can conflict be a gift-

After looking at my sermon title, I realize that it could lead to some unintended conclusions.  Raising the question as to whether or not conflict could be considered a “gift” might suggest that I enjoy conflict—even possibly that I seek it out.  I’m just itching for a fight!  I assure you, that is not the truth.

One day, Banu was looking through some old files.  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary, when we were just beginning the ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

1There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  All these years later, I think I would include that in the list.  I’ve made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I still have a ways to go.

So, no, I do not enjoy conflict.

It would seem from Matthew 5 that Jesus doesn’t either.  In fact, it looks like when presented with conflict, he simply wimps out!  Look at how our scripture begins.  Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).

The “eye for an eye” Jesus starts with is the lex talionis.  That’s Latin for the “law of retaliation.”

We often hear calls for law and order, for greater security, based on this idea—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This one often finds its way into arguments for the death penalty.  It seems to provide for a very stern, no holds barred style of justice.  However, that’s only true if we take the principle of “an eye for an eye” completely out of context.

The late Francis Beare wrote, “The lex talionis was in its time a social advance of great magnitude; it put an end to the vendetta, the blood feud, which allowed unlimited retaliation for an injury done to a member of the family or tribe, so that an entire group could be wiped out before the demands for vengeance were satisfied.”[1]

To our 21st century ears, that law “sounds savage, but it was actually a softening of the primitive fierceness of the feud, which set no limits to the revenge” that could be taken.  The idea was, if you kill one of ours, we’ll kill two of yours—and then, doing the math, we can see how it would escalate.

2Still, Jesus doesn’t say limit revenge to “the same injury; Jesus declares that we must take no revenge at all.”  When he says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says don’t worry about getting payback (v. 39).

There’s one verse that isn’t so much a question of revenge.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42).  I wonder, would that include lending your car to someone who returns it with an empty gas tank?

It looks like everything Jesus says in our gospel text runs contrary to what we usually do.  (Or at least, we might do it with a great deal of hesitation!)  Why is that?  Is this ethic he lays out something that can actually be done?  Many people simply say “no.”  Many people say Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.  I’m not sure I’m totally on board with that!

In any event, I find the phrase in verse 39 especially interesting: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Again, there are many takes on what Jesus means by this, but I find the comments of Speed Leas, a consultant on congregational conflict, to be useful.

3“What that means to me,” he says, “is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack.  I stay there.  I stay in range of getting hit again.  I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.”[2]  According to Leas, Jesus tells us to resist the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.  You know what that is: the temptation, when faced with a conflict, to lash out, to take off, or to become paralyzed!

There’s something that tends to handcuff us when dealing with conflict.  This is true for all people, but I think it might be especially true for those in the church.  We tend to see conflict as inherently bad, something to always steer clear of.

Episcopal priest Caroline Westerhoff talks about this.  “Conflict is not just inevitable…  Instead it is part of the divine plan, a gift.”[3]   So here’s the question I raise in my sermon title—with a little emphasis on the bit about it being “a divine gift.”  How in the world can conflict be a gift?

According to Westerhoff, conflict is part of the creative process.  Almost any story or movie has an element of conflict.  There’s the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflict is indeed inevitable; it’s built into creation itself.  Animals engage in conflict for food.  In a way, humans do, as well.  We certainly find ourselves in many different kinds of struggle.  A big part of the artistic process is struggling with ourselves and with God.  Westerhoff says that “newness cannot come without conflict.”[4]

As we all know, we have differences.  We look, think, act, smell, vote differently!  That’s how we’ve been created.  One of the main reasons for conflict is due to the fact that we’re not all alike.  We aren’t copies of each other.  We often try to impose a level of sameness on each other, but it’s a mistake.

If we can’t, or shouldn’t, avoid conflict—if it can’t be prevented—what we can and should do is to manage it.  We need to guide it, set boundaries around it.  (Recall what I said about the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” being a boundary, a limit.)  We have to use conflict for constructive, and not destructive, purposes.

Westerhoff continues, “To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind.”[5]  I must say that I don’t often think of conflict as being a breath of fresh air!

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“Following this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, violence and war becomes not conflict run amuck, conflict out of all bounds, but the final outcome of conflict quelled.  They result when we will not allow the other to be different, when we deny our life-giving dependence on the different one with all our might and means.”

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

We recently had the mid-term elections.  There’s no debating that our country is divided.  That’s been true for a long time.  No matter your political orientation, no matter who you voted for, I think I’m safe in saying that there has been a narrative of not allowing the other to be different.  Sadly, there’s almost an assumption when someone from “the other side” makes a suggestion, it is automatically to be rejected.  There’s been a narrative of denying our life-giving dependence on the different one.

In that context, Jesus seems to wimp out again in verses 43 and 44.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Really, that sounds outrageous!

Far from wimping out, what Jesus proposes takes a great deal of courage.

In another congregation, I asked the session to read the book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke.[6]  (At the time, I mentioned that people are always anxious at some level, so this book would probably always work.)  He doesn’t exactly use the language of “loving the enemy,” though sometimes it might feel that way when we’re in the midst of conflict.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, he salutes “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized.”  Remember, these are church folk!  “They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.”[7]

Remember what I said at the beginning about recognizing my own need to keep working on being assertive in situations of conflict?  Friends, this is not easy.  That’s why we let things go for so long that we know in our heart of hearts need to be addressed.

One of those things is gossip.  Not long ago, I preached a sermon based on the grumblings against Moses in the desert.  It is sin.  We all are prone to gossip and grumbling, including (yes), myself!  When we put darkness—curses instead of blessings—out into the universe, it comes back to us.  Darkness is a heavy thing to carry around.  It infects us.

Twice in our scripture text, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…  But I say to you…”  In the midst of conflict, Jesus shows us the way forward.

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In the midst of conflict, it can feel like the walls are closing in.  We can feel tightness in our chest.  I have felt that myself.  We need to remember to breathe.  We need to remember that the Spirit is within us.  But we also need to remember to actually breathe!  There’s nothing like being still, taking some deep breaths, and getting oxygen into the lungs to help us regain some perspective.

