Friday, October 28, 2011

In the Meantime: Those other 13 chapters

Our texts this week go off lectionary for the Old Testament and back in the lectionary for the Gospel: Exodus 35:4-29, 36:1-3 (yes, I am not joking) and Matthew 21:33-46.

Here's something interesting about Exodus, as we come to the end of our lectionary journey through this book: The lectionary (suggested readings for the church year) is full of stories from Exodus' first half. We get tales from Exodus 1, 2, 3, 4, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 20 this year alone. Exodus, however, does not end with chapter 20; it goes on another 20 chapters, out of which only two chapters are suggested to read: a snippet from Exodus 32 and another snippet from Exodus 33.

What happens in the rest of those chapters?

Little known fact: 13 of Exodus' 40 chapters (25-31 and 35-40) are devoted to the construction of the Tabernacle-- a Dwelling place for the presence of God, that may honor and host God's presence. Unlike the later Temple the Israelites would construct, this Tabernacle would be portable--mobile--able to accompany them in their travels and in their movement into the Promised Land. It would hold symbols of ways God had spoken to and provided for them and be constructed and adorned with meticulous and holy precision. It would be the place where God's glory could dwell...and God took tons of time, both before and after the Golden Calf debacle, to outline for the Israelites how they are to assemble such a place.

I am thinking, if 13 chapters are devoted to the blueprints of and process of setting up the Tabernacle, we probably should not ignore the role the Tabernacle played in early Israel's formation. When you read Exodus 35, it likely will overwhelm you (as it does me) with unfamiliar terms--ephods and mercy seats, lampstands and curtains for screens and tanned rams skins. We don't have much framework for these ideas and can quickly get lost in them...BUT, I think we do need to think about the meaning behind them. What does it look like for us to create holy space? How do the things we bring and build reflect what we believe about God? What does it look like for us to provide a welcome for God's presence, in whatever form God's presence may take? How do we create space for God to travel with us, to abide and dwell among us?

I hope that, even amidst the somewhat confusing language of these tabernacle chapters, this central story of Exodus can help us ask these central questions of ourselves this Sunday. Looking forward to being back together!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In the Meantime: Can't We Stop Here?

Our scripture texts this week are Exodus 32:1-20 and Matthew 22:1-15--click on the passages to read! (And I promise, one day, things will be simpler and we'll rejoin our regularly scheduled lectionary programming...Advent is not far away, my friends!)

Sometimes I wonder if the writer of Exodus has ever heard of that mantra, "Quit while you're ahead." If the biblical author had, they might have wrapped up the book of Exodus just before this week's reading--that would make a more "happily ever after" place for the story of the liberation and reclamation of God's people from slavery into freedom to conclude. After God gives the Ten Commandments as the foundation of the covenant relationship, God spends the next three chapters (Exodus 21-23) elaborating on the ideas laid out to introduce the covenant. At the end of this elaboration, Exodus 24 announces that "the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.'" The covenant is sealed, and confirmed with an amazingly intimate celebration of holy encounter: "Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire, like the very heaven for clearness...Also they beheld God, and they ate and drank."

Seriously? Talk about a happy ending! These leaders of Israel got to attend a banquet where they SAW GOD and feasted together in (we can deduce) God's presence. The epilogue is even better: they return down the mountain, and God sets out giving Moses directions on how to build a tabernacle that can be a symbol of God's clear presence among them at all times, that can travel with them wherever they may go--a place they may worship intentionally in the presence of God, and know God's mercy and provision continue to journey with them. At the end, God gives Moses the "tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18)--God's words to hold on to forever. God has done it! God has laid out a way for Israel to be God's covenant people! As our Manna and Mercy Book so often put it, "God's dream is coming true!"

But this isn't the end of the Exodus story. Rather, we abruptly get this week's reading shattering all this hope and celebration. Why interrupt such a fairy tale ending to Israel's ordeal with a story that paints them (and, in some senses, their God) in such a volatile light? Why can't the covenant people just live blissfully, peacefully, and wisely after ever?

