baptism

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.”

1 pe

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).

2 pe

[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!

3 pe

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


calming the chaos

It was the evening of New Year’s Day.  There was a pitter patter of shower outside.  I decided to go for a walk; I wanted to hear what the rain would say to me.  Upon stepping outside, I realized the droplets were being outvoted by pellets.  A slushy crust was coalescing beneath my feet.  That’s okay, since the ice is making its voice heard, I’ll lend an ear.  So off I went into the night.

Actually, I did not lend an ear.  I was too busy thinking about my determination to listen to whatever precepts the precipitation presented.  Is there a word for me to receive?  It’s difficult to be aware if you’re trying to be aware that you are aware.  You wind up only hearing yourself.

In any event, it was a pleasant walk.

1 gn

It seems fitting that we would have that kind of weather on the evening of the first day of the year.  I say it seems fitting, in that our reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today, the Baptism of the Lord, is from Genesis—the first five verses of the book.  (You know: “In the beginning,” water, baptism, even if it’s a baptism of sleet.)

At his baptism, as the water flowed down his body, Jesus did hear a voice.  It was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).

There are two creation stories in Genesis.  The “macro” story is in chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, the creation of the world.  The “micro” story is the rest of chapter 2, focusing on the creation of the human race.  We’re in the “macro” story and looking at the first day of creation.

With each of the days of creation, we have the repeated statement, “God said.”  God speaks, and something appears, something happens.  God speaks the word in creating.  Over and again, we are told God saw that it was good.  It is the word pervading all of creation, permeating all of the cosmos.

The gospel of John borrows from this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

Summing up each day of creation is the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day,” and the second day, and the third day, and so on (v. 5).

I want to include a side note.  I imagine you’ve heard it said the Bible isn’t a scientific textbook, or words to that effect.  If we read these words as though they were lab notes from a science experiment, we will miss the wonderful and beautiful truth these words really convey.

2 gnFor example, on the third day of creation, plants appear.  It’s not until the fourth day that the sun, moon, and stars appear.  To force these images into that system of logic is completely alien to how the ancients perceived it.  Obviously, they knew plants could not precede the sun!  Actually, to force these images into that system of logic is alien to how we ourselves use art and poetry.

Today being the Baptism of the Lord, I would like to focus on the first two verses, which are the reason this text was assigned to this day in the first place.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

The earth was a formless void.  The Hebrew word for “formless” (תֹּהוּ, tohu) also means “confusion” or “chaos.”  It was a nothingness of chaos.  The word for “void” (בֹּהוּ, bohu) also means “emptiness.”  It was an emptiness without form—an emptiness without shape.  The earth was a real “fixer upper.”

Some might say 2020 was a nothingness of chaos.

What we see is God bringing order to what is the ultimate picture of disorder.  (If it’s possible to have a picture of disorder.)  God is setting boundaries.  “God [separates] the light from the darkness” (v. 4).  In the days following, we see other things being separated, being distinguished.

Sometimes my dear wife Banu will prepare a dish with ingredients carefully portioned into distinct layers.  She often shows me how to eat it, sometimes using a fork to demonstrate.  I am reminded to not mix them together, so as not to deprive, or to diminish, the individual flavor of each element.  I am not to mess up the texture of the various components.  I am forbidden to bring disorder to order.

(Please understand: I’ve never been one to take a utensil and clumsily stir the contents of my plate around until I’m left with a blob-like specimen with the consistency of thick paste.  Furthermore, I’ve never been one to then say, “Hey, it’s all going to the same place anyway.”)

3 gn

Perhaps my favorite of the prophets is Jeremiah.  The Bible tells us more about him as a person than any of the other prophets.  And he has quite a story.  I mention him because, in a startling passage, he uses the word bohu (4:23-26).

“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.”  The earth is again described as “void.”  He continues.

“I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked, [he’s doing a lot of looking!] and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”

Walter Brueggemann comments on Jeremiah’s looking.[1]

“The fourfold ‘I looked’ is a staggering study of creation run amok, creation reverted to chaos…  [E]ach time the poet looks at the world, he sees more and more of creation being nullified, regressing to the murky condition of Gen. 1:2…”  God’s covenant with Israel “held to the [astonishing] notion that human conduct matters for the well-being of creation.  Working from that notion, the picture of this poem is grim.  Since there has been no obedience, there will be no viable creation.  Disobedience finally leads to chaos for the entire creation.”

Lest we think that’s an exaggeration, our own disobedience in tending the garden is leading to a twenty-first century version of chaos for creation.  We too often ignore God’s covenant, now expressed in the living Word, Jesus Christ, in our dealings with each other.  We foment disorder in each other’s lives.

As I’ve said before, sometimes events happen during the week that simply must be addressed.  The horror at the Capitol building on Wednesday is definitely in that category.  We witnessed a mob storm the building in an effort to disrupt the proceedings of a joint session of Congress.  For a while, the rioters had their way.  Officers were attacked, weapons were carried, windows were smashed, offices were ransacked, and worst of all, there was loss of life: four protesters and one police officer.  To use the Hebrew word, it was tohu.  It was disorder.  It was chaos.  It was an obscenity.

I posted something on Facebook that evening.  This was it: “This morning, aware that today is the Epiphany of the Lord, I wrote in my journal, ‘May the Lord shine today!’  No darkness, no violence, no thuggery can withstand that glory.  ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’”

Epiphany celebrates the light of Christ shining to all the Gentiles, to all the nations.  The visit of the Magi illustrates it.  When they asked about the one who was born king of the Jews, the powers-that-be in Jerusalem were terrified.  They feared the light shining into their darkness.

We are called to work for justice.  Jesus was all about that.  What happened on Wednesday had nothing to do with justice.  We didn’t see a Spirit-led struggle for justice.  Those folks were not guided by the Holy Spirit, and neither were the ones who urged them on, who planted the idea.

Our “God is a God not of disorder [not of chaos] but of peace” (1 Co 14:33).

I’ve been talking about creation as a process of setting boundaries, of bringing order to disorder.  Light is separated from darkness.  The sky is separated from the ocean.  The land is separated from the sea.

Are there broken boundaries in need of restoration?  Does order need to be brought to disorder?  Are there any things that need to be separated?

It’s important to take notice of something.  When God sets boundaries, it is indeed a creative act.  It isn’t a destructive one.  The boundaries are healthy boundaries.  They are boundaries that protect.  They are not boundaries that harmfully isolate.

4 gn

So, back to the beginning.  We are nine days removed from New Year’s Day.  Moving into 2021, what word is there for us?  “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  The fresh breeze of the Spirit brings order to chaos; it brings harmony to havoc.

As for me, the story of my nocturnal walk reinforces a lesson I need to heed over and over.  I could do with some restoration of boundaries, so that I can rightly discern the Word from the many words bubbling up in my mind.

So again, do you have any boundaries that need to be restored?  Is there any chaos that needs to be calmed, that needs to be set in order?

Thanks be to God, who speaks the word that creates, and who speaks the word into our lives to calm the storm.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 59.


death shall have no dominion

“And death shall have no dominion. / Dead men naked they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon; / When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, / They shall have stars at elbow and foot; / Though they go mad they shall be sane, / Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; / Though lovers be lost love shall not; / And death shall have no dominion.”

1 roThat is the first stanza of Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have no Dominion.”  As you might have guessed, it was inspired by Romans 6:9: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

Thomas speaks of bones being picked clean, sinking through the sea and rising again, lovers lost but not love itself.  After everything is said and done, death shall have no dominion.

(That poem has appeared in many places, such as in Steven Soderberg’s remake of the movie Solaris.  In one scene, we hear George Clooney reciting that same first stanza.  It was also featured in the show, Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Pearlman.)

