Deuteronomy

let’s go crazy

Of all the things said about Jesus in the Bible, only once was his mental stability openly questioned.  When we look at what led up to that, his actions and statements, maybe there was good reason to wonder about it!

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Mark 3 begins with Jesus healing a man in the synagogue.  So far, so good.  However, he does this on the sabbath, and according to the law, the Torah, that constitutes work.  The authorities start plotting against him.

Jesus goes to the lakeside, and the crowd follows him.  He heals many people, and he commands the unclean spirits who would identify him to shut up.  Later, we see him going up the mountain and calling twelve of his followers to him, he gives them the name “apostle.”  The word means “one who is sent.”

We pick up the reading with verse 20, which has Jesus going home to Nazareth.  As fate would have it, he draws another crowd.  Word has gotten out about this Jesus.

So often when we read the scriptures, we fail to envision the scene.  We don’t hear the sounds; we don’t smell the smells.  When this throng of humanity comes flooding down the street, it draws some attention, to say the least.  Just when you think too many people are already there, here come some more!  The mob keeps pressing closer and closer.  More and more bodies keep getting crammed together.  (This might be a good time to imagine those smells.)

It gets so bad Jesus and his friends don’t even have enough room to enjoy a decent meal.

Meanwhile inside the house, Jesus’ family is frantic.  They call out to him, “Why are all these people here?”  “Why are you embarrassing us?”  “What will the neighbors think?”  Indeed, what will the neighbors think?  With his behavior, Jesus is drawing unwanted attention to his family.  Things might get out of hand, which the Romans no doubt would take as their cue to crash the party.  The Bible says, “they went out to restrain him.”  The Greek word (κρατεω, krateō) is a forceful one.  It means “to grab” or “to seize.”  They want to yank him inside.

Here’s where we get to the point of wondering if Jesus actually does have a screw loose.

Let me pause for a moment and take notice of the saying, “Every family has one.”  For example, that could be the uncouth uncle who makes inappropriate comments.  Maybe some of us fit into that category of “every family has one.”  Maybe we were (or still are) the rebel, the snob, the perfectionist, or something else altogether.  With Jesus, I imagine his family isn’t quite sure what to make of him.  That probably had been always the case.

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We learn what people are saying: “He has gone out of his mind” (v. 21).  The word is εξιστημι (existēmi), which means “to throw out of position,” “to be beside oneself,” “to displace.”  Jesus’ mind has been displaced; he has gone insane.  By the way, it’s possible his family is included in the folks saying that.

If they are, they might feel the need to protect Jesus.  Scribes from Jerusalem have heard some stories, and when they see what’s happening, they conclude, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (v. 22).

If this were simply their own opinion, it would be bad enough.  But it’s probably more.  These scribes have laid a legal charge.  When he is accused of demonic practices, he is accused of practicing magic, sorcery.  If that’s true, he would be breaking the law.  Deuteronomy 18, among other places, condemns one “who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead” (vv. 10-11).  This is a serious indictment.

They accuse him of trafficking with Beelzebul.  Who in the world is that?  The word comes from the Philistine god who was “lord of the heavenly dwelling.”  The Israelites had some fun and called him “Beelzebub,” which meant “lord of dung.”  There are a number of places in the Old Testament where a slight altering in spelling resulted in a change from the sublime to the ridiculous.  They turned something revered by their enemies into a laughing stock.

3 mk Actually, it sounds like something an elementary school student would have thought up: “lord of poop.”  And going along with the insects attracted to such a substance, he became known as “lord of the flies.”  However, over time, he morphed into something truly evil.

Very quickly, Jesus responds by saying if Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?  It would surely fall.  How could that possibly describe Jesus?  Furthermore, to rob a strong man’s house, he has to be bound.  Jesus is indirectly saying he is stronger than Satan.

He has one more thing to say to the scribes and the people packed together.  This has caused no end of consternation and confusion down through the ages.  I will quote it at length: “‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (vv. 28-30).

People will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.  I think we understand the “sins” part, but what about the “blasphemies”?  Can we recognize blasphemy as an insult or curse against God or that which is holy?  Sorry folks, I will not give you an example!  That last word, “utter,” is key.  A blasphemy which is spoken, or even written, can be forgiven.

But what about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?  It doesn’t seem like we’re dealing with something uttered, something said.  After all, it is “an eternal sin.”  It can never be forgiven.  What could it possibly be?

