what kind of father is that?

During the decade of the 90s, a term that became deeply entrenched in our political and cultural discussion was the phrase “family values.”  Many of the people who have been the strongest advocates of “family values” have held up, as examples of the model family, something that has largely disappeared in America: a husband and wife with no previous marriages, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence.

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“Family values” is usually closely linked with one’s reading of “biblical values.”  The interesting thing about this is that actual biblical families are rarely mentioned as models.  Maybe that’s a good thing, though it isn’t very honest.  Those families tend to be too messy; they have too much conflict and dysfunction.  In that sense, they tend to look like American families!

A good case in point is the family in our Old Testament reading.  We’ve got all the ingredients necessary for some serious family therapy: jealousy, rivalry, power plays, squabbling over who’s the favored son, and feelings of betrayal.  I want to focus on the father, Abraham, because it is Father’s Day and because he is the one in the middle of the whole mess, a mess of which he appears unwilling or unable to seriously address.

To be honest, there are two qualities of this family that don’t exist in American life—at least not legally—polygamy and slavery!  Another aspect, surrogate, or substitute, motherhood, is usually performed in a way quite different from the method described in the Bible.  Most wives today wouldn’t suggest to their husbands that they have sex with another woman (indeed a much younger woman) in order to produce a child!

And by the way, if you have access to Hulu, check out the quite excellent TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel from 1985.  (I admit, I haven’t read the book.)  The show illustrates with brutal honesty, what’s behind our story and a multitude of others like it.

2 fatherToday’s account really starts in chapter 16.  God has already promised Abraham he will father a son, which so far in life hasn’t happened.  (On a side note, that’s something else from The Handmaid’s Tale.  Failure to conceive was always due to a barren woman, not a sterile man.)  Still, the fact that by this time Sarah is past menopause, which would be a legitimate reason, presents a problem.

Abraham believes Eliezer of Damascus, a trusted servant, will be his heir.  But God assures him his heir will be his own offspring.  Knowing she’s no longer able to give birth, Sarah comes up with an idea.  She has a servant, a young Egyptian woman named Hagar, who is certainly able to produce a son.  So here’s the plan: following the custom of the day, Abraham is to take Hagar as his wife, and maybe she can have his baby.  The scripture doesn’t talk about Abraham’s response.  He doesn’t seem to offer much of an argument!

The son who’s the result of this union, Ishmael, is legally Abraham’s heir.  And the same custom that provides for a male heir provided by a surrogate also forbids the expulsion of the slave wife and her child.  That partly explains Abraham’s distress when Sarah demands he do that very thing.[1]

But even before Ishmael is born, some of that serious jealousy and rivalry I spoke of earlier has already begun.  In a society in which women are valued primarily for their ability to reproduce, as breeding stock, Hagar is empowered in a way Sarah, even with all her wealth, is not.

All three of them are driven by different forces.  Sarah feels a sense of desperation and outrage at her fate and probably at her husband.  Hagar, the one with the least amount of say, has been forced to share her bed with her elderly master and now faces the wrath of Sarah.  And Abraham is torn by his love for Sarah, his respect for custom, and the very real bond that now exists with Hagar.  When Sarah presents her complaint, he simply withdraws and says, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (16:6).  In other words, “I don’t want to get involved; do whatever you want.”

Sarah proceeds to make life a living hell for her servant, and Hagar is expelled into the wilderness.  It’s there she encounters God and receives the promise that she, too, will produce offspring that “cannot be counted for multitude” (16:10).  This encounter is very important—Hagar is one of the few people in the entire Bible who gives God a name (El roi, “God of vision” or “God who sees,” 16:13).

Let’s jump ahead about fourteen years, to today’s scripture reading in chapter 21.  The Lord has told Abraham and Sarah she really will have a son, and he will be the true heir.  Isaac is born, and the rivalry between the two wives now involves their two sons.

Things reach a melting point at the feast celebrating the day Isaac was weaned, which can happen when the child is three years old or more.[2]  The party’s going fine until Sarah notices something that gets her really ticked off.  She sees, as the scripture puts it in verse 9, Ishmael “playing.”

What we have in verse 9 is a play on words, a pun.  The term for “playing” (מְעַחֶק, metsahaq) comes from the word meaning “laugh” (צָחַק, tsahaq), which is also the source of Isaac’s name (יִצְחָק, yitshaq).  The similarity in the words for “playing,” “laughing,” and “Isaac,” probably points to Sarah’s alarm at how similar Ishmael is to Isaac.  She knows he’s a threat to Isaac as the heir.  As a result, she takes decisive action.  She demands that Hagar and Ishmael be driven out, this time, for good.

I’ve taken some time talking about Hagar’s expulsion because it’s a turning point in the story of this family.  It also helps us understand Abraham.  As I said at the beginning, I especially want to focus on him, today being Father’s Day.

My sermon title asks the question, “What kind of father is that?”  If Abraham is intended, a rather harsh reply would be: “not a very good one.”  What kind of father would allow his own son to be driven away and abandoned in the wilderness?  What kind of father would allow the mother of his son to be treated that way?

Still, Abraham is chosen by God to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (12:3).  It’s God, not Abraham, who has the responsibility of bringing this to pass.  Abraham’s responsibility is to follow where God leads.  And despite himself, he succeeds.  And to his credit, we shouldn’t forget Abraham didn’t exactly ask for all of this.  Leaving his homeland wasn’t at the top of his “to do” list.

Thinking about Abraham and the question, “What kind of father is that?” has led me to think of my own experience.  It’s led me to think of my own father.  And I’m glad to say: my mother never encouraged him to take another wife and to father a half-brother with whom I now have a bitter rivalry!  I don’t think he would have gone along with that idea anyway!

3 fatherOn Father’s Day we are encouraged to praise the glories of fatherhood, and that is fitting.  But there are others who go in the opposite direction and talk about how their dad was the biggest jerk who ever lived.  Thankfully, I’m not in that category!

What I will say is that my father is someone I know really loved me.  Having been adopted as a baby, I later came to understand all the hoops he and my mother had to jump through in order to get me.  I know I was truly wanted.

When I was young, we did all the usual father-son stuff: going fishing, throwing the football.  But as I approached adolescence, sometimes it seemed like we were on different planets.  (I realize, I was the only teenager who’s ever felt that way!)  For example, he might be explaining how to fix something, and I’d be looking at our dog and wondering what it would be like to think with her brain.

Something happened in 1985.  Within the span of one or two months, both my father and I came to Christ.  Our relationship had never been a bad one; it just hadn’t evolved very much.  We didn’t have many deep conversations.  But Jesus Christ changed that.  We felt free to open up to each other.  (At least, that’s how I perceived it.)  And I rediscovered something I had believed as a little kid: my dad was a pretty cool guy!

Just as it was faith that redeemed our relationship, so it’s faith that redeems Abraham.  He and his family provide ample proof that “family” can be quite creepy.  In fact, we can be quite vicious to each other.  I like commercials with the promise, “We treat you like family.”  I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing!  But by the grace of God, we can rise above that.

“What kind of father is that?”  All of us can ask that question of our own fathers.  Each has a different answer.  But regardless of our own particular cases, there is a Father we all share.

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My dad (Jim) and I at my sister's apartment, Christmas 1987. Someone is under the mistletoe.

Our final hymn today is “This is My Father’s World.”  (I realize, this being Father’s Day, it is a bit “on the nose”!  Also, please forgive the masculine imagery for God.)

We might see many families, as well as our society itself, being plagued by vicious dysfunction.  The second stanza has something to say about that:

“This is my Father’s world: Oh, let me ne’er forget / That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet. / This is my Father’s world: The battle is not done; / Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heaven be one.”

As the church, as our best selves, we’re called to rescue the image of God as Father.  So much violence has been done in that name.  But the God of Jesus Christ is the Father who loves, protects, liberates, enlightens, saves.  With joy and confidence, we can ask, “What kind of father is that?”

 

[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1981), 79.

[2] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Co., 1964), 155.


the art of blessing

Trinity Sunday is the only major holiday on the church calendar that isn’t based on the life of Jesus.  Instead, it’s based on a theological doctrine.  That might sound dry and academic, but the Holy Trinity is infused with life and joy and beauty and even humor.

Trinity Sunday doesn’t commemorate a single moment, but rather an eternal moment.  It’s not something in the life of Jesus the human, but rather the eternal life of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, one with God and the Holy Spirit.

With the Holy Trinity, we have the very definition of community.  We have the perfect example of κοινωνια (koinōnia)—of communion, of fellowship.  In this community, everyone abides by the law of love.  No one prefers self before others.  This is the model for human family, for human society.  There is no grasping for power.  The desire is to be a blessing.  The Trinity lives out the art of blessing.

Speaking of blessing, the last verse of 2 Corinthians should be familiar.  It is to me, since that’s the benediction I like to use at the end of services of worship.  This is the Trinitarian benediction, with all its simplicity and depth.

