summer's almost gone

I realize that people tend to think of the Labor Day weekend as the end of summer, and from a tourist perspective, maybe that’s so.  Not to be picky, but it is at the autumnal equinox.

To the extent that people have feelings associated with the end of summer, they often tend to be of a wistful, melancholy variety—a longing for those warm breezes and carefree nights.  As a kid, I had those feelings, along with a certain dread at having to go back to school.  But I also looked forward to fall, because that’s football season!  Even now, the first days of cool weather remind me of the fun I had playing that game.  Every year, at some point in time, I catch a scent or a feeling that fall really has arrived.  (It hasn’t happened yet.)

I’m reminded of a song by the sixties group the Doors.  They had a song called “Summer’s Almost Gone.”[1]  (And to avoid disparaging the late Jim Morrison, I won’t sing this!)

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“Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone, / Almost gone, yeah, it’s almost gone / Where will we be when the summer’s gone?”  There really is a tone of gloominess to it.  The song ends this way: “Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone / We had some good times but they’re gone / The winter’s coming on, summer’s almost gone.”  (Actually, winter is my favorite season!)

Jeremiah 8 has an expression in which the people, realizing that summer is over, consider it an evil omen.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  Some say this refers to the drought mentioned in chapter 14.  Others see it as a saying that Jeremiah uses to sum up the mood of the people.  Maybe both are true.  One thing is sure: the impending invasion of the Babylonians has people wondering what to do.

We see the prophet’s torment because of all the disaster happening to the people.  Jeremiah utters his laments, his jeremiads.

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” (8:18).  “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (9:1).  That fits right in with Jeremiah’s nickname, “the weeping prophet.”

He truly loves his compatriots, even though they haven’t shown much love to him.  In return for his desperate hopes and prayers that they’ll listen to the truth, Jeremiah’s been given ample helpings of all kinds of abuse: mockery, beating, and imprisonment.  His words have been twisted to make him sound like the enemy of the people.

2There are those who would say that the prophet is a fool to get so worked up over the fate of this bunch.  After the way they treated him, they deserve all the pain coming their way!  Why should he care what happens to people who’ve made his life hell?  Besides, it’s not like his tears are going to do any good anyway.

"Jeremiah" by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

There are at least two responses to all this.  First, Jeremiah isn’t naïve.  He clearly knows the nature of the people he grieves, both the few who’ve been kind to him and the many who haven’t.  Continuing in chapter 9, we hear his cry: “O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them!  For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors” (v. 2).

Jeremiah would like to have a place way out in the wilderness.  It would be nice to separate himself from all the villainous stuff going on.  He would like to get away from it all.  Get some peace and quiet.  Jeremiah needs to get a Land Rover or maybe an ATV.

Still, having said that, the prophet’s care—his sorrow—does accomplish something.  There is a certain wisdom gained.  We do learn from grief things we can’t learn in any other way.  I imagine that’s a class no one’s in a hurry to sign up for!  But if Jeremiah were to harden his heart—if he were to say goodbye to compassion—he would become less human.  That goes along with the call which came to him as a youngster: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (1:8).

What about us?  From whom do we need deliverance?  From whom do we need rescue?  Could it be ourselves?

Jeremiah wails, “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken, I mourn, and horror has seized me” (8:21).  For their brokenness I am broken.

We are all familiar with twelve-step groups.  There are Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and others.  I have attended one AA meeting.  Our church in Jamestown hosted a group.  I asked permission to be there for the beginning of the meeting.  I made sure to leave before they started sharing personal stuff.

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I will confess I have a bit of a problem with the idea saying, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”  I understand there are medical, psychological, even spiritual components involved.  It’s not something to take lightly.  But it seems to me if we always refer to ourselves as an alcoholic, we make it part of our identity.  There is a sense in which we can own a disease or an addiction.

I remember when I was in seminary taking a program called Clinical Pastoral Education.  It’s required for ordination as a Presbyterian minister.  For most people, it involves an internship as chaplain, usually in a hospital.  At our first meeting, we began with introductions.  One of our members was a lady who literally said, “I am cancer.”  (Not, “I have—or have had—cancer.”  Or, “I am a survivor of cancer.”)

Now that is a case of making a disease your identity.  She eventually gave us her actual name!

Without a doubt, we are all broken in various ways.  We sin, and we need a savior.  Nonetheless, if we take brokenness as our identity, the defining characteristic of who we are, does that mean we will remain broken?  Here’s an unsettling question: do we come to embrace our brokenness?  Do we begin to love it?

Jeremiah seems to recognize this.  He looks at those around him and concludes, “They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent” (9:5).  In the Revised English Bible, that last line reads, “deep in sin, they weary themselves going astray.”

They’ve basically said, “It’s hopeless; we’re too far gone.”  And that bit about teaching their tongues to speak lies can lead to a point where the moral compass is completely broken.  We lose the ability to discern right from wrong.  Thus we have verse 6: “Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!  They refuse to know me, says the Lord.”

The New Jerusalem Bible puts a disturbing twist on it.  “You live in a world of bad faith!  Out of bad faith, they refuse to know me, Yahweh declares.”

A world of bad faith.

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Bryce Dallas Howard in a quirky take on social credit in the episode "Nosedive" on the series Black Mirror.

I would like to suggest one possible example of that is social credit.  For those who don’t know, social credit is a measurement of how good a citizen one is.  It originated in China with businesses and individuals scored on categories like charitable actions, care for the environment, proper online behavior, and many others.  There are some commendable aspects of social credit.  The problem comes with who determines what are positive and what are negative qualities—big tech, the government, our next door neighbor?

We see this system evolving in what have been democratic nations.

Libertarian writer Kristin Tate has commented on this.[2]  “The potential scope of the…social credit system under construction is enormous.  The same companies that can track your activities and give you corporate rewards for compliant behavior could utilize their powers to block transactions, add surcharges or restrict your use of products.  At what point does free speech—be it against biological males playing in girls’ sports, questioning vaccine side effects, or advocating for gun rights—make someone a target in this new system?”…

“Peer pressure, trendy movements, and the ability to comply with the new system with the click of a mouse combine all of the worst elements of dopamine-chasing Americans.  As it grows in breadth and power, what may be most surprising about our new social credit system won’t be collective fear of it, but rather how quickly most people will fall in line.”

It’s a short step, if we haven’t already reached it, for the power of public shaming to take hold.  We could be encouraged (or commanded) to report on each other, in the best tradition of totalitarian societies.  It is surveillance gone wild.  On the plus side, we can finally be excused for using our binoculars to spy on others.  After all, it’s our civic duty.

The prophet warns, “Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin, for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer” (9:4).

We are wounded, and we wound each other.  How does one counteract slander, false reporting?  How often is a retraction issued which barely gets the coverage of the original sham story?

Our idols would kill us.  We discover these new shiny things, and they blind us in the glare.  The next thing you know, we have stumbled and fallen into a ditch—or off a bridge!

Still, there is healing.

On that matter, Jeremiah asks with dismay and disbelief, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?” (8:22).  Gilead was noted for its balm, produced by certain trees.  It was prized for its curative properties.  In the story of Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery to a caravan traveling from Gilead.  Their destination was Egypt.  (I think we know the rest of the story.)  Among their cargo was the medicinal balm.

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There is the beloved hymn which affirms, “There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole / There is a balm in Gilead / to heal the sin-sick soul.”  That healing is found in our Lord Jesus Christ, the great physician.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, but salvation is at hand.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Fe0UcS2uFw

[2] thehill.com/opinion/finance/565860-coming-soon-americas-own-social-credit-system/


time

Sometimes there’s a thought that comes to me.  I wonder about the particular piece of space I’m occupying—that my body itself is taking up—and I wonder who and what else has been there.  For example, in the space where I am standing, who or what was here at this time yesterday?  Last year?  A century ago?  A millennium ago?  A million years ago?  A billion years ago?

If we go back in time for almost any spot of land in this area, we might find that prior to the arrival of the Europeans, there was a member of the Cayuga Nation.  (And that might still be the case!)  Further back in time, we might encounter a woolly mammoth.  Keep going back, and we’ll find ourselves under a thick layer of ice.  Go even further back in time, and we might be face to face with a dinosaur.

Then I think of the opposite.  I think of the future, after I’m dead and gone.  Who will occupy my spot on the earth?  Maybe you can see where I’m going with this.  Trapped in time as we are, we only have freedom to move around in space.  To my knowledge, no one has been able to travel through time!

In his classic work, The Sabbath, Abraham Heschel reflects on my opening thought.  He sees it as speaking to the very heart of Jewish spirituality.  And I would say it applies to Christian spirituality, as well.  “Every one of us occupies a portion of space,” Heschel observes.  “The portion of space which my body occupies is taken up by myself in exclusion of anyone else.  Yet, no one possesses time...  This very moment belongs to all [the living] as it belongs to me.  We share time, we own space.  Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings.”[1]

Among other matters, this has to do with our stewardship of creation.  That

includes our stewardship—our care for—the things of space (materials, objects, money).  It also includes our stewardship of time, our care for it.  Creation includes both space and time.

There are scriptures on the Sabbath which bear witness to this two-sided approach.  The Genesis story has God finishing the work of creation on the seventh day.  After making the birds and the bees and the fishies in the deep blue sea, how does God finish creation?  By bringing something else into existence: rest.  It is on the seventh day that God creates the Sabbath; God creates peace.  The other days of creation are pronounced “good.”  Only the seventh day is pronounced hallowed; only the Sabbath is declared to be holy.