We will revisit death’s having no dominion in a few minutes.

Chapter 6 begins, “What then are we to say?”  St. Paul’s asking a question about something, so let’s check out chapter 5.  Very, very briefly, he’s been talking about Adam and Christ.  Through Adam, sin entered the world.  Through Christ, grace has been extended.  And this isn’t a tiny drop of grace.  We read in 5:20, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  There is a superabundance of grace.  We are awash in grace.

So how do we answer Paul’s question?  “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v. 1).  Hey, that sounds like a plan!  Let’s pour on the sin, knowing a tsunami of grace is on the way.  If a little bit do good, a whole lot do better!  I imagine Paul would think about it for a moment, and say, “No way, José.”

2 ro

"Look, there's a tsunami!"  "That's nice. Who has the suntan lotion?"

Instead, the apostle asks, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (vv. 2-3).

Baptized into his death.  That is a serious way of looking at it.  And it’s also a quite visual way of “looking” at it.  That’s especially true for those of us who were baptized by immersion—going into the grave and being raised back to life.  Accordingly, I have a story of my own baptism.

On the evening of the 3rd of August in 1985, I had what I might call a mystical experience.  I was in college at the time.  I had been meditating on Isaiah 55:8-9.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I began to feel like I was being plunged into an ocean of love.  I was being baptized in love.  It was, as you might gather, a very powerful experience!

At the time, I did not go to church.  My mother, however, had begun attending an Assemblies of God church.  I told her I had this encounter with the Lord, and she said I needed to be baptized.  I really didn’t see the point in it.  What would it serve?  Didn’t God accept me as I am?  Her basic response was it was necessary to make that public profession of faith.

I eventually started attending church, though on a very sporadic basis.  Still, as the months went by, I began to sense baptism was for me.

So on a Sunday evening, the 3rd of August 1986, one year to the night I had my revelation of love, I stepped into the baptismal of the church, with its heated water.  There were two others who went before me: a boy about ten years old and an elderly woman, who upon being raised out of the water by our pastor, began speaking in tongues.

Then it was my turn.  Later on, after the service was over, I told my mother it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me.  I could breathe.

[Someone is holding the shirt he wore during his baptism.]

3 roSo as I suggested a moment ago, I can relate to this business of dying with Christ and being raised back to life.  “We too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4).

“Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.”

Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6).

(By the way, if we read that bit about “our old self” being crucified with him in the King James language of “our old man,” the unfortunate question might be put to us, “Has your old man been crucified?”  We might wonder if they’re talking about a husband or a father.)

In any event, according to the apostle, we are no longer enslaved to sin.  We are not under its power.  We need not submit to its power.  But if we are really honest, sometimes we like that power!  When we’re presented with blessing and cursing, life and death, too often we go with the latter.  After all, in the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” we sing the prayer, “Take away the love of sinning.”

I’m not sure when it happens, but at some point early in life, we discover manipulating people can be fun!

Something of which Paul assures us is “whoever has died is freed from sin” (v. 7).  That’s a good thing when what we’re considering is this matter of being crucified with Christ.  Of course, whoever dies is freed from a whole lot of stuff!

Paul continues, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again” (vv. 8-9).  And he finishes that thought in grand fashion: “death no longer has dominion over him.”

“And death shall have no dominion.”  If we have died to sin, what could that mean?

4 ro

Israel Kamudzandu, who teaches at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, comments, “Christians must always remind themselves that our old self, our culture, our rights, our private spaces, and the desires of our flesh were crucified with Jesus Christ. Our daily living must demonstrate our newfound and grace-filled status in Christ.”[1]

Being from Zimbabwe, he puts it on a global scale.  “Sin is like a foreign domination in that it dehumanizes and reduces one to a victim position and some people die as victims because no one is there to rescue them…”

I guess the sentiment expressed by death having no dominion is especially meaningful for us in our strange new world.  It is especially poignant.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of how we’ve been given a reset button.  What do we do with it?  Are there new lessons to be learned?  Are there old lessons that need to be re-learned?  The coronavirus has given us a sort of pause, so maybe we can use it to reflect on all that life is.  Quite immediately for us, it is our own life.  How do we embrace life and reject death?

In times like these, time is something that can take on a sense of sameness, of uniformity, maybe even of monotony.  Schedules can go out the window.  For the past few weeks, I have felt like Friday was Saturday.  I’m not really sure why.  One thing I can say is that when I realize it is indeed Friday, I’m relieved I didn’t lose a day!

We can embrace life by keeping our minds active, keeping them challenged.  Take this time to learn a new language; develop your artistic side; read good books; do some writing; do more writing.  (I think I’m preaching to myself on that one.)

Is it too far-fetched to say, by not stretching ourselves, we’re embracing death?  Paul says to us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).  We are called to claim our identity.  As those who have been buried with Christ and raised to new life, we are called to be ourselves.  I find that difficult, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Why is it so hard to be ourselves?

“And death shall have no dominion.”  Following from that, what does have dominion is shalom (שׁלוֺם).  The Hebrew term shalom means far more than what our paltry English word “peace” entails.  It is absolute well-being, perfect harmony, Heaven on Earth!  Shalom reaches to God, embraces the neighbor, permeates our politics, cares for creation.  We find shalom within ourselves.  If we take the pause I mentioned a moment ago, if we’re willing to listen, we hear that silent voice coming from within.

5 ro

We are called to lay aside the foolish facade the world imposes on us.  We learn to stop the incessant posturing, the soul-draining competition that leads to death.  We kill our spirits struggling to prove that we’re good enough, that we’re worthy, that we deserve love.  The one who has defeated death says, “I don’t care about that stuff!  I offer grace abundant, grace superabundant.”

The power of sin, the power of death, would plunge us into the water and hold us down.  We wouldn’t be able to resurface; we wouldn’t be able to see clearly.  We wouldn’t be able to see, even in those we are told to fear and loathe, the face of Jesus Christ.  We wouldn’t be able to see that his grace abounds.

Death shall have no dominion.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2052


elements of the world

Have you heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”?  When I was young, I had no idea what that meant.  Why can’t you see the forest?  Isn’t it made up of trees?  If you can’t see the trees, then how can you see the forest?  Of course, the point is that, by focusing just on the individual details, it’s impossible to see the grand structure.

1 co Joan Chittister tells the story, “In the Middle Ages, the tale goes, a traveler asked three hard-at-work stone masons what they were doing.  The first said, ‘I am sanding down this block of marble.’  The second said, ‘I am preparing a foundation.’  The third said, ‘I am building a Cathedral.’”[1]

Surely all of them were focused on the precise aspects of what they were doing.  They hadn’t lost sight of what they were doing.  Still, as we move along, we notice an expansion of vision, a deeper understanding.  By not simply focusing on the individual details, a growing awareness of the grand structure becomes possible.

When Banu gives me the list of ingredients in a dish she’s preparing, I take notice of certain details, certain elements.  One of the big ones is “onions.”  I do not like onions.  I really do not like onions.  When she’s cooking them, I complain that she’s employing chemical warfare.

2 coShe often gives me the explanation that I won’t be able to taste them.  My reply is usually along the lines of, “So why use onions if I won’t be able to taste them?”  Because, she says, they combine with the other ingredients to bring out the flavor.  In a way, the onions serve as a sort of catalyst.  By mixing with the other elements, they bring about a change that otherwise wouldn’t happen.  So they serve a valuable purpose!  By focusing on that single detail, I miss out on the grand structure.

But I still don’t like them.

In his letter to the church in Colossae, St. Paul issues a similar warning.  (Though it has nothing to do with onions!)  His warning regards not embracing a full life in Christ.  He wants to warn them against certain errors.  A big part of his message involves a term that appears twice in chapter 2.

