21 04 11 Alan Storey
Prayer for Peace, Hope and Justice ~ Ian Proudfoot
Reflection on Exodus 32:1-14
Truth is larger than fact. There are times when the facts simply can’t adequately hold the truth. For example, there is no fact that could sufficiently account for a parent’s love for their child. Or for the liberation of a long-oppressed people. When the facts fail the truth, we turn to metaphor and myth, satire and story, parable and poetry. To say that someone is the most beautiful person in all the world is not meant to be evaluated on a factual basis, but rather to be appreciated for the truth that the statement makes about their love or attraction toward the person.
Similarly, the validity of the Exodus narrative (and much of Scripture) does not rest on whether it factually took place once upon a time or not, but rather on the truth that it announces for all time. (It is most likely that the Exodus narrative was the accumulative wisdom gleaned from many cycles of oppression and liberation all sewn together into a single archetypal liberation narrative.) The narrative’s purpose is to speak timeless truth:
This brings us to this Sunday’s reading: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us … Aaron took the gold from them and formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf…”
It is important to note that the golden calf may be seen as a replacement of the liberating YHWH or a representation of YHWH. The latter is a far more subtle form of idolatry and therefore potentially more dangerous. An idolatrous representation of YHWH would include attributing non-liberative characteristics to YHWH (see last week’s reference to “make no wrongful use of the name of God”.) An example today is the prosperity teaching (read: heresy / cult) calling on Jesus’ name in order to prosper financially by TV evangelists who believe owning a private jet is crucial for them to spread the word about the humble sandalled Jesus. (The same Jesus who happened to warn that it was pretty impossible to fly a jet through the eye of a needle.)
An even subtler form of idolatry includes that which is not necessarily religious at all and as a result are seldom named as gods / idols, yet they solicit our unquestionable belief in their professed saving power. Like believing that the death penalty will save us from crime. Or the gun will keep me safe. Or low taxes on the rich will be good news for the poor. Or that the quality of health care or education must correlate to how much money one has. These come to us through laws and systems rather than doctrines and creeds. We learn proverbs like “time is money” off by heart until we believe that everything is a product to be traded and that the value of anything or worth of anyone is ultimately determined in monetary terms.
With the above-mentioned examples, it should be clear that there is no such thing as a “non-believer”. We all believe in something. We all worship something. And whatever we worship is our god – like it or not. If the word worship does not connect with you then ask yourself what is the object of your ultimate concern? (See: Paul Tillich.) The answer to this question is our god. Simply put, whatever we give our heart to is our god, religious or not. For this reason, we are called to do the urgent and crucial work of “know yourself” to discover who / what we believe in. Warning: We may be surprised to discover that we don’t always believe in what we would like to think we believe in or what we profess to believe in. (Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord will enter the reign of God – says Jesus.) This is why the scriptures care less about atheism than they do about idolatry, because we could be worshiping the very ways that crucified Jesus while singing his praises on our lips.
How do we know the difference between God and an idol? Or God and false gods? In short: Idols or false gods always demand sacrifice. Idols take life while promising new life. Think of the military or of the idol of nationalism or tribalism that worship little lines in the ground called borders. Drawn and defended with blood. The true God on the other hand does not demand sacrifices. Rather the true God demands justice, mercy, humility, truth, gentleness. In other words, the true God demands that which will promote and protect life – all of Life in all its fullness.
This is the only scale that really matters: does our living bring life or death?
So just because we may never have carved out an image of a calf doesn’t mean we do not worship any idols. Furthermore, just because we have Jesus’ name repeatedly on our lips does not necessarily mean Jesus is our God. And for those of you reading this who think you are exempt from idolatry because you don’t believe in any God or god or idol – well once you have found the words that work for you – I invite you to check what your ultimate concern is and whether honouring your ultimate concern brings life or death – for all of life.
Know thyself sister. Know thyself brother.
