Elijah’s Resuscitating Smile

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Elijah’s smile resuscitates the child in Grandpa

“The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into [Grandpa] again, and [Grandpa] revived.” – First Kings 17:22, NRSV.

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Elijah returning resuscitated child to his mother,Louis Hersent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Elijah does for me what the biblical Elijah did for the widow of Zarephath. Just when I think I’m an old has-been without a future, he brings the child in me back to life.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 26, 2018.

 

 

 

Silence on Palm Sunday

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Centuries after the original Palm Sunday parade, the silence has been broken again.

Some [of the critics] said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’” – Jesus of Nazareth, Luke 19:39-41.

Yesterday, the students spoke. The NRA was silenced.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Palm Sunday, 2018

 

 

Epiphany 2018

One day in advance of Epiphany, we bring you a reading from an unauthorized revision of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Gospel according to Matthew 2:13-23, which some call the GCS Translation:

Now after the wise men from Iran had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to José in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Canada, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then José got up, took the child and his mother, Maria, by night, and went to Canada, and remained there until the impeachment of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Canada I have called my son.”

The Round-Up of the Infants

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men from Iran, he was infuriated, and he sent orders to round up all the children in and around Charlottesville who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Return from Canada

After Herod had been impeached, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to José in Canada and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go back to the U.S.A., for those who were seeking the child’s life are no more. Then José got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the U.S.A. 

But when José heard that Pence was ruling in place of Herod, he was afraid to go there.

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Statue of Liberty in Nazareth, Texas

And after being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the high plains of the Llano Estacado of Castro County in the State of Texas. There José made his home in a town called Nazareth (pop. 311), so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

 — GCS, Chaska, MN, January 5 (the Eve of the Epiphany), 2018.

 

Our Dwelling Place and the Wrath of God

Six old friends have arrived from Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois for New Year’s Eve in the Dempsey’s living room. A seventh unbidden visitor — pancreatic cancer managed by chemotherapy — makes us freshly aware of our mortality.

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We read aloud Psalm 90 (NRSV), pausing to reflect on each section.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

The great theologian Paul Tillich called this dwelling place “Being-Itself” or “the Ground of Being.”

You turn us back to dust,
    and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
    are like yesterday when it is past,
    or like a watch in the night.

We are increasingly aware that we are dust. We are mortals. Our yesterdays far outnumber any tomorrows. But the friend threatened by the cancer that almost always kills is quietly at peace with being turned back to dust. He has always known we are dust.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
    in the evening it fades and withers.

Like our late friend Steve, whose life ended with pancreatic cancer, his faith is in something greater than himself, not because he is certain of what will happen when he takes his last breath, but because he is thankful for the days he has been given and trusts that whatever his place may be now, or then, it lies within the Dwelling Place. It is as it should and will be.

For we are consumed by your anger;
    by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
    our years come to an end  like a sigh.

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We are unaccustomed to talk of the the wrath of God or the fear of it. We talk of the love of God. We are not of the religion right.

But California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent use of the word springs to the center of the conversation. After a year of a public cancer — lies, name-calling, climate change denial, Charlotteseville, the alt-Right, obscene wealth, greed, and narcissistic grandiosity of little boys with toys threatening nuclear holocaust while eating away the healthy institutional cells on which a democratic republic depends — we have a fresh sense of wrath.

“I don’t think President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility,” said Jerry Brown in a ’60 Minutes’ interview. “And this is such a reckless disregard for the truth and for the existential consequences that can be unleashed.”

The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger?
    Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
    that we may gain a wise heart.

We are students of aging, learning to count our days, aware of the dust to which we turned a blind eye in younger years while establishing ourselves as adults, raising children, and making names for ourselves. In our late 60s and mid-70s life is less a matter of the mind than it is of the heart. We are more aware of the Dwelling Place. Counting our days — and giving thanks for this one day — is the new arithmetic of the wisdom of the heart.

Turn, O Lord! How long?
    Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
    so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
    and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and prosper for us the work of our hands—
    O prosper the work of our hands!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, January 1, 2018.

The End of Neutrality

Today’s FCC vote to end net neutrality is but the latest act in the tsunami of greed that is eliminating all things neutral.

Neutral in the case of the internet means non-favoring, as in protecting a fair playing field that does not favor large providers while dis-favoring others and looking out for the interests of the general public that uses the internet.

