Friday, November 30, 2012

On the Eighth Day of Christmas

Do you remember what happened on the 8th day of Christmas? 
The 8th day of Christmas, you ask?  You mean, eight maids a milking?  


On the eighth day of Christmas--after Jesus is born in a humble feeding trough, after the angels sing "Glory to God in the highest" and announce good news of great joy to all the people, after the shepherds, amazed, run to Bethlehem, but before the Magi come bearing gifts--Jesus is formally welcomed into the Jewish people.  

The eighth day of Christmas, as it were, is when Jesus is circumcised and named.   The  ancient rite of circumcision, first practiced by Abraham as a sign of the covenant with God, is routinely performed in hospitals now.  But not then. 

And then as now, circumcision is the first and most basic mitzvah (commandment or law) to be fulfilled for a Jewish baby boy.
“This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you:  Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.  Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is 8 days old…” Genesis 17:10-12a

Jesus isn't the first Jewish boy whose circumcision is noted in the New Testament.  Don’t forget cousin John’s, also on the eighth day.  His naming and miraculous birth is mentioned as well. 

“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.  On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.  But his mother said ‘No, he is to be called John.’” 
Luke 1: 57-60   

Circumcision is a permanent sign, etched in the flesh, of partnership with God. Even more than lineage and ancestry, circumcision anchors these boys, and their families, firmly in the Jewish community.

At his circumcision Jesus is also named with “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21)  By the way, it should be noted that girls are named too, but not circumcised.

About a month after Jesus' circumcision, Joseph and Mary come to Jerusalem.  There they present Jesus to the LORD in the ancient practice of redemption of the firstborn son (pidyon ha ben).  Since Jesus is Mary’s firstborn, and as the author of Colossians later asserts, “the firstborn of all creation” (1:15), he is presented then bought back or redeemed after he reaches 31 days old.  

Joseph and Mary would have paid a small sum (five silver shekels in biblical times; today, usually five silver dollars) and performed a brief ritual in the Temple to fulfill the mitzvah. (Numbers 18:15-16)

While the family is at the Temple for the redemption ceremony, two righteous and devout Jews, Simeon and the prophetess Anna, recognize Jesus as a sign of God’s salvation and praise God, for this “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” who would himself redeem Jerusalem.  (Luke 2:32, 2:38)

From his earliest days, Jesus is raised in a strong and beautiful Jewish home.  From circumcision to naming to redemption to offering sacrifices, Mary and Joseph do “everything required by the law of the Lord.” 

Not from a sense of empty duty or obligation, I suspect, but a profound connection to God and Torah and love of their child, Jesus.  

After these mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) are fulfilled, Jesus and his parents “returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”  At home in Nazareth the mitzvot, blessings, prophesies and praises take root:  “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:39-40)

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, "The Jew Named Jesus" (Abingdon Press, 2013) by Rebekah Simon-Peter. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

When Interfaith Dialogue Doesn't Work

Recently the longstanding Christian-Jewish Roundtable sinned.  As in missed the mark.  Big time.   

Christian leaders from the group--including representatives of the National Council of Churches, the United Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA)--sent a letter to Congress on grounds of "moral responsibility" asking that US aid to Israel be reevaluted in light of the Jewish state's alleged human rights violations against Palestinians.

The missed mark?   Here's one of them.  The letter was sent shortly before the whole group was to meet for a regularly scheduled meeting.  Jewish dialogue partners include leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti Defamation League. 

How moral is it to ambush your dialogue partners with a request that is sure to bring up a complex of emotions and responses?

Why didn't they wait and speak to their partners in interfaith dialogue?  It certainly would have been messy.  It might have been indelicate.  Perhaps there would have been hurt feelngs.  Or big disagreement.

But all of that is happening anyway.  Without the benefit of having spoken together.  And now it may be hard to get the parties back to the Roundtable to talk.  This very Roundtable by the way was established in part to help diffuse differing opinions over US aid to Israel.

Interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians has come a very long way.  Much has been accomplished. But this is a sign that there is still more work to be done. 

When does interfaith dialogue not work?  When it's not practiced.

The GOP, Changing Demographics and the Church

The Republicans learned a lesson the hard way.  Mitt Romney's loss showed, among other things, that the GOP is out of touch with the realities of the changing demographics of the American people.

As a whole, we are more Black, more Hispanic, more Asian, more single and younger than ever before.  One commentator said, "The GOP has to find a new way to tell their story to reach these changing constituencies, or they lose their power to shape the American landscape."  

An eerie reminder of what mainline churches face. 

The popular wisdom is that President Obama was re-elected not only because of his grassroots campaign, but because his message and policies resonated with the young, the working and middle classes, singles, persons of color and ethnic groups. 

As mainline Protestants age, a majority of whom are white, the church has to find new ways to tell our story to reach our neighbors.  We too must continue to embrace the changing demographics of the American people.  And the technologies they choose.

Previously, Twitter hadn't figured into presidential politics all that much.  Until now.  But on Tuesday, President Obama Tuesday night's tweet, Four More Years has become the most popular of all time, racking up almost half a million re-tweets within 2 hours.

How are you using Twitter to communicate with your people?

Diversity has taken center stage in our nation.  Consider this.  As a nation, we chose between a biracial president and a Mormon.  Did you ever think that would happen?  Marriage equality bills passed by popular vote in three states.  More women were elected to Congress.   New Hampshire now has an all female delegation.  The first openly gay member of Congress was elected. As well as the first Hindu Representative and the first Buddhist Senator.  America is changing.

The church must too.