Presbyterian minister James Ayers has some helpful comments.  “Here is the rope to pull you out of the quicksand; the rope holds no grudge if you reject it, but you cannot be rescued without it.  Here are the paramedics to extricate you from the wreck in which you are trapped; if you shout curses and slap their hands away, you will be unable to escape on your own.  They will not be offended, but will think you must be in shock and will go on trying to rescue you.”[1]

It seems that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an action, not an utterance.  Perhaps we could say it is a lack of action, an inaction.  It is a refusal; it is indeed a rejection.  Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a continual turning away from the liberty, from the salvation, conveyed by the Spirit.  That’s why it is eternal.  It’s a never-ending state of freely chosen slavery.  At some point, slavery simply takes control.

For the boys accusing Jesus, their slavery has them truly believing that something holy is actually evil.

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Here’s a word of comfort: if you are concerned—if you wonder—about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then you haven’t committed it!

Just as he began the passage with Jesus’ family, Mark ends it on the same note.  They decide to come outside and send someone to go fetch him.  They tell Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (v. 32).  He says something rather unexpected.  He doesn’t say, “Tell them to hold on.  I’ll be there soon.”  Jesus doesn’t want to assure them that he’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.

Rather, he redefines, he reimagines, he expands, the definition of family.  “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (vv. 33-34).

Jesus’ family wants him to come home.  He has found a new home.  This speaks to those who have taken a decisive step on the spiritual path.  It’s not necessarily the case their old home was bad.  Perhaps it was wonderful.  But they have found a new truth, a better truth.

Those who have had a dramatic, or sudden, conversion experience probably can relate to this.  However, it’s not necessary to point to a particular moment in time to see oneself pictured here.  Many of you have been in the church your entire life.  It might be you look back and think, “Yes, that’s when it really clicked for me.”

There has been that sense of repentance, of μετανοια (metanoia), literally a “change of mind,” a revolution of mind, leading to a change of path, a turning around.

Having said that stuff about family, I quickly add that those who would manipulate others love this scripture.  We can think of cults and churches with cult-like behavior.  Followers are told, “We’ll do the thinking for you.  Welcome to the family!”  That isn’t the freedom of the gospel, the good news; it’s the slavery of the bad news.

I have a quick story to tell.  I’ll leave out some pertinent details to speed things along.  A few days after arriving at seminary in Philadelphia, I decided to go for a walk and explore the area.  I came upon a group having a car wash.  It turned out to be a church group, and they invited me to worship.  I went for a couple of weeks, but decided it wasn’t for me.

One night before I decided to leave, we were at somebody’s house and having a Bible study.  It was the strangest one I ever attended.  I was literally in the middle of a circle; people were sitting on chairs and couches around me.  They kept directing questions to me—no one else—about what it meant to be a disciple.  I was talking about following Jesus, etc., etc.  At some point, I decided to have some fun with them; I asked, “Am I giving the right answers?”

5 mkThere was a really creepy family vibe to that bunch.  (Though to be sure, not quite like the Manson family!)

A couple of weeks after that, two guys showed up one night at my seminary room.  I had met one of them; the other one I had never seen before.  This was at 11:00.  They said they were wondering what happened to me.  I said I had found another church.  (It was the Presbyterian Church across the street from the school.)  The one I had previously met looked around the room and said, “Just because you’re in seminary doesn’t mean you’re a disciple.”  I replied, “I think you guys are a cult.”  They took off, and I never saw them again.

If you hadn’t figured this out already, their definition of disciple was joining their creepy family-like church.

Jesus gave this response to those asking about his family: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v. 35).  Jesus never employed mind games.  He didn’t coerce people.  In fact, when someone decided they weren’t ready to commit, he sent them on their way.

One thing I find interesting about Mark when talking about Jesus’ family is that he doesn’t mention Mary.  I imagine if there were one person in the family who understood Jesus, it would be his mother.  Still, it’s also likely at times he was a puzzle even to her.

Whatever the case, it’s okay to be puzzled.  We’re not expected to understand it all at once.  Actually, we’re not expected to ever understand it all.  There is room for all in the family of Jesus.  “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  If you love God, I’m with you.