In verses 8 and 20, we have the Greek word στοιχεια (stoicheia).  Stoicheia is not an easy word to translate.  In today’s passage, it is rendered as “elemental spirits.”  In the New King James Version, it is “principles of the world.”  It’s not easy to translate, because it can mean different things.  Here’s a quick thumbnail sketch:

In 2 Peter 3:10, we hear of the day of the Lord arriving, the heavens passing away, and the elements (the stoicheia) being dissolved with fire.  This goes back to the ancient concept of the elements as earth, wind, fire, and water.

3 co

In Hebrews 5:12, the author talks about becoming dull in understanding.  The hearers are told, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements (the stoicheia) of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food.”  In effect, they need to go back to the beginning, to relearn the ABCs.

In Galatians 4, the church is reminded that they have been freed of the requirements of the Jewish law.  They’re no longer minors; they are no longer “enslaved to the elemental spirits (the stoicheia) of the world” (v. 3).  And so, we come back to Colossians.

I should quickly add, just to muddy the waters a bit, that the definitions I mentioned are not shared by everyone.  There has been plenty of debate down through the ages.  Included in the debate is that, in some places, actual demons or spirits are intended.  And then others jump in, saying stoicheia didn’t mean that until a couple of centuries later.

We might say that stoicheia are the most primary component of whatever we’re talking about: the basic element, the basic principle.

Just as with missing the forest for the trees and losing sight of the whole structure for the stone before one’s face, the apostle Paul cautions the Colossians to not lose themselves in unhelpful details.  These are details that threaten to bog them down, to take their eyes off the prize.

“See to it,” he says, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (v. 8).  Another translation reads, “Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a ‘philosophy’ of the kind that human beings hand on” (New Jerusalem Bible).

One place we can find plenty of empty lures, empty philosophies, is on Facebook.  A whole lot of emptiness gets posted there, emptiness which is designed to captivate.  This emptiness is not designed to inform in a sincere way but to lure and stir up strife.  For example, a video was recently sent to me purporting to be a current member of Congress expressing the benefits of spreading Islam throughout the US.  However, a simple look at the timestamp showed it dated back to 1989.  The member of Congress in question would have been thirteen years old at the time.  It’s safe to say the woman in the video was older than thirteen!

4 co

In chapter 1, Paul celebrates how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13).  To return to that darkness, to embrace the empty lure, the empty deceit, is to revert, to go back to slavery.  That slavery is more than what’s called “fake news.”  It is the whole range of bogus requirements promoted as the way of salvation.

However, there’s no need to be afraid.

For countless millennia, humans have observed the stars and noted their movements.  We have gazed and admired their awesome beauty.  And that word “awesome” should be taken literally.  We have been in awe—we have revered—those diamonds in the sky.  We have often thought of them as gods, or at least spirits, and made them objects of veneration, objects of worship.  We have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator.

In time, we devised practices and customs to direct us in faith and in life together.  Sometimes those traditions have come to be seen as divine in and of themselves.  Defying these elemental spirits, these principles of the world, could have dire consequences!

Robert Paul Roth comments , “Paul teaches the Colossians and us that we need have no fear.”  Speaking of those who insist on adding to Christ those elemental spirits, “We need no code of regulations, no bodily or spiritual exercises that we can add up on an account sheet to balance our debts with credits.”[2]

Sadly, we still have our own stoicheia, our own “elemental spirits of the universe.”  We worship our culture, our cars, our cats!  We worship our concepts themselves.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having certain beliefs.  They identify us; they help give meaning to life.  Still, it’s possible to worship even our concept of God.  You know, the two are not the same!  We can put our economic or political system in the place of God.

Indeed, as Walter Wink notes, “No age has ever been more in the thralldom of the stoicheia; no age has been less aware of its bondage.”[3]

The good news, as verse 15 tells us, is that Christ has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  He has stripped them of their power and put them on parade.

5 co

I’m reminded of the so-called perp walk, in which the arrested suspect is marched in public before cameras and shouted questions.  And then we might have the medieval-like spectacle of people gathering around and yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the unfortunate person.  (Well, at least, I’ve seen it done in movies!)

The apostle tells the church “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (v. 16).  Those are some of the bogus religious requirements I mentioned earlier.  He adds, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17).  They are only a shadow.  Another way of putting it might be, “Don’t be scared of your shadow!”

6 coI like what Paul says in the last part of the chapter.  “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [there’s the stoicheia again], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (v. 20).  I really like his question about their submitting to certain regulations.  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? (v. 21).  I can’t help but think Paul’s injecting a lot of humor.  He’s having a good time!

Apparently, the late Eugene Peterson thought so, too.  Here’s how he sums up that last bit in The Message:

“So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it?  ‘Don’t touch this!  Don’t taste that!  Don’t go near this!’  Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention?  Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.  They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic.  But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.”

Clearly, we can mess up, be led astray, by worshipping these unworthy things.  But that leads to the origin of the word “worship” itself.  It comes from the Old English word woerthscipe, which means “worthy-ship.”  As we just saw, there are those who pronounce us “unworthy” if we fail their expectations of worship.

There are plenty of those “elements of the world” floating around which would claim our allegiance.  Yet Paul says the elemental spirits have been overthrown by Christ.  We are reminded that we “are now under the rule of Christ who has disarmed the powers that formerly ruled over us.  Therefore we are now free to walk with the wisdom of Christ and not by vain and deceitful human traditions.”[4]

7 co

What elements of the world do we face?  What thrones or dominions or rulers or powers rise against us?  Do we still live as though we belonged to the world?  Paul says we “were buried with [Christ] in baptism, [and we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (v. 12).  We don’t enter the waters of baptism alone.  We aren’t raised from the waters of baptism alone.  Christ is with us, in and through the church, which is his body.

Alone, we’re helpless.  The elements of the world are too strong, too secretive, too seductive.  They play on our fears, our pains, our hatreds.

8 coHowever, together with Christ in the one holy catholic and apostolic church, we are more than conquerors.  We are more than conquerors, because in Christ, the war has already been won.  We’re just on mopping up duty.  The sun is setting on those elements, those principles of the world.  We need not be scared of their shadow.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 111.

[2] Robert Paul Roth, “Christ and the Powers of Darkness: Lessons from Colossians,” Word and World 6:3 (1986), 343.

[3] Walter Wink, “The Elements of the Universe in Biblical and Scientific Perspective,” Zygon 13:3 (September 1978), 240.

[4] Roth, 343.


watery welcome

The 3rd of August 1986.  The Assemblies of God church in Tennessee I used to attend.  Suddenly, I’m immersed in warm water; I’m being treated to a full body bath.  (Fortunately, my bladder is not overflowing!)  I’m being held by my pastor, who is intoning words about the Holy Trinity.  (At least, I trust he is.  I can’t hear him under water.)

1 lk 3In case you haven’t already figured it out, I’m describing my baptism.  I was 21.  There were two people before me: a boy probably 8 or 9 years old, and a woman roughly 40 years older than me.  The three of us participated in what we Presbyterians and many other churches refer to as the sacrament of baptism.  My old denomination calls it an ordinance.

Very briefly, an ordinance is a practice that demonstrates a believer’s faith.  A sacrament (in this case, baptism) is a practice, that through the means of the Holy Spirit, grants entry into the church universal.  Infants and young children are baptized with the understanding that God sends the Spirit, welcoming them into the covenant of the family of God.

Our Book of Order puts it this way: “Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love.  The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response.  The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith” (W-3.0402).  At some point in time, of course, they should respond in faith, however that happens.

And maybe that provides a good transition.  We are claimed in love.  Ultimately, that’s the most important reason to enter the waters of baptism.

