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have mercy, I'm purifying

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio between Columbus and Cincinnati, you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  Approaching from the east on I-86, there was another interesting sign.  (I presume it’s still there.)  Perched on a hill, it proclaimed, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I once wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”

If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?”  Not to put too fine a point on it, I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!  The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments.

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Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  If I’m correct, why would it be we so rarely see them posted in public?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do an injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Too often it’s, “Please, just tell me what to do!”  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities who have a blessed life.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Really?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  What does our economy say?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!

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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest: isn’t it better to be the one calling the shots?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[1]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”

So as we move through the Beatitudes of Jesus, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

There are nine of these “blessed”s.  I’ll just focus on two: numbers 5 and 6, that is, verses 7 and 8.  “Blessed are the merciful,” and “blessed are the pure in heart.”

Someone whose reflections I have found helpful and enlightening is Cynthia Bourgeault.  She calls herself “a modern-day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader.”[2]

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  She says Jesus is speaking “to the idea of flow.”[3]  She notes “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy.  And this is not coincidental, for the root of the word ‘mercy’ comes from the old Etruscan merc, which also gives us ‘commerce’ and ‘merchant.’  It’s all about exchange.”

We often think of mercy in the context of something we do not do.  We “have mercy” on someone if we don’t punish them.  We are merciful if we refrain from bringing down the hammer on their heads.  And we usually think of God in the same terms.  We pray, “Lord have mercy,” and “have mercy upon us.”

Sometimes it’s an expression of surprise, even a pleasant surprise.  “Lawd, have mercy!”

Still, as we’ve been told, “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy.”  There are acts of mercy.  In this idea of flow, “mercy is not something God has so much as it’s something that God is.”  Mercy is part of God’s very being.  And by extension, when we participate in God’s mercy, it becomes part of who we are.

Bourgeault continues, “Exchange is the very nature of divine life—of consciousness itself, according to modern neurological science—and all things share in the divine life through participation in this dance of giving and receiving.”  We are connected; we are connected by mercy.  When we refuse mercy, we become separated.  We build a wall.  We cut off the flow of life.  We become hardened.  Jesus would have us melt the ice.

Mercy is closely related to forgiveness.  They both have a sense of self-effacement.  They both have a sense of deference.  They both have a sense of respect.

I’ll revisit something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago: political campaigns.  Election Day is upon us.  Can you believe that political differences have brought friendships to ruin?  Imagine.  “I thought we were friends!”  And it’s especially fun when faith enters the arena.  “How can you call yourself a Christian and support that guy?”  (Or support that gal!)  Remember, when the election is over, we still have to live with each other.

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Karen Chamis, our Resource Presbyter, has written about this.[4]  Here’s how a discussion might go: “You can’t vote for A and say you love me.”  “I can vote for A and love you because I’m capable of doing both.”  “No, you can’t vote for A, because what A stands for threatens my existence.”

“One party walks away from the friendship shaking their head at how narrow-minded the other is, and the other walks away wondering if they were ever actually seen by this person in the first place…

“Regardless of what the [election] result is, we’ve changed as a nation and there are things we can’t unsee.  We have work to do as the church, not in pretending the divisions don’t exist and worshipping (again) at the idol of niceness, but in building the kin-dom.”

We will all need to engage in a program of forgiving.  We will all need a refresher course in showing mercy.  With God’s help, we can be mercy.  Since this is All Saints’ Day, we’re reminded of that great cloud of witnesses cheering us on—not to mention the saints alive here and now.

Showing mercy, being mercy, flows right into the next beatitude.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  That’s a blessing like none other: they will see God.

What is purity of heart?  Too often, it has been limited to discussions of being virtuous, of being moral—especially sexually moral.  There is another place in which this purity is addressed.  James 4 says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (v. 8).  You can see the focus here.  A pure heart, a clean heart, is not divided.  It is single.

The New Jerusalem Bible puts it in this light: “The nearer you go to God, the nearer God will come to you.  Clean your hands, you sinners, and clear your minds, you waverers.”  More so than any other epistle, St. James’ has the theme of teaching wisdom.  Clearing one’s mind, avoiding wavering, is a sign of wisdom.  There is a flow that can be detected.

Maybe you will notice how “heart” and “mind” are used interchangeably.  The heart is not simply emotion, and the mind is not simply intellect.  There is a unity of wisdom.

When a heart is purified, there is a burning away of chaff, of debris, of residue.  There is a focus on what is clear, what is lucid, what is holy.  Too often, our minds, our hearts—at least, it’s true with mine—run to and fro in a helter-skelter fashion.  There is a sense of being torn.  Sometimes, it can be paralyzing.

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Again, here’s Cynthia Bourgeault.  “This Beatitude is not about sexual abstinence; it’s about cleansing the lens of perception.”[5]  I’m reminded of a line from the poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”[6]

Perhaps that is what it means to see God.  Can we see God in others?  Can we see God in those folks with whom we disagree, indeed, even strongly disagree?  I remember someone I knew years ago when I attended the Assemblies of God college in Florida.  He reflected on his approach when dealing with somebody who didn’t like him.  He brought to mind that “Jesus Christ died for him.”  That might be helpful.

Showing mercy, being mercy, frees the way for clearing our minds, for purifying our hearts.  We need that among us, more than we know.

Have mercy, I’m purifying.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203

[2] cynthiabourgeault.org

[3] cac.org/be-merciful-2017-04-19

[4] karenchamis.blog/2020/10/28/scruples

[5] cac.org/be-whole-hearted-2017-04-20

[6] from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”


a large spirit

“I hate it.”  That was what Banu said to me when I asked her, “What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the word ‘patience’?”  She said that it’s usually thought of as being patient while suffering.  I can understand that.  I’m hardly a fan of suffering myself.

Richard Rohr defines suffering as “whenever you are not in control.”[1]  That casts a wide net, but it might actually get to the heart of it.  He adds, “All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain…  If we do not transform this pain, we will most assuredly transmit it to others, and it will slowly destroy us in one way or another.”

Over the past few years, even the past couple of decades, we can see this dynamic at work in our nation—and in the church.  We seem to be more divided than ever, and it is destroying us.

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Rohr continues,If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somewhere in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down…  The soul does not need answers, it just wants meaning, and then it can live.”

He’s on to something when he talks about the pain that we all experience.  Clearly, for some, pain is more intense than it is for others.  But if we do not transform our pain—or perhaps better, allow it to be transformed—we will definitely transmit it to others.  We will become agents of destruction.  We can quite literally become a pain in the rear end!

Some people transmit pain in a less obvious way.  Instead of primarily projecting it outwardly, they direct it inwardly.  They might want to bear their pain, their suffering, in silence.  They might feel like they have to.  This can lead to an inward spiral of self-pity, or maybe self-hatred, which inevitably leaks out.

Suffering doesn’t have to be so agonizing to do damage.  Our patience can be tested by something less than a life-threatening situation.

It has occurred to me that traffic makes time slow down.  It must be true!  While driving down the road, sometimes my car is the last in a line of cars.  There’s no one behind me.  On occasion, someone will pull onto the road right in front of me, forcing me to slow down—sometimes very quickly.  If the other driver had been willing to wait for ten more seconds, even five seconds, there would have been no drama, no temptation for road rage!  Apparently, five seconds feels like five minutes.

(You do understand of course, I have never pulled out right in front of someone!)

Waiting in line can also test one’s patience.  I especially enjoy being in line at a buffet restaurant, waiting for someone who is shoveling mountains on his or her plate.  Evidently, there’s a fear that the restaurant is about to run out of food.

In his letter, St. James does indeed link patience with suffering.  He doesn’t need to invent that connection; the community he’s writing to knows about suffering all too well.  This is real suffering.  It’s not the suffering that comes with slow internet service—or lamenting the terrible season that your team is having!

If we look at the beginning of chapter 5, we see him issuing a warning.  “Come now, you rich people,” he scolds, “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten” (vv. 1-2).  It’s the old story of the wealthy beating down the poor, but as we see, their day in the sun will soon be over.