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But it’s not just in the internet debate that neutrality is in trouble in America. Our traditional allies in Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, among others scratch their heads and wonder what’s happened to America.

In Washington, D.C. the President and Congress are “reforming” the American tax code by lowering the taxes for corporations and America’s wealthiest individuals who are already reaping record profits on the pretext of lowering taxes on the middle class. The tax reform is anything but neutral. It’s greedy. It continues to widen the divide between the well-to-do and those who aren’t doing so well.

While a tax system that is anything but neutral moves forward, Congress and the President strategically malign the integrity of the independent counsel assigned the odious task of investigating foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The attack on Robert Mueller’s neutrality is undertaken in the name of neutrality, portraying the former FBI Director most everyone once respected as part of a partisan Democrat plot to embarrass and unseat the President.

There is, of course, no such thing as neutrality. Never has been and never will be. But the attempt to be neutral, the attempt to put our biases and vested self-interests behind us for the sake of the greater good is a bedrock principal of a civil society and of a democratic republic.

In the American thesaurus, neutrality and fairness are kissing cousins. So are power and abuse. American history is being re-written as we speak.

jeffersonbible2Thomas Jefferson took a razor to the Bible and cut out texts from the New Testament that seemed unreasonable according to the canons of the Enlightenment — things like miracles. But he never cut the teachings of Jesus — the Beatitudes of Matthew and Luke — “Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers” — the Golden Rule  –“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — or “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” or the commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Today in America those in power are cutting these most sacred texts from the Jefferson Bible in the name of God and country. Any semblance of neutrality, fairness, or compassion are being erased. But one text from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Job will yet have the last word beyond the scissors of greed that scorn even the slightest attempts toward neutrality.

If you have understanding, hear this;
    listen to what I say.
Shall one who hates justice govern?
    Will you condemn one who is righteous and mighty,
 who says to a king, ‘You scoundrel!’
    and to princes, ‘You wicked men!’;
 who shows no partiality to nobles,
    nor regards the rich more than the poor,
    for they are all the work of his hands?
  – Book of Job 34:16-19, NRSV.

 

May we all live to see the day.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 14, 2017.

The beginning of the good news of …

I need a bath. Wait! Wait! Stay with me!

“The good news according to Caesar, the Son of God” was the beginning of imperial announcements by Caesar throughout the Roman Empire.

Into this imperial world comes “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God ” (Gospel of Mark 1:1). For the First Century hearers, the irony was clear. This was a counter-narrative to the narrative of empire — a rebuke of it, and a revolutionary alternative to it. But the announcement was also only the beginning of the good news.

Unlike the imperial messengers dressed in official garb, the announcer of this good news in Mark’s Gospel (in the time it was written the term “gospel” had not yet been used to describe a book such as we know today: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) wears no royal clothing. He wears camel hair and eats locusts and honey. He appears in the wilderness, far from the centers of religious authority in Jerusalem and policial-economic power in Rome. There is no advance warning of his appearance. He appears suddenly, without explanations, and without trumpets.

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John the Baptizer

“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”  John is one odd duck! Not the kind of figure one expects to win friends and influence people. Unless the people were ready for his message: the overthrow of the reign of Caesar, the “Son of God” according to the imperial cult.

Flash forward to 2017.

“It’s okay to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again, says the President of the United States, as if restoring Christianity as the established religion of the United States of America and everywhere else in the world that is part of Pax Americana. Strange how a gospel whose beginnings offered a counter-narrative to Caesar and the empire’s divine claims of national exceptionalism would be used to scorn the original beginning of the good news in Mark’s revolutionary Gospel.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. … I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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President Donald J. Trump and Senate candidate Roy Moore

In the First Century of the Common Era, a ritual bath represented a cleansing from sin and the act of repentance, embarking on a new way. Twenty centuries after the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” I’m baptized. So are the president and a senatorial candidate from Alabama. It’s confounding. I feel dirty all over.

I need a bath!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 11, 2017.

 

 

 

Two Birds of the Secret Heart

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“Create in me a clean heart, O God…” is a well-known prayer from the Psalms.  It’s context — its back-story — is not so familiar.

