Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wrestling the Angel of our Better Nature

Karl Barth never heard of cable news, but he’d be reeling this week if he read the bible with CNN blaring in his ear.

With the federal debt ceiling deadline looming and civilization hanging in the balance, Republicans and Democrats in Congress grappled to a sweaty impasse. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22-31), politicians of both parties stubbornly refused to yield. And while politicians tussled over which federal programs would be slashed to cut the budget by billions or trillions, few worried that proposed cuts will do serious damage to programs that support the very poor. It’s as if, when Jesus told his disciples to feed a hungry crowd of 5,000, the disciples told the kid with the fish and chips to get lost (Matthew 14:13-21).

The partisan stalemate in Washington is infuriating. A half century ago, when I was about 15, the faculty of Morrisville-Eaton Central School presented a whimsical drama for the entertainment of our tiny central New York community. I don’t remember the name of the play but I remember Mrs. Drake, the school librarian, portrayed a character given the memorable line:

“Thirty needles and thirty pins and thirty dirty Republicans.”

As one of the town’s rare Kennedy supporters, I liked the line. But Mrs. Drake, a pillar in our mostly Republican village, resented the line and suggested it be changed to:

“Thirty dogs and thirty cats and thirty dirty Democrats.”

Copyright issues and the fact that Mrs. Drake was playing a left-leaning dowager convinced her she had to say the line as it was written. But fifty years on, I’m beginning to agree with her on both counts. The wresting match between dirty Republicans and dirty Democrats is not pretty.

No one knows what will happen Tuesday if Congress does not raise the federal borrowing limit, but most analysts think it will be bad – very bad. Fictional White House staffer Toby Ziegler said on an episode of the NBC television drama The West Wing, failure to act will mean this: “The immediate collapse of the U.S. economy, followed by Japan sinking into the sea, followed by a worldwide depression the likes of which no mortal can imagine. Followed by week two.”

Yet Republicans and Democrats continue to tumble on the brink. Clearly some 307 million of us innocent bystanders have the right to ask: What the hell is wrong with you?

What is wrong is that leaders of both parties have danced to the edge of disaster because they think their posturing will help them consolidate power. They are seeking to maneuver their way into majorities in both houses of Congress and take over the White House in 2012. Never mind that increasing numbers of American voters are disgusted by their inability to compromise on a plan to avert economic disaster. This week-end’s legislative drama made that clear enough. First Speaker John Boehner posted a bill that would require the government to revisit the debt question in the midst of next year’s campaign. The bill passed the House late Friday, despite the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it would never pass the senate, President Obama said he would veto it, and a score of Tea Party Republicans refused to support it. Then Saturday, Reid presented a Senate bill which purported to include all the provisions demanded by Republicans, but it was dismissed in a symbolic vote in the Republican House. Back to the brink.

If all this wrangling is about winning control of Congress and the White House next year, one wonders how valuable these acquisitions will be in a post-default America. I envision passing the tattered figures of the House and Senate leaders as they stumble in the steaming rubble of post-apocalypse Washington. “How’s that take-over plan working out for you, Guys?”

Republicans and Democrats have made their positions clear. The GOP calls for lowering the national debt by making massive cuts to the budget but without raising taxes. Democrats say the debt must be reduced by spending cuts and by implementing new revenue streams, mostly in the form increased taxes on the very rich. Both parties say their approach will require huge sacrifices in order reduce the debt, and both say they are acting in the interest of the American middle class. But who is making the sacrifices? Obviously not the rich. And really not the middle class. I haven’t been asked to sacrifice anything to save my country. Have you?

Sisters and brothers, we face a scary week. Both the president and the speaker express confidence that they will work out a compromise before the economy of the United States slides into Sheol, but what if they don’t? The situation has become so bad that you’ve got to wonder if human wisdom can prevail. We have found ourselves inside a Roman tragedy in which human greed and folly have created a situation so twisted and bound with knots so complex that human hands will never untie them. When classical plays got to this stage, there was only one solution: the deus ex machina – the god in the machine, which is to say, Mighty Mouse – here I come to save the day – or some godlike figure who will be lowered onto the stage to offer godlike solutions to human dilemmas.

Come, Captain America!

