church

how are we called?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 gn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are we called?

 

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

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

[3] Speiser, 92.

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


do not break; do not extinguish

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

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

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

1 is

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 is

[Jon Tyson at unsplash]

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


shining in the dark

The introduction to the gospel of John is no mundane matter.  Every verse is packed (maybe we could say over-packed) with meaning.  Notice how it starts: “In the beginning was the Word.”  We’re off on a cosmic adventure.  There are all kinds of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing stuff.

Gail O’Day talks about the “cosmic, transtemporal dimension of the Prologue.”[1]  It goes beyond time itself!

1 jn

{Alexander Andrews, unsplash.com/@alex_andrews}

“All things came into being through him [that is, the Word], and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).

As the Christmas season gives way to the Epiphany of the Lord, it does so bathed in, and in preparation for, light.  Light is powerful, and there are those who say it must be infused with even more power.

Thomas Hoffman feels that way.  He offers comments in Caryll Houselander’s book, A Child in Winter.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[2]  A Child in Winter is a book of her devotionals covering Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Hoffman speaks of light as coming “pretty inexpensively and maybe even too conveniently to us.”  We have ready access to light, thanks to the power grid, batteries, cell phones, and so on.

He says, “We have grown accustomed to [this] being a season of light, but let’s agree to make this…a season of fire.  Be consumed by the energy that dwells and is growing within.  Let it burn in you.  Let God use fire to purify the cosmos through you.”[3]  It truly is a cosmic adventure!

2 jnI really like verse 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Hang on to that thought; I’ll be coming back to it.

Very quickly, here are some other highlights in John’s introduction.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (v. 6).  He came as a witness to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (v. 8).

“The true light, which enlightens everyone…was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (vv. 9-10).

Then there’s the grand statement of incarnation: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14).  It’s the over-arching meaning of Christmas.  In the human being called Jesus, “we have seen [the Word’s] glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (vv. 14, 16).  Or as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, “one gift replacing another.”

We can see incarnation as something that transcends even Jesus; we can see it including the whole universe.  Without the Word not one thing came into being.

Let’s go back to verse 5.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  What is that all about?  The word for “overcome” in Greek (καταλαμβάνω, katalambanō) has a variety of connotations.  It can mean “to grasp,” “to seize by force.”  Were darkness and light in a wrestling match, and darkness went down for the count?

3 jn

It can also mean “to comprehend” or “to understand.”  We use our English word “grasp” in both physical and mental ways.

The darkness wasn’t able to grab the light.  The darkness wasn’t able to understand it.  I wonder, “What does it mean to not grasp the light, to not grasp the Word?”  “What does it mean to not comprehend it?”

I have a little story, though it’s not the most dramatic of stories.  It deals with something from my childhood.

For a couple of years when my sister and I were in elementary school, my mom took us to church.  (Long story short: this was an independent church, similar to a Baptist church.  Our attendance started to get a bit spotty, gradually moving to once a month, then not at all.  Years later, however, we did return to church!)

Anyway, back to my original thought.  There were times during the worship services when I would watch the pastor closely while he was preaching.  I was fascinated.  I couldn’t understand where he was getting all this stuff.  Was he reading the same Bible I was?  I read the same words…and nothing.  I was dumbfounded.  I couldn’t grasp it.  I’m not trying to equate myself with “darkness,” although it’s safe to say I was in the dark.

As I said before, this might not seem like a dramatic or remarkable story, and maybe we could just write it off because I was young, but it left a vivid impression on me.  And in some small way, there was a sense in me that I would be called to do what he was doing—preaching the Word.  I wanted no part of that, thank you very much!  But God has a way of taking our saying “no” and turning it into “yes.”  So maybe there was a hint of darkness not being able to defeat, to grasp, to comprehend the light.

We have a thought similar to darkness not overcoming the light in verse 10.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”

4 jnMusa Dube, a theologian from Botswana, offers her thoughts.  “Those who fail to believe or recognise the Word have missed a chance to know and associate with forces of power, forces of creation.”[4]  She doesn’t pull any punches.  The unbelieving “deny themselves grace and the knowledge of God, which can only be received from the Word.  In sum, those who do not believe or recognise the Word, identify with death, failure, powerlessness and ignorance.”

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and we are reminded of the visit of the wise men.  They came, following the light.  Too often, we end the story with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But that’s not the end of the story.  The sandman visits them and tells them to take a detour on the way home.  (I wonder, did they have a collective dream, or did one have the dream and tell the others about it?)

Herod wanted them to come back and let him know the address of this young king of the Jews.  After all, he insisted, he wanted to pay his respects.

When Herod hears the wise men took off, he’s furious and sends his goons to commit mass murder.  However, Joseph and Mary make a night-time escape and flee to Egypt.  The word used for “flee” is φευγω (pheugō), to take refuge.  It’s where we get our word “refugee.”

The Holy Family flees darkness.  Through Herod, darkness attacks light.  Darkness would overcome light.  However, light is shining in the dark.

And the story continues; it continues with us.  How comfortable are we knowing and associating with, as Dube says, forces of power and forces of creation?  (Don’t answer too quickly!)  How often do we identify with—how often do we relate to—death, failure, powerlessness, and ignorance?

I know I have my work to do.

We can take a clue from Thomas Hoffman.  Be consumed by the energy that’s growing within.  Let it burn.  Let’s let God use fire to purify the cosmos through us, to purify everything and everyone around us.  That fire is the fire of the Spirit.  We can’t really welcome the Word in our own strength.  We can mentally agree with a doctrine of the Word—we can mentally assent—but that alone won’t purify or revolutionize us.  To unleash the Word in us is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Again, I know I have my work to do!

5 jnFrom his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace, one gift replacing another.  Don’t be satisfied with gifts received in the past; yearn and pursue even greater gifts from God.  Let us remind ourselves, as I do, God yearns to complete our deepest joy—and give even deeper joy, a joy of shining in the dark.

How is that for a promise as we enter this new year—this new decade? 

