Book of Order

idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

In the Presbyterian Church, our constitution has two parts.  Part one is the Book of Confessions, and part two is the Book of Order—the guidelines for how we live together as the church.  It strives to bring “order” to our lives.  Of course, both are subservient to the holy scriptures.

Our Book of Order has a statement which calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05).  The book of Isaiah might go along with that.  The prophet speaks of idols created by workers, goldsmiths, and artisans (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

Speaking of the latest features, I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.)

Have you not heard?

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With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

We’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  We can see the revelation of God stretching back over 13 billion years.  The advancement of human knowledge is definitely worthy of celebration.  Even so, it’s also true that a healthy perspective means knowledge and humility go hand-in-hand.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?  Hold that thought!

With chapter 40, we begin a new era in the book of Isaiah.  We move to the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon.

I’ve heard it said that the exile cured the Israelites of idolatry.  I think that’s a hasty conclusion.  As you see in our text, they still need to be reminded that the old Babylonian gods are powerless and represent something that really doesn’t exist.  Verse 18 asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?”  But certainly, those gods aren’t the only form of idolatry!

On that matter, George Knight said, “[We have] first to make [our] gods, or create [our] concepts, before [we] can bow down to them and worship them.”[1]

We devise all manner of concepts.  Even our concept of God can become an idol.  There are other things we conceptualize, which also can become idolatrous.  Our beliefs regarding life together are certainly in that category.  For example, so many of the posts on Facebook and other social media make claims that are taken out of context, are half-true, or are simply false.  Of course, we see this all over the place.

Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and ask if it’s really necessary that we put this out into the universe.  Still, sometimes getting tied to our idols is just too much fun!

If you think I’m kidding about idols being fun, think again.  In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Idols aid us, console us, and give us direction…”[2]  And yet, “The Bible is relentlessly anti-idolatrous.  And I don’t think it’s all out of some sort of prudish, narrow-minded…pagan-hating disapproval of certain rituals.  I think it’s an astounding revelation that however much idolatry seems to secure life, it actually diminishes it.  It doesn’t make life, it takes it.  It may provide stability and orientation, but it is giving our lives to what is not alive.  Idolatry is death.”

I like the way verses 19 and 20 answer the question about to what we can compare God.  There’s a mocking reply about a gold-covered figure with silver chains or someone getting sturdy wood and having an image carved that won’t tip over.  By the way, the Hebrew word for the fellow who chooses that wood means “to be impoverished.”[3]

Knight says, “With biting sarcasm [the prophet] suggests that if a man is too poor to rise to a gold-plated image, then he can be happy making do with a piece of wood, provided only that it does not fall over.”[4]  Hey, it’s okay if you can’t afford the top of the line.  You don’t need the latest features.  You don’t need the cell phone that lets you smell people!

If you hadn’t noticed, verses 18 and 25 ask similar questions.  “To whom then will you liken God?”  And also, “To whom then will you compare me?”  They both are answered by verses 21 and 28.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

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There seems to be a bit of theological amnesia going on.

How often does that describe us?  When things are running smoothly, when the car is running well, when we have plenty of Granny Smith apples (okay, that’s me), we can say, “God is good, God is good all the time.”  However, when things fail to run smoothly, when the car breaks down, when we only have onions (again, that’s me), we can find ourselves saying, “Where are you, God?  What is happening?”

We might be like the psalmist who proclaimed, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; [but then] you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6-7).  We don’t know what happened for the psalmist to say God’s face was hidden, but I think we get the point.  We can forget the blessings of the past when the present seems grim, and when the future seems dark.  I don’t believe any of us are immune to that.

Indeed, there is a space for mourning.  There is a space for sadness.  The Bible is filled with notes of lamentation.  It is honest.

We hear verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?”  Is this a voice of faith or faithlessness?  Here’s a question: would it make sense for a truly faithless person to bother calling out to God in the first place?

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “He’s covered idolatry.  What about tyranny?  How is that a human tendency?”  Good questions.

The prophet says God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (v. 23).  Another translation speaks of “princes” as “dictators.”[5]  We might not be dictators of a nation, but we can be dictators in other ways.  Has anyone ever had a boss who behaved like a dictator?  If you haven’t, consider that a blessing from God.

We can have our own inner tyrant.

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Political affiliation can become idolatrous and tyrannous.  Wouldn’t it wonderful if we avoided the insults and the giving of childish nicknames?  We might expect behavior like that in middle school.  It’s quite another thing when full grown adults engage in that infantile behavior.

And it’s not just politics.  We really do it with religion.  Sometimes it gets really nasty, such as labeling others as “dog people” or “cat people.”

Labeling can actually be a form of judging.  We assign worth­­ to people.  We can sum up their whole lives.  As Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1-2).  We get what we give.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  There’s something else about a tyrant.  A tyrant doesn’t want to be told.  Tyrants don’t want to hear.  Tyrants assume they already know.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

My inner tyrant would have me close my ears and tell me I know all I need to know.  My puny god idol raises its head.  Sometimes, though, that tyrant works in the opposite way.  Our inner tyrant can bully us and tell us there’s no point in hearing.  We don’t know anything; we are not capable of knowing anything.

But that’s where the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, steps in.  The one who does not faint or grow weary; the one whose understanding is unsearchable arrives on the scene.  Trying the carry the world on your shoulders will wear you out.  (Do you believe me?)  However, the Lord empowers; the Lord strengthens.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v. 30).

Your days of forced labor are over, O you exiles returning home.  Be rid of the idolatry and tyranny that have been your taskmasters.  You need not enslave each other.  The good news is that Jesus casts out demons, be they literal demons or the demons of besetting sin­­—the demons of continual letdown.

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Idolatry and tyranny can’t stand it when we wait for the Lord.  They demand to be heard.  When we ignore their voices—and they will be there to rant and rave—we open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.  The promise of waiting for the Lord is that we will fly like an eagle.  We will run like a gazelle.  We will take the long walk and remain strong.

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2008), 21.

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


presence among us

I want to begin with a confession.  I think I might be improving in this particular regard, but I still have a long way to go.  I too often feel like I need to air my opinions, especially on controversial subjects.  I fear I am far from alone in that.  Go to Facebook or scroll down through the comments on almost any article, and you’ll see what I mean.  Watch what passes for news in our country.

