calling

we dreamed, and it was joy

Sometimes I will try to go to sleep.  Please note, I said “try.”  This might be taking a nap or going to bed at night.  There are those times with an in-between level of awareness in which you’re not sure if you slept or not.  At least, I have found that to be true with myself.  Did I really make the plunge, or did I remain up in the waking world?  If I have memory of a dream, then I know I was actually asleep.

Dreams themselves can be funny things.  They can be crazy things, as I’m sure you all know.  Throughout history, people have interpreted dreams in all manner of ways.  People have derived messages and gained insights from them.  That goes for me, too.  I know I’m not alone in this, but I have had dreams which provided answers to some problems I had been mulling over.  More than once, I have had ideas for a sermon come to me in the night, sometimes entire paragraphs.

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The greatest dreams, in my opinion, are the ones impossible to put into words.  They don’t demean themselves into petty things like solving problems.  They’re too good for that.  They’re too sublime.  They’re too majestic.  They fire the imagination.  They are works of art.

Psalm 126 is one of those works of art.  It is one of my favorite psalms—and I love a lot of the psalms.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1).  That first part can also read, “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion.”  What an awesome image.  “We were like those who dream.”  It had to be a dream!  These were people who had been exiled to Babylon.  They had been forcibly removed from their homes and sent marching on that long trail of tears.  The world as they knew it had ended.  And yet…

I love the Hebrew word for “dream”: חָלַם, chalam.  It’s dreaming while asleep (last night, I dreamed I had the face of a horse).  It’s dreaming for something in life (I’ve always dreamed of going to Alaska).  It’s dreaming as a prophet (thus says the Lord).

I should add that prophets are not fortune tellers.  Nine times out of ten (maybe more than that) their prophetic dreams are about the current situation the people face, rather than predicting the future.  Having said that, we benefit from the messages they have given.  We need them!  And there are indeed foreshadowings of the Messiah.  The New Testament has one or two, here and there.

The word chalam has another definition.  It also means to be strong, to be robust.  It refers to infants and livestock if they’re fat and plump.  Poor bony creatures do not qualify as chalam.  The Revised English Bible captures this nuance of “those who dream,” by saying “we were like people renewed in health.”  Is it safe to say those who dream are healthy?  Those who do not dream are unhealthy?  They are not strong?  They are not robust?

According to the psalmist, they need not worry about that, as we see in verse 2.  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”  They can’t control themselves.  Their amazing reversal of fortunes demands response.  “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

2 ps[Here is a joyful person!]

The word for “shouts of joy” is רׅנָּה, rinnah.  It also appears in verses 5 and 6.  It can also mean “singing” and “rejoicing.”  What is their response to what the Lord has done for them?  What is their response to be like those who dream?  It’s singing; it’s joyful singing!

The Jews who have returned from exile can only ask, “How can we keep from singing?”  It’s like the hymn which poses the question, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging / Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?”[1]

The psalmist does something interesting.  It is affirmed, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  And then there’s a transition.  Acknowledging what’s been done, a request is added, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (vv. 3-4).  (That’s the desert in southern Israel.)  We’re moving from the past to looking to the future.

Lord, we ask you to make the streams flow in the desert.  This isn’t the time to let us down!  Don’t let our dreams turn to dust.  We just got our singing voices warmed up!  We were making beautiful music.

Still, maybe the psalmist understands the score.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (v. 5).

What’s the deal with introducing this language of sowing and reaping?  Maybe there is an understanding that joy must be grounded.  Joy can’t simply be “just a dream.”  It should be noted joy is not a mere emotion.  It is a deep spiritual reality, even when we don’t feel elated.  Quite clearly, there’s no guarantee that sowing the seeds will produce a good crop.  Maybe the ground will not be receptive.  Is it rocky?  Is it sandy?  Is it scorched by the sun, dry as a bone?

The image of sowing and reaping is a universal one, common to people throughout time.  Jesus tells a story which begins, “Listen!  A sower went out to sow” (Mk 4:1).  How receptive are we to receiving that seed which is the word?  Is our ground barren, rocky, filled with thorns?  Do we need to benefit from that fresh water in the desert?

Or will our efforts end in tears?

Henri Nouwen speaks of the joy that emerges from sorrow.[2]  “Joys are hidden in sorrows!  I know this from my own times of depression.  I know it from living with people with mental handicaps.”  He refers to his time after leaving his position as professor at Harvard Divinity School to live with the folks at L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, a community for adults with intellectual disabilities.

“I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor.  We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness.  We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.”

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[Some friendly folks at L'Arche Daybreak]

It really is too easy to focus on the negative.  One way I notice this is when we take prayer requests.  I think you will agree with me in saying the concerns usually outweigh the joys.  We too readily overlook the blessings and celebrations in life.  Please understand me.  In absolutely no way am I suggesting we overlook or dismiss the very real struggles and sorrows among us.  We all have burdens to bear, some much more than others.