That’s important because, to the best of our knowledge, prior to the Jewish emphasis on Sabbath, holiness had always been associated with certain places: such as a sacred mountain or forest.  Even within Judaism, there was the temple.  The Hebrew prophets would often rail against a narrow focus on the temple.

But with the Sabbath, we have holiness located in time itself.  Heschel speaks of building a “palace in time.”[2]  So, when we speak of “wasting time,” we speak of wasting something precious.  When we speak of “killing time,” we speak of killing something sacred.

This focus on holy space, as opposed to holy time, can take a serious toll.  Space has limits on accessibility; time is something everyone shares.  A perfect example of this is the Arab-Israeli struggle.  There’s only so much room in the country, and certainly in Jerusalem.  This has happened, and continues to happen, all over the world.  There’s no shortage of disputes about finite pieces of land.  We need only consider the expansion across the continent of our own country.

But when the Sabbath arrives, it’s the Sabbath everywhere.

Still, regarding the Sabbath, even if it is a foretaste of the world to come, as Rabbi Heschel believes, the seventh day “needs the companionship of all other days.”[3]  It isn’t treated as holy if the other six days are spent in activities that contradict it.  The same could be said in a Christian sense, about the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he encourages them to remember that though “once you were darkness, now in the Lord you are light” (v. 8).  If we behave no differently than people who are clueless as to what it means to be a Christian, we are indeed hiding our light!

The apostle wants his hearers to live wisely, “making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (v. 16).  Because the days are evil.  The New Jerusalem Bible reads, “for it is a wicked age.”

It would make sense to understand that verse as referring to a certain time, to particular days, as being evil.  It seems that Paul is warning the church about the times in which it lives.  But it seems it’s also possible to take that line, “because the days are evil,” in a more general sense.  Could it also be a comment about time itself?

Heschel says, “Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.  Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[4]

Unfortunately, we flee to the realm of space—to the realm of possessions.  We sense time slipping away, like sand through the hourglass, and by getting…stuff, we try to fill the hole that our apprehension, our anxiety. has dug.  Americans are great at this!  We work to get more and more money so that we can buy more and more things—and the more things we have, the more we have to take care of.  Which means there’s more to fix, or simply replace, and that means more to go into the trash.  Really, it’s not a wise use of space or time!

When Paul advises his audience to make the most of the time, he literally says “redeem the time.”[5]  While we lack the power to redeem ourselves or anyone else, we do have the power to redeem the time that’s been given to us.  Time need not be the slick treacherous monster.  It can be appreciated for what it is: a gift from God.  Instead of wasting or killing it, we can treat it as part of God’s good (even holy) creation.

I realize that it’s one thing to say all that; it’s another to live it.  Kristen Johnson Ingram, a preacher in the Episcopal Church, asks the question, “How do I treat the gift of sacramental time?  Is my desk an altar, is our dinner table a Eucharist, is this house a temple?” she wonders.[6]

“Not always.  This morning my husband and I argued about the trash.  We were not wide awake while we juggled wastebaskets and sacks and tried to organize the recycling boxes, and he swore at me.  In fact, he used a short, unpleasant obscenity that made my cheeks get hot and my already irregular heartbeat go into a second of frenzy.”

She continues, “I wanted to have back the moment before he cursed; I wanted the earlier time returned to me.  Instead of waiting to see if the sands would run backward, I made a fuss, saying loudly that I did not deserve that language and he had no right to use it.  We quarreled for a moment, and then it was too late to snatch back the time.  I microwaved a bowl of oatmeal and ate it with no pleasure, gulped a cup of coffee seasoned with rancor.  I smacked time and sent it yipping away.”

Does this sound familiar?  I know I’m not the only one here to wish I could have the moment back—or even to relive the entire day.  I think of times when I’ve been guided by folly and not wisdom, and I cringe.  And then there are the times when placed at a crossroads, and I refused to choose.  I refused to redeem the gift of time given to me by God.  So what conclusion does Ingram reach?

“We did not stay mad,” she says. “I came into my office and started writing and I could hear the news from his radio in the next room.  We called out our opinions about the freak storm and the situation in the Middle East.  I remembered to dash into the utility room to take meat from the freezer so I could make my famous pot roast of pork with cilantro and orange for dinner.  He did some laundry.  There was no permanent damage.

“Or was there?  We can never have the time back…  God holds out the sacrament of time and sometimes I turn away to partake of something else.  Today my husband and I committed an egregious sin—and this was only an eighteen-second skirmish.”[7]

Too often, our time together results less in holiness and more in strife.

I began by mentioning all that has come before in the place I occupy on the earth, as well as all that will follow.  We are set within the stream of time and are therefore in relationship with the past and the future.

We are told to redeem time.  Our power for such is a pale shadow of the one who redeems it all.  The Lord Jesus Christ redeems all of time, not simply the sliver we call the present.  Jesus is Lord over all—all of creation, all of time.  Nothing can separate us from his all-embracing love: “nor things present, nor things to come…” (Ro 8:38).

Let’s hear again Abraham Heschel as he expresses the glorious truth, “One must be overawed by the marvel of time to be ready to perceive the presence of eternity in a single moment.  One must live and act as if the fate of all of time would depend on a single moment.”[8]

God creates the Sabbath; God pronounces rest.  Jesus is our Sabbath rest.  Jesus as the Christ encapsulates all of eternity in a single moment, in the wink of an eye.

We cease our struggling.  We cease our running.  We cease our pointless bearing of burdens.  We cease imposing them on others, and we cease accepting them from others.  We cease shaming others and trying to bend themselves to our will.  We cease our foolish resistance.

How will you honor and enjoy Sabbath?  How will you redeem time?

 

[1] Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 99.

[2] Heschel, 15.

[3] Heschel, 89.

[4] Heschel, 5.

[5] “redeem” is εξαγοράζω (exagorazō)

[6] Kristen Johnson Ingram, “The Sacrament of Time,” Weavings 14:1 (Jan-Feb 1999): 29.

[7] Ingram, 30.

[8] Heschel, 76.


versions of reality

Cosmology.  Cosmology is the study of the origin, evolution, and future of the cosmos.  Cosmologists are the ones involved in doing that studying.  And surprise!  They don’t all agree with each other.  Just like humans in any other field, they have their own starting points and their own approaches.

Some cosmologists speculate about multiple universes—a multiverse.  The idea about multiple universes, parallel universes, might still feel more like science fiction.  That’s no doubt due to the fact that it’s pretty hard to test it scientifically, at least, given our current level of understanding!

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There might be many multiverses, maybe an infinite number of them.  There might be versions of us in other universes.  Our universe could be the size of an atom in a much larger universe.  And on the flip side, there could universes floating all around us at the subatomic level.  Some cosmologists suggest our universe could be a program in a computer—or a dream some being too vast for us to imagine is having right now!

What made me think about this business of multiple universes was something I read by Walter Brueggemann about our Old Testament reading in Jeremiah.  (I’ll be honest: I never thought that I would link the prophet Jeremiah with theories about a multiverse!)

Our scripture text is part of a longer passage that runs from verses 9 to 40.  Jeremiah is criticizing the false prophets who are leading the people astray.  According to Brueggemann, “Jeremiah lived [among] a variety of competing ‘truth claims,’ each of which purported to be a disclosure of Yahweh’s will.”[1]  They all have their ideas about what God wants and how the world works.

He continues, “In these verses [against the other prophets] he makes his clearest argument for his version of reality, and makes it against the ‘truth versions’ of others whom he dismisses as false.”[2]  Jeremiah makes his clearest argument for his version of reality, thus my sermon title.

In studying the universe, cosmologists must continually examine and refine their versions of reality—some of which prove to be more real than others.  Jeremiah and the prophets who oppose him also present their versions of reality.  The question is, “Which better reflects the word of the Lord?  Who actually has heard from God?  Who has paid attention to God?”

And to bring this to us, we also have our own versions of reality.  We need to constantly examine and refine our versions.

So let’s see what Jeremiah is up against.

Jeremiah is living at a time in which his country, Judah, is gradually feeling the fingers of Babylon get tighter and tighter around their throat.

Ever since he was called by God to be a prophet, Jeremiah has had an unpopular message.  It’s not one that he’s been eager to give.  Basically, this is his message: don’t think that you’ll escape the Babylonians.  You might tell each other that we’ll get out of this smelling like a rose, but your actions have you stinking to high heaven!

We could look at the political and military aspects of this, how tiny Judah is on the highway between Babylon and the juicy prize of Egypt, like roadkill, but that’s not Jeremiah’s concern.  He’s concerned about the idolatry, the injustice, the wickedness he sees all around.  He’s concerned about the arrogance of his people, the arrogance of the leadership.

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That arrogance is based in a version of reality saying it is impossible for Judah to be conquered.  It’s especially impossible for Jerusalem, the capital, to be conquered.  It’s impossible because that is where the temple is located.  Forget about it.  The temple simply cannot be destroyed, because God won’t allow it.

In chapter 7, Jeremiah goes to the gate of the temple and preaches what’s known as the “temple sermon,” one of his most shocking and outrageous acts.  He boldly proclaims, “Do not trust in these deceptive words.”  What is it he calls “deceptive”?  It’s something that seemingly every faithful, loyal person would agree with: “This is the temple of the Lord” (v. 4).  That’s what he says is deceptive.

The Revised English Bible has even stronger language.  “This slogan of yours is a lie; put no trust in it.”

It’s not that Jeremiah disrespects the temple or doubts it is the house of the Lord.  What upsets him is the way people superstitiously believe no harm can come to them.  They do this while ignoring the wishes of the one they supposedly worship in the temple.