We love to fight.  We prefer heat over light.

And it’s in the church—sometimes it feels like the church has turned fighting into a fine art.  We ask, “How can you be a Christian and think that?  How can you be a Christian and support him or her?”

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When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches. (Not that their being Episcopal Churches had anything to do with it.  I love the Episcopal Church!)  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it, perhaps plotting some ever so slight retribution!

I’m trying to give an example of what Jesus references in Matthew 18 when he speaks of the offenses, the sins, that go on in the church.  When I mentioned this before, I jokingly said some might consider this to be a matter of life and death.  Due to this coronavirus craziness, that has taken on a nature which is quite disconcerting, bordering on the truth!

Jesus starts this off by saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (v. 15).  (The NRSV has “member of the church” instead of “brother” or “sister.”)

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

That’s a good example of being unwilling to “own” your complaint, a refusal to accept responsibility.

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.  If we meet with them alone, there’s less chance of an automatic defense reaction—especially if the person doesn’t want to lose face in front of his or her crowd.  Actually, that could wind up being dangerous, depending on how prone to violence the crowd might be!

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

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

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

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

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[2]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

On a related issue, sometimes we need to check our sense of humor.  Understand, I’m not talking about a really serious matter.  Still, being able to laugh at oneself can take the sting out of an intended slight.  It takes away all the fun of insulting someone if they don’t get offended!  (I know, I know—I remember how I started the sermon.)

Back to the main point.  What if a meeting with one or two others present doesn’t work?  What if there is no peaceful resolution?

Jesus says, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).

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

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

It’s the duty of every church member prayerfully and seriously!  That’s a high bar.

However, what’s the deal with considering someone to be like “a Gentile and a tax collector”?  That seems a bit harsh.  Some have tried to soften the blow by focusing on Jesus’ commandment to love, and not indulging in such offensive behavior.  It’s been pointed out that what is meant is such a person should “be regarded as outside the community.”[3]  It’s a decision made by the person themself.

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Having said that, we should be careful about watering down Jesus’ words.  Sometimes they should hit us in the face like a bucket of cold…water!

Then he gets into the subject of binding and loosing.  There have been all kinds of meanings attached to this.  Some traditions speak of “binding the devil” or “binding Satan.”  One day in class at the Assemblies of God college I attended, a fellow student said that very thing—we can bind the devil.  Our professor stopped and said, “Then do it.  Bind the devil.”  There was an embarrassing silence.  I guess he wanted us to figure out what binding the devil actually meant.

Binding and loosing really refers to a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it didn’t apply.

The passage ends with verse 20, with the well-known words: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The verse is almost always used in the contexts of worship and prayer, and it is appropriate for that.  However, that is not how it is used here.  The “two or three gathered in my name” appears in the context of discipline.  The presence among us is about confronting or challenging.

They are words of wisdom, based on the requirement in Deuteronomy 19: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing….  Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (v. 15).  The concern is to avoid relying on a false witness.

When Jesus says, “I am there among them,” he’s drawing on a rabbinic principle, which holds “two that sit together and are [studying] words of Torah have the Shekinah [the glory of God] among them.”[4]  Jesus is the glory of God.  Jesus is the presence, the glory of God among us when we gather in his name—when we gather in his authority.

As already said about correction by the church, considering the presence of Jesus in discipline can be tricky.  And understand, “discipline” is far more than simply enforcing rules.  It is about training, getting into shape.  Discipline can be intimidating.

Karen Chamis, who is our presbytery’s Resource Presbyter, notes the fear that would hinder us from helping each other on the path.[5]

“Fear keeps us from being who we are called to be,” she says, “and if that isn’t bad enough, there are those in this world who will use our fear against us.”  She speaks of those who thrive on intimidation.  “It’s fear that keeps bullies in power, and conflict under the floorboards where it can do the most harm.  Fear is what keeps us from doing what we know is right, and true and just.

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[photo by Bram on Unsplash]

“And so, we steer clear of fierce conversations.  We allow bullies to control what direction we will paddle.  We permit bad behavior, because we fear retribution…  We forget who we are.  We forget Whose we are…because we belong to the fear and not to the Love.”

That presence among us is present in worship.  It is present in prayer.  It is present in discipline.  And today we are reminded that the presence of Christ is present in sacrament.  It is present where love is unleashed, and to borrow a word from Chamis, it is “fierce.”  Maybe that’s why love itself, in its unbridled power, can be very intimidating!

“Where two or three are gathered…”  The presence in worship, in prayer, in discipline, in sacrament—the presence of Christ means fear has been defeated by love.  We are given the courage and grace to help each other walk the path, even if means correcting each other—in love.

Thanks be to God.

 

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

[2] Oates, 6.

[3] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 220.

[4] sacred-texts.com/jud/sjf/sjf05.htm

[5] cayugasyracuse.org/index.php/blog/e-newsletter-presbytery-matters-september-3-2020/


invisible light

“It is universally agreed that the Emmaus story is a gem of literary art.”[1]  That’s a quote from Bogdan Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”  (He teaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.)

I think I would tend to agree with that.  Actually, the gospel of Luke itself is filled with gems of literary art.  There’s the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, in chapter 1 (vv. 46-55).  We have the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (10:29-37 and 15:11-32).  We could come up with some other gemstones.

A couple of weeks ago on Easter Sunday, I said the celebration of it this year is muted.  This is certainly an Easter like none other.  Is it possible to miss some of the majesty?  The thing about majesty is sometimes it sneaks up right behind you.  The two disciples on their way to Emmaus find that out—though they don’t realize the majesty at first.

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{"The Walk to Emmaus" by Rowan LeCompte and Irene Matz LeCompte}

About that couple, they’re usually portrayed as two men.  Not everyone sees it that way.  Apparently, they live in the same house; it seems just as likely we’re dealing with a husband and wife.  In fact, in his gospel, John says “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas [also spelled as Cleopas], and Mary Magdalene” (19:25).

Maybe I’m mistaken.  Seriously, there’s no way someone’s wife would be written out of the story!  Perish the thought!

If it’s possible for us to miss the majesty, to not glimpse the glory, the same is true of our couple.  The scripture says, “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vv. 15-16).  There’s more on this point of not being able to recognize, not being able to see, but we’ll look at that in a moment.