 

{Tim Umphreys, unsplash.com/@timumphreys}

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9: Luke/John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995)

[2] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[3] Houselander, 61.

[4] Musa W. Dube, “Batswaka: Which Traveler are You (John 1:1-18)?”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 108 (November 2000), 81.


scary monsters

Over a timespan of about fifteen years, I had a recurring dream.  I might even call it a nightmare.  It involved McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

1 dn

I haven’t had that nightmare for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my feeling being trapped.

I say that because, after graduating from college, I worked there for over two years before going to seminary.  No doubt reflecting my Pentecostal influences, I was dead set on waiting for God to speak to me, to tell me what to do.  Lord, please give me a sign!  Give me a dream; give me a vision of what I need to do!

Please note, I’m not blaming the Pentecostals for my wrong-headed understanding.  That’s on me!

And of course, all the while, the Lord had implanted within me the calling that I needed to follow.  But I was resistant!

Maybe I would have been satisfied with what we see in the reading in Daniel.  We’re told that Daniel has a dream.

Starting with chapter 7, the last part of the book of Daniel is what’s known as apocalyptic literature.  (The word “apocalyptic” literally means a “revelation” or an “uncovering.”)  The book of Revelation is in that category.  (Surprise!)  Apocalyptic books are like movies with all kinds of weird special effects: dream worlds, cosmic calamities, and yes, scary monsters.

It’s been said, “One could say, calmly and rationally, that the world is a bleak and dangerous place, or one could make the point more fully and dramatically through apocalyptic fantasy.  The latter…will more quickly trouble and terrify us (as they did for Daniel), which is the point.”[1]

Think about it.  Even though the parables of Jesus and apocalyptic images aren’t exactly the same thing, they do serve similar purposes.

For example, Jesus could talk about grace and give us a definition.  He could call it “a free gift” or “an undeserved reward.”  He could do that, or he could tell a story about it—say, a story about a son who asks for his inheritance, shames the family, goes abroad and squanders the money, and after all that foolishness, after all those mistakes, is welcomed home with a lavish banquet.

I ask you, which of those makes a bigger impression?  Which one helps you to better understand grace?

And going back to those delightfully scary images, what would become of horror movies?  A documentary-style warning about the hazards of traveling alone on dark roads in the forest just doesn’t get the juices flowing.

So, even though apocalyptic language can be troubling and terrifying, that’s not the end of the story.  These images of mighty angels and stormy seas really do tell the story of God’s people being delivered from the foul beasts that would keep them down.  And those “foul beasts” are typically of the two-legged variety, the ones who walk around upright.

2 dn

The reading in Daniel has been chopped up.  Verses 4 to 14 have been deleted.  The Old Testament is often dissected to suit the purposes of the church.  It being a text for All Saints’ Day, the lectionary zeroes in on verse 18.  “[T]he holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”  Those holy ones are the saints!

Still, we need to pay attention to the dream—or should we say nightmare?  Daniel seems to think so.  Look at the way the chapter ends in verse 28: “I was so frightened that I turned pale, and I kept everything to myself” (Good News Bible).  He was so scared that he looked like he’d seen a ghost (and he probably soiled himself).  And he wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.

He sees four great beasts rising from the sea.  In ancient Hebrew thinking, the sea was a symbol of chaos.  Who knows what’s down there?  This is a symbol that is primordial.  It goes back to the chaos at creation.  This is “darkness [covering] the face of the deep” (Gn 1:2).  So, toss in the tempest, and you really do have some chaos!

There’s some question as to which kingdoms the four beasts symbolize.  People pick among the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.  The point is, all these empires in one way or another persecuted the Jews, the people of God.  Or in apocalyptic terms, they’re scary monsters that tried to gobble up the holy ones.

John Collins says that “the vision functioned to give hope to the persecuted Jews.  This rather trite statement, however, does scant justice to the power of the vision, which attempts to shape a whole new view of history.”[2]  Daniel’s vision shapes a whole new view of history.

It can be difficult for us to realize how powerful this is.  Imagine the audacity of this powerless group of people.  They’re just one nation among many that have been swept up by the empire.  How dare they show this holy defiance?  How dare they tell their own stories?  They’re supposed to agree with the official version of history, one that lets them know they’re less worthy, one that puts them in their place.

As the church, we have inherited that legacy.  Still, we have to watch ourselves.  We have to be careful about how closely we identify with the qualities of, not Greek or Roman, but American empire.  Believe it or not, we aren’t immune to acting like the rest of the human race.  We too can imitate a beast ready to devour.

We have here the story of that great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).  It’s the story of the faithful from every walk of life.

It’s the story told in the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”  Referring to the saints, the second stanza ends like this: “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, / And one was slain by a fierce wild beast: / And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, / Why I shouldn’t be one too.”

Yes, that’s right folks.  There’s not any reason why I shouldn’t be slain by a fierce wild beast!

3 dnThis is the story of saints past and present—and we can say, of saints yet to come.  It’s the story of the faithful from every background.  It’s the story of those who have faced all manner of scary monsters.  (Even one symbolized by a fast food restaurant!)

Here are some questions for us.  What are our scary monsters?  Are there any great beasts that fill our dreams with terror?

In a sermon Banu preached one time, she dealt with Goliath the giant.  A quote from her sermon was, “When you focus on your giants, you stumble.  When you focus on God, your giants tumble.”  How does that translate into scary monsters?  How do scary monsters come at us?

Here’s another way of framing it.  Are we trapped by the past?  Do we carry around undeserved guilt?

Chris Gehrz speaks of All Saints’ Day as a call and opportunity “to be a steward of the past.”[3]  We’re called to be stewards of the creation, not only in space, but also in time.  All Saints’ Day “underscores the importance of preserving [the] past against the erosion that comes with the passage of time.”  We are called to remember—and to remember well.

This may come as a shock, but there are those who like to zap us by unfairly reminding us of our past.  They would have us remember, but not remember well.  Still, I fear that at some level, that tendency resides within all of us.  But to the extent we give way to that tendency, we only speak from our own fear, our own insecurity.  We are not speaking—and being—from a place of love and hope.

