Sunday, January 24, 2010

Road to Recovery 2

Ezra 9:1 - 10:1 After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, "The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 2 For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way." 3 When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled. 4 Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. 5 At the evening sacrifice I got up from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle torn, and fell on my knees, spread out my hands to the LORD my God, 6 and said, "O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. 7 From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as is now the case. 8 But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a stake in his holy place, in order that he may brighten our eyes and grant us a little sustenance in our slavery. 9 For we are slaves; yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to give us new life to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judea and Jerusalem. 10 "And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, 11 which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, 'The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. 12 Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, so that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.' 13 After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, 14 shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you destroy us without remnant or survivor? 15 O LORD, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this." NRS Ezra 10:1 While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel; the people also wept bitterly.

Road to Recovery (2): Purity
01/24/2010 Bethany
Ezra 9:1 - 10:1 (message)
Psalm 24 (call to worship)
Matthew 5:8 (children)

Well, this is tough material. Returning Jews have entered into inter-racial marriages and "the holy seed" has been "mixed". Pretty hard to spin this in any way other than a racial issue. Even to point to the underlying concerns, with the message title of "Purity," raises additional concerns for racial language, profiling, and prejudice. It is quite true that Israel was commanded not to intermarry with the people of the land, with the idea that this would prevent folks from being led astray to worship the gods of those peoples. And, in the narrative of the Scriptures, they did indeed intermarry, they did indeed begin to worship other gods, and they were sent into exile for that very reason. No wonder Ezra prays, "After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again?" (9:13-14a).

So, this concern with intermarriage and racial purity fits the overall narrative. It also fits the concerns of the particular tradition in which Ezra is located, the priestly holiness tradition. It’s a tradition that speaks of idolatry and adultery with the same language, urging God’s people to faithfulness in both the covenant with God and the marriage covenant. Sexuality and spirituality have always been closely tied. But, in addition to the holiness tradition, there is other material in the Old Testament. We have the story of Rahab of Jericho, a Canaanite who sheltered the Israelite spies and who married into Israel. We have the story of Ruth, a Moabite, who married into Israel. Both women are ancestors of Jesus, though those marriages were prohibited. And, we have the story of Jonah, whom God sends to the enemy, the other, in hope that they would repent and be delivered from judgment.

What we find in the Scripture, on this theme as well as many others, is a conversation in multiple voices. In this case, the conversation comes down clearly on the side of welcome, acceptance, and integration of all races in the body of God’s people.

Ezra’s concern fits the narrative, the holiness tradition, and the context of recovery. Last week, we noted that Israel is returning from exile to the Promised Land. The temple is in ruins, the Jerusalem walls are rubble, the monarchy no longer exists. They need to find a new way to be Jews, to rebuild the institutions that are necessary, and to do so without being too bound by the past, by nostalgia. From the prophet Haggai, we noted that Work and Glory address the concern of nostalgia.

But there is another major feature and task of a recovery: Identity. And one of the themes that clarifies Identity is Purity. When handled poorly, it ends up like the recovery of Europe after World War I – Germany emerges focused on its purity, determined to purge itself of difference. But it can be handled better.

In our own nation, we continue to face recovery after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. It is tied up in our identity, in defining again what it is to be American. We find ourselves struggling with that part of our identity as Free and that need to be Secure. The context of accelerating change and increasing diversity only complicates these matters. And, in the less damaging category of responses, we end up with stories like US Airways Express flight 3079, diverted to Philadelphia because the flight attendants did not understand a young Jewish man praying with tefillin.

In the continuing coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, I listened to an interview of a UN expert. He suggested that this is an opportunity for Haiti to redefine itself, a slate wiped clean by violent catastrophe, but with the potential for a totally new and superior direction for the Haitian people. Israel’s slate had been wiped clean. How will they be Jews into the future?

In his book Exclusion and Embrace: An Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Miroslav Volf notes – in the title itself – that identity and exclusion can often run hand-in-hand. In that process, identity is determined by focus on the border – defining who is "in" and who is "out". It’s identity by exclusion. Another process of for identity, however, is by focus on the center – defining what we share, what we are about. In that process, we can learn to embrace the other, particularly when we share the same thing. In the case of the church, we invite and welcome everyone because Jesus has invited and welcomed us. Jesus and his welcoming grace is the center. As Paul wrote to Titus, "To the pure, all things are pure" (Titus 1:15). That’s purity that is inclusive, rather than exclusive.

We’re exploring themes from Israel’s return, themes for the "road to recovery" in our own lives and our own times. We must address Identity and Purity. And though I am uncomfortable with this aspect of Ezra’s narrative, I believe that he does uncover crucial insights for our own recovery.

First of all, he reveals the path to identity by focus on the center. He speaks of God as "my God" and "our God" throughout his prayer. Our identity is formed by those we claim as "ours", by those who claim us as their own, by those at the center of our lives. Robin is "my wife", Jesse is "my son", Caleb is "my son", Bethany is "my church". Robin, Jesse and Caleb, and Bethany claim me. I’ve become a different person and, I believe, a better person, because of these folks who claim me, these folks whom I claim. Will I allow God into that center? Will I include Jesus among those whom I claim, among those who claim me? Will I permit the Spirit of God to make me a different person, a better person?

Second, he reveals a passion for purity. "Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this" (Ezra 9:15). This passion for purity begins by taking sin and guilt seriously. He fasts, prays, rips his clothing, pulls out his hair. While we don’t go in for ripped clothing and pulled out hair in our time and culture, we rarely get concerned about sin. We’re looking for a "grace period" with our video rentals and credit card bills. And, if we get hit with late charges, we’re miffed. We’re basically good people, we try hard, sometimes things happen. Not that God is like a credit card company. But we expect some degree of immunity because we don’t take our own sin that seriously.

Yesterday at our membership intro time, we reviewed the baptismal vows, including the vow to "resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves". I don’t like that vow! I’m quite willing to resist evil, injustice, and oppression as manifested in the life of my enemy, but not the evil in my life. I'm not impatient; I'm fast-paced. In my life, I like to get comfortable with my favorite sins, make certain they have a good seat. And, would you like a glass of water too?

But Ezra is on a hunger strike and ripping his hair out – all because I’m getting comfortable with my sin.

And, Jesus declares, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell" (Matthew 5:29-30). We reflected on this Scripture in Circle of Friends this week and it has traveled with me as I studied and read Ezra. And I made a decision this week: If I took Jesus literally, I’d have cut off so much of me that there would be nothing left!

To the Hebrews, we read these words: "Let us throw off every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race marked out for us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:1-2). Anything that gets in the way of following Jesus has gotta go. Are we ready to be that severe in our own lives?

Folks who want to rationalize bad behavior will often exclaim, "Doesn’t God want me to be happy?" Well, we know what Ezra would say: "I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. . . . We have been deep in guilt" (Ezra 9:6-7). God is more concerned, Ezra tells us, with our holiness than with our happiness.

What will we do, today, about our Purity Problem? Will we redefine our Identity as God’s people? Will we join Ezra in weeping over our sin – our little lies, our hidden corruption, our loose lips, our gossip, our lusts, our envy, our pride, our hatred, our bitterness, our neglect of the poor?

Invite to kneel for prayer in the seats – to claim God as your God (identity) and to confess sin (Purity).

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