Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Second Bananas and Comical Sidekicks

Mark 1:1-8

Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

John the Baptist is the greatest second banana in history.

We know from practical experience that second bananas are not always content with (to expand the metaphor) their second fiddle fare, nor are they enamored with those who cast the shadows in which they walk.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda has reminded us, Aaron Burr was so outraged by Alexander Hamilton’s obvious superiority that he became “the damn fool who shot him.”

Vice President Thomas Jefferson smiled sardonically as his followers accused President John Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Jefferson may not have used the words, but he could have said, “I’m Thomas Jefferson and I approve this message.”

During the Second World War, British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery dismissed his superior, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, with four words: “Nice chap, no soldier.” More than once, Monty tried to take over Eisenhower’s job as allied field commander in Europe.

Vice President Harry S Truman described his boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as “the coldest man I ever knew,” and “a faker.”

Vice President Richard Nixon, who owed everything to President Eisenhower, called Ike “devious,” although he added a Nixonian qualification that he meant the word in its “best sense.” 

Vice President Lyndon Johnson hid his contempt for President John F. Kennedy, whom he regarded as a callow playboy who was physically not up to the job. According to his biographer Robert Caro, LBJ would put his thumb and forefinger together to demonstrate the circumference of JFK’s ankle, suggesting Kennedy was neither physically nor temperamentally fit for power.

Historically, Second Bananas had a bad habit of knocking First Bananas off their pedestals. In England, Prince Stephen usurped the throne from Queen Matilda in 1135; Henry IV from Richard II in 1399; Edward IV from Henry VI in 1461; Richard III from Edward V in 1483; Henry VII from Richard III in 1485; Mary I from the legally designated Queen Jane in 1553; and William III and Mary II from James II in 1689.

In fact, virtually every empire and geopolitical entity in the world has had its usurpers. Second Bananaship inevitably fuels a drive to the top job.

Church historians and cynical observers have wondered if John the Baptist was content with the role. Did he, in fact, actually think of himself as a Second Banana?

The biblical and historic record suggests he was an extraordinarily gifted man with a magnetic personality who attracted thousands to his watery warren in the Jordan River and acknowledged no authority but God’s. He had innumerable disciples who followed him faithfully.

John’s father, Zechariah, foresaw a starring role for the boy:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79)

Later, Luke introduces John with historical precision, marking for posterity the time and place he first appeared:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6)
 If there was ever a religious or political leader qualified to think of himself as number one, it was John the Baptist. He is one of a small handful of bible characters who appear in extra-biblical accounts. He is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and he plays a prophetic role in the Qur’an. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, Yahya ibn Zakkariya, Sufi Muslims hold John in high regard because of the Qur’an’s account of his astute wisdom, unfailing kindness, and sexual purity.

John’s significance as a prophet and first century evangelist has led some scholars to theorize his Second-Banana-to-Jesus status was an after thought made up by uneasy Christians seeking a credible cover story. The fact that Jesus was among several thousand who came to John for baptism suggests to some – including scholars who work so hard to destroy the faith of innocent seminarians – that Jesus initially thought of himself as a disciple of John. All the prophetic references casting John in the role of the “voice crying in the wilderness” to prepare the way for the Messiah came later, these cynics say, to explain why Jesus was baptized by John, a mere Second Banana. 

There is even biblical support for the notion that John was never fully persuaded of Jesus’ messianic role: “He sent word by his disciples and said to (Jesus), ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).

I think all this distrusting skepticism is understandable.

Most of us find it hard to respect Second Bananas, or to trust them to be loyal to the person at the top. History is too full of Second Bananas who were driven to push their bosses aside and snatch the power away.  

And the markedly loyal Second Bananas we know were hardly threats to the throne. I remember with fondness Andy Divine’s “Jingles” who rode with Guy Madison’s Wild Bill Hickock, or Gabby Hayes’ humorous subservience to Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, or Leo Carrillo’s Pancho who rode with Duncan Reynaldo’s Cisco Kid, or – lest we forget – Ed McMahon who loyally laughed at Johnny Carson’s funniest – and weakest – ripostes. Possibly the purest current example of a loyal second banana is Vice President Mike Pence, although his obsequious obeisance to President Trump may be part of a wily scheme to position himself for the top job.

Ideally, Second Bananas should not threaten their bosses. And John the Baptist was no comical sidekick, so some scholars have had difficulty thinking of him as a number two.

The skepticism is understandable because it is so difficult to accept the logic of Jesus’ oxymoronic declaration: “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

Jesus also made it clear what happens to Second Bananas who seek to usurp power:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be first among you must also be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 25-28)
 Perhaps no one in history had a more important supporting role than John the Baptist:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6)
He was, by his own declaration, not the Messiah. His role was to prepare the way, to call people to repentance, to remind them of the preeminence of God in human lives, and to open their hearts and minds to the coming of Jesus.

That may be only a supporting role, but it’s a great one.

John the Baptist is no Messiah but neither is he a Second Banana. 

In the eyes of God and all who seek to emulate his role every day, his status in the divine hierarchy is clear.

John the Baptist is banana number one.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Jesus and Other Dudes

Several years ago I was driving to work with Martha, cruising in the right-hand lane of the Hutchison River Parkway, listening contentedly to the opening salvos of NPR’s winter pledge week with the smug savoir faire of one who has already pledged.

Suddenly, as faster cars hissed past us, there was a concussive noise beneath the hood and the steering wheel stiffened and I had difficulty turning it. I exited onto Mamaroneck Avenue and parked beside the chained gate of a construction site. 

I did what any resourceful dude would do: I lithely whipped out my cell phone and tapped in the Triple-A road service number.

Most Triple-A operators sound like they’ve just completed a Clinical Pastoral Education cycle: they express sincere concern about your crisis, coo soothingly at you and ask for your membership number to make sure they should keep talking to you. After a few more reassuring phrases, this angel-at-the-keyboard said a tow-truck was on the way and would surely arrive before 90 minutes had passed.

That was good news and bad news. The good news was that help was on the way; the bad news was that I feared my bladder might not be in sync with a 90 minute confinement on a busy highway. After an hour, I began surveying stout trees in the construction site to gauge which ones might provide a suitable blind. Martha, always calm in a crisis, encouraged me. “Go!” she said. “No one notices white guys behind trees.”

