Ash Wednesday

to hell and back

The first church we served was in Nebraska.  We were in the Presbytery of Central Nebraska.  At one of the presbytery meetings, there was a lay pastor ready to be certified.  He was answering questions about his beliefs and his sense of calling, his faith journey.

One of the ministers asked him about his views on Jesus Christ’s descent into hell.  The fellow didn’t know what to say.  My guess would be that was the first time anyone had ever asked him about it.  I can understand that; no one has ever asked me about it!  As you might know, there’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed saying about Jesus, “he descended to the dead.”  That’s from the modern, ecumenical version.  The original, traditional reading says of Jesus, “he descended into hell.”

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I honestly don’t remember the pastor’s name, but he took the opportunity to speak of Jesus’ descending into hell as an image of his own life.  He spent about two minutes telling us of his trials and tribulations.  (If two minutes doesn’t seem like much, get a stopwatch and time it.)  I really didn’t know him very well, but from what I did know, I knew he wasn’t lying about his experiences.  Meanwhile the poor fellow, the prospective lay pastor, was still up there, waiting for him to finish!  (By the way, he was certified.)

It was one of the more interesting presbytery meetings I’ve been to.

The epistle reading in 1 Peter 3 has some verses that are often associated with the so-called “harrowing of hell,” that is, the plundering of hell.  The harrowing of hell is said to be what transpired on Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Jesus visited hell and liberated the saints of old, and others.  There is no direct Biblical testimony to this, but it is based on a number of scriptures and the centuries-old witness of church tradition.  But let’s hold off on that visit for a few moments.

The lectionary reading actually begins with verse 18, even though the paragraph starts with verse 13.  Looking at it, I suppose I can see why that part was left out.  “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?  But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed…  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (vv. 13-14, 17).  “If suffering should be God’s will.”  Yikes!

Tucked away in the midst of that is this little gem: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (vv. 15-16).  Don’t get in people’s faces.  Don’t make them feel stupid.  Don’t be a jerk.  (That last sentence is from an alternate translation.)

Peter’s audience has had plenty of opportunities and/or demands to explain themselves.  They have had to deal with persecution.

Then there’s a transition to Christ, who “also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (v. 18).  He has set the example for them, and us, of underserved punishment and unjust treatment.

Then Peter’s thought takes a slight turn.  “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (vv. 18-20).

Who are these “spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey”?  There’s a curious story in Genesis 6.  There is mention of “the sons of God [who] saw that [the women] were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.  Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.’  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.  These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (vv. 2-4).

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[One image of Nephilim]

No one really knows who these sons of God and Nephilim were.  Theories abound about fallen angels, giants, unrighteous men.  Whatever the case, they were consigned into the prison Jesus visited.  In response, Jesus found them worthy of hearing his message of good news.

But then there was Noah, of whom he and his family “were saved through water.”  Peter says, “this prefigured [baptism, which] now saves you” (vv. 20-21).  The water of the flood, through which Noah and his family passed, prefigures, or foreshadows baptism.

So there’s water, but what about fire?  We’re back to the harrowing of hell, the plundering of hell!

The New Testament has three different words translated as “hell.”  So pick your favorite.  The first one, “Hades” (άδης), like “Sheol” in the Old Testament, is the land of the dead, the grave.

The second word, “Gehenna” (γέεννα), is the one associated with fire.  It goes back to the valley of Hinnom, where some Israelites burned human sacrifices to pagan gods.

The third word, “Tartarus” (ταρταρόω), is used only once—in 2 Peter 2:4.  In Greek mythology, Tartarus was said to be as far below Hades as the earth is below heaven.  Friends, that is a long way!

The word “hell” in the Apostles’ Creed (κάτω katō) means “down” or “below” and can be translated as he descended to “lower ones” or “those below.”  So it’s not a place; it’s people.

Some speak of a struggle with Satan.  Many have been really creative in describing how Jesus kicks open the gates of hell and demands the release of the captives.  One of my teachers had a dim view of this whole scenario.  He didn’t put much stock in portraying Jesus in a boxing match with the devil!

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Banu said that, after my surgery seeing me unconscious in the intensive care unit, with all kinds of lines hooked into me and a ventilator tube going down my throat, she could better appreciate Jesus’ descent into hell.  He came down to where she was.

(Actually, on occasion, that might be a good story for hospital chaplains to use when consoling those in the waiting room.)

C. S. Lewis said of the harrowing of hell, “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending.  There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

We’re told, “Whatever hells we may find ourselves in, whether in this life or another, Jesus is there waiting for us—and He has the power to pull us out.  Hell’s days are numbered.  Indeed, the only thing that keeps us there is our refusal to accept God’s love—and we may genuinely hope this love will [at last] prove irresistible.”[1]

How much during this particular Lent is this a meaningful word?