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It’s included at the end of St. Paul’s farewell to the Corinthian church, one that has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; they’ve treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  To their credit, one thing they haven’t been is boring!  But through it all, Paul has consistently guided them in, and to, the love and peace of Jesus Christ.

In fact, he tells them how “the God of love and peace will be with” them.  That’s ultimately what verse 11 is all about.  First of all, when he says, “Put things in order,” he’s not demonstrating OCD!  He’s not being a neat freak; he’s not being a tidiness Nazi.  The apostle wants to avoid the disorder that has so often plagued them.  The word used, καταρτιζω (katartizō), can also mean “be restored.”  So he’s not browbeating them.

Secondly, his plea to “listen to my appeal” is a plea to learn humility.  That flows into his request when he says, “agree with one another.”  Paul’s not telling them to act like clones.  He wants them as best they can, to obey the law of love.  This will enable them to “live in peace.”

In verse 12, the apostle adds this: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  He says this in several letters.  This is where our “kiss of peace” comes from.  And for anyone who’s ever wondered why we usually do not kiss each other—besides concerns about inappropriate contact—there’s also the fact that fairly early in church history, they also had concerns.  The liturgical practice of men kissing women who were not their wives, and women kissing men who were not their husbands, was abandoned.

I have a little story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road.  (There are a few differences between the Armenian Orthodox and Presbyterians!)

The entire service was in the Armenian language, except for the sermon and the prayer of confession, which were in English.  Included in their liturgy was the kiss of peace.  The only other people in the pew where I was sitting was a family with a father, mother, and daughter.  She looked like she was about 20.  They started down the line, kissing each other on the cheek.  Then the daughter started moving toward me; I became a bit nervous.  She extended her hand, so a holy kiss turned into a holy handshake.  Potential drama averted!

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Ryan Gosling does some theologizing.

In any event, maybe you can see why this epistle reading is used for Trinity Sunday.  With the Trinitarian benediction, we get a triple blessing.  Something similar is going on with our gospel text in Matthew, the so-called “great commission.”  The baptismal formula of “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” fits nicely for today.

What does the Holy Trinity mean in our lives?  There are many ways to go with this.  An image that might be helpful is one I suggested earlier—the Holy Trinity as the example of the perfect community of love.  That has ramifications for all of life, including the call to make disciples.  Then it won’t be just a song: they really will “know we are Christians by our love.”

I must confess, though; I don’t know what I’m talking about!  I say the words, “perfect community of love,” but I have only the scarcest idea what that means.

Well, it’s been said a picture is worth a thousand words.  And it is a picture, more specifically an icon, that I want us to consider.  It’s “The Trinity,” by Andrei Rublev.  This icon is a prime example of the art of blessing.  Rublev was inspired by the visitation of the three men/angels to Abraham when they announce that Sarah will have a child (Genesis 18:1-15).

The word “icon” (εικων, eikōn) appears many times in the New Testament.  It’s usually translated as “image.”  The apostle uses it in Colossians, when he says Christ “is the image [the icon] of the invisible God” (1:15).  We Presbyterians, as well as Protestants in general, tend to be suspicious of icons.  They seem to be too “Eastern Orthodox,” like the Armenians I spoke of a few moments ago.  You know, there’s nothing wrong with being in an Orthodox Church!  (We all have our plusses and minuses.)

Icons are considered to be windows into heaven, windows into the eternal.  This one features, from left to right, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  They show mutual deference to one another.

Over the centuries, many gallons of ink have been spilled over descriptions of the icon and what the various parts of it mean.  As you might guess, there is far too much for us to deal with right now.

Briefly, we can see the Father wearing a shimmering robe, reflecting many colors.  One writer says it “seems transparent,” it “cannot be described or confined in words.  And this is how it should be.  No one has seen the Father, but the vision of him fills the universe.”[1]

The Son is the Incarnate one, and his garments unite the brown of earth and the blue of heaven.  “In his person he unites heaven and earth, the two natures are present in him.”

The Holy Spirit is clothed in “the clear blue of the sky…with a robe of a fragile green.  So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth.  All living things owe their freshness to [the Spirit’s] touch.”

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There is so much here.  We can go riffing, waiting to see what inspires us.  There’s the house behind the Father, maybe the one Jesus says has many mansions.  There’s the tree behind the Son—maybe the tree Abraham sat under, maybe the tree of life.  They all have wings; they all are carrying staffs.  They’re seated around a table featuring a chalice, which has been surmised to hold the lamb slain for us.

Maybe you get what I’m talking about.  All kinds of meaning can be seen in it.

In his excellent book, Praying with Icons, Jim Forest says this of Rublev’s work: “If one were to search for a single word to describe the icon, it is the word ‘love.’  The Holy Trinity itself is a community of love so perfect that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one.  All creation is a manifestation of God’s love.  The Incarnation of Christ is an act of love as is every word and action that follows, even if at times it is what Dostoevsky calls ‘a harsh and dreadful love.’”[2]

At first glance, I wondered what the big deal was.  Why all the fuss about this image?  But it was just that: a first glance.  I hadn’t taken the time to be with the icon, to pray with it, to let it speak to me.

Forest finishes his discussion of the icon in what I thought is a surprising way.  He says, “‘Of all the philosophical proofs of the existence of God,’ wrote the priest and scientist Pavel Florensky, who died a martyr’s death in the Stalin era, ‘that which carries the most conviction is not mentioned in any textbook.  It may be summarized as follows: “Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon exists, therefore God exists.”’”[3]

Imagine that: a work of art, the product of human hands, being given such lofty praise.

In a few moments, we’ll sing the hymn, “O Lord, Our God, How Excellent,” which is based on today’s psalm reading, Psalm 8.  The second stanza goes, “The heavens shout Your handiwork; / We stand beneath in awe, / To think the One who made all things / Should care for us at all.”

We are surrounded by blessing, even if you’re like me and really don’t understand!  Trinity Sunday reminds us that we are not alone, in fact, we are enveloped by love.  In one of my favorite verses in the Bible, Jesus says in our gospel reading to “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).  The blessing given to us—the benediction pronounced over us—both reassures us and calls us to action.

In our stumbling, halting way, we try to envision the Holy Trinity.  We use geometry, such as a triangle.  But that’s not the only way to picture the Trinity, with the inner being separated as points.  The Trinity can also be envisioned as a circle, ever flowing, never ending, encompassing all that is, existence itself.

I want to close with this.  It’s a question and a challenge.  How can we choose blessing over cursing?  How can we model the art of blessing?  How can we do that even today?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Amen.

 

[1] www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon%20explanation.htm

[2] Jim Forest, Praying with Icons (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1997), 99.

[3] Forest, 100.


spirit to forgive

I want to begin with a story about something that happened almost thirty years ago.  This was when I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  That’s an Assemblies of God school.  For two semesters, I was part of a street ministry team that traveled to Tampa on Friday nights.

Our “parish,” so to speak, was a quarter-mile strip along Kennedy Boulevard.  Our “parishioners” were the street people who lived, and passed through, the area.  In those days, I don’t think it was the best part of town.

On my very first night, the very first person I approached was a gentleman clad in shabby-looking clothing.  He appeared to be in his fifties.  Not knowing what else to say, I told him, “Jesus loves you.”  As soon as he heard that, he began crying and telling me how he had lost his family and his career.  I don’t remember if it was because of drinking or gambling or something else, but he recited a litany of his mistakes.

1 pentecostWhen he had finished listing his failures, he asked me if I would forgive him.  At the time, I was thinking, “It’s not my job to forgive him.  I need to direct him to Christ.”  So I told the man Jesus forgives anyone and anything.  But that didn’t work.  It seemed like he needed to hear the words, so again he asked me, “Do you forgive me?”  I relented and said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he shuffled away into the Tampa night.

Why do I begin with this story of speaking and hearing words of forgiveness?  One might ask, “Is this a theme for Pentecost?”  It’s not even about the Day of Pentecost!  I begin with this story on forgiveness because Jesus makes it a theme in our gospel reading from St. John—which is the gospel text.

I should say some people refer to the event in our gospel text as a “pre-Pentecost” Pentecost.  Already, on the evening of the day of his resurrection, on the evening of Easter, Jesus is giving his disciples the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if you picture this, to me it seems kind of strange.  “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22).  That’s what he says, but first, he breathes on them.  (Blow!)  Really?  Is that what it takes?

Actually, it doesn’t say he “blew” on them, but he “breathed on them.”  This is the posture of one who is not reactive, but responsive.  Being in a reactive posture or mode means coming from a place of defensiveness, a lack of listening and learning.  Being in a responsive mode means the opposite.  It is a place of openness, a place of listening and a curiosity which wants to learn.

There are many other things that could be said, but in a physical posture, it means remembering to breathe, paying attention to one’s breath.  (Breathe.)  When we remember to do that, it’s amazing how it helps us to be calm and patient and reflective.  (But it is something I find myself continually needing to practice.)