I wasn’t so sure and decided to wait a few minutes longer. Happily, the tow truck soon pulled up in front of us.

The driver, a tall, well-built dude with a mellow baritone voice, asked what had happened.

“Well,” I said, lowering my voice to match his, “there was this popping sound and suddenly I had trouble steering.”

“Sounds like a broken belt,” the driver said after a momentary calculation.

I caught myself before I expressed surprise that cars have belts.

“Right,” I said, my voice low and shrewd. “That’s what I thought.”

Martha popped the hood and the guy reached in and pulled out two black, snaky belts, both of them broken.

“I knew it,” I said.

I am inspired to tell this story because it illustrates something about which dudes know and women are generally oblivious: namely, when dudes  encounter dudes in moments of crisis, there is a prescribed mode of behavior between them. 

Whenever it can be avoided, one dude will not allow another to get the upper hand or feel more powerful or more knowledgeable or – let’s put it out there – more macho than the other. Of course there are hierarchies that mitigate this, as when a guy has to relate to a guy in authority over him. But even then, the junior guy is expected – as Johnny Fontaine understood when Don Corleone rebuked his tears with a stinging slap in the face – to “be a man!”

Garrison Keillor’s Book of Guys (Penguin Books, 1993) reveals so many intimate male secrets that I hid it from my five daughters. Keillor doesn’t say anything dudes don’t already know, but he crosses a line of taciturnity that dudes maintain for self protection. 

Keillor’s description of the father-son relationship is revealing, not because we didn’t already know it but because we rarely speak it:

A father turns a stony face to his sons, berates them, shakes his antlers, paws the ground, snorts, runs them off into the underbrush, but when his daughter puts her arm over his shoulder and says, ‘Daddy, I need to ask you something,’ he is a pat of butter in a hot frying pan. 

Not only does Keillor describe the realities of guy relationships, he explains them.

Girls . . . were allowed to play in the house . . . and boys were sent outdoors . . . Boys ran around in the yard with toy guns going kksshh-kksshh, fighting wars for made-up reasons and arguing about who was dead, while girls stayed inside and played with dolls, creating complex family groups and learning how to solve problems through negotiation and role playing. Which gender is better equipped, on the whole, to live an adult life, would you guess? 

I like to reflect on all this when debates arise in ecumenical circles about the maleness of Jesus. Faith and Order types have generally agreed that God transcends gender and is neither male nor female. God is the creator, not the creature, and God is spirit not flesh. I remember an editorial by my mentor, Norman R. De Puy, the legendary editor of Missions and The American Baptist Magazine, entitled, “God’s Gonads”, the point being: don’t got ‘em, don’t need ‘em. 

But is it significant, theologians ask, that Jesus was male? Could God incarnate appear in female flesh without altering the divine plan of salvation?

Theologians are split on that issue. Some insist on messianic maleness, while others go so far as to rephrase the Doxology to remove gender references. A version endorsed by the United Church of Canada goes like this: 
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;Praise God, all creatures here below;Praise God for all that love has done;Creator, Christ, and Spirit, One.

For some Christians, there is something powerfully attractive about the idea of a female messiah, and artists and filmmakers have provided startling but stirring images of female Christs on the cross.

But the fact is, Jesus was born male. We can only speculate why God chose to send his son rather than his daughter, but it may have had something to do with the practicality of dealing with a male-dominated, patriarchal society that, for the most part, endures today. A female Christ would have faced far more obstacles than a male rabbi, possibly insurmountable ones, even for God. 

There are many instances in the gospels where Jesus wears his maleness like a phylactery on his forehead. He certainly acts like a recently bar mitzvahed male when his mother asks him to do something at a wedding when they run out of wine: “Woman, what concern is that to you, and to me?” (John 2:4).  So, too, his rebuke of the Syrophoenician woman drips with male and perhaps xenophobic condescension when he seems to compare the woman’s suffering daughter to undeserving dogs. (Mark 7:25-30 and Matthew 15:21-28)

But an even more intriguing example, because it portrays Jesus’ encounter with another alpha male, is told in Mark 8:31-33:

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Mark, writing sparely as always, leaves out some details we’d love to know. We see the Big Fisherman, grasping Jesus’ sleeve, dragging him away from the others and pointing his finger in Jesus’ face. 

We can almost hear Peter’s fierce whisper. “Look, man, are you nuts? These people love you. What’s all this crap about suffering and dying and rising again? You want them to think you’re a whack job? Ease up, Dude.”

No male is going to turn the other cheek when patronized like that. Jesus not only returns Peter’s rebuke, he calls him Satan, which is probably worse than calling him, in the manner of his response to the Syrophoenician woman, a son of a bitch. 

Maybe this is too strong a reaction to Peter’s obtuseness, and maybe if Jesus had been female he would have organized a discussion group with role playing to help Peter see where he erred. But this was a quintessentially dude encounter and it was handled in dude guy way:

“You’re wrong.”

 “No, you. Shut up.”

Looking more closely at the encounter, it’s evident why there is so much testosteronal leakage.

For one thing, Jesus is preaching what may be the most important sermon of his life: the one that explains all that must happen before his messianic mission will be complete. Still at the top of his popularity polls, Jesus warns his followers that he will be rejected by powerful religious authorities, tortured, and put to death. And then he will rise from the dead. Only when all of that has happened, Jesus explains, will his mission be fulfilled: sinful humanity will be reconciled to God and death will be forever vanquished.

We don’t know how many in the crowd that day understood what Jesus was saying, but we do know Peter couldn’t grasp it. The message of salvation was blurred by his Y-chromosome. And it was his chromosomal make-up, his dude-ness, that prompted Peter to defy Jesus and order him to stop talking nonsense.

Not surprisingly, Jesus stood his ground. History tells us that Peter eventually understood what Jesus was telling the crowd and Peter evolved into an eloquent evangelist of the message of salvation. But in this and other incidents reported in scripture, Peter’s dude behavior should have served as a warning that many of his successor popes ignored: don’t dismiss Jesus’ word when you have no idea what’s going on.

The rest of us can consider ourselves forewarned. The next time you listen to a careful exegesis of Jesus’ words, ask yourself: are we hearing the truth? Or does the preacher have a Y chromosome that may be skewing the message?