2 ja“Listen!” the scripture says, “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (vv. 4-5).

Part of that in another version goes, “You have lived on the land in wanton luxury, gorging yourselves” (v. 5, Revised English Bible).  The unrighteous rich are fattening themselves up, like turkeys destined for Christmas dinner.

Still, with all of that in view, as we get to today’s reading, James says, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (v. 7).  (There’s a note for Advent.)  Even though being told to be patient might test our patience, it is the fruit, the evidence, of the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Paul says in Galatians 5.  It goes along with love, joy, peace, and several others (vv. 22-23).  The word in Greek for “to be patient” (μακροθυμεω, makrothumeō) literally means “to have a long, or a large, spirit.”

The letter of James has many nuggets of wisdom.  In chapter 4 he says, “What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14).  The secret of having a large spirit helps us to take a deep breath and to realize that maybe the sky isn’t falling!  (I freely admit, it’s easier to say that when you’re not in the midst of the storm, or if you’re not Chicken Little with the acorn falling on your head.)

Apparently agreeing with the idea that suffering means being not in control, William Loader says, “The alternative to patience is some kind of panic.  This usually assumes that everything is in my control or should be.  So I become anxious and I fear that not everything will get done.  I then push myself and others around me.”[2]

Drawing on James’ image of the farmer, the idea that “we can make the seed grow by worrying about it is an accurate enough parody of the way we sometimes behave.  Our anxieties will not add anything.  They will diminish us and those around us.”

Why is James so interested in seeing that his beloved audience gets the message to be patient?  Why insist on patience?  Why insist on having a large spirit?

James is deeply concerned about the community of believers; he’s concerned about the church.  Under the pressure of their suffering, he implores them, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.  See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (v. 9).

Susan Eastman has a few thoughts about this.

She says, “James warns his hearers against turning their pain, their ‘groans,’ against each other.  It is easy, when we are experiencing hard times, to become bitter…or simply to stop going to church.  How many people quietly drop out of Sunday morning worship when they go through intense personal crises…?  How many people put on a pious public Sunday morning face because they fear the judgment of their Christian brothers and sisters?”[3]

The prayer attributed to St. Francis which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” can be very difficult to live.  The part I find especially difficult is the section which goes, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”  That bit about seeking to understand, rather than being understood, I especially dislike!  I’m not terribly fond of being misunderstood, of being misrepresented.  I imagine I’m not the only one who feels that way.

That’s something to keep in mind the next time we think we know someone’s motives.

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Still, Eastman says that “patience is essential to the process of becoming a peacemaker.  The premature resolution of conflict usually inflicts some kind of violence on one of the parties involved, by silencing them.”  Silencing people is the method of a bully, which means we must resist the temptation to shut somebody up by smacking them upside the head—whether physically or emotionally!

If you look at the rest of the passage, James uses the prophets and Job as examples of patience.  Even though he finishes by saying “the Lord is compassionate and merciful,” Job doesn’t quietly suffer (v. 11).  He questions God.  He yells at God.  Job might even say that the Lord is guilty of bullying him.  In that respect, he really is the picture of patience.

Sometimes change is defined as what happens; transition, however, is how we react to change.  What do we do with change?  Transitional times, especially in congregations, can be quite restless.  One of the challenges is to be patient with the process.  We might find there’s great wisdom in it.

Here’s another reason why this fits the season of Advent.  James says, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (v. 8).  We are counseled to be patient, to have a large spirit.  That results in trusting God, trusting in the one who comes.  We learn to trust in the one whose advent continues to lead us in casting a vision for the future.

It takes practice to cultivate a large spirit.  I spoke earlier about healthy religion.  With a spirituality that is nourishing, we recognize our pain—we own it!—but we’re able (eventually) to let go of it.  As noted earlier, it also involves recognizing the pain of others.  It involves recognizing the suffering of others and acting!

One way of doing that is by collecting donations of often overlooked items, such as toilet paper.  Not at all to make light of it, but lacking toilet paper represents its own kind of suffering.

I’ve sometimes thought if I had to do without, what would I miss the most?  Toilet paper, for sure.  I would also miss brushing my teeth, applying deodorant, using Q-tips!  It’s those little, basic things that wind up meaning so much.

Kristy Burmeister talks about a friend of hers named Melissa who has a story from when she was in church youth group.[4]

She says, “The youth minister had $10.  He said, ‘We can buy one $10 gift or 9 $1 gifts.’ [including tax].  The entire youth group were rallying around the idea of more is better.  In other words, they would go to the Dollar Tree and find 9 toys for this one shoe box.

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“None of them understood what it was like to be poor.  They all lived in solid middle class or lower upper class homes.  I had understood what it was like to be solidly poor.  I had lived it just a few Christmas’ before.  I cut into the discussion.  ‘I know what’s it’s like to be on the other side of this box.  I’ve lived that life.  As someone poor, I could still get a toy from the dollar store.  We should get one nice item, something they normally wouldn’t get because the money would have to go to food instead of toys.’”

She says she was outvoted.

I have a crazy idea.  Has anyone thought of buying some brand new items, and then donating them to the thrift store?  (Now that I’ve said it, I better put my money where my mouth is!)

Speaking of the mouth, we come to verse 12:Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”

First of all, there’s a long history of debating what swearing by an oath is all about.  It would seem, by a simple reading of the text, that swearing by any oathtaking is forbidden.  Sometimes, as these things go, conditions (maybe accommodations) have been made.  What is prohibited are rash or careless oaths.  Casual swearing (and understand, that’s not swearing in the sense of uttering expletives or “cussing”) is banned.  Taking an oath in court seems to be okay.

Here’s how the Passion Translation puts it.  (Although, it should be pointed out, it’s more a paraphrase than a translation.)  “Above all we must be those who never need to verify our speech as truthful by swearing by the heavens or the earth or any other oath.  But instead we must be so full of integrity that our ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is convincing enough and we do not stumble into hypocrisy.”

My main point deals with the second part, that is, “let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”  That word “condemnation” is from the Greek word κρισις (krisis), which means “separation” or “judgment.”  (I’m not sure why the Passion Translation calls it “hypocrisy,” but that’s a matter for another day!)

Let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no.  Or to quote my mother, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”  Speak the truth; live the truth.  We might ask, “What does this have to do with patience during suffering?”  How do they connect?  What is the relationship between a large spirit and a truthful life?

As we saw, James uses Job to help make his case.  What was one of the bitterest parts of Job’s suffering?  Those lovely friends of his.

At first, they prove to be loyal companions.  When they hear of his misfortune, they travel from great distances to be with him.  They stayed with him, as the scripture says, for “seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13).  They exercised what’s known as the ministry of presence.

They honored him in his suffering.  They didn’t offer any unsolicited and unhelpful advice.  That is, not until Job started protesting against God.  That was too much!  They were insistent that Job must have done something wrong.  Why else would he be suffering?  “Repent, Job,” they say, “and your troubles will go away.”

What happens when God addresses Job’s friends?  Does God say, “Nice job, guys, you got it right!”  Not quite.  They are chastised; they weren’t truthful, as Job was.  They are found guilty.

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What does James say?  “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.”  Do not turn your pain against each other.  Live a truthful life.  Indeed, honor each other—honor each other’s pain and suffering, especially in these days: “the most wonderful time of the year.”  Well guess what?  It’s not so wonderful for everyone.

Our loving Lord, whose Advent is nigh, calls us to show that large spirit to bear each other up.  We all carry heavy burdens.  Let us rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

 

[1] myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation--What-Is-Suffering-.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=J5f-pdASkgU

[2] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpAdvent3.htm

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=11

[4] www.patheos.com/blogs/waystationinthewilderness/2019/12/1467


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?

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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.)

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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!)

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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.


more than yes

I’ve sometimes said something that even I think is strange.  It has to do with being sick.  It’s happened when I’ve heard people talk about weight loss as a result of an illness.  Understand, I’m not referring to serious, life-threatening weight loss; I’m not talking about wasting away.  It’s just a question of taking off some pounds.  I’ve remarked (jokingly) a good way to trim the fat is to get sick.  Although, I add, it’s not the preferred method!

