church

in religion, but not of religion

Presbyterians don’t emphasize this so much, but when I was in the Assemblies of God, I heard plenty of sermons that asked, “Have you had your Damascus road experience?”  Can you pinpoint a moment in your life in which you could say, “I once was lost, but now am found.  Here I am, Lord!”

The awakening of faith can be a very subjective thing.  It can be hard to pinpoint from the outside.  For many, it is a gradual growing awareness.  That is, if it happens at all.  But however it does happen, it is a gift.  Sometimes it is a gift delivered in a drastic fashion.

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For the Lord to get Paul’s attention, it took something quite drastic!  (By the way, I’m using the name “Paul,” since Saul was later known by that name.)

As we begin Acts 9 with his description, we’re actually picking up from a verse in chapter 8.  “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (v. 3).  And now, with verse 1: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

There is a sadly comical aspect to this portrayal of Paul.  Honestly, doesn’t this guy have anything better to do?  He’s pictured like a brute beast, like a wild animal.  This guy has some major anger issues!  Like the bull in a china shop, he’s been doing some serious damage.

Paul has been hurting and terrorizing those whom, in the future, he will love dearly as his sisters and his brothers.  But as I say, that’s in the future!

There is one he is hurting most of all.  We’re told, “He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’  He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’  The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (vv. 4-5).  The risen and ascended Lord passionately identifies with his people.  Because of his great love, what hurts them brings him torment.

How different is Paul’s response from that of Ananias in verse 10.  Where Paul says, “Who are you, Lord?” Ananias says, “Here I am, Lord.”

It isn’t that Paul doesn’t understand the faith.  He is very well versed.  Later in Acts, he says that he has “belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee” (26:5).  He knows this stuff backwards and forwards!  He has the data, but he lacks the experience.  That is, he lacks the experience of God’s love.

For me, that’s something I really value from my time with the Assemblies of God.  For someone who lived too much in his head, the Pentecostals were a needed corrective.

At an interim ministry training event, a video was presented of the late Edwin Friedman, who was a rabbi and a therapist.  In the video, he is commenting on the fallacy of expertise.  He is talking about our emphasis on information and technique.  Or perhaps I should say the overemphasis on information and technique—the overemphasis on experts.  It’s possible to be paralyzed by continuously gathering information before we take any meaningful action.  Sometimes we need to learn to trust ourselves.

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[more words of wisdom from the late great Neil Peart--the drummer from Rush, if you didn't know]

Friedman speaks of the pursuit of data as a form of substance abuse.  I had never thought of it that way.  Too often, I have greatly abused that substance!  It can have the downside of making one indecisive.

Data and experience can be phrased, for lack of better terms, as head knowledge and heart knowledge, or spirit knowledge.

Graham Standish served as a Presbyterian pastor for many years.  He is now the executive director of a spiritual counseling center.  He published an article called “Shepherding SBNR Sheep: How to Create a Church for the Spiritual but Not Religious.”[1]

For devoted churchgoers, “spiritual but not religious” is often seen as those unwilling to make a commitment.  It actually has many connotations, clearly, some more positive than others.  Those who identify themselves that way often speak of their distrust of the church, of institutionalized religion, and so on.  Some perceive a lack of authenticity.  Some look at the church and see a bunch of phonies.  To what extent that perception meets reality is a different discussion.

Standish begins his article with a sort of confession.  Speaking of the time he was a pastor, he said, “I privately classify myself as being ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR).  I know it doesn’t make sense, but somehow it feels right.  No matter how long I’ve been the pastor of a church, I’ve always been more ‘in’ religion than ‘of’ religion.”  I imagine he would still classify himself as such.

It looks like he’s using the word “religion” to mean the data it contains.  He’s using it to express doctrinal content.  There’s nothing wrong with doctrine, in and of itself.  It’s necessary; it’s simply a body of teachings.  But if doctrine is separated from a loving experience of God, it can become deceptive and even dangerous.

I’ve never really considered myself to be religious.  I guess that’s a quality I share with our SBNR friends.  To me, being called “religious” is not necessarily a compliment.  In his zeal to imprison members of the early church, Paul is definitely religious.

Those who are in religion, but not of religion, “want to experience what’s true rather than be told what is true.”  Standish talks about one of his parishioners who said, “Most churches tell you what to think.  [Our church] encourages you to think.”

I should warn you.  When we encourage others to think, we may hear some stuff we would rather not hear.  In today’s passage, there are two fellows who hear stuff they don’t want to hear.  There’s Paul, hearing how he’s been horribly wrong, and he’s been persecuting his Lord.  And then there’s Ananias, who hears that it’s his job to welcome Paul.  (“Lord, you do know that he’s done some really bad stuff?”)

Standish addresses something we’re familiar with: asking people certain questions in order to join the church, “such as ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?’  There’s nothing wrong with expecting this, although it puts the SBNR in a quandary: do I say ‘yes,’ even if I don’t know quite what that means, or do I wait till I know what it means?  And what if I never know what that means?”  He says that “healthy relationships lead more people to an experience of the holy than does rational theologizing.”

Trying to convince people into faith by using a line of reasoning is often not the best approach.  And yes, arguing with, and shaming people doesn’t work so well in demonstrating the love of Jesus.   In our scripture, Ananias says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 17).  Vision and the Spirit go together.

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Look at how our passage ends.  “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (vv. 19-20).  So not only is Paul’s sight restored—not only do the blinders come off—but Paul finds his voice.  Paul, in effect, joins those who are in religion, but not of religion.  That’s what happens when we experience what the data is about.

I want to mention one more thing that’s in the article.  It deals with how open we are to those unfamiliar with our language, our jargon.  We should realize “that while Christian language and [expressions] help those within a religious tradition to speak a common language of faith, that…language also creates a barrier” for those who don’t understand it.  “In effect, it helps us if we are willing learn the language of other faiths, and to learn how to translate certain concepts into our own language.”

When I was in seminary, I had Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).  What that often entails is a student chaplaincy at a hospital, which is what I did.  One of the things our supervisor would often ask of us would be to express our faith without using “God talk.”  That is, don’t use religious words.  When you’re in a hospital, you’re dealing with the entire public, people from all backgrounds.

Another way of looking at it would be: can you talk about faith by focusing on the experience, rather than the data?

On the matter of God talk, there is something I have mentioned before.  It deals with an invitation Banu and I received 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.

