Week 20: Joshua

This week and next, we are forced to deal with troubling aspects of narrated violence

When Joshua and the army of Israel marched around the city of Jericho, when the priests blew the trumpets, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, the text says Joshua said:

Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction . . . Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword everything in the city—men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys . . .

Josh 6:15–21

I don’t know about you, but I have trouble saying “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God” whenever I read something like this. It’s hard for me to stomach that this proactive violence is part of our Holy Scripture.

When we read these stories in the church’s Scriptures, we are forced to deal with troubling aspects of this narrated violence; especially troublesome is that violence is said to be sanctioned by, even commanded by, God . . .

We may well ask what do these violent, ancient stories . . . have to do with us?

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Week 19: Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy’s stage is set with the people standing on the edge of their Promised Land and Moses as the patriarch saying farewell to his children, reminding them who they are and reiterating core truths that bind them together. The generation of people who had been enslaved in Egypt was buried in the wilderness, and now a new generation of nomads is poised to enter into the land, to accept the challenges of growing into the life God has called them to.

Moses’ warnings/curses caution against doing anything that damages covenant—the covenant God made with Israel that claimed them as God’s own people, but also the covenant of relationship that connected them together as a community.

The sanctions and catalog of consequences we read here can sound severe, but it’s not so much God dishing out a list of arbitrary rules and expecting people to obey unquestioningly “just because I said so.” It’s more like the cosmic wisdom that says “actions have consequences.”

Here in Deuteronomy, Israel is called to remember that—in pure grace—God called them into relationship, God was calling them to God’s own purposes. Deuteronomy gives witness to the faithfulness of the Lord their God and the people stand amazed that they have been incorporated into such mercy.

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Week 18: Love

What would happen if Christians actually fell head over heels in love with all the people whom God loves?

Love is a verb. You can write that down.

This statement may sound familiar to you because just a few weeks ago, I said faith is a verb. So now here I am claiming that love is a verb. Sometimes we think we can love in the abstract—warm, fuzzy feelings for people in general. But no, love is not so much a feeling as it is a verb, active, face-to-face, hand-to-hand—and messy . . .

This week, we hear again Luke’s famous story about a lawyer who came to Jesus seeking eternal life. I’m not sure what “eternal life” meant to him exactly, how a first century Jew might have thought about it, but Jesus’ answer is pretty clear: Love. The way to life is love. Love God. Love one another. Love the neighbor. Love the stranger. Love the enemy, the unlovely, and the unlovable. “But who is my neighbor?” the lawyer negotiates for specific rules and clear guidelines . . .

The startling reversal in Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan is that there—right there in the messy life of that uncomfortable person—God’s own presence exists. There—right there in the lives of “those people”—God’s own purposes are at work. There—right there in one whom we might distrust, disrespect, and maybe even hate—love can be embodied.

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Week 17: Numbers

Israel told the old, old stories with a stubborn hope that the God of Covenant would keep the covenant and rescue them once again.

Numbers does what it says: it names and numbers Israel. Numbers is another origins document naming the original members of this newly called out tribal people, a people who eventually will become the nation and kingdom of Israel . .

Like many ancient peoples, the story of Israel was preserved first by their storytellers. Genealogies and oral histories of events and were handed down from generation to generation until they finally were written down.

This founding story of the Exodus from slavery and the covenant with Yahweh became Israel’s Scripture during another painful time centuries later, a time of exile in Babylon and alienation from their God. The exiled people knew full well they had broken covenant and had brought this tragedy upon themselves. As they recounted and retold the stories of their ancestors, surely they recognized Israel’s faithlessness in light of the covenant faithfulness of the one who had called them. Israel told the old, old stories with a stubborn hope that the God of Covenant would keep the covenant and rescue them once again . . .

The testimony and witness of God’s own people is that—from the very beginning of time to the end of history—God is ever acting on behalf of the promises, redeeming all kinds of people, and creating a cosmic community grounded in hope and grace. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:10; see also Hos 1:8–10).

