an offer you can’t refuse

Weddings can be strange things.

I’ve told Banu I almost prefer presiding at a funeral more than presiding at a wedding.  Of course, it depends on how demanding the family is.  Sometimes it seems like everybody and their Aunt Edna has an opinion on how things should go.  Sometimes it feels like crowd control.

1 Mt 22Our Book of Order has something to say about this.  “The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the minister of the Word and Sacrament and the supervision of the session” (W-4.0603).  And notice that it uses the word “marriage.”  Too often, there’s more focus on the wedding than on the marriage.

But I mention how weddings can be strange things.  Banu’s and my wedding might fit into that category.

We decided to make our vows in Turkish.  Our Old Testament professor, who we asked to preside, wrote them down so he could pronounce them properly.  Things were going fine until I said a particular line.  As soon as it came out of my mouth, I noticed Banu’s sister, who was sitting in the front row, begin to quietly laugh.  Afterwards, I was informed that my intended statement, “I promise to love you forever,” actually had the meaning, “I promise to explode.”  At least, that’s the way she explained to me.

(Hearing the story later, a friend of ours told me since I messed up the vow, I didn’t have to keep it.  Banu was not amused.)

When I’ve done weddings, I sometimes tell the couple it’s not a real wedding if something doesn’t go wrong!

In Matthew 22, Jesus speaks of a wedding that is extremely strange.  Actually, this is the wedding feast, so it’s not just the wedding; it’s the party that goes with it!  And calling it “strange” is a vast understatement.  In fact, the entire parable is worse than strange.  You can’t help but notice the violence and craziness.  One writer has called it “this bizarre little story.”[1]

You’ll notice this isn’t a case of wedding crashers.  It’s the exact opposite.  The invitations have been sent out, but nobody wants to come!

2 Mt 22

I like how the story gets started.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (v. 2).  This is a parable.  The Greek word (παραβολη, parabolē) means “comparison.”  The kingdom of heaven may be compared.  Some say it’s also an allegory, a figurative story.  It has things which represent something else, so it’s not a direct comparison.  Maybe that lessens the embarrassment of what follows!

The wedding day arrives, and the king sends the word.  We’re ready to start!  Still, as you heard, no one shows up.  So he sends some more servants, and they describe the delicious food on the menu.  Everything is ready—we even kept in mind the vegans and the gluten-free folks!

Even this doesn’t work.  They go back to their business, and some of the invitees grab the servants and give them a sound beating; some of them are even killed.

Lance Pape, professor at Brite Divinity School, says “things go completely off the rails…  [T]he weirdness and violence are just getting started.”[2]  The king goes ballistic.  He doesn’t send any more of his servants.  This time, he sends his soldiers!  And they lay waste to the town.

While the fires are burning, the king says, “Forget those ungrateful fools.  Just grab people at random and bring them to the banquet.  And you know, let’s do that before the food gets cold!”

Okay, what do we have so far?  All of this is being compared to the kingdom of heaven.  If the king is supposed to be God, what does that say?  Is it like The Godfather, where Marlon Brando as Don Corleone uses the phrase, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  Is God a kingpin in the mafia?

3 Mt 22If it seems things can’t get any crazier, hold on to your hats, because they do!  The king sees a guest without wedding garments, and he gets completely unhinged.  Now in fairness, it’s been pointed out in Middle Eastern cultures it was common for guests to be provided with proper attire.  Maybe that’s true, and it would suggest the unfortunate fellow was guilty of refusing the king’s gift.  Still, we might be forgiven for thinking there’s a tiny bit of overreaction on the king’s part.

Bind him hand and foot!  Toss him out into the dark!  Let him wail and grind his teeth while experiencing the pain and the loneliness!  As I said—just a tiny bit of overreaction.

Having said that, this is the way the story is often presented.

Lutheran pastor Janet Hunt suggests another way to approach it.[3]  A big part of it is asking if the God of Jesus Christ in any way resembles the king in our parable.  I ask that question as well.

She wonders if those who refuse the invitation do it “as a sign of protest.”  Is it beyond the realm of possibility that the king is a tyrant?  His actions might seem to suggest so.  Could it be the people don’t believe he is worthy of the title “king”?  Maybe his motivation to have a big crowd at the banquet is to prevent suffering shame in front of everyone, to boost his ego.

Hunt also speaks more directly about Jesus.

She says, “I cannot help but believe that Jesus was, in fact, more like those who would never have been among the first invited…but would have found himself in the second batch of invitees.”  Jesus isn’t a part of the fancy crowd who received the first batch of invitations.  He’s part of the rabble, the ordinary folk.  That would seem to go along with the upside-down, inside-out way Jesus tells stories and engages with people.

She continues, “Indeed, as this parable comes to its conclusion, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is not the one without the wedding robe—the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on that wedding robe—who in behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

6 Mt 22.jpg

Hunt admits she might be way off base.  She might be dead wrong.  But she does offer a thought.  “[I]sn’t it just as likely that the kingdom of heaven is more like any one of us who refuses to bow to the powers that be when innocents suffer than like a king who throws his power around and destroys those who would not do his will?”  Maybe that’s the comparison between the kingdom of heaven and the parable.  I’ll leave you to mull over it!

I would like to go back to the thought of refusing gifts.

We come to the end, verse 14.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Many are called—many are invited to the party—but few are chosen.  Maybe they’re not willing to be chosen.  How many times have we been unwilling to be chosen?  I can think of way too many times I’ve been in that place!

I was baptized when I was 21.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I really opened myself up to matters of faith.  I made discoveries, but I too often wanted to control how they were made.  I even started going to church, though on an infrequent basis.  I knew I was being called to go deeper, to let go.  It was the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  But I didn’t want to be chosen; I didn’t want to go to that party.  I didn’t want to taste the food at that banquet.

Eventually I surrendered and submitted to the waters of baptism.  I RSVPed the Spirit and said, “Count me in!”  But that’s not the end of the story.  As the years have gone by, there are still parties I don’t want to attend.  There have been times when I have refused the king’s invitation.