During one session, I issued that challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using God talk.  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

Some of them gladly 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.

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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.  That’s a word for us, also.

My guess would be 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 lasted maybe twenty minutes, 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!)

How can we talk about our own experience?  How can we tell our story?  We all have them, and none of them are any less valid than those of others.

The poster boy for a story of willingness to change is Saul, later known as Paul.  His decision to embrace change was a literal turn from death, at least, the death of others.  Verse 19 says, “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus.”  These were the same people for which he begged permission to place under arrest and drag back to Jerusalem (where they would not be treated like honored guests).

We could make the argument that Paul himself was on the road to death.  Be careful with whom you ally yourself.  Choose life or choose death: blessing or curse.

Still, back to my previous question.  How about our experience?  Are we in religion?  Are we of religion?  Are there elements of both?  As I said earlier, can we talk about faith without using God talk?

Here are questions that go a bit deeper.  How are we when it comes to letting God work through us?  How are we at being a vessel of the Spirit?

Ananias laid hands on him and prayed.  “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.  Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (vv. 18-19).

Let us eat the food given by God which strengthens us on the way.

 

[1] alban.org/archive/shepherding-sbnr-sheep-how-to-create-a-church-for-the-spiritual-but-not-religious/


blessed release

I’ve sometimes thought to myself, “everything is possible at night.”  That thought has occurred to me when I’ve been up very late, and it seems like the whole world is asleep.  The most incredible plans, the wildest ideas, all seem to be quite capable of being accomplished.  There’s the sudden, “Yes!  Why didn’t I think of that before?”  And then when sleep comes, it seems like everything is figured out.  All is right with God and the world.

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And then the cold light of morning forces open eyelids that aren’t quite ready to be opened.  The mental cobwebs disappear, and a sudden realization takes hold.  What a stupid idea that was!  What in the world was I thinking?  What seemed so clear and so true and so sensible now seems so unclear and so wrong and so ridiculous.

I wonder if the disciples had any similar thoughts.  Jesus had, after all, on occasion made strange statements about being risen from the grave.  What on earth could that mean?  Did they understand him correctly?  Is it possible in those dark, lonely, sorrowful hours before dawn that any of them dared to entertain such notions?

John 20 points us to Mary Magdalene, who ventured out to the tomb of Jesus before sunrise.  The other gospels say she wasn’t alone.  She was accompanied by other women, including Mary the mother of James.  According to the Jewish burial custom, they intended to anoint the body of Jesus.  Still, I wonder what thoughts filled their minds during that terrible and heart-breaking evening.

Mary Magdalene has received a lot of bad press throughout the centuries.  It’s been claimed she had formerly been a prostitute, an allegation stated nowhere in the Bible.  (Though, even if it were true, wouldn’t it be a good thing if she had left that life?)  What is stated is that she had been demon possessed (Lk 8:2).  Some people have said she’s the sinful woman of Luke 8 who washes the feet of Jesus with her hair (vv. 36-50) or that she’s the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (vv. 1-11).

In her blog, “Here’s a Story,” Ashley Buenger takes Biblical characters and events and infuses them with her vision and imagination, bringing them to life.  Here’s an excerpt from her story about Mary and her struggle with demons.[1]

{I have altered the spacing of some of the sentences.}

“I scramble to the jar [I just threw], it’s shattered.  Perfect, I think.  No, wait.  Whose jar is this?  Why have I broken it?  I pick up a shard and I scrape it along the top of my foot.  I see the red beads of blood glisten and I’m delighted.  I’m bleeding.  So beautiful, I stare at it.  Then I take a sharp edge to my palm.

“Stop it.  I say to them.  But they never listen.  They never give heed to what I want.  Get out of here.  I say to them but they laugh at me and snarl.  I can see their teeth in my head.  Oh, Mary.  They taunt me.  Silly Mary. You’re ours.  We won’t leave.

“I pick up another piece of pottery and put it between my teeth.  I chomp down on it as hard as I can.  I wince as I feel a tooth break.  They laugh and place another piece in my mouth.  It’s getting worse.  I push, they push back, I push again, they push back again.  Sometimes I win.  But not often and not lately.  It’s been too long.  I’m too tired to fight.  They have taken over this body.  I’m no longer Mary…  I don’t know half the things I do.

“Look what you’ve done to me, I say to them.  We’ve made you better, they say and laugh, we’ve made you prettier.  They take me to a booth where a man is selling mirrors.  See?  They say.  Gorgeous.  I am horrified.  My face is sunk and my eyes are empty, there are deep wounds on my cheeks.  Chunks of my hair are missing.  What is left hangs limp and dirty around my face.  I don’t even recognize myself…

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“The air shifts and the hair on my neck tingles, I stand up straight and look around.  Someone is coming.  Someone important.  The demons are stirred.  I stumble to the wall and then back and to the wall again.

“There he is, that’s him.  Who is he?…  ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they yell from my mouth.  ‘We know who you are.  The son of the Most High God.’

“‘Come out of her.’  Jesus says.  ‘Now.’

“My body shakes and they shriek as they leave.  It smells like burning flesh for a moment and then they are gone.  There were seven of them.

“I look up and into the face of my healer.  He stands before me with his hand out to me.  I take it, wincing at the pain of the gashes in my palm.  ‘Hi Mary.’  He says to me.  And I stare at him.  My name from his lips is like a song.  The most beautiful melody that I had ever heard.  It is a song of freedom.

“I am Mary again.”

Mary is given a blessed release.

By the way, I sent a comment to Ashley saying, “I love your portrait of the demons as spiteful little punks.”  At the end of the day, that’s really what they are.

The scripture reading of that first Easter morning describes the event that earned Mary Magdalene the name “apostle to the apostles,” no longer the Mary with seven devils.  She peeks into the tomb, even while she’s crying tears of sorrow.  She’s greeted by two angels who ask her why she’s crying.  Mary’s answer shows how confused she is as to how all this can be happening.

3 jnNo sooner has she answered their question than she turns and sees Jesus himself.  Says G. H. C. Macgregor, “There follows the greatest recognition scene in all literature—and one told in two words!”[2]  (Jesus says, “Mary.”  She says, “Rabbouni,” meaning teacher.)  “The greatest recognition scene in all literature.”  (Why doesn’t he tell us how he really feels?)

She sees him, but she doesn’t recognize him.  Thinking he’s the gardener, Mary figures he can explain the missing body of Jesus.

