The last sentence of our reading from Genesis says, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” so this text is often treated as a story of faith. But, in all honesty, this is a story of doubt. It is the story of Abram questioning God’s promise of a posterity; it is a story of tribalism and concern for bloodline, ethnicity, and inheritance.
We humans have a predisposition to tribalism, to congregating in social groupings of similar people. Think about the neighborhood and community where you live; I’m willing to bet that your neighborhoods are made up of people for the most part pretty similar to yourselves. Aside from clearly racist practices like red lining and sundown laws, we modern Americans may not consciously organize ourselves into tribal groupings, but if we look at ourselves honestly we will find that we do. Like attracts like. As individuals, we are initially situated within nuclear families, then as we grow we broaden our social interactions to extended families, then clan, tribe, ethnic group, political party, nation.
It’s genetic: our nearest relatives, the great apes and chimpanzees, demonstrate this same family and clan predilection. And it’s religious: we find it in sacred literatures across cultures. Today’s lesson from Genesis is a case in point.
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” advises the author of the letter to the Colossians (whom I shall call “Paul” even though there is some scholarly dispute about that). Is Paul echoing the Teacher who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes? Is he also asserting that “all the deeds that are done under the sun [are] vanity and a chasing after wind”?
And what about Luke’s Jesus? When he says that God calls the rich man a fool is he condemning his wealth or his saving for the future as a waste of time?
No, not at all! None of our biblical authors this morning – not the Teacher, not Paul, not Luke (and certainly not Jesus whom Luke is quoting) – none of them is saying that life is futile or that our earthly existence is unimportant.
Come Holy Spirit, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
everywhere present and filling all things.
Treasury of Blessing, Giver of Life,
Come, dwell within us and between us… Amen.
On the day of Pentecost, the disciples, “filled with the Holy Spirit” rushed out into the streets of Jerusalem “and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability,” proclaiming the Good News to the crowds of people in town for Shavuot and answering their inevitable questions. Jesus had told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” The Spirit, as Jesus promised, had reminded them and empowered them, and now here they were.
Scholars and preachers go through all sorts of hermeneutical contortions to interpret this event as some sort of reversal or overcoming of the linguistic scattering of the nations at the Tower of Babel. I suppose that’s why our lectionary pairs that Genesis story with the reading from the Book of Acts, but I don’t think that’s what Luke, the author of Acts, was trying to convey. I’m always left wondering, “If that’s what he was trying to put across, why didn’t he just say that?”
So, did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? I usually make three: lose weight, get more exercise, eat more healthily. I make them every year and every year by about Valentine’s Day I’ve let them slip. But this year I’m making a different resolution….
I did some research into the custom of making New Year’s Resolutions and here’s what I learned: the people of what’s called “the Old Babylonian Empire” are believed to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions; this was around the time of Hammurabi, the king known for his code of law. They celebrated the new year in mid-March, at the spring equinox when crops are planted. During a twelve-day religious festival known as Akitu, the Babylonians made both national and personal resolutions reaffirming their loyalty to the king, recommitting to pay any debts, and promising to return any farm equipment they had borrowed.
I really don’t like television commercials, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that regard. It’s a common complaint; we all talk about how much we dislike TV advertising. We all subscribe to Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services so we can avoid them. And yet, sometimes a particularly memorable advertisement tag-line will worm it’s way into one’s regular conversation. My step-father had one of those: whenever my mother made anything even slightly piquant he would say, “Mama mia, that’s a spicy meatball,” which some of you may recognize from an old Alka-Seltzer commercial.
Another one that ended up in America’s political lexicon was Clara Peller’s famous question in a Wendy’s ad: “Where’s the beef?”