Jesus closes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  That sounds like a tall order!  But this isn’t “perfect” in the sense of being flawless; this is “perfect” in the sense of being “perfected,” of being made whole.  Be complete.  That is the Lord’s desire for us.

We are fragmented, broken creatures.  We are not whole.  Still, in the strange and unwanted gift that is conflict, we come together.  Sometimes we come together by crashing into each other.  But thanks be to God, in all of that craziness and pain, the Spirit is there to lead us into new avenues of truth, replacing insult with blessing.

We need that now more than ever.

 

[1] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1981),158.

[2] Speed Leas, “The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations,” Conflict Management in Congregations, ed. David Lott (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 2001), 30.

[3] Caroline Westerhoff, “Conflict: The Birthing of the New,” Conflict Management in Congregations, 56.

[4] Westerhoff, 56.

[5] Westerhoff, 57.

[6] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006).

[7] Steinke, xv.


season of death to season of life

A text in 1 Kings 2 comes from the synagogue Sabbath reading for yesterday the 7th.  It features Jacob’s final words to his sons and David’s final words to his son, Solomon.  As a meditation for the beginning of the new year, deathbed instructions might seem to be an unusual choice, to say the least.

I should add that the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah (that is, “head of the year”) falls at various times in September.  The current year on the Jewish calendar is 5783.

I imagine there were quite a few of us who were happy to pronounce the death sentence on 2020.  Some probably wanted to drive a stake through its heart to make sure the monster had been slain!

Still, taking into consideration the coming of Covid into the world, there is always much to celebrate about God’s good creation, which we’ll hear more about later.

David couches his closing wishes in terms of strength, courage, and faithfulness.  “Hear my words, beloved son, and you will follow the way of the Lord.  In pursuing them, you will guarantee that my lineage will continue through you.”  That’s no big responsibility.

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What follows is a list of names and how Solomon is to deal with each of them.  I’m reminded of how certain Roman emperors decided the fate of gladiators.  Thumbs up, and they lived.  Thumbs down, and that’s all she wrote.

(At least, that’s how the story goes!)

First on the list is Joab, one of David’s mighty commanders.  He retaliated “in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war” (v. 5).  Very briefly: Joab killed Abner and Amasa, two military leaders, and Absalom, David’s rebellious son.  This was despite David’s explicit instructions.  He made it clear that he did not want any of them to be slain.

Joab, known for his violent temperament, was unable to let go of blood vengeance, however justified it might have seemed.  David didn’t want to be seen responsible for “innocent blood.”  The verdict: “do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace” (v. 6).  Thumbs down.

However, Barzillai treated David honorably, so permit his sons to live in peace with you.  Thumbs up.

And then there is Shimei, who uttered a curse on David, but later tried to make nice.  David promised he would do no harm to him.  He wouldn’t touch a hair on his head but said nothing about how his offspring would treat Shimei while he visits the beauty parlor.  So, thumbs down.

I just said Joab was unable to let go of blood vengeance.  He dragged what happened in time of war into a time of peace.

Is he the only one who couldn’t let go?  Could not the king have behaved any differently?  Was he truly compelled to settle those scores?  I don’t know; perhaps by the standards of his time, it was to be expected.  Nevertheless, it seems like he could have acted in a nobler manner—perhaps in a spirit of royal largesse?

I doubt any of us have the blood of queens and kings flowing through our veins, but how often do we dwell in the past?  How often are we trapped by the past?

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We have now entered 2023.  On every New Year’s Day, I am reminded of the song by that name which was done by the band U2.  Bono sings, “All is quiet on New Year’s Day / A world in white gets underway.  I want to be with you / Be with you night and day.  Nothing changes on New Year’s Day / On New Year’s Day.”

Other people have their own memories or practices when January rolls around.  This year there is the realization of that song being released forty years ago.  Forty years ago!  In 1983, I was a freshman in college.  Tempus fugit.

In his masterpiece, The Sabbath (which reads almost like poetry), the beloved twentieth century rabbi Abraham Heschel suggests, “Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[1]  He isn’t saying time is evil, rather it’s our reaction to it.

“We know what to do with space,” Heschel comments, “but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space.  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.”

It’s fascinating.  Genesis has God pronouncing aspects of creation—that is, space—as “good.”  Creation of earth and sea, plants and animals, are pronounced “good.”  “And God saw that it was good.”  Even after the creation of the human race, all is pronounced “very good.”

It is only the Sabbath—time—that is hallowed, pronounced holy.  The word in Hebrew has to do with being sanctified, being set apart.  It is set apart from all we can see.

3We so often want to grasp time, as if it were an object.  We want to stop it, or at least slow it down, and just take a breath.  We want that fire-breathing monster consuming every moment to be held at bay.  Time flies, like a dragon.

Are we indeed unwilling to let go?  Do we need to, so to speak, die to the past before we can truly live?

Today is the Baptism of the Lord.  We hear the story of another dying to the past.  We engage with a narrative of one passing through a portal.  The heavens themselves open up like a shower from on high, and there is a powerful proclamation of perpetual passion.

John offers a baptism for the forgiveness of sin.  He offers a baptism of repentance.  He questions Jesus when he comes to him for this ritual.  Wait, we’ve got this totally backward.  I’m supposed to be the forerunner for you.  You should be the one dunking me into the river!

He doesn’t need to do this for his own sake, but Jesus models moving from the death of sin.  He shows the way from the grave of the past to the life of the future.

A couple of decades later, regarding baptism, the apostle Paul establishes the connection, he develops the theology, between the dying of Jesus and his being raised from the grave by God to an indestructible life.

In his letter to the Roman church, Paul shares the glorious news, “We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (6:4).

In the letter to the Colossians, he says in similar words, “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12).

There are two key events of the Christian faith: Christmas and Easter.  Christmas, of course, tells the story of God becoming incarnate.  It is God becoming enfleshed as the baby of Bethlehem.

More to our point here is the story of Easter.  Jesus was dead, with no life whatsoever, dead as a doornail.  His mission had apparently ended in utter and complete failure.  Jesus was right when he spoke the words, “It is finished.”  It’s difficult to do worse than that.  We go from the bitter tears of defeat of Holy Saturday to the inexpressible and impossible euphoria of Easter Sunday.