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["Embraced" by Banu Moore]

Call me crazy, but I believe Jesus says to me there’s room for the creepy family crew.  There’s room for those who disagree with me politically…  who disagree with me theologically…  those who would shame and exclude me…  those I don’t like…  those who don’t like me…  those who love onions…  Jesus welcomes you and me into his family!

Call me crazy, but I believe there’s room for all of us.

 

[1] James Ayers, “Mark 3:20-35,” Interpretation 51:2 (Apr 1997), 182.


Spirit of repair and renewal

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

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[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash]

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

 

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


eulogize! mourn! move on!

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

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Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on occasion, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land; we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”  There’s no word on who actually dug the grave.  Maybe it was arranged by an earthquake!

2 dtNo one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.

All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but he again whacks it with a club, releasing the water.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed!

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would be someone who had a long tenure.  His or her pastorate would often be considered one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past are not always good ones!  Sometimes they go the other way.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

3 dtWhat in the world could have been their motivation?  Maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test?  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is hardly a fresh approach to a dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.

2a dtLook at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man.  He was ripped.

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires more praise, even legendary praise.

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were crying 24/7, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is fly the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

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Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  Everyone mourns in their own way and at their own pace.

Having said that, we do indeed move on.  Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  This can apply to anyone in a position of leadership: pastors, politicians, even parents.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  The people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

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This play has a divine director, and in Joshua 3, we again hear the instructions regarding Moses’ understudy.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (v. 7).

What is Joshua’s first message after he takes the oath of office, so to speak?  (I want to get this out of the way!)  He tells the people their God “is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you” all the nations (v. 10).  If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see what that means is genocide, or at least, attempted genocide.  If you’re wondering how a loving God—no, a God who is love—could require such a thing, you’re not alone.

The truth is, that was not an uncommon form of warfare then, and sadly, it’s still with us.  A call of the Hebrew prophets was to no longer mimic the other nations, indeed, to be a light to them (Is 42:6, 49:6, 51:14).  It’s hard to be a light to someone you’re slaughtering.  We are capable of even the most heinous activity, and the most trivial activity, if we believe we’re serving God.

Moving on!  The Israelites face a bit of a hindrance in their journey: the Jordan River, which we’re told is at its yearly flood stage.  What are they to do?  Simple.  Now there are twelve priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  As soon as they set foot in the river, the water will stop, and there will be dry land for everyone to cross over.  Easy-peasy.

We have echoes of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea, and here is Joshua following in his footsteps.  The nation faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Put yourself in their shoes.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  Are you overjoyed?  Are you supremely confident?  Or is there something else?  Are you anxious?  Are you terrified?  Do you feel abandoned?  Do you feel betrayed?  Do you feel rage?  Can we see ourselves as facing our own Jordan River, and with the river overflowing its banks?  This time of pandemic can seem uncrossable.

Banu and I have had those thoughts, those emotions.  It can feel like suffocation, or more appropriately, it can feel like drowning.  Seriously, what sane person can believe the river is going to make way for us, just so we can stroll to the other side?

I wonder, when will we be able to have people over for dinner?  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas?  What about Super Bowl parties?  (We like to have those; we even invite people who couldn’t care less about the game!  It’s just fun!)

We might find ourselves eulogizing.  We praise the way things were before.  Sure, they weren’t great, but they were better than this!  We mourn.  As I said earlier, it is important to mourn and to acknowledge that we are mourning, otherwise, it will be impossible to move on.  And so, are we ready to move on?

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It would be easy to just to settle down next to the river.  I think we could get used to life there.  Despite everything that’s happened, it could be worse.  As just noted, we all have our Jordan River; we have it as a congregation.  We have it as a nation, just like those ancient Israelites.  However, if we don’t plunge ahead, if we don’t take that first step into the racing river, if we don’t trust where God is leading, we become complacent.  We lose our joy.  The colors are not so vivid.  They become a gray wash.

There is the promise of God given by the prophet, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2).  We eulogize.  We mourn.  And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we move on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.


presence among us

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

We love to fight.  We prefer heat over light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[photo by Bram on Unsplash]

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

 

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

[2] Oates, 6.

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

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

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


pink and purple

I am a fan of the NFL.  (I’m especially a fan since last week, when the Dallas Cowboys had a last second win over Detroit!)

If you are not an NFL fan, you might not realize that for several years, the league observed Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is this month.  One of the more obvious ways it did this was by festooning the field, uniforms, and graphics with pink.  This happened all through the month.  Pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness appeared all over the place.  Last season, the NFL expanded awareness to other types of cancer, with the motto “Crucial Catch.”