Another quirky comment deals with an almost abnormal (okay, let’s call it abnormal) satisfaction.  It’s possible in a weird way to enjoy being sick, or at least, not to hate it too much.  Again, I’m not talking about anything severe or really painful.  It’s simply that when one is under the weather, it’s possible to appreciate the days off.  And depending on how big a baby one is, it’s nice if you have someone to wait on you.  (Not that I would know anything about that!)

1 jn 5Of course, there can be many problems with that, aside from being unnecessarily needy on said person!  One big problem would be getting used to being sick or injured.  A problem would be allowing it to define us.  You know, being the survivor of brain cancer who takes anti-seizure medication, whose condition is exacerbated by lack of sleep.  (Again, not that I would know anything about that!)

[Speaking of brain cancer survivors, there’s a woman named Joan Reilly who has her own quirky story.  She had the same kind of cancer as mine, oligodendroglioma.  Part of her story is told in her dry-wit cartoon, “What My Brain Tumor Taught Me about Anxiety.”[1]]

Considering the questionable appreciation of—or reliance on—sickness, there’s a fellow some might say is the embodiment of it.  But first, we need to set the stage.

The gospel reading in John 5 begins by saying, “After this.”  We’re starting right after Jesus has healed the son of a royal official, a son who was at death’s door.  Now we see Jesus entering Jerusalem, during “a festival of the Jews” (v. 1).  It’s not clear which festival is intended.

I want to digress for a moment on something that has led to oppression and death: which is the use of the word “Jews” in the gospel of John.  Without going into great detail, the context of John’s gospel is very important.  “Jews” can refer to the Jewish officials, and/or possibly to the Jewish people who were at that time persecuting the church.

A grievous misunderstanding of the word’s use has had a horrific effect down through the centuries.  Christians have inflicted all manner of cruelty against Jews.  It’s even led to the hateful nickname, “Christ killers.”  Friends, that is not the way to read the gospel according to St. John!

Moving on, we come to a pool known for its healing qualities called Beth-zatha, or Bethesda.  (Of course, we know Bethesda, Maryland as the home of the Walter Reed Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health.)  This pool attracts people with all manner of illnesses.  One wonders if there aren’t those with an entrepreneurial spirit traveling though the villages selling containers filled with the therapeutic elixir of Bethesda!

2 jn 5What is the source of the water’s power?  Legend has it that an angel now and then goes and stirs up the water, and the first one in gets healed.  Anyway, that’s what part of verse 3 and all of verse 4 say.  But there’s almost universal consensus those words were added on later.

Okay, the stage is set.  The first actor, Jesus, is already present.  The other actor, a poor soul who we’re told has been sick for thirty-eight years, is found lying on the ground among some other unfortunate ones.  Thirty-eight years is a massive chunk of someone’s life.  When you figure in life expectancy in those days, it’s likely this fellow has known nothing but sickness.

When Jesus sees the man, he asks him a question that, on the face of it, seems to have an obvious answer.  It’s almost like asking, “Is the sky blue?”  He makes the inquiry, “Do you want to be made well?”  Do you no longer want to be sick?  Are you tired of lying around here?

We might expect the sick man to respond, “Yes, yes, yes!”  What does he say?  He begins, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”  And because of that, “while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (v. 7).  It’s not the straight answer we might imagine.  And as you might also imagine, there have been quite a few takes on his reply.

A common viewpoint goes back to what I said earlier about a reliance (and even appreciation, if possible?) on being sick.

Raymond Brown is somewhat less than charitable in his assessment.  He notes about the man, “His crotchety grumbling about the ‘whippersnappers’ who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity, a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure.”[2]  He says our poor fellow demonstrates a quality of “real dullness.”

Without hurling insults at the sick man, can we get a sense of him saying something like, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”

I think I can understand his reluctance.  He’s lived with this illness for a very long time.  As I suggested earlier, is it possible he’s let it define him?

In this congregation, we are blessed to have several people who, in one way or another, have experience in the medical field.  Maybe I’m the only one who’s ever heard this, but I have heard comments (not very positive ones!) about people being referred to as “the appendectomy in room 203,” or “the head trauma in 315.”  Again, I don’t know if anyone here has encountered that.  I’m sure it’s a necessary shorthand, so to speak.  It would be a bit of a mouthful to say, “James Moore, the fellow in 203 who had an appendectomy.”  But maybe we can see just a tiny example of being identified with one’s ailment.

So maybe our friend at Bethesda has in some way become comfortable with his condition.  Now he has the opportunity to leave his comfort zone.

3 jn 5

I wonder, how often has Jesus asked me to leave my comfort zone?  How many times have I said, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”  How many times have all of us decided against leaving our comfort zone?  I suppose there’s a good reason for it to be called our “comfort zone”!

Leaving our comfort zone forces us to move forward and be responsible in a way like never before.

In his article, “Courage to be Whole,” Kyle Childress includes the quote, “if it is hell to be guilty, it’s certainly scarier to be responsible—response-able—able to respond to God’s call, able to respond to the word and love of Jesus.”[3]  I’ve found it’s easy to talk about something, but not as easy to actually do it.

He adds, “We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we want, because to be whole means to be re-membered, re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation.  No more isolation.  No more living my own private life where no one bothers me.  To be whole means to get off of the couch and get involved.”

So far, we’ve looked at the fellow as reluctant to receive healing.  Still, as I said, there’s more than one way to consider his answer to Jesus.  Remember, he says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool.”  I have no one.  Is that his plaintive cry?

Brian Stoffregen speaks of an alternate idea of healing.  It has to do with cultural and social connection.  “The man in our text has no one to put him in the water when it is stirring.  He has no friends.  He has no family.  There is no one to help him.”[4]  It looks like he’s been shunted aside, basically forgotten.  For him, healing would not only be physical, but it would help restore those social connections without which one might exist, but not really live.

It’s somewhat analogous to people who live on the street.  When we lived in Philadelphia, it was a not uncommon event to encounter them.  Even here in Auburn, there are more homeless people than we might imagine.

After all that, what does Jesus do?  He says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (v. 8).  And that’s what the sick man does.  Jesus simply tells the man what to do.

It’s been about twenty years since the movie, The Matrix, came out.  For those who’ve never seen the movie, very quickly it’s about a computer hacker named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) who learns about the nature of his reality, which is that he’s living in an illusion generated by sentient and malicious computer programs.  A group of people led by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) help him break free of the illusion and see the world as it really is.

4 jn 5

They teach him to live in the real world, part of which involves training in various fighting techniques.  They do this in a simulation.  Neo is not making any progress.  An exasperated Morpheus scolds him, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”

I mention this because sometimes we get trapped in our thinking.  (Actually, it’s much more than “sometimes.”)  I wonder if something like that is going on with Jesus and the sick man.  What are you waiting for?  Jesus wants to cut through the man’s explanations—and even his misfortunes—and just tell him, and show him, what to do.  Jesus lets him know he needs more than yes.  Just do it.  (And again, am I saying something without actually doing it?)

At the end of verse 9, a new paragraph begins with the words, “Now that day was a sabbath.”  We’re moving on to the story at large, which is Jesus’ violation of the sabbath rules.  That is, the rules the religious leaders follow and teach the people.  The point isn’t his healing of the man but his command to take his mat and carry it.  Carrying his mat on the sabbath constitutes working on the sabbath.  It is forbidden!

Verse 10 says, “the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’”  (Remember what I said earlier about the use of the word “Jews.”)

With their use of the understanding of sabbath they would hinder the man.  They would hinder him from experiencing God, from experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit.  Elsewhere, Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27).  The sabbath was made for us; we were not made for the sabbath.

I wonder: what rules, what guidelines do we have—what do we impose—that hinders others (and ourselves) from fully experiencing God?  What walls do we build in the attempt to prevent the saving and empowering grace of Jesus Christ from reaching certain others?  How often do we mimic the prophet Jonah’s attitude toward the people of Nineveh, saying, “I don’t want them forgiven!”