On Ash Wednesday, I spoke of the ashes put on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality.  We are on this planet for a finite amount of time.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I suggested perhaps this time we might not need to be reminded “we are dust.”  We’ve witnessed plenty of dust this past year.

It’s possible we might be in our own Hades, indeed our own Hell, and yet, hope is here.  The word of good news, of gospel, is being delivered.

As we end the chapter, the good news of resurrection breaks forth from down below into glorious majesty.  Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (v. 22).  We speak of the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  How can we not also speak of the triumphal procession of Christ freeing the captives and defeating the grave—literally plundering death of its ultimate power?  Who else has gone to hell and back?

Angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to him.  This isn’t some abstract nicety.  I’m not sure how often we encounter actual angels, but authorities and powers are forces we run into every day.  We can think of visible authority, like government.  There is easily recognized power, like the power of knowledge.  (Teachers, would you agree with that?)

There are realities more elusive and unknown.  Many of them we choose.  With others, we allow ourselves to be chosen.  We obey the authorities of money, of fashion, of “what will the neighbors say?”  We choose the power of life and death in the multitude of ways they are expressed.

We build up, and we tear down.  We affirm, and we negate.  We help, and we hinder.  All of that stuff has been made subject, all has been made subordinate, to Christ.

So, what about this Lent?  Are we to give something up?  Should we give up that which keeps us from answering others with gentleness and reverence?  Should we give up that which keeps us from having a clear conscience?  Should we give up that which imprisons us?

Thanks be to God, we have one who goes before us, one who leads in procession for us, one who has gone to hell and back for us, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] godoftheodd.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/the-harrowing-of-hell-what-really-happens-between-good-friday-and-easter-sunday


hypocrites

“Are you kidding?  Why should I go to church?  They’re a bunch of hypocrites!”  Have you ever heard anything like this?  Have you ever said anything like this?

The gospel reading for Ash Wednesday features Jesus criticizing hypocrites.  “So there; I’m right!”

I have a little story regarding my first experience of Ash Wednesday.  I was a freshman at a Roman Catholic university in Texas.  Mind you, I wasn’t interested in the Catholics or church in general.  One day, I was eating lunch with a friend in the cafeteria.  I mentioned how there were some students walking around with a black mark on their foreheads.  I thought it was funny.

My friend said simply, “Well, it’s Ash Wednesday.”  I had absolutely no idea what that meant.  He had a quizzical look on his face.  I had a blank expression on mine—but at least I wasn’t a hypocrite!

1 ashI’m about to do something which is not exactly authoritative, and that is, to define a Biblical word in English.  Here’s what the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says about “hypocrite”: number 1, “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion,” and number 2, “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”[1]

When Jesus disapproves of the hypocrites, is he thinking of our current-day idea of the word?  If Jesus is saying that we need to practice what we preach, then, as challenging as that may be at times, it still seems like something we can get a handle on.  And if we can’t, there’s usually somebody else who’s willing to point out where our words and deeds don’t match up!

I started thinking about the word “hypocrite” when I noticed the translation in the Anchor Bible.  In all three places where most English versions read “the hypocrites,” it reads “the overscrupulous.”[2]  That puts a different spin on the passage.  It sounds like what Jesus has in mind aren’t those who are frauds, but rather, those who want to “demonstrate their spiritual superiority.”[3]

Our word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek ύποκριτης (hupokritēs).  It originally meant “interpreter” or “one who explains.”  Later, it took on the meaning of “actor,” like one who performs in a play.

It’s this definition of “actor” that was the commonly understood meaning of the word for centuries.  So there wasn’t really a derogatory sense associated with being a hypocrite.  It wasn’t an insult.

It appears that it’s only well after the New Testament era that “hypocrite” takes on that negative meaning.  That is, of people pretending to be something other than what they are, of not practicing what they preach.[4]  So Jesus is saying, “whenever you give alms”… “whenever you pray”… “whenever you fast”… don’t be actors.  Don’t play a role.

After each time Jesus warns against behaving like the hypocrites, he adds this: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (vv. 2, 5, 16).  They’ve received their reward.  What reward is that?

What reward do actors receive—or at least, hope to receive?  Actually, Jesus tells us: “so that they may be praised by others” (v. 2).  Actors, and performers in general, want to be applauded; they don’t want to be booed.  Anyone who’s been on stage, be it for a school play or doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl, can tell you that.

If that’s all you want your life to add up to—the acclaim given to actors, to hypocrites—that’s fine.  But Jesus suggests something much better.  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vv. 19-20).

A life that only has the symbolic fifteen minutes of fame, in the end, isn’t much of a life.  Jesus concludes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21).  So where is our treasure?  Where is our heart?  And what does that mean for us tonight?