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So again, here we are in 2023.  We have been focused on Covid.  In some ways, we have been focused on death.  We’ve had lockdowns.  Many small businesses have not survived.  So many children held out of school have seemingly fallen hopelessly behind.  Getting close to each other has been forbidden.  We have been told to not shake hands!

(Please note: I do understand the logic expressed here.)

The 20s have indeed gotten off to an alarming start.  One cause for concern is that over the past couple of years or so, we’ve become used to accepting ever increasing levels of control and surveillance from the government and from big tech.

By the grace of God, we are becoming ever more aware of our ability to recognize and challenge the lies.  Banu and I invite you to join us.  By the grace of God, death is being exposed.

In the movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Winona Ryder plays Mina and Gary Oldman plays Dracula.  In Mina, Dracula sees his centuries-dead wife, Elisabeth, as having returned.  In the scene in which Dracula pledges his eternal love for Mina, she pleads with him, “take me away from all this death.”  Of course, she’s putting that request to the wrong fellow!

We all have been so focused on death, I fear we might have forgotten how to live.

That is the meaning of baptism, however.  It is more than an emphasis on space, an emphasis on physicality.  It also deals with time.  It is the movement from a season of death to a season of life.  That is what it means to be saved.  Salvation is not a one-time reality.  Salvation is ongoing.  Salvation is what we look to in the future.

Still, salvation does require the element of choice.  It requires what the baptism of John models for those coming after, that is, repentance.  Repentance isn’t a furious escape from a hammer descending from above.  It is a turning around, an about face.  And it doesn’t happen once and for all time.  It also is a lifestyle—a lifestyle which is based in joy.

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Our focus on death requires repentance, salvation.  Joy is the defeat of death.  It is time to repent as a congregation, shake off the dust of death, and enter into a 2023 full of the life that God wants to show us.  Whatever we think is enough, God says I have more.  It is time for the remnant to rise from the dead and share in the promises of the Kingdom here and now.

 

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


the sky is falling!

I’m using for my title a well-known phrase; it is, in fact, the frightened cry of a certain Chicken Little.  There are many variations to the story, but they all begin with an acorn—an acorn which comes plunging from far above and whacks Chicken Little (plop!) on the top of her head.  She panics, “The sky is falling!  I must go tell the king!”

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So off goes Chicken Little, encountering along the way such individuals as Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey—not to mention the infamous Foxy Loxy, who’s more than happy to help Chicken Little, while licking his chops at the sight of all those birds.

Luke 21 might have us thinking that Chicken Little was onto something.  The description of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” sounds like everything’s coming apart.  This may be just me, but if you notice the paranoia that so often surrounds us, you’ll see that some people already think the sky is falling.  Maybe some of us feel that way!

We are well into Advent.  Advent is as much about the second coming of Jesus as it is about his first—as the baby in Bethlehem.  The idea of a returning messiah has appeared in various religions and mythologies all over the world.

For example, there was the Aztec belief that the god Quetzalcoatl would someday return to them.  When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, many thought their hope had been realized.  He had come from the east—from the sea—just as Quetzalcoatl was supposed to do, and it happened on the same date as Quetzalcoatl was to appear.  However, when the Spanish started killing the Aztecs, it became pretty clear that Cortés was not their savior!

I should add this story has now largely been considered a fabrication.  But it is a great story!

We’re looking at part of a passage that goes back to verse 5, as some folks are “ooh-ing and ah-ing” over how beautiful the temple is.  I don’t suppose many of us have ever been in a temple.  Banu and I have been inside the model of a temple.  There’s a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville—a really impressive structure—complete with a 42-foot-tall statue of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena.

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In the scripture, Jesus proceeds to pour cold water on the admiration of the temple.  He tells those who are simply breathless over its beauty that “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 6).  Not one stone will be left upon another.  (Note to self: do not hire him as a tour guide!)

The first part of today’s reading, verses 25 to 28, actually may have people saying, “The sky is falling!”  Besides disturbances in the heavens, there’s a reference to what’s happening on earth.  Confusion will be caused “by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (v. 25).  The sea and the waves are symbols of chaos.  “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (v. 26).  We’re looking at some scary stuff.

I suppose many generations could identify with this.  Case in point: in the mid-fourteenth century, a pandemic of bubonic and pneumonic plague (alias the Black Death) swept through Europe, killing about one-third of the population.  It was commonly believed the end of the world was at hand.

These last three years might have stirred up similar feelings.

Despite all of that, we aren’t to do imitations of Chicken Little.  Verse 28 says “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads.”  Stand up and raise your heads—even if it seems like the sky is falling.  Why are we to do that?  “Because your redemption is drawing near.”  That’s the response of the faithful: those who look for the Lord’s return, as opposed to those who pay no attention to such things.

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The second part of the passage, verses 29 to 33, is a parable taken from nature.  Besides the image of the fig tree, Luke includes “all the trees,” since his audience includes those not familiar with fig trees.  When they sprout leaves, summer is near.  In the same way, when the signs of the preceding verses appear, the kingdom of God is near.

Here’s a question.  Has there ever been a time when people did not see these things?  That would seem to suggest—and this can be found elsewhere in the New Testament—the kingdom of God is always at hand.  When we consider the kingdoms of Christ and Caesar, the difference in the two isn’t a matter of location.  Both are always with us.  Instead, it’s a difference in worldviews—a difference in vision.

The third part contains warnings.  They seem to question the way most of us live our lives.  Verse 34 says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

In his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson put it this way:  “But be on your guard.  Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.”  What’s his deal?  He’s like Arnold Schwarzeneggar in Kindergarten Cop: “I’m the party pooper.”