We are nearing the end of the Easter season.  Is there anything in us that has died and needs resurrection?  Or at least, is there anything in us that needs healing?  I think I’m safe in saying yes to both of those.  But we are not alone.  We have a Lord who directs us—who carries us, if need be—into those stirring, healing waters.

5 jn 5

And guess what?  That healing doesn’t come to us all by our lonesome.  It comes in the connection that is community.  It comes in the connection that is this congregation.  It comes in the connection that sends us beyond these walls.  It comes in the connection that bids us to “go forth in peace,” to be the peace and to share the peace.  It bids us “to love and serve the Lord,” to love our neighbor more than any rules that would hinder.  We serve the Lord, who reminds us there’s plenty of water in the healing, life-giving pool.

 

[1] medium.com/spiralbound/what-my-brain-tumor-taught-me-about-anxiety-513113356d68

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 209.

[3] www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2010/05/courage-to-be-whole

[4] www.crossmarks.com/brian/john5x1.htm


built for worship

Many, if not most, of you have heard me speak of my love of Star Trek.  Well, there’s another show, a cartoon, one which has been on the air since 1989, although I haven’t seen many episodes in quite a few years—The Simpsons.  I want to use it as an illustration of worship.

For those who’ve never seen the program (there might be a few of you out there), here’s a quick look at the Simpson family.  The father is Homer, an overweight, bald, not-very-intelligent fellow who just happens to be safety inspector at a nuclear power plant.  He loves beer and donuts, and his signature expression of alarm is “D’oh!”

The mother is Marge, a stay-at-home mom noted for a beehive style of blue hair.  The son is Bart, a ten-year-old whose name, it’s been observed, is a fitting anagram for “brat.”  The daughter, Lisa, is a socially conscious eight-year-old dreamer, artist, and saxophone player.  Then there’s little Maggie, who never speaks and usually has a pacifier stuck in her mouth.  Rounding out the cast is a multitude of other characters, residents of the town of Springfield.

1 Ps 122

There’s one episode in particular I want to mention, “Homer the Heretic.”  In Mark Pinksy’s book, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, this is one of the episodes he focuses on.

On a bitterly cold Sunday morning, while the Simpsons are getting ready for church, Homer splits his pants and decides to stay at home.  So while the rest of the family deals with ice and snow, Homer takes a long, hot shower.  As it turns out, the church furnace is broken, so the congregation is shivering while the pastor, Rev. Lovejoy, preaches about the fires of hell, an image that brings a smile to Bart’s face.

By the time the service is over, the doors to the church have frozen shut.  So while Marge and the kids are stuck in a cold building, Homer’s in a warm house, dancing in his underwear, watching a football game, and using the waffle iron to cook his own fattening recipes.

Finally, when the family gets home, icy and irritated, Homer concludes that he’s possibly had the best day of his life, so it must be a sign that he should never again go to church.  Homer defends his reasoning to Marge by saying, “What if we picked the wrong religion?  Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”[1]  In the end, Homer does return to church, assuming his usual posture on the front row, snoring during Rev. Lovejoy’s sermon.

I mention The Simpsons because Homer’s theories about worship are more common than we might think.  Actually, the idea that worship is meant to placate an angry deity goes back for millennia.

Increasingly common is the feeling that worship, at least, involvement in a worshiping community, isn’t very important—it’s not worth the trouble.  I know I felt that way as a teenager.  I even had a problem with the word “worship.”  It seemed like something that would only appeal to losers.

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson reflects on “all the reasons people give for not going to church:

‘My mother made me when I was little.’

‘There are too many hypocrites in the church.’

‘It’s the only day I have to sleep in.’

“There was a time,” he says, “when I responded to such statements with simple arguments that exposed them as flimsy excuses.  Then I noticed that it didn’t make any difference.  If I showed the inadequacy of one excuse, three more would pop up in its place.  So I don’t respond anymore.  I listen…and go home and pray that person will one day find the one sufficient reason for going to church, which is God.  I go about my work hoping that what I do and say will be usable by the Holy Spirit to create in that person a determination to worship God in a Christian community.”[2]

2 Ps 122

The reality is: we’re built for worship.  (We’ll hear that phrase again.)  From our own Presbyterian tradition, in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we hear the often-quoted question and answer (with the masculine language.)  “Q. What is the chief end of man?  A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

So much for my former theory that worship is for losers!  To be able to glorify God—to be able to enjoy God—that’s not the mark of a loser.  That’s why it’s so unfortunate when worship goes astray and we turn to idols, however they present themselves.

Most, if not all, of the psalms were used as songs.  They were the song book of the early church.  Many churches still sing them.  Even some Presbyterians!  Our hymnal has an entire section inspired by the psalms.  Reading (or singing) the psalms is a healthy practice for our spiritual life.  If we don’t immerse ourselves in them, even become familiar with them, we are impoverished.

The large majority of psalms have titles.  You can see them right before verse 1.  Psalms 120 to 134 have the title, “A Song of Ascents,” or words to that effect.  These Songs of Ascents are believed to have been sung by Hebrew pilgrims “ascending” to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals.  They ascend because Jerusalem is geographically higher than the surroundings.

Eugene Peterson notes, “But the ascent was not only literal, it was also metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God.”[3]

He says Psalm 122 describes the nature of worship.  It “singles out three items: worship gives us a workable structure for life; worship nurtures our need to be in relationship with God; worship centers our attention on the decisions of God.”[4]  We could come up with some other stuff, but that’s not bad!

Using The Message, his paraphrase of the Bible, Peterson says verses 3 and 4 are about structure: “Jerusalem, well-built city, built as a place for worship!  The city to which the tribes ascend, all God’s tribes go up to worship.”  When the Hebrews gathered for the major festivals, it was for all the tribes, occupations, and social classes.  This is worship as quite literally a structure for life, a clear example of being built for worship!

3 Ps 122Another reason to worship is to foster our bond with God.  The second part of verse 4 reads, “To give thanks to the name of God—this is what it means to be Israel.”  This is about identity.  As the people of God, worship is part of our identity; it’s who we are.

Starting with verse 6, the psalm shows us how worship affects us, or at least, how it should affect us.  “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”  Unfortunately, that scripture is too often abused and taken out of context.  I’ve heard people say praying for the peace of Jerusalem basically means supporting one side or the other in conflict over the city—sometimes involving war.

We become what we worship.  Being built for worship, we all worship something, even if it’s something we’ve never bothered to examine—even if we’ve never thought about what we actually worship.  So if we truly worship the God of peace, we’re led to become people of peace.

Having said all of that, it is also true that “church people” often make church less than inviting.

It’s not unusual for congregations to lament the small number of youth and young families in worship.  The question is often asked, “How can we get them to come to church?”  A question we might ask ourselves is, “When was the last time we spoke to one of those young folks and asked them why don’t they come to church?”  If we’re able to do that without getting defensive—but actually wanting to hear from this person—then that goes a long way.

Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, wrote an article coming at it from a different angle.  For those who don’t know, Group specializes in youth ministry.  He titled the article, “The Rise of the Dones.”[5]  He describes the “dones” as those who are done with church.

Schultz gives a case-in-point with a fellow named John.  Here’s how he describes him:

“John is every pastor’s dream member.  He’s a life-long believer, well-studied in the Bible, gives generously, and leads others passionately.

“But last year he dropped out of church.  He didn’t switch to the other church down the road.  He dropped out completely.  His departure wasn’t the result of an ugly encounter with a staff person or another member.  It wasn’t triggered by any single event.

“John had come to a long-considered, thoughtful decision.  He said, ‘I’m just done.  I’m done with church.’

“John is one in a growing multitude of ex-members.  They’re sometimes called the de-churched.  They have not abandoned their faith.  They have not joined the also-growing legion of those with no religious affiliation—often called the Nones.  Rather, John has joined the Dones.”

Even though all of us are built for worship, there is that increasing group who feel worship and church are two different things.  And these aren’t people who constantly grumble and complain.  They aren’t people who are disruptive and who bully others.  Schultz says many of them are “among the most dedicated and active people in their congregations.”  So why are they leaving?