The two of them are downcast, and Jesus wants to know why.  They’re surprised he hasn’t heard the bad news.  Cleopas says they’re dismayed because Jesus has been crucified.  They had such high expectations.  “But,” as verse 21 says, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  We had hoped he would set Israel free.  We had hoped.

Jesus chides them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (v. 25).  We’re told, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

That word for “interpreted” (διερμηνευω, diermēneuō) means more than to simply explain.  What Jesus does is to reframe, to re-imagine.  He takes the scriptures and pulls out deeper meanings.

An example of this is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Someone asks Jesus how to achieve eternal life.  Jesus speaks of loving God and loving neighbor.  “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (10:29).  Thus, we have the parable.  A poor fellow is robbed and beaten and left for dead.  A priest and a Levite see him and pass right by.  When the Samaritan sees him, he goes out of his way to care for him.  Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v. 36).

Jesus reframes, he re-imagines, the word “neighbor.”  A neighbor isn’t just a certain person.  You can make anyone a neighbor.  It’s a way of treating someone.

Returning to the idea of recognition, of perception, I imagine we’ve all failed to see something right in front of us.  When I was a kid and looking for a certain item that was hidden in plain sight, my mom would often say to me, “If it was a snake, it woulda bit you!”

2 lkIt’s hard to blame this couple for not seeing what (or who) is right in front of them.  Remember, the Bible says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16).  There are all kinds of theories as to what that means.  Was there divine interference?  Were they not ready to see that level of glory, that level of (to use the word again) majesty?

Our friend Bogdan (who I mentioned at the beginning) says something like that about them.  As long as they think of Jesus as a prophet who failed to liberate Israel, “they remain unable to bear the brilliance of his glory.”[2]  They still need a transformation by the Spirit.  It’s the glory of the Lord that prevents them from seeing the glory of the Lord!  They are, in effect, blinded by the light.

Still, we can’t ignore what was going on within them.  This isn’t a walk in the park.  Their world has collapsed.  The bottom has dropped out.  Despair is threatening to overwhelm them.  Sadness has dulled their vision.

Maybe we can relate.  When we feel depressed, when it feels like the walls are closing in, our senses can become dulled.  It can be hard to see beauty.  It becomes difficult to have creative vision.  It might even be the case that smells aren’t as pleasant.  Maybe food doesn’t taste as good.

That can be true of us in this time.  Being cooped up in our houses, not being able to sit down in a restaurant, having to wear masks at the grocery store, the kids not attending school—it can be enough to drive anyone up the wall.  It can be enough to leave us dispirited.

So maybe we can relate to our friends on the road to Emmaus.

As they draw near their destination, Jesus is continuing on.  The day is nearly done, so they invite him to stay with them.  They offer him their hospitality.  “Please, come and join us for dinner.  We want you to spend the night.  You can continue your journey in the morning.”

He agrees.  And what happens at mealtime?  “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30).  That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  The only thing missing is, “This is my body, broken for you.”

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What happens next is truly amazing and baffling.  “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (v. 31).  Their eyes are opened.  They recognize him.  Then he disappears.  That’s quite a miraculous act!  It’s in the breaking of the bread when the lights come on.  They realize who is dining with them.  They understand that they’re sitting at the table with their Lord.

That might be a tad difficult to understand, but it’s nothing compared with what’s coming up.  He vanished from their sight.  Wait.  What?

There are those who say Jesus was agile and quick enough to slip out without being noticed.  It seems that a resurrection body is quite athletic.  Maybe he diverted the disciples’ attention: something like, “Hey, what’s that over there?”  He points, then takes off.

He didn’t even ask to be excused from the dinner table!

The word for “vanished” or “disappeared” is an interesting one.[3]  Its root meaning is “made invisible.”  William Loader picks up on this when he speaks of the “surreality of the invisible man.”[4]  And we go back to the title of Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”

So, after Jesus’ disappearing act, the pair engage in reflection.  Here’s another place where Luke displays his use of powerful, poetic language.  “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” (v. 32).  Were not our hearts burning within us?  The Revised English Bible reads, “Were not our hearts on fire?”

What an awesome experience.

Cleopas (and possibly Mary?) decide to make an evening journey back to Jerusalem.  They go to see the other disciples, who are already overjoyed, since they also know that the Lord has risen from the dead.  “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (v. 35).

From ancient times, the breaking of bread has been a time of welcoming, an act of hospitality.  It is a sign of community.  On the flip side, the refusal to share a meal with someone is seen as an insult.  It is inhospitable; it is a rejection of community.

Earlier, I suggested Jesus’ breaking of the bread is reminiscent of what we do in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  It also is an act of welcoming, of hospitality; it is a sign of community.  This fits with our understanding of the sacrament.  Our Book of Order says this about it: “When we gather at the Lord’s Supper the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church in every time and place.  We join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth in offering thanksgiving to the triune God” (W-3.0409).

We are united.  We are joined.  It truly is a holy communion.

As it was with those early disciples, so it is today.  In the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the cup, Jesus is made known.  There is that invisible light, that invisible energy, that Spirit of love who unites us.

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Sometimes we miss the majesty, the glory.  We need the scriptures to be opened.  We need our minds to be opened.  We need our hearts to burn.  We need them to be on fire.  We need the Lord to be revealed to us—to be revealed to us again and again.

May the invisible light of Christ guide us on our resurrection journey.

 

[1] Bogdan Bucur, “Blinded by Invisible Light: Revisiting the Emmaus Story (Luke 13:13-35)” Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses, 90:4 (Dec 2014) 685.

[2] Bucur, 694.

[3] αφαντος, aphantos

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtEaster3.htm


how are we called?

“He was a coward.”  That was Banu’s comment on reflecting how Abram had Sarai pose as his sister.  That is, he had her pose as his sister in order to save his own neck.  Upon entering Egypt, he knew that the Pharaoh’s officials would want to take her, because she was a good-looking woman.

1 gn(I’ll use the names they were given a few years later, Abraham and Sarah.)

I will admit that it might be hard to argue with her assessment of Abraham’s decision.  (That is, his being a coward!)  We’ll look at what might have been behind his choice in a few moments.

