Right before this Christmas a friend from Florida shared with me this picture - a battle tank M60 all decked with Christmas lights.
I though what a strange sight! I could think only of one similar example - The Pink tank of Prague. It was a Russian tank displayed on a high pedestal in the center of Prague and it was painted Pink in protest against Russian imperialism and militarism. It even caused an international diplomatic incident. You know, imperialists do not appreciate humor at their expense.
But such mockery was certainly not behind the tank in Florida since it stands in front of a Veterans’ clubhouse hangout and veterans don’t usually poke fun of themselves. I also did a quick google search and found about another dozen of Christmas decorated tanks all over the United States and in military bases overseas.
It gave me pause. The Florida tank was clearly not an outlier. It was part of a well established practice. Those who decorate tanks for Christmas - What kind of Christmas do they celebrate? What kind of Christianity do they confess? What kind of Christ-Child do they welcome? One wrapped in camouflage swaddling clothes? Have they ever heard about the birth of the Prince of Peace?
These poeple must follow some kind of a strange bellicose religion! And there is indeed a great need to return Christ to Christmas! Right among those who scream for it the most.
And that is something you might not know, or I certainly did not know, about American religiosity. And there is also a good reason for a Peace Church like Rutgers to exist, to preach and worship and witness to the coming of the Prince of Peace.
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I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."
Right before this Christmas a friend from Florida shared with me this picture - a battle tank M60 all decked with Christmas lights.
About two weeks ago I was photographing chickadees on Iona Island on the Hudson River. And then suddenly came a gust of wind and a big dead old oak tree came crushing down just a few yards behind me. I jumped up really shaken just like the little chickadee who flew away.
That entire experience got me thinking.... You know, there is a famous philosophical thought experiment which goes like this "If a tree falls in a forest and no person is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
And the precise scientific answer is NO. Because sound is an air vibration as transmitted by our ear and recognized as sound only in our brain. The falling tree produces air vibrations, they become sound only in the brain of a person. If there is no person to hear, there is no sound."
But there is an inherent problem with this technical answer as I observed the chickadee. Humans are not the only creatures to hear. In a forest, there is always someone to receive and process air vibrations, actually hundreds and thousands of creatures! We even know that other trees and plants and mushrooms can sense, process and react to vibrations.
The thought experiment about the falling tree was clearly designed by some arrogant anthropocentric philosophers all puffed up with human self-importance. Forest itself is a one great and constant dialogue of all possible creatures. Yes, it is more than a dialogue, it is a symphony composed and played and appreciated by an intricate lacework of forest creatures.
This Sunday we will rejoice in the Divine vision of nature in harmony. Join us in worship on this Second Sunday in Advent when we listen to Isaiah 11:6-10.
In 1979 an archeologist Gabriel Barkay from Tel Aviv Univ. was performing
a survey of an ancient necropolis at Ketef Hinnom (a ridge between Rephaim and
Hinnom valleys) south west of Jerusalem.
Two lines from Ketef Hinnom II with the tetragramaton
and request for a watchful protection.
There his team discovered an earlier unnoticed part of ancient tomb and most importantly an alcove used to store burial remnants and refuse. There, in what can be described as ancient cemetery refuse dump, they found two small relatively heavy metal cylinders roughly of the size of a cigarette butt, or a small marker cap.
These two cylinders turned out to be two silver scrolls. When they were carefully unrolled scholars discovered that those scrolls were inscribed with old Hebrew script. Both scrolls appeared to contain an abbreviated quotation of the Priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24ff)
The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
Paleographically the scrolls are datable to the 6th century BCE, Biblically speaking - before or around the time when Babylonians captured Jerusalem and sent many Judeans to exile.
Some people immediately claim that these two silver scrolls were the oldest ever discovered quotation from the Hebrew Bible! But that is a shallow fundamentalist argument. More likely is that scrolls contain quotation from an oral priestly tradition. But regardless it was quotation from the written biblical text or from oral tradition we need to pay attention to the context. The full context is indeed so much more interesting!
Firstly we can consider the full text on the scrolls. There was not only the “biblical” quotation of the priestly blessing. And remaining text clearly shows that the scrolls were originally personalised amulets providing personal protection of the wearers. Similar scroll amulets are well documented throughout Ancient Near East. Very often archeologist find their small tubular containers while papyrus or parchment scrolls decomposed over years. In Ketef Hinnom we have opposite situation, we have scrolls while containers likely decomposed.