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That ashy cross on the forehead reminds us of our mortality.  We are on this planet for a finite amount of time.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  We often act like it isn’t true; perhaps we usually act like it isn’t true.  We are “hypocritical” in the purest sense of the word.

Still, on this Ash Wednesday, perhaps we don’t need to be reminded “we are dust.”  We’ve witnessed plenty of dust this past year.  We don’t need to act.  Maybe in some bizarre, unwanted way, this is a gift; it is a grace.  How could that possibly be the case?

We are especially reminded that our prayer, just as with giving of alms (giving in support of others) and fasting, isn’t for show.  We are told, “go into your room and shut the door.”  That is where we get our inner strength, “in secret” (v. 6).  And thus empowered, we can display it openly.

And contrary to my earlier foolishness, that ashy cross isn’t an occasion for humor, but an occasion for joy.

 

[1] www.m-w.com/dictionary/hypocrite

[2] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 73, 74, 78.

[3] Albright and Mann, cxxiii.

[4] Albright and Mann, cxvii.


memento mori

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

That is the poem “Ozymandias,” by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in the early nineteenth century.

This Ozymandias was a fellow who wanted his name to live forever.  By virtue of this massive monument, he wanted to defy the grave.  I wonder how that worked out?  The traveler tells the poet of a “colossal Wreck.”  Long ago, the head fell off.  “Half sunk a shattered visage lies.”  The face has been smashed.  There is a proud boast: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  However, who is there to look on his works?  “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

Having led or helped lead two funerals in just over a week, and one the week before, I’ve been thinking about death recently.  Actually, I’ve been reminded how everything returns to its fundamental parts.  The chair you’re sitting on has crumbled into nothingness—it’s just a question of when it happens.  It’s true of your house.  It’s true of planet Earth itself.  In about seven billion years, our sun will expand out to Earth’s orbit.  (Not exactly the day after tomorrow, but we’ll get there.)  Bye-bye, Mother Earth!

2 psMemento mori.  That’s Latin for “remember death,” as in “remember your death.”  It’s a reminder that we are not immortal.  Lest we think memento mori is a walk on the morbid side, here’s something else to remember: we have an entire season in the church calendar that emphasizes the same thing—Lent.  Our Ash Wednesday liturgy directs us to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There are plenty of people who don’t like Lent because they think it’s too much of a downer.  I’ve even heard ministers say they feel the same way.

There’s a line in a prayer from our funeral liturgy that has helped remind me of such things these past few days.  “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live.”  It is a joyful affirmation that we will be with the Lord.

Memento mori comes from the time of the ancient Romans.  We’re told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”[1]

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”?  Well, here’s another one.  “You can’t take it with you!”

That seems to be the message of Psalm 49.  We already get that in verse 1, as the psalmist proclaims, “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world.”  It’s a message for everyone on planet Earth.  The Hebrew word used here for “world” is interesting.[2]  It only appears five times in the entire Old Testament.  It means “world,” but with the sense of a short period of time.  It means “transient” or “fleeting.”  It’s the perfect word, considering the theme of the psalm.

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

There’s quite a bit in Psalm 49, but we don’t have time to go into all of it.  I’ll just mention a few points.  I want to take a tip from Ozymandias and “those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches,” as verse 6 puts it.

That’s some shaky ground.  We’re told we can find security in money or gold or real estate or whatever.  Considering the fires and floods and famine and whatever the coronavirus is up to, I think security might better be found in drinkable water.

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The psalmist continues: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.  For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, that one should live on forever and never see the grave” (vv. 7-9).  Well, tell that to the researchers who say death is something we can delay indefinitely.  There are some folks who say a lifetime of 150 years isn’t too far down the road.  And then there are already some people who’ve had themselves cryogenically frozen.  The hope is they can be thawed sometime in the future.

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

Keeping my promise to hit only a few points, I want to jump to verse 16.  “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.”  We can become intimidated in the presence of those with great affluence.  Verse 18 reminds us, “you are praised when you do well for yourself.”  (Remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?  Robin Leach would engage in what could almost be called televised drooling.)

Nurse practitioner Vincent LaBarca notes, “Life pulls us into painful directions and our impulse is to fight.  But resistance is futile.  (I don’t know if he’s a Star Trek fan, but that’s the warning from the Borg.  You will be assimilated.)  Like swimming against a riptide, we inevitably wear ourselves out and drown.  If, however, we relax and allow the tide to take us, we are safely guided back to shore.”[3]

Verses 12 and 20 have always been the ones to catch my attention.  It is a repeated thought.  “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.”  We humans cannot hang on very long to our splendor.  I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “We aren’t immortal.  We don’t last long.  Like our dogs, we age and weaken.  And die.”

I suppose if our measure of life is pomp and splendor, we might very well end up like an animal, even a beloved doggie.  I don’t believe their deaths are meaningless, but one thing we can do which they can’t is to consciously prepare for our passing.