Bruce Prewer spoke of those who, in effect, only recognize the first advent of Jesus by wanting to ignore the season of Advent and race ahead to Christmas. “If you don’t believe in the Final Coming of Christ,” he says, “then I suggest that you don’t really believe in the first coming of this True Child of God. They are inseparable as thunder and lightning…  If they are not inseparably linked in our faith, our Christmas activities are in danger of becoming a sentimental excursion into fantasy…

“Unless we see Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the One who will certainly come again, then Advent and Christmas can be a brief sentimental diversion; time out from the hard suffering and desperation of this world.  It may offer a bit of temporary escapism.  But mere tinselled sentiment will not provide a liberation for anxious souls who fear they are living in doomsday times.”[1]

The world doesn’t need the church to mimic its empty portrayal of Christmas.  The world needs the church to be the church.  What I mean is: the world needs the church to show that there is a better way.  Too often, it is the reverse!

One way to put these thoughts into a question—and if you haven’t figured this out by now—I like to ask questions.  Probably much more important than having the right answer is asking the right question.  So, what does it mean, in Advent 2022, to wait for the Lord?

Verse 36 gives the warning, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  The New Jerusalem Bible renders that last phrase as “to hold your ground before the Son of Man.”  How do we hold our ground?

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the line must be drawn herrre!

What does it mean to be alert?  Or how about this: how do we look for the second advent of Jesus, even when the sky is falling?

There are probably as many different ways the sky can fall as there are people.  Disaster need not happen on a public scale, with many witnesses.  The sky can fall, as we all know, in our own lives.  That only underlines the need to encourage each other in the faith, to strive to see Christ in others.

The Bible says we are to pray for the strength to escape what causes us to say, “The sky is falling!”  We are to pray for the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

“The Son of Man”: in simple terms, it means “human being.”  To the extent that we imitate Christ, to the same extent we become human.  Christ is the new Adam—the human of the new creation.

That touches on a key aspect of Christmas itself.  There is the reality of incarnation, literally, “in the flesh.”  It is God being embodied, appearing as a human—that is, as the baby of Bethlehem.  The uncreated revealed as the created.  It imparts a limitless affirmation of who we are as humans.  The sanctification of matter, of physicality, presents us as children of God.

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the pillars of creation

Holding our ground before the Son of Man is an acknowledgment of, and celebration of, the great gift of being born as human, and what’s more, adoption into the family of God.  It’s a great gift even when we feel like the sky is falling.

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C01advt1.htm


the gift of repentance

I imagine we have occasionally come upon some characters dressed in unusual garb, professing to have a word from God.  They often are dressed in robes, crying out their appeals / commands.

I recall one such individual, who was poised on a traffic island in downtown Nashville.  He was wearing a sign bearing the message, “Repent in the raw.  Nudist Christians.”  If my recollection of the fellow is accurate, it seemed underneath the sign, he was wearing no shirt.  However, he did have on some pants.

Below the delightful invitation was a phone number.  I didn’t bother memorizing it.  I had no intention to follow up and get more information on his group.

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[photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash]

The nudist fellow aside, the call to repent is usually understood to be a stern warning.  It’s a demand to get your act together!  If you have ever encountered any of those oddballs on the sidewalks, it would be easy to get that idea.  Or maybe you’ve been in church with a wild-eyed preacher pointing and shouting, “Repent, ye sinners!”

The fellow in Matthew 3 could fit the bill.  “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (vv. 1-2).  He seems to be a rather formidable force, with a bit of fanatic thrown in, at least according to polite society.

“In those days” he appears.  No particular time period is intended.  We might think of life going on as normal, when suddenly this prophetic figure arises.  It happens in the wilderness—a region “off the grid,” so to speak.  The reason for repentance is due to the kingdom of heaven as drawing near, as being at hand.

It’s right here, within our grasp.  The pure of heart are graced, as the gospel later tells us, to “see God” (5:8).  The kingdom can be sensed in moments of awe.

We’re told John is prefigured by Isaiah with the message, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (v. 3).  By this time, those in the Jewish faith had come to see this as a messianic scripture, a reference to the end times when the Messiah will establish universal peace.  There’s a slightly different spin from Isaiah 40, which says, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Being in the desert, in the wilderness, is far from the structures erected by human ingenuity.  Having said that, the wilderness is less about outward structures than it is about inward ones.  The desert is a place of utter openness, of exposure that is complete vulnerability.

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[photo by Ahmad Ardity on Pixabay]

The clothing of John the Baptist has been an inspiration for those characters I mentioned earlier.  It’s not exactly what would be seen on the runways of fashion capitals around the world.

How about his menu, consisting of locusts and wild honey?  In Leviticus 11, which deals with ritually clean and unclean food, “locusts of every kind” are pronounced kosher (v. 22).

On a side note, locusts have been and are still eaten in many parts of the world.  They are rich in protein, and can be prepared in many different ways, including frying in olive oil, perhaps with a dusting of salt and spices.  They are a tasty and crunchy biblical food!  So accompanied with wild honey (as opposed to the product of domestic bees) we have a combination of savory and sweet.

3With verses 5 and 6, we see why John is at the Jordan.  He’s baptizing folks from near and far.  They are confessing their sins, heeding the call for repentance.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says of him, “When John waded into the water with people, he was cleaning them up for their audience with God, which he believed would take place very soon. He begged them to change their lives in preparation for that event, and he was not below scaring them half to death if that was what it took.”[1]

That especially applied to the Pharisees and Sadducees who approached him, who he referred to as a “brood of vipers” (v. 7).  John compares them to snakes fleeing a fire.  In doing so, he’s hardly saying their ministry and leadership are based on such noble and godly qualities like love and concern for the people.

He warns them against relying on their status as sons of Abraham.  Quit acting like big shots.  Demonstrate a conscientious desire to serve the Lord.

Taylor continues, saying John “offered to hose them down, if they were willing.  If they could come out of their comas long enough to see what was wrong and say so out loud, then he would wash it away for them, forever.  Or God would.  The same God who could make children of Abraham out of river rocks could make children of God out of them right there, if they were willing.  All they had to do was consent, repent, return to the Lord and they could start their lives all over again before they even dried off.”[2]

That was an amazing gift.  “The past would lose its power over them.  What they had done, what they had said, what they had made happen and what had happened to them would no longer run their lives.”

Too often we want to hold on to the past, even a past that was destructive and hurtful.  Have there been voices in our head telling us, “You’re dumb.  You’re ugly.  You’re worthless.  You’re an embarrassment”?  Or maybe we’ve inflicted that kind of pain on others, possibly without even intending to.