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The Hebrew word רוח (rua), which means “breath,” “spirit,” or “wind,” was a familiar idea.  John surely would have known about it.  Earlier in his gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (3:8).  So I suppose it does make sense for Jesus to use his breath in granting the Spirit to his disciples!

But we need to back up and see what’s going on, since this is the evening of Easter.  Our scripture text ends before we get to the part about St. Thomas and his questions of believing all this resurrection stuff.  Verse 19 says, “the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities” (Good News Bible).  Jesus suddenly appears out of nowhere and says, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them the now-glorified wounds in his hands and side.  He is not a ghost!

We’re told the disciples have been hiding from the authorities.  No doubt, they’re fearing for their lives.  Before Jesus appears to them, with his words of shalom, they’re thinking about what happened to him.  Still, Craig Barnes, who is president of Princeton Seminary, thinks there’s more to it.  If one understands the human psyche, it seems to be an unavoidable conclusion.

Barnes speaks about, not only fear, but shame.  “Like the disciples,” he says, “we try to hide when we’re ashamed.”[1]  It’s a defense mechanism; it’s almost instinct.  It may seem like a good strategy for a little while.  But, as Barnes says, “Nothing is more crippling to our souls than working at hiding shame.  We lock up more and more doors, sealing off more and more rooms of the heart to prevent our true selves from being discovered.  We think we are keeping the world out, but in fact we are keeping ourselves locked in.”

The disciples are ashamed because, when Jesus needed them the most, they turned around and took off.  They carry a horrible burden of guilt.

But thank God, that isn’t the end of it.  “At the center of the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus Christ has come looking for us.  According to John’s text, he walks right through the locked door to find us.  He shows us his wounds from the cross, which are the marks of our forgiveness.”

With verse 23, we come to what I said earlier may be an unexpected theme for Pentecost: speaking and hearing words of forgiveness, or more directly, forgiving and refusing to forgive.  Right after Jesus tells the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he adds, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

3 pentecostJesus entrusts the disciples with a great deal of authority.  It isn’t something they have, in and of themselves, but as the community gathered in his name.  As the community—as the church—they have the authority to offer forgiveness of sin.  We do something similar to that every week with our prayer of confession and assurance of pardon.

Jesus is speaking about something very powerful.  On the one hand, if we forgive someone, they are forgiven.  In Matthew 18, Peter has a little chat with Jesus about that (v. 21).  On the other hand, if we retain the sins of any, they are retained.  The Good News Bible says, “if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

The Greek has an even stronger force.  First of all, the word for “to forgive” (αφιημι, aphiēmi) also means “to send off,” “to let go.”  I think anytime we’re able, by the grace of God to forgive, we can feel what it means “to let go.”  It’s a burden we’re glad to be rid of.

On the flip side, there’s an equally strong force.  The words “retain” and “not forgive” don’t quite capture it.  The Revised English Bible says that “if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain.”  The Greek word for “retain” (κρατεω, krateō) also means “to hold,” “to seize.”  It comes from the word (κρατος, kratos) that means “strength” or “power.”  It takes a lot of strength to hold on to that stuff.  You wear yourself out.

According to the New Testament, we are a “holy” and “royal priesthood” (1 Pe 2:5, 9).  One of the key roles of a priest is to declare the forgiveness of sins.  We’re told “we disciples are not called to produce forgiveness.  We’re called to be the priest pronouncing that which has been produced on the cross.  We’re called to open the locks and throw open the door, and walk back into the world as a priest who is unafraid.  The only alternative is to live in shrinking prisons of hurt.”[2]

I imagine most of us have sometimes heard it said forgiving also means forgetting.  In order to forgive, we have to forget.  I would humbly have to disagree.  I don’t believe we are called to display amnesia.  I don’t believe we are called to have the attention span of gnats.  That doesn’t improve the character of either party.  That doesn’t help us deal with life.

At this point, I need to interject something.  When someone has been the victim of abuse or assault, forgiveness is a very tricky thing.  Telling someone, “It’s your Christian duty to forgive,” only adds another layer of abuse.  Forgiveness often takes a very long time to come, if it happens at all.  Sometimes the scars are too overwhelming.  I just mentioned the grace of God.  When grace can break through the hurt, it is a wondrous thing.

Moving on, there’s a concept known as “the shadow.”  It’s described as “the place we put all the suppressed and repressed parts of our lives.”[3]  The shadow isn’t evil.  Rather, it’s the stuff about us we want to keep hidden from the world, and even from ourselves.  It’s the stuff we find embarrassing and shameful.

As Richard Rohr says, “Suppressing what we don’t want to deal with is like trying to hold a basketball underwater while going on with life as usual…  What we suppress—the shadow aspect of life—ambushes us sooner or later.  We don’t know why we’re depressed or angry, why everyone and everything is out to get us.”[4]

One big sign of some major repression is the lack of a healthy sense of humor.  Can we laugh at ourselves?  (That might be an unfair question.  Not everyone has the treasure trove I possess which is needed to laugh at oneself!)

Rohr continues, “People who are overly stern and moralistic usually have a significant, repressed shadow.  They walk through life shaking a judgmental finger in disapproval—and they disapprove of just about everything!  They’re often incapable of easy enjoyment.”[5]

I fully believe humor is one of the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit.  I say that because I can recall a time when I had no genuine, joyful sense of humor.  Was I a jerk who thought humor consisted of snide comments and sarcastic remarks at someone else’s expense?  Yes.  I was a living example of having “no patience, no forgiveness, no mercy, but only harsh judgments.  No gospel.”[6]  No good news.  (Sad to say, sometimes I still fall into that trap!)

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Looking at our text, one sign we’re open to the Holy Spirit is how willing and able we are to forgive.  Both are important.  There must be both the willingness and the ability.  Remember, just as the disciples find out in their encounter with Jesus, the ability to forgive is a gift.  But the willingness must also be present.  We need to have a spirit to forgive.

In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells us “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17).  That is the deep meaning of Pentecost.  The Spirit of God brings freedom; the Spirit of God liberates.  As people of the Spirit, we reclaim our identity when we send out—when we unleash—the forgiveness of Christ.

When we allow that Spirit to run free in the world, who knows what dangerous and wonderful things will happen?  Why don’t we find out?

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[2] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 129.

[4] Rohr, 196.

[5] Rohr, 197.

[6] Rohr, 198.


interwoven

A few years ago, Banu and I lived about a half hour’s drive from some Mennonite markets.  One time, I noticed a sign saying they would be closed for Ascension Day.  It’s always the Thursday forty days into the Easter season, so it was this past Thursday.

I told Banu I found it interesting that the Mennonites actually take the day off to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.  For many of us, I imagine the day came and went this week without our even being aware of it.  That shouldn’t be entirely unexpected; Ascension is one of those days it’s hard to wrap our heads around.  Ascension—what the heck is that about, anyway?

1 ascension

In his gospel, here’s how St. Luke puts it: “Then [Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (24:50-53).

In ancient times, people tended to think of the universe as though it had three stories.  Some people still do.  We might imagine a three-story house.  The heavens were the top story, maybe the attic; our world was the first floor, and as for the underworld, as the name suggests, it’s down there below the surface.  It would be the basement.

Well, we’ve been in outer space, where there is no “up” or “down.”  And as for the nether regions, I once heard a traveling evangelist tell an interesting story about that.  He claimed workers in France doing deep well drilling made a bizarre discovery.  He said they could hear the screams of the doomed rising up to them!  Apparently, the location of hell is under France.

(I’m not so sure.  I think the evangelist’s comments were based on a subconscious aversion to the French!)

Anyway, today we wouldn’t describe the Ascension of the Lord as someone floating up into the sky.  We no longer perceive the cosmos in the “three story” way, as did the ancients.  We don’t see ourselves the same way.  You do realize we are mostly empty space?  At the atomic level, there are electrons spinning around the nucleus, like tiny solar systems.  Smaller and smaller particles are being discovered.  A few years ago, evidence of the speculative Higgs Boson particle was detected.

2 ascension

Going in the other direction, by using ever more powerful telescopes, we’re gazing deeper, toward the edge of the universe itself.  We’re looking at light that has taken billions of years to arrive at Earth.  (It appears we have a new “three story” image:  macrocosmic, mesocosmic, and microcosmic!)

Luke is speaking of the resurrection body of Christ.  Imagining the physics of that is enough to get your head spinning!  We might think of him as becoming interwoven with our space and time.  Earlier in chapter 24, that could be how he appears and disappears to the disciples at will.

However we conceive of it (and I won’t belabor the point), why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  I promise you—this isn’t just abstract theory.  This has very “real world” meaning for us.

There’s an Australian missiologist named Michael Frost.  At a conference in Budapest, Hungary, he said he’d spoken with some Christian surfers a few years earlier.[1]  When he asked who their favorite surfer was, he described it as “pandemonium.”  They were yelling different names, but he got them to narrow it down to Kelly Slater, who was described as the greatest surfer ever.  He was able to get them to describe him in detail.