Henri Nouwen spoke of a “grateful death.”[4]  “The way we die,” he said, “has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive.  It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts.  The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude.  Gratitude sets them free to continue their lives without bitterness or self-recrimination.”

I had a professor at seminary who shared four statements that help in the very things I just mentioned.  “Please forgive me.”  “I forgive you.”  “Thank you.”  “I love you.”  That works both ways, for the one passing and for those left behind.  No regrets.

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photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

I was fortunate and truly blessed to have that kind of ending with my father.  Banu and I lived in Jamestown at the time.  My dad had been hospitalized several times, but this time, there was more a sense of finality to it.  I got a call from my sister, telling me I needed to come home.  I flew to Nashville the next day.  My brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to the hospital.

My mom and sister, and my mom’s pastor, were in the waiting room.  They had already said their goodbyes.  So I went into the ICU and stood next to my dad’s bed.  His eyes were closed.  I held his hand and told him that I loved him.  He didn’t last much longer.  I think he willed himself to hang on until I arrived.  My dad passed away at five in the afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set.  He was welcomed with its orange-red rays.  It was like something from a movie.

It puts a little different spin on the promise of the one who said, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved” (Jn 10:9).

I don’t need to tell you we’re constantly surrounded by death.  We are routinely reminded of the Covid count.  In some quarters, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to inspire fear.  However, our risen Lord says, “Fear not.”  Instead of fear, he inspires us with holy boldness. Memento mori is a fierce and wonderful embrace of life.  Thanks be to God.

 

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

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

[3] medium.com/illumination/an-existentialist-and-a-christian-walk-into-a-bar-91f713d5e5f0

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/a-grateful-death


after the fire

It’s not every presbytery meeting that has a worship service that seems especially meaningful to me, which is understandable, since not every service can speak to everyone in the same way every time.  Still, I’ve been to some meetings when it felt like the people putting the service together were trying to be a little too cute.  Sometimes it’s just been boring.

Please understand, I’m not expecting to be entertained, but a worship service should help us into something of a sacred space.  Among those I have found most meaningful was one several years ago in a different presbytery which focused on giving thanks, on gratitude.

It wasn’t the theme so much that struck me, but there were other aspects, such as the hymns we sang.  One of them was, “Let All Things Now Living.”  There was also a time when symbolic gifts were brought forward, as signs of thankfulness.

Something that really stayed with me was how one of the pastors concluded the Prayers of the People.  After going through the various praises and intercessions, he finished with this: “Help us to accept the truth about ourselves,” and then he paused.  I was mentally finishing the sentence with something like, “no matter how proud we might be” or “no matter how startling it might be.”

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But I was wrong.  What he said was, “Help us to accept the truth about ourselves…no matter how beautiful it might be.”  No matter how beautiful it might be.  You know, I almost wished that he had concluded on one of those more negative notes—like something I’d been anticipating.  Maybe no one here feels the way I do about it, but sometimes it seems like being reminded of our failings, of our shortfalls, can in a strange way, actually feel better than being told how creative and radiant we are.

It can feel better because, even though this really isn’t true, it seems to give us an excuse for not being more than what we are.  It’s a convenient cop-out.  But if we’re reminded that, in Christ, there are no limits—if we say with the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”—then we’re left with the question: What will we do about it?

Some people in our scripture readings today have that question to answer.  In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, the glory of God is revealed.  Being chosen for such an intimate encounter would no doubt dramatically change one’s outlook on everything.  After such an experience, nothing is ever the same again.

In Exodus 24, Moses and a group of the leaders of Israel are summoned by God to Mt. Sinai.  Words fail to describe what they see.  “Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (v. 10).  And they are convinced that it is God they see.  The next verse tells us that “God did not lay his hand” on them; God did not strike them.  They would have expected death.  Everyone knows you cannot see God and live to tell about it!

Moses, of course, is the one who is summoned even farther.  He goes up to the top of Sinai where, as the scripture says, he spends “forty days and forty nights” in the presence of God (v. 18).  The result of all this enlightenment is that Moses brings God’s law to the people.

In our Gospel reading, Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it’s Peter, James, and John who have an intimate encounter with the glory of God.  In their case, it’s their teacher and friend through whom they see that divine radiance.  Jesus reveals to this privileged trio the true nature of his being.

How does this happen?  People of many different cultures have traveled to the tops of mountains to meet their gods.  The ancient Greeks believed that Mt. Olympus was the home of their gods.  The indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, and America have had mountains of their own.  Elsewhere in Exodus, we see Moses’ face shining when he comes down from Sinai (34:29).  Something similar happens to Peter and his friends.  We’re told that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt 17:2).

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The Son shines like the sun.