Why doesn’t Mary recognize him?  One suggestion is it was still too dark, but that doesn’t seem very likely.  After all, the disciples on the road to Emmaus spend a long time with Jesus before realizing who he is (Lk 24:13-35).  It’s not until Jesus speaks her name that the veil over Mary’s mind is lifted.

Nadia Bolz-Weber has her own take on this recognition scene.[3]

“See, when Mary Magdalene, this imperfect woman, stood at the tomb, she didn’t encounter some perfected radiant glowing Jesus that morning.  Seriously, no offense to gardeners but Jesus couldn’t have been looking all that tidy and impressive if she mistook him for a gardener.  And here’s the thing: I like to think that Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails.”

4 jnThat really speaks volumes about the incarnation.  In Jesus, we have God appearing on earth in flesh, God appearing as matter—this earthly, dirty stuff.  No angel, no vision, but the physical body and blood of Jesus.  In a few moments, we will eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (That’s the Greek word appearing many times in the New Testament which means “giving thanks.”)

How can we describe the intensity of the moment that follows?  In what must have been a flood of shock and joy, Mary cries out to the one she dearly loved.  There are other writings from the early church, besides the New Testament, that speak of the relationship that existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  They speak of a relationship, one of intimate friendship.  Some even go so far as to suggest a romantic bond.

The scripture presents her as turning twice.  In verse 14, she “turns” and sees Jesus, though as mentioned before, she doesn’t recognize him.  In verse 16, upon hearing her name spoken, she “turns” and speaks to Jesus with unbounded wonder.  She turns from grief to hope.  She turns from sorrow to joy.

Though the Bible doesn’t use that word, she turns—she returns—and brings the good news to the others.  Of course, they don’t take her word for it.  Sometimes even an apostle to the apostles isn’t believed!

Mary Magdalene is a fitting picture for Easter, for resurrection.  She, in effect, has been raised from the dead.  She has been freed from her demons.  She once was blind, but now she sees.

It’s been said that it’s “possible for Jesus to be present, and yet for [us] not to recognise him until his word goes home to [us].”[4]

“Until his word goes home.”  It’s not enough to hear about Christ or to be taught the meaning of the resurrection.  We can learn ways to understand the scriptures; we can learn the doctrines of the church—and these are important.  But hearing about Jesus won’t produce belief.  We must hear from Jesus.  And hearing from Jesus Christ means hearing the good news of his love.  That is the word that goes home.

And that is the word spoken to Mary Magdalene when Jesus calls her by name.  It’s like those three-dimensional pictures that are hidden in the midst of a bewildering array of other images.  You have to let your eyes remain unfocused.  Straining to find the 3-D picture won’t do any good.  And it can be maddening.  You’re looking right at it, but you can’t see it!

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When Jesus speaks his word, he no longer is a gardener.  He no longer is a traveler on the Emmaus road.  When he speaks his word, he can be seen as the risen Lord who comes to us even now, in every moment of life.

So the next time you find yourself awake in the midst of the darkest of nights, think to yourself that anything is possible at night—even the impossible.  For it was before the sun had yet shown its face that the light of the world emerged from the darkness of the tomb.

 

[1] ashleybuenger.substack.com/p/mary-magdalene?s=r

[2] G. H. C. Macgregor, The Gospel of John (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), 358.

[3] thecorners.substack.com/p/its-actually-pretty-easy-to-mistake?s=r

[4] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 686.


confessions of ruthless love

We’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law, aren’t we?  It basically states, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  I did a little bit of research to find out who this Murphy actually was.  There is more than one candidate.  Many people suggest Capt. Edward Murphy, an engineer in the US Air Force.  After a technician had made a mistake in wiring, Murphy claimed, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”[1]

1 jr Others, like me, suspect an origin further back in history.  Understanding that Murphy is an Irish name, some say that the English pinned it on the Irish.  Of course, as a rule, the English have always held the Irish in the very highest regard, so it’s hard to believe they would do such a thing!

Whatever the case: if there’s anybody in the Bible who might possibly believe in Murphy’s Law, it would be the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah lives at a time when the Babylonian Empire is knocking at the door.  People are nervous.  They fear destruction and exile.  And at the same time, injustice is rampant throughout the country.  As the prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah is given the task of opposing idolatry and corruption—speaking truth to power.  As true prophets do, his job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

Jeremiah does not have a happy life.  His social life is all but nonexistent.  Saying “yes” to God has meant for him dealing with name-calling and far worse: slander, beating, imprisonment.  After the Babylonians do invade, he’s labeled a traitor when he warns against fighting back.  Saying “yes” to God means that Jeremiah becomes public enemy number one.

One of the things I really love about this book is Jeremiah’s ruthless honesty about his calling and ministry.  In chapter 1, when he is called to be a prophet, we get a little taste of things to come when the Lord says, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (v. 8).  Jeremiah knows that trouble is in store for him.  It’s not for nothing that he has been called “the weeping prophet.”

There are several poems in the book that are often called the Confessions of Jeremiah.  We have a reading from the first and the last ones.  In these poems, he sounds a lot like Job.  More than with any other prophet, we see in Jeremiah a picture of his inner being.  At times, he verges on the depths of despair.

As our friend Murphy might say, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

Jeremiah feels like God has betrayed him, and he isn’t shy about letting God know it!  More than once, he decides that he’s had enough; he is not going to do this anymore.  Let somebody else do this job!  But he finds it impossible to stop.  Chapter 20, verse 9, has the perfect example of this.  “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

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“The Prophet Jeremiah” by Michelangelo

The Contemporary English Version puts it this way: “Sometimes I tell myself not to think about you, Lord, or even mention your name.  But your message burns in my heart and bones, and I cannot keep silent.”

That’s a confession that only someone who is in love can make!  Jeremiah loves the Lord, but he’s also mad and disappointed.

In chapter 11, we see something that would have anyone wondering what’s going on.  The people of his hometown issue him a warning: shut up or change your tune—or you won’t like what’s coming!  It’s been said that they’re “shamed to the depths that one of themselves should undermine the very foundations of the nation by what he said, and should make himself the most hated man in the country.  So they threaten to murder him.”[2]

Jeremiah laments that he is “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (v. 19).  That’s one of the comparisons people make between him and Jesus.

And at the end of chapter 20, we see him cursing the day of his birth.  There’s a comparison with Job.  He even curses the man who brought glad tidings of his birth to his father!  That wasn’t good news!  Why didn’t he just kill me?  “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (v. 18).