3 ascensionThen he asked them to describe Jesus.  Aside from stuff like, “Son of God” and “died for our sins,” they couldn’t say very much.  Frost said he’s noticed the same thing in the church and even in the seminary where he teaches.  He’s noticed people being unable to talk about Jesus the person.

But as I watched the video of the conference, what really caught my attention was something else he said.  Frost spoke of a “spirituality of engagement.”  This is a spirituality of engagement as opposed to a spirituality of retreat, of withdrawing.  That is, retreating or withdrawing from the world.

It’s the idea that the only way to really connect with Christ is by retreating to worship services, or by going on retreats, or by going to places specifically labeled as “Christian.”  He doesn’t reject those experiences; he very strongly affirms them (as do I).  But he also emphasizes engaging with Christ in the world.

For those who care about connecting with Jesus, there can be the danger of living in a Christian “bubble.”  There’s the danger of not being able to see Jesus in the cinema, in art, in the workplace, in school, in science, in everyday life.  As he was talking about this stuff, it dawned on me that this is what Ascension is all about.

As the Nazarene professor Andy Johnson puts it, “our very flesh is constantly interchanging elements with the rest of the material universe.”  There’s that subatomic particle stuff again!  At that level of reality, it’s hard to draw a line between “us” (our bodies) and “not-us.”  Thinking about that theologically, with God’s raising the body of Jesus, “the redemption of the cosmos as a whole has begun.”[2]

(You know, the difficulty in seeing a line between “us” and “not-us” gives a whole new spin on describing people as “joined at the hip.”)

Because of the Ascension of the Lord, Jesus as the Christ is everywhere.  What that means is there are no “God-free” zones.  Nothing is truly godforsaken.

Frost also talks about “prevenient grace,” that is, the way God works prior to anyone’s action.  God extends grace before we decide to do this or that.  The question is not: “Will we bring God into a godless world?”  The question is: “Will we find out what God is already doing in the world and get involved?”  Again, there are no “God-free” zones.

So, here it is again, just in case what I’ve said isn’t crystal clear: why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  Why does Jesus say, in effect, “It’s time for me to fly!”?

Jesus must depart, because frankly, it’s time for the disciples to grow up.  In John 16, Jesus tells them, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (v. 7).  He’s told them they will do even greater things than he has done (Jn 14:12).

Without Jesus around, even the resurrected Jesus, the Spirit of Christ pervades—is interwoven—everywhere.  The Spirit of Christ indwells us.

It can be difficult to understand.  Earlier in Luke 24, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus are downcast; they’re crestfallen.  Jesus comes up and speaks with them, though they don’t recognize him.  They say “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21).  But notice what happens.  “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

Now we have today’s scripture reading.  When he appears to the gathered group of disciples, he tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (v. 44).

Our friend Andy Johnson points out, “the Old Testament never directly says that the Messiah will suffer, die, or be raised from the dead.”[3]  That’s true, and that’s why Jesus was such a problem, even for well-meaning people.  The disciples need to understand.  So Jesus repeats what he did on the road to Emmaus.  For the disciples who think they’re seeing a ghost, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45).

Johnson says, “Jesus begins reshaping their imagination, reshaping the categories they had used to make sense of what God was doing in their world.”  Their culture has shaped them to think in a certain way.  Then here comes Jesus, completely turning that stuff on its head!

There can be a difference between translating and interpreting.  When we translate, we go from one language to another.  For example, we take the English word “dog” and go to the Spanish word “perro,” or to the Turkish word “köpek.”  However, when we interpret, we assign meaning, and sometimes that meaning can be quite different from what we expect, or want, to hear!

For the disciples to understand who Jesus is, it will mean “reinterpreting the entire biblical narrative, ‘all the scriptures.’”[4]  Jesus knows what he has to do.  He has to open their minds.  He has to blow their minds.  He has to rock their world!

The disciples have their vision radically expanded, re-imagined.  They must learn “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (v. 47).  The old categories no longer work.  They can’t presume to “have” or “own” Jesus.

Can we think of ways in which we do that?  Is it possible others are turned away if and when we present Jesus as our property?  (I include myself in the question.)  Do we too rarely ask the question, “How can we as the church serve the community?”  Or do we too often wonder, “What can they do for us?”  Remember, there are no “God-free” zones.

Having said all that, I believe the desire to serve the community is in evidence here.  I believe it was evident on the day of the presbytery meeting.  You are building on the past and allowing a new vision to form.

In my sermon eight days ago, I quoted part of a prayer we used earlier in the service.  “Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”  I like that: empty slogans or senseless controversy.  (Not the slogans or controversies themselves, but being made aware of them!)

I also quoted our Book of Order’s warning about “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), and how that might appear in us.  Do we ignore prophets, avert our eyes from visions, and disregard the dreamers?  Possibly, but it looks like good progress is being made on encouraging the dreamers—paying attention to our own dreams.

ThinkingmanAre we pushing the boundaries, even as it dawns on us the ascended Christ is everywhere?  Therefore, do we understand that we are interwoven with everything around us?

Today’s affirmation of faith is based on Ephesians 1, which is the epistle reading for Ascension.  The end of it comes from verses 22 and 23.  God “has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  The one whose body fills all in all.

We are the church of Jesus Christ, and the fullness of Christ fills us.  So, let us weave our stories into the visions that are forming and transforming us.  Let us not disregard the dreamers, but rather encourage each other in following our dreams.  The Spirit who has been promised gives us strength.  Like those first disciples who witnessed the Ascension, we can go out with joy.

 

[1] vimeo.com/22699742

[2] Andy Johnson, “Our God Reigns: The Body of the Risen Lord in Luke 24,” Word and World 22:2 (Spring 2002) 141.

[3] Johnson, 136.

[4] Johnson, 136.


have you not known? have you not heard?

Have you not known?

Our Book of Order, when it calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), agrees with Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah, if you like).  An idol is the creation of workers, goldsmiths, and artisans, as the prophet tells us (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.  By the way, how many of us have turned off our phones, or at least, set them on vibrate?)

Have you not heard?

With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

1 isaiahWe’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  Still, going from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, we have to be careful about overestimating the worth of our own efforts, our own accomplishments.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?

There’s something I read in Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped.  (I imagine he’ll say a couple more things about it this afternoon!)  It’s something I’ve used as a devotional.

About halfway through the book, he brings up the story of the poor widow.[1]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church while they were having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Well!  Would I be mistaken in saying that somebody needs to do a flip?

But it’s true.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structure that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.

2 isaiahDear friends, I have to tell you: we are the system!  We are part of the religious and political structure.  I must confess (and I’m likely not alone in this) that I’m not fond of being part of the system.  I think that feeling was especially heightened in college when I started reading those revolutionary and counter-cultural authors.  And it was also in college that I started reading the scriptures, and for the first time in my life, I really began to understand them.  Talk about revolutionary and counter-cultural!

Still, being part of the system is neither good nor bad.  The system is how things operate; it is how things happen.  It occurs to me I might rephrase what I just said.  The system actually is a good thing.  Think of the ecosystem.  It’s how life operates.  I think that’s a good thing!

The question is, what do we do with the system?  Do we make it into a beast?  Does it turn us into beasts?  Do we give in to cynicism?

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” (v. 27).  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, giving power to the faint, strengthening the powerless.  Isn’t that amazing?  We don’t have to be beasts!

Therefore, if we have a God who makes such promises, who follows through on those promises, what is our response?

My wife Banu and I have been in this presbytery for a little over a year, so in that time, we’ve gotten a pretty decent lay of the land.  Part of the lay of the land is rather obvious: we are a presbytery in transition.  It’s a transition in structure; it’s a transition in terms of several folks retiring.  And regarding structure, the Leadership Team is an expression of that transition.

Because of all of that, we are in a special position.  This is something you learn as interim pastors.  Transition presents us with new opportunities.  We are given permission (as if we don’t already have it!) to try new things.  Unfortunately, sometimes when presented with new opportunities, we are too quick to say “no.”  We try to find ways it won’t work.  We try to find ways to get out of doing it ourselves.  (Or could it be I’m the only one here who’s ever done that?)

In Acts 2, St. Peter, drawing on the wisdom of the prophet Joel, says, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (v. 17).

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.

3 isaiah

I wonder, do we quench the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh?  Do we as a presbytery do that?  Do we idolize our system and make it an agent of tyranny?  I understand: we don’t throw people into an iron maiden or have them drawn and quartered!  Even so, does tyranny reveal itself among us by ignoring prophets, averting our eyes from visions, and disregarding the dreamers?  I don’t know.  Maybe.

In our opening prayer, we asked God, “Be with members of our presbytery.  Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”

Empty slogans and senseless controversy?  What’s wrong with them?  They’re so much fun!  They make us feel like we’re getting stuff done.

Again, we have to heed the warning about idolatry and tyranny.  That’s our challenge as a presbytery.  That’s our challenge as congregations.  That’s our challenge as Christians.  That’s our challenge as those in Christ, those who love Christ.  Is our love sufficient?  I don’t think so; it always falls short.