In Christ, those voices of accusation are silenced.  In the face of the glory of Christ, they have nothing to say.

4 dn

[pixabay.com]

In Christ, the great beasts, the scary monsters, are rendered toothless.  We’re given a whole new view of history.  We are ushered into the communion of saints, the holy ones of the Most High, who we join in receiving the kingdom and possessing the kingdom forever and ever.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=714

[2] John J. Collins, Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 324.

[3] www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2016/11/all-saints-day-and-the-stewardship-of-the-past


recollection in secret

When I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida, there was a room on the top floor of the main building, the one housing the administrative offices.  The room was arranged for small chapel services.  This was in addition to the main chapel building in the center of campus.  It was also used as a prayer room; students would go there in the evening.

1 ps

It was a place of quiet prayer, a place of quiet reflection.  There was none of the quite vocal prayer lifted up during the regular worship services.  There was none of the shouting in the Spirit, none of the speaking in tongues.  At least, that’s how it was supposed to be.

One night, I went up there to pray.  There were about four or five students scattered throughout the room.  Not too long after I arrived, a guy and his girlfriend appeared, and they also started praying.  It did not remain quiet for very long.  The fellow began confessing his sin; actually, he began confessing their sin.  If he wanted to disturb everyone else in the room, he got his wish.

He began loudly asking the Lord for forgiveness.  He loudly asked forgiveness for the sin they had committed together.  He did that several times.  His girlfriend didn’t utter a peep.  (I wonder if he told her beforehand what he planned to do.)  My guess is that she would have chosen to be anywhere in the world than beside this man doing the praying for her.  And regarding the volume, I suppose he felt if he didn’t come clean at elevated decibels the Lord wouldn’t hear.  If I didn’t know better, I would say he was putting on a display in order to boast!

Would that fall into the category—as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount—of those loving “to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” even for the purpose of bragging? (Mt 6:5).  “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

One lesson our friend could learn from this experience would be the value of secrecy.  I’m not speaking of the secrecy which is opposed to keeping confidence.  Sometimes we confuse the two.  In that scenario, keeping confidence is a way of building trust.  Keeping confidence is not intended to do harm.  It is meant to protect.

2 ps

Secrecy, if we think of it that way, is used as a means of control.  It’s a way of exclusion.  It destroys trust.  It’s a way of saying in a petulant manner, “I know something that you don’t!”  That’s not what I’m talking about.

The secrecy I’m talking about is the kind Jesus valued.  For example, several times he told others to not disclose certain things about him.  Here’s a case in point.  In Mark 1, after healing a leper, he said to him, “‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’  But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country” (vv. 44-45).

In Luke 8, Jesus restores to life the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue.  We’re told, “he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’  Her spirit returned, and she got up at once.  Then he directed them to give her something to eat.  Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened” (vv. 54-56).

There have been all kinds of theories to explain his desire for secrecy, (which I won’t get into now), but it’s safe to say Jesus wasn’t looking for public acclaim.  He wasn’t interested in putting on a show; he wasn’t interested in self-promotion.  I imagine if anyone could be justified in displaying himself—at least, according to our usual standards—he would be the one.

3 psThat’s my main point concerning the fellow in the prayer room that night.  I’m speaking of secrecy as a spiritual discipline.  Whatever his motivations, he disturbed others who were trying to pray, and he exposed his poor girlfriend!

Completing Jesus’ thought from the Sermon on the Mount, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6).

The desire for holy secrecy (and “holy” seems to be a good adjective) flows quite nicely into the prayer of recollection.  “Recollect” comes from Latin, “gather again.”  We speak of “gathering our thoughts.”  We might think of the prayer of recollection as gathering again our souls—gathering again who we are.  It is a prayer of discernment.  It is a prayer of listening.

In Psalm 131, the speaker adopts the position of humility, not one of display.  “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me” (v. 1).  Does this mean the psalmist has no desire to learn?  Is this a refusal to grow?

There are again a number of viewpoints on the matter, but it’s entirely possible this is someone who has learned from mistakes made.  Perhaps the heart and eyes lifted up have been done in a sort of defiance.  It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been done in an arrogant or flagrant way but simply in a way of overstepping proper bounds, indeed, being occupied “with things too great and too marvelous.”  Maybe a sort of “recollection” needs to happen!

Something we can take away from this verse is learning that the most important thing is not to learn how to get ahead.  The most important thing is to simply learn how to be human, to be who we were created to be.

4 psI fear that too often we focus on the strictly technical side of things.  In doing so, we miss the big picture.  A recent article by Ryan Holiday proclaimed, “Why You Should Study Philosophy.”[1]  He admits the convoluted and tedious way it’s usually presented.  But it’s really not that complicated.  He quotes Martha Nussbaum who said, “To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control.”  That’s the basic starting point for those ancient fellows, like Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.  “An ability to trust certain things beyond your control.”

Hmm, I wonder who that sounds like?

That’s an image we see continued in verse 2.  It is the heart of this short, little psalm.  “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”  Some people see this coming from the perspective of a mother.  It’s possible that in this case, the psalmist is a woman.

There’s been a little disagreement on the Hebrew, and we have some interesting views.  One version says, “No; I submit myself, I account myself lowly, as a weaned child clinging to its mother” (New English Bible).  Another one reads, “No, I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms, like a little child, so I keep myself” (New Jerusalem Bible).

We’re here with the prayer of recollection.  We’re here with the prayer of humble listening.

That orientation of listening is important.  We often—maybe always—consider prayer to come from us outward to God.  In our worship services, that’s usually the only kind of prayer we do.  We have an agenda; we have a to-do list for the Lord.  And of course, that isn’t anything bad.  We are to lift up our supplications, our intercessions, our thanksgivings to God.  But we do indeed remain shallow if we don’t listen, if we don’t wait on the Spirit.

