built for worship

Many, if not most, of you have heard me speak of my love of Star Trek.  Well, there’s another show, a cartoon, one which has been on the air since 1989, although I haven’t seen many episodes in quite a few years—The Simpsons.  I want to use it as an illustration of worship.

For those who’ve never seen the program (there might be a few of you out there), here’s a quick look at the Simpson family.  The father is Homer, an overweight, bald, not-very-intelligent fellow who just happens to be safety inspector at a nuclear power plant.  He loves beer and donuts, and his signature expression of alarm is “D’oh!”

The mother is Marge, a stay-at-home mom noted for a beehive style of blue hair.  The son is Bart, a ten-year-old whose name, it’s been observed, is a fitting anagram for “brat.”  The daughter, Lisa, is a socially conscious eight-year-old dreamer, artist, and saxophone player.  Then there’s little Maggie, who never speaks and usually has a pacifier stuck in her mouth.  Rounding out the cast is a multitude of other characters, residents of the town of Springfield.

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There’s one episode in particular I want to mention, “Homer the Heretic.”  In Mark Pinksy’s book, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, this is one of the episodes he focuses on.

On a bitterly cold Sunday morning, while the Simpsons are getting ready for church, Homer splits his pants and decides to stay at home.  So while the rest of the family deals with ice and snow, Homer takes a long, hot shower.  As it turns out, the church furnace is broken, so the congregation is shivering while the pastor, Rev. Lovejoy, preaches about the fires of hell, an image that brings a smile to Bart’s face.

By the time the service is over, the doors to the church have frozen shut.  So while Marge and the kids are stuck in a cold building, Homer’s in a warm house, dancing in his underwear, watching a football game, and using the waffle iron to cook his own fattening recipes.

Finally, when the family gets home, icy and irritated, Homer concludes that he’s possibly had the best day of his life, so it must be a sign that he should never again go to church.  Homer defends his reasoning to Marge by saying, “What if we picked the wrong religion?  Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”[1]  In the end, Homer does return to church, assuming his usual posture on the front row, snoring during Rev. Lovejoy’s sermon.

I mention The Simpsons because Homer’s theories about worship are more common than we might think.  Actually, the idea that worship is meant to placate an angry deity goes back for millennia.

Increasingly common is the feeling that worship, at least, involvement in a worshiping community, isn’t very important—it’s not worth the trouble.  I know I felt that way as a teenager.  I even had a problem with the word “worship.”  It seemed like something that would only appeal to losers.

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson reflects on “all the reasons people give for not going to church:

‘My mother made me when I was little.’

‘There are too many hypocrites in the church.’

‘It’s the only day I have to sleep in.’

“There was a time,” he says, “when I responded to such statements with simple arguments that exposed them as flimsy excuses.  Then I noticed that it didn’t make any difference.  If I showed the inadequacy of one excuse, three more would pop up in its place.  So I don’t respond anymore.  I listen…and go home and pray that person will one day find the one sufficient reason for going to church, which is God.  I go about my work hoping that what I do and say will be usable by the Holy Spirit to create in that person a determination to worship God in a Christian community.”[2]

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The reality is: we’re built for worship.  (We’ll hear that phrase again.)  From our own Presbyterian tradition, in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we hear the often-quoted question and answer (with the masculine language.)  “Q. What is the chief end of man?  A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

So much for my former theory that worship is for losers!  To be able to glorify God—to be able to enjoy God—that’s not the mark of a loser.  That’s why it’s so unfortunate when worship goes astray and we turn to idols, however they present themselves.

Most, if not all, of the psalms were used as songs.  They were the song book of the early church.  Many churches still sing them.  Even some Presbyterians!  Our hymnal has an entire section inspired by the psalms.  Reading (or singing) the psalms is a healthy practice for our spiritual life.  If we don’t immerse ourselves in them, even become familiar with them, we are impoverished.

The large majority of psalms have titles.  You can see them right before verse 1.  Psalms 120 to 134 have the title, “A Song of Ascents,” or words to that effect.  These Songs of Ascents are believed to have been sung by Hebrew pilgrims “ascending” to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals.  They ascend because Jerusalem is geographically higher than the surroundings.

Eugene Peterson notes, “But the ascent was not only literal, it was also metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God.”[3]

He says Psalm 122 describes the nature of worship.  It “singles out three items: worship gives us a workable structure for life; worship nurtures our need to be in relationship with God; worship centers our attention on the decisions of God.”[4]  We could come up with some other stuff, but that’s not bad!

Using The Message, his paraphrase of the Bible, Peterson says verses 3 and 4 are about structure: “Jerusalem, well-built city, built as a place for worship!  The city to which the tribes ascend, all God’s tribes go up to worship.”  When the Hebrews gathered for the major festivals, it was for all the tribes, occupations, and social classes.  This is worship as quite literally a structure for life, a clear example of being built for worship!