4 isaiah

But here’s the good news.  We are promised that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

 

[1] Doug Pagitt, Flipped (Convergent Books: 2015), 97-102.


Lydia's listening

St. Lydia and her household are baptized in the reading from Acts 16.  Her feast day is August 3.  That just happens to be the date when I was baptized.  In fact, I still have the shirt I was wearing when I was baptized.  It was the upper half of some blue surgical scrubs.  It’s a bit raggedy now, and it has some green stains due to a summer job I had a few years later, painting machines for a factory.

1 lydiaI begin with this talk about baptism, because the story of Lydia—her story of baptism and the change of heart and mind that goes with it—is a key moment in the early church.

Here’s why.  Earlier in chapter 16, the apostle Paul is in Asia Minor, where he has a vision in the night of a Macedonian man who says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9).  So Paul makes his first journey to Europe.  He and his friends go to Philippi, where they encounter Lydia and her friends.

After they part company with Lydia, Paul and his group meet a slave girl who we’re told can predict the future.  There is a spirit of divination within her.  The girl’s owners use her as a fortune teller, and the biggest fortune is the one they make off her!  After a few days of her pointing out that Paul and his friends are “slaves of the Most High God,” the apostle gets irritated and casts the spirit out of her (v. 17).

Seeing that their source of income has been cast to the winds, her owners grab Paul and his friend Silas, have them viciously beaten, and tossed into jail.  To make a long story short, that night there’s an earthquake which knocks all the doors loose, but Paul and Silas refuse to escape.

In the morning, the magistrates—the local Roman officials—find out that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens, and they have rights.  The order that they be arrested and beaten was an illegal one, so they want Paul and Silas to leave town quickly and quietly.  (This kind of stuff ruins careers!)  But Paul says, “Are you serious?  I’m not moving an inch until they come and apologize!”  That takes some guts.

After that, they still have one more stop to make.  They can’t take off without saying goodbye to Lydia.  So we come full circle back to this woman whose name has been preserved for us, and that’s a rarity with women in the Bible.

So who is Lydia?  The first thing we learn about her is that Paul meets her at “a place of prayer” on the sabbath (v. 13).  That would sound right, since we’re told she’s “a worshiper of God” (v. 14).  That’s a term used to describe the so-called “God-fearers.”  They were Gentiles who admired and followed the Jewish faith.  We’re also told she is “a dealer in purple cloth.”  That’s a lucrative trade, so she’s got to have some money.

2 lydia

What’s so remarkable about this godly woman of means?  The scriptures say that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (v. 14).  In his paraphrase called The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “As she listened with intensity to what was being said, the Master gave her a trusting heart—and she believed!”

There’s a theme of listening.  Why is listening so important?  Why do we listen?  Do we listen?  We listen to go deeper.  We listen to go deeper into life, to not stay at the surface of life.

What is the result of Lydia’s listening?  It’s her conversion.  In her essay, “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today,” Judette Gallares says conversion “involves much more than a moment, it is a process which involves long periods of time…  It involves relationships that…are woven into [our] life story.”[1]

She uses Lydia’s conversion story to describe how all of us are called to be both mystics (those with a direct, loving experience of God) and prophets (those who address our society with the word from God, however that happens).  We might think of it as the inner and outer life.

Lydia does a very good job of this with her hospitality.  There’s more to that than serving tea and cookies!  “Part of the practice of hospitality during that time was to offer a safe haven for one’s guests, especially when there was an immediate possibility of real danger to them.”  Remember verse 40, when she welcomes Paul and his friends after they’re released from prison—on the condition that they get the heck out of Dodge?

It takes a certain depth of spirit, a certain willingness to listen, to demonstrate the courage that Lydia does.

Gallares puts it this way: “In today’s fragmented world, which [has] different levels and degrees of homelessness, our mystic spirit, our sense of ‘belonging to God’ must open us up to others and to the world, to offer ourselves, our communities and our planet earth as a hospitable place for humanity and the whole of God’s creation.”

We all experience homelessness to a degree, even if we’ve never been without physical shelter.  As humans, we often feel alienated; we feel like aliens, even to ourselves.  We feel like we’re in a foreign land.  We’re like Moses: I’ve been a stranger in a strange land! (Ex 2:22).  As Christians, the waters of baptism carry us to our homeland.

Gallares, like Lydia, is well aware of the risks involved.  Being from the third world (the Philippines)—as well as being a woman—she understands the dangers of violence and terrorism.  Still, she asks the question: “How can we listen with an open heart, willing to understand where the other is coming from?  This is the true spirit of hospitality.  It is not abrogated when there is danger or differences, but only at that moment proves itself to be genuine hospitality.”

3 lydiaHow can we imitate that Lydian listening here, in this church and in our community?  Remember, this involves being both mystic and prophet.  It involves finding that place within ourselves and within the community, the world around us.  It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, on this subject of listening, mentions what he calls “three gates” through which our words should pass.[2] 

First, we have to ask ourselves, “Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.”  The second gate has us ask, “Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?”  He says the third gate is “probably the most difficult,” and I agree!  “Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and more noise competing for space and attention?”

So to sum up: is it true; is it loving; and is it necessary?  Imagine how our private and public discourse would look, including the internet (including Facebook and Twitter), if we took those things to heart!

We see this modeled by our government and our mass media.  The pundits and experts sit at tables and begin debates which often turn into shouting matches.  They’re already thinking about what they want to say next.  Sometimes they are literally talking at the same time, and it can go on for a while.  I like it when they go to split screen and have two, three, four, or even more people all wanting to get their two cents’ worth in.

We talk at each other, but not with each other.

Do you remember the show The A-Team?  Mr. T played B. A. Baracus.  I don’t remember much about that show, but I do remember one of B. A.’s favorite lines: “Quit your jibba jabba!”  Using myself as an example, I’ve spewed more than my share of jibba jabba.  And shockingly enough, there is actually jibba jabba in the church!

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Again I ask, why is listening so important?  Why do we listen?

Listening is the posture of faith.  Before speaking—before speaking even good words—we have to listen.  We have to listen to hear the call to conversion—the call to baptism—the call to ongoing conversion.  We must listen for the word of God.  We must listen like Lydia.

That involves more than keeping our traps shut while someone else is speaking.  There is that internal narrative, those words and images that run through our minds.  We especially notice them when we’re trying to silently pray or to meditate.  It’s best to not hang on to them or examine them, but to let them flow through us like leaves in the wind.  (It’s not easy, I’ll admit.  It takes a lot of practice.)

Imagine the reward when we take hold of that.  Look at the great gift Lydia gave to the early church—and to the world.  When we imitate Lydia’s listening, we also give a great gift to the world, to each other, and to ourselves.  However it happens, may we be open to the Spirit of Christ and listen.  Just listen.

 

[1] www.cori.ie/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/judette-gallares-rc.pdf

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 341.


living in exile

Banu and I were ordained in February 1997.  Both of our pastors, just before the benediction, gave us a charge.  Banu’s pastor charged her “to fail.”  He wasn’t wishing ill on her, rather, he wanted her to take risks that would probably end in failure.  Still, keep pressing on.  That’s advice I need to remember.

Using imagery from the parable of the prodigal son, my pastor charged me to tell my story of being in a “distant land,” a “far country.”  He might have thought of several things, like my worshipping with Christians of many different stripes.  (One example would be going from the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal church, to going to the Presbyterian Church.)  But his main meaning of being in a “far country” was my experience with brain cancer.

1 exile

The charge to fail from Banu’s pastor also has that sense of exile, of not belonging.  His church was in an inner-city neighborhood of Philadelphia.  The streets around the church were not in good shape.  There were even what you might call ditches.  He spoke of a pansy that he saw growing in one of those ditches.  That pansy didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be there, but we might think it was in exile, a place where it didn’t belong.

We can see that sense of exile, of being in a far country, in our epistle reading in 1 Peter.

In the very first verse of our letter, Peter calls his audience “exiles.”  The Greek word (παροικια, paroikia) can also mean “sojourning” or “living in a strange land.”  For them, being exiles, being refugees, is something they can relate to.  For us, it’s no doubt less likely.  But it is possible.  It’s more likely we would at least feel that way.  Have you ever been—or are you now—in a far country?  Can you see yourself as an exile or as a refugee?  In this season of Easter, can we see ourselves as resurrection people?

I want us to think about that.  If we can’t imagine or feel the need to live another way, then it will be pretty difficult to in fact live any other way!  If we have no longing to live more deeply, more fully, then in a sense, we’re already dead.  We need to be resurrected!

Peter picks up the theme of exile in verse 17.  “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.”

There are Christians in this country who actually claim the identity of exile.  It isn’t such a stretch for them to see themselves as living in a strange land.  That’s “strange” as in “foreign,” but I suppose “strange” as in “weird,” would also apply!  I imagine all of us could testify to times when we’ve felt like we’re living in a strange land!

