Monday, July 27, 2020
Monday, July 20, 2020
Sunday, July 19, 2020
Unfeeling desert. Rocks and sand in every direction. Oh, the camp is just over the next rise. Just walk to the top of the berm; see the tents in the distance; hear the distant bleating of sheep.
But for the persistent thwap of the wind whipping against the cloak, it’s quiet here, so forlorn. Why doesn’t Miriam just go back and join her fellow Israelites camped at Hazeroth? She can’t, not for seven more days.
What thoughts come to one isolated in the wilderness? What does one ponder when consigned to his room in a 2-week COVID quarantine? Or, what runs through one’s mind while walking in circles for 40 years?
Surely at some point in a Coronavirus imposed internment, the stir-crazy inmate thinks through all the places he’s been; the grocery store; the doctor’s office; church; that one day at the beach; several gas stations. Where was I exposed to virus, he repeatedly asks himself as he does his own personal contact tracing. It’s a form of how did I end up here?
Alone out there in the desert we meet Miriam in Numbers 12, banned from the community. She must have asked this question over and over. You can process thousands, millions of thoughts in seven days when all you have to do is sit and think. Perhaps Aaron or Moses ventured out to leave food and water, but even they couldn’t get close. We complain about mask wearing and social distancing. We have no idea!
Read Leviticus 13. “When a person has on his skin … swelling ... and it turns leprous, … the priest shall confine the diseased person for 7 days” (v.2, 4). Confinement was actually exclusion. They didn’t want the disease to spread through the crowded camp, so the victim was kept away until she was declared ‘clean,’ healed. In Number 12, where God banishes Miriam, he follows the dictates of the law he’s just given in Leviticus. Miriam has splotchy, leprous-looking skin. She was out until the disease left her. How did it come to this, she had to be asking herself.
The Israelites were landless people moving en masse through the Sinai Desert toward Moab and the eastern banks of the Jordan River. The distance of 150 miles could be covered in a couple of weeks’ time. But once they made it through the Red Sea, once they received the law from Moses who came down from Sinai, once they found themselves in the desert wastelands thoroughly dependent upon God for survival, they turned out to be a complaining people, quick to rebellion against God.
So, at the moment they were on the cusp of the Promised Land, God forced a turn; over and over; they went in circles, taking 40 years to cover the, 150-mile walk. Slogging along day after day, did they ask themselves how did we end up here?
We live in a political wasteland. Our repetitive election cycle leaves us wandering in 4-year circles. Maybe we should take a seat with Miriam where it’s quiet and still, and listen to whispers of the wild at the fringes of our senses.
In Sacred Attunement, Michael Fishbane, writes, “The vastness of existence impinges upon us everywhere and at all times, and the theologically minded take their stand within this reality – not to carve it up into verbal objects for practical use, but to participate in its ongoing manifestation” (p.39). In case that sentence didn’t thrill you as it does me, try it this way. The universe is huge! We can ignore how big it is or be engulfed by how big it is; or, small as we are, we can look for God. We can discover our place in God’s magnificent creation.
Look at Miriam out there, under the endless nighttime desert sky. Go ahead, count the stars. I believe she saw God out there. I believe we can see Him in our wasteland and be transformed by the experience.
Miriam, thought back. Her baby brother Moses in a basket was set adrift on the Nile. Pharaoh was killing the Hebrew baby boys. Mom entrusted Moses to God, and Miriam watched as the baby floated to the shore right wear Pharaoh’s daughter bathed. She adopted the baby, and Miriam standing by, connected Pharaoh’s daughter to her mother – Moses’ mother – to be the wet nurse.
She was always standing by, supporting her little brother. He grew up and became God’s prophet. He and, Aaron, also older than Moses, brought the plagues of God until Pharaoh freed the Hebrews. She walked along side her baby brother, now the leader of the people. As the law and Numbers 12 demonstrate, in early Israelite history, women had no rights and were essentially property of their husbands or fathers, Even so, Miriam found her voice.
In Exodus, she composed and sang praise to God. In Numbers 12, she challenged Moses, and we get to the crux of matter. Having set up camp upon their arrival at Hazeroth, she and Aaron confront Moses for taking foreign wives. He had married the Midianite Zipporah. Now, we learn Moses also took a Cushite wife.
Cush was another way of referring to Ethiopian. Ethiopic was a description of very dark-skinned Africans who lived along Africa’s northeastern Red Sea coastline, modern day Sudan and Ethiopia. Miriam and Aaron were not upset that the wife was black, but that she was foreign. Moses wasn’t upset at all. His Cushite wife is one of many black Africans who play a role in the Biblical story. We don’t have her name or accounts featuring her, but we know she was approved by Moses and God.