Well...because life with God is not a magical mystical fairy tale. It is messy. And though we might like to stop before this week's less beautiful story, we cannot--for we need to know what it looks like to live with God even in the midst of the messes we make, in the midst of relationships broken and patience worn thin and trust misplaced and self-indulgence run amok--because this is where we usually have to figure out how to live with God, and where God has to figure out how on earth to live with us, and where we struggle to live with one another amidst our frustrations.

So we need the part of the story that comes on Sunday--it may not be pretty, but it sure is true.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In the Meantime: Faith Before Sight

Our scriptures this week are a bit scrambled from the ordinary lectionary because, really, there are moments when the Gospel and Old Testament pairings would just make a lot more sense if they were in a different order! (Look at me trying to rearrange the wisdom of many...forgive me, but really, I feel like we need to be reading these passages together today--shouldn't we read the commandments together with what Jesus had to say about them, even if what Jesus had to say doesn't technically show up in our Gospel readings for three more weeks?). SO, that said, our readings are Exodus 20:1-21, with Philippians 3:7-14 and Matthew 22:34-40 (click on each passage to read it).

We all know Exodus 20--the Ten Commandments. Well, at least we think we all know this ubiquitous passage that has sparked great public debate and great hair-raising appearances by Charlton Heston...though we may want to rethink how well we know them, being as a recent survey said more Americans could name the 7 ingredients of a Big Mac than the 10 Commandments (I added the link so you would know I was not making this up).

But even fewer of us, I think, know the scene that unfolds in Exodus 19, the chapter just before God opens God's mouth to give these "ten words" to the people to guide their life together. In Exodus 19, all the Israelites are gathered in a crowd at the base of this mountain towards which God has been aiming them for the last three months through the wilderness. There, God gives Moses a message to share with the people:

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy [people].’ (Exodus 19:4-6)

God calls them to obedience, to live in covenant with God; and upon hearing these words, we are told in Exodus 19:8, "The people all responded together, 'We will do everything the LORD has said.'”

OK, so here is how I read this, though I may be wrong: the people are agreeing to God's covenant before they have even heard what it will be. The covenant words are not given until Exodus 20; here in Exodus 19, they know a covenant is coming, but do not yet know what it will contain. But these people--so often filled with doubt, grumbling, and still new in their knowledge of this God--agree to live by this covenant about to be given before they know what will be included.

Are they insane? I basically never agree to anything before I hear the details. I mean, if you say, "Can you do me a favor?" even if you are one of my dearest and most trusted friends, I'll usually wait to hear what the favor is before replying "Yes"...just because you never know. How much would you have to love and trust someone to agree with what they are going to say and to promise to live by their words before you even know what words they are going to speak?

But I think that is what makes this one of Israel's shining moments in its history: this crazy God has delivered them from Egypt, brought them through the Red Sea, given them water from a rock and bread and meat like rain from heaven. Everything God has promised so far has, miraculously, happened. So now...whatever God asks of them...they agree, sight unseen. They agree simply because of what they have come to know of this Yahweh character thus far, trusting that God's name is true: God will be who God will be into the future, forever, no matter what God may ask of them.

I am terrified by this kind of faith. But isn't this what all faith is--trusting the character of God enough to trust that, whatever is to come, God will make for a us a way of life, a way to walk? It boggles my mind that Israelites who have lost faith in moments of just a little thirst or a rumble in their stomachs can make such a big promise in this moment...but still, in spite of their stumbling, they want to be a people who put faith before sight--because of who they believe this God to be. The Israelites were even more clueless about what was about to come than we who more quickly name Big Mac components than commandments...yet they felt they had enough of a clue, based on who God is, that they could promise to seek to live in these ways.

Now that's faith. Scary faith. Real faith. Risky faith. Faith that makes me stand with them at the foot of the mountain and ask, "Can I really commit myself to God's hopes for me and the ways God wants me to live before I even know fully what they are? Can we do that today as a faith community--be those who commit to God by faith even before we have sight?"