“As scary as John was,” says Taylor, “it was a pretty great offer.  No wonder people walked days to get to him.  No wonder they stood around even after their turns were over, just to hear him say it again and again.  ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  What sounds like a threat to us sounded like a promise to them.  We hear guilt where they heard pardon, and at least part of the problem, I think, is our resistance to the whole notion of repentance.”[3]

Remember the wild-eyed guy I mentioned yelling, “Repent, ye sinners”?  As just noted, where we hear a threat, they hear a promise.  That goes to my title: the gift of repentance.  If that sounds counter-intuitive, please know there are scriptures in the Bible making that very point.  I could cite several, but I’ll just give one from both Old and New Testaments.

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet speaks the word of the Lord to the people in exile in Babylon.  They are promised return and restoration.  “A new heart I will give you,” says the Lord, “and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).  They are promised outer restoration (their nation), and inner restoration (their spirit).

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In the New Testament, Peter is describing to his fellow Jews how God directed him to go to the home of the Roman centurion, Cornelius.  Understand, Jews were forbidden to visit Gentiles—and certainly not to sit down and eat with them!  Peter said, “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” that is, on the day of Pentecost (Ac 11:15).  How do they react?  “When they heard this, they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (v. 18).

The Gentiles received the gift of repentance.  Do we also not play a role in that?  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Repentance leads to life.  The chains of death and darkness are shattered, torn asunder.  We are set free from the power of sin.  We are slaves no more.

However, having those shackles removed doesn’t mean we won’t be aching to put them on again.  Sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  Sometimes we like being stuck in the mud.  The hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” cries out the plea, “Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be.”  Poor wretched creatures that we are, we are prone to not only choosing sin, but loving it.

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We don’t want to give up the fun of spreading rumors or talking smack behind somebody’s back.  Why forego the enjoyment of berating the driver who cut us off in traffic?  Why is it called road rage when it’s such a thrill?  Why deprive ourselves of the pleasure found in getting revenge, which is a dish best served cold?

Worst of all, we too often refuse the love of God, who calls us to do the things—or calls us to love the ones—we would rather not do.  We might even notice our ignoring Ezekiel’s caution about hearts turning to stone.

Repentance is indeed a gift, but it also must be sought.  Without a desire to change, without a desire to know Jesus more deeply, there is no repentance.

John is baptizing, but he knows very well it’s not about him.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11).  Now he really sounds like that wild man from the wilderness.

If John the Baptist hoses you down, the one to come (a perfect image for Advent) sets you on fire.  Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He wields a winnowing fork, throwing the wheat into the air and allowing the breeze to blow away the debris.

The chaff will be consumed by flame.  It takes up space but contributes very little.  It’s not terribly nutritious.  It provides some empty calories, so to speak.

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There is chaff within us to be burned away.  (I’m addressing this to myself more than to anyone.)  It can be quite painful; burning usually is!  As noted before, sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  We want to remain stuck.  We love our sin.  And to submit to it being wrenched away feels like we’re losing part of ourselves.  And guess what?  It’s true, and it needs to go.

Once we let that stuff go, we find a liberty we couldn’t imagine.  A burden is lifted.  Dare we look inside and have the courage to face it?

We are freed to love and serve whose advent is nigh, Jesus Christ, the one who comes to us.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Journal for Preachers, “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” 21:1 (Advent 1997), 16.

[2] Taylor, 16.

[3] Taylor, 17.


detours

One of the pure joys of a road trip is finding ourselves in the heart of a long line of traffic, particularly when we’re way out in the country.  It might be due to an accident or possibly construction work.  It’s especially fun when the line stretches as far as the eye can see.  If by chance an exit is coming up, we might be tempted to get off the highway and try to outflank the congestion.

We might whip out the atlas, that is, if we’re old school.  (When I was a kid, I developed a love with geography.  I spent many hours looking at atlases with places all over the world.)  Or we might simply listen to our friendly MapQuest voice giving directions.  “In 500 feet, turn right.”

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When my sister and I were young, sometimes my dad would say, “Do you want to go for a ride?”  I loved it when he asked that.  When the price of gasoline was negligible, a great way to spend the time would be simply wandering around in the car.  Of course, I would be the one who suggested taking detours, perhaps with a map poised in my lap—or just because I wanted to see “where that road goes.”

Usually, I had a pretty good idea where we would wind up, but if we happened to get lost, I would be the recipient of ire from the front seat.  Still, at least we found out where that road went.

Finding out where roads go means traveling.  1 Corinthians 16 involves plenty of that.  The apostle Paul spent a lot of time on the road.  The Corinthian church themselves were familiar with movement.  The city of Corinth was a hub of activity in the Roman Empire.  Folks were coming and going from every direction.

Paul is writing this from Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey.  It’s on the other side of the Aegean Sea.  He’s making his travel plans; he is putting in place his itinerary.

There are some things he would like for them to have in order before he arrives.  At the top of the list is the collection for the church in Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem church is poor.  The believers there are in financial need.  However, there are other factors in play besides the economic ones.

There is an acknowledgment that Jerusalem is the birthplace of the faith.  The Word went out from there.  It is, so to speak, the mother church.  With this “collection for the saints,” they are honoring that reality.

Paul asks the Corinthians to set aside some money when they gather “on the first day of every week,” when they come together for worship (v. 2).  He doesn’t want to show up with their being unprepared and having to scramble to get the funds in place.  It could be a bit embarrassing.

With this appeal for assistance, we might wonder about those with more modest resources.  Certainly, we all have various gifts and abilities.  There’s the often-mentioned itemized request for giving: time, talents, and treasure.  It frequently is the case that those with the least in material possessions do the most with their time and talents—possessions with even greater value.

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Is it safe to say, Paul’s words that “each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn” applies to us?  Can we do so, without asking questions like, “Are they deserving?  Are they one of us?”  Who among us hasn’t been the recipient of God’s grace?  Have we deserved the grace of God, and that in an overwhelming measure?  If we have deserved it, then it isn’t grace.