Joan Chittister speaks of one of the Church Fathers, Abba Agathon who lived in the 4th century.  “Once upon a time,” she says, “the disciples asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’  Abba Agathon answered, ‘I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God.  For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey.  Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest.  But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’”[2]

I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I lay aside my agenda and just shut up, it is very difficult.  Prayer is hard.  It is hard work.  I fear I too easily become lazy and simply give up.  Plunging into the depths of prayer, exploring the terrain, is the work of a lifetime.

5 ps

Laura Harring and Naomi Watts enter the silence (that is, “silencio”)

We enter the silence, and then everything happens.  Our thoughts bubble up from within.  “Yes, I have to make sure I do that today.”  “What’s that sound?  Let me go to the window and check it out.”  “I wish I had said that to So-and-So yesterday.”  But don’t be too hard on yourself.  When thoughts come—and come they will if you are human—don’t fret.  Look at them for a moment, and then set them aside; let them drift away.

It’s true; it’s easier for me to say this than to faithfully practice it.  But like I just said, it is the work of a lifetime.  (And by the way, I imagine some of you probably could teach me a lesson or two on prayer and waiting in silence.)

Our psalm ends with verse 3.  “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”  The psalmist addresses the nation at large.  What up until now has been the yearning of an individual is brought to the entire community.  Everyone is called to the hope the psalmist is seeking.

We can think of our own community, our own country.  Still, I would like to bring it closer to home, to where we are right now, to our congregation.

A few years ago, Amy Johnson Frykholm wrote on practices regarding congregational discernment, group discernment.[3]  She notes that “few congregations apply silence and contemplation to matters of church business.”[4]  How about that?  Maybe we should start our next congregational meeting with a few minutes of silence!

She speaks of an experiment done with a congregation.  The group was given a particular focus, something on which to meditate.  She says, “Over about 30 minutes we were silent together, and then various people were offered opportunities to speak and to respond.  What emerged from the silence and the listening was something strikingly different from our normal conversation.  By punctuating our communication with silence, we were stripped of the desire to offer advice or jump in with stories from our own experience.  By staying intentionally silent between remarks, we found ourselves offering words and images that came up from another, seemingly deeper place.”[5]

One welcome discovery “was that the people showed more humility toward one another and seemed more open to the idea that the voice of God might come from someone else’s mouth.”[6]  (Imagine such a thing!)  Even shorter periods of time can produce rich fruit, even a few minutes.

Recollection in secret.  When we explore our spiritual gifts, that can serve as a foundation for them.  The psalmist is really onto something!

6 ps
Be open to God.  We hold ourselves in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms.

 

[1] forge.medium.com/why-you-should-study-philosophy-47c53fbc3205

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 75.

[3] Amy Johnson Frykholm, “Out of Silence,” Christian Century 124:7 (3 April 2007), 34-38.

[4] Frykholm, 34.

[5] Frykholm, 34.

[6] Frykholm, 35.


elements of the world

Have you heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”?  When I was young, I had no idea what that meant.  Why can’t you see the forest?  Isn’t it made up of trees?  If you can’t see the trees, then how can you see the forest?  Of course, the point is that, by focusing just on the individual details, it’s impossible to see the grand structure.

1 co Joan Chittister tells the story, “In the Middle Ages, the tale goes, a traveler asked three hard-at-work stone masons what they were doing.  The first said, ‘I am sanding down this block of marble.’  The second said, ‘I am preparing a foundation.’  The third said, ‘I am building a Cathedral.’”[1]

Surely all of them were focused on the precise aspects of what they were doing.  They hadn’t lost sight of what they were doing.  Still, as we move along, we notice an expansion of vision, a deeper understanding.  By not simply focusing on the individual details, a growing awareness of the grand structure becomes possible.

When Banu gives me the list of ingredients in a dish she’s preparing, I take notice of certain details, certain elements.  One of the big ones is “onions.”  I do not like onions.  I really do not like onions.  When she’s cooking them, I complain that she’s employing chemical warfare.

2 coShe often gives me the explanation that I won’t be able to taste them.  My reply is usually along the lines of, “So why use onions if I won’t be able to taste them?”  Because, she says, they combine with the other ingredients to bring out the flavor.  In a way, the onions serve as a sort of catalyst.  By mixing with the other elements, they bring about a change that otherwise wouldn’t happen.  So they serve a valuable purpose!  By focusing on that single detail, I miss out on the grand structure.

But I still don’t like them.

In his letter to the church in Colossae, St. Paul issues a similar warning.  (Though it has nothing to do with onions!)  His warning regards not embracing a full life in Christ.  He wants to warn them against certain errors.  A big part of his message involves a term that appears twice in chapter 2.

In verses 8 and 20, we have the Greek word στοιχεια (stoicheia).  Stoicheia is not an easy word to translate.  In today’s passage, it is rendered as “elemental spirits.”  In the New King James Version, it is “principles of the world.”  It’s not easy to translate, because it can mean different things.  Here’s a quick thumbnail sketch:

In 2 Peter 3:10, we hear of the day of the Lord arriving, the heavens passing away, and the elements (the stoicheia) being dissolved with fire.  This goes back to the ancient concept of the elements as earth, wind, fire, and water.

3 co

In Hebrews 5:12, the author talks about becoming dull in understanding.  The hearers are told, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements (the stoicheia) of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food.”  In effect, they need to go back to the beginning, to relearn the ABCs.

In Galatians 4, the church is reminded that they have been freed of the requirements of the Jewish law.  They’re no longer minors; they are no longer “enslaved to the elemental spirits (the stoicheia) of the world” (v. 3).  And so, we come back to Colossians.

I should quickly add, just to muddy the waters a bit, that the definitions I mentioned are not shared by everyone.  There has been plenty of debate down through the ages.  Included in the debate is that, in some places, actual demons or spirits are intended.  And then others jump in, saying stoicheia didn’t mean that until a couple of centuries later.

We might say that stoicheia are the most primary component of whatever we’re talking about: the basic element, the basic principle.

Just as with missing the forest for the trees and losing sight of the whole structure for the stone before one’s face, the apostle Paul cautions the Colossians to not lose themselves in unhelpful details.  These are details that threaten to bog them down, to take their eyes off the prize.