For many, church has become something to do, but not to be.  It becomes just another activity—and for some, a tiresome and even soul-crushing activity.

This is a wake-up call for all of us.  It is extremely important that we learn to listen; that’s a lesson I have to learn over and over.  It is important to listen to each other.  That’s a key part of learning to listen to God.  If we don’t listen, then our worship will be a performance and nothing more.  It won’t be that spiritual connection that gives life meaning.

4 Ps 122

The author and speaker Phyllis Tickle, who died in 2015, once told Banu and me her prayer for us, and for those we minister with, is that church would be not a place to go, but a people to be.  That’s a vision we get from scriptures like Psalm 122.  It was true in ancient times, and it’s still true today.

Can we discover how worship pervades all of life?  Can we discover how worship happens outside these walls?  Can we discover how everything we do, like waiting in line, blowing our nose, or sitting through a meeting, can be an act of worship?

With discoveries like that, we might even hear the words of verse 1 in a whole new way.  “When they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of God.”  When we think of going to the house of God, when we remember that we are built for worship, we might hear, “my heart leaped for joy”—not from the psalmist, but from such a one as Homer Simpson!

 

[1] Mark Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 18.

[2] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2000), 49.

[3] Peterson, 18.

[4] Peterson, 51.

[5] holysoup.com/the-rise-of-the-dones


test the spirits

“Deus vult!”  “God wills it!”  That was the cry of the first Crusaders in the late 11th century.  What began with more or less noble intentions as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which, by the way, had been under Muslim control for several centuries), quickly descended into a military campaign.  Conquest, not coexistence, became the goal.

I think I’m safe in saying that none of us have participated in a bloody crusade, at least not knowingly.  None of us have gotten it in our head that that was our mission from God.  Still, all of us have gotten it in our heads, at least on occasion (and frequently, more often than that), an idea that turned out to be ill-conceived.

1 1 Jn

In the first letter of John there is a warning to his readers to beware of that.  “Beloved,” he says, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (v. 1).  False prophets abound, but we need not believe a false prophet to get a crazy idea in our head—an idea we think is from God!

Let me give you an example.  This was about my proposed plans for life.

In my final semester at Middle Tennessee State University, I got the idea in my head that I should quit school and go to California.

My major was Political Science, but with my exploration of faith—Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Zen—I began to see myself as a seeker of truth, wandering the Earth.  Combining that with my great love of music, I decided that I should return to the land of my first memories of life, San Diego, and get a job in a record store.  I even went to the school library, looked through a San Diego telephone book (this was before the internet), and I found a store near the ocean.

So I made a phone call to my mom and told her what God was leading me to do!  She didn’t have very much to say.  She didn’t ask me, “What in the world are you thinking?”  She simply suggested that I go ahead and finish out the semester, since I was so close to graduating anyway, and then see what I thought.  If God really wanted me to make this major change in my life, waiting a few more weeks wouldn’t hurt.  That turned out to be some pretty good advice.

After a couple of days had gone by, it occurred to me God really did not want me to run off to San Diego!  Who would have thought it?

The author of 1 John says to “test the spirits.”  What are “the spirits”?  Are they supernatural beings?  Are they powers and forces in culture and society?  Are they emotional states of being?  Are they all of those and maybe something else?

The final day of this month, the 31st, is the feast day for St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius was a military officer in 16th century Spain.  As a young man, he was a wild one.  He was a gambler, and kept himself well-groomed, because he loved the ladies.  While fighting the French in the north of Spain, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin.  (If that cannon ball were a few inches higher, well, forget the ladies!)  Ignatius endured many painful months of recovery.

While bedridden, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry.  They weren’t available, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints.  He experienced his conversion while reading those books.  Ignatius decided to use the energy he formerly devoted to warfare to the cause of Christ.  He founded the order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

Ignatius wrote a book entitled, The Spiritual Exercises.  In it, he includes a section on “Discerning the Spirits.”  His use of the word “spirits” reflects a concept that today we might call “inclinations.”  One of his main ideas is the difference between what he calls “consolation” and “desolation.”

2 1 Jn

It’s been noted that, for Ignatius, “consolation means love of God and our fellow human beings.  It is a genuine relationship that moves and fulfills.  It is faith, hope, and [love] and ‘every interior joy which calls and attracts one toward heavenly things.’”[1]  Desolation is the opposite.  It is “darkness of soul, confusion of spirit, attraction to what is base and worldly, restlessness caused by many disturbances and temptations which lead to lack of faith, hope, or love.”[2]

That note about “confusion of spirit” might describe me when I was pitching the idea to my mother about quitting school and taking off for California.

It is not a good idea to make a major decision while in a state of desolation.  It’s not a good idea to do that while in a state of crisis.  That state of crisis might include great anxiety, despair, or a very strong feeling of being rushed into something.  I’m not sure how aware she was of this, but with her word of caution, my mother was utilizing an Ignatian principle!

There are a number of ways to “discern” or “test the spirits.”  Is it the Holy Spirit, or some other spirit?  Kirsteen Kim provides some examples.[3]  The first one is what we see in our scripture text: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (v. 2).  That one’s really important; we’ll come back to it.

The second way she mentions is to ask, “Does it demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit?”  Thinking of Galatians 5, we ask things like: does it help us to be more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, better able to exercise self-control?  Does it help us to be more Christ-like?

Another way of testing the spirits would be the presence of charismatic gifts, like healing and speaking in tongues.  Still, in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul points out that these gifts must be exercised in a spirit of love.  There can be a temptation to say, “Look at me!  Aren’t I spiritual?”  Other gifts of the Holy Spirit may include empowerment to teach, to give, to exercise compassion (Ro 12:7-8).  In reality, there are numerous gifts of the Spirit.

The final thing Kim mentions is the Spirit leads us to be concerned about the downtrodden, however that appears.  The Spirit wants us to seek justice.  In Luke 4, the Spirit leads Jesus to announce “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” and letting “the oppressed go free” (v. 18).

But what’s going on with that business regarding a spirit from God confessing Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?

At one level, it simply means that Jesus lived as a flesh and blood human being.  It means that Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, was embodied just like you and me.  He wasn’t just a spiritual being, without physical substance.

The thought that follows in verse 3 is that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (v. 3).  There’s an alternate reading that says “every spirit that does away with Jesus [or “dissolves Jesus”] is not from God.”

3 1 JnHere’s another meaning: if Jesus were not incarnate, in the flesh, our faith in Christ need not be in the flesh.  We would do away, or dissolve, Jesus.  It would be enough to go through life thinking or wishing something were so, but without doing anything in the body—without taking action in the real world.

Again, some words of wisdom from my mother apply.  At one time or another, I expressed my belief that praying for someone or some situation was enough.  It was now in the hands of Jesus.  But my mom asked what was I going to do about it.  That’s a good and often uncomfortable question.  I said, “I’ve prayed.  Isn’t God all powerful?”  Her response was that by now acting on it would “give my prayer wings.”

I realize there are times when things really are out of our control.  Sometimes there are forces at work we can’t help.  At those times, it really is in the hands of God.  But prayer is also about changing us; it’s also about changing our vision towards the world.

Notice how verse 3 ends.  A spirit that does not confess Jesus “is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.”  The spirit of the antichrist: a word which, by the way, does not appear in the book of Revelation.  What is this antichrist?

Here’s one answer.  It’s the spirit that says we need not live as though we belonged to Christ.  It’s enough to have the idea, but don’t dare put it into practice!  The spirit of antichrist says that faith should be a strictly private matter.  Just keep it to yourself.  Hide your light.

Johannes Baptist Metz has an interesting take on this.  “Satan wants the Incarnation to be an empty show, where God dresses up in human costume but doesn’t really commit totally to the role.  The devil wants to make the Incarnation a piece of mythology, a divine puppet show.”[4]  I like that.  A divine puppet show.  Again, it’s about not living our faith in the flesh.