As we read today’s gospel text, St. Luke’s version of the baptism of the Lord, it looks like love is completely off the table.  Earlier in chapter 3, John the Baptist unloads on the people approaching him.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (vv. 7-8).

I like how the recently deceased Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase The Message.  He had some fun with it.  “Brood of snakes!  What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?  It’s your life that must change, not your skin.”

2 lk 3Okay, so where’s the love?  Let’s back up a little more.

The story of the baptism is torn from its context.  At the beginning of the chapter, we see Luke, as he likes to do, giving a recitation of who is currently in the government.  Emperor Tiberius…Pontius Pilate…Herod, and so on.  He provides the political framework.  In response to John’s message, the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers all ask, “What should we do?”

Luke doesn’t go into this, but we learn from Matthew and Mark that John wore a garment of camel hair and a leather belt—dressed like prophets of old, especially Elijah.  He ate locusts and wild honey, which are nutritious, but being in the desert, not a wide variety of food is available.

In describing John, Mark Stenberg starts right there.[1]  “In Luke, John the Baptist is not some weird, crazy hick.  He is a political prisoner…  Not only did John the Baptist speak the truth about Herod’s wicked accumulation of money and power, he also was a direct threat to Herod’s economy.  He was teaching tax collectors and soldiers not to extort or bully the people.  He was teaching people to share their stuff.  All of this was too much of a threat to Herod, to his system.  So The Baptist is locked up.”

Herod doesn’t take kindly to John’s upsetting the apple cart, to his baptizing and making waves!

Luke gives a very specific reason for John’s arrest.  John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people.  But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison” (vv. 18-20).  John told Herod marrying his brother’s wife was a no-no.  His criticism of Herod could have provided the pretext, the perfect excuse, to toss him into prison.

It might seem strange to have this note about Herod in the middle of the passage.  We’re talking about baptism before and after it.  What’s going on?

Some people say there’s no problem with the sequence of events.  John’s been baptizing and saying he’s not the Messiah; the Messiah is yet to come.  Herod throws him in jail.  So who baptizes Jesus?  Is John paroled and then arrested later on?  I don’t know if there are many people who go along with that.  The explanation commonly given is that the Holy Spirit baptizes Jesus, however that happens.

3 lk 3

Another viewpoint is Herod is inserted to show the result of John’s ministry—and that he refused to back down.  By extension, with our baptism and baptismal promises, we might find ourselves in trouble.  To be sure, it’s extremely unlikely we would get tossed in jail!  Still, there are places in the world where that happens.

Having said that, it’s simply a question of Luke not mentioning John’s name as the one who baptizes Jesus.  And this does matter.  Luke emphasizes the role of the Spirit in baptism.  All four gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—include the story, but they present it in different ways.  The one major commonality is the descent of the Holy Spirit, which is reflected in our theology of baptism.

We observe the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  It’s a time of remembering baptism and the promises made at baptism.  It’s a time for renewal.  Included in the prayer of thanksgiving are the lines, “We rejoice that you claimed us in our baptism, and that by your grace we are born anew.  By your Holy Spirit renew us, that we may be empowered to do your will and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.”[2]

That connection of the Spirit with baptism is especially made with the epistle reading in Acts 8.  We’re told that the apostles Peter and John laid their hands on baptized believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.  At least in this case, something visible must have happened, since an onlooker named Simon wanted to pay them for the power to do that himself.  There was some kind of sign, possibly (or probably) speaking in tongues.

Our scripture passage ends with all the people being baptized…  Jesus is baptized and is praying…  the heavens are opened…  the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove…  And then this: “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (v. 22).

4 lk 3
Father Richard Rohr

It’s that final bit I want to look at.  Last of all, there is a heavenly voice, claiming Jesus as the Son and the Beloved.  “With you I am well pleased.”

We have wonderful words of welcome and acceptance.  Earlier I said the best reason for baptism is being claimed in love.  (Where’s the love?  Here it is!)  It is the ultimate claim in love, the claim God extends to us.  It is the ultimate welcome and acceptance.

Regarding welcome, Richard Rohr speaks of what he calls “the first permission.”[3]  He wonders if we’ve ever met someone who didn’t seem comfortable in their own skin.  He suggests, “Maybe that person seemed to possess an inexpressible sadness, or was unusually apologetic, or was possibly surly and brittle.  Consider the possibility that, as a child, when that person first came into the world, he [or she] was not given the first permission—permission to exist.

“Many people have never been given this foundational permission—either spoken or unspoken.  No one ever held their face, looked in their eyes, and said, ‘Welcome to the world, dear little one.  I’m so happy you’re here, that you exist.  I love you.’”

The questions are posed to us: “Did I receive the first permission?  How have I given the first permission to others…?”  Has anyone (and how have they) expressed joy that we alive?  Can we look at the people around us and say, “I am glad that you are alive.  I welcome you!”?

I mentioned the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  There are pastoral dimensions to the reaffirmation.  It’s not just something we do because today is Baptism of the Lord.  We saw how God extends promise and welcome to us in baptism.

5 lk 3
posted by Katie Klosterman on Pinterest

There are also promises reaffirmed which we make to each other.  At a baptism, the congregation is asked if they “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those to be baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”[4]  That’s no small thing.

Extending that watery welcome comes with a price.  If we welcome someone, it means we have to follow up on it.  Maybe that’s one reason why John the Baptist (in his cantankerous way) rebuked the people, calling them slithering snakes.  He wanted to let them know what baptism means.  It’s not a ritual to undergo to deflect public pressure.  It’s not something to just “do.”

Is there love involved in his ranting and raving?  One thing we can say is he doesn’t make it all about himself.  He isn’t boastful; he doesn’t take the credit where the credit is not due.  “I’m not the one you’re looking for,” he tells them.  “I’m just paving the way.”

So those promises are difficult.  In my own baptism, I knew I had walked through a door, but I hadn’t arrived.  I was just at the beginning.  Every day, we’re just at the beginning.  That also applies to those of us who were baptized as infants.  We are welcomed by God into the family.  Becoming aware of that when we’re older means learning that we’ve walked through that door.  The Spirit has led us, and we are always at the beginning of the adventure.  It’s a wondrous adventure, with the joys and sorrows that go with it.

With the ears to hear, we hear that voice extending those words of welcome and acceptance.

6 lk 3

[1] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/baptismofourlordcgosepl

[2] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 470.

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 58.

[4] Book of Common Worship, 406.


what do you want?

There was a question that I sometimes would be asked, and too many times, it really bugged me.  It’s a simple question, and I’m using it as my sermon title.  “What do you want?”  That sounds easy enough.

I guess it started when I was in high school.  Maybe some of you can relate to this.  Some of my classmates would say, “I’ll go to college (some would have a particular one that they were dead set on), and I will major in whatever.  That will set me up for this-or-that career—or I’ll have a certain job waiting—and this is how my life will go.”  It was all mapped out.

1 mk
Ben Stiller in deep thought as Derek Zoolander

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not opposed to setting goals!  I’m not opposed to actually planning things!  But with the way they were describing it, it felt like they were removing all the mystery from life.  They were removing the fun.  Sometimes I would wonder, “What’s wrong with me?  Why don’t I feel the need to chart everything so meticulously?”

When I got to college, I had a certain roommate for two years.  He was a really cool guy.  His major was Accounting, and he absolutely hated it.  Going outdoors—working outdoors—was what he really loved.  Like so many other people, his theory was that you go to college to get a job.  (That’s how you answer the question, “But what can you do with such-and-such a major?”  That one especially gets posed to liberal arts majors.)

I was way on the other side of the spectrum.  For me, college was about exploring, learning about new things.