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Aside from dressing football players in pink—and focusing awareness on breast and other kinds of cancer—October is the month for another kind of awareness.  It is for domestic violence.  And by the way, that campaign has purple as its color.  (Purple is my favorite color, so I’m often dressed in purple, as opposed to pink.)

Still, acknowledging that kind of awareness in October would be a tricky proposition for the NFL.  The league, although making some minor steps on the issue, is just that—minor steps.  Players have tended to get in more trouble for smoking marijuana than for beating their wives or girlfriends.

The scripture readings deal with the issue from different angles.  They aren’t precisely about domestic violence, but they do address the mentality from which it flows.

For example, there’s the book of Esther.  There were debates about whether or not it should be in the canon.  One reason was the lack of any reference to God.  (There were later additions which had many mentions of God.)  But I’m glad it’s there.  It’s such a crazy book, and it is plumb full of biting humor, sarcasm in the service of the Holy One.

Chapter 1 deals with events before Esther enters the story.  All of the men, starting with King Ahasuerus (who in Greek is known as Xerxes), are portrayed as buffoons.  Queen Vashti, as they say, is the only adult in the room.

The story is told with over-the-top exaggeration.  The king has military and government officials gather from throughout his vast empire.  He wants to show the place to everyone.  So what if it takes half of a year?  Finally, it’s dinnertime.  Everyone, loosen your belt; we’re having a seven day banquet!  Folks are sprawled all over elegant couches, and oh, the drinking.  The goblets are overflowing; there is guzzling without restraint.

2 esOn the seventh day, the king is drunk as a skunk—no, drunker than a skunk.  He issues an order that Queen Vashti be brought in.  He wants to show her off to the boys.  You know, she is pretty hot.  But guess what?  She gives him a big fat “no.”  Apparently, she doesn’t think of herself as his property.  That doesn’t go over very well.  The scripture says, “At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him” (v. 12).

What to do?  Xerxes consults the experts in the law, and here’s their response: because of her outrageous conduct, the queen should be removed.  But that’s not the only reason, and it’s not the best reason.  When all the women hear about this, they will “look with contempt on their husbands” (v. 17).  And what will be the result?  Here’s my favorite verse in the entire chapter: “This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” (v. 18).  For me, that’s one of those “laugh out loud” moments.

Have you ever heard the slogan, “Well behaved women seldom make history”?  Well, here’s a good case in point.

I like the way some other people have translated it.  Check out Carey Moore’s take on it.  “So, this same day those ladies of the Persians and Medes who have heard about the queen’s conduct shall show themselves obstinate to all the king’s officials; and there will be contempt and anger to spare!”[1]

And how about the way it’s put in Eugene Peterson’s The Message?  “The day the wives of the Persian and Mede officials get wind of the queen’s insolence, they’ll be out of control.  Is that what we want, a country of angry women who don’t know their place?”

I told you they were behaving like buffoons, to put it very lightly.

So the letters go out, “declaring that every man should be master in his own house” (v. 22).  King of the castle!

3 esOne more note before we leave this ridiculous tale.  As we begin chapter 2, we’re told his servants propose finding beautiful young virgins from throughout the empire and bringing them to his harem.  They will undergo a regimen of cosmetic treatments, and the king can select the one who pleases him the most.  So the proposal is a beauty pageant.  Jon Levenson describes it as “The Search for Miss Persia.”[2]

You have to pity the king.  He truly agonizes over the decision, but grudgingly agrees.  Yes, he’ll bite the bullet and take the most stunning young female in all the land.

Lest you think I’ve strayed by giving too much attention to these foolish fellows, I did say this mentality is what leads to violence against women.

Our gospel reading in John 8 is more specifically concerned with physical violence.  It’s a really insane story.  Some scribes and Pharisees bring a woman to Jesus and tell him that she was caught “in the very act of committing adultery” (v. 4).  We aren’t told how she was caught.  I hope we’re not dealing with peeping toms.

They want to test Jesus.  They remind him “in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?” (v. 5).

They’re referring to Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22.  What they conveniently leave out is that those scriptures also call for the man to be executed.  I’m sure it just slipped their minds!  And by the way, where is the gentleman involved in this little escapade?  I guess it also slipped their minds to bring him along!

