Saturday, July 5, 2014

Independence Day 2014

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There's no doubt that one of the freedom's envisioned back in 1776 was the freedom to engage in commercial activity. But in commemorating July 4th as a pivotal date in the nation, let us remember those words, for the Declaration's truths were not self-evident then, nor are they now.

1. "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America." It is remarkable today to think of any congress composed of our states as united and unanimous, especially on a matter of controversy. Certainly the national opinion was far from unanimous. Challenging one of earth's most powerful empires took courage, conviction, and those who put their names on the line were taking a great risk. Any union has tensions and potential divisions. The Continental Congress worked hard to get a united agreement, and the subsequent war was as much a story of maintaining the states' alliance as it was about the military action. The Declaration could not have worked unless the states were and stayed united - in union there is strength.

2. "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another..." Think of the Declaration as the initial filing in a divorce proceeding. Skip over for a moment those great "self-evident" truths and you will find a detailed case against King George ("a history of repeated injuries"), the claims of how the colonies have been faithful and tried to make the relationship work ("In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms"), and the conclusion that these differences have become irreconcilable.

3. They knew the Declaration meant war. They accuse the King of waging war against the states, and declare instead that the States have "full Power to levy War." War, warfare, and the military are mentioned at least 13 times in this short document.

4. An imperfect union.
We now see the gap between "all men are created equal" and the reality of inequality built into the young nation. The pictures of the Continental Congress show white men only, with some women in the gallery. But the vision they put forth has had legs: equality before the law, a government constituted by and in service of its people. The Declaration of Independence started to enunciate the conditions that would allow the new nation to grow in wisdom. Those who came after could use these words in pursuit of greater equality, liberty, and happiness than could be reached in 1776. The Declaration challenges its heirs to a critical patriotism. As another patriot would say a century later: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right" (Carl Schurz, Senator from Wisconsin and a German immigrant, 1872).

May the blessings of liberty be known in every age and in every land, and may we always keep our eyes on that prize.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

How good?

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Jersey City

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

When people read the Bible, they always read for a purpose. When you are studying the Bible, you are looking to understand something about it: historical background, its development at a text, or its meaning in a variety of ways. You can read the Bible devotionally, looking for guidance, or to develop your faith. Or you can read the Bible for evidence, seeking proof that the world was created in seven days, or that there is - or is not - a God.

It may not be all that often that people sit back and read scripture for its beauty. But this chapter is surely one of the most beautiful in the Bible. While not formally poetry, it is poetic. Immediately you notice phrases which catch the ear, true in English as well as the original Hebrew.

Listen to those repeated phrases:
“There was evening and there was morning...;”
“Let there be...;”
“And it was so;”
“And God saw that it was good.”
Each one serves as an echo or amplification of the ones previous.

Those phrases also help point to the structure of these Days of creation. Those phrases repeat in each day. But notice also how the lesson is printed. The first three days parallel the second three days. Day One and Day Four deal with day and night; Days Two and Five are about the waters and the sky; Days Three and Six bring forth the land and the things which live on it.

The stateliness of the language and the orderliness of this process contribute to the notion that “God's got this.” You remember the song “He's got the whole world, in his hands”? Well, this story is where that song comes from.

Genesis 1 paints a picture and tells a story of the way God gets involved in the unruly, disordered state of the universe, and carefully, decisively, speaks a Word and creates a world, a world which makes sense, where there is an order, where there is a certain rightness to where things belong. Even if all the details aren't yet sorted out, the direction is clear. God is interested in the world, and God is willing to be engaged to bring order out of chaos, blessing out of nothing.

When you read through, or better yet, let your imagination wander through these seven day, they are wonder-ful, and it is easy to be filled with: awe, admiration, amazement that the world is brought into being in such a way.

But to truly appreciate this story's beauty, you need to hear another story, still more ancient, and also told with poetic beauty. The Enuma Elish is the Babylonian creation story, more ancient than Genesis 1 by 500-1,000 years. You see, ever since humans have been telling stories, we have wondered about how the world began and our place in it. We tell stories of how the world began... to explain how the world works.

That's just what they were doing in ancient Babylonia. “When the sky above was not named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, and their waters were mingled together...” Sound familiar?