The story of Jesus’ earthly ministry and divine mission has been interpreted and re-interpreted in many different ways. At its heart is the message that God loves us unconditionally and God wants us to reflect that love in our relationships with our fellow humans.

Sometimes that message gets a little garbled. 
And if that is because of the occasional difficulty of testosterone-dripping dudes to understand it, we can be grateful a back-up system was put in place at the very beginning. The resurrected Jesus appeared first to a woman who was certain to understand what was going on, and only later did he entrust the message to dudes.

Thank God for the millions of women who are called to pastoral and preaching ministry. With their help, God’s truth will never be dimmed. Regardless of the gender of the person preaching or the person in the pew, the ecstatic message that rings throughout the ages will never fade.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Horrid Hermeneutics of Reformation

In 1569 in Holland, a Mennonite preacher named Dirk Willems was arrested by his Lutheran neighbors for practicing the heretical custom of adult baptism.

After 1500 years of quarrelsome Christian history, the Lutherans had a pretty good idea what God wanted them to do with heretics: burn them at the stake.

According to The Martyr’s Mirror, Willems escaped from his captors one winter night and sprinted across the frozen hillocks. The Lutherans were losing sight of him and one pursuer took a shortcut across a frozen pond. But the ice broke beneath him and the Lutheran fell into the frigid water, writhing helplessly.

Willems turned to see the man’s distress and made a fateful decision. He ran back to the pond and pulled the man out of the water. The other pursuers caught up with him and carried Willems back to the jail, where he was promptly burned at the stake.

Today the unhappy tale of Dirk Willems is rarely told in Lutheran confirmation classes but it’s worth keeping in mind. Otherwise we might be tempted to celebrate the Reformation as a beatific highpoint of Christian progress.

Five hundred years ago this Halloween, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg.

But the truth is, if he had his way, he’d have nailed a few Anabaptists to the door, too. The defacing of the Wittenberg door was the ominous prelude to decades of burnings, beheadings, torture, and other primitive forms of hermeneutical discussion.

Luther, who spent much of his life hiding from Catholic assassins, would have readily immolated the odd Mennonite or Jew whose theology he found abhorrent.

Luther was complicated. Among other things, he was a bona fide prophet. God spoke through him with blinding clarity.

But Luther also spoke for himself, and on those occasions he was often wrong. He was a typical sixteenth century European Christian who bristled with anti-Semitism and xenophobia and he bristled brisker than most. Had his glowering imperfections been less obvious, his followers might have elevated him to the demigod status of Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy.

Whether Luther actually defaced the Wittenberg door with nails is a matter of dispute, but historians are clear that he sent the theses to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, on October 31, 1517. They were not a demand for comprehensive church reform but a complaint about the sale of indulgences, a papal racket for selling tickets to heaven.

The Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences was the opening salvo of the Protestant Reformation. Pope Leo X, who depended on indulgences to continue living in the manner to which he was accustomed, was alarmed by Luther’s disputation and eventually excommunicated him. His Holiness also dispatched goon squads in search of Luther’s hoary head.

Ironically, the sale of indulgences has never gone away completely. There are still Ladies’ Sodality fundraisers that suggest a donation of $5 will assure the attentiveness of the Blessed Mother to prayers. And scores of television evangelists, most of whom scorn both Lutherans and Catholics, raise millions by promising that contributions to their ministries will bring “special blessings” that undoubtedly include heaven.

Luther’s point was that with God’s grace, salvation is achieved by faith alone. That was a revolutionary revelation that relieved a heavy burden from sinners who saw themselves struggling futilely to please a vengeful God.

Salvation by faith remains a wonderful idea, and it’s too bad Pope Leo couldn’t see it. It’s also too bad that the reformers themselves sometimes lost sight of it. Fifty years after Luther published his theses, some of his Lutheran descendants got the idea that faith and grace only worked for Lutherans, not Catholics, not Anglicans, and certainly not Anabaptists. Luther himself, a confirmed churl, despised Anabaptists because of their adherence to believer’s baptism. Dirk Willems was not the only one to pay the price of Lutheran arrogance. These were the horrid hermeneutics of the Reformation.

But times change and we Christians are no longer immolating each other. Today Pope Francis warmly embraces Lutherans and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York (who knew he was a Luther scholar?) acknowledges “the church needed reforming” in 1517. One can even see the day in the not-too-distant future when Lutherans and Catholics will share the same communion elements of bread and wine at a common table.

The ideal result of the Reformation will be when Lutherans and Catholics share a common priesthood, but that day seems far off. Most Lutheran communions ordain women as priests and bishops, and the otherwise progressive Pope Francis has declared that will not happen in his reign.

So for those who believe it is essential for the church to embrace the gifts of all who are called to ministry, regardless of gender, there is still reforming to be done.

As we look forward to the perfect unity of a reformed church, it may be good to keep in mind that Reformation has always been imperfect, often brutal, and slow to embrace the insight that Luther saw in his more gracious moments: that persons are redeemed by faith, not dogma, and by God’s grace, not priestly intercession.

True reformation may be a long ways off, but by God’s grace it will come. 

Like the long, slow moral arc of the universe, the arc of reformation bends inexorably toward unity.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Martin Luther's 'Yup.'

On hot summer evenings at Lackland Air Force Base, when we basic trainees were granted a rare night off, we’d adjourn to a small patio that had vending machines and bitch about how tough it was. 

It wasn’t really all that tough because the Air Force was reluctant to send out-of-shape young adults to march in the 100 degree Texas heat (we heard there had been fatalities), so we spent many days in air conditioned classrooms memorizing Air Force esoterica. But we thought we were working our asses off, at least compared to the leisurely days of our bygone civilian lives, and we loved the patio breaks. We could sit on hard benches, smoke Luckies, and suck back Dr. Peppers while keeping a wary eye out for psychotic sergeants.

This was in 1964. The Bay of Tonkin incident had happened weeks earlier and, although none of us knew this would trigger a massive U.S. troop surge in Vietnam, we were all wary about the future. We’d smoke as many cigarettes as we could in the time allotted and talk about stuff we thought was important: whether we’d get a pass into San Antonio, whether Sergeant Ellefson was certifiably nuts, whether our girlfriends were thinking about us, whether we’d survive the dreaded basic training obstacle course, or whether we’d be posted to Southern California or to some deadly rice paddy a million miles from home.