Once again, and I mention this from time to time, the lectionary compilers tended to edit out embarrassing or troublesome verses.  The reading in Genesis for today ends at verse 4.  Showing one of the great figures of faith like Abraham treat his wife the way he does might not seem especially heroic.  But we need to pay attention to that stuff.  If God’s calling of Abraham is to have any real meaning for us, then we should see how that gets worked out in, say, our own messy and complicated lives.

Still, as I just said, we’ll be getting to the too-often deleted aspect of the story momentarily.

As for the commonly-agreed-upon heroic aspect of the story, it’s not for nothing that Abraham is given the title “Father” Abraham—that the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their history back to him.  The whole thing got started when, somehow, the Lord said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (v. 1).

What precisely does that mean?  How did Abraham receive that call from God?  Was he hearing voices?  Did he have an exceptionally vivid dream?

Maybe it was a gradually growing awareness.  Some have suggested that Abraham grew disenchanted with the worship that was practiced in his homeland—worship of the sun and moon.  At some point, he couldn’t take it anymore, or perhaps, some people couldn’t take him anymore!

2 gnIn any event, as one writer tells us, “Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was…no routine expedition of several hundred miles.  Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history.  The all-important commencement is…‘Go forth.’”[1]

The part of the message that seals the deal is in verses 2 and 3: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  Okay, not bad: God will bless me, and I will bless others.  Now those others get drawn into the picture.  “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

That last line can also be translated as “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

What can we make of all that blessing?  As Christians, we stand in that tradition, the blessing of the call of Abraham and Sarah.  It’s important to include Sarah; Abraham could not have done very much without her.  Apparently, one of those things would be using her to make sure he stayed alive while in Egypt!

Verses 2 and 3 promise the blessing of becoming a great nation—of being a conduit of blessing to all the families of the earth.  Being a blessing means several things, among them being a source of good will, a source of shalom, a source of light.

As for that business of the calling of Abraham having meaning for us, Dan Clendenin refers to what he calls “Abraham in Three Movements.”[2]

“God’s call upon Abraham’s life,” he says, “is a call that’s repeated to each one of us today.  It’s a call that subverts conventional wisdom, and so it can feel counter-intuitive, for it’s a call to move beyond three very human, powerful and deep-seated fears—fear of the unknown that we can’t control (ignorance), fear of others who are different from us (inclusion), and fear of powerlessness in the face of impossibilities (impotence).”

Whenever I’ve thought of God’s call to Abraham to “go forth,” I’ve usually had the first of those three in mind.  I’ve thought of the unknown, with whatever fear and foreboding go with it.  He and some close family members are launching out into foreign territory.  This involves a different culture, with unfamiliar customs.  This involves moving from one’s kin, which would leave one vulnerable in many ways.

Clendenin combines the fear of the unknown with fear of others who are different and fear of powerlessness.  He says that Abraham “had to leave not only his geographic place.  He had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger,” the tendency to exclude the alien.

3 gn Which of Abraham’s three “movements” speaks most to you: fear of the unknown, fear of those who are different, or fear of powerlessness?  Which of the three would most likely hold you back?  Is there one of those fears that you’ve seen someone else conquer that gave, or continues to give you respect for them?

This speaks to us not only as individuals, but also as a congregation.  The same “movements,” the same fears to confront, affects churches as well.  All of this goes into answering the question, “How are we called?”  We can emphasize different words in that question and come up with different nuances.

Now, as for that apparently less-honorable part of our story, in which Abraham portrays Sarah as his sister, things become a little fuzzy.

E. A. Speiser tells us, “In Hurrian society [Abram was from Haran] the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the [legal] status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. This is why a man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her at the same time as his sister, in two separate steps recorded in independent legal documents. Violations of such sistership arrangements were punished more severely than breaches of marriage contracts.”[3]

In other words, it’s going to be bad news if you touch my wife, but if you touch my sister, you’re in for a world of hurt!

In fact, Chana Weisberg argues that Abraham showed such respect for Sarah that the question could be asked, “Was Abraham the first feminist?”[4]

6 gn

I mention all this, though not mainly for judging Abraham’s quality of character.  Instead, I’m wondering if Abraham is being obedient or disobedient to God’s call.  More specifically, I’m wondering if adapting to culture constitutes part of what it means to be called.

Admittedly, it is difficult to compare moral codes.  We are separated, not only by the distance, but by the time—four thousand years.  Their world was quite different from ours.

There’s also the element of desperation.  As verse 10 tells us, after Abraham arrived at his destination, there was a famine.  He was forced to go “to Egypt to reside there as an alien [we’ve just heard that word], for the famine was severe in the land.”  He was a refugee, dependent upon the kindness of others.  Factors beyond his control influenced him, even compelled him.  Factors beyond our control can do the same thing to us.

Still, the question of culture is timeless.  In working out our calling, we always have to deal with the culture around us.  It’s inescapable; we are immersed in our culture and in our subcultures.  Fish in water don’t know they are wet.  (Don’t ask me how I know that.)  Culture shapes how we perceive the world.  That’s why it’s important to learn about other cultures; it helps us to be more objective about our own.  It helps us, as best we can, to stand outside of it and look through the eyes of others.

There is also church culture; there is also congregational culture.  In a congregational system, there are written rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  We have our congregational bylaws.  As Presbyterians, we have our Book of Order.  But there are probably hundreds of unwritten rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  One reason for that is because everyone brings their own culture, their own experiences, to the table.

Imagine a pond on a quiet day.  Now picture throwing a rock into that pond.  The ripples spread out in all directions.  If someone else throws a rock into the pond, the ripples intersect.  Now imagine all of us throwing rocks into that pond.  Ripples are bouncing around everywhere.  Those interactions lead to the unwritten rules.  Otherwise, there is chaos!  (Although, sometimes a little chaos can be a good thing!)

What names, what rules, does our culture give us?  I’m fond of being called a “consumer.”  According to our economic system, my calling is to “consume.”  Maybe it’s just me, but I find that to be more than a little unsettling.

4 gn
That makes it all the more important to get a handle on the question, “How are we called?”  And going a little further, like Abraham, how are we called to bless?

A few years ago, Banu and I were invited to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh.  We were asked to do some workshops while there.

