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Blessing and Curse

Blessing and Curse

by Gary L'Hommedieu

(Proper 4A, May 29, 2005)

Moses, the Prince of Prophets, speaks:

I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known. (Deut 1126f. NRSV)

Scholars tell us this is familiar language, by which they mean, of course, familiar to them. Familiar also to lawyers and courtiers in ancient Egypt or Babylon. The lan-guage of blessing and curse is the formal language of covenant - the contract between the ruler and the ruled.

If you walked into Office Depot in ancient Baghdad, you could pick up a CD-ROM with templates containing forms for legal documents in case you wanted to make up your will or compose an important letter. Undoubtedly among them would be a template for covenants.

If you clicked on it, something like this would come up: I BLANK[your name here] set before you this day [date] a blessing and a curse; a blessing if you obey the commands I am commanding you [then follows an optional space for listing specific blessings, such as offspring, bumper crops or victory over enemies], and a curse if you turn away and worship other BLANK [gods, rulers, fathers, etc. - followed, of course, by added space for specific curses, such as drought, plague, exile, etc.]

The ruler, whether god, man, or something in between, had one basic message: I'll look out for you if you keep up your end of the bargain and obey my rules. At some point the ruler would remind his subjects who had the real power with some variation of "it's my way or the highway".

Scholars suggest that Moses had procured one of these CD-ROM's, perhaps while he was being trained as a courtier in Egypt. What he was doing now was putting words into the mouth of the Hebrew God and enacting a covenant with the Israelites as their lawful king or a governor.

Moses was promising to take good care of them as long as they obeyed God's commandments, and he was putting the fear of God into them in case they were tempted not to. To our ears this is the language of threat and manipulation. We probably don't hear the first half of the agreement - the long list of promises and good wishes.

We don't hear them because, in our generation, people take blessings for granted and feel entitled to them. Not only do we feel entitled to every possible blessing, but we feel entitled to be shielded from every possible threat - even those that are clearly the consequence of our own action or inaction.

We've been trained to dismiss the language of threat as something primitive, something our generation has long surpassed. I'm not talking about the generation that came of age in the 1960's, but the one that came of age in the 1660's with the Book of Common Prayer. In that first modern generation Christians, or was it modern Europeans, thought of themselves as more highly evolved than former generations.

In their reading of the Bible they saw the Church as superior to the Old Covenant religion, and in their Sun-day services they assigned readings that seemed to contrast the old religion of law and wrath with the new religion of grace.

This carries through to today, where the angry God of Deuteronomy is quickly followed by the more sympathetic God of St. Paul. In today's epistle we read: But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed... (Romans 321 NRSV)

In our own day this is taken as evidence of a new God, the Holy Spirit, whom we see at odds with the god of the Old Covenant. The new God mainly reveals Him-SLASH-Herself as a righteous protest against the old God, who, to be blunt, is just mean.

This particular understanding of a new improved God goes back to the 2nd Cen-tury, to the Church's first world-class heretic, a priest named Marcion, who taught that the God of the old Testament was entirely different from the God of the New.

Marcion is one of those heretics who keeps coming back. He was acknowledged at our most recent General Convention, where the Presiding Bishop testified that the Holy Spirit was reveal-ing "new things" to the Church.

Our Gospel text lends credence to the idea of an evolving God, as Jesus, the Lord of the New Covenant, speaks in St. Matthew 724ff.: Everyone ... who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell-and great was its fall!"

There are all the elements of a covenant agreement here, but everything is put in a very different tone. After the seething God of Deuteronomy we now feel like we're lis-tening to Mr. Rogers! This is key: we postmoderns are tuned above all not to the logic of people's ar-guments - people mustn't argue, after all! - but to the tone of their remarks.

Or more ex-actly, to how I feel about what I think you said, based upon my perception of your tone of voice or style of writing. If this sounds like a parody of how educated Christians read Scripture, believe me it's not much of one. Today I think we need to pay close attention to the way we read Scripture and the way we hear it, perhaps even more than how we interpret it.

I referred to us a few minutes ago as "postmoderns". If you picked that expression, you probably didn't hear it as a compliment. In many Christian circles "postmodern" is a disparaging term. I meant it as a matter-of-fact description, and one worth explaining. Christians tend to equate postmodernism with a philosophy we are called on to re-ject.

But postmodernism is not a philosophy but a general description of our time. We don't quite know what to say about it, except that we know the familiar modern era has clearly come to an end. We can no more sidestep the after-modern than we can the pre-sent, or the future. We can only deny it.

There are certain ideas or ways of thinking that are loosely characterized as "postmodern". For example, the idea that there are no good or bad works of art, but only positive or negative responses to them.

More to the point for Christians, there's the notion that there are no moral absolutes, no absolute standards of good and evil, only a million opinions about what works for each individual. This point of view does tend to run thin, as was illustrated recently when college students claimed that the attacks of 911 were not "evil", but only perceived as such by the victims.

What Christians reject is the postmodern philosophy of relativism. What Chris-tians have not yet learned to do is argue for a philosophy of moral absolutes in a culture where there is no moral compass. Or maybe we just haven't given up on "arguments" al-together. After all it's not words that withstand the storms of life, but character, convic-tion, and action.

Often when Christians decry the encroachments of postmodern culture, what we're lamenting is the loss of our former privileged status as a majority culture. A hun-dred years ago people could call themselves "Christian" and otherwise be invisible!

To-day things are different. Like every one else, Christians have to stand or fall on their will-ingness to live what they believe and take the consequences.

This brings us full circle. It turns out that both of today's presentations of God's Covenant portray a God of grace, and both call for the same response of faith, whether it sounds primitive or refined. Here it is as a paraphrase of the gospel lesson.

If we build our lives like a house, in accordance with God's design and within His standards of workmanship, our lives will withstand the storms of life. If we don't, they won't. Sorry if that sounds like a threat. If it's true, then it's evidence of God's love for us and His provision for our welfare, not only in some dim afterlife, but here and now.

As Central Floridians we know what a storm is. Some of us know what it means to have the house come down around us. What a terrible price some have for such an ex-quisite object lesson! If we came out of that disaster, we may have learned that a person's life must be forged out of something no earthly storm can shake.

How we live, who we're becoming, and Who beckons us onward - these make up the foundation of a life. And we know that what we "build" will be tested. We know this too: being a Christian can never be a fall-back position again - never again in our lifetime. We can never again be Christians in name only. We have this in common with all postmodern people: a phony life is no life. We should commend our other postmodern friends for making authenticity into a gold standard.

The God who makes threats is the same God who makes promises, because it really is His way or no way at all. It doesn't matter how we feel about what He might have said to people living in another time and place.

Real people - you and I - must make real choices, from the heart, based on nothing we can prove but only on what we're willing to stand up for. Jesus made a comment about such "real people". In St. John's Gospel, chapter 4 and verse 23: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.

--The Rev. L'Hommedieu is priest in charge of Pastoral Care at St. Luke's Cathedral in Orlando, Florida.
END

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