Having double-teamed their little brother about his choice in women, Miriam and Aaron next complain about his role. They felt like they could be prophets as effective and competent as he. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses,” they demanded. As matter of fact …
Like a parent driven to fury by kids fighting in the backseat, God has had enough. Don’t make me stop this car! God stopped the car. “Come out you three to the tent of meeting,” God said. You three. Can you hear that angry dad voice? For punishment, a parent takes away an electronic device, or gives a swift smack on the rear, or at least a stern talking to. God descended in a pillar of cloud.
Miriam found her voice, but when she used it, God did not like what he heard. He had to explain to Aaron and Miriam that prophets receive visions. God speaks to them through dreams and wordless thoughts. All three siblings had likely received such visions. But God spoke to Moses face to face. No one else had that kind of relationship with God. Why was Moses privileged in this way? We aren’t told. God, though, is absolutely clear that challenging Moses will not be tolerated.
After God unleashes divine anger, Miriam contracts leprous marks on her skin. Why was only she affected, and not Aaron too. We aren’t told. But Aaron knew the score. He pleaded with Moses. Just a minute before he squared up to Moses with his brash who do you think you are? Now it’s “O my Lord, do not punish us.” Aaron calls his little brother, “My Lord.”
Moses never wanted any of this. More than once, he asked God to relieve him of the burden of leadership. In Numbers 12, he is silent in the face of the accusations hurled by his older siblings. When he finally speaks, it’s a simple prayer. “O God, please heal her.” Aaron begs Moses, Moses begs God, and God is still mad. Still God gives a prescription for healing: seven days shut out of the camp.
Again, we don’t know why Miriam was punished and not Aaron. At the end of the Gospel of John, after Jesus has predicted Peter’s death (21:19), Peter wants to know the fate of the beloved disciple. Jesus responds “What is that to you? You follow me” (v.22b). Perhaps that wisdom applies to Miriam in Numbers 12. C.S. Lewis picks up on this in the Narnia stories, several times telling characters that Aslan (who represents Christ) doesn’t tell you other people’ stories, only your own. Miriam is punished. Aaron is not. Only God knows why.
At the end of Numbers 12, the conclusion of Miriam’s desert quarantine, she is welcomed back into the community. The Israelites would not move from Hazeroth until she had been fully restored. Moses prayed for her. The community waited for her. We know that. What I’d like to know most, we are not told. What did she see and hear from God during those 7 days quarantined?
What do we see and hear from God as we wander in circles or turn circles in our minds while locked in our homes, not permitted to leave? Fight it. Complain about it. Gripe. Sulk. So many in scripture brood gloomily under God’s watchful eye: Job, Jonah, Elijah, Jeremiah, Samson, Amos, Peter, Paul, and maybe Miriam.
After the griping, groaning, grousing, and grieving, open your eyes. God is there to be seen, if we look. Open your ears, God is speaking and we’ll hear, if we listen. Open yourself. Nothing that nauseates us in the morass of American politics and the sense of being stuck in Coronavirus-America is any worse than the desert quarantine Miriam survived. She came out of it reassured of her place in God’s community and God’s plan. And I am sure, in some unique way, she met God. I am equally sure we can meet him in the midst of unsettling times. God is still God and He loves each one of us. He loves you and is ready sit with you in a quiet place and begin telling you your story.
Sunday, July 12, 2020
I’m going to tell you about my dating life before I met Candy and we married and life was all about following Jesus, being a pastor, and becoming a family. Before all that, I was a single. Life was about following Jesus, most definitely. As I followed Jesus, I went out on dates, including one with an activist.
She worked for a conservative women’s organization dedicated to fighting abortion. I took her to my favorite restaurant in Arlington. We talked as we perused the menus, but the entire conversation stayed on one topic – the effort to stop abortion. After we ordered, I said, “Well, when you aren’t working, what do you like to do for fun?” She looked at me earnestly, and said with passionate energy, “I go to anti-abortion rallies all over the country.” In my head, I thought to myself, ‘Dear Jesus, she’s not for me and I’m not for her. When will this date be over?’
This beautiful woman lived within a frame – the fight against abortion. I lived within a frame too, but a different frame. I have opposed abortion and still do, but I have additional interests. My frame was following Jesus, and falling in love. I propose that every one of us sees the world through colored lenses, every one of us holds a worldview, and every one of us lives life within a framework. Without choosing, we end up in default frameworks:
· A framework dictated by someone’s idea of what American is.
· A framework imposed by our professions.
· A framework inherited from our families.
· A framework that says, “I am southern and I need to explain to others what it means to be southern.”
· Race-identity frameworks.
We will all see through lenses, hold a worldview, and live in a framework, and if we don’t think about it, our lenses, worldviews, and frames are inherited or imposed on us. But we can choose the lenses through which we will look; the worldview definition; and we can choose which frame’s boundaries will determine our limits. We can choose our framework, and Jesus insists we do so.
Chapter 10 is one of five sermons from Jesus Matthew uses to organize his Gospel. These sermons, call to mind, the foundational teaching in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Matthew 10 is the missionary discourse. In it we see the interpretive frame in which Jesus insisted we must stay in order to follow him.