Actually, if you’re the type who reads the back pages of the paper, you may have noticed that the god in the machine has actually landed on stage. The question now is whether the god will win enough audience applause to attract the attention of the wrestling wretches on stage.

Last April, a group of unusual Christians came together with the idea that the budget debate in Washington, which focused on taxing the rich and protecting the middle class, was omitting an element that breaks God’s heart. That element was the struggling poor in the United States – families who lost their homes in the recession, who live in their cars or on the street, working families unable to rise above the poverty line, children who go to bed hungry most nights, elderly and disabled struggling to survive – when was the last time you heard your favorite politician speak about these poor and vulnerable populations?

Last April this unusual group of Christians came together to form a Circle of Protection around government programs that support the poor. The group is unusual because it's composed of Christians who usually don’t talk to each other: the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, Sojourners, Bread for the World, the Alliance to End hunger and more – liberal Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, historic African American churches, living peace churches and others. These groups have historically followed different paths of ministry. But last April, they agreed on one thing: when the politicians in Washington talk about cutting the budget, they have an absolute imperative to protect programs that support the poor – Social Security, Medicaid, support services for the hungry and homeless, or foreign aid that keeps millions of people alive. Yet Washington isn’t worried about the poor because the poor can’t afford to hire lobbyists. So these Christians decided that the Circle of Protection will speak for the poor. When the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches agrees on an issue, it’s clear both are listening to God’s voice.

On July 21, Religious leaders representing the Circle of Protection met with President Obama in an “extraordinary” 40-minute meeting. They emerged expressing confidence that the chief executive sees the need for a circle of protection around government programs that support the poor.

“We were asked not to quote the president directly,” said the Rev. Michael Livingston, director of the National Council of Churches poverty initiative, who was among the Christian leaders who met with Mr. Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

“But the president used a biblical phrase that has been quoted in the church for two thousand years,” Livingston said. “He referred to ‘the least of these,’ which was the phrase Jesus used to describe the poor and hungry who needed to be fed and clothed and treated as sisters and brothers.” (Matthew 25:45)

Obama’s use of the phrase showed he understood why the group had come to the White House, Livingston said.

Roman Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, said the group stressed with the president “the fundamental moral principle that we should put the needs of the poor first in allocating scarce resources. Matthew 25 has gotten all twisted to say ‘whatsoever you do for the forgotten middle class you do unto me.’ We’re not interested in which party wins but we support those who are likely to lose, the families feeding kids looking for work.”

Ramirez noted that there are several “givens” in the debate over the budget, including the Republican given that there be no tax increases and the Democratic given that tax breaks for the rich should be eliminated.

“When you listen to the debate it seems that protecting the poor is not a given,” Ramirez said. “We asked the president to join us in forming a circle of protection around the poor. They have no lobbyists, but they do have the greatest moral claim.”

Last Thursday, these Christian leaders, joined by Jewish and Muslim leaders, took the deus ex machina to center stage.
Frustrated that their pleas to the Administration and Congress to protect funding for the nation’s most vulnerable are being ignored, nearly a dozen leaders from the faith community were arrested inside the U.S. Capitol Building.
Despite repeated warnings from the U.S. Capitol Police, the leaders refused to end their public prayers asking the Administration and Congress not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

Among those who were arrested was Rev. Livingston.

“Congress is paralyzed by toxic partisan politics while people suffer,” he said. “Our elected officials are protecting corporations and wealthy individuals while shredding the safety net for millions of the most vulnerable people in our nation and abroad. Our faith won't allow us to passively watch this travesty unfold. We've written letters, talked with and prayed for our elected officials, and prayed together daily in interreligious community. Today, we 'offer our bodies as a living sacrifice' to say to congress 'Raise revenue, protect the vulnerable and those living in poverty.'”

The God in the Machine is on stage now. Yet the wrestling between parties continues. In a sense, the modern Jacob wrestles stubbornly with the angel of his better nature.

Genesis 32:24-32: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. ’Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Jacob, who stole his birthright from his twin, Esau, has been a dirty, rotten scoundrel until this night at Peniel. All his life he has sought power and advantage at the expense of everyone else. And then an angel came, and wrestled with him, and Jacob realized for the first time in his life that God was calling him to a higher service. This is one of the great conversion stories of Genesis, as Jacob the liar and fraud realizes this may be his last chance to get right with God. He holds desperately to the angel and will not let him go until the angel blesses him. And when the blessing comes, Jacob realizes: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

This week the members of the Congress believe they are wrestling with each other over issues they believe to be important. Let us unite our hearts in prayer that they will realize who they are really wrestling with – the God who loves the poor and blesses those who create circles of protection around them.