My wife and I picked one up a few years ago from a commercial for the on-line auto insurer Esurance. Sometimes when we see someone doing something particularly bone-headed, one of us will turn to the other and say, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”
A book entitled Stories for the Heart was published a few years ago by inspirational speaker Alice Gray. It is a compilation of what Gray calls “stories to encourage your soul;” one of them is the following story, whose original author she says is unknown. It may not be true, but I (for one) hope it is:
It was a few weeks before Christmas 1917. The beautiful snowy landscapes of Europe were blackened by war. The trenches on one side held the Germans and on the other side the trenches were filled with Americans. It was World War I. The exchange of gunshots was intense. Separating them was a very narrow strip of no-man’s land. A young German soldier attempting to cross that no-man’s land had been shot and had become entangled in the barbed wire. He cried out in anguish, then in pain he continued to whimper.
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin , an 18th century French politician once said, “Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what you what kind of man are.” The 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said, “Man is what he eats.”
These observations have been distilled into our modern idiom. “You are what you eat” is a saying one hears or reads pretty regularly. And it’s true. Eating shapes our identities, defines who we are. A particular food and drink may highlight ethnicity, nationality, or age: tacos, lasagna, Coca Cola (over fifty), Pepsi (under thirty,) hamburgers, sushi. Food and drink defines the great holidays and important celebrations of our lives: champagne on New Year’s Eve, turkey at Thanksgiving, plum pudding at Christmas, hot dogs on the Fourth of July, eggs at Easter.
An ordained colleague of mine once commented that the Sacramental presence of the Eucharist has shifted location in the modern church. Once the table-fellowship of the church was centered on the altar; now, he said, it is found elsewhere depending upon denominational tradition. For Baptists, it is now found in the fried chicken dinner; for Methodists, in the potluck supper; and for Episcopalians, at coffee hour. He was kidding, of course, but there is an element of truth in his humor.
Today, as I write this, is Trinity Sunday 2020, but my imagination this morning is not caught up by the Lectionary gospel lesson of the day, the last mountain-top experience of the Eleven when, just before his Ascension, Jesus gives them the Great Commission. Rather, my mind is taken to another mountain-top story, the one New Testament story Episcopalians can count on hearing twice each year at celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, that of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is heard on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, when Luke’s version is read at the mass:
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
It is also always heard on the Last Sunday after Epiphany when, depending on the Lectionary year, it may be Luke’s story or the essentially similar versions from Matthew or Mark.
Today marks the beginning of the season we call “Lent,” an old English word which refers to the springtime lengthening of the days. What is this season all about, these forty days (not counting Sundays) during which we are to be, in some way, doing what a hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says: “Keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast?”
A few years ago, Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, described Lent as a time for seeking and getting to know God better. Similarly, an essay about Lent in an issue of the National Catholic Register was titled “A Season for Seeking.” I’m not sure I buy that, however. As the Roman Franciscan author Richard Rohr says, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” Lent is not so much a time for seeking God, who is always there, as it is for becoming aware of God.
And the interesting thing is that we are encouraged to become aware of God by becoming more aware of ourselves. Yes, Jesus does say to give with one hand not letting the other know what’s happening, but this seems more an instruction to follow the Deuteronomic command to “open your hand [to one in need] … to give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so” rather than a direction to act without self-awareness.
A Buddhist tells this story:
Once upon a time, there was a tavern owner in Mumbai. He had a hard-working bartender, who was always trying to be helpful by inventing new ways of doing things. One hot day, the tavern owner wanted to go to the beach. So he left the bartender in charge while he was gone. The bartender had noticed that many customers ate a little salt after drinking their liquor. He didn’t know why, but not wishing to show his ignorance, he never asked. He thought it might be that the liquor needed salt to taste good, and he wondered why taverns didn’t just add salt to their liquor. He decided that if he did so, the business would make much higher profits, and the tavern owner would be very pleased. So he added salt to all the liquor, not knowing that the actual reason the customers ate the salt was to chase away the aftertaste of the liquor. To his surprise, when the customers came to the tavern and drank the salty booze, they immediately spit it out; they left and went to a different bar. When the owner returned from his day at the beach, he found his tavern empty, and all his liquor ruined.