3 Ps 122Another reason to worship is to foster our bond with God.  The second part of verse 4 reads, “To give thanks to the name of God—this is what it means to be Israel.”  This is about identity.  As the people of God, worship is part of our identity; it’s who we are.

Starting with verse 6, the psalm shows us how worship affects us, or at least, how it should affect us.  “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”  Unfortunately, that scripture is too often abused and taken out of context.  I’ve heard people say praying for the peace of Jerusalem basically means supporting one side or the other in conflict over the city—sometimes involving war.

We become what we worship.  Being built for worship, we all worship something, even if it’s something we’ve never bothered to examine—even if we’ve never thought about what we actually worship.  So if we truly worship the God of peace, we’re led to become people of peace.

Having said all of that, it is also true that “church people” often make church less than inviting.

It’s not unusual for congregations to lament the small number of youth and young families in worship.  The question is often asked, “How can we get them to come to church?”  A question we might ask ourselves is, “When was the last time we spoke to one of those young folks and asked them why don’t they come to church?”  If we’re able to do that without getting defensive—but actually wanting to hear from this person—then that goes a long way.

Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, wrote an article coming at it from a different angle.  For those who don’t know, Group specializes in youth ministry.  He titled the article, “The Rise of the Dones.”[5]  He describes the “dones” as those who are done with church.

Schultz gives a case-in-point with a fellow named John.  Here’s how he describes him:

“John is every pastor’s dream member.  He’s a life-long believer, well-studied in the Bible, gives generously, and leads others passionately.

“But last year he dropped out of church.  He didn’t switch to the other church down the road.  He dropped out completely.  His departure wasn’t the result of an ugly encounter with a staff person or another member.  It wasn’t triggered by any single event.

“John had come to a long-considered, thoughtful decision.  He said, ‘I’m just done.  I’m done with church.’

“John is one in a growing multitude of ex-members.  They’re sometimes called the de-churched.  They have not abandoned their faith.  They have not joined the also-growing legion of those with no religious affiliation—often called the Nones.  Rather, John has joined the Dones.”

Even though all of us are built for worship, there is that increasing group who feel worship and church are two different things.  And these aren’t people who constantly grumble and complain.  They aren’t people who are disruptive and who bully others.  Schultz says many of them are “among the most dedicated and active people in their congregations.”  So why are they leaving?

For many, church has become something to do, but not to be.  It becomes just another activity—and for some, a tiresome and even soul-crushing activity.

This is a wake-up call for all of us.  It is extremely important that we learn to listen; that’s a lesson I have to learn over and over.  It is important to listen to each other.  That’s a key part of learning to listen to God.  If we don’t listen, then our worship will be a performance and nothing more.  It won’t be that spiritual connection that gives life meaning.

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The author and speaker Phyllis Tickle, who died in 2015, once told Banu and me her prayer for us, and for those we minister with, is that church would be not a place to go, but a people to be.  That’s a vision we get from scriptures like Psalm 122.  It was true in ancient times, and it’s still true today.

Can we discover how worship pervades all of life?  Can we discover how worship happens outside these walls?  Can we discover how everything we do, like waiting in line, blowing our nose, or sitting through a meeting, can be an act of worship?

With discoveries like that, we might even hear the words of verse 1 in a whole new way.  “When they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of God.”  When we think of going to the house of God, when we remember that we are built for worship, we might hear, “my heart leaped for joy”—not from the psalmist, but from such a one as Homer Simpson!

 

[1] Mark Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 18.

[2] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2000), 49.

[3] Peterson, 18.

[4] Peterson, 51.

[5] holysoup.com/the-rise-of-the-dones


worship that smells good

Once in a great while, I have noticed an unusual smell wafting out of the kitchen.  It has usually been something with an oniony or a vinegary note to it.  On rare occasions I have asked, “What is that stench?”  Sometimes I’ve added, “Is someone involved in gas warfare?  My eyes are burning.”  My wife has responded, “That’s dinner.”

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For some reason—which I have yet to fathom—describing the smell of food as having a “stench” is worse than commenting on its “aroma”!  (Still, aside from any poorly chosen words on my part, my wife really is a very good cook.)

The culinary arts are not the only arena in which something meant to be beautiful can be taken as something hideous.  Has anyone here ever given what you thought was the perfect gift, only to have it rejected?  (Or perhaps later, made the discovery that it was re-gifted?)  As we see in our scripture reading from Isaiah, sadly, worship can also be put into the category of “what we thought was amazing, but considered repulsive.”