Psalm 51 is a prayer attributed to David. It is not a quiet prayer. It is a wrenching, sobbing prayer, the words tumbling from David’s mouth in halting phrases and stammers with tears that flood his eyes and stream down his face.

“Behold, You seek truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (Psalm 51:6)

Is the secret heart the deepest place in us, the place where God is: the equivalent or synonym for “the inward being” – a poetic parallelism of Hebrew poetry? Or is it, perhaps, the secret place where we hide from God: the hiding place where we go off to a different heart than the Divine heart? Or could it be both at the same time?

David’s secret heart is dirty and he knows it. He cannot wash the stain of blood from his hands. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” he cries out, “and cleanse from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” It is a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Out, damn spot! OUT, I say…. all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”

The Hebrew Psalms are like that. They are not sanitized. They plunge the reader into the conflict between the reader’s own inmost being, the true secret heart, you might say – the heart that pumps life into us – and the secret heart of our own flight from truth and goodness, the heart of deception and self-deception.

Why is David crying out? What has he done? What is the sin that is ever before him, the blood he can’t wash from his own hands?

Psalm 51 comes in response to an accusation that has exposed the bloody behavior his secretive heart has produced. It is Nathan, David’s commander on the battlefront, who confronts David with the truth.

Nathan has just returned from the front to tell David that Uriah, the King’s next door neighbor, a man of impeccable loyalty valor, Bathsheba’s husband, whom David’s scheming heart has sent off to war, is dead! His blood is on David! Nathan has spoken the truth to power.

There is no wisdom in David’s secret heart. There is treachery there.

“Purge me!” cries David. Imagine Richard Burton at his most dramatic. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow!” (Ps. 51:7)

Hyssop, the foliage of an aromatic plant named in the Passover story (Exodus 12:21-27), was used in the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 4:51).

The rite of cleansing centers on two small birds. One bird is killed. The other bird is washed in the blood of the other under the flow of water and the sweetness of hyssop. The one bird dies. The second bird lives.

“Thus he (the priest) shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the running water, and with the living bird, and with the cedarwood and hyssop and the scarlet stuff; and he shall let the living bird go out of the city into the open field; so he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.” (Lev. 14:52-53)

“Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation” cries Uriah’s killer curled up in a ball, hoping against all hope, “and my tongue will sing aloud of Your deliverance.” (Ps. 51:14)

David is both birds. He is the one who deserves to die. He is also the one who is living. He lives not because of the secretive heart that had conspired against Uriah, betraying his own inward being – “Against You only have I sinned…” (Ps. 51:4). He lives on because there is more mercy in God (the inward being) than there is sin in him.

“The sacrifice acceptable to God,” he concludes with tears, is “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” His body quivers as he imagines himself as the bird released into the open field by mercy alone, “according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy.” (Ps. 51:1)

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 27, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Taking Heart in Heartless Times

1Nessan

Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessen

by Craig L. Nessan

Wartburg Theological Seminary

Dubuque, Iowa

“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take heart; I have conquered the world!” John 16:33

We live in unprecedented times. Polarizing discourse, red versus blue, the failure of public reasoning, name calling, and denial of facts are the order of the day. The post-modern yields to the post-truth era. Some political leaders simply make it up as they go along.

There is a public heartlessness evident about the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, that concludes with repeated assertions of privileged self-interest. Public discourse is diverted daily from focusing on the needs of those in harm’s way, including the well-being of creation. In the church many contend that it is useless even to try and engage in civil conversation about what makes for the common good.

All this unfolds in a world of enormous and increasing disparity in wealth between an economic elite and those struggling to make ends meet. This economic disparity is visible everywhere, in every state and local community. Moreover, it is the secret in plain sight behind the movement of people across borders, the unprecedented numbers of displaced persons and refugees.

The need for political advocacy is urgent. Yet it is extremely hard to know where to begin. There appear a dozen new issues or tweets each day against which to react. It becomes crucial to search out reliable information, as from church based advocacy organizations, to help us discern wisely in this political moment. In my own analysis I seek to distinguish between what might be considered the “substantive agenda” of the current administration, which primarily has to do with executive orders and legislative initiatives intended to increase private profit for a few, and the symbolic agenda, especially designed to daze, distract, and confuse us.

