The Sapphire Tablets

When Moses was on top of Mount Sinai, God spoke to him saying, “I am going to give you ten commandments etched on two tablets but you must first bring to me the two tablets.” Then God showed Moses the two sapphire stones the law would be written on and commanded Moses to bring them into his presence. Moses tried to lift the two stones and found that they were much too heavy for a single man to lift. After struggling with the stones, Moses finally gave up and said, “I am sorry. These tablets are much too heavy for one man to lift.”

God answered, “I wanted you to see this for yourself so that you would know the miracle I am about to perform. The words I am about to etch into these tablets have such power that they will lift the tablets for you.”

So God approached the tablets, his glory obscured by the cloud, and he began to etch in the sapphire tablets the words, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…” And each Hebrew word, as it was written by God’s own hand, blazed with holy fire, then glowed deep red. And each letter etched into the stone tablet took on a life of its own and sang a psalm of thanksgiving to the Creator.When God finished writing the commandments on the stone tablets. Moses picked them up and they were light as pillows. It was then that he realized the power that the words had given to the heavy stone.

As Moses came down the mountain with the two tablets in his arms, he heard the sound of laughter and drunken singing. As he came closer to the camp he could see the Hebrews had fashioned for themselves a giant golden calf and that they were worshipping it and engaging in all manner of perversion. When the glowing red letters on the tablets saw the revelry and apostasy, they were truly disgusted and they fled the stone tablets and flew to the top of Mount Sinai back to their divine source.

Suddenly, in the sight of all the people, the tablets once again became too heavy for Moses to carry and he dropped them on the ground where they smashed into a thousand pieces.

This midrashic tale was written in part to explain why Moses smashed the stone tablets when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Hebrews worshiping a molten image. The original story in Exodus 32 sure makes it seem like Moses smashes the tablets in anger but the ancient rabbis couldn’t fathom that a great man like Moses would behave in such a reckless way. They came up with many explanations but this creative story is far and away my favorite. More important than getting Moses off the hook, this midrash teaches us something profound. God’s word has power! It can lift even the heaviest burden but it cannot abide sin. God’s Word, even when etched in stone is living and dynamic. Those who walk in the way of Jesus are reminded by this parable of the Word who put on flesh and dwelt among us and lightens the burden of the law for us in bright red letters. Why would we bow to something manmade when we could follow the living Word back to the divine source of all things?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Way to Paradise


There was once a man who had grown very discontented with his life. It seemed to him that nothing was what he once hoped it would be. He loathed his tiny little village filled with rude and nosy neighbors where nothing ever happened.  His children were loud and unruly, making his tiny shack of a house unbearable to live in. What’s more, his wife’s beauty had faded and she seemed to him less kind than when they first met.

“There must be something more than all of this,” he thought to himself. Then he remembered a place he had heard of as a child: the beautiful garden of Paradise. There, it was said, everything was perfect and everyone was happy all the days of their lives. The more the man thought about this strange and beautiful place, the more his heart longed to go there. So one morning he made a visit to the local Rabbi, knocking on his door.

“Rabbi,” he said, when the kindly man finally appeared in the door frame, “Can you tell me the way to Paradise?”

The Rabbi scratched his chin, “Normally, I would tell you that no one knows the way to Paradise and that would be true enough for Eden’s doors were closed to the world before maps were made and anyone who has managed to find there way there has stayed and not returned. But you look determined so I’ll tell you what I do know. It’s only hearsay and rumor, mind you…”

“Please!” said the man, “I must know. Anything you could tell me…”

“I have heard that it is a 7 day journey north. You must start on the first day of the week and you will arrive on the Sabbath. That’s all I know. Anyone I’ve sent that way has yet to come back…”

The man was overjoyed to have received such specific instructions. He thanked the Rabbi and began making his preparations to leave on the first day of the week. When the day came, he was off. He had a staff and enough food in his pack for seven days. He had no compass but once he had fixed himself going north, he simply walked in a straight line. Every night he would leave his shoes pointed in the direction he had been walking. Then, in the morning, he would put his shoes on and continue walking in that direction.

Midweek, when the man went to sleep, he pointed his shoes to the north as he had done the nights before. That night, a trickster happened by. He saw the man lying by the side of the road with his shoes pointed North and smiled a big mischievous smile. Chuckling to himself, he crept up to where the man was sleeping, and turned his shoes around so that they now pointed south. Then the trickster disappeared into the night like a wink from God.

When morning came,  the man put on his shoes and continued on his journey. As he progressed, he began to notice that it all seemed familiar to him. Had he visited the place in a dream? Was he in touch with his ancestral memories? As the days progressed, he was filled more with a sense of awe and wonder. Finally, on the morning of the Sabbath, he reached the village where he had started. But as its gates glowed in the morning light, he saw it as if for the first time.

“This is it!” he thought, “The gates of Paradise! O it’s beautiful!”

The man walked in and the ground glittered in the sunrise as if the streets were made of gold and he was warmed to see all the heavenly buildings and all the beautiful fruit trees. He marveled at the City of God, alive and bustling with the activity of the saints. Then he came to a house that deep inside he somehow knew was meant for him. There were tears in his eyes as he walked through the door and saw little cherubs laughing and dancing and singing all through the home, and he broke down sobbing when he walked into the bedroom and there sat the most loving and most beautiful angel he had ever seen. The man saw that everything was perfect and he was happy all the days of his life.