2 exile
the chapel at Emmaus Community in Victoria, BC

When I speak of Christians who claim the identity of exile, I’m thinking especially of those who might be called neomonastics, the “new” monastics.  From every tradition and denomination, these are Christians who really do put into practice the idea of “blessed be the tie that binds.”  They don’t live in monasteries, but as communities of faith, they make a commitment to follow Christ in a particular way, which I’ll get to in a few moments.  They do this as communities, not just as a collection of individuals.

They take Peter quite seriously when he says in verse 22, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”  That last line in the Good News Bible says to “love one another earnestly with all your heart.”  How about Eugene Peterson’s The Message?  It’s “love one another as if your lives depended on it.”  The original word (εκτενως, ektenōs) means “intensely.”

Kyle Childress, a long-time Baptist pastor in Nacogdoches, Texas, tells an interesting, and sobering, story.[1]  In September 2005, a month after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, Hurricane Rita slammed into East Texas.  There was plenty of destruction, but their church building avoided the worst of it.  They were able to house some evacuees from Houston, as well as some of their own church members.

During the day, people would be cleaning up from the hurricane.  At day’s end, they gathered at the church, eating delicious meals—then playing games, having conversations, and getting ready for bed.  It was, as Rev. Childress says, “a good time of sharing life in Christ” (p. 33).  Now, here’s the story he tells.

“After most of the people from Houston had left town,” he says, “I went down to put gas in my car.  By this time, the lines were short and I waited behind a man and his wife in their one-ton pickup with a dual-wheel rear-end.  Guns were hanging prominently in the truck as they got out.  She glared at everyone and kept the door open on the truck with the guns in easy reach, while he proceeded to fill up his two twenty-two-gallon tanks on the pickup and then fill up his many gas cans and two fifty-five-gallon drums in the back-end.  I watched them, gave them a wide berth, and I felt a shiver.  I was not only looking at American society in microcosm, I was also witnessing what the Church is up against.  Here was an apocalyptic moment, when our society’s pretense, politeness, and orderliness were blown aside.  Clearly, this couple believed they were on their own; they did not need anyone or want anyone to interfere with their individual lives, and they were going to make sure they got what they wanted or needed, by any means, including the use of violence.  Meanwhile, down the street was a church full of people who believed that the good life was found in sharing a common life in Jesus Christ” (34).

When Childress speaks of that “common life in Jesus Christ,” he isn’t referring to something that happens by accident.  He isn’t talking about something that just comes up out of nowhere.  He’s talking about a rule of life.  A rule of life is something that people agree together to follow.

He continues, “Since it is rare to see local congregations share such a common life, and most church members have no idea such a life exists, much less is desirable, it is imperative that we look around for other glimpses and models of what a common life might look like.  One of those places is among the communities of the New Monasticism movement.  As a local church pastor I am interested in what the new monastics might teach us” (34).

He’s not proposing that his local Baptist congregation become a neomonastic community, but he’s convinced there are things to learn from them.

A rule of life isn’t so much a set of beliefs; it isn’t so much a confession or a creed.  It’s about how we behave in the world.  Probably the best-known rule of life is the Rule of Benedict.  This goes back to the early sixth century.  Saint Benedict is known as the father of western monasticism.  He wrote his Rule to govern life within the monastery, but it has principles that can be applied in every walk of life.

One good example of this is in chapter 53.  Benedict says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”  That’s the spiritual foundation for Christian hospitality that extends throughout the Rule, and for that matter, throughout life itself.

3 exileWhat a revolutionary, and counter-cultural, thought.  Imagine if we welcomed every visitor as Christ!  Imagine if we welcomed each other as Christ!

There isn’t any one single way to arrange a rule of life.  At the institutional level, our Presbyterian Book of Order does that in some respect, at least in how we govern ourselves.  It’s a way of helping us follow processes that are laid out.  It’s a way of making sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak!

Childress notes, “Whenever there is conflict or misunderstanding—and living in close proximity to others, there always is conflict—the rule is part of the conversation among the members.  Over time the rule is often clarified or modified…  What is essential is that the rule is used in service to sharing their common life in Christ and not as a form of domination” (36).

This is an extremely important point.  If we are to follow Peter’s mandate to “love one another deeply from the heart,” the way we go about it cannot be “a form of domination.”

This might be a shock to you, but there are churches which seek to control and coerce their members!

To embrace a common life in Christ, the American church has to resist that “lone wolf” mentality that is so much a part of our culture.  One last quote from Childress: “If our people are going to live the Christ-like life, then they had better do it as a body or else they will never make it.  Lone individuals trying to live faithfully cannot stand against sin, death, the Powers, and the overwhelming pressure of society.  Church members, as individuals, are easy pickings for the Powers of Death; they will separate us, isolate us, dismember us, pick us off one at a time, and grind us down into the dust” (39).

That is an awesome statement, and I couldn’t agree more with it.

What are the “Powers of Death” he refers to?  What are the forces that kill us inside and turn us against each other?  What are the things that distress the Spirit of Christ, and bring suffering?  These are some of the “Powers of Death.”

Sometimes events happen, and we are compelled to say something about it, because it’s right there in our faces.  I remember when we all heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I guess like most people, I did feel a sense of relief when I heard the news.

4 exileHowever, my real preference would have been for him to be captured and then put on trial before the entire world.  Still, I have to say that I didn’t shed any tears because he was dead.

But when I saw the images of people dancing in the street, having parties, I was saddened.  On 9-11, the terrorists were doing the exact same thing.  Imitating that kind of behavior is, in my opinion, probably the very least Christian thing we could do.  It is the most un-Christlike way to go.  I would dare say that we could see the “Powers of Death” at work.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult thing to apply Jesus’ call to love our enemies when the enemy is a mass-murderer.  It’s difficult to know what that would look like.  Still, if we would be people who love Jesus, we need to learn to love what Jesus loves.

Verse 23 says, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”  The powers of death, the forces that have us living in exile (whether we realize it or not), can do nothing when faced with the living and enduring word of God.

It’s kind of like the old country gospel song, “This World is not My Home.”  “This world is not my home; I’m just a passing through / My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue / The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door / And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

We are living as refugees in our homeland, but we also need to remember what Psalm 24 says: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (v. 1).

One thing that is sure; we belong to the kingdom of God and its exhibition to the world.  That’s paraphrased from the Great Ends of the Church in our Book of Order (F-1.0304).  When we commit ourselves to follow the one who leads us out of exile, we automatically invite others to join the journey.

“‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’  That word is the good news that was announced to you” (vv. 24-25).

That’s the good news.  When we fail, and fail we will, in that far country, in the place of our exile, the Lord fails with us, only to raise us up.

5 exile

After all, even in a ditch a pansy will grow.

 

[1] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/116016.pdf

(“Ties that Bind: Sharing a Common Rule of Life”)


courage!

I need to admit something.  There was a time when I would have never dreamed that I’d be doing what I’m doing now.  And I’m not talking about being a pastor, which I believe I mentioned once.  I mean what I’m doing right now this instant, that is, speaking in public.

I was one of those poor souls who would put “public speaking” near the top of the list of things I dreaded doing.  I had to force myself to take a public speaking class in high school.

1 easterWhen I became a Christian and started going to church—I was 21 when I was baptized—my pastor saw something in me and asked if I wanted to preach a sermon.  (This was a church with Wednesday night services, so that would be my time slot!)  I think I said “yes” because, as much as for any other reason, I didn’t want to disappoint him.

The first time I preached, I’m sure I was visibly terrified.  I forgot to breathe.  My chest tightened up.  I found myself trying to race through the words.  (Oh Lord, please let this end.)  My vocal inflection was terrible, that is, unless you’re a fan of anxious monotone!  However, over time, I gradually got better.

There was one particular night when I was scheduled to preach.  I was completely calm, perfectly at ease.  Then while he was introducing me, the pastor, reflecting on past bouts of nerves said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to be him right now!”  He thought he was lightening the mood, trying to be helpful.  It didn’t work.  He inadvertently spoke worry and negativity into my brain.  I was back to being visibly terrified!  By the grace of God, I’ve made steps in conquering my fear of public speaking.

I begin with this reminiscence to demonstrate my tiny experience of gaining a little bit of courage.

Courage is something that is woven into the Easter narratives, in all four of the gospels.  We hear the message, “Do not fear.”  We hear the encouragement.  Even before we get to Easter, on Maundy Thursday, the gospel of John reports one of the last things Jesus says to the disciples: “take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33).  In other places, the Greek word (θαρσεω, tharseō) is translated as “take heart.”

2 easter

That makes sense.  Our English word “courage,” coming by way of French and before that, Latin, literally means “heart.”  It’s related to the word “cardiac.”  If you’ve got courage, you’ve got heart!

In today’s gospel lesson from Matthew 28, both the angel and Jesus say to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (there were several Marys), “Do not be afraid” (vv. 5, 10).  Do not fear.  Do not lose heart.  The gospel writers list various permutations of women at the tomb of Jesus, but the one constant is Mary Magdalene.  She’s given special attention.  She is courageous in a way none of the male disciples ever are.