Brueggemann says, “Jeremiah, against the other prophets, announced the end of Judah’s ‘known world.’  The prophets who opposed him tried in various ways to soften the massive judgment he anticipated.  Despite their protestations, that world did end as Jeremiah had announced.”[3]

[And unlike R.E.M. in their song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”[4] those prophets did not feel fine.]

A week ago at the University of Michigan Medical School, as part of the graduation festivities, they held what’s known as the White Coat Ceremony.  [sorry, my mistake, it is not part of graduation!]  The highlight is a speech given by a faculty member selected by students and peers.  This year it was Dr. Kristin Collier.[5]  Several students walked out due to her pro-life views.  The reporting in the news of the event mainly focused on the controversy but ignored her eloquent words of wit and wisdom.

She didn’t use the term, but Dr. Collier spoke of versions of reality.  A couple of times, she jokingly said maybe she should have gone to business school!  She celebrated the humanities—anthropology, sociology, philosophy, theology, and others—as helping us ask “the big questions,” as she put it, about life itself, with all the gratitude and grief it carries.

She emphasized the danger of treating ourselves and patients like machines.  Beware of “seeing your patients as just a bag of blood and bones or human life as just molecules in motion.”  Dr. Collier said, “You are not technicians taking care of complex machines, but human beings taking care of other human beings.”[6]

She referred to Aristotle’s vision of types of knowledge, one of which is techne.  We get our words “technical” and “technician” from it.  She noted, “Traditional medical education often doesn’t teach health as shalom but health as techne.”  I will admit, her using the word shalom took me by surprise.

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(On a side note, I afterwards discovered she had become a Christian, baptized many years after her husband.)

Collier said medical education too often emphasizes the technical aspects, rather than recognizing the patient as a human being, with all that includes.

Technology is well and good and vitally important, but shalom is the all-expansive blessing of peace and well-being pervading creation.  To recognize and to treat each other with holiness—that’s quite a version of reality!

Today’s scripture is less about Jeremiah’s woes than it is about the way the prophets bless what God does not bless.  Think about it: these are people who represent God.  That’s a lot of authority that can be used in either a good way or a bad way.  In their own way, they emphasize the technology of prophecy severed from the shalom which is its heart.

Verse 30 shows us just one way in which they’re being dishonest.  “See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another.”  They’re engaging in a sort of divine plagiarism.  They’re using their computers to copy and paste—and pretend they heard it straight from God!  (By the way, I will let you know if I’m quoting somebody, as I did with Kristin Collier!)

But this is about more than a violation of copyright.  More is going on here.  And it goes to the heart of what it means to hear from God—and to pay attention to God.  It deals with our version of reality, as well as our willingness to let it be scrutinized by others.

In saying the prophets steal words from each other, we might suspect they’re locked into one way of thinking.  The true word of the Lord is too challenging for them.  It takes their version of reality and just blows it wide open.  But that’s a good and wonderful thing.  We need our versions of reality to be blown wide open!

Do you know why?  I like my version of reality.  I’m comfortable with my version of reality; I don’t want anyone messing with it!  There is within me the temptation to go with inertia, to go with the flow.  It feels safe and easy.

At the same time, I know the Lord loves me too much—the Lord loves all of us too much—to leave us where we are.  The question is asked, “Is not my word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (v. 29).  Let the fire burn away the impurities; let the hammer chisel away the rough edges.

How does the word blow our version of reality wide open?  It certainly helps when we allow the Spirit the freedom to use the word in our lives.  There’s no better way to break out of a narrow-minded, marching-in-lockstep approach.  We need the Spirit to empower the word to lead us from our comfort zone (being safe and certain) and lead us into a new version of reality (being courageous and questioning).

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In Luke 12 someone comes to Jesus, wanting to triangulate him into a family spat over inheritance.  Jesus presents a different version of reality.  Are we possessed by our possessions?  Do not lose yourself, do not lose your way, over something empty and useless.

Jesus pushes us to ask questions.  We can’t grow without them.  Be careful, there are forces that would constrain us, narrow our focus, tell us lies.  Some of them choose us, and there are others we choose.  Let’s keep our versions of reality open.

Is not my word like fire?  Is not my word like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1998), 208.

[2] Brueggemann, 208.

[3] Brueggemann, 209.

[4] www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0GFRcFm-aY

[5] www.youtube.com/watch?v=JE5wAvhr87w  (her speech begins at the 1:46 mark)

[6] www.commonsense.news/p/the-message-americas-future-doctors


to whom do we listen? (hospitality or not?)

For thousands of years and in cultures all around the globe, there have been practices which have served to bind societies together.  They demonstrate a quality which is not only functional, but compassionate.  I’m speaking of hospitality.  The extending of hospitality is especially praiseworthy when the recipient is someone unknown to the host.

This is modeled by Abraham in Genesis 18 when three unidentified men approach his home.  We’re told, “He looked up and saw three men standing near him.  When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground” (v. 2).  He didn’t grumble and say, “Yeah, what do you want?”  No, he ran!

Hospitality is so important that Jesus, in his speaking of righteous behavior in Matthew 25, said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (v. 35).

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The offering of welcome can literally be the difference between life and death, or at least the opportunity to get off the street and have some tea and cookies.

I had a tiny taste of that when I was posing as a homeless person during an immersion experience with a Christian relief and development agency.  I was pretty grungy looking.  If I were to show up here, right now, looking the way I did, I wonder what would happen.  I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if the reaction had the feel of “Yeah, what do you want?” rather than running to help.

Along those lines, we have in the reading from 2 John something which seems to be a curious statement regarding hospitality.  “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive and welcome this person into your house, for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person” (vv. 10-11).

Some people say that applies to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.  Though I imagine as often as not, when they are knocking on doors, one might hide behind the curtain or peek through the blinds, so they think no one’s at home.  Just don’t bother me!

2One day when we lived in Jamestown, I noticed Mormon missionaries walking through the neighborhood.  They were wearing their usual white shirt, dark pants, and tie.  I decided when they got to our door, I would welcome them into the house.  I figured I could offer some hospitality, perhaps tea and cookies!

I immediately let them know I was a Presbyterian minister, so they could forget my becoming a Latter Day Saint.  I didn’t really envision my converting them either.  Of course, they did what they were sent out to do—explain their faith.  I noted the belief that the risen Jesus visited what is now America.  I also mentioned how there is no archaeological evidence of the civilization that would have existed.  I don’t think they ever thought about that.  So after a brief and cordial visit, we parted ways.

According to John, they arrived, not bringing the correct teaching, and were welcomed and invited into the house by me.  Was I participating in whatever evil deeds they were up to?  Just to be clear: I didn’t suspect them of doing evil!

So what is this all about?  Well, let’s start from the beginning.

“The elder to the elect lady and her children” (v. 1).  The author of the letter is “the elder.”  The Greek word is πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros), which literally means “presbyter.”  We don’t know if John the apostle, part of Jesus’ inner circle, is the same guy as John the presbyter.  I won’t bother going into detail explaining the votes for and the votes against.

He addresses “the elect lady.”[1]  If that’s a person, she would be Lady Electa or possibly the elect Kyria.  (The Greek word κυρία, kuria is “lady.”)  However, it’s just as likely the “lady” is a church, and the “children” are its members.  John pronounces his love “in the truth” and “all [those] who know the truth.”  He greets them with grace, mercy, and peace.

He expresses his elation:  “I was overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth” (v. 4).  It’s not like John has only found a few who pass the test—just a percentage.  It’s more like the ones he has encountered have been “in the truth,” as he says.

He now moves on to his point (or maybe I should say, his points) in this very short letter.  Something you might notice if you read 1 John (which itself is a short letter) is how it has been summarized, boiled down, in 2 John.  Much of the first letter has been crammed together in the second letter.

He has a request of the “dear lady.”  He asks, “not as though I were writing you a new commandment but one we have had from the beginning: let us love one another” (v. 5).  It’s not a new commandment, because Jesus already delivered it to them.  It’s in the gospel of John.

On the night of his betrayal and arrest, he spoke these words: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).

We should be warned.  This love isn’t some touchy-feely mish mash.  This love sets a very high bar.  It comes at great cost.  That’s why John takes it so seriously.

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love in the city of brotherly love

He issues the challenge: “this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning—you must walk in it” (v. 6).  The call to “walk in it” is about the walk of life.  It is the path we tread in this mortal flesh.  It’s the passage we take, we who are flowers that fade.

Did I say something about John’s taking this seriously?  Let’s take a peek at verse 7.

“Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!”  That’s right—the antichrist.

(On a side note, nowhere in the book of Revelation does the word “antichrist” appear.)

A similar sentiment appears in 1 John: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.  And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world” (4:2-3).  That letter speaks of more than one antichrist.  “Children, it is the last hour!  As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.  From this we know that it is the last hour” (2:18).

Just think, it was the last hour in the first century!  Clearly, this isn’t chronological time.

That which is antichrist arrays itself against Christ, against Messiah.

So why is it a mark of antichrist, a spirit of antichrist, to deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh—to deny that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word?

I became a Christian when I was in college.  I was baptized when I was 21.  It was during those years when I developed a genuine interest in faith, and not just Christian faith, but other expressions of it, as well.  I studied Buddhism, Zen, Islam (primarily the mystical side of the Sufis), and more, including some Native American and aboriginal faiths.

I found what is good and true and sacred.  There is much to be learned from them.  We Christians have much to learn.