Secondly we can also considering the context of the find in a tomb. The amulets provided protection not only for the living but also for the journey to afterlife. That is further strengthened for instance by a blessing inscription from a tomb in Kirbeth el Qom. Departed are accompanied on their journey with blessings.
And so the Aaronic or priestly blessing, used weekly in worship in many synagogues and churches, is not only the oldest part of our worship preserved in writing, its oldest function was in apotropaic magic, and it was used to protect and accompany the loved ones on their journey to afterlife.
And that is something you might not know about the Bible and I find quite meaningful and touching as we mark All Hallows and Souls Holy Day.
Did Hebrew god YHWH have a wife? Was there a time when Hebrew people worshiped a divine couple - god YHWH and goddess Asherah? If you read only the Bible you might think those are silly and even offensive questions. But they are not as silly if you consider the full picture. There is a number of indications that this was exactly the case.
For instance deep in the Sinai Peninsula is a place now called Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (30°11'10.59"N 34°25'40.91"E). On the walls and on the pottery of that place was a number of religious inscriptions expressing prayers, best-wishes and blessings in the name of YHWH and his ASHERAH (Paleographically dated between 800-760 BCE). And there were also drawings further suggesting and strengthening this religious interpretation.
Scholars argue about the exact purpose of that place. Based on the religious graffiti and some other artefacts it might have been a wilderness shrine for desert nomads. Based on its solid structure it might be a small detached garrison protecting an otherwise desolate stretch of the road. And it could also be a caravanserai - a stop and watering place just off the main north south trading road from Gulf of Aqaba to Mediterranean shore.
Or it could be all of those things together. Frankly, all three functions are easily mutually compatible. In desolate places, people tend to gravitate together. And if you travel through the empty expanses of New Mexico or Nevada you can easily come across a gas and service station, police outpost and small chapel catering together side by side for travelers’ elemental needs of sustenance, safety and spirituality.
And thus from graffiti written and drawn by a number of ancient travelers in the Sinai Peninsula we realize that the Bible presents to us an official, orthodox, if you want a high brow, version of religion while regular folks along the ancient roads had their own thoughts and hopes, their own religion. And traveling through the vast spaces of dangerous wilderness they put their trust in the divine couple, YHWH and (his) Asherah.
And that is something you might not know about the bible and the biblical times.
(Here I wrote about it a little bit more.)
And there is another lesson specifically for religious experts, while they write their books people draw their faith in graffiti. People have always believed what they wanted. I found it profoundly humbling. Every rabbi and every pastor should take it to their heart and remember it.
And finally this is also an invitation to our Sunday Worship. We will not talk about Yahweh and his wife. This Sunday will be about who is our neighbour and openness to hospitality talking about open and diverse nature of inns and caravanserais. Join us if you can.
Crown prince Yaṣib came to his father,
he lifted up his voice and cried:
Listen, I besiege you, O noble Keret,
listen, and let your ear be alert!
You have not defended the widow,
you have not protected the powerless!
You have not stopped the plundering of the poor.
You have not fed the orphans under your rule,
you have not protected widows around your throne!
And for all those reasons
your bedfellow is illness,
your concubine is disease. (KTU 1.16.vi.46-51)
This is a short and slightly adjusted quotation from an epos recorded on a clay tablet about three thousand years ago. All that long ago people already knew that there was a connection between arrogant, abusive and corrupt power and suffering and illness. (Aren’t we reminded of it by our recent national events?!)
But please, understand me well, I do not believe for a moment in a vindictive God. This was composed centuries before the first sentence of the Hebrew Bible was ever written! Yet people already knew what constitutes a healthy society! It was and still is taking care of the widows and orphans, the poor and powerless. There is simply no denying that there always has been this connection between selfish, incompetent rulers neglecting the most vulnerable and the suffering of their subjects and their societies. In fact it is also a heartbreaking logic because the vulnerable always suffer twice - first they suffer being neglected and then they suffer the secondary consequences of that neglect - unhealthy and collapsing society.
Thankfully there is a way out of it if only we decide to take it. This logic of lack of compassion and illness can also be reversed and compassion does lead to broader healing.
Have you noticed how many examples of just that healing we have in the Gospels? They give many accounts of Jesus’ miraculous healings. But this Sunday we will listen to a very special healing story from the gospel. To my best knowledge, among all the miraculous healings, this is the only healing which is part of a parable thus being a direct invitation for all of us to step in and follow the suit.
Biblical writings are proverbially difficult to date. They contain some very old stories (myths and legends or prophesies and poems) which were transmitted orally for generations and then reworked and substantially edited by generations of authors and scribes. Thus it is very difficult, almost impossible, to date any text in the Hebrew Bible.