On the face of it, what the prophet says doesn’t make sense.  We might feel like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, falling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

Speaking for the Lord, Isaiah lays into his fellow citizens of Judah.  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” (v. 11).  The Good News Bible says, “Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me?”  Of course, the book of Leviticus goes into detail about the need to offer sacrifices—sacrifices that are now being rejected.

In verse 12 he demands, “Trample my courts no more.”  Again, the Good News Bible says, “Who asked you to do all this tramping around in my Temple?”  They might be forgiven if they were to respond, “Actually, you did.”  There are a number of festivals in which they are told to come to the temple and offer sacrifice, such as Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles (Ex 23:16-17).

And reflecting my opening thoughts about “stench” versus “aroma,” verse 13 claims “incense is an abomination to me.”[1]  Some other translations are even less diplomatic.  Cases in point: “the reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me”; “the smoke from them fills me with disgust” (Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible).

What is going on, besides the often-competing points of view of priest and prophet?

As we continue reading, we start to understand why the prophet is telling the people their worship stinks!

2 worshipHe declares, “your hands are full of blood” (v. 15).  Worship alone—observance of ritual alone—is not the answer.  So what is?  “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (vv. 16-17).

If our worship doesn’t make us more sensitive to the condition of everything in creation (other people, the animals, the earth)—or worse, we become hardened—then something really is wrong.

Richard Rohr speaks of something similar, mystical moments, deep experiences with God in which we encounter God’s love.  This is what he says:

“If it isn’t an experience of newfound freedom, I don’t think it is an authentic God experience.  God is always bigger than you imagined or expected or even hoped for.  When you see people going to church and becoming smaller instead of larger, you have every reason to question whether the practices or sermons or sacraments or liturgies are opening them to an authentic God experience.”[2]

Our epistle reading has St. Paul encouraging his readers to be larger, not smaller, people.

1 Corinthians 11 includes what are known as the words of institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.  (FYI: that’s what we say when we break the bread and pour the cup.  The long prayer before it is called the Great Thanksgiving.)

Banu and I were ordained in 1997, and we spent the next three years at the first church we served, which was in Nebraska.  For quite a while, whenever we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, I would read the words for sharing the bread and cup from our Book of Common Worship verbatim.  I didn’t want to make a mistake!

3 worshipBut in time, I got tired of doing that.  It seemed like I was speaking the words as if they were an incantation.  Mess up a phrase, and the spell would be broken!  What happened was that I started telling the story.  If you read something long enough, eventually, something starts to sink in.

Word has reached the apostle Paul’s ears of a quite unwelcome practice.  To appreciate why he’s upset, we need to understand something about their celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  It’s not the way we do it, with a nibble and a sip.  For them it’s something more substantial; it’s an actual meal.  The practice for much of the New Testament church is to host a love feast, an agape meal.

However, there is a problem.  It seems some of the wealthier Christians are going ahead and helping themselves to the tasty morsels they’ve brought.  They’re not offering to share with the others.  The result is, as the apostle puts it, “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21).

So Paul lets them have it.  If you people want to pig out and get drunk, then do it at home.  Don’t pretend you’re worshipping the Lord.  You’re disrespecting your sisters and brothers who have less.  As he says in verse 20, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.”  He’s telling them their worship stinks!

They need to be reminded that the Lord’s Supper is a communal event; it’s not just a question of observing a ritual.  When Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” it’s not just some mental exercise (v. 24).  It means recognizing the presence of Jesus in their midst—discerning the body of Christ!

The failure of the Corinthians to honor Christ among them—by practicing selfishness instead of love—has had serious consequences.  The apostle is concerned because “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).  How in the world has this come about?

In the late 19th century, a famous preacher in London, Charles Spurgeon, spoke about this in a sermon.[3]  He commented on verse 27, which speaks of those receiving the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner—being “answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”

“Many have been troubled by this verse,” he says.  “They have said, ‘We are unworthy.’”  Spurgeon replies, “You are, this is quite true; but the text does not say anything about your being unworthy.  Paul uses an adverb, not an adjective.  His words are, ‘Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily,’ that is, in an unfit way.”  Or, as the NRSV puts it, “in an unworthy manner.”  It’s not about us; it’s about the way we do it.

Some people decide not to receive the Eucharist, holy communion.  There may be any number of reasons for that.  But refusing on the grounds that one doesn’t feel worthy actually doesn’t make a great deal of sense.  In fact, according to another 19th century minister, the American, Charles Hodge, an unworthy feeling “is one of the conditions of acceptable communion.  It is not the whole [the healthy], but the consciously sick whom Christ came to heal.”[4]

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“They have said, ‘We are unworthy.’” Charles Spurgeon: you bet you are!

In other words, if you feel unworthy, then that’s all the more reason to receive the body and blood of Christ.  It is a gift of grace.