I thought a trickster story would be appropriate for April Fool’s day and this Jewish folktale is absolutely my favorite trickster story. There is an old Zen Buddhist saying that one looking for enlightenment is “like a man riding around on an ox, looking for an ox to ride on.” In other words, what you need to achieve inner peace and tranquility, you already have somewhere inside of you. You need not go looking for it. As disciples, we are not called to see the Kingdom of God merely as some distant utopia that can never be reached this side of the veil, but to realize all the ways God’s Kingdom is already here in our midst. We find heaven when we search within and discover the grace it takes to see the world with God’s eyes: full of His glory and bursting with a billion shades of light. Once we learn to see God’s Kingdom around us and dedicate ourselves to making that vision a reality then, at long last, our shoes will be pointed in the right direction.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Rolling the Die


Two poor fools named Joe and Clyde decided to take what little money they had to a casino in hopes of reversing their fortunes. They put all they had together and decided to play a simple dice game. Joe bet a third of their money on 6 and rolled the die. The die came up 3 and they lost the money.

“You idiot!” said Clyde, “You should have bet on 3!”

Undeterred, Joe pulled out another third of their money and bet on 4. He blew on the die, rolled it, and it came up 5.

“Moron!” shouted Clyde, “Why didn’t you bet on 5?”

Frustrated, Joe took the remaining third of their money and bet on 5. He rolled the die, closed his eyes, and when he opened them saw that the die had come up 6.

Clyde snorted. “6. You should have bet on 6.”

The two poor fools walked out the casino sadly, having spent all their money with nothing to show for it. Joe, especially was sad. He turned to Clyde and lamented:

“If only I’d listened to you, we’d be rich!”

Hindsight is, as they say, 20-20. As this humorous parable shows us, it is easy to look back on past decisions and think we know what we could have done or should have done but there is something circular and self-defeating in that kind of thinking. The person who made those decisions does not have the same wisdom and experience as the person who now looks back and regrets them. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and move forward. The lesson Joe and Clyde should have learned from their misadventure is that it is foolish to gamble with all their money. Instead, they decided that their error was choosing the wrong numbers. Wisdom is not looking back and knowing what choices we should have made, it is looking at ourselves and learning the hard lessons that will keep us from making the same foolish choices in the future. As disciples, we’re called to repent of our past failings and to move forward with transformed lives. We are not called to stay locked into the same foolish cycles, choosing different numbers.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Ashes


There was once a man who had only one son and no daughters, for the boy’s mother had died in childbirth. He loved his boy deeply and they shared a small home together. One day, while the man was out of town selling his wares, the village where they lived was attacked by marauders. In the chaos, the homes were burned down and many people killed, but the boy was among a group that was taken away into slavery.

When the man returned that evening, he was heartbroken to see his village destroyed. He was even more heartbroken when he found a charred body that was the exact size of his son. Convinced that these were the remains of his boy, he had the body cremated and he kept the ashes in a jar that he carried with him wherever he went. Years later, when the village had been rebuilt, the man still held on to the jar of ashes and never let go of them save at night when he placed them beside his bed.

One day, about ten years later, the boy found an opening and he fled his captors and ran back home. When he approached the village where he had spent his childhood, it looked completely different. When he reached the location of his old home, that looked different too. The boy knocked on the door and there came a gruff reply:

“Who is it?”

The boy instantly recognized the voice. It was ten years older and a thousand years sadder but it was the voice of his father.
“It is me,” the boy replied, “Your son! I have fled my captors and come home!”

The man on the other side of the door did not recognize the boy’s voice because it had deepened with age. The man thought this was a teenager from the village who had come to play a cruel trick on him. So, clutching tightly to his jar of ashes, he called back: “Leave! You are mistaken! My son is right here with me!”

The boy called back, “Father it is me! Please open the door!”

But, clutching the jar of ashes, even tighter, the man angrily threatened the boy. The boy plead with the man for an hour before giving up. In the end, he thought he must have been mistaken. Perhaps this wasn’t his childhood village after all. He must have got turned around somehow and here he was pestering some sad old stranger. So the boy left in search of his village and his father. As for the man, he continued to carry that jar of ashes with him wherever he went, never letting go of them, save at night when he placed them beside his bed.

This beautiful Buddhist parable, is meant to illustrate how we must learn to let go of error before we can embrace truth. But this parable takes on a special significance to disciples walking in the way of Jesus on Ash Wednesday. Today is a special day of penitence in the church calendar that marks the beginning of the 40 day period leading up to Easter called “lent.” The season of lent is all about letting go of the things that hinder us from receiving Christ. When I read this parable today, I am reminded of Jesus’ words in the book of Revelation: “Behold! I stand at the door and knock! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.” Also, the words of the prophet Isaiah, “To all who grieve in Zion, He will bestow on them a crown of beauty for ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”  As we prepare our hearts and minds during this season of lent, we are called to let go of the things to which we so desperately cling so that we can receive the gift of Grace that God offers: The very presence of Christ. What are the ashes to which you cling? What hurt and despair do you carry around with you? What secret sin sits in a jar by your bed at night?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…