church

embezzling the Spirit

The scripture reading in Acts 4 and 5 presents what many people have often described as an early look at Christian communism.  Before anyone gets too excited, understand I’m not talking about the tyrannical political system we became familiar with in the 20th century.  I know that “communism” is a word that raises a red flag.  (Yes, a “red” flag!)

1 acWe see language like “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions” and “everything they owned was held in common” (v. 32).  Chapter 2 has similar descriptions of the community.  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (vv. 44-45).

That actually sounds communist.  That is, it sounds commune-ist, as in living in a commune.

We’re not talking about any element of force here.  There isn’t any government mandate; there isn’t anything done at the point of a sword.  Rather, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”  This is a community bound by love.  It looks like it’s taking care of everyone.  “There was not a needy person among them” (v. 34).

I would like to make a couple of side comments on all of this.  I do have respect for folks who choose to live communally.  (Understand, that excludes cults and brainwashing and places where people are held against their will!)  Many communes demonstrate a life with a healthy perspective on putting people before property.

Having said that, I’m not sure the early church in Jerusalem really was a commune.

Questions of commune set aside, building community is not easy.  Sometimes people speak of it in romanticized terms, but community involves characters of all sorts: crabby and gabby, serious and delirious, careless and cautious.  It seems inevitable there will be those who give and give and give and apparently don’t get much in return.  And then there are those who live by the motto, “It is more blessed to receive than to give.”

As they say, it takes all kinds.

At the center of it all are the apostles.  They’ve been acting as a sort of clearinghouse for the dispersal of funds.  They didn’t get that job because of any economic training they received.  They didn’t take any extension courses.  Instead, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v. 33).

2 acThat word “power” in Greek is δυναμις (dunamis).  It’s where we get our word “dynamite.”  Does anyone remember the 70s TV show Good Times?  It included the Evans family elder son, J. J., who often proclaimed he was “Kid Dyn-O-Mite!”  I don’t suppose any of the apostles would claim that title for themselves!

They use that great power in giving testimony, in giving witness, to the resurrection of the Lord.  (“Resurrection” makes this a fitting theme for the Easter season.)  Something about resurrection is that it’s not a one-time thing.  Resurrection is ongoing.  These early disciples, the Jerusalem church, demonstrate resurrection power.  The Holy Spirit is moving among them.  As we see, “great grace” was upon the community.

As we might know about community, there are those who simply get it.  They know what goes into building it, and they’re willing to step up and take part.

Everyone is important in the eyes of the Lord, but there are those whose presence, and whose absence, is especially felt.

One such person in that early church is a Cypriot named Joseph.  We’re told he is a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe of Levi who traditionally would help with ceremonial duties.  He has made a really good impression, because he has been given the nickname, “Barnabas,” “son of encouragement.”  He’s the guy who will help you when you’re feeling down.  He’s the one who will reassure you.  “You can do it!”  He is the encourager.  (That sounds like the name of a superhero—the Encourager.  He’s the one who’s in your corner.)

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[photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash]

Barnabas plays no small role in the book of Acts.  If this were a movie, we could say his agent did a good job in getting him the part.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (later known as Paul) goes to Jerusalem, but the disciples there don’t trust him (9:26-28).  They know about his past, how he persecuted the church.  But Barnabas steps forward and vouches for him.  “This guy is okay.  He’s the real deal.”

In chapter 11, news has come regarding the church in Antioch: the number of believers is said to be growing quickly.  They want someone to check it out.  Here’s how the scripture reads: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were brought to the Lord” (vv. 22-24).  He also accompanies Paul on his first missionary trip.

I really like that.  Barnabas is known to be a good man, filled with the Spirit and faith.  He is a good man.  I don’t know what more can be said.  It’s hard to beat being called a good man.  True to his reputation, he sells a piece of land and brings the money to the apostles.  He wants to contribute to the cause and help those in need.  Thus endeth chapter four, and we move to chapter five.