Our friend Lance Pape chimes in.  “The doors of the kingdom community are thrown wide open, and the invitation extends literally to all.  But once you come in, there are standards.  You can’t go on acting like you are not at an extraordinary party.”  This party, this wedding feast, is serious business.

5 Mt 22

He says about the fellow without the wedding garment that “his problem is a failure to party.  The kingdom of heaven…is a banquet, after all, and you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program.  The kingdom music is playing, and it’s time to get up on the dance floor.”

In all honesty, I need to practice getting on the dance floor, but maybe learning to laugh at yourself and being a fool for Christ is the perfect first step in that dance.  There is plenty of sorrow and pain in the world, but accepting the invitation to the wedding banquet opens us to the joy of the Lord.

I would say that’s an offer you can’t refuse.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204

[3] dancingwiththeword.com/the-wedding-banquet-turning-it-inside-out


reflect on Sabbath

In his book, Sacred Necessities, Terry Hershey tells a rather quirky little story.[1]  It involves a man going on a journey.  It’s a journey on which he encounters the unexpected.  And it is, as they say, much to his chagrin.  Here’s how Hershey tells the story:

“An American traveler planned a long safari to Africa.  He was a compulsive man, loaded down with maps, timetables, and agendas.  [Workers] had been engaged from a local tribe to carry the cumbersome load of supplies, luggage, and ‘essential stuff.’

“On the first morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  On the second morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  On the third morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  And the American seemed pleased.  On the fourth morning, the jungle tribesmen refused to move.  They simply sat by a tree.  The American became incensed.  ‘This is a waste of valuable time.  Can someone tell me what is going on here?’

1 sabbath

“The translator answered, ‘They are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.’”

Do you ever feel that way?  Do you ever find yourself waiting for your soul to catch up with your body?

Or do you find yourself relating to the traveler who is on a schedule?  “We’ve got things to do and places to go…hey, we can fit another bag in there…and what’s wrong with these lazy people…don’t they know time is money…I’m not doing this for my health…”

Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe you should be doing it for your health!

Our scripture text in Exodus 20, the first version of the Ten Commandments (the second one is in Deuteronomy 5), covers a lot of ground: living a life in which the Lord, Yahweh, is one’s God, not misusing the Lord’s name, and then, there’s a collection which basically deals with loving one’s neighbor.

But it’s the fourth commandment I want to focus on: the call to remember the Sabbath—to reflect on Sabbath, or perhaps, on the Sabbath to engage in reflection.

Speaking of reflection, Walter Brueggemann has a reflection of his own in his very interesting book, Sabbath as Resistance (the subtitle is Saying No to the Culture of Now).  He shows how Sabbath really is a counter-cultural thing.

He shares a story from his youth:[2]

“When I was growing up in rural Saline County, Missouri,” he says, “‘Mr. G.,’ our town grocer, and his wife always sat up front in church.  Every Sunday, during the last five minutes of the sermon by the pastor (my father), Mr. G. and his wife would rather ceremoniously walk the long aisle to the back of the church and leave.  They did not mind the distraction of their maneuver to everyone else at worship.  The reason they left is that the other church in town, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, got out of service thirty minutes earlier than we [did].  As a kid, I often wondered how often Mr. G. had looked at his watch during the service to be sure he left on time to receive Lutheran trade and Lutheran money.  I did not know the phrase at the time, but Mr. G. was ‘multitasking.’  He was worshiping, even while he kept an eye on the clock for the sake of trade and profit.”

2 sabbathBrueggemann says multitasking is “poisonous,” because it leads to “a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.”[3]  If we’re distracted by many things, it is difficult to keep the Sabbath holy.  But what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy?  It partly involves how we treat others, and like the fellow who needs his soul to catch up with his body, how we treat ourselves.

Look at the way our chapter begins.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (v. 2).  That sets the stage.  Everything following is set within the context of the exodus from Egypt, being set free from slavery.  And that applies to the Sabbath.  “The God who rests is the God who emancipates from slavery and…from the work system of Egypt.”[4]

Have you ever watched a dog chasing its own tail?  Our dog chases his tail, especially when he gets upset and throws a temper tantrum.  He spins round and round in a circle.

If you recall, earlier in the book of Exodus, the economic system the Pharaoh develops is a circle, a vicious circle.  Here’s what I mean.  The Israelites are forced to make bricks.  And they are driven to produce more, which in turn, raises expectations and quotas are increased, which then means the work force has to put in even more hours (and if you do get vacation time, stay in touch with the office).

Does that sound familiar?  It seems the ancient Egyptians aren’t the only ones chasing their own tails!

3 sabbathSpeaking of Sabbath and working, I want to tell another story.  I heard this from someone when I was at seminary.

It seems there was a pastor who refused to buy the Sunday newspaper.  He could not abide supporting something made on the Lord’s day.  He wanted nothing to do with it.  However, someone told him the Sunday paper was actually printed on Saturday.  He had a sense of relief.  He had permission to buy the newspaper.

Although, I never heard if he then refused to buy the Monday paper!

Now I want to bring this Sabbath stuff to a more personal level.  And when I say “personal,” I am including myself.  I have to ask myself, “Do I remember the Sabbath, and do I keep it holy?”  I go back to my earlier question, “What does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy?”  What does it mean to sanctify it, to set it apart?

Throughout the Ten Commandments, the only time the word “holy” appears is in reference to the Sabbath.  It’s not even used for God.

With the Sabbath, we’re not dealing with sacred space.  With the Sabbath, we’re dealing with sacred time.

I’m fascinated by time.  I spoke earlier about dogs.  I’ve often wondered how dogs perceive the passage of time—especially when we go somewhere and our dog Aidan is left all by himself.  We humans perceive it all too well.  Time is a precious commodity.  It is precious because we are aware that our lives have a finite amount of it.  It will run out, and we know it!