We even talked theology. One night I sat smoking with a basic trainee from El Paso while he patiently explained why Catholicism was superior to my religion. My dog tags said I was United Church of Christ, based on a guess I made to my recruiter because my home church was the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., but I had little idea what the UCC was. 

The intense young Texan on the patio assured me his church was the true church because it generated real miracles, including the appearance of the Virgin at Fatima and the inexplicable bloody tears that trickle down the alabaster cheeks of certain saints. 

“These things give me such an oomph in my faith,” he said, and all I could do is nod vacuously because my church was not big on visitations or dubious phenomena. The young man (whose name I never knew) did express regret that his church wanted him to remain a virgin until he married and he wasn’t allowed to masturbate. “But wet dreams are not a sin because they are involuntary and I do look forward to those wet dreams,” he said. I nodded realizing we had some common ground and watched as he took a deep drag on his cigarette. He smiled but, unexpectedly, his face darkened.  

“The ten commandments,” he whispered. “I’ve broken eight of then.”

I watched him mutely as a sadness crept across his face. I was 18, so it never occurred to me to doubt that a boy so young could be such an accomplished sinner.

“Which ones?” I asked.

He shrugged and looked away.

“Did you kill someone?”

He shook his head adamantly. I tried to remember the other nine commandments. Swearing, lying, having sex, stealing. What else? Not going to church? Worshipping Zeus? Wasn’t there something about coveting your neighbor’s ass, which we used to snicker about in Sunday school? But what was coveting?

We sat in silence. Soon the break would be over and we’d have to retreat to our sweltering barracks for another sleepless night.

I cleared my throat. “What ones didn’t you break, then?”

He shook his head as if he didn’t understand the question, but his mood brightened abruptly again. “Hey,” he said, smiling. “Time’s up. Here comes the T.I.” I looked up as the sergeant (a “technical instructor” in Air Force nomenclature) strutted onto the patio pointing to his watch. Still smiling, the young man winked at me and waved. “God bless you,” he said cheerfully. He was assigned to another barracks and I don’t recall ever seeing him again. I wish I had gotten his name so I could Google him to see if he ever became governor of Texas or a shopping mall sniper or, perhaps, a monsignor or bishop. But he disappeared into the night, and now I wonder if he’d ever found the time to break the other two commandments, whichever they were.

These ancient memories come to mind because I've been reading Martin Luthers Small Catechism, published in 1529 for the training of children. Luther summarized all essential theology into the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys and Confession and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Small Catechism leaves out a whole lot of bible, and the radical reductionism makes me think of a cartoon showing two monks laboring at their calligraphy over two ornately designed bible broadsheets. One monk turns to the other and says with a smirk, “Someone is going to get a break. I’ve left out a couple of commandments.”

As succinct as it is, the Small Catechism is still a lot to chew on, beginning with the ten commandments themselves. When you get to my age, you can’t read the commandments without reflecting on the ones you’ve broken, and how often. Have I worshipped idols? Possibly. Have I disrespected God’s name? Have I misused the Sabbath? Have I stolen? Have I disrespected my parents? Have I lusted – well, let’s stop there.

Sometimes it does seem the law and the commandments are too darn much. This notion was dramatized by the rabbinic sage Mel Brooks, who in his History of the World Part I included a scene of Moses struggling to carry three stone tablets down the mountain. As Moses approaches the crowd, he intones, “The Lord God has given unto me these fifteen …” But one of the heavy tablets slips out of his grasp and falls to the ground in a hundred pieces. Moses thinks quickly: “…these TEN commandments.”

It’s entertaining to speculate what those additional five commandments may have been, but it’s not really necessary. Once the basic ten became a part of Jewish law, they began to multiply like sea monkeys in water. Leaf through your bibles, through Leviticus, through Deuteronomy, through Numbers and beyond, to see what happened. The original ten commandments were annotated, expanded and commented on sixty-fold. Oy vey. I’m wondering how morose my friend at the Texas patio would have been had he been moved to confess, “I’ve violated 585 of the 610 laws in the Pentateuch.”

And well he could have done so. Who can possibly remember all the laws of the bible? 

Consider just a handful, arbitrarily chosen from Deuteronomy 22:
You shall not watch your neighbour’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner. If the owner does not reside near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall remain with you until the owner claims it; then you shall return it. You shall do the same with a neighbour’s donkey; you shall do the same with a neighbour’s garment; and you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbour loses and you find. You may not withhold your help. You shall not see your neighbour’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall help to lift it up. If you come on a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, with the mother sitting on the fledglings or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. Let the mother go, taking only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you may live long.When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof; otherwise you might have blood-guilt on your house, if anyone should fall from it. You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, or the whole yield will have to be forfeited, both the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard itself. You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey yoked together. You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together. You shall make tassels on the four corners of the cloak with which you cover yourself.
And so forth. 

The original ten commandments are difficult enough to interpret. The weight of 600 biblical laws is so burdensome most people think they have only one choice: to be crushed beneath them, or stop reading them. 

As I was reading though the Pentateuch this week, I remembered something I had read in my youth, an article in Mad magazine. Mad, also a product of rabbinic insight and dead-on humor, noted that President Eisenhower had a tendency to ramble, obfuscate and puzzle the public with musings and non sequiturs. The President probably did this deliberately, as his press secretary, James Haggerty, suspected. Prior to a press conference, Haggerty warned the President that a number of issues were sensitive and he could not afford to make a gaffe. “Don’t worry, Jim,” Eisenhower said. “I’ll just confuse them.” And on many occasions, he did just that.

Mad magazine’s solution was simple: Hire the most laconic and taciturn man in America to serve as an interpreter for the most circumlocuitous president. Their candidate: Gary Cooper. During each press conference, the magazine suggested, after Eisenhower finished speaking, Coop would go to the mike and say, “Ike says, ‘Yup.’” And if the rambling utterance appeared to head in a different direction, Coop would distill it again: “Ike says, ‘Nope.’”

How nice it would be, we say to ourselves, if we had a similar device to help us interpret all the laws and the prophets going back five millennia.

Thankfully, the device is already in our possession – in the words of Jesus.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? ’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:34-40)
You don’t have to be an ecclesiastical lawyer to realize how complicated biblical law can be. The very complexity of the law has led to wide misunderstandings and dangerous misinterpretations. Over the centuries, good Christians have used the law to start wars, burn each other at stakes, trade in slaves, commit genocide on cultures that were considered inferior, relegate women and girls to the status of property, and despise others whose languages, complexions, religions, or sexual orientations are different from ours. All in the name of God’s law.