Peter seems oblivious to all of this.  He babbles something about building three shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  Peter wants to stay on the mountain, literally and metaphorically.  He wants to enshrine this experience.  But what happens?  We’re told “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’”  The heavenly voice terrifies them, but Jesus calms their fears.

He leads Peter, James, and John back down the mountain.  He takes them back to their lives in the world.  And just so they know, they’re not even to talk about what happened up on the mountain.

Isn’t that how the transfiguration story is usually explained, at least regarding Peter?  Poor, stumbling Peter.  Poor, stumbling thick-headed Peter.  He prattles on about putting up tents, but he’s missing the whole point of he and his friends being there.  Lending support to this view are the versions in Mark and Luke about his not knowing what in the world he’s talking about (Mk 9:6, Lk 9:33).

The lesson we’re to learn is to not be like Peter.  Remember that we can’t always have those mountain top experiences.  And just like Peter, we should also remember that Jesus understands and builds his church with imperfect disciples like us.  We, like Peter, are destined for greater things.

Actually, that’s not such a bad thing to take from this story.  But is that all there is to it?

Methodist pastor Jason Micheli offers some thoughts.[1]  He admits he also has simply focused on the lesson I just mentioned.  There is a mistake, however, in concentrating on Peter and his apparent failures.  Why doesn’t Jesus correct him?  If Peter gets it so wrong, why doesn’t Jesus set him straight?

“In fact,” Micheli reminds us, “here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him.  This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.”  Maybe Peter isn’t quite as dull and obtuse as we might make him out to be.

“Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ, Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes.  In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become like God.  This is where the good news is to be found.”

God became human.  God entered into our matter, as frail and fragile as it is.

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Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord.  It is the final Sunday before Lent.  We celebrate the fire of Transfiguration.  What happens after the fire?  What is left after the fire?  Are not ashes left over?  Appropriately enough, Ash Wednesday occurs this week.

A couple of weeks ago, Banu and I returned from study leave in Tennessee.  (We stayed with my mom, who was pleasantly and overwhelmingly surprised at how friendly and loving Ronan is.)

The feature of our trip was a visit to Penuel Ridge Retreat Center.  It was named for the place in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with the angel, and his name is changed to Israel, which means “one who strives with God” (Gn 32:22-32).  The center is in Cheatham County, which is an interesting county.  It’s almost hidden.  It’s a short drive from Nashville, and then you’re in hilly country; you might not know there’s a major metro area nearby.  The retreat center was located there partly with that in mind.

When we visited, we were cognizant of the soon-approaching Lenten season.  The day of our visit was an overcast one, punctuated by intermittent drizzle.  I won’t speak for Banu, but I think we both enjoyed the atmosphere—with the effects on body, mind, and spirit.  It was soul-enriching.  I was once again reminded of what retreat is meant to be.  We weren’t exactly on a mountain like Sinai or the mount of Transfiguration, but we were indeed on a ridge high above the Cumberland River.

At one point, I was reflecting and writing in my journal images that came to me.

“Penuel Ridge Retreat Center.  Gray day.  Sacred gloominess.  Conversation with the director.  Prosaic, yet brimming with possibility.  Traffic on the road fronting the property.  Mud.  Fire failing in the Duraflame-logged fireplace.  Water drops.  Banu behind me at the desk, paper shifting, rustling.

“My own thoughts, wondering how I can use this—how to put it into a sermon or a blog post.  (Of course.)”  That last bit is something of a confession of sin!  How can I use this, instead of simply letting it be?

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{scenery from Penuel Ridge, with a psychedelic touch}

As we think of the retreat house next door,[2] perhaps Transfiguration isn’t a bad image to use.  Transfiguration, a metamorphosis revealing the fire within, seems appropriate.  And yet, after the fire, we have the ashes.  The ashes, representing our mortality, remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

There is the busyness of being in a city (albeit a small city) along an often-busy thoroughfare.  It can be easy to miss the gift of retreat in the midst of all that.  That is a challenge for all of us—to see in the ordinary (especially an ordinary we’ve probably grown too used to) the fire within.  Our challenge is to claim the privilege of sacred space, there and here.

“Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ, Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes.  In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God.”

Help us to accept the truth about ourselves…no matter how beautiful it might be.

 

[1] www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/what-preachers-get-wrong-and-peter-gets-right-about-transfiguration

[2] Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center (108 South St., Auburn, NY 13021)


confession is good for the soul

As I suggested in what might be called chapter 1 of the story of King David and Bathsheba, if the “me too” movement had existed during David’s time, he would have qualified as one of its poster boys.  But now we come to chapter 2, which could have the dramatic title, “The Reckoning.”

With a theme we’ll look at later, Nathan, who plays the role of prophet and “he who speaks truth to power,” calls David to account.