We hear the warning of verse 29, that those “who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  All that leads to a good question: exactly what does it mean to discern the body?  Some say Paul speaks of those who come to the table with unexamined lives—for example, bearing grudges and being unforgiving.  As a result, they’ve been stricken with illness and death as divine judgment.

However, discerning (or not discerning) the body of Christ can be imagined in other ways, possibly more helpful ways.  We may fail to see Christ in people—people in whom we do not wish to see Christ!  It looks like this is what Paul’s talking about.  In our world, many Christians do not see Christ in those on the margins.  We fail to discern the body in the starving and the tortured and those seeking refuge.  We fail to see Christ in those without health care!  Over and over, verse 30 comes true: “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

It may come down to a twist on a question some people ask at Christmas: whose birthday is it, anyway?  Paul seems to be asking, “Whose body is it, anyway?”  If we, like the Corinthians, imagine we are the hosts of this celebration, then that means we get to decide who’s on the guest list.  And we get to decide who’s not.

But if we recognize Christ as our host—that it’s his body we both share and are a part of—our understanding of ourselves and the world gets a radical makeover!

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I’ll close as Spurgeon did so many years ago after reflecting on Paul’s words: “May we…keep this feast in due order under the power of the Holy Spirit, and may we find a blessing in it to God’s praise!”

That is worship that smells good!

 

[1] תּוׄעֵבָה (toebah)

[2] stjohnsquamish.ca/seven-underlying-themes-of-richard-rohrs-teaching/

[3] answersingenesis.org/education/spurgeon-sermons/2268-question-for-communicants/

[4] www.puritansermons.com/reformed/hodge02.htm


test the spirits

“Deus vult!”  “God wills it!”  That was the cry of the first Crusaders in the late 11th century.  What began with more or less noble intentions as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which, by the way, had been under Muslim control for several centuries), quickly descended into a military campaign.  Conquest, not coexistence, became the goal.

I think I’m safe in saying that none of us have participated in a bloody crusade, at least not knowingly.  None of us have gotten it in our head that that was our mission from God.  Still, all of us have gotten it in our heads, at least on occasion (and frequently, more often than that), an idea that turned out to be ill-conceived.

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In the first letter of John there is a warning to his readers to beware of that.  “Beloved,” he says, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (v. 1).  False prophets abound, but we need not believe a false prophet to get a crazy idea in our head—an idea we think is from God!

Let me give you an example.  This was about my proposed plans for life.

In my final semester at Middle Tennessee State University, I got the idea in my head that I should quit school and go to California.

My major was Political Science, but with my exploration of faith—Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Zen—I began to see myself as a seeker of truth, wandering the Earth.  Combining that with my great love of music, I decided that I should return to the land of my first memories of life, San Diego, and get a job in a record store.  I even went to the school library, looked through a San Diego telephone book (this was before the internet), and I found a store near the ocean.

So I made a phone call to my mom and told her what God was leading me to do!  She didn’t have very much to say.  She didn’t ask me, “What in the world are you thinking?”  She simply suggested that I go ahead and finish out the semester, since I was so close to graduating anyway, and then see what I thought.  If God really wanted me to make this major change in my life, waiting a few more weeks wouldn’t hurt.  That turned out to be some pretty good advice.

After a couple of days had gone by, it occurred to me God really did not want me to run off to San Diego!  Who would have thought it?

The author of 1 John says to “test the spirits.”  What are “the spirits”?  Are they supernatural beings?  Are they powers and forces in culture and society?  Are they emotional states of being?  Are they all of those and maybe something else?

The final day of this month, the 31st, is the feast day for St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius was a military officer in 16th century Spain.  As a young man, he was a wild one.  He was a gambler, and kept himself well-groomed, because he loved the ladies.  While fighting the French in the north of Spain, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin.  (If that cannon ball were a few inches higher, well, forget the ladies!)  Ignatius endured many painful months of recovery.

While bedridden, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry.  They weren’t available, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints.  He experienced his conversion while reading those books.  Ignatius decided to use the energy he formerly devoted to warfare to the cause of Christ.  He founded the order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

Ignatius wrote a book entitled, The Spiritual Exercises.  In it, he includes a section on “Discerning the Spirits.”  His use of the word “spirits” reflects a concept that today we might call “inclinations.”  One of his main ideas is the difference between what he calls “consolation” and “desolation.”

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It’s been noted that, for Ignatius, “consolation means love of God and our fellow human beings.  It is a genuine relationship that moves and fulfills.  It is faith, hope, and [love] and ‘every interior joy which calls and attracts one toward heavenly things.’”[1]  Desolation is the opposite.  It is “darkness of soul, confusion of spirit, attraction to what is base and worldly, restlessness caused by many disturbances and temptations which lead to lack of faith, hope, or love.”[2]

That note about “confusion of spirit” might describe me when I was pitching the idea to my mother about quitting school and taking off for California.