I have a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  There is a section devoted to Evening Prayer.  There’s one in particular I frequently visit before going to sleep.  (Yes, we’re back to sleep!)

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.” (page 124)

I especially appreciate the request to “shield the joyous.”  I find depths of meaning in that.  Is it a plea for protection, lest the joyous too easily fall?  Does it refer to the prayer’s concern for the sorrows immediately preceding the joy?  Is it a shelter for the joyous prophetic dream of justice and peace?  I imagine it is those and many other levels of awareness.

The psalmist concludes, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6).  That’s the story of bringing in the sheaves.[3]  “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, / Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; / When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, / We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

How has our harvest been?  How have our crops fared?  Is our livestock chalam?   Can we carry our sheaves with joy?

The psalmist would have us be dreamers.  During this Advent, I think we are especially called to be dreamers.  Howard Wallace reminds us that, in our call to be dreamers, we would be like “those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be.  It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as the Lord comes to us in the midst of the tears of this earthly experience.”[4]

It’s not hard to see us in our own exile, of sorts.  We might be weeping for a season.  And yet…  God gives us the promise of the advent, the coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us through the desert of our journey.

We dreamed, and it was joy.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=VLPP3XmYxXg

[2] henrinouwen.org/meditation/joys-are-hidden-in-sorrows

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7yMUIezLSE

[4] hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/AdventB/Advent3BIsa61Ps126.html


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


centered in confession

I want to begin with a part of our worship service.  It deals with confession, and that’s not a confession of faith.  It’s a confession of sin.  And being done as a congregation, it’s a corporate confession of sin.  It is done as a body.  Having said that, I want to start with a question.

I imagine we’ve all been in this situation—probably more than once, maybe much more than once.  Have you ever been told to apologize when you were caught doing something wrong?  Have you ever been told to apologize, even if you didn’t mean it?  Maybe you were just sorry you got caught?  “Tell your sister you’re sorry for pulling her hair.”  (To which you might respond mumbling, “She deserved it.”)

1 is 6

How many times have you told someone else to say you’re sorry?  (Not having kids, I haven’t had many occasions to do that.)

Have you ever been told to apologize for something you did not do?  Have you been punished for something you didn’t do?

Now, back to the confession of sin.  Does it ever seem like you’re being told say you’re sorry?  Or moving even further, does it ever seem you’re being told to apologize for something you haven’t done?  I have heard people say they haven’t done or been the things in a certain prayer of confession.  Does it ever seem like we’re just reciting the words without meaning them?

Why bother with it at all?  Our scripture readings might shed some light on the matter.

The Old Testament reading from Isaiah 6 is one of the more memorable scripture passages.  (It’s also one of the scriptures for Trinity Sunday.)  It features the call of the prophet Isaiah.

There’s the glorious and frightful vision of Isaiah.  The Lord is perched high and mighty on the throne, his garb filling the temple.  The seraphim are flying around, praising with loud voices—voices so powerful that they’re shaking the whole place.  It’s truly an awe-inspiring scene.  And it is “awe”: a vision of astonishment, wonder, and fear.

In the presence of that sublimity, that transcendence, what can the prophet say?  “Woe is me!  I am lost” (v. 5).  Faced with that majestic beauty, he confesses, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  Isaiah admits his irreverence, his unworthiness.  So where do we go from here?

How about taking a glowing, fiery coal and pressing it against his lips?  That should sear off the sin.  (Please remember, this is a vision.  He’s not in danger of having his mouth burned off!)

Okay, those unclean lips have been purified; they’ve gone through the fire.  Now what?  The Lord puts out a call of recruitment: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Having now been pronounced worthy, Isaiah ventures to say, “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8).

2 is 6
Quick note: the lectionary reading ends there.  The rest of the chapter has some unfortunate language for those hoping the prophet will say everything’s copacetic.  There’s some rather grim stuff about people being abandoned, left to their own devices.  But don’t worry, it won’t last forever.  As soon as the cities have been depopulated, the land devasted, the wild animals taking up residence in houses—that might be long enough.

I want us to take note of something.  At what point does the narrative change?  When does the tide turn?  It’s when Isaiah confesses his fault, his missing the mark (which is one definition of sin).  That’s the hinge on which the story turns.  That’s when the reverse fire brigade is sent in.

Isaiah confesses, and then he finds freedom.

Our text in St. Luke’s gospel also has a bit of drama.  Jesus is at the lake of Gennesaret (also known as the Sea of Galilee), teaching the people.  He’s doing a good job, because they keep moving closer and closer to him.  Picture him backing up and backing up until he’s ankle deep, then knee deep—pretty soon, he’ll be swimming.  He sees a couple of boats belonging to some fishermen, and he gets in one of them.  Jesus needs to push off a little into water; he needs some breathing room.