As I write this in 2021, Christian Nationalism has infected some streams of American Christianity and the church’s witness has suffered even more as some misguided people conflate “American” with “Christian.” The church of Jesus Christ is not national. Authentic church transcends every boundary and border; reaches across every difference and divide.

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Week 16: Faith

In the midst of all our unknowing, we still are able to live with focus, direction, and confidence.

We finish Hebrews this week with the famous “hall of fame” chapter in Hebrews 11. How many of these OT characters do you recognize from your Bible reading so far this year?

When we read this chapter in Hebrews, we can’t miss how active real human faith really is. This chapter is chock full of verbs, the faith of our fathers and mothers that “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, put enemies to flight.” The faith of the martyrs who “suffered mocking and flogging and imprisonment, who went about persecuted and tormented.”

The Hebrews writer teaches us that faith is a verb . . .

Used to, I thought faith was believing right things in correct ways. Even though I’ve mostly been a part of a non-creedal Christianity, I still thought one had to assent to certain belief statements about church, God, Christ, Spirit, the Bible. I thought faith was about ideas.

Now I believe faith is a verb.

For me, it’s more about my doing faithful things, acting in faithful ways, and behaving with faithful intentions.

Faith is about change and transformation, about personal commitment and the reorientation of a life.

Faith is about my counting on the faithfulness of a God who creates and informs and sustains the faithfulness of my own faith.

It’s about entrusting myself to the faithfulness of the God who covers for me even when I believe incorrectly and behave unfaithfully.

It’s about letting the whole of my life flow from the life of the God who is the ultimate Verb, the one who is ever the I Am, always present tense, always acting on behalf of all humanity for the sake of the promise . . .

Hebrews describes how pilgrims of faith managed to see what was invisible. He describes how they greeted God’s promises from a distance, how they could imagine a city whose builder, whose architect was God. Even when they did not know where they were going, they knew they were going somewhere.

If not in their own lifetime, they entrusted themselves and their children and their great-great-grandchildren to God’s faithfulness. They trusted enough to continue to live faithfully even if they didn’t see the promise come true for themselves; they were content to live toward the promises.

Consequently in the midst of all their unknowing, they still were able to live with focus, direction, and confidence . . .

Read more at Charlotte Vaughan Coyle. Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace (p. 212). Resource Publications. Kindle Edition.

Living in The Story readings Week 16

Numbers 1-16

Psalm 54

Psalm 98

Hebrews 11-13

Luke 3-4

Week 15: Leviticus

Israel’s own tradition saw the rules of Leviticus as one part of the whole.

Recall again the hermeneutical principle we considered last week that it is not possible to make sense of Leviticus without also listening to the Wisdom literature and to the prophetic writings. We should remember this important principle as we interpret any Scripture but especially these ancient texts in Leviticus. We must hear alternative voices and see the counter vision that developed within Israel’s own tradition, glimpses of a future time when all people would be welcomed and included in the reconciling, redeeming work of God . . .

Israel’s own tradition saw the rules of Leviticus as one part of the whole. Israel’s own tradition saw the visions of the prophets as an equally valid voice, rereading and reframing Israel’s social and ceremonial laws . . .

Whenever we try to make sense of texts like these, we must insist on faithful, sensible, and mature interpretive methods in order to unpack the historical situation and understand the cultural practices that shaped the writings of the original community . . .

When we read Leviticus, we should be very careful about bringing any of those cultural assumptions from another world and a different time forward into our own day. Faulty and unfaithful interpretations of the Bible and misapplications of some of these very obscure verses in Leviticus have been used again and again in the church to exclude and condemn people whom God is calling into relationship . . .

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (through his flesh. . .)

Heb 10:19–22

In this theological reflection by the Hebrews author, in this image of Christ opening the curtain to the Holy of Holies, the work of the Christ has sanctified everything. Whatever was considered to be imperfect, unholy, inadequate, impure, unacceptable, all has been made perfect and holy and acceptable by the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ . . .

There are still too many Christians, too many denominations, too many local congregations that have not yet figured out how to be this kind of inclusive community. All around us, all kinds of people who have been shunned and excluded and made to feel unholy and unacceptable are yearning for a place of welcome, where the curtain truly is opened wide. So here and now, in our time, in our place, let us live boldly, let us go forward with confidence in this new and living way the Christ has opened up for all of us.

Read more at Charlotte Vaughan Coyle. Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace (p. 203). Resource Publications. Kindle Edition.


Living in The Story readings Week 15

Leviticus 17-27

Psalm 40

Psalm 99

Psalm 123

Hebrews 6-10

Luke 2

Week 14: Re-Reading the Law

I have a friend from seminary who once tried to write a paper for a class that explored how Leviticus is the Word of God. He couldn’t write it. He worked on it for weeks and never could figure out how to understand this odd, ancient book as “the word of the Lord.”

My friend is not the only one. Many of us struggle to understand these kinds of strange passages from the Church’s sacred texts. Just how could it be “the word of the Lord” that people with various disabilities should be excluded from worship? How could it be that people who are born a certain way should be excluded from the ministry of the priesthood?

I believe it is not possible for Christian readers of the OT to make sense of Leviticus without reading it through the lens of Jesus Christ. And that’s exactly what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews did two millennia ago; he reread and reinterpreted Leviticus through his understanding of the Christ event. This is why Living in The Story juxtaposes Leviticus and Hebrews as we read during weeks 14 and 15. Reading the Bible in this way allows us to learn from this ancient Hebrew Christian theologian. We are introduced to one more faithful interpretive approach to the OT as he helps us reread our Christian Scriptures in our own day.

As I do the important work of biblical interpretation, I try to stay faithful to the tradition and open to the Spirit while I’m doing it. One principle that’s really important is to value the unity of Scripture. There are lots of ways parts of the Bible don’t make much sense if they are taken piecemeal. It is Scripture as a whole that gives appropriate witness to the mighty acts of God throughout history. We can’t separate Leviticus from the Psalms or the Prophets or the Wisdom literature. We need all of it together in order for our faith to have any real understanding.

The Bible is like a symphony with a variety of melodies, some very different from the other, played in movements within the complex score that is our Holy Scripture. Awareness, comprehension, and appreciation emerge only as the various strains and themes and rhythms of this fascinating masterpiece are brought together into a polyphonic unity.

Read more at Charlotte Vaughan Coyle, Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace (pp. 182-183). Resource Publications. Kindle Edition.

Living in The Story readings Week 14

Leviticus 1-16

Psalm 2

Psalm 48

Psalm 95

Psalm 100

Psalm 110

Hebrews 1-5

Luke 1

Week 13: Jonah

The story of Jonah and the Big Fish is supposed to make you smile.

The story of Jonah and the Big Fish is supposed to make you smile. It’s an odd little novella filled with satire and tongue-in-cheek humor; with keep-you-reading plot twists and with characters that make you wonder who are the “bad guys” and who are the “good guys?”

Jonah is a dark hero in his role as reluctant prophet, but his place among the prophets of Israel is extremely important because the book of Jonah is an unusual voice, a minority opinion in the multi-voice witness of Scripture. Occasionally, Scripture describes some of “the nations” favorably.

Certainly some individuals from among the Gentiles stand out in some of our favorite stories (the wonderful story of Ruth comes to mind). But generally the historical stories and the prophetic warnings portray the nations as irredeemably wicked and inherently dangerous to the spiritual and physical well being of Israel.

Assyria in particular was the historical nation that conquered and destroyed the Northern Kingdom; those Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were lost to history. But in the Jonah story, the brutal empire of Assyria is redeemed by a God who is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah’s burning accusation in 4:2!)

This amazing grace is portrayed as unacceptable to the character Jonah, but the overall prophetic witness of the book claims that God’s steadfast love is for all people, not just for Israel.

Read more at Charlotte Vaughan Coyle. Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace (pp. 171-172). Resource Publications. Kindle Edition.