Political deals to protect the rich from higher taxes, or win the support of the middle class, may win votes. That remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: supporting the rich while ignoring the poor is no way to win the blessing of God’s wrestling angels.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Godfather

Genesis 24 

Our bible story this week finds us in the luxurious tent of the Patriarch Abraham.

It’s a history story and all week I’ve been trying to discern its theological significance.

As the scene opens, Abraham is surrounded by the rustic opulence of the rich desert ruler he is. He sits in fleecy comfort, his every whim satisfied by hard-working and loyal servants. Long gone are the poor shepherd’s itchy burlap garments that absorb the desert’s heat and radiate the odor of human sweat at night. Gone are the sand-encrusted sandals that abused his bunions. Abraham has been blessed by God, and he is very comfortable and very rich.

But Abraham is not happy. He is feeling old. He has already passed his centennial and lately he has been fretting about the future.

It’s no wonder he frets because God has been known to toy with him, often maliciously. Last week, the Common Lectionary pointed to a chilling experience earlier in Abraham’s life, the horrifying story of God’s demand that Abraham take his son Isaac to a mountain in Moriah and slit the boy’s throat. This is simply staggering cruelty and it takes some theological acrobatics to comprehend it. Why is God ordering Abraham to kill Isaac, his only son, the one he loves most on earth? What is God, anyway, a dyspeptic deity flaunting unlimited power who wants to see how high Abraham will jump when God yells, “Jump”? Only after Abraham has bound Isaac to a sacrificial altar and just as Abraham raises his blade, does God intervene. Psych! God was just testing your obedience, old man. Good job. On your way.

It’s hard to understand what God did to Abraham in Moriah, and the passage has undergone a lot of exegesis over several millennia. Perhaps it’s a tribal legend that created a good story to tell around campfires at the oasis, an allegory of God’s power and human obedience that made a point while creeping out the kids – and that last-minute rescue of an imperiled victim is a timeless literary device that predates Neolithic tale spinning and will postdate IMAX 3D movies.

There had been other times when God toyed with Abraham. Abraham was 75 when God ordered him to move to Canaan where, God assured him, he would be the primogenitor of a vast nation. God said “jump” and Abraham jumped, possibly winking at his beautiful wife, Sarah, to tell her they’d better get started. But years went by and the nation-starting business was going nowhere and there’s reason to suspect Sarah was wearying of her husband’s sweaty efforts to make God happy. Looking around, she saw her beautiful Egyptian servant, Hagar, and presented her to him as a gift. “She’s all yours, dear,” and Abraham dutifully continued his feverish endeavors to please God. Initially relieved that her vigorous husband was occupied elsewhere, Sarah soon became annoyed by Abraham’s sacred enthusiasm and threw Hagar out of the tent – but not before Hagar was heavy with a child, whom she named Ishmael. Good job, God said. But years passed and God declared that Abraham’s nation-building tasks needed to continue only with Sarah, who thought she had retired from that job and, besides, was far past the normal age of child bearing. And to complicate matters, God had another idea: he ordered Abraham and all the males of his tent-hold to get circumcised. Abraham was 93. Although the bible does not make a point of it, this would correspond to the birth of the world’s second oldest profession, the mohel. No one knows who this fleet-fingered guy was, but he must have been as busy as he was unpopular.

The story continues, along with evidence that in his advanced age, Abraham’s vigor to please God was waning. It so happened that three men came to visit Abraham and Sarah at the tent, and Abraham ordered Sarah to prepare a meal for the visitors. As Sarah was baking cakes and broiling a calf, she overheard one of the men tell her husband, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Maybe it was the guy’s comedic timing, but Sarah burst out laughing. In our gentrified versions of Genesis, in the King James or Revised Standard Version, Sarah’s comment to herself is dignified and grandmotherly: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Earlier translations, including the Book of J, are less polite, quoting Sarah’s comment that her husband’s instrument of nation building has dangled uselessly for years. But all humor aside: the prediction came true, and Isaac was born.