After he’s done talking, he calls out to Simon Peter and says, “Let’s go out and do some fishing.”  Peter’s been cleaning his net, and, truth be told, he’s dog-tired.  He tells Jesus, “We were out there all night and didn’t catch jack squat—but if you insist.”  So he and his friends head out, and lo and behold, they catch so many fish their nets are about to break.

Peter knows Jesus is doing more than giving great fishing advice.  He is in the presence of greatness.  He is awestruck (to revisit that word), and he falls to his knees.  Peter cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (v. 8).  His friends are also gripped with astonishment, including his good buddies, James and John.

Just as with Isaiah, Peter acknowledges his sinfulness, his unworthiness.  At that moment of humble admission, he is encouraged and elevated by Jesus.  He says to him, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear not!  And just as with Isaiah, Peter is given an assignment; this assignment is a promise.

3 is 6Just at the moment when he has failed as a fisherman, Peter is given a different quarry.  Jesus promises him “from now on you will be catching people,” or some might say, “fishers of men” (v. 10).  It’s a life changing experience.  Peter and his friends leave their boats behind, the tools of their trade; they leave everything and follow him.

I began by talking about the prayer of confession, and there’s nothing like coming clean.  And it is indeed a case of being told to say, “I’m sorry.  I apologize.”  It’s a good thing that we’re told to apologize.  We are called to face ourselves, to unburden ourselves, to cast our cares on the Lord.  One hopes that’s part of our private prayer life, but this, as was noted before, an act of the community of faith.  It is an act of the body.

There’s a particular subject I would like us to consider, and it involves the community; it involves the body of Christ.  It deals with conflict, and too often, that involves sin.

Michael Gulker is the founder of the Colossian Forum, which deals with conflict and Christian discipleship.  It draws its inspiration from Colossians 1:17—all things hold together in Christ.  He and some friends recognized how the church was facing serious problems, but not always dealing with them in a Christlike way, to put it mildly!

He said, “We started gathering people of different stripes around a variety of topics.  We said we were going to worship and follow the structure of the liturgy and put an argument where the homily went and then ask at the end whether the Spirit had produced fruit.  If it did, then our love of God and neighbor is richer and deeper.  And if not, then what do we need to repent of, lament, confess?”[1]

You might say they took the prayer of confession of sin and just ran with it.

4 is 6

I’ve sometimes wondered if our worship could ever be dangerous—not safe and cuddly, not ever challenging.  Would it be dangerous to not shy away from the tricky issues?  Would it be dangerous to ask what the gospel of Jesus Christ has to say about climate change, racism, abortion, capital punishment, war, gun control, the pros and cons of eating squid, all those delicious issues and more!

Gulker said they were speaking with some youth, and this was one of the observations.  “They said they were interested in Jesus ‘but the church doesn’t smell like Jesus.’  They were saying that the church just smells like the rest of the culture.”

He continues, “We confess that all things hold together in Christ, not because of something we did, but because of something that has already been done, and we get to participate in that.  To do that well, we know that we have to pray.  We have to meditate on the Scriptures, together, across our differences.”

I said earlier I’ve heard people say they haven’t done or been the things in a prayer of confession.  There’s the question, “Don’t we typically go into conflict thinking, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong?’  There’s a lot of work just going into conflict with humility and realizing, ‘Maybe I’m wrong.”

There’s something dangerously freeing about, as our friend Michael says, “coming together to worship and [being] honest and [being] willing to get it wrong together…  We can get it wrong.  We can tell the truth about when we get it wrong because when we do, we can confess our sins and God is glorified.  People have forgotten this.  They forget it the moment they walk into a conflict.  So to simply remind people of that is gospel.  You can watch them light up and taste the gospel.  They’ve forgotten it.”

What a wonderful and powerful statement: people light up and taste the gospel.

5 is 6

Did you know it’s possible to disagree with someone and not think they’re stupid or evil?  We can have a discussion and wonder how something might lead us to more fully love God and neighbor and creation.  We can come together and see how the good news of Jesus Christ shines on what divides us.

We are centered in confession.

 

[1] www.faithandleadership.com/michael-gulker-conflict-and-christian-discipleship


what do you want?

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

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

1 mk
Ben Stiller in deep thought as Derek Zoolander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 mk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you want?

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

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

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

4 mk

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


spirit to forgive

I want to begin with a story about something that happened almost thirty years ago.  This was when I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  That’s an Assemblies of God school.  For two semesters, I was part of a street ministry team that traveled to Tampa on Friday nights.

Our “parish,” so to speak, was a quarter-mile strip along Kennedy Boulevard.  Our “parishioners” were the street people who lived, and passed through, the area.  In those days, I don’t think it was the best part of town.

