When President Barack Obama said the sentence, "You didn't build that," on the election trail it polarized the debate. It almost forced people to choose a side. For educated liberals they saw the meaning behind Obama's words. No accomplishment is met by oneself. New theories are built on the backs on previous theories. Businesses grow not just because of hard working owners but the people that owner hires and the additional businesses they purchase supplies and rent from. Educated conservatives saw the problem with Obama's poor wording. There are individuals who sacrifice, work a 60 hour work weeks, begin their organization or business without paying themselves. To say they didn't build their company, restaurant, or organization negates the sacrifice to make their dreams a reality.
I see how both sides are correct. Yet, somehow, four words drew the line in the sand. We were told to make a choice. Either we were for the community or the individual. If we are honest we would realize there was no winning. Once we picked a side the opposite side vilified us. The only thing the "You didn't build that" argument did was expand the chasm that has been growing for years now, separating us as a nation. Therefore, I also see how both sides are wrong.
Let's change the focus. Let's say we are actually all builders. Every day we are building. Perhaps we are building relationships, connections, and innovations. Perhaps we are building walls, ditches, and separators. Either way we are building. We don't have a choice, we have to build. The only choice we have is what we are building. Are we building on good business practices or underhanded deals. Are we building on love or something else. The question then isn't whether or not we are the builders. The real question becomes what are we building.
I write this, in part, for one of Fig Tree's meditations. In bigger part, I write this because I think it does more to create a bridge that might be able to overcome this chasm. I am friends with some pretty strong liberals and some pretty strong conservatives. I am friends with both because I can really see how both sides are correct. It hurts my heart to see the divide as it continues to grow and separate us. Do you want to know what I want to build? I want to be a bridge builder. I pray some day I can say, "I did build that."
In the beginning- that's how it goes, right? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And in the beginning there was nothingness and chaos. Out of nothingness God created. Out of chaos God brought order. From creation God made a covenant with humanity. You shall have dominion and you shall be fruitful and multiply. We lived in this created order for a time, but time is a cruel mistress. The entire creation turned from it's purpose. Herbivores became carnivores. Humanity fought one another. The order began to revert to chaos again.
God couldn't take it. All that hard work and the hard work was destroying itself. That could have been the end of the story. God could have wiped the slate completely clean and started over. Instead, a holy remnant was chosen. One family of every kind. A new beginning for humans and creatures. So it was an ark was built and filled with a family of humans and a male and female of every animal. The rains came and flooded the earth.
When it was all done God was not pleased with the outcome. The earth had been destroyed in the most tragic way possible. The sea was considered the place where chaos lived. Not hard to imagine when you think of those winds and waves during a hurricane. Chaos called to obliterate chaos. If you think about just how angry and hurt God was, you might realize the implication of sending chaos to destroy chaos. It was the divine version of an eye for an eytes. Perhaps Jesus recalled that event as he said, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.... You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven.”
God saw all that destruction and made a new covenant. This would be a covenant that would not have any restrictions or rules placed on creation. Instead, God would make a covenant that would limit God's power. The covenant would be the rainbow. God's mighty battle bow placed on the horizon and facing away from the earth. It sits unstrung as a promise. That promise of not destroying the world in a flood and it can be understood in two different ways.
If could be a promise God will never use an eye for an eye ever again. Even though we, the entire creation, want to naturally hurt and anger each other and God, God will be the one to turn the other cheek. The rainbow could be our first salvation covenant. The rainbow could be God's unlimitless grace.
Or... something else. Before the flood God was very hands one: walking alongside humans and heavily regulating life span, knowledge, and overall human progress. As parents, you know there comes a time when you have to deregulate, so to speak, your child. They move out, move on, grow up. Or, maybe they need to grow up so they are pushed out of the nest to learn the lessons they need to learn.
That war bow in the sky could be a statement of letting go. God is not going to Nanny us anymore. We are big kids, if we want to move towards chaos and nothingness, God isn't going to stop us. It could be such a beautiful reminder of how precarious our situation really is.
Just realize in either of these situations God still loves us. Maybe God isn't walking the earth anymore but we still received help. When we strayed God sent prophets. When we needed relationship and salvation there came Jesus. When we needed help acting there was the Holy Spirit. Either way it goes God still love us. But what way does it go? What does the bow mean after the storms of war, hate, ignorance, and greed. When the wounds are still fresh and the bow of light shines up in the sky- is it God telling us “I am not going to hurt you the way you are hurting me, I love you.” Or is it God saying, “I will not step in and stop you from doing this anymore, but I still love you.”
The answer is on the other side of Lent. The answer follows Jesus into the wilderness where he confronts the chaos. Lent is not about getting rid of the chaos that has seeped into the primordial creation. Lent is about dealing with that chaos. It is a journey that doesn't end in the wilderness. There are those that believe Jesus left the chaos of the wilderness to bring the chaos to the order. Chaos to the priests. Chaos to the government. Chaos to the status quo. That would make sense if that glorious bow didn't hang there reminding us. No matter what we think the bow means, it does show us how God seeks order and harmony. God seeks peace. The truth is, Jesus walked out of the chaos of the wilderness into the chaos of life. Lent is about the chaos of the entire journey and we need to walk that entire path from baptism to wilderness, to the cross, to resurrection. Only after we take that journey with Christ will we be able to answer the question about the rainbow.
I believe we will ultimately find out both answers are correct. At some point in the Lenten journey we will have to understand Jesus on the cross. As Jesus suffers can't you hear him whisper, “I am not going to hurt you the way you are hurting me. I am not going to step in and stop you anymore, because I love you.”