I did one which was inspired by an instructor I had in Clinical Pastoral Education.  What that meant for me was a student chaplaincy at a hospital, the result of which was my discovery that I was not cut out to be a hospital chaplain!  Still, I’m glad I was required to do it, being mandatory for Presbyterian ordination.  It was a good experience.  I really liked our instructor, although at times he tended to have a bit of a potty mouth!

There was one thing he had us practice which I thought was especially valuable.  He would challenge us to not use “God talk.”  That is, to avoid language that, for example, referenced “God” or “salvation” or “faith.”  It really forced us to stretch ourselves, to dig deep, to say what we meant by those words.

You might find this impossible to believe, but there are people who have actually had bad experiences with church or with Christians.  “God talk” can be a trigger for all kinds of negative stuff.  And then, there are those who simply don’t know what we’re talking about.

So that was my challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using “God talk.”  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

Some of them welcomed the test and gave it a good “faith” shot!  For others—not so much.  And when I started pushing them on it, some got irritated; it was even written on their faces.  Some of them let me know their displeasure.  They were not happy with me.

I observed how reaching out to those outside the four walls might mean learning a different language.  I don’t know if they didn’t believe me or just didn’t care.  It does require change.  Do you know what we call something that doesn’t change?  Dead.  Life, by its very nature (even at the chemical level), requires change.

5 gnFor many of them, they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends.  They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work.  In my defense, this little exercise didn’t even take a half hour, but that was enough to tick them off.

(There is a nice postscript to this story.  That night, they broke out the board games.  Even the folks who got annoyed with me were happy when I joined in.  Playing games can be incredibly therapeutic!)

I will freely admit, it is not easy for us church people to avoid using “God talk.”  It is not easy at all.  It’s not easy for me.  Again, it forces us to explain what we mean.  But it is well worth the effort; it is well worth practicing.  It helps us to speak with others with understanding and one hopes, with compassion.

In the end, this business of culture pays off well for Abraham (and dare I say, Sarah).  He entered Egypt without; he is leaving Egypt with—a lot!  The chapter closes, “Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had” (v. 20).  He’s on his way, following the call to “go forth.”  It’s central to how he is called.

How are we called?

 

[1] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 88.

[2] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080211JJ.shtml

[3] Speiser, 92.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/2235031/jewish/Was-Abraham-the-First-Feminist.htm


do not break; do not extinguish

There’s a certain TV show from the 1970s that my mom and dad used to watch when I was a kid.  It was set in the 1870s: Kung Fu, starring David Carradine.

This was the premise of the show: we have someone with an American father and Chinese mother.  He is orphaned in China and raised by Shaolin priests.  After killing the Emperor’s nephew (who, by the way, just killed his teacher), he’s forced to flee the country.  He goes to the American west, in search of his brother.  As he travels, he opposes whatever injustice he encounters.  I always liked the way he spoke.  [very tranquilly]  “I am Caine.  I am called many names, but I have chosen ‘Caine.’”

I was reminded of Caine from Kung Fu because he has some qualities that are reflected in our reading from the book of Isaiah.  (I’ll elaborate in a moment.)  Caine’s life at the Shaolin temple has given him many skills.  In fighting his opponents, he does so with seemingly effortless action.  He presents the very image of a serene, almost pacifist, nature.

1 is

Isaiah 42 begins with the Lord declaring, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1).

This is the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah.  There are three others.  Who is this special Servant?  Some say it’s the people of Israel as a whole.  Others say it’s the prophet.  Still others, reflecting a Christian interpretation, say this special Servant is none other than the Messiah himself.  I imagine all of those elements are involved.

Regardless of the Servant’s identity, there are, as I already suggested, some characteristics that this one possesses.  When I was reflecting on this passage, I was especially drawn to verses 2, 3, and 4.  The image I got was one of quiet perseverance.  As I said, that’s what reminded me of Caine’s demeanor in Kung Fu.

Verse 2 says of the Servant, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.”  This one doesn’t seem to be very confident.  How can you get your message across if you’re not out there promoting yourself?  Doing book tours?  Going on talk shows?  Telling people to visit your website?

For the past few years, according to many reports, the fastest growing church in the world is the church in Iran.  We’re told, “What’s fascinating right now is that the most powerful leaders in Iran are women, but it’s not in a bombastic…way…  In fact, they are the most gentle women.  They are leading this movement, going out in the highways and byways sharing with prostitutes, drug addicts, with everybody they come into contact with, and that takes courage.  They are courageous women.”[1]

I don’t think these women can be accused of not being confident!

2 is

In verse 3 we learn that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”  I like the way Bill Long puts it:

“How do reeds become crushed…?  By the forces of nature and of people.  Reeds become smashed because of storms and diseases, because of people stomping over them…  We are reeds, subject to the forces of life that we cannot control and that sometimes descend on us with frightening speed and mercilessness.  And so, we live our lives in a crushed condition.”

However, the Servant in Isaiah will not break a bruised reed.  He (or she) treads lightly on the earth.  Again, I’m reminded of Caine in the show Kung Fu.  When he was finally able to walk down a long length of very fragile rice paper without tearing any of it—leaving no trace behind—only then was he prepared to leave the Shaolin temple and go out into the world.

And about that “dimly burning wick,” Long says that “we are here compared to a wick which is…about ready to go out because the candle has melted…  We may appear strong…but if we know ourselves well, we know that there are lots of forces at work within and without that make us terribly vulnerable to [being extinguished]…  But the Servant won’t crush; the servant won’t extinguish.”

Verse 4 has a nice turn of phrase.  “He will not grow faint or be crushed.”  So what that means is the Servant won’t crush the reed or snuff out the wick that’s growing faint.  And on the flip side, he himself won’t grow faint or be crushed.

And the Servant will keep at it “until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  The word for “coastlands” literally means “islands” ( אׅי,’iy).  It refers to the ends of the earth.  That’s the kind of character we’re dealing with: not one who is feeble and fragile, but one who won’t get frustrated and quit!

I wonder, how do we compare?  That can be hard to answer for ourselves.  We can benefit from the insight of observers.  From time to time, my wife Banu has been willing to provide her observations to me.  And more often than not, I actually find them helpful!

This scripture reading about the Servant of the Lord is beneficial to us in one particular way, that is, when we ordain and install officers.