And yet, none of the revered and honored teachers and leaders of those faiths has something unique to Jesus.  None of them are the divine and human meeting as one.  There are those who say Jesus was only similar to God.  Some have claimed Jesus was a spirit or an immaterial being.  The post-resurrection appearances included Jesus’ showing his wounds, eating food, being touched.  He had actual physical relationships.  He could be encountered face to face.God with us,” down here on the ground.  He was aware of his mortality.

In the 90s, there was a song by Joan Osborne, “What If God Was One of Us?”  It was a fascinating concept.  I like the stanza in which she sings: “What if God was one of us? / Just a slob like one of us / Just a stranger on the bus / Trying to make His way home?”  Jesus is with us, down here on the ground.

There is a spiritual exercise known as the “memento mori,” remember your death.  According to philosopher Jules Evans, “the things of the world—the body, fashion, career, reputation, even family—should not be the primary focus of our minds, because these things can be swept away by death in a moment.”[2]

4That applies to the high and mighty, even Roman conquerors.  We are told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs…for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”

No one modeled that any better than Jesus.  He was, so to speak, a God who knew he would die.  With that awareness, there was no one who could relate to us in any better way, in any way more profound.

We must ask, and answer for ourselves, who is Jesus for us?

John continues with his message to the dear lady, “Be on your guard, so that you do not lose what we have worked for but may receive a full reward” (v. 8).  The word for “do not lose” (ἀπόλλυμι, apollymi) means “destroy.”  Be careful, lest you destroy our efforts!

Let’s go back to hospitality, or the lack thereof.  “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching,” that is, the teaching of Christ we just heard, do not welcome them.  We now know the teaching is that Jesus came in the flesh.

Our friend John closes his letter to the elect lady by saying he has more to write, but he would prefer speaking in person.  Oh yes, the “children of your elect sister send you their greetings” (v. 13).  He wants to meet face to face, so “our joy may be complete” (v. 12).

There really is no substitute for meeting in person.  Telephone, email, text, Zoom, even the dying art of putting pen to paper and writing a letter—there are surely pros and cons to each—but they don’t compare to human presence and touch.  It’s true; nothing can replace face to face.  That’s how it was with Jesus.

5

Our presbyter might have other things in mind, as well.  Maybe he wants to be sure he is received with hospitality and not sent packing like those others!

So there is the question, to whom do we listen?

Do we listen to the spirit of antichrist?  Understand, this spirit is called a deceiver.  Deception at its best, looks very much like something trustworthy.  It appears to be good, even holy.  On the other hand, here’s a cartoonish scenario.  Mr. Fox applying for the job as security guard of the henhouse isn’t likely to fool anyone.  No one would mistake this for a good and holy arrangement.  It’s just too “over the top.”

Visualize two streets running parallel to each other.  At some point, one of the streets begins to veer off at a one-degree angle.  For a while, they still look like they’re running side by side.  In time however, the difference is too difficult to ignore.  It just takes some people longer to see it.

So it is with us.  Are we settling for the counterfeit, the copy?  Or do we want the actual, the authentic?  Are we eating crumbs when the Lord offers a feast?

The spirit of antichrist knows nothing of joy.  But when we turn to the Lord and share in welcome and hospitality, then our joy is made complete.

 

[1] ἐκλεκτός κυρία

[2] julesevans.medium.com/the-memento-mori-f588311adce0


good grief

A few years ago, I preached on Psalm 137.  In that church, just like here, there was an anthem between the scripture readings; we didn’t read them all at once.  As a result, something happened there that also happened a few moments ago.  Immediately after reading verse 9, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” I said (I’ll admit, with a smile), “This is the word of the Lord.”  And the congregation responded, “Thanks be to God!”

Yes, happy are those who beat Babylonian babies against the rock!  Amen!  Hallelujah!

1 ps

Psalm 137 is in a group classified as “imprecatory” psalms, psalms in which curses are invoked, in which evil is invoked.  They are not to be repeated in polite company!  One of my favorite examples comes from Psalm 58.  “The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (v. 10).  And there’s a charming response: “People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth’” (v. 11).

Psalms like today’s text also create an embarrassing, uneasy feeling.  Even as noteworthy a figure as C. S. Lewis suggested an alternative way to look at it.  He, in effect, spiritualized it.  He suggested seeing the Babylonian babies, not literally as children, but as temptations.  He said they’re “the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments.”  They “woo and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them, we feel we are being cruel to animals.”[1]

In other words, we shouldn’t think of them as actual babies, but as apparently harmless attractions—and not yielding to them would be like mistreating a little puppy!

I can understand the impulse that wants to soften the blow, to keep the raw emotion of our psalm at arm’s length.  It’s like the feeling we get when, in the presence of someone gripped with pain and anguish, we hear all kinds of utterances that seem vile and even blasphemous.

When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, we both worked for a while at a nursing home, Broomall Presbyterian Village.  Banu was the chaplain, and I assisted the social services director, Pat.  When I wasn’t helping her with paperwork, she would just have me go and visit the residents.

There was a variety of them, from people who were completely lucid—but couldn’t move very well because of various conditions—to those with advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  There was a particular woman who was still somewhat active, and who also had a very active vocabulary!

More often than not, upon entering her room, you could anticipate being greeted with quite colorful language, and by that I mean expecting a stream of expletives.  “What the blankety-blank do you want?  Who the blank are you?”  (You may fill in those blanks as you wish.)  I would tell her that I was working with Pat, and I was simply there to visit her for whatever reason.  She might cut loose with another tirade.

Call me a masochist, but in a way, I actually looked forward to visiting her!

If it was evident that she really didn’t want me there, I would leave.  Other times, after the initial salvo, she would welcome a visit.  I wonder if that foul language was her way of dealing with the fear and pain, knowing she was slipping.  And miraculously, once in a while, she would actually smile when she saw me.

2 ps

Her demeanor made her a difficult person to deal with, to say the least.  In a similar way, the language in our psalm makes it difficult to deal with.

I believe I’ve only heard one sermon on this psalm.  It was when I was in my early twenties and not yet a Presbyterian.  My impression was the fellow preaching didn’t want to deal with the tough language in it.  He read the first verse, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”  As soon as he got to the phrase, “there we sat down,” he stopped and said, “That was their first mistake!”

He then launched into an entire sermon on the need to praise the Lord in all circumstances.  It seemed to me that message could be used for any number of scriptures.  It seemed he wasn’t really engaging with the word, and he wasn’t honoring those who had been exiled to Babylon.

As I’ve suggested, it is understandable if we’re reluctant to address the grief and pain in the psalm, especially because it involves curses!  I will be the first to admit that trying to reconcile this talk of curses and blood and vengeance with the God I know as the God of love—as the God of Jesus Christ—is not something I readily embrace.

Reed Lessing, teacher at Concordia University in St. Paul, explains to us the vengeance of God “arises out of a cultural milieu in which cursing was an integral part of life.  Ancient Near Eastern texts are filled with treaty curses, inscriptional curses, and incantations to undo curses.  Often these blessings and curses were employed to ensure a vassal’s loyalty to his sovereign.”[2]  It was a way of ensuring fidelity and devotion to one’s leader.  We see that in Deuteronomy 30.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (v. 19).

Lessing adds that “it is out of this understanding that the imprecatory psalms are prayed.  When psalmists call down curses, it is because enemies have been disloyal to Yahweh’s covenant.”  When you live in a world where curses are as customary as the sun rising and setting, it doesn’t seem so unusual.

So, what good is Psalm 137 for us?  Why should we bother with this psalm and others like it?  We haven’t been sent into exile; we haven’t had to live like refugees.

Today’s psalm, to a large degree, is about identity.  When things are taken away from us, when we’re called to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” there can be a powerful temptation to just give up (v. 4).  We can forget who we are; we can lose our identity.  Clearly, we don’t have to go into a literal exile for that to happen.

Psalm 137, and others like it, provides a common language for grief.  Walter Bruggemann, in his article “Conversations among Exiles,” makes the observation, “From Israel the church can learn a better way to deal with grief and rage.”[3]  The Israelites had plenty of experience in that department.

He says that “the church can offer ways of speaking and acting that the dominant society regards as subversive, but without which we cannot for long stay human.  It can express sadness, rage, and loss as an alternative to the denial that inevitably breeds brutality.”  When we bottle things up, or pretend that they aren’t there, that stuff usually comes back with a vengeance!

The language of lament in the biblical tradition is a gift.  Bruggemann concludes that the church “can be a voice of holiness that counters the trivial commodity-centered world by the practice of disciplines that make communion possible.  It can be a voice of imaginative, neighborly transformation…  And it can express new…possibilities, rooted in the truth of God’s good news.”

We do have that common, shared language for grief.  Scriptures like today’s psalm provide it.  It is a language for grief that is holy, even with the curses.

There’s something tricky about grieving—we’re not always aware that we’re doing it.  Sometimes there can be an indefinable heaviness; sometimes there is no emotional content at all.  Sometimes we have to plunge beneath layers of anxiety and anger and rage and sadness.  Sometimes there may be the fear of the future.

It is important to recognize when we are grieving.

3 ps

The late Charles Schultz, through his cartoon “Peanuts,” employed plenty of theological and psychological concepts.  Linus, besides carrying his security blanket, was the biblical scholar.  His sister Lucy was the judgmental figure.  And poor Charlie Brown was the one who most frequently cried out, “Good grief!”  He probably didn’t realize it, but there is wisdom in the idea of “good grief.”  Or we can at least say: there is wisdom in recognizing our grief and working through it in a surprisingly good way.

When we aren’t aware of our grief, or when we aren’t able to name it, it can drive us in unhealthy ways.  We have major difficulty in finding some kind of resolution.