4 acBut then…  You know Bonnie and Clyde?  Well, they ain’t got nuttin’ on Ananias and Sapphira!  Unfortunately, this part of the story does not end well.

We start off on a good note.  Just like Barnabas, they sell a piece of property and bring the profits to the apostles.  They’ve done their fair share in helping the community.  However, there is a problem.  The two decide to hold back some of the money, even though they said there would be more.  One of the meanings for the word translated “kept back” (νοσφιζω, nosphizō) is “embezzle.”

Peter knows something is up—maybe it was divine inspiration, or maybe he simply did the math.  He confronts Ananias, letting him know he could have given whatever amount he and his wife chose.  It was up to them.  He asks a rather blunt question: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” (v. 3).  He lets him have it.  “You haven’t lied to me.  You haven’t lied to us mere mortals.  No, my dear fellow, you’ve lied to God!”

What follows next has been the subject of controversy down through the centuries.  Ananias keels over and falls down dead.  Did Peter intend this?  Did he in some way cause it to happen?  If so, does the punishment really fit the crime?  It does seem to be a bit of an overreaction.  Peter’s ethics are called into question.

There have been numerous explanations about this.  Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to go into all of them.  Some say the pair have broken an oath to God and to their fellow believers, in that they agreed to pool their resources—without embezzlement!  Such oaths often included self-curses if they were broken.  “May God strike me down if…”

Others say Peter plays the role of prophet.  His words pierce Ananias into his very soul.  Others say when Ananias’ craftiness is exposed, he simply has heart failure!  So, there’s no great mystery.

Whatever the case, Peter seems to be a bit fuzzy on notifying the next of kin!  He arranges a hasty burial for Ananias without his wife’s knowledge.  (By the way, the name Sapphira is where we get our word “sapphire.”)  She shows up three hours later, and Peter gives her a chance to tell the truth.  A similar exchange happens, and she’s buried next to her husband.  On the bright side, at least Ananias and Sapphira are together forever!

Our passage ends, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (v. 11).  I would think so.

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My earlier comment on Bonnie and Clyde notwithstanding, we should be cautious on how we judge Ananias and Sapphira.  As the noted 20th century British theologian F. F. Bruce said, “be careful: the temptation to seek a higher reputation than is our due for generosity or some other virtue is not so uncommon that we can afford to adopt a self-righteous attitude towards poor Ananias [and Sapphira].  Let us rather take warning from [their] example.”[1]  Their story is a cautionary tale.

What can we learn from this?  Is it as simple as Barnabas choosing love and Ananias and Sapphira choosing fear?  Did they go with safety and security over the apparent uncertainty that comes with genuine openheartedness?  Did they put their trust in material possessions to provide security?

Can we imagine another culture teaching that—one with which we might be quite familiar?

I’ve heard it said one good way to defeat the power of money and possessions over us is to give them away.

Luke is the author of Acts.  In his gospel, he tells the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus about eternal life.  He says he has kept all the commandments.  Jesus responds, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).  I don’t think Jesus was laying down a law for everyone and for all time.  He told him what he needed to hear.  Jesus recognized the grip the young man’s wealth had on him.

That can apply in a different way, and it regards our possessions after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.  Including the church in your will is a meaningful and needed way to benefit those who remain and those who come after.  It is yet another way of worshipping the Lord.  It is yet another way of giving to the community, indeed, the community united by the Holy Spirit.

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[photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash]

Aside from matters of material possessions, we can see how Ananias and Sapphira chose to hold back.  Don’t we also do that, to one extent or another, in one way or another?  Are we not too often guilty of embezzling the Spirit?  And yet, thanks be to God, even when we hold back from the Lord, if we remain open to the Spirit, God is gracious.  There is always opportunity for service—and for the love that conquers fear.