We see that she is sent—in John’s gospel, she’s the only one sent—to tell the other disciples that Jesus has been raised from the grave.  For that reason, she is called “apostle to the apostles.”  An “apostle” (αποστολος, apostolos) is “one who is sent.”  She’s a messenger to the messengers.

Ron Hansen reminds us that women “were not admissible as legal witnesses according to Jewish law.”[1]  The overall disbelief of the men regarding Mary Magdalene’s claims is to be expected.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that they seriously doubt what she’s saying, especially when it’s something so outrageous.

At the same time, Jesus did tell them that he would come back from the dead (v. 6, 26:32).  Still, what can you do with that—something so inconceivable?  And then there are those who say Jesus’ claims about resurrection were tacked on later, as an addition to Matthew’s gospel.

Having said all of that, sometimes we don’t take the disciples’ state of mind very seriously.  We already know the end of the story.  That’s what we’re celebrating today.  Death has been defeated.  It is the death of death.  Christ being raised means he can no longer die.  He is the pioneer of resurrection.  We who are in Christ share in the resurrection.  We will die and emerge with life eternal.

3 easter
image of St. Mary Magdalene is by Karmie Varya at http://stmarymagdalenes.org/stmarymags-karmievarya.jpg

As I say, the disciples don’t know that yet.  Look at verse 1: “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”  There’s not much said about the sabbath after Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  The sabbath is a time to rest.  However, I don’t think the disciples find much rest on that sabbath.

We now call that sabbath Holy Saturday.  The disciples are in a state of grief.  They have been bereaved.  They have been traumatized.

Shelly Rambo, who is a professor at Boston University School of Theology, has done work on the subject of trauma.  She has worked with military chaplains; they have firsthand knowledge.  For our purposes here, she’s looked at trauma from a theological point of view.  Thinking about my comment on our knowing the end of the story, she says in our rush to get to Easter (to get to the party!), we tend to not pause and reflect on Holy Saturday.  It’s so important to not fly past it.  And here I am saying it, when it was yesterday!  But that’s the beauty of the liturgical calendar.  We re-live the life and story of Jesus every year.

Rambo says that traumas don’t necessarily end.  “Traumas are moving—and we could say bleeding—into other traumas.”[2]

She talks about church folks, saying “in the case of many people who are living beyond traumas, the resurrection [is] often heard as a rush to get over it, to recover, or as pressure to live into resurrection when in fact the reality of their trauma [is] still very present.”  It is possible for there to be an element of insensitivity when we automatically expect everyone to join the festivity.

So back to the disciples.  Remember, they don’t know what’s going to happen.

4 easterOur friend Shelly continues, “That made me think about how hard it is to witness suffering, how hard it is in the chaos in which you don’t know whether life’s going to emerge for someone.  So in a sense, the preacher or the Christian leader becomes the Mary and the beloved disciple and the Thomas who don’t have a clear sign of life.”

At first, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus.  In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener.  Then, in the depths of their sorrow, they realize that it really is him.  Jesus is alive!  Notice how Matthew describes the two women.  “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (v. 8).

“With fear and great joy.”  Maybe one way to look at that would be as the transition of Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday.

(Maybe we get a small taste of fear and great joy by riding a roller coaster!)

I started with my story of moving from almost panic and paralysis to a much greater sense of comfort when speaking in public—one little victory of courage.  How about more meaningful cases of courage?

How about among you?  Can you think of a situation in which you found courage, you were encouraged, when it looked like death had won?  When it looked like all hope was lost?  Then, somehow, new life emerged?  A light began to shine in the darkness?  Did you discover newfound powers?  And to continue with the borrowed image: have you ever been in a state of “fear and great joy”?

Last week, I used Philippians 2:5-11 as my Palm Sunday text.  It speaks of Jesus emptying himself: his refusal to grasp on to power, his willingness to travel the human path, even to the point of being a slave, to the point of being homeless, even to the point of dying, and even suffering the disgrace of dying on a cross.

The constantly self-emptying, loving community that is the Holy Trinity permeates throughout all of creation, throughout all the cosmos.  Because of that, nothing is ever truly lost.  No act of self-emptying, however small, is ever wasted.  And ultimately, at the end of the day, nothing that dies truly remains dead.  On this weekend, we remember the reality of death (for now), but we celebrate the inexpressible joy that comes with rebirth and resurrection.

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I won’t speak for anyone else, but we non-courageous types need that message and the hope of life it carries.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (v. 10).  Jesus said, “take courage; I have conquered the world!”

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20140414JJ.shtml

[2] www.faithandleadership.com/qa/shelly-rambo-the-space-between-death-and-resurrection


why this is Maundy Thursday

It’s been over a decade now since the release of the Mel Gibson-directed film, The Passion of the Christ.

When it was released, many people had concerns about anti-Semitism, based on what some saw as a sympathetic portrayal of Pontius Pilate versus the Jewish leaders.  (Honestly, I didn’t see it that way.)

There were also concerns about the level of gore in the movie.  For me, the flogging scene was the worst.  By the time we get to the crucifixion, it seems mild in comparison.  Gibson said that he felt he needed to be quite graphic to do justice to the passion narrative.  We shouldn’t forget that this is the same Mel Gibson of Braveheart and The Patriot—other movies not recommended for young children!

1 maundyWe don’t meet Gibson’s Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, until the garden of Gethsemane.  By this time, the event that’s at the heart of Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, has already happened.  Jesus has already washed his disciples’ feet in a display of servant leadership.  He has already pronounced the words, “this is my body…this is my blood.”  The Lord has already spoken to the disciples these words from our scripture reading:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (v. 34).

The meaning of “Maundy” is found in this statement.  Coming from the Latin mandatum, it means “mandate” or “commandment.”  Maundy Thursday is all about the new mandate given by Jesus:  love one another, just as he has loved us.  Just as he has loved us.  What could that possibly mean?

Well, speaking as an expert on love… let me tell you all about it!  It really is a new way of loving.  The obligation to love one’s neighbor had long been part of the Jewish consciousness.  Check out Leviticus 19:18 as an example.

But the commandment of Jesus to love is “new.”  It’s new, not simply because Jesus expands the definition of “neighbor” to include the poor and the enemy—those who seemingly cannot or will not repay us.  It’s a new kind of love, not just a new degree of love.  Disciples of Jesus are told to love one another.  They are called to this new love because they are part of a new creation.

2 maundy

One way we see Jesus model this new command to love is by the way he selects his inner circle of disciples.  First of all, he violates the barriers that forbid the education of women by welcoming Mary Magdalene and the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.  When the church has allowed barriers like that to remain, it’s been a sad refusal to practice this new love of Jesus.

Jesus ignores cultural sensibilities by calling men who are laborers, like fishermen.  Later, in the book of Acts, after the healing of the “man lame from birth,” Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin.  The scripture says that “when they saw the boldness of [the two] and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (3:2, 4:13).  Now there’s a statement about the calling of all believers!

Jesus ignores political prejudice by including Matthew the tax collector, viewed as a collaborator with the Romans, along with Simon the Zealot.  The Zealots are revolutionaries who want to overthrow the Romans.  Compared with these two, the differences between Republicans and Democrats are nonexistent.

These are the people to whom Jesus gives his new command: love one another.  The church has at times, by the grace of God, been able to model this love.  In the late second century, Tertullian famously reported a saying among certain pagans, “See how these Christians love one another…and how they are ready to die for one another!”

It is that very witness, that testimony, which Jesus predicts in verse 35.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Rudolf Bultmann comments on the unusual nature of this new love.  He says that it “demonstrates the strangeness of the community within the world, and results in the world calling those who love, the disciples of Jesus.”[1]  A new creation within the old creation can’t help but seem strange!

3 maundy
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), a fan of the “strangeness” of the Christian faith.

He continues with this stipulation.  “But the community itself fulfils its commission…only if its [love] remains the response to the love of Jesus…  It is not the effect it has on world history that legitimates the Christian faith, but its strangeness within the world.”[2]

To boil this all down, Bultmann is saying that our success or failure is less important than our faithfulness to the new love that Jesus commands.  We shouldn’t be surprised if the love of Jesus leads us onto paths that the world disregards.  More important than credibility in the old creation is fidelity in the new creation.  Love, especially the love of Jesus Christ, has a logic all its own.

In Thomas Keating’s Lenten devotional, My Prayers Rise Like Incense, he says, “Love makes us vulnerable.  The love of another person (including God) reduces our defense mechanisms.  As soon as we trust somebody, we no longer have to be self-protective in their presence and our defenses diminish.  Then the faults and limitations that we have never seen or always tried to hide begin to emerge as clear as crystal…  Once we learn to accept failure, love grows.  We do not grow by thinking about it, but only through the experience of failure.”[3]

Friends, I can guarantee you one way in which we will never fail.  We will never, never fail!  By playing it safe; by not taking a step of faith—and by holding other people’s failings against them.  We are called to something greater.

