof of perfect faith.” Abraham is seen thusly as the man willing to murder his most beloved and only son of his wife Sarai. Was this such a demonstration of faith? Maybe.

A wonderful reflection by Father Kavanaugh, based upon a lecture he heard given by Professor Eleonore Stump, suggests something rather different. Professor Stump suggests that Abraham did not offer to execute his son under some vague “God works in mysterious ways” kind of conclusion. But rather that God had made very specific promises to Abraham, among them being that nations would “issue” from Sarai.

Remembering that all the promises of children in old age had come true, Abraham believes that this God of his can indeed be trusted. God had promised that Ishmael would produce nations as well, and Abraham had sent him off into the wilderness with his mother Hagar. He trusted then. He trusts now.

As Kavanaugh says, God asks of Abraham no more than He asks of himself. He offers his son, who goes upon the cross. And yet that son’s death, was not forever, it was burst forth in glorious resurrection. Abraham of course could not have known this, but he trusts.

And the point of the story is not the grand trust of Abraham, but that we may be comforted in our own trials. God is faithful. God has given the great sacrifice, his only Son for our lives. We can trust in this God, we can weather the storms of life knowing that the promise is and was and will be forever.

Amen.

Of Miracles in the Sand

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.

After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.” [Mk 1: 12-15]

Desert land, long and endless drifts of brown on brown on brown
Driven by the mind inside,  Spirit of endless drifts of brown on brown on brown
Echoed in the drone of endless drifts of day upon day upon day
Repeated in the panoply of realities of brown on brown on brown.
 
And I remain, deserted, desert endless whiling away the forty seconds
Seconds, minutes, hours, days until revelation of revelation
Tempted by realities wished, hated, tempted, rejected
Wild beasts of realities echoing in the drone of drifts of brown on brown on brown
 
Angels minister to souls awash in sand, dry and bone weary
Sipping crystal droplets of dew inside the endless mind echoes
Laying with the lion and lamb, shot through with laser-point realities past
Minister to ME!
 
Arrest ME! John is long gone, a platter’s offering
Where is my Galilee? Minister to ME!
Fullfill ME! Preach the succulent vowels of loving
Caress my brow, vision me the Kingdom
 
Desert land, lean and mean, sand falling from my ears
Repent! Of deeds done, undone, not done, not thought, thought, said, not said, not spoken
Whirling spools of sandmares sucking me upward, outwards, inside out
Realities picked apart, discarded, embraced, choose, choose the ONE
 
Believe, grasp it with your fingertips,  just lay in the pool, let the belief wash away
Sand scum clings, wash it away, wash it away
Brown on brown on brown settling on the bottom, new patterns of dunes
Mind free, Gospel calling, Jesus loves, unburdened moment to moment
 
At the knee of the Master
“Oh Master, Oh Master”
Enigmatic muscles contract into the faintest of smile, rising up
Renewed, revived, remade, unmade, created grain by grain, into this new thing
Oh Blessed Blessed Desert sand.
 

 

Amen

When Our Beloved Died, . . .

“When our Beloved died, all mankind died and all things for a space were still and gray. They the east was darkened, and a tempest rushed out of it and swept the land. The eyes of the sky opened and shut, and the rain came down in torrents and carried away  the blood that streamed from His hands and His feet.

I too died. But in the depth of my oblivion I heard Him speak and say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And His voice sought my drowned spirit and I was brought back to the shore.

And I opened my eyes and I saw His white body hanging against the cloud, and His words that I had heard took shape within me and became a new man. And I sorrowed no more.

Who would sorrow for a sea that is unveiling its face, or for a mountain that laughs in the sun?

Was it ever in the heart of man, when that heart was pierced, to say such words?

What other judge of men has released His judges? And did ever love challenge hate with power more certain of itself?

Was ever such a trumpet heard ‘twixt heaven and earth?

Was it known before that the murdered had compassion on his murderers? Or that the meteor stayed his footsteps for the mole?

The seasons shall tire and the years grow old, ere they exhaust these words: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And you and I, though born again and again, shall keep them.

And now I would into my house, and stand an exalted beggar, at His door.

                                                               [“Phillip,” from Jesus the Son of Man, Kahlil Gibran]

Moving Toward. . .

 Well do I remember the last time I saw Jesus the Nazarene. Judas had come to me at the noon hour of  that Thursday, and bidden me prepare supper for Jesus and His friends. . . . At twilight He came and His followers, and they sat in the upper chamber around the board, but they were silent and quiet. . . . They stayed until  it was full dark, and then they all descended together from the upper chamber, but at the foot of the stairs Jesus tarried awhile. And He looked at me and my wife, and He placed His hand upon the head of my daughter and He said, “Good night to you all.” [from “Ahaz the Portly” Jesus the Son of Man, Kahlil Gibran]

In the dark night we call to one another and cry for help, while the ghost of Death stands in our midst stretching his black wings over us and, with his iron hands, pushes our souls into the abyss.

In the dark night Death strides on and we follow him frightened and moaning. Not one of us is capable of halting the fateful procession or even nourishing a hope of its end.

In the dark night Death walks and we walk behind him. And when he looks backward, hundreds of souls fall down on both sides of the road. And he who falls, sleeps and never awakens. And he who keeps his footing marches on fearfully in the dread certainty of falling later and joining those who have yielded to Death and entered the eternal sleep. But Death marches on, gazing at the distant Evening Twilight. [In the Dark Night, Kahlil Gibran]

We walk on,  following. . .knowing. . .our cheeks bathed in tears. We keep our footing.

Amen.

Calm at the Center of the Storm

One stop on the road to enlightenment, or so I’m told, is when we can be an internal witness to our thoughts, disengaged from them, simply watching them go by. We neither want them nor hold them. We are indifferent.