 

[1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 113-114.


bonding in water

Have I ever mentioned that I like Star Trek?  I begin with Star Trek because at times I’ve told people it has served to illustrate a theological point!  Let me explain what I mean by describing a certain episode.[1]

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

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

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

Watching that show, I saw an example of ritual for the Klingons.  Ritual enables them to handle these difficult moments, these great transitions.  By inviting the young boy to join him in the R’uustai (as well as explaining its meaning), Worf helps Jeremy deal with his loss.  Jeremy is given a framework, a frame of reference.  It helps him begin the process of healing.

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

Today we celebrate a ritual, the sacrament of baptism.  It also involves a bonding, as well as a welcoming into a family.

Here’s something our Book of Order says about baptism (W-3.0402):

“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant…  Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, Baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church…  [Needless to say, circumcision only applies to males; baptism includes females!]  Baptism also represents God’s call to justice and righteousness, rolling down like a mighty stream, and the river of the water of life that flows from God’s throne.”

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The water in this font has a powerful lineage!

Speaking of power, our New Testament scripture is part of the reading for the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrate in January (Mk 1:9-11).

John the Baptist has told the people who have come to him, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7-8).

“In those days,” as we’re told, Jesus comes along and presents himself to John.  Mark’s version is brief; we don’t see John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus that we see in Matthew’s telling.  We do, however, see the heavens ripped open and the Spirit descending like a dove and landing on Jesus.  There is a celestial voice claiming him as “my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (v.11).

This is the anointing of Jesus; the Spirit is poured upon him.

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

Here’s some more from our Book of Order: “Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ…  Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love.  The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response.  The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith.  These two forms of witness are one and the same Sacrament.”

3 mk[Someone displaying the shirt he wore at his baptism.]

I was baptized as a believer, at age 21.  Our young candidate is being baptized as an infant.  We both receive the bond of unity, the bonding in water and Spirit, in Jesus Christ.  We both are welcomed into the family of God, as children of the covenant.

In a few moments when the water is sprinkled (or maybe poured!) on her, she won’t simply be a wet child—she will be the newest citizen in the kingdom of God.

 

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


Jonah, where is the love?

I said a couple of weeks ago that sometimes events happen during the week that must be addressed on Sunday.  Sometimes it works in reverse.  On Wednesday, Inauguration Day took place in an atmosphere of a, let’s say, rather argumentative transfer of power.  And look at who’s featured in today’s Old Testament reading.  It’s none other than that argumentative prophet, Jonah.  I don’t think he set out to be a curmudgeon, but that’s how he wound up.

1 jonI will connect the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah in a few moments.

Those who know nothing else about him remember that he’s the guy who got swallowed by a fish.  (Or was it a whale?  Whales aren’t fish!)

Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah.  (I didn’t start going to church in earnest until I was in my twenties.)

Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those images that cling to a felt backboard.  Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me.  How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature?  He was there for three days and three nights!  How could he breathe?  Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?

It really doesn’t work to just talk about chapter 3 without telling the rest of the story.  And what a story it is!

The book of Jonah has plenty of satire.  There are numerous places where the humor breaks through.  If you want a story filled with zany and sarcastic images, this is the one for you.  The first word of the book in Hebrew (וַיְהׅי, vayehi) means “and it happened.”  Once upon a time.

The Lord wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people to turn from their wicked ways.  Something to understand about Nineveh is that it is a bitter enemy of Israel.  It might be the least likely place Jonah would want to visit.  He buys his ticket, but it’s for a ship sailing in the opposite direction.  It’s headed for Tarshish.  It’s thought to have been a city in modern-day Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean.

So basically, God tells him to go to one place, and he heads off for the other side of the world.

I don’t suppose anyone can relate to Jonah, that is, sensing God would have us do something—and our really not wanting to.  It’s “really not wanting to” to the point of running away as far as possible.

Very briefly, a storm breaks out, and the sailors are doing their best to handle it.  While the tempest is raging, Jonah is down below snoozing; he’s taking a nap.  They wake him up, and he winds up telling the crew to throw him into the sea, and the storm will cease.  Jonah is ready to die.  Anything is better than setting foot in that horrible city.  Even spending time in a fishy gullet beats it!

Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah (Mt 12:38-41).  He sees himself in Jonah’s three-day tour of the deep.  The ancient Hebrews spoke of Leviathan, the great sea monster dwelling in the watery depths.  Jonah prays, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (2:2).  This is a picture of death.  When that critter upchucks the prophet—that must have been a serious case of indigestion—Jonah, figuratively, goes from death to life.  And just as Jonah emerges from the grave, so does Jesus.

I’ll jump ahead to chapter 4, which is after we find out his message has done its job.

This is not what Jonah wanted.  He was hoping they’d shake his hand, say “nice sermon,” and then go right back to their deliciously evil stuff.  Unlike Abraham, who didn’t want Sodom destroyed, Jonah’s already got a spot in mind with a good view of the city.  He’ll set up his lawn chair, kick back, and get ready to watch the fire fall!  Okay Lord, smite them, O mighty smiter!

Unfortunately for Jonah, God has the best interests of the city in mind, and Nineveh is spared.  This is where we’re treated to some of that argumentative character I mentioned at the beginning.  In verse 1, the Hebrew word for “displeased” appears twice, and the word for “angry” (חׇרׇה, charah) literally means “hot,” “to burn.”  One might say Jonah is blazing with fury.

Here’s where I connect some of the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah.  He would rather die than have things work out for the Ninevites.  Does that sound familiar?  When we watch the news networks, when we peruse social media, it seems like it would kill some people to say something good about “the others.”  I would rather die than give them a thumbs-up!

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As for Nineveh, things work out so well that when the king hears Jonah’s message, he not only repents but he also issues a decree.  “No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:7-8).

Even the animals have to repent!

Maybe it’s clear by now that Jonah is a bundle of contradictions.  He senses his God-given duty, but he fights like the devil against it.  He sets off on the longest journey he possibly can and finds himself back at square one.  The thing that he believed would destroy him becomes the vehicle of his deliverance.  The message of the grace and forgiveness of the Lord becomes in him an occasion for anger and bigotry.

Jonah almost literally has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do his job.  He’s successful in his God-given task, and you better believe, he’s mad as a wet hen about it!  And yet Jesus sees in Jonah a lesson for others.  That’s the power of grace in action.

Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us.  Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up.  He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city.

There is another connection between Inauguration Day and Jonah, and it’s a contrast, thanks to Amanda Gorman.  At 22, she is the youngest poet in US history to appear at an inaugural event.  Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” begins with these words: “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry. A sea we must wade. / We braved the belly of the beast.” [1]  Maybe Jonah can relate to that.

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["There is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."]

She also references words from the prophet Micah.  Speaking of the vision of the Lord’s embrace of all peoples, we hear, “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken” (Mi 4:4).  Vines and fig trees are signs of prosperity.

What a contrast.  Micah speaks of hope and courage, and Jonah sits under a bush, stewing with anger!

Still, we hear the words of Jesus.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44).  Inauguration Day was four days ago.  How are we doing with loving our enemies?  Must we regard each other as enemies?

(By the way, the last verse in that passage, verse 48, has created plenty of confusion.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word “perfect” doesn’t mean “flawless.”  Rather, it means “complete.”  Jesus is saying we are to be completed, we are to be perfected.  In the same way, the US Constitution’s “a more perfect union” doesn’t mean a flawless union.  If that’s the case, Lord help us!)

Now, back to love!  Danielle Kingstrom speaks about love, saying, “Love is…not an easy phenomenon to engage.  It comes out of nowhere and rams into you like a semi-truck on the freeway.  It smashes all your senses and discombobulates your reason.  Of course, people are afraid of it!  It’s an explosion of accident and attention all at once.  What the heck do we do with energy like that when it surges?”[2]

Here’s a lesson for Jonah, and here’s a lesson for us.  She adds, “Love doesn’t have to decide what to ‘do’ about certain groups of people until love is face to face with the person.”  We can be face to face with people in a way that exudes disgust and disdain and dread.  So Jonah, where is the love?  (The Black-Eyed Peas asked that same question.)