During that part of worship, we ask the questions for ordination and installation in the Book of Order, but maybe we could add something else.  Maybe something like: “Do you refuse to break a bruised reed or to extinguish a dimly burning wick?  If so, please say, ‘I do.’”  Maybe we could pose that to the congregation and add, “If so, please say, ‘We do.’”

If there’s any confusion, a phrase from the old Book of Order clears it up.  (It’s one I wish they hadn’t deleted.)  This is it: “Those duties which all Christians are bound to perform by the law of love are especially incumbent upon elders because of their calling to office and are to be fulfilled by them as official responsibilities” (G-6.0304a).  How do you like that?  It’s official.  If being a Christian isn’t enough for us to follow the law of love, being ordained as an elder is part of the job description!

Of course, it isn’t simply a job; it’s an adventure.  It’s a lifestyle.  That’s true for anyone, whether ordained or not, who would take the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah as a model or a pattern.  It’s a lifestyle for anyone who senses the call, as verse 7 puts it, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

3 is

What does this calling to not break a bruised reed or to not extinguish a dimly burning wick look like?  As I’ve indicated, bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks are images of people who have been bruised and whose lights are fading away.  I have a few bruises myself, and sometimes my light burns rather dimly!  It’s been on the verge of going out altogether.

In answering that question about our calling to not break or extinguish each other, I’ll suggest something from a document approved by the General Assembly of the PC(USA) back in 1998, “Life Together in the Community of Faith: Standards of Ethical Conduct.”[2]  One of those standards refers to accepting the discipline of the church.

Accepting the “discipline of the church” might sound outdated or old-fashioned, like being chastised for playing cards.  It might even conjure up medieval images of being flogged or burned at the stake.  That’s not what I’m talking about!

Accepting the discipline of the church can be seen in a more basic way.  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he gives what might be considered a manifesto of church discipline.  He deals with many issues in Corinth, such as people splitting up into factions and being disruptive in worship.  Church itself requires discipline—it requires the discipline of love.  And love requires that we discipline ourselves!

Indeed, the section of our Book of Order called “The Rules of Discipline” includes the reminder, “The power that Jesus Christ has vested in his Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing.” (D-1.0102).

The discipline of “church,” if done well, gradually turns us into loving and kind persons.  If we abandon that discipline, or approach it in an unhealthy fashion, we become ungrateful and cause injury.  Can we help each other in our discipline and affirm with the apostle Paul that our “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Co 14:33)?

I recently watched a movie about Christians living among radical Islamists.[3]  (I don’t necessarily agree with all of the theology in it, but that’s okay!)  There’s one scene which featured an American missionary.  His name wasn’t given; I’ll just call him John.  He was wondering how much he would be willing to give up.  How much deprivation and abuse would he take for the cause of Christ.  He asked, “What is my price?”

Regarding the discipline of church, maybe we’re back to those medieval images I just mentioned.  I have to ask myself, “What is my price?”

John speaks of a friend who is also a missionary.  Again, his name wasn’t given; I’ll call him Peter.  Peter has a wife and two young children.  He admits that he and his wife have wondered if it’s fair to have their kids in such a dangerous place.  Acknowledging the danger, when they first arrived, he and his wife made a video.  It was an unusual video—they forgave the men who killed them!  That’s really reflecting the nature of Christ.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  That is some serious church discipline.

As insane as it sounds to us, those who are determined to break and extinguish with the worst possible methods are also loved by God.  But again, we ourselves do that to each other in less horrific ways.

4 is

[Jon Tyson at unsplash]

I want to close with a quote by Henri Nouwen on that very thing.  “A life of fifty, sixty, seventy, or a hundred years is just a little moment in which you can say, ‘Yes, I love you too’…

“That’s where ministry starts, because your freedom is anchored in claiming your belovedness.  That allows you to go into this world and touch people, heal them, speak with them, and make them aware that they are beloved, chosen, and blessed.  When you discover your belovedness by God, you see the belovedness of other people and call that forth.  It’s an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more you know how deeply you are loved, the more you will see how deeply your sisters and your brothers in the human family are loved.”

Friends, that is the discipline of love, the discipline of church, the way in which we fulfill our calling.

 

[1] godreports.com/2019/09/fastest-growing-church-has-no-buildings-no-central-leadership-and-is-mostly-led-by-women/

[2] www.pcusa.org/resource/standards-ethical-conduct

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndf8RqgNVEY


beyond binary

I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  As with most presbyteries in our denomination, the percentage of our membership is overwhelmingly white—much higher than the national average, even higher than the local population.  The percentage of people over the age of 50, indeed over the age of 60 (how about 70 or 80?), is way over the national average.

A Committee on Representation looking at those factors might be excused for throwing up their hands in despair!  Depending on the circumstances, a congregational nominating committee might have a similar reaction!  But representation encompasses a wide variety of fascinating goodies, including as our Book of Order says, “due consideration to both the gifts and requirements for ministry” (G-3.0103).

Consider a couple of passages from the gospel of St. Luke.  Jesus calls his disciples together (how many of them were there to choose from?) and selects his inner circle.  There seems to be a diversity in occupation, social status, and who knows—in favorite food?

1 lk

Two of the more interesting choices are Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot.

First, let’s look at Matthew.  Tax collectors were hated by the Jews.  It wasn’t simply that they collected taxes(!), but that they were corrupt.  The Roman Empire designated an amount to raise through taxation, but Matthew and his kind were free to collect over and above as much as they wanted.  They could do this with almost complete impunity.  After all, they enjoyed the protection of Roman soldiers.  Extortion doesn’t do much in the way of winning friends—neither does collaborating with a despised foreign government!

As for Simon the Zealot, he identified with a group “zealous” in their observation of Jewish religious law and practice.  The Romans did have a way of throwing up roadblocks to those things!  In their opposition to Roman attempts to suppress them, many Zealots turned to violent resistance.  Many of them were in fact revolutionaries; they sought the overthrow of the Roman government.

It appears we have Simon the (possible) revolutionary and Matthew the collaborator.  I wonder how they got along.  Were there tense moments at the dinner table?  When Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, where they ever paired together?  Was there ever a danger of one “accidentally” suffering a mishap?  What was Jesus thinking by bringing these two guys into his little band?

Are we to think they laid aside their mutual disgust of each other and actually began to like each other?  That seems to be a bit much to swallow.  Were they ever able to love one another?  I hope we understand that liking and loving someone are two quite different things.