I was baptized when I was 21.  By then, I had already graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.  I had lost interest in the directions that would take me, at least as a career.  As I became involved with the church, that question resurfaced: What do you want?  And like before, sometimes it really bugged me.

My first meaningful experience with church was the Assemblies of God.  I’m grateful for it.  For someone like me, who lived too much in his head, I needed that really heartfelt experience of the faith.

At the same time, when there is so much emphasis placed on following the leading of the Holy Spirit (which can be a frustratingly vague proposition), sometimes other things get overlooked.  That could include stuff like familiarity with the scriptures, the advice of wise people in the church, and the desires and interests God puts within us.  (Although I suppose all of that goes along with the leading of the Spirit!)

I went to the Assemblies of God Bible college in Florida.  After graduation, I was back to that question.  What do you want?  I rephrased it as, “What should I do?”  I wanted God to give me an absolutely clear direction.  This was a matter of much prayer.  In a way, I wanted God to remove the mystery and fun that I mentioned earlier in connection with my classmates.

So, while waiting for the lightning bolt of inspiration, I went back to the job I had during my breaks from college: McDonald’s.  I worked there for quite a while until I finally decided to go to seminary.  But on more than one occasion, when I couldn’t answer the question “What do you want?” I felt like there must be something wrong with me.  And bringing in the perspective of faith, maybe I was ignoring the Holy Spirit!

2 mk

Speaking of the perspective of faith, that brings us to our story in Mark’s gospel: the healing of blind Bartimaeus.  (And I will get back to the question, “What do you want.”)

First of all, in case you’ve never noticed this, Mark is the gospel writer who is the least likely to go into great detail.  He just races along.  Mark uses the Greek word for “immediately” (ευθυς, euthus) more than Matthew, Luke, and John put together.  And his gospel is the shortest.

So if you’re binging on caffeine, or sucking down a Red Bull, this might be the gospel to read!

Look at the way our story begins in verse 46.  Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples come to Jericho.  We have no idea what they do there.  The next thing we hear—they’re already leaving town, and they do so with “a large crowd.”  That’s when they encounter “a blind beggar [who’s] sitting by the roadside.”

We’re told that his name is “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.”  That’s actually a repetition.  In Aramaic (which was the language they spoke), the word for “son” is “bar.”  So it’s “son of Timaeus, son of Timaeus.”  There is some confusion.  It looks like he’s anonymous; maybe that’s one way of saying he’s a nobody.  As a blind beggar, it’s no doubt the way he’s been treated.

And yet, we often see these reversals in the Bible.  Scripture is filled with subversive, counter-cultural ideas.  The word “Timaeus” (τιμαιος) means “honorable” or “esteemed one.”  The name Timaeus refers to a “worthy one.”  You know, this blind beggar might be somebody after all!

Whatever the case, he doesn’t let the crowd keep him quiet once he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is on the way.  Maybe he senses that Jesus is a kindred spirit.  Nazareth is not exactly the most cosmopolitan of places.  There were plenty of people who thought of Jesus as a nobody!

Bartimaeus doesn’t care.  In fact, he is calling out to him, loudly shouting, “Son of David!”  We’re told that some people “sternly ordered him to be quiet” (v. 48).  Sternly ordered—rebuked—the recipient of expletives.  I imagine the language hurled at this blind beggar, this nobody, is as crude as it is colorful.

Actually, shouting out “Son of David” would get you noticed.  “Son of David” is a messianic title.  It hearkens back to King David’s dynasty.  At the time, the messiah was expected to lead the Jewish nation to independence.  That would mean going against the Romans.  So Bartimaeus, stop shouting this dangerous stuff!  We really don’t need that kind of attention.

Eventually, Jesus appears before Bartimaeus, and he asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (v. 51).  What do you want?  It would seem to be obvious.  He’s blind!

3 mk
“Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus” by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861.

As Debie Thomas says, “But Jesus asks, anyway.  He doesn’t presume.  He doesn’t reduce Bartimaeus to his blindness.  Instead, he honors the fullness and complexity of a real human being who likely has many desires, many longings, and many needs.  In asking the question, Jesus invites Bartimaeus into the honest self-reflection essential to growth and healing.”[1]

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus poses the same question to James and John.  They are looking for positions of power and prestige, sitting “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v. 37).  Bartimaeus has a very different answer.  “My teacher, let me see again” (v. 51).  Let me see.

I have a question.  What does it mean to see?  Aside from the obvious physical definition of seeing, what does it mean?

Certainly, we can think of seeing as understanding, of coming to a realization.  It’s that moment when the light comes on.

At a deeper level, prophets have sometimes been called “seers.”  That’s a challenge for all of us—to see beyond the outer appearances into the depths where the true nature of things is hidden with Christ in God.

Do we ever, as I mentioned before, think there’s something wrong with us if we don’t know what we want?  And again, getting more specific, do we ever blame ourselves if we can’t see—if we can’t understand something?  “Why didn’t I see that?”  If so, we should remind ourselves of something.

The crowd considered Bartimaeus unworthy.  What good is a blind beggar?  But Mark makes a point of naming him, even if there is, as I said, some confusion about it.  (Matthew and Luke in their gospels leave him nameless.)  Mark takes the extra step of granting him that dignity.  His name itself says that he is “worthy”; he is “valuable.”

Still, that worthiness, that value, is not something Bartimaeus worked for.  It was given to him.  The same is true with us.  The truest and deepest worthiness is not something we work for.  I say that, because that type of honor can be taken away.  We can mess up; we can fail to see something, and there it goes!  Rather, the truest and only real measure is the worthiness and esteem we receive from God.

Jesus recognizes Bartimaeus’ need, but he doesn’t presume.  He doesn’t patronize him.  He asks him the question.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus enters into relationship with this son of Timaeus.  Far from saying, like some in the crowd, “Shut up, you dirty beggar,” he shows interest in him.

What do you want?

Ultimately, I would think, the answer is to be loved.  And it doesn’t matter if we are one of the beautiful people or if we have screwed up badly and made a wreck of our lives.  Really, that’s part of the human condition.  We make mistakes; we sin.  So often, we stumble in the darkness.  Maybe even today, some of us are experiencing our own kind of darkness.  We are blind beggars.

Again, we hear the question, “What do you want?”  We want—we need—the love of God.  The love of God is an intensity that we cannot imagine or conceive, blind beggars that we are.  But that is grace.  That is the gospel.  That is the good news.

Now here’s something that qualifies as a post script!

4 mk

This, of course, is Reformation Sunday.  Reformation Day falls on the 31st.  It marks the day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted what amounted to an editorial, a letter to the editor, on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Years earlier, when he was a young man, there was an event that flows from my thoughts on, “What Do You Want?” and my expressed hope that the Lord would strike me with a lightning bolt of inspiration!

Martin had been studying law for a few weeks, and he went to visit his parents.  As the story goes, on the way back, he was surprised by a heavy thunderstorm.  Caught in an open field, he sought shelter under a tree.  A sudden lightning strike caused him to throw himself down onto the earth.  In mortal fear he prayed and vowed, “I will become a monk!”

He had toyed with the idea of being a monk for some time.  Did the lightning bolt help him decide “what do I want?”

Eventually, he left the monastery.  He proposed reforms to the Roman Catholic church which were rejected.  He never envisioned a church that would be named after him.  The forces he set in motion could be blamed on that thunderstorm!  The lightning bolt answered the question for him: “What do you want?”

May it not take a lightning bolt, but the fire (and the silence) of the Spirit to lead us down that path.

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1988-let-me-see-again


water bonding

Have I ever mentioned that I like Star Trek?  Have I ever mentioned that I like all of the Star Trek series, as well as the movies?