On my very first night, the very first person I approached was a gentleman clad in shabby-looking clothing.  He appeared to be in his fifties.  Not knowing what else to say, I told him, “Jesus loves you.”  As soon as he heard that, he began crying and telling me how he had lost his family and his career.  I don’t remember if it was because of drinking or gambling or something else, but he recited a litany of his mistakes.

1 pentecostWhen he had finished listing his failures, he asked me if I would forgive him.  At the time, I was thinking, “It’s not my job to forgive him.  I need to direct him to Christ.”  So I told the man Jesus forgives anyone and anything.  But that didn’t work.  It seemed like he needed to hear the words, so again he asked me, “Do you forgive me?”  I relented and said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he shuffled away into the Tampa night.

Why do I begin with this story of speaking and hearing words of forgiveness?  One might ask, “Is this a theme for Pentecost?”  It’s not even about the Day of Pentecost!  I begin with this story on forgiveness because Jesus makes it a theme in our gospel reading from St. John—which is the gospel text.

I should say some people refer to the event in our gospel text as a “pre-Pentecost” Pentecost.  Already, on the evening of the day of his resurrection, on the evening of Easter, Jesus is giving his disciples the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if you picture this, to me it seems kind of strange.  “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22).  That’s what he says, but first, he breathes on them.  (Blow!)  Really?  Is that what it takes?

Actually, it doesn’t say he “blew” on them, but he “breathed on them.”  This is the posture of one who is not reactive, but responsive.  Being in a reactive posture or mode means coming from a place of defensiveness, a lack of listening and learning.  Being in a responsive mode means the opposite.  It is a place of openness, a place of listening and a curiosity which wants to learn.

There are many other things that could be said, but in a physical posture, it means remembering to breathe, paying attention to one’s breath.  (Breathe.)  When we remember to do that, it’s amazing how it helps us to be calm and patient and reflective.  (But it is something I find myself continually needing to practice.)

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The Hebrew word רוח (rua), which means “breath,” “spirit,” or “wind,” was a familiar idea.  John surely would have known about it.  Earlier in his gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (3:8).  So I suppose it does make sense for Jesus to use his breath in granting the Spirit to his disciples!

But we need to back up and see what’s going on, since this is the evening of Easter.  Our scripture text ends before we get to the part about St. Thomas and his questions of believing all this resurrection stuff.  Verse 19 says, “the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities” (Good News Bible).  Jesus suddenly appears out of nowhere and says, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them the now-glorified wounds in his hands and side.  He is not a ghost!

We’re told the disciples have been hiding from the authorities.  No doubt, they’re fearing for their lives.  Before Jesus appears to them, with his words of shalom, they’re thinking about what happened to him.  Still, Craig Barnes, who is president of Princeton Seminary, thinks there’s more to it.  If one understands the human psyche, it seems to be an unavoidable conclusion.

Barnes speaks about, not only fear, but shame.  “Like the disciples,” he says, “we try to hide when we’re ashamed.”[1]  It’s a defense mechanism; it’s almost instinct.  It may seem like a good strategy for a little while.  But, as Barnes says, “Nothing is more crippling to our souls than working at hiding shame.  We lock up more and more doors, sealing off more and more rooms of the heart to prevent our true selves from being discovered.  We think we are keeping the world out, but in fact we are keeping ourselves locked in.”

The disciples are ashamed because, when Jesus needed them the most, they turned around and took off.  They carry a horrible burden of guilt.

But thank God, that isn’t the end of it.  “At the center of the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus Christ has come looking for us.  According to John’s text, he walks right through the locked door to find us.  He shows us his wounds from the cross, which are the marks of our forgiveness.”

With verse 23, we come to what I said earlier may be an unexpected theme for Pentecost: speaking and hearing words of forgiveness, or more directly, forgiving and refusing to forgive.  Right after Jesus tells the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he adds, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

3 pentecostJesus entrusts the disciples with a great deal of authority.  It isn’t something they have, in and of themselves, but as the community gathered in his name.  As the community—as the church—they have the authority to offer forgiveness of sin.  We do something similar to that every week with our prayer of confession and assurance of pardon.

Jesus is speaking about something very powerful.  On the one hand, if we forgive someone, they are forgiven.  In Matthew 18, Peter has a little chat with Jesus about that (v. 21).  On the other hand, if we retain the sins of any, they are retained.  The Good News Bible says, “if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

The Greek has an even stronger force.  First of all, the word for “to forgive” (αφιημι, aphiēmi) also means “to send off,” “to let go.”  I think anytime we’re able, by the grace of God to forgive, we can feel what it means “to let go.”  It’s a burden we’re glad to be rid of.