Here’s another tidbit to chew on.  Why is there such a focus on the men?  (Wow, who could imagine such a thing?)  We see that women comprise a large percentage (possibly the majority?) of Jesus’ disciples.  Luke 8 tells of the cadre of women who traveled with Jesus.  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, “and many others” were in the company.  Not only were they along for the ride, but with their resources, they likely made the whole enterprise possible.  (It is hard to hold a steady job when you’re moving from town to town.)

2 lk

Getting back to committees on representation, Jesus looks like he would excel at serving on them.  Bringing together disparate folks…  Welcoming women…  Giving voice to the voiceless…

By bringing women along for the ride, Jesus was certainly giving a voice to the voiceless—definitely in terms of getting religious instruction directly from a rabbi, from a teacher.  Indeed, we’re told, “We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue, but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or [instructor] was a rabbi willing to teach them.”  Still, “It was not uncommon for women to support rabbis and their disciples out of their own money, property, or foodstuffs.”[1]

Still, having said that, “But for her to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous.  Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions.  Yet it was an intended part of His ministry that women be witnesses…and benefit from His teaching and healing.”[2]

Later in Luke, when Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha, Martha is busy with many tasks, doing “women’s work.”  But her sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (10:39).  She took the position of a disciple—and oh my—Jesus allowed it!

There are other instances where Jesus ignored cultural rules that hampered women.  In John 4, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.  In verse 27, we read, “Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’”  To speak with a woman in the absence of a male family member was a big no-no.

3 lkThese actions and attitudes did not go unnoticed.  Forget Simon the Zealot, Jesus is the actual revolutionary.  A revolution of love is the only true revolution.

Here’s an interesting note: for his trouble of befriending “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus is labeled “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19).  As we’ve seen, tax collectors were rarely presented with RSVPs.  And “sinners” refers to those considered to be of ill repute.

Clearly, being labeled “a glutton and a drunkard,” is not a compliment.  Labels are lovely critters.  And when considering committees on representation, we are very good at coming up with them.  Forget representation—we’re good at coming up with labels in general.

An inherent danger to representation can be just that—labeling.  Is there something in Jesus’ warning, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,” which might include pigeonholing others? (Matthew 7:1).

We are more than some rigid, inflexible category.

And that’s something to bear in mind in the work of a committee on representation.  No, never mind that—it’s the work of life itself!

Keeping in mind my antipathy, my aversion, (or maybe say, my less than passionate fondness) toward labels, I must confess that I often have a problem with our binary descriptions: left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.  How about Green Party?  And then there’s dividing the states into blue or red.  How about purple?  (Fortunately, my favorite colors are purple and green!)

4 lk

Something I’ve often noticed is that those who might agree with me on a theological or political matter can be quite disagreeable!  I appreciate one who dissents with me and yet has an open mind and open heart.  I have considerably less appreciation for one who assents with me and yet has a closed mind and closed heart.

There’s someone who declares our unity in Christ provides, or should provide, the way past the closed minds and closed hearts.  That’s the apostle Paul, when he tells the Galatian church, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:27-28).

In the parallel passage in Colossians, he says, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (3:11).

When we are baptized, the water washes away the distinctions to which we stubbornly hold.  Being clothed with Christ means we first remove the clothing we’ve put on ourselves.

Sometimes we identify with our tribe, those who in whatever way, provide security between “us” and “them.”  There can be a comfort in tribalism.  In ages past, humans had to group together to protect themselves: against the elements, against wild animals, and against each other.  Woe to the one who was banished and sent out alone!

There are still places on the planet in which tribes engage in violence with each other.  They kill each other.  With us, tribalism doesn’t usually end in bloodshed!  But by not looking past it, we still kill each other, just in different ways.

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[Tribes of Sneetches, star bellied and plain bellied alike, eventually learn their lesson!]

Jesus Christ moves us past that.  He transcends the binary, the duality, the impenetrable walls we erect that divide.  He welcomes Matthew and Simon.  He welcomes women.  He welcomes Samaritans—that other tribe.  He welcomes you.  He welcomes me.  Christ does that if we allow ourselves to identify with him.  He does that if we allow him to represent us.

When we do that, we are transformed.  Our ugliness is beautiful.  Our folly is wise.  Our nothing is everything.

We are cured of evil spirits and infirmities…  seven demons are cast out… and we travel on with our Lord.

 

[1] Ben Witherington III, “On the Road with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Other Disciples: Luke 8:1-3, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche (70:3-4, 1979), 244.

[2] Witherington, 245.


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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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[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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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


take each other off the menu

I’m sure we all have places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  Some people dread the dinner table on special occasions, like Thanksgiving, when lots of family and friends gather around.  There might be the family member who’s always itching for a fight about politics or religion—or the life choices of someone who is present.  Then there might be the one who simply makes inappropriate comments about anything under the sun!

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There is a place I remember with a less than fond feeling.  Actually, there are several, but one place in particular sticks out.  It was my junior high school cafeteria.  If there’s somewhere you learn about the social structure of a school, it is the lunchroom!  (That also goes for high school lunchrooms.)

You might find this shocking, but I was never among the popular kids in school.  On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the peak of popularity, I was usually at about 2 or 3.  On rare occasions, I might creep up to 4.  Fortunately, I was never one of the poor souls people made fun of; I was just there, not paid much attention.  It was difficult for me to be at ease in social situations.  I was plagued by shyness.  To put it bluntly, junior high was hell!

There was a curious thing I sometimes felt.  I sometimes felt like I wasn’t real.  Again, it’s not like I was picked on; it’s that I often felt like I was in my own little world.  People who are real don’t have so much trouble making friends, do they?  Privately, I knew I was real.  I was sure of it.  Within myself, I sensed there was nothing really wrong with me, although the outward evidence seemed to suggest the opposite.

But I imagine that’s enough of my sob story and irritating introspection!  I’m sure no one else has felt the way I did—and sometimes do.

Still, I’m fascinated by that sense of not being real, of existence being called into question.

2 Ga 5Earlier this month, Umair Haque wrote an article called, “The Rage in America’s Soul: The Dilemma of Nonexistence.”[1]  It’s a fascinating, insightful, and disturbing take on today’s society.