In 1951, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel published the now classic book The Sabbath, a true masterpiece.  It’s short, but it’s filled with rich and wonderful and sometimes stark imagery.

Listen to how he describes time: “Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[6]

Still, the Sabbath redeems time.  Heschel says, “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil.  He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.”[7]

4 sabbathIn soaring language, he says, “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”  The Sabbath is “architecture of time,” “holiness in time,” and most of all, “a palace in time.”[8]

I wonder about myself.  Do I regard the Sabbath as a palace in time?  Or am I embezzling my own life?

The Sabbath is not about laying down rules and regulations.  Jesus understands that.  In Luke 6, faced with some scribes and Pharisees who insist on dotting every “i” and crossing every “t,” he asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (v. 9).  He changes the focus; he changes the conversation.  He has us look at it in a different and unexpected way.

Still, the Sabbath does make demands on us.  God loves us so much that we are called to imitate God—to rest and to build a world in which others can rest.  We are reminded that, around the globe, there are too many who have no time to rest.  There are children who have no time to rest.

We’re reminded, “Christian practices—whether hospitality, forgiveness, testimony, or keeping Sabbath—impose rhythms that make demands on us, that break us out of zones of comfort and familiarity, and that enlarge our hearts.”[9]  The Lord commands and invites us to enlarge our hearts.

As I prepare to close, I want to include one more quote.  This is from Joan Chittister, the well-known Benedictine sister in Erie, Pennsylvania.  She speaks about the verse in Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God” (v. 10).

She says that verse “is more than the simple observation that everyone needs to let go a little, to get rested enough to work harder next week, to change pace from the hectic and the chaotic.  It is far beyond the fact that everyone needs a vacation.  Oh no, it is much more than that.  What [it] teaches us is the simple truth that a soul without a sense of Sabbath is an agitated soul.”[10]  What about that?  A soul without a sense of Sabbath is an agitated soul.

I fear that, even in the church, there are way too many agitated souls.  What kind of damage does that do?  What kind of damage do we do to each other?  What kind of damage do we do to ourselves?

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So today, I would like for all of us to rest and reflect on Sabbath.  I would like for us to take the time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  I would like for us to thank the Lord for the wonderful gift of the palace in time.

 

[1] Terry Hershey, Sacred Necessities (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2005), 68-69.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), Kindle edition, Chapter 5, section 1, paragraph 1

[3] Brueggemann, 5.4.1

[4] Brueggemann, 1.1.2

[5] Brueggemann, 1.1.3

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), 5.

[7] Heschel, 13.

[8] Heschel, 8, 15.

[9] David F. White, “Keeping Sabbath,” Windows: Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Fall 2014): 12.

[10] www.huffingtonpost.com/sister-joan-chittister-osb/the-sabbath-making-someth_b_643716.html


be a man

Be a man.  That’s part of the closing message St. Paul gives in his first letter to the Corinthian church.

This, from the same guy who sounds like he’s downplaying being a man.  He says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:28).

And this, from the same guy who admits at times his frail and even sickly appearance.  People say of him, “His letters are lengthy and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Co 10:10).  He thanks the Galatians for not being disgusted by him.  He says, “though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (4:14).

1 be a manHaving said that, I admit he says some stuff which seems to demean his sisters in Christ.  One example would be, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Ti 2:11-12).  That doesn’t appear to line up with his other thoughts.  It’s been said he’s referring to a particular situation, but I won’t get into that now!

You might ask, “Where does he say, ‘Be a man’”?  Most translations don’t use that phrasing.

There are four commands in 16:13.  “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  It’s that third one—be courageous—which comes from the Greek word, ανδριζεσθε (andrizesthe).  And it literally means, “be a man.”  I don’t suppose it would be a big surprise to hear “being a man” linked with “being courageous.”

If you’re wondering what the command to “be a man” has to do with the other half of the human race, don’t worry, I’ll get to it in a few moments!

Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks published an article entitled, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.”[1]  He uses as a starting point the ancient Greek concept of manliness.  I wouldn’t say the ancient Greeks’ point of view is the epitome, or the final word on the subject, but since there is that cultural background in the apostle Paul’s world, maybe it deserves a look.

“Greek manliness,” he says, “started from a different place than ours does now.  For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.

“For them, real men defended or served their city, or performed some noble public service.  Braying after money was the opposite of manliness.  For the Greeks, that was just avariciousness, an activity that shrunk you down into a people-pleasing marketer or hollowed you out because you pursued hollow things.”

2 be a manI think we definitely can see some parallels with our society.  We even see it mentioned sarcastically in the psalms: “you are praised when you do well for yourself” (Ps 49:18).

Brooks talks about certain traits the ancient Greeks considered indicative of a manly man: being courageous, assertive, competitive, demonstrating his prowess, being self-confident.  Still, there is something else about the manly man.  “[H]e is also touchy.  He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due…  They are hard to live with.  They are constantly picking fights and engaging in peacock displays.”

When he says, “Be a man,” I really don’t think Paul is telling us to act that way!  He’s had plenty of run-ins with characters like that.  For example, in a couple of places, he mockingly refers to “super-apostles” (2 Co 11:5, 12:11).  These guys are flexing their apostolic muscles!  (Like bragging about the size of their audience.)

Brooks mentions a corrective the Greeks had.  They “took manliness to the next level.  On top of the honor code, they gave us the concept of magnanimity…  The magnanimous leader possesses all the spirited traits described above, but uses his traits not just to puff himself up, but to create a just political order.”

And accordingly, Paul warns us, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Co 8:1).

3 be a man
Has there been a leader in recent history who better defined magnanimous than Nelson Mandela?

Here’s where I get back to the question of what “being a man” says to women and children.  Clearly, the apostle is addressing the whole church.

He praises women who have served Christ and the church, sometimes at personal risk.  Paul refers to Chloe as one of the church’s leaders (1:11).  And in his closing statements to the church in Rome, he gives God thanks for Phoebe, a deacon, for Mary (one of several Marys, we don’t know which), the sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis, among others (16:1,6, 12).