I’ll finish as I began: with The Passion of the Christ.  As I said, the movie begins in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The decision of Jesus to submit to arrest might be called a sign of faith in God.  It wasn’t something he was looking forward to.  Jesus knew his enemies were coming for him, and he knew that he would be treated brutally.  I picture myself in his place, and I suspect the impulse to just take off would be way too strong to resist.

4 maundy
a Battlestar Galactica Last Supper!

But love gives us courage, even non-heroic, ordinary people like us.  That’s the antidote to cowardice!  And the new commandment to love—to love each other as Jesus loves us—gives each person the courage to be a bigger person, to live a bigger life, than we have ever dreamed.  That is worth embracing and celebrating.  That is why this is Maundy Thursday.

 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1971), 527.

[2] Bultmann, 529.

[3] Thomas Keating, My Prayers Rise Like Incense (St. Louis:  Creative Communications for the Parish, 1999), 28.


striking a pose

I want to begin by reading something from a journal.

“I managed one hour of sleep last night.  Trent and I have made arrangements to stay at the homeless shelter tonight.  I have noticed a distinct loss of freedom as a street person.  Because of my appearance, there are many places I cannot appropriately go.  I sense the contempt others have for me.  My hair is dirty and uncombed, my pants are torn and grimy, my face is three days unshaven, and I imagine I don’t smell like a breath of fresh air.  I want to brush my teeth.

“The world can be an unfriendly place if you are homeless.  You lack an address, an identity, personhood, a bathroom, water!  The day drags on.”

1 striking

That journal entry was written by me.  It comes from an experience I had with Food for the Hungry, a Christian relief and development agency based, at the time, in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (They later relocated to Phoenix.)

I was there for ten days during the month of June, participating in a hunger awareness program.  We had lectures, readings, Bible studies, worship, and a number of other activities—including playing basketball under the blazing desert sun.  (The game didn’t last very long!)

We also watched the movie The Elephant Man, starring Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt.  This was meant to help us identify with the marginalized and outcast.  But the most dramatic component was the immersion experience.  We were paired up and put on the street in Phoenix for 48 hours.  (Trent, who was from Oregon, was my partner.)  We were allowed $2, one source of identification (in case the cops stopped us), a Bible, and a notebook.

We were told to disperse, but we were given certain geographic boundaries beyond which we weren’t supposed to go.  Besides that, we had little instruction.  We were simply to blend into the environment and be street people from noon on Friday to noon on Sunday.  We couldn’t tell anyone who we were, but we didn’t want to lie, either.  So we decided to say that some friends had dropped us off in Phoenix and were supposed to return some time and pick us up.  I soon discovered how very realistic that was.  We met several people with similar stories.

I’ve told you this to show how I was given just a taste of what it means to be on the street.  To be marginalized.  To be an outcast.  To be “the other.”

Central to our identity, as people called to live the gospel of Christ, is this matter of identifying with the marginalized, with “the least of these,” as Jesus says.  There are probably as many ways to do this as there are people.

Our epistle reading for Palm Sunday is a hymn quoted by the apostle Paul for the benefit of the Philippian church.  It may be hard for us think of it as a hymn, since we don’t sing it, though our hymnal has some songs based on it.  It can be a beautiful and powerful part of worship.  The problem comes when words and rituals of praise aren’t acted upon.  When worship isn’t reflected in our lives, it becomes hollow.  We’re simply striking a pose; we’re posturing.

2 strikingIt seems that we spend much of our time striking a pose.  We spend a lot of time wearing masks.  But we hear that Jesus was unwilling to strike a pose.  On that first Palm Sunday, as he entered Jerusalem, he was a king without a crown.  Instead of riding a mighty stallion, as conquering heroes would do, he rode on a lowly donkey.

Jesus let all the masks fall.  The choice of Jesus to identify with the other has unleashed in our world a power that cannot be tamed.  It is a strange power, a power that overturns our tidy world as only Jesus the God-slave can.

But surely this sense of break with the familiar—of rupture within our comfortable little world—is a sign of God’s presence.  It’s only our idols that remain predictable and easy to control.  God calls us into an uncomfortable, untested zone, in which faith really comes alive.

And indeed, as share the viewpoint of the outcast, as we take the form of a slave, things take on new clarity.  So let us return to downtown Phoenix, to the parched avenues of that desert city, and maybe we can catch a glimpse, as I did for a brief moment, the reality of those on the margins.  We might even see a clean toilet as a bearer of God’s grace.

The search for a place to relieve oneself can be a humbling experience.  Finding myself in that predicament, and not finding any public restrooms, I leave Trent sleeping in the shade of a tree and wander into a McDonald’s next to the state Capitol.  I think, “Okay, I can use the bathroom here.”  However, a locked door stops me in my tracks.  I know I’ll have to go to the counter and ask for the key.  But remember my appearance at the time.  I’m too proud to just ask to use the restroom.  After all, I’m not really a street person.  I’m better than that!

So I decide to buy something first.  I will be a legitimate customer.  I select the cheapest thing on the menu, a hot fudge sundae.  It costs me almost a dollar.  (I was there in the 90s; I’m not sure what their price is now.)  Remember that we’re only allowed two dollars—so I’m spending almost half my amount right here.

After finishing the sundae, I return to the counter and request the key that will end my torture.  Just a few more seconds, and I can lock myself into a world of privacy…of refreshment…of relief…of cool water from the faucet to splash on my sunburned face.  I can quench my ever-recurring thirst.  Just a few more seconds, and…THE RESTROOM IS OUT OF ORDER…what?…THE RESTROOM IS OUT OF ORDER.

I stumble back out into the blast furnace of that June day in Arizona.  I wander across the Capitol grounds and leave before I attract the attention of security.  I think of the guy at the counter.  The look of disgust he had given me is still in my mind.  I wanted to say, “This isn’t who I really am.  I’m just playing a role.  I’m just striking a pose.  I’m not really a street person.”

3 strikingI have endured that humiliation.  I have wasted my money on something not terribly nutritious, and now I have to use the bathroom more than ever.  I keep walking in that 115 degree heat and finally come to a park with a nasty old building with a smelly old restroom with a filthy old toilet where I thank God and end my agony.

We sing the hymn of praise to Christ.  We join with the crowds on Palm Sunday, who sang their praises.  We sing, but we’re not always sure what to do next.

That isn’t entirely surprising.  It’s been noted, “We become accustomed to employing the [language] of…love.  In our very verbal faith, words easily become a substitute for reality.  And there is an odd sense of satisfaction we can gain by seriously talking about issues such as poverty [or world hunger] without ever doing anything about it…

“We need to get real and help [others] to get real.  We need to get off the band wagon of being deserving or undeserving.  Our opportunity is to…be real and loving as we are.  It is OK to be who I am…  All else is a running away from reality.  I am not going to do anyone any good by retreating into the ‘comfort’ of feeling guilty.  Guilt is a useful place to be only because it is a place from which to move on; it is not a place to live.”[1]

It might sound strange to speak of finding comfort in feeling guilty.  But sometimes it can serve as an escape, or at least a way of procrastinating.  “I’m no better than anyone else,” we might think, “so who am I to speak out?  Who am I to offer my gifts?”

I’ve talked about this before.  Of the seven deadly sins of the medieval church—envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath—in my humble opinion, sloth is the deadliest.  (I know others have their favorites!)

One image that typically comes to mind when we hear the word “sloth” is the couch potato—one who conserves body energy by lying on the sofa, using remote control gadgets, or voice command, for everything.

Still, mere laziness is not the deadly sin of sloth.  Rather, sloth is a spiritual problem, one that causes us to resist the movement of God in our life.  Sloth is what causes us, when we sense the Spirit leading us to do something—or when we see someone in need—to say: “Oh, I don’t feel like it!  It’s just too much bother!”

Notice that I said, “when we sense the Spirit leading us.”  A lot of Christians don’t know, or they’ve forgotten, what that means.  They’ve hardened themselves; they’re set in their ways.  They don’t sincerely pray for God’s guidance.  This is probably a case in which laziness is a good definition of sloth.  I know what I’m talking about.  There are days when I don’t feel like seeking divine guidance—and I don’t do it!

In 1 Timothy, St. Paul calls himself “the foremost” of sinners (1:15).  He understands his weakness.  Maybe that’s why he says in verse 12, right after our hymn, that we have to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.”  It takes discipline.  It takes work.  We must recognize our own weakness and the power of temptation.

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So, what would it mean to have the mind of Christ, which includes looking first to the interests of others, and not merely to our own?  How can we love with unconditional love, not with the conditional love of the Palm Sunday crowds?

We sing the hymn of praise to Christ, and we hear the good news that the Lordship of Jesus is confessed throughout the cosmos.  And we are invited to share the mind of one who takes the place of a slave, an outcast—who suffers humiliation and disgust.  He is the one who is exalted and who calls us friends.  We are called to join in that grand parade.

 

[1] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtPent19.htm