The Least, First

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Archive for the ‘Spiritual Growth’ Category

Sneak becomes hero (sermon of August 18, 2008)

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Birth of Jacob and Esau [www.ratnermuseum.com]Remember Jacob and Esau? How Jacob was born holding-on to Esau’s heel?  How Jacob was given the name “Jacob” because it meant “heel-grabber” or “supplanter” or “schemer”?  How Jacob later extorted the family birthright out of his brother?  How he ran for his life—Esau threatening murder—under cover of going to Mama’s folks to find a bride?

And how, when he got there, he awakened the day after his marriage to discover that the bride of last night’s passion wasn’t the girl he’d intended to marry?  Oops.  Now he’d gotten bamboozled (let alone her, but that’s another story).

Jacob stays there at Haran for 20 years: 7 years for Leah, 7 years for Rachel, 6 more tending flocks, raising his own. He gets astonishingly rich.  And then one day, God said “Jacob, it’s time to go home.”

But Jacob’s afraid of Laban (Pa-in-law).  Laban’s been a shrewd dealer.  Kept him there for 20 years, after all.  Who knows if Laban will really let him go?  So Jacob and Rachel and Leah lay a secret plan. Read the rest of this entry »

Small is what big is made of (a sermon)

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Birth of Jacob and Esau [www.ratnermuseum.com]In one artist’s sculpture, Jacob and Esau burst upon the world.

Remember the story?  They’re born as twins, Esau first.  When Jacob follows, his hand on his brother’s heel.  It’s predicted that “the older will serve the younger,” which was odd in an order-of-birth culture.  Esau should get the privileges.  And the hand on the heel, we said, was representative of something like sneakiness.

Years later, they’re young men, Esau-the-hunter comes in starving, and Jacob-the-chef extorts the family birthright out of him in exchange for food.

Then Jacob gave him some of the soup (Valloton)

Then Jacob gave him some of the soup (Valloton)

Later, Esau is furious, and threatens murder – and remember, he’s a tough guy. So, scheming Jacob’s scheming mother Rebecca told his father Isaac that it was time for Jacob to go find a wife, and that back in Haran, where they came from, her brother’s place would be a good place to start. Isaac says “Sure,” and Jacob runs for his life.

On the way, he sacks out on the bare ground, meets God in a dream, and is terrified. Esau was a threat – but God, uh-oh! To Jacob’s astonishment, God comes not with judgment, but with a promise – a renewing of the promise that he’d made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. In the morning, Jacob is amazed at his good fortune, and worships there.

As he approaches Haran, he meets and promptly falls in love with Rachel, his cousin. He moves into Uncle Laban’s home – yes, he’d like to have a wife, but of course, he can’t really go home anyway, thanks to the trick he pulled on his brother. But now, Jacob’s inherited sneakiness is going to come back on him through his mother’s family – and on some others, too. Read the rest of this entry »

A little hope (Pagan Abraham, part 2)

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Milky Way in summer/Jens Hackman


Last week, I opened with these words. See if they mean something a little different to you now: “[God] brought [Abram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”

Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Genesis 15 NRSV

Rich Mullins sang: “Sometime I think of Abraham – how one star he saw was there for me. He was a stranger in that land; and I am that, no less than he.”  A star for me?

And we climbed Sumerian temple steps and glimpsed the worship there. Then we went around the world, and saw that 4,000 year old religions on every continent labored to please fertility gods patterned after sun and moon. That was Abram’s world.

In 2005, I realized a personal connection to all this. Lucas [my son] and I were in England, and we went to a little village called Avebury. We had heard it was like Stonehenge but not fenced-off, and older. So we took a train and a bus, and were dropped off beside a field like the one you see at the right.

Our first glimpse

Our first glimpse of Avebury stones

Lucas climbs out of Avebury's massive trench

At first we saw these stones – and a couple other small ones, and were disappointed. But somehow we got the hunch something bigger was happening, crossed the highway, and began to see more, and then came upon this:

Turned out the little thatched – roof village of Avebury adjoined a giant curve of stones bordered by this immense smooth ditch, maybe 25 feet deep. You can just see Lucas on the far slope.  The ditch was originally much deeper – perhaps 200,000 tons of chalk were dug with antler picks and oxbone shovels, and hauled away.

And then we realized that we were on the edge of a huge stone circle, nearly half a mile across.

Turns out it is the largest stone circle in the world. Some of the stones weighed as much as 40 tons.

No one knows who put these stones here or how they moved them. But we know a few things: there are gates lined up on the points of the compass, there is some sexual symbolism, and we know when: they were put up about the same time as the Sumerians began to build temples for the same purpose. In fact, they were probably built within a few hundred years of Abram’s birth in Sumerian city of Ur.

Avebury: The world's largest stone circle

As far as we know, all of us had ancestors who worshiped fertility gods. Just a few miles from these stones is a village called Ashbury. Perhaps my ancestors worshiped here. It is our world, too.

Last week, I ended with these words: “Why does Abram go journeying with this strange new God? Perhaps its because he’s heard a voice that’s so different, so attractive. Think of it: Unlike the unknowable gods, this God has pursued him. Unlike the gods who see humans as their slaves, this God cares about Abram. Unlike the gods of the endless wheel of life, this God offers Abram a future. Unlike the gods whose rages are only contained by ritual sex and murder, this God invites Abram to become his friend. Unlike the gods that care nothing about human life, this God promises to bless all peoples everywhere through Abram.