As for the rest of the story, Jesus simply bends down and starts writing on the ground with his finger.  I’ve heard various theories on what he’s writing.  Some say he’s writing the names of the men there.  Some say he’s listing their wrongdoings.  No one really knows.  Maybe he’s just doodling while they continue to badger him and just blather on.

Eventually he just says if anyone among them is without sin, be my guest and throw the first stone.  Then he goes back to doodling, and everybody takes off.  No one condemns the woman, and Jesus says that he doesn’t condemn her, either.  It’s true that you sinned; just don’t do it again.

With his approach, Jesus helps the men see their attitude of hate and violence toward the woman.  He’s holding up a mirror to their culture of violence.  Whether or not they actually learn the lesson is another matter.

We also are part of a culture of violence.  And going with this month’s theme, it’s violence against women and girls.  A culture of violence encompasses more than overt physical or sexual violence.  It can be latent, not readily seen.  Among other things, it includes an atmosphere of harassment or intimidation.  Shockingly enough, that also includes the church.  It can even happen in a church building.  (Who would have thought?)

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Alaina Kleinbeck

Alaina Kleinbeck, in her article “Christian accountability in a #MeToo world,” points out our “institutional structures whose imperfect systems of accountability presume not only innocence but also forgiveness before repentance and reparation.”[3]  There can be pressure to forgive an offender who has not repented or owned up to what was done.  Organizations, including church hierarchies, can be more concerned with saving face than reaching out in care to those who have been hurt.

Maybe you’ve witnessed or even experienced groups that, under usual circumstances, embrace and act with the highest of motives, but when some serious events happen, they stray from those practices and basically betray the reasons they exist.

Kleinbeck continues, “I regularly hear stories of men and women in ministry who have treated others dismissively or abusively.  Our work cultures in the church have failed to foster the full accountability we need for every person to thrive.”

Treating others dismissively, not being accountable to each other: clearly, that extends beyond sexual misconduct to almost all of life.  I like how she mentions the genuine interest “for every person to thrive.”  I’m reminded of the choir at the PC(USA) Synod of the Northeast Assembly who led us in worship.  They performed Hezekiah Walker’s “I Need You to Survive.”  I was especially gripped by the third verse.

“I pray for you, you pray for me. / I love you, I need you to survive. / I won’t harm you with words from my mouth. / I love you, I need you to survive.”

What a wonderful pledge.  I won’t harm you.  I need you to survive.  I want you to thrive.  On this World Communion Sunday—and it’s true, I’ve paid special attention to this as Domestic Violence Awareness Month—we are called as the catholic, that is, the universal church, to witness to Jesus Christ’s desire and empowerment that we not only survive but thrive.

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The apostle Paul says that among you who “were baptized into Christ [and who] have clothed yourselves with Christ…there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:27-28).

Whether we’re wearing pink or purple, we are called to clothe ourselves with Christ.  Wearing those garments, we reject the violence that cannot be domesticated, and we embrace the peace that cannot be defeated.

 

[1] Carey A. Moore, Esther: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1971), 2-3.

[2] Jon D. Levenson, Esther (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 53.

[3] www.faithandleadership.com/alaina-kleinbeck-christian-accountability-metoo-world


eulogize, mourn, and move on

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

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Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on rare occasions, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  That seems pretty harsh!  It sounds like Moses is being tantalized.  Look, but don’t touch!  It’s like a thirsty dog tied to a leash, with its tongue hanging out, and there’s a bowl of water just out of reach.

There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land, and we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”

No one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.  If you say, “I pride myself on my humility; in fact, I am the humblest person you will ever meet,” then clearly you are not!

2 Dt 34All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but instead he again whacks it with a club, and water flows out.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it, bub!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed! 

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson, who is a political theologian, says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would usually be someone with a long tenure.  His or her pastorate is often considered to be one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.  And I suppose, different people might have different BFPs.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past in a congregation are not always good ones!  There are some people who go the other way: folks who are not so enamored with days gone by and with the pastor who is held in such high esteem.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

3 Dt 34Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is a fresh approach to an old dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, or a beloved former pastor, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.  It is entirely appropriate and necessary to celebrate who the person himself or herself has been.

Look at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  He’s like those folks in AARP commercials!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man, or so the tale is told. 

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires even more praise, even legendary praise. 