To make this distinction is not, however, to minimize the harmful effects of the symbolic agenda, grounded in a white male identity politics that operates in binary categories to incite fear, anger, and hatred against all categories of difference, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or religion, especially against Muslims. By contrast to this white male identity politics, we seek to articulate and enact a neighbor politics, embracing of all, especially the marginalized.

In these heartless times we are called actively to participate in spiritual disciplines, in order to reduce our reactivity and seek to remain oriented to the mind and character of Jesus Christ. How does one remain centered and grounded in these heartless times? How does one remain rooted in the peace of Jesus Christ, taking heart and courage amid the whirlwind?

The mystical and political always belong together. Consider the witness of Mahatma Gandhi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez and Elsa Tamez, Walter Brueggemann and Elizabeth Johnson. As with Jesus, prayer and praxis belong together. Retreat for prayer leads to prophetic engagement: acts of healing, feeding, exorcizing, welcoming, sharing, and publicly demonstrating. The rhythm of the Christian life is both inward and outward.

“Radix,” the origin of “radical” means going to the root of the matter in a twofold movement—the mystical as inward movement and the political as outward movement. Both movements are needful. Counter-intuitively, a heartless political climate makes the inward mystical movement even more needful.

The Mystical

How do we move ever more deeply into relationship with God?

Spiritual practices draw us into the depths of classical disciplines. Personal practices include prayer, meditation, walking, breathing. Communal practices encompass worship, study, dwelling in the Word. Practices that involve colleagues lend us encouragement and accountability in life-giving relationships

Spiritual practices and worship contribute to a mysticism of the ordinary, by which we detect the holy in what is right in front of us, even in what may appear chaotic in these heartless times. We need to attune the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Hearing the Word of Christ in Scripture stories and participating in sacraments at worship provide the lens for recognizing divine presence in the everyday. Liturgy entails formation in life practices: truth telling, peacemaking, listening, confessing, interceding, offering thanks, welcoming, feeding, and blessing. At worship we participate in the divine economy where all are welcome and there is enough for all. All of this provides the means for us to perceive the shalom of God in the commonplace, even in heartless times like these.

The Political

The mystical movement toward God always turns us inexorably toward political movement for the sake of our neighbors. In the Great Commandment the vertical and horizontal dimensions are inextricable. Should we persist in efforts to provoke change from above? Yes, advocacy at the national and state levels remains essential. Following the guidance of trusted organizations—denominational advocacy organizations, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Bread for the World, 350.org, Amnesty International, and many others—remains imperative.

Even more in heartless times, however, we need to redouble efforts at change through organizing at the grassroots in local communities. Not only by making financial donations or sending advocacy letters, this means engaging people in one’s community. For all their limitations, congregations remain the most intact neighbor-directed communities on the local level, faith communities such as already exist in every locale across the country. We need to become very intentional and proactive in building coalitions with others in local communities—through one on one conversations, writing personal viewpoints for social media or in newspapers, and engaging in symbolic actions. When asked by a reporter whether he really thought that he could change the world by lighting a candle in a demonstration, A.J. Muste replied: “Oh, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not doing this to change the country. I do it so the country won’t change me.”

The theory and practices of active nonviolent resistance are still in their infancy in human history, but these offer our best hope for lasting change in establishing the foundations for democracy and building up an equitable civil society. In this regard the research of Erica Chenowith and Maria Stephan published in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, needs to become widely known.

I encourage us not to underestimate the ripples of difference our efforts can make, as we remain spiritually centered and especially as we join together in ecumenical and interfaith groups, as well as with all those ethically engaged but not religiously affiliated people who are committed to common good, reaching out to one neighbor at a time. We are called to create safe places and spaces of trust where people can be together, listen to each other, and learn from one other.

Taking Heart

While through the mystical movement we put on the mind and character of Christ—which is peacemaking, social justice, eco-justice, and respect for the inalienable dignity of each person—in the political movement we engage through reasoned and persuasive arguments that are not overburdened by religious jargon. In our public articulation we remain deeply grounded in faith, as strategically we may choose to express our political convictions in categories not freighted with explicit religious references. We do so to communicate effectively in the public square and to transcend the off-putting rhetoric of the religious right.

