Lent: The Springtime of the Soul
A Biblical Commentary for the Third Sunday in Lent
By Rev. David H. Rommereim
Neighbor-ology: Who is the Guest?
In an environment where neighbors are constantly changing and individuals break from their families migrating from job to job, ancestral memories tend to be short, sweet, and shallow. We spend a little time in quick energetic moments and let not the stories linger and be retold from different perspectives. We are quick witted and short storied. Our roots are becoming shallow.
In a borough like Brooklyn we understand that this transition from one homeland to another is commonplace. It is well known that one in five North Americans have something to do with Brooklyn. Either they lived here on their way to somewhere else, or they have family, or have transitions into the borough from another part of NYC due to the economics of apartment rentals. We are also aware that in a part of Brooklyn like Bay Ridge we have a large percentage of residents who have spent their entire life here. You can still hear Brooklynese spoken in pizza joints and bars.
This long-term, short-term residential community produces a discrepancy in our faith communities because the long-time members have nothing at stake in holding their traditions intact since they have been doing the same things in church for decades.
But there is something at stake. If they were to seek to mature and grow into a new era, whereby most new residents have no memory, no glue to hold them into the pew.
I write this note on"neighbor-ology" because I have noticed in a place like Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, change comes not through program nor creative agendas of ministry. It comes through the change of heart. And that is the only way a congregation will become relevant to the new neighbor. It is a matter of what Dr. Kusake Koyama calls, Neighbor-ology. That is, the converging of the old traditions with a new spirit of hospitality to the new. And that hospitality is not simply being nice. That hospitality means that the stories from the older tradition need not be told unless and until the stories of the newcomer are fully shared.
I remember a story from a Lakota shaman who overcame drink and went back into his spiritual roots, the ground of his being. He said that the contemporary noise of fast moving people, migrating from job to job, person to person, place to place makes him feel the way he used to feel when he was drinking the white man's cheap beer. He was watering himself too much, moving too fast. He also watched his younger generation do the same, even without drinking themselves to death. Fast movement with fast talk. They were kindred spirits, even in the negative kindred bonds that could be developed. He thought that he and the contemporary speedy non-drinkers were "watering so quickly and so much that there was no place to set down roots." The slightest wind would knock him over. It is the same as over-watering plants in the garden. With too much water plants become so full they have no time to grow. They end up with shallow roots. The slightest wind would blow them over. "No challenges, no roots," he would say.
He remembered his ancestors telling him to water the plants slowly and less often. They wanted him to learn how to grow roots deep so when the north wind came in through the northern desert, the plant would stand up and be tall. Remembering his grandparents' wisdom, he began to water himself less and less. He would water slowly and the roots began to grow again, deep. Rapid moving persons are like those who water their gardens quickly and often. The roots tend to grow quickly produce a lot of foliage but brake off at the slightest twinge of a challenging moment. Those who remain, or find place to nurture their roots, tend to move slowly, so that the roots may move deep into the earth.
There are many biblical references to this sort of stability. The "Oak of Mamre" is one such metaphor. It grows in the harshest places because the watering is slow and rooting is deep. Neighbor-ology is a term I first heard from the Japanese Theologian, Kusake Koyama. It is discussed in his book "Water Buffalo Theology." There he discusses the Christian principle of neighborliness when it comes to the obligation of People of The Way (the pre-Christian community). The earliest believers were challenged to treat the neighbor with dignity. It came in that old Hebrew maxim, to treat their own lives with love, so that they are able to love the neighbor. Neighborly behavior also comes into play in the work of Soren Kierkegaard who discusses "Works of Love" being those moments when pure love is expressed to the other without any 'quid pro quo' necessary. To love and not need any love in return is the pure form of love based on the obligation shared by Jesus of Nazareth. Neighbor-ology is also envisioned through the lens of our faith in the God of our ancestors. Hospitality, radical hospitality has been the litmus test of good, honest, obedient faithfulness. Just turn to Genesis 15 and watch Abraham and Sarah experience hospitality at its best.