Here’s a question.  What do we make of verse 6?  “We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

If we take the time to test the spirits, if we take the time—with God’s help—to listen to the Holy Spirit, then we can develop the capacity to know the difference between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Even so, we are not infallible; we make mistakes.  And we should be ready, we should allow ourselves, to be surprised.  We should allow ourselves to be surprised by what, and who, we once would have rejected out of hand.  Returning to my original image, we can go on our own crusade, but without love, we’re just being self-righteous.

So, what is love?  That has been asked by many people.  That includes Haddaway, in his 1990s dance song, “What is Love (Baby Don’t Hurt Me),” a song that inspired a popular skit on Saturday Night Live.

Is love just a dreamy, sentimental state?

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once quoted, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.  Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all.  [People] will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last too long but is soon over, with [everyone] looking and applauding as though on the stage.”[5]

4 1 Jn
“The devil wants to make the Incarnation a divine puppet show." —Johannes Baptist Metz

(Maybe even a stage with a puppet show?)

Love can be a harsh and dreadful thing.  It can be painful, because it takes time.  It isn’t just one and done.  And as our friend Dorothy suggests, love can mean taking actions and making decisions for the sake of Christ which might not be popular with others.

So, as our scripture ends, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God,” that involves testing the spirits.  “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Imagine that.  Loving our neighbor, loving each other and giving ourselves to each other means loving God, giving ourselves to God.

How can we act as though Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?  Is there something you have tested and know is from the Holy Spirit?  What are we waiting for?  The love of God does the heavy lifting.  That’s when we can truly say, “Deus vult!”  “God wills it!”

 

[1] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 56.

[2] in Susan Rakoczy, “Transforming the Tradition of Discernment,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 139 (March 2011): 96.

[3] Kirsteen Kim, “How Will We Know When the Holy Spirit Comes?” Evangelical Review of Theology 33:1 (January 2009): 95.

[4] Johannes Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit, Inclusive Language Version (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998), 11.

[5] Rakoczy, 107.


boring you with law and love

“I never realized I could fall asleep on a treadmill until I did so while trying to read Leviticus.”[1]  That’s what a professor said one of her students told her.  I think that’s just crazy.  If there’s anything that keeps you breathlessly holding onto the edge of your seat, it’s stuff like:

Snore

“When you present a grain offering baked in the oven, it shall be of choice flour: unleavened cakes mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil” (2:4).  Hey, am I right or am I right?

Check out this one.  “Flesh that touches any unclean thing shall not be eaten; it shall be burned up.  As for other flesh, all who are clean may eat such flesh” (7:19).  Pretty exciting!

“When a man or woman has a disease on the head or in the beard, the priest shall examine the disease.  If it appears deeper than the skin and the hair in it is yellow and thin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is an itch, a leprous disease of the head or the beard” (13:29-30).  [snore]

Okay, maybe there’s a point to what her student said.

At the same time, we need to remember that the vast majority of Leviticus is not narrative.  It isn’t meant to be spellbinding story telling.  It’s mainly codes of law; it’s legislation.  It is ritual.  Kathryn Schifferdecker, who made the comment about the drowsy student on a treadmill, concedes the point, but says that “the person who is willing to enter into the book with imagination, and with an eye for detail, will find profound insights there.”

Look at how today’s reading in chapter 19 starts.  “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2).  If there’s any single quality that best describes our Lord, it would be “holy.”  It’s a word that means “separate,” “set apart,” “completely other.”  The holy is something beyond our understanding.  And like the Israelites, we also are called to use that as our model, our image, for life and existence!

How does that work?  How are we set apart?  How are we completely other?  What does it mean to be holy?

Well guess what?  We have here a long list of what Leviticus is famous for.  Rules and regulations!  The lesson picks up again at verse 9, skipping over the revering of parents, the worship of idols, and the offering of a sacrifice of well-being, a covenant meal with the community.

Verse 9 says to not gather in every scrap of your crop in every inch of your land.  It’s normal to miss some of it.  In fact, you should leave those scraps behind.  There are some who depend on those leftovers to feed themselves and their children.  This is a way of building charity into the economic system.  In our terms today, it helps prevent the excesses of cutthroat capitalism.

I must confess, someone who has needed to hear this correction would be me!  As a freshman in college, I was basically a disciple of the writer Ayn Rand.  She was an advocate of removing government regulation of the economy—all regulation, that is.  To say she was a fierce advocate of that would be like calling a lion a kitty cat!  She had extremely little tolerance for anything resembling a social safety net.

Taking myself way too seriously, I wrote a letter for the campus newspaper lauding her values.  On a sunny afternoon, as I was leaving a classroom building, I encountered one of my professors on the steps.  He was the perfect image of the kindly old man, with a gentle and winsome sense of humor.  (In those days, my sense of humor was on life support, so the joy he exuded just bugged me.)  He mentioned my letter in which I railed against Social Security, and he simply said, “You still have to care about people.”

Eventually, looking back on that quick conversation, I realized that was when my foolish admiration of Ayn Rand had gone way too far.  It had warped and twisted me in ways I did not like.  Bringing this back to the scripture, I needed to hear that corrective.  And what better vehicle for carrying the message than that wonderful and loving man?

Before we leave the subject, I was grateful for public assistance when Banu and I were at seminary.  My diagnosis of a brain tumor meant that we quickly used up the insurance we had through the school.  We signed up for the Pennsylvania state welfare insurance.

I’ll go through a few more verses, but I won’t spend as much time on them as I did this last one.

Two faced

Verse 12 says, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.”  We can think of putting our hands on the Bible and swearing to tell the truth, but there are other ways to look at it.  In simple terms: do not be duplicitous.  Do not be two-faced.

“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” (v. 13).  Do not keep the wages of a worker until morning.  When you’re a day laborer, waiting until tomorrow is a serious matter!  This is a prohibition of wage theft.

“You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (v. 14).  Do not mock those with disabilities.  They have a heavy enough burden to carry; they don’t need others adding to it.  And incidentally, that bit about “fearing your God” implies that one who does fear God doesn’t engage in that activity to begin with.

Here’s verse 16.  “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.”  That first part about not slandering has an especially current day feel to it.  We hear about fake news, which is completely made up, or if not fake, at least news that is decidedly slanted.  That’s the news which reaffirms what we already believe and what we want to hear.  We don’t learn anything new about the world around us.

Yellow journalism

Do not engage in yellow journalism.  But that’s so delicious; it’s so salacious and scandalous!  It gets the blood flowing.  It bypasses the part of the brain that houses higher consciousness and triggers that reptilian instinct.  But also notice how the verse ends: “I am the Lord.”  This goes back to my question, “What does it mean to be holy?”  There is something about being set apart that calls us to challenge ourselves, to not simply accept whatever we are spoon fed.

Just think about how many times the phrase, “I am the Lord,” or “I am the Lord your God” is used in this passage.  It speaks to how intertwined our relationships with God and with others really are and what role law has in the mix.

Mennonite pastor Joanna Harader has some thoughts about this.[2]  She says, “I wonder whether ‘liberal’ ‘progressive’ Christians don’t tend to give the law a bit of a short shrift.  There are distinct advantages to having a set of rules to govern our lives.  Rules can help us ‘pre-make’ some of our decisions so that we do not allow our feelings to dictate what we do, how we treat people…

“Law and love. That’s what I’m thinking about this week.”

Admittedly, as she says, she’s approaching from a more liberal / progressive point of view.  Still, I think folks who are more conservative might also be able to see themselves here.  Regardless of where we appear on the spectrum, there does seem to be an inherent contradiction between law and love.  We might respond, with a bit of irritation, “You can’t force me to love!”

And just in time, we come to the end of the passage.

“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” (v. 17).  Do not hate any of your kin.  As the faith has expanded and evolved over the centuries, we can recognize “kin” as the entire human family.  Likewise, “your neighbor” can mean someone across the street or across the world.  And going along with that second part, if we don’t reprove our neighbor (that is, in a holy, loving way!), we can let injustice run wild.

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (v. 18).  Jesus would later join loving God and loving neighbor as the two points that sum up the law (Mt 22:34-40).  So Jesus takes this boring book and shows us how law and love come together.