Of course, Jeremiah is far from alone in wanting to just call it quits.

A story is told about John Robertson, a 19th century minister in the Church of Scotland.  Having preached for forty years, he “decided one morning to resign.  He prayed: ‘O God, Thou didst commission me forty years ago, but I have blundered and failed and I want to resign this morning.’  But as he prayed and sobbed, he heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘John Robertson…‘tis true you have blundered and failed; but…I am not here for you to resign your commission but to re-sign your commission.’  He went on to new and greater things in his ministry.  And so did Jeremiah.”[3]

After everything falls apart—after everything crashes and burns—after the Babylonians destroy the temple—Jeremiah has a message of hope.  The exiles, one day, will return.  Rebuilding will happen.  Of course, if he had just quit (speaking of the prophet and John Robertson), he wouldn’t have been able to give that message of consolation.

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I want to change gears and look at the value of Jeremiah’s Confessions.  Actually, I should probably ask, “Do we think they have value?”  As expressions of lament, do they have value?  What is the value of lament?  What is the value of giving voice to our grief?

The Confessions are about stuff that happens to more than just one person.  They are about the community, the people of Israel.  And they’re also about us—all of us, in every time and place.  We haven’t gone through what the people in Jeremiah’s time do, but we also know what trauma and disaster are all about.

Clearly, the last two years have taught us a few things about that.

Some people say that we shouldn’t talk about the bad things that happen, certainly not in church.  I wonder, have they ever looked at a cross?

I’m sure none of you have ever experienced this, but sometimes when tragedy strikes, we can offer some unwanted explanations.  Stuff like, “God never gives us more than we can handle.”  Let’s ignore the fact that isn’t in the Bible—it’s an altering of something in 1 Corinthians about God giving us a way out of testing and temptation (10:13).  But aside from that, does that really help anyone?

This is among my favorite unhelpful explanations: when someone loses a loved one, especially if that person was young, I’ve sometimes heard that “God needed another angel in heaven.”  We should understand humans and angels are two completely different types of beings!  Aside from that, something far worse, in my opinion, is the funeral poem claiming, “God broke our hearts to prove to us He only takes the best.”  That seems to say nothing less than God is a monster.

Still, I think we can see that those types of remarks say more about the person uttering them than anything else.  When we’re at a loss for words, we too often offer things that are unhelpful and painful and stupid.  Maybe a better approach is simply to be present.

That leads us to the value of lament in the scriptures, with the example of Jeremiah’s Confessions.  Old Testament scholar Kathleen O’Connor says, “They give voice to profound fidelity because they keep communication with God alive in the midst of destruction and despair.”[4]

When it comes to reflecting on our fears and insecurities versus relying on God, I think it’s safe to choose the latter.  As a result, I think I like her advice better:

“Here is what to do in the pit of hopelessness.  Cling to God, even when God has slipped away from you.  Yell at the top of your collective lungs.  Hold tightly, mercilessly, and, with every ounce of strength, shout and scream at the deity…  Hold nothing back. Complain, protest, resist.  Reach into yourself to claim your experience and your capacity to see and name reality.  Rise up, ‘give God an account,’ and approach God ‘like a prince’ [or a princess] (Job 31:37).”[5]

The good news for Jeremiah is that he doesn’t remain in the pit of hopelessness.  His love of God is what sees him through.  It is precisely because he loves God that he’s able to say the things he does.  His honesty, joined with his love, is what honors that relationship.  It keeps the relationship alive.

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It might feel wrong to be angry with God, but that’s okay.  God already knows how we feel, and when something terrible happens, God is saddened even more than we are.  At the time, it might not seem that way, and that’s also okay.  We can be honest with God, and we also can make our confessions of ruthless love.

So it’s important to ask, for those of us here, how can we welcome expressions of lament?  How can we, as the apostle Paul advises, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”? (Ro 12:15).  It is more than appropriate for the church to do that.  It’s a sure sign that we are on our way to becoming the beloved community.

The Confessions of Jeremiah, as opposed to Murphy’s Law, is a good and faithful road to follow.

 

[1] www.murphys-laws.com/murphy/murphy-true.html

[2] Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Babylonian and Persian Periods (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 39.

[3] www.directionjournal.org/article/?168

[4] Kathleen O’Connor, “Lamenting Back to Life,” Interpretation 62:1 (Jan 2008), 42.

[5] O’Connor, 45.


bearing belief of enduring hope

There are several scripture texts that are popular at weddings, but one I believe is on the short list is chapter 13 of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  It fits what our hope would be of the newly married couple.

It is also good fodder for greeting cards.  Please note: when I say “fodder,” I’m not demeaning greeting cards, and I’m definitely not demeaning Paul’s chapter on love.  However, sometimes it gets reduced to a touchy-feely, cute teddy bear level.  That’s instead of the serious and even fierce declaration of the stratospherically high nature it embodies.

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At times it’s even scary.

Something else often ignored or overlooked is its location.  It is smack dab in the middle of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts.  In chapter 12, in trinitarian language, he tells us, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (vv. 4-6).  He speaks of, for example, gifts of healing, working of miracles, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues.  Paul finishes with the promise, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (v. 31).

Thus, we have chapter 13, which teaches us if the gifts are not used under the guidance of love, then they are worthless.

In chapter 14, Paul shows how the gifts are to be used in worship.  There is to be no putting oneself ahead of others, no strutting around and saying, “Look how spiritual I am.”  Since “God is a God not of disorder but of peace,” the apostle sums it all up with the reminder “all things should be done decently and in order” (vv. 33, 40).

This has been addressed to a church with all kinds of problems: splitting themselves up into competing factions, treating the poor with disrespect, chasing after the latest fads.

Consider the place where they live.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.  On that last note, the city developed quite a reputation.

2 coThere was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to all manner of carousing, or as the band Kiss put it, to “rock and roll all night and party every day.”  The church has reflected the culture around it, with both its honorable and its less than honorable qualities.

In retrospect, I hope we can see the apostle Paul’s message isn’t intended to address romantic love or warm fuzzies.  He is concerned about life in community.  How do we order it?  How do we fail and fall into disorder?  How does the love of the meek and mighty Spirit strengthen and counsel us to not tear each other apart but to build each other up?