“Love is like a mirror…  It shows you where you need to grow…  The thistles and thorns will stick us—it’s challenging to see a reflection of ourselves that we hadn’t expected.  But love is unexpected like that.”  It’s so easy to simply dismiss someone as lacking comprehension or lacking character.

And here’s a crazy thought: even if we hang on to those attitudes, even if we still look on them as enemies—even if we’re still not yet ready to make that step toward freedom—we come right back around to Jesus.  Love ‘em anyway!  Let’s take the actions, and refrain from the actions, that make life harder for them.  We don’t have to wait until bad stuff happens to us.  We can help each other walk a silver, if not a golden, path on this planet.

It’s like the question God poses to Jonah at the very end of the book.  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11).  I like the way the natural order is included in God’s concern.

Jonah doesn’t answer the question.  At least, we’re not told the answer.  What is our answer?

As we enter a new political landscape (and they do come and go), let’s learn a lesson from Jonah—and from Jesus.  When we love our enemies, we must first deal with the enemy within.  (I need to learn this as much as anyone else.)  To the extent we have division and fear inside ourselves, we project division and fear outside into the world.

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We need to realize that we are worth loving.  We need to realize that we are loved.  We are loved by our Lord, but to really experience it at the flesh and blood level, we need love face to face.  There are those who never see that.

Let’s love our neighbor and love our enemy.  Who knows?  We might find they’re one and the same!

 

[1] www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a35268337/amanda-gorman-the-hill-we-climb-poem-biden-inauguration/

[2] www.patheos.com/blogs/daniellekingstrom/2021/01/no-love-let-us-remember-that-we-know-love/


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”


presence among us

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

We love to fight.  We prefer heat over light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[photo by Bram on Unsplash]

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

 

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

[2] Oates, 6.

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

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

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


hit the reset button

We’ve noticed how this strange new world in which we find ourselves, courtesy of COVID-19, has brought us to a relative standstill, though some places are standing still more than others.  Each of us has taken notice of that reality, sometimes in quite trivial ways.  (I was alarmed when the NHL suspended its season!  But the alarm has turned to elation since they have decided to have the playoffs!)

Shut happens
[photo by Jason Mowry on Unsplash]

Banu and I were discussing certain realities in the church.  We are aware that we’re in an in-between time.  (Never has interim pastor training been more spot-on!)  What is happening now?  What will happen when “this” is all over?

In my Easter sermon, I addressed this very thing.  “There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.”

Has a reset button has been given to us?  What would it mean to hit it?  One of the scripture texts for Trinity Sunday is the conclusion of 2 Corinthians.  In 13:11, the apostle Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Put things in order…”  It’s probably best to read that as a passive instruction.  “Be restored to order.”  Be restored.  Permit yourselves to be set straight.

It appears to be increasingly certain that this coronavirus is here to stay.  We need to make long term plans, not simply knee-jerk reactions.  Unless we are prepared for chaos around the globe (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit!), our economic, political, and even spiritual mindsets need to change.

Is there any wisdom we can glean from Paul’s use of that single Greek word, καταρτιζω (katartizō)?  Surely “be restored to order” can be seen as applying, to not just our relationship with other humans (be they in the church or not), but to our relationship with the earth itself.  It better be—no, it must be—if we are to live within our calling to be stewards of God’s good creation.

Timeout popIt looks like global climate change has taken on a whole new dimension.  Planet earth is calling “timeout.”

[Gregg Popovich, awesome coach of the San Antonio Spurs, calls timeout]

Maybe hitting the reset button will become a daily exercise.  And to be honest, doesn’t that reflect teachings handed down through the centuries?  For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon (who were facing their own strange new world), “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).  Every morning, when they woke up, they had to hit the reset button.  They had no choice.  Still, the prophet of God encouraged them.  He assured them that was the way to life.