“See to it,” he says, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (v. 8).  Another translation reads, “Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a ‘philosophy’ of the kind that human beings hand on” (New Jerusalem Bible).

One place we can find plenty of empty lures, empty philosophies, is on Facebook.  A whole lot of emptiness gets posted there, emptiness which is designed to captivate.  This emptiness is not designed to inform in a sincere way but to lure and stir up strife.  For example, a video was recently sent to me purporting to be a current member of Congress expressing the benefits of spreading Islam throughout the US.  However, a simple look at the timestamp showed it dated back to 1989.  The member of Congress in question would have been thirteen years old at the time.  It’s safe to say the woman in the video was older than thirteen!

4 co

In chapter 1, Paul celebrates how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13).  To return to that darkness, to embrace the empty lure, the empty deceit, is to revert, to go back to slavery.  That slavery is more than what’s called “fake news.”  It is the whole range of bogus requirements promoted as the way of salvation.

However, there’s no need to be afraid.

For countless millennia, humans have observed the stars and noted their movements.  We have gazed and admired their awesome beauty.  And that word “awesome” should be taken literally.  We have been in awe—we have revered—those diamonds in the sky.  We have often thought of them as gods, or at least spirits, and made them objects of veneration, objects of worship.  We have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator.

In time, we devised practices and customs to direct us in faith and in life together.  Sometimes those traditions have come to be seen as divine in and of themselves.  Defying these elemental spirits, these principles of the world, could have dire consequences!

Robert Paul Roth comments , “Paul teaches the Colossians and us that we need have no fear.”  Speaking of those who insist on adding to Christ those elemental spirits, “We need no code of regulations, no bodily or spiritual exercises that we can add up on an account sheet to balance our debts with credits.”[2]

Sadly, we still have our own stoicheia, our own “elemental spirits of the universe.”  We worship our culture, our cars, our cats!  We worship our concepts themselves.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having certain beliefs.  They identify us; they help give meaning to life.  Still, it’s possible to worship even our concept of God.  You know, the two are not the same!  We can put our economic or political system in the place of God.

Indeed, as Walter Wink notes, “No age has ever been more in the thralldom of the stoicheia; no age has been less aware of its bondage.”[3]

The good news, as verse 15 tells us, is that Christ has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  He has stripped them of their power and put them on parade.

5 co

I’m reminded of the so-called perp walk, in which the arrested suspect is marched in public before cameras and shouted questions.  And then we might have the medieval-like spectacle of people gathering around and yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the unfortunate person.  (Well, at least, I’ve seen it done in movies!)

The apostle tells the church “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (v. 16).  Those are some of the bogus religious requirements I mentioned earlier.  He adds, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17).  They are only a shadow.  Another way of putting it might be, “Don’t be scared of your shadow!”

6 coI like what Paul says in the last part of the chapter.  “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [there’s the stoicheia again], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (v. 20).  I really like his question about their submitting to certain regulations.  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? (v. 21).  I can’t help but think Paul’s injecting a lot of humor.  He’s having a good time!

Apparently, the late Eugene Peterson thought so, too.  Here’s how he sums up that last bit in The Message:

“So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it?  ‘Don’t touch this!  Don’t taste that!  Don’t go near this!’  Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention?  Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.  They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic.  But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.”

Clearly, we can mess up, be led astray, by worshipping these unworthy things.  But that leads to the origin of the word “worship” itself.  It comes from the Old English word woerthscipe, which means “worthy-ship.”  As we just saw, there are those who pronounce us “unworthy” if we fail their expectations of worship.

There are plenty of those “elements of the world” floating around which would claim our allegiance.  Yet Paul says the elemental spirits have been overthrown by Christ.  We are reminded that we “are now under the rule of Christ who has disarmed the powers that formerly ruled over us.  Therefore we are now free to walk with the wisdom of Christ and not by vain and deceitful human traditions.”[4]

7 co

What elements of the world do we face?  What thrones or dominions or rulers or powers rise against us?  Do we still live as though we belonged to the world?  Paul says we “were buried with [Christ] in baptism, [and we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (v. 12).  We don’t enter the waters of baptism alone.  We aren’t raised from the waters of baptism alone.  Christ is with us, in and through the church, which is his body.

Alone, we’re helpless.  The elements of the world are too strong, too secretive, too seductive.  They play on our fears, our pains, our hatreds.

8 coHowever, together with Christ in the one holy catholic and apostolic church, we are more than conquerors.  We are more than conquerors, because in Christ, the war has already been won.  We’re just on mopping up duty.  The sun is setting on those elements, those principles of the world.  We need not be scared of their shadow.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 111.

[2] Robert Paul Roth, “Christ and the Powers of Darkness: Lessons from Colossians,” Word and World 6:3 (1986), 343.

[3] Walter Wink, “The Elements of the Universe in Biblical and Scientific Perspective,” Zygon 13:3 (September 1978), 240.

[4] Roth, 343.


a (humble) observation

I know my comments might sound snarky to many.  With God as my witness, I don’t intend that, but our president’s latest dust-up has me yet again concerned.  His repeated words and actions continue to have the (deliberate?) effect of encouraging the divisions that plague us as a nation.  I do pray for his administration to help foster wisdom and compassion.  (Although I must confess, my prayer hasn’t been as diligently pursued as it should have been.)

Some of his supporters in the church have noted, “We didn’t elect a pastor.”  Fair enough.  However, the only president who “sort of” was a pastor was James Garfield.  He was not ordained but did some “pastor” like stuff.  (On an unrelated matter, his presidency lasted less than a year, due to his assassination!)

Still, one need not be a pastor to be a model of decency.  He seems to enjoy giving people nicknames—and they aren’t flattering nicknames.  Authoritarian language like “the enemy of the people” doesn’t help.  I could go on.

Something that continues to be a thorn in my side is the advice of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, advice which has its origins in the Sufi tradition.  He speaks of the three gates through which the words of a wise person must pass.