There are times and occasions for making explicit theological claims, as did Dr. King. Yet in this heartless time of excessively hyperbolic discourse, including that by religious people, we are called to communicate clearly through reasoned, publicly accessible language. In this polarized climate, where Christians are assumed to take regressive political stances, it is of even more value for Christians to make compelling arguments that are understandable to those who may not share our theological categories. This helps us move beyond the religious identity politics of the religious right to an expansive neighbor politics. This honors too what Bonhoeffer meant by the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.

Finally, we are on this journey for life. We may not now see many signs of effectiveness, yet we take heart in even small signs of the kingdom’s appearance. As our bottom line we seek to live by integrity, searching to align our lives with the things of God in Christ, especially in times like these when we cannot see that it makes a difference. We trust that the things that make for peace, like generosity, a healthy creation, and human respect, are the things that last forever. In the words of Carrie Newcomer, in the end, only kindness matters.

 “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Hebrews 10:24-25

  • Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessan is Academic Dean & Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics, The William D. Streng Professor for the Education and Renewal of the Church at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Views from the Edge is pleased to have the honor of being the first to publish “Taking Heart in Heartless Times” with the author’s permission.

 

I want to be an olive tree

I love olives. I love the Psalms. Well . . . some of them . . . some times. Partly. Like the Psalm that greeted me this morning at the cabin far from the news.

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Old olive tree in Karystos, Euboia, Greece

Maybe you’ll like it too.

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man?
Why do you boast all day long,
you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
Your tongue plots destruction;
it is like a sharpened razor,
you who practice deceit.
You love evil rather than good,
falsehood rather than speaking the truth;

You love every harmful word,
O you deceitful tongue!

Surely God will bring you
down to everlasting ruin:
He will snatch you up and
tear you from your tent:
He will uproot you from
the land of the living.

The righteous will see and fear;
they will laugh at him, saying
“Here now is the man
who did not make God his stronghold
but trusted in his wealth
and grew strong by
destroying others!”

But I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of God . . . .
(Psalm 52:1-8a, NIV)

I am not righteous. But I do fear.

I just want to be an olive tree. Like the olive tree that produced the twig the dove brought back to the ark signaling to Noah that the flood was over.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, truck stop near cabin in northern MN, November 3, 2017.

 

Sermon: You shall see My back

A sermon on The Book of Exodus 33:12-23 for Reformation Day celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation, preached at Central Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minnesota.

With all that’s happening in the world these days, many thoughtful people wonder about the nature of God, or conclude there is no God, that the whole thing is a made-up story to serve our own purposes rather than seeing something real that cannot be seen.

“See, there is a place by Me” [says God to Moses in the wilderness] “where you shall stand on the rock; and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by; then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Ex. 33:22-23).

This strange reading from the Book of Exodus which puts a face on God —  God has no face, no hands, no feet — may just be the text to help us get reality straighter than we had before the crisis that imperils the human species itself: the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the point of no return to nature as we have known it. Maybe God has put us again in the cleft of the rock and is passing by. We only get to see God’s back.

While our hearts and minds are reeling on the edge of the abyss of despair over the rise of the KKK and the alt-right in Charlottesville, the hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes in Houston, Puerto Rico, northern California, and Mexico City to say nothing of the inexplicable massacre of more than 500 concert-goers in Las Vegas while two little boys with matches in Washington and Phnom-pen play chicken with nuclear toys, we are like Moses in the wilderness pleading to see God’s glory. We are teetering on the edge of an abyss into which we dare not look.

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world,” wrote Karl Barth. Elsewhere he insisted that the God we know in Jesus Christ is essentially unknowable. So today we clasp our hands again asking about God, asking about what, if anything, is ultimately and finally Real. We only see God from the back, clasping our hands in prayer — the beginning of an uprising against the present disorder of the world.

Like Moses in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — in the wilderness where nothing is certain — we have forgotten, to paraphrase our Lord, that “Humankind does not live by tweets alone…but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

In the Hebrew mind, to see someone’s face is to know them. But God says to Moses, “You cannot see My face and live. I will put you in the cleft of the rock, cover you with My hand and passed by. Only after I have passed by can you see My back.”

Why the back? Why not the face?

We are mortals who don’t want to be mortal, mammals who don’t want to be mammals. We are part of nature, not the masters of nature, not the exception to it. “You are dust,” says the Creator in Genesis, “and to dust you shall return.” Mammals are not meant to wake up with morning tweets from a mortal who can’t sleep and needs to hear Echo’s voice before breakfast and coffee.