ResetIf human history—if church history—is any guide, the changes we need to make are usually the ones forced on us.  But so be it.  May the Spirit lead, by any means necessary, the restoration required to live and to prosper in this crazy new age unfolding before us.


wearing the bandana

On the night of November 12, 1995, I walked home from the Baskin-Robbins where I worked while at seminary in Philadelphia.  Banu and a friend of ours were in the apartment.  I went to the bedroom and sat down.  Very soon, I entered what was like a waking dreamlike state.  The air seemed almost tangible.

I’m not sure how much time went by, but the next thing I knew was Banu looking at me, saying she had been calling me.  She had a look of concern on her face, and before I knew it, paramedics were taking me by ambulance to the hospital.  By the time we arrived, I was completely lucid.  After examining me, the doctor suspected I might have a blood clot.  After testing, they discovered I had a brain tumor, so that meant surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy (a lot of chemotherapy).

1 acI was left with a scar on my head where the incision was made.  I took to wearing a bandana, first to protect the incision, and then to hide the scar.  (By the way, I had bandanas of many different colors!)  Three months later I was in our apartment with Banu and another friend, and the same thing happened.  It turned out to be a staph infection—so another surgery, with the incision in the same place.  This time, the scar was more pronounced.  It was quite visible.

(I took to dividing my life into BC and AD, based on that first surgery on the 14th: Before Cancer and After Diagnosis.)

As I mentioned, I would wear a bandana on my head, and I did that for two and a half years, well after it was medically necessary!  Of course, the radiation caused me to lose my hair, but that wasn’t the main reason I wore them.  I didn’t like that scar, and I didn’t want other people to see it!  Even after we went to Nebraska to serve our first church, I still wore them for over a year.

I think I could describe that time with the bandanas as a liminal time or a liminal space.  What, you may ask, is “liminal”?  It comes from the Latin limen, which means “threshold.”  We’re familiar with the word “subliminal”—below the threshold.

As Richard Rohr puts it, “Liminal space… is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next…  It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way.  In such space, we are not certain or in control.  This global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense, collective liminal space.”[1]

His friend Sheryl Fullerton says of liminal space, “The old touchstones, habits, and comforts are now past, the future unknown.  We only wish such a time to be over.  We may be impatient to pass through it quickly, with as little distress as possible, even though that is not likely.”[2]

Liminal space is often not much fun at all.  We might compare it to the pain of growing up.

If we handle this liminal space well, we are more open to developing, to discovering.  We allow “room for something genuinely new to happen.”  Actually, it’s going to happen anyway.  It’s a question of will we welcome it, or will we be dragged kicking and screaming!  I think my refusal to discard the bandana was a sign of kicking and screaming.  I was reluctant to say goodbye to that part of my life.  (The BC.)  I would never be the same again.  But guess what?  That’s okay!

I began with this rather lengthy introduction, as trivial as it might seem.  I want to draw an analogy to a passage in the book of Acts.  The story of Stephen reflects a dramatic shift in the life of the early church.  There is indeed a liminal space, an in-between time, in which change darlin’, is a-comin’.  The church will never be the same again.

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In chapter 6 we see what’s coming down the pike.  Verse 1 says, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [that is, the Greek speaking believers] complained against the Hebrews [who actually spoke Aramaic] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”  The ethnic balance is shifting; the demographics are changing.

The church leaders see trouble on the horizon, so they arrange for “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” to whom they can entrust this ministry of social justice, this ministry of compassion (v. 3).  One person stands out, our dear friend “Stephen, full of grace and power, [who] did great wonders and signs among the people” (v. 8).

He draws the wrong kind of attention.  Stephen is becoming a pain in the rear end for many of the powers-that-be.  He is hauled in to appear before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, and give an account for himself.  For most of chapter 7, he gives a history lesson, starting with Abraham.  Things are going well until he gets to the temple, saying, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (v. 48).  The folks he’s talking to do not want to hear that.

But he goes even further.  “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?  They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (vv. 51-52).  They really do not want to hear that.