Something like that sometimes happens to me, usually in social situations. I feel disengaged from my body. I am fully aware, yet I see myself as witness to the conversations and activities surrounding me. I feel in a sense invisible, able to just watch the action.

I’ve been feeling that a lot these last couple of days as regards the mass readings leading up to the crucifixion. I can see in my mind’s eye that time of long ago, after Jesus had entered Jerusalem. The messengers running through the street to inform the Sanhedrin that “he is here.”  The flurry of meetings, discussions, and decisions.

The streets were awash with talk. “He is here.”

“Who?”

“You know, Jesus of Nazareth, the healer, the one some call the Messiah.”

“Where is he?”

“No one knows, he’s disappeared somewhere in the city.”

Arguments ensue between those who follow the Master and those who don’t. Rumors are rampant.

Depending on which story you attend to, Judas is going through a crisis of his own. Jesus has not turned out to be what Judas expected. There are whispers among the disciples, arguments even. Some were against this entry into the city, some were fearful. Others were simply confused. Some trusted the Master’s decision.

Jesus, remains the calm center as all about him is arush with all this confusion. He sees the fear in the eyes of Peter, the anger in Judas eyes. His mother is quiet as is Mary the Magdala. They tend to the preparation of the rooms where they are staying. Hauling water, setting up bedding.

The Roman soldiers are on high alert. They’ve been told that there is unrest, arguing, meetings, and groups gathering around the Temple. They have heard of this itinerant preacher who is causing dissention among the Jews. The Pharisees are speaking out in the Temple and  around the city. Crowds listen, some cheering and others jeering. The soldiers are nervous.

Jesus is aware of all of it. And he knows how it will end. He cannot and would not stop it if he could. It must be this way. They must see this new way of God, and the only way is this way. This perfect and complete offering of self–only this will jar them out of their complacency.

Jesus is the calm within the maelstrom, all moving inexorably toward this one apex of exquisite pain and offering.

I can sit and see it all. And somehow there is comfort in it all. Somehow there is. I sit in the calm with my Lord.

Amen.

To Whom Do You Relate?

In the passages included with John 13:21-38, Jesus points directly at his betrayer, and tells Simon Peter that he will disown him three times before the cock crows next morning.

Unlike the other three Gospels, which leave the betrayer somewhat ambiguous at least to the disciples themselves, John doesn’t mince words. Simon Peter asks the beloved disciple to ask Jesus, and he replies that it is the man to whom I give my dipped bread to. He then hands that piece to Judas Iscariot.

It’s a troubling passage, since one would think that the other disciples would have risen in horror and raised some sort of cry. Yet, John pretends that somehow they didn’t understand, thinking Jesus’ words to Judas were having to do with the purchase of food for the Passover. (Remember John doesn’t situate the “Last Supper” on the Passover as do the other Gospels.)

In any case, we learn from John that Satan entered Judas at the moment that he touched the bread offered by Christ. How John knew this, is unknown. But it certainly puts Judas in a different light.

People have speculated that Judas was a Zealot, a Jew who awaited the Messiah who would lead an army against the Romans. The argument goes that Judas, realizing that Jesus intended no such armed rebellion, grew angry and felt betrayed by Jesus. He felt Jesus was “in the way” of the real movement that would throw off the chains of Roman occupation.

John seems to dispel this argument by arguing that Judas’ betrayal was in fact “always meant to be” and something that did not enter his mind until he accepted the morsel of bread from the hand of Jesus. In a sense, Jesus “picked” Judas to be the betrayer.

Peter, on the other hand, is not overtaken by Satan. He simply acts as many a frightened person. How often have we read in story or seen in film the followers who, when the going gets tough, get going in another direction? Peter is all of us who have not the strength of our convictions when our own skin is being threatened.

I don’t think we pay nearly enough attention to Judas frankly. There are references in the Gospels of Judas not liking how money was dispersed. There are references to complaints. But if indeed Judas were a Zealot, it would be reasonable that he would want all funds for the “movement.”  Indeed his 30 pieces of silver may well have been diverted into the rebellion had he not realized that the Sanhedrin intended to kill Jesus, and realized his mistake.

I don’t mean to make too much of this, since we can never know. But perhaps we make too much of Judas’ evilness and too little of Simon Peter’s running away. I am not sure. I only mean to suggest that thinking about the juxtaposition of the two is  of value perhaps today.

All is Holy Ground

I, the Lord have called you to serve the cause of right. I have taken you by the hand and formed you.  I have appointed you as covenant of the people and light of the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.” [Is 42:6-7]

We have come up out of the desert and into the City. We know the awful days ahead, filled with foreboding and pain. We are also aware of the breaking open of the heavens in joyous jubilation which awaits us on Easter Sunday.

It is a time of deep holiness. All about seems sacred. We are quieter, we smile gently, laughter feels unseemly. We give attention to our daily chores; we do all with care. Our world is filled with the fragrance of the ointment that anointed our Lord.

We tread softly. We take seriously our appointment to serve the cause of right. Jesus tells us that the “poor you have with you always” and we feel that sadness of that statement. For we have done little to alleviate the plight of the poor over the centuries. We have not well served the cause of right.

Jesus assuredly did not mean that poverty was a normal state. He merely acknowledges that it was the state of his world in his time. Truly, most of the world lived in want. Given the earthly power of Rome, there was no way to attack that evil except in his admonition to take care of all in need, without reference to judgment as best as the community could. “For as you care for the least of these, you did it to me,” he reminded us. We cannot know who is worthy or not, we are to serve all without evaluating.

We serve this week, but our eyes see in the distance, and there we see the cross. That is our earthly goal, to ascend the cross, to die to ourselves, to live in Christ.

Amen.

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