Breath that in for a moment. “Because I love you.” Because God loves us we are sent to deal with our chaos. We don't deserve such patience and love. That is made clear when our chaos ends up taking us to the darkest depths of our own being: the cross. Because God loves us we have Jesus to bring back order. Jesus, to reintroduce what a gift creation really is. We have Jesus to remember, in our self inflicted chaos, we were not forgotten. We were not lost. After the storm is over love survives. Somehow or other, loves survives.
To say Abraham was a “great guy” is a huge understatement. His enormous faith in God and in God’s promises is the beginning foundations of our faith. Because of his trust he changed the world. But, this scripture really seems to counter both God and Abraham. It is really easy to read this through once and see just how unloving God and Abraham seem to be. Tons of questions arise immediately from the text. Why would God test Abraham’s faith in such a heinous way? God was asking Abraham to sacrifice his only future, the only son he had left: Isaac. Then there is Abraham. This is a man who is willing to slaughter his son for the sake of faith! He can’t even ask God why he is being required to do it? Everything in the initial part of the story suggests God wants Abraham to destroy his own future as well as the covenant between the two of them. Then, if you know the Israelites were anti-child sacrifice it just adds another creepy level to this scripture. Nothing in it seems to be right.
Maybe there is more than meets the eye in this story. Maybe we need to dig a little to see how this scripture is actually an extremely loving and emotional journey of faith and relationship. When God commands us it is not to make our lives worse but richer. I was having a discussion during the adult bible study at VBS when one of the participants remarked, “I was told never to pray for patience.” Of course you know the reason the participant said you should never pray for patience, because God would put obstacles in your way to gain it. The truth is, any sort of emotional gift God can give, like patience, strength, peace, endurance, all require a tempering process to obtain. If you pray for strength prepare to have your strength tested. If you pray for acceptance prepare to have your ability to accept tested. If you pray for patience prepare to have your patience tested. God will not just give us those gifts but God will give us the ability to earn them.
So what did Abraham need to earn? Going to the New Testament for a second I recall scripture where the Pharisees and Sadducees were trying to trip Jesus up and make him say something that would incriminate him. One of the questions they asked was, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answers with not just one commandment but two. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the Prophets can be hung on these two commandments. Now Abraham had one of these two down pat. He loved God. He trusted God so much he told his camp that both Isaac and he would be returning. Let me read it to you: “Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’” Either Abraham was being deceptive to his camp or he trusted God would uphold their covenant. I believe his incredible faith in God made him believe everything was going to be ok with Isaac.
Now we have that second commandment to deal with: love of neighbor. I believe Abraham was so incredibly God focused his family, and in particular Isaac, was suffering for it. The two commandments Jesus highlight show us that we are to seek more than God focused relationships. This is probably the reason I dog monks the way I do. I respect their discipline and devotion but do not believe their lifestyle is preferable to what God wants. I believe, in some ways, a monk’s lifestyle is living with the training wheels on so to speak. They are walking life’s tightrope with a safety harness. A monk escapes from the world, not lives in it. They do not have to worry about their faith in relationship to their family or friends for they put aside those things to focus on God. They love God but I believe loving neighbor means actually living in the world to be able to have neighbors to begin with. God created us to relate. To get to know one another. To have a family. When understood correctly those things enhance our God relationship, not degrade it.
The reason I feel Abraham has love of neighbor issues deals with how he relates to his son throughout the scripture. From verse one he has an open relationship to God saying, “Here I am.” This is a man who talks one on one with the divine. On the other hand he only talks about his son to others and not directly to him. Also, he relates to Isaac as ‘boy’ instead of ‘son,’ so there appears to be a disconnect. I also believe God wants to mend and fix this relationship. I say that because God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac anywhere he wanted. Being a culture who would have often sacrificed to God, there must have been an alter nearby. Instead, God picks the place; a place that would take some time to get to. Time would leave Abraham room to think instead of acting blindly. It is on this walk Isaac says the first words we have ever heard him speak in scripture, “Father!” We have no idea what Abraham is thinking. We can only guess. What we do have are his words and his words show openness to his child that did not exist back at the camp, “Here I am, my son.” He gives the same openness to Isaac as he had given to God by saying those words, here I am. It appears through this trial Abraham finally sees his son, not a mere boy, but flesh and blood.
The purpose of God was not to get his most ardent follower to sacrifice what he loved the most, but just to get him to realize what he loved the most. Abraham was the beginning of a new covenant and Isaac was its future. How Abraham treated his son would set the precedence of how God’s people would treat each other. The real sacrifice on that day was not a son or even the ram really. What was really sacrificed was Abraham’s blindness to relationship. God wants us to relate.
A congregation is one of the best ways to begin working on relating. In many ways quite a few of us are similar. Yet, no congregation is made up of a group of people who are identical. We are all different ages and have different interests. We all connect to God in different and unique ways. And while we are all striving in our own way to find our God focus, sometimes we need to realize the focus of those around us and how we can love them as God loves them. We as Bedford Christian Church have made a covenant to God to be disciples and those who come after us are our future for that covenant. If we focus only on our personal love of God we will be sacrificing that future. We are not Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes. We need to open ourselves up to make the statement that can transform our lives. Three words, if spoken honestly and openly, can define our future and make us stronger. Three words, if brought into real dialogue, could unify us instead of breaking us apart. Three words that do not presuppose or assume anything. Search your heart and when you have completed that search open it up to God and others and say, “Here I am.”