Here’s the first gate: Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.  The second gate: Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?  And the third gate (and probably the most difficult): Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and noise competing for space and attention?

SufiNow those are words of wisdom.  Assume the first gate has been successfully traversed (that is, are my words true?).  At some level, I hope they are!

We come to the second gate.  It might be true, but is it loving, is it life-enhancing?  It is possible to speak the truth, but in a way that is not helpful; in fact, it can be hurtful.  It is possible to tell the truth with the purpose of crushing someone, beating them down.  The truth can be told with malevolent intent.  I call that “the devil’s truth.”  It’s meant, as I just said, to hurt and not to help.  To the extent it does that, it really isn’t the truth.  It isn’t God’s truth.

Then we come to the third gate.  Even if it’s true and it’s loving, is it so important for me to throw in my two cent’s worth?  Do I (always) need to draw attention to myself?  Do I need to ruin the silence?  I suppose we need to decide if we are earnestly trying to be constructive or merely engaged in self-promotion.

Based on all of that, I offer my reflections with a bit of humbleness—because Lord knows we are woefully in short supply of it.

[Richard Rohr’s words come from On the Threshold of Transformation, p. 341]


offering with Spirit

Here’s a newsflash: churches do things differently, and that includes passing the plate.  In the Assemblies of God (where I had my first life-changing experience of church), and other churches, the language of an annual pledge for giving isn’t often heard.  At least, I didn’t hear it.  I became more used to hearing things like, “Give what the Lord lays on your heart.”  Sometimes I heard calls for a literal tithe, ten percent, to be offered for the work of the church.  (Some people debated if it should be before taxes or after taxes!)

1 lv

Something else I heard of on a fairly regular basis was the “prosperity gospel,” or prosperity theology.  It is especially demonstrated by many televangelists.  It’s the idea that God financially rewards those who have enough faith.  Sometimes preachers will refer to giving to their ministry as sowing seeds.  The more you sow, the greater the harvest you will reap.  Oh, and you might hear, “God has promised me a private jet.  I need this jet.  Will you believe with me and stand on the promise of God and support us in this vital mission to spread the gospel all over the nation and all over the world?”

(By the way, we’ll come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings!)

We Presbyterians (and others in the so-called mainline churches) aren’t exposed to the prosperity gospel quite so much.  Still, it’s really not anything new.  It’s even in the Bible—though not that anyone prayed for a jet.  Take Job, for example.  When he lost all of his livestock, all of his wealth, and then suffered the loss of all his children, and then his health, his friends concluded he must have sinned.  (Actually, that was after he professed his innocence.)  He must have done something wrong.  If he would only repent, he might see the return of his fortune.

There is something in the human spirit that drives us, that impels us, to please a God who apparently, in an almost whimsical, capricious fashion, will withhold blessing if we don’t measure up.  We are put on the scales, and if we are found wanting, then something will be taken away.

One more note about Job.  If you skip to the final chapter, we see that the Lord is angry with Job’s friends.  “[Y]ou have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).  The idea that God acts like a vending machine—insert money and a goody comes out—is upended; it is rejected.

2 lvIf that’s true, then what do we do with scriptures throughout the Bible that mandate giving to God in order to find blessing?

Let’s go back thousands and thousands of years ago, when humans began to have some awareness of a reality beyond them, when they eventually began to worship deities.  Sacrifices were deemed necessary to guarantee good hunting, to ensure healthy crops, to assure health for themselves.  It’s the vending machine mentality.

And as we’ve already seen, that mentality, that spirituality, does appear in the scriptures.  There is indeed a tug of war, a back and forth, a struggle to walk the path.  There is the vending machine.  Yet contrary to that, there is the call to act in faith, to act in faithfulness, to act in gratitude, to be thankful.

In particular, the prophets denounce the approach of offering the proper gift, saying the proper words, going through the proper motions, but without it coming from the heart.  The outward form of worship, without a concern for holiness, for justice, for love, is useless and empty.

That’s true with the call for the first fruits in Leviticus 23.  The word of the Lord comes to the people: “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.  He shall raise the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance.” (vv. 10-11).

If it feels like we’re still in transition from the “give to the deity, so that you may get back” mentality, that would not be totally wrong.  In the following verses, it is stipulated what’s involved in bringing the first fruits.  Along with the sheaf, a lamb is to be brought for sacrifice, a lamb “without blemish.”  There is also a grain offering, one of “choice flour.”  Translation: if you are to give to God, then you are to give your best.

I wonder if that applies to donations.  We’ve all done this, haven’t we?  You know, you’re going through your belongings and deciding what to give away.  There’s the “donate” bin and the “trash” bin.  Sometimes you get them mixed up—no big deal.  It’s going to the thrift store; they don’t know the difference!

3 lvHere’s a crazy thought: what about buying brand new items and donating them!

But back to the sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest.  Just a few verses later we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (v. 22).

Wouldn’t that fit into the category of performing the proper form of worship and pursuing a concern for holiness, for justice, for love?  By not hoarding every scrap of produce, of product, there is an effort made to provide for everyone.  By not maintaining a mercenary economy—by building into the system care for the poor and the alien—holiness, justice, and love are given at least an equal standing with the profit margin.

Along with the poor, there is the alien, the foreigner, who is valued as a member of society.  The foreigner is to be held in esteem.  The refugee is to be held in esteem.

Pointing out how God’s peace is found in these structures of laws of worship is part of what prophets do.  Among the various approaches that can be used, there is one that seems to have greater meaning and effect.  Richard Rohr addresses this.[1]

“Prophets, by their very nature,” he says, “cannot be at the center of any social structure.  Rather, they are ‘on the edge of the inside.’  They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either.  A true prophet must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non-essential or not so important.  Jesus did this masterfully…”  We will see an example of that in a few moments.

Rohr continues, “Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.  A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice.  This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside, and not by negative or angry people.”

The prophets want their traditions to expand, evolve, and frankly, just get better.