It is not a good idea to make a major decision while in a state of desolation.  It’s not a good idea to do that while in a state of crisis.  That state of crisis might include great anxiety, despair, or a very strong feeling of being rushed into something.  I’m not sure how aware she was of this, but with her word of caution, my mother was utilizing an Ignatian principle!

There are a number of ways to “discern” or “test the spirits.”  Is it the Holy Spirit, or some other spirit?  Kirsteen Kim provides some examples.[3]  The first one is what we see in our scripture text: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (v. 2).  That one’s really important; we’ll come back to it.

The second way she mentions is to ask, “Does it demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit?”  Thinking of Galatians 5, we ask things like: does it help us to be more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, better able to exercise self-control?  Does it help us to be more Christ-like?

Another way of testing the spirits would be the presence of charismatic gifts, like healing and speaking in tongues.  Still, in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul points out that these gifts must be exercised in a spirit of love.  There can be a temptation to say, “Look at me!  Aren’t I spiritual?”  Other gifts of the Holy Spirit may include empowerment to teach, to give, to exercise compassion (Ro 12:7-8).  In reality, there are numerous gifts of the Spirit.

The final thing Kim mentions is the Spirit leads us to be concerned about the downtrodden, however that appears.  The Spirit wants us to seek justice.  In Luke 4, the Spirit leads Jesus to announce “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” and letting “the oppressed go free” (v. 18).

But what’s going on with that business regarding a spirit from God confessing Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?

At one level, it simply means that Jesus lived as a flesh and blood human being.  It means that Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, was embodied just like you and me.  He wasn’t just a spiritual being, without physical substance.

The thought that follows in verse 3 is that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (v. 3).  There’s an alternate reading that says “every spirit that does away with Jesus [or “dissolves Jesus”] is not from God.”

3 1 JnHere’s another meaning: if Jesus were not incarnate, in the flesh, our faith in Christ need not be in the flesh.  We would do away, or dissolve, Jesus.  It would be enough to go through life thinking or wishing something were so, but without doing anything in the body—without taking action in the real world.

Again, some words of wisdom from my mother apply.  At one time or another, I expressed my belief that praying for someone or some situation was enough.  It was now in the hands of Jesus.  But my mom asked what was I going to do about it.  That’s a good and often uncomfortable question.  I said, “I’ve prayed.  Isn’t God all powerful?”  Her response was that by now acting on it would “give my prayer wings.”

I realize there are times when things really are out of our control.  Sometimes there are forces at work we can’t help.  At those times, it really is in the hands of God.  But prayer is also about changing us; it’s also about changing our vision towards the world.

Notice how verse 3 ends.  A spirit that does not confess Jesus “is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.”  The spirit of the antichrist: a word which, by the way, does not appear in the book of Revelation.  What is this antichrist?

Here’s one answer.  It’s the spirit that says we need not live as though we belonged to Christ.  It’s enough to have the idea, but don’t dare put it into practice!  The spirit of antichrist says that faith should be a strictly private matter.  Just keep it to yourself.  Hide your light.

Johannes Baptist Metz has an interesting take on this.  “Satan wants the Incarnation to be an empty show, where God dresses up in human costume but doesn’t really commit totally to the role.  The devil wants to make the Incarnation a piece of mythology, a divine puppet show.”[4]  I like that.  A divine puppet show.  Again, it’s about not living our faith in the flesh.

Here’s a question.  What do we make of verse 6?  “We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

If we take the time to test the spirits, if we take the time—with God’s help—to listen to the Holy Spirit, then we can develop the capacity to know the difference between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Even so, we are not infallible; we make mistakes.  And we should be ready, we should allow ourselves, to be surprised.  We should allow ourselves to be surprised by what, and who, we once would have rejected out of hand.  Returning to my original image, we can go on our own crusade, but without love, we’re just being self-righteous.

So, what is love?  That has been asked by many people.  That includes Haddaway, in his 1990s dance song, “What is Love (Baby Don’t Hurt Me),” a song that inspired a popular skit on Saturday Night Live.

Is love just a dreamy, sentimental state?

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once quoted, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.  Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all.  [People] will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last too long but is soon over, with [everyone] looking and applauding as though on the stage.”[5]

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“The devil wants to make the Incarnation a divine puppet show." —Johannes Baptist Metz

(Maybe even a stage with a puppet show?)

Love can be a harsh and dreadful thing.  It can be painful, because it takes time.  It isn’t just one and done.  And as our friend Dorothy suggests, love can mean taking actions and making decisions for the sake of Christ which might not be popular with others.