On the flip side, there’s an equally strong force.  The words “retain” and “not forgive” don’t quite capture it.  The Revised English Bible says that “if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain.”  The Greek word for “retain” (κρατεω, krateō) also means “to hold,” “to seize.”  It comes from the word (κρατος, kratos) that means “strength” or “power.”  It takes a lot of strength to hold on to that stuff.  You wear yourself out.

According to the New Testament, we are a “holy” and “royal priesthood” (1 Pe 2:5, 9).  One of the key roles of a priest is to declare the forgiveness of sins.  We’re told “we disciples are not called to produce forgiveness.  We’re called to be the priest pronouncing that which has been produced on the cross.  We’re called to open the locks and throw open the door, and walk back into the world as a priest who is unafraid.  The only alternative is to live in shrinking prisons of hurt.”[2]

I imagine most of us have sometimes heard it said forgiving also means forgetting.  In order to forgive, we have to forget.  I would humbly have to disagree.  I don’t believe we are called to display amnesia.  I don’t believe we are called to have the attention span of gnats.  That doesn’t improve the character of either party.  That doesn’t help us deal with life.

At this point, I need to interject something.  When someone has been the victim of abuse or assault, forgiveness is a very tricky thing.  Telling someone, “It’s your Christian duty to forgive,” only adds another layer of abuse.  Forgiveness often takes a very long time to come, if it happens at all.  Sometimes the scars are too overwhelming.  I just mentioned the grace of God.  When grace can break through the hurt, it is a wondrous thing.

Moving on, there’s a concept known as “the shadow.”  It’s described as “the place we put all the suppressed and repressed parts of our lives.”[3]  The shadow isn’t evil.  Rather, it’s the stuff about us we want to keep hidden from the world, and even from ourselves.  It’s the stuff we find embarrassing and shameful.

As Richard Rohr says, “Suppressing what we don’t want to deal with is like trying to hold a basketball underwater while going on with life as usual…  What we suppress—the shadow aspect of life—ambushes us sooner or later.  We don’t know why we’re depressed or angry, why everyone and everything is out to get us.”[4]

One big sign of some major repression is the lack of a healthy sense of humor.  Can we laugh at ourselves?  (That might be an unfair question.  Not everyone has the treasure trove I possess which is needed to laugh at oneself!)

Rohr continues, “People who are overly stern and moralistic usually have a significant, repressed shadow.  They walk through life shaking a judgmental finger in disapproval—and they disapprove of just about everything!  They’re often incapable of easy enjoyment.”[5]

I fully believe humor is one of the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit.  I say that because I can recall a time when I had no genuine, joyful sense of humor.  Was I a jerk who thought humor consisted of snide comments and sarcastic remarks at someone else’s expense?  Yes.  I was a living example of having “no patience, no forgiveness, no mercy, but only harsh judgments.  No gospel.”[6]  No good news.  (Sad to say, sometimes I still fall into that trap!)

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Looking at our text, one sign we’re open to the Holy Spirit is how willing and able we are to forgive.  Both are important.  There must be both the willingness and the ability.  Remember, just as the disciples find out in their encounter with Jesus, the ability to forgive is a gift.  But the willingness must also be present.  We need to have a spirit to forgive.

In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells us “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17).  That is the deep meaning of Pentecost.  The Spirit of God brings freedom; the Spirit of God liberates.  As people of the Spirit, we reclaim our identity when we send out—when we unleash—the forgiveness of Christ.

When we allow that Spirit to run free in the world, who knows what dangerous and wonderful things will happen?  Why don’t we find out?

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[2] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 129.

[4] Rohr, 196.

[5] Rohr, 197.

[6] Rohr, 198.


have I got an investment for you!

I’m sure we’ve all had someone come to us and say (or maybe we’ve said to someone else), “I’ve got good news and bad news.  Which do you want to hear first?”  Is it the good news or the bad news?

Here’s my guess.  Those who want the good news first might want to soften the blow for the bad news.  The idea is that the good news will put them in a good enough mood to deal with the bad news.

On the other hand, those who want the bad news first might see the value of delayed gratification.  Getting the bad news out of the way, steeling oneself to weather the storm, seems to be a good way of getting ready for relief.

Cat

Of course, it also depends on what the other person considers to be good news and bad news!

And then there can be the situation of deciding between the lesser of two evils, or the good problem of deciding between two happy alternatives.

Today’s Old Testament reading comes from the book of Jeremiah.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, that book has very few happy alternatives.  It has a lot of bad news!  The life of the prophet Jeremiah is filled with bad news.  Today’s passage has plenty of bad news.  But don’t worry, good news is on the way.  We’ll look at that in a few moments.

Here’s a quick look at Jeremiah and his world.

He lives in the late 7th century and early 6th century B.C.  (That’s the 600s to the 500s.)  The Babylonians are replacing the Assyrians as the superpower in the Middle East.  The northern kingdom of Israel has already been conquered by Assyria, but the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jeremiah lives, is still ripe for the picking.