Grace upon grace,
Two photos of exactly the same river from exactly the same position at almost exactly the same time, yet so different. The different shutter speeds of the camera captures the same reality … differently. On the left the water is sharp and distinct, while the exact same water on the right, taken at a slower shutter speed, is smooth and misty like the first faint brushstrokes of undercoat.
This is a metaphor for our Covid-19 times. The speed of our living has changed. In fact, the speed of everything has been forced to change. This enables us to see the same reality differently. That which was a misty blur, is now seen sharply defined. For this reason, to site one example, some of us have been able to see or at least acknowledge the dehumanising inequality that exists within our society and world at large. It has always been dehumanisingly present, but it is easily ignored at a certain speed. The forced speed change of Covid-19 has sharply defined this inequality as well as the systems that create and perpetuate it. This sharpness pierced our conscience with the knowing that we are complicit in what is wrong with our world. It also crystallised our convictions about what justice demands. This is the painful ‘gift’ of Covid-19.
As the speed of our living slowly increases again (even though we have not reached peak Covid-19 death and devastation) the temptation will be to forget the reality we were enabled to see under Covid-19 lockdown-shutter-speed. It is this we must guard against. Therefore, I invite you to write down the reality that was revealed to you by lockdown-shutter-speed. Write down what you felt. Write down what you said you would never do again. Write down what you promised to start to do …, etc. In this way our living may honour Covid-19 time as a Kairos time. In this way the grief of Covid-19 may also be known to us and others as well the creation at large as a time of grace.
P.S. I will be on leave for the next couple of weeks. The Sunday CMM Chats will continue with some wonderful facilitators. I encourage you to tune in at 11h11 each Sunday. Please email email@example.com for the zoom link if you would like to join. I am also glad to report that the restoration of the Sanctuary will soon be completed. Thank you for your continued generosity.
P.P.S. Remember Max the fruit seller that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago? Well Max is back, which means Church Street is filled with nourishing colour again. Foot traffic is still low, so if you’re in town please support him.
Last week we reflected on the harrowing story of Hagar. We included a picture of George Segal’s sculpture of Abraham’s embrace of Ishmael as he and his mother Hagar were about to begin their journey of banishment.
Here is a photo of another sculpture by the same artist. I alluded to this sculpture during our CMM Chat last Sunday. Here is a little history about this sculpture:
“George Segal, who taught sculpture at Princeton from 1968 to 1969, was commissioned in 1978 by Kent State University to create a memorial to the four students killed by members of the National Guard during an antiwar demonstration on their campus. Segal found a metaphor for the tragedy in the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In Segal’s version, Abraham, dressed in contemporary clothing, looms over a college-aged Isaac, who is stripped of his shirt and bound with rope. Kent State University officials refused it, interpreting it as a politically volatile depiction of murder. According to Segal, however, this group misunderstood the memorial: the theme, in Segal’s words, was “the eternal conflict between adherence to an abstract set of principles versus the love of your own child.” Segal selected Princeton’s site for the sculpture, near the University Chapel, to reinforce the work’s biblical associations.”
This sets the scene for our discussion on Sunday regarding Abraham’s decision to sacrifice and then not to sacrifice his son Isaac as recorded in Genesis 22:1-14. As we engage the ancient text we are asked to reflect on our understanding of the passage in the light of Jesus and his teachings. The primary question we always ask is: Would Jesus say ‘amen’ to our interpretation or not? Then as we move to our present context we ask how children continue to be sacrificed in the name of “god” or “abstract sets of principles”.
In our reflections I invite you to read the short story entitled: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin. This story is disturbing. As disturbing as Abraham considering to sacrifice Isaac. This story was written in the early 1970s but is even more true today. Let us ask ourselves: How is this story true today? I include links to the story and a brief commentary.
This may be all too much for us to hold, but we dare not turn our face away from the truth of things. Our liberation and healing rests in facing the truth. To help us stand in the presence of the traumatising truths of our living I invite you to lean into Psalm 13 – the set psalm for this week. The psalm is one of lament. Lament is risky speech. Lament is speaking the unspeakable. It is to voice the terrifying truth. It is in no way doubtful speech. Rather it is determined and demanding. The Deliverer must now deliver! The psalmist demands that grief stops leading the dance of life.