It’s safe to say these women have demonstrated, they have lived, the four-fold command of verse 13.

What they have not done is spread gossip, look with a greedy eye at their neighbor’s possessions—or at their husband (if they’re in the market for that sort of thing!)  Their favorite song is not “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  (Apologies to fans of Marilyn Monroe.)  And they don’t have as many shoes as Imelda Marcos did.

4 be a man

Something else about this business of being a man is the term “son of man.”

In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, “son of man” (בֶן־אָדָם, ben ’adam) appears 93 times.  For him, it simply means “mortal.”  It doesn’t have the messianic tone it takes later on.

However, for Jesus there is a sense of being the messiah, the Christ.  Still, aside from that, “Son of Man” describes him as the essence of what it means to be human.  It’s Son of Man as opposed to Son of God.  He is “the human one.”  To the extent we are like Jesus, to that same extent we are human.

Jesus embraces, personifies, both what are often thought of as masculine and feminine qualities, such as might and meekness.  Over and over in the gospels, we see him moving beyond what his culture rigidly assigns as the realm of men and the realm of women.  He welcomes women as his disciples; he actually teaches women!  That’s a big no-no.

So, having said all of that, we immediately have verse 14.  “Let all that you do be done in love.”  That comes right after being told, “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  Be a man.  Be courageous, but do it in love.  Maybe we can say, as we saw earlier, be magnanimous!

What does all this mean?  Well, let’s look at Ezekiel and Jesus again.

The first time the Lord calls Ezekiel “son of man” is when he gets his commission.  He’s given quite a task.  “Mortal [son of man], I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.” (2:3).  Hmm, I’m not sure I like where this is going.  Is there anything else?

“The descendants are impudent and stubborn.  I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (v. 4).  It doesn’t sound like the prophet will get a welcome reception.

Hostility is not the only reaction.  Later in the book, we see him being disregarded.  In chapter 33, the Lord tells him about the people, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (v. 32).  These folks aren’t mad at him.  They applaud and say, “Wonderful job,” and then go on about their business.

Even so, Ezekiel loves his people.  He demonstrates loving courage.  Love is no easy thing.

What about Jesus?  He tells his disciples, his friends, something that will shock and dismay them.  He lets them know what is in store.  Jesus will be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, flogged, and crucified.  Now there is the tiny bit about being raised from the dead, but they can’t get past the laundry list of insane stuff coming first.

Knowing what’s ahead of him, Jesus demonstrates loving courage.

What does loving courage mean for us?  What does loving courage mean for me?  I wonder, in what ways do I ignore St. Paul’s call to live a life of courage, shot through with love?  How often do I imitate the admirers of Ezekiel, finding joy in art, books, film, and music­­—even the scriptures—and yet not allowing it to change me?  How often do I lack that courage—to not fully be a man—to not fully be human?

5 be a man

What does loving courage mean for all of us?  Do we have the courage to ruffle some feathers?  When the loving Holy Spirit prompts us, do we change the way we’ve been doing things?  Do we make room for others?

These are questions to ask the person in the mirror.  Do I help others to be courageous?  Do I help others to be human?

In his final words, Paul cries out, “Maranatha” (v. 22).  Maranatha means two things.  “Come, our Lord,” and “Our Lord has come”!  May we be people who find the loving courage to live out those words.

 

[1] www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/opinion/scaramucci-mccain-masculinity-white-house.html


gracefully correct

There are many cases of conflict and need for forgiveness in our world.

We could recite a laundry list.  One on the international level that in recent months has appeared with a vengeance involves the US and North Korea.  I wonder, if our leaders considered themselves to be brothers, would it make a difference?

It is unusual to hear competing sides refer to each other as “brothers” or “sisters.”  Still, if we recall Cain and Abel, we should be aware of how the Bible presents the very first homicide as a fratricide, one brother killing another.  (I suppose we could make the argument, taking the really broad view, that every murder is a fratricide or a sororicide, killing a brother or sister.)

In Matthew 18, Jesus addresses the conflict, the offense, the sin that goes on in the church, the Christian community of faith.

The Lord addresses his disciples, posing a scenario in which a brother or sister sins against another.  Some manuscripts don’t even include the words “against another.”  They simply say if someone sins.  Period.  If someone commits an offense.  Full stop.

As I just said, Jesus places all of this in the church.

1 Mt 18How about if we start with a less serious situation?  (Although I must confess, some might consider this one to be a matter of life and death!)

When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches.  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it!  I’m sure that’s never been a problem here!  I’m sure if anyone noticed someone in their spot, the reaction would be, “Welcome to worship!  I’m so glad you’re here!”

But for a moment, let’s assume it were a matter of serious importance.  What would be the first step in addressing the offender?  Publicly berate the person?  Enlist others to give stern looks?  Perhaps make derogatory comments about their mother?

Again, assuming the action would qualify as sin, what does Jesus say?  Verse 15 reads, “If another member of the church [or your sister or brother in the faith] sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Going first to the person alone says and requires a number of things.  One thing it requires is a certain level of maturity.  Being willing to lovingly confront, to face them alone in person, rather than talking about them behind their back—or spreading gossip—means you’re willing to “own” your complaint, to take responsibility for it.  You’re not playing the game of reporting what anonymous “others” have said.

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.

But isn’t it so much fun proving you’re right or getting the last word in?

2 Mt 18

The late Wayne Oates, a congregational consultant, said when we go to the person first, we “[g]ive the person the benefit of the doubt by saying, ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’  The news bearer may not have reported accurately or may have misinterpreted…  Give ‘the offender’ an opportunity to say it in [his or] her own words.”[1]

There’s usually two sides, or even more sides, to every story.

It’s not much fun when your words are taken the wrong way, is it?  When you’re misunderstood?  On the internet and in emails, a lot of people use emojis, like a smiley face to show they’re not angry.  Or maybe they use a wink, letting people know they’re just being facetious and playful.