Get the context, then: What would you say is God doing with Abram? Read the rest of this entry »

“To live now as we think humans should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us…”

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UPDATE: I found some good encouragement in the comments of friends at Clipmarks today, and was reminded of this post from nearly two years ago. Here’s a re-post—’cause we all need hope.


Sometimes I think of the enormity of darkness which our world contains, and find the tragedies involved simply too crushing.

How small I am! How seemingly powerless! I find myself in need of hope.
I found some, today, in the conclusion to Howard Zinn’s 1994 book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. If you’re invested in bringing good to your world, perhaps you’ll find these words encouraging.

. . . In 1992, teachers all over the country, by the thousands, were beginning to teach the Columbus story in new ways, to recognize that to Native Americans, Columbus and his men were not heroes, but marauders. The point being not just to revise our view of past events, but to be provoked to think about today.

What was most remarkable was that Indian teachers, Indian community activists, were in the forefront of this campaign. How far we have come from that long period of Indian invisibility, when they were presumed to be dead or safely put away on reservations! They have returned, five hundred years after their near annihilation by invading Europeans, to demand that America rethink its beginnings, rethink its values.

It is this change in consciousness that encourages me. Granted, racial hatred and sex discrimination are still with us, war and violence still poison our culture, we have a large underclass of poor, desperate people, and there is a hard core of the population content with the way things are, afraid of change.

But if we see only that, we have lost historical perspective, and then it is as if we were born yesterday and we know only the depressing stories in this morning’s newspapers, this evening’s television reports. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Monte

July 7, 2008 at 4:06 pm

Catonsville Nine: “think less of the law, and more of justice”

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Catonsville NineJesus goes so often to the essence of things, rather than the appearance of them. Sometimes, his followers do, as well.

Forty years ago [May 17, 1968], nine committed followers of Christ entered the Selective Service Office in Catonsville. They moved past three surprised office workers, who questioned what they were doing but did not stop them. The nine quickly gathered 378 1-A draft files in wire baskets, then took them to the parking lot and immolated them with a homemade version of napalm. They prayed quietly over the burning papers until the police arrested them 15 minutes later. […]

The catalyst for this, of course, was the unbelievably brutal war in Vietnam.

By 1968, the Vietnam War was ripping America apart. Our actions seemed insane, our rationales ever shifting, our goal never clear. The impact on Vietnamese society as well as on our troops was confusing, demoralizing and deadly. What was clear, however, was that we were dropping more than 9 million tons of bombs on Indochina’s military and civilian populations. We were dropping 72 million liters of biochemical poisons on the land and its people. And, of course, there was hell’s fire: napalm. We used 400,000 tons of it.

By May 1968, the Catonsville Nine had enough. They chose to directly confront the state, to protest where the nation’s leaders had taken us. […]

Controversial? Of course. These are hard and costly decisions. But some of their argument is persuasively Christ-like:

In a play written by another of the nine, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, and based upon the trial transcripts of their conviction, his brother Philip argued: “Let lawmakers, judges and lawyers think less of the law, and more of justice; less of legal ritual, more of human rights. To our bishops and superiors, we say: Learn something about the gospel and something about illegitimate power. When you do, you will liquidate your investments, take a house in the slums, or even join us in jail.” […]

Less of the law and more of justice. Less of legal ritual, more of human rights. So relevant today. Such a deeply Christian sentiment, correcting the self-righteousness questions of legality that infect our dialog about so many issues.

Yes, that could be the voice of Jesus.


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If you love me … (readings for April 27, 2008)

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Serious Conversation by izadnhanaOne last time: These chapters in John’s story—thirteen through seventeen—comprise Jesus’ final words with his apprentices before his death. And these final words of Jesus luxuriate across five of the twenty-one chapters—almost a fourth of John’s story! John slows no other moment so deliberately (the crucifixion, for instance, rates a mere half-chapter!)

And in this slo-mo, frame-by-frame view, what’s the topic? Relationships. With him, with each other, with people who don’t understand and people who do.

“If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you.” And what’s that? Ah, let’s see, he said this and this and this, so we’ll love him if we follow the formulae precisely, right? If we mind every detail?

Exactly … wrong! Read the rest of this entry »

Race, Obama, and white privilege

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Geraldine FerraroObamaIt is impenetrably difficult for we who are white to see what white privilege has handed us.

Sometimes I wonder if the common white “I am color-blind” outlook really amounts to just plain blindness. For to ignore color is to ignore the elephant in the room: being white is still very different from being non-white in the USA. Self-professed color-blindness, which has such a noble ring to those with the upper hand, may say to non-whites, “I am blind to how the past affects you and me today.”

It may be like saying, “You don’t hurt. If you do, that’s sad, but it has nothing to do with me. For since I bear you no ill will, I am no racist. As far as I’m concerned, we’re equals.”

Perhaps the operant phrase is as far as I’m concerned. Might it mean “My (white) view is the view by which we’ll operate”? Might it be the basis of Geraldine Ferraro’s rage: that her white view of what racism is—something like “harboring ill will toward people of color”—is, to her, the only view that matters?

Might the elements of racism that invisibly color our own outlooks be as pernicious as the more obvious ones we detest in others?

Roger Cohen, in a NY Times opinion piece, writes an eloquent, poignant personal reaction to the Obama race speech. I encourage you to read it all. Here are some excerpts:

Beyond America’s Original Sin

There are things you come to believe and things you carry in your blood. In my case, having spent part of my childhood in apartheid South Africa, I bear my measure of shame. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Monte

March 22, 2008 at 6:29 pm