I write this note simply to remind us that in this age of tension, of financial challenges, and job scarcity, the tensions between people mount. The issue of racism continues to exhaust north Americans. We have yet to work through the diligence of hospitality as it affects our relations between race and nationality. It is only the diligence of our principles of faith that keep us from fast talk, violent talk, or bad talk. In our culture where anger tends to move quickly to a street fight, it remains our prayer that the values of Jesus remain at the forefront. Such values may be best known as being a good neighbor.
Neighbor-ology forfeits the anger of racialized tensions and gives it over to shared dignity and mutuality of respect. I continue to attend to these principles of Christian behavior when it comes to our neighbors. It is a wonderful opportunity to watch faith in action as we seek to follow God in healing a broken world.
Now this is the commandment-the statutes and the ordinances-that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children's children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.
Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"
Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,' -this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.
I remain, Rev. David H. Rommereim
The Second of a Series of Reflections on Lent: The Springtime of the Soul
A Biblical Commentary for the
Second Sunday in Lent
By Rev. David H. Rommereim
The Great Perhaps
The first eleven chapters of Genesis take on a myth-like character. That is, they tell stories that seem to describe primordial history; beginnings, deities, creation, and life as people experienced it and handed it down in folklore.
After these stories of beginnings, (Genesis 1-11) we move to the text in Genesis 12.1-4. This chapter begins with “Now, the Sovereign said to Abram, ‘Go ...’” (v.1). God called Abram and Sarai (his wife) on a journey of faith: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The text simply announces that God insists they “go.” God’s speech calls them out into the world of faith, seemingly without a map. The remarkable thing is that they begin their faith journey. They go.
This Genesis story reminds me of another example of God’s intrusive speech in the Christian Gospel. You may recall the experience of Jesus calling the first three disciples Peter, James, and John. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee Jesus walks on the shore and asks them to leave their nets and follow behind him (Matthew 4.18-22; Mark 1.16-20; Luke 5.1-11). Very little is known about the men, nor their encounters with Jesus. All that is recorded--and etched in our memories--is that they dropped everything and followed Jesus.
In this Genesis text, Abram heard God’s speech. He and Sarai embraced newness and left by faith into the unknown. They entered risk and what I love to call “the great perhaps.” It is faith with the insistent and hope-filled God.
Abram’s life before God’s speech appears to be without risk. In other words, Abram’s risk at leaving everything behind is not the way you and I usually approach risk. That is, we often think in terms of calculated risks, such as the margins on the stock market. However, risk implies that there is something to lose and Abram risks his entire family, his livelihood, and perhaps his ancestral memory. Risk takes on a deeper meaning when one could lose it all while stepping out in faith. Yet, God speaks a massive promise to Abram and Sarai. In verses 2-3, they are invited to live in hope and trust the promise.
Abram and Sarai do not hesitate, bargain, or probe. They trust. It was not because he was so successful as a person of faith. Keep reading the Genesis stories of the Abraham Lekh Lekha (travails of faith) in Genesis 12-25. Through faith, they are reckoned (considered) as righteous (Genesis 15.6, Romans 4.5). Abram and Sarai are acknowledged as the foundation of Yahwehistic, monotheistic, faith because of their trust.
The First of a Series of Reflections on
Lent: The Springtime of the Soul
A Biblical Commentary for the First Sunday of Lent
By Rev. David Rommereim
Drawing by Ebitenyefa Baralaye (by permission)
Medium: acrylic and graphite on wood panel
Dimensions (inches): 12 x 1 x 12
New York, 2012
"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
These are the words that many Christian pastors and priests recite while their thumb is dipped into the urn of last years burnt palm branches. They make a smudge of ashes on the forehead of the initiated, uninitiated, curious and beleaguered, believer.