And so we get to the point where they see red and start grinding their teeth.  Things are looking grim for Stephen.  He’s in for a world of hurt.  That change in the church I mentioned earlier—that liminal space and time—is now coming into sharp focus.

Joel Kime comments on this.  “Right at that moment, something amazing happens, an astounding event that can help us learn to think differently when we are in the middle of pain.  Stephen, as we read in verses 55-56, has a vision of God.  And what’s more, he has the audacity to tell the people what he sees!  What can we learn from this?  Though he was facing a perilous reality, Stephen is 100% focused on God.  In the midst of his liminal moment, he was still attuned to God.”[3]

3 acThat’s what I touched on earlier.  That “not yet” time can bring with itself confusion, anguish, suffering, maybe even embarrassment.  Stephen is a good role model.  “What can it look like for us to focus on God, right in the middle of the uncertainty, the pain, the struggle?”

Again, that can involve us as individuals, a family, a church, or indeed the whole world.  This time of coronavirus is a time of wearing the bandana.

Stephen rips off his bandana.  As he prepares to meet his Maker, he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  And then, in Jesus-like fashion, while drawing his final breath, he cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (vv. 59-60).

While all of this is going on, we’re introduced to “a young man named Saul.”  He’s keeping watch over of the coats of those throwing stones.  He gives a thumbs-up to the entire affair.  In The Message, Eugene Peterson put it this way: “Saul was right there, congratulating the killers.”

Here’s where we get to another of those liminal spaces, those liminal times.  Brutal persecution breaks out, with Saul doing his part by hauling believers to prison.  Again, here’s how Peterson put it: “And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail.”  I often wonder how I would fare under such vicious treatment.  Would I cave in and renounce the faith?

After this baptism of fire, “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (v. 4).  When all is said and done, the forces of evil cannot defeat the forces of good.  It might take a long time.  It might take a great deal of perseverance, but those who stand will be empowered by the Spirit.

In these strange times, we are being called to persevere.  We are leaving one way of being and will be emerging into a future that has yet to be revealed.

Fullerton says, “Like Jonah in the belly of the sea monster, we are led where we do not want to go—not once, but many times in our lives…  In the unknown space between here and there…life happens.  And, if we attend, we can feel the Holy Spirit moving with us in a way that we may not be aware of in more settled times.”

Is it possible, in some bizarre, unwelcome way, the coronavirus can actually be seen as a gift?  Please believe me, it’s not a gift I want!  But it’s here, and there’s not much we can do about it.  We can’t take it back to the store and get a refund.  (Partly because very few stores are open!)

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We’re told by Fullerton, “we can learn to let reality—even in its darkness—be our teacher, rather than living in the illusion that we are creating it on our own.”  We encounter “a disturbing time and space that not only breaks us down, but also offers us the choice to live in it with fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of [holy] Presence.”

I again find myself being challenged.  Maybe I am wearing that new bandana presented by the pandemic.  Maybe I want to cover up a new scar.  Maybe I’m too slow to deal with the new reality that’s unfolding.  Maybe I’m not the only one wearing a bandana.

However, there are opportunities.  On Easter, my mother and sister, who live in Tennessee, tuned in.  My newfound family in Florida did the same.  And of course, we’re joined by the folks in Cohocton every Sunday.  Many of you have friends and family joining us.  That’s just one aspect of these crazy, strange times.

One thing we’re being taught is to slow down.  That comes with its own challenges.  We are being forced to make connections in new ways.  We need to stay true to that, to “live in it with [that] fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of [holy] Presence.”

As we accept that unwelcome gift, we can join with Stephen as he proclaims, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

 

[1] cac.org/between-two-worlds-2020-04-26

[2] cac.org/the-liminal-paradox-2020-04-29

[3] joelkime.com/2020/03/25/what-to-focus-on-when-you-are-in-pain-acts-68-83-part-3


a corona confession

There are various moments when the coronavirus pandemic first entered our consciousness.  I was aware of the dreadful toll being paid by the Chinese and the Italians, but it still felt too distant, I say to my shame.  But then, on March 11, the NBA suspended its season.  I thought it might be a bit premature, but then the next day, the NHL followed suit.  I have become a big hockey fan, and that was the one the really struck me.  And oh my, what if the NFL delays or, as seems likely, cancels its season?