So, what can we say about those primal urges of fear and fury in our psalm?  By themselves, they’re neither good nor bad.  The question is, “Can we channel that stuff in constructive ways?”  Another way of looking at it would be: how do we take that stuff and honor Christ and Christ in each other?

I want to give one possible answer to that question by leaving us with a prayer request.  This comes from our missionary friends in France.  We can clearly see those urges of fear and fury at work.  In this case, those forces are definitely bad.  They are directed at servants of the Lord.

We are entreated, “Please pray for our brother ‘Gabriel’ and especially for his wife.  Gabriel escaped terrible persecution and mistreatment in his home country and has been seeking a means for his wife to join him.

“He sent us a message that his wife, who was in hiding, has been found by the extremist group of another faith which group was the source of his persecution.  She is now physically sick and emotionally at her ends.  Her captors are threatening her.

“Gabriel himself is very discouraged and depressed.  He is considering returning to his country, which would probably mean dire consequences, even death.

“Please pray for a miracle.”

4 ps

Can we honor Christ and Christ in each other?  We can join with our brothers and sisters in distress.  We all can sing the Lord’s song, even if it is in a foreign land.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 136.

[2] concordiatheology.org/2011/02/on-suffering-the-bible-and-preaching-part-2

[3] www.religion-online.org/article/conversations-among-exiles/


table manners

Enriched flour (composed of wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid), soybean oil with TBHQ for freshness (by the way, TBHQ is tertiary butylhydroquinone), sugar, salt, leavening (which in turn contains sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, and monocalcium phosphate), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cornstarch, and soy lecithin.

Would anyone care to guess what this list is all about?  Well, it’s the list of ingredients on a box of Keebler Club Crackers.

In recent years, there has been increasing attention to the food that Americans eat, especially the highly processed food we consume.  There’s a witches’ brew of chemicals—some benign, some quite harmful—all mixed up in it, along with added salt and sugar.

Some time ago, I saw an interview with a retired lieutenant general who said the number one reason that people are refused admission to the armed forces is because they’re too overweight.  On a side note, he said something I had never heard before.  In the 1940s, one of the main reasons for Americans being refused admission was malnourishment.  The military considered it to be a question of national security, so it pushed for the free lunch program in public schools.

Maybe it will take the military to push the food industry, and all of us, to get our act together and quit eating so much junk food!  (Although, what can I say?  I do like cookies.)

1 ac

Throughout history, cultures have addressed the stuff we put into our bodies in a multitude of ways.  What one group of people rejects as vile and disgusting is considered by others to be a treat that is absolutely scrumptious!

Ancient Israelites and modern-day Jews provide a classic example of distinctions in food.  Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 go into some detail.

These laws regarding what is proper and improper, what is ritually clean and unclean, to eat—they’re just part of a whole vision of life.  Along with birth, death, sex, economics, and everything but the kitchen sink, instructions about food demonstrate the way the people of Israel, who are called to holiness, should live.  In fact, the last part of Leviticus, starting with chapter 17, is referred to as the Holiness Code.

But maybe you’re wondering, “What is all this talk about food?  To remind us to eat healthy?”  Okay, that’s part of it.  Still, what we consume helps to define us.  You know, you are what you eat?  It may be largely an accident of geography, but different cultures are associated with certain kinds of food.  Thinking of cuisine, what comes to mind when I say Chinese…or Mexican…or Turkish?

However, there are other factors when it comes to eating.  What we eat can reflect many values, be they religious, political, ecological, or whatever.

So what’s going on with Peter in Acts 11?  It looks like he’s behaving—and eating—the way he’s supposed to.  It looks like he’s doing his very best to avoid food that is ritually unclean.  He hasn’t defiled himself by eating improper stuff; he has kept kosher.  But then, he has a vision!  (More on that in a moment.)

In chapter 10, we’re told the story of Cornelius, who lives in Caesarea.  He’s what people refer to as a “God-fearer.”  God-fearers are Gentiles attracted by the Jewish faith and who live according to its principles.  The Bible calls Cornelius “devout”; he gives alms generously and observes the hours of prayer (v. 2).

During one of these times of prayer, an angel appears to him, telling him to send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, about 30 miles down the coast.  He has a message that Cornelius needs to hear.  It just so happens, as Peter re-tells the story in chapter 11, that while he’s been praying, Cornelius’ guys show up.  And he has quite a story of his own!

It seems that he’s had a vision of “something like a large sheet coming down from heaven,” which contains animals of all kinds (v. 5).  Peter sees critters with feet that run, wings that flap, and scales that are…just scaly!  (This is not a vegetarian friendly vision!)  The heavenly voice rings the dinner bell, and says, “Come and get it!”

As I suggested a moment ago, there are plenty of items on the menu that have Peter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks!”  Then we’re told this: “a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven” (vv. 9-10).  It came from heaven.  That’s an interesting origin for all of this unclean stuff!

When Peter’s Gentile visitors arrive and tell him about Cornelius, something clicks inside him: one of those “a-ha” moments.  And after he returns with them, as he is speaking, he says that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning” (v. 15).

What has happened to Peter?  Dan Clendenin frames it like so, how “the purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually ‘clean’ who considered themselves close to God, and the ‘unclean’ who were shunned as impure sinners far from God.  Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated.”[1]

So in case you haven’t figured this out by now, this isn’t about food; it’s about people.  Notice the language of verse 3; look at how Peter is confronted.  The Good News Bible puts it this way: “You were a guest in the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them!”  Peter, what in the world were you thinking?

Clendenin goes on, “In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and perhaps even actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.  And as Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, Jesus asked him to do the same.”

Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  It’s obvious that we do have differences and distinctions but encouraging the ones that crush human life are not to be tolerated.

On that note about differences, there’s the story about the student who is speaking with the rabbi.  “Teacher,” he says, “you have told us that we are all made in the image of God.”  “That’s right,” the rabbi responds.  The student asks, “Then why do people come in so many different colors, have so many different sizes, and have so many different customs?”  The rabbi answers, “Because we are all made in the image of God.”

2 ac

Just like anything that is alive, our identity continues to change—one would hope becoming bigger in heart and spirit.  Think about it.  Do we describe ourselves the same way as we did when we were children?  (I hope not!  I hope we’ve learned a few things!)  What about when we were teenagers?  And through adulthood, our identity continues to evolve.

That’s where the church is in Acts 11.  They have to decide if they will let themselves grow in identity—who they say they are, how they define themselves—or will they turn inward?  When Banu and I did interim pastor training, that was something we were called to encourage, discovering and renewing your identity, at the individual level and at the congregational level.  We forget who we are, and we forget that we need to continue moving.

Remember, this isn’t something that Peter has welcomed.  He has struggled against this expansion of his vision.  (It had to happen three times, which is always a good symbolic number.)  But despite his resistance, he realizes that this change in table manners is a good thing!

What about us?  Do we need a change in table manners?

Do we have any purity laws of our own, ones that crush human life?  Do we have any convenient rules we rely on to avoid the love-affirming, community-building, Holy Spirit-obeying way of life we know we should follow?  Are there any people, or groups of people, that we think of as unworthy—and we move heaven and earth to avoid?  (I include myself in this!)

I don’t know the answer to all those questions.  I suspect that, if we’re honest with ourselves, much of it is true.

“A second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”  The New Testament church has to deal with this again:  “Who do we welcome to the table?”  That’s something I’ve been hearing from Banu in recent times: who is at my table?  That’s a good question for all of us.  Who is at our table?

What is it within us that seeks to exclude?  What is it that we regard with fear and loathing?  Who is it that we regard with fear and loathing?

Remember, as I said earlier, Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  As I said in the story about the student and the rabbi, God creates us with differences and diversities; we just need to not encourage the ones that lead us away from love.

I want to finish with a Polynesian prayer of confession of sin.

“Lord, you have made us known to friends we did not know, and you have given us seats in homes which are not our own.  You have brought the distant near—and made brothers and sisters of strangers.  Forgive us, Lord… we did not introduce you.”

Thanks be to God, who is always willing to teach us table manners!

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070430JJ.shtml


what are you doing here?

Have you ever been so confused that you didn’t know up from down, black from white, in from out?  Have you ever forgotten someone’s name?  I’m sure we’ve all done that.  However, I’m not talking about someone we’ve only met once or twice.  I’m talking about someone we really know—a person whose name we ought to remember.  I’ll admit, that’s been me on more than one occasion!

1 kg

Now that is being confused.  We could think of other examples of confusion, unless we’re too confused to do so.

In 1 Kings 19, we catch someone in his own state of confusion, the prophet Elijah.  We’ll get to that later on.

Here’s a bit of the back-story.  Ahab is king, and Jezebel is his foreign wife.  Her father is a priest of the goddess Astarte.  Astarte, also known as Asherah, is the consort, the companion, of Baal.  At this time, the land is experiencing a terrible drought.  Elijah, the prophet of the Lord, says the rain will come only when he gives the word.  The priests of Baal can call on their god all they want.  Only the prophet of Yahweh can announce the end of this vicious drought.

In chapter 18, we have a quite bloody scene.  Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to see which god can burn up the sacrificial offering which has been laid out.  When fire from heaven descends and consumes the offering, Elijah is proven right.  In a moment that can only be called zealous, he has the other prophets put to death.

But before all the butchery, there is a note of humor!  While the prophets of Baal are crying out to their god, Elijah decides to be a comedian.  He says, “Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27).  Some translations, instead of “he has wandered away,”[1] have “he is relieving himself,” or he “is out sitting on the toilet”! (New Living Translation, Living Bible)

2 kg[not the same Baal, but maybe the point is made]

So basically, that is what’s been going on as we get to chapter 19.