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were constantly crying, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is flying the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular song or piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

The Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

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But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

To mourn well means to embrace our inner poverty.

Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, speaks about this inner poverty.[5]

“At the center of our being,” he says, “is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…  This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.  It is so to speak [God’s] name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence…  It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  To say the least, it can feel uncomfortable.

Still, remember what I said earlier.  Mourning is not just an emotion.  Of course, we will miss someone beloved who is no longer in our life.  It would be heartless not to!

5 Dt 34
“People frequently overlook [the] need for mourning.” (Stefan Kiechle)

Mourning is more than emotion; it is action.  That’s one reason why the church, in its liturgy each year, relives the life of Jesus.  We relive the passion of the Christ.  We relive the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, the abandonment of Holy Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday.  And we relive the Ascension, when Jesus is no longer present in bodily form, but now as the Christ, as Ephesians 1 puts it, “who fills all in all” (v. 23).

So we do indeed move on.  Jesus also says in John 12, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25).  If we cling to things that are passing away, then we’re clinging to an illusion.  But if we reject that impulse, we find new life.  That’s why after eulogizing and mourning, there’s the need to move on.

Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  It means the leader is staying in the system.

Despite whatever good intentions might be present, it almost always has a harmful and toxic effect.  If a leader whose time to move on remains involved in the system, the people are left in a kind of limbo; they are denied the chance to properly mourn.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  This obviously doesn’t diminish what Moses has done.  He is remembered as the great liberator and lawgiver.  Still, the people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

6 Dt 34

I think it’s safe to say life itself is always transition.  Everything passes away—even the earth and sky.  Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who orchestrates transition, in the eternal God of Moses and of Jesus and of the church, throughout all the ages.

Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who leads us in eulogizing, mourning, and moving on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.

[5] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 3, section 39, paragraph 8.


can conflict be a gift?

After looking at my sermon title, I realize that it could lead to some unintended conclusions.  Raising the question as to whether or not conflict could be considered a “gift” might suggest that I enjoy conflict—even possibly that I seek it out.  I’m just itching for a fight!  I assure you, that is not the truth.

One day, Banu was looking through some old files.  That tends to happen when one frequently moves from one place to another!  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary, when we were just beginning the ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  Two decades later, I think I might say the same thing.  I realize that it’s something I still need to work on.  I’ve made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I still have a long way to go.

So, no, I do not enjoy conflict.

It would seem from the reading in Matthew that Jesus doesn’t either.  In fact, it looks like when presented with conflict, he simply wimps out!  Look at how our scripture begins.  Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

The “eye for an eye” Jesus starts with is the lex talionis.  That’s Latin for the “law of retaliation.”  It appears three times in the law of Moses (Ex 21:23-25, Lv 24:19-20, Dt 19:21).

We often hear calls for law and order, for greater security, based on this idea—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This one often finds its way into arguments for the death penalty.  It seems to provide for a very stern, no holds barred style of justice.  However, that’s only true if we take the principle of “an eye for an eye” completely out of its context.

It’s been said, “The lex talionis was in its time a social advance of great magnitude [in modern times, we can compare it with the outlawing of slavery]; it put an end to the vendetta, the blood feud, which allowed unlimited retaliation for an injury done to a member of the family or tribe, so that an entire group could be wiped out before the demands for vengeance were satisfied.”

To our 21st century ears, that law “sounds savage, but it was actually a softening of the primitive fierceness of the feud, which set no limits to the revenge” that could be taken.[1]  The idea was that, if you kill one of ours, we’ll kill ten of yours—and then, it would escalate from there.

Still, Jesus doesn’t say limit revenge to “the same injury; Jesus declares that we must take no revenge at all.”[2]  When he says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says don’t worry about getting payback (v. 39).

There’s one verse that isn’t so much a question of revenge.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42).  I wonder, would that include lending your car to someone who returns it with an empty gas tank?

It looks like everything that Jesus says in our gospel text runs contrary to what we usually do.  (Or at least, we might do it with a great deal of hesitation!)  Why is that?  Is this ethic he lays out something that can actually be done?  Many people simply say “no.”  Many people say that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.  I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by that!

In any event, I find the phrase in verse 39 especially interesting: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Again, there are many takes on what Jesus means by this, but I find the comments of Speed Leas, a consultant on congregational conflict, to be useful.