We are living in the period of Narcissus of the Greek myth who dies because he cannot take his eyes off his reflection in the pond — his own face, his own image, his own glory.  A mere a mortal who must eat and drink to survive, Narcissus dies because to drink would have disturbed the pond in which he sees only himself. And, when he dies, a flower blooms on that very spot.

On this Reformation Sunday and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we do well to pay heed to a declaration that may strike us as curious: “Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols.”

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!     Who said that:

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, or someone else?

Would you believe it was John Calvin, the much misunderstood 16th century reformer whose work was turned into stone by the Calvinists who mistook his face for God’s, turning his work into an idol?

The issue for Calvin and the Reformed theological tradition which is Central’s tradition, was not atheism. It wasn’t unbelief. It was idolatry. It was misplaced worship of the products, phantasms and fantasies produced by the human heart and mind, the substitutes for ultimate reality that command our worship.

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! Who said:

“The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labors under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth” —

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, William Barber II, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, or John Calvin?

“I will cover you with My hand while I pass by. You can see me from the back.”

There is in the Hebrew Bible, and in the writings of Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, a profound sense of God’s absence as well as presence. By the time Moses gets to see God from the back, God has already passed by.

In the Lutheran and Reformed tradition from Luther to Calvin to Bonhoeffer to Bill McKibben, there is a long-standing recognition of God’s absence or hiddenness.  Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. …

 Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness. . .

 Humans are challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. One must therefore plunge oneself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transform it. . . To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism. . . but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.. . .

One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman . . . This is what I mean by worldliness—taking life in stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly in the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, and that is what makes a human and a Christian. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

 The world may be God-less, but it is not without gods. The idols are everywhere. And the chief idol of our time is the prosperity gospel: the gospel of greed that escapes all suffering.

These small gods our hearts have manufactured are not real but they are no less powerful. When they are unmasked, we see their ashen faces – the faces we have created because we refuse to live as mortals who cannot see God’s face, discontent to spend time in the cleft of the rock in order to see God from the back, the scarred back of God, whipped and lashed by the hands of Narcissus’s god-filled world.

Presbyterians and others of the Reformed theological tradition often ask why our membership is declining. Are we dying?

On this Reformation Sunday in the year of the 500 Anniversary of the Reformation, could it be not because we haven’t kept up with the latest cultural trends and fads but because we’ve forgotten our identity? Could it be, in part, not because other churches have bands and are better at entertainment, and make God more accessible to a tweeting culture, but because we have surrendered the one thing that makes us Reformed Christians: humility before God — a profound sense of awe before the holiness of God whose face we cannot see?

Could it be that we have mis-translated the rallying call of the Reformed tradition to mean that the church must always be changing itself, that we are the agents of our own change. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! is properly translated “The church reformed and always being reformed!” Which is to say, under the judgment and guidance of the Holy Spirit of the Living God, not changing our image in Narcissus’s reflecting pond. It is a theological-ethical perspective which, as McCormick Theological Seminary’s Anna Case-Winter wrote in Presbyterians Today (May, 2017), “neither blesses preservation for preservation’s sake nor change for change’s sake.”

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda . . . calls us to something more radical than we have imagined. It challenges both liberal and conservative impulses and the habits and agendas we have lately fallen into. It brings a prophetic critique to our cultural accommodation—either to the past or to the present—and calls us to communal and institutional repentance. It invites us, as people who worship and serve a living God, to be open to being “re-formed” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.”

“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All the saints adore Thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea; Holy, holy, holy!  Though the darkness hide Thee; Though the eye of sinfulness Thy glory cannot see, Holy, holy, holy! All Thy works shall praise Thy Name in earth and sky and sea!”

We don’t get to see God’s face. We cannot see God’s full glory.  But, as the disciples of Jesus Christ, we do see God’s back! And for mortals, that’s plenty good enough! And from the darkness of this cleft in the rock, we join with Luther in trembling before the Holy One, and join Barth and Bonhoeffer by clasping our hands together in the dark as the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,

For lo! his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

 

That word above all earthly powers,

No thanks to them, abideth;

The Spirit and the gifts are ours

Through Him who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His Kingdom is for ever.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 29, 201