Which, jumping once again over the story of the attempted sacrifice of the adored Isaac-the-miracle-boy, brings us again to today’s scripture: Genesis 24. Abraham, now over 100, is sitting sadly in his tent, fretting once again about the covenant with God to build a nation bursting with more people than there are stars in the sky. Abraham and Sarah have done their part (God knows), but it’s still not happening. Isaac is 37 and he sits around the tent all day playing with his sheep and there is no Mrs. Isaac on the horizon. If a vast nation is to be built, it’s time for the boy to get busy. So Abraham hatches a plan to find his son a wife.

Genesis 24 is the story of that plan. And I’m still wondering what theological pearls may be plucked from this literary oyster.

Maybe the significance would be clearer if the story were contextualized to a more familiar time. The Divine M – my spouse and homiletical mentor – is in Tampa this week attending the general synod of the United Church of Christ, so she is not readily available to shed her usual light on an obscure passage. But before she left, she downloaded the Godfather trilogy to her iPad to while away the evening hours in the hotel. And it occurs to me: what better context for Genesis 24?

Let it play in your head: the theme from The Godfather.

Scene I:  Abraham, The Godfather, sits quietly in his office, drumming his fingers on an immaculately polished mahogany desk. He gazes out a large window and sees his adult son, Isaac, sitting at a videogame, where he has been playing Cars2 for hours. The Godfather frowns, and pushes a button on his desk. Immediately his consigliore, Eliezer, enters the office.

Eliezer: You called, Godfather?

Abraham: Eliezer, we gotta do something about this boy of mine.

Eliezer: Godfather?

Abraham: He sits around all day watching television or playing games. It’s time he grew up.

Eliezer: What d'ya gonna do?

Abraham: Eliezer, my most trusted consigliore, you gotta swear to me …

Eliezer: (self-consciously wiping his hands on his shirt)

Abraham: No, just swear to me.

Eliezer: Anything, Godfather.

Abraham: Swear to me that you will go to Sicily, the land of my birth, and find a nice Sicilian girl for Isaac – not one of these modern New York girls with tattoos and big hair and chewing gum.

Eliezer: You got it, Godfather. But what if she don’t wanna come back wid me?

Abraham: (Shrugs) Then fogeddaboudit. The deal’s off.

Scene II. The airport in Palermo, Sicily. Eliezer watches ten huge bags slide heavily down the belt at baggage claim. The bags are filled with jewelry, shoes, silks, perfumes, iPads, and other expensive gifts. He orders the bags opened and the gifts are placed visible in the backseats of ten Cadillac convertibles.

Eliezer (tipping each of the ten drivers with a $100 bill): This is the Godfather’s way of making friends.

Eliezer jumps in the lead car, and the ostentatious caravan moves slowly out of the airport.

Scene III. Corleone, Sicily, a small, sleepy sheep herding village where the Godfather was born. The crunch of the tires of ten Cadillacs on gravel roads can be heard for miles, and startled farmers stare at the caravan as it makes its way to the center of the village. The cars pull up in front of Bethuel’s tavern, the only visible business in the village.

Eliezer (Shouting):  Hey. Can a guy get a drink around here?

Scuffling sounds can be heard from inside the tavern, and Bethuel emerges, sleepily pulling his suspenders over his shoulders. Bethuel blinks in amazement as his eyes scan the ten Cadillac convertibles filled with gifts.

Eliezer: Hey. Can a guy get a drink around here?

Bethuel continues to stare at the ten Cadillac convertibles filled with gifts.

Bethuel: Momento, Signore!

Bethuel turns and runs back into the tavern. Inside, the sounds of shouting and scraping furniture can be heard. A young woman can be heard raising her voice in protest, followed by equally insistent male shouting. Eliezer leans against the lead Cadillac and checks his watch. Finally, the beautiful Rebekah is pushed out the door. She is carrying bottles of wine on a tray. She begins to place the tray on a small table, but freezes when she sees the ten Cadillac convertibles filled with gifts.

Eliezer: Hey. Can a guy get a drink around here?

Rebekah: Drink? Are you kiddin’?

Rebekah places the tray on the table and pulls Eliezer to a chair and makes him sit down. Eliezer sips his wine.

Rebekah: Anything else I can get for you? Anything?