Verses 3 and 4 show Paul being quite scrupulous in avoiding the appearance of misconduct.  He wants them to select the couriers in charge of the money for the trip to Jerusalem.  He’s fine with sending them off with his blessing and letters of introduction.  Okay, if they want the apostle to come along for the ride, he’s willing to go.

Now it’s time for those travel plans mentioned earlier.  Being in Ephesus, Paul is almost directly across the sea from Corinth.  It would be a quick trip by water.  But he wants to go overland and visit Macedonia, which will take him in a giant loop around the Aegean.

Paul wants to take some time in Macedonia, and he wants to take some time with you, Corinthians.  Maybe you will still have the welcome mat out when winter arrives.  He doesn’t want this to be a flying visit.

Then we come to verses 8 and 9.  The apostle says, “I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”  There are many adversaries.

So often, when we encounter opposition, we quickly conclude it is a sign God wants us to choose another path.  Where’s that detour?  Have we read the signs wrong?  Have we misinterpreted God’s will?  Serving the Lord shouldn’t be this darn hard.

On the other hand, sometimes we will keep beating our head against the wall.  We will engage in head banging.  And by head banging, I’m not talking about what lovers of heavy metal do when they’re cranking up the volume.  Sometimes—I’m not sure how often—we get punched in the face, and we might reply, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”  To borrow a thought from what Jesus says at the time of Paul’s conversion, we will kick against the goads, to our own distress (Acts 26:14).  Maybe it really is time for a detour!

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photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

It takes spiritually enlightened reason.  Both are necessary.  Still, it’s easy to minister to and share God’s love with those who are kind to us, those who are grateful.

Cannot an adversary become an ally?  A foe become a friend?

Note that the opposition is beyond, as Paul says, “a wide door for effective work.”  The word for “effective” is ἐνεργής (energēs), the source of our word “energy.”  Paul believes there is some good energy, some good vibes in play.

On a side note, the apostle wants to send some good energy to his friends in Corinth.  “Don’t give Timothy a hard time,” he writes.  That young man is Paul’s protégé.  Don’t give him grief because of his age.

He mentions Apollos, who is an eloquent preacher well known to the Corinthians.  Paul wanted him to come and visit them, but as he says, “he was not at all willing to come now” (v. 12).  There is an alternate reading: “it was not at all God’s will.”  So basically, Apollos will come when the time is right.

Lest they stray from the path, lest they detour, Paul delivers some concise directives: “Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong” (v. 13).  It’s the third in that list I find especially interesting.  “Be courageous” in Greek is ανδριζεσθε (andrizesthe).  It literally means “be a man.”  I don’t suppose it would be a big surprise to hear “being a man” linked with “being courageous.”

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

New York Times columnist David Brooks published an article entitled, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.”[1]  He uses as a starting point the ancient Greek concept of manliness.  “Greek manliness,” he says, “started from a different place than ours does now.  For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.

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

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

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

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

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

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Iesha Evans in Baton Rouge on 9 July 2016

Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.  It’s safe to say these women have demonstrated—they have lived—the four-fold directive of verse 13.

So, having said all of that, we immediately have this.  “Let all that you do be done in love” (v. 14).  Be a man.  Be courageous, but do it in love.  Maybe we can say, as we saw earlier, be magnanimous!

The last part of the chapter, with Paul’s greeting of various people in Corinth, is appropriate for All Saints Sunday.

Verse 20 calls for greeting one another “with a holy kiss.”  In cultures where kissing is a normal part of greeting, this isn’t such a strange thing.  The point is it’s supposed to be a “holy” kiss, not something else.

I have a quick story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road, so I chose it for my assignment.

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

“Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord” (v. 22).  We go from a holy kiss to a pronouncement of a curse.  Still, we might think of it as a self-imposed curse.  A rejection of love, let alone a rejection of the Lord’s love, in itself would mean accepting a curse.

However, right after that we end on a high note.  “Our Lord, come!”  That’s the word maranatha.  It also means, “our Lord is coming.”

So, to summarize, how are we supporting each other?  Regarding the church in Jerusalem, Paul was speaking first of money.  But as we saw, there are things more important than money.  (Amazingly enough!)  How are we doing with holding each other up?  How are we doing with holding those up in our community?

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Regarding Timothy, he reminds the Corinthians “he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am.”  How do we support those doing the work of the Lord in our midst?

And how are we doing in navigating the detours in serving the Lord?  How are we doing in discerning the detours, knowing which way to go?  Our Lord is much more than willing to lead us.  The Lord is ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.

What does all of this look like?  I can’t answer that for you.  We have to answer that question for ourselves.

So, we go through the detours of life, seeking our way home.  We hear the call, “Maranatha.”  Our Lord Jesus, come!  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is coming.

 

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


in with the old, out with the new

Psalm 51 has been called “one of the most moving prayers in the Old Testament.”[1]  It hits all the right notes.  There’s a full admission of guilt, acknowledgment that no pardon is deserved, and loving joy because God does forgive.  There’s an expressed awareness that “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  That’s why the psalmist “appeals to God for a clean heart and a new spirit.”[2]

This is the psalm which appears in the liturgy with Ash Wednesday, which by the way probably never makes the list on anyone’s favorite holidays.  There is a cruel and kind revelation about our very existence, who we are, down to the bone.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There can be no pretensions.

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A key verse in our psalm is verse 14.  The psalmist seems to be on the precipice of some kind of horror, something to be dreaded.  “Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,” is the cry, “O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.”

Opinions differ as to what “bloodshed” here is all about.  Is it something the psalmist has done—or something feared yet to happen?  Is it a comment about the whole nation, something we frequently see in Old Testament prayers?  I would say there’s room for both.

Still, there is a painful, agonizing note sounded by an individual.  The caption of the psalm refers to it as King David’s plea for pardon after raping Bathsheba.  The prophet Nathan has confronted the king and exposed his guilt.  There’s nothing to say.  He has been caught red-handed, so to speak.

Lest we think we are free of the shedding of blood, reflect on this.  Even with inflation, have you ever thought of how so many items are priced so cheaply?   Consider the overwhelmingly vast number of goods coming from a single country.  We support that country, which commits plenty of bloodshed, both literally and figuratively.