The psalm is a mere six verses. The first four verses (the majority of verses) voice the isolation, pain of the soul, sorrow of the heart, diminishment of being and overall deathliness of life. Followed by two verses of praise. Is this a sign that the psalmist has turned the corner? Does it mean the Deliverer has in fact delivered? If so, how long did it take the psalmist to move from verse 4 to verse 5? Or are the last two verses of the psalm the psalmist’s act of defiance and resistance? Perhaps there has been no change and no deliverance. In this case the psalmist is hanging on to the side of a cliff with just two fingers (verses). Hanging on for dear life. Somehow holding onto praise with bare fingertips…? Like the ones who walk away from Omelas.
If you would like the link for the 11h11 CMM Chat on Sunday – please email firstname.lastname@example.org
This week’s reading focus for our CMM Chat on Sunday is Genesis 16 and Genesis 21:1-21. It is the harrowing story of Hagar. I invite you to read and re-read this 2-part story.
One of the things we are often reminded about at CMM is how important it is to understand the context of a scripture to understand its meaning. This includes the social, economic and political context of the time as well as the theological context. It also includes being aware of the context of the story within the Scriptures. We noted how important this is to do when we reflected on John 14 a few weeks ago and how it related to the context of Jesus’ last supper and Peter’s bold statement of faithfulness in John 13. All this holds true if we are to understand the stories of scripture more deeply, but this week I would like to ask you to do exactly the opposite.
This week I invite you to divorce the story of Genesis 16 and 21 from the scriptures entirely. Read it simply as a short story in and of itself. I believe that this approach will help us to read the story more honestly.
For it seems to me that some stories within scripture escape a truthful reading precisely because they are located in scripture. What I mean by this is that because they are in scripture, we approach them with a pre-understanding or interpretation that directs our final understanding or interpretation. This pre-understanding causes us to focus on certain aspects of the story while ignoring others. As a result, we raise certain questions and not others. We give certain characters the benefit of the doubt while we come down hard on others. We may brush over some people’s pain and anguish because we are caught up in the bigger story at play. Put simply, we sometimes apply an “end justifies the means” approach to our reading. This is most clearly seen with the dominant interpretation of the crucifixion itself. The bloody horror on Mount Golgotha is sanitised by our pre-understanding / interpretation of the larger story that “God is saving the world”. And if God is busy saving the world then any piece in the salvation puzzle, no matter how gruesome and no matter what ethical questions it raises about the Divine, are unquestioningly accepted for the sake of the final salvation puzzle to be completed. So, questions like what kind of God needs a human sacrifice to save the world are simply not asked.
This sacrificing of the single puzzle piece for the sake of the whole puzzle is what I think often happens with the story of Hagar. Hagar’s horrific treatment by Sarah, Abraham and even God (according to the narrator’s take on God) is ignored or even justified for the sake of the larger puzzle of God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham.
Therefore, I propose we look at the two Hagar pieces of the puzzle, Genesis 16 and 21, on their own. I hope that our sharpened focus will provoke new questions to be asked and emotions to be felt. The ultimate hope is that Hagar will be honoured.
Hagar’s story is a painfully relevant scripture for us to be grappling with at this time. It intersects our own context on multiple fronts: This Sunday is Father’s Day and who can forget the Sunday school song: Father Abraham had many sons…? Abraham as a father of Ishmael and Isaac demand our critique. What does it mean to hold Abraham up as the epitome of faithfulness (Read Hebrews 11:8-18) in the light of his role with Hagar? The patriarchy of Abraham’s times demand we critique the patriarchy of our own times. In recent days we have had a renewed reminder of the horror of violence by men against women and how it continues unceasingly across our land. This intersects with Hagar’s horror. Furthermore, Hagar’s ignored rape anticipates the ignored rape of women through the centuries.