Thanks to the call of God, which he tries to refuse, Jeremiah sees the writing on the wall.  The Babylonians are on the way.  So there’s some bad news.  He speaks against the corruption that has infected religious and political leadership alike. He does the prophetic job of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

And boy, does he pay for that.  He is mocked, made a laughing stock, physically abused, and even tossed in jail.  On more than one occasion, Jeremiah blames God for tricking him and betraying him.  It’s not for nothing that he’s been called “the weeping prophet.”

Jeremiah’s relationship with King Zedekiah can best be described as “complicated.”  (That sounds like a lot of romantic relationships!)  Unlike a previous king, Jehoiakim, who clearly hated the ground Jeremiah walked on, Zedekiah is torn.  He wants to listen to him, but he’s too afraid of what his enemies might do.  So he keeps going to Jeremiah, hoping he’ll change his tune.  “Come on, throw me a bone!  Tell me everything’s going to be fine!”  And Jeremiah would love to do that, but he can’t resist the call of God.

As a result, the prophet keeps on with the bad news: arming against the Babylonians is a no-win scenario.

I don’t know if she mentioned this to you, but Banu and I love vampires.  We love those bloodsuckers!  In fact, it was a TV show about vampires that helped bring us together in the first place.  It was the show Forever Knight, which was about a vampire police officer in Toronto.  We even like the Twilight movies, but my big complaint is that sunlight is supposed to burn vampires, not cause them to sparkle dreamily and take your breath away!

There’s a current TV show called The Strain, which is about people in New York City fighting an army of vampire-like creatures.  (It is not at all romantic!)  In the last episode, there was a quote that I think could easily be directed at Jeremiah.  The quote comes from a member of the city council to a reporter who is questioning police tactics.  People in jails are being gathered up and conscripted.  They’re being sent into the tunnels under the city to fight the vampires—and without a great deal of success, I might add.

Here’s what the council member says to the reporter: “Faith in the war effort is paramount.  And what you’re doing here undercuts all that.  Your work does nothing but serve your ego and cause me and my people more harm.”  After that, all of the equipment gets confiscated.

Obviously, the enemies Jeremiah warns about are not a horde of vampires!  But he is considered a traitor, and he is arrested for treason.  He’s said to be damaging the morale of the nation.  There seems to be a silent minority who agree with Jeremiah, but they’re too intimidated to speak out.  We’re only told about one person who publicly stands with Jeremiah, his secretary and friend, Baruch.  Zedekiah the king would like to release the prophet, but as I said earlier, he’s too scared.

In today’s scripture reading, he’s puzzled and terrified when he says to Jeremiah, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hands of the king of Babylon?” (vv. 3-4).

It’s while he’s in prison that God makes him a sales pitch.  “Have I got an investment for you!”

Glengarry glen ross

I’m sure those of you who’ve been involved in real estate have always conducted yourselves above board.  You wouldn’t stoop to shady practices that some realtors use as their business model.  There’s none of the conveniently forgetting some repairs that need to be made.

Jeremiah is told that his cousin, Hanamel, is on his way to visit him in jail, and he has a proposition.  “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours” (v. 7).  That “right of redemption” refers to Leviticus 25.  It’s a way to keep ownership of property within the family.

Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place.  He’s in jail for pronouncing national destruction, and then he gets this message.  Binyamin Lau says it must seem like “a surreal hallucination.”[1]  Am I hearing voices, and what are those voices telling me to do?

When your country is being invaded, when it’s a time of war, when people are being sent into exile, real estate prices tend to take a nosedive.  God had already warned him that his cousin was going to offer him land—land that Jeremiah had to know would be insanely overpriced.  Hanamel was about to make a killing off this sale!  And yet, he was compelled to make the purchase.

(By the way, Hanamel will have quite a story to tell at the next family reunion.)

God isn’t bound by what we consider to be immutable laws of economics.  Laws of supply and demand aren’t a high priority for God.

So while he’s going through the business of payment and signing deeds, Jeremiah must feel like he’s being a fool.  So there’s some more bad news.  But in verse 15, we get some good news.  “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  There will be people who return from exile.

Even so, that’s not good enough for Jeremiah.  “Lord, I know you can do anything, but how in the world is this going to happen?”  The rest of chapter 32 is taken up with explanations.

Have we ever been in that situation?  Have we ever been given what feels like an albatross around the neck, and thought, what the heck am I going to do with this?  Why did I volunteer for this?  Or why did I let myself get drafted into this?  In life, so many decisions are beyond our control.  I think all of us understand that.  Jeremiah certainly does.

As congregations, we understand that.  You folks understand that.  You have some real estate questions of your own.  Some of you might feel like you have an albatross around your neck!