Love your neighbor

This is a good day to consider the law and loving one’s neighbor.  In our service of ordination and installation, we take vows before God to abide by certain things; we pledge ourselves.  Those vows act as laws we agree to follow.  Those vows commit us to love and care for each other.

We are asked what are known as “constitutional questions,” because they are derived from our constitution as Presbyterians: the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order.  Among the things we agree to is trusting in Jesus Christ, accepting the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, abiding by our church’s polity, and one that Banu and I especially appreciate, “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

That’s a good way of taking love of God with all our heart and soul and mind and directing it toward each other.

There are also questions for those called to various offices in the church.  Here’s one for deacons.  “Will you be a faithful deacon, teaching charity, urging concern, and directing the people’s help to the friendless and those in need?  In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?”

What jumps out at me is the request to direct the people’s help to the friendless.  What a great and wonderful ministry.  Of course, that is directed to all of us.  It’s difficult to befriend the friendless without a love and concern that motivates us.

And how about that last question?  “In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?”  That’s one which is also directed to elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament.  (I’m sorry, I should say, “ruling elders and teaching elders”!)[3]

I’ll leave us with some questions to ponder.  (No ready-made answers.)  Again, how can we be holy?  Today, we all make vows.  How can those vows help us?  Maybe I should ask, can they help us?  And if so, what do those vows mean as you move forward with your own unique emerging ministry for the sake of the law and love of the Lord?

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2186

[2] spaciousfaith.com/2011/02/15/pre-sermon-ponderings-law-and-love

[3] Terminology used in the new Form of Government, which began with the 2011-2013 Book of Order!


bless you out

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio (I believe it’s between Columbus and Cincinnati), you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  As you approach from the east, you see a sign on the hill that says, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”

1-billboard

If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you were to die today, where would you spend eternity?”  I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, has crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!

The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated of course.  There isn’t room for the verses in their entirety.

Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  I imagine that none of you have ever—or rarely ever—seen them posted in public.  Why is that?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do a terrible injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Please, just tell me what to do!  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities that he considers to be blessed.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

Still, if you go through that list, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

Going back to how the Ten Commandments are so often seen in public places, but not the Beatitudes, Matthew draws a parallel between the two.  Who goes up the mountain and winds up laying down the law?  Who goes up the mountain and winds up declaring who is blessed?  It’s not an accident that Matthew draws parallels between Moses and Jesus.  He constantly has Jesus taking quotes from the law and re-imagining them, letting them shine with new light.

Some have noticed how Matthew structures his gospel into five parts, matching the five books of Moses.  He says on four occasions, “when Jesus had finished saying these things,” marking the end of a discourse.  That way, he divides his gospel into five sections.[1]

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Seriously?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  For you fans of the TV show Scandal, is Olivia Pope meek?  What does our economy say?  Are we advised to be meek?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!

2-meek

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest:  isn’t it better to be the one holding the levers of power?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[2]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”  (You do realize that’s in the Bible!  I believe it’s in the book of Hezekiah.)

What is it that Jesus is trying to tell us?

Lance Pape, a professor of homiletics (that is, preaching) at Brite Divinity School, offers some ideas.  As opposed to how we usually behave, or better, how our society trains us to behave, “the Beatitudes stand as a daring act of protest against the current order.  Jesus cannot very well insist that we be poor in spirit, but he can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world.”

That “new world” is “the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s not simply a matter of something after we die, but we also experience it right now.  In chapter 4, Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” or, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).  So it’s here, but not yet fully arrived.

He continues, “The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being.”  It is a different way of understanding, of learning, of knowing truth.

When I was young, I picked up from my mother that “blessing someone out,” was definitely not wishing them well!  However, Jesus has a way of turning things inside out, and so when he says he wants to “bless you out,” that is a good thing!

On a couple of occasions, I’ve mentioned a book by Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.  In chapter 8, “Rocking the Emotional Boat,” he brings up two different kinds of problems, two different kinds of knowing:  technical and adaptive.  I’ll do a spoiler alert and let you know why I mention this.  Towards the end of his discussion, Steinke says that “Jesus challenged the routine and regimentation of the established order.  Prophets deal with ‘adaptive work.’”[3]

Technical and adaptive problems require different kinds of solutions.

Here’s an example.  Imagine that there’s a dangerous intersection.  Numerous accidents have happened there.  There has been all kind of damage, and worst of all, people have been killed.  What is the answer?  One idea would be to put up a traffic light.  This is an example of a technical problem.

He goes on, “When we are dealing with technical problems, we use know-how and follow a set of procedures.”  With technical problems, “People already know what to do and how to do it…  Problems are not trivial, but solutions are within a person’s abilities.  Solutions are not necessarily easy, but expertise and knowledge are available.”[4]  (Like the expertise and knowledge to put up a traffic light.)

Let’s look at a different example.  Several years ago, on the show Mad TV, there was a skit involving Bob Newhart as a therapist.  He was visited by a woman who said she lived in fear of being buried alive in a box.  She was afraid of going through tunnels and being in elevators; she was terribly claustrophobic.  What is the answer?  Should she avoid taking the elevator?  Should she avoid getting into a box, for fear that someone will bury her alive?  Perhaps: but would that solve the problem of her claustrophobia?

3-newhart

In the skit, Bob Newhart wasn’t very helpful.  He said he had two words to cure her fear.  Two words were all she needed: “Stop it!”  Stop being afraid.  Whenever she would try to explain, he kept responding, “Stop it!”  At last, after she described some other problems that bothered her, he said that he had ten words for her.  These ten words would resolve her problems.  Maybe she could write them down.  Here they are: “Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”

That is an example of an adaptive problem.

Steinke says that adaptive problems “involve challenges to deeply held values and well-entrenched attitudes.  They require new learning.”  We must learn to adapt.  With adaptive problems, “People’s hearts and minds need to change, not only their likes and dislikes.  Problems surface that no existing technical expertise can solve…  Problem solving involves new experiments, uncertainty, and loss.”[5]

In the skit, Bob Newhart treats his client as though she has a technical problem.  He assumes that she knows what to do and how to do it.  But she has an adaptive problem, and truth be told, so does he!

Bringing this back to Jesus, he talks about the encounter Jesus has with the rich young man (Mt 19:16-30).  This fellow says that he’s observed all the commandments.  Jesus comes back “with the challenge to sell all he possessed and give the profits to the poor…  This…didn’t square off with any commandment he knew.  Jesus also healed on the Sabbath.  He openly challenged the fixed law, because he could imagine that love superceded code.  He encouraged those who were offended to use their imagination.”[6]

With the Beatitudes, we are drawn into a world in which we’re asked to use our imagination.  It’s a way of seeing that doesn’t involve technical problems, in which we already have the know-how to fix them.  Rather, it’s a way of seeing which involves adaptive problems, in which we have to challenge our assumptions.  We are called to adapt, to step out of our comfort zone—something we usually do not want to do.  We often fight with everything we’ve got to avoid it.  Or maybe we put it off—until tomorrow!

We are called to use our imagination.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those who have gone before.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those in the Beatitudes.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those who are ignored and unloved.  As Henri Nouwen says, “The most honored parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control.  The most important parts are the least presentable parts…  Paul says, ‘It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity’ (1 Corinthians 12:23).”[7]

We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those we do not like, in those who rub us the wrong way, even in those who disgust us.  Talk about adaptive problems!  Bob Newhart in the skit as a therapist isn’t the only one to treat adaptive problems as though they were technical problems.  As I suggested earlier, we also do that.

I chair our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  We want to make the Committee and the Leadership Team, of which I’m also a part, more representative of people in the presbytery—and that includes young people of high school age and those in their early 20s.  This requires changing bylaws and standing rules.  It’s important to make sure we have proper guidelines in doing the job.  But that technical fix isn’t enough.  We have to change our behavior, and by God’s grace, we’re making steps in that direction.

4-merciful

The same is true with congregational policies.  They also are important; they help us to be on the same page.  They help guide us.  But we also hear the words of Jesus.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (v. 7).  No policy, no instruction, can force us to be merciful.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8).  No bylaw, no standing rule, can force us into purity of heart.