So, as our scripture ends, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God,” that involves testing the spirits.  “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Imagine that.  Loving our neighbor, loving each other and giving ourselves to each other means loving God, giving ourselves to God.

How can we act as though Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?  Is there something you have tested and know is from the Holy Spirit?  What are we waiting for?  The love of God does the heavy lifting.  That’s when we can truly say, “Deus vult!”  “God wills it!”

 

[1] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 56.

[2] in Susan Rakoczy, “Transforming the Tradition of Discernment,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 139 (March 2011): 96.

[3] Kirsteen Kim, “How Will We Know When the Holy Spirit Comes?” Evangelical Review of Theology 33:1 (January 2009): 95.

[4] Johannes Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit, Inclusive Language Version (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998), 11.

[5] Rakoczy, 107.


gentle and humble in heart

There is a book by spiritual director Adele Ahlberg Calhoun called Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.[1]  In it, she lists 62 different disciplines.  (Spiritual disciplines are practices which promote spiritual growth.  Devotional reading of scripture and various forms of prayer are probably the most familiar ones.)  The discipline I want to address today is “teachability.”

How many of you recall the TV show from the 70s called Kung Fu, starring the late David Carradine?  I always liked the way he spoke.  “I am Caine.  I am called many names, but I have chosen ‘Caine.’”  When he fought, he did it with almost effortless action.  He was a serene warrior—even a pacifist warrior?

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I remember a commercial he did for Yellowbook.com, a website version of the yellow pages.  (I’ll be honest, I did have to go to YouTube to refresh my memory!)[2]

Anyway, he’s approached by a would-be disciple who inquires of him, the master, the source of his wisdom.  The student is directed to the website, in which Carradine promises infinite information.  He then proceeds to meditate with the mantra, “Yellowbook dot commmmm.”

Wisdom is sometimes confused with information.  Thanks to the internet, the information available to us is exponentially greater than at any time in human history.  By the time this day is over, it will have vastly expanded again.  Does that mean we’re wiser than all the generations before us?  I don’t have to answer that question, do I?

If teachability isn’t simply the acquisition of information, then what is it?  Calhoun says it means being “a lifelong learner who is continually open to the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit,” and that might mean learning “from God no matter who the teacher or what the experience may be.”[3]  That last part can really be a problem.  God can speak to us—even through those we consider having nothing to learn from!

Teachability is not about what you know or don’t know.  It’s an attitude of the heart; it’s a readiness, an eagerness, to learn.  And it’s also a practice.  It’s something we can will ourselves to do and to be.

Mere possession of knowledge does not make someone wise.  We’ve all encountered people, so-called experts, who know a great deal (though usually not as much as they think they do!) and are anything but teachable.  We see this on the job, in school, in church, in the government, on television.  They’re not open to other ideas.  The Bible has a word for such people: they’re called “fools.”  And if we’re honest, I’m sure all of us have been fools.  I know I have!

While teachability is something to which we must be open, wisdom is not something we can just conjure up at will.  Fortunately, God, who gives truth, also gives wisdom to those who seek it.

In Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified in the form of a female who calls out, who raises her voice.  We read in verses 2 to 4: “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.’”

Being portrayed as female, the speaker here, not surprisingly, is often given the name Lady Wisdom.  Some of the women will no doubt think, “Of course, wisdom is female!  Can you seriously picture wisdom as a man?”

But she’s more than just a gift from God.  She is divine wisdom.  We’re reminded of how the gospel of John starts: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).  Before the creation of the universe, Lady Wisdom existed, or exists—it’s a timeless reality.  Verses 22 and 23 tell us, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

Comparison is made between Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and Jesus in Matthew 11.[4]  Jesus is placed in what’s known as the wisdom tradition.  He’s also compared with Sirach, part of the apocrypha.  (Those are additional books that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches accept as scripture.)

Sirach, which was written two centuries before Jesus, says this: “Put your neck under her [that is, wisdom’s] yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.  See with your own eyes that I have labored but little and found for myself much serenity” (51:26-27).  The image of the yoke as binding oneself to wisdom well predates Jesus.

In our gospel text, Jesus speaks as the very voice of divine wisdom.  And he’s presented within a context of teachability—or at least, hoping for teachability!  In verse 15, he says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”  Just before today’s reading, he makes the rather surprising statement, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (v. 25).  It’s safe to say, Jesus has encountered plenty of so-called experts!

But as I was looking at this, the phrase that really captured my attention is in verse 29.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  His yoke—an instrument for holding two oxen together, or for torturing people—is described in verse 30 as “easy.”  The word in Greek is χρηστος (chrēstos), which also means “kind.”  Change one letter, and we have χριστος (christos), the word for “Christ.”  (To be honest, I’m not sure how meaningful that is!)