We will discuss together these intersections between this ancient text (short story) and our context on Sunday. I look forward to connecting with you all. If you would like the Zoom Link for the 11h11 CMM Chat please email email@example.com
This evening Bishop Yvette Moses will be delivering her Synod Address live via: Capemethodist Facebook page from 7pm.
Tomorrow the Synod will meet (be it a smaller version) online to complete all essential Synod work. This is going to be a challenge under the circumstances but hopefully we will be able to get everything done.
See you Sunday.
Last year I attended a seminar by Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and public health expert. Hearing from Garrett about the human impact on the environment and the resulting emergence of new and mutating deadly viruses was frighteningly enlightening. As early as 1995, Laurie Garrett’s book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance pointed to the present we are now living.
Before I share a passage from Garrett’s book, the thing that struck me from her seminar was the sad pattern of human response to plagues:
1] Garrett stated that religious bigotry and religious exceptionalism accompanied plagues throughout history. We only have to think of HIV. Religious bigotry creates division: “us versus them”; “clean versus unclean”; “protected versus punished”. Religious exceptionalism encourages non-compliance of health precautions and reckless complacency towards the disease. The pandemic is spiritualised, for example, Covid-19 is seen as a demon, not a disease; a test of faith, not science.
2] Blaming the victim also stains the history of plagues. Today we note an increase in the stigmatisation of those who test positive for the coronavirus. This is very concerning. Blaming and banishing the victim creates a context of fear that ultimately discourages people to be tested and to seek care. https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/news/call-to-stop-covid-19-stigma-as-it-often-causes-people-to-avoid-care-47923253
In response to this sad human pattern, we ask: “What does the Lord require of us in response to Covid-19?” Answer: What the Lord has always required of us. Namely, “To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” [Micah 6:8]. I invite you to allow this single sentence to take hold of you. Take time to reflect on what, justice, mercy and humility mean in our pandemic present. We will re-visit this question over and over again.
I now share with you an extract from Garrett’s fascinating and detailed book, in which she introduces us to the human lung and viruses and the 1970s oil crisis and globalisation via the airline industry. Her gift is seeing connections where none may even look. It is the gift of a prophet. Another name for prophet is a ‘seer’. A seer of the past and present with such truthful clarity that she enables us to see a bit of tomorrow…
The human lung, as an ecosphere, was designed to take in 20,000 liters of air each day, or roughly 60 pounds. Its surface was highly variegated, comprised of hundreds of millions of tiny branches, at the ends of which were the minute bronchioles that actively absorbed oxygen molecules. The actual surface area of the human lung was, therefore, about 150 square meters, or “about the size of an Olympic tennis court,” as Harvard Medical School pulmonary expert Joseph Brain put it.
Less than 0.64 micron, or just under one one-hundred-thousandth of an inch, was all the distance that separated the air environment in the lungs from the human bloodstream. All a microbe had to do to gain entry to the human bloodstream was get past that 0.64 micron of protection. Viruses accomplished the task by accumulating inside epithelial cells in the airways and creating enough local damage to open up a hole of less than a millionth of an inch in diameter.
Some viruses, such as those that caused common colds, were so well adapted to the human lung that they had special proteins on their surfaces which locked on to the epithelial cells. Larger microbes, such as the tuberculosis bacteria, gained entry via the immune system’s macrophages. They were specially adapted to recognize and lock on to the large macrophages that were distributed throughout pulmonary tissue. Though it was the job of macrophages to seek out and destroy such invaders, many microbes had adapted ways to fool the cells into ingesting them. Once inside the macrophages, the microbes got a free ride into the blood or the lymphatic system, enabling them to reach destinations all over the human body.
The best way to protect the lungs was to provide them with 20,000 liters per day of fresh, clean, oxygen-rich air. The air flushed out the system. Dirty air—that which contained pollutant particles, dust, or microbes —assaulted the delicate alveoli and bronchioles, and there was a synergism of action. People who, for example, smoked cigarettes or worked in coal mines were more susceptible to all respiratory infectious diseases: colds, flu, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and bronchitis.