This backwards, upside down vision of the Beatitudes isn’t the result of legislation or compulsion.  It comes from open hearts, open minds, open eyes.

This interim time is a gift for all of us.  It is a blessed time—even if sometimes it feels like one of those blessings we would rather not have!  But we are called once again to be a blessing to each other.  We are called to be a Beatitude to each other.  We are called to bless each other out!

 

[1] 7:28, 11:1, 19:1, 26:1

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203

[3] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 133.

[4] Steinke, 127.

[5] Steinke, 127.

[6] Steinke, 133.

[7] wp.henrinouwen.org/daily_meditation_blog/?p=3313


have a zealous Christmas

“There won’t be any Christmas this year.”  I imagine we’ve all heard statements to that effect.  Maybe we ourselves have said something along those lines.  “This year, there’s going to be a lean Christmas!”  What would prompt such a statement?  How could we possibly prevent, or even hinder, the arrival of Christmas? Xmas, Ted Rall

Of course, I understand what’s usually meant by that kind of sentiment are financial problems.  It’s the feeling that there’s little, if any, money available to be spent on Christmas presents.  I have a couple of thoughts about that.  First is the notion that gifts that cost plenty of money are always better than ones someone has created, using their God-given imagination.  Second is the way we mimic the Grinch, who by stealing presents from Who-ville, thought he actually could stop Christmas from coming.

(But as you know, the Grinch undergoes a change of heart and realizes the error of his ways.)

Pleasant grinch
It’s that mentality which can reject the power of Christmas and turn it into something empty and hollow.  It’s that, and the sensory overload (starting well before Thanksgiving, even Halloween) which, among other things, involves Christmas-y music being piped in into all kinds of places.

Here’s an example.  Banu and I were at a couple of stores and at a restaurant, and I heard the song, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” played four times, and each time, it was done by a different artist!

Okay, I want to change gears for a moment.

In the medieval church, there were seven sins that were called deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and wrath.  If you were keeping count, you’ll notice that’s only six.  There’s one more, and I think it’s as deadly as any other: sloth.  Some people laugh when they hear sloth considered a deadly sin.  It’s the fatal flaw of the couch potato!

The well-known preacher Fred Craddock (who died last year) had a compelling definition of this particular deadly sin.  Instead of mere laziness, he said it’s “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’…  Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’  It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”[1]  I don’t care.

Another name for sloth comes from Latin, acedia.  It literally means “lack of care.”  (Don’t worry; this talk about sloth has a connection with Christmas!)

Acedia

Kathleen Norris writes about sloth in Acedia and Me, a book I really like and recommend.  And she has her own problem with Christmas.  (There’s the connection!)  In another place, she talks about the “many defenses [we have] against hearing the Christmas readings and taking them to heart.”[2]  She uses images that are very familiar.

For example, look at the Old Testament reading in Isaiah 9.  It begins, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (v. 2).  And how often have we heard the wonderful language of verse 6?  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

We’re used to hearing these messianic titles, but where do they come from?  What is behind all of this?  Look at the end of verse 7: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”  Zeal!  That’s not something we usually associate with Christmas.  It sounds a little too extreme, too fanatical.

But then, look at the epistle reading in Titus 2, starting with verse 11: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  Okay, that doesn’t seem to be overly intense.  Still, as the passage goes along, things start getting a little more fervent.  At the end, we read that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are [get ready for it!] zealous for good deeds” (v. 14).  Zealous for good deeds.  There’s the “z” word again!

This is where we get back to our friend Kathleen’s ambivalence about Christmas, as well as her discussion about the before-mentioned deadly sin.

“I tend to enjoy Advent,” she says, “with all of its mystery and waiting, but find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm when Christmas Eve comes around.  I know I’m cheating myself, succumbing to my usual temptation to sloth, which Christian tradition understands as not mere laziness but as the perverse refusal of a possible joy.  The ancient monks saw zeal as the virtue opposed to sloth.”[3]  Zeal as a remedy for sloth!

I can see myself reflected in her words.  Is there something about which I could positively say, “I am zealous!”?  What would that look like?  And if I have trouble seeing it, could I at least claim to be zealous in wanting to be zealous?

She might have a point when she says “zeal makes us nervous…  We prefer the protective detachment of irony or sarcasm, and regard zeal as pathetic if not pathological.  When a person exhibits too much passion over anything…we label that person as obsessive or compulsive, and mutter, ‘Get a life.’”[4]

I don’t think very much convincing is needed when I say that even religious zeal can be bad.  Zeal can lead one to throw bombs, burn down abortion clinics, and show up at military funerals, claiming that this is God’s vengeance.  No, I don’t think we need much convincing when I say religious zeal is probably the worst of all.

Zeal

The long history of Benedictine spirituality addresses this; it’s well aware of it.  Chapter 72 of the Rule of Benedict distinguishes between the “wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God” and the “good zeal which separates from evil.”  We need not fear this kind of zeal.  The reason for that is because it’s grounded in love.

According to Joan Chittister, “Good zeal provides the foundation for the spirituality of the long haul.  It keeps us going when days are dull and holiness seems to be the stuff of more glamorous lives.”  She adds that “sanctity is the stuff of community in Christ and that any other zeal, no matter how dazzling it looks, is false.  Completely false.”[5]  The glitz and glamour of our Christian cult of personality is shown to be bogus.

Somewhat of a trick is needed to dig through the layers of tradition, both good and bad tradition, which surround Christmas.  Too much of how we celebrate Christmas smothers the genuine, good, and life-giving zeal of its promise.  Again, there’s the danger of sloth, getting caught up in foolishness, in distraction.

Here’s a final word from Norris on that point: “The zealous love of this God has already appeared among us in the flesh to train us for a new life and teach us how to welcome him when he comes again in glory…  If we feel utterly exhausted, drained of all feeling and weary with worldly chores and concerns, so much the better.  Our weakness is God’s strength.  Our emptiness means that there is room for God after all.”[6]

Making room for God is probably the best definition for zeal, at least, for good zeal.  How do we do that?  How do we make room for God?

How about thinking of the people on that first Christmas?  They quite literally made room for God, even if they didn’t understand who the baby Jesus really was.

In a more meaningful way, they made room in their minds and hearts and souls.  They wondered; they asked questions.  Joseph wondered, upon discovering Mary’s pregnancy, what he should do.  He was granted a divinely-inspired dream to answer his questions.

Of course, Mary, after hearing the news that she was to be a virgin mother, wondered, “How can this be?” (Lk 1:34).

Then there were those shepherds, who received a celestial visitation—a sight that scared the crap out of them.  (You do know in the Bible, angels are not cute critters?  They are quite terrifying!)  After being calmed down, they said, “Let’s go check this out.”  They were ready to have their world rocked.

Some time after that, the magi and Herod also were asking about the wonder child, though each with their own agendas.  But that’s an Epiphany story, so we won’t deal with that now!

So what kind of zeal makes room for God among us?  What kind of sloth, acedia, do we need to reject?  St. Paul says God’s grace trains us “to renounce impiety and worldly passions” (v. 12).  Those “worldly passions” walk hand in hand with sloth.  Worldly, not holy, passions tell us, “Do not be filled with wonder.  Do not ask honest and sincere questions.  Live in the smug satisfaction that has us saying ‘no’ to love, especially if it comes from unwelcome people.”

Xmas overload

Worldly passion has us rejecting the spirit of Christ in each of us.  It’s the spirit that is all about forgiveness and acceptance, and yet calls us to keep moving forward.  Good zeal drags us out of our proper, private fortresses and flings us into the craziness and zaniness that is the community of faith.

We have twelve days of Christmas, so let me do one better than wishing you, “Merry Christmas!”  Have a zealous Christmas!

 

[1] in Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008)

[2] Kathleen Norris, “Zealous Hopes,” The Christian Century 122:25 (13 Dec 05), 19.

[3] Norris, 19.

[4] Norris, 19.

[5] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 178-179.

[6] Norris, 19.

[The top image is a cartoon by Ted Rall from December 1997. Clipped from a newspaper, the paper has yellowed with time.]


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