Still, Jesus makes a claim that sounds like a qualification for teaching.  After issuing the invitation to take his kind and easy yoke, he says this: “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.”  Gentle and humble in heart.  He doesn’t say, “Learn from me, because I know better, because I know more than you do.”

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We can learn from Jesus because he possesses wisdom.  And because he possesses wisdom, for that very reason, he is also teachable.

The best teachers always practice the art of teachability.  The professor of the one economics course I took in college did not seem to practice that art!  He would get visibly irritated if he had to answer more than one or two questions during a class period.  His philosophy was to just plow through the material, whether or not the students knew what he was talking about.

The best teachers remain open to new ideas.  And no matter how much they already know, they’re humble enough to admit that they always have much more to learn.

We too easily ignore the fact that Jesus was completely, totally human.  And as such, he had to learn.  In his encounters with other people, without question, there was a two way flow of information.  In Jesus, the one who teaches, and the one who is taught, are in perfect harmony.

That’s especially evident in his encounters with society’s outcasts.  As I mentioned earlier, Jesus thanks God for hiding certain truths from “the wise and the intelligent” (or so they think), and revealing them “to infants.”  The religious leaders and other notables are offended by his associating with these undesirables.

I think Jesus not only gives benefit, but receives benefit, by his interaction with the poor and the unwanted.  He learns things that the high and mighty can never understand.

In the call of Jesus to “learn” from him, he’s talking about more than knowledge gained by sitting in a classroom and taking notes.  The word used (μαθετε, mathete) literally means, “be discipled” by me—or be my apprentice.  That speaks of relationship, of walking together.  It speaks of bearing that kind and easy yoke together.  It does not mean being sent off to Yellowbook dot commmmm!

It’s been said that the call of Jesus “is not a call to heaviness, but a call to lightness of being.  It contrasts with the serious calls of those who interpret scripture as demand and [restriction].”[5]  And those stuffy souls with their long, frowning faces absolutely hate him for it.  They despise Jesus.  People like that are prisoners, trapped by their own inflexibility.

The more teachable we are, the more we are like Jesus: gentle and humble in heart.  The arrogant and proud aren’t interested in learning.  They only care about gathering information to bolster their own positions, their own preconceived notions.

Here’s a question.  How often do you find yourself talking with someone who doesn’t seem to be listening to you?  Far from thoughtfully considering what you’ve said, the other person seems to already be thinking of a reply—even while you’re still speaking!  How many here have gotten that impression?  How many here have been guilty of that offense?

The epistle of James offers this lesson in becoming more teachable: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak” (1:19).

I’ll leave you with a couple of questions Calhoun poses for us.  “What positions have you rethought and changed your mind about in the last few years?  What does this say about you and your journey?”[6]

This is bigger than social issues; this is bigger than politics.  This is about our willingness to let God change us, to not be attached to our own opinions.  Teachability is about transformation.  As the scripture says, those who find Lady Wisdom find life.  Those who hate her find death.  Choose life.  Follow Lady Wisdom; she is gentle and humble in heart.

 

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

[2] www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGjJz1PmuQ4

[3] Calhoun, 82.

[4] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981), 267.

[5] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtPentecost4.html

[6] Calhoun, 83.


the state of the union, imho

I checked, and the title of my sermon this time last year was “Independence Day Theological Reflections of One American.”  Quite a mouthful.  This year, “The State of the Union” is a bit shorter.  And if delivering a “state of the union” address means I’m getting too big for my britches, I do add “in my humble opinion.”

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Right away, I freely admit hearing the prophet Jeremiah chew people out at the temple and hearing Jesus telling us to love our enemies is not your typical Independence Day sermon.  However, I do have an explanation.  But we’ll get back to it in a few moments!

I can’t resist tossing something in about paying your taxes.  Did you know it’s a spiritual discipline?  Well, sort of.  In Romans 13, St. Paul says, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (v. 7).  And that, coming from a guy who knew all about being persecuted by the government!

So there is that political dimension, which makes sense.  Words like “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr), in the first century, are not just theological, but they’re also political.  The terms “Lord” and “Savior” are titles attributed to the emperor of Rome.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues (which are qualities bullies possess), are especially insistent about it.  They crave adoration with a vengeance.

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When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on Facebook and hope that you’ll get plenty of “likes.”  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

Neither the northern kingdom of Israel nor the southern kingdom of Judah had empires.  Still, like most countries, they had their own brands of patriotism.  Banu has told me on several occasions when she was growing up she was taught, “There’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!”