Eliezer: Well, I gotta get gas in these cars.

Rebekah: You got it, Signore.

Rebekah brushes past Eliezer and signals the drivers of the Cadillacs to pull up to the side of the tavern where a gasoline pump waits. She rolls up her sleeves and begins to pump gas into each car. She squirts water on each windshield and expertly draws a squeegee across them, leaving them spotless. She opens each hood and checks the oil. She finishes the last car, she wipes her hands on a well-used rag. There is a spot of oil on her nose. Eliezer is clearly impressed.

Eliezer: You sure ain't a Manhattan girl.

Eliezer reaches into one of the Cadillacs and pulls out a large golden ring and a bejeweled necklace, which he gives to Rebekah.

Eliezer: For your trouble.

Rebekah: Oh, any time, really.

Eliezer: Pardon me for being so direct, but are you married?

Rebekah: No, Signore.

Eliezer: You wanna be?

Flustered, Rebekah runs back into the tavern. Bethuel and Rebekah’s brother, Laban, run outside.

Bethuel: Is something wrong? Did you get something to drink?

Eliezer: Everything is fine. But let me explain: I’m on a mission from my Godfather to find a wife for his son. I’ve brought gifts for the lucky girl and her family. That girl who ran inside – is she available?

Bethuel and Laban exchange glances.

Laban: Um, well, that’s up to her, you know.

Bethuel: Yeah, right, we couldn’t possibly tell her what to do.

Laban: Yeah. We gotta talk to her.

Bethuel and Laban turn toward the door of the tavern but they are knocked aside as Rebekah bursts through the door carrying two suitcases.

Rebekah: When’s the next flight to New York?

Eliezer takes a final sip from his wine and stands up.

Eliezer: We leave now. My employer is a man who likes to hear good news immediately.

The drivers of the Cadillacs unload their precious cargo and deposit the goods inside the tavern. Rebekah tosses her bags inside the lead Cadillac and Eliezer joins her. The caravan, now empty, turns down the dirt road toward Palermo, where a 747 jetliner awaits to take them back to New York. The theme from the Godfather swells to a crescendo, and the screen goes dark.

The story of Rebekah and Isaac goes on for several episodes. After many fruitless years, Rebekah finally conceives twins – Jacob and Esau – who wrestle inside her womb. The two would continue to fight each other all their lives until Jacob finally stole Esau’s birthright by deceiving his blind father. But these are stories for another day, as the founding family of three major faiths becomes more like the Sopranos.

And what is the theological significance of today’s story about the recruitment of Rebekah?

As my spouse prepared to head for the airport last week, her one comment about the passage was this: “The patriarchs of the Old Testament were terrible models of family values.”

That’s certainly true. Our idea of a standard family – rarely found in real life – is pop, mom and the kids, a relationship made in heaven and inviolable until death do they part. But this standard is more honored in the breach than in reality. We don’t have to look far in our own families to see the deviations brought about by divorce, remarriage, blended families of siblings and stepsiblings, working moms, absentee dads, absentee moms. It’s complicated. And it’s a mistake to look to the great biblical families for guidance. They were dysfunctional parents, disgraceful spouses, sinful collectors of concubines, and often disobedient to the God who covenanted with them.

But – and it’s a large but – God did great and wonderful things with these imperfect creatures. From Abraham’s seed came three faiths and mighty nations, and wherever Christians, Jews and Muslims occupy the earth, they must trace their presence back to this imperfect Godfather, this sometimes powerful and sometimes pathetic Patriarch.

That’s good news for all of is. All of us are imperfect. All of us sin. All of us stray from the paths of righteousness. All of us behave in ways that are not upright. Yet God still loves us and, just as important, God still uses us.

God is still in the seed planting business. Abraham could not have imagined, especially in the years when his procreative efforts appeared useless, just how powerful his seed would become.

And neither can we imagine what seeds God has planted in us, seeds that may not grow to fruition for years or centuries after we are dead.

Perhaps the theological significance of these tribal histories of Abraham and the founding patriarchs is simple enough. When God makes a promise – when God plants a seed – the creator will never desert it.  And when we are discouraged or fretful or doubtful about the purpose of our lives, the lesson of Abraham calls to us from across the millennia: God has planted a seed in us, too. And great and wonderful things will come of it.