I begin with Star Trek because at times I’ve told people that it has influenced my theology!  Let me explain what I mean by describing a certain episode.[1]

One of the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Lieutenant Worf; he is a Klingon.  Klingons are a race, who in the original series in the ‘60s, were bitter enemies of humans.  However, by the time we get to this series, which aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the cold war was winding down.  And reflecting that, the Federation and the Klingon Empire had signed a peace treaty.

Anyway, Worf leads an away team to explore a planet.  One of the team members, an archaeologist, accidentally triggers a bomb from a war that ended centuries ago.  (It’s kind of like the way we use land mines.)  Sadly, the woman who is killed leaves a son who already, at a very young age, had lost his father.  The boy, Jeremy, is orphaned.

1 baptism

As the mission leader, Worf feels responsible for the death of his mother.  Worf himself was orphaned at a young age.  He invites the boy to join him in a Klingon ceremony called the R’uustai, or in English, “the bonding.”  (It consists of lighting special candles and uttering certain Klingon words.)  In this way, their families will be joined, and each will become stronger.

Okay, are you still with me?  Watching that show, I realized how very important ritual is to the Klingons.  Ritual enables them to handle these difficult moments, these great transitions.  By inviting the young boy to join him in the R’uustai (as well as explaining its meaning), Worf helps Jeremy deal with his loss.  Jeremy is given a framework, a frame of reference.  It helps him begin the process of healing.

Ritual is important, not just for Klingons in a fictional universe, but also for humans in our universe.  It helps in many different aspects of life.  Weddings, funerals, graduations—these and many other occasions all involve ritual.  They involve us in words and deeds that carry meaning.  In these life transitions, we don’t have to start from scratch.  We have something to work with.

Still, I think we all can agree that various rituals have various levels of value.  Some rituals are good.  They communicate life and strength and courage.  Some rituals do the opposite; they are bad.  Some rituals reinforce fear and oppression and bigotry.  They should be fought against; they should be resisted.

This Sunday is Baptism of the Lord.  This year the gospel reading is from Mark.  Later on, we’ll look at Jesus’ participation with John in the ritual of baptism.  Baptism is the sacrament of entry into the church.  But before we get to all of that, I want to tell another story.

After Banu and I graduated from the seminary, the first church we served was in Nebraska.  One of the members was a lady in her seventies.  After we had been there for a little while, she asked us if we would baptize her.  But she didn’t want to do it the usual way, in a worship service.  She wanted what was basically a secret baptism, on a Saturday afternoon when no one would be around.

We explained that baptism isn’t a private matter.  It’s a joyful act of the church.  After the sermon, during the baptism, the congregation reaffirms their baptismal covenant.  For there to be a covenant, there has to be more than one person—more than one party involved.  When there’s a baptism, we promise each other things, in the sight of God.

My impression was her request came from a sense of embarrassment.  This lady had probably lived her entire life in the church, but without ever being baptized.  I tried to reassure her that’s okay; this is a cause for celebration.  She wasn’t persuaded, so Banu and I compromised.  Besides the presence of some of her family, we arranged for a couple of the session members (representing the congregation) to attend her baptism.  She was okay with that.

One thing I never found out, though, was how she was able to join the church to begin with.  “Have you been baptized?” is one of the first things to ask.

At any rate, I find interesting what I figured her underlying feelings were.  Somehow, it was communicated to her—probably many times and in some unintentional ways—that baptism is, in some way, a sign of merit.  It’s an accomplishment!  And if you haven’t undergone it, then there’s something wrong with you.  At some point in her life (and I admit this is speculation), raising the question of baptism became uncomfortable.

Again, I can’t say for sure that was part of her life story, but it does happen.  When it does happen, it turns baptism, and the entire Christian life, on its head.  It’s not an occasion for pride; it’s a matter of humble, loving gratitude.

UCC minister Bruce Epperly sounds like a fellow Star Trek fan when he says, “Sacraments create a field of force around us and our loved ones that enable God and us to become partners in creative transformation and personal and planetary healing.”[2]  Baptism is about love and healing.  It’s not about jockeying for position; it’s not about grandstanding.

2 baptism

He continues, saying that “baptism is not an occasion for Christian superiority or exclusivism.  There is salvation—and revelation—outside the church.”  The mystical, invisible body of Christ is larger than the visible church.  “While sacraments awaken us to God’s love, they don’t define the scope of God’s love.”

Earlier, I spoke of the Klingon ritual of R’uustai.  I added that Lt. Worf explains its meaning to the boy Jeremy.  This enables him to benefit from it.  It becomes more than a series of actions involving candles and strange symbols; instead, the ritual becomes a way for him to experience a whole new dimension of life.  Losing his mother and becoming an orphan means the end of life as he’s known it.  The ritual of R’uustai offers the promise of new life.

New life is what the sacrament of baptism is all about.  But just as with the Klingon ritual, if there is no understanding and no intention of embracing that new life, then the waters of baptism do little more than simply get us wet.

Our Book of Order says this about baptism:

“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant…  Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, Baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church. In this new covenant of grace God washes us clean and makes us holy and whole” (W-3.0402).  That’s what I was saying earlier about it being the sacrament of entry into the church.

Sometimes people get an impression about baptism.  It may sound like, “Hey that’s a pretty good deal!  I can get baptized, and totally forget about it!”  Not exactly!  There’s still that bit about the covenant.  There’s still that bit about loving, healing relationships.  As we continue with the Book of Order, we also hear this:

“Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place.  In Christ, barriers of race, status, and gender are overcome; we are called to seek reconciliation in the Church and world, in Jesus’ name.”

The body of Christ is one.  We are one!  Baptism is the bond of unity in Christ.  The community of the baptized is not bound together by nationality, gender, sexual orientation, political orientation, and all of the other junk we come up with.  Christ liberates us from that.

There is another reason for being baptized, but I hesitate to mention it, because it involves a concept that has too often been abused and distorted.  But here it is: we are baptized because we are obedient.  We obey our Lord, who says, as part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (v. 19).

I hesitate to mention obedience, because it’s very easy to get the wrong idea about it.  Obeying the Lord isn’t the obedience demanded by one who’s just waiting to smack us down.  It isn’t blind or mindless obedience.  It’s the mutual, loving obedience of one whose eyes are wide open and has come to serve.

In our scripture text, Mark says that John is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).  (I said we would look at Jesus getting baptized.)  So why is Jesus baptized?  Does he need to be forgiven of sin?

In Matthew’s gospel, John is reluctant to baptize him.  He’s wondering about this, too.  “But Jesus [answers] him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’” (3:15).  Or as the Revised English Bible puts it: “it is right for us to do all that God requires.”

Remember, “all that God requires” is not satisfying the whims of a bully or a tyrant.  It’s not dealing with one who says, “On your knees!  Kiss my boot!”  It is, however, working along with one who lovingly chooses us in bringing all creation to a glorious fulfillment.

Mark doesn’t explain why Jesus is baptized as directly as Matthew does.  He does tell us that “just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (vv. 10-11).

Baptism is a public identification with the people of God.  It is expressing solidarity!  Of course, Jesus’ identification—his bonding—with God’s people receives quite a dramatic display of acceptance.  The “heavens dividing” doesn’t occur every day!

At my own baptism, nothing quite so spectacular happened.  (At least, no one told me they heard voices coming from above!)  I can say I felt as if a weight had been lifted.  For a good bit of time, my mother told me I should be baptized.  At first, I resisted.  But when I made that public statement of joining with the people of God, by bonding in that ritual of water, everything changed.  I was a new person; I had embarked on a new life.