The king lets the queen know what Elijah has done.  To say that Jezebel is displeased with Elijah would be an understatement.  She sends a messenger to tell the prophet, “You’re a dead man.”

So, on the heels of his greatest victory, Elijah takes to his heels!  He has defeated the prophets of Baal; the rains have returned at his word, but he is scared for his life.  He takes off, and not only does he take off; he leaves the country.  Elijah flees all the way to Beer-sheba, about one hundred miles away, in the southern kingdom of Judah.

Something to understand about Elijah is he is considered perhaps the foremost of the prophets.  For example, in the book of Malachi, his return is expected.  “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (4:5-6).  Receive his family counseling or else!

On the nights when the Passover seder is observed, a chair is always left empty for Elijah.

In the New Testament, Jesus says Elijah has come in the person of John the Baptist.  This is right after he has taken Peter, James, and John up the mountain where the Transfiguration occurs, and Moses and Elijah have had a little conversation with Jesus (Mt 17).

So Elijah winds up with some hefty credentials!

Very briefly, he leaves his servant in Beer-sheba, and strikes off alone into the wilderness where he finds “a solitary broom tree,” also known as a juniper tree (v. 4).  He lies down, ready to die.  An angel visits, giving him food and water, and lets him know he must continue his journey.  Elijah travels “forty days and forty nights,” symbolic in the Bible of a very long time (v. 8).

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He takes refuge in a cave at Mount Horeb, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

“Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (v. 9).  Here’s his response.  It’s rather lengthy, and we’ll hear it again.  “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (v. 10).

What are you doing here?

On the face of it, the answer seems obvious.  He just woke up; he had been asleep.  Of course, that’s not really the question.  Aside from the “here,” there’s the desire to know, “why are you here”?  Putting a finer point on it, we might see it as, “Why did you run from Jezebel?”  Why were you afraid?  Why did you fear?

Is it possible that the full weight of hearing a death sentence pronounced shook his resolve?  Does it make it more real?

The Lord tells Elijah to take his place on the mountain, as Moses did centuries earlier, because there’s about to be a divine visitation.  Where is the Lord?  A storm arrives, leaving destruction in its wake.  But no, the Lord isn’t there.  Then there’s an earthquake, shaking up the place, sending boulders loose.  After that, a raging fire breaks out, filling the sky with smoke.  Still, neither one is a sign of God’s presence.

After all the drama—after the blowing, shaking, and burning—there is an eerie stillness.  Remember if there’s anyone who can appreciate spectacle, it’s Elijah.  We are introduced to him just as he’s going to confront the king regarding the drought.  And of course, there’s the high drama when he faces the prophets of Baal.

As verse 12 puts it, there was “after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”  The King James Version has the familiar “after the fire a still small voice.”

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[photo by Kelly3339 on Pixabay]

“When Elijah heard it…”  He heard in the quiet of the hush.  He listened to the absence of sound.  Elijah…  Elijah…  Elijah!

“What are you doing here?”

I said earlier Elijah has his own state of confusion.  This, I would submit, is evidence of such.  I also would submit there’s a bit of speculation on my part!

What is Elijah’s response?  “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (v. 14).  Wait, haven’t we heard that before?

Elijah repeats his previous answer verbatim.  (Here’s more speculation.)  It seems to be rehearsed.  Does he have nothing else to say?  Is he making excuses?  Could he be trying to prove his worth?  Is he trying to convince himself of something?  Is he trying to convince the Lord?

Thinking of Elijah’s repeated answer as a narrative as to where he is, I wonder if there’s a narrative I hold onto?  Do I have a story I repeat to deflect those kinds of questions and concerns?  Why am I here?  Why do I run, not necessarily from Jezebel, but from whatever?  Why do I fear?  Are there excuses I make?

However, more importantly, whose am I?  To whom do I belong?

In the collected Letters and Papers from Prison, there is a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer which he wrote about nine months before being executed by the Nazis.  He was killed mere weeks before his prison camp was liberated by the Allies.  Here are the final lines of the poem, titled “Who am I?”[2]

“Who am I?  This or the Other? / Am I one person today and tomorrow another? / Am I both at once?  A hypocrite before others, / And before myself a contemptible, woebegone weakling? / Or is something within me like a beaten army / Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

“Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine, / Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”

5 kgCan anyone relate to the thought, “Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?”  I think Elijah demonstrates that vividly.  In ways, I feel like I also display that quality.

And then, those final words.  “Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine, / Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”

The Lord answers Elijah.  The Lord gives him a mission.  He is to be a kingmaker: Hazael in Aram and Jehu in Israel.  As his protégé, he is to anoint Elisha.

To Elijah, the Lord affirms, you are my prophet.  You are my servant.  However, you aren’t the only faithful one.  Verse 18 says, “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”  That’s both a comfort and a correction.

The Lord uses the language of “kiss,” with all the intimacy and consequences it carries.  Every mouth that has not kissed Baal.  The faithful ones have not given themselves to this foreign god, this false god.  They have not pledged their allegiance.  They have not promised their hearts.

We should take note: in Hebrew thought, “heart” is not the seat of emotion.  It is not where we feel love, the way we reckon it.  It is the source of attention, choice, concern, imagination, understanding.  It is where we love God and love our neighbor.  Pledging ourselves to a false god, to an idol, interferes with all of that.  Indeed, it sends it in the wrong direction.

We have here a tale of rediscovery.  Despite his protests to the contrary, Elijah’s actions reveal he has forgotten he is a prophet of God.  He flees in disorder from victory already achieved.  Elijah is reminded who he is.  True to his nature as one with a flair for the dramatic, when he ascends from the earth, he does so in a chariot of fire.

So often, we forget who we are.  As the children of God, as the saved of our Lord Jesus Christ, as those sustained by the Holy Spirit—when we remember that and act on it—confusion is set aside.  Harmony and order are set in place.

Though we might flee in disorder from victory already achieved, Jesus makes us more than conquerors.

What are you doing here?

Whatever I am doing, whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.

 

[1] the word for “wander” is שִֺיג, sig

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 348.


into the heart of truth

I suppose we’ve all heard someone say, at one time or another, “All paths lead to God,” or maybe we’ve said that.  Usually, that’s about different faiths, different religions, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on.  In many ways, I do agree with that.

A few years ago, in a previous congregation Banu and I were serving we were talking about it in Sunday school.  Someone drew a picture of a mountain, with a number of trails leading up to the summit.  For him, it symbolized those paths leading to God.

I drew something different on the paper, an expressway with many lanes, explaining I see the life of faith as a continuous journey.  In the center of this road, I put Jesus Christ.  I said I see him as the pure, perfect expression of God’s vision for humanity.  He is flowing into the heart of truth.

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Then in the lanes on either side of the center, I said to the extent that we can know such a thing, I would place other expressions of faith that have varying degrees of truth and authenticity.  Way over on the shoulders would be groups like mind-control cults and twisted versions of faith.  Like drunk drivers, they’re on the verge of going off the road entirely, crashing and burning.

I need to emphasize the importance of having a sense of humor, as well as a sense of humility, in all of this.  We too often claim to know more than we do—or even, are able to know!

I would submit as one example of our need for humility the reason for today’s name, Trinity Sunday.  Understanding that the word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, people have devised all kinds of explanations for the Holy Trinity.  That is, they’ve tried to explain how one is three and three is one.

Some explanations are better than others.  Some people talk about H2O, how it exists as ice, liquid, and water vapor.  Others talk about relationship, such as, “I am a son, a brother, and a husband.”  Really, no description does a very good job.  They tend to turn God into a problem which needs to be solved!

Trinity isn’t three as the answer to a math problem.  Trinity speaks about the nature of God.  God is a community.  You need at least three for there to be a community.  But this isn’t “community” the way we often think of it.  It isn’t a collection of individuals who just happen to be in the same place.

There’s a term called “perichoresis” (περιχώρησις).  It comes from two Greek words meaning “around” and “to contain” or “to rotate.”  It was used by ancient writers to describe how the Persons of the Trinity share the lives of each other, constantly interwoven in a vibrant intimacy of love, a dance of love.  They hold each other in a holy dance.  That is what’s happening within the heart of God.

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The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “I would believe only in a god who could dance.”[1]

I’m reminded of the chorus from the hymn, “Simple Gifts.”  It was a dancing song that a group known as the Shakers used to sing.  “When true simplicity is gained / To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed / To turn, turn will be our delight / ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.”

This is a joyous love that is interwoven into creation itself.  God, who is love, sees of creation, “It is good.”  After the human race comes into being, God sees, “It is very good.”  When we get a glimpse of that, we realize the Holy Trinity is far from some dry, dusty doctrine.  We dive right into the heart of truth and get the invitation that says, “There’s a party going on!”

So, back to my point about speaking on matters of faith, it’s good to be humble in our pronouncements—and learn to just dance!

There is a little snippet from a passage in John’s gospel that goes on for four chapters.  Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure.  And at this point, he’s telling them about the work of the Holy Spirit.  To continue with that image of the dance, maybe we can see the Spirit as the music!

Still, we can sense a certain heaviness in the air.  We cannot escape the fact that this is a solemn occasion.  After all, this scripture comes after Judas has left to meet up with his co-conspirators.  There follows the ominous note: “And it was night” (13:30).  Jesus tells them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (v. 12).

They’re having enough trouble with what he’s been trying to teach.  Philip has already said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” to which Jesus says, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:8-9).