This chapter is jam packed with lovely ingredients.  Paul begins by listing events one might find in the spiritual Olympics.  You can set a world record, but without love, you might as well be sitting on the bench.

Next, we have a laundry list detailing what love is and what love is not.  Love is kind; love is not rude.  Love is patient; love is not irritable.

There’s a German word “schadenfreude.”  It expresses the joy at someone else’s misfortune, the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain.  Love does not engage in schadenfreude.  When someone slips on a banana peel (literally or symbolically) love doesn’t laugh.

Verse 7 tells us love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  I’ll come back to that verse.

Moving on, we see that when all else ends, love never does.  “When the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).

Paul presents us with this majestic observation, saying, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).  The apostle Paul is a man whose life has been transformed by love.  He has gone from the schadenfreude of approving the stoning of Stephen, often considered to be the first martyr, to identifying with the frail: “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” (Ac 8:1, 2 Co 11:29).

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The chapter ends with his grand proclamation, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13).  That’s a note for this motley crew with their quarreling, nitpicking, shaming, shameless ways.  In other words, they’re behaving not unlike us.  (That is at least, in our worst moments!)

Now, back to verse 7, informing us that love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.

What does it mean to say love bears all things?  The word for “bears” (στεγω, stegō) also means “to cover, to keep secret, to hide the faults of others.”  One thing we’re basically talking about is keeping confidence—not going around blabbing.  If you get some dirt on someone, keep it to yourself.

There can be confusion between confidentiality and secrecy.  Sometimes a good faith attempt at keeping confidence can be misconstrued as dealing in secrets.  Here’s one good measure for telling the difference: confidentiality affords protection, secrecy causes damage.  While confidentiality respects, secrecy disrespects.

Love believes all things.[1]  Love places confidence in someone or something.  Love is willing to entrust, to look for the best, to give the benefit of a doubt.  On occasion, it can even be accused of being naïve.  We might suspect that someone is taking advantage of us, but we let it slide.  In the world’s eyes, we can appear foolish.

In chapter 6, Paul speaks of believers taking each other to court.  He goes as far as to put the questions, “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?” (v. 7).  Those are awkward questions.

Love hopes all things.  The Greek word ελπιζω (elpizō) also carries the sense of expectation, an expectation with confidence.  This isn’t an empty hope.  It’s not a case of saying, “I wish it were so.”  It’s a strong and secure hope.  “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

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It’s a hope when everyone else has given up.

It’s a hope when all we want to do is fret.  Fretting attracts negative energy, bad mojo.  I have usually found that when I lapse into fretting, it turns out to be a waste of mental, emotional, and spiritual power.

Love endures all things.[2]  Love remains.  Love waits.  Love doesn’t flee.  Love doesn’t hit the road, Jack.  Love perseveres.  Love stands alongside.

Haven’t we all been in situations in which we know we should hang around, but all we want to do is just take off?  I admit I have done that.  Love has called to me.  Love has pleaded with me.  Love has begged me.  But instead, I said “no” to love.

These are less commands than they are descriptions.  That would be setting a very high bar indeed.  It would be quite a challenge even for those athletes in the spiritual Olympics!

Remember the location of this hymn to love.  It’s placed in the midst of Paul’s commentary on spiritual gifts.  This love, αγαπη (agapē), is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  We can’t summon this up by ourselves.  Having said that, it doesn’t mean we don’t try to put it into practice.

I want to revisit verse 12 where it says, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.”  The old King James language has a poetic spin as it states, “now we see through a glass, darkly.”  I like how the Revised English Bible reads, “At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror.”  Puzzling reflections.

Even the sharpest of insights is barely visible from the world behind it.  In a time beyond time, that world, that realm, will be apparent.  Still, the gift of grace that is agapē gives us fleeting glimpses.

5 coLove, in its many facets, emanates from the Spirit.  It is a gift.  What do we do with this gift?  How can it transform us?  Would we like to be transformed?

I’ll give us all an assignment.  I definitely include myself in this challenge / opportunity / blessing.  Can we do our best to bear with each other, to believe in each other, to hope for each other, and yes, to endure each other?

Let’s learn to treasure the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] “believes”: πιστευω, pisteuō

[2] “endures”: ύπομενω, hypomenō


flesh and blood

Banu and I are fans of vampire movies.  There are many I like, but my favorite is still probably one we saw in the theater when we were in seminary, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  I also very much like the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In.  Banu got me started watching the Twilight movies, which I grudgingly will say aren’t too bad!  However, I do have one big complaint with their contribution to the vampire mythos:  sunlight doesn’t hurt them.  Rather, it makes them sparkle!

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Why do I begin with vampires?  It’s directly related to one of our sacraments.  In the first century, as word gradually spread that the early church was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, many non-Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, were horrified.  Prohibitions against blood in the Hebrew scriptures go back as far as Genesis: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4).  The blood is the life.

Some called the Christians cannibals.  And though the legend of the vampire goes back to ancient times, we can’t really pin that one on the early Christians.

Still, hearing this, one might be forgiven if there were some doubts: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  Those are the words of Jesus in John 6:54-56.  To the uninitiated, it probably would sound like cannibalistic or vampiric actions are in order!

This isn’t the only place where the gospel of John speaks quite insistently about the flesh and blood of Jesus.  Later, I’ll mention its role in the encounter with Pontius Pilate.  But right now, flesh and blood have a prominent role in today’s reading: the introduction to the gospel of John.

The introduction, like the book that follows it, is very different from the other gospels.  The other three don’t have the level of philosophical and theological reflection we find in John.  Many would say this gospel is the most beautiful at a poetic level.  (I would be in that category.)

These eighteen verses are packed with meaning.  I’ll only try to unpack a little of it!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1).  Does that verse remind you of anything?  If it reminds you of the first verse of Genesis, then that is deliberate.  John wants to identify Jesus the Christ with the eternal living Word, the Word that transcends creation.

“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  That includes life, “and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).  Here’s some of that poetic beauty I spoke of.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (v. 5).  What does that mean?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The Greek word for “overcome,” καταλαμβανω (katalambanō), has several nuances.  It can mean “to grasp.”  In the physical sense, it would suggest “seizing” somebody or something.  In the mental sense, it refers to “understanding.”

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It can also have the sense of “detecting.”  In chapter 8, when some scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman “caught in adultery,” the same word is used.  In this case, she is both detected and seized!  (On a side note, we hear nothing about the man being detected and/or seized—nor about how word came to the scribes and Pharisees who detected her!)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The darkness did not grasp it, or seize it, or understand it, or detect it.  More than that, the darkness is incapable of grasping or understanding the light!