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There’s an idea I’ve heard and I imagine most, if not all of you, have also heard.  Maybe you’ve tried it, or it’s been tried on you!  One good way to convince someone, or to make a point, is to let them think it was their idea.  This might require a bit of craftiness.  Maybe simply knowing when it’s time to shut up can figure into it.  You don’t want to come out swinging or insult someone’s intelligence.

There have been times during a group discussion when I’ve tossed an idea into the mix and then said nothing else.  I didn’t belabor the point.  And on many occasions, someone else would say the same thing, and then finding approval.  Sometimes, you just got to let someone else take the credit!

One good way to implement this method is to tell a story—something the other person can identify with.  That’s what Nathan does.

Let’s review to see why he is prompted to tell his story.  After David impregnates Bathsheba, he is finally “forced” to have her husband, Uriah, killed in a deliberately ill-conceived military move.  You know—accidentally on purpose.  When word about the fiasco is brought to David, he isn’t furious, as would normally be expected.  Kings don’t usually welcome such news in a good mood.  Instead he blows it off and assures his general Joab, “Don’t worry, that’s what happens in the fog of war.”  And there’s an understood “wink wink.”

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Speaking of “wink wink,” roughly three centuries after the writing of 1 and 2 Samuel, we have the two books of the Chronicles.  One of the writer’s concerns was to emphasize the key role of David’s dynasty.  Unfortunately, Bathsheba never figures into the story.

Here’s how chapter 20 begins: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, Joab led out the army, ravaged the country of the Ammonites, and came and besieged Rabbah.  But David remained at Jerusalem.  Joab attacked Rabbah, and overthrew it” (v. 1).  Wait a minute!  Didn’t something else happen at the time?

If I didn’t know better, I would swear someone wants to sanitize history.

And so we come to today’s reading.  When Bathsheba heard of her husband’s death, “she made lamentation for him.  When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son” (2 Sm 11:26-27).

So there we go.  David’s plan finally works.  Uriah is out of the way, and as far as the world is concerned, he is the father.  Bathsheba is now David’s wife.  He’s taken her into his home.  To the unsuspecting, it might appear he’s extending royal protection to a woman who is a widow and is about to be a single mother.  Things are going fine.  “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!”

Well, let’s not jump the gun.  Here’s verse 1: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”  “Be sure your sin will find you out,” as Moses told the people (Nu 32:23).  The king is about to find out that warning also applies to him.  He has been found out.

As we saw at the beginning, Nathan the prophet realizes he has an unwelcome message for David.  He tells the story of a rich man who had an abundance of sheep and a poor man who “had nothing but one little ewe lamb.”  Notice how he describes the little critter.  “He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him” (v. 3).  I’m about to cry just reading that!

But then—oh yes, but then!  The rich man has a visitor.  Hospitality requires he welcome his guest with a meal.  However, this member of the top one-percent decides he can’t bear to part with one of his vast horde of animals.  Instead, he sends his boys to grab the poor man’s lamb, slaughter it, and prepare it for the dinner plate.  Delicious.

At this point, David begins quaking and shaking with fury.  He sees red, and he explodes, “That evil so-and-so needs to be slain!  But not before making restitution to the poor fellow whose heart he crushed.”

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I wonder how long Nathan takes with his response.  Does he wait until David calms down?  Or does he strike while the iron is still hot?  Whatever the case, Nathan lets loose with something to knock David back on his heels—metaphorically and maybe even literally.  To David’s cry for the man’s blood, Nathan comes back, “You are the man!” (v. 7).

The prophet launches into a litany of what God has done for him: making him king, rescuing him from Saul, giving him Saul’s wives, “and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more” (v. 8).  But, unfortunately, that’s not all.  There will be turmoil in his family, bloodshed, and rebellion.

David does repent, but there is one more heartbreaking consequence of his actions.  As Nathan says, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die” (v. 14).  Afterwards, David fasts and prays to God that the child should live, but to no avail.

Let me go back to something I mentioned at the beginning, which is Nathan holding David accountable.  By the way, he does this, not without a degree of danger.  Who knows how the king will react?  Nathan might find himself in prison, or maybe David’s wish for the rich man will come true—except Nathan will be on the receiving end!

Having said that, it’s very important we have someone to be accountable to.  It can be easy to say, “I’m accountable to God,” and at the end of the day, it’s certainly true.  Still, without someone (that is, a wise, centered someone) looking us in the eye and saying, “So how are you doing with such-and-such?” we run the risk of not sticking to a path of spiritual growth.

I’ll admit, I haven’t always been faithful in finding such a person.  (We have moved quite a bit over the years—how that for an excuse?  However, I do have a wife who holds me accountable more often than I would like!)