But like I just said, whatever “piece of land,” whatever call from God we’ve had to answer, can give us that feeling of the bottom dropping out.  We can feel like we’re left out on a limb.  There’s something in the pit of our stomach that’s doing somersaults.  And friends, that is bad news!

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m one of those people who wants the bad news first.  Just hit me with it!  I want the bad news first, because then I know the good news is right around the corner!

You might not realize it, but you’re sitting on a gold mine.  And I’m not just talking about bricks and mortar.  I’m not just talking about a piece of land.  That’s a discovery Jeremiah made.  When he bought that field from his cousin, it came with a promise from his God.  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.  There are many layers of truth in that promise.  Still, unless Jeremiah takes that step of faith, he won’t be part of that good news.

On another occasion, when Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon, he reminds them of God’s word, in that “surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).  That’s a pledge we also can, and should, claim.

Australian pastor Bruce Prewer puts a question to us.  “Isn’t this a very good time to buy a block of Jeremiah’s land?”[2]

Jeremiah icon

From the darkness of prison, God shows Jeremiah the light of the good news.  It’s right around the corner.  Prewer adds, “Jeremiah would not live to see the new day, but it was promised by a God whose word was never broken.”  Some people say that Jeremiah is the most Christ-like of the prophets.  Like Jesus, he doesn’t welcome all the suffering that’s dished out to him, but he holds true.

Friends, Jeremiah might not have seen that new day, but it is dawning upon us.  The field of the prophet is again up for sale.  God is again making the promise to us.  “Have I got an investment for you!”

Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

 

[1] Binyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, trans. Sara Daniel (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013), Kindle edition, Part 3, section 3, sub-section 11, paragraph 5.

[2] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C55sun26.htm


imagination and love

I want to begin with some quick stories about my own calling, about vocation.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com
Two of them go back to when I was in the Assemblies of God.  The first one involves my pastor.  He told me one time that if I could possibly avoid becoming a pastor, then I shouldn’t do it.  I thought to myself that’s some easy advice to take!  I had absolutely no intention of doing his job.  The idea of pastoral ministry was not at all appealing to me.

I still felt the same way when I went to the Assemblies of God Bible college.  I just wanted to study the Bible and learn some theology.  My second story comes from a conversation I had at that school.

One of my professors had an autistic son.  (By the way, it was his class on Jeremiah that helped sparked my love of the prophet!)  He contacted the denominational headquarters to see if they had something along the lines of Sunday school lessons or any material he could use with his son.  When they responded “no” to him, he took it pretty hard.

Now, he had graduated from the Presbyterian seminary near Atlanta.  His advice to me was that, if I ever sought ordination, I should do so with the Presbyterian Church.  Again, that was easy advice to take and reject, because I still didn’t give a fig about being a pastor.

The third story comes from when I was at seminary in Philadelphia.  Again, I still was not interested in being a pastor!  I was in a two-year program, the Master of Arts with an emphasis on Faith and Public Policy.  I liked the idea of a combination of spirituality and politics.  As the time for graduation approached, no doors for opportunity were open.  I was feeling a bit depressed.

One night, Banu and I were going to have dinner with some friends of hers.  On the way, I was telling her my sob story.  She suggested that I go into the Master of Divinity program, which is the one for pastors.  Suddenly, everything made sense.  Of course I had always wanted to be a pastor; I just didn’t want to admit it!

For someone who claimed that he was not at all interested in pastoral ministry, I was certainly taking deliberate steps in that direction.  God has a wonderful sense of humor.

If it seems that I resisted my calling, it’s nothing compared to what we see with Jeremiah.  He has been appointed a prophet, not only to his own people, but also “to the nations.”  The Lord tells him that this has been the plan since before he was even born (v. 5).

How does Jeremiah react?  Is he jumping for joy?  Does he say, “Sign me up!”?  Not exactly.  “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  We’re reminded of Moses at the burning bush.  Moses tries to explain to God that he isn’t the right guy for the job, and he even provides a laundry list of excuses to make his case! (Ex 3-4).  Surprisingly, God isn’t convinced.

Still, the sense of inability—the feeling that we’ll just screw it up—when asked to do something for God can actually be a good thing.  Bruce Epperly says that, in the Bible, “one mark of an authentic prophet is a protest of inadequacy when she or he is called to speak [on] behalf of God.  People don’t run for prophetic leadership as they do for public office; they are called, often against their will, to speak on God’s behalf in challenging situations.”[1]

That sense of inability, of failure, might be a pretty good sign of “faithfulness and spiritual well-being.”  Author Madeleine L’Engle when asked, “‘Do you believe in God without any doubts?’ [is quoted as replying], ‘I believe in God with all of my doubts.’”[2]

Jeremiah lives at a time when the Babylonian hammer is about to fall on Judah.  People are nervous.  And at the same time, corruption and idolatry are everywhere.  As the prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah is given the task of opposing injustice—speaking truth to power.  As true prophets do, his job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

One of the things I really love about this book is Jeremiah’s brutal honesty about his calling and ministry.  In verse 8, we get a little taste of things to come when the Lord says to him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”  I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there.  I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you” (vv. 7b-8).  I’ll be your teleprompter; stick to the script.