But lest we be confused, Jesus offers a clarifying note: “God says, ‘Nope.’”

All the law and the prophets can be distilled into two simple sentences, Jesus declares:

Love God.

Love your neighbor.

In the final analysis, it may well be that each of us has broken one or four of the ten commandments. And it goes without saying that the Decalogue is one of the most important documents to emerge from human history, because these commandments constitute the first time basic rules of conduct and morality were written down.

But it would be a shame to follow our ancestors into the maze of confusion that the law became.

Love God. Love your neighbor.

Jesus has shown us the way through the maze, in five unforgettable words.

God grant that we discover the secret of living them. Despite its daunting profundity, the secret can be stated even more simply than in Luther’s Small Catechism.

When God says love everyone, don’t try to figure it out. Just say “yup.”

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Moses Deals With Cranks and Snakes


John 3:13-17

Moses practiced management by wandering around. 

It drove his people nuts. They were disobedient ingrates.

Surrounded by whiners, Moses must have reflected a lot on the good old days when his heaviest responsibility was sheltering sheep. Back in the day, he had no distracting ambition, no overweening desire for a prestigious title or better pay. He liked sheep and the sheep liked him.

Then the Celestial Headhunter appeared in a burning bush and pressed upon Moses a job he was sure to hate.

“No thanks,” Moses said respectfully, but the Celestial Headhunter insisted it was a promising sales job with straightforward goals and objectives: (1), convince Pharaoh to release his entire labor force, and (2), lead said labor force to the land of milk and honey.

It sounded simple enough. The Celestial Headhunter refused to listen to Moses’ demurrers that he was not the man for the job.

And as we all know, the job wasn’t as simple as the Celestial Headhunter made out. 

But as we also know, whenever Pharaoh or the uncooperative children of Israel challenged Moses’ authority as CEO, the Celestial Headhunter assumed a more controlling role of Chair of the Board. 

The Chair had an uncanny (if unnecessarily dramatic) way of removing obstacles to the enterprise’s objectives.

Plagues, angels of death, parting seawaters, and pillars of fire were enough to convince investors that Moses had some powerful backers.

But if Goal 1 seemed difficult, Goal 2 proved to be a four-decade-long disaster.

The Children of Israel, who might have shown a little gratitude when Moses freed them from slavery, were never happy.

They started kvetching the moment they were free. 

We’re tired. We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. Yahweh is invisible, let’s worship something pretty, like a golden calf. What gives with these stupid commandments? Moses is a lousy leader.

Amazingly, God the Chair of the Board calmed everyone down by showing Moses how to do amazing tricks, like making food fall from the sky or water flow from a rock. The tricks usually placated the unions.

Even so, at some point during the 40-year-trek in the desert, the people went too far and both the Chair and Moses lost their patience in a dramatic way.
But the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food. Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” Numbers 21:4b-6.
That seems a harsh response to legitimate grievances, and surely the shop stewards were furious.

I also suspect Moses was beginning to wonder if his turbulent trek to the Promised Land was about to end right there on the arid plains, with everyone ankle deep in writhing hissers. 

What a terrible sight that must have been: ravenous snakes with hideous fangs, snapping at the toes of terrified Israelites as they leaped away in a macabre ballet.

As it turns out, the scene was also too much for God the Chair of the Board. Clearly something had to be done, and the Chair – as always – had an idea:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. Numbers 21:8-9.
Moses may have been thinking sardonically of a certain bovine idol when he placed the shiny figure on the pole, and no doubt people stared at the bronze serpent far more intently than they had beheld the golden calf.

As it turns out, the story is an excellent model of crisis management. It reminds me of a couple bosses I had who solved problems by creating crises that needed urgent attention and made people forget everything else.

In this case it worked. One can almost hear the placated Israelites singing:

Turn your eyes on the serpent,
Behold his tongue and his teeth
And as we stare we feel strangely calm,
It’s God’s style of blessed surcease.

The travails of the Children of Israel, from slavery in Egypt to privation in the desert to eventual settlement in the Promised Land, are rich metaphors of life.

We take it as a given that life is unfair. 

Some people are born to a life of desperation, trapped in poverty so lethal that the only way out is slavery and human trafficking. 

Some people are born into comfortable homes where money and possessions are plentiful. But status does not protect anyone from fatal diseases or abuses or addictions that destroy life.

Some people live all their lives in peace and harmony with their neighbors, and work until they retire in comfort. But others people lose their jobs when they are too old to seek new ones, and lose their homes and livelihoods and happiness.

Some people live safely in their homes. But others die in crimes involving guns, or in unexpected accidents on the highway or in mishaps in their own dwellings.

“There is always inequality in life,” President Kennedy said, putting it in military terms. “Some … are killed in a war and some … are wounded and some … never leave the country. Life is unfair.”

Certainly the Children of Israel did not think it was fair when their complaints were met with vicious snakes snapping at their feet.

The fact is, God who loves us beyond our powers to understand it does not promise us that life on earth will be fair. God does not promise us tomorrow.

But God does promise us not to desert us amid the vicissitudes and tragedies of life.

John writes in the famous third chapter of his gospel:
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:13-17
No one knows what is in store for us today, or where we will be, or how we will feel, or what we will be doing at sundown. 

Nor does God make any promises about our wellbeing, or assure us that we will always be happy and treated fairly.

But God does promise this: that even if we stand in nests of snakes, or face devastating illness, or lose loved ones, or lose our jobs, or lose our minds, God will find a way of letting us know our God is with us.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

No matter what happens today, or tomorrow, or this week, or this month, or this year, this promise remains:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hello? It's me, God.

Exodus 3:1-5

There are at least two voices of God in the 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.” One is Charleton Heston, which creates the impression that Moses is talking to himself at the burning bush. Viewers may wonder if God or Moses is supposed to be a ventriloquist. 

The cinematic device also makes you wonder if Cecil B. DeMille was actually that deep. Is he intentionally raising psycho-theological questions about the inner call of Moses? Or does he really like Heston’s manly voice? 