Whatever we do in life, we do it in this frame. How we interact with people, do our jobs, hold our relationships, and even how we play on days off is determined by the interpretive frame Jesus insists is absolute for his followers. A disciple of Jesus lives within this frame. We are called to be disciples of Jesus.
In the verses just prior to the interpretive frame, Jesus says,
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
He turns a son against his father, a daughter against her mother? To follow Jesus is to turn completely away from family? Can this be what Jesus means?
Remember, later in the New Testament we come across a letter entitled James, said to be written not by the brother of John and one of the 12. This other James, also mentioned in Acts and in Galatians, is probably the younger half-brother of Jesus, a son of Joseph and Mary. There’s the letter Jude, written by another half-brother of Jesus. His siblings became his followers after the resurrection.
Remember Jesus’ words on the cross, in John 19. As he died, he entrusted care of his mother to the beloved disciple. Jesus’ actions show how much he loved and included his family in his movement. But his words at the end of Matthew 10, shockingly, say something else. What’s he getting at?
Through the interpretive frame, we make sense of the rest of his words. In the interpretive frame, we live our lives. Verses 38-39: “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We have to take up our cross and lose our lives. Another way of saying this is we deny the self. We do it from gratitude and out of love for Him. Love for Jesus and absolute devotion to Jesus creates such a magnetic pull in our lives, everything else is subsumed.
What sense does it makes for Jesus to impose the burden of taking up the cross in chapter 10? He didn’t experience the cross until the end of the story. All the listeners, including all who wanted to follow him, knew what the Roman cross was – a humiliating tool of public execution designed to drive home the subjugation of the people. See these crosses and know you live under Rome’s heel.
In taking up our daily crosses, we defy Rome and resist oppressive governmental or social powers, regardless of what they do us. In taking up our cross, we step into the frame Jesus has set around us. We love our neighbors and our enemies. We pray for and serve those who oppose us. We feed the needy, encourage the depressed, make space for the lonely and rejected, and tell the good news of life in Christ. Our frame leads us to this countercultural way of living. In approaching life this way, we tell everyone, We are His.
In our interpretive frame, we carry the cross, lose our lives, and die to self. Paul says it this way. “To live is Christ and to die is gain. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish” (Philippians 1:21; 3:8). When he chose to follow Jesus, He gave up the life in which he was quickly rising in the ranks of Jerusalem religious intelligentsia. He counted those accolades that Pharisees would work their entire lives to gain as rubbish. Serving Christ was everything for Paul, as it is for every true disciple.
What are willing to count as rubbish compared to living in Christ? We should love our families, but our families cannot be more important than Jesus. If someone’s family matters than the Lord, then family, a good thing, becomes an idol.
Some people aspire to be a scholarship athlete or have a career as a dancer or musician. These highly competitive ventures demand commitment from those intrepid enough to try. Even something so all-consuming cannot command more of us than Jesus, if we are to be his disciples. We are called to be his disciples.
What determines life is as it should be? Career advancement? Physical fitness? Relationships? In Christ, we die to these good things. We lose that life. We gain Christ. Marriage, career, and achievement each conforms to the frame: life in Christ; the advancement of the Kingdom. For the disciples all arenas of life are made to fit into the frame of discipleship.
We should be suspicious of any movement, protest, politics or idea where Christianity is bent or redefined to fit the ideology instead of the individual being conformed to the way of Christ. Aggressively vocal activists sometimes demand that Christianity to fit their needs.
I am talking about activists, writers and protestors who attempt remake Christianity in order to make it more palatable to their vision. Part of my understanding of Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom is the promise of justice for the oppressed, victims of structural racism and generational prejudice, so I have marched in protest. Marching, for me was an act of discipleship. In doing it, my mind was on Christ as I strove to obey and glorify him and draw others to Him. What I have had not heard enough is the leaders of movements saying, “to live is Christ and to die is vain.” How many activists, thinkers or writers understand that we must submit to our Lord, Jesus?
The mantra of our day is “be true to yourself.” How does that sound next to “those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it?” Be true to yourself is not a Biblical idea. Jesus is truth. In the waters of baptism, we die and are buried. Then we are made new in Christ.
Following Jesus, and sharing his entire Gospel is the frame in which we must live when we emerge from the water. So many ideologies and movements vie to define us; we must die to all of it. When we live in Christ, we can protest abortion and we can protest violence against black people. In him, we can insist that black lives matter and white supremacy must end. In him we can have love-filled, robust theological conversations about sexuality, gender and relationships. These conversations won’t always end in agreement, but we are united in him.
Imagine your life, the very core of who you are. See the interpretive frame. What does your life look like when you die and every loyalty you hold dear dies to be reborn in the framework of discipleship? Is following Jesus worth it? He presented that choice to his followers in Matthew’s gospel. He presents it to us. Imagine it. Will you go all-in with Jesus?