In the Enuma Elish, chaos, named Tiamat, is a fearsome dragon goddess of the primodial world where sea and sky are mixed together. A young upstart god, Marduk, challenges this sea monster to battle, and traps her with his net, blows her up like a balloon with his wind, and pierces her belly with an arrow. He then rips her corpse into two halves with which he fashions the earth and the skies. Marduk then creates the calendar, organizes the planets and stars, and regulates the moon, the sun, and weather. Sound familiar?

As a finishing act, Marduk goes on to destroy Tiamat's husband, Kingu, and uses his blood to create humankind, so that we might do the work of all the other gods – who, at the end of the story, can live a life of leisure. They rest. Sound familiar?

The stories share many themes in common, yet are completely different. In Enuma Elish, the world is created from the corpse of a murdered god. Humans are fashioned from the blood of a murdered god, and made not to keep order on earth, but to serve as the gods' slave labor force.

In Genesis, the other gods are gone.* The violence is gone, the murder is gone, and our slave status is gone. In Genesis 1, the great sea monster Tiamat has become merely “the waters” or “the deep,” the process of creation is no longer warfare, but God speaking a Word which orders the world. Humans are now made in the image of God, and are not assigned work to feed the gods, but are given gifts to feed ourselves.

It matters which story you know, which story you tell, which story you believe. The two worlds they describe are incompatible. The gods of Enuma Elish cannot live, do not live in the world that Israel's God is creating.

It is all the more remarkable when you consider when and where this story is first told. In the year 586 BCE, the kingdom of Judah came to an end. The land of Israel had been the battlefield between the Egyptian and Babylonian empires, its leaders chose the wrong ally, and Babylon invaded and destroyed the nation.

When I say destroyed, I really mean destroyed. The Temple was burned, and those leaders who were not killed were taken into slavery and exiled to Babylon, which is where they first told this story. In the home of these violent gods was born a vision of a God creating a very different kind of world.

This week, we have to remember that Babylon is Iraq, and Baghdad is located just north of Babylonia's ancient capital. As Iraq is once again the site of violence and chaos. Each side hopes to slay the beast, win victory, and put the world in order… for their side. Victory in war has always meant death and domination for the losers, and wealth and pride for the conquerors.

So why am I telling you all this stuff about Iraq? So we won't invade it again? So we can be good Christians and pray for peace in a part of the world that we, through our government, has helped un-create?

I'm telling you because this beautiful story of God's creative action contains something we might take to heart. Those wonderful words in the text – “And God saw that it was good” – call for a little more attention. The Hebrew words behind them are “ki tov.” There are at least two ways to read them, and I'd suggest we might listen to both. Literally, they mean “how good.” You can hear them as God looking at the works of his hand and taking delight: “How good!” But you can also understand them as God looking at what she has made and asking the critical, evaluative question: “How good?”

I am sure that the end of the story is unambiguous. On the sixth day, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” But I am also sure that God continues to evaluate the world and name adjustments. Creation was not finished on Day Six, because the Bible has many subsequent chapters which tell how the story develops. These unruly humans need a little work – as we all know! Still to come are the great journeys, the Law and the Prophets, and the Lamb who redeems the world.

The Day Six world is not done, because God is not done with us. How good!

I'm telling this story because God's story of creation in Genesis 1 is a radical vision of hope spoken in the midst of a chaotic, unjust world which actively seeks to demolish hope, and hide or drown out the very thought that the world might be just, might be fair, might be peaceful, and might be organized for the benefit of all people, rather than some people.

It is precisely when the world was most chaotic that God spoke this word of creative faith straight to the heart of the people’s desolation, confusion, and hopelessness. We don't have to experience the desolation of invasion and exile to need a good, life-creating word. Every life has its chaos and crisis. Anyone can be sucked into the delusion of the myth which says that we are worthless and need to accept our place, while others run the world. We don't have to believe the story that violence and coercion is the way to solve every problem. We don't have to buy tickets to “Die Hard,” when Genesis 1 is ours for free.

We speak of creation as the world, all these things we see around us, but in the Bible, creation is not really the stuff that makes up the universe. In the Bible, creation is the process by which God fashions the world into something more just, more loving, more peaceful, more holy than creation's elements would be on their own. Creation is the imagination of God loose in the world.

Can we do the same?