But then, there is Psalm 110. With this psalm there can be hardly any doubt when it was written. The psalm itself gives us the date of its composition. It is spelled out in the ACROSTIC. Acrostic is a stylistic device, a form of alliteration, in which the message can be hidden in plain sight. Each line or each verse or each paragraph opens with a letter and those letters together give a message. In this Psalm the first letters of each verse read in Hebrew SIMON (THE) AWE(SOME) and they refer to a known historical figure Simon Thassi, or Simon Maccabee. He was an early and important ruler from the Hasmonean dynasty who ruled over Judea between years 142-135 BCE.
This identification is further confirmed by the content of the psalm. Interestingly, this psalm mentions an obscure, legendary, MELCHIZEDEK. This mythical figure is directly connected with Simon Maccabee. Simon had a problem as he was from a priestly family and he was of Aaronic lineage but did not have any royal legitimacy - no connection to the Davidic dynasty. Melchizedek was brought up to help with it because he is mentioned in Genesis as a King but at the same time receives from Abraham an offering. Melchizedek is king and priest at the same time. Simon’s propagandists lifted up Melchizedek from obscurity to legitimize similar conflation of royal and priestly function. This psalm is also particularly fierce and bellicose. Thus well suited for a bellicose and chauvinistic Maccabean ruler with a legitimacy problem.
Psalm 110 might be ascribed to David but was written centuries later in Hellenistic times as propaganda tool for the Maccabean priestly dynasty attempting to legitimize their political rule. And this psalm might be just the tip of an iceberg. Many scholars suspect that substantial parts of Hebrew Bible were actually written quite late in Hellenistic times and with similar religious and political agendas.
And that is something you might not know about the Bible.
And for our Sunday service we need to understand that priests in ancient times were unlike any modern priests. They were not only religious professionals but they were directly associated with the leavers and structures of power. They were princes like bishops in feudal Europe, like ancient Billy Grahams and Jerry Falwells deeply implicated in corrupting religion and being corrupted by power structures of their times.
“Do you know the difference between a pirate and a privateer?” We were asked this question almost as soon as we landed in Kingston, Jamaica. “Both do the same but privateers plunder under royal patronage,” our guide told us taking us around Port Royal fortress. Of course the Jamaican would know considering their turbulent history.
After all that is not a new observation. Already around the year 420 C.E. Augustine of Hippo wrote: When you dispense with justice, what are all the kingdoms but large scale bands of thieves? For what are bands of thieves in shorthand, but little kingdoms! The gang of men; ruled by a chief, and kept together by the compact how to divide the loot among themselves... (De Civitate Dei 4.4) I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of this Augustine’s major tome, that the Church should replace the civil state (Roman Empire), but I note that in describing empires and bands of thieves Augustine knew what he was writing about. He lived in the dwindling years of the Western Roman Empire. It was crumbling all around him unable anymore to enforce its laws and control its own narrative (who is to be called king, who bandit, and who thief). And Augustine was making his peace with this change, he was rationalizing that the Church is more important than Rome and destined to take over.
Pirate, bandit, thief or king: these are all just our human labels, words we use to control each other. But when the king (or simply a head of state) is behaving like a vulgar criminal, when he is unable to utter a sentence without lying, when the whole system is rigged against the little guys and more and more people are left out, then we are forced to look underneath those labels. Then we need to peal those labels off and try to look at each other as Jesus would - with disdain for the rulers and compassion for the little guys, with compassionate justice. This Sunday we will try to do just that.
|Manuscript of Augustine's De Civitate Dei by Jacobus De Stephelt from 1472|
And here is transcription of the Latin text:
Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? quia et latrocinia quid sunt nisi parua regna? Manus et ipsa hominum est, imperio principis regitur, pacto societatis astringitur, placiti lege praeda diuiditur.
Thirty years ago I and my Central European friends lived through quite radical changes. Those were the heady times of the Velvet Revolution and the breaking down of the Berlin Wall. The Russian totalitarian regime in Central Europe had just collapsed, the Iron Curtain was no more, reunification of Germany started to be discussed and Vaclav Havel was president.... After many many decades of occupation, oppression, political and economic corruption and a permeating cold war with the constant danger of nuclear annihilation we were just starting to breathe freely, almost nothing seemed impossible.