Think about the Bible.  We can’t hear the tone of voice, so we don’t always know if something is gravely serious, or if it’s a good-natured comment.

There can be another benefit to going to the person first.  Our friend Wayne goes on, “Word of your initiating this private conversation might well spread through the church system.  If so, it can lift the level of ethical responsibility of the whole congregation.  Members will know that they, too, will face you alone if they sin against you.”[2]

This should be a happy coincidence.  If you make a big show of saying, “Hey everyone, I first went to So-and-So all by myself,” that kind of defeats the purpose of working stuff out privately.

I want to include a disclaimer about a private meeting.  In cases where people have been abused or threatened, it is almost never a wise thing to do.  That’s when others should be called in.  It is probably a case in which other people are necessary.  It’s important to let them be witnesses, or even be advocates on behalf of the abused party.

So, with that in mind, sometimes lovingly going to the person first doesn’t always work.  That’s where verse 16, with its call to bring one or two wise people with you, comes into play.  You notice I added “wise.”  It’s important that these others know how to keep confidence—that they’re not going to go and blab to somebody else.

Confidentiality and secrecy aren’t the same things.  Sometimes there’s confusion about that.  Among the differences between the two is confidentiality maintains the other person’s integrity and helps build relationship.  Secrecy works against both of those.  Another difference is confidentiality builds respect; secrecy destroys respect.

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[3]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

But again, what if even this doesn’t work?  What if the presence of others still doesn’t convince the person to listen?

According to Jesus, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).  I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds pretty harsh!  There are those who say there’s no way Jesus would have said something like that; it was added by Matthew or somebody else.

Our friend Wayne agrees Jesus sounds rather callous, but he reminds us that when Jesus was presented as an infant in the temple, his “mission in the world [according to Simeon]…was to be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’” (Lk 2:32).[4]  It’s hard to be a light for someone if you can’t stand them!

3 Mt 18
Wayne E. Oates, 1917-1999

He adds that Jesus “took great initiative toward Zacchaeus, the tax collector.”  Now that’s a guy who was far from popular!  It wasn’t so much that he collected taxes (though that was part of it), but he did it for the hated Romans.  He was thought of as a traitor.  And yet, Jesus welcomed him.

So, when comparing the offender to a Gentile or a tax collector, the hope is that the “congregation can sustain a caring relationship” to the one being corrected.  The church might say, “We believe what you’re doing is wrong, but we still love you.  We still hope for restoration.”

In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”  So he would seem to go along with what we just heard.

Now, after Matthew does his three-step approach with someone being cautioned, in verse 18, he ties it with binding and loosing.  Jesus says, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Some say that’s about exorcism, casting out demons, but it’s more likely he’s talking about a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it really didn’t apply.

Jesus passes that authority to bind and loose on to the church.  It’s not because Christians are worthy of doing so; it’s because the Spirit of Christ lives within the church.  As he says: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (v. 20).  Please note.  That’s not about worship; it’s about reconciliation and dealing with offenses.

This whole matter of correction by the church obviously is a tricky business.  In our own Book of Order, the section called “The Rules of Discipline” takes that on.  It says church discipline “should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” (D-1.0102).

And it’s not something to rush into.  We’re told it “remains the duty of every church member to try (prayerfully and seriously) to bring about an adjustment or settlement of the quarrel [or] complaint.”  We should “avoid formal proceedings…unless, after prayerful deliberation, they are determined to be necessary to preserve the purity and purposes of the church” (D-1.0103).

When we lived in Jamestown, an administrative commission was formed to investigate a pastor in one of our presbytery’s churches.  (Quick note: administrative commissions are groups of people formed with a single task.  Usually they help with installing new pastors.)

Banu was part of that commission.  There apparently was evidence the pastor had porn on the church’s computer.  It turned out to be true.  Faced with the prospect of disciplinary procedures, the pastor figured it was time to hit the road.  He did what the Book of Order calls “renouncing the jurisdiction of the church.”  That means leaving the Presbyterian Church.  He was protected from ecclesiastical charges.  The pastor literally hit the road.  He wound up moving out of state.

A year or two later, I was part of a similar commission.  There had been a long-going dispute within the session of that same congregation.  It was our job to attempt reconciliation.  It’s safe to say, that church had a lot of problems.

That brings up a related issue.  Is there any action that is utterly unforgivable?  Can you think of anything we might do that is beyond forgiveness?  Is there anyone who Christ does not and cannot forgive?  How does that apply to us, we who pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”?

4 Mt 18

A couple of examples from church history might be helpful.  Aside from doing this to others, Christians have burned each other at the stake.  Presbyterians, on a number of occasions, dealt with Baptists in a dreadfully appropriate way.  Responding to their insistence on another baptism, in addition to infant baptism, Presbyterians would tie heavy stones to them and toss them into the river.  You want another baptism?  Here you go!  (Splash!)

Maybe we no longer fit people for concrete galoshes, mafia style, but we still do some pretty terrible things to each other.

Peter comes to Jesus and wants to know about forgiving.[5]  He wants to make it really personal.  He asks Jesus, not what to forgive, but how often to forgive.  Peter offers, “As many as seven times?” (v. 21).  To Peter, this is a lot.  He feels like he’s bending over backwards.  Again, a teaching of the rabbis applies here.  It says [and please pardon the male-oriented language], “If a man sins once, twice, or three times, they forgive him; if he sins a fourth time, they do not forgive him.”[6]

So with his response, Jesus blows Peter’s mind.  He says to forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven]” (v. 22).  This huge symbolic number says, “Don’t keep count.”  It’s not up to you to keep track of how many times to forgive.

Here’s a complicating factor that can arise: do we wait until someone asks for forgiveness?  What if they never come around, like the offending brother or sister we looked at earlier?  Are we still compelled to forgive?  And by the way, I’m not talking about forgiving in a back-handed or snarky way—as in, “I forgive you for getting offended when I called you a jerk and made disparaging remarks about your mother”!