He sees the problem of “nonexistence” as flowing from, and a part of, the “rage” we have.  Haque has lived all over the world, and he’s noticed something he claims is unique to the US.  I have not lived all over the world, so maybe I’m not the best person to comment.  I don’t believe we’re the only country filled with rage, though perhaps we’ve learned to perfect it in our own way!

He says he “would like to gently confess: I have never seen a place with so much rage in its soul — not even an iota as much — as America.  If we are wise, we will ask, instead of becoming defensive, simply, why?”  As a people, as a nation, why are we filled with so much hate?

(And don’t worry, I’ll include the church, hearing reflections by St. Paul in a few moments!)

It seems when almost anything is reported on the news, the finger pointing soon commences.  Before the dust has settled, people are wondering, “Who’s to blame?”  And even more troubling, we too often see opposite groups as believing the others are not only mistaken—they don’t have the facts straight—but they’re morally wrong.  It’s not simply a matter of intelligence, but of character.  We can automatically assume that someone isn’t acting in good faith.  And sad to say, I have at times found myself falling prey to that temptation.  It is not a good thing!

In calling our rage as Americans a rage of “the soul,” Haque points to a number of things.  He says the rage is omnipresent.  “It does not come and go like the tides, but is more like a background hum of constant fury.”  One example that comes to mind is reading the comments to stories or posts on the internet.  The illogical and irrational venom people write makes me think all of us have taken crazy pills!

He also says it’s merciless.  “It is not merely the shout of a sulking child, but points to a kind of profound agony, one so deep, that there can be no possibility of forgiveness.”  We hold on to grudges with a vengeance.  There is a spiritual reality at work here.  If we haven’t experienced forgiveness, that is, forgiveness for something that really needs to be forgiven—then it’s almost impossible to extend forgiveness.  We have to feel the love.

That goes along with something in 1 Peter: “maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (4:8)!

The third thing Haque mentions is “the rage is murderous.  It doesn’t contain the anger of a scorned lover, but the exhilarating, dizzying fury of a killing field.  There is kind of pleasure, a satisfaction that seems to linger in it.”  There really is a dark delight, a twisted joy, in slaying the enemy, whether with weapon or word.  That’s especially true if we feel ordained by God in our enterprise.

When we view others through a lens of contempt and hatred, we don’t see them as simply human beings.  We don’t see the joys and hopes and fears that we have.  We don’t see them as real.  Haque continues, “The only thing that I know that can produce such rage is to not to be seen to exist at all, which is the first kind of murder that there is, really.”  In effect, we kill them.  We deny each other’s existence as the beloved of God, as those for whom Jesus Christ died.

3 Ga 5So there’s a good segue; I follow up on my promise to bring this to the church!

The apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is possibly the earliest one he wrote.  To put it lightly, he is befuddled at some of the stuff they’re doing and the peculiar things they believe.  He is “astonished;” he calls them “foolish”; he is “perplexed” (1:6, 3:1, 4:20).  And it would seem from the scripture reading in chapter 5, we don’t have to wonder why.

He begins the chapter by reminding the Galatians of their freedom in Christ.  He warns them against using their freedom to go back to slavery, as crazy as that sounds.

Now we see how the apostle tells them “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence [literally, “the flesh”], but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (vv. 13-14).

A moment ago, I mentioned viewing others through a lens of contempt and hatred.  If we do that, it hampers our ability to see them as real.  It also twists our ability to know the truth.

In our Book of Order (F-3.0104), there’s a saying, “Truth is in order to goodness.”  Part of what that means is truth isn’t always a neutral concept: 2+2=4.  Truth is to be in service of the good.  There is a way of presenting the truth that tears down, that destroys.  There is an evil way of telling the truth—the devil’s truth.  It brings death, not life.  If we tell a truth in rage, if we have a malevolent purpose, if we want to do harm, it’s not really true!  It’s not God’s truth.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Galatian church is in danger of becoming infected with hate.  Paul wants to get ahead of that.  He warns them about using their freedom to indulge the flesh.  And here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It is the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence.

The apostle gives them some advice, some Spirit-inspired advice.  “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).  Take each other off the menu!

In recent years, zombies have become very popular.  That is, stories and movies and tv shows about them—not the zombies themselves!  Zombies go around eating people, but they don’t know why they do it.  After all, they are dead.  Some people see the fascination with zombies as a commentary on our society.  We mindlessly consume each other, and it’s reflected in art (if portrayals of zombies can be considered art).

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Richard Rohr says something interesting in a reflection on Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in her twenties at the end of the nineteenth century.[2]  She came to have the nickname “The Little Flower.”  She spoke of the “science of love.”

Rohr makes a reference to John the Baptist saying of Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29).  He says, “the sin of the world” is “ignorant killing, and as we see today, we are destroying the world through our ignorance.”

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The sin of the world is behaving like those zombies, who kill and have no idea what they’re doing.  The sin of the world is behaving like the devil, who was “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44).  However, and there is a “however.”  “When we love, we do know what we are doing!”  We wake up.

Paul wants the Galatians to wake up from the drowsiness and the haziness of self-indulgence.  They need to see what they’re doing.  They’re eating each other alive.

Can we see any of this in the church today?  Can we see any of it in ourselves?  If we can, that’s okay, and here’s one example why.

I started by talking about places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  I put forth the supposition that one of them might be Thanksgiving dinner.  And I speculated one reason might be arguments over religion and politics.  Mind you, I enjoy talking about that stuff, but it’s important to do so without speaking the devil’s truth.

At its very best, the church embraces those with various viewpoints.  One thing I like to mention is Jesus’ inner circle.  It included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot: a collaborator with the Romans and a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the Romans.  (I wonder how their dinners went.)

We can have those different groups—conservative and liberal—rich and poor—popular kids and kids like me, in Christ, and do it with gratitude.  Live with thanksgiving.

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And thankfully, we have help in taking each other off the menu.  We have help in not submitting to the rage which would have us licking our chops and sharpening our knives.  We have the freedom in Christ to treat each other as real, as the beloved of God.  We have the freedom in Christ to taste and see that the Lord is good.

 

[1] umairhaque.com/the-rage-in-americas-soul-494a285cb633

[2] cac.org/therese-lisieux-part-2-2017-10-04


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.”

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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