“What that means to me,” he says, “is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack.  I stay there.  I stay in range of getting hit again.  I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.”[3]  According to Leas, Jesus tells us to resist the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.  You know what that is:  the temptation, when faced with a conflict, to lash out, to take off, or to become paralyzed!

There’s something that tends to handcuff us when dealing with conflict.  This is true for all people, but I think it’s especially true for those in the church.  We have a tendency to see conflict as inherently bad, something to always steer clear of.

Episcopal priest Caroline Westerhoff talks about this.  “Conflict is not just inevitable…  Instead it is part of the divine plan, a gift.”[4]   So here’s the question I raise in my sermon title—with a little emphasis.  How in the world can conflict be a gift?

According to Westerhoff, conflict is part of the creative process.  Almost any story or movie has an element of conflict.  There’s the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflict is indeed inevitable; it’s built into creation itself.  Animals engage in conflict for food.  In a way, humans do, as well.  We certainly find ourselves in many different kinds of struggle.  A big part of the artistic process is struggling with ourselves and with God.  Westerhoff says that “newness cannot come without conflict.”[5]

The truth is, we have differences.  We look, think, act, smell, vote differently!  That’s how we’ve been created.  One of the main reasons for conflict is due to the fact that we’re not all alike.  We aren’t copies of each other.  We often try to impose a level of sameness on each other, but it’s a mistake.

If we can’t, or shouldn’t, avoid conflict—if it can’t be prevented—what we can and should do is to manage it.  We need to guide it, set boundaries around it.  (Recall what I said about the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” being a boundary, a limit.)  We have to use conflict for constructive, and not destructive, purposes.

Westerhoff continues, “To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind.”[6]  I must say that I don’t often think of conflict as being a breath of fresh air!

“Following this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, violence and war becomes not conflict…out of all bounds, but the final outcome of conflict [when it is stifled].  They result when we will not allow the other to be different, when we deny our life-giving dependence on the different one with all our might and means.”

This is the first Sunday since the presidential election.  There’s no debating that our country is divided.  That’s been true for a long time.  No matter what your political orientation, no matter who you voted for, I think I’m safe in saying that this past year has had a distinctly different feel.  I think I’m safe in saying that there has been a narrative of not allowing the other to be different.  There’s been a narrative of denying our life-giving dependence on the different one, and doing that with all our might and means.

The “other ones” who have been insulted and verbally attacked for over a year from on high have found a green light, permission has been given, implicitly or explicitly, for them to be physically attacked, to have fear instilled in them.

In that context, Jesus seems to wimp out again in verses 43 and 44.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Really, that sounds outrageous!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

Far from wimping out, what Jesus proposes takes a great deal of courage.

In another congregation, I asked the session to read the book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke.[7]  (I mentioned that people are always anxious at some level, so this book would probably work any time.)  He doesn’t exactly use the language of “loving the enemy,” though sometimes it might feel that way when we’re in the midst of conflict.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, he salutes “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized.”  Remember, these are church folk!  “They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.”[8]

Remember what I said at the beginning about recognizing my own need to keep working on being assertive in situations of conflict?

Steinke goes on, “Some leaders patiently and calmly stayed connected to people with opposing viewpoints and to those known to be troublesome…  To their credit, they did not regard their own judgments as placing them on higher moral ground.  They simply could not set aside distressing circumstances or avoid a difficult decision even if it meant individuals would be hurt or the congregation would suffer.  They spoke ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) so that the truth could set people free (John 8:32).”

Friends, this is not easy.  That’s why we let things go for so long that we know in our heart of hearts need to be corrected.

Twice in our scripture text, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…  But I say to you…”  In the midst of conflict, Jesus shows us the way forward.

In the midst of conflict, it can feel like the walls are closing in.  We can feel tightness in our chest.  We need to remember to breathe.  We need to remember that the Spirit is within us.  But we also need to remember to actually breathe!  There’s nothing like being still, taking some deep breaths, and getting oxygen into the lungs to help us regain some perspective.

Jesus closes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  That sounds like a tall order!  But this isn’t “perfect” in the sense of being flawless; this is “perfect” in the sense of being “perfected,” of being made whole.  That is the Lord’s desire for us.

We are fragmented, broken creatures.  We are not whole.  Still, in the strange and unwanted gift that is conflict, we come together.  Sometimes we come together by crashing into each other.  But thanks be to God, in all of that craziness, the Spirit is there to lead us into new avenues of truth, returning insult with blessing.