After the confrontation (a stern form of accountability), as we know, David repents.  Is it possible there was at first a thought of self-justification?  There could be numerous ways to do this.  As we saw earlier, he could say he’s been protecting Bathsheba.  As for Uriah the Hittite, he was no child of Israel.  How do we know he wasn’t a spy?

David confesses his sin.  As mentioned earlier, Nathan gets his point across to David by giving him someone to identify with.  In an unexpected, uncomfortable, and even compulsory way, the rich man in the story becomes his idea, an idea he really doesn’t want to have!

4 2 smStill, it works.  Not every leader admits guilt.  Some say there’s nothing they need to apologize for.  Instead of accepting responsibility, they shift the blame to others.  But then, how often do we do that?  According to the Bible, human beings have been doing that since day one.

We see a David who is calculating, even brutal, but also in pain.  He must go through the fire to be purified.

He emerges on the other side, giving voice to one of the most beloved of the psalms, number 51.  It is the Ash Wednesday psalm.  If you notice the psalm’s title, or superscription, it is forever linked with Nathan’s calling him out regarding his sin against Bathsheba.

Look at verse 4.  “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”  Understand, this can apply to any of us.  But right now, we’re dealing with it as it applies to David.

I have a question.  Where’s Bathsheba?  Hasn’t she been sinned against?  Need we go back and run through the sorry story again?  Is she being slighted yet again?  Is her voice not being heard?  Does she need to cry out, “Me too”?

O Lord, against you alone have I sinned.

In his book, The End of Memory, Croatian writer Miroslav Volf seems to agree.  He speaks of the months-long interrogation by someone he simply calls “Captain G.”  This was during the time of the former Yugoslavia, and he was under suspicion of being a spy.  He’s reflecting on that experience from more than two decades earlier and imagining a reconciliation between Captain G. and himself.

Captain G., being a loyal communist, is also an atheist, so he would only be interested in forgiveness offered by Volf, not by God.  Our friend Miroslav, being a Christian, thinks differently.

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Miroslav Volf

“By wronging me,” he says, “you’ve transgressed the moral law God established to help us, God’s beloved creatures, to flourish; so you have wronged God.  Ultimately, only God has the power and the right to forgive, and only God’s forgiveness can wash you clean of your wrongdoing.  When I forgive you, I mostly just echo God’s forgiving of your sin.”[1]

That has the makings of a pretty good theology of forgiveness!

Of course, when we wrong someone, commit those petty little offenses, we sin against each other.  Still, as the psalmist and Miroslav Volf contend, those sins are simply a reflection of the sin against God, and forgiveness offered is a reflection of God’s forgiveness.

Confession is good for the soul.  We learn it when King David confesses.  We learn it when we confess our sin against each other.  We learn it when we confess our sin against the earth.  We learn it when we confess our sin against the body politic.  That is, if we disagree, we somehow become enemies.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (v. 10).  Confession is good for the soul.  How does that chorus go?

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“Create in me a clean heart, O God, / and renew a right spirit within me. / 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.”

 

[1] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 225.


hypocrites

“Are you kidding?  Do you think I’d go to church there?  I wouldn’t set one foot inside that place!  That bunch is nothing but a pack of hypocrites!”

1 hyprocriteHave you ever heard anything like this?  Have you ever said anything like this?  A commonly observed flaw in Christian behavior, with varying degrees of accuracy, is that it is “hypocritical.”  Three times in the Ash Wednesday gospel reading from St. Matthew, Jesus makes observations about the behavior of “hypocrites.”  And his comments are not flattering.  They’re along the lines of what not to do!

I’m about to do something which is not exactly authoritative, and that is, to define a Biblical word in an English translation of the Bible.  (You do realize that the Bible was not written in English!)  But here’s what the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says about “hypocrite”:  number 1, “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion,” and number 2, “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”[1]

When Jesus disapproves of the hypocrites, is he thinking of our current-day idea of the word?  That would almost make things easier.  (And yes, I’ll try to explain what I’m talking about!)

If Jesus is saying that we need to practice what we preach, then, as challenging as that may be at times, it still seems to be something we can get a handle on.  It seems like we can notice whether or not we’re doing it—to an extent.  And if we can’t, there’s usually somebody else who’s willing to point out where our words and deeds don’t quite match up!  Some of us are blessed with more than one such person!  Actually, that’s why it’s impossible to live the Christian life in isolation:  we need the community of faith.

I started thinking about the word “hypocrite” when I noticed the translation in the Anchor Bible.  In all three places where most English versions read “the hypocrites,” it reads “the overscrupulous.”[2]  That puts a different spin on the entire passage.  It sounds like what Jesus has in mind aren’t so much frauds—they aren’t so much phonies—but rather, those who want to “demonstrate their spiritual superiority.”[3]

Our word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek ύποκριτης (hupokritēs).  It originally meant “interpreter” (as in interpreter of dreams) or “one who explains.”  Later, it took on the meaning of “actor,” like one who performs in a play.  It had the idea of speaking the lines in a play.