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean we’ll automatically have a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling.  Forgiving isn’t about emotions.  And it’s not about conjuring up something by ourselves.  It is very much about the grace of God enabling us.  And it is a grace that removes a heavy burden from us.

Pamela Cooper-White picks up on this idea of the grace of forgiveness.[7]  She says, “To be gracious is to be graced.  It is a charisma, a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It enables a person to let go of the person who wounded him/her, and perhaps, in time, to be less preoccupied with both the perpetrator and the wound.”[8]  Forgiving is not easy.  In fact, it can be the hardest thing in life.  But if we can get there, we can find a freedom like none other.

Picking up on the earlier theme about church discipline, if we can wrap our minds and hearts around forgiveness being an act of God’s grace, then we can gracefully correct and be gracefully correct.  Faithful discipline is done with a view toward forgiving.

Faithful discipline offers a challenge.  It offers a challenge to practice being a community of accountability and forgiveness.  It doesn’t happen instantly; it isn’t one and done.  It is a practice.  It is a discipline.

5 Mt 18

Henri Nouwen says, “Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another ‘seventy-seven times’…  Forgiveness is the cement of community life.  Forgiveness holds us together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow in mutual love.”[9]

I know I need the grace of God to be part of that cement.  I need that grace to gracefully correct and be gracefully correct.  How about you?

 

[1] Wayne E. Oates, The Care of Troublesome People (Alban Institute, 1994), 5.

[2] Oates, 5.

[3] Oates, 6.

[4] Oates, 7.

[5] αφιημι, aphiēmi: “I send off,” “I forgive”

[6] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981), 381.

[7] χαριζομαι, charizomai: “I favor.”

[8] Pamela Cooper-White, “Forgiveness: Grace, not Work,” Journal for Preachers (32:2 Lent 2009): 20.

[9] henrinouwen.org/meditation/forgiveness-cement-community-life


when leaves give way to frost

“The present form of this world is passing away.”

The autumn equinox is September 22.  (At least, that’s in the northern hemisphere.  In the south, it is the spring equinox.)  The equinox is the time of year when the sun’s light is spread evenly over the entire earth.  For us, the days become shorter until we reach the winter solstice, when we start the process all over again, as the days begin getting longer.

1 autumn

For many, the gathering darkness spells a sense of gloom.  As the leaves give way to frost, a sense of solemnity becomes more evident.  But it need not be a time for sorrow—there is great joy in solemnity.  We are reminded of the impermanence of all things.  And that too is a note of joy.  Without dying, there can be no rebirth.

And yet, autumn is also a time for beginning.  A new school year commences.  The world is once again clothed in gold and orange.  It’s time to play football!

The spirituality of autumn speaks of transition and balance.  Just as the leaves flutter to the ground, autumn is a time for letting go.  There is indeed a transition from the fire of summer to the ice of winter.  It is a time of balance between day and night, between light and dark.

Wesley Baines poses an interesting question.  “How can we get in touch with the spiritual side of autumn in our contemporary age?”  Hmm, how indeed?  He suggests, “By being mindful and being present.  Turn off your devices and simply take a walk.”  Wait!  Turn off my phone?  God forbid!  “Make your pilgrimage of leaves, being mindful of the color of sky and grass and leaf and stone, of the feel of the air, of the scents and textures and sights all around you.”  I’m sure others are better at taking this advice (that is, letting the experience fill them with a sense of presence) than I am.

3 autumnHe continues, “Pay attention to what nature is doing around you—after all, everything has a purpose, including the changing of the seasons.  They remind us to keep changing, to not allow ourselves to become stagnant.”

How is it with us?  Are there things we need to shed?  No, forget that.  What things do we need to shed?  What things do we need to let go of?  What is holding us back?  This speaks to our interim, transitory time.  It speaks to all of our lives as human beings.

As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, “The present form of this world is passing away” (v. 31).  We sometimes think of “the end of the world as we know it.”  (TEOTWAWKI)

Autumn teaches us the lesson of not hanging on to the moment.  Let the Holy Spirit guide us as the wind which blows the leaves.  Learn to dance with the leaves and then say goodbye, as we welcome the frost.

2 autumn


live well and prosper

“Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / for I had wandered off from the straight path…

“How I entered there I cannot truly say, / I had become so sleepy at the moment / when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.”

These are some of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno.[1]  Its setting is the day before Good Friday, in the year 1300.  Having been born in 1265, Dante writes himself into the story at the age of 35, which according to medieval and Biblical thinking, is half the human lifespan of 70 years.  So Dante realizes, in the midst of his life, he is lost in sin; he has wandered from the straight path.

1 Ps 1

What’s worse, he doesn’t know how he wound up in that dark place.  As he says, “I had become so sleepy at the moment when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.”  All he knows is that he, like a little child, is terrified at being lost in the deep forest.

This really is a picture of all of us.  Dante is clear to say, “Midway along the journey of our life,” not just “my life.”  We all, if we are to find our way out of the deep darkness of sin and evil, must wake up.  We have to arise from our slumber and learn how to live life.

I mention Dante’s Inferno because it reminds me of today’s Psalm, number one, which has the image of the two paths.  These are the two ways of the human race, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked.  If Dante gives us the picture of a path to follow, the psalmist reminds us that we come to forks in the road.  We continually have to decide which way to go, which path to follow.

Something else about the first Psalm, possibly the most important thing, is it is the introduction to the book of Psalms.  It serves as an entrance into the world of praise and wisdom we find in the book.  This psalm sets us up for the journey of a lifetime!

And we should admit this journey isn’t quite as black-and-white as a quick reading of the psalm might suggest.  The difference between the righteous and the wicked isn’t always so easy to figure out.  Real life, as I think we all know, is more complicated.

Maybe you’ve heard the example of “is it ever okay to tell a lie?”  Imagine living in Nazi Germany, and you’re harboring Jewish neighbors in your attic.  When the officers come banging on your door and ask, “Are there any Jews inside?” should you lie to them?