Recall verse 1, how this whole thing gets kicked off: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”  The Hebrew word for “abundant mercy” (or in the New Jerusalem Bible, “tenderness”) is רַחַם (raham).  It means “womb.”  O God, according to your compassion for your unborn child…

Recalling David’s violation of Bathsheba, the Lord can be seen (or is seen) as a female who has suffered that grievous harm—one who has been violated in that most violent way.

The king can’t undo the past; he knows a radically new way is called for.

As we recite the psalm on Ash Wednesday, we should note not all of the psalm is used.  We stop at verse 17.  Here are verses 16 and 17: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As we scroll through this poem, time and time again, we see calls for radical openness.  I encourage you to read every verse and then pause and reflect on it.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity…

Against you, you alone, have I sinned…

You desire truth in the inward being…

Create in me a clean heart…

Restore to me the joy of your salvation…  (I think the point is made.)

For that vision, for that reality to come alive, some radical change—as already mentioned—must come to pass.  That sounds great, but then here are verses 18 and 19.  These last two verses are often seen as having been added later, as a sort of appendix.

“Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”  We might ask, “Okay, so what’s the point?”  It sounds like a perfectly acceptable and necessary part of repentance.

I would suggest there is a chasm between these two verses and what has gone before.  I know not everyone agrees with me.  They might say I’m overstating the case, pretending I’m looking at the Grand Canyon, as opposed to a babbling brook.  And that’s fine.  But see for yourself.

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On the one hand, “For you have no delight in sacrifice…”  And on the other, “Then you will delight in right sacrifices…”

On the one hand, “If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased…”  And on the other, “You will delight in burnt offerings…”

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.”

With those last two verses, there is a sense of “but then…  There’s nothing wrong with the way we served God in the past.”

At the Missionaries of Prayer website, there’s a post titled, “Prophetic Word—Why am I Attracted to This?”[3]

Why am I attracted to this?  That’s a question for each of us.

Why am I attracted to this?  Suggestions are offered.  Why am I attracted to this church…  this person…  this place?  What do I really want?

“You need to know the answer to this, for yourself.  Because this will help to make or break you.  Only you know the answer.”

This is hard.  It is deeply uncomfortable.  I want the safe.  I want the secure.  I want what verses 18 and 19 promise: the tried and true.  I don’t like being dangled over the cliff, held only by spirit, held only by the Spirit.  How badly I want to say, “In with the old, out with the new.”

Last week, we had a dinner in which a young woman invited many of her friends.  Some of them were sharing experiences they had with the Holy Spirit.  I appreciated a comment by another young woman who said she was asking her husband if they should leave.  With these other people uttering such profound insights (my words, not hers), she said she felt “shallow.”  She felt inadequate.  As I just suggested, I have had feelings like that.

The author of the article says, “We need to grow up.  Christianity is not comfortable.  Growth and change are not comfortable so if every now and then your pastor is not preaching a message that stretches you and causes you to think about your life or calls you to repentance, then something is wrong.  It means you’re only hearing the parts of the Bible that makes you feel good but there are large sections not being preached.  And that should bother you.”

And that should bother me.  As the apostle Paul said, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Co 9:16).  That’s a stark warning.

God forbid I give you easy answers.  God forbid I don’t encourage painful and probing questions.

Adam Neder, professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, says, “If our way of talking about God leaves [us] unaware of the threat he poses to our lives, perhaps that is because we no longer perceive the threat he poses to our lives.”[4]  Can we see God as a threat to our lives?  What could that mean?

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I would suggest we often—or perhaps always—believe our lives are limited to the way we sleepwalk through life.  We don’t necessarily have to get into some deep philosophical discussion.  A trip to the grocery store can be quite revealing.  We see people rushing around, impatient, not smiling, without joy.  What would happen if we conducted an experiment?  What would happen if we decided to slow down?

The late Thomas Merton wrote, “Our ordinary waking life is a bare existence in which, most of the time, we seem to be absent from ourselves and from reality because we are involved in the vain preoccupations which dog the steps of every living [person].  But there are times when we seem suddenly to awake and discover the full meaning of our own present reality…  In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds.  We recapture something of the calm and balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.”[5]

Thank the Lord that God is a threat to that substitute for real life, our life hidden in Christ.  We fear the dangerous and delightful depth expressed by the worship chorus, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. / Cast me not away from Thy presence, O Lord / and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. / Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, / and renew a right spirit within me.”

At the beginning I used the quote, “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  The psalmist ready to move on.  There’s no looking back.  The past has involved David’s being a rapist and a murderer.  The threat God poses is seen and welcomed.  “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).

To insert a New Testament perspective: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!” (2 Co 5:17).

So, what now?  As the song says, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, / And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. / That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; / You spread His love to everyone; You want to pass it on.”  Pass it on.  “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (v. 13).

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We aren’t made righteous in the eyes of God just for the fun of it.  If we have truly experienced it, our lives will be changed.  We won’t be able to do otherwise.  We need not feel inadequate, as did the young woman at our dinner.  We are made more than sufficient, more than conquerors.

 

[1] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992), 389.

[2] Anderson, 398.

[3] www.missionariesofprayer.org/2022/10/prophetic-word-why-am-i-attracted-to-this/

[4] Adam Neder, “Theology as a Way of Life,” Theology Matters 28:3 (Summer 2022), 4.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 10.


corrosion

A couple of weeks ago, Banu and I went to a restaurant that was really busy.  They must have been understaffed, because the fellow serving as host was running around, trying to see if there were any open tables.  He was asking people if they didn’t mind waiting ten or fifteen minutes.  (We were debating whether or not to stay.)  Meanwhile, more folks were walking in the door.  It was getting a bit crowded.

He did all of this with good humor.  It was service with a smile, as opposed to service with a snarl.  I must confess, after a little while of that, my service would probably be the latter.

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Chapters 15 to 17 in Exodus contain the so-called “grumbling” or “murmuring” stories.  At the end of chapter 15, the people complain to Moses because they can only find bitter water.  In chapter 16, the problem is hunger.[1]  In the next chapter, the trouble will again be thirst.