It’s this definition of “actor” that was the commonly-understood meaning of the word for centuries.  So there wasn’t necessarily a derogatory sense associated with being a hypocrite.  It wasn’t always an insult.

2 actress(In fact, far from an insult, on the TV show The Big Bang Theory, there’s a scene in which Sheldon wants acting lessons so he can appear to care about his students.  He comes to Penny, unsure of her qualifications, but she insists that she is not an “actress,” but an actress!)

It appears that it’s only well after the New Testament era that “hypocrite” takes on the metaphorical sense.  That is, of people pretending to be something other than what they are, of not practicing what they preach.[4]  So Jesus is saying, “whenever you give alms”…”whenever you pray”…”whenever you fast”…don’t be actors.  Don’t play a role.

After each time Jesus warns against behaving like the hypocrites, he adds this: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (vv. 2, 5, 16).  They’ve received their reward.  What reward is that?

What reward do actors receive?  Or at least, what reward do actors hope to receive?  Actually, Jesus tells us:  “so that they may be praised by others” (v. 2).  Actors, and performers in general, want to be applauded; they don’t want to be booed.  Anyone who’s been on stage, be it for a school play or doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl, can tell you that.

If that’s all you want your life to add up to—the acclaim given to actors, to hypocrites—that’s fine.  But Jesus suggests something much better.  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vv. 19-20).

A life that only has the symbolic fifteen minutes of fame, in the end, isn’t much of a life.  Jesus concludes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21).  So where is our treasure?  Where is our heart?  And what does that mean for us tonight?

Our scripture passage is taken from the Sermon on the Mount.  Earlier, in chapter 5, Jesus says to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (v. 16).  What’s the difference between letting your light shine and being a hypocrite—whether that’s being an actor, as Jesus is likely saying, or being two-faced, as we might say?

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Let’s use Ash Wednesday as an experiment.  Receiving ashes on your forehead is something others will notice.  Now, if you’re hoping others will notice the ashes and think you’re spiritual, then I would suggest wiping them off before you leave the premises.

On the other hand, if you’re reluctant to let others see that ashy sign of the cross, that’s a different story.  If you’re embarrassed and don’t want to look like a fool for Christ, then I would suggest that you leave that thing right where it is!

This is true anytime we practice our “piety [or righteousness] before others,” as Jesus says in verse 1.  If we do it “to be seen by them,” then we “have no reward from [our] Father in heaven.”  We’ve received all the reward our actions will get, puny as it may be.

That’s true for Ash Wednesday.  That’s true for leading prayer in a group.  That’s true for feeding the hungry.  That’s true for nonviolently assembling and calling for justice and peace.  That’s true for visiting the sick and the prisoner.  If love for God isn’t our motivation, then our treasure is meager indeed.

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So let’s not be hypocrites; let’s not be actors.  Let’s let the ashes do the talking!

 

[1] www.m-w.com/dictionary/hypocrite

[2] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 73, 74, 78.

[3] Albright and Mann, cxxiii.

[4] Albright and Mann, cxvii.


lazy and wasteful

“Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.”

“I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at eighty as I was at twenty; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done. I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means.”

image from 25.media.tumblr.com

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in which we are prompted to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I began with two quotes.

First are some lines from the hymn “Open the Doors.” (It’s performed online by the Holy Cross choir at Holy Cross Orthodox Church in High Point, NC.) What gripped my attention was the bit about wasting my life in laziness. My old pal, the deadly sin of acedia, of sloth, rears its ugly head—but takes its time in doing so! It remains a major struggle. I need help, both divine and human, to be shaken from complacency. (That help includes intercession from Mary, the mother of God, as strange as my non-Catholic past would have it.)

The second quote comes from Oliver Sacks’ book Gratitude, a wonderful little book published last year, which consists of four essays that he wrote in the time leading to his death. As the title suggests, he sums up his life with gratitude, of being “a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

But likely due to that sense of gratefulness, the time he has wasted troubles him all the more. Still, posed with expectations of completing his life, he injects levity by wondering what that’s all about anyway!

A few weeks ago, while Banu and I were still in Tennessee, we took my mom to the eye clinic. As we were in the waiting room, a cockroach came walking across the floor. I was requested to step on it, but I refused. I noted that when our civilization has turned to dust, this fellow will still be around. (That is, his or her distant descendants!) Dust to dust; ashes to ashes.

We are reminded of our mortality. We wear the ashes because there is no time like the present. Laziness and wastefulness meet their match in those ashes.

[The inscription on the image is “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust shall return,” Jacques Gamelin, Nouveau receuil d’ostéologie et de myologie dessiné après nature. 1779]