Later in the film, when God spoke as a pillar of flame, the uncredited voice is Donald Hayne, a sometime actor and DeMille’s production assistant. Both baritones affirmed the 1950s notion that God has a male voice. We Boomers quickly grasp the irony in that, because it was our mothers who ordered us to remove our muddy sandals when we entered the house.

When I was a student at Eastern Baptist College in the sixties, we loved watching rebroadcasts of DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” and the burning bush was one of our favorite scenes. We’d watch slack-jawed as Heston, with magnificently unrestrained intensity, crept toward the bush while a oddly familiar basso profundo intoned: “Put off thy sandals from thy feet, for the place wheron thou standest is holy ground.”

That’s either a scene of awesome power, or – given that Moses and the bush are both over-acting - a classic of unintended humor. “How do we know,” my Eastern classmate David would ask, “that God sounded like that? How do we know he didn’t sound like Truman Capote?” David is now Father David, an Episcopal priest, and I’m sure neither he nor I have been able to read that passage since then without hearing it in a high-pitched, nasally whine.

Even so, the scene does have power. It tells you what it feels like when God calls you to ministry. Heston and Heston, in scenery-chewing dialogue, do their best to communicate the awesomeness of the encounter. 

Heston is playing an unlikely candidate for God’s mission. I mean, Moses is past his prime. He’s a common sheep herder. He’s inarticulate. He’s a confessed murderer. And the fact that he thinks God is speaking to him directly suggests he’s a borderline schizophrenic. Moses recognizes these deficiencies and he’s incredulous that God is calling him to free the children of Israel. 

But God sees qualities in Moses that no one else sees. God sees qualities in all of us that are hidden from view, both to ourselves and to others. 

Sometimes God calls the oddest people to service. Consider Malcolm Muggeridge, the acidic English journalist and agnostic who, late in life, suddenly perceived a convincing case for Catholicism. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair now devotes much of his time to Christian ministry. And former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, known in his heyday as Jimmie McGroovie, is seeking ordination in the Episcopal priesthood after resigning in shame because he lied about having an affair with an aide.

These are good examples to keep in mind when we find ourselves facing Moses’ dilemma, when we are called by God to an important ministry but know there are millions of people more qualified. God sees the possibilities that are hidden from us.

Even when we’re not looking at ourselves in a mirror, we probably know dozens of people who got God’s call when they least expected it, or when they felt unworthy.

I often think of Irvin Shortess “Shorty” Yeaworth, a film director and musician who died in 2004. In 1970, Shorty, who was six feet tall, organized a school for aspiring filmmakers in his aging studios in Chester Springs, Pa. 

“Cinema Institute” was open to all but it mostly catered to young boomers from Christian backgrounds. The institute was designed along lines of a dental or barber college: inexperienced students were assigned to work on real films while experienced professionals guided them. Customers who wanted to make a movie could do it on the cheap by assigning the job to Cinema Institute, and in a few short weeks the school churned out presentable documentaries on nearby Valley Forge National Park and a Mary Kay cosmetic convention in Philadelphia. 

I worked on a biographical drama called “The Quiet in the Land,” the story of Christopher Dock, an 18th century Mennonite school teacher. I was selected for the job by my Eastern Baptist College mentor, Professor John L. Ruth, who was author, senior producer and star of the Dock film. I was the film’s key – and only – grip. (The details of that experience must be left to another blog. Suffice it to say that I learned you can’t love filmmaking if you don’t love stress.)

Even so, Cinema Institute was a great experience, in part because I met a lot of people who, like Moses, were called by God to change the focus of their lives. Foremost among the faculty was Don Murray, the Oscar-nominated actor and who lived in the same dormitory style accommodations as the students. The institute was held in January and the 200-year-old buildings in which we lived – a Revolutionary War hospital converted to a film production studio by Shorty – were haphazardly heated. Ice formed in the toilet bowls each morning, and the showers spewed out frigid water. Most of us – including Murray – skipped the showers. We were a redolent hippy horde when the course was over.

One of the classrooms was a small sound stage that simulated a living room, with a fake staircase that disappeared upwards into a nest of black-hooded overhead lights. Posted on the wall was a black-and-white glossy of actor Steve McQueen posing on the staircase. Trivia buffs recognized the scene from the 1958 horror film, “The Blob,” which was McQueen’s break-out starring role. 

The director of “The Blob” was Shorty Yeaworth himself. The film, generally assigned three stars and credited as a ground-breaking model of fifties horror drama, was well-known to all of us at the Institute. Shorty also directed other horror films that shivered the timbers of my easily-entertained generation, including “Flaming Teen-Age” (1956), which he also wrote, “4D Man” (1959), and “Dinosaurus” (1960).

Whether or not Shorty was on his way to becoming another John Ford, he certainly had a knack for the off-beat and his directorial style was widely copied in the fifties. In 1960 he had reasons to believe he would rise even further in cinema history. But the Presbyterian layman and choir director heard God’s call to service, and he abandoned the genre of the weird forever. The creator of “The Blob” began producing and directing films with a Christian message, including “The Gospel Blimp” and “Way Out,” both in 1967. He directed over 400 films for motivational, educational and religious purposes. The films were popular in churches and passably diverting, but none of them achieved the notoriety or generated the income of the cult classics of his youth. But Shorty never looked back. He heard God’s voice and he answered God’s call. I’m sure he gave little thought to what he had given up.

Despite having turned away from the Hollywood hegemony, Shorty had a lot of friends in the film-making community, including “closet” Christians like Murray, who directed “The Cross and the Switchblade” starring Pat Boone and Erik Estrada, in 1970, and Robert Lansing. 

In later years Shorty devoted himself to easing tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. He died at 78 in July 2004 when he apparently fell asleep and his car went off the road near Petra in Jordan. He was working at the time on an entertainment complex in Jordan called Jordanian Experience at the Aqaba Gateway.

I ran into Shorty several times over the years. He always remembered my name, a remarkable feat of memory that I was too young and self-absorbed to appreciate, and he never failed to ask about other former students of the Institute. I’m sure one thing we students have in common is that whenever the original “Blob” appears on the Sci-Fi channel, we nod knowingly and tell whoever is in the room, “Yeah. I knew the director. Him and me was buds.”

One of the best models of Christian ministry I’ve known is the Rev. Harold Wilke of the United Church of Christ, who was born armless.