And exactly at that time, as we were intoxicated with the newly achieved freedom our professor of the Hebrew Bible gave us an ice cold shower. We have just left Egypt, he told us. Soon you will be serving churches and your task will be to lead your congregations through the forty years of a wilderness pilgrimage. Gaining freedom is the first step, preserving it, expanding it and learning how to live with it will be the center of the true spiritual struggle.
And he was so right, so prophetic, so prescient! Just look at Hungary or Poland these days! My native Czech Republic or the original lands of the East Germany are still struggling with it... Even if everything goes right - such great societal transitions do move like glaciers, slowly with geological speeds, requiring patience and tons of perseverance because unfortunately they can be easily stopped, reverted or overturned. Just think about, in our American experience how it was with the Emancipation, Reconstruction and what happened afterwards.
My professor was not clairvoyant - he just knew well his Hebrew Bible. He knew, he taught us, that the Exodus was not history, I learned from him that it was best described as a legend or a myth, but exactly for that reason it was perfectly suited to describe our human nature and experience across ages. The crossing of the sea into the freedom is always just the beginning. It is followed by forty years of a tough journey requiring discipline, patience and perseverance.
Complexities of the Exodus journey, that road to freedom, will be our theme this Sunday. Join us to learn and be encouraged.
You probably know the infamous story of the golden calf. When Moses was up on the mountain, Israelites beneath the mountain created for themselves out of their gold an idol, a statue of a bull (Exo 32). And shortly afterwards they were seriously reprimanded and punished for it. It is so deeply rooted in our culture that in western languages the golden calf became synonymous with false gods, for false religion, for idolatry.
But reality might not be that simple and straightforward because we know that in the old parts of the Hebrew Bible God, YAHWEH, is actually linked with bovine imagery. One ancient divine title, which is often translated as “The Mighty One of Jakob/Israel” (for instance Gen 49:24 or Psalm 132) originally meant and can be more precisely translated as “The Bull of Jakob/Israel”.
There are also a few passages which speak about God’s horn or horns (Hab 3:4). Even Moses when he returned from the final meeting with the LORD a few chapters later (Exo 34) - there is a very strange passage -- Moses returned and on his head were horns, so that he had to veil his face not to scare people. (But don’t look for it in the most modern translations - they absolutely unplausibly translate that Moses’ face was shining and that is why he wailed himself. But in reality in the Hebrew text it is clear - Moses grew HORNS.
There was evidently a time when the bovine imagery was acceptable even as an honorific attribute for the biblical God. So what happened that the image of bull was abandoned? Why did the bovine imagery and theology become cursed? Why did it become a synonym for idolatry and blasphemy?
Clearly bulls, calves and cows are innocent, it is not their shape or their nature. Biblical story is deeper and more serious for us today. Here is a spoiler - real cows have nothing to do with our idolatry. They are lovely, curious, intelligent and as our Hindu neighbors would say, they are holy animals. If anything is connected with our idolatry then it is what we project into the cows and how we portray them. In our own otherwise very urban city a cow on a sidewalk (actually a statue of a charging bull) is a quintessential example of our proclivity towards worshiping ourselves, our vaingloriousness, our individual and collective delusion of grandeur and power.
Come this Sunday as we learn from the bible to love and respect cows and avoid Idolatry and dangerous false religions of our own days.
Do you remember the political and legal fights over displaying the Ten Commandments in courts and public spaces? In the Bible Belt they appear with almost boring regularity. And when they happen I always wanted to ask, which Ten Commandments are they so obdurately requiring and defending.
I want to ask because each main Judeo-Christian tradition has its very own version of the Ten Commandments. Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants each have their different version. They always end up with TEN commandments - but each tradition reaches that number differently.
And it goes as far as artistic representation of the ten commandments. When they are presented on two tablets one can usually tell which religious tradition is presenting them. Jews divide commandments 5 on each tablet. Roman Catholics and Lutherans, not always, but often divide them 3 commandments on one tablet and 7 on the other. Calvinists and other Protestants often have 4 and 6.
The Bible itself does not make things any easier because in the Bible there are two versions of the Ten Commandments. One is in the book of Exodus and another version is in Deuteronomy. AND THEY ARE NOT IDENTICAL. These two versions contain about two dozen differences. Some differences are just minor - stylistic (presence or absence of copula), some are more substantial - lexical (choice of words and synonyms). But for instance the entire explanation why to keep Sabbath holy is completely different between versions.
I take these differences and this diversity as the Holy Spirit reminding us that what really matters are not individual words, but their essence, their meaning, their message.
Join us this Sunday when we discern and rejoice in the diversity of the Law and its message.