It’s been said, “This most wisdom-like of the Psalms is not claiming that there are no shades of gray in our…walk of faith.  People are complex; life is not so simple.  Rather, this psalm strives to depict the two ways and their consequences for us…  At any one moment we find ourselves moving in one direction or the other, moving toward an ultimate destination.”[2]

So, what about these two paths, these two ways?  And what are the consequences of following each?

2 Ps 1Here’s how the psalm begins: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.”  At the very beginning, we’re pictured within the idea of community and the idea of learning.  Who do we listen to?

The epistle of James also taps into the wisdom tradition.  It says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1).  We have to pay attention to what we say, how we influence other people.  Why is that?  Because, as James reminds us, “all of us make many mistakes” (v. 2).

I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “And none of us is perfectly qualified.  We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths.”

But the psalm isn’t just about what we say; it’s about how we live: taking the path, sitting in the seat.  To “take the path that sinners tread” is about one’s daily walk.  In this case, it would be the opposite of walking with God.

To “sit in the seat of scoffers” doesn’t involve selecting furniture.  It’s not about going to Raymour and Flanigan.  It does involve siding with the cynics, who have an insincere attitude about life.  They don’t listen to sound wisdom.  If they do listen, they listen only to themselves.

In a country as divided as ours, that can be a problem.  Too often, we self-select the voices we listen to.  And isn’t it interesting?  It’s usually the voices we already agree with!  I find it fascinating (and depressing) how the exact same action—or the exact same statement—is presented, depending on whether it’s Fox News Channel reporting it or MSNBC.  It can feel like we’re living in parallel universes!

The psalmist suggests something else: delighting in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night (v. 2).

What do we meditate on?  What goes through our minds?  Maybe jingles from commercials?

Retired quarterback Peyton Manning has done a million ads, it seems.  But I’m thinking of one in particular.

We see him at practice, calling signals to start the play, “Sixty Omaha, set, hut.”

Afterwards, he’s sitting in ice water, lamenting, “Losing feeling in my toes.”

Cut to his kitchen at home, with his mouth watering, “Chicken parm, you taste so good.”

Finally, he’s on the couch, turning on the TV, just in time to hear a female voice proclaiming, “Nationwide is on your side.”

I have a hunch that jingle is not quite as beneficial and life-enhancing as meditating on the word of the Lord.

But what about the ones who do meditate on those life-enhancing matters?  How are they described?  “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.  In all that they do, they prosper” (v. 3).  We might say they live long and prosper.  The psalmist maybe does one better.  They live well and prosper.

Still, I like that phrase: “In all that they do, they prosper.”  In all that they do—that does seem a bit difficult to measure!  Perhaps it’s more a frame of reference, or an approach to life.  When we have that point of view, we can see prosperity where others do not.

But what about the others?  What about those who do not delight and meditate on God’s word and wisdom?  What about those who, unlike Dante, are fine with remaining lost in the deep, dark forest?  Verse 4 says they “are like chaff that the wind drives away.”  Their plans come to nothing.  They don’t try to align themselves with God; they don’t seek God in prayer.  They listen only to themselves.  (Like we saw before.)

What do the ways of prosperity and cynicism look like?

3 Ps 1

Recent events in Charlottesville give a stark vision of a cynical view of life.  The enduring legacy of America’s original sin of slavery continues to appear.  I think we can agree that neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white nationalists represent an over-the-top and cartoonishly violent philosophy.  They don’t present garden variety racism.

But I have to question myself.  How much of that is in me?  Growing up in America, how much of that has seeped into me?  No less a person than the apostle Paul lamented, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Ro 7:15).

Here’s another question I pose to myself.  In what ways do I benefit from white privilege?  Am I willing to admit it exists?  What does that look like?

Again, Paul says, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).

Our psalmist presents us with a vision of what can be, and dare I say, what shall be!  It is the reality of life lived in God’s kingdom, which is already here, but not fully revealed.  It is the kingdom Jesus says “has come near,” the kingdom that “is at hand” (Mk 1:15).  The kingdom is revealed whenever we act as God would act.

The kingdom is revealed when we love someone enough to help them find the path they should travel.

Richard Rohr speaks about hope.  He speaks of a hope he has—a hope for us.  It’s a hope about living in the kingdom.

He says, “I hope you’ve met at least one ‘Kingdom person’ in your life”.[3]  His hope that we’ve met “at least one” such person suggests that it might be a rare occasion, or maybe that we too rarely allow those kingdom qualities to be seen in ourselves.

4 Ps 1

He goes on, “They are surrendered and trustful people.  You sense that their life is okay at the core.  They have given control to Another and are at peace, which paradoxically allows them to calmly be in control.  A Kingdom person lives for what matters, for life in its deepest and lasting sense.”

Maybe I can end my sermon on that note.  As the psalmist expresses his fond and confident hope that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,” so may the Lord watch over our way (v. 6).

Live well and prosper!

[1] Mark Musa, trans. (New York:  Penguin, 1984), 67.

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=5/20/2012&tab=5

[3] conta.cc/ITinm3          [Daily Meditation for 22 Sep 2012]


church as frenemy

We’ve all heard the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”  Actually, some people fuse those two words together and come up with “frenemies.”  We can have a love/hate relationship.  Unfortunately, the church is not immune to that.

Of course, we see in the news the scandals of sexual and financial misconduct in the church.  It seems to be an almost routine story, whether it’s something fishy going on in the local congregation, or at the hierarchical level.  I’ll admit to becoming somewhat desensitized to it.

1 frenemy

Henri Nouwen, a beloved spiritual leader who died in 1996, had many thoughts on this very issue.[1]

“When we have been wounded by the Church,” he says, “our temptation is to reject it.  But when we reject the Church it becomes very hard for us to keep in touch with the living Christ.  When we say, ‘I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,’ we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too.”  There’s the temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water.

He goes on, “The challenge is to forgive the Church.  This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness.”