We are told John the Baptist testified to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”  John testified that the Word, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (vv. 8-9).

With verse 14, we have something of a summary of today’s reading.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.  That’s how John portrays Christmas.  There’s no messing around with a baby in a manger.  Like I said earlier, there’s more of a philosophical and theological focus.

As I was doing research for this sermon, I came across an article with an eye-catching title by Jennifer Glancy, who teaches Bible at LeMoyne College in Syracuse.  The title was “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel.”[1]  This is where Pontius Pilate enters the picture.

In the article, she wonders, echoing Pilate in his interview of Jesus, “What is truth?”  Expanding on that, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?”[2]  If verse 14 is correct and the eternal living Word has come to dwell in flesh, then it seems we have to say yes, truth does in fact dwell in flesh.

That is the assumption of the Roman Empire and its project of torture and crucifixion—that truth can be extracted from flesh and blood.  Indeed, that’s the assumption of all who torture, truth can be wrenched from the body.

Glancy speaks of three intentions of torture.[3]  There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth.  (You know what I mean: “We have ways of making you talk!”)  Secondly, there is “penal” torture, torture used for punishment.

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Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which is part of a campaign to send a message to the rest of the population.  You make an example out of somebody.  Add to this the element of humiliation.  People crucified by the Romans were stripped naked and mocked.

For those who would say this talk of terror and torture has no place in the Christmas story, I would remind us of Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ child.  His paranoia results in the massacre of numerous little boys.  Sadly, that kind of brutality has a very real-world feel to it.

In order to protect their young one from Herod, Joseph and Mary are forced to flee to Egypt.  They have to seek asylum; they’re fleeing political persecution.  In Jesus Christ, we worship one who has been a refugee.  We worship one who has been a victim of torture.  Still, even though darkness does its worst, it still can’t overcome the light.

Almost five centuries ago, Martin Luther expressed it well in verse: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us / We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us / The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him / His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure / One little word shall fell him.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.

What does that mean for us?  Can we think of ways in which we see or experience the Word in flesh?  Are there ways in which we know there is truth in flesh, in this physical stuff?

The darkness could not grasp or seize the light; it couldn’t overcome it.  But the darkness did indeed grasp and seize the flesh of Jesus.

We all struggle with the darkness.  On struggling with darkness, Richard Rohr notes that it “can be experienced as pain and handicap.”  It can be “experienced by struggling with the riddles, dilemmas, and absurdities of life.”  Commenting on verse 5, he says, “Like physical light itself, true light must both include and overcome the darkness.”[4]

I pray—I hope!—we don’t literally engage in torture, but torture can have different meanings.  We torture each other in a multitude of ways.  I’m sure we can think of plenty of cases in which we find that to be true.  We torture ourselves, and we are tortured.  I think it’s safe to say Covid hasn’t always brought out the best in us.  We have shamed each other.  And there are consequences to all of this.  We are harmed as the body politic, and we are harmed as flesh and blood bodies.

Yet even though we surely know darkness can’t overcome the light, at some level—and in some ways we can’t quite put our fingers on—we turn away from the light.  Too often we hide in the dark.  We need to let the light, the light that enlightens everyone, penetrate our darkness.

That doesn’t happen by accident.  Responding to Christ’s call to eat his flesh and drink his blood is a matter of will.  As the early church father Ignatius of Antioch put it, “the Blood of Jesus Christ is love.”[5]  That’s what it takes to become aware of the body of Christ, be it in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist—or in the sacrament of everyday life.

The apostle Paul warns the Galatians when he says, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (5:14-15).  Remember what I said earlier about vampires and cannibals?

We are at the beginning of a new year.  No one knows what 2022 will bring.  Certainly, it will have its own joys and sorrows, its own life and death.  We as the church, the body of Christ, have our own unique calling.  Our world is divided; our bodies are torn apart.

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We can remain whole.  We can be made whole.  We are told that from the fullness of Christ “we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16).  That is our witness.  That is our testimony.  Instead of tearing flesh and spilling blood, we build each other up.  We nourish each other, knowing that the Word has come and dwells with us.

 

[1] Jennifer A. Glancy, “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel,” Biblical Interpretation 13:2 (2005).

[2] Glancy, 107.

[3] Glancy, 115.

[4] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 35.

[5] footnote in Archibald Robertson & Archibald Plummer, The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1914), 252.


are we there yet?

“Are we there yet?”  How many of you have ever heard that question being whined from the back seat of the car?  How many of us have ever whined that question?  Are we there yet?

In my less charitable moments, I imagine an appropriate response to that question: “Look out the window.  Do you see (and fill in the blank, depending on the destination)…  Grandma and Grandpa’s house?…  the amusement park?…  the rest stop?”  (When driving on the interstate, that’s one I keep a lookout for!)

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Of course, that question when uttered with a whine—“Are we there yet?”—is less a request for information than it is a statement.  It is a statement of impatience, a proclamation of longing, a declaration of desire, that a goal be reached.  Geographical distance is irrelevant.  This is a desire expressed in time.  There’s a desire for something to happen now, or at least, very soon.

Today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we might ask: are we there yet?  We’re encouraged, both by scripture and by the Advent season, to look for the Lord’s return—to look for that return, that presence, in our lives and in the world.  We have the privilege to not only know about Jesus—to believe certain things about him—but to know Jesus.  So, are we there yet?

The gospel reading in Luke is quite appropriate for a question like, “Are we there yet?”  That’s because it tells the story of a visit.  It’s one of the best-known visits in the entire Bible: the visit of Mary to Elizabeth.  One pregnant woman comes calling on another.  Of course, as we know, there is a slight twist to this story of two women with child.  We have a virgin visiting a woman described by her husband Zechariah as “getting on in years.”  She gives birth to the baby who will become John the Baptist.

It’s been suggested we may even have a picture of the first church.  Mary and Elizabeth “are the ones who first hear the Gospel Word and [believe] that the messianic age has dawned with the little babe growing in Mary’s womb.  They [believe] that the Messiah has come, the one who is Christ and Savior.  They are the ones who receive the word and obey it.  They are doers of the word.  They are both filled with the Holy Spirit and break out into praise and joy.”[1]

I must confess, I think that description might be a tad premature.  I’m not so certain they had that full awareness.  But I might be wrong.