God's story is beautiful not just because of the stately phrases and the wonderful language. This story is beautiful because the world it sees is righteous, touched by God in a beautiful way. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...
“God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light....
“God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply'...
“God saw everything that she had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

Can you imagine being able to look at the worlds we make and say the same thing? Whether it's in our work, our neighborhood, our family and other relationships, in our church, let us be able to say “How good?” and “How good!”

Trust in God and speak a better word. Seize onto the best story you know, make it your own and share it every day of your life. God said “Let there be light,” and gave us a world. Let us live in that light.

* There are still linguistic traces of the older stories. Tiamat has become the de-personalized “deep” (Hebrew tehom), and the council of gods echoes in Genesis 1:26 “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

1. Unknown image.
2. "Earth in Hands," attribution unknown.
3. Combat between Tiamat and Marduk, from the bas-relief on the walls of palace of Assur-nasir-pal.
4. Reuters stringer, Iraq
5. Moonrise, Siskiyou Range, Oregon


There are some texts you will forever associate with people. For me, Genesis 1 and Phyllis Trible is such a pairing. When I learned she was retiring from Union Seminary, I rearranged my work schedule to be able to take one of her last seminars there, a semester on Genesis 1-11. We never got past Chapter 3, and spent perhaps the first half of our time on Genesis 1. I remember her practiced opening to the class - she was, after all, a student of rhetoric. "If I had to go to a desert island for the rest of my life and could only take one book, it would be the Bible. And if I could only take one book of the Bible, it would be Genesis. And if I could only take one chapter, it would be this one." She went on to say that it had always rewarded further study.

I have not yet exhausted its mysteries, or tired of what it has already brought to me.

It was Dr. Trible who directed my attention both to the text as linguistically beautiful, and to the dual sense of ki tov. How good is that?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

It is seldom spoken out loud, but Memorial Day is a violent holiday. It commemorates those members of the United States armed forces killed in the line of duty. We think first of soldiers on the battlefield, but should also remember those who die in training, in traffic accidents while on duty, and of injuries and illnesses contracted in their service.

We remember especially those who died, because there is no way to repay the service they gave. In answering the call to service, their lives came to an end, and no honors paid to their memory, no benefits paid to their families, can change that sad reality. In service to their country, they gave their lives. We are bound to give back this small measure of appreciation.

When we as a nation feel it necessary to put men and women in uniform and send them into places of danger, we are obliged to give them honor and respect. This is true regardless of how you feel about any particular military enterprise.

U.S. military cemeteries blanket the globe, each one a reminder of a time this country has put guns in its children's hands and sent them off to fight, to kill, and to die, from Mexico City, to Saipan, to Luxembourg, Tunisia, Italy, the Philippines.

As our military involvement in Afghanistan draws to a close, it is right to honor the service paid to our nation by our military, including the tragic cost seen in the casualties they suffered. War is always evil, and the best that anyone has ever claimed is that it is sometimes a necessary one. It has proven so easy to get into wars, and so difficult to get out of them. We have so many reasons to obscure the savage truth of war: grief, patriotism, guilt, fear, admiration for the virtues of those who serve. But in our memory, we had best not sweep any of those truths away as we remember those who have fallen.

Graves of 5th Division Marines, Iwo Jima. Bodies of U.S. Marines killed in the Battle of Tarawa lie in a trench grave, November 1943.

We give thanks for the lives of those who have served their country, and mourn at their loss. In faith, we remember, and keeping faith, may we never take their service for granted, or ask for their sacrifice without full awareness of its gravity.


1. Sgt. Titus Fields, infantryman, Honor Guard Company, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), places an American flag in front of a gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery, May 2013.
2. Graves of 5th Division Marines, Iwo Jima.
3. Bodies of U.S. Marines killed in the Battle of Tarawa lie in a trench grave, November 1943. U.S. National Archives.
4. Unknown. Photo labeled "Coast Guard graves."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Good Friday 2014

O all ye, who passe by, whose eyes and minde
To worldly things are sharp, but to me blinde;
To me, who took eyes that I might you finde:
     Was ever grief like mine?

The Princes of my people make a head
Against their Maker: they do wish me dead,
Who cannot wish, except I give them bread;
     Was ever grief like mine?

Without me each one, who doth now me brave,
Had to this day been an Egyptian slave.
They use that power against me, which I gave:
     Was ever grief like mine?

                         “The Sacrifice,” George Herbert