I definitely agree with him on that.  And worse than that, far from asking our forgiveness, sometimes the church reprimands those who point out its errors.  Often it does it in ways using intimidation, shame, and even physical violence.  It must leave Jesus weeping tears of sorrow.

So we don’t have to look very far to find our own frenemy.  I’m sure we can easily find those who think of us that way!

We find such characters in our gospel reading.  In Mark 12, Jesus is teaching in the temple, and not everyone is happy with what they’re hearing.

Jesus turns his attention to the scribes.  These were people who were primarily teachers of the law.  When reading the New Testament, we might get the impression they all were a bunch of bad guys.  That isn’t the case.  It’s true many of them did question Jesus about what he was doing and teaching, but they all didn’t have the same motivations.

Like the fellow in verse 34, who sees the wisdom in what Jesus is saying, some of the scribes do their job with sincerity.  Then we have the scribes we meet in today’s reading.  There are always some who give the rest a bad name.  That’s often true, no matter what group we think of.

2 frenemy
Henri Nouwen: “The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness.”

Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” (vv. 38-39).

Please note: the focus is not on the actions themselves, but on the fact they like displaying themselves while they do them.  It’s not about walking around in long robes, but being a show off.  It’s not about being greeted with respect in public, but the sense of entitlement that gives them a feeling of being better than others.

Listening to Jesus, what expressions are on the people’s faces?  Are they shocked?  Are they thinking, “What has he done now?”  Or are they smiling?  Are they laughing?  Does Jesus act out “walking around in long robes” and “being greeted with respect”?  In the verse right before this, Mark has just told us “the large crowd was listening to him with delight” (v. 37).

Whatever the case, in verse 40, things really do get serious.  Jesus says of the scribes, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”  If those boys don’t shape up, they’re going to be in a world of hurt!

We don’t know precisely what that bit about “devouring widows’ houses” is about.[2]  Some say he’s talking about a function of the scribes in which they serve as trustees of widow’s estates.  (The idea being widows can’t be trusted with their dearly departed husband’s property!)  For their service, the scribes get a percentage of the assets.  And surprise, surprise—embezzlement often occurs.

Other people say Jesus is addressing the religious system itself.  Funding for the temple is an economic drain on the widows—and on all of the poor.  Nothing gets Jesus quite as ticked off as robbery disguised as piety.

After this, the story we hear about the poor widow is the perfect illustration of the system sticking it to the helpless.

But what really tops it off for Jesus is “for the sake of appearance [they] say long prayers.”  In the previous chapter, Jesus exposes the greed behind the system of sacrifices when he goes into the temple.  He tosses out the moneychangers (who rip people off with unfair exchange rates); he knocks over their tables.  That’s the point of his protest.  It’s not because they’re selling things; it’s because they’re cheating people.

But I like the way he specifies “for the sake of appearance [saying] long prayers.”  In Matthew 6, right before what we call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus warns against “[heaping] up empty phrases” with “many words” (v. 7).  Actually, any prayer done for the sake of appearance is messed up.

Still, that emphasis on long prayers can be quite liberating.  God is far less interested in any eloquence we might think we have than what comes from the heart.  And incidentally, the mere fact that I’m a minister doesn’t mean God cares about my prayers any more than anybody else’s.  (Including being called on to pray at public events!)

One of the primary documents of Christian monasticism is the Rule of Benedict.  Written in the sixth century, it includes this about prayer: “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.  Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.  In community, however, prayer should always be brief.”[3]  Notice it says, “in community.”  If you’re all by yourself, pray as long as you like.  In those moments, you’re not performing for anybody; it’s just you and God.

3 frenemy

Those warnings about prayer help to keep us from using faith as a cover for less honorable motives.

So, to that point, who has been hurt by the church?  I began by talking about sexual and financial misconduct.  There are other ways: being ignored, disregarded, being the object of gossip.  Pope Francis spoke about “the terrorism of gossip.”[4]  He half-jokingly added, “which is even worse than an occasional physical confrontation.”  All of these things corrode our relationships as the body of Christ.

And yet, as Henri Nouwen reminds us, we are called to believe in the church.[5]  He says, “The Church is an object of faith.  In the Apostles’ Creed, we pray: ‘I believe in [among other things] the holy Catholic Church.”  (The Nicene Creed says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.”)

The creeds do not “say that the Church is an organization that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.

“Often it seems harder to believe in the Church than to believe in God.  But whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers.  God has given us the Church as the place where God becomes God-with-us.”

I won’t deny believing in the church, loving the church, forgiving the church, can be a really tall order!  Especially for those who’ve been hurt by the church, that can sound like a slap in the face.  And to be honest, I’m not sure I agree with everything our friend Henri says about this.

I remember when Banu and I were at our first church; this was in Nebraska.  We met a group of people who were part of the Baha’i faith.  (By the way, I agree with much of what they teach.)  Some of them had had bad experiences with the church.  A couple of them referred to “churchianity.”  They found in the Baha’i faith the acceptance and spiritual connection they did not find in the Christian church.

4 frenemyOf course, the terrible, bitter irony is that the church is the creation of Jesus Christ.  The church is the body of Christ now in the world.

As we are the church in this place and in this time, what are some ways in which we can check ourselves?  What are some ways in which we can act—and not for the sake of appearance?  Where are we on that strange continuum of “frenemy”?  No doubt, sometimes we’re more “friend,” and other times, we’re more “enemy.”

As those who Jesus calls friends, may we be there for others who have been hurt by the church.  Let us be a living example of God’s love, grace, and peace.

 

[1] henrinouwen.org/meditation/forgiving-the-church

[2] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark12x38.htm

[3] from Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 90.

[4] www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/11/07/pope-francis-urges-religious-to-crack-down-on-terrorism-of-gossip

[5] henrinouwen.org/meditation/believing-in-the-church


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.

1 Ps 122

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]

2 Ps 122

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.

4 Ps 122

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]

4 worship
“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.

1 1 Jn

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]

4 1 Jn
“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.