Taste and See: Promotion Sunday!

16 08 2010

Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m. are not the prime time to have deep theological discussions with high schoolers.

There…I said it.

And therein lies the problem with Sunday School. Combine sullen students, outdated curriculum, institutional white walls, and slightly difficult questions…and the whole lesson is sure to be a disaster. This summer, I’ve worked really hard to try and combat some of those problems. As far as the decor goes, I owe a giant debt of gratitude to my mom and sister, who really helped spruce up the classrooms with some colorful and whimsical touches. I’ve been formulating our fall curriculum to focus on the experiential aspects and practices of our faith. And today, I discovered that feeding sugar to youth at least helps eliminate some of the sullenness.

Today was our first Sunday School lesson of the semester, and our main Scripture text was Psalm 34. Specifically we focused in on verse 8: “Taste and see that the LORD is good.” I love that God doesn’t beat us over the head with statements about who he is (in fact, in our 90-day challenge, I’ve been surprised by how few descriptors are given! One notable exception is the refrain “The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”) Instead, he invites us to come and see who he is…and how he is. He is willing to withstand our (sometimes harsh) scrutiny and even to risk our declining his invitation. And that, to me, makes this invitation all the more powerful.

So our Sunday School discussion focused on what it means for us to have an invitation like this. Are we taking advantage of this calling, or just mindlessly accepting what we are told? Do we, in fact, believe that God is good? How do we know this? Why do we believe this? If there is a good God, why is there evil in the world?

And then we moved into the imagery of tasting and food. How exactly are we supposed to “taste and see”? Does God make himself present in literal food? Are we supposed to eat the Bible? (Some say yes :))

On the altar I had placed a jar of honey, a loaf of bread, and a half-gallon of milk, and we ended our class today with a feast! As we snacked, we chatted about the metaphor of a “land flowing with milk and honey,” (the closest parallel we could come up with was the chocolate river in Wonka’s chocolate factory) and imagined what it must have been like to wander in the dry desert with the God-given promise of such a fertile land and abundant life.

Truth is, we all find ourselves wandering in the wilderness at times. And even though we may find it easier to say “God is good” during times of prosperity, it is during those times of weakness and pain and suffering that we most earnestly turn to God. And we are forever sustained by hope: by the promise of God for a new future, a new land, and a new life.





Transfiguration and the Prophetic Imagination

6 08 2009

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

– Matthew 17:1-5

Although I’ve always thought Peter’s suggestion (“Lord, let’s build three shelters”) is incredibly random and slightly ridiculous, I do understand the sentiment behind it–or at least, I thought I did.  This is a “mountaintop experience,” and Peter wants to hold onto the moment for as long as he can, as if by erecting tents he might be able to prolong the vision.  Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge the suggestion, because, of course, there’s work to be done below.

That’s the interpretation I’ve always heard.  However, if you could not tell from yesterday’s blog post, I am in the midst of reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination.  And as I made my way through the second chapter, I began thinking about the Transfiguration in a different light.  So here goes:

In Matthew 5, Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.  And previously, I thought chapter 17 was a pretty clear allusion to that fulfillment: Moses represented the Law, and Elijah represented the Prophets.  Obviously.

But Brueggemann expands the notion of prophecy to include Moses as a prophet, as well, and devotes the entire first chapter to the alternative consciousness that Moses represents, in complete opposition to the Egyptian empire.  The gods of the Egyptian empire were “static” — meaning, the religion existed only to serve the ruling elite.  Under such a system, the poor and oppressed — that is, the Israelite slaves — had no reason for hope; after all, if the gods were on Pharaoh’s side, why should they care about their plight?

But the Israelites cried out to the LORD, and he heard them.  And into this prosperous and stable empire entered a God who would change everything.  Omnipotent and all-knowing, this God answered to no one.  He did not confine himself to a temple or to the Pharaoh’s palace; he was, in Brueggemann’s word, free.  Free to do as he wished, free to answer the cries of the Israelites.

This God was a god of the wilderness.  He led his people through the wilderness, and in spite of their complaining and at times, lack of faith, they followed their God through the wilderness, hoping to reach the Promised Land.  His Ark of the Covenant lived in a tent, and that suited Him just fine.  He, of course, was not confined to a tent; he appeared in a burning bush, in a cloud of smoke, in a pillar of fire.

This was the community from which arose the prophet Moses.  This was the God for Whom he prophesied.

Fast-forward several hundred years.  God, of course, did not change; he never does.  But the community of Israel had left the wilderness and moved into the cities.  Against God’s wishes, they appointed a king and set up an empire.  They even built a temple for God within the city of Jerusalem.  They wanted their God to stay in one place, where he might be more manageable.  Brueggemann notes that “Solomon was able to counter completely the counterculture of Moses: 1. He countered the economics of equality with the economics of affluence … 2. He countered the politics of justice with the politics of oppression … 3. He countered the religion of God’s freedom with the religion of God’s accessibility.”

But, of course, God did not just go quietly into his little temple and stay there.  No, he commissioned prophets to confront the kingdom and imagine another consciousness for the people of Israel and their religion. This alternative consciousness was concerned with justice and with sacrifices that actually meant something; it recalled a time of wilderness for both God and His people.  These were the prophets who shaped our collective understanding of prophecy: Samuel, Nathan, Abijah, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, Daniel, Amos, etc.

And then we have this passage of the Transfiguration from Matthew 17.  What should we do with it? How should we understand Peter’s suggestion?

Like Moses and Elijah, Jesus spoke out against the prevailing culture and religion of his day.  Interestingly, he spoke often of the kingdom of God, even proclaiming that the “kingdom of God is at hand”   (Mark 1:15).  His audience loved it. They thought their Messiah was igniting a revolution against the ruling Romans and paving the way for Israel to re-establish its kingdom.  They expected a king-Messiah who would use force to take over and save them.

They were missing the point. And so was Peter. Whether consciously or not, I think Peter’s suggestion displays a Solomonic affinity for temple-building, for putting down roots and erecting long-lasting structures.  But the kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke was vastly different from the Davidic monarchy.  He had not come to build a temple: he was the temple (John 2:19), free to call and choose and love both Jews and Gentiles, and by so doing, to set them free, as well.  Like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus was in the business of proclaiming an alternative consciousness and an alternative kingdom.  His was the sort of counterculture that could — and can — only be found by stepping into the wilderness and meeting God there.

Listen to Him! Listen to his vision, his prophecy, his new Law, his transformative message! Listen to His voice, crying out in the wilderness to proclaim His kingdom! Listen!