If they still aren’t getting it, what hope is there?  If traveling with Jesus—having seen how he lives—isn’t convincing enough, then what would do it?

I like the name Jesus gives the Holy Spirit: “the Spirit of truth” (v. 13).  The Spirit of God, the Spirit of holiness, is also the Spirit of truth.  We might contrast that with the spirit of error, the spirit of falsehood, the spirit of lies.

There’s another angle to this business of the Spirit guiding us into all the truth I really appreciate.  It’s the importance of valuing people who are located all along the theological spectrum: conservatives, liberals, and everyone else.  We could say the same thing about those all along the political spectrum, as well.

I have often had the experience of finding a greater level of agreement, of rapport, with those who say and believe different things than I do.  I’m talking about people who read the Bible differently from the way I do, or those who feel differently about politics, sometimes quite differently!

During these past couple of years, I have found myself, in more than one way, becoming increasingly alienated from those I once considered like-minded.  The word “alienated” might be a good description.  On certain topics, if you dare express a dissenting opinion, you might find yourself censored.  You might find yourself snarkily dismissed.

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One of the Historic Principles of Church Order, dating back to 1788, which is in our Presbyterian Book of Order, is entitled “Truth and Goodness.”[2]  It says that “truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’”

Saying that “truth is in order to goodness” means that the truth is the servant of what is good.  It is possible to make a statement which is factually verifiable—we can look at it and prove that it is so—and it still not be true, at least, not be true at the deepest levels.  There is a devilish way to present the truth.

If its mission is to harm, to hurt, to shame, then it really isn’t true because it isn’t God’s truth.  It isn’t spoken by the Spirit of truth.  The truth of God never humiliates us.  The devilish presentation of truth does not “promote holiness.”

Jesus says of the devil, “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).

We might wonder, “Is there a way to know what is true?”  Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit “will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (vv. 13-15).

Jesus reminds them, and us, that the Spirit of truth “will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  The Spirit doesn’t act independently from who God is.  Remember what I said earlier about expressions of faith, like drunk drivers on the highway, who veer away from the character of Christ.  Remember about the nature of God, which is a self-giving community in an endless dance, a dance of love and generosity.

4 jn["Embraced" by Banu Moore]

The truth that the Spirit speaks does correct us—but never shames us, never ridicules us.  The Spirit gives us the courage to follow into the heart of truth.

With God as Trinity, we have the perfect model of community.  This is a community whose only truth is one that builds up and does not tear down.  It is truth that heals; it does not destroy.  There’s no awareness of being laughed at, only laughing with.  As our friends the Shakers remind us, “When true simplicity is gained / To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed / To turn, turn will be our delight / ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.”

 

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 153.

[2] F-3.0104


one language

I want to begin with comments about the 1970s.  For many people, they were well along in years when that decade arrived.  For a vast part of our population, they hadn’t been born yet.  Their parents hadn’t even been born.  For those in my generation, right after the baby boomers, many if not most of those years were spent in elementary school.

This is an oversimplification, but the 70s were largely a decade in reaction to the perceived anarchy and rejection of authority of the 1960s.  The 70s gave us punk rock, with its reaction to the reaction.  It also gave us disco, with its ignoring of politics, and an urge to mindlessly lose oneself in foolishness.  (I guess you can gather my opinion of disco!)

1 gnBut for my purposes here, I want to mention another phenomenon of the decade: disaster movies.  There was a flurry of them, many with ensembles of A-list actors.  There was Earthquake.  We had The Poseidon Adventure.  And then, there was The Towering Inferno, with another impressive list of top-notch actors, such as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway…  and a host of others.

Those Hollywood luminaries aside, the real stars of those movies were the disasters mentioned in the titles.  The Towering Inferno provided a cautionary tale about the dangers of those buildings reaching up to the sky­­­­—skyscrapers.  Of course, skyscrapers had been around for almost a century, but this was the 70s.  A decidedly negative impression was portrayed.  After watching that movie, people might understandably be hesitant to live or work in such edifices.

There’s another structure which is featured in Genesis 11: the tower of Babel.  And like those disaster movies, it has usually been cast in a negative light.  Actually, it’s usually been cast as a truly wicked affront to God.  The builders have been seen as thumbing their noses to the Lord.

Again, it’s perfectly understandable to have that viewpoint.  There are several interpretations to this text: the good, the bad, and the ugly!

The decision of the people to construct a city and tower, “with its top in the heavens,” in order to “make a name” for themselves could easily be seen as an act of arrogance (v. 4).  Actually, that’s a very good way to see it.  Whatever the motivation, preventing themselves from being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” given the circumstances, could be seen as logical.

And what are those circumstances?  The stage is set: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (v. 1).  There has been no end to speculation as to what that means.  This comes on the heels of chapter 10, in which the descendants of Noah form nations spread throughout the world.  More than once we are told of their families, languages, lands, and nations.

This enterprise appears to be a rejection of that diversity, indeed a God-ordained diversity.

The story’s location is pivotal.  They settle in the land of Shinar, later known as Babylonia.  It is a vast plain, unlike the mountains, islands, and forests from which they came.  It’s the perfect terrain for bringing everyone together.  Of course, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, a construction project becomes necessary!

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["Tower of Babel" by Josh Dorman, 2016]

The tower is likely a ziggurat, a structure resembling a pyramid, though with sides that are terraced, giant steps leading to the top.  They were built throughout ancient Mesopotamia (which is modern day Iraq and western Iran).

Considering the multiplicity of ethnic groups on hand, making a name for oneself could be seen as a way of establishing a one-world government.  A major part of that is how we speak.  When languages disappear, they take with them all the intricate subtleties unique to their thought processes, based on the experiences of the people who use them.  They are irreplaceable.

The saying is true: “it gets lost in translation.”  It is vital to realize the theme underlying the entire story—words and tongues, messages and languages.

The way the Lord figures out what’s going on is something we see in much of the Old Testament.  There’s a term called anthropomorphism.  It means describing as having human attributes. We see it in verse 5: “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.”  It’s almost like God had to use a ladder, or maybe take an escalator, to check out what those humans were up to.

This is an unpleasant discovery.  Something about this doesn’t sit well.  What could it be?

The story basically hinges on verse 6.  “And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’”  Why is intervention needed?  Why is the decision made to confuse their language, so they won’t understand each other?

Maybe the assumption that what humans “propose to do” will work out for the best needs to be questioned.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984, in which conformity in service to the state is required.  The government, overseen by a shadowy figure known as Big Brother, has four primary ministries.  There is the Ministry of Peace, in charge of waging war.  There is the Ministry of Plenty, running the economy and keeping the population poor and dependent.  There is the Ministry of Love, in charge of arrest, torture, and execution to make sure folks stay in line.

Finally, as especially relevant to our story, there is the Ministry of Truth, which has as its purpose the spreading of propaganda and lies.  One of its primary purposes is to take language and continuously remove any nuance of independent expression.  We might add, cracking down on misinformation, however that’s defined.  Three slogans encapsulate the effort: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

(Safe and effective.  I am the science.)

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I wonder if the drive for what we think of as “progress” is not also a factor.  We think of economic success by figuring out at what rate the economy is growing.  Growing more quickly is better than growing more slowly.  It’s always about growing.  Can’t enough be enough—at least, for a little while?  The earth and our fellow creatures would thank us.  How much do we care about them?

Rabbi Shai Held, a widely respected figure in Jewish thought, has spoken of the Tower of Babel as a “tower of uniformity,” saying its meaning concerns “the importance of individuals and the horrors of totalitarianism.”[1]  He expands on this idea, saying, “An inevitable consequence of uniformity is anonymity.  If everyone says the same words and thinks the same thoughts, then a society emerges in which there is no room for individual tastes, thoughts, and aspirations or for individual projects and creativity.  All difference is (coercively) erased.”[2]

When we take all of that into consideration, the words “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” have an ominous sound.

Rabbi Held comments on something remarkable.  No names are mentioned in the story “because there are no individuals.  This is especially ironic (and tragic) in light of the people’s express wish to ‘make a name’ for themselves…  When people are anonymous, they are reduced to insignificance.  If no one is anyone in particular, then who cares what happens to them?”

Something else to understand is that by coming together in one place, the people have rejected the call of God to go forth throughout the world.  After the flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Gn 9:1).  It’s difficult to impose unity if your population is spread all over the place.

When the Lord imposes the punishment / blessing, all the work comes to a screeching halt.  Building plans aren’t very useful if no one can read them!

I wonder, can we see this scattering of peoples and confusing of languages as acts of love?  Here’s one more thought from Rabbi Held: “To try and eradicate human uniqueness is to declare war on God’s image and thus to declare war on God.”  One of the age-old temptations of the human race is trying to put ourselves in the place of God—to idolize ourselves.  That could manifest itself by idolizing a single person, or a single group: to idolize or obey a kind of “Big Brother.”

When we do that, we do violence to the beautiful and wondrous creation that each of us is.  There is a Jewish saying, “To save one person is to save an entire world.”  I’ve often thought about that.  We live in our own world.  It’s not that we ignore the rest of the world, but we are a world unto ourselves.  Every single human has experiences of their own.  We each have our own experiences of the divine.  We are loved by Jesus in our own exclusive way.

The day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is seen as a reversal of Babel.  There is a reunification of language, although it’s not done by human effort—it is not an achievement.  It is a gift granted by the Spirit of God.  “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (v. 4).  The people are still speaking different languages, but they comprehend each other!

The language beyond all languages is the heavenly language.