We need that now more than ever.

[1] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981),158.

[2] Beare, 158.

[3] Speed Leas, “The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations,” Conflict Management in Congregations, ed. David Lott (Bethesda, MD:  The Alban Institute, 2001), 30.

[4] Caroline Westerhoff, “Conflict:  The Birthing of the New,” Conflict Management in Congregations, 56.

[5] Westerhoff, 56.

[6] Westerhoff, 57.

[7] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).

[8] Steinke, xv.


I became great

PeacockFor our final Lenten Bible study, we’re looking at 1 Kings 11.  There we’re introduced to the less-flattering side of Solomon, the king renowned for his wisdom.  In chapter 10, we’ve just been told that “King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom” (v. 23).  (No hint of exaggeration there!)  We’re also told of his vast commerce in horses and chariots.

 
But what is this less-flattering side?  What should we expect from a man with untold wealth and power?  Apparently, he loves “many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh” (v. 1).  His multitude of wives and lovers have “turned away his heart after other gods” (v. 4).  Deuteronomy, which was compiled at roughly the same time as our current book, issues a warning about the king.  Beware, “he must not acquire many horses for himself,” nor must he “acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (17:16, 17).
 
It seems some things never change.  We have men with power today who could echo the words put in Solomon’s mouth as the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Though they likely have less wisdom.) 
 
What about the rest of us?  We need not be captains of industry or have a litany of lovers for our hearts to be turned away after other gods.  What does dwell in our hearts?

must we sing the song of Lamech?

Forgive

Our Bible study will be taking on the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35.  It’s quite a colorful story!  It features a king releasing a slave from his debt, that slave then grabbing his fellow indebted slave by the throat, and last but not least, God being pictured as a vengeful torturer.
 
(Of course, the amount owed by the slave to the king, ten thousand talents, should clue us in that the details of the story are fantastically exaggerated.  One denarius was the usual wage for a day’s labor.  With one talent equaling ten thousand denarii, ten thousand talents would equal one hundred million days of labor!)
 
The parable is introduced by Peter’s question to Jesus regarding how often he should forgive a brother or sister (vv. 21-22).  “As many as seven times?” he asks.  Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
 
I’ll avoid the temptation to go off on a tangent about our embrace of hateful, unforgiving practices and policies.  Often quoted in justifying those practices and policies is the principle of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”  This is the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation” (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21).  However, this wasn’t intended as a command to commit violence; it was meant to limit violence.  It was designed to keep blood feuds from spiraling out of control.
 
An example of vengeance gone wild is shown in the song of Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24).  We see that “Lamech said to his wives:  ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:  I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.  If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’” 
 
Seventy-seven.  Why is that number familiar?  Jesus quite deliberately turns the song of Lamech on its head.  In so doing, he turns plenty of our practices and policies on their head.  Can we think of ways in which we want revenge?  Can we think of ways in which we hold grudges?

listen


It makes so much difference when we listen!

In his book, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Walter Brueggemann applies this to King Zedekiah in chapter 37. The king sends delegates to Jeremiah, requesting prayer. Of course, Zedekiah has disregarded what the prophet has been trying to tell him about a number of things—like doing justice and not scheming against the Babylonians.

Brueggemann says, “The central issue is that the king did not ‘listen’ (shema`).” (354) He’s alluding to the Shema (which means “listen” or “hear”) in Deuteronomy 6. It’s a statement of faith that begins with verse 4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”

He continues, “No one listened—not the king, not his royal entourage, not the city nor its citizens. ‘Listening’ becomes the key motif for this part of the text.…‘Listening’ is to acknowledge that Yahweh and the torah tradition provide the dominant clues to life and to power. Zedekiah’s refusal to listen is a decision to ignore the tradition, to reject the prophet, to scuttle a theological identity, and to disregard a transcendent purpose in power politics. A refusal to listen is to imagine that the king is autonomous and therefore destined for self-sufficiency. In his refusal to listen, so the text suggests, the king has sealed his own fate and that of his people. His future depends not upon his ingenuity nor his power, but upon his readiness to accept the theological reality of his life and his rule, that is, the reality of Yahweh’s rule.” (354-5)

Refusing to listen isn’t the sole domain of foolish kings. Can we think of ways in which we are Zedekiah-like by ignoring “theological reality”?