Harold served on the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York and directed The Healing Community, which promotes awareness about access to a life of faith. He published numerous books and articles, including “Creating the Caring Congregation,” for congregations moving to integrate persons with disabilities into the faith community.  He was a founder of the National Organization on Disability (NOD).

If you know of Harold, you probably remember his unusual role at the the White House signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990. Following the signing, President George H.W. Bush passed the signing pen to Harold. He accepted it with his foot – because he was born without arms. 

Harold Wilke had more dexterity in his left foot than I have in my right hand. I had lunch with him once and watched him perform the simple act of eating. Using his toes, which were covered by a faded black sock, he would slip a napkin into his collar, adjust his silverware, and slip morsels of food into his mouth without spilling a crumb. If I asked him a question, he would stare thoughtfully into his coffee, absent-mindedly swirling it as he answered. All with his foot. When we finished eating, he’d slip his foot back into his shoe. 

After you knew Harold for a while, you no longer noticed he had no arms at his side. A lot of people didn’t notice it at all. “When I preach in a robe,” he once told me with a rye grin, “people come up to me and say, ‘that was a fine sermon. I notice you’re not one of those preachers who pounds the pulpit.’”

After I got to know Harold well enough to ask impertinent questions, I wondered aloud how long it took him to get dressed in the mornings.

“Faster than you, I’m sure,” he said, pausing for my reaction.

“Look,” he said. “I lay my clothes out every night on the floor. When I get out of bed in the morning, I roll onto them and slither into them like a snake.” He twisted and weaved his shoulders hypnotically to show me how it was done.

I never did talk to Harold about his call to ministry, possibly because I thought it might be more personal than how he puts on his underwear.  But I’m sure there was a time when God came to Harold as God did to many of us, and said, “Have I got a job for you.” And I wonder if Harold’s first reaction was to complain like Moses: “Are you kidding, God? I’m nearsighted. My socks all need darning. People stare at me like I’m a side-show freak. And did I mention  you didn’t give me arms?”

Probably Harold Wilke would not have been the first person you would think of as a candidate for ministry. Possibly his initial interviews with an ordination council had their awkward moments. But God knew what God was doing. 

Harold was born with a profound disability and profound insights into what it was like to be disabled. He became the premier leader in developing ministries with and for disabled persons, and he was a prime mover in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What a poorer world this would be if Harold Wilke had turned away from God’s call.

Probably Moses wouldn’t have been the first person you would think of as a candidate for ministry, and the biblical record is clear that Moses tried to evade it. What a poorer world this would be if Moses had turned away from God.

You may not be the first person anyone would think of as a candidate for ministry, either. But God has given each of us gifts we may not even know about yet. And when God calls us, the hardest thing in the world may be to say yes. 

But what a poorer world this will be if we turn away from God.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Joseph Got What He Deserved

“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him.” Genesis 37:19-20)

The famous phrase is from Genesis is inscribed on the tomb of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. 

But there’s another phrase from the same chapter that not only clinches the dysfunction of Joseph’s brothers, but informs only-children what it’s like to have siblings.
“But when his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more that all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” (Genesis 37: 4)
This particular passage, like the sagas of Cain and Abel, Jacob’s battles with his brother Esau, the parable of the prodigal son, and others, is easier to understand if you have siblings. The rivalry is natural. And while most sibling encounters don’t lead to fratricide, many sisters and brothers who have pulled back from one another’s throats could paraphrase Chris Rock: “I don’t approve of brothers killing brothers – but I understand.”

I was the oldest of four brothers and a sister and while I spent my teen years wishing I was a Kennedy, I now realize that to outsiders, we looked like a black-and-white sit-com. “The Adventures of Elmore and Mary”. “Leave it to Paul”. “Dad knows best.” Even our daily dialogue, recalled decades later, sounds like it had a laugh track.
Scene: 14-year-old Philip is in his room typing letters to his political idols while Dad has drafted Larry and Jim to help him hang tools on the garage wall. 
Dad: I can’t find the stud. Where’s the stud?  
Jim: He’s upstairs typing. (Laughter. Applause.)

Early pictures of the Jenks sibs capture us in our sibling detente. The portrait above was taken by Mr. Nickel who was also a high school English teacher and a colleague of Dad’s at Morrisville-Eaton Central School. Dressed for photographic posterity, the boys are flaunting bow-ties and Susan is wearing the frilly little dress Mom waited through five long pregnancies to buy. The card table on which Susan and Paul are perched was the field of many pitched battles when Mom hosted the bridge club.

I spent two glorious years as an only child. Alone and adored in the tiny apartment over Flora Cramer’s house on Main Street in Morrisville, I couldn’t have been happier. Early snapshots show me sitting on Dad’s lap, chewing on his pipe, or sitting bathed by sunlight in a bay window, watching bulldozers on Main Street in 1947. I even enjoyed the luxury of an imaginary friend only I could see, but whose ectoplasmic form was mysteriously captured on film while I stood nearby. (See the red circled figure, for which I offer no explanation.) 

As any only-child knows, having one’s parents to one’s self is an Edenic experience. It was only after the fall that siblings Cain and Abel began competing for parental attention and Cain killed Abel. Looking back, I think Cain had a reasonable defense. God liked Abel best and praised him at Cain's expense. “The Lord said to Cain why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin in couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7) Just the kind of condescending, parental preaching no child can bear. 

My brother Larry was born almost exactly two years after me. I was too young to be aware of any Cain-like hostilities toward him, but these animosities are often unconscious and revealed in family tales told decades later. One of my favorite relatives was often reminded by her mother that when she was a toddler, she reacted poorly to the usurpation of a baby sister. “What shall we do with Sissy today?” her mother asked her. “We could drown her,” she suggested.

My own sibling resentment was more passive, and both Larry and I have told this story many times. I’m not sure how old we were, but Larry had just started crawling. We were still living in the apartment and we must have been “rambunctious” (one of Mom’s favorite words) because Flora the landlady often knocked on our door to ask Mom to keep the noise down. Those ominous visits would unnerve Mom, but rarely deterred me as I took advantage of my superior ambulation to chase Larry with objects he found terrifying, such as a serpentine enema hose I found in the bathroom.