Jeremiah faces a situation in which the temple is being used as a tool of the state.  It has been co-opted by patriotism gone wild.  The temple has been turned into an idol.  The threat of the Babylonians, who have been gobbling up countries right and left, has the people of Judah fearing for their lives.  And that’s understandable.  But in times of fear, even paranoia, the temptation to grab easy answers can be almost irresistible.

That is what’s going on here.  There is a belief that God will not allow Jerusalem and the temple to be destroyed.  In the midst of uncertainly, while the winds are howling, there’s a safe haven in the storm—and it’s the symbol of national pride and where the priests do business.

Unfortunately, as the prophet points out, if your conduct is criminal, if you disregard the distressed, if you neglect the needy, the temple won’t protect you.  But talk like that flies in the face of the official line.  Jeremiah is tired of the propaganda, the empty slogans, and he makes fun of them.  “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (v. 4).

3 independenceAnd he’s saying all of this at the temple of the Lord!  The prophet calls out the political and religious powers-that-be, and he does it in plain sight.  (Or as my mom told me when I was a kid, “Before God and everybody!”)  He issues his protest, “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail” (v. 8).

As you might expect, Jeremiah is labeled a traitor, and all kinds of bad stuff happens to him—but we can leave that for another day.

Distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be a tricky thing.  Love of country is part of the love of God’s good creation, though caution is warranted, lest it divide us.  Loving the gift of God is right and praiseworthy.  Still, too often we love the gift more than the Giver.

We might put some questions to the fellows we just looked at.  Do we go along with Paul and pay taxes, even if they’re used for an evil purpose?  The Romans ruled with an iron fist.  Of course, Jesus also paid taxes, and he wound up getting the death penalty.

What about Jeremiah?  Is he a whistleblower, or is he endangering the country?  Is he a precursor to Edward Snowden—though not many people would call Snowden a prophet!

I think there are more questions than answers when we look at this stuff, but questions are a good thing.

I just said distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be tricky.  For those of us who would maintain that Christ and Caesar are not the same thing, we do have to tread carefully.  An Independence Day sermon can be tricky!  Choosing to do one can be tricky.  Talk about treading carefully.

Something that came to mind this past week was an experience in 1991, just as the first Gulf War was beginning.  My pastor made it quite clear he was in favor of the war.  I was not, but that’s really not my point here.  The Sunday after the war started, I knew it would be the theme for worship.  And I knew I would be miserable, so I attended church elsewhere.  At the big Methodist church in town, the war was mentioned in prayer, but that was it.

I went back to my church during the week, and the red, white, and blue bunting that adorned the stage was still there.  I thought it looked more like an election campaign headquarters than a church.  Recognizing the difference between Christ and Caesar can indeed be difficult.

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The apostle Paul says paying taxes is an act of faithfulness.  At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah speaks truth to power.  Now, here comes Jesus, with his call to love our enemies.

Melissa Bane Sevier has interesting thoughts on the matter.[1]  She notices how Jesus expands on loving our enemies, especially in verses 46 and 47.  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

5 independenceShe says, “I can say I love someone while not really liking that person, right?  Avoiding them helps with the illusion that I don’t hate them, and if I don’t hate them, I must love them.”  That must be it!  Problem solved.

Still, she continues, “Avoidance doesn’t seem to be an option with Jesus.  I am required to greet all people, whether I love/like them or not.  And if I only love/like the people who love/like me, I’m not being the person I need to be.  That’s more difficult than I thought.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I believe she is speaking to me.  I believe Jesus is speaking to me.  And it is something I recognize.

I’m no fan of the big cable news networks.  They’re more interested in entertainment than journalism, in my humble opinion.  That’s a reflection of our society and its dualistic, simplistic view of reality.  It’s us and them, winners and losers, black and white.  To be honest, it’s too often a reflection of the church.

Greeting those with whom I disagree is more than not getting into an argument.  It actually involves engaging with them, even if it seems so tiresome!

6 independenceSevier notes, “Praying for them is so much more difficult than not-hating them.  Not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active.”  And it’s not simply praying for their hearts to change.  I’ve been guilty of that one!  When we pray for our enemies, it’s most of all, our heart that changes.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Your enemy is your best teacher”?

She concludes, “Praying won’t make me less convinced of the rightness of justice, but it will help me see the person on the other side as a real person, not as someone I want to defeat…

“For the next week, I’m going to choose one public figure a day—one who I think is really wrong-headed…and pray for that person.  I expect I will be changed.  Not in my convictions, but in my humanity.”

Imagine the state of the union if that were our measure of faithfulness.

Imagine the state of the union among us if that were our measure of faithfulness.

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[1] melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/praying-for-enemies


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.”

4 trinity
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.)

2 pentecost

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!)

4 pentecost

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.

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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.

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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.