Readings for Living in The Story Week 13

Jonah

Psalm 18

Psalm 66

Psalm 69

2 Corinthians 12-13

Matthew 26-28

Week 12: Esther

Several years ago, my husband and I attended Purim services at the synagogue of our friend Rabbi Jeffery. Purim celebrates and commemorates the story of Esther, and the synagogue service we attended was truly a hoot. I normally don’t describe worship services as a “hoot,” but that was before I participated in Purim.

The children dressed in costumes, most of the girls as Esther, many of the boys as the king or as Mordecai. Even some of the adults got into the fun; one couple came as Groucho and Harpo!

The Scripture was cantored, that is, sung in a disciplined singsong as is typical in most Jewish worship services. All the reading was done in its original language, Hebrew, but even so, even those of us who did not understand Hebrew still recognized the name of the hated Haman. Whenever his name was mentioned, we booed and hissed and rattled our noisemakers, trying to drown out the sound of his name.

Afterwards, when we gathered for refreshments in the community room, the favorite cookie was called “Haman’s Ear” (another reason why I say it was a hoot). Jewish worshipers really get into Purim. They “get into it” by thoroughly enjoying themselves and having fun with the story, but they also get into it by making it personal. As at every Passover Seder meal, Jewish worshipers affirm, “God delivered us from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery,” so at Purim and other times as they remember their history, they confess, “We were saved from disaster.”

As you read the fascinating books of Esther and Jonah (this week and next), read them as within the genre of short stories or novellas. Watch the way the storyteller sets the plot and develops the characters. Listen for the historical context since they both are told within the real history of Israel. Try to make time to read the entire book in one sitting.

As you read, consider how these stories address the core eternal questions we have named before: who is God? and who are we as God’s people?

The story of Esther and her uncle Mordecai are tales from the Diaspora. After the Exile, many of those who had been forced to leave their homes in Palestine built new lives in foreign lands all over the world—the setting of Esther and her Jewish community.

During the time of Jesus, because of the Diaspora, there probably were more Jews living in Alexandria Egypt than there were living in Jerusalem. And remember the stories you’ve heard about the Jewish people Paul encountered on his missionary journeys; Jews were well-established citizens in cities all across the Roman Empire.

In spite of this widespread presence and the good intentions of Jews to be good citizens in their adopted nations, history (as well as current events) documents repeated pogroms and periods of persecution against the Jews.

A popular Jewish saying even in our day is “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” That’s the Esther story in a nutshell.

Read more at Charlotte Vaughan Coyle. Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace (pp. 161-162). Resource Publications. Kindle Edition.


Living in The Story readings for Week 12

Esther

Psalm 1

Psalm 8

Psalm 76

2 Corinthians 6-11

Matthew 21-25

Week 11: Tabernacle

As you read this week’s scriptures, watch how several important stories and themes intertwine with one another. See the people of Israel filled with passion to give extravagantly to create the Tabernacle, a holy place for God’s Glory to “dwell.” See the passion of the God who had created them, called them, rescued them, and brought them on eagles’ wings to God’s own self. Then see Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration filled with passion for the vision of glory he was allowed to witness.

See also the passion of the Christ who—when he left that glorious mountaintop experience—walked resolutely toward the paradoxical glory of the cross. Consider connections back to the ancient Exodus stories alluded to by the brilliant storyteller, Matthew.

Reading across the Bible with Living in The Story gives us insight into some of the ways the meaning of the stories evolved and deepened throughout the centuries. Even for modern day Bible students, meaning and understanding continue to grow because the Divine Presence also continues to dwell among us “in glory.”

It is God who said: “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

(2 Cor 4:6–7)

I love this image! “Treasure in clay jars” describes Paul, you, me, and even Scripture itself. This is brilliant, profound poetry indeed!

Relax and enjoy these stories just the way they are told. Let the words create pictures in your imagination. Don’t over analyze. This week, just let the beauty and generosity wash over you.


Read more at Charlotte Vaughan Coyle. Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace (pp. 149-150). Resource Publications. Kindle Edition.

Readings for Living in The Story Week 11

Exodus 35-40

Psalm 27

Psalm 65

Psalm 84

2 Corinthians 1-5

Matthew 14-20

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