3 baptism

There’s something that Matthew in the Great Commission, and Mark in today’s reading, tie with baptism.  Luke does the same in Acts 2.  On the day of Pentecost, after Peter tells the people about Jesus, they ask, “What should we do?”  His response?  “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).

All of them link baptism with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is the greatest gift of God.  The Spirit is God, constantly being given to us—constantly being poured into us!  The Spirit is everything good and wonderful that we can imagine—and everything that we cannot imagine.

We are baptized once, but repentance is a lifelong journey.  We are called and invited, over and over again, to repent.  That means to have a change of mind, to turn around.

(Speaking of turning around, turn around right now.  Look at everyone here.  Do we welcome each other?  Have we locked horns with anyone?  Is there anyone we ignore?  The Spirit of God calls us and helps us in fanning the flames of holy love, and if need be, lighting the spark!)

John baptizes with water.  We baptize with water.  Jesus baptizes with the Spirit.  The Spirit is the one who makes that bonding in water effective.  The Spirit is the one who gives it power.  The Spirit is the one who takes a bunch of dripping wet people and fills them with faith, hope, and love.

[1] www.startrek.com/database_article/bonding-the

[2] oldsite.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2012-01-08/baptism-jesusfirst-sunday-after-epiphany


rejoice always

I’ve noticed an annual occurrence in the days after Thanksgiving.  (Sometimes in the days after Halloween!)  A certain song begins to be heard in stores, to appear in TV commercials.  In the holly jolly verse of Andy Williams, here’s how it begins: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year / With the kids jingle belling / And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer’ / It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

1 rejoiceHe goes on to reinforce his case: “It’s the hap- happiest season of all / With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings / When friends come to call / It’s the hap- happiest season of all.”

We are currently in the midst of those days that our friend Andy referred to as “the most wonderful time of the year.”  However, I don’t think he was singing about Advent.  And I’m quite certain that the last thing those commercials want to encourage is a sense of awareness, a sense of expectancy, a sense of watchfulness.  No, those commercials want us to sleepwalk through the stores—or maybe fight our way through the stores—and buy everything in sight.

A line from the song I find especially interesting is, “And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer.’”  It sounds like a state of being that can be commanded.  Just flip a switch, and lo and behold, you’re cheerful!  I order you to be happy.

Today’s epistle reading begins, “Rejoice always” (v. 16).  It might be argued St. Paul is doing the same thing.  Even if you’re sick as a dog—even if your heart is heavy—even if you’re dying from embarrassment and want to hide from the world, let’s put a smile on that face!

The passage comes at the end of 1 Thessalonians.  It is a series of final instructions.  “Rejoice always” is followed by Paul’s direction to “pray without ceasing, [and to] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (vv. 17-18).

2 rejoice

Always rejoice; always pray; always give thanks.  Just like that!  Some might say the apostle is being dismissive of people’s everyday reality.

If it is a matter of emotion, following the example of our song, being “of good cheer” in “the hap- happiest season of all,” then maybe he is being dismissive.  Maybe he is emotionally tone deaf.  And maybe we also do that, if we (ever so slightly) criticize people for having certain feelings—feelings we don’t think they should have, or we don’t want to deal with.

But I think there’s more to it than that.  I don’t think the apostle Paul is quite that shallow.

I’ll start by asking, “What does it mean to rejoice?”  Are we simply talking about an emotion?  Are we talking about a matter of feeling good, even feeling wonderful?  It’s safe to say rejoicing includes feelings, but we can’t ignore how verse 18 ends.  After telling the Thessalonians to always rejoice, always pray, and always give thanks, Paul adds “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  He doesn’t leave it at the level of emotion.  There’s something more.

Eugene Peterson, who I’ve mentioned before, is a retired Presbyterian minister who has written tons of books and has produced the paraphrase of the Bible called The MessageHe tells a story of joy (some would say, the lack thereof), during a worship service at a church he was visiting.[1]

He begins, “There was a couple in front of us with two bratty kids.  Two pews behind us there was another couple with their two bratty kids making a lot of noise.  This is mostly an older congregation.  So these people are set in their ways.  Their kids have been gone a long time.  And so it wasn’t a very nice service; it was just not very good worship.  But afterwards I saw half a dozen of these elderly people come up and put their arms around the mother, touch the kids, sympathize with her.  They could have been irritated.

“Now why do people go to a church like that when they can go to a church that has a nursery, is air conditioned, and all the rest?  Well, because they’re Lutherans.  They don’t mind being miserable!  Norwegian Lutherans!”

3 rejoiceHe continues, “And this same church recently welcomed a young woman with a baby and a three-year-old boy.  The children were baptized a few weeks ago.  But there was no man with her.  [She has] never married; each of the kids has a different father.  She shows up at church and wants her children baptized.  She’s a Christian and wants to follow in the Christian way.  So a couple from the church acted as godparents.  Now there are three or four couples in the church who every Sunday try to get together with her.

“Now, where is the ‘joy’ in that church?  These are dour Norwegians!  But there’s a lot of joy.  There’s an abundant life going, but it’s not abundant in the way a non-Christian would think.  I think there’s a lot more going on in churches like this; they’re just totally anticultural.  They’re full of joy and faithfulness and obedience and care.  But you sure wouldn’t know it by reading the literature of church growth.”

We’re dealing with stuff that has real depth; it isn’t superficial or trivial.  Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” is in the same category.

One of the hallmarks of Reformed theology is that life is to be led coram Deo.  In Latin, that means “before God.”  It speaks to the awareness of being in the presence of God—of being before the face of God.  As R. C. Sproul says, “To live all of life coram Deo is to live a life of integrity.  It is a life of wholeness that finds its unity and coherency in the majesty of God.”[2]

That is a life of praying without ceasing.  It’s not a question of repeatedly saying or thinking prayers.  When I went to the Assemblies of God college in Florida, I knew a guy who it seemed finished every other sentence by murmuring, “Praise God.”  Maybe that was how he interpreted “praying without ceasing.”  I thought there was something wrong with him mentally.

4 rejoiceA fourth-century hermit, one of the desert Christians, used to say, “Ceaseless prayer soon heals the mind.”[3]  Far from being the sign of a nervous tic, a twitch, praying without ceasing brings life and health.  It opens one up to a life of gratitude, which is third on Paul’s list.

He continues in rapid-fire succession with his instructions, which I’ll briefly skim.  Verse 19 says, “Do not quench the Spirit.”  That covers a lot.  Do not extinguish the inner flame.  “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (vv. 20-22).  Listen to those who speak the word from God, but also test it.  Don’t be foolish; don’t just fall for anything.

Right in the center of our scripture reading are verses 23 and 24.  “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

“The God of peace”: why use that description?  There are plenty of other names of God to choose from.  And why pray that the God of peace will “sanctify you entirely”?

Paul’s prayer is that his hearers be purified through and through.  When we are made holy—when we are made whole—in spirit and soul and body, then we are at peace.  But remember, this isn’t just about emotions!  And in the same way, this isn’t just about us as individuals.  Paul is speaking to the community.  This Word of God is for the community.

Sometimes people chant, “No justice, no peace!”  If there’s no justice, there can be no peace.  Here’s another one: “No justice, no joy!”

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  There’s some more Latin for you!  It means “rejoice.”  Today’s epistle reading begins with “Rejoice.”  The pink candle, which represents joy, comes from seeing Advent as a season of penitent reflection, preparing ourselves for the Lord.  The third Sunday means we’re almost there; let’s have a joyful pause.

Let’s go back to the question I asked earlier.  What does it mean to rejoice?  What if we don’t feel like rejoicing?  Remember, Paul and his friends had plenty of hardships.  Remember those stern Norwegians!  There’s a sense in which insisting on joy means holy and loving defiance.