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[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

We can see the Babel project as an endeavor to overstep our place, to overstep our boundaries.  However, Brent Strawn who teaches at Duke Divinity School, has another perspective.  Rather than a case of hubris, outrageous arrogance, it can be seen as a case of sloth, under-reaching what God has set out for us.

He says, “Maybe at those times when we aren’t one, it is because we’ve fallen short of making every effort to be what we are in Christ.  Maybe when we aren’t one, instead of giving up on the unity that God desires and provides—maybe instead of refusing to believe in that unity when we don’t experience it—maybe we ought, instead, to grieve over it.”[3]

It is right and proper and essential to grieve.  It is necessary to lament.

“Grieve that we don’t have it, grieve that we aren’t yet one.  Worry about it, wonder about it, and redouble—make that re-triple—our efforts, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In the book of Acts, St. Peter quotes the prophet Joel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (v. 17).  People will prophesy, see visions, dream dreams.  Signs will appear in the heaven and on earth: “blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (vv. 19-20).

It sounds like a 70s disaster movie!

But wait for the finale.  “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21).  Calling on the name of the Lord.

We are freed from the compulsion to make a name for ourselves.  We are liberated, knowing that our Lord has cherished and named us like none other in the cosmos.  It is a name of endearment, known only to the Holy One.

Let all of you understand, you are the child of God.  There can be no better name than that.  That is the one language we speak.

 

[1] Rabbi Shai Held, “Tower of Uniformity: What Really Went Wrong at Babel,” Christian Century 134:23 (8 Nov 2017), 12.

[2] Held, 13.

[3] Brent Strawn, “Unity, Diversity, and the Holy Spirit,” Journal for Preachers 40:4 (2017), 13.


the ravine of blackest shadow

If there’s one part of the Bible that English-speaking people are familiar with, it’s today’s text from the Psalms.  Even in America, with our dwindling knowledge of the Bible, the 23rd psalm is something almost everyone has at least a passing awareness of.  But it isn’t from the translations done in recent centuries—it’s the King James Version.  (People often request this psalm for funerals.  For those services, that’s the only version I’ve ever used.)

One thing that really stands out is in verse 4: “Even though I walk in the darkest valley.”  That might be a better translation, but it’s not as dramatic as “the valley of the shadow of death.”  In my opinion—and I don’t think I’m alone on this—it’s not as powerful.  It’s not as artistic.  The phrase literally reads: “the ravine of blackest shadow.”  Friends, that’s pretty dark!

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Those considerations aside, we can see a sense of movement throughout the psalm.  That would be in keeping with the image of the shepherd guiding the sheep, moving through grassy meadows, by tranquil streams, and yes, through the darkest of valleys.

However, one doesn’t usually think of shepherds as preparing tables for their sheep, anointing their heads with oil, or pouring them cups that overflow.  And here’s a shot in the dark: sheep aren’t usually known for their desire to spend time in the house of the Lord!

A quick lesson in Hebrew might help.  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, is written with all consonants.  The vowels consist of points—dots—that were added up to centuries later.  Clearly, a change in vowels makes a difference in the sound and meaning of words.  Change one letter, and we go from “sack” to “sock.”  Same consonants, different vowels.

Before printing presses came along in the 1500s, copies of the scriptures were done by hand.  Sometimes a copyist would receive a manuscript that was difficult to read.  A dot might be misplaced.  That could change the pronunciation and the meaning.  It’s possible that happened here.

The word translated “shepherd” in verse 1 is the Hebrew term רֺעׅי (ro`i).  With a slight vowel change, we wind up with the word רֵעַ (re`i), which means “companion” or “friend.”  In fact, it’s the same word used in Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If Yahweh, the Lord, is our re`i—our companion, our friend, our neighbor—that puts loving our neighbor in a very different light.

We can see the 23rd psalm as a song of pilgrimage, of travel to the holy place.  We are on a journey, and we are not alone.  The Lord is our companion, and we need nothing else.  Whether by peaceful waters in pleasant meadows or in the loneliest, most terrifying abyss, God is with us.  And God—as shepherd, companion, or both—provides for us, even when those bent on our destruction are all around.

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So far, I’ve given an example of how Psalm 23 is used liturgically, in worship.  I used a funeral service as a case in point.  I just mentioned how it can be looked at academically.  Examining the Hebrew text can yield new ways of understanding the psalm.  But all that stuff isn’t enough.  We need more in order to learn how to live when we are in the darkest of ravines.

Again, on the point of funerals.  I recently met with daughters of a beloved woman who passed away a few days earlier.  She had celebrated her 97th birthday the previous month.  She had a special interest in music; a piano graced her living room.

She had been living in a retirement center when she needed help in daily tasks.  After a stay in the hospital, it was clear she wouldn’t be going back.  Arrangements were made for hospice care, and she would be returning to her home, after six years away. The daughters said she didn’t last long, but she was overjoyed to be back in her own house those final days.

I remember visiting her in the hospital, when she told me before going to sleep the night before, she wondered if she would wake up.  She said she was ready to go, even though she wasn’t ready to go.

Some people are graced to walk through the deepest shadow with a sense of wonder and profound gratitude.

What does it mean to live with the awareness that the Lord is our shepherd, our companion, and our host?  What does it mean to know that we do not want—that we do not lack?  And even more, what does all that mean if we’re in the presence of our enemies?  What response does it encourage or require?

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he comes from a different direction.  “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light” (5:8).  If living as “children of light” isn’t sufficiently clear, he goes on to say, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (vv. 10-11).

Works of darkness are “unfruitful”; they aren’t creative.  They don’t accomplish anything worthwhile.  Works of darkness are the methods of control and force and manipulation we so often use.

Imagine, preparing a table in the presence of our enemies.  Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who died in 2009, once said, “People enjoying such a feast would make themselves an easy target for their adversaries!”[1]  It would be like squirrels, happily crunching on seeds and nuts, completely unaware of the cat sneaking up behind them!

But that’s okay, he says, because “this is none other than an expression of the supreme wisdom and strength of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and whose weakness is stronger than human strength.”  In verse 4, when the psalmist says to God, “I fear no evil,” what reason is given?  I have security through advanced firepower?  Or, I have enough money to bribe anyone?

3 psOr maybe is it “for you are with me”?  Koyama adds, “God’s vulnerability is stronger than human invulnerability.  Through a banquet table—not guns and warplanes—God wills to transform us and our world.”

It’s indeed a blessing, a gift of grace, that none of us is dependent upon our own experience, our own devices—certainly not our own strength—to secure the friendship of God.  It’s been said that, as the psalmist finds out, God satisfies every need and transforms all circumstances.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (v. 6).  By the time we get to this final verse, we see that the psalmist is “no longer hunted down by…enemies, but…is literally pursued by the goodness of God.”[2]  (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)

Considering that this is a beloved psalm, most people probably don’t want to hear this.  But is it possible that when the psalmist speaks of having a fine meal while foes are nearby, it’s not just an expression of trust in God?  Could it also be a case of “who’s laughing now”?  There are plenty of prayers for revenge in the Psalms.  The Lord could be vindicating his servant.

And to be honest, “follow” is too weak a word.  The Hebrew word, רָדַף (radaf), is better translated as “pursue” or “chase.”  The same word is used after the Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and we see the Egyptians “pursuing” the Israelites (Ex 14:9, 23).  It’s almost always used in a military context.  Someone is being hunted down.

One notable exception is in Psalm 34, where we are told, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14).  I myself can relate to needing, and wanting, God’s goodness and mercy chasing after me.

I can think of times when I’ve been petty and spiteful.  I’ve enjoyed the blessings of God, knowing that others have gone wanting; they’ve gone lacking.  And I haven’t lifted a finger to help.  I can only speak for myself, but I want the goodness of God to keep chasing me, no matter where I try to hide.  I want to be the rabbit tracked by the hound of heaven.  I need that light to shine on me when I’m in death’s shadow.

Christoph Blumhardt was a German Lutheran theologian in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  He has a fitting thought for the Easter season.  “Christ’s resurrection,” he says, “is not just something that happened in the past.  There is resurrection today just as much as there was back then, after Christ’s death.  Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order.”[3]

Here’s a question.  What does Blumhardt mean when he says there’s resurrection today, as surely as when Christ rose from the grave?  What about that?  What are some ways in which there is new life, where once there had been only death?

That leads to another question.  When he says, “Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order,” what is that?  What is an entirely different order?  I imagine that could be a lot of things, but let’s stick with what our treasured 23rd psalm gives us regarding traveling the dark path.

Blumhardt adds that “[o]ur task…is to demonstrate the power of the resurrection.”[4]  When we allow the power of Christ to have freedom within us, enemies are no longer feared or despised.  Evil is de-fanged, in whatever valley of death-shadow we find ourselves.  That may be brokenness in body or heart or spirit.  We also (amazingly!) find it within ourselves to reach out to those we once considered repellent.

Our friend Kosuke Koyama reminds us, “The table that God prepares for us culminates in the eucharistic table of the Lord,” the table of the Lord’s Supper.  “This sacrament is the ultimate symbol of God’s hospitality, demonstrated in full view of the enemy.”  I don’t care who we consider our enemy to be.  When we dine together at the table “prepared by the very life of God,” enemies become friends.

4 ps

When we come to the table of the Lord, we come as the one being chased by the goodness and mercy of God.  We dine with the risen Lord, who gives us the power to rise from the shadow of death.  We come to the table, trusting that in the journey of our life, God is our beloved, our companion, our shepherd.

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/article/you-prepare-a-table-for-me-psalms-23/

[2] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1981), 199.

[3] Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor (Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2004), 23.

[4] Blumhardt, 25.