The phrase is linked to Genesis 3.19, "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you (human-adam) return to the ground (adamah), for out of it you were formed; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That phrase has been adapted for the British Funeral Rite in the Book of Common Prayer. It I also from a title song in 1980 by David Bowie. When ashes are smudged on the frontal lobe of your brain, the cerebral cortex, the prayer sounds like this: Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Ash Wednesday is the ritual that begins the liturgical season of spring called, Lent. Lent was developed as a 40 day season of spiritual renewal. It is meant to remember Jesus' 40 day wilderness wandering and remind the people of faith that our ancestors have come through the blessing of the 40 year wanderings after the Prophet Moses followed the G*d event marked by bondage to liberation & freedom (Exodus 1-12).
The 40 days of Lent also take time to train the new initiates, as well as, provide an opportunity for those who have left, or been disciplined, back into the community of belonging. The Lenten study and faith reflection conjoins the people in renewal of belonging at the Easter Vigil, Saturday immediately before Resurrection Sunday.
What is the significance of that the smudge of last year palms on your forehead? Is it to remind you of your brokenness, your isolation, your limited vision, or your sin? Yes, all, or none, of the above.
What I have come to call "the smudge" is less a confrontation with sin than it is a living memory (fortunately) with mortality. And it becomes a confrontation with sin after I have come to realize presumed death.
While I face mortality I am able to giggle at the story of the garden in Genesis 3:7ff. There Adam('ish) is confronted with Eve ('isha) and the slithering snake. Each enjoys the lovely taste of the forbidden fruit. Such a story reminds me of an ability to pretend, to "makealeave" (as my daughter would announce at 3 years old). I makealeave that death will always wait. And in the waiting I hide from the divine event which would let me live more fully.
In the Smudge I am reminded that I do not know what G*d is up to, nor why, Jesus, G*d's Anointed impels me to place a smudge on my cerebral cortex (the sensory lobe of my body). Yet, the act itself is purely honest to Gd. The smudge lets me see G*d in the event itself and through it imagine elsewhere that G*d is living through the reality of mortality (whether humankind or otherwise).
Ash Wednesday is the name we place on the event of the smudge, but it is an event that cannot contain the event itself. That is, "the event is not precisely what happens... but something going on in what happens. (Preaching After God, Derrida, Caputo, and the Language of Postmodern Homiletics, Phil Snider, Cascade Books, 2012, page 85)
Not only am I liberated because of the smudge and the joining prayers, I can see other smudges coming to life all around... where an encounter with the reality of death brings life.
This past week I watched such a smudge while reading some electronic news. I read an article about college students rimming the White House in a public exercise of their democratic responsibility. At 10 am this past Sunday morning, they presented to our president the demand that the death cause by the XL Pipeline will exceed their future. Those 500 college students from 48 states representing dozens of colleges and universities demand a hearing by our government that the death of the climate caused by the mega-conglomerates in the fuel industry have bartered and battered the future of our students and their children. Three hundred and eighty students were arrested in civil protest. Their message was clear and precise: If you are not going to protect our generation from climate catastrophe and ruin the future of our planet, we will!
They put their lives on the line and offered an imaginative smudge remembering the mortality caused by bad, greedy, selfish, business. The smudge represented the fact that we are living in the reality of a climate that has less and less chances to raise a family of humankind. Earth, as we know it, is facing its own death caused by unwieldy carbon footprints and ozone depletion.
If that wasn't enough to let me imagine the event of G*d's invitation to life through death, another smudge was noticed. What inspired me was our colleagues in the New York Sanctuary Coalition.At noon on Ash Wednesday they were outside Federal Plaza praying for a way to invigorate an honorable and dignified immigrant policy as a country. Pastors and leaders provided the Smudge to any who desired. Undocumented & documented persons lined up. Federal Officers, security, police, lawyers, and those passing by came for the smudge. Together there was a moment of honest to G*d.
May your Lent be an inspiration from moment to moment, day to day.
I remain, Rev. David H. Rommereim