Because of its confined internal atmosphere, the vehicle responsible for the great globalization of humanity—the jet airplane—could be a source of microbial transmission. Everybody on board an airplane shared the same air. It was, therefore, easy for one ailing passenger or crew member to pass a respiratory microbe on to many, if not all, on board. The longer the flight, and the fewer the number of air exchanges in which outside air was flushed through the cabin, the greater the risk.
In 1977, for example, fifty-four passengers were grounded together for three hours while their plane underwent repairs in Alaska. None of the passengers left the aircraft, and to save fuel the air conditioning was switched off. For three hours the fifty-four passengers breathed the same air over and over again. One woman had influenza: over the following week 72 percent of her fellow passengers came down with the flu; genetically identical strains were found in everyone.
Following the worldwide oil crisis of the 1970s, the airlines industry looked for ways to reduce fuel use. An obvious place to start was with air circulation, since it cost a great deal of fuel to draw icy air in from outside the aircraft, adjust its temperature to a comfortable 65°—70°F, and maintain cabin pressure. Prior to 1985 commercial aircraft performed that function every three minutes, which meant most passengers and crew breathed fresh air throughout their flight. But virtually all aircraft built after 1985 were specifically designed to circulate air less frequently; a mix of old and fresh air circulated once every seven minutes, and total flushing of the aircraft could take up to thirty minutes. Flight crews increasingly complained of dizziness, flu, colds, headaches, and nausea. Studies of aircraft cabins revealed excessive levels of carbon dioxide—up to 50 percent above U.S. legal standards. Air quality for fully booked airliners failed to meet any basic standards for U.S. workplaces.
In 1992 and 1993 the CDC investigated four instances of apparent transmission of tuberculosis aboard aircraft. In one case, a flight attendant passed TB on to twenty-three crew members over the course of several flights. Similar concerns regarding confined spaces were raised about institutional settings, such as prisons and dormitories, where often excessive numbers of people were co-housed in energy-efficient settings.
In preparation for the June 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the World Health Organization reviewed available data on expected health effects of global warming and pollution. WHO concluded that evidence of increased human susceptibility to infectious diseases, due to UV-B immune system damage and pollutant impacts on the lungs and immune system, was compelling. The agency was similarly impressed with estimates of current and projected changes in the ecology of disease vectors, particularly insects.
It wasn’t necessary, of course, for the earth to undergo a 1°—5°C temperature shift in order for diseases to emerge. As events since 1960 had demonstrated, other, quite contemporary factors were at play. The ecological relationship between Homo Sapiens and microbes had been out of balance for a long time. The “disease cowboys”—scientists like Karl Johnson, Pierre Sureau, Joe McCormick, Peter Piot, and Pat Webb—had long ago witnessed the results of human incursion into new niches or alteration of old niches. Perhaps entomologist E. O. Wilson, when asked, “How many disease-carrying reservoir and vector species await discovery in the earth’s rain forests?” best summed up the predicament: “That is unknown and unknowable. The scale of the unknown is simply too vast to even permit speculation.”
Thanks to changes in Homo Sapiens activities, in the ways in which the human species lived and worked on the planet at the end of the twentieth century, microbes no longer remained confined to remote ecospheres or rare reservoir species: for them, the earth had truly become a Global Village.
Between 1950 and 1990 the number of passengers aboard international commercial air flights soared from 2 million to 280 million. Domestic passengers flying within the United States reached 424 million in 1990. Infected human beings were moving rapidly about the planet, and the number of air passengers was expected to double by the year 2000, approaching 600 million on international flights.
Garrett, Laurie. The Coming Plague (pp. 569-571). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
You can find her book: https://www.amazon.com/Coming-Plague-Emerging-Diseases-Balance-ebook/dp/B005FGR6RO Or follow her: Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like the zoom invitation for the post-sermon connection and chat on Sunday at 11h11.