What we see in these scriptures is indeed amazing, truly revolutionary, especially regarding Mary.  By the standards of her society, Mary is nobody, more or less.  First of all, she’s a woman.  I imagine you’ve heard before, in that culture (as in so many others), women were treated by men as little more than children.

But Mary’s not simply a woman; she’s an unmarried woman.  Actually, from what evidence we have about her age, today we would call her an adolescent.  But whatever her exact age, she still isn’t married to Joseph.  Her pregnancy would have raised eyebrows and set tongues a-wagging.

Add to all this, the fact that Mary is poor.  We learn later in chapter 2 (v. 24), when the time comes to present Jesus in the temple, she offers a dove instead of a sheep, a provision made in the law for those who can’t afford a sheep for sacrifice (Lv 12:8).

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And not only is she poor; she’s from a backward part of the country.  The region of Galilee, and especially Nazareth, is considered to be the boonies.  That’s why elsewhere Nathanael asks the question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).

So Mary is a poor, young, unmarried woman from the back woods.  She’s a nobody from nowhere.  And now, this nobody from nowhere is presented with the option of being a pregnant poor, young, unmarried woman from the back woods.  To put it quite unkindly, in the eyes of her culture (at least the people whose opinion counts), Mary is riff raff.

And that is what’s so revolutionary.  That is what’s so shocking.  God chooses this riff raff to be the means by which the Messiah enters the world.  Even before he’s born, Jesus is already a scandal.

As I suggested earlier, the events of our scripture reading are prompted by a visit.  Earlier in the chapter, the angel Gabriel tells the virgin Mary how it is that she’ll be able to conceive a child.  That’s actually the visit that sets the stage for everything which follows.

It’s not until Mary hurries off to visit Elizabeth that she indeed acts on the word from Gabriel.  It’s true she makes the courageous decision to be “the servant of the Lord,” and she says, “let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).  But it’s only when Mary takes off to see her relative that she puts her intention into motion.

Something happens in a visit that can happen in no other way.  There is an immediacy, a contact, that can’t be replicated by phone, letter, email, instant messaging, whatever.  In-person visits, as we know, have taken a hit in the past two years.

In these final days of Advent, I ask that we consider what it means to welcome Jesus.  We can’t do it the way that Elizabeth does in our scripture reading.  (Mary, quite literally, brings Jesus to her!)  But we can do it in ways even more powerful.  We can welcome him in the friendless, in the distressed, even in those who annoy us.

But that leads to something even more fundamental: what does it mean to be a Christian?  There are many in the church who know about Jesus, but don’t know and love Jesus.  Knowing about Jesus leads only to dead religion!  Knowing and loving Jesus leads to vibrant, energetic, joyful faith that is willing and able to let its boundaries be continually moved to welcome the least of the least.

3 lkHarry Emerson Fosdick, early twentieth-century pastor, commented on vibrant faith.  During World War 1, he wrote that we “cannot live without faith because [our] relationship with the future is an affair not alone of thought but also of action; life is a continuous adventure into the unknown.”[2]

Remember when he wrote this.  The Great War, the war to end all war, was raging across Europe and other parts of the world.  Who could possibly know what the aftermath would look like?  I don’t want to be simplistic (I really don’t), but the hope in Christ provides a foundation which can help endure anything.  That has been the testimony of believers throughout history who went through distressing times at the societal level.

Energetic faith also displays valor.  On that, Fosdick continued, we “cannot live without faith because the prime requisite in life’s adventure is courage, and the sustenance of courage is faith.”[3]  The Christian faith requires courage.

At the personal level, can we imagine being in a situation that required any more adventure into the unknown than Mary’s?  Can we imagine being in a situation that required any more courage than Mary’s?  Recall what I said before about her station in life.

Nonetheless, this young woman will be the mother of God.  In Greek, she is called theotokos.  This might be confusing to those unfamiliar with the word.  It doesn’t mean anything divine about Mary.  She isn’t a goddess or one to be worshipped.  Theotokos simply means “God-bearer.”  It is a statement about the one in her womb, the one to whom she will give birth.  She is carrying the one who is divine.  Jesus, the infant in her womb, is also God.

The God-man will be born, not from a woman in an exalted position—not from one accustomed to royal surroundings (although that would be incredible enough!), but from a poor virgin.

That would truly be an adventure into the unknown, truly one that would require immense courage.

Have we ever had such a visit?  Clearly, I’m not talking about bringing the messiah into the world.  That has already been done.  I would say we have indeed had such a visit.  We’ve had it many more times than once.  As I wondered earlier, the Lord has come calling on us.  The Lord is knocking on the door.  Have we opened the door?

Have we opened the door to others?  Here is a good and possibly uncomfortable question: have we gone out of our way to open the door?

The Lord comes to us in those who desperately need our help.  As the book of Revelation says, “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3:20).  Who do we invite as our dinner guest?  (I told you this would be uncomfortable!)

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["Knocking at the Door" by He Qi]

And yet, we also need to shut the door to certain things.  Here is the first verse of the hymn, “Lord, I Have Shut the Door.”  “Lord, I have shut the door, speak now the word / Which in the din and throng could not be heard / Hushed now my inner heart, whisper Thy will / While I have come apart, while all is still.”

I won’t pretend that I don’t have plenty of work to do on these revolving doors.  I still have much to learn about welcoming the visit of Jesus.

Are we there yet?  Maybe not, but as we continue to learn how to know and love Christ, we come closer to the blessing pronounced by Elizabeth.  “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (v. 45).

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C04advt4.htm

[2] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York: Association Press, 1917), 3

[3] Fosdick, 4.


Spirit of repair and renewal

I want to steal Banu’s answer to something I asked her.  “What comes to mind when you hear the words, ‘creation and Pentecost?’”  “How about when you hear the words, ‘Earth and Holy Spirit?’”

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[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

She spoke of a portal to heaven being opened.  She spoke of the Spirit covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.  I mentioned the book of the prophet Joel, which assures the outpouring of the Spirit “on all flesh.”

This pouring out has sons and daughters prophesying, the elderly dreaming dreams, and the young seeing visions.  There is a note on male and female slaves also receiving the outpouring of the Spirit.  Maybe we can translate that to “everyone, both great and small”!