One day, when Mom left the apartment for a few moments – probably to apologize to the landlady for the noise – Larry and I were playing in the bedroom. There was a tall, narrow dresser in the room and I enjoyed pulling out the drawers to use as steps so I could climb to the top. Larry, not old enough to attempt such a journey, would watch longingly as I giddily ascended. As I sat on the top of the dresser this particular morning and looked down at Larry looking up at me, I had a sudden inspiration. I scurried back down the creaking drawers, opened the bottom one, and pushed Larry into it. Noticing how perfectly he fit in it (once all the underwear and lingerie had been tossed out), I pushed the drawer shut. 


Larry was not whimpering. He likes it! Hey, Larry! Exhilarated, I scurried to the top of the dresser to declare my domain. Before I reached the top, the dresser began to topple forward. I jumped to safety, but the dresser fell on its face in a pile of its former contents. All the drawers made exhaling sounds and closed under the weight.


I wish I could say this was the last time in my life that an action of mine had unexpected consequences. I was beginning to surmise that what had happened was not good and I might be in trouble. The feeling did not go away when I heard my mother’s footsteps outside.

More than sixty years later, I can only wonder what was going through my mother’s mind. “I will only be gone a minute. What can happen in a minute?” She must have heard the muffled crash of the dresser as she came through the door.

I can’t remember the expression on Mom’s face, but given that she had a progressive cornea deterioration disease that would take away her sight, she must have questioned the fuzzy scene before her. The tall dresser was now prone in a pile of socks, panties and boxers on the floor. I was standing calmly beside it. 

“What happened?” Mom asked.

I looked at her quizzically.

“What did you do?”

I shrugged.

“What made the dresser fall over?”

I shrugged.

Then, more urgently: “Where is your brother?”

I was too young to know that the answer to that question had already been scripted in the bible, so I stuck to my story. I shrugged.

At this point Larry, who may have been shrewdly silent while waiting to see if he was in some kind of trouble, decided it was time to whimper.

My mother looked stunned, and at first I thought it might have been the dresser itself that was whining. Not understanding what was happening, Mom’s eyes darted around the room to see where Larry’s voice was coming from.

“Where is he?”

I shrugged again, but thought it not inconsistent with my testimony to put my thumb in my mouth and nod toward the bottom drawer.

As soon as she grasped what had happened, the power of a protective lioness surged through her veins. With unnatural strength, Mom pushed the heavy dresser on its side and pulled open the drawer. Larry tumbled out unharmed and, so far as I could see, unruffled. Compared to being chased with an enema hose, he probably thought snuggling in the warm recesses of a piece of furniture was no big deal.

I can’t remember what happened after that – whether Mom muttered something about just waiting “until your father gets home” or whether this sibling confrontation resulted in punishments or consequences. But it does remind me that when it comes to sibling relationships, anything is possible. 

My siblings and I were alternately loving and rowdy, forgiving and aggressive and always competitive for attention. We got into loud fights and vicious wrestling matches that led to the parental prime directive: don’t bleed in here. When the three youngest members of our blended family engaged in the same loud confrontations in Port Chester, my spouse Martha – an only-child – was appalled and thought there must be something wrong with them. But as one-of-five, I knew better. The sibling rivalry was normal. All too normal.

The story of Joseph and his brothers begins in Genesis 37, and it’s not a pretty one. Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s large brood of sons – remember Jacob, the dirty rotten scoundrel who stole his brother’s birthright? – is his father’s favorite. “Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his children, because he was the son of his old age,” goes the story (Genesis 37:3). You can’t be an only-child and understand why that’s a dangerous dynamic, but it also helps to be old. I’m 65, and a miracle baby at this stage of our lives would certainly attract my attention. I would probably spend the rest of my life staring at him with my mouth open.

This is probably what happened to Joseph, and both he and his brothers noticed that their old man was constantly staring at Joseph with his mouth open. And Joseph began to get the idea that he was special. His father lavished him with gifts, including the famous robe of many colors – actually “a long robe with sleeves” if the correct translation is used – and Joseph proceeded to make several tactical errors that must be explained by the fact that his frontal lobe had not developed. He had dreams that sheaves representing his brothers bowed down to his sheaf and, stupidly, he told his brothers about it. The dreams continued, and “his brothers were jealous of him.” (Genesis 37:11) They plotted to kill him but, out of mercy or guilt, they sold the boy to Midianite traders for 20 shekels of silver. The Midianites took Joseph to Egypt. In a breathtaking act of sibling cruelty, they killed a goat and smeared the blood of Joseph’s coat so Jacob would think the boy was dead. 

The story has been told in many forms for millennia. All us bible scholars know that Joseph’s ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams rescued him from bondage and enabled a stunning rise to power in Egypt. This development provides the best scene in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, where the Pharaoh of Egypt is portrayed as an Elvis impersonator. (Donny Osmond’s Joseph is as good an illustration as any as to why his brothers wanted to kill him.)


But the fate of Joseph and his brothers is yet to be told, and the Common Lectionary wants us to stop reading here today. Imagine Joseph in shackles, humiliated and rejected, in the hands of a Midianite caravan en route to Egypt. What happens next? It’s a lectionary cliff-hanger.

Now, back to my own band of sibs. We turned out all right. As time passed we grew up and began our own families in various parts of the country. We eventually evolved into occasionally mature and often nurturing human beings who love each other and wish we had more opportunities to see each other. Growing up in Elmore and Mary’s place may not have been easy on Mary and Elmore, but we survived. And looking back on it, the memories are happy ones.*

And one of the benefits of growing up as competitive siblings is that when we read the story of Joseph and his brothers, we don’t have to Google bible commentaries to understand what is happening. We know. We lived it. 

Perhaps very few of us would have sold our most annoying sibling into slavery. But it would have crossed our minds.

And the grace we hold in common is that the God who watched over Joseph and brought him from slavery to salvation is the same God who brings order to our own lives. The God who guided Joseph’s brothers from murderous dysfunction to ultimate reconciliation is the same God who watches over us all.

Fraternal love may not be instinctive, and it’s not always the sort of thing we can accomplish on our own. But with God’s grace, siblings can transcend their natures. With God’s grace, we can emerge from the Jungian tumult as sisters and brothers together.

* Larry is a retired architect and brilliant still-life artist in Denver (see https://www.instagram.com/larryjnx/). Jim is a semi-retired physician in Saranac Lake, N.Y. Paul is an electrical engineer in Saint Cloud, Fla. Susan is a healthcare professional in Newton, N.C.