In the New Testament era, we see the apostle Paul model this approach.  He calls himself “a Pharisee, son of Pharisees” (Ac 23:6).  He is “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Ph 3:5).  He is thoroughly educated in and familiar with the system.  He is also able to see where the system falls short, indeed, how it can crush people.  The vision of Jesus the apostle Paul has enlightens him to these truths.

4 lvIn Acts 20, Paul is saying goodbye to the leaders of the church in Ephesus.  He has lived there almost three years.  They are heartbroken at the news he is leaving them.

Among his final words are the reminder that he commends them to God and to the message, the good news, which will build them up.  He also reminds them, “I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions” (v. 34).  Paul gives them a challenge.  “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak” (v. 35).  He shows the proper use of money and resources.  As with the first fruits of the Hebrews, the harvest must benefit all.

And then, he finishes the thought with “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

If you do some checking, you’ll find that these words appear nowhere in the gospels.  They’re more in tenor with Jesus’ overall teachings.  For example, in Luke 6 when Jesus is talking about loving one’s enemies, he says, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great” (v. 35).

Obviously, the few writings we have about Jesus do not contain everything he said.  These words of wisdom are among them.

Toward the end of John’s gospel, we have the modest statement, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).  There isn’t enough room in all the world!  I think there might be a tiny bit of exaggeration at work.

We do have some of Jesus’ words, and they continue our theme on money and its uses, for good and for ill.  They appear at the beginning of Luke 21, and they go like this:

“He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (vv. 1-4).

5 lv

In Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped, he brings up this story of the poor widow.[2]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  Indeed, she is left destitute.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church who shows up while they’re having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Now that’s the kind of guy you want at a Bible study!

But it’s true.  Those other folks, in terms of the amount of money they’re giving, are doing a great deal.  But when you look at percentages of what they have, it’s almost a pittance, a drop in the bucket.

Here’s where we come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structures that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.  Think of the poor souls who are swindled by the prosperity preachers.

Still, we need not go to the extremes of people being bullied or scammed.  We can expand our vision and ask, as noted earlier, is money offered in a spirit of holiness, justice, and love?  Do we share our resources in that spirit?

We could come at those questions from many different angles, but I would like to make an observation from these last few days.  Actually, it’s not my observation, but that of one of the mothers of the dance students who have been staying at the PERC [Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center].  She wrote down her thoughts in a letter, and I’m quoting part of it.  (She gave me permission!)

6 lv

[This photo was not taken in the summer!]

She speaks of last year having been “in a pretty rough place mentally and emotionally.”  But then she underwent “a transformation,” and a big part of that was “the respite [she] was given at the PERC.  There is a peace that exists at the mansion that is nothing short of healing.  It is home and family and rest.”

She says she couldn’t wait to come back this year, noting, “Toxicity has a way of creeping in while going through daily life.  I needed to come to refocus and renew.  I needed my whole family to have that opportunity as well, because I can describe my experience all I want, but that doesn’t lead to understanding.”

When her family returned this summer, they were offered lodging that was, let’s say, underwhelming.  Reflecting on that, she notes, “When I knew that we needed to have a different experience than what we arrived to, I knew I could just make a phone call and be welcomed with open arms.”

Here’s how she finishes: “The PERC is not just a building, there is a presence there that is palpable.”

Friends, that is what sacred space is all about.  Sometimes we need to get out of the way and allow the Spirit in to create that sacred space.  We are seeing that happen at the PERC.  We are seeing that happen right here.

7 lv

Give with holiness, justice, and love.  Give what the Lord lays on your heart.  Amen!

 

[1] cac.org/the-edge-of-the-inside-2019-07-09

[2] www.dougpagitt.com/writing


we always give thanks

On a cool, misty morning, I was following a rocky brook that passes under a railroad bridge.  The tree cover deepened the shade of the overcast sky.  I was alone.  The tree-lined creek was adjacent to a park, still empty and quiet.  Not even the municipal park employees had shown up for work yet.  Deciding to get out of the light drizzle, I took shelter in a gazebo and sat at one of the picnic tables inside.  For a while, I listened to the silence.

1 Th

Then I took out the pocket-sized Bible that I used to carry everywhere, and I read something from an epistle of St. Paul.  Years later, the image of that peaceful moment remains with me every time I read 1 Thessalonians 1.

I think—I hope—that here’s more to it than some experience I once had.  It seems to me that the message of this chapter has a part to play in that peaceful feeling!

We have an expression of thanks for this young church.  The apostle Paul is truly happy at how the believers in Thessalonica are coming along.  He gives them his familiar greeting:  grace and peace.  As he tells them in chapter 2, “you are our glory and joy!” (v. 20).  In my humble opinion, these are ideas that might easily inspire peaceful reflection!

The people who receive his message live in what was an important city in the Roman Empire.  Thessalonica was the capital of the province of Macedonia.  As such, it was a major commercial center.  Plenty of traffic flowed through it.  And Paul says something that would garner quite a bit of attention.  It concerns the word “lord.”

We need to bear in mind that that is a political term.  By referring to “the Lord Jesus Christ,” he’s staking out new territory.  This letter is probably the earliest writing of the New Testament, in roughly the year 50.  The Lord Jesus Christ—how dare him?  Every patriotic Roman knows that Caesar is our lord!

The city endures to this day.  As Thessaloniki, it’s Greece’s second largest city.  And, as Banu once reminded me, while part of the Ottoman Empire in 1881, it was the birthplace of Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey.

2 ThAs we learn from Acts 17, it’s not without a great deal of turmoil that the gospel is brought there.  An angry mob, searching in vain for Paul and Silas, settle for Jason and some other believers.  They drag them before the city officials, who release Jason and his friends after they post bail.  Meanwhile, the church is helping Paul and Silas plan their escape.

As a result, the Thessalonians understand very well what Paul is talking about in verse 6 when he congratulates them for becoming “imitators of us and of the Lord…in spite of persecution.”  From the very founding of the Thessalonian church, they’ve had to endure stern opposition.  But they’ve become, as Paul reminds them, “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia,” the province to the south, where Athens is (v. 7).