The promise of “all flesh” receiving the Spirit only refers to human flesh.  Is it possible the animal kingdom could also be intended?  I’m not sure.  I think the animals already have their act together.  It’s the human race that needs to be filled with the Holy Spirit of wind and fire—the wind to steer us straight and the fire to burn away the impurities.

Unfortunately, the church (at least, the church in the West), has rarely thought of creation and Pentecost, Earth and Holy Spirit, as going together.  Happily, that is increasingly no longer the case.

Regarding Joel, we really have no idea when his book was written.  Unlike many of the other prophets, there is no helpful mention of historical markers, such as who was king during that time.  There is, however, mention of a devasting ecological disaster—wave after wave of locusts have swept through and ravaged the crops.  The destruction has been frightful.

They are described in rather stark language.  “They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge.  As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle” (2:4-5).

I think I’m safe in saying these critters are unwelcome guests!

2 joelThese locusts are seen as God’s call to repentance.  Joel doesn’t go into much detail as to what the people need to repent of, as some other prophets do.  He just speaks of disobedience in general.  An interesting thing is that this call to penitence involves nature itself—the invasion of locusts and the resulting devastation of the nation’s harvest.

Likewise, the sign of the salvation by God also involves nature.  “I will repay you,” says the Lord, “for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.  And my people shall never again be put to shame” (vv. 25-26).

Before he gets that far, the prophet has a message for creation itself.  He addresses nature.  “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!  Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield” (vv. 21-22).  When we look at the reading in Romans, I’ll say more about why I’ve highlighted this.

We might want to dismiss Joel’s speech as flowery symbolism.  He attributes emotion to his non-human, even non-living audience.  (At least, not living the way we think of it.)  Fear not!  Be glad and rejoice!

However, we are today understanding more about these things.  For example, there have been experiments in which rats have been observed consciously sacrificing themselves for others.  (I should add, that wasn’t the expectation at the beginning of the experiment!  No one actually thought the rats would give up their lives to save one of their fellows.)

In the recent movie, My Octopus Teacher (2020), the filmmaker befriends a creature that apparently has a high level of sentience.[1]  I’ll think twice before eating calamari again!  (And I do understand that calamari are squid; but they’re close enough!)

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I grieve for trees that are cut down.  I see them as having some level of consciousness.

My point is that we too readily disregard our fellow earthlings.  Sometimes I think of war and the toll it takes.  Obviously, the loss of human life is both horrific and unnecessary.  When we go to war, it shows a failure of imagination and creativity.  Do we ever consider the mass murder we commit against animals and plants?

Actually, the Bible itself makes an issue of that very thing.  In the law of Moses, in Deuteronomy 20, there’s a section on the rules of warfare.  An environmental clause was inserted.  The Israelites are told, “If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them.”

When an army lays siege to a city, it is blockaded.  Supplies are cut off, including food.  Sometimes the water supply is hindered.  The strategy is if the population is starved, denied vital necessities, eventually it will have to submit.

The verse goes on, “Although you may take food from [the trees], you must not cut them down.  Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (v. 19).  I’m not sure how often that warning—that wisdom—was heeded.  We can learn a lot from it.  It’s an early version of the Geneva Conventions.

Now to my point about emphasizing addressing creation itself in Romans 8.  St. Paul speaks of the present suffering as not even close to the glory which will be revealed, adding that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (v. 19).  The creation waits with eager longing.  There is an intelligence at work, an intelligence that yearns, and it yearns for the unveiling of God’s children.

I wonder how often we act like the children, the daughters and sons, of God in our care of creation.  We are reminded of that ancient command in Genesis 1 in which the human race was told to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (v. 26).  We should remember that there is a difference between dominion and domination.

There is a reason given for creation’s longing.  It has been “subjected to futility” (v. 20).  That word “futility” (ματαιοτης, mataiotēs) means “vanity” or “emptiness.”  One translation says, “creation was condemned to lose its purpose” (Good News Bible).  Of course, we’re the ones who lost sight of creation’s purpose!  We too often lose sight of our own purpose.

4 joelVerse 20 goes on to say the creation was subjected “not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it.”  As they ask in the crime novels trying to solve a murder, “Whodunnit?”  Who subjected creation to futility?  Was it we humans, or was it God?  Majority opinion goes with the latter.  It’s unclear why God would do such a thing.  One explanation is the ones put in charge by God—us.  We are the ones who screwed it up.

We dump plastic into the soil and into the sea.  We pave over the earth with reckless abandon.  We do chemistry experiments with our atmosphere, altering its composition.  We even inject ourselves with chemicals, the long-term effects of which we really don’t know.

Despite our failings as caretakers, God has made sure that the futility, the purposelessness, we have inflicted has been done “in hope.”  The story isn’t over.  Ultimately, despite our destruction (including self-destruction, God forbid), creation will endure.  Creation will be repaired and renewed.

If all of this is giving you a headache, or maybe giving you a pain in the rear end, take heart!  You’re not alone!  The apostle Paul understands, and it’s causing him to groan.  Actually, what he does is to give us a three-fold list of groaning: “the whole creation” (v. 22), “we ourselves” (v. 23), and “the Spirit” (v. 26).

I won’t into great detail about all of this groaning.  All of these “groaning” words are related to στεναζω (stenazō), which besides meaning “to groan,” also means “to sigh.”  The creation groans with labor pains.  We groan, awaiting our adoption, the final redemption of our bodies.  And that bit about our bodies is important.  Remember, in Jesus the Christ, God chose to be manifest in flesh—to appear in matter, to become part of creation.  Resurrection is not about the spirit; it is about the body.

Lastly, there is the Spirit, who helps in our weakness, not knowing how to pray as we ought.  The Spirit intercedes with sighs (as just mentioned) “too deep for words.”  Some say that refers to glossolalia, speaking in tongues.  However, speaking in tongues is an occasion of elation, as Paul says elsewhere.  In this context, the word is used as an expression of pain, of great discomfort.

The Holy Spirit grieves for us; the Spirit grieves for the creation.  Yet, as I said before, this is not the end of the story.  At this point, let me return to my original question I put to Banu.  That portal to heaven is open.  The Spirit is poured out as the waters cover the sea.

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[photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash]

Our duty, our calling, our joy isn’t simply to each other.  The gospel, the good news, goes throughout all the earth.  “God so loved the world (the cosmos)…”  Pentecost is a powerful reminder of the awesome privilege we have.  God issues the invitation to join in repairing and renewing the world.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt12888462


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.”

2 mk

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.

4 jon

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/