1 blogSuch were the trivial events that caught my attention.

Cancellations and closings of all manner became a new way of life.

In some small way, I have enjoyed the relative peace and quiet that exists, for example, when I take my dog for a walk.  For a moment, the introvert within me finds a sense of tranquility.

But the moment quickly passes.

I am reminded of the terrible hardships that have descended upon the world and upon my community.  I think of people being cooped up in their homes.  I think of people getting on each other’s nerves.  I think of children whose schooling has been disrupted.  I think of needed services that are largely unavailable.  I think of people losing their jobs.  I think of those for whom home is not a safe place.

Plus, there’s the constant annoyance of the continuous sanitizing of surfaces and avoidance of touching one’s face.  And oh yes, the 20 second ritual of washing one’s hands.  (Which is much easier if you have access to clean water.)

2 blogThere is the overall aggravation of not being able to meet in person.  It takes extra planning to get everyone set online.  And imagine the irritation—I’m being euphemistic—of visits being curtailed or even banned.  (I am a pastor, by the way.)  Regarding worship services, preaching to people, even in real time on the internet, is a weak substitute for the give and take that fosters the joy, creativity, and power of the Holy Spirit.  (Not to mention my often lame attempts at humor.)

My last sermon dealt with the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones in chapter 37.  “Can these bones live?”  I asked some questions.  What will come of our present exile, this new world we’ve been led to?  Will fear win the day?  Will hope win the day?  I think of science fiction / horror movies in which a biological or environmental disaster emerges and turns people into savage beasts.  But the Star Trek fan in me is encouraged by how the human race learns from past mistakes, past atrocities, and builds a new society of justice and peace—though not without its own problems, mind you!

3 blogEzekiel’s vision is more expansive than what Star Trek offers, I must say.  Our efforts alone do not suffice.  “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14a).

The coronavirus doesn’t get the final say.


love, food, and toilet paper

One day while the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, they were grumbling because they couldn’t find any food.  Many were saying, “Wasn’t it great when we were slaves in Egypt?  We had plenty to eat!  And now—we’re looking at you, Moses—we’re going to die in the desert.”  God told Moses, “Okay, I’m going to give them something to eat.  They’ll call it ‘manna from heaven.’  Tell them that they will have as much as they need.”  That’s what Moses told the people.  In the morning, they found it scattered on the ground.

“Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until [next] morning.’  But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.  And Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:19-20).

They chose the path of hoarding.  Does that sound familiar?

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(Did they have toilet paper?)

At the last session meeting (that’s Presbyterian-speak for board of elders), we had an extended discussion on the uncharted territory our congregation and the whole world find ourselves in.  What to do?  How to worship?  How to care for one other?

We could choose the path of hoarding.  I’ve got mine.  Go fend for yourself.

We decided to go another way.  We’ll be worshipping online.  We will be having prayer times, classes, and other opportunities for sacred space.

The coming weeks and months will not be easy.  (That’s no doubt a colossal understatement.)  We can choose to hoard, or we can choose to share.  Every Sunday we hear the Trinitarian benediction, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship (or communion) of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  The Greek word for “fellowship” is κοινωνια (koinonia), which at root means “sharing.”

When we hoard, we wind up losing what we think we had.  The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Together, we will find new ways to be “sharing.”  Let us share, not hoard, the physical means of living and thriving.  Let us share, not hoard, the care and companionship that bring support to each other.  Let us share, not hoard, the living Word who frees us from the chains of fear and panic.

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[photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash]

“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).


how are we called?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 gn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are we called?

 

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

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

[3] Speiser, 92.

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