Jeremiah knows that trouble is in store for him.  It’s not for nothing that he has been called “the weeping prophet.”

image from mshowalter.files.wordpress.com

I think that hearing about Jeremiah and his struggles opens the door to questions we don’t often entertain.  What have been our own conflicts, our own struggles, in God’s call on our lives?  Have we been able to put it into words?  Do we understand what it means to be called?

Going back to what I said earlier about calling: at the most basic level, we are called to hear the word of God, however it comes to us, and to respond.  That response must be in love and clothed in prayer.  Jeremiah loves his people.  That’s one reason why it is so agonizing for him to say what he does.

Think of how different it is among us today.  Binyamin Lau speaks of this when he says that true prophets must indeed “love [their] people.  Even when the harshest reproach is called for, [prophets] must consider [themselves divine emissaries] whose role is to help redeem the people, not to stand aloof and condemn.”[3]  (Not to stay at a safe distance and lob hand grenades!)

He goes on with something I think we all see.  “Indeed, journalists today take on the role of moral and social critics, though more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.  Criticism based on love, of the kind that distinguished Jeremiah, is not often found.”  I fear that I find myself too often playing that role.

Too often, I find myself lacking in imagination and love.  And what a good segue to my title!

In our Presbyterian Book of Order, there are questions posed to those being ordained and installed (W-4.4003).  This goes for ruling elders, deacons, or teaching elders (also known as ministers of the Word and Sacrament).  Among the questions are trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior, receiving the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, and promising to abide by our church’s polity.  My title points to the final one: “Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

Will we pray for and seek to serve the people with energy—with desire and passion, and not in a lackluster way?

…with intelligence—with our best thinking, and not just going with the flow?  And then those last two:

…with imagination—with our creativity, and not being afraid to dream?

…with love—which sums everything up, everything that is good and faithful and, indeed, holy?

Will we serve lovingly as a privilege, and not grudgingly as a burden?  (Although to be honest, at times “lovingly” might not be foremost in our minds!)

As I suggested earlier, all of us are called, whether or not we’ve been ordained to a position within the church.  In the life of faith, each one of us is called by God.

Again, there’s some good stuff in our Book of Order on this.  “[We] respond to God’s call to honor and serve God in every aspect of human life…  God hallows daily life, and daily life provides opportunity for holy living.  As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.  For Christians, work and worship cannot be separated.” (W-5.6002-3)

As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.

Bruce Prewer tells the story of a woman who cleaned city offices in downtown Melbourne.[4]  She worked long nights, with her shift ending at 7am.  She would be bone tired, exhausted, as she headed down the busy street to catch her train home.

“Although weary, she walked with a perky step, for she was one of those special people who believed she was called to [be] Christ’s cleaner in those offices where she spent the long hours of night.

“She knew herself as called by Jesus and she hoped she had done him proud.  As she encountered hordes of people [pouring out] from the station to start work, many of them impatient, sour and grumbling, she held her head high with a dignity only the God of Jesus Christ could bestow.  She cherished her vocation.”

This is a woman who knew she was called, and she answered her call with imagination and love.

We here in this congregation are called by God, and we have the opportunity and privilege to respond with imagination and love.  Especially in this interim time, there is the chance to dream of untapped potential.  We can ask, “Why do we do this?  Do we still need to do this?  Is there another way to do this?  Is there a better way to serve that holy spirit of imagination and love?” image from thecostaricanews.com

Sometimes we might get impatient.  We get impatient with this business of proceeding with a deliberate and intentional process.  We might not see the wisdom in it.  We might think it’s useless.  “What are we waiting for?  Let’s get on with finding our new pastor!”

Would it surprise you to realize we’re more like Jeremiah than we think?  We can chafe and grumble about our call.  Of course, the comparison with Jeremiah might be overstated a bit.  God probably doesn’t need to say, “I am with you to deliver you.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you.”

Having said that, whether it’s impatience with the interim process as a congregation or our own individual calls, God is there.  Whether it’s our call as a community to move ahead in faith—or our very real concerns about reaching out to that certain person, about gut-wrenching decisions on health or employment, about knowing that there’s something we really don’t want to do—God is still there, looking after us.

As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to destroy and to overthrow whatever hold those dark forces have on our faith.  As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to build and to plant whatever makes for imagination and love.

 

[1] Bruce Epperly, “Living the Word,” Christian Century 127:2 (26 January 2010):  20.

[2] Epperly, 20.

[3] Binyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, trans. Sara Daniel (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 2, paragraph 6.

[4] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C50sun21.htm