I think we can understand how Moses and Aaron feel.  They didn’t sign up for this job; it was thrust upon them!  More than anyone else, it’s Moses who’s catching the flak.  By the time we get to chapter 17, it seems clear that he’s nearing his breaking point.

Moses says to them, “Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the Lord?” (17:2).  It is interesting how he nicely identifies himself with the divine, but then, why shouldn’t he?  Moses then turns on the one who drafted him into this business, crying out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me” (v. 4).

There is also a rather extreme—and somewhat irrational—longing for the good old days.

In 16:3, we hear, “The Israelites said to [Moses and Aaron], ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”  They had an all-you-can-eat buffet, even if it wasn’t vegetarian friendly!

I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat?”  It sounds like the taste of slavery was “mmm mmm good!”

And please correct me if I’m wrong, but it also sounds like they’re accusing Moses of actually planning their hardship!  But maybe we can see that shouldn’t be a completely unexpected response.  When people are beaten down and living in misery, they (or we) can lash out, even at those working for good.

I’ve sometimes seen interviews of Russians who express a longing for the days of the Soviet Union.  Back then, at least their jobs were guaranteed.  In times of economic insecurity, political freedom may seem like a luxury.  When there’s rampant crime and corruption, it’s easy to forget the fear that comes with a police state.

It can be easy to forget that the “good old days” weren’t really so good when we were living them.  We tend to romanticize the past.  And we should note the “good old days” are on a sliding scale.  Depending on the color of one’s skin, one’s gender, the accent of one’s speech, the good old days might not be remembered so fondly.

Please understand, I don’t want to give the impression that, in and of itself, there’s a problem with yearning for the past.  It’s normal.  I’m now old enough to experience something of that myself.  I think I began noticing it when I heard athletes who were my age being described as at the end of their careers!

Yearning for the past—indeed, a past that never was—becomes a problem when it takes us from where we need to be.  It’s a problem when it becomes destructive.

This “grumbling” or “murmuring” story is about something more fundamental than idealizing bygone days; it’s about more than rewriting history.  It’s not about the Egyptians treating their slaves to fictitious banquets!  It’s about the way it expresses itself.  It speaks to the corrosive effect of grumbling on the community, on the church.  That’s the danger this story reveals.

St. Benedict who lived in the 5th and early 6th centuries, wrote, “If disciples obey grudgingly and grumble, not only aloud but also in their hearts, then, even though the order is carried out, their actions will not be accepted with favor by God, who sees that they are grumbling in their hearts.”[2]  This was written for Benedictine monastics, but it clearly can apply to anyone of faith.

2 exSister Joan Chittister makes this relevant for all of us.  In her book, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, she writes, “It is community that enables us both to live the Christian life and to learn from it.  Human growth is gradual, Benedict knows—the grumblers and defiant are to be warned about their behavior twice privately—but grow we must.” (59)  The bit about two private warnings is a reference to Matthew 18, where Jesus speaks about brothers and sisters who sin against us.

She continues, “Otherwise those who do not honor the community, those in fact who sin against the development of community in the worst possible way, by consistent complaining, constant resistance, or outright rebellion, must be corrected for it.”  It’s not fighting or theft that she highlights as the “worst possible” sin against fostering community—it’s constant complaining!

It should be pointed out we’re not talking about people who are in really dire straits.  This isn’t about people who suffer from serious mental illness; it’s not about people who are tortured.  No, this is something willful.  The “worst possible” sin Chittister refers to is a decision.  It’s a decision that throws a monkey wrench into the works.

It’s noted, “We come to the meetings…or go through the motions of being part of the community or part of the family…but there is no truth in us and we weigh the group down with our complainings.  We become a living lamentation.  We become a lump of spiritual cement around the neck of the group.”

It’s important to understand.  Grumbling and gossiping are sinful, pure and simple.  Going behind people’s backs and bad mouthing them is sin.

There’s something else about the past.  We can carry grudges from the past.  A grudge is a heavy weight to lug around.  It has a corrosive effect on our soul.  Fortunately, Jesus asks us to cast our burdens on him; his yoke is easy, his burden is light.  Jesus breaks the chains of the past.

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I want to include a reference from our Presbyterian Book of Order.  It speaks of “The Ministry of Members.” (G-1.0304)  It’s helpful to consider this as we ponder grumbling and murmuring.

“Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege.  It is also a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission.  A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church.  Such involvement includes:

“proclaiming the good news in word and deed, taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation, lifting one another up in prayer, … studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life, supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents, demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church…  and reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful.”

That’s quite a list, and I didn’t mention all of it!  And to be sure, there are some qualities we display better than others.

Returning to our story, there is something to notice.  Even though the Israelites are griping at Moses, there’s no mention of reprimand from God, at least not immediately.  Okay, so when you were slaves in Egypt you could eat meat and bread to your hearts’ content?  Really?  Well, here comes a flock of quail.  And in the morning, you’ll have more than enough bread!

The manna is the bread from heaven.  Verse 15 says, “When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’  For they did not know what it was.  Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”  The Hebrew word for manna means, “What is it?”

Joan Chittister, who I mentioned earlier, tells a story I’ll paraphrase regarding a student asking the teacher about enlightenment, about wisdom. (178)  (I should warn you this may sound like a comedy routine!)

The student asks where wisdom, where enlightenment, can be found.  “Here,” the teacher replies.  “When will it happen?”  “It is happening right now.”

“Then why don’t I experience it?”  “Because you do not look.”

“What should I look for?”  “Nothing.  Just look.”

“At what?”  “Anything your eyes alight upon.”

“Must I look in a special kind of way?”  “No.  The ordinary way will do.”

“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?”  “No.  You don’t.”

“Well, why not?”  “Because to look you must be here.  You’re mostly somewhere else.”

(We might think of Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”)

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[www.etsy.com/listing/190021236/out-of-the-abundance-of-the-heart-the]

Friends, that’s us!  We spend a great deal, if not the majority, of our lives mostly somewhere else.  When we’re grumbling and murmuring, we aren’t present to what God is doing—right here, right now.  The bread of heaven is made available; we need only accept it.

Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

 

[1] http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=532276484

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/82414.The_Rule_of_Benedict


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