It’s not about emotion; it’s about choice.  Verse 25 is well taken: “Beloved, pray for us.”  Pray for us!

How can we stay on that path of joy, prayer, and gratitude?  It happens by the grace of God through Christ in the Spirit of a loving, caring community.  (Or should I say: a rejoicing, praying, grateful community?)  Christian life, by definition, cannot be lived alone.

5 rejoice

We rejoice when we embrace.  We rejoice when we laugh together.  We rejoice when we weep. We rejoice when we come to the table.  We rejoice when, in holy and loving defiance, we proclaim God’s peaceable kingdom in the midst of an anxious and fearful world.  Rejoice in the Lord.  Rejoice always.

 

[1] bccisbroken.blogspot.com/2006/12/spirituality-for-all-wrong-reasons.html

[2] www.ligonier.org/blog/what-does-coram-deo-mean

[3] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/92504.pdf


an offer you can’t refuse

Weddings can be strange things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Mt 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunt also speaks more directly about Jesus.

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

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

6 Mt 22.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Mt 22

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


Lydia's listening

St. Lydia and her household are baptized in the reading from Acts 16.  Her feast day is August 3.  That just happens to be the date when I was baptized.  In fact, I still have the shirt I was wearing when I was baptized.  It was the upper half of some blue surgical scrubs.  It’s a bit raggedy now, and it has some green stains due to a summer job I had a few years later, painting machines for a factory.

1 lydiaI begin with this talk about baptism, because the story of Lydia—her story of baptism and the change of heart and mind that goes with it—is a key moment in the early church.

Here’s why.  Earlier in chapter 16, the apostle Paul is in Asia Minor, where he has a vision in the night of a Macedonian man who says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9).  So Paul makes his first journey to Europe.  He and his friends go to Philippi, where they encounter Lydia and her friends.

After they part company with Lydia, Paul and his group meet a slave girl who we’re told can predict the future.  There is a spirit of divination within her.  The girl’s owners use her as a fortune teller, and the biggest fortune is the one they make off her!  After a few days of her pointing out that Paul and his friends are “slaves of the Most High God,” the apostle gets irritated and casts the spirit out of her (v. 17).

Seeing that their source of income has been cast to the winds, her owners grab Paul and his friend Silas, have them viciously beaten, and tossed into jail.  To make a long story short, that night there’s an earthquake which knocks all the doors loose, but Paul and Silas refuse to escape.

In the morning, the magistrates—the local Roman officials—find out that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens, and they have rights.  The order that they be arrested and beaten was an illegal one, so they want Paul and Silas to leave town quickly and quietly.  (This kind of stuff ruins careers!)  But Paul says, “Are you serious?  I’m not moving an inch until they come and apologize!”  That takes some guts.

After that, they still have one more stop to make.  They can’t take off without saying goodbye to Lydia.  So we come full circle back to this woman whose name has been preserved for us, and that’s a rarity with women in the Bible.

So who is Lydia?  The first thing we learn about her is that Paul meets her at “a place of prayer” on the sabbath (v. 13).  That would sound right, since we’re told she’s “a worshiper of God” (v. 14).  That’s a term used to describe the so-called “God-fearers.”  They were Gentiles who admired and followed the Jewish faith.  We’re also told she is “a dealer in purple cloth.”  That’s a lucrative trade, so she’s got to have some money.

2 lydia

What’s so remarkable about this godly woman of means?  The scriptures say that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (v. 14).  In his paraphrase called The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “As she listened with intensity to what was being said, the Master gave her a trusting heart—and she believed!”

There’s a theme of listening.  Why is listening so important?  Why do we listen?  Do we listen?  We listen to go deeper.  We listen to go deeper into life, to not stay at the surface of life.

What is the result of Lydia’s listening?  It’s her conversion.  In her essay, “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today,” Judette Gallares says conversion “involves much more than a moment, it is a process which involves long periods of time…  It involves relationships that…are woven into [our] life story.”[1]

She uses Lydia’s conversion story to describe how all of us are called to be both mystics (those with a direct, loving experience of God) and prophets (those who address our society with the word from God, however that happens).  We might think of it as the inner and outer life.

Lydia does a very good job of this with her hospitality.  There’s more to that than serving tea and cookies!  “Part of the practice of hospitality during that time was to offer a safe haven for one’s guests, especially when there was an immediate possibility of real danger to them.”  Remember verse 40, when she welcomes Paul and his friends after they’re released from prison—on the condition that they get the heck out of Dodge?

It takes a certain depth of spirit, a certain willingness to listen, to demonstrate the courage that Lydia does.

Gallares puts it this way: “In today’s fragmented world, which [has] different levels and degrees of homelessness, our mystic spirit, our sense of ‘belonging to God’ must open us up to others and to the world, to offer ourselves, our communities and our planet earth as a hospitable place for humanity and the whole of God’s creation.”

We all experience homelessness to a degree, even if we’ve never been without physical shelter.  As humans, we often feel alienated; we feel like aliens, even to ourselves.  We feel like we’re in a foreign land.  We’re like Moses: I’ve been a stranger in a strange land! (Ex 2:22).  As Christians, the waters of baptism carry us to our homeland.

Gallares, like Lydia, is well aware of the risks involved.  Being from the third world (the Philippines)—as well as being a woman—she understands the dangers of violence and terrorism.  Still, she asks the question: “How can we listen with an open heart, willing to understand where the other is coming from?  This is the true spirit of hospitality.  It is not abrogated when there is danger or differences, but only at that moment proves itself to be genuine hospitality.”

3 lydiaHow can we imitate that Lydian listening here, in this church and in our community?  Remember, this involves being both mystic and prophet.  It involves finding that place within ourselves and within the community, the world around us.  It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, on this subject of listening, mentions what he calls “three gates” through which our words should pass.[2] 

First, we have to ask ourselves, “Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.”  The second gate has us ask, “Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?”  He says the third gate is “probably the most difficult,” and I agree!  “Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and more noise competing for space and attention?”

So to sum up: is it true; is it loving; and is it necessary?  Imagine how our private and public discourse would look, including the internet (including Facebook and Twitter), if we took those things to heart!

We see this modeled by our government and our mass media.  The pundits and experts sit at tables and begin debates which often turn into shouting matches.  They’re already thinking about what they want to say next.  Sometimes they are literally talking at the same time, and it can go on for a while.  I like it when they go to split screen and have two, three, four, or even more people all wanting to get their two cents’ worth in.

We talk at each other, but not with each other.

Do you remember the show The A-Team?  Mr. T played B. A. Baracus.  I don’t remember much about that show, but I do remember one of B. A.’s favorite lines: “Quit your jibba jabba!”  Using myself as an example, I’ve spewed more than my share of jibba jabba.  And shockingly enough, there is actually jibba jabba in the church!

4 lydia

Again I ask, why is listening so important?  Why do we listen?

Listening is the posture of faith.  Before speaking—before speaking even good words—we have to listen.  We have to listen to hear the call to conversion—the call to baptism—the call to ongoing conversion.  We must listen for the word of God.  We must listen like Lydia.

That involves more than keeping our traps shut while someone else is speaking.  There is that internal narrative, those words and images that run through our minds.  We especially notice them when we’re trying to silently pray or to meditate.  It’s best to not hang on to them or examine them, but to let them flow through us like leaves in the wind.  (It’s not easy, I’ll admit.  It takes a lot of practice.)

Imagine the reward when we take hold of that.  Look at the great gift Lydia gave to the early church—and to the world.  When we imitate Lydia’s listening, we also give a great gift to the world, to each other, and to ourselves.  However it happens, may we be open to the Spirit of Christ and listen.  Just listen.

 

[1] www.cori.ie/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/judette-gallares-rc.pdf

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 341.