What is it that’s enabled the Christians in Thessalonica to become this shining example?  How have they endured this persecution?  Well, it’s not something that happened overnight.  Paul has already given us a clue in verse 3, where he describes what he and his friends remember about the Thessalonians in their prayers to God.

In speaking of their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope,” the apostle uses one of his favorite themes.  In several of his letters, Paul mentions the three virtues of faith, love, and hope (5:8; 1 Co 13:13; Ga 5:5-6; Col 1:4-5).

The Thessalonian church is a strong church precisely because these qualities are present within it.  Faith, love, and hope enable the church to be the thing that is such a source of glory and joy.  But to each of these three virtues, Paul adds another word that helps explain what he means.

For example, it’s not just the “faith” of the Thessalonians, but their “work of faith.”  That may sound strange.  Isn’t this the same guy who says in Romans 3 that “a person is justified by faith apart from works” (v. 28)?  Is he saying that faith itself is a work?  It’s important that Paul speaks of “work of faith,” singular, and not “works of faith,” plural.  In his book, First and Second Thessalonians, Earl J. Richard talks about this.

Paul is impressed, not with the individual deeds inspired by their faith, but the faith itself.  It is the faith that is at work.  The Greek word for “work,” εργον (ergon), besides referring to the deed itself can also refer to the activity, the process of work.  Another way of putting “your work of faith,” then, would be “your faith in action” or “the dynamism of your faith.”  Paul is “thankful not for acts of faith but for the community’s vibrant faith”—the faith that is truly alive.[1]

In the same way, Paul praises, not simply their “love,” but their “labor of love.”  That word “labor” comes from the Greek term κοπος (kopos), which has the sense of “wearisome labor” and “travail.”  It comes from a verb meaning “to beat” or “to cut.”  The Thessalonians have been “wearing themselves out” for each other, even for those outside the church.  They endure all kinds of hardship for the sake of love.

Finally, we have “steadfastness of hope.”  Hope in Christ isn’t something we wish for; it isn’t something we merely long for.  Rather, it’s something assured.  It doesn’t depend on our state of mind; it doesn’t matter how we feel.  That’s why it is steadfast; that’s why it is rock solid.

Our friend Earl, who I just quoted, does something with faith, love, and hope that I especially like: he shows how Paul’s use of them can be applied to time.[2]  I’ve always been fascinated with time.  (I’ve even read what some physicists say about the possibilities of time travel!)

3 Th

If “faith” is based on past events (the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus), then “work” shows how the church’s faith is energetic and active.  If “love” shows how they reflect the presence of Christ among them now, then “labor” indicates how deep and costly that love can be.  And if “hope” orients the Thessalonians to the future, then “steadfastness” shows how secure that hope in Christ really is.

Yes, I think it’s safe to say that the apostle finds plenty of reasons for gratitude.  He’s thankful for the Thessalonian church, and he’s thankful for the church universal.

On the matter of gratitude, there’s something about the hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth.”  It’s filled with addresses to God, but all of them are praises.  There isn’t a single petition—there are no requests at all—in the song.

In the Handbook to the Hymnal, published by the Presbyterian Church back in the 1930s, we’re told a story.[3]

It’s about “God’s sending out two angels into the earth—the angel of petition and the angel of thanksgiving, each with a basket to bring back what he found.  The two came back presently, the angel of petition loaded down and with an overflowing basket, the angel of thanksgiving with an almost empty basket, grieving that [we are] so much more ready to ask than to return thanks for gifts [already] received.”

Let me ask you a question.  Who or what do you love?  And I don’t mean, “I love cheesecake!”  What’s really in your heart?  For whom or what do you truly thank God?  When you think, “I love……,” what first comes to mind?  Got something?  Let’s think about that again.  I love……  What else comes to mind?  How many things come to mind?  Now, did anyone think, “I love the church!”?  I thank God for the church!

I ask all that, because in our text, Paul doesn’t speak about gratitude in general; he gives thanks for the church.  My sermon title, “We Always Give Thanks,” doesn’t complete his thought.  As important as it is to underline a spirituality of gratitude, he doesn’t stop there.  Verse 2 continues, “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers.”  How often do we really pray for the church?  How often do we really pray for each other?

The priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who lived in the first half of the twentieth century, had some problems with his teachings.  The Vatican took a dim view of some of Teilhard’s ideas.  I imagine he would rank with anyone who’s been misunderstood and criticized by the church.

4 ThStill, despite all of that, in his communication, Teilhard displays immense amounts of love in return.  Speaking of the church, Teilhard says, “It seems that it gives me a great deal of peace…I hope, with God’s help, to never do anything against the Church, apart from which I discern no course of life with a chance to succeed.”[4]  On another occasion, he declares, “Happy are we with the authority of the Church!  Left to ourselves, just how far would we drift away?”[5]  (Having said that, sometimes church authority is responsible for some pretty bad stuff!)

Why speak of love of the church?  Why give thanks to God for the church?  I suppose to put it simply, people can speak of faith, love, and hope, but without Christ—and the body that is his creation, the church—they lack a firm foundation.

Here are some thoughts from the Sacred Space website: “A harvest can be ruined by a lack of workers.  A field full of fruit can go to waste when there are not enough people to pick the fruit.  The world is the harvest of God where his love and his word are sown.  Without the followers of Jesus, the word is unspoken and even the love of God is unrecognized.”[6]

Our choice is between lives of fear and wrath, from which Jesus rescues us, and lives of love and gratitude.  That’s the church the world needs to see today.

 

[1] Earl J. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians (Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 1995), 61.

[2] Richard, 62.

[3] Handbook to the Hymnal (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1935), 86.

[4] André Dupleix, 15 Days of Prayer with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Liguori, MO:  Liguori Publications, 1999), 81.

[5] Dupleix, 83.

[6] www.sacredspace.ie/scripture/luke-101-12


centered in confession

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

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

1 is 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah confesses, and then he finds freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 is 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 is 6

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

We are centered in confession.

 

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